"Your willingness to wrestle with your demons will cause your angels to sing.”
Last night. It was standing room only. I was about to go onstage under the masterful vision of seasoned director, Ingrid Askew with Kate Rushin, acclaimed poet and Ruth Bass Green, a musician who can make some of the most delectable sounds I have ever heard come out of a keyboard. It was Griot Women Productions presenting me. I was supposed flow some of the poetry from my National Liberation Poetry Tour Experience into the seamless rushing river of my two sistas' artistry. But there I was, staring back at myself in the bathroom mirror at Rao's Coffee in Amherst, MA. Looking for that demon. The one who says, "You're gonna f*** this up. You have no power. You don't deserve success. I'm in charge and don't ever forget it."
How many times had I heard that voice? Maybe even before I had to be cut out of my mother's birth canal to land with lungs heaving, my first voice, a scream, onto this planet. For as long as I can remember. I have three recurring dreams--one: I have the ball. I am soaring toward the basket. There are other players in front of me. They don't matter. It's the fear in my chest that dominates. "Will I make it?" is all I can hear in my ears. The fear is disembodied. I am the fear. There is no enjoyment of flying, only the fear of failing, falling; two: I am supposed to be teaching a class. I notice that I am on the verge of emotional collapse. I have been searching for hours for the classroom. It's now clear that I am completely lost. I feel helpless, foolish, as if I am an impostor; three: I am onstage. It is my turn to speak. All eyes on and offstage turn to me. I have no words. I know I don't know my lines. Have I ever known them?? I want to disappear.
This underlying theme of acting out the role of victim has been the subtext of my life, a grayscale caption only a few could see beneath a full-color picture of me smiling and achieving incredible things. It became so normalized in my life, that I unconsciously accepted it as one would an old friend whose flaws you embrace and forgive over time.
I don't know when that level of acceptance happened, but I know that it has now been profoundly shaken at its core. In taking on the charge that Beah Richards gave me on that morning after seeing LisaGay Hamilton's Beah: A Black Woman Speaks, when I heard her voice in my head: Get up, sista! We got work to do, my life has not been the same. Here's the key: I could have turned over in my bed, gone back to sleep, and chalked it all up to some menopausal episode. Instead, I let the voice in. I followed the place in me that had been waiting so long for me to show up for myself, stand up for myself, acknowledge my beauty and right to be alive. Full circle to my birth. Yes, I deserved that first breath.
I was supposed to be here.
The second charge came from listening to my first audience in Springfield, MA, at the Renaissance Artspace, when I realized that I was still holding on to a fear of letting my hair be its natural self. What did that have to do with racism and internalized racial oppression, the very topic that I was exploring with the folks who had shown up to be a part of my Tour Experience? In my case, everything. That night, I released myself from the fear that I was somehow less-than if my hair was less like white folks' and more like what it actually was---the hair a Black child was born with--as good as any other human being's hair. My psyche could no longer bear the contradiction. I've been natural ever since.
Back to Rao's. I stood before the mirror and called on my ancestors, my spirit guides, on all the energy that I needed in that moment, all of it, that for the last five years had been calling on me to take my place in the circle of my own strength, in the legacy of warrior from which I come. There was only a minute or so before it would be time for me to take that walk to the mic. I made the decision 24 hours before not to bring the hard copies of my poems. No crutches. No safety net beneath the high-wire.
I looked into my eyes in that mirror, fully expecting to see those other demon eyes I knew so well looking back at me, laughing with contempt. Expecting to hear that voice of doubt. Instead, there was what I can only describe as a shimmering I had never seen before. I knew I was not alone. My ancestors were embracing me. And they were smiling.
What happened in that performance space last night is hard to describe. We opened to each other.There was a feeling that everyone there was inside me. I opened myself to them, let them see me for all that I was, by laying my pain bare. They received it, allowed it to enter the deep places within themselves, allowed themselves to be effected by it. Kate and Ruth gave of themselves as well, making of the room an ancient circle of courage, a place of not looking away, a space where we all bore witness to the demon of racism as it squirmed and raged. No hiding place. A ritual healing in the midst of the storm. The applause grounded me, lovingly, firmly placing me back in my own arms. I signed my book. The people who I touched, touched me.
August Wilson, pictured above, speaks of what can come of the willingness to wrestle one's demons. A door has opened. And there is no turning back...