“Let Me See You Once More:” Finding, Restoring, and Amplifying Marginalized Voices that Build Community

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By Precious Rasheeda Muhammad

 

By the time Old Lizzy Gray’s enslaver Dr. E. J. Mims buried her in a granite sarcophagus on his South Carolina plantation in 1860, she had 127 years’ worth of stories built up in her. Stories from lives lived on two different continents. One as a free Muslim in Africa. One as an enslaved person with a syncretic religious existence in America. But almost everything we know about Old Lizzy Gray’s story today, including her last words, didn’t come directly from her. What we know came from the hand of her obituarist Dr. Mims, the last person who held her as property. His amplification of her story, in less than five paragraphs on the front page of the September 12, 1860, issue of the Edgefield Advertiser, is the only reason we know anything of her existence beyond her being just another name with a price next to it in estate records.

 I think often of Old Lizzy Gray.

I wonder what her original name was before being labeled with the surname of one of her earliest enslavers and a given name likely belonging to one of the women in his family.

I wonder how long she cried out for her four children whom she was ripped from in her homeland through the forced migration and forced dislocation trauma of the transatlantic slave trade.

I wonder where in Africa she came from and if it could have been Senegambia, given that a large portion of the Muslim-born captives arriving in America had come from there and had ended up in the Carolinas.

I wonder when she decided that she would begin to practice a mixture of Islam and Christianity—stating on many occasions “that Christ built the first Church in Mecca and his grave was da”—and if it started as a coping mechanism while she was imprisoned upon a British ship during the American Revolution, or after she had been sold on to her first, second, or third enslaver after that, no fixed address in sight, no real control over her own time and space.

I wonder who her American-born children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren were who took care of her in her final days and if, with all the new genealogical resources we have today, we can find their descendants.

And, I wonder why Dr. Mims, one of the most influential people in Edgefield County where they lived, the town of Johnston, which he founded, now built up over what was once much of his plantation, and probably up over Old Lizzy Gray too, wrote so passionately about the human he held as property, placing her obituary on the front page of the local paper and giving her a higher grade of burial than even those in his own family and, later, even himself.

In his own way, was Dr. Mims writing the community to effect change?

I know I am, in writing this, writing to effect change. And with hope of bringing the dignity and humanity back to a forgotten ancestor of the African diaspora who is only discussed in a negligible number of history books, and her name I’ve never heard rolling off the tongues of those in the greater community who could be inspired by her story of survival and resilience.

Old Lizzy Gray held on to faith and family to her last breath, calling out to her American-born daughter, “[L]et me see you once more,” and then, “Jesus has come!” The latter an utterance, no doubt, of deliverance from the enormity of her life struggles.

One cannot underestimate the value of finding, restoring, and amplifying marginalized voices that build community. That, in the case of Old Lizzy Gray, this service comes from an enslaver does not make it any less valuable.

There are many ways we experience community. For some, their first experience with community life begins in the home, amongst family. For others, it’s in their place of worship, or at school, in the barbershop, or the salon, in the neighborhood, or at places of work, and on and on.

Community connections can be local, national, or international. Community life is in every direction we turn. It is wherever we find humanity and engage with each other. And, in that every engagement, there are opportunities to write the community, and there are opportunities to effect change.

I invite you to take an online class with me on this very subject: Writing the Community: Write to Effect Change. With no grades to worry about, it is a relaxed and fun opportunity to be part of an intimate online writing environment, reading, reflecting, and writing about the community.

We will explore what it means to write the community as a means of effecting change. We will study successful authors’ stylistic approaches to writing for the community. We’ll examine how figures in our local communities have valuable stories that too often go untold, simply because they do not have national acclaim. And, we will learn creative approaches to documenting and sharing the stories of these people and how this is an effective means to “building community through history” across seemingly intractable divides.

Even with the tiniest nuggets of information, we will figure out a way to draw out the beauty of the story you want to amplify, just like how I just took a creative approach to building a whole narrative about Old Lizzy Gray around nuggets of findings in an 1860 obituary.

I welcome you to join me.

You’ll leave with nothing less than the reward of a new piece of writing that I am confident can start making an impact in your community right away.

Precious Rasheeda Muhammad received her MFA in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts from the University of California Riverside, Palm Desert in 2016. She received her Master of Theological Studies from Harvard University. She is an author, lecturer, and researcher on religion in America, among other topics, and is known by many as “The History Detective.” She lives in Virginia with her family but travels frequently for research projects and speaking engagements. Her motto: “building community through history.” Her favorite craft-related, self-motivational saying: “write mama write.”

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Finding “Flow”

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by Jacquie Cope

I’ve longed to write fiction for as long as I can remember, probably since the moment I was able to read. Paradoxically, for most of my life, I never wrote a word. First, I was always too wrapped up in other pressing issues – education, work, kids—to get much, or actually anything, written. The other problem was that even when I made the time to write, the page or the screen always stayed blank. I held my pen in my hand or poised my fingers over the keyboard and stared into space, daydreaming, and waiting. The waiting was painful. What was I waiting for? I assumed that eventually I would hear a little voice, a phantom or an angel, coming to whisper a story in my ear or guide my hands into typing something brilliant on the screen. I waited for my muse. There were moments of desperation, when I ruthlessly forced myself to write literally anything, painful sentence by painful sentence. I believed that eventually the muse would reward me by showing up and taking over. When I reviewed those sad sentences, or on some lucky occasions a handful of pages, I found that most of what I wrote was a little embarrassing — just isolated images or scenarios about eccentric people, many of them with avoidant personality disorders, most of them having a distinct physical feature, like a thick scar along one side of the face or a handlebar moustache.  I figured that I would wait a little longer, maybe the muse would show up tomorrow, or next week, or definitely within the year.

Well, my muse never showed up, and the frustrating part was that whether I wrote or not, the inclination and the longing to write never went away. Over the years, after an undergraduate degree in the sciences, a medical degree, a house in the suburbs, two kids, a Maltipoo, and a hamster, my urge to write never dissipated. And still, no muse.

Eventually I entered an MFA program and made a larger commitment to the pursuit of writing. Over the course of earning the degree, I learned a tremendous amount – about craft, about character, point of view, and plot. About where to start a story and where to end it. I also learned—or maybe just finally accepted– that there was never going to be a muse. There would be technique, faith, and perseverance, but no matter how often I would sit at the computer, sweating it out, coming up with a protagonist, a setting, and even a verb tense– there was never going to be a guiding voice, an angel on my shoulder, a divine gift of just the right words packaged and placed in my sad, suffering brain. The task of writing began and ended with the hard work of writing one sentence followed by another. I’m pretty sure now that that’s how most (all?) writers write. And yet, is it possible that that’s how War and Peace or East of Eden got written?

There had to be some trick, a strategy or formula to accessing stories and getting them on the page.

One concept that provided insight was that of “flow,” a term coined by psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi. The state of “flow,” or what is also commonly referred to as “being in the zone,” is an intense concentration on an activity performed only for its own intrinsic reward. Immersion in the activity is so profound that the performer loses a sense of time, of biological need (like thirst or hunger), and, importantly, of the self-consciousness of the ego. “Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz,” Csíkszentmihályi says. He further describes this experience of disconnection of self from physical reality as a form of ecstasy.

Wow. So what did I have to do to get into flow?

Based on what he observed, Csíkszentmihályi’s developed a model, predicting that flow could be achieved when there was a fit between the challenge level of the task and the skill level of the individual. People can achieve this state of flow (perhaps to a milder degree) doing even mundane activities, such as driving, washing the dishes, or sewing. In these instances, the challenge is fairly low, and people who perform these tasks easily perceive a sense of mastery, focus on the moment, and feel personal control over the activity. On the other hand, a high challenge task (write a novel) attempted by someone with a low level of skill (never wrote anything) results in a state of anxiety. No wonder all of those hours sitting in front of a blank screen had left me so irritable! While my logical, left-brain had been training for the Ironman all of those years, my imaginative, right-brain was a total couch potato.

Fortunately, a number of well-known authors have provided guidance and recommendations for strengthening the skill of accessing the creative brain. I read a number of books by these authors (Anne Lamott, Julia Cameron, Natalie Goldberg among others) and found that most of their recommendations followed a similar theme: stop the inner critic from censoring your creativity. When you sit to write your first draft, write your first thought and don’t erase it. Editing and crafting aren’t meant to take place during the generative, creative stage of the writing process. If you find your avoidant protagonist sporting a handlebar moustache, leave it. You can always trim it later.

In a practicable way, most authors suggested practicing this skill through the use of journals (morning pages, timed exercises, dream journals). I tried all of these techniques, and the good news is that all of them were helpful! Each activity was an opportunity to practice, not only how to access the impulsive, imaginative part of my brain, but also how to quiet the critical, logical part of my brain that had kept me from writing anything in the preceding years. All of the activities also helped for another reason: each ultimately forced me to do the real work of writing. I didn’t need to face the task with the expectation of completing an entire short story or a novel or even a chapter. I just had to write something, anything. The more I “practiced” being creative, the easier the activities became. I just had to commit myself to doing them a lot.

Regardless of how much I exercised my creative brain, writing ultimately required taking the risk to write my first bad draft and look it square in the eye. Now when I sit at the laptop to write, it’s still a mixture of pain and relief to put down that first sentence, not knowing if a second is going to follow. Sometimes, now, I can fall into that zone. I lose track of time. I lose awareness of my own self-conscious self and start to see the characters, hear what they might say or see what they might see before my conscious brain looks around for it. And many times I don’t enter that blissful zone. Those days I realize that I’m going to have to dig deep and accept that writing is risk. I force a sentence on the page. And one more. Maybe another. And so it goes, sentence by sentence.

 Jacquie’s class, Creativity and Craft: Completing the Process from Journal to Short Story begins May 7. 

Jacquie Cope is a doctor from Los Angeles who recently took the plunge and dedicated herself to her writing. She holds degrees in medicine and public health, and more recently, an MFA from Antioch University. She lives and writes in Los Angeles.