Archive for the ‘literature’ Category

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)

The Inaugural Poem You Haven’t Heard


While the crowds gather in Washington, I will admit this:
it is enough that it happened, more than enough that we see
him standing there shattering all our good excuses: no, not bliss,
not some balm over the wounds that still hurt, but it is enough
to say that we saw it happen, the thing we thought wouldn’t,
and we did it even if we did not want to do it.
Kwame Dawes, “New Day”
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Seriously, Dr. Angelou: The Mastodon?

Inaugural poetry disappoints. Let’s be honest. When the poet speaks — so soon after the thunderous applause of the presidential address — we are never quite as prepared as we should be to pause for creative reflection.

Poems, as we all know, compel us to turn our gaze inward, much like invocations and benedictions. But while prayers invoke the call to a higher power, poems like the one written by Elizabeth Alexander for Barack Obama require a response from their listeners. And there are millions of us, each with our own expectations about what, in this powerful moment, poetry can and should do.

Consider the rocky precedent set by previous inaugural poets: The “Dedication” Robert Frost wrote (but couldn’t deliver) for John F. Kennedy’s inauguration reads like an American Civics lesson. Maya Angelou’s “On the Pulse of Morning” strives to reach outside of history and though it is more inclusive, her verse ultimately leaves me feeling disconnected. A strange sense of caution and doubt runs through Miller Williams’ “Of History and Hope” which was written (like Angelou’s poem) for Bill Clinton’s inauguration. Ultimately, each leaves a kind of syrupy aftertaste that is expected when someone declares America to be the Greatest Love of All.

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Alexander

So I’m not surprised that early reviews of Alexander’s “Praise Song for the Day” are mixed. WriteBlack has a post up about its critics, and there is sure to be a lively exchange when Ta-Nehisi Coates posts the poem for his Friday discussion. But compared to Frost, Angelou, and Williams, I find much to admire about Alexander’s verse. It combines abstract ideals and virtues with the lives of everyday people. Each time I read it, I see new insights that mark an optimistic start to Obama’s presidency. (Plus, she did a great job on The Colbert Report!)

But there is another inaugural poem that deserves our attention: “New Day” by Kwame Dawes. Published by The State newspaper in South Carolina where Dawes is a professor and poet-in-residence, “New Day” consists of eight sonnets that offer profound snapshots of our world.

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“You Know I Don’t Mean You”

smurf018This week I spent some quality time with Dear Darkness: Poems by the incredible poet, Kevin Young. He draws on his Louisiana roots in this new collection, mourning the loss of family and faith with the characteristic voice of a bluesman. Poems such as “Another Autumn Elegy” are particularly moving, while other verses use images of food in funny and surprisingly reflective ways. Take the “Prayer for Black-Eyes Peas”: “harbor me & I pledge each / inch of my waist not to waste / you, to clean my plate / each January & like you / not look back.”

But I was especially excited to discover that Dear Darkness reprints what is, without a doubt, one of my favorite poems about the adolescent negotiations of race:

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