A Conference to Write Home About
TONY COX, host:
I'm Tony Cox, and this is NEWS & NOTES.
For women's history month, commentator Betty Baye recalls a writer's retreat where she witnessed history in the making.
Ms. BETTY BAYE (Columnist, The Courier Journal): The time was November, 1988. The place was a warm, warm, warm, warm Nassau, Bahamas. The occasion was Essence magazine's writers' conference, and I was feeling as giddy as a schoolgirl going off on my first date.
Oh, my goodness. I could not believe my good fortune at being invited in the first place, and to share with so many writing sisters at once. But why not me? Essence magazine was, after all, the first place to ever publish anything that I had written.
Still, I thought I'd died and gone to heaven being invited to be in the company of 27 other black writing women. From time to time, I watch the video from the retreat, and I keep the photo of our group prominently displayed on a bookshelf in my home.
I still get chills recalling the great poet, Sonia Sanchez, chanting a prayer for all of us at the retreat and for black people everywhere. Before it was over, Sister Sonia had dissolved into no words, just gutteral grunts and groans.
As well, the group was intrigued and some was spellbound as Ntozake Shange, author of the 1975 choreopoem play, "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf." She adopted the persona of a junkie when reading her piece about a woman who'd hoped to impress her drug-dealing boyfriend with how much she loved him by making him a gift of her very young daughter's virginity. It was deep.
That retreat almost 20 years ago still is a highlight of my writing life. If I tried to tell even a tenth of what went on that weekend and who all was there, I'd be accused of namedropping, of showing off. So I won't tell it all. You just had to be there.
Yet, I wish no more time to pass without me recalling in some public space the women who were at that Essence writers' retreat who have since retreated themselves to higher ground. They've left us who knew them - or just admired them from afar - wanting more: more of their poems, more of their books, more of their essays, magazine articles. Wanting more of their sister sighs, their sister hugs, and their words of encouragement when our thesis were due and we were suffering from writer's block and broken hearts.
But alas: Toni Cade Bambara, 1939-1995. Sherley Anne Williams, 1944-1999. Octavia Butler, 1947-2006. Phyl Garland, 1935-2006. And Bebe Moore Campbell, 1950-2006. These sisters have written their last pieces, have sparred with their last editors, have made their final fixes in their copy on this side of eternity. They've taken their final bows.
But because Toni and Sherley Anne, Octavia, Phyl and Bebe were writing women, they will not simply exit stage left and dissolve into the sunset forever. Like Phillis Wheatley and Harriet Jacob and Frances Harper and Ida Wells and Angelina Grimke and Gwendolyn Brooks and Audre Lorde and Dorothy West and so many other black writing sisters who've gone on.
Heaven's newcomers also have bequeathed to us bodies of work that we can read, reread and contemplate anew. They've left behind bodies of work to inspire new generations of wannabes to pick up their pens and to stay strong and determined to tell the stories of black America that won't get told unless black women dare to tell them.
COX: Betty Baye is a columnist for The Courier Journal in Louisville, Kentucky.
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