Read We Speak Your Names: A Celebration Online

Authors: Pearl Cleage

Tags: #Poetry, #General

We Speak Your Names: A Celebration

BOOK: We Speak Your Names: A Celebration
7.37Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
Babylon Sisters
Some Things I Never Thought I'd Do
I Wish I Had a Red Dress
What Looks Like Crazy on an Ordinary Day …
Mad at Miles: A Black Woman's Guide to Truth
Deals with the Devil and Other Reasons to Riot

To Mrs. Johnsie Broadway Burnett

On February 21, 2005, I received an invitation from Oprah Winfrey to write a piece for what she was calling her
Legends Weekend.
The occasion had taken shape in her mind almost a year before, beginning life as a small luncheon and evolving into a three-day event honoring twenty-five legendary African American women whose lives and careers are what people mean when they use the term “role model.” She was also inviting forty-two other women, whom she was calling the “young 'uns” and who would share with her this unique opportunity to celebrate this amazing group. To my surprise and great delight, not only had I been included among the “young 'uns” (my two beautiful grandchildren notwithstanding!), I was now being asked to write a piece that would express our collective thank-you to our symbolic foremothers. I said I would be honored, so she sent me the names of the legends and the young 'uns and left me to my own devices.
Looking at the list, I immediately realized I didn't need to collect biographical information about these women. You could wake me up from a sound sleep in the middle of the night, and I could tell you not only who they are but who they are
to me.
Oprah's list of honorees mirrored my own personal most-admired list, from Maya Angelou to Nancy Wilson, and just reading their names stirred up a lifetime's worth of memories. I had danced to their music, been inspired by their courage, envied the artful arrangement of their words on paper, and torn their pictures out of magazines to post where I could see them, bold and beautiful, as they redefined style and substance and sisterhood.
So I did what I always do: I started making notes. Enlisting the assistance of my husband, Zaron, I allowed the memories to come tumbling out in no particular order. By the time we returned home to Atlanta after a two-week road trip (we don't like to fly!), we had more than enough material, and I had enough sense to know that the piece was evolving into something more than a poem. It was becoming the sisterhood ritual we needed. I wrote it in one long
and sent it by overnight mail to
Miz Oprah,
who liked it as much as I did. My part was done. All I had to do now was find a ball gown I wouldn't trip over, pick up our train tickets to Santa Barbara, and get back to work on my novel. A month went by, and then suddenly it was time to go to California.
The weekend, which was now officially known as
A Bridge to Now: A Celebration of Remarkable Women in Remarkable Times,
began with a luncheon at Oprah's home, to which only the legends and the young 'uns were invited. No dates, no spouses, no anxious publicists or protective mamas. It was just us, and somehow in the absence of other people we became simply a room full of free women, celebrating one another and ourselves and our sisterhood. The poem was read for the first time at that luncheon. That's where it came to life in a small gazebo where we gathered to sing our praise song.
Speaking on behalf of the young 'uns, I joined Angela Bassett and Alfre Woodard and Phylicia Rashad and Halle Berry in paying tribute to our legends. Beside us stood six of the
young 'uns— Mariah Carey, Janet Jackson, Alicia Keys, Ashanti, Mary J. Blige, and Missy Elliott—in a chorus that led us in the refrain:
We speak your names. We speak your names.
And all around us were our sisters in the flesh, weeping and laughing and hugging one another in recognition of how amazing they truly are, and our sisters in the spirit, gone but never forgotten, celebrating with us and forgiving us completely for taking so long to call them back and tell them
thank you.
It was a moment when no one could deny the magic or describe it, so we didn't try.
The next night, we added the other young 'uns— Yolanda Adams, Debbie Allen, Tyra Banks, Kathleen Battle, Naomi Campbell, Natalie Cole, Suzanne de Passe, Kimberly Elise, Pam Grier, Iman, Judith Jamison, Beverly Johnson, Chaka Khan, Gayle King, Darnell Martin, Terry McMillan, Audra McDonald, Melba Moore, Brandy Norwood, Michelle Obama, Suzan-Lori Parks, Valerie Simpson, Anna Deavere Smith, and Susan L. Taylor—to our chorus. At the glittering Legends Ball, we offered the poem one more time as a parting gift before we all headed home the next day to our busy, separate lives, promising not to forget what had happened among us, promising to stay in touch. And then it was over.
Three days after I stood in Oprah's garden, surrounded by a feeling of connectedness not only to the women whose names we had called but to the ones whose spirits we had raised whose names we never knew and never will, Zaron and I were driving home to Atlanta on Route
When we stopped for the night, I turned on the television, and suddenly,
there we were,
Oprah's Legends Ball, live and in living color, as the lead story on
Entertainment Tonight.
It startled me, not so much because I hadn't expected to see the event covered by the media, but because the story that I saw didn't get to the heart of the matter.
there were stars.
there were wonderful flowers, and fabulous gowns, and diamond earrings, and designer shoes, and caviar in silver spoons. The camera captured all of that perfectly. The only thing it missed was the presence of all those spirits who hadn't gone anywhere after that luncheon except right back to the ball with us, so that when we sang “Ain't No Mountain High Enough,” they sang it, too. When we danced all night,
just because we could,
they were dancing, too. Which is the reason we are all smiling when you see us in those pictures. Because we do love our earrings, but in that one amazing moment,
we loved one another more, and more, and more, and more. …
Being a worrier by nature, I turned off the television and immediately began to wonder how long it would be before the real feeling faded. I wondered how long before I could only remember
what happened
—who wore what and who sat where—but not
what it felt like to be there.
How long before it became a wonderful memory and nothing more. But we continued our journey home, and gradually the beauty of the landscape cleared my head, and the sweetness of the people we encountered soothed my soul, and at some point—I think it was when we stopped for the night outside of Amarillo, Texas— I stopped worrying. In that blessed moment of calm, I read the poem to myself out loud, and the feeling from the gazebo came back strong. The more I read, the less I worried about what I might forget and the more I understood that this was something I would always remember.
Oprah calls it a praise poem. I call it a celebration for the same reason, because this piece is part of an oral tradition that goes back as far as we do: a tradition that grows out of an understanding that some things must be spoken out loud to get to where the magic is.
This poem is like that.
If it were a spell, I'd encourage you to cast it. Sisterhood in the service of truth is an undeniable force in these remarkable times. My Sisters,
here, there, and everywhere,
this poem is for you.
Use it, adapt it, pass it on. …

We Speak Your Names:
A Celebration

Because we are free women,

born of free women,

who are born of free women,

back as far as time begins,

we celebrate your freedom.

Because we are wise women,

born of wise women,

who are born of wise women,

we celebrate your wisdom.

Because we are strong women,

born of strong women,

who are born of strong women,

we celebrate your strength.

Because we are magical women,

born of magical women,

who are born of magical women,

we celebrate your magic.

My sisters,
we are gathered here to speak your names.

We are here because we are your daughters as surely as if you had conceived us, nurtured us, carried us in your wombs, and then sent us out into the world to make our mark

and see what we see,
and be what we be,
better, truer, deeper

because of the shining example of your own incandescent lives.

We are here to speak your names because we have enough sense to know that we did not spring full blown from the forehead of Zeus,

or arrive on the scene like Topsy our sister once removed, who somehow
just growed.

We know that we are walking in footprints made deep by the confident strides

of women who parted the air before them like the forces of nature that you are.

We are here to speak your names because you taught us that the search is always for the truth

and that when people show us who they are, we should believe them.

We are here because you taught us that
can continue to be our native tongue,

no matter how many languages we learn as we move about as citizens of the world

and of the ever-evolving universe.

We are here to speak your names because of the way you made for us. Because of the prayers you prayed for us. We are the ones you conjured up, hoping we would have strength enough,

and discipline enough, and talent enough, and nerve enough

to step into the light when it turned in our direction,
and just smile awhile.

We are the ones you hoped would make you proud

because all of our hard work makes all of yours part of something
better, truer, deeper.

Something that lights the way ahead like a lamp unto our feet,

as steady as the unforgettable beat of our collective heart.

We speak your names.
We speak your names.

Dr. Maya Angelou
Shirley Caesar
Diahann Carroll
Elizabeth Catlett
Ruby Dee
Katherine Dunham

We speak your names.
We speak your names.

You could not have known how closely we watched your every move.

How we hung on your every word.

How eagerly we ran to sit cross-legged in front of the television

whenever you were on
Ed Sullivan
Soul Train
60 Minutes.

How patiently we saved our money to buy that record, or that theatre ticket,

or that museum membership, or that magazine subscription

that would allow us to see you doing what nobody else had ever done before,

in just that way, on every front,
all at the same time.

We were so proud of you, it made us walk taller, smile wider, dream bigger.

You could not have been in each of our little black girl bedrooms,

watching us hold that
microphone as we lip-synched your latest hit when dinner was ready downstairs,

or curled up under the covers with your new book when we had math homework to do,

or prayed for your safety when our parents told us you were somewhere

fighting for our freedom, and it was dangerous work.

It is always dangerous work, but the trade-off is unacceptable.

From you we learned that freedom is non-negotiable.

You could not have known that your collective example

of the limitless possibilities that were open to us is what allowed us to look our mothers in the eye and say:

I want to be a singer.

I want to be an actress.

I want to be a dancer, or a sculptor, or a lawyer, or a leader,

Or a world-changing force for good, loose in the world,
and whirling. …

And even when she rolled her eyes and shook her head

and pronounced us more our father's child than we had ever been hers,

she knew
had planted those ideas in our heads, and she thanked you for letting us see

that we could be a part of something
better, truer, deeper.

We speak your names.
We speak your names.

Roberta Flack
Aretha Franklin
Nikki Giovanni
Dr. Dorothy Height
Lena Horne
Coretta Scott King

We speak your names.
We speak your names.

Because we are sensual women,

born of sensual women,

who are born of sensual women,

we celebrate your passion.

You taught us that the mysteries of true love are sometimes harder to unravel

than all the others we attempt to understand, but that when we are lucky enough to find that thread,

the rewards are worth everything,

because the time to have enough of love is never.

Because we have had our hearts broken, we know your tears

and have felt the same fears of never finding one who can share our light

without getting lost in it, or tossed in it,

into a wind that always blows colder than we think it will.

We celebrate your willingness to continue to search for love,

and find it, and lose it, and find it, and lose it again

until we finally find it
for real

and learn to hold on tight by not holding on at all.

From you, we learned that love, like beauty, comes in many forms.

You showed us what love looks like when it's perfect, and when it isn't.

You let us watch you looking, reaching, yearning, always moving toward the light of something
better, truer, deeper.

We speak your names.
We speak your names.

Gladys Knight
Patti LaBelle
Dr. Toni Morrison
Rosa Parks
Leontyne Price
Della Reese
Diana Ross

We speak your names.
We speak your names.

And you made it look so easy.

You change the world around you with such fierce determination,

effortless style, and unshakeable grace that we never suspected how hard it was to be out there in the real world,

where sisterhood sometimes seems an abstract idea and not the living, breathing thing we know and need and want it to be.

We have sometimes shivered at the edges of a very cold place,

where people do not always see our beauty

or understand the rhythm of our song.

At those moments, we whisper your names as a talisman and a touchstone,

so we will not forget who and what and why we are here.

And then,
in recognition of our superior skill, or our undeniable talent,

or our absolute refusal to bend in the face of injustice,

we win the prize.
The big one.

The one they will mention forever after when they call our names,

or write our reviews, or compose our obituaries.

Sometimes, at that crucial,
first one ever
moment, we are invited to come to center court at Wimbledon,

or up to the Oscar podium, or the Oval Office, or the Nobel ceremony,

or the Broadway stage, and express our feelings and the feelings of every other African American woman watching

at a moment when all we really want to do is call your names.

All we really want to do is thank all of you for being with all of us,

whenever and wherever we find ourselves, standing alone in the light.

At those moments, we remember those lessons you shared

by living your very public lives with such integrity and honor

that they became something
better, truer, deeper.

We speak your names.
We speak your names.

Naomi Sims
Tina Turner
Cicely Tyson
Alice Walker
Dionne Warwick
Nancy Wilson
Oprah Winfrey

We speak your names.
We speak your names.

Because we are free women,

born of free women,

who are born of free women,

back as far as time begins,

we celebrate your freedom.

Because we are wise women,

born of wise women,

who are born of wise women,

we celebrate your wisdom.

Because we are magical women,

born of magical women,

who are born of magical women,

we celebrate your magic.

We celebrate your courage.

We celebrate your spirit.

We celebrate your genius.

We celebrate your lovingkindness.

We celebrate your faith in yourselves, and in us.

We thank you for the dues you've paid,

and the prayers you've prayed.

We thank you for showing us how to fly
by flying.

We thank you for these wings,

and we stand before you now,
your living legacy,
the flesh and blood of our collective dreaming, and we realize with a knowing deeper than the flow of human blood in human veins

that we are part of something
better, truer, deeper.

We speak your names.
We speak your names.

BOOK: We Speak Your Names: A Celebration
7.37Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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