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Language as Power: Andria Nacina Cole and A Revolutionary Summer

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Andria Nacina Cole’s journey to situate herself in her authentic power can be traced back to the late ‘90s on a bench at Morgan State University. It was her junior year, and she had not yet declared a major. At the time, she was writing what she describes as “morbid poems that were extra violent and over the top, and I’m just like ‘Ooh, I’m talented.’ Thinking I’m getting down when really I didn’t know what the hell I was doing.”

Wanting more direction and commitment, Cole realized she needed to declare creative writing as her major. Without hesitation, her mother told her, “Go ‘head. Go for it. Do it.” Twenty years later, now an educator and a writer (and a mother herself), it’s no wonder Cole calls her students “daughters” and builds them up with the same kind of fearless encouragement.

The author of the novella Men Be Either Or, But Never Enough and the poetry book Anthem: For Colored Women Only, Cole uses the same writing ethic as her living ethic: to speak truth. One way she does so is by writing in the same dialect that she speaks in, inspired by Black women who write with Black women as their audience, like Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow is Enuf, a monumental choreopoem written completely in African-American Vernacular English (AAVE).

“Ntozake Shange has a philosophy and determination to give Black women and girls the language for their experiences ‘cuz she knew it was either gonna inspire or it was gonna stunt,” Cole says. “And right now, if we’re using their [the oppressor’s] language, it’s just going to stunt us because violence comes on down into the words too.” She points to the fact that enslaved people were not allowed to learn to read because “that was where freedom was.” Cole’s belief in language as freedom is the catalyst for her life’s work—to motivate Black girls and women to use language as a tool for finding their own authentic power.

Cole’s belief in language as freedom is the catalyst for her life’s work—to motivate Black girls and women to use language as a tool for finding their own authentic power.
Jalynn Harris

In Cole’s words, there are two different kinds of power: external and authentic. Where external power comes from resources Black women have historically been locked out of—money, land, influence—authentic power is something you always possess. It’s the ability to manage yourself, remain in your integrity, uphold your boundaries, and, as much as possible, take the higher road. “Not that the lower road don’t get you places—‘cause it do,” Cole says, laughing. Cole’s ability to analyze power comes up in her full-time work as a restorative justice practitioner, where she facilitates community conferences to address and resolve harm. Harm resolution is also a theme in her creative writing, she says, because “what’s important to me is that if I present a problem I also present a solution to it.”

Tapping into power through language led Cole to envision her most incredible story yet: a summer-long, reading-writing program for Black girls and young women, aptly named A Revolutionary Summer (ARS). In the early spring of 2015, Cole and co-founder Malene Kai Bell had been sitting on the idea of creating a literary program that would expose Black women and girls to the stories of people who look like them. In April, consciousness around Black genocide came to Baltimore’s streets through the violent murder of Freddie Gray which sparked weeks of protest.

“Then our city exploded and it was like ‘Awww, hell nah, we will not be bystanders,’” Cole recalls. “We were Black mothers, we were daughters and used to be Black girls, we had been saved again and again by Black women authors and artists, and we knew how to teach a good class / lead a circle. Gray’s murder was the fire under our tails to stop talking and start doing.”

Immediately, the founders crowdfunded $2,500, assembled a curriculum, purchased books and materials, and announced the program’s launch. After sending out flyers and emails to friends, a group of ten girls responded, and the first iteration began. People donate to the program and sponsor the girls’ libraries; a number of grants and foundations have also sustained it. The women who power ARS alongside Cole—Shamoyia Gardiner, Andrea Better, Nicole Karikari, and Nichelle Calhoun—“confirm my belief in the divine,” the executive director says.

For Cole, Black literacy is Black freedom. And Gray’s murder brought urgency to the lack of freedom and protection Black people experience under a police state. She created a place where Black girls and young women ages 15 and up can learn about and celebrate themselves—everything from the way they talk to the way they dream. In eight weeks, the program introduces participants—lovingly referred to by program facilitators as “daughters”—to literature, film, visual art, and music that reflects their own embodied experiences. Sometimes the girls go off to college and come back as youth leaders, as Jamesha Caldwell, Sol Leandry, Breyauna Nelson, and Joy Njoroge have done.

Because challenging systems of power is central to the program, each week the youth leaders and facilitators take turns as workshop leader, giving each a chance to share their own connection with the course materials. When ARS first began, the facilitators were strict about controlling every structural aspect because they knew how transformative literature is for sustaining life. That dynamic relaxed a couple of years in, and the youth leaders now assume bigger roles with workshops and final projects. “When we let the reigns over,” Cole says, “We realized that not only could they handle it, they were blowing us away.”

Sustained by the idea that spirit is just as important as story, the program also implements body awareness practices such as yoga and grounding activities. One such activity is the deconstruction of thought protocol, developed by author Byron Katie, in which the group collectively sits with a negative thought someone is struggling with—say, fear of not getting into college— and then collectively assesses how true that worry really is. This practice exemplifies how external powers—say, normative white college metrics—impact their ability to own and enact their authentic power.

ARS pays a stipend to participants and includes writing workshops, field trips, and, with the youth leaders, completion of a final project. In past years, they have produced plays, and in 2019, painted a mural of Octavia Butler, Toni Morrison, and Zora Neale Hurston, guided by the artist Megan Lewis. They’ve even published a book: Symone and the Letter is about a young girl coming of age and dealing with the loss of her father, who is falsely imprisoned.

This year, the program went virtual due to the pandemic. With a focus on healing, the girls read Aja Monet’s book of poems My Mother Was a Freedom Fighter and Toni Cade Bambara’s novel The Salt Eaters and watched Sam Feder’s film Disclosure, among other things. They also learned how to make body butters, responsibly harvest plants, and grow their own herbs. Although this year felt different, Cole is confident the program will continue to grow and remain a place where these young women can “take off all of their armor,” as she puts it. “They should be able to take off Blackness, womanhood, the history, the trauma, the experience, and tap into something larger than all of those labels.”

Cole’s community work mirrors her personal writing practice, where she surrounds herself with Black women authors, legendary giants including those she brings to ARS: Toni Morrison, Sonia Sanchez, Audre Lorde, Toni Cade Bambara, Ntozake Shange, and Lucille Clifton. Annotating in the margins of their books for decades has formed her. Before putting pen to paper, Cole takes the words she has underlined in those books and copies them into her own notebook. This practice creates an intention to build her stories letter by letter, allowing the determination of other Black women’s words to guide her.

Cole’s writing ethic requires that she never present a problem without a solution, the same fuel that steams her everyday restorative practices work. ARS is a solution to a problem that she did not create, and although the choice to build a career advocating for Black women and girls is not a popular one, it is precisely what makes this work so profound.

 

Photographs by Schaun Champion for BmoreArt Issue 10: Power. Flower crown by Pomona Florals.

This story is from Issue 10: Power,

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