It all started when a young Pam Johnson Davis skipped across the playground dreaming of scaling the monkey bars and acquiring a collection of blisters along the way. But she said her family’s Pentecostal religious beliefs didn’t allow her to wear anything but long, “proper” skirts, which isn’t suitable for the average monkey bar acrobat flailing around above the ground.
“Saying this out loud sounds absolutely absurd to me … but (buying pants) was a request I had to make and my parents debated it because they did not want me to make that transition,” she said. “Eventually, they opened up to the idea so I could decide for myself what I would like to wear.”
Now, as an author, Johnson Davis released her second book “No Unpaid Passengers,” a collection of poems reflecting upon pivotal moments in her life, on Sept. 1. She said she advises readers to start with her poem “How to Build a House” and follow her journey from there.
This poem reflects upon her Pentecostal upbringing and estranged family members, and how that relates to finding her own way of life. Johnson Davis said her background didn’t provide a foundation to base the rest of her life on as the life she wanted to live and the life she began was completely different.
“The poem ‘How to Build a House’ talks about me turning 30 years old, which I know 30 is older (for most self-realization stories and) considering I’ve been out of my parents’ home since I was 18,” she said.
She said it took until she was 30 to truly start shedding away some of the emotional baggage that came with this lived experience. At that time, she was taking a look at everything ranging from swearing away alcohol to gender roles to what to wear.
“I had different beliefs early on, but having different beliefs literally means you get smacked in the face,” Johnson Davis said. “Different beliefs can get you told to shut up, sit down and be a lady — mind your tongue and follow what the man says.”
While Johnson Davis said other people might have a more positive experience with the Pentecostal beliefs, she said how it treated women and put women in a place of inferiority didn’t stand with her values.
“Wives are submissive and the husband is the head of the home,” she said. “They’re very much the gender binary and (its historic power) dynamic. There is no room for anyone existing or living outside of that dynamic.”
“I talked about Black womanhood and the trauma that comes with being forced to conform and become a specific type of woman,” she said. “It’s a very particular woman that strives to be a good church woman, quiet, obedient to her husband, strict about Jesus and very dedicated to maintaining her home alongside having children.”
This poem, “How to Build a House,” joins her other poems containing themes of homelessness and divorce — both of which she experienced. The collection of poems, for the most part, began as a therapy technique recommended by her therapist to work through these challenges. Eventually, by the end of the exercise, she realized she had a poem scribbled out in front of her.
“I enjoy doing what my therapist calls meditative journaling. It’s where I’ll set a 20-minute timer and I’ll just write whatever’s in my brain. How it comes out is how it comes out,” she said. “The key to meditative writing is that it’s not supposed to be fixed. It’s not perfect. It doesn’t have perfect punctuation or spelling, it’s sort of a way to sort of release that pain.”
She said her poem collection grew over time but butterflies filled her stomach as the topics within it weren’t discussed with everyone.
“(Releasing the book was) so scary because there are poems about things that I haven’t talked about out loud with a whole bunch of people,” she said. “That can feel really intimidating. What will people say? What will they say if they find out that you’ve been through these things that I’ve survived? Sexual assault, violence, homelessness, divorce and complicated family relationships. How will people react to me sharing these things?”
Despite the “scaries” that might join the book’s release, Johnson Davis is excited to shed light on these darker areas of her life through writing. She said it was difficult going through the poems’ events because it was isolating. It wasn’t long after releasing her poems when she released that was anything but the case.
“What I’ve gained from sharing my pain is the number of people who reach out to me and say, ‘I went through something similar’,” Johnson Davis said. “All of that loneliness and isolation that you felt thinking that you thought you were the only one is gone — suddenly there’s a whole world open to you consisting of other people who have either gone through the same thing. All of a sudden, the world feels less isolating and less lonely.”
Johnson Davis’ book “No Unpaid Passengers” can be purchased on Amazon. She said she is proud to have self-published the book because it amplifies how she grew to support herself. She didn’t need a publication to take her story and tell her how to do things.
“I’m going to own all of that myself and there’s some power and privilege and beauty to that,” she said. “I don’t know, I can’t explain it. It actually makes me want to cry. There is a real beauty in choosing yourself in that way.”
Corey Schmidt is a freelance reporter with Pioneer Press.