Yvonne Combs, a black woman, smiles wearing a colorful headscarf surrounded by green foliage
Yvonne J. Combs

Yvonne Combs is a retired Army officer and former professor of Sociology. She earned her doctoral degree in Sociology from the University of Florida. Specializing in social stratification with an emphasis on the intersections of race, class, and gender, she taught courses in Sociology. Retiring from academia Yvonne, who won a statewide writing contest at the age of fifteen, returned to her love affair with words. Several writing retreats, led by Patricia Lee Lewis, stimulated her curiosity about the AWA method of writing. These encounters eventually led her to train as an AWA writing group leader. She says, “The experience of writing with others was transformative. It gave me a place to connect with personal authenticity.Yvonne is a new member of Straw Dogs Writer’s Guild, Northampton MA. She will soon be certified to train future AWA writing group leaders. Given the current enlightened efforts of AWA to demonstrate inclusiveness, Yvonne hopes to provide writing workshop opportunities for marginalized populations, especially Black women, who wish to recover their voices.

Last Autumn I fed my curiosity regarding business behind the scenes of Amherst Writers & Artists. I wanted to know, who planned events? What was the organizational structure that held it all together? More importantly, I needed to know how I might fit in the larger scheme.

The annual retreat in Las Vegas was conveniently close to my home state of Washington. Inside my always-vigilant consciousness, where too often I am the only black woman in the room, I wondered about the gender and racial disparities of the organization. I heard myself speaking in the meeting’s open forum about the importance (at least to me) of considering intersections of race, class, and gender when leading diverse groups of writers. At the time, I believed the least I could do to save the planet, or at least this portion of it, was to yet again prepare an academic dissection of my usual untethered enthusiasm for social justice. Did I sound angry? What I sought there were acknowledgment and inclusion.

As we enter this era of heightened awareness, the racial and economic divides intensify the need to expand into those spaces where only the Writer in us abides. If there is one thing we as a community of writers and artists can and must do, it is to acknowledge, honor, and make space for the different voices to rise and even shout out as I did last year, from the intersections of race, class, and gender. In part, this is the legacy of Pat Schneider.

Bronze statue of Sojourner Truth, whose presence is symbol for the author of feeling included in her writing community
Statue of Sojourner Truth in Florence, MA

The theory of intersectionality emerges from a long and arduous history of Black Feminist Thought. Its premise is that where markers of identity cross or intersect there emerges a unique worldview. As an organization and by charter, AWA of course informally acknowledges what might be unique among women and “people of color.” It is paramount that as an organization we do not lose sight that the struggle for racial justice, at least in the United States, continues to be centered on the sometimes violent and always disparate treatment of people claiming African descent.

The New York Writer’s Coalition presents an example of naming the elephant in the room. Under the direction of AWA Affiliate Aaron Zimmerman, the coalition has recently carved out a series of events and groups reserved to assist and acknowledge the need for black writers to have a separate space for growth as artists of the written word.

Now, as I reflect on my experience during the 2019 AWA retreat in Las Vegas, I permit myself to write this missive in a vastly different voice. The patience and generosity of those in attendance inspire me to find ways of contributing to an organization whose leaders, without my urging, continue to expand their awareness, making concrete openings for inclusion. My reflective voice and now my reflective heart-center ground and return my spirit to the bronze statue of Sojourner Truth. Her visage settles near the geographical heart of AWA. During our tour of the area, an affiliate and successful author revealed this sacred place. I stood included.

Yvonne J. Combs, Ph. D
Affiliate, Amherst Writers & Artists
November 23, 2020

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