#35: Jacqueline Woodson 2004
On Writing, Mothering, and Changing The World, February 13, 2019
The 2018 National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature, Jacqueline Woodson, shares how her upbringing prepared her for the writing world and motherhood. From a young age, she was always fascinated by the way letters became words that became sentences which turned into stories. Woodson expresses her gratitude for what has made her a better writer, woman, mother, and human being.
- Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
- Audre Lorde, The Cancer Journals
- Paul Laurence Dunbar, “Sympathy”
- Jacqueline Woodson,
- Show Way
- Sweet Honey in the Rock, "The Ballad of Harry Moore"
Debbie Visser (host): [00:00:01] Support for Rewrite Radio comes from the Fetzer Institute, helping build the spiritual foundation for a loving world. Fetzer envisions a world that embraces love as a guiding principle and animating force for our lives—a powerful love that helps us live in sacred relationship with ourselves, others, and the natural world. Learn more by visiting fetzer.org.
On today’s episode, a look back to 2004 when the 2018 National Ambassador for Young People's Literature, Jacqueline Woodson, visited the Festival.
This is Rewrite Radio.
I’m Debbie Visser. I teach in the English department at Calvin College and am a Faculty Fellow at the Calvin Center for Faith & Writing.
As we listen back to the 2004 Festival, we hear Jacqueline Woodson consider how her upbringing, including her family’s faith commitments, prepared her for life as a writer, a mother, and a humanitarian.
Though she writes for all ages, Jacqueline Woodson has won just about every major award in children’s and young adult literature, including several ALA Best Books for Young Adults, multiple Coretta Scott King awards and honors, a number of Newbery Honors, the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, and the National Book Award. The author of poetry, fiction, and memoir, Woodson is the author of many books, among them: Brown Girl Dreaming, Another Brooklyn (a National Book Award for Fiction nominee), The Other Side, Each Kindness, Coming On Home Soon, Feathers, Show Way, After Tupac and D Foster, and Miracle’s Boys.
From 2004, Jacqueline Woodson, “On Writing, Mothering, and Changing The World.”
Jacqueline Woodson: [00:02:22] Thanks for having me here. It's an honor to be in the presence of greatness. All of you and Ashley Bryan and Katherine Paterson who I feel like I've grown up with and who have always been hands on my back. Pushing me on to the next place.
I actually wrote my talk. I have a two-year-old daughter and since pregnancy I've started writing things down. [audience laughter] You know, there was that crazy time that feels like it was a long long time ago when I could just get up and wing it and remember all these facts about my life and just be in that moment that way. And something about the hormones of pregnancy and the child that comes after that [audience laughter] it's all—it's behind you. It's another life. I was another person and here I am now with the talk written in front of you: Jacqueline Woodson, the second. [audience laughter]
This is a talk about freedom and motherhood and writing and life. It begins with words from Whitman's Leaves of Grass. "Love the Earth and Sun and the Animals. Despise riches. Give alms to everyone that asks. Stand up for the stupid and crazy. Devote your income and labor to others. Hate tyrants. Argue not concerning God. Have patience and indulgence toward the people. Take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of men. Go freely with powerful uneducated persons and with the young and with the mothers of families. Read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life. Reexamine all that you have been taught in school or church or in any book. Dismiss whatever insults your own soul and your very flesh shall be a great poem and have the richest fluency not only in its words, but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes and in every motion and joint of your body."
[00:04:35] This passage from Leaves of Grass makes me think about passion, how it moves us forward as individuals, as a society. My passion for writing is what has brought me here this afternoon as I'm sure your passion for writing and teaching has brought you here. And maybe what this experience, the experience of being here now, will become for me is a memory, a moment at a dinner table when someone mentions Calvin College or someplace near it or similar, a moment when I can lean forward and add whatever it will be that this experience brings me. Or maybe this will become a scene in a book or home for one of my characters or maybe my daughter will one day ask, "And where were you that April?"
But this moment my experience here, like all experiences, will in some ways change me forever. Once on a trip to Vermont, I forgot my camera. My friend Sarah Schulman who is also a writer turned to me as I stood there staring at the spectacular view of the mountains and said, "Oh well, I guess you'll just have to experience it." [audience laughter] And she was right. Without a camera, without the sense that rather than experience the moment I had to figure out the best shot with which to capture it so that I could later share it with others, I had to stand there, take in the moment, the beauty, feel it, and let it become whatever it was going to become.
This moment, like so many moments in an artist life, will settle somewhere between the lashes of our eyes and in every joint of our bodies. Experience this moment, experience each of the many wonderful moments in your life. Be in those moments. Listen, think, and let them inside of you.
Once in a writing class, I asked my students what they felt most passionate about. I asked, "If you had to choose only one thing you could take with you for the rest of your life, what would it be?" Out of a group of 22 undergraduate and graduate students, only one said writing. From a very young age there has not been a question in my mind, even though writing has never been easy, even though closing that door, the literal or figurative door that one must close in order to write, a shutting out of everything and everyone that isn't a part of that creative process has not been easy.
Even though it has meant missing whole seasons sometimes, looking up and seeing that the leaves have become begun to turn without a trip to the beach or lake or even a picnic. Waking up one morning in the middle of a book to find snow on the ground and waking up again to crocuses. Traveling, loving, mothering, eating, sleeping, all of it done with writing like an aura around you and inside.
I write because writing makes me feel good and whole and powerful. I write because I'm an activist and I do believe that writing is art and art is activism. Although it doesn't seem that way all the time, what matters is that knowing as a writer I'm doing my work. As teachers, as parents, as people, we all have work to do, work that can and will change the world. Each of us has the power to change the world from casting a vote sometimes to writing a book to holding a door open to walking into a classroom. Each waking moment is filled with small and large moments of people doing their work to change the world. This is what matters to me, how I can wake up with work to do and go to bed feeling that I've done it.
"For to survive in the mouth of this dragon we call America we must learn the first and most important lesson, that we were never meant to survive." So wrote the poet and activist Audre Lorde in her book of essays The Cancer Journals, a groundbreaking collection that was published back in 1980. I did not know the impact that sentence would have on me as a woman, as a person of color, as an artist. I did not know that these words in other words of Lorde's would end up again and again in the novels I had not yet written, novels like I Hadn't Meant to Tell You This, From the Notebooks of Melanin Sun, and If You Come Softly.
When I read those words, those and other books were not even first sentences on the page yet, the characters not even zygotes in my brain. A friend gave me The Cancer Journals when I was 25. Lorde's book was one of the many books that saved me, that changed me. "Your silence will not protect you," Lorde wrote. We can sit in a corner as mute as bottles and we will still be no less afraid. Silence does not protect us, nor does it move us toward any type of change.
I knew I wanted to change the world. At 25 I became an activist, a very unsilent one. Working with organizations that helped runaway and homeless children live better lives. That help HIV-positive people get services. That gave young people the tools to tell their stories. Writing books about people who had historically been invisible and literature whose stories had historically not mattered. I began to speak out against racial and economic oppression. I began to speak up for what I believed in, a world where all people had a right to live fully and love fully.
There is a power to unsilence, and for me as a writer, I hope to show young people the power of their own language, how words can hurt and heal.
As a young girl dreaming of becoming a writer, I wrote on everything, from walls to paper bags. I hope to show young people, especially girls, because as so many of us know something happens to girls in middle school, too often the part of them that knows their power vanishes and boys, especially young men of color, who get a message early on that they are perceived as a threat to the society rather than an asset.
So if people ask, and they might, tell them this: that I was a child who read slowly and thoughtfully and that reading slowly makes you a writer. Tell them that teachers looked over their glasses at me and shook their heads, wrote, "You can do better than this," on my papers. Tell them that it isn't about the number of letters in the word or how far above grade level that word is, it's about the word’s power, the word's impact, the word's beauty, and how many people can hear the word, read the word, write the word, and most of all understand it. Tell them there is more on the page than what is written there. And later on they will learn that this is one of the many ways in which art imitates life.
I know what the caged bird feels, alas!
When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;
When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,
And the river flows like a stream of glass;
When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,
And the faint perfume from its chalice steals—
I know what the caged bird feels!
I know why the caged bird beats his wing
Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;
For he must fly back to his perch and cling
When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;
And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars
And they pulse again with a keener sting—
I know why he beats his wing!
I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings—
I know why the caged bird sings!
[00:11:53] I remember being ten and discovering Paul Laurence Dunbar's poem Sympathy in our neighborhood library, my second home, in a book called American Negro Poetry. I borrowed the book and never returned it. [audience laughter] The poems in it were some of the first poems I memorized, including Audre Lorde's "If You Come Softly," which would later become the title of my book If You Come Softly and the poem woven through that book. I didn't know what half of those poems in that book meant—in American Negro Poetry meant, but I knew they made me feel something and I knew their ability to do this was a powerful thing.
And that same year I got caught by my uncle spray painting my name on the side of the building. I, along with my two closest friends, had formed the club and inside of it gave ourselves nicknames: Maria as "Cookie," Diana as "Dimples," Jacqueline as, "Candy." I didn't know at the time exactly what that nickname was about, maybe simply because there was nothing outstanding about me. Candy at the time seemed to be about popularity, about being cool enough to have a name that was bright and full of sweetness, a name that was about being desired because I was young and lanky and unpretty. I read too slowly and was terrible at math.
My sister who was a genius had skipped two grades and when I showed up years later beneath the gaze of the same teachers who had been awestruck by her thus hopeful about me, I was not surprised to watch their eyes slide into beaded disappointment when I handed in a spelling test seeking the edge of 65 or a social studies report where whole chunks of it were copied word-for-word from the textbook. I was not remarkable and while at the time I would have given anything to be so, to be as brilliant as my older sister or as musical as my big brother, I know now that the passion I had was simmering, waiting to be born, because that's what brilliance is: passion, acknowledged and affirmed.
At ten the only thing I felt passionate about were words. I love them, all of them, my own name Jacqueline Amanda Woodson written out on a napkin, my nickname written on a wall, poems and stories and sentences over and over until I felt like I would burst from the joy of writing. And later on when a teacher said, "When you choose a career, choose a thing you feel passionate about because you'll be doing it for the rest of your life," sitting there what came to my young mind immediately was writing. That I would always want to and need to write, even as my parents cautioned me, "Be a lawyer, be a teacher, do hair," anything that meant to paycheck at the end of the day, anything that was legal and unlike art, safe and dependable.
Yes, when their friends asked I said, "I'm going to be a teacher," while my mother nodded proudly and while inside my brain wrapped itself around the one true thing that I would always write. So as I wrote my new name on that wall, a 70s name that could have been Twiggy or Maxi or Peaches, I know now that this renaming was about something, that stepping back and seeing me—Jacqueline—reborn into Candy in black spray paint on the side of a pale wall had more impact than the punishment my mother would later have waiting for me, more impact than the fear of turning to see my uncle standing a few feet away from me, his gaze incredulous.
[00:15:03] That new name was an early step toward embracing the other selves I would later become, about stepping outside of the role my parents and society had pressed me into. Yes, I was Jacqueline Amanda Woodson, and yes, I would one day teach, but I would write also and I would teach through writing and I would write to learn. Most of all I would not be silent. Years later I would have the same feeling of completeness, the same thrill when I saw my first book on a bookstore shelf, pulling it down and leafing through the pages then turning it out on the shelf the way I still do when I come across my book and my friends books. [audience laughter]
I felt the same power I had at 10, my words out in the world, active and unsilenced, creating some kind of change. I had grown up in a quietly devout family. The religious credo was to be in the world but not of the world. Our family didn't vote or pledge to the flag or celebrate birthdays. We didn't go to war. We were soft-spoken and determined. We believe we were God's chosen people and that in the end God would provide for us. For God had given his only begotten son, we knew, and we were taught that such giving was the purest form of love. Imagine your only son. I can't. We remained silent against the injustices in the world. We believed that only God have the tools to change the world—and he would, by and by.
A part of me looked with a skeptical eye on the idea of giving so much power over to someone else, at waiting and hoping and praying. By the time I was 15, I had left the religion. By the time I was 25, I realized that I had the tools to change the world as well, that my friends were dying, that my silence hadn't and couldn't protect me. I didn't have an option to turn away from the world as it was. Writers don't. The world is too much with us. We take it in. We let it out like breathing onto the page. I hear conversations I don't want to hear. I read between the lines of people's actions. I very rarely watch television, but I can't turn the world off.
So at 25 it was impossible to know that my friends were dying, that cops were killing young black men, that three out of four girls by the time they were adults will experience some form of sexual abuse, that gay people are getting killed simply because they were gay. I couldn't turn away because the lives of my friends and my own life was in danger. I wanted and still want to change the world. Literature can do that. It did it for me.
As a child I read so many books where my young African-American female self was absent from the page. I accepted this because I thought I had no choice. I ate up stories of white boys and girls and suburban communities and once in a while a black family—or rather a black family's impact on a white family is told from the point of view of a white girl. [audience laughter]
As a child I wanted to be a writer but didn't believe I could because for a long time I didn't know that black female writers existed. By the time I was in third grade here where the blacks I had read about: Harriet Tubman, Harriet Tubman, Harriet Tubman, [audience laughter] Nat Turner, Phillis Wheatley. These were the blacks in the books in my school library, and since I had been at what seemed at once blessed and cursed to not have been born into slavery, I thought I would never have a story to tell. I hadn't freed any slaves nor had a nice master taught me to write.
Later on when I discovered the work of Virginia Hamilton, James Baldwin, Rosa Guy, Toni Morrison I was more than ecstatic. Not only were black people telling stories, but black women were telling stories. And somewhere between my tenth and fifteenth year of living, I started to believe that I could be a writer, that the passion I had felt for as long as I could remember really could make its way to the page. Somewhere between my tenth and fifteenth year my life, the life of an African-American girl from Brooklyn in South Carolina, became legitimized.
Legitimacy, that's what literature brought to me. A sense of myself and the bigger world as seen through the eyes of others like me. Myself and the world, alive and moving through it. And most of all mattering. Jacqueline as Candy, a way of saying, "I am, I matter, see me." And often I wonder what would have happened if I had not discovered these authors. This afternoon I wonder if I'd be standing here. Maybe I would, maybe I would have believed the teachers who told me I had a gift. Maybe I would have learned the things I learned from black writers somewhere else. Maybe I would have found the courage to try to get a book published, but I don't think so. I think so much of turning my silence into action and that action into language has been because of the African-American writers who came before me, because Lorde said my silence won't protect me, because Baldwin wrote If Beale Street Could Talk, and Guy wrote Ruby and The Friends and Edith Jackson, because Hamilton wrote Zeely, because these writers through their words said, "Go tell your stories, too, they matter."
And coming from the history I come from, of being an activist and a person committed to change, this desire to change—or more than to change—to offer the reader a glimpse of the world through a differently-angled gaze has led me to write the books I've written. And this is a picture book called Show Way. And all you need to know about it is my daughter's name is Toshi Georgiana.
[00:20:26] When Soonie's great-grandma was seven she was sold from the Virginia land to a plantation in South Carolina without her ma or pa, but with some muslin her mom had given her. And two needles she got from the big house—and thread dyed bright red with berries from some tree.
In South Carolina, Big Mama raised Soonie's great-grandma. Raised most the slave children on that large patch of land. At night, Big Mama told the children stories. Stories she'd tell in a whisper about children growing up and getting themselves free. And the children leaned in. And listened real hard.
And in day time when there was some few minutes for a slave to rest a bit, Big Mama taught Soonie's great-grandmother to sew colored thread into stars and moons and roads that slave children grew up and followed late at night, a piece of quilt and the true moon leading them.
Years passed, Big Mama moved on to the next world. And Soonie's great-grandma grew up, jumped broom with a young man named Ensler. And had herself a baby girl. Named that girl child Mathisma and loved that baby up so. Yeah, she loved that baby up.
And one day Mathisma will be Soonie's Grandma, but not for a long long time yet. In the meantime she learned to sew. Beautiful girl child learned to sew. When Mathisma was seven, she got sold away. Took a star from her mama's blanket, took a little piece of the road, pressed it to her face when she wanted to remember back home, held it to her heart to feel that home. Got herself a piece of muslin somewhere and some thread and kept up her sewing. So so fine, she was making clothes for everyone in the big house and slaves too.
At night she sewed stars and moons and roads, tiny patch pieces of stars and moons and roads. Slaves whispered what no one was allowed to say, that Mathis know how to make a show way. Came to her when they needed to talk, came to her for the stories of brave people, came to her for the patch pieces just before they disappeared into the night.
But Mathisma stayed on, grew tall and straight-boned, jump broom with another slave. That slave was killed running off to the north side of the war months before he got to meet his baby, a girl child who was born free that same year, 1863.
History went and lost her name. Years later, Soonie came. Soonie's mama held her up in the moonlit night, showed her the stars, the moon. Whispered in her ear, "There's a road, girl, there's a road." Love that Soonie up so. Yeah, she loved that Soonie up.
Soonie and her mama stayed on the land they'd always known picking cotton for a little pay and a piece of that grounds of farm. Call that land home. Stayed on with other people, none of them slaves anymore. Hard work making a life from pink day to blue black night, but it was a free life just to sing and when the day was over it wasn't hard to find a thing or two to smile about.
At night Soonie cut and sewed and cut and sewed strange lines and odd designs. People said about Soonie, "That child could find some beauty in so many things." When Soonie was seven, the was tall and straight-bone like her mama, took in wash with her mama. Sewed stars on patch pieces. Sewed stars and moons and roads. Sewed rivers and fields and trees. Patched the pieces together for her mama to sell come Market Day. Call those quilts Trail to the North. Call those quilts Show Way.
Didn't much need that secret trail to the north anymore, but started living well off the money those quilts brought in. Sew those quilts to live. Sew those quilts to remember, and though some could book read most could not. Stars and moons and roads. Picture reading was what they'd always know.
Some morning Soonie looked out over the fields of cotton and dreamed of a place to call her own, married a man named Walter Scott who owned a bit of land in Anderson, South Carolina. Had a baby girl and name that girl child Georgiana. Love that baby up so. Yeah, they love that baby up.
Georgiana who grew tall and straight-boned and free, picking out words from her mama's Bible by three, reading by oil lamp at age five. People say about Georgiana, "She always had a book in her hand." Grew up to teach at a small school in Anderson. Had herself two girls at once and named those children Caroline and Anne. Love those babies up so. Yeah, they love those babies up.
And Caroline and Anne grew up tall and straight-boned, turned seven walking in a line to change the laws that kept black people and white people living separate. They're a little bit scared sometimes, but pinned inside their dresses were Show Way patches Grandma Soonie had given them and something about those patches made Scared hang his mean old head and walk away.
Anne grew up writing poems and sometimes she made those poems into songs. Caroline stitched those songs into art that people bought to hang on their walls and Anne had me, and Mama love this baby up so. Yes, she loved this baby up.
And when I was seven I didn't have to work in a field or walk in any freedom lines, but I still read like Georgiana and wrote like Anne and when the words were slow in coming, I sewed stars and moons and roads into quilts and curtains and clothes. Because Mama said. "All that stuff that happened before you were born was your own kind of Show Way. There's a road," my mama said, "there's a road."
And I grew up tall and straight-boned, writing every day and the words became books that told the stories of many people's Show Ways. Had a baby and named that child Toshi Georgiana. Love that Toshi up so. Yes, I love that Toshi up.
But I know this life's a circle, a ring of folk who came before me here again to tell their stories that the circle be unbroken. Let the circle be unbroken. So some mornings I start all over holding tight to little Toshi. I whisper words that came before her. "Now Soonie was your great-great-grandma, and when Soonie's great-grandma was seven..." [applause]
[00:26:22] The picture book is called Show Way. And even though it is a year from being published, it is a story I wrote when my daughter was newly born, inspired by her and by the stories my grandmother told us as children. My older brother got a chance to meet my great-grandmother Soonie, and what he remembers is, "Man, that lady was mean." [audience laughter]
I know now that Soonie probably wasn't so mean, but she was a woman from the South who had struggled to hold on to her land and her 13 children—that's not counting the two that died at birth—who believe very much that sparing the rod meant losing the child, and I'm sure she thought my older brother was on his way to being lost somehow. Maybe she was right. Just kidding. [audience laughter]
The other day I was talking to my own mom about my now two-year-old daughter Toshi, saying that no matter how much she tried the patience of my partner and myself we were committed to never hitting her. "Oh, you'll spank her one day," my mother said. "No, we won't," I said back. "We have other ways of disciplining." "Oh, but you'll need to hit her at some point," my mother said. [audience laughter] "Trust me, you will." "No Mama," I said and now I was growing annoyed and ready to spank my mama. [audience laughter] "We won't." The conversation went on like that for a while and I know we both hung up the phone thinking of the other, "She'll see."
I was a child of southern grandparents and a southern mom. My daddy's family was and still is from Columbus, Ohio. Because my parents separated when I was young I didn't know much about my paternal side for many years, but I knew the South and the southern ways well. I knew in the heart of my mother and my grandparents there was hope and probably many long hours of prayer that we turn out to be halfway decent human beings. To shape us they use what I'm sure they thought were the many means necessary including switches, young supple branches from the trees in our Greenville, South Carolina backyard, leaves removed for better aerodynamics.
We grew up very neat, very well spoken, very well behaved, and very afraid. When I was thinking about motherhood, I often revisited the places of my childhood and knew that my parenting philosophies were different than my own parents. I would talk to my child. I would give timeouts. I would go up stairs and count to ten, scream into a pillow, find something in it all to laugh at, but I would never hit. Because to me hitting says, "I'm stronger than you and therefore you are in my power." To me hitting says, "I don't have anything else left and this will be the thing to make you behave." To me hitting says, "I've had a bad day and you child are the oppressed one here, learn it."
Or in the words of my beloved grandmother, hitting says, "I'm going to knock the fire out of you." I don't ever want to knock the fire out of my child or any children. The world will try to do that on its own and as a mom as a writer as a teacher, it's my work to keep that fire in young people, in all people, and to stoke it.
Obviously my grandmother never did knock the fire out of me. If that had been the case I wouldn't be standing here this afternoon. I wouldn't have written all the books I've written about the quote-unquote fiery topics that I write about. What I know now is this: because my grandmother spanked us with the same hand she cooked for us, held us, and told us stories of our past, she never really did want to knock the fire out of us.
[00:30:02] When I think about my work, about my life, I think about family. Our biological families and our chosen families. Some of you may know that two weeks ago I returned from Germany where my partner, my daughter, and I had flown to more than a week before. My older sister who is 42 now and who had for years been a bike messenger on the streets of New York City, but finally to the family's delight and relief had taken up law, had gone to Cologne with her boyfriend to celebrate among other things her passing of the bar exam months earlier. While in Cologne she suffered a stroke followed by several seizures. Because she is so fit and so young, doctors are stumped. We boarded a plane when we got the news. Toshi at two thankfully fell asleep for most of the 10-hour flight.
It was the first time in my life I had canceled speaking engagements. It was the first time in my adult writing life that I had left the house carrying no works in progress. My whole self was in tunnel-vision mode thinking, "This is my only biological sister. I have to get to her." In Germany, the days dragged cold and uncertain as my sister's prognosis, but slowly she began to get better. More than a week later when my sister was released from intensive care to the stroke ward, her speech still greatly impaired but able to walk and recognize us all, we returned home where each of us all but kissed the New York City sidewalks.
I believe in the power of friendship and the workings of the universe. I believe in hope and in the power of prayer. And I believe in family: my chosen family, the friends I've had and loved for many years, stepped in when my sister stroke occurred, doing everything from buying our tickets to taking over our house and our dog. As my partner and I moved slowly through the paces, somewhat stunned and on autopilot, my friend-family made sure that everything and everyone including us would be taken care of.
When it was discovered that my sister didn't have health insurance and that Germany was not going to extend the socialized healthcare benefits to a non-European, my friends stepped in and helped us cover the medical expenses. Even though we moved through the German Health Care system with some ease given the fact that fact that my partner is in the first year of a medical residency, we were still somewhat lost, and calls from home, the emails when we could access email, the major love coming at us from our chosen and biological families was what helped us get through the ordeal.
Three years ago my younger brother got married. At the wedding reception an older gentlemen who had been married and divorced several times raised his cup and offered up these words of advice, "Keep it in the family," which of course annoyed the heck out of me. When it was my turn to toast I said, “Yes, keep it in the family, but know that the family is not only the one that is connected to you by blood or marriage. Know that there is always someone you can talk to and don't be afraid to tell the truth about what's going on. Don't be afraid of looking bad, of someone thinking you failed, of the world looking down on you. So much destruction has come from people's fear.”
Phrases like don't air the family's laundry; don't let it go past these walls; don't sully the family name; the list goes on. Secrecy, shame, silence. The sense that there is no one to talk to because you can't talk to anyone outside of the family has brought so many families to their knees. Yes, keep it in the family if the family is both biological and chosen, an extended village of people you love and trust and who will always be there to support whatever you do.
When I was in the hospital having Toshi, I was asked to seek counseling. Well, first I was asked if I was on public assistance. Why? Because I was a woman of color with a big belly and no husband. Over and over my partner and I tried to explain who we were to the nurses and over and over they wouldn't hear it. So finally on the day I was to leave I was asked to speak to a social worker about what's it going to mean to be a young single mother. When I refused saying that I wasn't a single mom and that young come to think of it, [audience chuckle] I was asked to sign a document stating this refusal.
In the two days that I had been in the hospital—I ended up leaving early—at least 30 people had come to meet Toshi and wish us well. On the day of our departure two carloads of friends arrived to take us home. For the first six months of Toshi's life, there was never a day when there wasn't a hot meal getting brought over to us or made at our home, a dirty dish not being washed by someone, a bag of diapers not being delivered to our door, until finally I said, "Can I please hold my own, baby?" [audience laughter]
[00:34:51] "Have you not noticed how many people have been here?" I asked the nurse. And yes she had. "But they're not your family," she said. "Of course they are," I said as we yanked our poor daughter away from her first discriminations. I was far from a single mom. I had a partner and I had a village and Toshi would grow up surrounded by uncles and aunties and so many cousins. She had three godmoms, two godfathers, two grandmothers who were beside themselves that they were finally grandmothers. [audience laughter] She also had a father and a half-sister and her half-sister's mother who was her Auntie Nanna, and all of whom she has grown to love dearly.
When she gets older and her parents lose their minds, there's so many people she can turn to. This is family: the people in the world who keep you sane and whole and moving toward a greater good. The people who love you unconditionally and who are not too afraid to call you on yourself when you're not acting right. But still my family goes on.
As I said before, as a child I knew I wanted to be a writer and loved the act of writing from the moment my older sister taught me to write my name when I was about 3 years old. I love the way my name looked on paper Jacqueline Amanda Woodson, and I love the fact that letters together made words and together those words made sentences and sentences made paragraphs and on and on. This fascinated me, the idea that these tiny letters could spring into whole books.
And as I was imagining myself as a writer in the world, it was my third family, the family of writers who came before me, Hamilton and Myers, Mildred Taylor, Audre Lorde, James Baldwin, and Nikki Giovanni, the list goes on and on, who gave me the faith to tell my stories. There is a song by the Indigo Girls called All That We Let In in their melodic voices they sing, "We've lost friends and loved ones much too young with so much promise and work left undone. When all that guides us is a single centered line and the brutal crossing over when it's time. And I don't know where it all begins"—the song goes on to say—"and I don't know where it all will end, but we're better off for all that we let in and the greatest gift of life is to know love."
I am grateful for the full life that I have lived this far, the loss and the love and the living and the people in my world have made me more whole, a better writer, a better woman, a better mother, a better human being. I believe in walking through the world with your eyes wide open because it is true, we are better off for all that we let in. We are better off when we unsilenced and unafraid. And in this time of war and hatred against people's choices, people's color, people's class, people's lives, some days it feels as though we're moving back in time rather than forward.
On days when the writing is slowest in coming and the world feels just that much less hopeful, I turn to Sweet Honey in the Rock and this song, which was adapted from a poem by Langston Hughes, and based on the story of the political activist Harry Moore. I will close with the lyrics of "The Ballad of Harry Moore" because this talk is a plea to stand up for all people who in this country and all countries do not have the power to speak as I do.
It seems I hear Harry Moore; from the earth his voice still cries:
"No bomb can kill the dreams I hold, for freedom never dies."
It happened in Florida, the land of flowers.
It was on a Christmas night.
Men came stealing through the orange groves,
Men of hate carrying dynamite.
It was to a little cottage,
The family the name of Moore.
At the window hung sprigs of holly,
A fine wreath at the door.
It was on the night of Christmas
The family prayers were said.
Mother, father, daughter,
Grandmother went to bed.
The father's name was Harry Moore,
of the NAACP.
He fought for the right for us to live.
Black folk must be free.
It could not be in Jesus' name
Beneath the bedroom floor,
On Christmas night the killers hid
their bomb for Harry Moore.
It could not be in Jesus' name
The killers took his life.
And blew his home to pieces
And killed his faithful wife.
It could not be for the sake of love
They did this awful thing.
For when the bomb exploded and the Moores died,
No hearts were heard to sing.
And certainly no angels cried,
"Peace on earth, good will to men."
But around the world, an echo hurled
A question, "When, when, when?"
When will people, in Jesus' name,
And when will they, by prayer,
Learn that each one has the right
To stand up everywhere?
When will people for the sake of peace,
And for the sake of democracy,
Learn that no bomb they can make
Can stop us from being free?
So should you see our Harry Moore
Walking on a Christmas night,
Don't you fear or run or hide
'Cause he has no dynamite.
For in his heart is only love
For all the human race.
And all he wants is everyone
To have their rightful place.
And this he says, our Harry Moore, as from the grave he cries:
"No bomb will kill the dream I hold, for freedom never dies!"
[00:40:13] Thank you. [applause]
Debbie: We’re so grateful to Jacqueline Woodson for her inspiring words.
Rewrite Radio is a production of the Calvin Center for Faith & Writing, located on the campus of Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI. Theme music is June 11th by Andrew Star.
You can find more information about the Center and its signature event, the Festival of Faith & Writing, online at ccfw.calvin.edu and festival.calvin.edu and on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Subscribe to Rewrite Radio on iTunes—and leave us a review to help others find this podcast. Thanks so much for listening and stay tuned for more from the Festival archives.