A Conversation with Eisa Davis & Eisa Ulen.
“Born of the bloodfire of struggle for the people. I honor my child with your daughter’s name. May they both be strong forces of love and revolution.”
These are the words Fania Davis, sister of Civil Rights icon Angela Davis, wrote in the baby announcement she sent to my mother in 1971. My parents, Tony and Cheryl Ulen, were local activists; Panthers and Communist Party members met regularly in our home for study sessions when I was a little girl. Back when Angela was underground, Fania was pregnant, and I was about one and a half, Fania and her husband stayed with us for several weeks. My mother says I followed her all over the house, and she named her daughter Angela Eisa Davis. Everyone calls her Eisa.
Eisa and I share more than our first names. In fact, folk in New York City confuse us at times: Which Eisa? The one who lives in Fort Greene. They both live in Fort Greene. The one who’s a writer. They’re both writers. The light-skinned one with curly hair. Both. Our lives have run along parallel lines. We both went to college in the Northeast, both went to graduate school in the city, both have fueled careers in the arts and entertainment. We were both born of that bloodfire. Both her play and my novel deal with race and the unpredictable futures of the main characters, both of whom are Black and female.
My namesake’s first produced play, Bulrusher, was staged at the off-Broadway theatre Urban Stages in March 2006. In August that same year, my first novel, Crystelle Mourning, was published by Atria.
I suggested we meet for tea and conversation. I wanted us to talk about our art and the ways the stabilizing fervor of the era within which we were conceived fuels our work. I also wanted to be honest about the effects of the movement on our lives. How has the fervor of that era impacted and perhaps led to divorce in our families? What did it mean for red diaper babies to come-of-age in the excesses of the ’80s and ’90s? What responsibility do we have to Fania’s message of power and hope as we take our places as Black women in America, daughters of the struggle, and artists? What responsibility do we have to ourselves?
I’ve been wondering if our generation is ready and able to continue our parents’ activist work. Has the mantle been passed? My hope is our voices, women joined by this progressive past, will help generate a distinctive, substantive, informative conversation we can all join in, bridging the generations through the personal memories of two women bound to both eras, boomers and X-ers, soul and hip hop, politics and art. And to each other.
Eisa Davis: My first stage production, Bulrusher, is about the land, about black womanhood, and about how you can go forward in your life by learning about the past. It’s about needing to go dig out all of the darkness in there and learn from that muck, which is something I think you did in your novel. It’s a trope of all literature, but specifically African American literature—sankofa—always having to go back and understand what has happened to us; our history is often silenced because there’s so much violence involved in it.
Eisa Ulen: I certainly try to do in Crystelle Mourning what you did so well in Bulrusher, which is to provide enough historical context to root the narrative, and the young woman’s quest for her past self, so that she can identify it and embrace her future self—she’s sort of stuck between the past and the future—to make it about more than just one woman’s personal journey and to help the careful reader understand that I am talking about this communal identity and, specifically, not Bulrusher’s Birmingham or California in the ’50s, but I’m dealing with the Crack Era in Crystelle Mourning.
ED: What you’re getting at is something that I think has troubled and overjoyed us as black people, as a community, as artists, for some time. We want to be able tell these stories that haven’t been told, but we also have to fight to carve out this imaginative space so that it’s not only about restating and reiterating what has already happened—all of that violence and terror that we’ve been through—but that we’re also always creating this imaginative space. This is what Toni Morrison is after.
EU: And doing so well.
ED: I heard a really beautiful reading by this Nicaraguan writer named Gioconda Belli at an event during the PEN World Voices Festival. She said that the tradition of magical realism—that sense of having things happen that couldn’t possibly happen in “real life,” but are given a place to exist in books—that that tradition and that way of thinking has actually helped bring about all these changes that are taking place in Latin America. Whether it’s Bolivia nationalizing its natural gas system, whether it’s a country like Colombia legalizing abortion, whether it’s the way women are being elected—there’s this exciting, progressive movement taking hold.
EU: Is she saying that art has created a space to allow what’s going on in the real world?
ED: Right. She’s saying that this way of thinking—because the literature of magical realism, that aesthetic that allows us to think about the real world in a way that isn’t bound by the rules of reality as we’ve been taught to perceive it—that openness is what allows us to have the new movements that are taking place, this new conception of reality in politics.
EU: It’s like life imitating art, but with politics.
ED: I found this so empowering and exciting because the only way we hear about life imitating art is when it’s Basketball Diaries, and people say that novel is creating a killer. We only hear about it when it’s sex and violence and hip hop music videos creating the same thing out in the streets. I feel that there’s another really exciting way to think about art. But the correlation between art and life is a two-way street, and it’s hard to say whether art is reflecting or literally creating a new world.
EU: That makes me think of Zora and her work as an anthropologist and folklorist. She was so steeped in myth and legend and tall tales, and I think that in many ways the work she did as a scientist enabled the powerful way she rendered the world in novels like Eyes, and in her own life, and in that essay “How It Feels To Be Colored Me.” She created a world where she didn’t belong to the “sobbing school of Negrohood.”
ED: Any sentence she invents is always some remarkable aphorism.
EU: She was way ahead of her time like that. It’s just so amazing to think of her. And I think Valerie Boyd, the biographer, has done such a wonderful job of having us rethink Zora’s last years: the whole “she was on welfare, she was a maid, she couldn’t get her last book published,” all of it over and over and over again. Nella Larsen and so many others had that difficulty, but to think that maybe she had some real peace, and she was gardening, and she was working, and she could look back with satisfaction at all her work.
I certainly think of that aspect of her life as a cautionary tale and try to avoid the fate of Sister Zora. But I think we’re not giving her her just due. If she could be so imaginative, so inventive, create such a powerful new world, and rethink Black women in her work, why do we think for a moment that she couldn’t do that for herself in her own life? And the kind of boundaries we see existing for her in the so-called “real world,” really didn’t circumscribe her spirit. She was still quite free.
ED: I have a whole Zora shelf by the way. Valerie Boyd’s Wrapped In Rainbows is there, so is that great Life in Letters.
EU: I have them, too.
ED: Actually, I have a Langston and Zora shelf—it’s combined.
EU: Bring them back together.
ED: What they were able to achieve that was so exciting for me was what we were talking about—folklore—and the sense of finding value in the past and creating new forms. They were trailblazers in terms of anthropology. Look at all of the folklore that she documented. And the same thing with him, he created new forms with his blues poetry and, of course, that was only the beginning of what he did—using music as a way in, as content. There was also his sense of the proletariat, of the working person, of the regular person, and that is where all of their work…
EU: That is what all of their work celebrates.
ED: That’s why the first play I wrote is about them writing Mule Bone together. I could spend the rest of my life writing plays about the various points in their lives, because that’s how rich their work is. Like you said, I’m so inspired by their voraciousness as citizens of the world, as travelers, as people who’ve explored every possible form. I feel in a lot of ways I came to that because I’m not only a playwright, I’m a performer, and a singer and songwriter—I’ve driven equally on those three paths. But what grounds everything is the idea of bringing to life and celebrating and documenting all of this folklore.
Of course, these days because we’re in a culture that records everything and everyone’s blogging and everyone has a reality show; it seems that’s where our folklore goes. I’m only posing this as an argument; it’s not that I believe it. It’s just things move so quickly. Take a word like crunk, that may have been a culture, that really was a community, and because of the way technology works, it instantly became popular culture and a trend that people took on and appropriated through the media. Even though they don’t know what the hell crunk is. And the whole sense of what really is crunk has now totally changed because it’s everywhere.
EU: Those words and phrases are becoming commodities rather than possessions for the community to share and celebrate and change and impact.
ED: This is something I struggle with a lot because so much of my formative life as an artist happened during this time when we went from there being true subcultures and actual folklore, to everything is mass culture. There’s a real sense of death—a real loss. And I feel like I’m trying to figure out where that pure folklore is. I know that it can’t just disappear because I still feel the need for it. The reason why people have folklore, the reason why people actually are characters as opposed to trying to be normal and doing whatever they’re told by mass culture, is because there is a real human need for it. To have identity and individuality. People talk about this with hip hop. Where does an artist say that’s really me, as opposed to that’s the commodified version of me?
That’s what I’m looking for. I know it’s a function of age, that it’s young people who have the need and spare time to create culture—it’s their day job—and that as you get older you have responsibilities, responsibilities to your own dreams, and the creation of culture is not necessarily your biggest priority anymore. I know that’s part of what’s going on, and I don’t want to be “oh the golden age” because that’s totally regressive and useless. I guess what I’m saying is that I’m always looking for that pure folklore. That’s why I’m in theatre, as opposed to television or film, for the reality of it and seeing live human miracles take place on stage and preserving folklore. But at the same time it’s an extremely segregated space that breaks down into: downtown theatre, Broadway, and, for us, there’s church and talent shows and the chit’lin’ circuit. The only time we’ll go into so-called white venues is if Color Purple is on Broadway, or A Raisin in the Sun, or Hot Feet—I won’t go into that.
EU: You talked about Hughes and blues poems and music. But once you learned about Hurston’s work in dance and the Bahamian Fire Dance, and the stage productions that she did, it seems like you got the same idea I did, this “wow all these pieces of who I am can really work as a cohesive whole in my personal and professional life.” As far as that issue of folklore, one of the things I liked about Bulrusher is the way that you combined elements of Native American ceremonies and chants and folklore with the story or myth of the boy Moses to make this layered story. It also celebrates this sense of orality that is really rooted in African American culture. We found out about what was happening in Black America through word-of-mouth—people traveling and talking. It was the Black seamen, who traveled along slave routes and up and down the east coast, who carried news of independence in Haiti and what was going on in other parts of the world. That’s how we got information.
ED: That’s exactly what Langston and Zora were trying to do with Mule Bone. All of their work, really, was about creating art that had an oral life. That orality was so important in all of their work, whether they were writing it down or not. Of course Zora is legend for all of her parties and…
EU: Recitations and jokes and tall-tales…
ED: Exactly. It seems that’s what you were getting at with Crystelle. I’m so interested in how you wrote the book and the form of address you used. I’m thinking about Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and how it’s literally a letter written by a preacher to his son. There is this sense of orality, but it’s written.
EU: To separate sections I used a dialogue between the grandfather and Crystelle’s boyfriend that doesn’t appear elsewhere in the novel; it’s just a little excerpt of a conversation they’re having, and my own little attempt at prose poetry. There is also a sense of portraiture that exists in the narrative. A lot of it is the female protagonist creating stories in her head about strange men or men she sort of knows. There’s a man she sees on the subway, on her way to Penn Station to catch the Amtrak train to Philadelphia, and she creates a story for him. She doesn’t recite it, she doesn’t tell it, but it exists in her head. There is also a lot of talk in the novel.
I’m aware of the criticism of African women’s literature and the way what is often derisively called small talk is employed in novels and short stories. I think critics have missed the point of what these writers are doing, women like Buchi Emecheta and Flora Nwapa and others. When they have African women talking to each other, they’re forming a sacred space and celebrating the oral culture that is so African and African American, that is so much a part of African and Diasporic culture. Think about how substantive those conversations are. If you really look, it’s in those conversations where Buchi Emecheta is developing one of her most important themes in the narrative. It’s women’s conversations and their everyday speech that helps her develop story. Hurston, again, did that so well with the mule talk—it’s so rich. I can’t imagine any editor in their right mind saying, “Well, we can cut some of this out.” It’s just funny; it’s great, but if you’re not careful, you can miss the point of it. I mean when they’re talking about the mule they’re talking about Janie, they’re talking about Black women in particular, and everything that happens with the mule and the dragging out and Joe Starks standing on the carcass when he gives his speech at the funeral—all of that stuff—you could cut it, but the book would be the poorer for it. It helps develop one of the most important themes in the narrative. I think even with my crazy woman, and the conversation she has with the protagonist, what some might dismiss as crazy talk is in fact really important for her here.
When we first hear the crazy woman in my book, she’s spitting and she’s cackling and she’s talking to the pigeons—there’s no language—but when she encounters Crystelle, she starts to talk. The grandfather character, Granddaddy, is with her at that moment, and he’s kind of like, “Get her away from here. They need to have a place for her.” Crystelle is actually drawn into this homeless woman’s narrative and is nearly compelled to follow her into the bushes, in part because this woman has provided information that she needs. Those are some of the ways that my novel is able to celebrate and really utilize that African sense of art as utilitarian, of it doing something; to use language and everyday speech and the hand-clapping song that I have to develop story.
ED: If Harold Pinter, a Nobel Prize winner, is able to use everyday speech, I think we can…
EU: We can get away with it. We’ve talked about other people’s work and we’ve set up the genesis for our work, but I’d like to go back to the issues of family and generation. I’m interested in a couple of things. One of which is growing up in that era of Black Power and Cultural Nationalism, being Red Diaper babies. It’s been both stabilizing and destabilizing for me in that I feel very privileged. I cannot remember the first time I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, or Black lit, because I was surrounded by it. I was surrounded by the works ofLenin, too. The images on the walls of our home, my childhood home, all reflected this authentic identity back onto me. I did have white dolls but I also had Black dolls. I don’t remember getting my first Black doll, which I think a lot of women in our generation can remember because they were hard to find.
That was quite a privilege, and I feel so blessed to have that. And yet I really feel there has been a kind of disconnect. People talk about a post-war, a post-traumatic stress disorder. Dr. Joy DeGruy-Leary is doing a lot of stuff with that. And I feel like it’s something that really impacted my family. I’m not going to try to excuse my parents’ bad behavior that led to divorce, but I do feel like that moment and all of the distractions from family that arose out of a commitment to the Cause—to The People and to The Struggle—coupled with their relative youth—coming right out of college and everything—was very destabilizing. I do look with envy at my friends whose families are a little more conservative. Our families come from middle class backgrounds, but then they did not lead that Black bourgeois lifestyle.
ED: They didn’t go to Jack and Jill, Links.
EU: Right. My mother was in Jack and Jill but I wasn’t allowed. Now I’m like, “Mom, I want to put my kids in Jack in Jill, am I selling out?” I don’t know.
ED: I used to do entertainment for Jack and Jill.
EU: You did?
ED: They would hire me to play for debutantes, whatever, cotillions.
EU: I don’t know if you felt like this, but I felt like I was on the periphery.
ED: Oh yeah, I mean when people called me bourgie, I’m like, “What are you talking about, we’re on welfare.” There’s a real difference, though.
EU: Other parents were out there making money in the ’60s and ’70s, and our parents were like, “Screw money—we’ve got a revolution.”
ED: There was a real difference between the black middle classes—class not as a function of income but as a function of education and purpose. We were intelligentsia.
ED: A little Marxist term.
EU: I don’t know, maybe we’ll get some great art out of all the pain. Don’t get me wrong, I never felt like I didn’t want my parents to have given me this legacy—like, “If only they hadn’t been involved.” I never felt that way. Never, ever, ever. I’m very proud of their activity, I celebrate that. But there are moments when I think, could we have normalized things on the domestic front, just a little bit? There’s something to be said for the corniness of American middle class conservative values.
ED: That’s so funny. Well, I wrote a play about it—wanna hear it? Here it goes. No, I actually did write a play called Angela’s Mixtape which is about growing up in Berkeley. When you’re a kid, all you want is to be like other kids. It’s that simple. If people around you are wearing a certain kind of jeans, you want to wear the same kind of jeans.
ED: Sassoon, Calvin Klein, whatnot. If you’re 13 years old, you may be interested in boys and girls, whatever your orientation may be, but you’re interested in something along the lines of sex. You would like to have some version of a kiss. These are the only things you’re concerned about: being like your friends and getting with a boy. That isn’t helped by having a mother who’s making sure you aren’t eating any sugar, you’re not eating any meat, you’re not eating any chemicals; it’s not only the foods you are ingesting in your body it’s also the culture you’re ingesting. You’re not going and spending all your time playing video games at the arcade, you’re not playing at home on Atari. We didn’t have Atari. In fact, we weren’t even allowed to watch television except for PBS. Thankfully, that changed so I could watch Chips and stuff like that.
EU: Can I tell you, when I turned 10, I was like, “I’m taking control of my hair,” because my mother insisted on this short curly—my hair texture’s version of the ’fro. It had to be short because I had to be free, and beauty shouldn’t hurt. She wasn’t going to spend all day combing through my hair. She had other things to do because she was a liberated woman.
ED: My hair was a handful—I know that was work. So I was like, “Mom can I get a perm, please?” And she was like, “No, it’s natural.”
EU: I think that’s why I have long hair, and I’m afraid to cut it.
EU: Because I was traumatized by this childhood…
EU: … of you’ve got to have short, natural hair.
ED: This brings up a larger issue when you talk about hair. If African women are talking about hair, for example, in one of these books—for someone to call that small talk really doesn’t understand what hair means to a black woman. And I feel that Lisa Jones really said it when she said, “How black women wear their hair is how they see themselves, how they place themselves in society.”
Hair and what it does and what it says about your womanhood is such an unbelievably loaded and painful topic. I took it personally when I was given short hair so my mom didn’t have to comb it. I had a little ’fro in the fifth or sixth grade, which was that time when you’re really starting to want to be a girl.
EU: And to approach the beauty standards.
ED: Yes. All of a sudden that means something to you, and people are starting to make out by the bungalow or the water fountain—that means something. I had that short ’fro, and I would go to the grocery store, and the old ladies would be like, “Son, help me with my groceries.” Earrings! Do you see the earrings?
EU: I had that too: “What a cute little boy.”
ED: It’s not only about the hair making you a boy; it’s about the way we were raised to be with them: don’t be submissive, be smart. We grew up on the heels of the women’s liberation movement when it was about raising men and women to be the same.
EU: I didn’t even have to hear that language to know that a certain assertive behavior was expected of me. Women around me were bold; they were not submissive; they were not subjugated; and that’s why they left their husbands, I guess.
ED: This is a big issue. How do you create this version of a girl or woman who is unafraid to be herself, unafraid to be smart, and to literally play with boys on her own territory?
EU: I think that whole question of how you place yourself in the world as a daughter of that power—that grassroots power—is something I try to get at in my novel. My characters are my characters because that’s who they are, of course, but as I go back over and re-read my work, especially my essays, I find that a lot of my themes are rooted in that era, in that time, in this new culture.
EU: We’re both hip hop heads. I totally love our culture—we grew up in hip hop and hip hop grew up in us. And that culture is so heavily influenced by the soul movement and the funk movement. They made up the soundtrack of my childhood, much the way the blues influenced Hurston and Hughes. There are these personal issues of family, of divorce and fatherlessness, like you were talking about earlier, that all exist in our private space. And, for me, that creates this sense of responsibility.
Earlier we were talking about capturing the communal voice and making sure that our characters from different backgrounds, whose voices have been silenced, are finally heard. I don’t sit down at my computer or with my journal thinking, “I have to save the race with each and every sentence.” But as daughters of the movement, I feel we have some responsibility. One of the questions you asked in your letter to Ntozake Shange was, “Is poetry enuf?” We are not doing what our parents did.
ED: No, we’re not.
EU: Is it because there aren’t enough of us? Is it because there isn’t this movement that we can attach ourselves to? Or is it something in us? Is it just because we’re artists and we have other things to do?
ED: It’s a lot of those things. If we were we born in the time that our parents were born in, I think we would have done the same things they did. That’s just what would have happened. You had to be on one side or the other. Either you were trying to get yours…
EU: Or you were trying to help everybody else get theirs.
ED: Which people did. My mother and my aunt are very particular kinds of warriors, and I have always felt that I’m not as strong as them. I actually don’t think that’s true now. I’ve acquired a certain strength over the years from learning who I am, and learning who they are, historically. The reason I’m an artist has a lot to do with them. In fact, when I was back in Berkeley doing a workshop of Angela’s Mixtape, we talked a lot about growing up in Berkeley and about family history and about these very issues of how to make peace with our legacy, and to use it. This was a watershed moment for me. I went through so much pain, and I was so frightened that my mom, Angela, and my aunts and uncles would come out and be like, “You’ve betrayed us.”
EU: That’s what I wrote about in my letter to Angela Davis, because my mother was like, “Why aren’t you writing about all the good things that happened? Why are you complaining? We risked our lives for you, you spoiled brat. And here you are, criticizing us, saying, ‘Well you didn’t do enough.…’”
ED: Of course! That’s what kids do—that’s the whole purpose of a generation. That’s what youth is: you always…
EU: Hold them in check.
ED: That’s what our kids are going to do to us. They’re going to be like, “Ya’ll are behind,” because we will be. It’s the cycle of life—literally. Whatever has come before, whatever is the death of the past is the fertilizer for life. That’s why I was so frightened. I didn’t know if they were going to hate me, judge me, or disown me. But they didn’t, and not because they agreed with everything I said. I’m still going back and forth with my mom on one thing in particular. That’s the thing with art and with any audience—whether it’s your family or complete strangers—you can’t expect them to like or love what you do. What you can hope for is understanding. And I feel that’s what we’re getting at with our work. We’re creating a dialogue so we can at least say, “I’m over here and I’m over here.” We can have discussions and we can be thankful for each other. Our parents trained us very well in that.
I have to say on the record that I couldn’t have written Angela’s Mixtape if a lot of these issues weren’t already resolved for me, or if I wasn’t totally blessed to be able to have all of those really hard conversations with my mom and my father, who I’m now in touch with. So few people are able to say, “Ok I’ve gone through all of this drama with my parents and I’m on the other side where I love them, and they love me. It’s unconditional. We really dig each other, and we can laugh about the past.”
EU: We are privileged to have these kinds of conversations with our parents and to have the tools necessary to reflect on our childhood, and their childhoods, and what it meant for our grandparents, who we’ve left out of this, but who are also important. When I think of my father, I can’t help but think of my grandmother, who was very much an activist in that old school way. There’s a playground in Harrisburg because of her; there’s legislation about minority businesses because of her. She would roll over in her grave right now if she knew that my uncle hired white people to work at the funeral home. Not because she was a rabid racist, but because…
ED: Because she was about, “Let’s give opportunities where we can.”
EU: If we’re going to employ people to work at the Hooper Funeral Home in Harrisburg, which is the family business, they’re going to be Black people—that was her activism, making things happen in the community. And her parents were like that too; her mother was the first Black schoolteacher in Harrisburg, and her father is the one who started the business in the first place. After this tradition, it’s just very much a part of our work, of our lives, of who we are.
ED: I know that we’re all struggling to find that next form of activism and transformation.
EU: One thing that I’m thinking about with my novel is the need for the female protagonist to go home and get her head together. In some ways the art that we’re producing, that celebrates that feeling of sankofa, is really a way to enable people to grasp a different kind of power, an inner power and spiritual center. That sense of self that will enable our children and their generation to take on a different kind of role, a different kind of activist work, to carry this forward.
ED: It’s a cycle. Activism can’t always be—this is something my mom and Angela have come to understand—it can’t always be screaming at The Man.
EU: Our parents are done with that.
ED: Of course, all of the interior work that we do affects our choices and the conversations we have with people, which are hopefully transformative. And all of that work leads to new ways of thinking about the world. I would rather use words and art than the tactics of armed combat. I understand exactly why my aunt carried a gun. I know why. But for me, now, I am much more informed by the deep psycho-social work of understanding what in black psychology has led me to be in this place. I’m looking for a way to transform that isn’t about conflict and saying, “You are terrible” but more like, “Let’s use what you know how to do and flip the values.”
EU: In the article I wrote for Essence magazine after 9-11, I touched on some of these issues. I felt that all of the activist work my parents had done, and all of the activist work that my grandparents and great-grandparents had done—indeed the work all of our parents and grandparents and great-grandparents—that that was truly building. I realized after 9-11 that no, I’m not separate from America, this big experiment that’s still becoming. In fact, I am essential to it; I’m one of its core components. It would not exist without me.
ED: It was built on your back, and our ancestors’ backs.
EU: Absolutely. America has not just benefited in the material sense from our free labor, but spiritually we were the moral conscience of this country.
ED: That makes me think of what Langston Hughes called “radical patriotism.” I think that’s what we’re all up to. We have a devotion to the possibility, the promise, of America. That dream. That’s what our parents were devoted to: this idea of making America as she should be.
EU: Even when they weren’t using that language, even when they weren’t thinking that way about what they were doing.
ED: That’s what all of us are trying to do in this generation. Let’s make the America that we dreamed we were supposed to be in, as opposed to the one that oppresses.
EU: Now the old-head comrades are going to read this and say, “Oh my God, those girls have sold out!” [laughter]
ED: You think so?
EU: Oh, I don’t know.
ED: Nah, I think that’s what they were doing.
EU: No, absolutely.
ED: Don’t you think? I hope so, if not I’m in trouble.
EU: We’re not wearing red, white, and blue. We promise.
ED: Definitely not wearing red, white, and blue.