All good things must come to an end

February and Black History Month are over! My limited exposure to the media meant I didn’t have to deal with too much stupid BHM crap this year. Must remember this strategy next time around.

First thing, I want to thank all of the guest bloggers and essayists who contributed to ABW last month. Your contributions were everything I hoped for and more — you’re all amazing and talented folks.

On the guest blogger front, I’m happy to announce that Karynthia will be joining us as a regular political blogger. She’ll usually post on Mondays, though if this election continues to bring the crazy, you might see her even more. Nora will remain a contributor as well.

Due to the awesomeness of the author essays, I am going to make them a regular feature. I might use different themes each month or stick with the history thing, I’m not sure yet. Suggestions are welcome.

I must say, though last month was awesome, was also one of the busiest on this blog in a long time. I loved it, but I am ready for a break. So here are some links to tide you over this weekend:

If you’re interested in more discussion, debate, and musings from creators (not just of fiction, but of art, comics, television, movies, etc.) then I highly suggest you look over the Race Around the Net list compiled by digital_femme on LJ. It’s an excellent place to start if you’re looking to read and learn more.

You may have noticed links to Black News Junkie on some posts. BNJ is sort of like Digg for black blogs. It’s a good place to see what folks on blogs are talking about, you can vote on interesting stories, and you can submit your own blog posts to it. Right now it only drives a bit of traffic, but as more people use it, it will benefit both bloggers and readers more. Go make an account!

For those of you interested in children’s literature written by and about black folks, check out the festivities over at The Brown Bookshelf. Every day in February they highlighted an author or illustrator and there is a lot of good stuff over there.

A few weeks ago I got an email about TheRoot.com, a new website headed by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. It’s a bit like a Huffington Post, but with African-American concerns at the fore. It’s also more news magazine-like with the various bloggers only being one component. So far I find it interesting and entertaining in equal measure.

Besides the blogs and news, there’s also a section where you can start your genealogical search and get your DNA tested to see where your origins lie. Now I am aware that this process isn’t perfect, but I am rather interested to see if there’s something in my background I’m not aware of or if I can find out from what region of Africa some of my ancestors hailed from. Still, until I have a few hundred dollars lying around doing nothing, I will just have to wait.

Last and least, here’s the stupidest Black History Month thing I came across on the Internets:

Walgreens Sort of Celebrates Black History Month

Walgreens BHM

Is this a cotton-picking joke? We’ll never know. What crazy stuff did you all find/hear about?

“I’ve grown to love complexity”

It’s a common misconception that writers create characters or situations that have a direct parallel to their lives or the people they know. It’s not always that straightforward, and many times happens on a deep, unconscious level. For Black History Month, I’ve invited a few writers to explore how history — whether personal or family or country or world — affects their fiction.

Today’s Guest Essay is by David Anthony Durham

David Anthony DurhamThe first story I wrote as a “serious” undergraduate writer was called “Hannibal, on an Elephant”. It was about an elementary-aged black kid growing up in a conservative, white neighborhood in the 1980’s. This kid – Marcus, I think his name was – was the only person of color in his class, and he felt it like a glowing stamp on his forehead each and every minute of the school day.

The story begins as a catalogue of small, racially influenced events. Marcus overhears two kids making a racist joke in the lunch line. One of them sees him, gets awkward, says, “We don’t mean you. You’re not like them.” During a dispute over a pencil trade, a kid calls Marcus a nigger. The teacher notices the altercation, calls the boys up and asks what happened. Marcus admits that the boy called him a name, but doesn’t want to say it. The teacher – with the entire class watching – makes him say the word. Nigger. The weight of it, the pain of having heard it, of having to say it, of naming himself in front of the entire class… is too much. Marcus breaks down in tears, which only makes it all worse. There are a few other similar incidents.

As children will do, Marcus internalizes all of this, places the blame on himself, and wishes he was different. If only he wasn’t black than all these uncomfortable situations wouldn’t happen!

Okay, let’s get to the turning point. Another day Marcus is out in a store when he bumps into an African-American friend of his parents. The man asks him about school, what he’s studying, etc. When Marcus mentions that he learned about Hannibal and Rome the man asks him if he knew that Hannibal was black? Marcus is stumped. What? Dumbfounded. What? No, he certainly had not! Days later, the man sends him a calendar with “Heroes of the African World” in vivid illustrations. One of them, sure enough, is Hannibal.

That night, Marcus stares up at his ceiling, watching images of an army mounted on elephants marching over the snow-covered Alps, dark-skinned men in armor, with weapons, figures from history with a skin not that different than his own. It is, for him, a great awakening. Suddenly the world is bigger than he knew, much larger than his suburban neighborhood. History is longer, more complex, much more multi-hued.

That was my first real story. You know what they say, of course. Early stories are likely to be autobiographical. That one was. I was Marcus. I experienced all those moments, and in some variation had that cultural awakening, spurred by images of Hannibal. My awareness may not have happened in the tight time frame of the story, but the motion of it is accurate as far as I can remember. It marked the connection with history – and with the history of people of African heritage – that became fundamental to my life ever since.

I’m a novelist now, and my first two novels, Gabriel’s Story and Walk Through Darkness, dealt with African-American history. My third, Pride of Carthage, is about Hannibal’s ancient war against Rome. When people ask me how I came to the subject, I can’t help but remember the boy I was and how important that revelation was to me.

My Hannibal novel is by no means a black and white conflict. It’s not about our contemporary racial hang-ups. I’ve grown to love complexity, and Hannibal’s war with Rome is that in everyway: multi-ethnic, international, polyglot, all about allegiances across tribal and regional lines, featuring convoluted disputes on which no side has complete claim to virtue. That’s the kind of story that I love and that has become the focus of my professional life. I trace its birth to that afternoon in my boyhood when some friend of my parents (I don’t actually remember who any more) so casually – and profoundly – rocked my world by introducing me to African history. I’m sure that man, long lost to me now, doesn’t know the effect he had on me, but his influence on my life will forever be part of my history.

David Anthony Durham was born in New York City in 1969. The child of parents of Caribbean ancestry, he grew up in Maryland. He began writing seriously while an undergraduate on a Creative Arts Scholarship at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.

In 1999, while living in France, David embarked on an historical novel set in the American West, featuring black homesteaders and cowboys. This novel, Gabriel’s Story, was a New York Times Notable Book, a Los Angeles Times Best of 2001 pick, and a Booklist Editor’s Choice. David followed Gabriel’s Story with Walk Through Darkness, a novel of a runaway slave and the Scottish immigrant hired to track him. His third novel, Pride of Carthage, is a fictional exploration of the Second Punic War between Carthage and the early Roman Republic. Pride of Carthage was a Book Sense 76 pick and a finalist for the Legacy Award for Fiction.

David’s fourth book, Acacia, is a speculative novel set in an alternative world.

I did an interview with David for Fantasy magazine, which many ABW readers will find very interesting. In it we talk about creating multicultural worlds within fantasy structures. It’s awesome, though I say so myself.

“I’m a die-hard multiculturalist as a result of my very existence”

It’s a common misconception that writers create characters or situations that have a direct parallel to their lives or the people they know. It’s not always that straightforward, and many times happens on a deep, unconscious level. For Black History Month, I’ve invited a few writers to explore how history — whether personal or family or country or world — affects their fiction.

Today’s Guest Essay is by Tobias S. Buckell

Tobias BuckellI grew up in Grenada: a white-looking mixed race boy with an English mother and a Grenadian father. Unlike a lot of the ex-pats in those areas, we didn’t have a lot of money, so even though I attended private schools I was usually the minority, both in terms of being mixed and looking white. I lived in various parts of the English-speaking Caribbean until I was 15, so it’s still the bulk of my life. Until next year, when I turn 30, in which case I’ll be hitting the tipping point of having lived in the US as long as I’d been in the islands. My identity is pretty complex, but it’s basically Caribbean.

Growing up I was raised by my mother alone. In order to get me out of her hair she encouraged reading–reading big, fat books. Because one didn’t have cable TV on a boat, which was what I grew up on. I started reading Science Fiction and Fantasy at a young age, and fell in love with the genre.

So when I started writing it in high school, it was not surprising that I started drawing launch galleries on Caribbean islands. I named starships after Caribbean politicians and heroes. Continue reading

“How can we conjure the wondrous world we believe in?”

It’s a common misconception that writers create characters or situations that have a direct parallel to their lives or the people they know. It’s not always that straightforward, and many times happens on a deep, unconscious level. For Black History Month, I’ve invited a few writers to explore how history — whether personal or family or country or world — affects their fiction.

Today’s Guest Essay is by Andrea Hairston

Andrea HairstonFor many years I have taught various courses in 20th century Black Theatre, focusing on how 19th century blackface minstrelsy and its 20th century progeny served as a catalyst for many black theatre and film artists. In our discussions of black performers who donned the minstrel masks, many students couldn’t understand why any self-respecting African American would act in a coon show or why Native Americans acted in Wild West Shows. Despite our (obvious) complicity in any number of contemporary atrocities, students insisted they would never have done minstrelsy or “stood around watching horrible things going down on stage and off.”

Although I persuade them of the complex choices facing 19th and early 20th century performers, I realized that to a degree, I secretly shared my students’ smug, superior attitude. Shocked by my own self-righteous judgment, I determined to write about characters who we, given the luxury of historical distance, might dismiss or hold in contempt. On sabbatical, I researched blackface, hoodoo, vaudeville, and early film for a novel and a course I now teach on minstrelsy from Daddy Rice to Big Momma’s House.
Continue reading

“Each turn of a writer’s imagination creates a different history”

It’s a common misconception that writers create characters or situations that have a direct parallel to their lives or the people they know. It’s not always that straightforward, and many times happens on a deep, unconscious level. For Black History Month, I’ve invited a few writers to explore how history — whether personal or family or country or world — affects their fiction.

Today’s Guest Essay is by Charles Saunders

History influenced my writing from the get-go. In a way, fantasy fiction offers a different perspective on history – the perspective of mythology and folklore. It’s like looking at history through a kaleidoscope. Each turn of the tube yields a different image. And each turn of a writer’s imagination creates a different history.

Part of my motivation for writing the Imaro novels and other African-oriented fantasy stories was to make a new kaleidoscope for African history, because the one that existed at the time was flawed. The African-history perspective in fantasy and sword-and-sorcery fiction was either distorted or missing altogether. What I wanted to do was to reclaim that history, and bring what was lost or hidden back to light.

Three outstanding books on African history formed the foundation for the setting of the Imaro novels: The Lost Cities of Africa by Basil Davidson, The World and Africa by W.E.B. Du Bois, and Cheikh Anta Diop’s The African Origin of Civilization. Interestingly, Davidson was a white British scholar, Du Bois was African American and Diop was Senegalese. Yet despite the differences in their backgrounds, their works are remarkably similar.

Together, those books illuminate the African history that was hidden or destroyed in an attempt to foster the illusion that Africans had no history before their continent was colonized by Europeans. The fantasy fiction of the time when I conceived Imaro and his setting (that would be the early 1970s) replicated that illusion.

I used real history to change fantasy history – a reversal of the usual mode, in which fantasy history is a transmutation of real history. Were it not for the historical sources provided by the books of Du Bois, Davidson and Diop – along with many others that line the shelves of university libraries – I probably never would have started writing at all.

Charles Saunders is a writer and journalist living in Nova Scotia, Canada. He’s the author of the Imaro novels and short stories, plus several non-fiction books, columns, and screenplays.

(Extremely) Selected Bibliography

Novels

Imaro
Imaro 2: The Quest for Cush
Imaro 3: The Trail of Bohu

Short Fiction

Gimmile’s Songs, in Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora (2000)
Yahimba’s Choice, in Dark Matter: Reading the Bones (2004)

Essays

Why Blacks Don’t Read Science Fiction – Windhaven #5 (1977)
Why Blacks Should Read Science FictionDark Matter (2000)

Sarah Bartman & other herstories of South African women

Review by: Sokari Ekine

“Women in South African History” by Nomboniso Gasa (Ed) published by HSRC Press, 2007.

Women in South African History traces the lives of South African women from the pre-colonial, pre-union period (mid 18th century) through to the post-apartheid beginnings and present day South Africa. It is written in four thematic parts: Women in the pre-colonial and pre-union periods; Women in early to mid-twentieth century South Africa; War: armed and mass struggle as gendered experiences; The 1990s and beyond: new identities, new victories, new struggles.

The book is a radical departure from the traditional history texts in that it uses a feminist analysis rather than the “more acceptable gender analysis” in it’s approach by examining “the ways in which gender intersects with race, culture, class and other forms of identity and location in South African history“. By including the present as part of history the book shows how the past and present are inextricably linked and thus better examines women’s experiences over the past 300 years. The experiences of women’s struggle and their continuing hazardous journeys towards liberation are expressed through the dual metaphors of “they move boulders” – challenges; and “they cross rivers” – dangers. Continue reading

“The personal history of the author is tangential at best”

It’s a common misconception that writers create characters or situations that have a direct parallel to their lives or the people they know. It’s not always that straightforward, and many times happens on a deep, unconscious level. For Black History Month, I’ve invited a few writers to explore how history — whether personal or family or country or world — affects their fiction.

Today’s Guest Essay is by Alaya Dawn Johnson

There seems to be a pervasive issue of credentials when any writer decides to tackle race in fiction. White people tread in this territory at their peril: no one wants to be the twenty-first century’s Harriet Beecher Stowe. But it’s not just white writers who have to beware the pit of fraught historical relationships and remembered grievances when they address race (and racism) in fiction.

A few years ago, I had an unusually vivid illustration of the unwritten rule that says that when black writers write about black people, those characters must be thinly veiled versions of themselves. To some extent, everyone hopes to discern some important quality of the writer inadvertently revealed in their writing. Why else make so much of the fact that Jane Austen died a spinster, or that Zora Neale Hurston lived in poverty and literary obscurity? Fiction reading is an utterly different experience when you have no personal knowledge of the author. Sometimes, the author bio can help inform texts and give you a greater appreciation of the depth of the work and characters. But at others, these personal details are irrelevant and can irrevocably damage the reading experience. Specifically, how do you approach fiction differently when you decide that the author does not have the “cred” to write that story? And when the author is black and writing about race, we edge into fraught territory: just how black is “black enough”?

Whatever that means. Continue reading

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