Cole Arthur Riley created a literary communion in Black Liturgies.
On Instagram, she’s made a space to lift her innermost thoughts as well as the holy wisdom of our writing legends like James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, Audre Lorde, and the Bible, too.
“When I’m most honest, I tell people that Black Liturgies was born out of anger. I began the project in the wake of the murders of Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd, and the resurfacing of the murders of Breonna Taylor and Elijah McClain,” says Riley, the spiritual teacher in residence with Cornell University’s Office of Spirituality and Meaning Making.
“I was hungry for a spiritual space where Black grief, Black anger, my Black body was honored in a meaningful way. I had belonged to white-dominated, Christian spaces for long enough that I was desperate for a community of spiritual liberation. So I began connecting Black literature and poems, sometimes with prayers, sometimes with a breath practice. And very quickly a community much larger than I had an imagination for began to form,” she says.
Having drawn in a “congregation” of over 140,000 followers in a year and a half, Riley is releasing her debut novel, “THIS HERE FLESH,” published by Penguin Random House later this month. Get to know her.
The Black History I carry with me is:
Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Toni Cade Bambara, Zora Neale Hurston. All the Black women who’ve understood what their words were worth, particularly in times when the world was trying to convince them otherwise.
I sometimes walk around with the first line of Toni Cade Bambara’s The Salt Eaters in my head. It gets stuck in there like a song, and I’ll find myself kind of chanting, “Are you sure sweetheart, that you want to be well?” It has made a home in me. There is a magical canon of Black women authors who’ve expanded our imaginations for liberation, who’ve articulated nuanced Black characters with quirks and flaws and beauties. If I could write a sentence even a fraction as tender and complicated as theirs, I would feel proud.
Why is it so important for us to author our own stories and share them?
When I wrote THIS HERE FLESH, I didn’t immediately know it would be a book of storytelling. I thought it was just going to be this serious book of philosophical contemplation or something. But when I picked up the pen, all I was capable of writing were the stories that had formed me. I couldn’t talk about dignity without talking about my father lathering cocoa butter on us in the evenings. I couldn’t speak of lament, without telling of my gramma lying, trembling, on the linoleum floor. We must tell our own stories, because so many stories have been stolen from us. So many of us have not been allowed to tell the truth of us with the passion it demands, or without being censored and rewritten. We must become our own historians.
It was Toni Morrison who said, “Make up a story. Narrative is radical, creating us at the very moment it is being created. We will not blame you if your reach exceeds your grasp; if love so ignites your words they go down in flames and nothing is left but their scald ... But try. For our sake and yours forget your name in the street; tell us what the world has been to you in the dark places and in the light. Don’t tell us what to believe, what to fear. Show us belief’s wide skirt and the stitch that unravels fear’s caul.”
So there is also something really powerful in knowing that as we share our stories, it doesn’t always need to be so literal and succinct. As I wrote THIS HERE FLESH, I kept reminding myself that I was free at last to unshackle my creativity. So you’ll find a bit of magic and myth in the book. Myth sadly can have a negative connotation; I’d like to reclaim this. It’s a beautiful and worthy form for our storytelling. The ancestors have shown us that much.
What gives you joy?
I’ve always loved being alone. A few years ago I would’ve felt too much shame to answer this question with “solitude,” but I’m learning to resist this. I rest best when I’m alone-- when I’m not engulfed in the emotions or experiences of others. For some of us, solitude possesses a rare path into our interior worlds. And I feel so at peace, so alive with joy when I travel into myself. To remember who I am and all that has made me. It risks sounding self absorbed, but the reality is, my solitude often takes me into memories and stories of people that have passed on. And it also makes me more attuned to the interior lives of others. It makes me a better friend, a better daughter. Solitude is, maybe in paradox, a practice of collective care.
So I write and I stare at the wall and I watch Netflix documentaries and water the plants. And I’m alone, but there’s joy there.
My life is a beautiful resistance because:
I refuse to live a disembodied life. Even as I survive the violence of white supremacy, the judgment of white intellectualism, the pain of a body that is chronically ill, the memory of a body that has endured abuse, I refuse to abandon my body. It contains more beauty, more mystery than I am able to articulate. And in befriending and honoring it, I communicate belief in my inherent dignity.