A Love Letter to the Black Women Writers Who Liberated Me

by Ashley Gail Terrell

I sat on the bed in my mother’s bedroom, tear-filled eyes fixated on the television screen as I watched poet Maya Angelou’s 2014 memorial service. I felt my heart ache with each beat that one of my heroes existed no more but couldn’t help but be in awe that a black woman was able to share herself so gracefully and win over the hearts of millions. That was her crowning glory in death as her last tweet read, “Listen to yourself and in that quietude you might hear the voice of God.”

Of the generations of black women writers before me, like Maya, I’m a part of that legacy. Every woman with a story to tell are all intertwined with one another, past and present, and I wanted to celebrate the writers who have changed my life and made me realize the potential I hold every time I pick up a pen.
Maya Angelou. Toni Morrison. Alice Walker. Zora Neale Hurston.

Being a writer is the most beautiful gift my life has been blessed with and the irony is the stories we wrote are the lives we can impact who didn’t know they needed it. That’s beauty of it. I know because those four women have done the same for me. Their golden crowns are their unapologetic, bold and infectious way they explored and embraced the facets of womanhood. The bitterness, sweet and provocative being a woman meant with the characters they created.

I always imagined if I would be standing in the presence of my literary heroes stood in front of me, how could I put into words how much they mean to me. How Their Eyes Were Watching God or The Color Purple breathed new possibilities into my life with characters that resonate. I would become so overcome with gratitude that I’d weep with joy. Them simply daring for their presence to be known ignited the minds of black girls to follow their path. I was 4-years-old when I scribbled on every piece of paper in my childhood home much to the frustration of my mother, who wrote herself. She’d vent to my late aunt on the phone. “Let that baby write!” she protested. And for years she’d send $25 checks with “paper and pencil” in the memo to buy notebooks and pencils. In the second grade when I read an original story aloud to my classmates, I marveled in their attention and the teacher’s praise. It was a divine moment that made me feel alive.

As an introverted teenager filling my journals with poems and lyrics, making sense of the womanhood I was growing into and the world around me, I discovered Alice, Maya, Zora, Toni and other influential black writers who opened my eyes to the kind of storytelling I tried to tap into. I idolized them and in watching them made me look within myself to translate the angst and confusion into the beauty of a tale. It gave me permission to let my heart sing the blues and be fine with it and not second guess it, which I did constantly. That what I had to say and how I wanted to say it on my terms meant something and not molding my words to appeal to others. People gravitate to what’s real and true because seeing someone else embrace themselves it gives them permission to be themselves. It amazed me how I felt less alone because of them and our worlds collided without even meeting them.

I saw this for myself with the series of tweets and comments I did on essay about being black, introverted and quirky. Women telling me thank you for writing it and how I said the things they’ve always wanted to or pulled experiences right from their world. And to think, I almost decided not to write it because I worried how could I make it true and had I did, I would’ve robbed myself and someone who needed those words.
Imagine if Lorraine Hansberry didn't see the line “What happens to a dream deferred? Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?” from Langston Hughes’ poem “Harlem.” If Phillis Wheatley, who broke barriers as the first published African-American poet, didn’t find her potential.

Alice gave me self-worth in Celie from The Color Purple, who was oppressed with abuse and sexism at the hands of Mister. She showed that sisterhood was the antidote in the form of Sofia, Shug and Nettie.

Maya saying that from “the arch of my back, the sun of my smile, the rise of my breasts and the grace of my style” reminded me that I, alone, was a phenomenal force of nature.

Zora captured the feeling of passion between two souls falling in love so flawlessly you’d want to bottle it and the heart flutters you feel when you imagine it. When Janie fell in love with Tea Cake in Their Eyes Were Watching God after a night of bliss by saying he “looked like the love thoughts of women....”

And then there’s Toni, who changed my life at 17 when I read The Bluest Eye in a writing class that I’ve read continuously ever since. It was devastating and brilliant as it fearless dove into the damage of colorism in the black community and seeking European beauty to be accepted. I saw parts of myself in Pecola, who was so broken by a life of abuse she believed blue eyes would bring her the love she was deprived of. Like her as a preteen, I was obsessed with the notion of long hair, light skin, a coke bottle silhouette and an imagined beauty I didn’t feel that I embodied.

This is how powerful narratives are.

They were fiercely feminine, showing the soulful nature and complexity that lies in their mindset that shaped the experiences of their characters.

Maya said it best: “There is a kind of strength that is almost frightening in black women. It is as if a steel rod runs right through the head down to the feet.”
Thank you for being the extraordinary example of greatness that I aspire to achieve in my lifetime. You made a once quiet girl find her power to make her voice heard and know that it’s worthy of that. Your words wrapped me like the stars draping the night sky and now the untold characters are emerging in me to manifest in my own stories. I’m grateful for the wisdom and rawness and not being afraid to “jump at the sun.”

Once in a dream, I watched Toni and Maya sitting together on stage and their inviting eyes and smiles directed my way. I could see their expressions grow warmer as I kneeled in between them and their hands holding mine, tearfully in disbelief that my idols were within my reach. Through stumbling words that made their eyes sparkle, I managed to say to them: “Thank you.”

Photo: Shutterstock

Ashley Gail Terrell is a freelance writer from Michigan. She is currently working on a her first nonfiction book and wants to create her own television show to continue down the yellow brick road that Shonda Rhimes and Mara Brock Akil created. You can find her admiring thunderstorms and listening to the To Pimp A Butterfly album.

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