Writing to Survive


I posted this quote this morning on learning that Ursula LeGuin has passed on from this place. I have not been a follower or reader of her work, but this quote sounded a bell within me. I began writing when I was about nine. I remember being in love with the idea of a diary, probably from having seen this on one of the many reruns of family sitcoms from the 60’s. I wanted to be the blond teenage daughter in the white family with the cute cardigan and the canopy bed. She would write the saga of her life in a diary that locked with a tiny key that she kept on a chain around her pale neck.

When I posted the quote, I said that my words came to me as a companion, but I didn’t know why. I didn’t in the moment, but the why is there underneath the decades and the buffeting of childhood and  girlhood in a Black body. My voice had been forcibly removed from me somewhere around the age of three. I had the physicality of speech but only to answer as directed, and to mainly learn the lesson of the ways in which silence could sometimes stall, if not halt the trauma.

So words came to me as friends inside my head forming stories and people who were the opposite of the ones I lived with in silence. Dreams began to come too at this time and I remember dreaming in sequence elaborate detailed stories of me in a world where I was the treasured one. In these dreams there was sweet longing that was always fulfilled. My inner world of words played out in my sleeping dreams until I was in middle school.

As I am thinking about the reasons I write, why I am compelled to write I think of all the deserts of time when I could not write, like the 20 years of my first marriage, a time when I simply did not know who the fuck I was. I am thinking about the words of other Black women that kept my nose and mouth above the surface when the rest of me was submerged in a hell first imposed by Ancestral Trauma passed into the bodies of my parents and sustained by me because what else did I know to do with it?

It was several more decades of breaking the chains I didn’t even know I had the strength to break before I found the courage to embrace my lifelong companions and they took me in as though I had never left. I began to write poetry in 2003 when I returned to undergraduate school and finished my B.A. Magna cum Laude at the age of 50-something.

It wasn’t as big an accomplishment as I thought it was then since I was still not completely free from my own internalized oppression. Writing to get that B.A., writing to comply with white supremacy’s rules, writing to please instead of writing to survive. The collegiate writing awards I won in undergrad were reflections of my continued assimilation and oppression. I know this because whenever my work stepped out of the narrow boundaries of acceptability within the academy, my professors responded with confusion, or outright devaluing. I had taken the first place poetry award in the Florida Collegeiate Honors Council competition two years (2004-2005) in a row at the University of Tampa. As I sat in one of my more advanced poetry classes after the win, my professor felt it was important that the whole class know that he felt that the only reason I had won was because no one else who entered had written anything of worth. In other words, my work was the best of the garbage. He also went so far to say that my status as a graduating senior made the judges feel they had to give the award to me. I was so deep in my own oppression I didn’t even get mad. I was just…numb. I remember nodding my head in acceptance of his pronouncement.

My writing is worlds away from those times. Waking up is a process I am still undergoing. We love to wax real smart about being woke, staying woke. For me woke is ongoing, flowing between the past to know where I’ve come from and present to see where I am. Where I am going is in the hands of my Ancestors, Guides, and Creator.

As I think about who I write for, I am truthful if I say I care that people find value in my words. I am human. What I try to hold fast to is that I write to keep existing. I write to know I am still here. I write to claim my own power, my own voice. I write myself into being. I write to resist annihilation. Everything I have known of this world carries the message and the beat down that I need to die and if I won’t die then I better get to dancin’ for these white folk. I never lose sight of that truth. It keeps me humble and grounded and loving my Blackness because if I don’t who will?

Who do I write for? Everyone and no one and always because I must. I write for those rarefied white people who have grown human enough to hear me. I write for Black womxn who refuse to knuckle under and assimilate the bullshit. I write for the Ancestors to show them I am here doing what they’ve asked of me. I write as my own personal resistance and revolution. I am still here. I will not be silent any longer.


What You Won’t

(To the teary-eyed white liberal who said she NEEDED my story)

Oppression is not your high end all organic marketplace
Black folk are not the kiosks offering tasty samples for your consideration
Oppression is not your Niemann Marcus
Not your Bonefish Grill
You won’t open us like a vintage of the moment and take in the bouquet

Our Struggle
Not your team building zip line
Not your focus group
Not your critique or your muse

Our Liberation
Not your newnew

You don’t get to try on our pain
Like a hat for size.


Compensate Gaian Bird, Writer



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