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Adolescent Literary Influences

Adolescent Literary Influences by Ananda Leeke

Copyright 2008 by Madelyn C. Leeke

Excerpt from That Which Awakens Me (iUniverse, Inc. - Winter 2009)

My sistalove friend Khadijah "Moon" Ali-Coleman (KAC) is a 21st century renaissance woman. She wears many creative hats as a mother, writer, performer, publisher, literary service provider, and entreprenur. I met her online when I joined Liberated Muse, a social networking site and arts-based marketing, public relations, and events planning group that she co-founded with Maceo Thomas. If you are a creative person looking to share your work and learn more about other creative folks, visit http://www.liberatedmuse.com/.

The reason I mentioned Khadijah is because she was the creative angel who sparked a much needed memoir writing moment for me. As a writer who has encountered numerous writing blocks in the past few months, I had to take time out and pay homage to the sistalove who helping me cleanse my creative flow. Here's how Khadijah helped. Over the weekend, she sent me an email about her upcoming workshop at Re:Verse Literary Conference & Festival on October 25th at Hostos Community College in the Boogie Down Bronx, one of my favorite places to visit. The conference was organized to help educators develop creative ways to bring literature that focuses on cultures, history, and social studies into the classroom. The registration fee is so affordable: $15. Did you hear me? I said it was only $15. What a deal! How I wish I could go, but I've got some things to do in DC that day. The Literary Freedom Project, a literary arts organization, is sponsoring the event. I highly recommend that you check out the conference and festival. Visit http://reversefestival.com/08.htm.

Khadijah’s email also included several interesting questions about literary influences that I was already planning to share in my memoir. So I used her questions as writing prompts. That’s how this memoir snippet was born. Let me just say that what you are about to read is a cut and paste job that gives you a glimpse of my adolescent literary influences. It ain’t fancy. It’s just plain old fashioned Q/A. Check out what I said below.

KAC: What literary texts impacted you the most as an adolescent?

AL: I know you didn’t ask about my childhood favorites, but I am gonna share anyway since I am also writing a response that I can use for my memoir. Forgive me sistalove for doing a kitchen sink dump, but I am working on a deadline. As a young child, Dr Seuss was my main squeeze. I can remember going to the New Carrollton Library after church on Sundays and borrowing Green Eggs and Ham. That book was da’ bomb.

Because I was named Madelyn, I was given Madeline, a children’s book series by Ludwig Bemelmans. The first book in the series, Madeline became my favorite. I loved the cover which featured a picture of Miss Clavel, a Parisian nun, and twelve little white girls including one with red hair who was named Madeline. I can’t remember who told me that she was actually a mulatto Black girl, but it probably helped me accept my love for the books as I got older and self-identified as serious Afro-centric, natural hair wearing, spoken word poet sistalove in the 1990s. Any who … I think the book series planted the seeds for my dream to travel to Paris, eat cheese and croissants, visit the Louvre, stare at the Eiffel Tower, and spend time walking along the Seine looking at artwork created by Parisian artists. I ended up doing just that when I turned 30 in 1994.

Now that I got that out, I can give you an answer to your question. The literary texts that impacted me the most as a adolescent that came of age during the late 1970s and early 1980s include Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf and Nappy Edges, Maya Angelou’s Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'Fore I Diiie, James Baldwin’s Just Above My Head, Toni Cade Bambara’s The Black Woman: An Anthology, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice, and Langston Hughes’ poetry (especially “The Negro Speaks of Rivers”).

The first books that I purchased with my hard-earned paper route money were by Ntozake Shange and Maya Angelou in 1978. Their words helped me explain myself to myself as one of the few Black girls at St. Elizabeth Seton High School, a predominately white, all-girls Catholic school in Prince George's County, Maryland. They also inspired me to tell my stories through writing my own poetry and sparked my interest in reading other Black women writers that I learned about while reading Essence Magazine.

Baldwin’s Just Above My Head was a book that my father owned. He and my mother had a whole collection of Baldwin’s books in our family library. Daddy suggested that I read it when I was in the ninth grade. Initially I was overwhelmed by the number of pages, but once I got started reading, I couldn’t put the book down. I fell in love with Baldwin’s voice as an author. His words were compelling. They stopped me in my tracks and caused me to pay more attention to the details of my life and my family. His storytelling style moved with a rhythm that stretched my brain cells.

Hughes had the same affect. I remember writing a report about Hughes’ poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” in high school. His words were simple and soulful. They reminded me of the Negro spirituals and contemporary gospel songs that my mother’s choir sang during their weekly choir rehearsals in our living room.

Bambara and the Black women who contributed to The Black Woman: An Anthology poured water on the seeds that my mother planted in me. Their words later became a part of the foundation that I consciously chose to support and sustain my personal revolution that declared my independence as a twenty something natural Black womanist in the early 1990s.

The summer before I started my freshmen year at Seton, I received a reading list that included Bronte’s Jane Eyre and Austen's Pride and Prejudice. When I went to the library to borrow the books, I got pissed because they were both filled with lots and lots of pages. I imagined that it would take me the entire summer to read both books and write book reports. Surprisingly, these two books became my best friends during the summer of 1978. I couldn’t put them down. The fact that Jane Eyre was a first-person narrative made it easy for me to read. I also enjoyed traveling through the five stages of Jane Eyre’s life in England. That’s probably why I am a big fan of English literature and movies that tell stories which occurred prior to the 20th century. Pride and Prejudice gave birth to my love of romantic comedies. Austen’s use of free indirect speech as narrative technique taught me how to tell my own stories.

KAC: What books that you read as young person led to you holding certain beliefs that you carry today?

AL: I think I always knew that there had to be some feminine aspects of God. Reading the words of the Lady in Red in Shange’s for colored girls gave me permission to really believe that God was made up of both feminine and masculine energy. I still come back to the Lady in Red’s words: "I found god in myself and I loved her/I loved her fiercely." Shange’s poetry in Nappy Edges used both English and Spanish words. Her work taught me how language and location connect Black folks to Brown Spanish-speaking folks. She also reiterated what I learned the first time I traveled to Puerto Rico with my family in 1978: There are Brown Spanish-speaking people who look just like me. We all come from the same place - Africa.

KAC: What author or author's work inspired you to do the life work you do today?

AL: As a writer, poet, and artist, I believe that I am called to be a vessel of authentic expression that comes straight from my soul and heart. I think that Ntozake Shange, Maya Angelou, James Baldwin, Toni Cade Bambara, Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austen, and Langston Hughes tell stories and write poetry in an authentic voice that reflects the inner workings of their souls and multi-layered emotions that can be seen as threads woven into the center of their hearts. Their work gave me a creative blueprint on how to develop a connection with the reader. They also gave me the recipe for making that happen: complete surrender to the creative process.

KAC: What are some texts you would recommend for young readers?

AL: I think young readers should read books that educate and inspire them to take pride in who they are, write and speak clearly and concisely, understand America's complexities and power structure, learn about other cultures, and expand their possibilities. My list of recommended text is for teenagers. See below.

1) Art, Culture and Music

Haiti, History, and the Gods by Joan Daylan
Black - A Celebration of Culture by Deborah Willis
The Guide of Black Washington by Sandra Fitzpatrick and Maria R. Goodwin
An Autobiography of Black Chicago by Dempsey J. Travis
Maria Izquierdo by the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum
The Life and Art of Lois Mailou Jones by Tritobia Hayes Benjamin
Elizabeth Catlett by Melanie Anne Herzog
Seeing the Unspeakable: The Art of Kara Walker by Gwendolyn DuBois Shaw
Basquiat by the Brooklyn Museum of Art
Uncommon Beauty in Common Objects - The Legacy of African American Craft Art by the National Afro-American and Cultural Center, Wilberforce, OH
Gendered Visions - The Art of Contemporary Africana Women Artists edited by Salah M. Hassan
Amalia Amaki: Boxes, Buttons, and the Blues by Andrea D. Barnwell, Gloria Wade Gayles, and Leslie King-Hammond

2) Women's Biographies, Prose, and Poetry

For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf by Ntozake Shange
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Just Give Me a Cool Drink of Water 'Fore I Diiie by Maya Angelou
The Black Woman edited by Toni Cade Bambara
In Search of Our Mother's Gardens by Alice Walker
To Be Young, Gifted, and Black by Lorraine Hansberry
Assata by Assata Shakur
Gemini by Nikki Giovanni
Daughters of Africa edited by Margaret Busby
Selected Poems by Emily Dickinson
Nappy Edges by Ntozake Shange
The BAP Handbook: The Official Guide to the Black American Princess by Kalyn Johnson, Tracey Lewis, Karla Lightfoot, and Ginger Wilson
Gumbo People by Sybil Stein
Fruit of Lemon by Andrea Levy
Bone Black by bell hooks
The Altar of My Soul by Marta Moreno Vega
Daughters of the Dust by Julie Dash

3) Men's Biographies, Prose, and Poetry

Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois
Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil by W.E.B. Du Bois
Our Kind of People: Inside America's Black Upper Class by Lawrence Otis Graham
The New Black Man by Mark Anthony Neal

4) Fiction

Just Above My Head by James Baldwin
Understand This by Jervey Tervalon
More Like Wrestling by Danyel Smith
Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat