Pittsburgh Literary Anthology Centers Stories Of Black Women

Feb 25, 2020

“The world is not tender with Black women,” write Deesha Philyaw and Vanessa German. “And we are not always tender with ourselves, or with each other. Pittsburgh, in particular, is not known for tenderness where we are concerned.”

TENDER: A Celebration of Black Womxn & Femmes in Pittsburgh: 7 p.m. Thu., Feb. 27. Alphabet City, 40 W. North Ave., North Side

That’s from the introduction to “tender,” a new literary anthology Philyaw and German co-edited. The collection features stories, poems and artwork by 19 African-American women and girls of various ages and backgrounds, all from the region. 

In a culture that seldom centers their stories, or else merely groups them as a demographic, the book gives the contributors a chance to individually explore love and sexuality, trauma and healing, motherhood and family.

Writer and podcaster Melanie Dione explores her relationship with her mother during her mother’s final illness. Fashion designer and Pittsburgh City Paper columnist Tereneh Idia recounts creating community with Masaai women artists, in Kenya. Other contributors include German, a nationally known artist and performer; Philyaw, a widely published writer; multidisciplinary artist Christina Springer; social worker TeOnna Ross; writer Almah LaVon Rice; Celeste C. Smith, arts and culture program officer at the Pittsburgh Foundation; and Aaliyah Thomas, a student at Pittsburgh High School for the Creative and Performing Arts.

Two contributors are currently studying at Yale University: a.k. payne, a graduate student in playwriting there, and Ada Griffin, an art-history major.

German said she and Philyaw put out their first call for submissions a few years ago. The project was born, in part, of the widespread disrespect they perceived for black women and girls.

“There was so much pain in online spaces and physical spaces, that instead of talking about how much pain there was, I wanted to leap over that and create the opportunity to tell stories of nourishing and different ingredients of living tenderness,” said German.

The urgency only grew this past fall, with the release of “Pittsburgh’s Inequality Across Gender and Race,” a report by the city’s Gender and Equity Commission that concluded that Pittsburgh is just about the worst city in the country for black women, in terms of things like health outcomes and economic opportunity.

“tender” tells some of the stories behind the numbers, whether inspiring, poignant or wrenching.

“There are some stories in there --- I had never heard those perspectives. I’d never heard women who were vulnerable enough to tell those stories,” said German.

Shanikqua Peterson, who is German’s neighbor, in Homewood, wrote about witnessing domestic abuse as a child.

“I love how she brings us into this place where we see through her eyes,” German. “This world and the trauma and the horror. But what we see is her really being present with her own humanness, to ingest the world around her thoughtfully, and creatively.”

“One of the things for me that the book can do, it can be an ingredient of permission that people give themselves to transform their reality, and transform the future, by shape shifting all these ingredients of despair into lives that are whole and full and absolutely victorious,” said German. “I think what this book can do is be part of an inspiration ingredient for other black women in Pittsburgh, to not simply take things as they are.”

As Tyra Jamison writes in her poem, “At Odds”: “In blasts of laughter / I have learned how to love hard, / my heart vibrating / through my teeth, tasting our joy / listening to shackles drop.”

A book-launch for “tender” takes place Thursday at Alphabet City, on the North Side. Many of the contributors will read their work. Admission is free with registration.