At twenty-one, by back is already perpetually sore. Every bend, twist, and turn ignites a dull pain deep in my bones. I have lived with this pain for a while now. Each year it has grown in intensity, reaching a new dimension, developing a new expression. I imagine a hole being dug at the base of my spine, gradually expanding with passing time. This pain is a reminder of my physical essence. It reminds me that I am alive and inhabiting this body. To chart the passage of time with pain is odd, but it offers an organizing principle for understanding the maturation of my body and spirit. This physical pain I live with is allegorically tied to my understanding of my spiritual pain; both pains are constants in my conscious understanding of self. I can trace trauma along the currents of pain that run through my body and in the more cerebral realms of myself. Because I cannot expend the energy to recall and name my trauma daily, it is as though my body has taken up the burden, practicing release and mourning on my behalf. With each ache and knot is a resounding cry of defiance. If I listen close enough to the creaks in my joints and tears in my taut ligaments I can tune in to my own grieving. I rely on my body to perform this release. And some days, the pain will not let me tune out. When it becomes impossible to ignore the cries, I am prevented from getting out of bed. Then I must slow down, lay beside my broken body and tend to her, listen to her frustrations. Other days I dance, giving full range of motion to my pain, letting my joints sing that raspy tune.
At times I have been frustrated with the impediment of chronic pain. My body’s refusal to comply with my desire to move has brought me to tears. I have tried to pinpoint an explanation for this plaguing affliction. To what measure should that slight spinal curvature render me so feeble? Why should I be constantly reminded of my physical fallibility in such youthful prime? This dissonance between dauntless youth and pangs of incapacity have made up my world–politically, emotionally, and physically. My pain is not tethered to a single, clinical explanation, it encompasses a collective of institutional and personal repression as well as generational trauma. All of these have converged at a single point in my body, latching onto my flesh, to say they will not be forgotten or ignored. I wonder, dear Zora, if you suffered with chronic pain your own lifetime, if you struggled to find respite from pain through creative expression. I wonder if your pain became more pronounced as you aged, or if it was always present in your bones, urging you to tell stories about Black folks’ endurance of terrible pain.
Stretching, in the morning marks the beginning of my daily struggle against my very own body. Some days, I am filled with gratitude because I know I will be able to move, without reservation or difficulty. Those cherished days are filled with minute moments of joy, when I put to use every ounce of my energy into committing all sensations to memory. Those other days, when I labor under the strain of movement, I reach into this arsenal of archived joy in an attempt to recover some of what I fear may be at stake. Dance and writing are both practices of constantly reaching into that arsenal. When I move, I must be prepared to remember what joy is, even in pain. Janie Crawford knew the power of memories too, having learned that we must “remember everything [we] don’t want to forget”, and the importance of recollection to the project of survival.
My most treasured moment during the practice of dance is when I begin to feel as though a movement or a rhythm has sunk into my bones. In writing, it is when I can no longer see where I begin and where the story ends. In those moments, I know that closing my eyes will allow me to see better, to experience physical expression more deeply. Some days, I am not able to arrive at this moment; I have been too focused or too distracted, too rigid or too pliant. Usually, this occurs when I have been mentally or emotionally preoccupied with some grievance or dilemma. When I am able to make the most use of a quiet or reflective moment, I find myself easing into the moment of blind euphoria of creativity. What moment alerted you that you were arriving at a stage of euphoria when you wrote, Zora?
Knowing that generational and institutional traumas are carried through the body, I must also acknowledge that my own pain is situated in a broad historical order that dates back to the slave trade. So what can creative expression offer in the face of the constant disintegration of Black flesh under the crushing weight of pain? Ntozake Shange teaches us that all creative impulses are connected to the body. Thus, my writing and dancing are inseparable from my physical pain. My relationship to dance is deeply tied to emotional and physical sensation and state. For me, dance serves a function that parallels that of writing. As with dance, writing is an expressive tool. It is a way of acknowledging my fears and apprehensions, of documenting moments that bring joy, and setting intentions. In a creative capacity, I write stories that speak to all of those things. Storytelling captures some of what I am afraid to lose–memories–while iterating new possibilities for existing beyond the limited expanse of pain. Eisa Davis wrote a letter to Shange, like I am writing to you now, interrogating the capacity of the poetic and creative imagination to offer hope and resistance. In response, Shange wrote: “poetry brings us to our knees…and the joy of survivin’ brings you to your feet” (196). This is one articulation of the possibilities that creative expression can offer through the body’s impulse to dance and write. Was Shange’s philosophy a refashioning of what you taught her in Their Eyes? After all, you were a Barnard woman too, as they so love to claim in your absence. In writing and dancing, I find it possible to affirm survival, even with pain as a constant, inflicted on my body and spirit by dejection, apathy, and trauma. Through dance, I declare my survival in rising to my feet, commanding all physical and emotional senses, attending to all aches and bothers. Through writing, I mobilize a similar set of motions, setting off an internal dialogue. In both expressions I hold space for communing spiritually, with the shadowy figures that survived what I too am charged with surviving. Zora, the world is full of young people like me, aching and sore, looking back on your writing, sometimes out of desperation for an answer, sometimes seeking peace and an affirmation for survival, an acknowledgement of the source of our pain. What stories would you offer us in moments like these? What are your thoughts on the possibilities of healing through art?
This letter was written in response to Katherine Acey’s work and research on inter-generational activism as a BCRW Senior Activist Fellow. It follows the tradition of inter-generational building by engaging in the practice of forging bonds across generations, with the vanguards of an ever-transforming movement.