Black women speak in intimate writings

February 09, 1994|By Marilyn McCraven | Marilyn McCraven,Staff Writer

Every woman who ever kept a diary probably has experienced the fear that someone would somehow discover it and spill its contents to the world.

But in the spirit of a 12-step program -- setting your most intimate thoughts free will unburden you and possibly help others -- this book contains the personal writings of 50 African-American women and girls, both celebrated and unknown.

And what interesting reading it is: These sometimes rough, unedited musings provoke anger, fear, joy and just about any other dial on the emotion scale.

Readers get everything from the humor of a young girl upset by the appearance of body hair to the poignancy of the late Audre Lorde confronting terminal illness. From Lorde: "Faith is the last day of Kwanza, and the name of the war against despair, the battle I fight daily. I become better at it. I want to write about that battle, the skirmishes, the losses, the small yet so important victories that make the sweetness of my life."

For me, the book recalls the intimate discussions I've been blessed to have with other black women. Revealing conversations -- whether told in a near-dark dorm room or a sunny breakfast nook -- that bring out those little bits and pieces of lives that have been stored away only to be shared with the right person.

For instance, this nugget from one entry: "Decided to write daily record of fights with first husband who was slowly convincing me that I was insane. Writing about things we fought about . . . helped me realize that I was not the crazy one."

Another: "My writing is my way of telling me that my life matters, and it is good. It is one thing I can depend on when everything else changes."

"Life Notes" is definitely reader-friendly. The eight sections are divided by topics: girlhood, search for self, meaning and work, delights and problems of loving, abuse and neglect, fighting back at oppression, life transitions and travel notes and political commentaries.

The personal musings are not all taken from diaries that have been hidden away for years. Some have been published before in book form, such as Lorde's cancer journals, or other publications. They include poetry, letters, meditations and stream-of-consciousness ramblings.

Also, while the writers are all women of the African diaspora, the themes addressed are of a universal nature: love, marriage, child-rearing, sexual abuse, adultery, lesbianism.

Race aside, the contributors are a varied bunch -- old and young, gay and straight, political radicals and middle-of-the-roaders, rich and poor.

The well-known contributors include Alice Walker, Rita Dove, Jamaica Kincaid, Lorde and Sonia Sanchez.

Ms. Walker's entry contains an interesting shot at actress Shirley MacLaine: "Have been reading 'Dancing in the Light,' by Shirley MacLaine; much of it is true, as I have experienced life . . . but it

is sad to see her spirituality limited by her racialism. Indians and Africans have a hard time; especially Africans who, in one of her incarnations, frustrate her because they're not as advanced as she is! It is amusing to contemplate what the Africans must have thought of her."

This book won't stamp out the stereotype of black women writers as male bashers. It's heavy on selections on the physical and/or mental abuse perpetrated by fathers, lovers, husbands, weird uncles and other men. Even the section devoted to what the editor dubs the "delights and problems of loving" has negative images of men.

From that section: "The only difference between this relationship and countless other bad ones in my lifetime was my ability to end it quicker. However, I was not able to do so before the painful episodes of infidelity, emotional abuse, lying, stealing, and cheating had occurred."

Women wounded by dysfunctional relationships are just one thread in the patchwork quilt of the black community. Where's Nikki Giovanni when you need to hear about the wonderful black brothers?

The book's editor, Patricia Bell-Scott -- whose writings also are included -- obviously devoted lots of time to "Life Notes," which she initiated in 1985. The introduction by former Essence editor Marcia Ann Gillespie is insightful, and the biographies of the writers listed at the end help give some context.

Ms. Bell-Scott's own entry, which is littered with the dreaded phrase the "inner child," reflects part of her intention in compiling these works -- to help others who may be afraid even to mention such matters as incest, and also to show writing as a form of therapy to be helpful. The best evidence is that most of these writers have triumphed over adversity or at least learned to accommodate it. That's worth reading about.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Life Notes: Personal Writings by Contemporary Black Women"

Editor: Patricia Bell-Scott

Publisher: Norton

.` Length, price: 429 pages, $25

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