“Over the years I’ve taken the things I’ve learned from these women and thrown their lessons and stories into a cauldron.” —Qiana Towns
“Like God is in the kitchen frying potatoes in a purple Mu Mu!!!” —Anastacia Tolbert
“I realize now that in my family my Mama Pearl was the original and true ‘Chi’ presence whose strength and warmness still live on through my mom and I.”—JP Howard
HER KIND: In the essay “Chi/Ori, or, the Mother Within,” Chiwenye Ogunyemi writes: “From a literary perspective, Chi as inspiriting muse gives the writer the courage and determination to institute, identify with, or counter a discourse. Traditionally, it is the mother who teaches the child to express the self in words and to develop the tactics to cope successfully in conflict, hence the primacy I accord the Chi as mother.” Was your mother (or a mother-figure) your Chi?
JP Howard: In retrospect, I believe that my mother was definitely my “Chi.” She was and still is (though elderly now) a strong African American matriarch. Growing up as a child in Harlem, my mother had this larger than life persona because she was literally a Diva, having been a fairly well known African American model in Harlem and throughout New York, before my birth. I think for me there was often a bit of searching for the Chi in my mother because of her strong personality and presence. We are both also Leo’s so there were these two strong female personalities learning to co-exist in the world. It wasn’t always easy and sometimes a downright challenge! My mother, who had me well past forty, learned for probably the first time in her life that she had to “share the stage” so to speak. So we had to work through those growing bumps together as mother and daughter. However, with time, and because I was an only child and she was a single mother, I grew to realize that it was my mother who gave me the courage to find my voice, learn to speak up for myself, and to break out of my extreme shyness.
My mother loved language and words and encouraged me to spend time at our local Hamilton Grange public library in Harlem exploring the Black Poets section. I recall early on at church functions and family gatherings how my mama would encourage me to recite Margaret Walker’s poem, “For My People.” I LOVED that poem and I could see the love and admiration my mom had for me when alla the church folks complimented us after I would recite it. I couldn’t have been more than eight or nine years old at the time, but I remember loving the power of those words and the reaction they incited in folks in the room. My mother had spent years on runways loving that attention, but when I found those poems and fell in love with Nikki Giovanni, Margaret Walker, June Jordan, Langston Hughes and experimented reciting their words out loud, I knew that I too wanted to write and have a chance one day to stand on a stage and share my own words with others. It was my mama, who gave me the courage to find my voice. I was extremely shy as a child, so having this outlet to read and sometimes recite poetry, helped to build my confidence. Ladies, who would you identify in your lives as your Chi or “mother/nurturing” spirit? I know for many of my friends it is not necessarily their mother that serves that powerful, necessary role but another female spirit in their lives.
Qiana Towns: JP, your mom was a model? I didn’t know, but I can definitely see her ripping the runway. I have too many Chis and not enough time to talk about them all. Of course, my mother was the first to encourage me to express myself. She was a stage actress and I reaped the benefits of it. I was constantly surrounded by artists of all kinds: singers, painters, actors. Everybody. My mother had me reciting Langston Hughes, “Mother to Son,” when I was three! But by the time I was eight years old, my mother had passed away and my sister and I were sent to live with my maternal grandmother, Jean Johnson. Grandma Jean had been a gospel singer, a bartender, a cook, a housewife, a maid . . . she’d done everything. She became my hero in 1985 when she returned to school and graduated with her high school diploma some 20 years after dropping out. She was larger than life. So was my Aunt Selene (my grandmother’s middle child). These women were loud and bold and brave and I watched them give racist people the business and let a black person or two have it! Store clerks, passing motorists, neighbors. No one was immune. When I was a teenager my grandmother even got into a fistfight with our next-door neighbor. She beat the brakes off the lady for being disrespectful to her children and grandchildren. Jean Johnson didn’t play around. She wasn’t about putting on heirs or anything like that. She let things be the way they were.
And for many years I was the same way. I was known to fight a bit and I never held my tongue. Anastacia and Juliet, I know you two will probably say I still don’t! But I’m calmer now and there are two other women who helped temper me: my paternal grandmother, Ernestine Towns, and my stepmother, Carol. These two were very different. Grandma Towns, who I referred to as Lady, was a very soft-spoken woman. She was slow to anger, but very firm. She wasn’t a confrontational person. Not one bit. Now, my stepmother wasn’t as calm, but . . . I feel like she provided me with the options and gave me the choice. She certainly didn’t back down from anyone, but her response varied depending on the situation. Carol wanted me to know what was out there. She’d give me books to read and talk to me about the real, real world. Nothing was ever off limits. That helped me because it gave me the opportunity to view the world through different lenses. Carol helped me realize that not everyone in the world was out to get me; she helped train me to spot the people who may have been. She taught me to protect myself. Over the years I’ve taken the things I’ve learned from these women and thrown their lessons and stories into a cauldron. Guess I’m a mishmash of all of that!
JPH: Wow Q! I learned a lot about you just now. I can see how alla those fabulous women role models helped to make you the fierce sista that you are today. You are a beautiful mishmash girl. Yes I think Anastacia and I would totally agree that you still don’t EVER hold your tongue and I love that quality about you. Don’t ever change. I love learning about those strong matriarchs in your family. Growing up, my family was very small. I was the third “only child” in three successive generations on my maternal side. Though a small crew, my family was made up of these incredibly strong sistas who consisted of my maternal grandmother, who everybody in Harlem called Mama Pearl and my mama, Ruth, the Diva.
Q, hearing the stories about your grandmother reminded me of both my mom and grandma and their fierceness. My grandmother was a domestic worker who cleaned, cooked, and cared for white folks and their children. She worked well into her 70s and passed away almost six years ago just days before her 99th birthday! She was barely five feet tall, but she didn’t take no sh*t from nobody! Like you Q, she was brutally honest, but also like you and like Anastacia, she had this real nurturing and supportive side as well.
As a child, I lived with both my mom and grandmom in Sugar Hill, Harlem, who both raised and nurtured me. I remember the sacrifices my Mama Pearl made for both my mom and I. During the week she “lived in” with the white families who she worked for on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and on weekends she came home to my mom and me to our small Sugar Hill apartment. I’ve finally begun to write about those memories as a way to honor my grandmom. She would come home to us and cook these ridiculously delicious meals from scratch every Sunday, fried chicken, string beans with hamhocks, rice smothered with gravy and sautéed onions, drop biscuits, peach cobbler, and the sweetest ice tea! She fed us both literally and spiritually.
My grandma had traveled up North from Haines City, Florida, a tiny little town not far from Orlando where she had essentially been “kicked out” by the church folk because she had my mother at sixteen, out of wedlock and had no support from her little community. The crazy thing about that is she had been the victim of sexual assault from a respected church deacon and instead of receiving support from folks in her community they judged her instead. Her own mother had passed away when she was only five, so from what I understand she had no “Chi” or maternal role model to support her during that difficult period. My grandmom was an intuitively smart woman, though she only had a sixth grade education. She told me how she travelled up North to New York by herself at the age of seventeen, with my mom in tow, to find a better life for them away from “gossiping folks.” How deep is that, when I think about it! She was just a child herself, didn’t really “know” anyone up North, but she knew there would be greater opportunities ahead. She found extended relatives, because in African American families we all have “aunts, uncles, and cousins who may not be related to us by blood but who help get us through tough times.” So this extended family cared for my mom in New Rochelle, a suburb of NY, while my grandmom headed to New York City to work as a domestic; and each weekend she would travel to New Rochelle to pick my mom up and bring her back home to her apartment in Harlem.
I’m sure she was exhausted from working in white folks homes all week long, but she made that trek every weekend out of devotion to my mom. She made clear that her goal was for my mom to get an excellent education and graduate high school, where she attended a public school that was primarily white. And my mom did exactly that! When I think back to your original question Arisa, I realize now that in my family my Mama Pearl was the original and true “Chi” presence whose strength and warmness still live on through my mom and I. Outside of my mom, my grandma was my biggest advocate and hooped and hollered with each degree that I received from high school to college and law school. I know she would have also jumped for joy had she lived to see me get my recent MFA degree. Sometimes when I’m going through my own struggles in life, I think about my Mama Pearl and all of the obstacles she confronted and knocked down every day of her life and her strong “Chi” essence really helps to propel me forward. Especially as it relates to my own two sons and mothering and nurturing. I think to myself, “If Mama Pearl could do it, then so can I!”
Anastacia Tolbert: When I think about my “Chi,” I definitely think of my own mother whom I affectionately call Umi. Immediately following I think about my grandmother, my aunts, and immediately following that weirdly enough to some, I think of Mother Earth. Like you Q, and you Juliet, I come from a strong stock of women. They are the “take-no-suga-honey-iced-tea” kind of women; the nurturing protective women, the sassy classy women, the Divas and the Hippies. When I think about it all, I feel incredibly blessed to have all these women in my life/heart and circle. I also think of my close friends woven into my “Chi.”
I was born in 1972 and the only child for eleven years. During that time with my mother I learned about being an artsy woman and being a free woman. My mother was a staunch advocate for the written word and reading. When other children wanted games, Barbies, and Slinkies, I wanted books of my own. I was in love with the library but I remember wanting MY OWN books. My mother allowed this book junky behavior and I am so glad. I remember looking at my bookshelf with such pride and talking my mother’s ear off about the books I was reading as if the characters were real. She took the time to engage me in this and ask me deep questions about these “people” and their lives.
My mother was and still what we call a “pistol!” She wasn’t/isn’t one to be meek and mild. I didn’t get that tendency per se (perhaps it’s latent and will spring up now that I am 40) but I remember thinking to myself that I love the way she stands up for herself and me. My other set the foundation for all things artsy. I remember waking up to her either painting, in a purple leotard in the downward dog position, playing old school jazz, or mesmerized by a book. She also laid the foundation for my connection to Mother Earth. I practically grew up in Kansas City’s Loose Park. We went on countless walks together. She taught me the gift of “collecting.” We collected everything from acorns to fireflies. She instilled in me a sense of respect for the earth. We were guilty of being tree-huggers and walking barefoot in the grass. She wasn’t the Diva in the sense that your mother was Juliet or actress like yours Q, but there was like a natural Diva-ness if that makes sense. She strutted in sandals and yoga gear.
My grandmother Osceola was Cherokee Native American and lost her mother at seven. She had no clue how to mother properly having had no role models, but she rocked it out with four children. I remember thinking of my Grandmother kind of like God. Like God is in the kitchen frying potatoes in a purple Mu Mu!!! She taught me about the importance of putting your foot in the food. About bringing the family together through the stomach. My Grandmother’s home was almost always busy. Relatives coming or going and the kitchen always the center of attention. You would of thought I was part of the kitchen fixture as much as I followed her around. She was the one who got me hooked on coffee! In her cabinet I had a small special coffee cup and saucer. She’d put a tiny, tiny bit of coffee in it, fill it up with milk, and I would add so much sugar! It wasn’t exactly the coffee that I fell in love with at that age it was the way she sort of put her heart in the fixing of the coffee.
She was a wonderful gardener too. I remember wanting a big gardening hat and gloves just like her. She explained to me the difference between this plant and that plant and was always very pleased with her tomatoes. Again, I connected her green thumb to God attributes. I thought, Wow! She can presto grow a dinner with those hands, from that earth, in that hat!
It’s really interesting to read about your mothers and grandmothers. In our homegirlship I never sat down and thought about WHERE we’ve come from. How our past stitches have woven us into the women we are today. My life has suddenly hit a whirlwind and now, more than ever I also think of my friend to strengthen my “Chi.” I have always been the queen of “Chi,” the nurturer, protector, healer—I am learning in my adult life that “Chi” and the need for it can reshape, transform and the ebb and flow of needing it doesn’t end with age.
JPH: Anastacia I so agree with your statement that “in our adult life that “Chi” and our need for it can reshape, transform and the ebb and flow of needing it doesn’t end with age.” I find that to be true in my own life. Especially since I’m an only child and my mom is elderly now, there’s been a tremendous amount of role reversal with me often assuming the caretaking role as it relates to my mom; I find that I’m often drawn to friends who can be sistagurlfriends, yet who also nurture and support me in life’s challenges. I think certainly in our sistagurlship, Q and Anastacia, that we each offer those varied roles, always a listening ear, (or in our case a “text” since we are all miles away, yet I feel our friendship has grown over the years) an honesty that remains constant, the ability to make each other crack up but also to always provide a safe and nurturing space where it is OK to cry and be sad or angry as hell and just vent!
Anastacia it was great to learn about your Umi, a natural Divasista. I can see in your being, how you carry yourself in this world, how your mama’s “Chi” has greatly influenced and shaped you into the beautiful and natural sista that you are today. I feel the same about you Q, your strong matriarchs have shaped you into this dynamic and beautifully honest woman. I love how the “Chi” figures in all three of our lives encouraged the arts, from Q reading Langston Hughes’ poetry at the age of three to Anastacia’s mom allowing her to be a “book junky” from a young age to my own mama letting me explore my own love affair with the Black Poets section in the local library.
I have embraced the role of “Chi” as “nurturer” in my own life as I’ve matured. Since I co-founded a literary Salon within the last year, I find that it gives me great pleasure and fulfillment: to help introduce new and emerging writers to resources that they may not have been knowledgeable about previously and to be a sounding board to young sistas who are beginning to find their own literary voice. “Chi” to me represents the caretaker and caregiver in each of us, and I feel that those dual needs to be nurtured as well as to nurture, often ebb and flow. Since the three of us are mothers, I think we often get used to caretaking and always “being there” for our children, but as I’ve “grown up” I also realized that we have to be our own “Chi” source as well. The bottom line is if we don’t nurture ourselves, then it may not happen! I’m learning that it’s OK to take time to nurture myself, because if I feel nurtured and more balanced in my daily life, then that makes me a better mother/partner/person in this crazy world. (And to nurture ourselves can manifest itself in the simplest ways: time alone in a café to write, a long walk in nature just “being” with self or something more extravagant, like a Spa Day.) But I will admit that’s not always an easy task and not something that society makes easy either, because of expectations folks often have of us as “mothers” or “Chi” nurturers.
QT: Question for the two of you: What do you think your children would say about you as “Chi” of their world? How do you think they perceive you?
JPH: I think their answers would probably be very different, in part because of their age differences and their very different personalities. Jordan is 15 and Nicholas is 8. Both my boys are AWESOME if I say so myself. Lol! Jordan is a strong Leo personality, like you Q! He is this incredibly intelligent, musically inclined and ridiculously independent teenager who is extremely focused. I admire those qualities and sometimes joke to my friends: “If this brotha didn’t need his moms to pay bills, feed him, and provide a roof over his head, what purpose would we serve?” Lol! Because of his amazing ability to advocate for himself, complete his goals and tasks without me having to nudge him, I don’t think I’m the absolute “Chi” of his world. He has a lot of “Chi” qualities of his own: he nurtures his baby brother and has a quiet confidence about him. Because he is so independent, I’ve noticed that when he needs me to nurture him, he’ll reach out to me for life advice or whatever’s on his teenage mind, but I don’t think he necessarily seeks out my “Chi” energy in the same ways that Nicholas does. Nicholas, who is extremely inquisitive and a great artist with a fabulous sense of humor, would definitely say that I’m the “Chi” of his world. He’s constantly giving out sweet kisses and hugs and definitely enjoys and seeks the nurturing aspect of my personality. Sometimes he will just sit with me quietly and cuddle and let me bask in just being a mommy. I definitely cherish that sweet time together because I know in a few more years I won’t have that mushiness. Just as the need for “Chi” in our own lives can ebb and flow, ladies, I find the same with my two boys. There are times when Jordan needs his own space to grow and find himself as an African American young male in this complicated world and my partner and I try our best to give that to him, but I’m confident that he also knows that he can come to either one of us, when he needs that extra nurturing. As he matures and evolves over time, so does my role as mother.
My sons have two “Chi” forces in their lives since they have two moms, so I’ve learned over the years to share my role as nurturer with my partner, Norma. My ability to share my “Chi” energy with her has been liberating. She is the stricter, no-nonsense kind of mama who would do absolutely anything to protect our children, so it’s a pretty awesome experience to co-parent two children and share that “maternal/Chi” energy. Ultimately I think both my boys do perceive me as a “caregiver,” since I’m the mom who cooks primarily and provides that “literal” sustenance. I’m sure they also perceive me as the more laid back of their two moms, based on my generally calm and laid back personality. Ultimately, I manifest my “Chi” by encouraging them in their passions, allowing them both space to grow and explore, yet at the end of the day, always providing a safe and welcoming environment to be themselves. Q: I’m interested in hearing how your “Chi” manifests itself with your two girls? Do you think it manifests itself differently since you are raising two daughters as opposed to Anastacia and I who are raising two sons?
AT: Funny story, when I was a little girl I asked God for boys. I had gone through trauma as a girl and was trying to process the relationship/lack of relationship I had with my father and in a furry of pre-teen angst said, “If I ever have any babies I hope they are boys so I can raise the kind of men I think should be on the earth.” And so it was! The Most High have me two boys. And I must say, Juliet, like your Jordan and Nicholas, my Brandin and Joshua are completely different. My “Chi” relationship with them is also different. Brandin is very logical, super self-confident, list-y, slow to show his emotions. Joshua is a dreamer of some sorts, free spirit, bubble map-er. They both are extremely creative and excellent writers. I think, they think I am a perfect balance of whatever the “ideal” woman is, although we have talked extensively about the media’s take on womanhood and what that means and doesn’t mean, as well as cultural stereotypes, etc. I believe from their point of view that they have seen me cry at commercials, lose my mind over babies, cook gourmet meals, and then turn around and hold it down during one of their fathers deployments, change the oil in the car, counsel someone through death or a hard time, bring the family together, and pick up a caterpillar. From their point of view, they can’t place me in a box and I like it that way. I know they believe I am supportive and will always be around no matter what, and at the same time they would say I expect A LOT from the both of them.
The children are extremely fortunate because both their father and I worked hard at helping them nurture their own “Chi,” with themselves, with each other and with the world. Unfortunately, this concept of giving brown boys “Chi” isn’t as popular as giving girls “Chi” training at a young age. Having been a young mother at a time when none of my peers had children, I worried everyday about how my boys perceived me. I suppose with time, age, and watching them morph from babies to young men, I don’t have those same worries anymore. Q, like Juliet, I am curious to hear your perspective with having two girls.
QT: Baby Stace, I’d asked God for boys, too. No luck; I ended up with two girls who were born nearly eight years apart. They aren’t so different from one another. My Sam was a toddler when I entered graduate school. She watched me work full time in Lansing, MI, attend classes full-time in Mt Pleasant, MI, and live full-time in Flint, MI. Years later I was on the same schedule as I finished up the MFA in Bowling Green, Ohio. I commuted from Flint to Ohio, sometimes up to four days a week. I hope she learned that every dream is attainable, and that there are no excuses for not finishing what she starts. I hope she learned that life is hard, but it offers some great rewards. Sam has her own mind and no matter the punishment, if she’s made up her mind to do something, she’ll do it. She loves everybody. (Except Selena Gomez. I’m working on that.) She has this appreciation for the arts that blows my mind. She wants to read my poetry and she loves visiting the Flint Institute of Arts. She’s enrolled in drama classes and told me just yesterday that she wants to play violin (I played flute for a number of years). The kid is becoming a clone of her mother and I love it!
My baby girl, Gizmo Glitterfox, is not very different from Sam. She loves people, she’s extremely polite, she’s well-spoken for a three year old, ya know? I’m a music lover and her dad’s a musician so she LOVES her music. If I have to listen to that Kidz Bop CD once more. . .
I like to think they see me as an artsy-fartsy, hardworking, strong woman. I like to think they’ve learned from me the importance of building up other women. I like to think they’ve learned from me the importance of education and good grammar. But maybe they’ve just learned to laugh hard and often. That’s OK, too.
JPH: Ladies, I think all six of our children are fierce! Lol! I suppose it is true our children are often a reflection of us, but also I can tell that we all also enjoy celebrating their differences as well. Anastacia, your Brandin reminds me so much of my Jordan, incredibly logical, extremely focused, very “list-y,” as you say, and extremely self confident, as well as an awesome self-advocate. I love those qualities and know they will serve our sons well as they evolve from young teenagers into grown men in this world.
We want our brown boys and brown girls to be able to fend and advocate for themselves, even if the “Chi” figures in their lives are there, by their side, constantly ready to advocate for them. As a mom, I guess I feel there’s no greater gift to give children than the confidence to stand up and advocate for themselves. I definitely learned that from my mom and pray that all of our children hone that important skill. I think a lot of the lessons our children have learned really come just from observing us in our daily lives. I think all three of us, ladies, have nurtured and educated them by example.
I returned to school a few years back, in the evenings, in order to pursue my passion— “creative writing and poetry.” I continued to work full time during the day, co-parented Nicholas, who was a toddler during part of that time, while working towards my MFA in creative writing in the evenings and I began to put tons of energy and time into my poetry passion. I’m proud that I’ve accomplished these goals at this point in my life and that my children get to observe what it is that makes their mom “tick.” My partner has also returned to school to get another advanced degree, so I think it’s great for our sons to see that no matter what age we are, education is important and can also be really interesting! It doesn’t have to be a chore, is the lesson we’ve taught by example.
I think both your girls learn so much, Q, just from watching you do all the amazing things that you’ve done: work on your degrees, work full time, and nurture them. Anastacia you are an awesome mom, often balancing work, raising your boys when their father has been deployed, and holding down the fort. All those tasks ain’t no joke! Ladies, I think I’ve learned in this conversation that our individual “Chi” serves many purposes: to nurture ourselves, to nurture our families and our friends and also be able to reach out and ask for help and nurturing from others, when we desperately need that “Chi” force in our own lives to guide and protect us. Thank y’all both for often being that “Chi” force for me.
JP Howard aka Juliet P. Howard is a poet, Cave Canem graduate fellow, member of The Hot Poets Collective and native New Yorker. She co-founded Women Writers in Bloom Poetry Salon and Blog (WWBPS), a forum offering women writers at all levels a venue to come together in a positive and supportive space. WWBPS hosts monthly literary Salons in NY and the blog accepts submissions of poetry. JP was a Lambda Literary Foundation 2012 and 2011 Emerging LGBT Voices Fellow, as well as a Cave Canem 2011 Fellow in Residence at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She was a 2009-2010 finalist in the poetry category by the Lesbian Writer’s Fund of Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice. She was also the recipient of a Soul Mountain Retreat writing residency in 2010. Her poems have been published or are forthcoming in: The Best American Poetry Blog, MiPOesias iPad Companion, The Mom Egg 2013 & 2012, “Of Fire, Of Iron”, “B” an Anthology, Talking Writing, Muzzle Magazine, Muzzle’s 2011 “Best of the First Year” Print Issue, Connotation Press, Brown Girl Love, an online writing project for women of color, TORCH, Queer Convention: A Chapbook of Fierce, Cave Canem Anthology XII: Poems 2008-2009, Cave Canem XI 2007 Anthology, Promethean Literary Journal, The Portable Lower East Side (Queer City) and Poetry in Performance. She was awarded an MFA in Creative Writing from the City College of New York in 2009, holds a BA from Barnard College as well as a JD from Brooklyn Law School. She lives with her partner and their two sons in New York. womenwritersinbloompoetrysalon.blogspot.com
Anastacia Tolbert work is a trellis of twilight, ultramarine ache and lowercase loam. She is a writer, Cave Canem Fellow, Hedgebrook Alumna, EDGE Professional Writers Graduate, VONA alum, creative writing workshop facilitator, documentarian and playwright. She is writer, co-director, and co-producer of GOTBREAST? Documentary (2007): a documentary about the views of women regarding breast and body image. Her poetry, fiction and nonfiction have been published in: WomenArts Quarterly, Specter Magazine, Crab Creek Review, Everyday Other Things, Theblackbottom.com, Women Writers in Bloom, Saltwater Quarterly, The Poetry Breakfast, Things Lost, Midnight Tea Book, Reverie, Alehouse Journal, Women. Period., The Drunken Boat, Torch, and many more. anastaciatolbert.com
Qiana Towns earned a MFA from Bowling Green State University, and a MA from Central Michigan University where she served as poetry editor for the online literary journal Temenos. Her work has appeared in Tidal Basin, Milk Money, and NotellMotel. She is a Cave Canem fellow and Assistant Editor for Willow Books and Reverie: Midwest African American Literature.