Category Archives: Afro-American Lit

Revisiting Sula

I first read Toni Morrison’s Sula when I was 17.  Although I was old enough to appreciate its symbolism and complexity, I could not identify with the themes of judgement, love, loss and survival.  I was 17.  I had not lived, lost and learned that life could hold the darkest of moments.

FullSizeRender (2)Several quotes from Sula remained with me in the 15 years since I’ve read the novel.  Fifteen years have passed and I, an older and (hopefully) wiser woman, now understand the meaning of these quotes more deeply.  I understand that Sula is inherently about life, love, choice and perspective.  As I approach my 32nd birthday, I realize that this novel deserves revisiting, in order to better appreciate these themes.

Here are a few passages that, for me, have stood the test of time:

 

On a dream deferred
“Had she paints, or clay, or knew the discipline of the dance, or strings, had she anything to engage her tremendous curiosity and her gift for metaphor, she might have exchanged the restlessness and preoccupation with whim for an activity that provided her with all she yearned for. And like an artist with no art form, she became dangerous.”

On letting go:
“It is sheer good fortune to miss somebody long before they leave you.”

On choice:
“When you gone to get married? You need to have some babies. It’ll settle you.’
‘I don’t want to make somebody else. I want to make myself.”

On Sadness:
“the loss pressed down on her chest and came up into her throat. it was a fine cry — loud and long — but it had no bottom and no top, just circles and circles of sorrow.”

On love and sacrifice:
“‘Mamma, did you ever love us?’…’What you talkin’ ’bout did I love you girl I stayed alive for you'”

If you’ve read Sula, I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on the novel.  Are there any novels you read at a young age that now have deeper meaning to you as an adult?

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What She’s Reading: Between the World and Me

FullSizeRenderBetween the World and Me is Ta-Nehisi Coate’s visceral and highly introspective account of what it means to be a black man in America.  To Coate’s (and perhaps the millions who identify with this work, myself included), to be black in America means that your body is disposable.  Cheap.  Ripe for plunder.  Between the World and Me is Coate’s first hand account of the historic and current violence against black men perpetrated by figures of authority in America.  In this text, he forces America to take a long hard look at itself through a dirty mirror.  And it hurts.

Personally, several pieces of this book struck a cord with me.  But Coate’s take on one seemingly benign phrase that I have heard all my life, particularly floored me:

All my life I’d heard people tell their black boys and black girls to “be twice as good”, which is to say “accept half as much.”  These words would be spoken with a veneer of religious nobility, as though they evidenced some unspoken quality, some undetected courage, when in fact all they evidenced was the gun to our head and the hand in our pocket. …No one told those little white children, with their tricycles, to be twice as good.  I imagined their parents telling them to take twice as much.  It seemed to me that our own rules redoubled the plunder.

This is a must read!

 

 

 

 

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What She’s Reading: Corregidora

20140802-192930-70170024.jpgHave you ever read a book that was so good you purposely delayed finishing?

Corregidora is only 184 pages, a book I could zip through on a rainy Saturday afternoon, but I have been reading as slowly as possible. My goal was to limit myself to reading only 25 pages a day but, unfortunately, I have no self control. With 20 pages to go, I will soon have to move on 😦

Let me try to explain why this novel is so captivating. Corregidora is the story of Ursa, a young woman whose ancestors were held as slaves on a Brazilian plantation and forced to work as prostitutes. Ursa was born after emancipation but her mother, grandmother and great-grandmother passed along their horrific stories in order to ensure that future generations bear witness to the harsh psychological and physiological realities of slavery.

The novel follows Ursa as she attempts to navigate the world as a black woman in the early 20th century, simultaneously living in the past (through her ancestors) and present. But this dichotomy renders her love life dysfunctional. Gayl Jones, the author, portrays Ursa as a young woman living with a form of cultural PTSD – post traumatic stress syndrome – passed down by her family’s tragic history. The impact of this trauma, brilliantly expressed in Jones’ writing, is crippling. This is a must-read for anyone interested in the impacts of inhumanity within American history.

I can’t say enough about this book (as evident by my numerous tweets on the subject) and its succinct and compelling description of slavery as a historical event as well as a long-term systematic means of dehumanizing a people. If that doesn’t tell you enough, I’ll leave you with the following reviews from a few literary greats, who were also blown away by Corregidora:

“Corregidora is the most brutally honest and painful revelation of what has occurred, and is occurring, in the souls of black men and women.” – James Baldwin

“Gayl Jones has concocted a tale as American as Mount Rushmore and as murky as the Florida swamps”– Maya Angelou

“She (Gayl Jones) lit up the dark past of slave women with klieg lights and dared to discuss both the repulsion and the fascination of these relationships.” – Toni Morrison

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Remembering Amiri Baraka

POETIC: as in, poesis: as in, revealing (and what is revealed); as in, revelation: as in, prophetic—not of ‘truth’ as tradition, but ‘truth’ as disclosedness.

Technically: The poetic as the bearing of witness {that which the English have called, ‘the hue and the cry’, semantically apropos to BLACK DADA}; is the speaking of what is: is a telling—the sort of which reveals, discloses that which it speaks about; and speaks about that which it disclose: the poetic: to speak is to disclose: the poetic is what is: and, being what is, speaks itself {metaphysical, organizing (immanent) principle}; the poetic can only speak that it itself already is.

Specifically: Poetics: as in, specification; as in, the typification of what is known: of ‘word’: poetics—what is known of ‘world’ as what is said of world: that is, ‘word’ captured ‘world’. Poetics reveals ‘world’ as shared venture, as ‘word’, as ‘language’: Poetics implies ethno: as in ethno-poesis; as in, ethno-poetics.

Sylvia Wynter (secondary citation): “…At root ‘Ethnopoetics’ has to do with the essentially ‘local’ incidence of ‘poesis’ or acts of ‘making’…So ethnopoetics is rooted in ‘self-poetics,’ ‘our kind’ of poetics, which by inevitable extension of poesis becomes that activity which has gradually become conscious of itself…What does any local band of people living together do in their poetry? Answer: They say themselves.” In saying themselves they are the living engagement with the world: what that means is precisely this: it is the way in which and through which we experience space and time; the poetic {like the Dadaist, like the Surrealists, from which Baraka’s BLACK DADA emerges, NIHILISMUS} temporalizes ‘time’ in space-matter, bending it towards the manner in which we experience it (and vice versa): the poetic, rather than the quickening of prose, semantic nullification {of the post-modern, -structuralist}, or aphoristic fracturing, speaks itself, speaks its people, speaks its world and sculpts the substance of life into {from} its use-concepts: and, the world shows up, anew.

Poetics, then, is the speaking of a people: that is, of “the operation performed on the language of thought”, specific and general; they are the making of a people and the making of their world:

Interviewer: Let’s talk about the movement {Civil Rights Movement}; it’s been such a part of your life. Some critics would say that it affected your poetry in such a way that the quality was effected…

A.B.: See, the point is this. Like Mao Tse Tung says: “where do ideas come from? Do they drop from the sky?” No, they don’t drop from the sky. Ideas come from the social life. And as your social life changes—your day to day material existence changes—so the focus on what you want to speak about; what becomes important to you changes. So that if you lead some kind of, you know, closed effete circle of…literatures who have no real interest in…the human rights movement to transform society, then they’re going to think that your topics, your themes, your focus changes, that somehow your poetry is diminished; but, quite the contrary, I think this: I think most black people wouldn’t know me if it wasn’t for my own participation—and my wife certainly says this: “they wouldn’t know you if wasn’t in the struggle to transform reality, the struggle for democracy, the struggle for socialism they wouldn’t know you”. And, its true because people are concerned with what changes their lives, with what moves them…(Amiri Baraka, “On his poetry and breaking rules. HoCoPoLitSo. Howard County Poetry and Literature Society: The Writing Life)

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Thank You, Maya Angelou

Excerpt from “A Brave and Startling Truth”

…When we come to it
We, this people, on this wayward, floating body
Created on this earth, of this earth
Have the power to fashion for this earth
A climate where every man and every woman
Can live freely without sanctimonious piety
And without crippling fear

When we come to it
We must confess that we are the possible
We are the miraculous, the true wonders of this world
That is when, and only when
We come to it.

– Maya Angelou

You will be missed…

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Magical Realism in Afro-Literature

The death of Gabriel Garcia Marquez marks the passing of yet another literary giant.  His presence will be missed but his words are guaranteed to live on through his work.  In addition to his most well-known novels Love In The Time of Cholera and 100 Years of Solitude, Marquez left a legacy that is synonymous with the literary genre “magical realism” by effortlessly infusing reality with fantasy.

Magical realism incorporates enchanting or other-world elements into otherwise commonplace stories.  Marquez mastered this art and solidified his presence as one of the greats within the genre.  However, he was not the first to utilize this technique.  Magical elements have historically played a role in African and African-Diaspora literature and story telling.  A quick web-search will reveal countless books, articles and academic papers on the subject.  It’s late, so I’ll spare you the history and instead provide a list of my five favorite novels that feature magical realism.

Add your favorites in the comments below.

Image5) Mama Day by Gloria Naylor

A story, depicting the mysterious Miranda “Mama” Day and her niece Ophelia, that takes place in a fictional island off the coast of Georgia.  It’s reminiscent of a Shakespearean novel and depicts the tragedy and sacrifice between lovers.

Image4) Kindred by Octavia Butler

This bewitching tale follows Dana Franklin as she involuntarily travels through time in an attempt to preserve her lineage and ensure her own survival.  It’s a fast-paced historical novel that secures Butler’s role as the mother of modern science fiction and magical realism.

Image3) The Wizard of the Crow by Ngugi wa Thiong’o

The Wizard of the Crow is as entertaining as it is politically astute.  The story surrounds citizens within a fictional African country ruled by an aging dictator.  In this novel I’m not sure which concepts are more absurd – the magical occurrences or the real  current events from which the story is based . . .

Image2) Beloved by Toni Morrison

Beloved is the story of an escaped slave who is haunted by her past.  Not only is it an epic historical fiction novel, Morrison expertly guides the reader in and out of each character’s psychosis until the line between magic and reality is practically invisible.  Don’t let the (horrible) film adaptation deter you from exploring this novel; this isn’t just about slavery just as it isn’t simply a ghost story.

Image1) The Famished Road by Ben Okri

What is it about the country of Nigeria that produces game-changing authors and pioneers in literature?  Not only is The Famished Road laced with realistic-feeling magical elements, Okri’s writing style is purely enchanting.  The first few chapters of the book are so beautifully written that the novel is spell-binding.  Ben Okri writes like no author I have ever encountered. He’s brilliant, no question, but I’m now convinced there’s wizardry involved!

 

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“Philosophical Meditations on Richard Wright” now available in paperback!

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Congrats are due to one of our Afro-Librarians!!!!  Dr James B Haile’s Philosophical Mediations on Richard Wright will soon be available in paperback!

The text has been described as “thought-provoking” and “elegant” and esteemed as a compilation of of essays that are integral to the analysis of Wright’s body of work. Haile is not only re-imagining the canon but is creating a new methodology for examining Afro-American literature.  It’s no surprise that, in addition to being used in universities around the country, this text is also read by readers varying from scholars to afro-literature lovers and hobbyists.

I recently read through this compilation and was inspired to re-read Wright’s work in its entirety.  So if you are also interested in digging deeper and gaining a unique perspective on classic Afro-American and American literature, purchase your copy here:

http://www.amazon.com/Philosophical-Meditations-Richard-Wright-James/dp/0739144944

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Five Must-Read African American Authors (Who Aren’t Toni Morrison)

As an avid reader and the creator of this book blog, I am often asked to provide reading recommendations. I won’t lie to you, I live for those moments. There is nothing I love more than to impose my reading agenda share my thoughts and bookish favorites with beloved readers, family, and friends.

Each time I’m asked this question, particularly in regard to African-American authors, I start by listing the pre-requisites – Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Albert Murray, Zora Neal Hurston, and others of the Afro-literary canon. But I always make it a point to throw in new or lesser known authors and titles.

In this post, I eliminated many of the above-mentioned canonical works by excluding non-living Afro-American authors. I also removed (living) author Toni Morrison because, although she’s brilliant and worthy of high praise, there lots of other talented and noteworthy authors on the afro-literary scene.

The authors listed below are making a huge impact on the contemporary Afro-literary genre and on literary fiction in general. They are bold, creative, imaginative, ambitious and simply brilliant. These are the authors whose work I recommend you get acquainted with, if you haven’t already, and those whose careers you should definitely should follow.

Without further ado, I present my list of the five authors you must read if interested in contemporary Afro-American literary fiction:

Colson Whitehead
In 1999, Whitehead wrote a brilliant piece of speculative fiction entitled “The Intuitionist”. The novel mixes afro-futurism with issues of morality, race and politics. Hailed as an innovative and poetic debut novel, Whitehead’s allegory has already been compared to such classics as “The Bluest Eye” (okay, one Morrison reference . . . sue me!) and “Invisible Man”. As if this weren’t reason enough to read his work, his second novel, John Henry Days, an epic American narrative, was a Pulitzer And National Book Critics Award finalist. Yeah, he’s kind of a big deal . . .

Edward P Jones
Award winning short story author, Pulitzer Prize winning novelist, and self proclaimed hermit, Edward P Jones has all the makings of a literary genius. In 2009 The Washington Post published a rare interview with Jones in which the journalist was surprised to learn that the author had yet to type a single word of the book he has been “writing” for the last ten years. Jones revealed that he constructs his novels in his head – entirely, punctuation included – and, once finished, sits at a computer, types the finished version and sends it directly to his publisher. For that reason alone, you should read his epic novel “The Known World”.

James Mcbride
There is a natural harmony between literature and music. Cadence, lyric, and tone are descriptive of both melody and prose. Perhaps this is why McBride’s novels are written so beautifully – he is both an author and jazz musician. He received the National Book Award for “The Good Lord Bird”, a hypnotizing novel about a slave living in Kansas territory who befriends abolitionist John Brown. But prior to receiving this award (and catapulting to fame), McBride wrote noteworthy literary gems such as “The Color of Water”, “The Song Yet Sung”, and the novel adapted to film “Miracle at St. Anna”.

Jessmyn Ward
National Book Award winner for Salvage the Bones, a novel about a Mississippi town ravaged by Hurricane Katrina, Ward weaves one heck of a tale. I believe that a strong opening line is an indication of good fiction and “Salvage the Bones” begins with: “China’s turned on herself. If I didn’t know, I would think she was trying to eat her paws”. Ward also wrote the next book on my TBR list, the widely acclaimed memoir, “The Men We Reaped”. It’s a haunting account of black male pathos and southern family histories that is accessible to readers both within and outside of the ivory tower.

MK Asante
Born in Zimbabwe to American parents, Philadelphia raised Mk Asante is a highly respected professor, filmmaker as well as a critically acclaimed author. “Buck: A Memoir” is currently being adapted into a screenplay by Asante himself. Uber-talented and ambitious, Asante has received high praise from the likes of Poet Laureate Maya Angelou. The novel is unique in language, immersing the reader in the visceral and verbally assaulting world of “Killadelphia”. Asante will entertain you and, if you aren’t careful, he may also teach you something about urban America.

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Does African American Literature Exist?

20140107-005202.jpgWith Kenneth W. Warren’s recent essay, “Does African American Literature Exist” published February 24th, 2011 in the Chronicle Review, a debate, old, continued on the nature and existence of African-Americans, blackness, and the black aesthetic. Once again, this latest version of the ill-fated debate has begun with a set of philosophical assumptions and by one who has little interest in the terms of the debate.

In the space here I wish to address the latter concerns of race, African-Americans, blackness, and black aesthetic production. What I want to focus on is not the potential ahistorical nature of Warren’s essay, nor the hidden assumptions/presumptions of what African and American may mean when brought together. Rather, what I’d like to focus on is the emergence of something like ‘African-American literature’ as a form of aesthetic experience and expression, the kind which brings with it an understanding of history.

Philosophically, what is of interest in Warren’s essay is the status and role of history itself, as an entity, on black aesthetic expression (literature). It is Warren’s assertion that, “Jim Crow and the fight against it gave rise to—and shaped—African-American literary practice as we have come to know it.” For Warren, Jim Crow, as a moment of American history, serves up its artifacts, one of which is African-American literature. Warren, though, goes on to make a stronger claim as to the nature of history itself in the creation of culture and racial identity when he writes, “Like it or not, African-American literature was a Jim Crow phenomenon…” Warren’s latter claim (especially taken with his former claim above), brings to mind philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1948 essay, “Black Orpheus” which infamously proclaimed black identity and black aesthetic expression (poetry) to be either pain and suffering (under oppression), or to be nothing at all. One wonders aloud with Warren’s essay whether he believes that “what is often called the black soul is white man’s artifact”.

While it may not have been Warren’s desire to weigh in on the intellectual debate on the nature of history and its relation to aesthetic expression generally, black aesthetic expression, specifically—as well as culture and identity—he nevertheless has staked a position. History, in Warren’s essay, is a force: that is, a set of events, exogenous to the life-world of peoples, that acts upon them offering them a series of experiences which help to necessarily shape not only aesthetic expression, but frame their world-view. And, though Warren himself may openly reject the very idea of history as determining or necessary (in any way), his essay seems to enliven a kind of mechanistic materialism, African-Americans, in this case, would be akin to any other physically existing material thing, affected by some force that works to determine and necessitate. In this case, to understand African-American literature all one needs to do is understand the history of racial oppression in America from 1896 to 1970 (though this may seem pejorative, Warren’s essay does lend itself to this reading).

The challenge that Warren’s essay offers is not solely the continuation of what constitutes African-American literature, but also the deeper questions of what constitutes our concept of race, African-Americans, blackness, and black aesthetics. And, what is more, it is a challenge into the nature of thinking about these concepts as they relate to one another.

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Happy Birthday Zora Neal Hurston

Today marks the birth date of the legendary Zora Neal Hurston – perhaps the earliest known African-American anthropologist/author – and thus we celebrate her life.  She was born in Alabama on January 7, 1891 and died nearly penniless – although posthumously acclaimed – on January 28, 1960 in Florida.  During her literary career, she authored four novels and countless short stories, but is perhaps best known for her acclaimed novel (later adapted to film) “Their Eyes Were Watching God”.

In reading her work, her sharp wit and observations are clear indications that Hurston was a natural born as well as an academically trained anthropologist and ethnographer (she held a BA in the subject and completed graduate work). Although the dialogue in her narratives was often lambasted by critics for caricaturing African-Americans as illiterate, it is hard to ignore the wisdom and insight that pours out of each text.

I could go on but, being a librarian, there is nothing I love more than to let the author’s work speak for itself. Enjoy these gems:

“I am not tragically colored. There is no great sorrow dammed up in my soul, nor lurking behind my eyes. I do not mind at all. I do not belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature somehow has given them a lowdown dirty deal and whose feelings are all hurt about it. Even in the helter-skelter skirmish that is my life, I have seen that the world is to the strong regardless of a little pigmentation more or less. No, I do not weep at the world—I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.” (Duck tracks on a Road)

“There are years that ask questions and years that answer.” (Their Eyes Were Watching God)

Love is lak de sea. It’s uh movin’ thing, but still and all, it takes its shape from de shore it meets, and it’s different with every shore.”  (Their Eyes Were Watching God)

“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time.” (Their Eyes Were Watching God)

“The sun had become a light yellow yolk and was walking with red legs across the sky.” (Seraph on the Suwanee)

“If you are silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.” 

And last but certainly not least (my personal favorite):

“Sometimes, I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me.” 

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