the road less traveled
I wrote my first poem when I was 15 for a class project. I cut out red, green, and yellow construction paper in the shape of Africa and wrote about 10 poems (none of which I have now) about being black/ being a girl/ what I knew of Africa without having been there. Then…I didn’t know how valuable my words were. How could I? I was a growing girl questioning my own value. The following year, I discovered Nikki Giovanni and Maya Angelou. Maya (a moment of silence) thank GOD for her! My homeroom teacher, Ms. Thompson, gave me a cassette tape recording of you reciting Phenomenal Woman. I performed that poem on a stage in a small town and from that day, my life has never been the same. It was a first: the first time I carved out my own piece of history. I became a first: The first time a girl coated in my skin wore a crown representing my school and I had done it with the words of a Black woman. I was hooked to/on words, to/on the stage, to/on art.
I’ve always been a good writer prone to poetry. I was drawn to Edgar Allan Poe at a young age. His darkness intrigued me. As a Black child growing up in the south, where the stench of slavery is still fresh, the “aura” of darkness was all I got from literature in middle school. My 11th grade English teacher, Ms. Knight, taught me how to read between the lines. She introduced me to propaganda/living outside the box/how to shape the world according to your vision. The following year I wrote a Canterbury Tale about an African princess, trying to push my Black self into a white world.
Words/poetry coupled with a childhood full of travel gave me the courage to leave Spartanburg, S.C. and find out what God’s dream was for me. In college the words of Sonia Sanchez/Ntozake Shange/Audre Lord sprinkled with bell hooks/Elaine Brown/Patricia Collins transformed me from a trained girl to a woman full of fire, at times on fire, who had truly stepped into the fullness of the daughter my mother raised. I believed in black/brown/white supremacy/poverty/oppression/patriarchy. I believed in institutions and systems. Most importantly, I believed I could transform all those things. I believed in progress. See, when you’re the daughter of a female union worker living in the south; when you’re a peculiar child who was affiliated with a political party by the 8th grade, had dreams of being an NFL quarterback, having a franchise of liquor stores and owning an NFL team, believing you can live a happy life as an artist/activist and change the world doesn’t seem so farfetched. Yes, it takes more patience and consciousness to do the latter…but…it never seemed farfetched to me.
By the time I was 19, I couldn’t read/write/perform enough. Theater was my mate, poetry was my lover…hidden in spiral bound tablets, the margins of class notes, said only to my best friend and given only to those who shared my bed. God knew of our affair and He nurtured it with activism, heartbreak, and everything else that makes life worth living. Every scar/every wound/truth/lie I’ve ever told others and myself are in my words.
I don’t know if I would die if I could not write. I don’t know where I’d be if I didn’t have these words but, I do know that because of them, I opened my heart to embrace all of who I am. I know that because of words, bible stories, I boarded a plane to Los Angeles to follow God’s dream for me with only faith in my pocket…not in search of fame but just to be an artist that created something beautiful/magical/life changing. Theater and I were still together but our marriage had become strained. Although August (Wilson)/ Suzanne-Lori (Parks)/ Pearl (Cleage) wrote beautiful words, I was tired of putting others’ words in my mouth. I was weary as an activist speaking for others/carrying communities. I needed refuge. Again I found words. I found Da Poetry Lounge, who welcomed me/nurtured me/challenged me with open arms. I felt connected again. My vision of the type of artist I wanted to be/the sculpture I had chiseled but didn’t know how to make real was coming to life. I learned artistic balance is essential to my growth. I need time to create/time to perform/time to be silent. Theater and I reconciled our differences and we are still going strong.
Words/poetry took me to South Africa. It was there, I decided to no longer take for granted I had time to tell my own story. It was there, I promised myself, rereading Malcolm X and the autobiography of Assata Shakur, that revolution/changing your life begins with words, at least, it always had for me. It was there, I stopped rejecting my power and told myself, my words not only deserve air…they deserve pages. They deserve to be here long after I am gone/ not because of me/ but because God is a great God/ He is a funny God who shows there is such thing as the other side/pain/love/hope/laughter/struggle/beauty.
I no longer write poems in notebooks I carelessly throw in corners. I now write them in journals with hard covers and heavy pages. I no longer give away poems without keeping a copy for myself. I am more honest in my poetry than in my prayers. In my poems, I do not judge myself. I am free and unafraid. Words have taught me pushing yourself into the world is never easy but it is the only way to feel the fullness of God and so in spite of it all I keep writing. I won’t let my words come easy but I’ve learned not to hide myself from them because history has taught me we cannot leave the carving out of our images in someone else’s hand. At times I will allow them to retreat but never do they receive reprieve.
It is my prayer that words continue to nurture me…pull me to the other side of growing pains…
Crystal identifies as a Black Creative, an artist who creates work across multiple artist disciplines that centers on the Black experience. She is a spoken word poetry grand slam champion, published writer, actress and current cohost of Dem Black Mamas, a podcast that delves into the unique experience of Black mothers. Her recent theatre credits include, The Mrs. & the Mistress and Untitled Reconstruction Play.
Born and raised in the south surrounded by a large and loud family, Crystal understood early on words were powerful and having your own voice was essential. After graduating from Florida State University with a degree in Television Production and a minor in Black Studies, she spread her wings to Los Angeles, CA. As an activist artist living in Los Angeles, her spirit grew weary of speaking for others and using others words to express emotion. Crystal searched for a place where she could hear her own voice. She found refuge in the spoken word community. Her own words took to her places she never imagined and helped her reenvision herself as an artist.
Crystal was a member of the international poetry collective, Colors of the Diaspora, which was comprised of female artists from the U.S. and South Africa. She traveled to South Africa and performed in the premiere of the original multi-lingual theater piece, Colors of the Diaspora, at the Grahamstown National Arts Festival. In addition to international travel, Crystal has toured throughout the country performing her poetry at various colleges and universities, performed on world famous stages such as The Comedy Store in Los Angeles. She had shared the stage with transformational individuals such as Iyanla Vanzant, star of OWN TV’s Iyanla Fix My Life. Crystal has been the curator for countless poetry shows including the Pan African Film Festival Spoken Word Festival, which takes place in Los Angeles, CA each year.
Crystal is a contributing writer for For Harriet. Her work has also been published in anthologies, including Hub For the Holidays (2013) and HIS RIB: Poems, Stories and Essays by HER (2007). Beyond poetry and spoken word, Crystal is dedicated to pushing the community forward and amplifying Black voices. While living in Los Angeles, she worked as the Programs Manager for the Cross Cultural Centers at California State University, Los Angeles. She is the creator and director of Writers Well Youth Fellowship Retreat, which is a retreat for Black girls ages 14-19 focused on writing and performance. Crystal is also a facilitator for Speaking Down Barriers and a member of the board of directors of Hub City Writers Project (www.hubcity.org), a non-profit press, which publishes well-crafted, high-quality works by new and established authors, with an emphasis on the Southern experience. She is an active member of West Main Artist Coop, where she teaches acting workshops once a week. Crystal obtained her Bachelor’s degree in Media Production from Florida State University.
Crystal says “In a hashtag I am #mother #wife #dragonslayer #faithful (even when I’m scared OUT OF MY MIND) #dreamconqueror #lovelikeachampion and I love my family, ,food, shoes, good jeans, nice nails, fly earrings, and shoes but not always in that order.”