Where Do You Put the Rage? A Conversation with IfeMichelle Gardin
IfeMichelle Gardin is a poet, playwright, and all-around literary powerhouse, born and raised in New Haven. She is the creator of Elm City LIT Fest—a two-day celebration of literary arts spanning the African diaspora—and board member of the Literacy Volunteers of Greater New Haven. Shaped by her colorful upbringing and experiences through education and community while coming of age in a newly integrated 1960s-era Connecticut, IfeMichelle reflects on the incidences and realizations that helped her write “A Black Woman, a Black Mother”: her empathic contribution to LWT’s The Play Writers Festival.
As a child, IfeMichelle was an avid reader. A self-proclaimed book geek, her family enrolled her and her brother in a local Catholic school that had recently undergone integration. She preferred to sit in the front of the class, but was denied that opportunity on one occasion because of her afro. “It looked like a cloud,” IfeMichelle said of her coif, which her professor deemed distracting and moved her to the back of the class so as not to block the other students’ view. She was seated behind a white girl with long, flowing hair that flipped and swung incessantly on to IfeMichelle’s desk. Disappointed by the seating arrangement and feeling unheard by her teacher, she took matters into her own hands one day, quite literally. Fed up and either unsure or disinterested in the consequences—IfeMichelle gripped her classmates cascading locks for what would be the last time they would dust her desk, and cut her hair off.
Her grandfather, whom she described as a Southern gentleman “of very few words” arrived just in time to intercept the Mother Superior’s infliction of corporal punishment. Subsequently, IfeMichelle was expelled and her brother was removed along with her. The family decided that IfeMichelle’s feelings of mistreatment would inevitably materialize in her brother’s experience at the institution and reenrolled them in public school, which was far more integrated. IfeMichelle and her brother would now attend school with many of their cousins and neighborhood friends, who looked like them. This change in scenery and circumstance opened a door and exposed a new train of thought: It became clear to IfeMichelle that she needed to create her own space to succeed.
IfeMichelle attended public schools for the remainder of her formative years and enrolled in what soon transitioned to an all-Black high school post-integration in New Haven, where she became privy to the economic disparities affecting Black families in her community. As is true today, the quality of life depended heavily on resources— and resources were relegated to ownership. Luckily, IfeMichelle’s family had migrated to New Haven shortly after WWI, and started opening businesses servicing their community. IfeMichelle’s maternal grandmother and her sisters were quilters, oftentimes providing dresses, linens, and home decor to wives of Connecticut’s most prominent pastors and Yale professors. Her great aunt became a businesswoman by trade, also opening an etiquette school for young Black girls. IfeMichelle’s uncle on her mother’s side of the family opened a beauty supply store in the 1960s that stayed in business for nearly 40 years. IfeMichelle shared that in her writing, she often reflects on how her progenitors entrepreneurial endeavors diversified her upbringing. These businesses afforded her and her siblings opportunities, but also created a rift between her reality and the realities of her friends who had less access to economic resources. She recalls spending time with her cousins and friends who lived in public housing, but also being ostracized by them when she left Catholic school and was placed in elevated educational courses at the public high school. “So, I had to scrap there, too,” she smirked.
Passionate about history, literature, and her culture, IfeMichelle enrolled at Morgan State University, a historically black college (HBCU) located in Baltimore, Maryland. “I wanted to go, it was important for me to go [to an HBCU],” IfeMichelle noted. Throughout our discussion, IfeMichelle stressed the importance of having and creating your own space to succeed, feel safe, and express yourself creatively. It is not lost on me that all these pillars are addressed and nurtured at historically black institutions, created for the inherent educational and societal advancement of African Americans. In addition, literacy remained a primary focus for IfeMichelle and stands as such today.
“We always create spaces for ourselves despite what we gotta go through out in the world,” she said. “So…We always create spaces that we feel safe in, or that recharge us, or give us the strength to deal (with that).”
Enrolling at an HBCU allowed IfeMichelle to further immerse herself in cultural studies and arts, including dance, which she remained active in from seven years old through young adulthood. She learned the history of African and American dance through a Black lens from choreographer and activist, Angela Bowen, who ran the Bowens/Peters School of Dance in New Haven from 1963-1982. It was there that IfeMichelle learned the history of Black dancers such as Katherine Dunham, and techniques from Senegal, Guinea, and Ghana, as well as Afro-Caribbean styles of movement.
After graduating from Morgan State, IfeMichelle returned to New Haven, as did the inspiration for her poem “A Black Woman, A Black Mother,” which echoes the challenges Black women face in a society that does not seem to care about their struggles as mothers. One of IfeMichelle’s friends, who gave birth to her first son during their undergraduate studies and still managed to complete the biology program with honors, experienced tragedy when her son was gunned down as a teenager. “As a mother you want your baby to live. Right? A life longer than you,” IfeMichelle expressed as the painful memory rippled through her voice. Her friend turned the agony to action, creating an organization (or what we would refer to as “space”) for mothers who lost their children to gun violence within their community.
This emotion would not be independently felt, but reverberated throughout the community time and time again, as countless Black boys and girls experienced the unforgiving reality of violence in an environment that neither supported or stimulated growth. In 1991, the beating of Rodney King was viewed nationally, and then globally. On that evening, IfeMichelle was working in a Black-owned bookstore in New Haven. Afraid of looting and rioting, the owner urged that they shut down the store for the evening. IfeMichelle refused. If you’ve met her, this comes as no surprise. She viewed the bookstore as a refuge for rage, and knew that the sanctuary would be safeguarded because of its Black ownership. Instead, they kept the safe space open and invited rioters to come in and talk about their feelings. “[We] were enraged,” IfeMichelle lamented. “Where do you put the rage? We talked about it, we had to talk about it.”
Her poem, “A Black Woman, A Black Mother” aims to answer this question. Rage cannot be subdued for an extended period of time; it must be released. Our frustrations are not ours alone, they are shared amongst us as black women. We must create our own space, seek out therapy and support from our community, and share our power. “I am not a strong Black woman, get off my back!,” IfeMichelle exclaims, a sentiment that is expressed throughout her poem. IfeMichelle creates her own space through literacy and invites her community to join in. In 2020, she hosted her first annual book festival, the Elm City LIT Fest, which featured Black writers and creatives from across the nation. She’s already begun planning the third annual festival as well as a birthday celebration for one of her favorite writers, Zora Neale Hurston, in addition to a Kwanzaa celebration in November. When asked about her motivation she simply said, “love all cultures, but love your culture first.”
Rachael Berry is a writer and public relations professional based in Miami, Florida. She recently received her Masters in Arts from the University of Miami.