The Way We Live Now

June 5, 2020
Breonna Taylor was killed inside her home by Louisville police intending to search for evidence in a drug investigation of suspects who had already been apprehended. This happened on March 13, just as the nation was preoccupied with shutting down for the coronavirus. Ms. Taylor was a student at the University of Kentucky in 2011 and went on to serve as an emergency medical technician, working two jobs as a first responder. Today would have been her 27th birthday. The Kentucky Women Writers Conference Board of Directors and I mourn her death and affirm our solidarity with the people of Kentucky and beyond who are standing in protest, calling for the officers involved to be held accountable for her death, and advocating for reform of racial injustice.
The protests are having an impact. Yesterday morning, Nekima Levy-Armstrong, a Civil Rights attorney and former president of the Minneapolis chapter of the NAACP, reflected on the protests of the killing of George Floyd: "People in the city of Minneapolis, the Twin Cities, folks across the nation and the world all contributed to charges finally being brought against the other three officers involved in Mr. Floyd’s death as well as the increase in charges for Derek Chauvin based on his role. We know that those protests made a huge difference and brought worldwide attention to a significant injustice. And now, finally, we can say that first leg of the race has been won."
Throughout the events of the past ten days, I have been imagining what you and our community of women writers are doing. I know many of you are passionate about social justice. Some may be reading this after a night or nights of marching your city’s streets to condemn police violence against African Americans. Others may be finding different contexts to speak truth to power. Wherever this work is happening, I hope we can take heart that the courageous stances of so many are making a difference, even as fresh reports of new police atrocities are issued each day.
There is so much more to be done. As the protests grip our attention, the subjects of racism and violence now intermingle with the ever present Covid-19 pandemic. Knowing that Covid-19 disproportionately affects the Black community, Roxane Gay writes in the New York Times: "We live with the knowledge that, still, no one is coming to save us. The rest of the world yearns to get back to normal. For black people, normal is the very thing from which we yearn to be free." She and other journalists are the women writers whom I’m reading most keenly these days.
Many of you are also writing about these times, or will. When you do, we are eager for the Kentucky Women Writers Conference to be an artistic home and outlet for you. As stated in our Values Statement: We seek to create a shared space where women’s truths can be spoken without apology and welcomed into our events, leadership, and community. In this inclusive and supportive culture where women are seen and respected in their fullness, complexity, and potential, fearless work can emerge."
These days of protest are the time for that fearless work. Our organization has a long and proud history of lifting up the voices of Black women, from our first conference in 1979 with Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, and Toni Cade Bambara, to the establishment of the Sonia Sanchez Series in 2005 that brought revolutionary thinkers like Elaine Brown, dream Hampton, and Sister Sonia herself more than once.
And yet, the majority of our board, staff, and participants are white, which is further evidence of the deeply entrenched systems of racial oppression that continue to shape our literary institutions. The white women of our board and staff will not rely on Black women to elevate our personal understanding of and institutional opposition to systemic racism; we acknowledge our failures to keep white supremacy at bay while committing to further dismantling it within ourselves and our communities.
“The Way We Live Now” is a poem by Evie Shockley, published in 2017 in a collection that was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. It speaks to this moment, and I hope you will read it. Dr. Shockley is the keynote speaker for our 2020 conference, which is moving online due to Covid-19 and will be the most accessible of all my years with the organization. I’ll share more of those details soon. Meanwhile, be safe, stay informed, and keep striving for change.