2017 by Antoinette Ellis-Williams

Reviews of 'Black Gardenias'

"In the spirit of C. Wright Mills, Dr. Ellis has managed to elucidate through beautiful prose that precise point where personal biography and history melt into one. Dr. Ellis's acute sense of history and dedication to historical accuracy, places the reader in the time and space needed to recognize and empathize with the emotions involved in each story and power. Dr. Ellis has masterfully created a collection of women's voices that reflect a myriad of real life experiences. Whether she is writing in the voice of an infant as in Speak for Me Mama or as twenty-something year old woman navigating the pains of love lost in Rebe's Regret, Dr. Ellis writes in a voice that is recognizable to all. Dr. Ellis paints with her works and has created a piece of art in Black Gardenias."

Kasandra Pantoja

"Black Gardenias tell its many stories with great cultural flavor, true grit and perspective that is beyond category. The title alone rekindles thoughts of Lady Day. It's well told poetic stories of many poeple...on any given day.  Bathing in Black Gardenias released and softened my willingness to expand my paradigm to familiar and not so familiar people, places, foods, and things.  The human emotion and responses to good, bad, joy, pain and more...make us one, beyond category. As un-boxable as black gardenias."

Antoinette Montague, Jazz, Blues Singer/Entertainer

"Black Gardenias is a gift of love. Through poetry, short stories, and just plain words, the book offers us a glimpse of the interior of women who bear the burden of creating beauty in lives often scarred by unimaginable wounds. Dr. Antoinette Ellis-Williams chronicles the complex layers of that living with the eyes and ears of an artist and the analytical skill of a scholar. She writes in the epilogue that "justice, redemption, grace and mercy are codifying jewels of agency…." This is more than insight; this is wisdom. In the end, what this powerful book shows is that love isn't always pretty. But beauty forever resides wherever love is."

Dr. Eddie Glaude, Professor, Princeton University

"Black Gardenias is a hauntingly beautiful collection of poems that leave you breathless. With works giving voice to the often voiceless Dr. Antoinette Ellis-Williams takes readers on an introspective and intimate journey through the interior lives of African-American women. From hypnotic verses exploring the ancestors cries against unimaginable brutality to deeply personal reflections on topics like love, loss, race and gender, this poignant collection is a timeless gift to its readers"

Angela Burt-Murray, Journalist, Former Editor-in-chief of Essence Magazine

"Antoinette Ellis-Williams', Black Gardenias, is a rich, lush literary journey which conjures images of Black Women, their struggles, their loves, their lives. Her keen sense of legacy connects the reader with historical artifacts drawing us in close proximity to unprecedented times of hardships. The difficult moments when Black Women were and, to a large degree are, forced to play foundation to an entire race's climb from deception and despair. Ellis-Williams wordplay is but one of the many surprisingly fresh takes on the genre. That she also fuses essay, with poem, poem with dedication, supplies her with a more than unusually large canvas with which to stroke, brush and paint her formidable ideas. That the genres collide then collapse, spilling effortlessly into one another, allows us unprecedented emotional access to the lyricism and musicality of her poetry. Space, taut line breaks, the relentless infusion of cinematic shot lists drench us in colors, structures, sounds and smells. We are not readers but instantly listeners to the text, where moments of jazz like silences allow one to look inward, at what part we have played in the construction of Ellis-Williams poetic confessions. Like a brilliant painting, conceived after years of experimentation, when abstract expression crashes head first with improvisation, the tones and shades, the many contradictions, are both simple and complex. I merely need to think of the poems, Pretty in Pink, or Guilty Found Innocent/ Innocent/ Guilty, to remind myself why Ellis-Williams' words are so necessary. Brilliant poetry usually begins with brilliant titles. The ambiguity, allowing readers freedom to imagine, is equivalent to a musical hook. One would be hard pressed in today's world to hear/ see the word pink and, to some degree, literally be forced to have images of Breast Cancer Awareness. This is neither ambiguous or new. But from the first line, we are submerged in a tale, personal and introspective yet, universal in scope and theme. If Trayvon Martin is not a name you know, Mars must be the world in which you inhabit. Ellis-Williams’ connection between the many fallen Black Males at the hands of those who protect and serve, juxtaposed with a Black Woman's sensitive but accurate depiction of how we are all Trayvon, but also, all guilty, speaks to the power of poetry. Life is lost every day for the lack of poetry in our lives. Antoinette Ellis-Williams’ Black Gardenia's helps to fill that void and is a must read, sure to make minds question, and hearts bleed."

reg.e.gaines, Tony Award/Grammy Award Nominated Playwright, Poet and Author

"Antoinette Karleen Ellis-Williams beautifully writes a range of imaginable Black women characters into being--mothers, grand mamas, daughters, sister friends, classmates, strangers, lovers--and locates them into a pastiche of, what could be best described as, fictionalized ethnographic poetry and short stories. Ellis-Williams's "Black Gardenias: A Collection of Poems, Stories & Sayings From a Woman's Heart" rightly privileges the narratives and life worlds of Black woman as imagined and encountered in Black time and space. Riveting, colorful, relatable and necessary are a short list of descriptive words that could be used to describe this collection of spirited and spiritual art. But it is art that is also political in the sense that each poem, saying, prose challenges us to resist masculinist accounts of Black life and remember the place of Black womanhood in our retellings. Ellis-Williams's has planted additional flora, poetic gardenias, to be sure, in the grounds already prepared by Black women writers who have, for some time, been in search of their mother's gardens."

Darnell Moore, Educator and Writer

"A must Read! Regrets are poisonous to the soul. No matter what you accomplish in your life time. No matter how decorated your resume is with degrees and experience, if you are harboring un-forgiveness in your heart, you will never be whole. In this remarkable book filled of stories of women who have triumphed against all odds, the author takes you on a journey of pain, laughter and growth. You will be inspired to unmask your own pain and finally let your voice be free. So many women are hiding behind shades, clothes, degrees, and the idea of being in love only to hide the real pain on the inside that torments them at night. The pages in Black Gardenias pours out the bare naked truth of the pain black women and women in general had to endure. The pain that we are forced to live through, but never forget. The pain that we use to empower us, motivate us and transform us into the beautiful, strong and bold women we are today. Black Gardenias not only sets the stage for us to understand parts of our history, but it defines the strength of a WOMAN. Every woman regardless of race will indeed be transformed through the stories these women shared. It is through the stories of these triumphant women that another woman facing the guilt of rape, abuse, and abortion can find freedom and begin their journey towards healing. Black Gardenias deals with everyday issues that pierce the hearts of many women, including cancer and the decision to place a loved one in a nursing home. As you read the stories from these remarkable women, the warrior within you will rise up. The fight within you will begin to awaken and no longer will you sit back and be a punching bag for the devil to pounce on. Whatever you are faced with, you will indeed be inspired to live through it after reading this book. Antoinette Karleen Ellis-Williams did an amazing job in this book. The beauty about these stories is that fathers, brothers, uncles, MEN can also relate to them and be inspired. The reader will grasp the truth of how a father’s love, though dormant at times, rises up to protect his daughters. These women shared their stories with such transparency that you can feel their pain and experience their healing. The devil is already defeated and you have the victory!"

Shermaine Nicholas-Reed,MA, Minister and Counselor

"Black Gardenias speaks with the voices of women in my town. It tells the stories of women I know and faceless women throughout time. The reader may recall sitting on back porch steps listening to the women in the kitchen talking about the cuttin' up drama from the no account down the street. Or running through fields of wildflowers before they even knew they had an innocence to lose. The stories in Black Gardenias may call to mind gritty streets free of the whitewashed sanitation of nostalgia or wrap the reader up in candy dreams of yellow summers with sparklers. When we read the pride with which Mama Olewagi asks to be released from her antiseptic prison or we feel the ache of the Cleaning Woman's Left Foot, there is nothing separating their experiences from our own. The shores of my small island are extended when I look through blue tinted lenses into another's experience. This is where the power of Black Gardenias resides. In breaking down our labels we can then break down the walls that keep us from knowing each other. The walls that keep us bound up in our own pain believing--truly believing--that we are alone in the hurt of betrayal, exclusion, poverty and sexism. There is joy here. There is the mundane ticking clock of everyday life here. There are women here hiding their smiles, dancing in the rain, crying in the dark, and standing on the rooftops of the world in their own personal triumphs. Read cover to cover or opened randomly to a passage picked by the universe, Black Gardenias offers sonnets with hard downbeats meant for aural syncopation or narrative prose, all of it streaming with the consciousness of women from near and distant lands."

Nicole Miller

"If the saying "Your life is defined by the people in it", the life of Dr. Antoinette Ellis Williams has been a life of association with strong and courages black women. This compact yet rich document, Black Gardenias is filled with the stories of women who have survived despite their sentence of living black and female in the Western Hemisphere. This is a dedication to black women. Black Gardenias is documentation of the love affair Dr. Ellis Williams has had with black women. Every page was familiar. I saw in the prose and poems, friends. I saw enemies. I saw myself. I saw pain. I saw love. I saw hope.

 

The social structure of the world has uniformly placed black women at the bottom of the social, cultural, and economic ladder. The blacker the skin the more powerless one is perceived to be. Black women have been given, and have assumed a position at the bottom of the human chain. They are first black -- strike one. Strike two, they are women — the weaker sex. As such, much of their story, until the recent proliferation of black women writers, has been silenced. Their voices have been the last to enter the canon. But enter they have. -- never to be side lined again.

 

This collection of prose and poetry seeks to elevate the voices of black women to the surface. Black Gardenias describes their pain while extolling their strength. It recognizes the wrongs while demanding that those wrongs be made right. It describes their painful and sordid past while confirming their determination to make way for a future filled with brighter days. It condemns those who sought to damage their soul; while offering salvation, redemption, and hope through faith in God the supreme power and ultimate arbiter of our fate.

 

Severely lived lives at the mercy of racist white women employers is a theme that runs throughout the collection. Of particularly interest is the description of damage done to black women while in the employ and under the direction of white women. This is a subject that is examined deftly by Dr. Ellis Williams in the section on Abuse and Identity. In "Faded Wildflowers" in reference to the mother’s well meaning white boss, the character knows truthful feelings cannot be displayed. She states: “Surviving the South at that time meant saying yes ma’am and smiling like a good nigger.” If this were the only requirement of a young southern black woman it would have been bearable. But Ellis Williams takes us to the next requirement, perhaps the more difficult demand of playing the smiling, numb, sexless, good girl part for the approval of ones own mother; a mother who had swallowed her self playing that part to the point where she would not recognize and would not tolerate any act of soulful humanness in her own child. The role had to be played for both master and the instrument of the master, one’s own mother — the Black Woman, Society’s mule, a hybrid workhorse who must feign a smiling gratuitous posture to survive.

 

Racism, domestic dysfunction, sexism, poor self esteem, poverty, and illness plague so many black women's’ lives. Yes, the load has been heavy. Yes, the path has often led to pathos. The road has been crooked. Yes, it can sometimes seem as if all is lost never to be recovered. Are we doomed? Is there even a will to select a path of self determination? She brings us to the brink, tear wiping, I need a martini bad, woe is me brink — and then the light begins to shine. There is hope. Everyday, any day can bring a new beginning. There is a way to ameliorate the past. Our present has brought a sun shining between the clouds bringing with it a promise for a better future."

Dr. Linda Epps

"Black Gardenias: A Collection of Poems, Stories and Sayings from a Woman’s Heart Antoinette Karleen Ellis-Williams, Black Gardenias is a collection of poems, stories, sayings and truths for women whose lives have been defined by struggle, heart-ache and pain [through structures of oppression, sexism, racism and classism], yet they persevere and carry on. The book captures the challenges Black women face as the live, love, work and parent. Black Gardenias captures the essence of our struggles from its earliest stages in our history as slaves on southern plantations to present day as mothers of sons fall victim to incessant violence on the streets of northern urban centers. The content serves as a thought-provoking reminder that life can get messy and is almost invariably complicated at times. Still we [Black women] rise to meet the challenges before us. Ellis writes eloquently of love, loss, pain and struggle among women who have the strength of character and the fortitude to survive in spite of the challenges confronted in daily life. She reminds us that while we may not come out unscathed, there are lessons learned, love shared and power in our ability to keep going despite the odds. The poems, stories and sayings strike a chord in the collective memories of Black women that resurrects times of pain, moments of laughter and glimmers of hope. Ellis’s truths about justice and judgment, faith and religious grounding, and identity and self-esteem help the reader accept mistakes or miscalculations and revel in the wisdom that comes with learning lessons the hard way. Black Gardenias is a delightful read that kept me engaged and engrossed. It reminded me of growing up with a firm understanding that my address may have deemed me underprivileged, yet my parents instilled in me the belief that I was too blessed to have missed anything important life had to offer. Ellis reminds her readers that honoring one’s elders is tradition; stumbling along the path of life is not uncommon; and that getting back up when we fall is a responsibility. This book was indeed from the HEART of a woman, and it will make readers smile, cry, and thank God they survived to share their story."

Faith Samples-Smart,Ph.D

"I’m writing to enthusiastically share my review of Dr. Antoinette Ellis-Williams’ first novel, Black Gardenias. Dr. Ellis-Williams pays tribute to the beauty and complication of the history and lives of black women by sharing our stories, our experience and at times our secrets through– poetic versus, letters from mothers to their daughters, first person accounts of love, loss, intimacy, sex, abuse and survival. Black Gardenias intentionally captures the complexity of black womanhood through words in a way that can only be described as painfully poetic. There is no denying the melody to the way in which Dr. Ellis-Williams organizes and positions each piece. Every word and each page gives us permission to do more than just understand each woman or girl, it allows us the opportunity to explore the depths of ourselves; the parts often kept hidden. Each story triggers the memories of our own stories. We are taken through a journey into womanhood, aging, abuse, faith and death. Black Gardenias is a transformative and powerful body of work produced in a time when black women become less legible with each passing day. Dr. Ellis-Williams reminds us that black women do more than just survive, we are warriors that must take on the responsibility of telling our own stories. Black Gardenia’s reminds us as Audre Lorde once did that, “our silence will not protect us” and we must always remember, “we were never meant to survive”.

 

Dr. Ellis-Williams gives voice to the silenced– with every memory and reflection, Black Gardenias helps us resist the world’s compulsion to simplify our experiences, manipulate our history, refuse our complex existence, our beauty and our strength. The matriarch in “My Grandmother Never Ate Grits”, a domestic worker who cleaned the homes of white people, reminded me of my own grandmother. As the granddaughter of a Jamaican woman, it was touching to read this piece. We rarely discuss the stories of women in our community whose ancestors were enslaved on Caribbean plantations and then forced to migrate to colder climates to work as maids for white families for little pay. My grandmother worked tirelessly taking care of children that were not hers and cleaned homes she could never afford. The complex lives and painful stories of these women are invisible. “My Grandmother Never Ate Grits” is one example of how Dr. Williams eloquently brings us all from the margins to the center. In another piece, “Pale Blue Shades”, Dr. Williams also brings center stage the suffering of black women and girls and anchors it in tragic secrets often kept in darkness. Nikki’s story is powerful because it is deeply honest. It reminds us how little the world values whether or not our bodies are respected, cared for. It is also far too familiar. To many black girls are victims of sexual violence yet there are few spaces that are safe to talk about the issue. Dr. Ellis-Williams gives us this space and more importantly (as she has done throughout Black Gardenias) makes our pain, our survival and our lives visible.

 

Black Gardenias closes with the tragedy of Trayvon Martin’s death and the release of Django. I found myself challenged by the ending for a few reasons. As someone outraged by the killing of another unarmed (or armed) black boy, I too believe that the Zimmerman verdict was a reminder that this world does not value the lives of black boys. However, what has been so acutely left out of the public discourse around the murder of this child; is that this world cares even less about black girls. I am thankful that Rachel’s mistreatment is included in “Guilty Found Innocent/ Innocent Found Guilty”. However, it returned me, black girls/ women to a place of invisibility. I believe that while the death of Trayvon struck at the core of so many people (and it should), the question is why hasn’t the story of Marissa Alexander or Renisha McBride also called us to act? I believe Black Gardenias is an opportunity for black women our allies (and even our enemies) to be reminded that the lives of black women are valuable. Particularly, in social justice movements where we rarely see the death of black girls call national movements. Similarly with Django, I felt that this piece positioned as the last one before the Epilogue contradicted the intended point and mission, to make the stories of black women front and center. My feelings about Black Gardenias and Dr. Ellis-Williams’ effort to authentically tell the stories of black women is summed up in her last few words “But this transformative radical love that moves from the inside out, gathered from a place of deep self-exploration is necessary if we are to reach the Promised Land and if we are to live authentically, free and whole.” This book is just that, an act of transformative radical love for black women. I believe this work will be useful to black women of all ages, regardless of academic, geographic or political background. I, in fact, intend to use this in my work with women and would recommend it as a staple in every library of every feminist organizations working with young people. This will not only be helpful for black women and girls (although I appreciate that that is who it was intended for), everyone needs to read this as a powerful interrupter of the accepted notion that black girls are not valuable."

Tynesha McHarris