For Women’s History Month we’re dedicating our March posts to women and their stories.
Ever since my first book came out in 2012, I have been speaking in schools about the process of writing it. At every school, without exception, a young black girl — or group of girls – comes up to talk me. Sometimes they ask a question. Sometimes they tell me how much they liked my talk. Most times they ask me to autograph a tattered notebook or a torn piece of paper.
I am always humbled by these moments. Because I remember exactly what it feels like to be them. I know what it’s like to look at a woman you are drawn to for reasons you don’t fully comprehend.
I understood this more fully last month, when I spoke to award-winning playwright Djanet Sears for the second time in my life.
The first time I met Djanet Sears, I was in my second year of university. We had read Harlem Duet in a course on African-Canadian literature. Djanet was invited to campus for a special class visit. I remember how she spoke, how she pointedly addressed a girl who wanted to know why the only white character in the play is never seen onstage. I remember feeling something like awe and admiration mixed up together. After the presentation, I tried to come up with something important to ask. I wanted to talk to her, get close to her, hear her say something meant for me alone. She was so grand, so powerful. I wanted that so desperately. But I was still awkward, unsure of myself, my blackness. What could I ask her?
“How do I find more monologues that I can perform for auditions that are written for black women?” I said.
She smiled in a way that delighted and frightened me. “Write your own,” she said.
At the time, I was interested in acting. I was not a writer. But her words stuck with me. I enrolled in a playwriting class two years later. The play I wrote – my upside down black face – was my first published work. Two monologues – one featuring a young, black girl – were published in an anthology. The project helped me get into graduate school, which is where I wrote my first book – a memoir about my father and about growing up black in Canada. It’s the book I’m asked to speak about in schools now.
I told Djanet about our first meeting when I saw her last month. And as I shared that vivid memory of my first encounter with a published, black Canadian writer, I thought about all of those young girls with their tattered notebooks and torn pieces of paper, asking for my autograph.
You see, when women stand tall, when we occupy the world with the weight of our victories and our hardships firmly rooted in our bellies, younger women bear witness – dreaming bigger dreams with new hopes on their horizon — hopes that are full of anticipation and expectation of what might be possible for them despite the obstacles. We become their dreams, their new horizon. What a privilege. What an honor.
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
— Maya Angelou
Jael Ealey Richardson is the author of The Stone Thrower: A Daughter’s Lesson, a Father’s Life, a memoir based on her relationship with her father, CFL quarterback Chuck Ealey. The book received a CBC Bookie Award and earned Richardson an Acclaim Award and a My People Award. Excerpts from her first play, my upside down black face, are published in the anthology T-Dot Griots. Richardson has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph. She lives in Brampton where she serves as the Artistic Director for the Festival of Literary Diversity (FOLD).