My Life: A Mahalia Jackson Song

Hey y’all, I know I’ve been gone for far too long, but for those of you who teach college like me, you know why. The end of the semester is brutal, what with all the papers to grade, extra conferences with students, and lengthy emotional breakdowns from said students. They start crying and then I start crying, and then, it’s just a big, old mess, even when I know some of them are trying to head trip me to get a better grade.

In between being exhausted by my students, I’m exhausted by joy. A few weeks ago, something fabulous happened to me, but I was afraid that if I talked about it at the time, I would brag too much and seem ungracious. So, I’m telling you now.

Some of you already know my news, that I won a 2011 Fellowship in Poetry from the National Endowment from the Arts! (My hair is short in the picture in the post, but never fear, I have not cut it.)

This fellowship came right on time, not just because I can now afford to go to West Africa to finish research for my Phillis Wheatley poetry project, but also, in terms of my confidence. A few months ago, I was very upset that a friend of mine had basically erased me from Contemporary African American poetry history in an interview with Poets and Writers.

This led me to talking on my blog about the ongoing issues with sexism within the Black poetry community, something that also led to certain folks dogging me out and calling me crazy–which is another reason I didn’t want to post when I won, because I have a tendency to talk smack to people when I feel an “I told you so” coming on.

(But don’t let me lie. I was walking around my house brushing my shoulders off like a rapper every five minutes for a week after I heard the news I’d won.)

Now, don’t think that just because I won a chunk of change from the government (twenty-five thousand dollars, to be exact!!!!!) that all is right in the poetry world in terms of Black women. That particular fantasy is akin to Black folks thinking because we had a Black man in The White House that racism and White privilege was simply going to disappear.

But I DO believe in being just as vocal when GOOD things happen to Black women, too. I don’t want to only complain.

So I have to say that this year, the National Endowment for the Arts did something that was unprecedented—unless someone else can document otherwise:  they gave the NEA Fellowship in Poetry to FOUR Black women!!!!!!!!

I won, along with Aracelis Girmay, Shara Macallum, and Chanda Felman. This was simply phenomenal.

Now, when the NEA called me with the good news, I wondered what the racial make-up of the fellowship list would be, because they don’t tell you who else won when they call, only that you did. But when I saw the entire list, and saw all those Sisters—and TWO Brothers, too!—I nearly fainted. The Brothers were Randall Horton—my homeboy, a very good friend, and the brilliant Editor-in-Chief of Tidal Basin Review—and Jericho Brown, a wildly talented young poet.

Winning the NEA Fellowship is sort of like winning the lottery; the pool of applicants is around a thousand people, and you never know whether the people on the judging panel are going to like your work; you can’t include letters of recommendation with the application, so nobody knows that such-and-such famous person thinks you are the bee’s knees or the cat’s pjs or collard greens with side meat or something else sassy.

I’d been applying since 2000; it’s sort of like taking your vitamins—if you’re a poet, you gotta do it. But I never in a million years thought I had a chance, though I prayed over it before I sent off the application. Remember what I said about prayer or good thoughts or mojo or stroking tree bark or whatever your thing is before you submit something? I believe in it, strongly.

So, I know that it’s been too long since I posted, but I hope you will forgive me. I have been walking around in a daze. I just keep saying to myself, “Twenty-five thousand dollars!” But also, I keep saying, “FOUR Black women won!”

I’ve been sending up constant praise to God, and crying like a newborn fool in gratitude. I am not ashamed to say that. This year has been the worst of times, in several ways, but I have never wavered in my faith that my writing is not just a profession, it is a vocation. Winning the NEA Fellowship was a nice message From Above. It’s like that gospel song by Mahalia Jackson, “He’s Right on Time.”

I hope y’all will forgive my banging on my spiritual tambourine by posting the song below. It IS Sunday (night), after all.:-)


9 thoughts on “My Life: A Mahalia Jackson Song

  1. Guess all I can say is CONGRATULATIONS, 4 black women just like that beautiful song by Nina Simone that was recently sung at Black Girls Rock. What else to say, I am proud, honored to know you and of course very HAPPY for you.

  2. Congratulations!!! Wow. Woman you give me strength and motivation to keep writing, submitting and applying. I love your advice on positivity. Do enjoy West Africa. I look forward to reading your blogs from there. Congrats to all the other winners too!

  3. Congratulations! You absolutely deserve it! You are truly an inspiration to ALL women and creative writers – you certainly have been and still are for me. 🙂

  4. Congratulations! As an old college professor used to tell me, “It is a sad dog that does not wag her own tail.” So, go ‘head. Pop your collar, get loud and talk all kinds of smack if ya wanna. There IS a changing of the guards…

  5. Congrats… I have nothing but love for you! This is huge actually and if you didn’t toot your own horn i’d actually be a bit worried. 🙂 I still haven’t gotten my membership packet for the Honorée Fanonne Jeffers Fan Club. I paid the $10,000.00 membership fee and everything. But I’m patiently waiting.

  6. So you’ve brought me to tears again. Like any good worker bee, I bitch and moan at work but it’s when I hear from grantees–especially when they’re poets like me–that I am so very proud of and humbled by the work we get to do. p.s. I’d like to officially join the HFJ fan club too. How many recommendation letters do I need and is it true I have to submit my application as either a bop or a blues? 🙂

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