Ebony Stewart: Transforming Lived Experiences into Award-Winning Literature
No celebration of Texas women would be complete without a celebratory nod to Ebony Stewart, an incredibly talented and jarringly humble writer dedicated to uplifting those around her. Most notable for her spoken word, Stewart has shown remarkable versatility, winning awards and garnering recognition for both acting and playwriting in her transition to the stage. In just the last four years, Stewart has been crowned Women of the World Poetry Slam Champion, received two B. Iden Payne Awards for acting and one for script writing, and a David Mark Cohen Award. Stewart is now simultaneously touring her new book, Home.Girl.Hood., and pursuing licensure as a sex therapist. She has made immense contributions to both the greater Texas community and the arts as a whole, highlighting her unique ability to traverse multiple genres and modes to convey her truth. Stewart has consistently appealed to diverse, international audiences, firmly establishing her as one of the most important voices in Texas literature, and one of the purest examples of art as activism. She has earned her space in conversations about the greatest achievements by Texas women, and in any dialogue among Texas educators. Her work belongs in classrooms across the state, and the nation at large, for its combination of technical prowess, fluidity, and accessibility.
Though still in her thirties, Stewart has experienced more than most, and she leans on those experiences to inform her creative work. The themes reflected in her work are the lived experiences of Stewart herself: toxic masculinity, femininity, race, domestic abuse. She speaks, always, outward from her personal truth and toward a collective sense of hope. This is, more than anything, what draws me to Stewart’s work again and again; the strength which echoes throughout her work is in her refusal to be diminished by outside forces. To be woman and black and queer is to live every moment in the political sphere. Stewart has embraced that her very existence is an act of resistance, but her work is never couched in rage. There are moments of anger, and rightfully so, but there is also an ever-present refusal to sit in victimhood. In “Eve,” she writes,
For several months, Eve is a forest fire.
Makes her body a place no one can afford.
Feels like she let someone borrow her
and now they never want to give her back.
There is a quiet riot inside me, Eve said.
Anyone who says womyn are delicate and breakable,
can’t remember the ways in which they were born.
These lines perfectly encapsulate one of Stewart’s primary missions, “to be the woman that brings that fierceness and that fire so other women can get lit…to bring that fire and come to women in a way that isn’t necessarily gentle but that’s honest and recognizable” (Reel).
A former sex educator, it is no surprise that Stewart spends much of her work considering masculinity and femininity. She has seen, in the anonymous questions once asked by her sixth-grade students, how dangerous a culture of silence around gender identities and sexuality can be. Stewart chronicles a number of these questions in one of her more popular poems, “Anonymous Box Questions Sixth Grade Boys Group Ask Their Sex Education Teacher.” The poem begins from a place of humor, with one anonymous boy asking if he can use a plastic bag when a condom is not available, while another wants to know if he can get a girl pregnant by ejaculating into her ear. The poem turns serious, however, when Stewart confesses the responses she would like to give to her students. Here, she perfectly captures the frustration of being a public educator, legally prohibited from answering earnest questions about sex with even a grain of accuracy. The speaker goes on to lament toxic masculinity for pressuring one student not to express his full self, as he fears being harassed by his peers. For me, this poem communicates not just the very real frustrations many public educators experience, but also the wide-reaching impact Stewart has had on young people in Texas. Activism and creative expression have always coexisted for Stewart, and she continues to pursue opportunities to educate as many people as she possibly can. She holds the distinction, after all, of being the only poet to perform in the 2018 Seattle Pride Festival, where she spoke to an audience of more than 200,000 people.
Like so many creative writers, Stewart’s early memories of writing are centered in her memories of the volatile marriage between her mother and father, particularly as they neared divorce. She has described journaling from the age of eight, sometimes hiding in the closet and reading what she had written to her stuffed animals, no doubt preparing her for her eventual segue into performance poetry. This childhood sense of invisibility, and of finding solace in sharing her story with others, is reflected in Stewart’s determination to share her truth. She does not simply want to tell others her story, but to help others see that their experiences are not isolated. Stewart is a champion of visibility, frequently unpacking her own struggles by way of informing her audiences they are not alone. “Domestic,” for example, is a loose litany composed of stanzas about the various abusers whom Stewart has survived. One of the more visceral stanzas confesses,
To my ex-boyfriend,
whose touches feel like thunder,
who words bring rain,
I still think about you in my bones
and frontal lobe
when people tell me they love me.
The simplicity and directness of the language here is intentional, maximizing the accessibility of the poem. Broad audiences will be able to step inside these moments precisely because Stewart understands when to wax poetic and when to rein in her language for the sake of the poem.
“Mental Health Barz,” one of Stewart’s newest performance pieces, is quickly becoming a crowd favorite for its commentary on the culture of silence around mental health. From the outset, Stewart cites her motivation for speaking on mental health, sharing that “one time, a kid told me he almost killed himself, but he heard one of my poems and decided to keep living. And from that day forward, I was like, today is a good day to keep someone alive.” Throughout the poem, Stewart asserts her ability to persevere in the face of continued abuse and trauma, as well as the tendency for her friends to dismiss her depression because she is able to keep it together. In a moment of vulnerability, Stewart sheds the carefully practiced armor, admitting, “I gave all that I had, and you ain’t never known a black woman who ain’t did that. My friends call on me when they’re down…What good is a god that can’t speak life into somebody? Check on your strong friends…Don’t believe us. I promise, we’re pretending.” Witnessing this poem live is an unparalleled experience. Audiences quiet and lock eyes on Stewart. Some bow their heads or avert their gaze. Depending on the lighting, you can actually see eyes throughout the crowd begin to glisten as Stewart slows her performance, lowering her voice and drawing each person as though she is speaking directly to them. The moment before she ends the poem, almost everyone is holding their breath. The moment after she finishes, the space is filled with cheers and applause.
Stewart’s ability to connect with her audiences helped elevate Hunger, a one-woman play in which Stewart turns inward to investigate her troubled relationship with her father, and how it has impacted her into adulthood. Though I was unable to see the play for myself, the script is fraught with the fractured trauma of a girl desperately wanting her father around yet resolute in the knowledge that her mother is better off without him. The play combines poetry and monologue, deftly stepping between the present and the past to fully elucidate the slow loss of innocence that her father’s exit triggers. One scene, in which Stewart visits a child psychologist shortly after her parents’ separation, upended me with its accuracy.
I was angry and I didn’t know what to do with my hands some days so I just kept them closed/a fist/ not sure of what to let go of or what to hold on too…I wrote that because I’m small people think less of me. And how I’d prove them wrong. How I’d have to fight, even if it meant getting beat up. (She slides down the wall of the space) How my dad would scream my mom into shrunken clothes and tears and how much I wish I could close my fist over his eye over and over again. (She pounds the air with her fists) With a smack and splat…
As a child of divorce, I felt seen. I was transported back to the group therapy sessions I attended in elementary school and the weekly meetings I had with the principal to discuss my outbursts of rage. Moments like this permeate the play, giving the audience an honest and often conflicted vision of Stewart’s identity formation. As with much of her work, Stewart was not content to posit thoughtfully on how to increase diversity on stage. Rather than debate strategies, she sat down and wrote the very play that she needed to see when she was a young black woman. That resolve is one of the things I admire most about her.
Ebony Stewart would sooner build a bridge herself than wait for others to theorize on the most effective construction. Yes, this approach could be seen as foolhardy or reckless by some, but I find it admirable. Stewart’s willingness to fail supersedes her desire to be great, a quality that ultimately proves not just more productive for the artist but also more instructive for those around her. Stewart leads as much through action as through artistry. “For those who may have witnessed Ebony Stewart perform live,” Pages Matam writes,
the power, grace, and understanding of the conventions of the stage she often exudes translated remarkably well onto the page. Her poems never miss a beat, and they live harmoniously in tone and conciseness to bring this point: despite the trauma, she has and will always transcend beyond it, and will always celebrate herself first – even if no one else does. This approach seems entirely due to Stewart’s immovable need to make her own choices – something she hasn’t always had or has seen taken from her – by crafting pieces that hold the readers accountable and responsible through the various experiences she presents.
She walks the proverbial walk, as it were. And when she doesn’t get it all the way right, she tries again. Perhaps this is why Ocean, Stewart’s second one-woman play, revisits the themes of womanhood and masculinity.
Like Hunger, Ocean takes a long look at how Stewart’s upbringing influenced who has become in adulthood. Ocean, though, more directly infuses elements of the Afrocaribbean culture, both through its treatment of spirituality and through its use of regionalism to capture the very voice of the Caribbean:
I runneth over for my chi’ren
and my chil’rens children.
I ask her how. Teach me how to breathe
without fear. How to hold my own.
How to sink like I planned it.
Teach me how to be strong.
She says, ya bones is swollen with rhythm.
ya could dance your way out of anything.
Ya one part Gumbeh drum widouta goatskin.
Two parts float, soak, and sun.
As in everyting Irie.
These lines exhibit Stewart’s ability to use phonetics and capture sound, echoing authors like Patricia Smith and August Wilson through her manipulation of spelling. Even those who read these words on the page are able to hear the old woman speak these words to Ebony and, by proxy, to the audience. Stewart also more explicitly investigates her feelings about her body in Ocean, telling the audience, “I like my body fine I guess. Mama say I’m proportioned. I got just enough of everything in all the right places, but all I need to be worried about is what’s in them books. All the boys know I’m smart that’s why ain’t none of em attracted to me.” Throughout the performance, Stewart references numerous conversations about the body politic, as well as the importance of one’s roots and the inevitable intersections of her identity.
With the elevation of movements like Black Lives Matter on the political front and #OwnVoices on the literary front, the work of artists like Ebony Stewart has become more visible, yet black women remain almost entirely absent in school curriculum. Neither historically nor culturally significant figures make their way into textbooks with any regularity, save one letter from Coretta Scott King and one short story from Alice Walker. As we uplift Texas women, let us be intentional in recognizing the incredible contributions that women of color have made and continue to make, not just in literature but in all fields. And when we are lucky enough to witness a living artist effect change in real-time, make space for celebrating those efforts in the classroom. As educators, we are constantly tasked with defending our curriculum choices and making our material relevant to 21st-century students. There is nothing more relevant than the lived experiences of living artists, and nothing more defensible than an artist who does not merely speak of revolution but leads the charge. Ebony Stewart blurs the lines between author and activist, poet and playwright, actress, and public speaker. She defies limitation. It’s time our students know her name.