Rashidah Ismaili Abubakr is a poet, playwright, essayist and short story writer. Her life has taken her from the Benin port city of Cotonou to the artistic hub of New York’s Lower East Side in the 1960s. Although retired from academia, she still works diligently as a writer and supporter of African and African diasporic artistic expression.
I first discovered Ismaili while reading The Heinemann Book of African Women’s Poetry, edited by Malawian writers Stella and Frank Chipasula. In this book, Ismaili is listed as a Nigerian poet. However, in French-speaking circles, Ismaili is considered as a Beninois writer.
Ismaili was born in 1941 in Cotonou, Benin. Cotonou is a port city and the largest city in Benin, often considered the country’s economic capital. Ismaili’s mother was from Benin but her father was from Kano in Northern Nigeria. Ismaili grew up with her maternal grandparents in Cotonou. She studied at her grandfather’s Koran School and at a Catholic missionary school. After her mother’s death, she was sent to a boarding school in France where she stayed for six years. At 15, she married a Nigerian who was studying in New York. She was able to get a bursary in order to study in New York as well. New York has been her home ever since.
Ismaili hoped to become Africa’s first opera singer. She studied for a BA in Music at The New York College of Music as a Voice major, with a minor in literature. She also studied musical theatre at Mannes School of Music. However, Ismaili went on to study psychology because she felt that this would be more useful for an African who hoped to help shape the newly independent West Africa of the 1960s. She studied for a Masters in Social Psychology at The New School for Social Research and later obtained a PhD in Psychology from the State University of New York (SUNY).
Eventually divorcing her husband, Ismaili worked throughout her graduate studies in order to support herself and her son Daoud Samir. However, she also partook of the local arts scene, particularly the burgeoning Black Arts Movement of the 1960s. She followed its poets, painters, and playwrights but also its dancers. She befriended the likes of Virginia Cox, Tom Feelings, Ellen Stewart, and Amiri Baraka (back when he was LeRoi Jones). She discovered the dance studio of Syvilla Fort. Fort was a leading teacher of the Dunham technique, which was rooted in the dance traditions of Africa, Haiti, and Trinidad. She also developed her own Afro-Modern Technique, which incorporated more modern styles of dance. At this studio, Ismaili had the opportunity to meet the young dancers, singers and actors who came to learn movement and dance.
Ismaili went on to have a successful career in academia, both as a lecturer and administrator. She is noted for her expertise in the literary movement of the Harlem Renaissance and Negritude. She has written essays and lectured on African Writers, such as Mariama Ba, as well as African American writers such as Langston Hughes and James Baldwin. In 2000, she retired as Associate Director of the Higher Education Opportunity Program at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, a position she held for 15 years.
Rashidah Ismaili Abubakr continues to live in Harlem and now writes full-time as well as conducting workshops, lectures, and seminars on a variety of subjects from the history of African American dance, to anti-war poetry readings. She also is asked to speak and perform at conferences across the United States as well as internationally. She is helped develop the curricula and is a faculty member of the online Masters in Creative Writing Program at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. She is the second vice-president of Pen and Brush, an organization founded in 1894 that is dedicated to supporting women working the fields of literary, visual and performing arts.
Home to Harlem
In her essay, Slightly autobiographical: the 1960s on the Lower East Side, Ismaili reminisces about what it was like to live in an area that was a centre of African American artistic innovation in the 1960s. Ismaili, like many of the artists who lived in the Lower East Side, came for the low rents. But she soon found an environment that would help develop her own literary impulses even if it presented many frustrations. For a single mother, an African, a Muslim, and an independent-minded woman, the Black artistic scene in the Lower East Side of the 1960s could be inhospitable to say the least. She writes:
For me this was a painful time. I was separating from my husband for the first time. Alone, with a small boy, trying to complete graduate school and write, I felt very estranged at times from my ebon scribes and painters. They made it clear they were not interested in me because I was Black, African, and too ethnic; i.e., |not beautiful.’ Besides, I did not do drugs or drink. In fact, cigarette smoke made my eyes tear and my throat choke. To add fat to the fire, I had strong opinions and was extremely independent. These were the ’60s, and Black men were coming into their own. Black women had to understand their manly needs, walk ten paces behind, submit to male authority. We were not to question a man’s work, even if it were incorrect. We were to dress “African,” assume the persona of “The Motherland,” and raise little revolutionaries. Most of all, we were to remain unconditionally loyal to the Black man and never, under any circumstance, be seen in intimate association with a White man. This, of course, was in stark contrast to the behavior of almost all of the men I knew–excuse me, brothers–who had not a single “significant other” but several White women as lovers and wives.
But Ismaili also found friends and supporters. There was the great sculptor Valerie Maynard, who babysat for Ismaili in exchange for having Ismaili and her son pose for her. There was artist and children’s book illustrator Tom Feelings who encouraged Ismaili’s writing. About him she writes:
Tom was my best friend, my soul brother. (We used terms like that then.) I told him of my feelings of rejection and isolation in the midst of parties and other social events. He always understood and helped me understand the fear and difficulty Black men had when asked for something they had historically been denied–fraternity with sisters. (I might add that sisters had difficulties among themselves, too. We often cast a “cut-eye” at one another when “possibility” was in our midst.) But Tom always encouraged me. In fact, he was responsible for my coming to my first Umbra meeting and for my first publication in the now-defunct Liberator. He said that, in the final analysis, all that mattered was The Work. We have remained friends, sister/brother, for more than twenty-five years.
My friends told her I was a writer and had written a play, which Ellen asked to see. Embarrassed but eager for her comments, I took it to her. “Do you know this?” she asked. “Have you experienced this?” It was a small piece fueled by the issues of the 60–racism and Southern oppression. I was crushed because I thought her inquiry was a negation of my work and my ability. She saw that, and spoke slowly to me, sharing her experiences of having been born and raised in the South. Then she said, “Little Sister” (I was so elated that I almost didn’t hear the rest of it) “you can write; there is no question. That is not the issue. The issue is truth and artistic honesty.” She urged me to produce a reality fueled by my own thoughts, in my own words. We ended with her saying, “When you have something you feel you want me to read, let me have it.” She was, and continues to be, true to her words. Whenever and wherever I see her subsequently, she always calls me “Little Sister” and asks about my work.
It must have been difficult for Ismaili to be an African among so many African Americans to find and keep her own creative voice rooted in her own experience as a West African. Although amongst Blacks, she was still an outsider because of her African and Muslim identity. African Americans were discovering their own stories and their own unique ways of telling them. But these were still American stories, written for Americans. It must have been perplexing for Ismaili to figure out who she was writing about as well as who she was writing for.
Life in exile
The alienation facing West African women writers is expressed in Ismaili’s essay, West African Women and Exile: City, University, and Dislocated Village. The intended readership of this essay is other Western-educated West African women who are torn between “back Home” and life in exile in the West. Ismaili writes:
This paper has evolved from conversations with sisters from “Home.” We mourn our “Exile.” With enthusiasm of a born-again [Christian], we return “Home” with our degrees, earnest and eager to “work.” Then we come face to face with socio-political constraints of our nations. Run squarely afoul of Senior Lecturers who remained in the trenches while we were abroad, frolicking in the lands of plenty. Our personal expectations, our family pressures, societal restrictions on women are some of our greatest enemies. Things we took for granted before are now luxuries. Assigned readings being fulfilled are dependent not only on financial resources of students but the availability of books in the libraries and the country. Simple needs, xeroxing machines and paper, faxes, and now complex telecommunication systems and computers, are seen as extravagant and often are prohibitive. Intellectual famine confronts us with all its grisly remnants; empty library shelves, university censorship and hoarding. Books on the illegal market at twice the price offer little salvation. Defeated or overwhelmed by it all, we send out triplicate resumes and write all former professors to come to our aid in getting us the heck out of our “Homes” as soon as possible. We come back to former host countries, to universities where we are able to earn a decent wage and maintain a tolerable standard of living.
Exile is not always the romantic notion of heroic revolutionaries. It is a place of uncertainty, pain, frustration and anger. The struggle to maintain one’s sobriety and to support the family is waged in tears with one self and the kindred at “Home.” It is real and deeply felt when one reads of massive five-year projects to introduce village women to water purification and social development. Hard to bear are those embedded memories of things we saw as children. Our experiences and rites of passage, stories we heard, all are negated by those amongst whom we have learned and possibly been influenced.
You get a glimpse at the dilemmas that must have plagued Ismaili as a lecturer in African Literature with the following passage:
It is getting late. We must prepare a lecture for a graduate seminar on “Sisterhood Within Polygamous Compounds.” In our central heated homes, we choose each reference to silence the anticipated negative response our students have formulated. We call each other with our concepts of female language and how it operates in Aminata Sow Fall’s novels. We stray from the immediacy of the subject as we reminisce. How clearly we see Sall Niang in her chair, beautiful and big. We laugh knowingly or, as we have learned, as is said in the parlance of psychological terminology. We connect with her as she uses a winnowing basket to count her money. The flow of conversation is not hindered. Schooled fingers are computerized eyes that separate coins according to value. We can see the wide spread of her lap forming a printed cloth carpet for her computations. This woman is familiar to us because she is in fact, an aunt, mother, neighbor who never seemed to understand she wasn’t our mother when it came to scolding.
It must be frustrating to teach people in an objective and coldly academic way about works of literature that reflect one’s own lived experience. For West African women writers, there is the added frustration of having to defend “Africa”, “African Traditions” and “African men” from students and colleagues who tend to look down on non-Western communities out of racism and ignorance. But on the other hand, these women are frustrated with the corrupt governments in their countries of origin and the patriarchal structures that subjugate women; but these are the types of conversations West African women would prefer to have with each other, not with their students. The need for sisterhood to make this exile livable comes through in this essay. Ismaili writes about her first meeting with fellow West African writer, Ama Ata Aidoo:
I see her today as I saw her over twenty years ago. She was already a writer of note, and was here on a research fellowship. I was in graduate school hanging on by weekly pinching from wages to pay my tuition. I was walking down the Avenue of the Americas and W 4th Street. Just about to turn down Cornelia St. to walk two more blocks to my four-flight walk-up flat. Out of the African Cosmos, a voice came. “O-wee sister.” I was relieved of my anger over an undeserved grade by this intrusion. There was a full-bodied woman with a huge head-tie and a buba over a pair of Blue Jeans! Well, her face was so full of smiles, I almost cried. We embraced. I was asked about myself. I told her where I was from and why I was in New York. She told me who she was and why she was here.
While living in exile, West African women are able to connect across national, ethnic, and religious lines, united by the common cultures of West Africa and a need to commune with who have been equally displaced and who understand the longing for home, the nostalgia for the past, the financial pressures of family “back home”, and the frustrations of coping with Western racism and ignorance.
On Ismaili’s poem Solange
My favourite poem by Ismaili is Solange. It can be found in The Heinemann Book of African Women’s Poetry. The poem is about Solange, a young of French and West African descent. Because I myself am of mixed parentage, I like to find literary works that meditate on this experience. In the poem, Ismaili rhymes Solange with melange, which means “mixture” in French. Solange is fair-skinned but troubled by her more “African” physical features from her flat nose, her curly hair, and her protruding backside. Although the poet keeps reminding Solange that she is beautiful, she doesn’t believe it. Solange “frets” over her African physical traits. She can try to control her curly hair by using chemicals to straighten it. She can try to control her backside by trying to “strap the buttocks that/will not flatten/inside a Chanel line.” But there is nothing she can do about her lips and her nose, and, as the poet contemplates “What is a face with those?” My favourite passage in the poem is the following:
Your eyes are Parisian dreams
and your hair has a mind of its own
Sometimes it would be French
Sometimes it would be Cassamance.
Solange, like many women of mixed race, is struggling with trying to fit a Western standard of beauty. She is made up of “A little bit of this and/a little bit of that”. Although she may be considered beautiful, particularly in an African context where fair-skin is coveted, she will never fit into the French ideals of beauty she seems to be aspiring to. Solange has not yet accepted that she is beautiful on her own terms.
Profile available online
Interview (2005) in French available online
Rice Keepers: A Play by Rashidah Ismaili Abubakr published by African World Press
Website of Pen and Brush Inc.
Rashidah Ismaili Abubakr’s Writing available online:
Poems available online
Slightly autobiographical: the 1960s on the Lower East Side - Lower East Side Retrospective (Essay published in the African American Review available online)
West African Women in Exile: City, University and Dislocated Village (Essay published in Jenda: A Journal of Culture and African Women Studies available online)