Growing up, Sabriaya Shipley’s mom would take them to local cafes and libraries across Baltimore, Maryland, to listen to West African storytellers. At age eight, Shipley joined their first poetry troupe and fell in love with the art of performative storytelling.
“It was my first time performing in public like that, and it was such an empowering feeling to do as a youth,” said Shipley, a program director at Tree House Books, an organization providing free books to children and families to increase literacy skills, and a 2018 theater alum. “It stuck with me in many ways.”
Nearly two decades later, Shipley published their first book, “Somewhere between God and Mammy,” on Jan. 29, which compiled seven years’ worth of poems they wrote independently and for class assignments. The same day, Shipley hosted a live Zoom reading of their poetry pieces to celebrate the book’s release and their 26th birthday.
The book is split into three sections: “God” explores how people find God in themselves, “Mammy” follows Shipley’s journey as a mother and teacher in their community and “Savage” focuses on self-advocacy. Together, the sections take readers through Shipley’s journey exploring their Black girlhood, womanhood and non-binariness.
It can be purchased as either hard-copy or ebook through Shipley’s website.
Since graduating in 2018, Shipley has dedicated most of their time to helping educate Black youth in Philadelphia, working as a teaching artist with organizations like Philadelphia Young Playwrights and Yes! And Collaborative Arts. They also co-founded Griot Girls, a Philly-based youth writing collective for Black girls.
Shipley decided to publish the book after receiving a $20,000 grant from the Philadelphia Foundation in July 2021. They were one of four individual artists selected for the award.
“It was really great to see and to think about bringing that to fruition,” Shipley added.
Many of the poems featured in the book were written during Shipley’s time as a Temple student when they took classes with Kimmika Williams-Witherspoon, an urban theater and community engagement professor.
Shipley’s work with Williams-Witherspoon reminded them that their career is always evolving and helped them find their poetic voice by writing, performing, creating and binding manuscripts of their pieces.
Shipley values hard work and feels having someone in life who exemplifies that type of work ethic is inspiring, they said.
“Watching your professors or your teachers who actually are doing the other things that they’re teaching you changes your whole perspective as students,” Shipley added. “And I see that now in my own students who look at me like, ‘I believe Ms. Sabriaya when she tells me I can do things because she does the things she says she is going to do.’”
For Williams-Witherspoon, working with Shipley was a wonderful experience, and she’s enjoyed watching Shipley grow through the years. She attended Shipley’s Zoom reading celebrating the book’s publication.
“There are some students who, no matter where they go in the world, we’re always connected,” Williams-Witherspoon said. “[Shipley] is one of those individuals.”
Williams-Witherspoon is proud of Shipley and feels they will leave an impact on the world that will encourage others who come behind them to do the same.
Shipley also received encouragement to pursue their career goals from their mentor, Amina Robinson, an acting and musical theater professor. Shipley babysat Robinson’s son while at Temple, and are “like family” now, Robinson said.
Robinson never doubted Shipley would do amazing things in their career and admires how creative and determined they are, she said.
“[Shipley] has just always been really open to exploring who they were as a person and trying to find ways to express that through [their] creativity,” Robinson said. “They are multi-hyphenate in terms of their artistry, and also very intellectual as well.”
Robinson feels the publication of “Somewhere between God and Mammy” is only the beginning of how far Shipley will go in their life, she said.
Mia Rocchio, a freelance theater maker and educator, has worked with Shipley since 2018 and helped coordinate the Zoom performance on Jan. 29.
Rocchio was eager to help out because she admires Shipley and their work, she said. She feels that, while Shipley’s book is full of personal experiences, many people can relate to the content.
“It requires just an incredible amount of bravery from [Shipley] because it is this personal part of them, but it also really is speaking to something incredibly global and relatable to a lot of people,” Rocchio said.
Shipley hopes the poems in their book will help readers understand it is okay to feel contradicted at times, and that it is not impossible to overcome obstacles.
“I’m not interested in how many books sell, I’m merely interested in this being a [milestone] in my journey,” Shipley said.