African Diasporic Cultural Meanderings Part One: The Smithsonian

The Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture

Quiet as it’s kept, Washington, D.C.–this nation’s capital–is located in the southern part of the United States. This fact, seemingly innocuous in 2019, has all kinds of implications, not the least of which is the fact that there is a strong connection between the place and the institution that kept millions of African and African diasporic people enslaved for hundreds of years. And when slavery ended it was one of the places where the white citizens who had benefited from those centuries of enslavement–or those who were duped into believing that they benefited–worked themselves into a frenzy, trying to re-enslave the ones who had already built this country for them.

Needing the continued supply of free labor to rebuild their devastated city following the Civil War, those who had resources re-enslaved as many African American men, women, and children as they could. Other whites who did not have resources prior to and during the war, took the opportunity to build wealth for themselves on the backs of those recently freed. This post-slavery era thus, marked a time of slavery by another name; that is, convict leasing when African American men, mostly, were kidnapped, arrested, and imprisoned for the smallest of offenses and sold to individuals, companies, and the state to be used as laborers to build and/or rebuild white wealth yet again. 

When I was doing research on my latest book project I rewatched the wonderful film about Paramahansa Yogananda, Awake: The Life of Yogananda (2015) in which I learned about how when Yogananda was traveling around the US providing life-transforming teachings freely to Americans, he learned that Black people were not allowed to attend his teachings. In the film, his words of inclusion are contrasted with visual depictions of the KKK marching boldly down the streets of DC wielding figurine representations of lynched African Americans.

Despite my knowledge of this history as well as its contemporary challenges, I love DC. I love the walkability of the city. I love the delectable food trucks that adorn so many corners. And I love, love, love the museums.

When the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture opened a couple of years ago, I was excited to visit. The museum is significant for several reasons: for one, it is the brainchild of Lonnie G. Bunch III who now serves as Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution. 

 Mr. Bunche has subsequently written a book about his journey, A Fool’s Errand: Creating the National Museum of African American History in the Age of Bush, Obama, and Trump (2019) and is currently on tour.

I was not able to go when the museum opened, simply because I do not like crowds. And I do not like scheduling things that don’t necessarily have to be scheduled. So, I waited for approximately three years to visit.

While I did not have particularly elaborate notions of what I would find when I visited, I had been led to believe that the original daguerreotype of Frederick Douglass—the one that so many copies that we find online, and in our texts, have come from, was housed in the museum. In the end I can’t be sure if I did, in fact, see it because the docent that I asked about the daguerreotype was not able to or unwilling to give me a clear answer.

But, I am a curious sort!

Maybe I ask too many questions and then have the audacity to expect answers.

Because of what I teach–African and African diasporic cultural production that is framed by history–my visit to the museum felt like a kind of pilgrimage. Indeed, I learned A LOT during my sojourn, much of it overwhelming because of the pain and suffering involved. But also a lot of the displays revealed the sheer innovation, genius, and fortitude of black people!

For example, there was the wonderful and heartbreaking story of Henry Boyd who, in the 1930s, after saving enough money to purchase the free of his enslaved brother and sister in Kentucky, established his own furniture store in Ohio. “He specialized in the manufacture of bedsteads, including a patented design that he advertised as quick and easy to assemble, sturdy, and vermin-proof. To meet the growing demand, Boyd introduced steam-powered machinery that enabled his factory to produce over 1,000 bedsteads a year by the mid-1840s.”

His success, however, drew the ire of jealous whites who forced the man to close his business after they repeatedly burned down his store. He nonetheless remained a dedicated carpenter until his death in 1886.

Stories like this make me think about what a freaking incredibly talented and gifted artisan he must have been. How smart he must have been to patent a design in the 1830s that garners companies like Ikea billions of dollars a year. And instead of white people either accepting that they didn’t have what it took to do what he did or that they were too lazy to really do anything innovative, they preferred to destroy what Mr. Boyd had built with his own sweat, blood, and tears!

Understatement: it was a little upsetting.

In Lloyd Garrison’s Preface to Frederick Douglass’ narrative of his life the white abolitionist, to illustrate the effects of slavery on a person’s soul, tells the story of a white man who had been enslaved in Africa and when he was found several months later by his countrymen, was devoid of speech and terribly debased.

For all of Garrison’s paternalism I have always appreciated him for his inclusion of that story. Because it is evidence from a white person that, contrary to enslavers’ warped logic–that slavery was a civilizing force for those held in abject bondage–the institution, at its core, robbed those who were subjected to it of their humanity.

I have for years in my classes, used the image of an elderly black man, his back to the camera to show flesh ripped apart by the whips of someone who deemed himself “master”, to illustrate the barbarity of slavery.

I’m always reminded of Toni Morrison’s brilliant description of the character Sethe’s scarred back that reminds her friend, Paul D, of a Cherry choke tree in the novel, Beloved

Imagine my surprise when I learned during my visit to the Smithsonian, that that black man has a name: Private Gordon!!

I also learned that I was not the only one drawn to the horror and disgust that his scars inspired.  The description that accompanies his photo reads: “During the Civil War, Private Gordon’s scarred back became a symbol of the human cost of slavery. The images, “documenting Gordon’s U.S. Army medical examination were widely sold and circulated to support the Union effort and assist self-liberated slaves.”

Mind blown!

The placard that follows this horrific image, however, makes the heart soar! It shows the same man, Private Gordon, now clear and sure of his dignity and self-worth, proudly sporting his U.S. Army uniform and ready to fight for his freedom. According the placard, “After being brutally beaten by an overseer, Gordon escaped slavery in 1863 and enlisted in the U.S. Army in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.”

Stories like these must be told. So, we are no longer left simply with the image of a grown man devoid of agency. Rather, we must also get the image of a man of will who, despite the brutality he suffered for most of his life, took his destiny into his own hands and rose above it.

The museum is full of such stories, some of which are housed on a floor under the heading, “Making a Way Out of No Way.”

One of the big draws of the museum, understandably, is the Emmett Till exhibit which features one of the coffins of the young man who was murdered by racist white men in Mississippi in 1955; an event that many believe sparked the Civil Rights Movement. In addition to the coffin there are photos of him with his mother, Mamie Till, before he left Chicago that summer. There are also photos of her at her son’s funeral. In addition, the exhibit features video interviews with some people who knew the young Till, including, I believe, his cousin, who is shown saying that he witnessed the 14-year old whistle at a white woman in the store they had gone to. That may be true. But this is also true:

*****

In 2017, author Timothy Tyson released details of a 2008 interview with Carolyn Bryant, during which she disclosed that she had fabricated the most sensational part of her testimony. Tyson said during the interview, Bryant retracted her testimony that Till had grabbed her around her waist and uttered obscenities, saying “that part’s not true”. The jury did not hear Bryant testify. The judge ruled it inadmissible, but the court spectators heard. The defense wanted Bryant’s testimony as evidence for a possible appeal in the case of a conviction. In the 2008 interview, the 72-year-old Bryant said she could not remember the rest of the events that occurred between her and Till in the grocery store. She also said: “nothing that boy did could ever justify what happened to him”. Tyson said that Roy Bryant had been verbally abusive toward Carolyn, and “it was clear she was frightened of her husband”. Bryant described Milam as “domineering and brutal and not a kind man”. An editorial in The New York Times said regarding Bryant’s admission that portions of her testimony were false: “This admission is a reminder of how black lives were sacrificed to white lies in places like Mississippi. It also raises anew the question of why no one was brought to justice in the most notorious racially motivated murder of the 20th century, despite an extensive investigation by the F.B.I.”

The New York Times quoted Wheeler Parker, a cousin of Till’s, who said, “I was hoping that one day she [Bryant] would admit it, so it matters to me that she did, and it gives me some satisfaction. It’s important to people understanding how the word of a white person against a black person was law, and a lot of black people lost their lives because of it. It really speaks to history, it shows what black people went through in those days.”

In a report to Congress in March 2018, the U.S. Department of Justice stated that it was reopening the investigation into Till’s death due to unspecified new information.

*******

What is also true is that, as my brilliant son reminded when I talked with him about what I had learned, there is NOTHING that child could’ve done to warrant the barbarism that he witnessed and endured alone and without sanctuary that summer night.

I spent three days in the museum, first taking the guided tour of the bottom floor that traces the origins of those who were enslaved from their African homes and continuing with stories of the hell of slavery, the Civil War, emancipation/slave revolts, and beyond. Several exhibits, I visited multiple times.

But, after spending three days arriving shortly after the museum opened and leaving only when I was kicked out at 5pm when it closed, I was mentally and spiritually exhausted.

Fortunately, at the top floor of the museum and in the very back, I found the respite of visual art that I craved. Leaving the building that early evening, having hit the gift shop to grab some souvenirs for my loved ones, I had a plan for my final day in DC.  

I am happy to have finally been able to visit the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture. I was gratified to see so many people from diverse racial and ethnic heritages visiting.

**Unlike when the museum first opened you no longer need to reserve a timed pass during the week (you still need them on the weekend).

The museum was a long time in coming and I commend those who had and sustained the vision to bring this huge contribution to humanity to fruition; many whose names we will never know.

Those names we do know include, again, Lonnie G. Bunch III. There is also lead designer, David Adjaye and lead architect, Philip Freelon.

We should also recognize on whose shoulders these innovators stand, including those who started the Black Museum Movement and Charles H. Wright who started the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History as a traveling exhibition!!

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Review of Edwidge Danticat’s Everything Inside

The Haitian American writer Edwidge Danticat has authored numerous brilliant and inspiring narratives. A few of my favorites are her short story collection, Krik? Krak! (1996), her adult novels, The Dew Breaker (2005), Claire of the Sea Light (2014), The Farming of Bones (1999), the YA tale, Untwine (2017), and her gorgeous collection of essays, Create Dangerously: The Immigrant Artist at Work (2011).

But when I first cracked open my Kindle edition of Edwidge Danticat’s much-awaited collection, Everything Inside (2019) I was disappointed. The first short story, “Dosas,” while poignant and well-written, as is to be expected from Danticat, was one that I recognized.

I felt I had read it before somewhere else.

Skip to the back of the collection and there it was: evidence that I wasn’t crazy or clairvoyant. Not only was “Dosas” previously published, but so were all of the other stories that followed, in various literary venues.

I have no problem with a writer gathering a selection of their work in a single volume and publishing it, but the writer and the publisher should be up front about it.

Nowhere in the publicity about the collection did I see that every single one of the stories had been published in part or in full in other venues.

Book description from Amazon:

******

Named a Highly Anticipated Book of Summer 2019 by Lit Hub, Esquire, Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, BuzzFeed, TIME, Good Housekeeping, Bustle, and BookRiot 

From the internationally acclaimed, best-selling author of Brother, I’m Dying, a collection of vividly imagined stories about community, family, and love.


Rich with hard-won wisdom and humanity, set in locales from Miami and Port-au-Prince to a small unnamed country in the Caribbean and beyond, Everything Inside is at once wide in scope and intimate, as it explores the forces that pull us together, or drive us apart, sometimes in the same searing instant.

In these eight powerful, emotionally absorbing stories, a romance unexpectedly sparks between two wounded friends; a marriage ends for what seem like noble reasons, but with irreparable consequences; a young woman holds on to an impossible dream even as she fights for her survival; two lovers reunite after unimaginable tragedy, both for their country and in their lives; a baby’s christening brings three generations of a family to a precarious dance between old and new; a man falls to his death in slow motion, reliving the defining moments of the life he is about to lose.

This is the indelible work of a keen observer of the human heart–a master at her best.

******

It’s simple: someone who is a diehard Danticat fan–of which there are many–would have read most, if not, all of the stories in the collection. The reader is denied the option to decide if they want to reread her stories before purchasing the book.

That said, Danticat, like every great writer, offers wonderful insight into the human condition.

I’ve spent a good amount of time researching dosas so I really enjoyed the reference to marasas and dosas in the story, although the way it is explored is heartbreaking. At the end the reader may be left wondering who were the marasas and who was the dosa in the threesome’s relationship.

The second story, “In the Old Days,” is about a young woman who is called to the deathbed of a father she has never known by her father’s wife, Nadia. While the story of the choices that people made—whether to stay in the US or return to Haiti when Jean-Bertrand Aristide was the first democratically elected President is important—equally prescient, equally pressing is the issue of how the deceased are laid to rest.

There were countless Haitian and Haitian American intellectuals and professionals living abroad who, upon Aristide’s election, returned home determined to help sweep the streets, teach the children, and build a democratic society based on community and accountability—aah, the idealism of the new and uncharted.

All of their dreams of democracy were shattered when eight months later, in September 1991, General Raoul Cedras, with the US’s help, led a coup d’etat and exiled “the people’s president,” arresting “the flood.” Many of those who had returned home were murdered in the hours and days following the coup. Others escaped under cover of night. Their presence threatened to disrupt the systems of oppression that those who profited from the exploitation of the poor and uneducated had maintained for centuries.

As Nadia explains about her experience of return, “I left at ten with my family and returned after practicing criminal law in Boston for twenty years”…“When the dictatorship ended, I went back to see what I could do. I was working with a group pf Haitian American lawyers who were trying to help rebuild the system, but between the repressive laws inherited from the French Napoleonic code and those passed down through the dictatorship, our hands were tied.”

Indeed, many also left out of sheer frustration at the impossibility of affecting real change.

The story also reminded me of a common practice of married men having affairs with “outside” women, having children with said outside women, and bringing those children home to meet their families—sometimes to live with their families permanently. And those wives accept this common practice.

Though there are important differences between the practice and the story that Danticat tells, it brought up some uncomfortable feelings in me, having witnessed it several times. This ability to make the reader uncomfortable is, for me, another mark of a great writer.

But, I think equally cogent about the story is Danticat’s exploration of traditional Caribbean birth and burial rites, with a proper reverence for their importance and significance in their respective cultures. For example, singing the deceased’s soul into the afterlife.

The narrator/protagonist relates,

“My father’s wife has her own version of the old days. In the old days, she was telling me, conch shells blared for each person who died. In the old days, when a baby was born, the midwife would put the baby on the ground, and it was up to the father to pick up the child and claim it as his own. In the old days, the dead were initially kept at home. Farewell prayers were chanted and mourning dances were performed at their joy-filled wakes. When it was time to take the dead out of the house, they would be carried out feet first, through the back door, and not the front, so they would not know to return, their babies and young children would be passed over their coffins so they could shake off their spirits and wouldn’t be haunted for the rest of their lives. Then a village elder would have poured rum on the grave as a final farewell. In the old days, she said, I would have pronounced my father dead with my bereavement wails to our fellow villagers, both the ones crowding the house and others far beyond.”

Sadly, these beautiful traditions, passed down perhaps in other iterations through the generations, cannot be practiced in the 21st century in a suburb of Miami or any other city or suburb in the US where many of those who had to flee Haiti after the coup now reside. What this means, of course, is that a critical rite of passage—one that sustains families and communities—is lost as, if they are not passed down and maintained, will be forgotten; a haunting thought.

There are several other well-crafted and poignant stories in the collection. Another that haunted was “The Port-au-Prince Marriage Special” about a young woman, Mélisande who works as a nanny at a hotel and contracts AIDS from one of the foreign men who stay there. The reader will be reminded of the 1990s when the FDA declared that Haitians were excluded from donating blood because of the belief that they were a source for the spread of the AIDS virus. The brilliant anthropologist Paul Farmer revealed in AIDS and Accusation: Haiti and the Geography of Blame (1992), however, that Haitians were not the source, but rather, the victims of infected tourists who preyed on desperate men who had sex for money and then returned to their wives with the virus.

The final story, “Without Inspection,” reveals the memories of a construction worker during his final moments of life. What is revealed is a world with which many of us are familiar through the news, but are ignorant about the interiority of.

The stories that Danticat tells give the reader insight into the humanity of a people who are deeply wounded, disrespected, vilified, ridiculed, exploited, and dehumanized. Simply put, her stories are important and should be read by anyone who is interested in tapping into their own wounded humanity.

Posted in African-American, Afro-Caribbean, black women, Caribbean, culture, Haiti, history, literature, review, Writer | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

The Gift of Rwanda

A long-time-in-coming meandering from Africa–one to inspire!

Please join me in rejoicing in Rwanda’s vision and the hope that the people’s vision will spread far and wide…

Rwanda is working on a “green city,” in Kigali city. The plan is to have the 2.3 square miles allocated to efficient factories, sustainable housing and green cars. The estimated cost? $5 billion, according to the African Exponent.

A project of this scale considers many factors. The “Rwanda Green City Pilot Project” covers every environmental concern and is created in a sustainable way. The project has developed its own “Pillars of Green Urbanism” that the project follows and can be easily piloted in other cities.

The “green city” will have all the infrastructure and services of a city, but each part will be eco-friendly. Electric vehicles, bicycle lanes, biogas, forests, environmental waste treatment are all part of the city planning process and will be part of the final city. The government hopes the city will lead to job creation, improved sanitation and public transport access.

There are two main projects happening on the site. The first, “Cactus Green Park,” is a 410 house development that meets environmental standards. This will be a pilot for other urban planning green building projects. Second, green affordable housing will be added to the city. Future phases will include green office and commercial buildings.

As part of the pilot, the project will track the metrics it has developed. “Key” metrics include avoided CO2 emissions and green jobs created.

Kigali has a new mayor, Pudence Rubingisa. In an interview in September, 2019, he spoke about the need for a Green City, “Now, why do we need green development? This will help cope up not only with the climate change issue but also the urbanisation that is really affecting the city in a way. That is why we need to start thinking of a green city and the key major factors include all Rwandans being or having that environmental responsiveness and understanding. We need to utilise land properly, be innovative and use less polluting materials.”

This is a repost from OneGreenPlanet.org

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Review of Lesley Nneka Arimah’s What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky

I first learned of Lesley Nneka Arimah’s collection of short stories, What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky (2017) from Levar Burton’s brilliant podcast, Levar Burton Reads. I loved that even though the story that he read—the title story—could’ve been set anywhere, the author chose to situate the narrative in Nigeria. “What it Means When a Man Fall from the Sky” is about a gifted mathematician—one of several in the country—who are also not only empathic, but they can absorb others’ grief through the use of a particular mathematical formula called Furcal’s Formula. It is easily imagined that such a “gift” is also a curse, driving some of the mathematicians to lunacy and suicide, especially in a world in which the great powers, The U.S. and Europe, have, through their own greed, been swallowed by water (the effect of climate change) and thus, invade those lands—formerly colonized—that have been spared. 

While I liked the story, especially read as it is so masterfully by Burton, once I got the collection and read the rest of the stories, “What It Means” turned out to be my least favorite.

I had to read the first story, “The Future Looks Good,” at least three times. The prose about a tragic case of mistaken identity is so tight and economical that it was disorienting. Another story, “Wild,” is about a young American woman who, just before heading to university, is sent by her mother to spend the summer with her family in Nigeria. The story raises issues of familial dysfunction, the meanings behind the epithet “wild” and the prison of respectability politics especially in relation to girls and young women, class, and appearances.

Another story to be celebrated for its brilliant insight into respectability politics and female oppression is “Light” about a father in Nigeria who tries to save his daughter from her mother who lives in the U.S. and wants the budding young woman to come and live with her. Both of the stories, along with “Windfall” about a young woman with a scam artist for a mother raise important points about how women can be some of the most fervent defenders of rules of behavior that are most detrimental to girls’ and women’s self-esteem and wholeness.

“Windfall” is so fastmoving and relentless in its assault against human dignity in the name of family that I felt, as the reader, like I needed to take a breath. But I couldn’t put it down because I needed to see it through. The story’s shocking ending—one that I could not fathom—frankly brought me to tears.

Yet another story with a heartbreaking ending, “Buchi’s Girls,” was painful to read, in part, because it was so recognizable. After a woman loses her husband to a freak accident when he tries to help a stranger, she and her two little girls must depend on her sister and brother-in-law to survive. The only way she can see out of her predicament is to “do something a mother just couldn’t do.” (145)

There are several stories that, I’m sure, could be considered speculative or magical. “What It Means” is one. “Second Chances is another. Still another is “Who Will Greet You at Home” about a poor young woman who desperately wants a better life for her child. But as someone who has lived in places where the lines between the “natural” and the “supernatural” are regularly blurred, with, for example, hopeful new brides carrying around and caring for fertility dolls as it they were alive, the narrative seemed familiar if not plausible, though heartbreaking.

My favorite story, by far, was “Glory” about an ill-fated young woman who seems, no matter how hard she tries to make the right life choices, to make the wrong ones. She’s a disappointment to her parents who define success the way that most of the world does: marriage to a “respectable” person, a high-paying “prestigious” job, and having a couple of kids. Glory does not seem to be able to access to any of these things no matter how hard she tries.

She gets wept up in the tidal wave of Thomas, a fellow Nigerian who is “successful” and, like a bulldozer, steadily making plans for their future.

Glory is faced with yet another a decision.

At the story’s denouement, with Glory facing two difficult choices, quite wonderfully, Arimah leaves the question about what she will decide unanswered. I’m usually frustrated when an author does such a thing, but here it is soooo… appropriate and dare I say, satisfying, because, again, there is no simple “good” choice. Basically, the choice, which all of us are called to make on a daily basis, is whether we are going to take responsibility for our lives and what that looks like.

Arimah has garnered many accolades for her craft, including The Kirkus Prize and the Commonwealth Short Story Prize. What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky is a wonderful escape into reality. As The Seattle Times characterized it, the collection is “chilling, dreamy, often breathtaking.” It is definitely worth picking up and sharing with other lovers of the Word!!  

Listen to this wonderful conversation between Arimah and Levar Burton (scroll through the list of podcasts–August 8, 2017)

Posted in Africa, African-American, culture, literature, review, Speculative Fiction, Writer | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Review of D. Watkins We Speak for Ourselves

Always on the look out for writing that will get my students excited about reading I picked up a copy of journalist and social commentator extraordinaire, D. Watkins’ We Speak for Ourselves: A Word from Forgotten Black America (2019) for my Kindle.

We Speak for Ourselves Book

Part social commentary, part memoir, We Speak for Ourselves continues where several of his essays and articles as well as his other two books, The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir (2017) and The Beast Side: Living (and Dying) While Black in America (2016).

I was hooked from the very first page where Watkins tells a brilliant story of being at a swanky party populated by wealthy and influential African Americans and striking up a conversation with a “scholarly Danny Glover-looking guy laced in tweed.” When in response to the guy’s questioning of Watkin’s lineage, Watkins tells him he is between jobs and his family worked wherever they got hired, the guy, without even as much as an “excuse me,” quickly makes a beeline for someone “more worthy of his time.”

While the way that Watkins relates the story had me laughing until tears rolled down my cheeks, my joy was tinged by the deep injustice that underpins such dehumanizing encounters with people who you think look like you, but who have very different agendas; sadly often based in racial politics and driven by capitalism. Following the story of his encounter with the man Watkins notes that he has seen him on several TV shows following the shootings of unarmed black men spewing the “tired script” that “not-all-cops-are-bad-so-strategic-protest-will-equal-reform.”

We Speak for Ourselves challenges mainstream media’s production and usage of these black talking heads, but perhaps more importantly, African American people allowing themselves to be used in such a way. About the proliferation of African Americans race books that define “the systemic issues that plague the African American experience, while our white counterparts are doing the same—swooping in as super-allies, schooling their lost friends on what it means to be black, and offering step-by-step lessons on acknowledging their own privilege” Watkins asserts that many of these books miss the point. This is because they have no connection to the black people they are fighting for. According to Watkins, “their books and language never include the very people who live the poor black experience every day.” Such people he argues, dibble and dabble in a world from which people from Watkins life cannot escape.

We Speak for Ourselves is filled with death: the close and up-close death of friends and acquaintances like Snaggletooth Rib, who is murdered right in front of Watkins and an unnamed “dude’s” baby after Rib makes a good-natured joke about the guy leaving his baby to gamble in an alley! Watkins remarks “the stories of Rib, Hurk, Wop (two other friends he’s lost to gun violence) and dozens more make up the bulk of my life. I’ve been on the wrong side of a pistol plenty of times.”

We are reminded here of well-known victims of senseless black death in the story of Nipsey Hussle, a beloved young brother who used his success as a rapper to uplift his community through his entrepreneurship and his store, The Marathon Clothing. In honor of his memory, his family has founded the Neighborhood Nip Foundation to provide opportunities for young creatives in music.

Across the water we are reminded of Lucky Dube, a brilliant musician from South Africa who was carjacked and murdered in his own community.

It is critical that we link these deaths across socio-economic status, fame, naming and namelessness, and time and space, because our continued enslavement and death is dependent upon us not making those linkages.

I appreciate Watkins’ work precisely because he connects the stories of pain and the deaths of his friends and family to larger systems of oppression, including the “Black Tax”, slavery, “Black Codes” and Jim Crow laws, sharecropping, and indentured servitude, to the “war on drugs” and the “prison industrial complex;” important connections that way too many of us do not get and which keeps those systems in place and working.

We Speak for Ourselves is not an easy read. It is painful and haunting and downright scary. As such, Watkins is a much-needed brave voice emerging from the trenches. And while I do not look forward to reading his other works—they hurt—I will because I know that I cannot afford to turn away.

Watkins is not only writing about his community, he’s also walking the walk, working tirelessly to get his books into the hands of as many young people as he can, mostly high school students from neighborhoods that are impoverished and affected on a daily basis by the issues that he raises in the text.

Too many young people of color simply do not read beyond hashtags and headlines, but as Watkins points out, it is incumbent upon those of who understand the power of the Word to help them get excited about reading. One way is by writing about things that they care about and in a way that they can relate to.

The only qualm I have with Watkins is the way he’s chosen to sub-title the book: A Word from Forgotten Black America.

I don’t think the poor and disenfranchised African American population of the United States are forgotten by the rich and the powerful. In fact, I think the rich and powerful are very much aware that their position is dependent upon the poor. As I say to my students time and again, there cannot be an upperclass without an underclass. As such, Black America haunts not only the waking hours, but also the dreams of those in power. Why else would they need to hide behind their tall gates and armored cars?

Here’s an article about D. Watkins from The Baltimore Sun.

Here’s his interview with Amy Goodman on Democracy Now!

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3rd Annual Well-Read Black Girl Festival

Dear Lover of the Word,

You’ll remember that a few months ago I did a review of Well-Read Black Girl: Finding Our Stories, Discovering Ourselves (2018), an anthology by Glory Edim, founder of Well-Read Black Girl. I’ve been a big fan of her work ever since I “discovered” her!

I am in no way affiliated with Well-Read Black Girl, but am sharing this information about their upcoming festival because 1) I believe it’s important for black women to support each other and 2) I believe in what WRBG is doing and want to support it.

If you live in Brooklyn where the festival will be held, I’m soooo…jealous! 😉

The inaugural Well-Read Black Girl (WRBG) Festival occurred on September 9, 2017. This month marks their anniversary!

From WRBG: “The entire experience could be summed up with the following words: community-poweredthought-provoking, and simply magical. The festival focused on Black women writers from all genres and all experience levels. Women made their journey to Brooklyn for a full day of camaraderie, connection-making, and inspiration.”

Tickets go on sale tomorrow, Friday, September 13th

Confirmed panelists include Jacqueline Woodson, Elizabeth Acevedo, Erica Armstrong Dunbar, Saidiya Hartman, DaMaris Hill, Kalisha Buckhanon, Mahogany Browne, Rachel Cargle, Nic Stone, Dhonielle Clayton and more. Plus, we’ve added a 2nd festival day for families with young children & pre-teens!
More festival announcements coming throughout the month of September.

Posted in Africa, African-American, Afro-Caribbean, black women, culture, history, literature, Writer | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Review of Victor Lavalle’s The Changeling

I’ll admit, I approached Victor Lavalle’s The Changeling (2018) with a healthy amount of trepidation. 

The Changeling by Victor Lavalle

While I love science and speculative fiction, I’m not big on horror. It’s why, although I am deeply curious about them both, I have yet to see either Jordan Peele’s Us or Tate Taylor’s Ma

The novel’s cover art, description, as well as some of the reviews led me to believe that the narrative could be classified as horror: the main character, Apollo Kagwa, has a Ugandan mother and a white father from upstate New York. His father mysteriously disappears when Apollo is only four years old, leaving the child haunted by “strange recurring dreams.” In adulthood, after a marrying a woman whom he relentlessly pursues and having a child with her, Apollo’s dreams return. At the same time, his wife, Emma, begins acting strangely, exhibiting what he believes are signs of postpartum depression. However, her strange behavior escalates, culminating in her “committing a horrific act and vanishing.”

You can understand why I was a little leery of undertaking the read. 

But after four months of a steady diet of autobiographies for my latest writing project, I was ready to delve into the imaginary. I am so glad I took the plunge. 

The Changeling is a beautifully crafted work of imagination that is, rather than horror, more along the lines of magical realism. I was immediately drawn to the story because, not only is Lavalle a gifted wordsmith, but he sets the narrative in New York, largely Queens, where I spent all of my childhood and teenage years. Major points!! 

The book is pretty long—431 pages—but the chapters are no more than five pages, with most of them being two. While this would seem to provide a break to allow the reader to head off and do other things with her life, his writing is so gripping—he does a wonderful thing whereby he ends almost each chapter with a teaser or cliffhanger—that she (meaning me) had no desire to go to the gym or make dinner, or do any of the other hundred things I was supposed to be doing.    

The Changeling was deservedly voted a Notable Book by the New York Times in 2017. 

The accolades from Marlon James, author of one of my favorite novels, The Book of Night Women (2010) that I will in all likelihood never be able to read again because it is so disturbing, are warranted.  

The cover art by Yuko Shimizu is beautiful and a fitting precursor to the haunting tale within. 

I will say, I didn’t particularly like Apollo as a person. In fact, I’d call him a jerk. My aversion to the character, I think, speaks to how well developed he is. As another reviewer points out, he is “a man who doesn’t take no for an answer” and “who cuts wishes from his wife’s wrist.” 

When he reached across the dinner table and with no warning, cut Emma’s wish string, I had a visceral revulsion, partly because I’ve known quite a few men who think it’s their prerogative to curtail a woman’s dreams in the name of “love” when it’s really about possession. 

I was also reminded of my own “wish string” which I was given last year at the cost of my first week-long silent retreat at Spirit Rock and which was meant to drop away on its own. If someone had tried to interrupt that process, they would’ve gotten a solid punch in the face. As it turns out the sweetest little puppy that I was roughhousing with recently snapped it off—point being, it was my choice!! 

My own wish string

I was also really angered by Apollo’s reaction to his mother who literally saved his life when he was a child, but when she tells him the story of his father’s disappearance, blames her for the guy’s absence!!! 

It’s always the mother’s fault. 

“What a self-absorbed prick,” I thought, before putting the book aside to recover. 

I also agree with the reviewer who notes that they would’ve liked to have had more of Emma’s perspective. The same could be said for Lillian, Apollo’s mother. Nonetheless, Lavalle does provide, at least for Emma, a strong support system in her sister, Kim, and the “witches” with whom she consorts and finds the truth. Now if he had been more respectful of his wife, Emma would’ve shown Apollo that same truth much sooner in the narrative, he is only able to access it after he has undergone several harrowing, traumatic, painful, and exhausting experiences, and most of them with his male ex-military friend, Patrice. 

We may ask what this says about “the new dad” who believes he is sharing equally in the raising of his child in a way that his ancestors never did. Is it another form of delusion? 

I would say yes as statistically, even in the most “progressive” cisgender heterosexual families, men perform only about 35% of the household chores.  

The Changeling is a fairytale/folktale of fairytales/folktales. As such, there are lessons to be learned. 

For me, the biggest lesson is Believe Women 

Victor Lavalle is an enormously talented writer. I’m sure I’ll be reading more from him in the coming months. 

A great NPR review of The Changeling

Posted in African-American, culture, literature, review, Speculative Fiction, Writer | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment