I first met Trelani Michelle at a women’s health event hosted on Spelman’s campus. I discovered we were already friends on social media due to my time in Louisiana and she is originally from Louisiana, so somehow our networks had crossed, but I didn’t know much about her other than she is also a writer. Looking back, I kind of feel as if she downplayed it, because in reality Trelani is popping! While I love her book Women Who Ain’t Afraid to Curse When Communicating with God (I have to share more about it soon), all of Trelani’s work is valuable to the Black community, and everything about it shows how deeply connected to the cause she is. More people should be talking about it, and you all can read why below.
Fancy: How would you describe your swagher? What makes Trelani, Trelani?
Trelani: I’m in my own lane, doing my thing. I don’t judge anybody for nothing. I been through it. Life gave it to me, you hear me? I took those experiences, those heartbreaks, those frustrations, and even the wins, and I used to them push me forward. I’m always optimistic. Even when I was at rock bottom, I knew I wouldn’t be there forever. And I give back. I always give back. Sometimes it’s through money, but not always. Mostly it’s through time, my most valuable resource.
One of my strongest knowings is that elder wisdom is too often overlooked and the wisdom of the youth is too often undermined. So I’ve committed my career to those worlds. Whether I’m interviewing an elder or checking up on them to see if they need anything or just to talk, or I’m teaching my students (through a local nonprofit), meeting up with one for a morning walk or linking up with another one for dinner to discuss whatever they’re going through, that’s my passion. That’s my activism. That’s what makes me, me—a young spirit with an old soul who ain’t afraid to rock the boat.
Fancy: What exactly is the “We Speak Fuh We” project, and how long have you been working on it?
Trelani: No one can speak for us. No one should speak for us. We speak for ourselves. We speak fuh we. Middle finger to what’s considered proper English; this is our tongue. It’s a reclaiming of our stories and histories, our recipes and remedies and cultural inheritances, so as not to be stolen, hidden, or misrepresented. It’s a book, and I’ve been working on it since November 2016. I’m a huge fan of slave narratives created under the Federal Writers’ Project. In the late 1920s and early 30s, the U.S. government paid writers to go out and interview formerly enslaved persons around the country, and their literal words are available to us today.
I was addicted, but I was also curious to know two things: 1. Most of the hired writers were White, so I wondered how honest a Black person would’ve been had a White person came up on their porch asking them about their slave days (when oftentimes they still lived on the very same plantation they were enslaved on). 2. I wondered who was collecting the stories of today’s’ elders. No one in this area was, so I knew I had to make it happen. The way it’s been unfolding and the resources that have damn near literally fallen into my lap out the sky, lets me know that God, the universe, and the ancestors put me on this path. I’m doing exactly what I’m supposed to be doing.
Fancy: How did you begin telling the stories of others?
Trelani: If we take it back to the very first time (Betty Wright’s voice came to mind when I said that, lol), then it started in a youth detention center where I’d been sentenced to 90 days. The center only had about 20 books, tops, that were available for us to read. Your family could send you books, but it took forever for the facility to approve it and give it to you, and my mom would only send me Christian literature. I read it, but I craved something different. One of the books I read while locked up was The Coldest Winter Ever by Sista Souljah. Her story was so vivid, so real, and made me feel like I was in New York when I was reading it. It inspired me to write my own story (on college-ruled paper with a pencil). I changed a few proper nouns to disguise it as fiction, and let a friend read it. She loved it and let someone else read it. They loved it, and it kept floating around the facility until even some of the guards read it. A few girls asked me to write their stories, which I did in exchange for snacks and cornrows. I loved it.
Then in undergrad, I wrote people’s essays and research papers for money. I had a contract, fee structure, testimonials, and everything. Also in undergrad, I published my first novel, What the Devil Meant for Bad. In addition to women asking me what it took to write a book, many also asked if I’d write theirs for them. That’s when my career as a professional co-writer started.
Fancy: You aren’t originally from Savannah are you? What is your connection to it?
Trelani: No, I’m originally from Louisiana, but it’s hard saying that I’m not from Savannah too. I’ve been here for over 12 years—met my life partner, had my babies, was college-educated, bought my first home, became a business owner, taught, and so on and so forth.
Fancy: When do you expect for the project to be completed?
Trelani: The book will be published in February 2018. I’ll be here for close to another two years after that, however, to set up a training program for the work to continue. It’s necessary. At that point, I plan to go back home to Louisiana and do the same thing. Spirit willing, of course.
Fancy: Why is “We Speak Fuh We” so significant?
Trelani: It tells our story from our own mouths. It’s a catalogue of oral histories from the elders. In the words of Mr. Steven Williams, 81 years old, who I was interviewed for this project, “It’s history you don’t want to lose because, see, most of the witnesses is gone.” As the African proverb goes: When an old man dies, a library burns. It’s important to gather those stories, those histories, those memories before our elders pass away. Time is of the essence.
Fancy: For you personally, what has been the most rewarding thing about working on this project?
Trelani: I wrote a poem called “I’ma Write a Book,” which includes excerpts from interviews to help get the word out about the project, and I perform it occasionally around the city. Whenever I’m finished, people always say, damn near demand, that I have to write that book. That’s when I let them know how they can get it involved. It’s information that they didn’t know. For example, Savannah used to have a thriving black business district before it was uprooted by the construction of I-16, which cut right through it. Another one: Some of the wealthiest White neighborhoods in the city, particularly those on the marsh, were once Black folk territory. The land was considered hard to manage and infested with mosquitoes, so it was given to African Americans after slavery. Land developers looked at the land, saw millions, and pushed us off the land, and the city is still being gentrified to this day. It’s still relevant, and I’m obviously not the only one who’s been itching to know this untold history of Savannah.
Fancy: How is the project being funded?
Trelani: Crowdfunding: https://www.gofundme.com/wespeak
Fancy: You also assist others with their writing. Can you share the services you offer?
Trelani: I help those who want to write a book that’s centered on their life experiences or expertise, as in writing the book is a high priority, but they struggle with finding the time to make it happen or organizing it in a way that will not only make sense to the reader but be an actual enjoyable story.
Fancy: Do you have any other projects or events that you care to share?
Trelani: A few days ago, I would’ve said no, then yesterday happened. A Facebook friend shared that she was basically feeling unsettled in her spirit and ungrounded. She wanted something to read and moseyed over to her bookshelf. She’d pick up a book, then Spirit would tell her no. She’d pick up another and get the same no, until she finally got to Women Who Ain’t Afraid to Curse When Communicating with God and Spirit approved. That made me peep the hashtag, which I ain’t done in a while, and I saw that the book is still giving women what they need to get through various life and spiritual transitions. We’re constantly evolving and that book nudges us to do the necessary introspective work.
Learn more about Trelani Michelle below.