I am a writer, and as such I am also a lover of words. The way some people might admire a pair of shoes, a car, or a work of art, I appreciate the masterful manipulation of language — especially when the message is both beautiful and intelligent.
I regularly find inspiration between two quotation marks.
My literary heroes are those who can use words like paint on a canvas. I am constantly in search of reading material that will make me think or feel — words that will express a truth I knew deep within myself and needed help to bring to the surface.
Some writers choose to be agents of change — social visionaries. They use their words to tell a tale that moves us to action.
Since we just celebrated Black History Month, it seems a fitting time to focus on the words of a few black writers that I find inspiring — especially as they complement the radical self love movement. And I’ll pick women, feminists no less, in honor of Women’s History Month because (in the powerful words of Sojourner Truth), “Ain’t I a woman?”
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One writer (of many) who is always able to move me is Alice Walker. She is a master at evoking a response through the power of a story. If I want to cry, all I have to do is watch the movie, The Color Purple. The sisters’ reunion brings me to tears every time I see it — every…single…time. Even if I’m just flipping through the channels and happen on just that scene, I lose it.
Walker’s writing spans several genres. She has published novels as well as collections of short stories and poems. She is prolific and celebrated, having won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction and the National Book Award. She was also part of the first group to be inducted into the California Hall of Fame.
I feel a tenuous connection to Walker because she taught at my alma mater, Wellesley College. However, our times there were separated by decades.
Here are some of Walker’s words that I find tremendously apropos to the vision of radical self-love — they speak of loving yourself despite imperfections and mistakes as well as the importance of having a voice and being heard:
“In nature, nothing is perfect and everything is perfect. Trees can be contorted, bent in weird ways, and they’re still beautiful.” And so it is with humans. There are many types of trees, each with its own role to play in nature. It is much the same with people. Whatever your size or shape, you are worthy of love. Whatever your body can or cannot do, you are of infinite importance. Only you can be yourself, so don’t deprive the world of you by trying to be someone else.
“Everything that happens to us teaches us, if we are open to it.” These are comforting words whenever I make a mistake or feel I’ve failed. Even the struggles of life — the missteps and setbacks — sculpt us into the person (wiser, stronger, more compassionate) that we’ll be once we get through them. Everything in our life can teach us something, even if it is only what we don’t want or were never meant to be. The only failure in failing is learning nothing.
“No person is your friend who demands your silence, or denies your right to grow.” This is as true for groups as it is for individuals. Anyone seeking to hold you back or down is not your friend. Every individual and every facet of humanity has the right to be heard. Anyone who is against the advancement of a group is against that group. Those seeking to silence others are obstacles to peace, justice, and equality.
In her own words, Audre Lorde was a “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet.” Many have added other labels to that list: womanist, feminist, civil rights activist, hero, inspiration, et cetera.
Born to two Caribbean immigrants in New York City, Lorde wrote from a deeply personal and political place. She wrote in response to racial injustice, in celebration of her heritage, and in exploration of the “continuum of women.” She also changed the spelling of her first name from “Audrey” to “Audre” to better complement her last name. That’s how much language meant to her — she balanced it to the letter.
Audre was bold. Her writing pulled no punches. Here are a few of her words that I find thought-provoking:
“It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.” Conformity is for robots. Just the other day, I was watching a movie that included a line of dancers (not unlike the Rockettes). Most of the performers were white, but a few were women of color. It occurred to me in that moment that while homogeny is a common aesthetic preference, diversity is also beautiful. No aria is composed of just one note. Few paintings incorporate a single color. Just as the world is beautiful because of its various shapes and shades, so too are people. Coming together in mutual respect — and not championing as superior one group’s members, agenda or aesthetic — that’s true unity. And that should be the goal of humanity.
“Only by learning to live in harmony with your contradictions can you keep it all afloat.” You can be a feminist who wants to be a stay-at-home mother or a genius who enjoys life’s simplest pleasures. You can be soft-spoken and bold. You can be poor and generous or rich and stingy. There is no right way to be female, male, white, a person of color, American, an immigrant, rich, poor, or any other label applied to human beings. Some of your traits will surprise others. They will call them contradictions. All that means is that you’re different than what they expected. It doesn’t mean that you’re wrong. Acknowledge every aspect of your humanity and explore each one. Contradictions (i.e., surprises) can be beautiful.
Nikki Giovanni was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, but grew up in Cincinnati Ohio. She is a poet whose words are both playful and pack a punch. Virginia Tech was wise enough to hire her as a faculty member in 1987, and she still teaches there to this day.
In her early days as a writer, unable to find a publisher, she created her own company and self-published. She debuted her second book with more than a little fanfare at New York’s Birdland (a jazz club).
To date, she has been nominated for a Grammy, been a National Book Award finalist, and won seven NAACP Image Awards. Three of her books have also graced the New York Times best-seller list — a feat few poets can claim. Her words drip with beauty and wisdom.
“If you don’t understand yourself you don’t understand anybody else.” In the same way that you must love yourself to be good at loving others, you must understand yourself to have any hope of understanding someone else. Every person is unique, but we are also connected by our common humanity. And since you cannot truly love what you do not know, knowing who you are is also a step towards loving who you are.
“Show me someone not full of herself, and I’ll show you a hungry person” Loving yourself is not the same as narcissism or being conceited. There is a difference between self-care and selfish. Even Jesus said, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 20:31). Did you catch that? He’s not telling his followers to love others more than themselves or in place of themselves, but to love others as they love themselves — of the same magnitude. Following this commandment presupposes a love for self. Constant denial or deprecation of self is like starvation. It leaves you and those around you depleted, because you cannot offer others what you do not possess. To give love you must first have love for and within yourself.
There are many more writers, orators, and activists whose inspiring words I could have quoted. This list is by no means complete.
I encourage you to use the comments section on this page to share a quote or two that you find full of meaning.
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(Feature Image: Nikki Giovanni with a short salt and pepper afro and glasses with a metal chain hanging from them, wearing a black coat, white shirt, and multi-colored tie. She is standing at a podium speaking. Photo Credit: Brett Weinstein [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)