Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Remembering Toni Cade Bambara for The Women on Wednesdays Art and Culture Project

Dear Sista Mama Toni Cade Bambara,
When I was 19, I sat at your feet in Howard University’s Blackburn Center, hungry for the secret to a word smith’s brilliance. I listened to your words with awe, though there was much in the meaning I could not have understood, because I hadn’t really lived yet. I had no idea how close to transitioning you were. I only knew that I found home in your cadence, the weaving of your thoughts and imaginings in language, your magic, your truth.
Eighteen years later, I returned to your novel The Salt Eaters, and I was immediately struck by the healer Minnie Ransom’s first words to Velma Henry, after Velma’s suicide attempt: “Are you sure, sweetheart, that you want to be well?”
Bam. Right in my face, inside my heart, and down in my gut. I knew that this time The Salt Eaters would rock me to my core, because in the 18 years it took me to get back to that novel, I had become mother of two, divorced, single and often troubled. I was also an activist and cultural organizer, and a vulnerable woman, wide open and daring a lover to enter, afraid he would stay, and see me less evolved than I often professed. And, I'd become an artist and educator, under-paid and losing sleep to debt, wondering why make art if I don’t matter. I was finally that perpetual giver and healer sustained by a deep commitment to love. And I was walking contradiction. My own life missions unveiled me as a woman veering far too close to insanity far too often. I was skilled at wearing various masks and hats, covering my own less than holistically well self with a righteous focus on doing good work in the world, while a series of moments inside my own head would tell anyone the truth – I was perpetually uncertain about whether I wanted to be well myself. There have been hives, swollen limbs, boils and a tendency toward grinding my teeth in sleep, causing fractures. I pummeled myself, directing my rage inward because uncontrolled anger was counter-revolutionary. I neglected myself, my very own heart and health. I trained my attention on any and every thing that would stop me from cleaning the dust from the mirror and seeing the mess I had become. A beautiful mess.
And there was Velma Henry – mother, wife, activist, silenced artist, under-valued laborer for the people, trusted friend, the invisible corner stone at the foundation of the community. And Velma had sliced her wrists and crawled into the oven to die. I knew her. I knew her in my own nicotine tinged finger tips; the loss of health coverage, and too many years of economic hardship; a quiet depression; the eyes that cannot shed another tear; the near-crazed mind that considers what it would take to stare death in the face, because maybe it would be easier. And I read on, letting it all find roots in my blood stream, forcing me to consider Minnie Ransom’s question, “Are you sure, sweetheart, that you want to be well?” I found an awakening of the inward eye/I through Velma’s journey toward her ancestral mothers and their strength with her community gathered around her in a sacred cipher, merging their own stories with Velmas, and calling on spirit guides and Lwa to create a quilt, a communion, a shelter inside understanding.
When we began the process of organizing the “Women on Wednesday Art and Culture Project” for 2011, I offered my experience of The Salt Eaters, and found camaraderie among my sister collaborators. We all knew the novel’s road, its weight, and urgent importance to countless women artists and conjurers, mothers, sister, and daughters -those of us born into the world with the mission of caring for it, while pretending our own scars and hurts and real down right ugly could hardly be worth the trouble of healing. And we agreed that you would be the ancestral foremother for the Series. Not just because of The Salt Eaters but for your life, your walk, your body of work, your calling and your way of loving us from the spirit realm, giving us a wake up call we wanted to pass on to our entire community. We pose the questions: Are we sure we all want to be well? And if so, how will we get there? How will we forge community, and build holistic wellness in ciphers that both liberate and nurture our voices, our lives? It is our prayer and intention that the “Women on Wednesday Art and Culture Project” provides a sacred space for us to answer those questions affirmatively, and set about doing that work together in your
Toni Cade Bambara - the ancestral mother for “The Women on Wednesday Art and Culture Project (WoW)” 2011. We honor her for her creative approach to social justice and holistic wellness for the individual and communal woman. Ibaye Toni Cade Bambara, Ibaye!
For more information about "The Women on Wednesday Art and Culture Project," visit us at For WoW 2012, our ancestral mother will be Audre Lorde.

1 comment:

nan-c said...

I met the words of Toni Cade Bambara in THE BLACK WOMAN ANTHOLOGY in a class taught by Eugene Redmond at Wayne State University and re-met her later in GORILLA MY LOVE. I was pregnant with my second child at the first introduction and read the second book to my three brown babies when they were old enough to understand it. Thanks Nina, for bringing forth a beautiful memory of Toni Cade Bambara 's word magic. I believe we should always return to some words periodically to reflect upon our own growth and appreciate the richness of the sistah artists that have come before us to sooth our forever growing souls.