Jayne Cortez, an unsung shero of the World African Liberation Movement, was a poet, performance artist and small press publisher. Her writings are part of the canon of the Black Arts Movement.
When most people think of the Black Arts Movement in Los Angeles, they usually speak of the Watts Prophets, Quincy Troupe, and Johnnie Scott. Cortez should also be part of that conversation. The poet died recently of heart failure. She was 77.
Cortez was in the mix, but never received her just due. The participation of many women in the African Liberation movement have historically been obscured. However, Cortez forced her way into history.
The outspoken Cortez was born on May, 10, 1934. She died on Dec. 28, 2012, in Manhattan, N.Y.
Cortez was born Sallie Jayne Richardson on the Army base at Fort Huachuca, Ariz. Her father was a career soldier who would serve in both world wars; her mother was a secretary.
Cortez, however, became a fire-spitting feminist, Pan-Africanist and anti-imperialist. Had she been around their times, she would have rolled with Harriet Tubman, Nanny of Jamaica, and Queen Nzinga of Angola. Listening to her poems such as “If the Drum Is a Woman,” “I See Chano Pozo” and “How Long Has Trane Been Gone” prove the point.
Cortez was the author of 12 books of poems and performed her poetry with music on nine recordings. She presented her work and ideas at universities, museums, and festivals in Africa, Asia, Europe, South America, the Caribbean and the United States. Her poems have been translated into 28 languages and widely published in anthologies, journals and magazines.
After she was born, her family left Arizona, and moved to Watts. Cortez attended John C. Fremont High School, and was a pathfinder. She married Jazz great Ornette Coleman in 1954 and had a son, Denardo Coleman, a Jazz drummer. In 1975, she married sculptor Mel Edwards. She lived in Dakar, Senegal and New York City where she died.