Shay Youngblood is the epitome of the worldly woman.
She has written multiple books and plays. She is a visual artist. She is a scholar who teaches in academia. Her interdisciplinary art practice includes writing, painting, object making, sound art and video.
She has won numerous award for her writing in multiple genres including a Pushcart Prize for fiction, a Lorraine Hansberry Playwriting Award from the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and NAACP theatre awards (NAACP – National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). She was the recipient of the New York Foundation for the Arts Sustained Achievement Award and of a National Endowment for the Arts sponsored Japan-US Creative Artist Fellowship.
Along with graduating from high school at the age of sixteen, Shay has a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Brown University, where she studied with Anna Deavere Smith and Paula Vogel; and has taught at New York University, University of Mississippi, Texas A&M University, and Voices of Our Nations (VONA, a multi-genre workshop for writers of color). In Jilin, China, she was an invited participant for its International Literary Writing Program to discuss and write on the subjects of the environment, nature and ecology.
She manages Youngblood Arts, a resource for artists, musicians, writers and readers of all ages and backgrounds, created to promote the literary and visual arts as a vital part of culture. Her organization offers writing workshops in multiple genres, bookmaking workshops for writers and visual artists, workshops for readers, genre-bending literary fitness workshops, manuscript consulting, coaching, and corporate and educational programming.
Having begun the work of crossing borders at an early age, she accumulated experiential knowledge that has informed her achievements in theatre, literature, and academia; and also contributed to the resilience of spirit that has helped her to meet the challenges of three global crises through which she lived – the fall 1986 Paris bombing, 9/11 New York, and 3/11 Japan; and now the COVID-19 global pandemic that began this year and has not yet run its course.
Shay, a native of Columbus, Georgia, forged her own path in life after the death of her mother when she was only three years old, an experience that, of course, holds significance in her life. Her hometown sits on the border of Alabama and Georgia divided by the Chattahoochee River. In effect, she was in the middle of two time zones; Alabama is in the central time zone and Georgia is in the eastern time zone. She was a time traveler from the outset.
Without her birth mother and raised by older female relatives in several different households, her childhood nevertheless was rich with experiences that fed her humanity and her art, including music and dance.
“The sound I remember most was at night when freight trains rumbled on the tracks in the street in front of the housing projects where I lived, gospel singing on the radio and my young aunts singing popular 1960s’ songs by Aretha Franklin, James Brown and Diana Ross and the Supremes,” Shay recollected. These aunts and an uncle taught her how to dance, and encouraged the shy young Shay toward theatricality. Despite this encouragement, they also demanded a genteel civility that gains little purchase in contemporary society.
“These women were from a generation that believed children were to be seen and not heard, so I listened and observed,” Shay said. In the process, she became inspired by the stories of their lives.
“Those stories I heard became the foundation of my early work,” she noted. “I wanted to give those men and women a voice, to tell stories they; and people of their generation, class and limited education could not.”
Shay’s world view has been shaped by her African American, Native American, and Irish American ancestors. The fact that she is female also has had an impact on her pathway.
“Being born a girl, my world was automatically restricted,” Shay observed. “There was the expectation that I would study something lady-like, such as nursing or teaching, and would marry and have a family.”
In fact, the idea of leaving Columbus when Shay was young was rooted in that frayed strategy of a woman finding a man to support her. In Shay’s case, the expected tactic was to marry a military officer and quench the thirst for travel by accompanying him to his postings.
“Columbus is close to Fort Benning army base and so everyone I know was connected somehow to the military, by a job on the base, or an enlisted, retired or former family member who served,” she explained. Dispassionate early on by the old approach, Shay was drawn to an independent life that allowed her to travel on her own and read books for a living.
That’s the design that has come to fruition for Shay Youngblood.
“As a creative, I’ve explored a number of genres, experimenting with film and theatre, interdisciplinary projects, sound projects and creative non-fiction,” she stated. These creative dimensions have blended with a scholarly dimension that Shay enjoys. “I am grateful to have discovered that my passion and my purpose is teaching,” she imparted. “I think of myself as a facilitator, developing critical thinking and expanding the view of my students by exposing them to art, books, films and plays from many cultures and encouraging them to explore and experiment in genres outside their comfort zone.”
Many children growing up in the US had parents tell them that, if they dug a hole deep enough, they would reach China. Whether or not Shay heard those words, her explorative instincts and desire to see the world sent her in that direction.
“As a child, if I wanted to go to China I would dig a hole in the back yard until I got tired,” she disclosed. “Poking a stick into the hard earth for hours, I wondered if the people and houses and trees would be upside down when I got to the other side. Would the boys and girls be as curious about me as I was about them?”
Growing up in Columbus and too young to go to China or any other country on her own, Shay traveled by reading books.
“When I was nine, all I had to do to travel was go to the children’s section of the Mildred Terry Library and open a yellow book, one in a series about cultures of the world,” she said. “In one of those yellow books, I learned that children my age ate with chopsticks, wore different clothes, ate different food and spoke a different language than I did. Traveling by book to Nigeria, Morocco, Iceland, Japan, India, France and Spain among other countries, my imagination and curiosity continued to be stirred.”
Being an artist is not always kindly looked upon by one’s family until there is economic success, but Shay’s family – blood-related and chosen – always have been supportive of her artistry.
“They believe in the work that I do,” she said. “They support and encourage me so that I can prioritize my art. I have had many jobs that paid the bills, grants that encouraged and supported projects and commercial projects that have carried me for a year or two. The creative work I do is part of who I am.”
The dancing that relatives encouraged when she was a child grew into a teenage love of dancing. During those years, Shay came to enjoy going out to clubs to dance.
“We would leave the club when it closed at 1 am and race across the bridge to Alabama where we had one more hour to dance before heading home to sleep a few hours before church,” she mused. This notion of crossing borders and its impact on the nature of time fascinated Shay. It began to influence her creativity in myriad ways as the daydreams of pre-writing manifested in her work, meshing with her desire to tell the stories of those who could not find enough purchase for them (or purchase at all) in mainstream society.
“My family was very religious,” she explained. “Church was very theatrical, physical; and the many hours of service seemed like endless hours until I began to create elaborate fictional scenes in my mind each Sunday to pass the time.” She calls it “a form of daydreaming.,” a useful exploratory tool for the creative mind.
In fact, this daydreaming became dramatized in Shay’s mind.
“The women in the Southern Baptist church of my youth would be filled with the spirit every Sunday,” she recollected. “They’d shout, sing and cry with so much emotion. The greatest impact this had on me was that in midst of all the shouting, preaching and singing I was in my own personal movie theater dancing and singing to soul, R & B and blues music. I kept one ear open in case my grandmother asked me about the sermon.”
It bears relation to the dualities of time that Shay grew up with crossing borders. She was and is a time machine.
“… this early ability to do a kind of time traveling has been useful,” she said. “I can do several things at once and create while the world spins around me.”
Everything that spun before her eyes was an inspiration for further exploration. Growing up in the American South, for example, geographically and with regards to its society, made her look beyond its horizons.
“The biggest impact growing up in the American South had on me was that I developed a deep curiosity about what was on the other side of the invisible restrictions, barriers and borders that society had up for me as a young person of color at the time,” she shared. “Growing up in a place that put so many restrictions on me, I wanted to leave from an early age and explore the world to see if I could have a bigger, more expansive life.”
When Shay was thirteen, she met her birth father for the first time. The journey to meet him further expanded her creative mind.
“I took a bus from Georgia to Los Angeles to live with him briefly,” she noted. “To see the country at eye level from a Greyhound bus, to have conversations with people from all walks of life, to feel danger and infinite possibility was exhilarating and I wanted to capture those feelings and put them in a bottle.” Since that experience, Shay continuously has maintained a journal.
She wrote her first poem at the age of ten. That and her first visit to Yaddo (a New York-based artists’ retreat) (“… where I became a writer and first said it out loud…”) along with having her first play produced and her first novel published cemented Shay’s artistry and gave it the organic confidence it deserved.
Shay designates her theatre collaborations as her favorite artistic experience.
“…especially in the creation of my first play where I adapted my short stories for the stage,” she said. She spoke of one of her first collaborations with a director.
“I provided a kind of blue print and the brilliant director Glenda Dickerson, a dramaturg, actors, and costume, light and designers worked together to bring my words to life in a way that took my breath away,” she declared. “They each brought something of themselves to the work and created a community each time it was produced.” It was her first play — Shakin’ the Mess Outta Misery — that introduced me to her artistry; I have Sidney Poitier and Cedric Scott to thank for that. They encouraged me to go and see her play when it was in Los Angeles.
Theatre arrived early in Shay’s life; she served as the narrator of plays at her school from the first through sixth grades. That’s when she started middle school – and integration of schools began as well, which altered the landscape.
I took a one-hour bus ride to my high school located in an all-white upper middle class neighborhood,” she shared. “I wanted to continue to be a part of theatre so I signed up to work on the set of a play the school was producing that first fall. I stayed after school one day and got a ride home with the father of one of my classmates. My uncle who I lived with told me that he could not pick me up at school after dark in that neighborhood. I understood that he was fearful of being stopped or harassed because he was black and he might be questioned why he was there. I was upset, but I realized he was trying to protect us both.”
The success of her first play Shakin’ the Mess Outta Misery led to a scholarship to attend Brown University where she noted that “some of my deepest creative connections and my most successful experiments were born.”
Books and travel were fountainheads for growth for Shay. As a student, she had a residency in Haiti and was a Peace Corps volunteer in Dominica, Eastern Caribbean. She said that these experiences politicized her and developed an interest in history. Over the years, Shay has traveled to and lived in many places, one of them being Japan, which reunited our pathways.
The Japan-US Friendship commission allowed her to experience a five-month residency in Japan. She created a project called Add Architecture, Stir Memory inspired by her own personal search for home.
As noted, she grew up in several households after her birth mother died and became “a child of the entire community,” as she states. Today, she reflects upon whether the idea of “home” is being lost.
“For most of my life I’ve explored the question of how we are impressed by our first memories of home, the physical structures and the more interior psychological and spiritual aspects,” she communicated.
“In the twenty-first century, home has become virtual, portable, global and in danger of being lost. What is the effect of memory on architecture and how does architecture affect memory?”
These are the questions that galvanized Add Architecture, Stir Memory.
“Since the end of 2008, the United States has experienced an economic crisis that has led to the loss of home for over four million Americans,” she pointed out. “A week into my stay in Tokyo on 3/11, Japan experienced the strongest earthquake in recorded history, triggering a tsunami that swept away entire towns and a nuclear disaster that displaced thousands. “Since that time,” she continued, “I have interviewed people from all walks of life, about their earliest memories of home, exploring the relationship to home in another culture. I was especially interested in having conversations with contemporary architects, artists and designers who use traditional materials and concepts in their professional practice.” She expanded her research to include interviewing people from diverse backgrounds, focusing on her core question, “What makes home?” This question, she noted, is especially significant when one’s original home is only a memory.
Her beautiful paintings grow out of her love of exploring and embracing across borders. Of her visual art, she says on her website, “As a child, opening a book was like entering another country, a new world filled with possibilities. I could see the world through the eyes of others in a rather transparent way.”
On her website, Shay acknowledges that is known largely as a successful writer of short stories, plays, personal essays and novels. This changed after the events of September 11, 2011.
“After 9/11 I lost words,” she exclaimed. “Words could no longer effectively express my horror, fear, anger and profound sadness.” As a result, she turned to visual expression. “I am a mostly self-taught, intuitive painter who began painting as a way to rebuild my relationship with language. My influences include artists whose singular vision and daring, challenge me to create the kind of work that is relevant, timeless and takes risks.”
The words came back. Let us all be thankful for this voice that speaks without a thread of artifice.
All photographs of Ms. Youngblood and have been provided by and used with the permission of Ms. Youngblood.
1 – Shay Youngblood.
2 – Shay Youngblood in her girlhood.
3 – Shay Youngblood.
4 – Shay Youngblood in the early, pre-computer days.
5 – Shay Youngblood with friends.
6 – “Longing” by Shay Youngblood.