Sisterly love

Julia Chance looks at the other woman in women's lives: their sisters and their sisterfriends.

November 24, 2001|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,SUN STAFF

Julia Chance's book began by reading someone else's, a best seller about sisters' relationships. After finishing that book, the Baltimore-born writer felt that something was missing. She decided the material didn't fully explore the emotional bonds she shared not only with her sister but also with her closest female friends.

Perhaps she could write a book that would.

The first step was to enlist Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Michelle V. Agins of The New York Times to help create a book of photographs and interviews to describe the rich complexities of African-American sisterhood.

Next came the business of persuading the 48 groups of "sister- friends" to talk about their relationships, a discussion that would also ultimately explore issues of gender and race.

The result is Sisterfriends: Portraits of Sisterly Love (Pocket Books, $28.50), a collection of personal histories and reflections from an intriguing cross-section of American women.

"Sisters are lifelines for one another, whether it's your blood sister or sisterfriend," best-selling author Iyanla Vanzant tells Chance. "It's [sisterhood] about unconditional love and being able to stand eyeball to eyeball and embrace and accept, without judgment, all that you see."

The book offers insights into the "sisterfriendships" of such celebrities as Vanzant, singer Mary J. Blige and the woman best known as Oprah's sister: talk show host Gayle King. But it also contains the wisdom of such women as Rita Ross and Marion Daniels, teachers who grew up in West Baltimore in the 1940s and still consider themselves "the Conway sisters."

(The author interviewed several other Baltimore women for the book: Sisters Emily and Dorothy Burks, nuns of the Oblate Sisters of Providence; and the Anthony sisters, Anna A. Curry and Clara Anthony, who own Sepia, Sand & Sable, a bookstore specializing in African-American books. Curry is the former director of the Enoch Pratt Free Library system.)

Chance also sought out sisters who were police officers, factory workers, magazine editors, models and artists. She chose women of privilege and those who grew up in poverty. She examined connections between identical twins and between sisters born a generation apart. She listened to women talk about growing up together in foster care. She wrote about friendships that have grown deeper through decades and those forged instantly through kindred beliefs.

The 39-year-old author lives in Brooklyn now where she works as a free-lancer, writing mostly for women's magazines. Prior to Sisterfriends, she co-wrote Fine Beauty, a how-to makeup book, with celebrity makeup artist Sam Fine, and served as editorial coordinator and guest essayist for Men of Color: Fashion, History and Fundamentals by Lloyd Boston.

Chance grew up in northwest Baltimore with a sister who was five years younger and a brother. As the daughters of local civil rights activist Ed Chance, the girls learned a lot about the powers of camaraderie and reaching consensus, qualities sometimes missing from their sisterly relationship.

"We had our share of spats," Chance says. "I used to feel bad because I felt we weren't acting sisterly. Working on this book, though, I realized that that happens to everybody and that what counts is how you rectify it."

She says she was particularly affected by the story of Gloria Jean Cox and her sister, former Black Panther Afeni Shakur. The two siblings were raised to "always be civilized" to one another, Chance says. Over the years, however, their habitual politeness masked long-smoldering differences.

One day a disagreement ended all communication between the sisters. It was Shakur's famous son Tupac, also very close to his Aunt Gloria, who found a way to bridge the gap.

The late rap music star flew his aunt out to California, where he and his mother lived, and forced the two women to confront their troubled relationship.

The meeting proved to be the turning point.

"We decided that whatever cropped up to keep us from fully relating to each other wouldn't get in our way again," Cox says in Sisterfriends.

"Truth be told, whatever it was that came between us then, we couldn't tell you now. Did we get to the root of it? I don't even know if there was a root - it may just have been sibling rivalry 'cause it wasn't that deep. It couldn't have been that deep if all it took was a 25-year-old man to sit us down and say, "Check it out, you need her, she needs you. Get it together.' ... We didn't make a conscious effort to work on our relationship, we made a conscious effort to work on ourselves. ... Through working at being better people individually, we became better sisters."

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