On December 28th, the world lost Jayne Cortez—a poet, activist and force of nature. The 76 year old Arizona native published twelve books, including Funerals and Festivals, Mouth on Paper and Firespitter; she also recorded nine records of her poetry set to music.
Cortez was active in the Civil Rights Movement and was the founder of the Watts Repertory Theatre, Bola Press and a co-founder of the Organization of Women Writers of Africa. She married drummer Ornette Coleman when she was 18 and their son, Denardo Coleman, played with her in an electro-funk jazz band called The Firespitters.
Her activism took her across the world, with much time spent in Mississippi, Europe and Africa. She settled in New York City in 1967 and married artist Melvin Edwards, who's work has appeared in and on the covers of many of her books. Considered a pioneer of the contemporary spoken word genre, Cortez also maintained a home in Dakar, Senegal.
I don't even know where I first saw this poem, but I remember how the moment I read just this section, I knew my life had changed. I had lived and suffered and laughed freely enough to know the truth of why suicide would be "bizarre" and how repression could look "decomposed."
And if we don't fight
if we don't resist
if we don't organize and unify and
get the power to control our own lives
Then we will wear
the exaggerated look of captivity
the stylized look of submission
the bizarre look of suicide
the dehumanized look of fear
and the decomposed look of repression
forever and ever and ever
And there it is
I found out there was this bad poet woman named Jayne Cortez. I did a bit of research and assumed I would meet her one day but there was college and grad school and life and all of that and despite my attendance at many conferences on Black Writers and Black Power and Black Women, we never crossed paths. Or so I thought.
Cuz' there was one conference. And she was all over it. And I was unaware.
I found out about 2004's "Yari Yari Pemberi: Black Women Writers Dissecting Globalization" online. It advertised writers that would be in attendance such as Alice Walker and Toni Morrison and just an array of sunshine in the embodiment of all of these Black women writers gathering. So, I just had to be there. And I did make it to New York City and it was wonderful. I met Tananarive Due for the first time and told her how much my best friend loved her sci-fi novels and how I needed to catch up but that I loved her, anyway. I listened to Alice Walker warn us about the chemistry in our cell phones, which were most likely derived from the Congo and how we cannot separate ourselves from the violence in that land for our own, cellular convenience while suffering damage to our brain cells. (Every time I think about Johnny Cochran’s death from brain cancer I reflect upon Walker's words).
Rarely do I purchase the extra merchandise for an event, but I bought a Yari Yari Pemberi bag and a t-shirt. They were beautiful. And purposeful. Just like Jayne Cortez.
I never met her in that collection of Black women writers. I'm sure I did not even know what she looked like and she probably crossed my path.
Enter Twitter, 2010, wherein Tananarive Due was the first guest of a Black Writers chat and mentioned that Yari Yari Pemberi was organized by Jayne Cortez, a professor at NYU.
You could have knocked me over with a feather. I know that being a scatterbrained graduate student is what made me miss the conference program (where her name was clearly printed). Instantly, my love for Jayne Cortez welded itself in my imagination and in my heart and never left.
I never met Jayne Cortez. But I knew, based on what she created and what she said and the institutions she built, that she loved me, beyond a shadow of a doubt; and she loved the best of me, at that.
RIP Jayne Cortez. Woman. Warrior. Wonderful. Thank you for your gifts we are still unwrapping.