Born for Trouble

By Langston, Donna | Negro History Bulletin, January-March 1999 | Go to article overview

Born for Trouble


Langston, Donna, Negro History Bulletin


Anna Marity Lewis (1905-1988) was the daughter of a former slave and a Norwegian farm girl. As an adult, she became an activist in the labor movement in Minneapolis. Her family saved a number of her journals that offer powerful and provocative stories of growing up poor, female, and black in the Midwest.

In some respects, Anna Lewis led an unconventional life. As a racially mixed child, she experienced abuse from her alcoholic mother that was so serious that the state of Minnesota [Eligible Text] her from [Eligible Text] family. Yet she [Eligible Text] a resilient [Eligible Text] woman who [Eligible Text] to be a [Eligible Text]. After seeing [Eligible Text] child in her care [Eligible Text] she left the field nursing, married [Eligible Text] abusive husband, had two children, and [Eligible Text] divorced. She supported her family by [Eligible Text] as a domestic and on the staff of the [Eligible Text] Athletic Club for 47 years, until [Eligible Text] age 67. Her time away from work [Eligible Text] her involved in black churches, gospel singing, and political activism. Anna held a number of leadership positions in community organizations. She was also a gifted writer. Had it not been for this writing, saved by her family in pieces, we would know very little of her life.

The lives of "ordinary" people are seldom recorded in public arenas. Yet, through her journals, Anna traced her multiple roles as daughter, sister, wife, worker, and political activist. Her writings reveal the survival strategies she developed and provide evidence of a gifted writer/historian.

Anna's writings are thinly veiled "fictional" accounts that read more like autobiography. Her primary autofictoria is titled "Born for Trouble." Her surviving journals are a mix of fiction, autobiography, poetry, and even a film script that she sent to Hollywood. The mixing of genres offer writing formats that are more inclusive and accessible to working class stories and the daily details of women's lives. This method of writing was well-suited to a black working class woman who might not have considered herself a candidate for traditional forms of autobiography. By crossing boundaries of autobiography and fiction, Anna modeled a writing form that was immediate and accessible. Creating fiction rather than autobiography allowed her to discuss taboo topics, such as abortion and domestic violence.

Anna focused a significant amount of her writing on the religious joy she found in the black church and community. Much of the literary tradition of African American women draws on the experiences of conversions and visions and the collective religious consciousness of the black community. Aspects of black culture often defined reality in religious terms. Anna's writings reveal an interplay between scripture and experience, which no doubt served as a basis for the political struggles she later engaged in through the labor movement. Her political beliefs augmented her spiritual beliefs rather than replace them.

The bulk of Anna's writing was penned during the years of the Harlem Renaissance, 1919-1931. During this time, the influence of black writers extended beyond the physical boundaries of Harlem to numerous northern cities, such as Minneapolis, where Anna Lewis resided. Numerous black literary figures, no doubt familiar to Anna, used creative writing to address social injustice. Anna's writings span several decades and give a wealth of material for learning more about the lives of black working class women in Minnesota just after the turn of the century. I have focused on the writings from her early years, which offer riveting testimony of a resilient survivor of childhood and spousal abuse. These writings offer us a map by which to follow her life story, a life narrative.(1)

Anna Lewis was born on February 19, 1905, in Blair, Wisconsin to inter-racial parents. Her father, John Marity was a former slave who had migrated north. …

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