how poetry saved me from being just another ‘angry black woman’ or why i write

there was a time in my life when i was a hothead. and we’re talking the whole screaming profanities, fist drawn, feet shoulder distance apart, knees slightly bent, shoulders squared, ready to pounce and destroy rage filled angry.

doe-eyed, snaggletooth hothead

my primary trigger: someone i cared about was threatened or harmed. if you threatened to touch a hair on my little brother’s head, i was coming for you and let it be known i would show no mercy.  if you talked about my mother, it was going to be the last thing you said. if you hit my cousin, i was going to be the last face you saw before you went night night.

my fighting was controlled. when my rage meter filled to the point of physically lashing out at someone, i experienced a calm that i can now only replicate during an intense meditation. i didn’t think about hitting someone. i didn’t think about when to duck or dive to miss their reciprocated blows. i couldn’t hear other people shouting. i didn’t feel it if a kick or punch landed in my vicinity. all i could hear was my own heart beat. my primary focus was destroy. and nothing else mattered.

i remember those days. i remember those fights. i remember it well. sometimes the thought of them intrude and it takes me a minute to get refocused and back to doing the grown up things i now have responsibility for.

now i live a life where there are people who i’ve known for years, who’ve never seen me angry. people who if someone from my past had described to them the raging bull i could become would not believe them. would imagine that they are in fact talking about someone else.

the truth is they are talking about someone else.

my life as a hothead ended pretty early. i just couldn’t sustain that level of rage, that penchant for violence. it didn’t make sense to me. to feel that out of control. to be that scary.

when i was 13 years old, i was a part of this summer enrichment program. i went into the program because it gave me something to do a few day a week in an otherwise mundane existence. the program was in this old historic church and it was actually run by nuns. as a participant i learned to sew with a sewing machine, and i learned all the words to this song:

i have crossed a thousand bridges
in my search for something real
there were great suspension bridges
made like spiderwebs of steel
there were tiny wooden trestles
and there were bridges made of stone
i have always been a stranger
and i’ve always been alone

now i was 13 and i had been singing in my church choir for 6 years. growing up baptist i could hold my own with adults during certain devotionals and was often called on to lead solos. i knew lots of songs. but this song, was one of the first that just opened me. the line that spoke most to me was ‘and i’ve always been alone.’

my ideal bridge

so there i am a 13 year old hothead singing about being alone and for the first time in my life, my feelings (other than anger) are so visible, so tangible, i can’t clear my thought. enter ms. poetry lady.

then i was asked to join a poetry class in this summer enrichment program. now i’d been writing poetry since i’d discovered phillis wheatley‘s work in 4th grade. but i’d never really shared my poetry or the fact that i wrote poems with many people. folk knew i liked to write but they didn’t know that mostly i wrote poems. so i get in this poetry class with a woman who couldn’t have been more than 23 (but seemed like a real grown woman to me) and she started talking about nikki giovanni and sonia sanchez and toni morrison in a way that in my life was reserved on for talking about jesus. i was intrigued.

she would read poetry to us and then ask us to write. that was it, our entire prompt would be a poem by a black american woman poet and then we would be told to write. words started to pour out of me in rhythm i couldn’t quite keep up with. i’d listen to her read gwendolyn brooks and suddenly i could see myself.

we real cool. we
left school. we

lurk late. we
strike straight. we

sing sin. we 
think gin. we

jazz jun. we
die soon.

i started to feel more in control. i started to experience a type of peace that can only be experienced when you’ve come home after being lost for a long time. i was poetry’s prodigal daughter. but i was 13 and foolish and full of alone-ness. so someone said something to someone and i went to that person’s defense and there was this scene and talk about me not coming back to program.

enter ms. poetry lady.

images-16she sat me down across from her in some alcove. she wanted to talk to me. to help me. to see if i could be saved. i didn’t know then that was what this talk was. i figured, here we go again. whatever, man. i was over the program anyway. i was posed and ready to be reprimanded to be told that ‘that’s not how a young lady should act.’ i was ready to close the shades, draw the blinds and retreat into myself until this whole thing was over.

but instead i saw something in her that that i hadn’t seen in adults before. i saw compassion. i saw understanding. i saw forgiveness. she said to me, ‘you are a warrior. but you were born at a time when there really isn’t a need for warriors. you were born at a time when warriors are putting away their shields and swords. you were born at this time of peace. so what are you my warrior sister, to do?’

i was flabbergasted. i had no witty come back. i had no sarcasm to dish out.  i couldn’t even say, ‘just call my mama.’ i was stuck in the idea that she had found me out. she knew my secret. she saw me.

because i was quiet (a rarity) she went on, ‘but you my sister are one of the lucky ones. because like many warriors, you are also an artist.’ at that i interrupted her, ‘i can’t draw a straight line. i’m no artist.’ she laughed at me,’imagine that…you’ve lived your whole life and had no idea that artist do more than draw pictures and create sculptures.’ i was quiet again wanting to know more. she informed me, ‘the women poets we read about each day in poetry class are artists. poetry is art. dance is art. music is art. art is everywhere. and it is deeply seated in you.’

i thought about that…i thought about this idea that i was an artist. that i was someone who could create a thing of beauty to be marveled and ah ha’ed. it was a different view of me who was always called smart, and moody. it was a different identity.

how i felt inside

ms. poetry lady told me, ‘i know your secret my little warrior sister. i know your secret. you are a poet. that is your art and you have a responsibility to join your tribe, to leave the wilderness and the wildness of the war and rejoin your tribe as the tender hearted poet artist you are. we need you.’

ain’t that deep? ain’t that a different kind of way to deal with a hot head? that’s some yoda jedi mind moving compassion. it created a shift in me. a shift that went marrow deep.

i began to consider the root of my anger. i began to consider the cause and result of my rage. i began to think that perhaps there was another way of dealing with conflict. perhaps there was a different way of moving and being in this world that did not include violence.

perhaps there was another way of being in this world that did not include violence.

see even at 13 i knew that my anger was about other people. even at 13 i knew that i wasn’t angry because such and such made me angry. i knew then and i know now that my angry was a cocktail blend of powerlessness, fear, and mistrust.

who my spirit most resembled

powerlessness because i grew up in a world where little girls weren’t allowed a voice. you couldn’t speak your mind or live your truth. you had to be ‘young lady’ even when you just wanted to be left alone. you had to exude politeness, and class. you were taught to be pious and pensive. you were told that submission was a your worship and speaking only when spoken to, your practice. i witnessed violence. i saw women being beaten by men who said  they loved them. i watched women be humiliated in public and private over trivial things like a misplaced bill or a forgotten dinner plate. i watched grown women be relegated to the role of a child and it filled my heart with a sense of powerlessness. i thought if they are adults and they have no power, what hope is there for me?

what hope is there for me?

so i sat aside the foolish idea of ever being a lady and i picked up the armor of my anger instead. i knew i was small but i refused to be helpless. so i fought.

i fought to keep fear at bay. because when you are powerless you live in a state of constant fear. your heart is forever dropping into the pit of your stomach. you are hyper vigilant, watchful for the next attack which could come from any direction. i stood in warrior pose because i needed to be ready. i needed to be able to defend myself and the people i loved. i needed to be a warrior.

the conversation with ms. poetry lady shifted this reality. she put in a real kink in my plans and in this one moment turned my world upside down. who would i be if i wasn’t a warrior? who would i be if i stopped fighting? who would i be?

i knew that i would have to trust myself. i would have to trust myself so much that no matter what missteps i took, i would have faith that i could make it to the other side okay. being an angry hothead had given me a false sense of control. it had created an ideal of power but did not provide me with the power i desired. it didn’t fill me up. and because it didn’t fill me up i lived a life that was constantly running on empty.

when i learned to trust myself, i experienced real power. the power to walk away from relationships that didn’t serve me. the power to say no when i just didn’t want to do something. the power to speak my mind to the people who actually mattered instead of lashing out at people who didn’t. trusting me, gave me permission to be me. it also gave me permission to change me with the disclaimer that if i didn’t like the me i was becoming i could change again.

ms. poetry lady helped free me. and this song ‘bridges’ was my anthem:

there’s a bridge to tomorrow
there’s a bridge from the past
there’s a bridge made of sorrows
that i pray will not last
there’s a bridge made of colors 
in the sky high above
and i pray that there must me
bridges made out of love

this is dianne reeves singing ‘bridges’ most beautiful rendition, ever!


One Comment Add yours

  1. heyannis says:

    Priceless, Wanda. I love that you had this great opportunity at 13 and ms. poetry lady saw the real you. You found your voice, your power, your self.

    Have you read the work of Jacqueline Woodson? Brown Girl Dreaming is her full-length memoir in poetry form. I just finished her latest book, a short novel called Another Brooklyn. Your post reminded me of the book.

    May the poet in you keep enlightening and exciting us. xoA

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