Reading “All the Women In My Family Sing” last week, the thought popped up that we always get what we need in hard social times in this country.
Literary guides to our way out of a social nightmare have always shown up: People like Ben Franklin, W.E.B. DuBois, Rachel Carson, Betty Friedan, and Jonathan Kozol show us the way. Someone (F.D.R., J.F.K., M.L.K.) or something shows up when our national construct is disordered. “All the Women” certainly shows up at the right time for us.
An anthology of brief personal essays by 70 American women of color, “All the Women” offers us hope, uplifts. We live in a period of socially and racially fueled demagoguery from our national leader that has blunted our ability to understand, and sometimes even want to understand, our conflicts. But understand and resolve them we must, and these stories tell us that the eternal verities do work if we use them.
As anthology editor, author, businesswoman, and activist Deborah Santana spent three years galvanizing the work. You can experience the book and four of its contributors in an event sponsored by the Vineyard Haven Public Library on Wednesday, August 22, at 7 pm in the Katharine Cornell Theater in Vineyard Haven. WGBH’s Callie Crossley will moderate a panel of four anthology contributors, including Lisa A. Jones, a multiple awardwinning television documentarian, Deborah Santana, an author, business leader, and activist for peace and social justice, Kristin Leavy-Miller, a freelance writer, and New York Times bestselling writer Lalita Tademy, author of “Red River,” and “Cane River.”
Crossley spoke with The Times about the book and the women who made it. “Deborah started a [publishing] imprint for this book, with so many stories and snapshots that resonate. One reader told me she limits herself to reading two or three of the short essays a day to ‘savor’ them,” Crossley said.
“Loss is a major theme in the book, with race, ethnicity, and gender intertwined, the sum total of women striving to bring a complete woman together. How to define themselves, how to navigate the small world and larger one.
“The stories offer texture, small events that had big impact, and really intense powerful stories. I wondered how some were able to pick themselves up and go on,” she said.
Santana offers a perspective in her introduction that informs the read. She points out that more than 99 percent of DNA, shared by all human beings, is exactly the same. Not similar, the same. The other 1 percent, the part that makes each of us unique — hair, skin, tall, short, wide or thin, comes from our parents.
We have made an obvious mess of that 1 percent for centuries here. The demagogues have fanned the 1 percent into a societal crisis in America. Race is the most obvious marker of our social divide, but they highlight ethnicity, gender, regional cultures, even accents, as unacceptable differences that ought to be used to prejudge us.
The stories in “All the Women in My Family Sing” are microscopic looks at what happens to people and society as a result of obsession with the 1 percent.
The 70 stories told here are reports from survivors. They are strong, vigorous voices. They don’t whine. They report what happened. They are the fittest of the survivors, and their stories uplift us, make us think, “Maybe it’s not as bad as we think.” But what about the less-strong, the others who lived shriveled lives because of societal disorder?
“All the Women” is a rallying point because it celebrates the 99 percent. Lisa Jones’ story, for example, is not about the 1 percent difference. It’s the story of a mother fighting to save her baby from death by leukemia. Her story is about the 99 percent. When you read it, you know we are all the same.
Jones is writing a book about her experience. “Community is universal. We could not have done this without community, including people we had never met who put aside busy lives to help. Without community we are nowhere, and I’d like people to draw on that deep reliance, joy, and light in the [social] formula,” she said.
The importance of “All the Women in My Family Sing” is that the voices show us the way, the answers that have always been right in front of us.
“All the Women in My Family Sing: Women Write the World: Essays on Equality, Justice, and Freedom,” edited by Deborah Santana, from Nothing But The Truth Publishing LLC. Available through Bunch of Grapes Bookstore, Vineyard Haven, and online.