Jessica Care Moore among Detroiters in new Wright exhibit
by Desiree Cooper, Detroit Free Press
Detroit native daughter Jessica Care Moore left home in the mid-1990s to find fame as a poet in New York. Last year, she returned to the Motor City a mother and nationally known author, publisher and performer.
Moore, along with 23 of Detroit’s other remarkable African-American women, will be featured in an exhibit at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History that opens Friday. Called “Women of a New Tribe,” it spotlights both the inner and outer beauty of black women.
“For me, the exhibit represents women who are taking destiny into their own hands,” said Moore. “That’s what I’m trying to do. It means a lot to me to be included.”
Linda Gillum, vice president of education and public programs for the museum, was involved in choosing the women featured in the exhibit.
“We chose women from a cross section of all the generations: those who are just starting their professions, those who are more seasoned, and those who have retired from more than one profession. We had a curatorial committee that put a list together and culled it down to the 25. It wasn’t easy; our community has an abundance of aspiring, high-achieving women.”
Well-known Detroiters like City Councilwoman Joann Watson; soul, hip-hop and R&B artist Monica Blaire; and Dr. Glenda Price, the former president of Marygrove College, are among the women featured.
“When I see those shots, I say, ‘There’s my mother. There’s my grandmother,’ ” said Gillum.
The images are the work of photographer Jerry Taliaferro, who in 2002 began the “Women of a New Tribe” exhibit with photos done in 1940s Hollywood glamour style.
“I could photograph black women for 100 years and not scratch the surface of their beauty,” said the North Carolina-based photographer. Now his images are traveling to museums and cultural centers around the nation. At each stop, the exhibit adds photographs of local women, like Moore, to the display.
“With Jessica, we set up the lighting and she started reciting her poetry. You can’t forget meeting her.”
Moore is pixie-ish and slightly built, but her poetry is volatile, direct and intense. Now in her mid-30s, she graduated from Cody High School with dreams of becoming a journalist. She was well on her way with a job as a news writer at Fox News in Detroit. But in January 1994, her path changed forever.
“My father died of emphysema,” said Moore. “It shook my world.”
At his funeral, she read a poem called, “Breeze” that spoke of her father as a guiding spirit in her life, like the wind. It was the first time she’d read her poetry in public. The experience propelled her to take her last paycheck — $750 — and move to Brooklyn to pursue a career as a poet.
“It’s interesting that it was my father’s death that gave me the courage to go to New York, but if he’d been alive, he would never have let me go,” she said. “It was a leap of faith.”
A producer from the nationally syndicated television show, “Showtime at the Apollo,” heard her work and encouraged her to enter the talent show. She dazzled the famously raucous crowd with her rapid-fire verses, winning five weeks in a row.
“I cried every time I won, because my father wasn’t there,” said Moore. “But in a way, he was. I opened my mouth and his spirit helped the words come out. I went from a Detroit poet trying to find my way, to someone who people recognized on the street.”
The next decade was a whirlwind of successes not often enjoyed by poets. In 1997, Moore launched her own publishing company, Moore Black Press, and published her first book, “The Words Don’t Fit in my Mouth.” That volume, which included the poem she had read at her father’s funeral, sold 20,000 copies.
She published other poets as well, including former Essence Magazine editor and author Asha Bandele.
In 1999, she was featured on the “Nastradamus” album by rap superstar Nas. She also appeared in films and on Russell Simmons’ HBO Series, “Def Poetry Jam.”
She’s traveled throughout Europe and South Africa with her poetry, and is an activist for AIDS research and literacy projects.
“Detroit has completely informed my writing, no matter where I’ve lived,” she said, adding that poetry isn’t just for the highbrow, but also the working class. “I take poetry where the people are — hair shows, wherever. It’s a way to touch people.”
In 2000, she married fellow poet Shariff Simmons and moved to Atlanta. There, she continued to produce works like her one-woman show, “Alphaphobia.” The play is about African Americans and their separation from their historical languages.
Recommitment to the city
Moore collects images of butterflies. They’re hanging in her kitchen and on her living room rug. They’re even part of her e-mail address.
“Butterflies are beautiful, but they don’t start out that way,” she said. “You have to grow into your wings. It’s that way with everyone.”
In 2003, she divorced Simmons; the following year, she married Flint music producer Kenyatta Poole. The relationship proved rocky, and in 2007, she came home with her 9-month-old son, King Poole.
“It was a hard, emotional time,” she said. “My sanity pulled me back to Detroit.”
Ironically, it was insanity that cemented her decision to recommit to the city. In February 2007, her friend of 18 years, Yale Miller, was shot on Detroit’s east side. The antiviolence educator was a husband and a father of four, including one adopted child from Kenya. The crime appeared to be random, and the perpetrators have never been found.
“He was a community activist and AIDS educator,” said Moore. “He was shot in the knee and bled to death. I was devastated.”
Her emotional return home has spawned a new body of work about Detroit. “There’s a bittersweet tone in what I’m writing,” she said. “There’s hope, but a lot about this city has to be changed.”
She’s saving the Detroit poems for a future collection. On Nov. 4, she’ll release her latest book, “God is Not an American.”
“It’s very political,” said Moore. “It’s about World AIDS Day, September 11, women’s rights and the loss of innocence in this country. It’s my most mature book.” The book will be the basis for a multimedia show of the same name that will be staged at Harlem’s Apollo Theater in April.
Nearly every Thursday night, Moore hosts an open mic for local poets at Nandi’s Knowledge Café, 12511 Woodward at Glendale in Highland Park. And on Sept. 17, she will be one of 12 local artists who will join rapper Chuck D for “Detroit Rocks the Vote” at the Fillmore Detroit, 2115 Woodward. The MTV-sanctioned event is a nonpartisan initiative to encourage young people to vote.
“Now I’ve got my footing and I’m living happy,” said Moore, whose son is now 2. “Detroit has been very good to me.”
When the exhibit “Women of a New Tribe” opens at the museum this week, photographer Taliaferro hopes that faces like Moore’s will show the beauty, bravery and indomitable spirit that characterizes the modern African-American woman.
“You can find yourself or your mother or your sister in that exhibition,” he said. “It changes your way of seeing beauty. You don’t always see with your eyes, you see with your heart, too.”