We Gather, We Poem: A Collection of Sisters for Women’s History Month

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Mrs. Mary Crane, formerly enslaved person. (Photo from collection of the Library of Congress.)


Y’all know I’ve been writing–and finishing–two books for the past few years. So I don’t talk to y’all all the time, only when something presses urgently on me, and this past couple of months have been weighing my heart down. The political atmosphere is crazy, and I’ve learned to take that in some-what stride. But then, somebody tried to ruin Black History Month for me.

Now, y’all know how I feel about Black History Month: it’s my favorite time of the year. This year, straight up, all-out national foolishness tried to take my joy. I can’t even catalog all of the foolishness. That’s an entirely new blog post.

But just like all the great black church ladies will proclaim, “Devil, I rebuke you!” I have said that these foolish racist white supremacists are not going to steal my African American Joy! Because the joke is on them: February might be over, but the Afropalooza Season is just getting started.

Now, for folks who don’t remember, I decided that Black Excellence did not end on February 28 (or 29th, if it’s leap year), but continued through March and April.

And I decided to shake off my sadness by composing a collective poem for Women’s History Month. I put out a call on social media, asking for one line of poetry from African Americans who identified as women.

It was spur of the moment idea, and frankly, I didn’t know what would happen. Would anybody even answer my call? (And frankly, in such a short period of time, would this poem be a hot mess?)

Yet I was hoping that together, we black women could conjure some roots–a spell–to cast away the ugliness trying to take away our black celebration, especially in this year of 2019, the four hundred year anniversary of the arrival of the “Twenty and odd Negroes” at Jamestown, Virginia–a sacred year for African (North) Americans. Always, we remember the sacrifice of our ancestors, but in this year, it resonates that much more.

I provided two lines of poetry to get the cipher started, and then, I let the sisters do their thing.

I was shocked by the beauty and power that we created in this cipher-poem. I did not change one word–not one. I only arranged the lines, and then, I inserted punctuation, line breaks, and capitalization. When I wanted to keep the cipher going, I would add a line for purposes of continuity.

The collective poem is below, and then, after that, the names of the sisters who wrote the poem. I offer them my boundless gratitude for answering my call.

I hope this poem is as much as a gift to you as it was to me, during the season in which I celebrate my African/American ancestors.  I really needed these words.

Love, Honorée


Medicine/Spell/Cipher of Sisters

for 1619

Beyond the threshold of womb,

our bodies begin and end at a sea.

Our hymns, choraled through

the arches of our mothers,

sing new but still sobful in the breasts

of our daughters—

our features, hinting at a strength

that cannot be held back,

full lips, full hips, fuller hair,

dark Black,

definedly and defiantly so:

that is to say,

unquestionably beautiful.


the hills that sturdied their ancient

hipbones, fluted through the terrible

mountains of their spines—


our spirits, bent yet not broken,

are filled with the gentle

refrain of “We Shall Overcome”:

the weight of the world and our wounds

press against well oiled brown flesh,

kept supple for the lift and uplift ahead.

Cupped spirit laced palms,

church pink lipstick mesmering

“Amen! Amen! Amen!” into

another language altogether—

bodies, the day we began our beginning,

fierce and wonderfully made.

Our joy, ever present, never snuffed

out thru the dark, thru the light,

thru the mud, thru the clear

water, always there.

Our songs:

an Ancestral suite crescendoing

from red clay to blue moon.

Our songs float on our granddaughters’

tongues, our grandmothers

proud of the job we’ve done.

I am the child of these women.

I move toward you with intention

and black girl rhythm:

all the beautiful voices

are coming for you,

lifting notes,

lifting prayers like sheets pinned

on the back yard clothes line.

Lifting notes.

Belly heaving echoes of blood clotted

abandon from which feral,

fertile soil we rise—

we flower.

All sisters become

one sister becomes

all sisters—

our histories chanted in tongues

by our mothers, griefs bloomed

into brown-skinned magic.

Their secrets, revealed, illuminate

our path to freedom.

My freedom, my path—

I was rocked into the blood of slumber.

Crepuscular, groping at dawn.

Memory’s thirst tickling my tongue,

the winding life line in indigo palms.

Who will sing the songs of our ancestors?

All sisters become one sister,

steadfast against the hypocrisies

of the entitled and privileged—

she shall not be moved

in this “man’s” world.

Soft lullabies whispered in the dark

become joyous bird songs spilling

from our throats in full light of day.

Our story is lifeblood

is birthblood is earthblood

we see us before us

and after we hear us in starlight.

We see our sweet magical melodies,

feel us in elders alive

and still dreaming.



Contributors to the cipher-poem: Paulette Beete (lines 57-59), Joan Brannon (lines 36-37), Alexia Clifton (lines 42-43), Gillian Clifton (line 67), Sidney Clifton (lines 76-82), Constance Collier-Mercado (lines 50-53), Angela Jackson-Brown (lines 19-21), Marissa Davis (lines 15-17), Hope Guirantes (lines 69-72), Donna Akiba Sullivan Harper (lines 47-48), DaMaris Hill (line 66), Valerie Jean (lines 73-75), Honorée Fanonne Jeffers (lines 3-4, 14, 18, 35, 41, 46, 49, 54-56, 62, 68) , Allison Joseph (lines 44-45), Akosua Lesesne (10-13), Kwoya Fagin Maples (line 29), JoAnn Michel (lines 7-9), Michelle Smith Quarles (lines 5-6),  Margaret Porter Troupe (line 65), Melynda Price (lines 22-24), Riché Richardson (line 30), Carmen Tanner Slaughter (lines 60-61), Martha Southgate (lines 31-34), Sharan Strange (lines 1-2), Elizabeth Upshur (lines 25-28), Artress Bethany White (lines 63-64), Crystal Wilkinson (lines 38-40).


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