Book Haul

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I’m acquiring books at a much higher rate that I’m actually reading them, but that’s a good thing–you can never, EVER, have too many books! One thing for sure, my interest in Jamaica Kincaid’s work has developed into a full-blown obsession. And I finally found a Toni Cade Bambara book! All of my findings are below:

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Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun / The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window. (Lorraine Hansberry)

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Black Women in White America: A Documentary History. (Edited by Gerda Lerner)

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Gorilla, My Love. (Toni Cade Bambara)

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At the Bottom of the River. (Jamaica Kincaid)

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A Small Place. (Jamaica Kincaid)

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The Book of Night Women. (Marlon James)

2 Kincaid novels + 1 Toni Cade Bambara Novel + 1 Marlon James Novel = $20; the EXTREME HAPPINESS of finding them all in 1 place = priceless!

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God Help the Child — A review

My love for Toni Morrison is borderline obsessive, you can read all about it here, so when I heard the news of her 11th book being published I was all but salivating. Somehow I managed to contain my excitement because it is only recently that I got a chance to read God Help the Child, and the experience was…different.

God Help the Child

“Spare and unsparing, God Help the Child–the first novel by Toni Morrison to be set in our current moment–weaves a table about the way suffering of childhood can shape, and misshape the life of the adult”

Is the succinct and ambitious description of Morrison’s novella. I was honestly surprised and disappointed at the brevity of pages, but that’s no reason to fault Morrison’s latest novel, especially when there are other valid ones.

Lula Ann Bridewell, or Bride, is the regional manager for a cosmetic brand as well as the creator of her own cosmetic line, You Go Girl. She is beautiful, with skin black like midnight and eyes feline fierce, she is never without an admirer. Her confidence is worn as extravagantly as the white garments she drapes herself in creating an alluring forcefield of intrigue and exoticism.

“Black sells. It’s the hottest commodity in the civilized world.” – Morrison (God Help the Child) 

But that is all stripped away when her lover, Booker, a man with whom she “invented sex,” walks out on her.

In his wake is left a “scared, little, black girl” who is unable to confront the force that made her so–Sweetness, her mother, a light-skinned woman with “good hair,” who treated her “blue-black” child more like an intruder than a daughter. The pain of initial abandonment Bride warded off long ago, or so she thought, creeps back in a way that leaves her desperate for some sort of rectification. With this in heart and mind she attempts to track down her ex-lover.

Now, a part of me–like a large, substantial part–feels absolutely unqualified to critique Queen Morrison. In the world of literature she is nobility and you don’t go against royalty unless you’re willing to face execution. Ok perhaps I’m being a bit dramatic. However, despite Morrison’s celestial mastering of storytelling, I was disappointed with her latest offering.

Morrison had all of the elements that make her novels incredible: magic realism, un-conventional women, critiques on white-supremacy–Booker and Bride are like Jadine and Son in Tar Baby with their polar opposite views on life, money, and race–but something felt incredibly shallow this go-round. From the descriptions of nature, which is always a prominent character in a Morrison novel, to the hallow friendship Bride holds with the only person she can trust “Completely,” Brooklyn, I couldn’t insert myself in anything or anyone, which was frustrating.

Bride’s attempt to confront her ex-lover and understand her perpetual abandonment reveals a much deeper theme of childhood innocence being severed at the hands of adults. We are introduced to children who have suffered horrendous trauma reminiscent of The Bluest Eye, but lack the same ethos of Morrison’s first novel.

God Help the Child felt rushed. Characters enter and exit abruptly, point of views are tangled, and the string holding back Bride’s past–causing the strife between she and Booker–is snapped so prematurely that what’s revealed seems cheap. I finished the last page wanting so much more.

Perhaps it is unfair to judge this novel in comparison to Morrison’s previous catalog, but when you’ve won the Nobel Prize for literature and are known to write the most soul-stirring prose, can you blame a reader for high expectations.

 

 

“Writing a Novel is Terrible…”

In September I decided to write a collection of short stories. I had a very distinct theme that was appearing in my creative narratives and I thought, “I should really hone in it and try to create a small comprehensive body of work.” In the spirit of Shonda Rhime’s Year of Yes, I said, “Yes! Let’s do it.”

It is now December and I am ready to bury my head in the sand. Probably because I’ve expanded my project to include multimedia elements, but not really. It’s the writing. The writing is so hard, especially when you’ve spent a good couple hours typing away at the keyboard thinking you’re “in your zone,” and you stop to re-read only to find a bunch of mess that you wouldn’t show anyone.

Toni Morrison admitted to taking three years to write a novel, that is not my plan. I began this journey thinking I could do four short stories with some multimedia complements and be done. As January approaches I am coming to terms with the fact that one does not simply agree to write and it be done.

Instead, it is much like how Flannery O’Connor described:

“a terrible experience, during which the hair often falls out and the teeth decay.”

My teeth are still healthily situated in my gums, however, I am not too sure about the state of my hair or sanity.

How do people make a career out of this?!

13 year old Jada Williams Kicked Out of School for Essay

“If you teach that nigger…how to read, there will be no keeping him,” Mr. Auld, a slave master, said of Frederick Douglass when he caught his wife teaching a young Douglass how to read. That was in 1845. 170 years later we see the words of Mr. Auld replaying in the actions against 13 year old Jada Williams.

Jada Williams was an 8th grade student attending School #3 in Rochester, New York when she wrote a comparative analysis on The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass for the Frederick Douglass Foundation of New York. In her essay she boldly connects Douglass’ deliberately being refused an education to present day schooling. She observed that her white teachers are in a

“position of power to dictate what I can, cannot, and will learn, only desiring that I may get bored because of the inconsistency and the mismanagement of the classroom.” – Jada Williams

The school’s reaction was one that would make Douglass’ slave owner proud. The teacher’s began a campaign of harassment and kicked Williams out of class–with hopes of a suspension–ultimately resulting in her parents withdrawing her from the school.

Though Williams was given an award by the Frederick Douglass Foundation of New York on the merit that her essay proved she thoroughly understood the autobiography–they also sought to question the school about their actions–Williams’ essay reveals the continued oppression and suppression children of color face in the classroom.

Watch Jada Williams read her essay here:

Read Liz Dwyer thorough examination of this case here: “A 13-Year-Old’s Slavery Analogy Raises Some Uncomfortable Truths in School”

 

A Conversation with Black Women on Race

“Being Alive, Being a Woman, Being Colored is a metaphysical dilemma I have not conquered yet,” is a standout quote from Ntozake Shange’s, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide /When the Rainbow is enuf. In this poignant quote, as well as the poems/plays, Shange succinctly illustrates the complex way race and gender intertwine for black women–neither is mutually exclusive and both inform not only the perception of us, but the way we self-identify.

Haitian director, Michèle Stephenson, along with husband, Joe Brewster, offer a poignant visual conversation with black women on race in their documentary for the New York Times.

Check out the five minute clip below.

http://graphics8.nytimes.com/video/players/offsite/index.html?videoId=100000004050379

Who Will Tell Her Side of Her Story: A Black Woman’s Distorted Reimagining in “Dreams of a Life”.

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By 2011, most of the world had at least heard of Joyce Carol Vincent. The story of her body decomposing in her apartment for almost three years shook the world at its core–even for the brief moment that her name remained on people’s conscience. What most found alarming was the fact that this beautiful, relatively young, woman could die alone and remain neglected almost three years after passing away. When I was made aware of Vincent’s death I immediately wanted to know her story, not so much how she “ended up” like that, but who was Joyce Carol Vincent beyond the BBC article? I thought Dreams of a Life would be where I could get at least some sense of Vincent, but after almost two-hours of footage I ended the documentary with the same amount of knowledge I began it with. The biggest issue I had with the piece is the question it, inadvertently, raises about the lack of agency black women hold over their own stories even posthumously. The overall tragedy in this attempt to retell the life and final days of Vincent is that it’s perverse with over-sexualization and victimization all done through the gaze Carol Morley, a white woman.

Carol claims an affinity with Joyce:

“we were exactly the same age, we shared a name – Carol, her middle name – and at one point we even lived on the same street. Joyce lost her mother when she was 11 and I was 11 when my father died, so I felt I understood something of the loss she had suffered,”

and so she decided to “dream up Joyce’s life and ambitions through the information I gathered and the people who knew her.” The problem is, no one interviewed in the film seemed to truly know Joyce. Carol gathers up a group of individuals: two boyfriends, a landlord, co-workers, and a series of acquaintances—although you wouldn’t know that at first as you’ll spend more than half the film trying to figure out who is who in relation to Joyce, sometimes never getting any real clarity. For the most part these people appear as talking heads spewing their own speculation of who Joyce was and how it was that she “ended up” the way she did. It isn’t clear whether or not most of the interviewees spent more than five minutes with Joyce as Carol provides no clear or structured time-line.

From the very beginning of this “dream” a fixation on Joyce’s sexuality is established. A series of men rattle off how they were sexually attracted to her; we hear stories about how Vincent wore skin-tight dresses, as well as a story about how Vincent had a wardrobe malfunction resulting in her breast flying out of her dress and Vincent simply laughing. The men harbor on their desire to sleep with her and the women profess their desire to be her. There is a hint of sexual promiscuity that lingers with each interviewer as they all constantly state that when she wasn’t with her white boyfriend, Martin, there was no telling who she was with. No one delivering interviews can offer intimate details about who Joyce was; all they remember is their own imaginations of her. Insinuations of molestation—none of which are supported or confirmed—are offered by several interviewees and Carol uses flashbacks of Vincent’s father, played by (actor’s name), as a way to suggest that he was the culprit. This obsession with Joyce’s sexuality and speculated sexual abuse gets at no real heart of who Joyce was. Instead the same focus and obsession with black female sexuality is projected onto Joyce through the white gaze of Carol and her interviewees. The lack of structure, detail, or ethos in these interviews is quite disturbing and possibly done deliberately so that Carol could come in with her own plot-line and re-create a story, a life, that did not belong to her.

Nikki Giovanni, in her poem, Nikki Rosa, said that she hoped no white biographer would want to tell her story because, “they never understand Black love is Black wealth and they’ll probably talk about my hard childhood and never understand that all the while I was quite happy.”

One of Vincent’s “friends” emphatically states that Vincent was not into the “race thing,” as if race is some sort of fashion or genre of music not an institutionalized system that oppresses individuals based on phonemes resulting in psychological, emotional, and physical trauma not to mention the pre-determining factor on the quality of life one has immediate access to.  But how could one understand race as more than a “thing,” when one has never lived under its microscope? While race is not a subject Carol provides any depth to, she does make a deliberate segregation of the space her interviewees occupy in her documentary. Any mentions of race outside of a “thing” one can or cannot be “into,” are reduced to one liners and jokes (Joyce’s black landowner and neighbor joked about Vincent’s attraction to white men and how a cure for her flightiness would be a black man). Why hadn’t Carol probed more into the dynamics of being black, being caribbean, being woman, and being British? These multilayered experiences and identities unquestionably affected Vincent’s life whether she was into the “race thing” or not. And if Carol’s desire was to victimize her why not look at the contributing factors of racism, fetishizing, and sexism?  There is one mention of a male co-worker sexually harassing Vincent and her never returning to that job afterwards, but as quickly as it is mentioned it is dropped never to be revisited. It is obvious Vincent had troublesome experiences, there is a point in the film where Martin’s, Vincent’s long-time boyfriend,  reason for not marrying Vincent is revealed to be because he did not want “tinted children,” but the poignant and telling revelation is not explored further. It is this neglect of subtle but revealing insights into the complexities of Vincent’s identities and, instead, focus on a supposed tumultuous childhood that makes Carol the exact white biographer Nikki Giovanni feared.

Like Vincent, black women have died in obscurity. Nella Larsen, a once prolific writer of the Harlem Renaissance, was found dead in her apartment. Zora Neale Hurston, an equally prolific writer during the Harlem Renaissance, was found dead in her south Florida welfare home. Dorothy Dandridge, a formidable beauty, talent, and force in Hollywood, was found dead in her home. Marie Vieux-Chavuet is a brilliant black woman author many still know nothing of. The question of how Vincent, a beautiful woman who seemed to have it all, could end up dying alone is not a question, but often a reality played out for many black women. This year we’ve lost Karyn Washington (founder, creator of “For Brown Girls” ) and Titi Branch (co-founder of Miss Jessie hair products) due to suicide. Black Women’s Lives Matter and Say Her Name became almost a sub-branch of Black Live’s Matters out of a paucity of support and visibility for black women suffering, and dying, at the hands of police brutality. There is an obscurity that surround black women as they are forced to navigate a system that renders them valueless and voiceless. It is a troubling fact to experience and even more so to watch on film, especially when not handled correctly. We’ve watched the mishandling of our narratives in films like Girlhood, Suffrage (where, in the director’s world, we don’t even exist), and countless other media when we are not given agency over our lives and our stories. Filmmaker, Nikyatu Jusu, said it best in her caption of a Girlhood movie poster:

“I promise not to be bitter that it’s easier for her to make films featuring my people than it is for me.” 


For all the reasons Carol stated she felt a connection to Joyce; the trajectory of her documentary illustrates that she couldn’t be any more further from Joyce than a stranger passing her on the street.

There is an obsession of pain Carol has when it comes to examining the life of Vincent, but it is grossly misdirected. I don’t doubt that Vincent went through her share of pain, the depths and the circumstances we may never accurately know, but despite that fact it should not be the definition of her life. Carol ignores the fact that Vincent voluntarily moved into her one-bedroom flat, described as “a refuge for victims of domestic violence.” Carol does not include the fact that Vincent’s family hired a private investigator to find her and that they wrote her letters. This same family also showed up at her inquest after Vincent was confirmed to be the deceased woman in the apartment. Carol has frozen Joyce somewhere between a lonely abused child and a young sexually charged woman completely stifling Joyce as a victim whose one too many losses culminated in a tragic death. I find trouble with this dramatization of Vincent’s life because Carol allows for speculation to exist as fact. She has completely silenced the true Vincent–stolen her life and created a nightmare. At the end of Dreams of a Life I couldn’t help but feel a great disservice had been done toward Joyce Carol Vincent. I felt that her story and her body had become a vessel through which someone else appropriated for their own artistic, and even emotional, catharsis. Art is supposed to imitate life, but is an artist supposed to appropriate someone else’s life completely? A woman’s “dream” came at the expense of silencing another woman’s life, Dreams of a Life is but another footnote to that tradition.

“Mother” is featured in Black Girls Talking “The Annex.”

 

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Black Girls Talking is a collective of four black women discussing and critiquing relevant topics from pop-culture to politics. Recently they created “The Annex,” described as a “home for cultural writing and criticism.” The Annex is seasonal and theme-based. For their premiere issue the theme is Resistance and I was humbled to have the opportunity to have a short story featured.

“Mother” is a short-story that looks at the intertwining lives of three women on an island during the eve of its revolution. The story has gone through extensive changes since being submitted to “The Annex,” but I am proud and thankful nonetheless.

You can read the full story by clicking the link.