Poet Cherene Sherrard Connects The History Of Black Women To Modern Day In 'Grimoire'

Feb 3, 2021

In 2021, Black women are still fighting a historic battle — challenging racism and misogyny, and demanding equality and justice.

Poet Cherene Sherrard digs into these themes through creative writing. Sherrard is a professor of 19th and 20th century American and African American literature at UW-Madison. Her latest collection of poems is titled "Grimoire."

In "Grimoire," Sherrard explores the life and recipes of Malinda Russell, the first known African American woman to publish a cookbook. She intertwines it with the perspective of a modern, Black, female narrator.

Sherrard says the use of both a historic and modern character in the book is to show the continuity in experiences that Black women have faced throughout history.

“A lot of the poems in the book talk about what is inherited. Trauma is one of the things that is inherited, and several of the poems talk about that. But we also pass down survival skills,” she says.

The title is also a reference to the passing down of knowledge, Sherrard says. A grimoire is a textbook used to record magic spells. Spells were often written in what were called “receipts” and eventually became known as recipes.

The title to Cherene Sherrard's new book Grimoire is a reference to textbooks used to record magic spells and their use in passing down information throughout time.
Credit Autumn House Press

“That’s part of why I liked ["Grimoire"] as a title, the combination of something that might be recipes for dishes and food, but also for advice and cures and other kinds of things to remember,” she says.

Her poems also explore motherhood. One poem, "Weathering," tackles the idea that risks in childbearing go up as women get older, but that modern women are less and less ready to have children in their 20s and early 30s. 

The poem also addresses disparities in birth outcomes for Black mothers as compared to white mothers. According to the CDC, Black women are two to three times more likely to die due to pregnancy-related causes than white women, and most pregnancy-related deaths are preventable.

READ: Milwaukee's Mortality Rate For Black Babies Is High. Why, And What's Being Done About It? 

So, Sherrard emphasizes that, like all women, when deciding to become pregnant and going into prenatal or birthing clinics, Black women confront choosing between career and family. But also there's a specific intensity that Black women experience when moving into those spaces, "and not necessarily being treated with the same care or seen in the same way,” she says.

In "Grimore," like in a lot of Sherrard's poetry, she seeks to recover and explore voices that might have been stifled, like women in the 19th century under slavery. But Sherrard also finds poetic inspiration in just about anything that strikes her fancy, she says, from family to food to the places she visits.