Writing for Social Justice: Dear Alice

Dear Alice,

If you are reading this, it is because yet again the Great Listener has deemed my seeking worth finding. I am placing in this letter a few questions which I hope to learn your thoughts. It is May 31, 2022. I am sitting with news of massacres. I have spent the last few months with your writing, rereading The Color Purple and rewatching the movie of the same name. Checking your website for new blog entries.

Earlier this month, I interviewed you after reading your newest book, Gathering Blossoms Under Fire, 50 years of your journal entries. I am a little over halfway done with The Same River Twice, playing Quincy Jones’ Color Purple movie soundtrack while I write you this letter with dreams of someday hosting a live listening party with you and Quincy as our special guests. We would chat music, the Color Purple soundtrack, and review copies of Quincy’s new book–12 Notes on Life and Creativity, alongside your extensive catalogue. Big dreamer. I know.

I wrote your staff requesting an opportunity to share space with you at the beginning of the year, and I get that I am one of a billion people who have that same prayer, so when I didn’t hear back I was not astonished, just patient until Sara Lomax Reese, head of the oldest local radio station in Philadelphia, calls me up and asks if I’d like to interview Alice Walker, I say: YES! And then cut a step. Yes to the Great Listener. Wave my hand in the air. Yes to fate. Close my eyes. Inhale. Yes to Alice.

You won’t believe this but on December 31, 2021, I wrote down all my wildest dreams for 2022 and right on top of my list, under complete my memoir, was your name–have tea and chat with Alice Walker. The tea didn’t happen just yet (but I have hope). Our chat began at 6 pm on May 12th at the Comcast Technology Center. But how does one squeeze a lifetime of questions into a 45-minute interview where I must share half the questions with a co-host and 15 minutes of the interview on audience questions. The day before the interview, my sister said, “Just make sure you have one good question because that might be all you get.” And she was almost right. I got to ask you about love, flowers, reparations, finances, and fame. But I still have so many other questions.

I will not write them all here today. Just one: I want to know your visions for the future of this world and how you see us getting there. After reading the journal entries in Gathering Blossoms, I am challenged on how to teach folks, especially young folks, how to practically apply the lessons the book so eloquently layers in. For instance, I just finished watching a documentary on Hulu about XXXtentacion, a young rapper with millions of fans who was shot dead at 20 years old during the height of his tumultuous career.

I wanted to understand XXXtentacion more because my 18-year- old son damn near worships him. “XXXtentacion to me is what Alice Walker is to you,” my son explains. In the documentary, XXXtentacion, like Mister______, like your grandfather, has a deep mix of undesirable qualities alongside great fragility. These qualities are attractive to millions of young people who listen to XXXtentacion and feel heard. And I am aware that in Philly, it’s the 16–24-year-olds who are both the most at risk (highest murder rate, highest suicide rate, highest rape rate) and share the highest opportunity for growth. I am aware that the young person who shot and killed elders in a Buffalo grocery store was 18 years old. That the young person who shot and killed babies in a Texas elementary school was 18 years old. That the cadre of conductors working in our shops come there to restore their belief in connection. And these are young people who just came out of years spent in the captivity of a global pandemic. I just want to know from your perspective how to love them better. How to reach the otherwise unreachable. How to get as many of your books into desiring hands as possible. How to get us writing letters like Nettie. And freely expressing ourselves like Shug and Sofia. And restoring ourselves like Celie.

I believe that your books are medicine, a soul rejuvenating elixir that will protect and guide us through the days to come if we read, hear, and apply the wisdom.

signed a revolutionary petunia,

jeannine


For the last 10 years, Jeannine Cook has worked as a trusted writer for several startups, corporations, non-profits, and influencers. In addition to a holding a master’s degree from The University of the Arts, Jeannine is a Leeway Art & Transformation Grantee and a winner of the South Philly Review Difference Maker Award. Jeannine’s work has been recognized by several news outlets including Vogue Magazine, INC, MSNBC, The Strategist, and the Washington Post. She recently returned from Nairobi, Kenya facilitating social justice creative writing with youth from 15 countries around the world. She writes about the complex intersections of motherhood, activism, and community. Her pieces are featured in several publications including the Philadelphia Inquirer, Root Quarterly, Printworks, and midnight & indigo. She is the proud new owner of Harriett’s Bookshop in the Fishtown section of Philadelphia.

Some Stuff Ain’t for Sale

Year 2. For the last two years, we have lived and witnessed a level of community that we believe is worth a testimony.

Our testimony is that we’ve witnessed folks bring us cases of water to get through sidewalk sales in smoldering summer heat; we’ve watched piles of love letters and thank you cards and flowers and awards stack up behind our desk from well-wishers; we’ve hosted author readings on street corners and the orchestra in our living room and athletes and artists of every genre lend us their best.

Our community has ensured a few dozen youth have a safe nourishing place to call home–running daily operations, hosting our pop-up shops, book giveaways, and now the trolley tours.

Our community drives us to write more, and build more, and to listen more even in the face of the overt and covert vileness that seeks to take the best of us away from us. Did you know somebody almost got away with me?

Our sister bookshops are a social experiment in sisterhood and even under undeniable odds, we are thriving and flying where it matters most. But, as with any experiment, there are results to report.

The lyrics from Ntzoke Shange’s 1976 choreopoem, for colored girls who considered suicide when the rainbow was enuf, provide context for one of the revelations that we wish to address–

“Somebody almost walked off wid alla of my stuff,” Shange’s character, Lady in Green, says as if swats these words with her hips as she shares about being in love with “a kleptomaniac who was workin hard at forgettin while stealin/stealin all my shit.”

On our journey, we are more and more often finding institutions, corporations, organizations, media engines, and political figures who are way too similar to Lady In Green’s kleptomaniac lover. We are finding institutions that we have “made way too much room for” attempting to seduce us into long term relationships, and even birthing their children, knowing just like “a man who’s ego walked round like Rodan’s shadow” that they have no intentions of true love.

Instead there is a demand for our votes, our dollars, our attention spans, our memories, our signatures, our image and likeness, and all manners of coercion to try to steal our “anonymous ripped off treasures.” But this stuff is mine, Mr. Lousiana Hotlink.

This is not the first time that institutions, corporations, organizations, media engines, and political figures have tried to take off with “our stuff in a plastic bag beneath their arms.” This is how it has gone for generations–through the slavery and the civil war and the jane crow and the jazz and the renaissance and the marches and the redlining and the free breakfasts and the cyphas and the cross colors at every turn taking a dime for things that we didn’t even know we had. “Why dont ya find yr own things,” Shange’s Lady In Green says as she shimmys.

But the warning in Shange’s piece is not for the greedy lover that we have made too much room for; we expect them to behave the way they have always behaved. No, the Lady in Green is calling out to her sisters from a place of both shock and caution. She reminds us that they can’t have us, unless we give us away. That it is our responsibility to hold on to our stuff and to get it back if and when it gets confiscated.

Unfortunately, in the past, while some stood firm in the conviction that “I gotta have me in my pocket,” others were freely given up “our fried plantains/ pineapple pear juice/ sun-ra & joseph & jules in exchange” not realizing that we are the only ones who can truly handle our stuff. Giving it up, generation after generation, is like throwing our stuff in the sewer. It’s like a mammy nursing her master’s baby, while her own children starve. Some stuff ain’t for sale. Our stuff is not up for commodification/publication/classification/gentrification/decoration/replication.

So yeah, we taking our stuff back. We want our rhythms & our voices. We want our open mouths. We want our arms wit the hot iron scars. We want our legs wit the flea bites. We want our calloused feet & quik language. We want our stuff.

Say it loud, like the Lady In Green,

Our own things’/ that is our name.


For the last 10 years, Jeannine Cook has worked as a trusted writer for several startups, corporations, non-profits, and influencers. In addition to a holding a master’s degree from The University of the Arts, Jeannine is a Leeway Art & Transformation Grantee and a winner of the South Philly Review Difference Maker Award. Jeannine’s work has been recognized by several news outlets including Vogue Magazine, INC, MSNBC, The Strategist, and the Washington Post. She recently returned from Nairobi, Kenya facilitating social justice creative writing with youth from 15 countries around the world. She writes about the complex intersections of motherhood, activism, and community. Her pieces are featured in several publications including the Philadelphia Inquirer, Root Quarterly, Printworks, and midnight & indigo. She is the proud new owner of Harriett’s Bookshop in the Fishtown section of Philadelphia.

Letter From the Poetry Editor

Philadelphia Stories happily announces that the poem, “greens” by Edythe Rodriguez was selected as the winning poem in this year’s Sandy Crimmins National Prize in Poetry. Crimmins judge Cynthia Arrieu-King writes that “greens” is “virtuosic” and “handles its use of the page like a kind of spontaneous music.”

We are also awarding each of four runners up a $250 prize: Kelly Lorraine Andrews for “The Madonna of the Rabbit,” Stephanie Niu for “Abecedarian for Pinyin,” Aimee Seu for “Rich Friend,” and Alison Lubar for “You Can’t Say ‘Oriental.’” Poems from Liz Abrams-Morley, Cleveland Wall, Ike Pickett, and Mackenzie Kean were selected as honorable mentions by the judge. Poems from Lupita Eyde-Tucker, Courtney DuChene, Mikhayla Robinson, and Laura Tanenbaum were selected as “editor’s choices” by the contest readers, contest coordinators, and poetry editor and appear in the online Spring 2022 issue.

Along with Edythe Rodriguez, the winning poets will be celebrated with an online reading at the LitLife Poetry Festival’s closing reception on Saturday, April 23. Visit https://philadelphiastories.org/2022-litlife-poetry-conference/ for more information and to register for LitLife.

Joe Sullivan continues to support this contest and we are grateful for his enduring friendship with Philadelphia Stories. We are also grateful to contest coordinators Eli Aharon and Phoebe LaMont for their  consistent, helpful, and organized work. We thank Yalonda Rice, managing editor, for her flexibility and patience. Above all, we thank the poets who trust their work with us; reading your poems each year is a pleasure and a challenge that is humbling and humanizing.

 

WINNER OF THE 2022 SANDY CRIMMINS NATIONAL PRIZE IN POETRY

“greens,” Edythe Rodriguez (Upper Darby, PA)

 

RUNNERS UP

“The Madonna of the Rabbit,” Kelly Lorraine Andrews (Pittsburgh, PA)

“Abecedarian for Pinyin,” Stephanie Niu (New York, NY)

“Rich Friend,” Aimee Seu (Tallahassee, FL)

“You Can’t Say ‘Oriental,'” Alison Lubar (Cherry Hill, NJ)

 

HONORABLE MENTIONS

“Her, Too,” Liz Abrams-Morley (Philadelphia, PA)

“How to Act,” Cleveland Wall (Bethlehem, PA)

“There are Horses in North Philadelphia! There are Figs in My Stomach!” Ike Pickett (Philadelphia, PA)

“Fiona Rice Does Not Talk to the Rabbits,” Mackenzie Kean (Freehold, NJ)

 

EDITORS’ CHOICES

“Eucalyptus,” Lupita Eyde-Tucker (Melbourne Beach, FL)

“Ars Poetica Caught in Eternal Recurrence,” Courtney DuChene (Philadelphia, PA)

“In the Wake of Heat,” Mikhayla Robinson (Athens, GA)

“The Night Diana Died,” Laura Tanenbaum (Brooklyn, NY)

 

FINALISTS

A Lion Who Lives in a Fear Filled World,” Shagufta Mulla (Independence, OR)

A Psalm of Assaf,” Jared Ijams (Brooklyn, NY)

“Advice for a New School Year,” Megan Merchant (Prescott, AZ)

“Advice to My Six-Year-Old Self,” Jane Miller (Wilmington, DE)

“Diptych: Brood X,” Matt Hohner (Baltimore, MD)

“Gathering and Letting Go,” Brendan Praniewicz (San Diego, CA)

“Ghost,” Nala Washington (Camp Springs, MD)

“Lovecraft,” Sean Hanrahan (Philadelphia, PA)

“Ode to the Laundromat,” Kathleen Shaw (Schwenksville, PA)

“Ornithology of Hunger,” Katherine Gaffney (Petal, MS)

“Raking the Leaves,” Steve Burke (Philadelphia, PA)

“same old same old,” Nicole Adabunu (Iowa City, IA)

“There’ll be no more writing around the thing,” L.J. Sysko (Wilmington, DE)

“Two Tones against Brick,” Alison Hicks (Havertown, PA)

 

Writing for Social Justice: Core Strength

“She ain’t nothing but a $5 hoe,” our booknerd, stripper friend chides while she two-step shimmies towards the pole in the center of her new home’s private library. We are in her house, Young Money’s Seeing Green playing on repeat in the background. This is her den of delectable book treats. Surrounded by the smell of seductive stunken leather and crumpled paper backs, this is where she reads and entertains. “Like Sula,” our friend reinforces her statement with eyebrows raised as she grips the titanium-gold pole and wraps her legs around it, careful not to stab herself with her spiked four inch heel.

The $5 hoes that she is talking about are activists who partner with corporate brands for trinkets and the long-term effects those relationships have on communities. We are talking about how much modern day branding is like the physical branding done to ancestors of the past. Always some colonialist loser with their hot irons and pitchforks wanting to inflict their names and their labels and their pain on someone else’s chest or ass or thigh. And how branding cannot be misconstrued with reparation.

And she is changing the subject to Toni Morrison’s 1973 book, Sula, knowing damn well we have been drinking. We are sitting at our booknerd stripper friend’s meticulous and neat desk pontificating over an Old Fashioned in our ripped jeans and a bleached-brown-from-black Strategic AF tee shirt. We could use some lotion–and some socks. She is one with her pole.

“A $5 hoe like Sula?” our booknerd stripper friend pokes at Toni Morrison’s free-spirited protagonist and title character. In this deep character study of a novel, Morrison channels two best friends, Sula and Nell. Readers get to experience the two women’s lifetime of decisions on love, friendship, community, loyalty, and philosophy. We get to examine their dubious choices and more importantly examine our own through them–asking ourselves throughout the story, which character we are more like under different life circumstances. Sula or Nell?

Then our booknerd stripper friend effortlessly flips herself upside down, legs spread V to the sky. Talk about core strength.

Morrison has created an ongoing sore spot in our friendship.

We state:

“Sula was spontaneous.”

 

She states:

“Sula was inscrupulous.”

 

We state:

“Unscrupulous.”

 

She states:

“Bitch, you know what I mean.

 

She lands in a split that makes our cheeks ache.

 

We were asking her to imagine a world where Rosa Parks was sponsored by Aunt Jemima-selling syrup as she sauntered away from her seat in southern Alabama, where Fannie Lou Hamer was sponsored by Uncle Ben’s, pushing rice while delivering rants against racism at mass meetings in Mississippi. It is unimaginable.

“Don’t you dare say an unkind word about Ms. Parks,” she glances over her shoulder at us.

“What about Hamer?” Our hand gestures adamant towards the sky. “Morrison is speaking about the whole human,” our fingers like a maestro conducting our words. “We all a lil’ Sula from time to time. Not connecting our decisions to what is best for the community, not caring. We are all a lil’ Nell from time to time. Over sacrificing at our own peril. No need to choose between these two. Instead stand in the middle.” We rest our flailing arms at our sides.

Modern day branding tactics are sneaky and not nearly as visceral as cooking someone’s flesh with a burning hot piece of metal. Because of this, the tactics are a little harder to spot. They may disguise themselves in marketing lingo like partnership, campaign, and collaboration or hide behind financial backing calling themselves grants, fellowships, and awards knowing damn well they have an ulterior motive—let us put our names on your back, shoulder, or face like chattel.

“We had a woman reach out wanting to present a youth poetry award at the bookshop,” we say looking through our friend’s super neat Nicki Minaj cover collection.

“Sweet,” she is on the floor stretching. “You should stretch your hip,” she says tapping the floor where she wants us to sit down next to her.

“Right. No problem. Sure.” We ignore her and get back to our story. “But the closer we got to the event, the youth poetry award woman finally shared that the award was being sponsored by Gucci and that they wanted to pay us for using our venue as long as one of their representatives was able to present the award and speak to the press out front. But Gucci had literally just dropped their Blackface turtleneck line. We were like, ‘Sis, we could never host them after that.’ And the crazy thing is she couldn’t understand why not. They’d just given her a community ambassador fellowship, she said clutching her pearls. Five thousand dollars and that turtleneck thing was a thing of the past. So is slavery,” we rolled our eyes as she and her little check pranced out the door.

“Precisely. In my industry, the best of us live by a standard. We work by a code. We have to have each other’s backs. But there are those who don’t.” Our booknerd stripper friend is laid flat out on her back taking in deep breaths. “We say this is a hoe willing to mess it up for everyone else by accepting $5 to do some shit that the rest of us would never do at all because it doesn’t serve anyone—it doesn’t even serve the hoe. We chop those dumb bitches the fuck up at the end of the night because they make it harder for the rest of us having people think we are all $5 hoes,” she Floyd Mayweather jabs and uppercuts the air.

At this point, some of us may ask ourselves, why would anyone accept less than they deserve? And the answer is because we don’t know what we deserve and haven’t asked ourselves this question enough for actual feedback.

We stay quiet. We know very little about booknerd stripper culture. The closest we’ve come in support of our friend’s self-proclaimed, good hoe goals is cornrowing her braids into a crown that fit snugly beneath her platinum 40 inch.

“What about freedom, though?” we ask after a long minute of silence. “Aren’t people allowed to do whatever they want? Free will?”

“Yup, and those free hoes who do so without a standard among people who they can trust are easy prey. They always get picked off. Those people, like Sula, end up chopped and alone with people like me and Nell who have to come along and give them medicine and pick up their pieces.”

In Morrison’s novel, Nell ends up serving her lifelong friend, Sula, in her dying moments, even after what she perceives is Sula’s severe betrayal.

“What we always felt was missing from Sula and Nell’s relationship was a plan. A decision. A meeting of the minds,” we say looking down into our glass of Old Fashioned.

“Yup and the moral of the story is never be a $5 hoe, my G,” she says dozing off to sleep.

Ase. And so shall it be.


For the last 10 years, Jeannine Cook has worked as a trusted writer for several startups, corporations, non-profits, and influencers. In addition to a holding a master’s degree from The University of the Arts, Jeannine is a Leeway Art & Transformation Grantee and a winner of the South Philly Review Difference Maker Award. Jeannine’s work has been recognized by several news outlets including Vogue Magazine, INC, MSNBC, The Strategist, and the Washington Post. She recently returned from Nairobi, Kenya facilitating social justice creative writing with youth from 15 countries around the world. She writes about the complex intersections of motherhood, activism, and community. Her pieces are featured in several publications including the Philadelphia Inquirer, Root Quarterly, Printworks, and midnight & indigo. She is the proud new owner of Harriett’s Bookshop in the Fishtown section of Philadelphia.

 

Letter From the Editor

by Carla Spataro, Editorial Director – Philadelphia Stories & PS Books

Every year I have the honor of choosing the finalists for the Marguerite McGlinn Prize for Fiction. Over the past few years, I’ve been doing this in consultation with our Fiction Editor, Trish Rodriguez. As always there were many great stories to choose from this year. Sometimes Trish has to convince me to go back and read something again. Sometimes a second or third reading changes my mind, and sometimes it doesn’t. Usually, we end up with a list of either slightly less than or slightly more than 10 stories. If we’re on the fence about two or three, we look at the grouping as a whole and do our best to decide which stories will make the strongest connection with our readers. I almost always have a favorite, which is almost always never the same as the judge’s favorite – or Trish’s. This is why we have a judge, someone from outside the magazine, someone with a different take on the work and a different aesthetic. Judging art of any kind is purely subjective and writers who submit their work to contests, and for publication in general, need to keep that in mind. All it takes for a story to get published is for the author to find the right reader – and sometimes that takes a very long time.

I was so thrilled Rion Amilcar Schott agreed to be this year’s judge. When I first read his short story collection, The World Doesn’t Require You, I knew this was an author I wanted to meet and hoped that I would be able to convince him to come to Philadelphia. Sadly, this year’s Push to Publish Conference and events will be online again because of Covid concerns, and Rion Amilcar Scott will not be visiting us in person. However, we will still be hosting all the great readings, events, panels, and workshops that you’ve come to expect. And we’ll be doing it all on Zoom. You will still be able to spend the day with him by taking his short story Master Class, Dangerous Satires: Writing Ridiculousness for Ridiculous Times, on Friday, October 8, 2021 – and you’ll be able to “meet” the winners of this year’s contest and hear them read at our virtual celebration and reception on October 9, 2021. Find more details at www.philadelphiastories.org/push-to-publish-2021.

Here are the winning stories with comments from Rion Scott.

First Place: “Uncle” by Robin Lee Lovelace from Plainfield, Indiana. “Uncle” manages to be both funny and starkly gut-wrenching. There’s a tension that crept up on me and when it broke, left me feeling a real sense of loss.

Second Place: “Ameena Goes to America” by Rahad Abeer from Nashua, New Hampshire. In “Ameena Goes to America,” physical journeys become emotional journeys across time. The story left me with questions about the limits of love and forgiveness. It’s a really beautiful story.

Third Place: “Experimental Trials” by Olivia Fantini from Minneapolis, Minnesota. “Experimental Trials” is one of those stories that manages to be timely and timeless. A new vaccine causes people to float. And of course, there are the believers and the non-believers. Grounded, but with a sprinkling of magic, this story had me thinking about the borders of faith and science.

Finalists, in no particular order:

“Goodbye Mr. Lincoln” by Louise Smith, Arlington, VA

“Winged” by Natalie Gerich Brabson, Philadelphia, PA

“May All Be Happy” by Jyotsna Sreenivasan, Columbus, OH

“Ups and Downs” by Shelby Wardlaw, Jersey City, NJ

“Tejedora” by Kris Faatz, Parkville, MD

 

 

2022 AWP Conference Announcement!

The Nation’s Biggest Writing Conference Comes to Philadelphia 

The AWP Conference & Bookfair is the biggest annual writing conference in the United States, and it will be taking place at the Convention Center in Philadelphia in March 2022. 

The conference expects more than 12,000 writers, teachers, students, editors, and publishers of contemporary creative writing to gather from March 23-26, 2022 to participate in hundreds of events – and Philadelphia Stories will be a premier sponsor of this event. 

This premiere sponsorship represents a unique opportunity to not just showcase Philadelphia Stories magazine to this national audience, but to showcase Philadelphia as a hub for the literary arts. 

The Winter 2022 issue of Philadelphia Stories will be distributed at the conference, and it is our goal to ensure this issue represents the diverse voices that make up our great city. Here are two ways you can participate in the issue:

  •     Submit your work: If you are a writer currently living in or from the Philadelphia metropolitan area, you may submit your fiction, nonfiction, poetry, or artwork to be considered for the special AWP Winter 2022 issue. We are specifically seeking submissions from diverse perspectives: all ethnicities, races, abilities, and gender identification. Find our guidelines here: https://philadelphiastories.org/submission-guidelines/
  •     Submit your literary organization to be considered for our AWP Resource Guide: The Winter 2022 AWP issue of Philadelphia Stories will include a special Resource Guide listing the wealth of literary resources available in the region, including independent bookstores, literary organizations, writing workshops, reading series, and more. You may submit your organization here to be considered: https://forms.gle/LWXq8W3tYpfmnmou8

As part of our AWP sponsorship, Philadelphia Stories will be offering scholarships to writers so they can attend the conference and bookfair. We also plan to have plenty of fun, hosting free readings, meet-ups, and cocktail parties. 

We look forward to working in partnership with the Philadelphia writing community to showcase our city as a place where the literary arts thrive.

 

Holy Cow

I am trying to make sense of things, which is why I find myself ruminating. Chewing like a cow on my thoughts. Cows also ruminate. Differently though. After ingesting lots of grass, cows find a place to lie down to more thoroughly chew their food. This process of swallowing, “un-swallowing”, re-chewing, and re-swallowing is called rumination, or more commonly, “chewing the cud.” Perhaps my mental cud chewing is some undiagnosed shit, as I have more than once been called a bull shitter. Maybe it’s some spiritual shit, as I have more than once been called a heifer.

During my ruminations, a thought from years ago or months ago or minutes ago, a sneaky motherfucking thought can get caught in an endless cycle that moves through my mind, down into my gut, up into my heart, and back into my head all day for days. This week’s rumination was on Bill Gates. When news first dropped of his divorce with Melinda French Gates, I couldn’t understand why a couple married that long would divorce. Just didn’t make sense to me in my naivety about relationships and such. But then I read he’d been a serial philanderer, and maybe something worse, for years. This took me back to my ongoing thoughts about John Tubman. I wonder what it felt like for Harriett to love a lover who betrayed her and still not be able to get him out of the rotation of her habitual thinking—looking for nutrients that were perhaps never there.

And that just sits me down in the grass with my questions, not about Bill or John or Harriett, but about humans, about humanity, about the cows. Is there a goal for reckoning with the atrocities done to the folks on this land, or is everyone just chewing cud, full of it. What would it take for folks to trust each other enough to confront history healthily on a massive scale? Is that ever going to happen or is it not even what people want? Are we out to pasture and don’t even know it? Being led to some ultimate slaughter because we’ve never stopped chewing long enough to digest what has happened here. To extract the lessons, expel the shit, and not lap it up again and again for no reason, no reason at all on repeat. How do we repair the harm of slavery, Jim Crow, and lynching? I grind these questions through my teeth, down into my gut, throw them up, lick them down, throw them up again, sleep with them on my stomach, wake up with them on my face.

I wonder if I, who unlike cows that ruminate out of necessity, am doing so as a trauma response? Am I eternally grazing? Do I get to have memories of my dad’s size 11 hooves stomping my mother’s face in my mind forever, forever ever? Oh, the amount of intrusive reviewing and revisiting and revising that I put myself through after a speech or a panel discussion or after I’ve met someone whose thoughts make me think twice. Always wanting to rewind the time, to break things down just a little bit more, just a little bit longer. I can lie paralyzed by thoughts of a single color, a silly word, or a fumbled phrase. Is this something that will eventually go away? Do I want it to? I think the older I get, it only happens more.

I ruminate over people too. I sit and think and think and think about Kanye or my Ex or my future love or my future Ex lover and wonder if they are ok and if there is anything I could do to help them or to help the people in my life who are like them? I even think about how their brains work and wonder whether they ruminate too? Do they reflect on circumstances in ways that require large swaths of energy—relive moments of emotional unrest or emotional bliss while waving their tails under the summer’s hot sun? Do questions about Malcolm and Mariama and Mumia know no end in their minds like mine? Do they get so lost in their thoughts that they see someone talking but cannot make out the words they’ve said with lips just flapping from side to side in the wind?

This Erykah Badu on and on and on-ism is also something I do with history. Sit myself in the haul of a ship tightly packed with piss and vomit and blood and death at my feet and at my head. I am Antoinette Sithole running beside a dying boy through Soweto. I am Winnie Mandela 491 days solitarily confined. I, too, chew with the ancient aurochs and swim with the ship jumpers.

Someone told me to practice writing the ruminations out. Not a therapist, just a fellow ruminator who reported to have found a way to reuse their unmanaged, unmitigated written ruminations to reimagine. To release them like an unruly herd. I want to reimagine what the American version of the Truth and Reconciliation Trials would look like? A social epic I suppose. Can we stand to memorize other people’s lines? Like future replay in reverse.

Rumination was originally defined as repetitive thinking about negative effects and their possible causes and consequences. But rumination can also be beneficial when it focuses on reckoning with an error—one’s own and those of others. Like spending hours thinking about what healing feels like in our bodies, in our minds. Rumination is also helpful for goal attainment rehearsing a task—seeing ourselves, smelling ourselves, in a future as we wish to see it. When was the last time you ruminated on a world repaired? A people healed? Remembering that finding social nutrients is an all-day job and gave yourself the whole day to do it. Write out your regurgitations, prepare for reconciliations that repair the harm because we can ruminate on the problems until the cows come home, but how much more can our minds really take and who is it actually feeding?


For the last 10 years, Jeannine Cook has worked as a trusted writer for several startups, corporations, non-profits, and influencers. In addition to a holding a master’s degree from The University of the Arts, Jeannine is a Leeway Art & Transformation Grantee and a winner of the South Philly Review Difference Maker Award. Jeannine’s work has been recognized by several news outlets including Vogue Magazine, INC, MSNBC, The Strategist, and the Washington Post. She recently returned from Nairobi, Kenya facilitating social justice creative writing with youth from 15 countries around the world. She writes about the complex intersections of motherhood, activism, and community. Her pieces are featured in several publications including the Philadelphia Inquirer, Root Quarterly, Printworks, and midnight & indigo. She is the proud new owner of Harriett’s Bookshop in the Fishtown section of Philadelphia.

Dearly Beloved, You are my people, Do not pass on this story

Writing For Social Justice — Column

As He says also in Hosea: “I will call them My people, who were not My people, And her beloved, who was not beloved.” Romans 9:25

I am convinced that Toni Morrison is sending me messages from the other side. Maybe those are her knuckles brushing against my cheek when I sleep. Maybe those are her footsteps that come and go after things go silent. And that is why I’ve returned yet again to her story, Beloved.

This time, my sister Jazzy and I are using our new podcast as an excuse for yet another walk down Morrison’s Bluestone Road looking for clues to heal the chokecherry tree society’s back—clueless about what I mean? Then you have your homework.

This is not the first or the last time my sister and I will read Beloved or restudy the screenplay or rewatch the film knowing that the answers are all there. Our continued question—how do we complete the ultimate social exorcism and banish the evil of colonialism once and for all? We both agree wholeheartedly that Beloved holds the answers; it is just a matter of respecting the text and respecting our foremother enough to take a second look.

In our work as facilitators, before the bookshop, we reminded youth in countries around the world that the etymology of the word respect means to look again. We find in our society it is all too easy and highly common to make assumptions and conclusions about people, art, philosophies, and books based on our first impressions.

But respect requires us to return and see more—ask more questions—a second (or even in our case six hundredth) look lets you see what you never remembered you’d forgotten. Like it was Toni who took a second look at her own Black Book to better understand the woman she featured there, Margaret Garner. This woman who at first glance is seen as a wild slave and a horrific child murderer; at a second glance, she becomes a beacon of motherhood and the definition of freedom.

So, because we respect the heck out of this book and Toni Morrison, we find ourselves reading it like it is the first time. I am recognizing how much I’ve changed this time around simply by the questions that I find myself asking myself. Like, in 2012, I was obsessed with the feet. In 2014, it was the colors. In 2016, it was the men. In 2018, it was the mothers. And this time around, I am caught up in the Fugitive Slave Act and what its modern equivalent may be, how we treat felons, and how we know we are free. I always wonder how I miss so much. And wonder who I will be the next time I read it and what she will see that I cannot yet see.

So, the other night, my sister and I spent the night in the bookshop determined to unpack this book once again. “We have to do it for the podcast,” we said laughing. We poured libations for the ancestors, held hands, and invited Toni Morrison and Margaret Garner to “Come on. Come on. You may as well just come on.”

“60 million,” I read the book’s dedication out of respect for the 60 million who died during the transatlantic trade of people.

“60 million,” Jazzy repeats.

“You are my people,” I say out of respect for the book’s opening biblical quote about second chances.

“You are my people,” she repeats.

“This is not a story to pass on,” we say in unison.

From 9 p.m. to 9 a.m., we post sticky note after sticky note on the walls asking ourselves who was Beloved? And why we are being haunted by her. And whether we are wild or free. And how we are Sethe. And whether we have two legs or four. And why the community failed Baby Suggs. And what it means to be loved. And finally, we run out of sticky notes. We sit on the floor staring up at the wall and realize, once again we’ve only just begun.

My hope is that on your journey to wherever you may be headed, you will return to the books and the authors who are your beloved and take a second look. And that you will find your people and discuss it with them. And that you will find the clues to join us on the ultimate social exorcism so we can banish this thing once and for all.

Ase.


For the last 10 years, Jeannine Cook has worked as a trusted writer for several startups, corporations, non-profits, and influencers. In addition to a holding a master’s degree from The University of the Arts, Jeannine is a Leeway Art & Transformation Grantee and a winner of the South Philly Review Difference Maker Award. Jeannine’s work has been recognized by several news outlets including Vogue Magazine, INC, MSNBC, The Strategist, and the Washington Post. She recently returned from Nairobi, Kenya facilitating social justice creative writing with youth from 15 countries around the world. She writes about the complex intersections of motherhood, activism, and community. Her pieces are featured in several publications including the Philadelphia Inquirer, Root Quarterly, Printworks, and midnight & indigo. She is the proud new owner of Harriett’s Bookshop in the Fishtown section of Philadelphia.

Letter from the Poetry Editor

Philadelphia Stories is excited to share the winning poem in this year’s Sandy Crimmins National Prize in Poetry: Caitlin Kossmann’s “Airborne.” This year’s Crimmins Prize was judged by poet Airea D. Matthews, director of the creative writing program at Bryn Mawr College and author of the critically acclaimed Simulacra. Kossmann along with the other winners will be celebrated with an online reading and awards ceremony to wrap up the LitLife Poetry Festival on April 17.

The 2021 Crimmins judge, Airea D. Matthews says that “Airborne” offers “an opportunity for stillness” as it “[reflects] on longing and the quotidian aspects of our cloistered lives.” The absence depicted in Kossmann’s poem is palpable and familiar, but so is the urge to tidy, to care for, and to protect.

This focus on small, meaningful detail is evident in the runners up for 2021 selected by Airea D. Matthews. Sean Webb’s “On a Day’s Pause from the Rigors of Metastases We Walk through Laurel Hill Cemetery, You and I” and Jessica Chretien’s “Plural” draw the reader’s attention to the granular, but build mosaics and colonies out of tiles, ants, years, and days. These runners up will each receive $250 for their poems and are invited to join us on April 17.

Many of the poems we reviewed for this issue speak to the obviously precedented dangers of systemic injustice, white supremacy, unemployment, and disease. The current moment exposes how interconnected and incapacitating such threats are. Widespread grief and frustration have been more than some of us can process in our own writing. Thankfully, poets like those included in Philadelphia Stories’ Spring 2021 issue have been able to offer us their work, helping focus our own sorrow and anger. Reading these poems feels to me like holding the hand of someone a step or two ahead on an unfamiliar path. They cannot answer our biggest questions, they cannot solve our hardest problems, but they can remind us—crucially, unexpectedly—of the points where we connect.

Philadelphia Stories thanks Joe Sullivan for his continued support of this contest and his enduring friendship with Philadelphia Stories. We also welcome Jackie Domenus in the role of contest coordinator and thank Jackie for consistent, helpful, and organized communication with our poetry editor and poetry screeners.  We perpetually thank  Yalonda Rice, managing editor, for her flexibility and patience in assembling the magazine. Above all, we thank the poets who trust their work with us; reading your poems each year humbles us and reminds us how connected we are.

We will celebrate the winning poets of the Crimmins contest and the new poet laureate of Montgomery County in an afternoon reception which will be online, free, and open to the public as part of the LitLife Poetry Festival on April 17. Visit https://philadelphiastories.org/litlife-poetry-festival/ for more information and to register for LitLife.

WINNER OF THE 2021 SANDY CRIMMINS NATIONAL PRIZE IN POETRY

“Airborne,” Caitlin Kossmann (New Haven, CT)

RUNNERS UP

“On a Day’s Pause from the Rigors of Metastases We Walk Through Laurel Hill Cemetery, You and I,” Sean Webb (Philadelphia, PA)

“Plural,” Jessica Chretien (Concord, NH)

 EDITORS’ CHOICES

“Why I Never Talk About My Mother,” Joe Cilluffo (West Chester, PA)

“A Black Body Stuffed in a Villanelle,” Jaya Montague (Philadelphia, PA)

“Warning, Do Not Eat Your Fortune: 40 Dating Reminders Every Woman Over 40+ Needs to Hear Now!,” S. Erin Batiste (Brooklyn, NY)

“Dad, Because You Made Me Destroyer of Worlds, Yours, Too,” Judd Hess (Huntington Beach, CA )

FINALISTS

Catie Barrett (Ithaca, NY)

Imani Cezanne (Oakland, CA)

Curtis Christler (Fort Wayne, IN)

Dillon Clark (Egg Harbor Township, NJ)

Christian Collier (Hixson, TN)

AE Hines (Portland, OR)

A Kaiser (New York, NY)

Darius Simpson (Oakland, CA)

Lupita Eyde Tucker (Palm Bay, FL)

 

Writing Prompt: Writers Write

Once, while in an Uber, the driver asked me what I did, and I blurted out that I was a writer. It was the first time that I had ever admitted to being a writer to anyone. Usually, I said that I was a mom or worked for my husband or worked for a medical practice. I used to write in secret, hiding my work in computer files or journals that I buried in the recesses of my cabinet drawers. But on that day, I was traveling to the convention hall for an AWP conference, and I felt part of the writers’ community. I recognized that there are different paths to being a writer, and my unconventional and delayed course didn’t discount me from being a writer. Writers write. That’s it. That’s the criteria.

For this month’s writing prompt, imagine that your character is sitting on their porch. Think about what they’re doing and what they fixate on? A stranger pulls up in front of the house. What happens next?