December 4, 2002
Dear Ms. Clifton,
It is an honor to contact you and even if you cannot reply to my note please let me say how much I appreciate your words and contributions. They have touched me and my life and I thank you. I am writing you because on this upcoming Saturday night, December 7th, I have been asked to introduce the song "Sisters"( My Girls, No. 3) at the Grand Rapids Women's Chorus Winter Concert here in Grand Rapids Michigan. I have sung with this chorus since its inception in 1996. Our mission in part is "to sing culturally diverse music that promotes appreciation of women composers and arrangers" and "to create and inspire meaningful experience through musical expression." This group of what turns out to be mostly white women (despite recruiting efforts) from this predominantly white christian community tries hard to bring new ideas and experiences to this community which includes performing your poetry as put to music by Gwyneth Walker in "Sisters".
Two years ago we also sang "This Morning" (My Girls, No 1). "This Morning" really got me thinking back then and now my reason for writing you personally is because I would be interested in your opinion about something. I plan in my introduction of "Sisters" to read a quote by you which says: "The proper subject matter for poetry is life. I tell students all the time that there are people who would say, 'Well, how can I relate to your poetry? I am a white male.' But, I write about being human. If you have ever been human, I invite you to that place that we share, and I think you can then share it" This past October I attended a retreat with the chorus at which we discussed, for lack of a better word, our "guilt" about being mostly white women singing this song. The discussion involved whether we are "qualified" to present this song and also whether African American audience members would be insulted by our performing it.
Would we offend them by singing about roaches and rats and talking in the language of young black girls who are sisters?.....though we have all had the experience of being young and being sisters, we clearly have not had the experience of "being black. or letting our hair go back".. We love this song and we love the energy involved in singing it. The clapping, the rhythms, the spirit of its intent....the melody, harmonies and lyrics. We absolutely love that we are singing it here in Grand Rapids Michigan.. Yet, we struggle with the above questions in presenting it. We have been out and about, surveying our African American friends one on one. We plan to perform it. I would be most honored if you would consider giving us your insight on this. Have you ever been asked about this before? The quote above ....we are all human. On Saturday night I will invite our audience to come to that place we all share when we sing this song...the human place where over time we can only hope we learn to be "lovin' ourselves, lovin ourselves", but I would be remiss if I did not attempt to get a thought from you to share with our audience if possible. I believe this is my responsibility as a singer with a chorus who has the above mission in our town.
Many thanks for your time. I wish you many blessings.
Grand Rapids Women's Chorus
December 4, 2002
Thank you for your kind words. I have been asked this sort of thing and I'm not sure that my answer is adequate. What I do know is that the experience of being poor and feeling lonely is not a racial one; nor is it recent. People who believe that only Black girls know the experiences in the poem tend to not realize that there are poor and young and learning to love oneself white and brown and red and yellow girls too. If I have traditionally been expected to understand myself perhaps through Your frames of reference, then so can you in Mine! Celebrate !!!