Black Artists Who've Shaped My Pen
Growing up I was an avid reader. I read everything that I could as a pastime and could always be found with my head in a book (some favorites were The Babysitters series, all things Ramona and Bezzus, Goosebumps, and the cheeky writings of Roald Dahl to name a few). But at that time, I was a passive reader. I read because I wanted to get away from my siblings, or, since we didn’t have cable, I read because I was bored. And for these reasons I loved it, but never really felt connected to it. That was, until I started reading poetry.
Reading works by Nikki Giovanni was the first time I felt seen in literature; like somehow, in someway the words written from this poet from Tennessee was written specifically for me, and for girls who looked like me. It was because of this experience that I started to visit the library and started actively looking for books written by (and for people of color). I fell in love with Maya Angelou easily. It was something in the way she wrote prose that felt like poetry to me. And her voice was unmistakably Black. She wrote from a Black experience, crated characters from Black families that looked, talked, and acted much like the people I grew up with. There was a home-ness in her work. From her I learned to write from a place of comfort, to be unapologetic in my pen, to write the world I wanted to see, and to make sure they were real, and whole.
It wasn’t so for Toni Morrison. I love her writing, don’t get me wrong, but I was in a phase in my life where I wanted my books to be my place of comfort. And her books weren’t that. It was a complicated relationship. Her writing was brutally honest, and made me feel deeper than my pre-adolescent mind knew I could (or wanted to). I remember crying (a lot) after reading some of her books, vowing to NEVER EVER read her again, only to return to her time and time again in a corner on the floor, of an underfunded Bronx library. From Toni I learned that writing could be therapeutic. That words were a powerful tool to expose pain, work through trauma. I had my first poem bought and published in a book of poems around this time, and fell in love with spoken word.
Then I turned a 16 and my love for words and poetry shifted to Hip Hop; particularly women in Hip Hop who were reclaiming their voices and bodies. Women like Lil’ Kim, Foxy Brown, Queen Latifah, MC Lyte, and Remy helped me write characters who were fearless and who owned their own destinies (patriarch be damned!). They taught me that Black women (and Black characters) could be multifaceted. From women in Hip Hop I learned to stand on my own as a write, crating the worlds that I wanted, bucking the trends of normality, and creating my own lane.
I think, in many ways, all of these women have shaped my pen; first exposing me to Black narratives, and then how to shape them to reflect the wholeness/fullness of stories I want to tell.
Angela Shanté is writer, poet, editor, and educator, with a Masters in Elementary Education and an MFA in Creative Writing. She has taught elementary school for ten years. In her own classroom, she believes in having fun, playing games, moving around, dancing, and enjoying the education experience, even if it occasionally gets loud. Angela lives Los Angeles, California.