Amongst everything that’s been happening lately–though, of not unconnected from what’s been happening for centuries: continued pressure for racial equality in this country, finally, a national recognition of Juneteenth, the commemoration of one of the worst cases of white aggression against Black people just trying to live their lives in the Tulsa Massacre–I was sent this wonderful documentary that is yet, another testament to Black genius.
In naming this blog Alligator Woods way back in 2009 I sought to uplift and share the revolutionary spirit that was alive in the enslaved men and women who declared liberty or death that fateful night in August 1791 in what was then the French colony of Saint Domingue and that continues in its countless contemporary iterations.
I did it to showcase and celebrate our brilliance and to encourage us to keep on keeping on.
This revolutionary spirit, I know, lives on today throughout Africa and its diaspora.
These past two weeks, following the brutal murder of George Floyd by police officers, which followed the brutal murder of Breonna Taylor by police officers, which followed the attempt by a white woman, Amy Cooper, to weaponize the police against African American birdwatcher, Christian Cooper, for demanding that she follow the law, which was preceded by the revelation of the murder in broad daylight of Ahmaud Arbery by two white men, have reminded us of not only the fact that the Black revolutionary spirit lives on, but that it remains as critically needed as ever.
In the wake of George Floyd’s murder we have seen a mass mobilization of a revolutionary spirit that seems to have been laying dormant; the kind of revolutionary spirit that few of us have seen firsthand or been apart of.
A marked departure from the responses that assaults against people of color that we have traditionally seen is the way that white people have shown up to do what is right.
And that’s a good thing.
Because this country is built on the ideology that white life is more valuable than Black life the only way to guarantee that change will happen is if white people place themselves in the line of fire the way that Black folks have been doing since we arrived on these shores.
Before the recording of the interview started the founder and host of For the Wild, Ayana Young, relayed Hersey’s words during this revolutionary moment:
“My dream during these times of protest against the police state, are for more white folks to be on the front lines and for black folks to be home, healing, grieving, and taking naps. We stand in solidarity with all the uprisings. Cover your faces while out and look out for each other, hydrate and rest.”
While I smiled, completely understanding the sentiment behind Hersey’s pronouncement–Black people have been on the front lines, again, since we first arrived here—and we’re exhausted–the one thing I would caution against is giving into the impetus to turn the movement over to others.
We have to continue to be the drivers of change, because our lives depend on it.
In the tradition of revolutionaries like Patrice Lumumba, Dutty Boukman and Cecile Fatiman, Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, and Fannie Lou Hamer–the list goes on–I wrote in a recent personal reflection piece that “people of color must take up the space to speak our truths”.
(The question of what does Haiti have to do with the U.S. context should be obvious, but in case it isn’t, my answer is Everything.
Because Africa and its diaspora are connected in many ways, not the least of which is our historical and continued oppression in the name of white supremacy, as well as our continued resistance to it.)
In the spirit of supporting people of color speaking our truths, and because I am a reader and a seeker and love to share knowledge, I include below a very short list of books, articles and interviews with/by people of color about the history of slavery and its legacy and the damage it does.
So that we may educate ourselves, before, during, and after the protests.
Cheryl A. Wall, Rutgers University, New Brunswick: “Her Word-Work Was Sublime: The Craft of Toni Morrison in Song of Solomon”
Michel Feith, Université de Nantes: “The Travails of the Negative in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon”
Flora Valadié, Université de Bourgogne: “A Bag of Bones for the Blood Bank: The Politics of Matter and the Remainder in Song of Solomon”
Coffee break / Pause café
II. Working Intertextualities Chair: Nelly Mok, Université Paul-Valéry, Montpellier 3
Carline Encarnacion, Université de Toulouse Jean-Jaurès:“An Ode to African American Folklore: Tales, Voices and their Variations in Song of Solomon”
Annie-Paule Mielle de Prinsac, Université de Bourgogne:“Pilate, the Shakespearean character Shakespeare did not create”
Alan Rice, Institute for Black Atlantic Research, UCLAN, Preston, GB “Looking Inside the Invisible: The Importance of Naming in the Work of Toni Morrison and Lubaina Himid”
Lunch / Déjeuner
III. Ethical Imagination Chair: Nicolas Gachon, Université Paul-Valéry, Montpellier 3
Ashraf Rushdy, Wesleyan University:“Violence and Salvation in Morrison’s Song of Solomon” Discussion
Claude Le Fustec, Université de Rennes: “‘These things are real’: The Politics of Wisdom in Song of Solomon”
Emmanuelle Andrès, Université de La Rochelle:“Song of Solomon: Goodness, Altruism and the Literary Imagination”
Coffee break / Pause café
IV. What Reading does Chair: Arlette Frund, Université François-Rabelais, Tours
Maryemma Graham, University of Kansas: “Song of Solomon: Bearing Witness, Heralding Afro-Futurism”
Jean Wyatt, Occidental College, Los Angeles: “Dislocating the Reader: Psychoanalysis and Temporal Discontinuity in Toni Morrison’s Novels”
Sabine Bröck, University of Bremen, Germany: “White Reading”
Friday 20th March
V. Black Masculinities Chair, Lawrence Aje, Université Paul-Valéry, Montpellier 3
Françoise Clary, Université de Rouen: “Extending Intersectional Analysis to the Singly Subordinated Black Man in The Song of Solomon”
Herman Beavers, University of Pennsylvania: “‘They ain’t never going to have it’: Dematerializing the Masculine Imaginary in Song of Solomon”
Coffee Break/ Pause café
Carolyn Denard, Georgia College and State University: “Magical Men: Mythologizing Male Roles in Song of Solomon”
Michael Awkward, The University of Michigan: “‘Thought he was a man’: Toni Morrison, Emmett Till, and the Problems of History”
VI. Grounded or Flying? Chair: Souleymane Ba, Dr. Université Paul-Valéry, Montpellier 3
Trudier Harris, The University of Alabama: “Grounded Africans: Triumphs of Flight and Failures of Imagination in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon” Discussion
Claude Le Fustec, Université de Rennes: “‘These things are real’: The Politics of Wisdom in Song of Solomon”
Lara Delage-Toriel, Université de Strasbourg:“The Earthbound Body in Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon“
Paola Boi, University of Cagliari, Sardinia, Italy: “Like the Sibyl, again. Scattering the sign, conjuring the unknown in feminine, maternal discourse. The ‘Flight’ motif and the invention of “beyond” the language’ in Morrison’s Song of Solomon”
Marcus Bruce, Bates College: “Flying Lessons: Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon, and the Pedagogy of Flight”
Coffee Break/ Pause café Roundtable / Table Ronde
Banquet: La Brasserie du théâtre, rue Victor Hugo
VII. Black Diasporic Imagination Chair: Hélène Charlery, Université de Toulouse Jean-Jaurès
Josette Spartacus, Lycée Malherbe, Caen: “Song of Solomon: The Errantry of the Tout-monde”
Melba Joyce Boyd, Wayne State U, Detroit:“Colorism in Song of Solomon” Discussion Coffee Break/ Pause café
Roundtable on the documentary: The Pieces I Am with Cheryl Wall, Sabine Bröck and Monica Michlin.
In 1967—it feels like forever ago—the brilliant writer and critic James Arthur Baldwin penned a letter to the son of his only brother and named it “And My Dungeon Shook”, a reference to the famous biblical passage. In the letter Baldwin expresses not only his deep love and care for his young nephew, but also his fears for him as a person of African descent born and raised and hopefully coming to adulthood in a country that did not love him and that wanted to cage him or kill him both in body and spirit. The letter is part of and precedes Baldwin’s more widely known titular long essay, “The Fire Next Time,” again taken from a famous biblical passage.
A substantial number of years later, Randall Kenan paid homage to Baldwin’s text, calling his reflections on the state of Black America The Fire This Time (2007).
Still more recently the literary scholar and writer Jesmyn Ward edited a brilliant collection of essays and reflections authored by Black people under the title, The First This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race (2017). The contributions, harkening back to Baldwin’s and Kenan’s texts, also explore the experience of being born and growing up in a black body in a society that does not value them and in fact, would rather see them in chains or hanging from a tree or six free underground, as has been the fate of countless… The one thing that holds all of these writings together, besides the title, is the reckoning with the innate knowledge of the gift of Blackness against a backdrop of profound white hatred and fear of the gifts that Black people carry with them.
When Baldwin wrote “And My Dungeon Shook” this country was in the throes of social and political upheaval as African Americans agitated for their birth right: Civil Rights; that is to be treated civilly in a land that their ancestors had been central to building. The Black Panther Party was agitating for the ceasing of the gunning down of unarmed black people, the right to defend themselves, and very simply, the right to self-determine. The streets were burning across the country while the FBI’s COINTELPRO was in full swing.
When the first The Fire This Time was published this country was again in the throes of social and political upheaval as the crack epidemic had taken hold of many African American communities and white America probably rested a bit more easily believing that the rabble-rousers who had fought for African American people’s Civil Rights in the 1960s had been properly disposed of.
When Ward published her own edited collection under the same name, the US, as it has always been, was in the throes of political and social upheaval as mostly white police officers continued gunning down mostly unarmed black men and women. Only this time their crimes were caught on video, thanks to camera phones.
One of my favorite and most-often cited essays in Ward’s collection is Claudia Rankin’s “The Condition of Black Life is One of Mourning” in which the author lays bare the particular challenges that parents of black boys in the US face on a daily basis. They mourn for the very real possibility that their very reason for living may be taken away from them at any moment by the bullet or the billy club or the chokehold of someone whose blood is poisoned by their beliefs around white superiority.
Imani Perry, Princeton University professor of African American Studies and Law and mother to two young boys, Freeman Diallo and Issa Garner, explores this condition of mourning and more in her recently published Breathe: A Letter to My Sons (2019). Her title and subject matter, of course, summon, not only Baldwin’s brilliant letter to his nephew, but also W.E.B. Dubois’ The Souls of Black Folk, Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, and Langston Hughe’s “Mother to Son”. It also echoes the now infamous plea by Eric Garner to the cop who snuffed out his life: “I can’t breathe.”
The book reminds the reader of the human desire to find space in one’s body, to dream, to envision, to create, to live fully in a way that honors and celebrates the imagination. But in asking rhetorically, “How do you become in a world bent on your not being and becoming?” she makes a critical connection between the physical ability of one to draw life-giving breath and the expansiveness of the life-giving breath of imagining and becoming. This, in a country that is hell-bent on putting chains on not only black feet and hands, but black imagination, if not by their own hands then it’s, as Tupac said, sitting back and watching us kill each other.
Breathe is a tiny book, divided into three sections, “Fear,” “Fly,” and “Fortune.” From the first page I was hooked as Perry begins, following an epigraph by the brilliant poet June Jordan, with a phrase that countless black mothers (and fathers) have heard issue from the mouths of white parents/people: “It must be terrifying to raise a Black boy in America.” Indeed, it is terrifying, but those who say such things are shielded from that terror by their whiteness, and indeed, as Perry notes, there is a voyeuristic element to such comments that is enraging to those of us who must live with that terror.
I absolutely love the way Perry, rather than leave white people from whose lips such lamentations drip to an “empathy” that issues from ignorance, expresses at the very least, indignation, and at most, justified disdain.
There are countless similar moments in the text in which Perry takes on “the taboo” of calling out the privileges of whiteness with daring eloquence, grace, and self-consciousness. As Kiese Laymon has remarked about the text, “Somehow Perry manages to mourn, celebrate, theorize about, and welcome us in the space between, and around this Black mother and her Black sons.”
Laymon’s endorsement though, raises a question: Who is the “us” that is welcomed into the space? Because for all of the text’s truths, rawness, and beauty it is important to remember that those of “us” who will most likely be reading it are members of a relatively speaking, privileged class: educated with resources to purchase the book or to check it out from a well-funded library, and a bit of leisure time to read and digest it. And while yes, Perry’s sons’ privilege as the children of a Princeton professor will not shield them from the weapons of ignorance that too many wield, it should be noted that Perry finished the text while she and her sons were in Japan for a summer, taking in the sights. One wonders how the message would land on Black mothers and fathers who are struggling to make ends meet while keeping their children alive in Chicago (Chiraq), or Little Haiti, or Ferguson.
That said, there are many things to love about Breathe. In the tradition of those on whose shoulders she stands, Perry’s text is honest, often raw, beautiful, driven by a profound love for her boys, and one gets the sense, a cautious hope for the blind, the pitiable, and the dumb.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
felt I had read it before somewhere else.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
said, Danticat, like every great writer, offers wonderful insight into the
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
many also left out of sheer frustration at the impossibility of affecting real
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
of the pilot, the project will track the metrics it has developed.
“Key” metrics include avoided CO2 emissions and green jobs created.
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.”
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
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 gets wept up in the tidal wave of Thomas, a fellow
Nigerian who is “successful” and, like a bulldozer, steadily making plans for
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!!
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
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
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?