“A large number of black women writers, both past and present, have gone to early graves. To know their life stories is to be made aware of how death hovers . . . [their deaths] stand as constant reminders that life is not promised — that it is crucial for a writer to respect time.”
By Stephanie Fields
There is a bittersweet feeling I have when experiencing Solange’s masterful album, A Seat at the Table. It’s a mixture of pride and sorrow that swells when I listen to the melancholic melodies and absorb the colorful abstract visuals. Solange has delivered a thoroughly crafted, uncomfortably truthful, and hauntingly vulnerable account of what it is to be black in the world. It’s an internal journey through grief, anger, doubt, and hopelessness — notable not just for causing listeners to wonder how pain can sound so beautiful, but for the amount of time she took to complete it.
Solange reported after her album’s release that it took four years to finish her work. Such a lengthy timeline is in stark contrast to those historically afforded to black women creators. Master playwright Lorraine Hansberry’s entire career, for example, was over in just five short years.
Time has always been something of great fascination, famously described as a social construct, a portal through which one can travel, a luxury often afforded to the rich and privileged. But for black women creatives, time has proven to be a parasitic poison that has long stolen many of our beloved writers far too early. In her collection of essays on the writer at work, Remembered Rapture, bell hooks speaks of time’s insidious treatment of black women writers:
Put bluntly: Black women creatives have not been able to afford to trifle with time. For them, it is a literal tumor that eats away at their lives. Audre Lorde, Toni Cade Bambara, Pat Parker, Claudia Tate, Minnie Riperton, Lorraine Hansberry, Kathleen Collins have all died pretty much the same way: fairly young, of cancer, and on the cusp of burgeoning creativity.
It’s a scary pattern, especially when you are, as I am, a black woman creative fighting tooth and nail to get work out. I’ve always been plagued by the question, why. Why did all of these brilliant women go out the same way, at the hands of such a brutal killer?
Womanist writer and filmmaker Kathleen Collins provided a theory on the matter. Before her own death, she stated that it was fear that caused talented creative women to fall into a self-destructive illnesses she termed as “psychic disconnection[s].” This fear was rooted in women feeling their creative power but not being able to acknowledge and manifest it.
But what stops these women from being able to acknowledge and manifest their creative power? Is it solely feelings of imposter syndrome? The result of white-supremacist patriarchal structures that incapacitate them from accessing the tools to fully step into and realize the extent of their creativity, their genius? Collins certainly faced massive hardships. Before she could make her first film at 37 — she would die just nine years later — she tried securing funding for a screenplay and was met with such fierce resistance, it left her with a deep feeling of “discouragement,” to which she stated: “Forget it, I’ll never be able to make a film; I might as well do something else with my life.”
The denial of access to the tools to actualize a dream is criminal, yet prevalent in the experiences of black women attempting to do creative work. Their desire to create is challenged and often extinguished by deep discouragement at the hands of racist, sexist structures in creative fields and beyond. Is it having to stare down such defeat that allows fear to grow into the illness that robs these women of time? Or is it the dedication to persist beyond such racist sexist structures, such lack of power, and create anyway that requires the ultimate sacrifice of one’s life?
Eventually, Collins began making films — which required a fierce dedication, but also yielded mild success that arrived at the time of her first bout with cancer. Such was the same with the woman whom she drew great inspiration from, Lorraine Hansberry. The prolific playwright and critic died five years after she made history as the first black woman to write a stage play produced on Broadway. Was it fear that shortened Hansberry’s window? Or was it dedication?
Contrary to Collins’ theory on Hansberry’s death — a theory that eerily prophesied her own fate — James Baldwin believed Hansberry’s dedication to persist in her creative efforts was the culprit behind her early death. In “Sweet Lorraine,” the forward to Hansberry’s posthumously published book, To Be Young Gifted And Black, Baldwin writes:
“Perhaps it is just as well, after all,that she did not live to see with the outward eye what she saw so clearly with the inward one. And it is not at all farfetched to suspect that what she saw contributed to the strain which killed her, for the effort to which Lorraine was dedicated is more than enough to kill a man.”
Baldwin and Collins make a similar observation of timing in regards to Hansberry’s work and her illness. They both agree that she was ahead of her time, but differ in their interpretations of how she dealt with both time and illness. In Collins’ view, there was an element of fear that ate Hansberry up; in Baldwin’s, it was a fierce dedication. Are fear and dedication, then, mutually exclusive? Does one trump the other? Do either affect the amount of time black women are given to create?
In A Seat at the Table, we hear both Baldwin’s and Collins’ theories play out in a complex melee. Solange is not just providing anthems for us to sing in defense when outsiders try to touch our hair, or tell us not to bite the hand that feeds us, or that they should be able to use a word we’ve spent generations painfully reclaiming. She is not just providing an oration of her own family history, a history of Louisiana, or a man’s entrepreneurial accomplishments. Despite the beautiful melodies, and trance-like beats, the lyrics hold a weight that reveals Solange’s internal burden, which she’s carried while navigating through her sense of brokenness, grief, and fear in order to complete such an ambitious piece of work.
“I felt so many got to create my narrative and all I wanted to tell my story, our story, in my own words, and in my own voice.”
The same desire that propelled women like Collins, Hansberry, Lorde, and more is mirrored in Solange — and so are the struggles. Solange spoke about the need to maintain resources in order to complete her album and provide for her family. Her struggle speaks to the plurality of responsibility black women have had to face all while creating work. Beyond resisting the racist, sexist structures that attempt to defer their dreams, black women creators are also mothers, daughters, sisters, wives, and friends, all identities that carry their own individual responsibilities. On top of being someone’s mother, lover, and friend, black women are also balancing jobs in order to fund those for whom they care as well as for their own livelihood.
They do all of this while trying to not only feel their creative power and genius, but to manifest it. Collins likened the experience of trying to complete her first film while caring for her children to “going down a terribly long tunnel. It was frightening . . . ” So often are black women’s duties hyphenated between meeting the needs of loved ones and trying to reconcile their own personal desires, this pressure is enough to give rise to the fear of one’s capacity to realize one’s full creative genius.
Such dichotomies of duty to one’s family and one’s desires and the resulting grief, fear, and desolation that occur are also reflected in two of Solange’s darkest songs: “Weary” and “Cranes in the Sky.” In one song she is succumbing to that dark space of grief and doubt when she laments her weariness of finding her place in the world and retreats into herself, her exhaustion, her internal struggles, in order to find her body, her glory:
Be leery ‘bout your place in the world
You’re feeling like you’re chasing the world
You’re leaving not a trace in the world
But you’re facing the world
In the other, she is trying to live, to create beyond the looming darkness hanging over her like cranes. She speaks of the ways she’s tried to evade it, to overcome it — with money, with fashion, with frivolity, with isolation:
I tried to let go my lover
Thought if I was alone then maybe I could recover
Even today’s most wonderfully anomalous filmmaker, Ava DuVernay, with her accomplishments of having directed an Academy Award-winning film and being the first woman to direct a $100 million movie, cannot escape the dark reality of shrinking time for the black woman creative. She recently spoke with Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah about the pressure and anxiety time imposes on black women creatives:
“I feel like I have to make the most of this time, because there’s not anyone I can look to who’s had a long window who’s a woman, period. A black person, period . . . So for me it feels like a window that could close at any time. It doesn’t feel fast like, ‘Wow, this happened fast.’ It feels fast like, ‘Better get it in.’ Before it closes.”
Thirty-four years ago, Collins found herself in a similar position as she was the premiere black woman to write, direct, and produce a feature film. But she had no one to look to for guidance, no one who had lit a path before her, no one to encourage her that she could reach the zenith of her potential. Perhaps that was the cause of her fear, perhaps that’s what led to a dark time of discouragement, perhaps that’s what shortened the time of all of the women who followed Collins; they were firsts in their own rights, painstakingly carving out trails for the women after them to blaze. Such dedication required the ultimate sacrifice of their lives.
Solange taking her time to create a sole album is a, however inadvertent, subversive response to time’s maleficent treatment of black women creatives. Though she was faced with similar feelings of doubt, a lack of resources, and extra responsibilities, the privilege she had to create without a sense of urgency, without an illness lurking over her shoulder, without time threatening to snatch her life away, was bought and paid for by the sacrifices of the black women writers before her. Solange’s process exists as an anomaly, an exception to a terrifying rule we are reminded of as we grieve the recent and far too early death of Gloria Naylor.
This is where Solange and Collins diverge. Collins existed without a predecessor, while Solange has a varied assortment of examples from whom she can pull. The same goes for me. These women, and their lives, exist as more than omens; they are inspirations that fuel my dedication when I want to succumb to fear. They lift me up when I hear the echoing of the clock ticking, of doubt telling me I can’t do something. They remind me to create with a fervency, and whatever time I can afford to take a reprieve or to even go further into my own potential has been bought and paid for by the blood, sweat, tears, fears, and dedications of the women before me.
Perhaps Solange found a similar comfort in the fact that these women had done it, pulled off the creation of such ambitious work. Perhaps it served as reassurance that she could go into the depths of her soul and pull out something as magnificent as A Seat at the Table. The fact that she emerged from those depths healthy and able to live long enough to see the fruit of such labor is, indeed, a cause for celebration.