The class was Contemporary African American Novelists. We read Push by Sapphire and for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf by Ntozake Shange among other works. The former was later adapted into the film, Precious in 2009. A year later, Tyler Perry produced and directed a film interpretation of Ntozake Shange's choreopoem. I'd never read it until I was in college. Most of the Black literature that has influenced my writing and how I move in the world, I read in college. I went to predominantly white schools for most of my life and that meant that most of the literature I read didn't have characters who looked like me and if they did, they had limited portrayals often rife with stereotypes and racist tropes. At thirteen, I didn't have the language to identify what was happening exactly but I was aware of the lack. The first time I read The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison I knew I had found something true, a sort of reflection I hadn't had before, a way of imagining myself. And it was in this class with what was the second Black teacher I'd ever had in my whole education that I found myself in literature. Until grad school when I pursued a Masters in Africana Studies, I had only 3 Black teachers, a music teacher in middle school and two professors during my undergraduate studies.
This week, folks will fill up the theaters to see the film adaptation of the Broadway musical adaptation of the novel, The Color Purple. It's worth reading the book that's led to two films and a Broadway production not to mention the folks who've starred in its many iterations. I've never seen a show on Broadway so I'm grateful to be able to see a musical version on screen. I can't name the number of times I have played the song "I'm here" performed live by Cynthia Erivo and Fantasia Barino on YouTube. The film has an aesthetic that I remember from Beyonce's visual album Lemonade and that's because both her and The Color Purple director, Blitz Bazewule, pay homage to Daughters of the Dust, a 1991 film by Julie Dash. Admittedly, I have that on my 'to watch' list now. What that brings up for me is the importance of having models while creating art in our own voices.
What representation and precedence do for the possibilities of the imagination are limitless.
Speaking of imagination, Fantasia Barino has said in multiple interviews that she was ready to turn down the role but accepted to play Celie again when Blitz Bazewule let her know that the difference was the portrayal of Celie's imagination. I think that's my biggest takeaway from this version of this classic story. There's something powerful about being able to see yourself whether that's in a teacher, a piece of literature, a film, or some pivotal life experience that catalyzes you to imagine a future self. This film gives us the pain and the joy of the process.
Years later, I still return to the literary authors whose work I read in that class. Some of their work helped to pull me out of trauma even to the point of quoting Celie's omen, "Until you do right by me, everything you think about will crumble" and witnessing the power of language first-hand. I can only write and hope to add on to this legacy of imagination, often in the face of oppression, persisting through barriers that would have the imagination snuffed out. What would we do without the audacity to imagine ourselves anew, to dare say we see a future for ourselves that defies the reality that we know? Alice Walker once said, "I have fallen in love with imagination. And if you fall in love with the imagination, you understand that it is a free spirit. It will go anywhere and it can do anything." And if that's true, let us imagine ourselves as we never have before.