Traveling While Black

  

I’m leaving on the next plane/I don’t know when I’ll be back again…

–Yasiin Bey, “Travellin’ Man’

We are headed to France for the week. For me it will be a working vacation; for her, it will be a working vacation, but of a different sort. While I will be attending a philosophy conference, she will be teleworking from abroad. This trip, and its working significance for both of us has me reflecting back on a conversation we had once about the idea of writing a travel guide, “traveling while black.”

This idea came about after we discussed our separate experiences abroad and juxtaposed that with discussions we have had with our peers.  The great joy many white Americans take in traveling, generally, and especially traveling ‘home’ to the European continent is often not met with the same fervor of excitement for black Americans. And, when it is, the joy is an imagined space of ‘seeing the world’, a joy (that is) met, frequently, with the reality of an ambiguous ambivalence that only the term ‘history’ can begin to describe. This is the ‘history’ that often the notion of ‘travel’ and the meaning of ‘traveling’ is understood alongside that of being received abroad, not solely as American, but as an American of a special sort. There is often a state of indecision as to how you might be traveling; the often invisibility within the hyper-visibility of tourism; and, then, the experience of historical discontinuity of what it means to be black and traveling, freely amongst the world. James Baldwin once noted in his essay, “Stranger in the Village” such an ambiguous ambivalence of the meaning of history and ‘traveling while black’. He wrote, “the cathedral of Chartes says something to them which it cannot say to me.”

I hope to discover something new during this trip  but I, at the same time, discover that I am discovered in this world.  I take solace, however, in that I will not be alone; and that I will be ‘traveling’ with someone who is also discovering the world anew and also ‘traveling while black’.

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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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What She’s Reading: The Granta Book of the African Short Story

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It’s a cold and rainy Saturday evening – the perfect time to stay indoors, curl up with a book and a warm blanket and sip giant glass wine 🙂

This week I’m cracking open my newest buy: “The Granta Book of the African Short Story”. Edited by Helon Habila, a formidable writer in his own right, this collection includes anglophone, lusophone, and francophone authors. (One of my new year’s resolutions is to read more lusophone literature so I’m feeling a bit smug ;-p about getting off to a great start). Habila describes this project as a compilation of Africa’s “post national generation” writers and includes 29 authors from 19 countries. From Leila Aboulela to Zoe Wicomb, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie to Alex Guma, and from Moroco to Zimbabwe; this is quite a diverse anthology of literature from the continent.

I’ll return to this post at a later date to list my favorites. In the meantime, pick up a copy at your local bookstore or online at the Hueman Bookstore by following the link below

Hueman Bookstore

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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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A New Perspective in the New Year

A champagne toast in a Atlantis Bookstore in Santorini

A champagne toast in a Atlantis Bookstore in Santorini

Happy New Year from the Afro-Librarians!

We hope you all enjoyed the holiday season and are starting the new year with new goals, resolutions and fresh perspectives.  Here in the afro-library we are preparing a series of posts for the month of January that re-examine the African American literary genre.  The first three posts include:

1) The Role of Biography in African American Thought

2) Back to the Woodshed: What Is African American Literature

3) Does African American Literature Exist A review of Kenneth Warren’s critical essays

In these and subsequent posts, we will revisit the construction of the African American literary canon.  What is African American literature?  What makes it great? Who is included in the African American literary canon and is their inclusion justified?

Admittedly, this is quite an ambitious way to begin the new year but we welcome challenges in 2014!

Stay tuned . . . .

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A Conversation with Toni Morrison and Junot Diaz at the NYPL

Did anything notable happen last week? Oh nothing . . . just an event featuring two of my favorite authors held at one of the most beautiful libraries in the USA **insert feigned nonchalant shrug as I try to contain my excitement**

Talk begins approximately 50 minutes into this video.  I die of euphoria at approximately 51 minutes . . .

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Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – The Afropolitan Anthropologist

This month the Afro-library is spotlighting Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, one of the best-selling contemporary writers of Afro-literary fiction.

I find Chimamanda to be one of today’s most introspective and insightful writers on race and culture. In addition to having a keen ability to create an engaging story, she unabashedly incorporates social commentary into each of her novels and short stories – sometimes, arguably, at the risk of artistic excellence. But the fact remains that her ability to conceptualize society’s idiosyncrasies is perhaps her greatest strength. She is the perfect example of an afropolitan author with the heart of an anthropologist.

After digging through the Afro-library bookshelves, we came up with a few samples that best illustrate Chimamanda’s unique voice. Check out these quotes, add your own, or simply tell us what you think of her work.

Fiction
“…humility had always seemed to him a specious thing, invented for the comfort of others; you were praised for humility by people because you did not make them feel any more lacking than they already did.” (Purple Hibiscus)

“He tried to visualize a heaven, a God seated on a throne, but could not. Yet the alternative vision, that death was nothing but an endless silence, seemed unlikely. There was a part of him that dreamed, and he was not sure if that part could ever retreat into an interminable silence. Death would be a complete knowingness, but what frightened him was this: not knowing beforehand what it was he would know.” (Half of a Yellow Sun)

“You did not want him to go to Nigeria, to add it to the list of countries where he went to gawk at the lives of poor people who could never gawk back at his life.” (The Thing Around Your Neck)

“Poverty was a gleaming thing; she could not conceive of poor people being vicious or nasty because their poverty had canonized them them, and the greatest saints were the foreign poor.” (Americanah)

TED Talks and Other Quotables
“Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.”

“The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”

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What She’s Reading: “The Tipping Point” and “Wizard of the Crow”

In a modest effort to increase my monthly nonfiction intake – and also taking advice from this helpful article on enhancing the reading experience http://myhometableau.com/the-one-thing-ive-learned-to-help-me-read-more/ – I’m continuing to experiment with reading two books at the same time.

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Book 1 – “The Tipping Point” by Malcolm Gladwell
I read and loved his in-depth analysis of the patterns of success in “Outliers” and heard great things about this book as well. I’m 155 pages in and so far am not in love with it yet. The stories are interesting (of course) but a few conclusions seem to be drawn from relatively weak links (Paul Revere vs William Dawes and the New York phone book “test” particularly). So far, this book doesn’t seem to be as tightly woven as it’s predecessor but many of the concepts Gladwell presents are – even when seemingly simplistic – paradigm shifting. This is one to check out.

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Book 2 – “Wizard of the Crow: A Novel” by Ngugi wa Thiong’o
This novel has been on my ‘Book Bucket List’ for a few years. To put it simply, the story surrounds a fictitious country in Africa called “Aburiria”. Aburiria, like many countries in the region, is torn by political parties fighting for control of the country and it’s resources. This satire is loaded with symbolism surrounding political and humanitarian themes. I’m only a few pages in but can already sense that I’ll be writing a separate post on this one. Stay tuned; this story is epic.

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Saying Adieu: “Mandela Dead and Alive”

“. . . And Africa you go on palavering

first hands offered then clenched fists

you the eternal survivor

speaking of onyx not of glass

for man must fathom all

plunge deep and rise along

his secret blood

row row relentlessly

row towards the sun . . . ”

(Edouard J. Maunick – translation)

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