It started with Rev. Jerome Fisher. He was the pastor of Little Zion Baptist Church in Compton, California, one of the sister churches of St. Mark Baptist Church in Long Beach where my family and I were long time and dutiful members. I was probably nine years old when I first saw him. He led a revival at our church and I was inspired by the way he used words, moved his body, raised and lowered his voice, lifted his hands, spread his fingers and shuffled his feet. I wanted to do that. I wanted to move people with my words too. I wanted sweat to fall from my forehead. I wanted to hear people say Amen and Hallelujah and Make it plain! But in my way. I wasn't a preacher. I was something though. Just didn't know what.
I would later find out that I was a storyteller. I didn't even know that was a thing. Specifically, I was a poet who told stories. I was always a writer. When I was a very young girl I started keeping journals I called My Famous Stories. On those wide lined bright white pages I deposited my thoughts and worries and joys. Mostly my worries. I was young, Virgo, Christian, skinny, black, average student and only the seventh cutest girl in my third grade class. I had issues. My stories were poorly disguised tales of what was going on in my day.
Today there was a boy named Sommy (real name, Tommy) who was very, very
mean to me in the cafeteria. One day I will grow tall as the sky and be the queen
of the world and Sommy will be so sorry that he ever bothered me or anybody in
the world because his hands and feet will be tied up super tight and all the people
he ever bothered in the whole school will line up and he will have to tell them that
he is very sorry. I won't let him go though, unless I know that he means it and then
he will have to go to church every Sunday for a whole year and pray on his knees
to God and Jesus and see if they will forgive him.
In my journals I could be the queen of the world and destroy bullies. I could be anyone I wanted to be. My pen was a magic word wand I could wave and be heard, believed, accepted, courageous. Words were my therapy. I escalated to sharing my stories with my dolls, stuffed animals, mirrors, bookcases and other objects in my room with my red handled hair brush as my microphone. I waved hand, extended my arms, dropped to one knee, balled fists, lifted chin. The whole nine. I thought that's what speakers did. I outgrew My Famous Stories and my brushmicrophone and became a professional storyteller. I tell stories well. Sometimes on stage now, I find myself speaking, waving, fanning like my first public speaking idol, Rev. J. Fisher. After all these years I cannot seem to un Jerome Fisher myself, and I don't want to. I am a mixture of him, my grandfather, some old blue black women from Ghana, Louisiana, Alabama and myself. Myself. I came to this planet to tell stories.
Today I teach poetry to high school students and run an online adult creative writing workshop. I travel the country reciting poetry and telling stories in schools, churches, galleries, jails and other places. I live my life encouraging others to use their words. And I am thankful. Almost twenty years ago I was blessed with a record deal from Verve Records, a well known jazz label, to create a poetry and music album with an incredible singer. Together, we were a group called Res Ipsa, which is a legal term short for res ipsa loquitur meaning, the thing speaks for itself. And we did. Two strong black women in front of large and small crowds using our powerful voices, sharing stories, changing lives. When we were almost complete with the album we ceased working together and so went our deal with Verve. But so began my career as a solo professional storyteller. From there I spoke in more hotels, halls, clubs, funerals, parties than I can remember to count. And I loved it. I still do.
As an artist (storyteller) I believe that one of my major jobs is to report the news. And I do. My stories have advanced from Sommy the bad boy and are now littered with accounts of the string of murders by police on black men and women. I talk about horrific abuse against women that has now been given a prettied up label called domestic violence. I talk about bullied children. I use my voice as advocate for the homeless, hungry. For the gay community fighting for equal rights. For teachers fighting for fair pay. For mentally and physically ill. I talk about nature and love and my amazing son. I talk about the sun. While my passion to speak and perform publicly was sparked by an old minister I never said two words to, my desire was fueled from my own abuse and my hope that I could change the future for other children who were in harmful situations and were too afraid to tell. There are three quotes by Audre Lorde by which I have lived my life:
- “Your silence will not protect you.”
- “If I didn't define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people's fantasies for me and eaten alive.” And
- “When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.”
Often when people ask me why I write and tell stories my mind goes back to an early moment in my childhood. I was four years old and my mother was pregnant with my sister Roshann. We had recently moved into a house in a neighborhood in Long Beach. We had come to know the family next door in the green house well enough. There was a mother and two teenaged girls, fifteen and seventeen. The girls offered to help my parents by babysitting me and after some time they were allowed. There was a white tent in their backyard and another teenaged boy who lived down the street. The girls went from babysitting me to forcing me, at four years old, to suck the boy's dick. I had never heard the word dick before. I knew boys had pee pees but dicks were new. Perhaps pee pees grew into dicks, I surmised. There was no sucking, only chocking. Then there was liquid that was not my spit anymore that I naturally assumed was his urine. I ran from the tent screaming “he peed in my mouth! He peed in my mouth!” Then the younger girl caught me and tied a thick rope around my neck and the other end to the t shaped steel clothesline post cemented into the ground. She held my body as it swung and promised incredible harm if I told. I believed her.
This is why I write stories for a living. For girls and boys like me who choked on a penis too big for her jaws, too long for her throat. For children who thought they had pee on their tongues and couldn't outrun a fifteen year old girl. For human beings everywhere who were threatened if they spoke. Telling my stories publicly came from a desire for people to put a face to people and issues they generally stigmatized. I wanted people to know that when they labeled abused children as broken, that they were talking about me. And I'm not broken.
There is sadly a misconception about the mentally ill in this country, and throughout the world. I speak a lot about this because I am bipolar 1, medicated but not compliant to my meds. I want people to know that when they say that someone who is mentally ill and has spent her days in the psyche ward, is not intelligent, can not be of incredible use in this world, they are talking about me. And I am awesome.
Another question I'm often asked by students and audience members is how to handle writer's block. What if you don't have a story to tell? What if you can't think of anything? What if nothing is going on to talk about? What if you haven't been abused? What if what if what if if if if? My answer is usually not what they want to hear. I don't believe in writer's block. When I have “writer's block” it is because I am not telling a particular story, for whatever reason. Now, there are stories I don't want to tell. As a writer and storyteller I try to challenge myself by Telling. That. Story. Not out loud at first, but in a journal. On some notepad. In the margins of some textbook. As the saying goes, better out than in. I live my life getting the stories out. The same one by one way they got in there if necessary. There is always something to write about. There is always a story to tell. There are times I don't feel like writing or talking, but that's not writer's block. That's a different story.
January 1, 2013 I began a project to write a poem a day for the year and post the work on my blog for others to view. The posting was more to make myself accountable to the community of people who read my blog. Proudly, I kept covenant with myself and completed the year. I continued into this year with a new goal to post a poem a day with a different kind of poem each month. I think I began January with haikus then sonnets in February and so on. I have some catching up to do because I ended the poetry every day journey early September with couplets and we are now in the middle of October. I will catch up. Though I am behind on writing poems every day I do write stories and other free writing exercises in my blog or journal. One day last year when I couldn't think of a poem to write, I wrote about the contents in my purse. The phone, ipad, camera, notebook, novel, lipstick, mascara... I talked about why I carried the stuff I toted and my attachment to those things such that I would carry them every day, every where. There is always a story to tell.
Four years ago I created a storytelling venue called Red Stories. It's once a month and I invite an artist a month to tell her / his story. The event is held in a coffeehouse / bookstore in Inglewood, California and the performance area holds about fifty people. The audience comes in and greet each other. I begin the night with a welcome, a poem, a joke, a story. Sometimes I bring up a poet or singer to further warm the stage, then I call up the featured artist. The speaker takes her / his seat and then the words fall. On these nights we, the audience, get to experience the artist in a way we won't get to on any other stage. Usually when artists are invited out to speak, the request is that they speak within their genre. For instance, poets are invited to recite poems. Singers to sing. Dancers to dance. I invite a wide range of artists and on Red Stories nights what they have in common is that they are invited to tell their stories. They can go back as far as they choose and give the detail they want. What always seems to happen is that the guests tell stories they didn't intend to tell. Often after the show, guests tell me that they didn't mean to say that or go that deep but they felt comfortable enough to let the words out. The show has been greatly enjoyed since the first month.
Being a storyteller, I love stories and words. Not just my own. I love quotes and listening to the lives of others. I have a strong belief in the power of words. They save lives. They saved mine. There are two quotes by Confucius that I also love.
- “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.” And
- “Wheresoever you go, go with all your heart”
I don't know how much I chose being a storyteller and how much it chose me. I am this and would be a storyteller inside of whatever career path I followed. If I sold shoes I would find a way to share stories with each customer. Everywhere I go, I keep taking me and my passion for words and stories with me. With all of my heart.