By Jenny O’Connell
Since graduating from Stonecoast in winter 2017, fiction alum Darlene Taylor has continued to build a body of work that explores hidden history and lost stories. “I’m looking at historical and literary erasures,” she says. “The way the archive obscures and distorts stories of Black life.”
Drawing on her experiences in historic preservation, cultural archiving, faith, politics, art, and oral history, Darlene––who also serves as an artist-scholar and lecturer at Howard University–recreates the stories of women and girls and their emotional and physical journeys. “I’m mapping timelines, looking deeper at the stories of those people who lived in historical moments but their lives were marginalized because of race, gender, or social status,” she says. “They’re the women of my bloodline, but they’re the women of my soul as well. I want to know their story.”
These stories are what Darlene set out to explore this summer as the inaugural resident of the Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson Writing Residency. Awarded by the Columbus Museum of Art, the residency provides a U.S.-based African American writer, scholar or researcher with time, space, and a generous stipend to create in the late artist’s Columbus, Ohio home. What Darlene didn’t expect was how the residency–and the proximity to Aminah, who worked in visual art–would deepen her work.
Darlene’s focus for the residency revolved around “Blood on a Blackberry,” a prose poem she’d written at Stonecoast in Ireland under former faculty Sarah Braunstein based on a photograph taken more than a century ago that Darlene found in a family album. “Three generations of ancestral mothers held their bodies still outside of what looked like a poorly-built cabin. What struck me was their gaze,” Darlene writes in a reflection she penned for the Columbus Museum of Art about her experience. “What thoughts hid behind their deep penetrating looks? Their bodies suggested a permanence in the Virginia landscape around them. I knew the names of the ancestor mothers, but I knew little of their lives. What were their secrets? What songs did they sing? What desires sat in their hearts? Stirred their hearts? What were the night sounds and day sounds they heard? I wanted to know their thoughts about the world around them. What frightened them? How did they talk when sitting with friends? What did they confess? How did they talk to strangers? What did they conceal? What was girlhood like? Womanhood? These questions led me to writing that explored how they must have felt.”
When “Blood on a Blackberry” was published in Feminist Studies in 2020, Darlene felt like something was missing. “The story was bigger than the 700 or so words that were there,” she says. Drawing inspiration from the memory mapping and generational narratives of Lucille Clifton, Natasha Trethewey, Toni Morrison, and Gayl Jones, and with continued support from her influential Stonecoast mentor, Breena Clarke, Darlene set out to expand the narrative to a collection of short stories that revolve around girlhood and womanhood. What surprised her during her residency, however, was how the story opened up when she started exploring it through visual art.
Honoring the African American tradition of quilting as storytelling, Darlene took excerpts from her poem and placed them inside 4x8 banners of mulberry paper, which she made into a collage. “I had the space to just be creative. It was a perfect time for me to explore what was working itself inside my mind, inside my hands,” she says. “I like the beauty and richness of the quilted mural, the way it takes up space. This is still writing.”
Photo by Steve Harrison
The more Darlene lived in Aminah Robinson’s house and learned about her work, the more she saw her predecessor as a kindred spirit. “There’s legacy in our bodies. It’s in the places we call home,” Darlene says. “I was using the same materials, and mapping history. There was something about it that just connected for me. I felt a kinship with her work.”
Aminah Robinson’s career was built around documenting stories about historic Columbus neighborhoods and her family’s ancestral roots in Africa with the hope of preserving their memory and writing them into a history from which they had been omitted. Darlene was struck by how similar this was to what she’d been doing in Virginia. “My family has been in this place for generations,” she says. “Many of my family members maintained their homes there. Virginia is a site of slavery, a site of one of the first documented sales. Those are the roads where I’m from. It is their presence that I don’t want lost. I feel justice in acknowledging the wrongness.”
The multimedia work Darlene created received its own exhibition at the Columbus Museum of Art, and she read her prose and poetry at an artist talk at the conclusion of her three-month residency.
“It’s definitely part of my life and curiosity as a Black woman, but it’s part of America’s journey as well,” Darlene says. “How can you say you really know your history if you’re only looking at it from one lens? There’s so much more to explore. How do we learn these lives? How do we disrupt what’s in the archive?”
Blood on a Blackberry
By Darlene Taylor
The road bends. In a place where a girl was snatched, no one says her name. They talk about the bloody slip, not the lost girl. The blacktop road curves there and drops. Can’t see what’s ahead so, I listen. Insects scratch their legs and wind their wings above their backs. The road sounds safe.
Every day I walk alone on the schoolhouse road, keeping my eyes on where I’m going, not where I been. Bruises on my shoulder from carrying books and notebooks, pencils and crayons. Pebbles crunch. An engine grinds, brakes screech. I step into a cloud of pink dust and weeds. The sandy taste of road dust dries my tongue. Older boys, mean boys, cursing beer-drunk boys laugh and bluster—“Rusty Girl.” They drive fast. Their laughs fade. Feathers of a bent bluebird impale the road. Sun beats the crushed bird.
Cutting through the tall, tall grass, I pick up a stick to warn. Songs and sticks have power over snakes. Bramble snaps. Wild berries squish under my feet. The ripe scent makes my belly grumble. Briar thorns prick my skin, making my fingertips bleed. Plucking handfuls, I eat. Blood on a blackberry ruins the taste.
Books spill. Backwards I fall. Pages tear. Lessons brown like sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg. Blackberry stain. Thistles and nettles grate my legs and thighs. Coarse laughter, not from inside me. A boy, a laughing boy, a mean boy. Berry black stains my dress. I run. Home.
The sun burns through kitchen windows, warming, baking. I roll my purple-tipped fingers into my palms.
Sweet child, grandmother will say. Smart girl.
Tomorrow. On the schoolhouse road.
Darlene Taylor is a lecturer and co-faculty advisor to the Sterling A. Brown English Society at Howard University. She holds a BA from American University and an MFA from Stonecoast, University of Southern Maine and serves on its Writing for Social Justice Initiative. A cultural arts advocate, she founded INKPEN, a nonprofit dedicated to literary citizenship. A fellow of Callaloo and Kimbilio and former chair of the Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Foundation, her writing explores little-known lives and histories. Taylor researches politics, historic preservation, cultural arts, and legacies handed-down from porch-talk storytellers. Her work appears in Idol Talk: Women Writers on the Teenage Infatuations That Changed Their Lives and KY Stories anthologies, Feminist Studies, Kweli Journal, Public History Commons, Portland Monthly and LA Parent.
To learn more about Darlene and her work, please visit her website.