Archive for the ‘literature’ Category

The Sunlit Playpen

Perhaps life is not the black, unutterably beautiful, mysterious, and lonely thing the creative artist tends to think of it as being; but it is certainly not the sunlit playpen in which so many Americans lose first their identities and then their minds.

I feel very strongly, though, that this amorphous people are in desperate search for something which will help them to re-establish their connection with themselves, and with one another. This can only being to happen as the truth begins to be told. We are in the middle of an immense metamorphosis here, a metamorphosis which will, it is devoutly to be hoped, rob us of our myths and give us our history, which will destroy our attitudes and gives us back our personalities. The mass culture, in the meantime, can only reflect our chaos: and perhaps we had better remember that this chaos contains life – and a great transforming energy.

James Baldwin, 1959.

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I read this quote today and was struck by how prophetic Baldwin sounded, both then and now. I can think of no better way to remind everyone to vote, to rally for reasonableness, and to buy this terrific book.

Overdue Books (and Zombies)

When I was organizing my bookshelves a couple weeks ago, I gathered together all the books I own that are half-finished and unread, some still unopened with that “new book” fresh paper smell. I bought many of these books during their first week of release in a rush of excitement to support a friend or after hearing a review on NPR. (Plus, it is hard not to get excited when  Carleen, Zetta, or Color Online have a new recommendation!) The books, over a dozen, now have their own shelf in my home. And then there’s another shelf, one hidden in a back room with older classics that I always meant to finish, but didn’t. Top of this list: Melville’s Moby Dick and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

Now is the time to read them – and if I feel the urge to “1-Click” my way to a new Amazon.com order – to get reacquainted with my local library. I’m particularly excited about these overdue books: Black Water Rising by Attica Locke, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, and Nalo Hopkinson’s New Moon’s Arms. I also have A Wish Before Midnight on my iPhone Kindle (for when I’m in the doctor’s office waiting room) and Jabari Asim’s A Taste of Honey.

It is this last book, a short story collection, that I’m reading now and I can’t recommend it highly enough. It’s hilarious in places, contemplative in others, and very well crafted. Asim has a lighter touch than Colson Whitehead, but is just as perceptive. In some of the stories, the narrative voice of nine-year-old Crispus Jones reminds me of a late 1960s version of the TV show, “Everybody Hates Chris” (or maybe “Good Times” from Michael’s point of view?)

Take this paragraph:

Soon after my mom finally agreed to let me cross the street by myself, I forgot to look both ways while returning home and was nearly blindsided by a fast-moving Ford Fairlane. I escaped harm, though, until I reached our front proch. That’s when Pristine pulled me inside and commenced to clobbering me with the closest thing handy – a flip-flop that seconds before had been dangling from her foot. For a brief, merciful moment I was able to break free. I wrenched open the screen door and lunged for the porch, but Mom caught me by the ankles. Across the street, Petey and Choo-Choo bore astonished witness to the strange sight of me disappearing backward through the front door, an invisible force sucking me in like I was one of those anonymous doomed crewmen in a Star Trek episode. They got a final glimpse of my tear-streaked, horrified face frozen in midyell before it vanished behind the screen door.

Afterward, Petey told me that all he could make out through the mess was the dim outline of my mother and “that flip-flop going up and down, up and down.”

I love that this passage comes at the start of a story called “Zombies” with Crispus at the center of his own version of The Night of the Living Dead. And what begins as a comical scene about buttwhippings moves into a wonderful story about the relationship between brothers and about being curious, vulnerable, and young. Let’s hope that all my overdue books are as enjoyable as this one! Read an interview with the author of A Taste of Honey at Carleen’s blog.

What are you reading this summer?

Reading, Writing, and Explaining

I recently came across this recent clip of poet and professor Rita Dove on Big Think, responding to the question: Are we striving toward a post-racial literature and art?

Let’s agree to set aside for now the over-hyped connotations of the term “post-racial.” What Dove is attempting to speak to here, it seems to me, is the question of what exactly it is we are aspiring to, as a society, when we claim to value social justice, equality, and mutual respect through an appreciation of cultural difference.

If you are a black writer, the goal of your striving may be a future unburdened by the need to “insist upon your presence” and in this, Dove beautifully echoes the grievances leveled by James Baldwin before her, and Zora Neale Hurston before that. Another goal, Dove suggests, is to gain the respect of a reader who will not demand to be spoon-fed an explanation of “racial quirks” within the text. Free of the need to explain things, writers can devote their energy to telling good stories, to developing their craft, confident that the audience will be willing to project themselves into an unfamiliar experience.

I get this. No one wants to be what my family likes to call, “The Ambassador of Negro Relations,” having to explain to the uninitiated every single detail about black life 101 (as if we could anyway). But doesn’t the role of an effective published writer or artist necessarily contain an element of ambassadorship? If they don’t consider the creative deployment of “little reference points” to be a good use of their energy and talent, then I can’t help but wonder how readers are supposed to deepen their common knowledge about anything outside their comfort zone. How else are white folks going to figure out what we’re doing with Murray’s Pomade? (Google? Wikipedia? A Black Friend?)

It seems to me that explaining things is what fiction does best. I appreciate writers like Flannery O’Connor, Amy Tan, and Jhumpa Lahiri for challenging me to wake up and learn more about people I don’t know, but I’m also grateful for the efforts these writers make to clue me in to new details. I remember reading Bernard Malamud’s The Tenants growing up as a teenager in North Texas. Outside of The Diary of Anne Frank, I had never read a book about Jewish lives, never met a Jewish person, never even been to New York for more than a weekend visit with Frieda and my dad to see The Tap Dance Kid on Broadway. There were small details in The Tenants that I didn’t understand – the central conflict is between two black and Jewish neighbors in a crumbling NY apartment building – but I latched onto the moments of exposition and context in the novel until I could gather enough information to follow the story’s eye-opening revelations.

I fear that I’m reading too much into Dove’s off-the-cuff remarks. Perhaps she is not speaking to me (or t0 you) but to those who would prefer to see only themselves in works of creative art. Perhaps she is referring to the way agents, publishers, and other gatekeepers reward stories and poems that are more easily digested and blurbed. Writer should be able to tell the stories that they want to tell in the way that they want to tell them. I appreciate the fact that Dove also wants to spur the public into taking their responsibility as readers seriously. Her own poems are an elegant balance of subtlety and forthright language.

Dove has also said, in another Big Think segment, that “we live our lives in detail, all of us. We walk down the street. We breathe. We hear things. We try to transcribe it in generalities and the details are what make us come alive. I wish someone had said that just at the beginning, so I wouldn’t have felt so discouraged when I began writing and thinking who would want to hear the stories of a young black girl growing up in the Midwest?’”

Any thoughts?

Just A Toy Store: Bambara’s “The Lesson”

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The most important moment in Toni Cade Bambara’s short story “The Lesson” comes when Sylvia and her best friend, Sugar, approach the threshold of F.A.O. Schwarz toy store. Instead of going inside, they pause. They hesitate and “hang back.” For me it is this small, wordless gesture from the young black girls, who had once been so delightfully confident and full of exuberance, that attests to Bambara’s skill in capturing the subtleties of everyday life.

This week’s CORA Diversity Roll Call focuses on short stories, so I want to highlight the gifted writer Toni Cade Bambara and her first collection, Gorilla, My Love (1972). Bambara has longer fiction, of course, and she is well-known for her posthumously-published novel about the Atlanta Child Murders, but her craftsmanship in short story writing is potent and unparalleled.  In “The Lesson” a young girl named Sylvia tells us about the day her strange new teacher, Miss Moore, a woman “with nappy hair and proper speech and no makeup” takes her and her friends downtown to the famous New York toy store. What begins as innocent window-shopping turns into something much more serious as these black children realize that there are people in the world who can spend more on a birthday clown than their families spend on rent. Envious and confused, Sylvia decides to go inside the store to take a closer look. And then, in her wonderfully hard-edged narrative voice, there is this:

Me and Sugar turn the corner to where the entrance is, but when we get there I kinda hang back. Not that I’m scared, what’s there to be afraid of, just a toy store. But I feel funny, shame. But what I got to be shamed about? Got as much right to go in as anybody. But somehow I can’t seem to get hold of the door, so I step away from Sugar to lead. But she hangs back too. And I look at her and she looks at me and this is ridiculous. I mean, damn, I have never ever been shy about doing nothing or going nowhere.

It is a heart-breaking moment, this new awareness of difference and inequality, and on a deeper level – a loss of innocence. I know what it means to “hang back” and I fear for the day when my daughter experiences it too. But this is also the moment when Sylvia and the children in Miss Moore’s class begin to ask questions and pay closer attention to the world beyond their own doorstep. This is what makes “The Lesson” such an amazing piece. Despite its somber subject, Bambara’s story is ultimately about developing a strength that comes from facing the world with eyes wide open.

Don’t forget to check out the other posts in the CORA Diversity Roll Call: Short Story Stroll.

We ♥ Carleen Brice

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I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Carleen Brice is a 21st century Georgia Douglas Johnson. And I’m delighted to help support her efforts to promote black authors.

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From King Arthur’s Court to Delany’s Nevèrÿon

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I’d like to offer the Return to Nevèrÿon series by Samuel R. Delany for this week’s CORA Diversity Roll Call about people of color in science fiction and fantasy. But first, a geek confession:

In 8th grade, when my English teacher introduced the class to Sir Thomas Malory’s 1485 classic Le Morte D’Arthur – a too thick, moldy novel with a strange French title – I developed a deep and joyful obsession with Arthurian literature. My teacher opened up the legend’s secrets in thrilling ways and taught my class to have confidence in our capacity to unravel the power of allegory. And so my best girl friend and I became Anglophiles. Shut out from the D&D role playing games and comic books that the white boys shared, we developed a sisterhood that delighted in the charm, magic, and tragedy of King Arthur’s Court.

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Creative Freedoms and the Not Now Book

song-of-solomonI’ve been banning books from my daughter’s library since before she was born.

I always encourage family and friends to fill our bookshelves with preschool favorites, and yet I can make certain books disappear in a moment, sometimes to Goodwill, sometimes to the dumpster. Baby Bibles with pink cherub-cheeked Eves and button-nose Noahs. Fairy tales featuring Disney princesses who always need saving. When I’m in a bind, I’ve learned how to redact the troubling scenes of death and loss from bedtime stories so that my 3 year old can sleep better at night.

I’ve always considered myself a champion of creative freedoms. (I still remember how hurt I was in high school when my Stephen King and Anne Rice books began to sprout legs and walk because my mother believed that I was “dabbling in the occult.”) I celebrate Banned Books Week and I often include these controversial texts in my university courses. As my daughter grows, I want to teach her how to become responsible for her own reading choices and ultimately, no book will be off-limits. So, perhaps then, the books I’ve donated to Goodwill aren’t really banned books, they’re not now books.

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A Ntama of Children’s Stories

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I’m fairly certain that I’m a week late with my entry for C.O.R.A. Diversity Roll Call, in which participants are asked to discuss authors from a country or region from around the world. My daughter and I are headed out to the county fair this morning, so in her honor I’d like to briefly mention two special children’s books about Ghana, West Africa:

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C.O.R.A. Diversity Roll Call

I’m delighted to participate in the C.O.R.A. Diversity Roll Call, a blog meme from Worducopia and Color Online that explores and celebrates diversity in literature. This week’s prompt includes the following questions:

  1. Which is the character who’s the most different from you? (And how? Use this as an excuse to tell us your own background and anything else about yourself that’s important to your self-identity);
  2. Which is the author (this could be fiction, nonfiction, poetry, etc.) who is (or was) the most different from you?

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I am convinced that one of the hallmarks of a great writer is the extent to which he or she can enable readers to fully inhabit the lives of characters who are unique, uncommon, and shaped by “difference.” This is probably why I have a special place in my heart for J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing, Anne Rice’s Vampire Lestat, or even Richard Wright’s Bigger Thomas (although in the world of Native Son, I am more closely related to the forgotten black woman, Bessie Mears: may she rest in peace). Nevertheless, once I got to know these well-developed characters, I discovered that we share something quite interesting in common – a longing for wonder, an appreciation for humanity and all its flaws, and a struggle with inexplicable realities of pain and suffering.

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Desegregate Our Bookstores!

I went to Literature and did not see me. I went to Contemporary Fiction and did not find me, but when I fell back a couple of steps I found a section called African American Studies and there, arranged alphabetically and neatly, read undisturbed, were four of my books including my Persians of which the only thing ostensibly African American was my jacket photograph. I became quickly irate, my pulse speeding up, my brow furrowing. Someone interested in African American Studies would have little interest in my books and would be confused by their presence in the section. Someone looking for an obscure reworking of a Greek tragedy would not consider looking in that section any more than the gardening section. The result in either case, no sale. That fucking store was taking food from my table.

- Erasure, Percival Everett

autobiographymissjanepittman-3This month Carleen Brice’s blog, White Readers Meet Black Authors, asks readers to vote on the following question: “Should Bookstores Have a Section for African American Fiction?

I say, NO. And I didn’t have to think twice about my answer. As of today, only 31% of those responding to Carleen’s poll agree with me. Most have mixed feelings. That’s okay. I used to be on the fence, too. But no longer. Today I summon the spirit of my forebearers who fought long and hard for an end to segregation in the days of Jim Crow. I lean forward like the fictitious Miss Jane Pittman into the cool, cleansing stream of a forbidden water fountain meant to divide the races. I call for bookshelves as mixed as my metaphors when I declare: Mr. Barnes & Mr. Noble, TEAR DOWN THIS WALL!

It’s time we distinguish between the myths about the ways our bookstores should operate and confront the reality of how they actually do:

MYTH #1 The existence of an African-American Fiction section demonstrates my bookstore’s commitment to providing its readers with a range of black literature.

Years ago when my local Waldenbooks first began separating black fiction from the general fiction section, I spent hours kneeling in front of the shelves, loving the fact that the books I enjoyed had be given special treatment. Indeed, the sign above the books was more than just a sign; it was a celebration that legitimized the value of black writing. Today the signs are becoming the bookstore equivalent to all those streets named after Martin Luther King, Jr. — superficial gestures that do not always translate into a meaningful selection of material. Booksellers have become lazy, relying too much on the market boom in black urban, inspirational, and erotic fiction. I used to let the major stores off the hook for promoting “what sells,” but if this were true, then it seems to me that they would offer nothing but New York Times best-sellers, porn, and books about Elmo.

MYTH #2: The African-American Fiction section is the best place to find literature by or about black people.

This isn’t true and we all know it. As Carleen points out in a recent post, “What is a Black Novel?” good books are too often mis-categorized in the black section based on a faulty understanding of their content, while a superstar novelist like Toni Morrison, a British writer like Zadie Smith, and a white crime writer like Richard Price are typically allowed to mingle among the literary “general population.” Of course, categories and canons are always difficult to define. Zora Neale Hurston and James Baldwin sometimes wrote books featuring only white characters – where do they belong? And how does a African-American section engage the increasing globalization of black folks across the world? Our old identity politics are in desperate need of re-evaluation when it comes to books.

MYTH #3: By separating the books, the African-American Fiction section encourages readers who may not ordinarily pick up a book by a black author to do so.

I have serious doubts about this claim, although I would like to be proven wrong. I just don’t think that the narrow offerings in a section shaped solely by race will help to attract new readers in the same way that a genre-based selection process would. If I’m a fan of vampire fantasy, for instance, I’d appreciate a bookstore that shelves the L.A Banks “Vampire Huntress Legends” series alongside Laurell K. Hamilton and Anne Rice. I worry that the African-American Fiction section discourages readers from doing their homework, just as they would for any other genre by nurturing an interest in black literature one book at a time. The large bookstore chains need to put their efforts into table displays and endcaps that reflect the diverse offerings of the entire store, rather than letting a bookshelf sign do all the work. (I should pause here to acknowledge that smaller, independent bookstores often avoid these pitfalls due, in part, to a more knowledgeable staff and better familiarity with their customer’s needs.)

The “Bottom” Line:

My argument, in other words, is this: all works by and about black people should be integrated into sections categorized by genre right along with everything else. While the African American Fiction section may have been created in good faith to highlight the wide range of works by black writers, the shelves today reflect a narrow and constricting view of this literature that actually discourages reader interest and stifles more complex representational diversity.

Now that I’ve made my case, I encourage to you travel over the Carleen’s blog and participate in this month’s poll. Or write a response or rebuttal of your own! I’m eager to talk with others who have an opinion about the matter, even if we don’t agree.

Now for a rousing chorus of We Shall Overcome…

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The Blues as Black History

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"Me and the Devil Blues"

All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it. And even then, on the rare occasions when something opens within, and the music enters, what we mainly hear, or hear corroborated are personal, private, vanishing evocations. But the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air. What is evoked in him, then, is of another order, more terrible because it has no words, and triumphant, too, for that same reason. And his triumph, when he triumphs, is ours.

- James Baldwin

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This February, I approached Black History Month differently than I have in the past. Instead of looking to PBS and Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s latest “discovery” for inspiration, I tried to be mindful of the ways black history already affects my daily life. So I began with my iPod and two of the blues singers who have made themselves at home there: Muddy Waters and Lightnin’ Hopkins.

Both Waters and Hopkins are masters of the acoustic guitar-driven “country blues” with low, gritty voices that transfigure suffering through song. Yet, I hadn’t realized until recently that the experiences about which they sang were their own. After listening to Alan Lomax’s recording of “Burr Clover Farm Blues” by Muddy Waters, I learned that the Stovall Plantation in the lyrics was the name of the farm where Waters recorded the song that afternoon in the 1940s, the same plantation where he was picking cotton for fifty cents a day.

The same is true for Lightnin’ Hopkins who grew up in Centerville, Texas in the early 20th century. His song, “Cotton” is not his most famous, but it is one of my favorites. It tells the story of Hopkins’ childhood experience in the field with his parents. Hopkins’ vocals are easy, conversational, and clearly illustrate why he was so well known for his spontaneity and improvisational skill. A song like “Cotton” makes me feel reflective and humble, particularly when I consider how far African Americans have come and how songs like this one have provided comfort along the way.

I stood straight up in the field,
Looking round, trying to find me some shade
(Lord, Have Mercy) Poor Lightnin’ trying to find him some shade
Poor Mama sitting there with her pencil and paper
Figuring up every dime that the family made

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Both Waters and Hopkins were influenced by the Father of the Blues, Robert Johnson, the legendary musician who was said to have acquired his talent by selling his very soul to the devil. My research on Johnson led me beyond his recordings to Japanese manga artist Akira Hiramoto’s Me and the Devil Blues 1: The Unreal Life of Robert Johnson. Described as a “phantasmagoric reimagining” of the bluesman’s life, this comic follows Johnson through the moments of hardship and grief when he began to develop his craft.

I love comics, but I have never been a big fan of the aesthetic style and form of manga. So seeing the life of a black southerner take shape in the Japanese style forced me to experience the blues in a new way. Ultimately, what I found appealing about Me and the Devil Blues is the way Hiramoto visualizes sound; he captures the passion of the intense rhythms quite convincingly.

The same way that James Baldwin’s story, “Sonny’s Blues” conveys what the blues feels like through well-chosen words, Akira Hiramoto shows us what the blues looks like in black and white sketches. Long panels shaped like shards of glass, cinematic perspectives that highlight the nimble fingers and the long gaze of the bluesman. There are moments when the translation of the oddly hysterical dialogue fails to match the artwork. But the merits of Me and the Devil Blues overshadows these failings, and I’m looking forward to reading the second volume.

How about you? Did you come across anything new this Black History Month?

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Happy Birthday, Toni Morrison!

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Toni Morrison’s influence on our lives – as African Americans, as women, as lovers of literature – can be felt throughout this blog, from its odd title and the pseudonymous names Frieda and I have chosen for ourselves, to the way we see the word around us. Our eternal thanks and gratitude, Ms. Morrison. Happy 78th Birthday!

”In the beginning, people would say, ‘Do you regard yourself as a black writer, or as a writer?’ and they also used the word woman with it – woman writer. So at first I was glib and said I’m a black woman writer, because I understood that they were trying to suggest that I was ‘bigger’ than that, or better than that. I simply refused to accept their view of bigger and better. I really think the range of emotions and perceptions I have had access to as a black person and as a female person are greater than those of people who are neither. I really do. So it seems to me that my world did not shrink because I was a black female writer. It just got bigger.” (New York Times)

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