A Literary Collective of Care
Ten years ago, I visited Ghana for the first time. I was still a college student, a year away from graduation, and of all the study abroad options presented to me, Accra, Ghana compelled me the most. During the time when students were required to make decisions about their upcoming fall semesters, I was enrolled in a series of political science and literature courses in which it seemed that all the seminal figures of study had passed through the West African city in moments of artistic growth, pan-African organizing, or simple, unabashed leisure. I, too, am an artist seeking growth, I told myself. A young, Black woman from the United States who felt her place within diaspora. A college kid who wanted five months away in a new place with new people. Besides, one of my oldest friends is a Ghanaian woman and growing up it had always been a topic of discussion among her family and me. When you finally visit, her father would tell me, you’ll fall in love immediately.
He was right. But this is not exactly a story about my time in Accra. This is actually about the community to which I was led a few short years later.
In a course taught by Esi Sutherland-Addy (daughter of acclaimed Ghanaian author Efua Sutherland) that surveyed, broadly, feminist texts by African women writers, I was introduced to novelist and playwright, Ama Ata Aidoo. In fact, The Dilemma of a Ghost—Aidoo’s 1965 drama about the marriage of a young Ghanaian man, Ato, and his Black American bride, Eulalie—was required reading for the entire cohort who traveled that semester. In the midst of what felt like an invigorating intellectual awakening (in hindsight I was full of many different real-time emotions), I devoured much of Aidoo’s work as Professor Sutherland-Addy regaled us with her own stories of witnessing her mother host and support other Black women writers such as Maya Angelou, Margaret Busby, or Angela Y. Davis.
I had not yet begun to think of myself in any real serious sense as a writer, but I was a reader. The individuals most responsible for helping me make sense of myself were writers. Professor Sutherland-Addy’s course came on the heels of a series of academic experiences that had plunged me heart first into the wide spectrum of Black women’s literature, many of whom I was reading for the first time: Michelle Cliff, Nancy Morejón, Alice Walker, Lucille Clifton, and Jayne Cortez, a poet seminal to the Black Arts Movement in the US. I felt that if nothing else, there were people writing into being their visions of the world that felt like, sounded like, and looked like the impulses guiding my own emerging voice. Of course, these many women were already comrades who workshopped together, danced together, and navigated an often-unkind publishing industry. The records tell us of their friendship.
In 1991, for example, it was Aidoo and Cortez who would go on to cofound the Organization of Women Writers of Africa (OWWA). Emerging from an informal collective of women writers who spent time together as friends and colleagues as their writing took them around the world, Aidoo and Cortez began to realize the need for a more formal structure in which the work of their peers could be championed. “We began to recognize the importance of organizing ourselves around the needs of women writers of African descent committed to various forms of writing,” as writer and OWWA board member, Rashidah Ismail told me. The organization has counted writers such as Angelou, Morejón, Buchi Emecheta, Gabrielle Civil, Maryse Condé, and Zetta Elliot, among others as part of its cohort.
From its inception, OWWA positioned itself as a sanctuary for the serious consideration of Black women’s writing globally. This most immediately took the form of a series of conferences, hosted in partnership with New York University, in which writers would gather for critique, workshops, reflections from the field, and performances. There was, especially, a keen sense of care to ensure that a U.S., English language frame was never the central point around which the organization rotated. Cortez and Aidoo imagined the group as a space to not just serve as a metric of African diasporic representation, but a site of communion by which Black women writers could meet one another, engage in critical scholarship around one another’s work and ultimately, carry that work forward for future generations. I know this to be true because this is exactly how I found OWWA. Or rather, how OWWA found me.
This backstory is important because the world is a very small place when it comes down to it. A few years after college, as I began a career in the arts and media, I met Dr. Rosamond King—a professor, performer, poet, and Cortez’s mentee. Cortez had recently passed, perhaps four or five months prior, in 2012, and I was helping to edit Zora Magazine, a small website that published Black women’s writing in the early boom of digital publications. King and I met as the organization prepared for Yari Yari Ntoaso: Furthering the Dialogue, the last OWWA conference in which Cortez had a hand before her death. The conference was to be held in Accra, the first convening to be held in Africa.
This serendipitous meeting not only introduced me to OWWA’s universe, but, in due time, I was asked to join the organization’s board alongside King, Ismail, and Margrit Edwards. I quickly accepted because more than anything, I knew that my ability to move in the world in a manner that doesn’t require me to shrink myself is due, in large part, to a consortium of Black women writers who have provided me a language for living fully.
In 2021, OWWA will turn 30 years old and there is a much longer oral history waiting to be written about the organization and the many women who have lifted and continue to lift this organization. I did not have the pleasure of meeting Cortez while she walked this earth, but I am thankful to write in her wake. Maybe, this is but one part in the long effort of the freedom project she knew was possible.