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.

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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

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2019 will long be remembered by many of us, not only for the great voices that we’ve lost just this month, but also because it is a year of significant historical anniversaries and commemorations.

Two that immediately come to mind are: 1619 and 1919

August 1619

Africans arrive in Jamestown Settlement in August 1619.jpg

Let’s begin with 1619 since it marks the beginning of African Americans’ fraught relationship with the colonies that would become the United States of America; a nation based and built on the slaughter and displacement of indigenous populations and the exploited and dehumanized labor of Africans and their descendants. (An excellent text that makes this important connection is The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism (2016) by Edward Baptiste)

August 20, 1619 marks the date 400 years ago when the first 20 to 30 enslaved Africans from Angola arrived on the shores of Point Comfort, Virginia.

1619 project.jpeg

The New York Times 1619 Project, first published  in the August 12th issue of The New York Time Magazine, sheds light on the legacy of that historic moment in history.

The Project, conceived by Nikole Hannah-Jones, a writer at The Times, aims to challenge the notion that American history began in 1776. Not only is it the focus of several issues of the magazine, but it is accompanied by related materials in multiple other publications of the Times as well as a project curriculum developed in collaboration with the Pulitzer Center, for use in schools.

tell unvarnished truth.jpeg

The Project is legit, having employed a panel of historians and, with support from the Smithsonian Institute, undergone, no-doubt, rigorous fact-checking, research, and development.

A major cool aspect of the 1619 Project is that it highlights the perspectives and voices of African American scholars and artists with almost all of the contributions coming from African-Americans.

As you can imagine, the project has garnered A LOT of attention, both positive and negative.


If you’d like to learn more about the project, here are some resources:

The 1619 Project

The 1619 Project Details the Legacy of Slavery in America

I just learned that there is a podcast dedicated to the project as well. As a lover of podcast accompaniment during my nature walks, I am super excited!!!

Red Summer of 1919

anti blackriots.jpeg

This summer also marked the 100th year anniversary of the Red Summer of 1919, by the end of which there were at least 25 documented anti-black riots across the United States, including in East St. Louis and Chicago, Illinois; Tulsa, Oklahoma; Washington, D.C.; Omaha, Nebraska; Charleston, South Carolina; and Elaine, Arkansas.

red summer 1919.jpeg

There were several reasons and sparks for the Red Summer; all rooted in a belief in white supremacy. Following the bloody Summer of white rage, in the Fall of 1919, Dr. George Edmund Haynes completed a report on the causes and scope of Red Summer, arguing that  “the persistence of unpunished lynching” contributed to the mob mentality among white men and fueled a new commitment to self-defense among black men who had been emboldened by war service. “In such a state of public mind,” Dr. Haynes wrote, “a trivial incident can precipitate a riot.”

Fear/Hatred + Impunity = Anti [fill in the group] Violence.

Read more about Red Summer, beginning with this excellent article about the genius writer and NAACP field secretary James Weldon Johnson‘s role in publicizing and naming it:

The Mob Violence of the Red Summer

Red Summer of 1919

Red Summer in Chicago: 100 Years After the Race Riots

The Red Summer of 1919

Here’s some information about commemorative efforts:

Hundreds of Black Deaths in the “Red Summer” of 1919 are being Remembered

Chicago Residents Commemorate 100th Anniversary of Red Summer Race Riots





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Paule Marshall Resting in Power 1929-2019

August has been a rough month for us lovers of the word.

A couple of weeks ago, the great Toni Morrison took her place amongst the ancestors.

A few days ago, on August 12th, the incomparable Paule Marshall joined her.


Marshall holds a special place in my heart as a fellow native New Yorker!!

marhsall collage.jpegAlthough she is best known for her 1959 novel, Brown Girl, Brownstones, she also authored several other gorgeous works including Soul Clap Hands and Sing (1961), a collection of four novellas, and four other novels, The Chosen Place, The Timeless People (1969), my personal favorite, Praisesong for the Widow (1983), life changing!!!, Daughters (1991) and the Fisher King (2001). She also authored a collection of short stories, Reena and Other Stories (1983) as well as a combination, novella and short stories, Merle, A Novella and Other Stories (1985). Her memoir, Triangular Road, was published in 2009.

Her many accolades include being winner of the National Institute of Arts Award, a Guggenheim Fellowship, Before Columbus Foundation American Book Award, recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship Grant. She is also a Literary Lion with the New York Public Library.

Paule Marshall was also loved and will be deeply missed.

Paule Marshall, Novelist of Diverse Influences

Remembering Paule Marshall

Paule Marshall

Paule Marshall at Medgar Evers College

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Toni Morrison Resting in Power 1931-2019



Rest in your power, Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am documentary interview

Morrison on what motivated her to write The Bluest Eye 

News of her life and transition:

Nobel Prize-Winning Author Dies at 88 

Toni Morrison: Nobel Prize-winning Author Dies at 88

Toni Morrison, Whose Soaring Novels Were Rooted in Black Lives Dies at 88

Toni Morrison at Princeton:

Toni Morrison Papers to Reside at Princeton

The Toni Morrison Lecture Series

Toni Morrison Delivers Keynote at Address at the Princeton and Slavery Symposium


The Essential Toni Morrison Reader:

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Review of Saidiya Hartman’s Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments

wayward lives.jpeg

I have long been familiar with Dr. Saidiya Hartman’s brilliance; first through Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery and Self-Making in Nineteenth Century America (1997) and then through Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along the Atlantic Slave Coast (2008). As a post-doc, I also had the privilege of attending a conference/gathering of several well-respected historians of the African diaspora held at NYU. I was deeply impressed by Dr. Hartman’s presentation as well as her numerous contributions and commentaries on the work of her colleagues.

I admit, I haven’t read her first two publications. One of the reasons I wasn’t particularly interested in Lose Your Mother was because I had spent six months living and traveling around Ghana and another year and some months in Benin Republic, both major hubs of the transatlantic slave trade, each for very different reasons. It may sound silly or strange, but I had no desire to have my own experience influenced or “tainted” by Hartman’s work.

While Scenes of Subjection was well-known in my doctorate program, sad to say, I never took a course for which it was required and I preferred to spend what little free time I had reading novels coming out of African and African diasporic traditions.

I, however, could not wait to get my hands on her latest publication, Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval (2019).

Unlike Scenes of Subjection, but like Lose Your Mother, Wayward Lives is a literary publication. It is meant to be read by lots of people. As such, it is stripped of the jargon-heavy, endnote-laden texts of academia.

Which makes it a must-read.

This is not to say that it is easy. While the language is highly accessible, the subject matter—black women’s desire to live life on their own terms while the white supremacist state was determined to circumscribe their lives—is the stuff of nightmares.

Nonetheless, it was my treat for several weeks just before bed after I’d spent my days working hard on my own latest intellectual project.

Wayward Lives covers the urban areas of Philadelphia and New York between 1890 and 1935. According to W.W. Norton’s website, the book explores the ways in which “In wrestling with the question “What is a free life?”, many young black women created forms of intimacy and kinship indifferent to the dictates of respectability and outside the bounds of law. They cleaved to and cast off lovers, exchanged sex to subsist, and revised the meaning of marriage. Longing and desire fueled their experiments in how to live. They refused to labor like slaves or to accept degrading conditions of work. Here, for the first time, these women are credited with shaping a cultural movement that transformed the urban landscape. Through a melding of history and literary imagination, Wayward Lives recovers their radical aspirations and insurgent desires.”

In her interview on Rustbelt Radio Hartman expands on the website description, remarking that the book explores the continuities between slavery, the ghetto as an open-air prison, and the contemporary prison industrial complex. She looks at the quotidian practices of women who refused the rhetoric of anti-blackness and begs the question, “What does it mean to love what is not loved?” This question still stands to be answered today.

Wayward Lives is a beautiful text, very well researched, and important. I could imagine it opening up several avenues for exploration of countless histories that have been subverted and erased. It also provides a roadmap for how to do it.

Let us all be inspired by Dr. Hartman’s work and continue the critical work that she has started.

Rustbest Radio Interview with Saidiya Hartman: Rustbelt Radio




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