D.C. author publishes 19th book
You know you’ve made it when your name appears in a clue on “Jeopardy!” In October 2020, a D.C. author’s name appeared in one of the show’s signature blue boxes: “Novelist Marita Golden paid homage to this woman in an essay called Zora & Me.” (“Who is Zora Neale Hurston?”)
Marita Golden, author of 19 books, has had other brushes with fame. She has been interviewed by Oprah and Maria Shriver, and her writing has been called “adroit and affecting” by Nobel Prize-winning author Toni Morrison.
Golden, 71, wrote her most recent book, The Strong Black Woman: How a Myth Endangers the Physical and Mental Health of Black Women, with “a sense of urgency,” she said in an interview with the Beacon. Published this month, the book explores the devastating effects of prioritizing others.
Golden was inspired to write the book after a trip to her doctor’s office. Despite a healthy lifestyle, her doctor told her, she had experienced several mini-strokes.
“That made me realize that, even though I was doing all these very good things for my health, I was still vulnerable. I wasn’t invincible,” Golden said.
“That made me think about the whole ‘strong Black woman’ persona and how important it is for Black women — but also how it can be damaging.”
She completed the nonfiction work during the pandemic. “During that very difficult time of being locked down, exploring this issue gave my life a great deal of meaning, and it helped me heal,” Golden said.
A parent’s prediction
Growing up in Washington, D.C. with a father who was a cab driver and a mother who managed a building in Columbia Heights, Golden felt encouraged and supported by her parents. She absorbed her father’s rich storytelling, and felt buoyed by her mother’s premonition that she would write a book when she grew up.
“My parents, either consciously or unconsciously, made me a writer. They raised me in a way to be curious about the world, to be confident and to feel like I could do anything. My father was my first writing teacher, and my mother was my first mentor.”
Sadly, her parents died when Golden was in her 20s, never seeing her novels, anthologies or memoirs, in which she describes their profound influence on her life.
“I honor them in my books. Their spirits have touched many people because the books have touched people, so they’re kind of immortal,” Golden said.
Golden attended D.C. public schools, then graduated from American University and received a master’s degree from the Columbia University School of Journalism. She lived in Nigeria for several years before publishing her first book in 1983.
A lifelong writer, Golden toggles between genres, from novels to articles for the Washington Post. Golden has won a slew of writing awards, including the Barnes & Noble Writers for Writers Award, and has a Howard University fellowship in her name.
Her 2017 novel, The Wide Circumference of Love, about a D.C. judge whose husband is diagnosed with early onset dementia, was named an NPR Book of the Year.
Golden worked as a professor of writing at several prestigious institutions, including Emerson College, American University, George Mason University and Virginia Commonwealth University. She has been appointed writer-in-residence at many institutions as well.
Today Golden helps others heal by writing. She teaches writing workshops and offers one-on-one mentoring sessions to many students who write as she does — as if summoned.
“I don’t think you choose to write a memoir; it’s something you have to do,” Golden said. “Our life stories are very treacherous and beautiful…Writing can be therapy — and often is.”
Her coaching helps people shape their memoirs, while her motivational writing workshops help people get started in the process of telling their life stories.
One of the first steps, according to a class description, is to “defeat self-censorship,” and learn “how to discover why you write and more importantly how to write with regularity and dedication.”
Being “strong” takes a toll
In Strong Black Women, Golden points out that Black American women are three times more likely to die of a heart attack than whites. They’re at a higher risk of childbirth complications, diabetes and stroke, too — “an expression of systemic racism,” Golden said.
“There are many reasons why our health is so challenged. But one of them that can be changed is our attitude about prioritizing ourselves and not always prioritizing others,” she said. “We can change our attitudes about the relationship between our bodies and our minds.”
The book shares Golden’s health history as well as first-person, inspirational stories from other Black women.
“I didn’t want to belabor the daunting statistics, but I wanted to talk to women who have gone through trauma and pain and got into therapy or used other techniques to get on the road to healing,” she said.
Black heroines like Rosa Parks and Harriet Tubman often are portrayed as one-dimensionally strong. That go-it-alone strength can take its toll, though, Golden points out, if it discourages people from reaching out for help.
“There does remain a stigma in the Black community around mental healthcare,” she said.
Golden maintains her own emotional health by maintaining connections with several writer’s groups and a hiking club. After all, strong social ties “help keep the brain elastic and relieve stress,” she said.
“When I was doing research on Alzheimer’s disease, the researchers said that the number-one lifestyle change that can help you keep Alzheimer’s at bay was a very wide and diverse group of social connections.”
Foundation supports Black writers
Shortly after Golden published her first book, she was interviewed by a radio station. One listener, an activist named Clyde McElvene, contacted her, hoping to do something to help Black writers.
The two co-founded the Zora Neale Hurston/Richard Wright Foundation in 1990 “with just $750 and a dream,” according to the foundation’s website.
“I’m very proud that it’s in its 30th year,” she said. “We’ve had a profound effect on creating new, expanded opportunities for Black writers.”
Some of the writers who have attended the foundation’s writing workshops have gone on to become successful — and even bestselling — authors, including Brit Bennett and Mitchell Jackson.
Golden named the Hurston/Wright Foundation after two American writers with very different ideologies. Wright “plumbed the anger and the psychosis, and the ways racism had really corrupted the humanity of black people,” she said, while Hurston’s characters have a joyful, hopeful quality that demonstrates how “you could be both intact and tattered. That’s why I named the foundation for both of them.”
Every few years, Golden said, she re-reads Hurston’s classic Their Eyes Were Watching God, whose main character is “moving toward strength and vulnerability. She was the kind of woman that we want to be,” Golden added.
Starting the conversation
Golden’s new book may encourage others to start a conversation about the cost of being too strong. She acknowledges she’s “just one of the voices” talking about this issue, she said.
“We’re the first generation of Black women who are really examining this ‘superpower’ of strength, this ‘Black girl magic.’ But we don’t have to be magical all the time.
“We have to honor our fragility. If we don’t honor it, no one will.”
This month Golden will read excerpts from her new book at the D.C. Public Library and Politics and Prose in Washington, D.C. For more information about her readings or writing workshops, visit maritagolden.com.