The homegoing service for Shirley Bradley LeFlore stretched nearly four hours on Friday, May 17 at Christ Church Cathedral. It was the type of funeral her life warranted – filled with poetic interludes infused with music, gospel selections, and remarks from civic leaders. Through an abundance of profound words from those whose life she touched, the service reflected her contributions to the region and beyond both as an artist and a human being.
Author and cultural critic Kevin Powell referred to her as “Saint Shirley” in a poem he wrote to express what she meant to him and the other young writers she influenced.
“She believed in us more than we believed in ourselves,” Powell said. “And there is no way I would be standing up here as the author of 13 books if it wasn’t for people like Shirley LeFlore. She never stopped celebrating younger writers.”
The church was just about at capacity as guests from all walks of life and generations sat in the audience and addressed those in attendance. There was sadness, but more celebration and recognition of a life well-lived. Powell referred to her as a “supernatural word warrior.” And it was made clear that she was black girl magic long before the term was coined.
“LeFlore ranks with the great jazz poet Jane Cortez in her use and knowledge of musical forms and history – and the cross-fertilization of literary musical forms and techniques,” said Eugene B. Redmond, poet laureate of East St. Louis. “She eloped with language and stayed married to music all her days.”
Though a handful of ministers and people of the faith offered words of tribute to her life, LeFlore essentially eulogized herself with her most notable poems read by others throughout the service. “I Have Known Women” and “I Am The Black Woman” were among the half dozen of her poems recited by Cheeraz Gormon, Maurice Minor, Cheryl D.S. Walker, and Jacqui Germain.
Other presenters used the creativity she inspired to deliver original works.
“Forty-plus years ago, I was captured by her charm,” Marsha Cann recited. “I wanted more of Shirley LeFlore, so I stayed around. Shirley was bad – not bad bad, but bad good. I thought she was standing on a mountain when she talked about life. Then I realized that she was the mountain – and the sky above it.”
According to Rudy Nickens, LeFlore was also a sanctuary.
“I’m glad we are in this church today, but what I’ve always known is that wherever Shirley was, there was church,” Nickens said. “She made church every day. Shirley Joyce Bradley Price LeFlore lived her baptismal covenant better than any person I have ever met – ordained or lay. She knew what it meant to love your neighbor as yourself.”
Matriarch cut from a different cloth
As a little girl, Hope Price-Lindsay remembered wanting a mother who was more like June Cleaver of the 1950s television classic “Leave it to Beaver.” Her mother lived in defiant opposition of the norms and expectations of the mothers of her day. LeFlore dressed in African garb and lived an artist’s life.
“As I get older, I find myself becoming my mother – and I can so appreciate the woman that she was,” Price-Lindsay said. “One of the most admirable things about my mother, in addition to her talent and creativity, was her spirit and humility. Being an artist, sometimes life served her caviar and champagne, and other times bone soup. She had the courage to be true to herself. She lived for her art, which sustained her spirit.”
Not conforming to norms and expectations continued as LeFlore’s family expanded into its next generation.
“She wasn’t the type of grandmother who was knitting sweaters and baking cookies, but she gave us so much more,” Noelle Lindsay-Stewart said of her grandmother. Instead, LeFlore would share stories and cart them out way past their bedtime to smoky jazz lounges or to the homes of her musician friends to hear them jam.
“Those are the moments that I’ll really miss,” Lindsay-Stewart said. “She fostered our creativity and our call to service and social justice.”
As her three daughters, two granddaughters and two grandsons spoke, they talked about continuing the family tradition of writing and poetry. Her 5-year-old granddaughter Bella Ituen read an original poem. Bella’s mother Lyah Beth LeFlore-Ituen read a poem written by LeFlore’s grandmother.
“She got it from her mama, who got it from her mama, who got it from her mama,” LeFlore-Ituen said.
Rivers of influence
Her influence was unique and broad reaching. She had a U.S. congressman and a representative of her beloved Carr Square Village community speak with equal passion and fervor about the impact she had on them. Unlike most services where a proclamation is given and standard remarks are delivered, political leaders and dignitaries shared personal stories about LeFlore and her influence on their lives.
“To me, Shirley LeFlore was family,” Comptroller Darlene Green said. “She was smart and funny, sassy and brassy. And I happened to love the way she said my name – always smiling with her little raspy voice. She was a gifted and creative artist. She loved her craft and was loved by so many.”
Alderwoman Marlene Davis spoke on behalf of her 19th Ward, but also on behalf of her family. She said LeFlore helped her raise her siblings when Davis’ parents passed away. Davis spoke of the shy, introverted younger sister whom LeFlore pulled out of her shell by engaging her through poetry.
“Shirley turned her into a poet who was ready to stand before people and speak her words,” Davis said. “Not only did she speak her words, but she is published in the Library of Congress. She gave so much to not only this community, but to this world.”
Recently retired 18th Ward Alderman Terry Kennedy was introduced to LeFlore as a small boy, when she and his older sister were in the same Girl Scout troupe. He seemed to invoke her style of delivery in remarks that resembled poetry.
“There was a mighty spirit amongst us. Small in stature, big at heart. We called her ‘Shirley,’” Kennedy said. “It was a mighty spirit in a little, bitty body with a raspy voice that would say things in a way that would make you go, ‘Mmmm.’”
He also used LeFlore’s words to comfort guests, reciting “Breathprints” from her book of poetry entitled “Brassbones and Rainbows.”
“Light a candle for me. Say a prayer. Whisper me into the wind. Lay a love wreath on the altar of your heart and remember my good days amongst you. Weep if you must. It’s good to unburden your tears, but make brief your grief,” Kennedy said as he recited LeFlore.
“Let the joy of my laughter comfort you. My spirit will be the music above your head, my love like the wind beneath your wings to lift you in your weary years so that you may see the sunrise. All is well with my soul.”