Flat-Footed Truths:
Telling Black Women's Lives

edited by Patricia Bell-Scott

An Owl Book, Henry Holt & Company, New York, 1999. ISBN 0805046291.
Reviewed by Jazz Jaeschke
Posted on 04/29/2002

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: Cultural/Gender Focus; Nonfiction: Anthologies/Collections

This book speaks to all women, of all colors and all ages. From the introduction, the reader will be marking passages to return to again and again. It provides an excellent nudge to begin or go deeper when writing our own stories, and is a wonderful mix of history, writing tips, and striking role models.

Patricia Bell-Scott, a contributing editor to Ms. magazine and a professor at the University of Georgia, has edited or coedited other collections of works by Black women. She was assisted in this effort by Juanita Johnson-Bailey, also a professor at the University of Georgia. In Flat-Footed Truths, Bell-Scott has brought together an array of women's stories, some told first-hand and others through third parties. Some illustrate the difficulty of interpreting other women's stories, especially those from generations past. She chose stories that demonstrate the process of telling Black women's lives as flat-footed truths, which she defines as straightforward, unshakable, and unembellished. My dictionary indicates that this term, in use since 1601, means firm and well-balanced in addition to free from reservation: forthright. The individual stories and the structure of the collection certainly abide by these definitions.

The stories are grouped according to four aspects of telling lives, telling truths: Telling One's Own Life; Claiming Lives Neglected or Lost; Affirming Lives of Resistance; and Transforming Lives Through Telling. This grouping provides a nice pacing through the book, easily read in sections. Each section contains poem "bookends" that are stories also, rather than an "introduction" and "conclusion" to the sections. Each poem packs a powerful punch.

This book contains a wealth of practical wisdom. Each reader will find her own treasures. Following are the gems I will keep and savor.

"Writing Autobiography" by Bell Hooks includes this universal truth: "...bringing one's past, one's memories together in a complete narrative would allow one to view them from a different perspective, not as singular isolated events but as part of a continuum." Hooks also shares this personal truth, "To me, telling the story of my growing up years was intimately connected with the longing to kill the self I was without really having to die. I wanted to kill that self in writing. Once that self was gone—out of my life forever—I could more easily become the me of me."

In "To Miss Ida Bee," author Miriam Decosta-Willis tells her truth about growing to love the subject of her research, so much so that she wrote letters to Miss Ida Bee during the course of her research. The letters are included as a wonderful example of method and a glimpse into the evolving Decosta-Willis, who tells us, "I wanted her to speak to me or answer my letters, but she never did, not even in my daydreams or nightmares." One of the letters includes this truth: "I want to know about all the silences in your text: the acts that you do not describe, the feelings that you do not elaborate on, and the people who disappeared from the pages of your text. I wish so much that you could answer my letters."

Anita Hill's "I Had to Tell the Truth" offers new depth to truths that many readers will remember from the publicity surrounding confirmation hearings for Judge Clarence Thomas. I now better understand Hill's inner turmoil from the harassment and from speaking her truth regarding both the facts and their impact. She closes with these words, "I may have used poor judgment. Perhaps I should have taken angry or even militant steps... the course that I took seemed the better ... It would have been more comfortable to remain silent ... I felt that I had to tell the truth. I could not keep silent."

"Writing Survival" by Valerie Jean demonstrates her experience processing grief through writing. Readers will feel Jean's pain and then her relief. I have struggled with recently losing a friend who died much too young; this essay opened a door for me. I cried with recognition at Jean's reflection: "The next day I ran away. ... I just needed to ... be out of my life for awhile."

Akasha Hull's poem, "Movin' and Steppin,'" about changing as we live, offers truth I can surely use:

          Generally speaking,
          it's hard for people's eyes
               to readjust
          There you stand—
               a brand new thang
          and they keep talking to someone
               you left behind long time ago
               (and swear you never want to see again)

These lines remind me to be patient with a certain aunt who still sees me as the rebellious brat I was at age 12. Sadly, the brat surfaces in response to her. With Hull's truth in mind, perhaps I can remain my own "brand new thang" (adult).

Collectively, these stories acknowledge the importance of knowing and sharing women's life stories, including our own. Audre Lord, in "Poetry is not a Luxury," states, "For women, then, poetry...is a vital necessity of our existence...Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought." This book convinced me that, likewise, truth is no luxury. Our truths must be shared and preserved for future generations.

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