It strikes me as truly tragic when someone who is doing extraordinary things in the world only becomes widely known when something tragic happens.
One such tragedy is that of Esther “Essie” Nakajjigo, a young, beautiful Ugandan woman.
The youth trainer, internationally recognized activist, and TV presenter had done more to make the world a better place in her short 25 years than many of us who have lived more than double her years.
But if you do an internet search of her name, the overwhelming majority of mentions are about the tragic, violent, and totally avoidable manner in which she died this past summer.
This short post seeks to uplift and celebrate what an incredible woman Essie Nakajjigo was and the deeply rooted legacy she leaves behind, compared as she is by one insightful young man, to the mighty Iroko tree.
While taking a walk in my favorite park a few days ago I listened to the ecophilosopher, activist, and Buddhist scholar Joanna Macy being interviewed by Tammy Simon on Sounds True podcast. Of the many gems that Macy dropped, one that stopped me in my tracks and has me reconceptualizing my interrelationship with the Earth was her declaration that human bodies are part of the Earth body.
I’ve heard similar statements countless times and have long had some vague notion of how I, in this individual body, am inextricable from the Earth.
But when Macy made the pronouncement that called out the Earth as a body with such specificity, something clicked inside me. (We can liken Macy’s specificity to Resmaa Menakem naming the white body as a way of calling attention to how white embodiment benefits from racist/white supremacy ideology.)
I awoke to the fact that I and all the other billions of human beings going about our small daily lives as if we are the center of the universe, are at best, single blood cells making our way through the body that is the Earth.
From there I began making all kinds of connections, like the fact that like blood cells that need water in order survive, we, made up of blood cells, need fresh clean water. Many of us would not make it past a couple of days without it. And like blood cells, when our bodies don’t get enough water we become thick and stagnant, sluggish.
Like the blood cells that constitute us we need nutrients to thrive. And when we feed on junk and too much sugar we become bloated and laden, sick and diseased.
And as blood cells we die when we are unable to reverse course and return ourselves to a balanced state.
Like blood cells we interact and communicate with each other, sometimes very badly, when we are full of poisons in our hearts and minds, with oftentimes disastrous results.
We also interact with foreign bodies that try to work their way into our bodies, whether they be viruses or ideas, both helpful and harmful. If we are strong cells, we are able to resist the foreign invaders that seek to harm us, kill us, often like kamikazes, all too willing to also destroy themselves.
But if our minds and our bodies are strong, fortified with wholesome nutrition: discernment, gratitude, supportive community, fruits and vegetables that are not sprayed with death-dealing pesticides and pathogens, clean, clear water that is not saturated with chemical run-off and the Earth’s other blood (oil), then we are equipped to fight off the dealers in death and our Earth body thrives.
I could go farther and deeper into these not quite analogies.
The other is me.
Since first taking in Macy’s wisdom my relationship to my own body and my relationship to this Earth body of which I am but a lone cell made up of countless cells, has steadily changed.
And this is how making such awakenings work. Synchronicities start showing up.
Because if I had the slightest notion that I was alone in my thinking, a few days after listening to Macy, I found another relatively new podcast called Finding Our Way, hosted by the teacher, somatic practitioner, movement facilitator, and coach, Prentis Hemphill.
She then goes on to talk about the epidemiological triad that she discusses in her book which requires a pathogen, a host, and a mode of transmission.
According to Taylor: We, in this moment, operate as the host to our illusions, ways of being, ideas, etc. (aka pathogens—i.e. white supremacy delusion, the other, etc. separateness, homophobia, racism, sexism, etc.) for “the ladder of bodily hierarchy.”
The modes of transmission are all the ways in which we communicate (media, conversations with others and ourselves). She posits that we have the power to stop the pathogens from spreading. We just need to break one of the rungs on the ladder.
This is a moment in time that is ripe for us to break all of the rungs.
So, pair Taylor’s notion of the human body as host to pathogen with my understanding of Macy’s statement about humans as part of the Earth body and you have a formula for true revolution.
We would stop poisoning ourselves with hateful words and deeds, we would stop poisoning others with hate-filled words and deeds. We would work together to keep the Earth body of whom we are but a tiny part—a cell at most—alive and healthy.
Relatedly, as we understand that separation is an illusion, we would stop attacking the Earth body because we would finally understand that killing the Earth body is killing ourselves as we, at least in part, constitute her.
We would know that when we defend her we are not defending some thing (Mother Earth is not a thing)* outside of ourselves, but we are actually defending ourselves.
*I have a hard time calling the Earth “it” because she is a living, breathing being who birthed us and to whom we will return. As such, I respectfully adopt a term that Robin Wall Kimmerer uses to speak of our animal, plant, and mineral family: “ki,” singular; “kin,” plural
While I’d love to say James McBride strikes again with The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother(2006), the truth is that I’m just really late to the party. If you’ve been following this blog for a while then you know that I’ve devoured just about everything this man has written. But I resisted reading his autobiographical text—just wasn’t interested, mostly because I don’t jump to read autobiography. Frederick Douglass’ Narrative of the Life of Life of Frederick Douglass is the one exception (I’ve read that too many times to count and always find something new.) To Be Young, Gifted, and Black, which I reviewed a few weeks ago, is another exception, but it’s a hybrid text, full of Lorraine Hansberry’s incomparable creative expression and not directly authored by her. In fact, the only reason I read The Color of Waterwas because Amazon sent it to me for free. I, to this day, do not know why, but I am so grateful they did.
It’s no wonder The Color of Water has such high ratings on Amazon. It really is a masterpiece in form and content.
The text begins with the words of McBride’s white mother, Ruth McBride Jordan, pronouncing “I’m dead” It is followed by her asking him why he wants her to recount a time in her life that she obviously wants to forget. From there the narrative alternates between her memories of her childhood in the south and his memories of his childhood growing up with eleven brothers and sisters in Brooklyn and Queens, New York. Along the way we learn the origins of McBride as the renaissance man that we love.
Some pieces about his life that I had not been able to put together before reading the autobiography fell into place. One, his affinity for James Brown who lived in St. Albans, Queens, New York, a bizarre community where I was also raised. I call St. Albans bizarre because it always struck me as the place where Black people who felt themselves rich or at least middle class and those who aspired to middle class lived and where Caribbean people who wanted a piece of the American pie moved after graduating from their first stop from whatever island they hailed from in Brooklyn fled to. McBride also spent part of his childhood there with a mother who, though white, felt most at home amongst Black people.
Secondly, the community that McBride describes in Brooklyn in Deacon King Kong(2020) also made sense to me then as, in The Color of Water, he describes spending part of his childhood near Red Hook—a place I only ventured a few times while in grad school in New York. My son (who was four years old at the time) and I would go there to visit a German exchange student and her son with whom I traded babysitting duty. The people McBride describes with such care and grace in Deacon King Kong are people he knew. There’s even a Hot Sausage—a real person from his childhood—who makes his way from his childhood memories into his novel! Deacon King Kong is a loving and fitting tribute to those people who peppered his formative years.
Through McBride’s eyes we learn about the Black Power movement that rocked the nation in the sixties and gain some insight into not only his personal experience with it—he says “I had swallowed the white man’s fear of the Negro, as we were called back then, whole”—but also insight into the thoughts of other black people who bought into white propaganda and were afraid of what Black Power represented to them—the hatred of white people. Of course, this is not what Black Power was about—it was about Black self-determination. Unfortunately, white people who felt threatened by Black self-determination mislabeled the movement as well as the Black Panther Party, calling it a hate group, much like the Nation of Islam and today’s Black Lives Matter Movement were and are labeled hate groups by certain sectors of the population. And lest we forget there were even Black people who feared the Civil Rights movement as they saw it as rocking an already sinking boat.
About Black fear of Black Power McBride provides deep insight in classic McBride fashion, giving me, the reader pause at the crime that is the self-hatred that racism inflicts on those who are its target. But then a few pages later in classic McBride fashion he had me laughing out loud when he recounts boarding the Fresh Air Fund bus and finding himself sitting in front of the son of a Black Panther while his mother stands on the sidewalk next to the kid’s father—his worst nightmare come true. He says, “I had no idea who the Panthers truly were. I had swallowed the media image of them completely.” Unable to warn his mother of the danger he believes her in, he turns his wrath on the Panther’s son: “When they were out of sight I turned to the Black Panther’s son sitting behind me and punched him square in the face with my fist. The kid held his jaw and stared at me with shock on his face and melted into a knot of disbelief and tears.” Of course, after I got done laughing at the image of childhood antics that McBride so masterfully conveys the gravity of the impetus behind his actions hit me and I was angered and saddened that the two little boys, both innocent, had been victimized by white adult hatred and fear—for they were the poisons they drove McBride’s actions and with which he and someone who might have been his friend have to live with for the rest of their lives.
This is just one example of many in which I paused to reflect on the gems that McBride peppers the narrative with. Along the journey of McBride’s coming to terms with his personhood I became sensitive to the difficulty of being mixed-race in a country that insists on labeling you everyone one or the other. He says, “Yet conflict was a part of our lives, written into our very faces, hands, and arms, and to see how contradiction lived and survived in its essence, we had to look no further than our mother,” before continuing with a litany of ways that his mother embodied contradiction.
The section in which McBride recounts his wayward teenage years in Baltimore reminded me of D. Watkins’ We Speak for Ourselves. I have never been to Baltimore except to get to Washington, D.C. by way of airport, but I was incredibly saddened and angered by the existence of an environment that lends itself to Black addiction, imprisonment, and death. Making it out of such conditions is often a feat of sheer will as there is nothing—I mean nothing—to support Black survival, let alone excellence. And this despite the fact that one of the leading universities in the nation is located there. Talk about a contradiction!
The sections that comprise McBride’s mother’s story as it is intertwined with his own are equally poignant and punctuated by profound sadness. They make clear the price we all pay for white ignorance, greed, and hatred. It is evident for example, that Ruth McBride Jordan’s family, Orthodox Jews, were victims of white gentile hatred, which the father, in particular, foisted onto those he saw as beneath him, his wife, his children, Black people. This is all within a southern community that thrived on disenfranchising and killing Black people both physically and spiritually within a country that did the same.
I could keep going, but I won’t. I encourage you to read it for yourself.
Again, The Color of Water is a brilliant text and I’m glad I finally read it. I feel my life is all the richer for having done so.
A huge thanks to Amazon for sending it along.
I read Song Yet Sung many, many years ago and suspect that I’ll be returning to it soon. I have yet to read Miracle at St. Anna, and of course, will have to now. You’ll be the first to know when I do 😉
I was really excited when I learned about the release of the new film starring Janelle Monáe, Antebellum(2020) so when it made its way to video I jumped to pluck down my precious $19.99 to watch the brilliance that I was sure to come.
While I won’t say that I wish I had saved my money—because of who I am and what I do I think it’s important that I be in the know about what’s happening in the realm of African and African diasporic cultural production as much as I can given my other responsibilities—I would caution against the viewer’s inclination to try to glean many take-away life lessons. There are plenty to be found in even sci fi series like Luke Cage (2016) or films like Black Panther(2018) (such as gorgeous black men can be and are indeed super heroes in their own right even when they’re villains—I’m looking at you, Michael B. Jordan), or the adaptation of James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk(2018) which, among other themes, dwells on the attempted destruction of Black love and family in 1960s America, or Jordan Peele’s Get Out (2017) which reminds us of a myriad number of realities that too many of us have chosen to forget…
It seems to me that Antebellum is trying to remind “us” that no matter how much “success” we think we have there are powerful forces beyond our fields of perception that are at work to “put us back in our places.” I’m not saying this is not true. All we need to do is look around us at the insidious as well as obvious ways that people who are invested in whiteness are trying to “return” to a time when they believe “America” was great. I am saying that Antebellum doesn’t do a very good job of conveying any relevant or revelatory message or of even being entertaining. Its lack of self-consciousness undermines any gestures that it makes in either direction.
While I’m not one for comparing people’s unique creative expression I must say that unfortunately, Antebellum is nowhere near as smart or nuanced as Get Out. The script is so over the top yet superficial that gifted actors that we’ve seen in other roles—Monáe in Harriet, even with its many issues(2019), for example, or Gabourey Sidonie in Precious (2009)—come off as caricatures rather than real personalities.
In my not very generous moments I think of Antebellum as Hollywood drivel, not only for what it does, but for the many opportunities that it misses.
I don’t know how much control the writer and director had over how the movie shaped up, but shame on the genius who made the decision to mislead the potential audience with trailers that made it seem as if the movie was a sci fi flick—from the sudden appearance and disappearance of planes to the creepy washed out nineteenth century little blond girl in the elevator.
We have the Sapphire in Gibonie’s character, Bridget, and the tragic mulatto in Kiersey Clemon’s character, Shoshanna. Monáe’s character, Veronica Henley, alternates between hyper-vigilance and complete obliviousness to what is happening around her—as if the men (and the top five names listed as collaborators on the film are all those of men)—who wrote her character couldn’t figure out which fantasy they preferred. As A.O. Scott astutely observes in his review, “She’s less a person than a signifier — an image of idealized success put on display for the purpose of being trashed.” Oh, and don’t forget the token white friend who “gets it”—ugh!
The creepy washed out little blond girl actually does appear in the movie, which is nuts because at no point in the movie does anyone go back in time, sooo…But airplanes do not flash in and out. That was simply false advertising—a lie perpetrated to sucker people into tuning into a $15 million pile of unfortunateness that I will generously assume was meant for an audience for which the themes that Antebellum dismally tries to explore are new. To them I say, please watch with a veeeeery critical eye. Or skip it.
I mentioned a few weeks ago that I’ve been thinking a lot about Death lately (I capitalize the word to show him the respect and reverence that he deserves).
Again, I haven’t been reflecting on Death in a macabre sense, but rather as a kind (of) guide to the way to live in the fullness of this Life (again, capitalized as a sign of respect and reverence for her) that has been gifted to me for a Time.
One thing that this virus has brought into focus is the precariousness of Life here on Earth that we too often take for granted.
But as this wonderful artist whom I have recently discovered comes to recognize after a Near-Death Experience (also capitalized for the lessons that they come to teach us), this Life can be compared to a marketplace to which our Souls (need I explain the reason for the capitalization here?) have chosen to come to trade our Gifts (for those ready to receive them), our Secrets (for those open to hearing) for however long it lasts for us.
When we are done our Souls, having chosen to incarnate in these Bodies (in all their beautiful imperfection), return Home (which is really wherever we are once we recognize the truth of our innate Divinity).
I don’t know about you, but with everything going on, especially these past few months, I’ve been thinking about death…a lot. Not really in a morbid sense, but rather, as a way of reflecting on the importance of living well with whatever time I’ve been given in this bodily form; of using my gifts wisely to fulfill my soul’s destiny.
I think that Chadwick Boseman, the young king who reflected black greatness in the roles he chose to take on, from his portrayal of legendary baseball player Jackie Robinson in 42 (2013), to the King of Soul, James Brown, in Get On Up (2014), to Thurgood Marshall in Marshall (2017), to King T’Challa in Black Panther(2018) to Stormin in Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods (2020), to most recently, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (to be released posthumously) lived his life well.
As you know Boseman had been with us a mere 43 years before he found his place amongst the ancestors. His legacy is strong and assured.
Another genius soul whose legacy is also strong and assured, even if we don’t call her name quite as often anymore, is Lorraine Hansberry. Perhaps I was trying to come to terms with Boseman’s passing when I picked up her book that had been sitting at my bedside for more than a year: To Be Young, Gifted, and Black(1995).
Although it left me really sad, I’m so glad I did.
Hansberry, like Boseman, left us after bestowing us with gifts that have lived on well beyond her short time on this earth.
She was here for only 34 years before she succumbed to pancreatic cancer, but only after she’d given us A Raisin in the Sun and Les Blancs (2004), among other works (1995). If you haven’t seen at least a couple of interpretations of A Raisin in the Sun in your lifetime then I would venture to say you‘ve been living under a rock.
Besides sensing a deep loss, by the end of YGB I was and remain convinced that Hansberry was a prophet. Of course, as I heard Rev. angel Kyodo williams tell Krista Tippett the other day, prophets are actually speaking about the present. The problem is that the vast majority of us are living in the past. Hansberry bore witness to the ills of this country during her short lifetime. She also clearly saw and spoke up about the United States’ reluctance to come to terms with its hypocrisy. She understood that the “nation’s” refusal to confront its past did not mean that that past would remain buried. Rather, to paraphrase Brother Malcolm, “Those chickens would inevitably one day come home to roost.”
According to the great James Baldwin (a prophet in his own right), Hansberry’s friend and brother in the struggle for basic human dignity, during a(n) (in)famous meeting with the late Bobby Kennedy, she tried to convey this fact: “that a holocaust is no respecter of persons; that what today seems merely humiliation and injustice for a few, can, unchecked become Terror for the many, snuffing out white lives just as though they were black lives; that if the American state could not protect the lives of black citizens; then presently the entire State would find itself engulfed.” (xx)
As my dear sister-friend remarked to me just the other day, this is exactly the moment that we find ourselves in; a moment in which the State is engulfed literally in flames and trying desperately to continue with business as usual. And those who are taking the side of this dinosaur of violence, exploitation, and rape will inevitably also find themselves engulfed.
Moreover, those who blindly believe that their “leader” is going to save them from the roosting that is unfolding are in for a rude and painful awakening.
I will admit, I was a bit put off as I began reading “To Be Young, Gifted, and Black: Lorraine Hansberry in Her Own Words, adapted by Robert Nemiroff.” Beginning with the title, it’s framing reminded me of slave narratives from the 1800s. It is prefaced by Jewell Handy Gresham Nemiroff who married Hansberry’s ex-husband and literary executor, Robert Nemiroff, following Hansberry’s passing. That preface is followed by a much-appreciated introduction by Baldwin entitled “Sweet Lorraine” and then a forward by Nemiroff, complete with explanations of minor changes that he’d made “to the text that we held in our hands” (if you’ve ever read a slave narrative then you know what I’m talking about).
“The woman was a writer for goodness sakes!! Let her words speak for themselves!,” I thought.
It also didn’t help what one afternoon as I sat on my balcony to read, and glanced down at the cover I found myself looking at the title, but no photo of Hansberry! As if she had disappeared/been erased from the text! (it turned out to be the way the sunlight was hitting the laminate—but what (momentary) symbolism.
Hansberry’s brilliance, her curiosity, and her genuine kindness, documented as it is on every page propelled me forward, however. And my misgivings proved unfounded as on the final page of the text I was made to understand that what Nemiroff had done was honor her wishes.
An undated note from Hansberry reads:
“If anything should happen—before ‘tis done—may I trust that all commas and periods will be placed and someone will complete my thoughts—
The last should be the least difficult—since there are so many who think as I do—”
It’s in Harriet Tubman, who, though illiterate in the white man’s language (because he made it against his law for her to learn it), was a master of the language of plants and spirit. No one could legislate that.
It’s in Alice Walker who, undoubtedly thinking about Tubman and countless other women held in physical bondage, included as part of her definition of “Womanism,” the statement, “Traditionally capable, as in: ‘Mama, I’m walking to Canada and I’m taking you and a bunch of other slaves with me.’ Reply: ‘It wouldn’t be the first time.’”
It’s in Sister Shirley Chisholm who in 1972, with all of its history weighing on her shoulders, decided that, she could run this country; who battled and banished cancer from her body during her grueling year of a campaign trail strewn with slights, outright assaults, and humiliations.
It’s in the Combahee Rive Collective, named for Tubman’s incredible feat of freeing from physical bondage over 250 enslaved souls during the Civil War, making in 1977 the audacious and still true statement in 2020 that “If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all systems of oppression.”
It’s in Dr. Andree Nicola McLaughlin taking a young, very lost black girl under her vast protective wing and mentoring and nurturing her to womanhood.
It’s in Tarana Burke, who in 2006, well before it became a Hollywood hashtag, starting the MeToo Movement to help other women with similar experiences to stand up for themselves.
It’s in Rev. Zenju Earthlyn Manuel who took Buddhism, a spiritual tradition seen as foreign and oppositional to the Black church tradition in which she grew and was nurtured, and bringing her black woman queerness right to the heart of it and guiding others on the path to liberation.
There are countless other women I could name, but that’s not the point.
And I want to acknowledge that those whom I have listed are not magical because of what they’ve done, but because of who they are innately.
I was recently reminded of Black women’s magic when I watched the speculative/sci-fi film Fast Color about three generations of black women with supernatural powers living in a dystopian America. They are hiding from scientists (all white men) who, if they had their way, would study and control them.
The plot, dangerous in its premise, is masterfully conveyed through both cinematography and script. The three generations of women who are the film’s center, Ruth, Bo, and Lila, are channeled by Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Lorraine Toussaint, and Saniyya Sidney respectively. Not only are their portrayals of the women amazing, but the camera work, featuring prolonged close-ups of each of their faces, celebrates black women’s incredible beauty. I was repeatedly left breathless, lost in the worlds that were hinted at in their eyes, their flawless skin, each a variation of rich chocolate, their full well-defined lips that speak such truths. These close-ups are balanced by wide-angle shots of the three together: under a deep blue night sky, in the kitchen where black women have been cooking up medicine for centuries, at the dining table where we gather and talk and make magic and heal the world.
The film is not only balanced visually, but also in its message. We see what’s possible when as children, when we are most malleable, our magic is nurtured and we learn how to work with it. We also witness the destruction that ensues when we are taught to hate ourselves and reject our gifts; a painful reality for far too many of us.
In the end, the film shows us that fantasy/science/speculative fiction, as the writer Walter Mosley wrote in his 1998 essay “Black to the Future,” may have a special allure for black people who “have been cut off from their African ancestry by the scythe of slavery and from an American heritage by being excluded from history. For us science fiction offers an alternative where that which deviates from the norm is the norm.”
Five years earlier, in 1993, scholar Mark Dery defined Afrofuturism in his essay by the same name as Mosley’s as “speculative fiction that treats African-American themes and addresses African-American concerns in the context of twentieth-century technoculture—and, more generally, African American signification that appropriates images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future.”
You may or may not know that in addition to being an occasional blogger and an educator, I am also a visual artist and sell prints of my work through my business, Alligator Woods Creations (link above).
A few weeks ago I made a commitment to my small but mighty subscribers to share with them a hit of education and inspiration every week for the next fifty two weeks.
Well, three weeks in my computer died. Below is a tiny glimpse into some of the lessons I learned:
In the words of my mother, “The Devil is a Liar!”
And as Kanye would say, “I can feel him breathin’”
Indeed, a few weeks ago I made an earnest promise to send my beloved community a hit of inspiration every week for the next 52 weeks. Well, three weeks into the commitment in my head and in my heart I woke up to find my computer completely dead!!
Did I panic? Of course.
Did thoughts of all of the beautiful music and wonderful recipes that I had gathered over the past four years, all the precious, inimitable work that I would lose swirl around in my head? Of course.
But then I stopped. And I breathed.
And then I remembered the meditation practice that I had been cultivating for the past 170 days straight.
I sat myself down on my cushion, settled in and listened to the words of wisdom that reminded me to not sweat this small thing. I found myself crying tears of joy and gratitude for the incredible gift of this life.
Five minutes later I stood up with a different perspective; one that allowed me to be grateful for the ability to open my eyes and see, to stand, to walk, to drink my jar of clean, cool water with lemon each morning, to have the quiet, deeply nurturing space in which to meditate, to gaze at the bright red of my bookcase that holds so many novels that I love and can hold in my hands like The Joys of Motherhood by Buchi Emecheta, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz, 419by Will Ferguson, Ben Okri’s The Famished Road…this list of gifts is infinite, of course.
And in that state of gratitude I realized that I had several options, one of which was to check out my external drive to see what I had backed up. I also have another computer so I wasn’t completely without technology. And the Apple Store was open again (kind of) so I could make the trip in my car that runs perfectly on a clear, sunny day to figure out next steps.
This example of the power of gratitude may sound trite, but let’s face it, we rely really heavily on our computers these days. And many of us would have freaked the f*&# out when confronted with that black screen.
A few months ago I would’ve freaked out. If I had awoken to such a thing I would’ve turned around and crawled back into bed, bereft of all hope. But the world was a very different place a few months ago and my head and heart were in a very different place.
It is an example of one way that living in a state of gratitude can have a profound impact on one’s life.
I can’t say I won’t go back to my old way of fretting and gnashing my teeth in the future or heck, even later today, but for that morning my perspective expanded, instead of contracted. I tuned into the moment and got in touch with the truism that Thich Nhat Hanh vocalizes : that “peace is every step.” It’s one of the many superpowers of gratitude.
Another thing that my mother used to say was, “God helps those who help themselves.”
So, in practical terms I did make my way to the Apple Store as soon as it opened to find a line about 20 people deep, only to be told when I reached the front that no one could take a look at my machine and they didn’t have any in stock. After much persistence on my part (‘cause that’s how I roll) I was allowed very briefly into the store, but only after I was asked a series of health-verifying questions and a security guard took my temperature (kudos to Apple).
Everything worked out in it’s own way. When I got back home I did about an hour and a half of trouble shooting with Apple’s wonderful support team via chat and in the time it took for my new computer to arrive (about a week) I spent more time outside hugging trees and gazing at the sky, reading novels (mostly on my Kindle), and putting to paper several images that had for months, been swarming in my mind’s eye.
A few weeks ago I watched a brilliant panel discussion entitled “Black American Buddhists on Community and Activism.” The panel featured three African American Buddhist practitioners and teachers, two with whom I was familiar: Kamilah Majied and DaRa Williams. When Williams’ moment for opening comments arrived she made several critical points; one of which is the difficult relationship that African American people have with this land.
She talked about the fact that her parents were part of the Great Migration from the Southern to the Northern, Western, and Midwestern United States. She went on to talk about her memory of, as a child, taking annual Memorial Day weekend trips with her family to the South to acknowledge and honor the ancestors. She also recounted her 95-year-old mother’s assertion that she would never live in the South again. Williams invoked her mother’s words to draw attention to black people’s connection to the land and more so, “the inability (to connect)…to this land where the terrorism and atrocities were directly offered up to my ancestors that lived here.”
Williams was referring to, not only the atrocities of slavery, but also its legacy of Jim Crow and de facto segregation and racism that persists and that drove thousands of African Americans from their homes and the lands that they had for generations worked, fought, and sacrificed for.
I mention this panel—one worth checking out—because I was reminded of Williams’ words while reading the incomparable James McBride’s latest offering, Deacon King Kong(2020), about a diverse community of people in Brooklyn, New York in the late sixties. Now, if you have been following this blog for any amount of time you KNOW that I love me some James McBride.
Feel free to check out my reviews of some of his other works:
McBride is a true renaissance man, jazz musician, writer extraordinaire, and “a credit to the race ” a la Henry Louis Gates. Indeed, in 2015, he was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Obama “for humanizing the complexities of discussing race in America.” He also holds several honorary doctorates and is currently a Distinguished Writer in Residence at New York University. AND he’s from my old stomping grounds of Brooklyn, New York!! AND he knows it well.
In September 1969, a fumbling, cranky old church deacon known as Sportcoat shuffles into the courtyard of the Cause Houses housing project in south Brooklyn, pulls a .38 from his pocket, and in front of everybody shoots the project’s drug dealer at point-blank range.
The reasons for this desperate burst of violence and the consequences that spring from it lie at the heart of Deacon King Kong, James McBride’s funny, moving novel and his first since his National Book Award-winning The Good Lord Bird. In Deacon King Kong, McBride brings to vivid life the people affected by the shooting: the victim, the African-American and Latinx residents who witnessed it, the white neighbors, the local cops assigned to investigate, the members of the Five Ends Baptist Church where Sportcoat was deacon, the neighborhood’s Italian mobsters, and Sportcoat himself.
As the story deepens, it becomes clear that the lives of the characters–caught in the tumultuous swirl of 1960s New York–overlap in unexpected ways. When the truth does emerge, McBride shows us that not all secrets are meant to be hidden, that the best way to grow is to face change without fear, and that the seeds of love lie in hope and compassion.
Indeed, McBride’s storytelling is masterful and is evidence of his abiding faith in humanity. Yes, the story of the people of Cause Houses is “told with insight and wit” and demonstrates that “love and faith live in all of us.”
All of this is true about the novel. But it is also so much more. There are a multitude of threads that one could follow while taking in the whole of the narrative—McBride is just that good.
But the thread that I want to pick up on and run just a tiny ways with in this post is, as a consequence of white supremacy, that of African Americans’ fraught relationship with the land that Williams addresses in her comments.
Cause Houses, a government project complex, is in an urban environment in the Northern United States. But it is populated by people like Sportcoat and his wife, Hettie, and Sportcoat’s best friend, Hot Sausage, and the women of Five Ends Baptist Church, Bum-Bum, and Sister Gee from the Southern United States as well as those like Miss Izi Cordero from Puerto Rico and Dominic Lefleur, the Haitian Cooking Sensation, both from what is commonly called the Global South.
Although this fact is not front and center of the novel it provides a poignant backdrop to the narrative, adding context for many of the characters’ nicknames as well as their behaviors and idiosyncracies. The residents of Cause Houses look out for each other, shelter each other, feed each other, share what little resources they have, have falling-outs and then come back together again as family. These are Southern ways; ways that are passed down from one generation to the next even when the drugs that were pumped into those communities in the late 60s and 70s threatened to tear those communities asunder.
McBride has a firm handle on the unique culture that emerges from Northern-based misplaced Southerners who ache for the land even when it has been used against them for centuries and that they have been driven from by greed and hatred. We find evidence of this ache in the garden that is planned for at Five Ends as well as Sportcoat’s green thumb and Hettie’s longing for moonflowers. It is also in Hot Sausage’s brewing knowledge that gives birth to the King Kong that Sportcoat loves so much and that he uses to dull the emotional pain that his dsplacement and profound loneliness engenders. It is found in the language that McBride puts in the mouths and gestures of the characters that the author describes so vividly. It is why i, like Levar Burton (August 28,2020), found myself laughing out loud for much of the book, with the deep memory of that southern sensibility that only those who grew up around it recognize.
Black people’s fraught relationship with the land, our displacement, and our disconnection from it and relatedly, our food systems as a consequence of “the terrorism and atrocities [that] were directly offered up to my ancestors” is something I spend a lot of time thinking about and I will be exploring for the next few weeks. I invite you to come along on this journey of pain and power.
P.S. In case I didn’t make this clear, Deacon King Kong was a pure joy to read, richly layered with multiple avenues to reflect on and explore. The Master does it again!
Check out this interview with Mr. McBride here on Amanpour and Company.
Ayobami Adebayo’s Stay With Me(2017) has gotten lots of positive press. It was a New York Times Notable Book, The New York Times’ Critics’ Top Books of the Year, was named a Best Book of the Year by the San Francisco Chronicle, National Public Radio, The Economist, Buzzfeed, Paste Magazine, Southern Living, HelloGiggles, and Shelf Awareness. Huffington Post named it one of the Best Feminist Books of the Year, The New York Post called it one of the most thrilling and fascinating books of the year, and it’s on The New York Public Library’s Ten Best Books of the Year.
Usually such accolades will send me running in the opposite direction; not because I have an aversion to good literature that has been recognized as such. It’s because, through much experience, I have come to understand that usually when something is widely praised there are reasons for the praise that have little to do with the work’s inherent merit. I have many books on my shelves that have been widely praised and made it onto “important” book club reading lists. I have abandoned many of them because they made me a little ill with the realization that they would be, for me, a waste of time (I’m trying to figure out how to sell them–more on that in a few weeks).
Stay With Me was not a waste of time. It was engaging, and for the most part, well-conceived.
For much of my reading I found myself thinking a lot about the Senegalese writer, Mariama Ba’s seminal novel from way back in the day, So Long a Letter, an epistolary tale about a first wife who is utterly abandoned by her husband and his family, left to single motherhood and fending for herself after he takes a second wife.
While the issue of polygamy is part of the plot of Stay With Me, Adebayo’s debut novel centers on the struggles of a young couple, Yejide and Akin, to conceive and the desperate lengths that both go to to fulfill their obligation to bring children into the world for the sake of their families as reflections of traditional Nigerian society.
The novel left me with a sadness similar to that that I felt while reading So Long a Letter. The sadness stemmed from the fact that while fiction, the story represents the fate of way too many women in the world—to be baby producers, often at the expense of being and expressing the full human beings that they are. The toll that such a charge takes on women is immeasurable, exemplified by the ghost pregnancy that Yejide suffers.
One criticism that I have of the novel is that Adebayo tries really hard to portray the husband, Akin, sympathetically—so much so that it makes for the only real hole that I found in the narrative: his impotence. The explanation around it and Yejide’s inability to conceive just don’t make sense, especially as it is sex that drives much of the plot.
Contrary to Huffington Post’s pronouncement, I wouldn’t call Stay With Me a feminist novel, mostly for the way that it ends, seeming to redeem Akin and skip over Yejide’s years of suffering as a result of the pressures that were placed upon her to not only conceive, but keep alive children who was fated to die because of unilateral decisions that her husband made about her body. While we get some of her suffering in the action of the novel when the couple are together, the interiority of it is missing. And there are at least ten years missing in the plot in which Yejide is left to alone to deal with her trauma from the marriage and its aftermath.
All seems forgiven in the end when what she had been left/abandoned to believe had happened is shown not to have come to pass–can’t get on board with that.
The other issue that I have with the novel is the author’s pushing for bringing the political into the narrative. Don’t get me wrong—I believe that, as the feminist saying goes, “The personal is political.” Black women have always known this. If you’ve been paying attention to the news at all you also know this to be true. My objection is to the way that the intersections are integrated (or rather not) into the novel, in such a way that they feel forced.
There are countless examples from Caribbean, Latin American, and African literature where the personal and the political are seamlessly woven together. An example from one of my most recent readings is a short piece by Faith Adiele in the anthology, Names We Call Home:Autobiography on Racial Identity (1996). Adiele’s reflective piece, “Locating Biafra: The Words We Wouldn’t Say” is about growing up in the US without her Nigerian father as a consequence of the Biafran War that breaks out shortly after he returns home. We find similar mastery in fictional works by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, Edwidge Danticat, Merle Hodges, and Maryse Conde (left to right) to name a few.
In one interview that I watched with Adebayo, she makes an important point; one that bears repeating: that in order to be a good writer one must read. I recently heard this sentiment echoed by the incomparable James McBride in his interview with Levar Burton. It’s one that Adichie has expressed many times. I believe that Adebayo has taken this very important advice to heart and I look forward to witnessing her further growth into her unique voice.
In the end, Stay With Me is a good read–great for the beach if you make it there this Summer. It kept me interested and had some titillating twists. The novel would be an excellent choice for an undergraduate literature course or a women’s and gender studies course. It is certainly meant for reading group consumption with its book club questions appended at the end.
Check out this interview with the author in which she makes another important point: that is that prior to colonialism Yoruba women regularly occupied positions of power. British imperialism brought with it disempowering notions of femininity that have stuck, dragging everyone down with it.