Yolanda Wisher, 42, Poet
I don’t think my mom really knew.
She was getting me these books from this little book warehouse around the corner from our house. I don’t think she knew what was in those books. It was like the secret of womanhood.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Ntozake Shange. It feels like she’s gotten some light recently, but I feel like she was a neglected figure not just in the cultural realm, but also literature: Black literature and American literature. She gets kinda pushed to the fringes, and she’s somebody that is really important to my growth as a writer and as a young girl. I was reading her before I was probably allowed to read what she was writing. I was probably 11 or 12.
I don’t know the whole story, so it’s kind of weird looking back through some of this history when you’re just a product of it. But I think she was pushed to the fringes because she was eccentric and “weird.” Probably what we would call a nerd or a geek back in this early Civil Rights era. She was this child who grew up in a very intellectual household. There was a way in which she was so deeply entrenched in the culture and the Black intelligentsia of the day, the jazz and the blues. She didn’t have to question it or seize it in the same way I think a lot of other Black people did. She was just easy with hers in the sense that she could be even more free. She was more free, and that also looked more eccentric, more out there, more “crazy.”
Sometimes, I think about her and Alice Walker. At the time that I discovered Alice Walker and Ntozake Shange, they were like two very different ways of being a Black woman in the world. And they were very different from all of the women that I even grew up with then, looking at the distinctions between how they were living their lives. There was this way that Alice Walker was critical of Black men and even took a lot of heat for it. She took so much heat for it in The Color Purple that people hated the character Mister. But he was a real person for some, even in her life. He was an amalgamation of a lot of the Black men who were a product of the South, Jim Crow, segregation, and their own traumas that were never dealt with. She captured all of that in that book and in The Third Life of Grange Copeland and even in Meridian.
She knew that Black women could be casualties of Black male trauma. In Shange, you see that, too. She’s critical, but there’s also this unabashed love of Black men that’s almost promiscuous; it’s lascivious, it’s bawdy. Even some of her characters sacrifice themselves to that, the love of a Black man. The truth’s kinda hard to swallow in that way. They give you all these truths I think that some people, depending on where they stand, don’t want to face. Both of them, for me, were the beginnings of what it meant to be a writer, a Black woman writer.
Another woman that I think about a lot is Zora Neale Hurston and that whole idea of being the mule of the world. How do we get out from under that identity? It’s something that’s given to us, but it’s also something that we made a badge of pride, and it’s a dangerous one.
When I was 9 years old, before my great-grandma died, I asked, “What’s your favorite color, Grandma?”
She said, “Every color of the rainbow.” And I was like, “Nah, that can’t be true. Even brown and black? You like those colors, too?” She said, “Every color has its own beauty.” She said something incredibly poetic and yet very grandmotherly and simple that I could understand. Then I found this play, For Colored Girls, about these women in all these different colors.
I just read it like, “Wow, these are poems and they all seem to come from Black women’s voices.” So, I was immediately intrigued, because that was not what I was being fed as a young writer. Shange was the first time I found all the different shades of my voice. That was the other thing: It wasn’t just like one monolithic Black woman voice. She was like, “Nah, here’s these seven women.” And they all share this Black woman identity, but they have these very different perspectives, or maybe they’re just different moods. Reading that play was really powerful like, “Oh, you could be all of these women.”
It gives me chills sometimes to think how simple the concept of that play was — the colors of the rainbow.
It’s about accepting the parts of ourselves that seem at odds with each other. That has been my journey. It has been saying, “Yeah, I’m all of these women.” And embracing these parts of me: the part of me that grew up in the suburbs, the part of me that went to school in Philly and has been here for 20 years, the part of me that’s somebody’s wife, the part of me that loves Black queer women, the poet in me, and the mother in me. These are things that might seem at odds to some. But I have to find a space for those instead of deciding that I have to be this one thing for 30 years, and if I am some other things; I have to keep them hidden from the people that know me really well. People that I grew up around and some of my ancestors had to live these one-note lives. They had to do this one job every day to make ends meet. I don’t blame them for that. That’s what allowed us to be here, that’s what allowed us to survive. But if we have the ability and the freedom, we should use it to play more than one note. I feel like these Black women writers have done that.
We also have to live out loud. May we all get to a point where we can share all those sides of ourselves. That’s why these women are a gift to me, because they decided to be very public in that private growth of acceptance of self: I am all these things, and I am vulnerable, I am strong, I am sensitive, I’m soft, I’m tough. You reckon with all those parts inside yourself; it’s not like you smooth all the edges. And you find a way to wield it all.
Yolanda’s Revolutionary Picks:
“At the time that I discovered Alice Walker and Ntozake Shange, they were like two very different ways of being a Black woman in the world. And they were very different from all of the women that I even grew up with then, looking at the distinctions between how they were living their lives.”