Beyond the Famous Few:

Five Women Who Shaped Black History and Literature

Courtney Thorsson

One Sunday afternoon in February 1977, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Ntozake Shange, and several other Black women writers met at June Jordan’s Brooklyn apartment to eat gumbo, drink champagne, and talk about their work. Calling themselves “The Sisterhood,” the group—which also came to include Audre Lorde, Paule Marshall, Margo Jefferson, and others—got together once a month over the next two years to discuss literature and liberation. In her book, The Sisterhood: How a Network of Black Women Writers Changed American Culture, Courtney Thorsson tells the story of how this remarkable group of Black women writers collaborated to transform political, literary, and academic institutions. In today’s guest post, she writes about five less well-known members of The Sisterhood.

Phyl Garland (1935–2006): Journalist, Music Critic, Scholar, and Teacher

This is a photo of Phyl Garland

After graduating from Northwestern University in 1957, Phyl Garland began working at the Pittsburgh Courier, where she was a writer and editor until 1965. Many of her articles in the Courier focused on civil rights: she reported on housing discrimination, the history of Black people in the labor movement, and the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. As an associate editor at Ebony from 1967 to 1969, Garland wrote on subjects from natural hairstyles to politics to music. She directed editorial operations at Johnson Publishing Company, which published both Ebony and Jet.

In addition to her extensive work as a journalist, Garland was an accomplished teacher and scholar. She taught at the State University of New York at New Paltz, where she was acting chair of the Black studies department. She wrote The Sound of Soul: The Story of Black Music (1969), the documentary film Adam Clayton Powell (1989), and many articles in Ebony and other periodicals. In 1981, Garland became the first African American and the first woman to be tenured in Columbia University’s School of Journalism. She was promoted to full professor in 1989 and retired from Columbia in 2004.

Vertamae Grosvenor (1938–2016): Author, Activist, Journalist, Actress, and Culinary Anthropologist

Vertamae Grosvenor wrote three cookbooks: Black Atlantic Cooking (1990), Vertamae Cooks in America’s Family Kitchen (1996), and Vertamae Cooks Again (1999); a nonfiction study of Black domestic labor, Thursdays and Every Other Sunday Off (1972); and the genre-bending book Vibration Cooking or, the Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl (1970), which is now a foundational text of food studies. Grosvenor danced with Sun Ra’s Arkestra, hosted the television show Vertamae Cooks in America’s Family Kitchen, worked as a correspondent on National Public Radio for three decades, and performed in the movies Daughters of the Dust (1992) and Beloved (1998). In each of these media, Grosvenor educated readers and listeners about food, culture, and history. She participated in a period of increased visibility for African American women’s literature. Vibration Cooking appeared in the same year as first novels by Toni Morrison and Alice Walker as well as Toni Cade Bambara’s The Black Woman: An Anthology, which includes Grosvenor’s Black nationalist meditation on food, “The Kitchen Crisis.”

Grosvenor gained new readers and recognition when the University of Georgia Press brought Vibration Cooking back into print with a new foreword by foodways scholar Psyche Williams-Forson in 2011 and when the Southern Foodways Alliance awarded her the Craig Claiborne Lifetime Achievement Award in 2013. New readers have encountered Grosvenor through a 2018 edition of Thursdays and Every Other Sunday Off with a foreword by feminist labor historian Premilla Nadasen. Filmmaker Julie Dash is at work on a documentary about Grosvenor.

Paule Marshall (1929–2019): Novelist and Teacher

Paule Marshall wrote the novels Brown Girl, Brownstones (1959), The Chosen Place, the Timeless People (1969), Praisesong for the Widow (1983), and The Fisher King (2001); the story collections Soul Clap Hands and Sing (1961) and Reena and Other Stories (1983); the memoir Triangular Road (2009); and the essay “From the Poets in the Kitchen” (1983). Like many other people in her Brooklyn neighborhood, Marshall’s family were immigrants from Barbados. Each of her books explores characters’ complex relationship to Caribbean and Black American identities.

In addition to being a successful novelist, Marshall was a celebrated creative writing teacher and a lifelong supporter of young writers from across the African Diaspora. She taught English and creative writing at Virginia Commonwealth University, New York University, Yale, the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and the University of California, Berkeley. Marshall shied away from the public eye, preferring not to give many interviews or appear in the media. She worked behind the scenes in countless ways to build community and support Black writers. She was a founding member of the Harlem Writers’ Guild in the 1950s. In the 1970s she hosted meetings of The Sisterhood and many other gatherings of intellectuals; novelist Rosa Guy, writer Jessica Harris, and Vertamae Grosvenor were among her guests. In later years, she organized annual readings in New York for emerging Black writers from across the Diaspora, always hosting a fabulous party at her apartment after the reading. Scholar Mary Helen Washington is writing a biography of Paule Marshall.

Renita Weems (1954–): Minister, Author, Scholar, and Professor

Renita Weems (1954–) is an ordained minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. When The Sisterhood began meeting, Weems had recently graduated from Wellesley College and moved to New York, where she was unhappily working at Merrill Lynch and reading Black women’s literature voraciously every day after work. She started attending Sisterhood meetings in May 1977 and served as correspondence secretary for the group.

Weems got her PhD at Princeton Theological Seminary, making her the first Black woman in the United States to earn a doctorate in Old Testament studies. She is the author of books about faith, scripture, and women’s spirituality including Showing Mary: How Women Can Share Prayers, Wisdom, and the Blessings of God (2002) and Just a Sister Away: A Womanist Vision of Women’s Relationships in the Bible (1988). Weems has held faculty positions in the Divinity School at Vanderbilt University, as the Cosby Professor of the Humanities at Spelman College, and at American Baptist College. She has written for Beliefnet and Essence, among other publications, and served as copastor of the Ray of Hope Community Church in Nashville, Tennessee. Weems is a pioneer of womanist theology, a Black feminist approach to Christianity named after Alice Walker’s term “womanism.”

Judith Wilson: Journalist and Art Historian

Soon after graduating from Bennington College and moving to New York, Judith Wilson began attending Sisterhood meetings in February 1977. She volunteered to serve as the group’s official secretary, partly because had learned notehand (a kind of shorthand) in high school from teachers who assumed Black girls with an education would do secretarial work. In The Sisterhood, Wilson kept formal minutes and agendas, thus producing a printed record of the group.

Wilson worked as a journalist, writing for Essence and the Village Voice, among other publications. She earned a PhD in art history from Yale and held faculty positions at Yale, the University of Virginia, Syracuse University, Barnard College, and the University of California, Irvine. Wilson is an expert on contemporary art, especially Black feminist conceptual art. She has published her writing in Art in America and Women’s Art Journal and written numerous catalogue essays for art exhibitions. Wilson’s essays about Lorraine O’Grady and her catalogue for the exhibit Lorraine O’Grady: Critical Interventions (1991) illuminated the radical significance of O’Grady’s performance and visual art over three decades before O’Grady had her first retrospective show, Lorraine O’Grady: Both/And at the Brooklyn Museum, in 2021. Wilson wrote catalogue essays for other important exhibits including The Decade Show (1990), a collaboration among the Museum of Contemporary Hispanic Art, The New Museum, and The Studio Museum in Harlem. Wilson retired from UC Irvine in 2006 and lives in San Francisco.

Courtney Thorsson is an associate professor of English at the University of Oregon and the author of The Sisterhood: How a Network of Black Women Writers Changed American Culture.

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