Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl – Age 10
My birthday falls on the first day of Black History Month. So it was shortly after I turned 10 that I performed in what became one of my best secular public plays ever (if I do say so myself). I was Harriet Tubman and I got to carry a gun, a heavy replica that belonged to my grandfather, I believe. All because Harriet Tubman ain’t take no stuff!
One cold evening in late February, on the Benjamin Banneker Elementary School stage I stood in my long skirt with my gun in hand and my lines, which I had written–after some extensive fourth grade research–and memorized–save for some cue cards in case the crowd made me nervous. And I told them all about this larger than life character who’d lead slaves to freedom and threatened with death those who second-guessed their decision to escape midway through the trip.
The Black students in our school were all “selected” to be a part of the production and I reveled in that fact, especially since it required leaving class for rehearsals. But I also liked the character I chose. A lot.
“Didn’t come in this world to be a slave/and wasn’t going to stay one either.”
Eloise Greenfield’s poem was not on my mind at the time because I was not aware of it back then. But that’s exactly why I liked her; heroines like Harriet Tubman remind me of my grandmother–“play me for a fool and you’ll lose your money.” Heroines like Harriet Tubman informed my very understanding of what it could mean to be a woman: exacting and strong.
And so as I grew into it–womanhood that is–I didn’t feel compromised in a way that I think girls are made to feel about their bodies, their power, their role in the world. Adolescence being what it is, I can’t say that I escaped the confusion and questioning and began writing and reading about that internal conflict more extensively as a student at an all women’s college that challenged me to do just that.
In 2004 while in residence at an artists’ colony, a fellow artist asked me about the manuscript I was working on–what are your major themes? I talked about negotiating boundaries–my usual schpiel.
Later that week, while reading some pieces at an impromptu gathering of the residents: Wow, you really explore the notion of womanhood in your writing, she offered, I see what you were talking about.
Huh? But I said nothing about women–I was talking about negotiating…
Women negotiate all the time:
Harriet Tubman had to choose to leave her husband in slavery once he decided to remarry and stay; she wasn’t to enjoy another romantic relationship until 1869 at the age of 47 .
She left her mother, father, sisters and brothers during her initial escape. Though she later retrieved some of them, her sister Rachel died before Harriet would be able to rescue her, and Rachel’s children were never rescued.
All of Harriet’s trips were made at the deficit of her illiteracy and her constant seizures from being hit in the head as a young slave.
Among the poems that consistently show up in my residency curriculum is Eloise Greenfield’s. I want my students to have the chance to see themselves dynamically, too, like I began to (even though I didn’t know it) back in fourth grade.