Sunday, March 29, 2020

Sunday Social Distancing In Bed With A Book and a Latte

Sundays in spring could be for walks in the park or brunch with friends, but in these Covid-19 days, we have to reimagine what it means to have respite and relax on the Sabbath.

Lots of my clergy friends have started Facebook Live and Zoom churches, so worship in PJs is expanding what the possible looks like for folks who didn't set foot in a building.

It got me to thinking about the other part of my weekend that I look forward to. I love books, bookstores, coffee shops, and a leisurely stroll down a cobblestone street with the trees in bloom with my camera in hand. I can't do that right now.

This time of social distancing and safe-at-home presents us an opportunity.

The world has necessarily had to slow down and reimagine what it is to exist in  a place without being physically present with each other.

How do we come together and enjoy spaces without being in the same space?

Or, how do we contemplate what we will do until the end of April when we have run out of Netflix, Hulu, or ate all the snacks in the house?

Consider picking up a book.

Life has slowed down so much for me that I have taken another look at my overflowing bookshelves, to reintroduce myself to the treasures I picked up in my travels and didn't have time to consider. I have been juggling finishing seminary, working for a social justice non-profit, and simply life, that reading the way I used to started to be a luxury I was going to have to wait until the summer to renew.

Then Covid-19 literally stopped the world. It was more than a Spring Forward, for a Spring Still. A  pause in the moment to contemplate what has been and what can change.

I still miss leisurely browsing independent bookstores like the last visit to one celebrating my husband's birthday just last month, or sitting at the coffee shop to read, but decided to celebrate what I have within my midst.

My balcony can become my coffee shop, the view of the trees the ambiance, and some exciting books my company.

How about this Sunday we take a moment to put pause on even the Zoom meet-ups and go back to an old fashioned pleasure, just books in hand (or if you have to, Kindle) and be immersed in another world that was before we were all afraid of running out of toilet paper or counting how many squats we do when we wash our hands.

Grab a latte or mimosa, a cozy blanket, put on your comfiest sweat pants and t-shirt, and settle in for a beautiful Sunday of reading.

What's on my Read-in List?

I'm currently reading Dear Haiti, Love Alaine by sister, Maika Moulite and Maritza Moulite.

It is a delightful story of a wildly independent thinking teenager who insists upon using her voice. It is written in an unexpected way.

Since April 22nd is the proposed end of our self-quarantine, I decided to make myself a list of books I'd like to read, books outside of work or ministry, but books for the sake of. This is on my TBR pile, what are you considering?  If you are like me, I was reaching information overload, sadness, and a bit of anger over all the Covid-19 coverage that I needed to let my soul breathe.

Come, quiet the noise with me.

Here is my Cover-19 reading list:

1. Dear Haiti, love Alaine by Maika Moulite and Maritza Moulite

2. The Birds of Opulence by Crystal Wilkinson

3. The Itch by Benilde Little
4. Sap Rising by Christine Lincoln

5. The Way Forward Is With A Broken Heart by Alice Walker

Saturday, February 1, 2020

Too Heavy a Yoke - Interview

I rarely post the theological books I've read or am considering reading. I am a womanist, theologian, preacher, teacher, and writer. My practice has been to keep this space true to what I originally envisioned, a living love letter as a bibliophile to the works of black female literature. It was born of a hunger in me and as something I wanted to do for my daughters.

This interview by Dr. Walker-Barnes is a step away from and a run to a connection of my interests. The book is one that is empowering and if considered alongside some of the literary works, can see character types of the "strong black woman" repeated.

Consider adding this to your reading list, it is certainly one I wish I had while in my studies earning my M.Div.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

A Library Closes HIs Doors

There is an African proverb that when an elder passes away, a library closes its doors.

October and now, November, have closed the doors of yet another elder.

In October, it was my last aunt, the last elder in my maternal line. While she was not a published author, the stories of her life were written on the faces of generations. she lived to be a grandmother, great-grandmother and nurtured an entire community. Her mom was affectionately called The Funny Farm.

As I was thinking of her story set against the stories of her sisters, my mother was the eldest and passed away when I was four years old, I thought about my reasons for reading Black female literary works and celebrating the griots. We know who we are because of the stories told to us and as a people descended from the Triangle Trade (Africa to the Islands to Europe to the Americas - all the same folks), we can only go back so far. A lot of us is written, etched within our spirits, and is how we are able to keep parts of ourselves alive. Aunt Jo used to talk about "those old Creole ladies" of her youth and let her waist-length hair be the working salon for every girl who needed to learn to braid. She had a witty personality and was "bossy" to her final day, living on her own terms, loving purple, and still flirty, fun, and fabulous. Oh what it would be to have her story written down.

When I woke up this morning, on Aunt Jo's 92nd birthday, I found out about the passing of Ernest Gaines, the Louisiana writer who invited us to consider conversations and connections. Two of his many works, A Lesson Before Dying and A Gathering of Old Men, were some of the volumes I read as a young lady trying to figure out myself in a time before smart phones and social media connected millions. He took pen to paper and brought to life the experiences of rural Black southerners in a way that was wholistic, nuanced, and complete.

I was ten years old when his novel, The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, was made into a television move in 1974. It was a time when I was asking questions about identity and place. I was born the year of the Civil Rights Bill being signed. The protagonist, the fictionalized rural woman, Miss Jane Pittman, was so believable that so many thought she was a real woman who experienced all the racial segregation, discrimination, despair, and hope that encompassed that time of history from the end of the Civil War to the dawn of The Civil Rights Movement. I was an adult when I learned she was not real, that is how complexly he drew us into her story and how brilliantly Miss Cicely Tyson played her during that television biopic.

His other novels that formed me when I was a young woman were A Lesson Before Dying and A Gathering of Old Men. These were also set in rural, black, segregated Louisiana. Zora Neale Hurston, for which my literary circle is named, is one of the only other authors he named as telling full stories about rural black people. As a reviewer of black female literary works, I think there still remains stories to be told about people who do not live in the cities and suburbs of urban Black America.

Gaines passing away brings my sense of literary loss to thoughts of what else needs to be written so the future generations do not lose themselves in the fierce moments of a tweet. He took seven years to write A Lesson Before Dying. Toni Morrison, who also passed away this year, didn't start writing until after age 40. Paule Marshall, who passed away just ten days after Toni Morrison, is also part of our cultural library that has closed doors forever.

We are left with their words, words that transcend time and are timeless in the humanity conveyed in understanding people beyond stereotypes and sound-bytes . Who are we really? Mr. Gaines taught his students to discover this at the end of their keys and to his final days, left us with many opportunities to seek those answers.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Remembering Toni Morrison

My heart shattered yesterday when I learned of the passing of Literary Mother, Toni Morrison.

In her eloquent prose, she invited me, a Black woman, to fully immerse myself in her words, even when I was a younger woman who was lost in the spiral of mystical storytelling in books like Beloved. The theology of Toni Morrison's canon followed me almost twenty years later when I entered seminary, as a womanist, I invoked the sermons of the Baby Suggs character.

Toni Morrison was one of those we, I thought would just be with us forever. In her, I found the possible, the determined. She wrote with little boys in tow, divorced, and sneaking precious lines in the wee hours of the morning. In finding her own voice, she gave us permission to find our own. I remember hesitating, even as I collected more of her works and invited my Hurston and Hughes Literary Circle teens to discover her brilliance.

Something felt like the universe would Never be the same when she made her quiet departure, and it will not.

I immediately went to my many bookshelves and found myself cherishing every copy. I have my original copy of Beloved as well as a recent one I purchased for time with my teens. In arms reach at my desk were more books, like the cherished one I purchased this past March in honor of my seminary graduation. I marveled that at 88, she was still writing, and hoped to be like her, honing my craft and giving myself permission to say what I wanted to say.

The beauty of Toni Morrison, to me, is that she was unapologetic about being black, woman, and older when she started her craft. She made room for herself and in so doing, made room for me.

Zora (my sorority sister), Maya, and Toni are, in my mind's eye, joining with Pauli and Nella and Ann, with Phyllis and Frances, to sit around their heavenly writing table, with coffee and teacakes to tell the rest of us that we are free to create and imagine, that they are their cheering us on, and there is more to say.

Rest well, Mama Toni, we will write the book we must read.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

The Stories Children Dream

I lead a literary circle for Black teens.

This is the seventh year.

Every year, we engage with children's literature, to remind ourselves of our imagination in the midst of the craziness that can somethings swirl through our news feed.

We read and discussed a few books that featured Black/African American main characters. One was a reminder that stories matter in reminding us where we come from, even if that means stepping out of ourselves to go and ask someone.
Islandborn by Junot Diaz is an immigrant story that celebrates the beautiful colors and diversity of racial-ethnic identities in America.  Set in New York, it stood out to us an even more important story to read with children as the crisis at the border continues to show the inhumanity that rises up when we forget the innocent lives that should just be playing with friends.

I have hair that can twirl or blow in the wind, that has a center that reminds me of my West African heritage and billowy whips that acknowledge the ethnic mixture that came from being created in a mixed up American story. We read two books by bell hooks

and celebrated her poetry of little black girl hair. This was a book my daughters loved till the covers fell off.

We also read a more modern telling of the same them with the father and daughter as main characters complete with updated cultural references like the smart phone and the tats on the dad's arms. The dad did her hair.

Imagination and taking action are all part of what it means to be nine years old ready to take on the world. We read a story of a little girl who galvanized her community to save the bee's.  It was a longer picture book that the teens agreed would be a good one for growing independent readers.

The teens finished up their time with a visit to the children's section of the bookstore. They had already been armed with the statistics of the status of children's picture books with a dismal presentation of ethnic-racial diversity as main characters. We agreed it was important to see ourselves in the story. It is why I started reviewing black female literary works, emphasis on literary and not the publishing worlds stereotyped offering that did not match the lives of the parents in the literary circle.

Children are filled with stories. They exist in a world of the possible, or at least, they should. So the teens sat down and wrote their own, put themselves back ten years and decided to dream.  They dreamed of diversity that didn't need to be pointed out, that just was. They dreamed of girls who did whatever they wanted and weren't limited by their gender. They dreamed of schools with books and teachers who cared. They dreamed of a reality they wanted to not just imagine.

Monday, June 17, 2019

Back to Reading with Heads of the Colored People

The one thing I was looking forward to after seminary was being able to "read for pleasure" and not "read for a paper."

In my hiatus from the literary criticisms, we watched an amazing thing over the past three years.

When I started this book blog and my reviews (initially on a RR Donnelly site, then HuffPo and now, here), there were not a lot of books to choose from beyond the known writers. I wanted stories that were relevant, but not stereotypical "urban" genre written by phantom people.  I wanted a story I could relate to and that encompassed the fullest expression of being a Black woman in the world.

The TBR pile in my office is so high right now.  We kept reading over the summers with The Hurston and Hughes Literary Circle, complete with their follow-up reviews on a different site. The teens kept my nose-to-the-page with their selections of YA novels. But my own reading, that is something I am reaching back to for the sheer pleasure of a sister-with-a-pen.

Nafissa Thompson-Spires debut short collection, Heads of the Colored People, is one of the first books I picked up after graduation. I've never reviewed short stories and always put them aside for the deeper love I held for novels. I'm not sure if it was the appealing cover or that I was traveling from Boston-to-St. Louis, but I picked it up at an airport bookstore and settled in for a nice, comfortable, familiarity of reading a Black middle-class experience.

I was not disappointed.

This short little book can easily fill one of those lazy weekend days when one just wants to chill by the pool or sip a latte on the balcony. The vignette, "Belle Lettres" had me saying, "oh no she didn't write that!" and "the nerve!" and "this is some juicy mess from some boogie folks." It was, as my teen  daughters say, all sorts of tea spilling in this little tete-a-tete between these two Buppie (my mid-1980s coming out) moms in an almost-all-white existence.

I laughed. I connected. I commiserated. It was everything you would want in a book.

Thompson-Spires delved into the world of upper-middle-class Black folks in micro-minority status and gave us a glimpse of the humanity that is frail in all of us. It is a must-read.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Beloved Changed The Game

Beloved is a novel that burst on the literary scene and you had to stop and take notice.

This was written by a black woman.

Toni Morrison.

At a time when there had been Black women writers before her, but the notoriety and prestige and readership was not what writers of lighter hues enjoyed.

She wrote, anyway.

She was older, Black, divorced, mom, and picked up her pen.

This was not her first novel.

But it was one that changed the world.

Mystical? Yes.

Spiritual?  Yes.

Ghost story that could rival Jordan Peele's new movie? Yes.

All of that wrapped up in the retelling of a Black woman's decision to make a different choice for her children and not have them be fodder for more white men's folly.

It shifted and changed the narrative.

Books have been written about that book.

Sermons have been preached about that book.

Lectures have been given about that book.

Academic papers have been written about that book.

Films have been made about that book.

Today, I celebrate that in 1988, this seminal novel was awarded the Pulitizer Prize.

I couldn't read it when it first came out in 1987, I was a young woman, a new mother, and wasn't ready for the lyricism of Toni Morrison's writing.

When I did finally pull my copy off the shelf and read it, my spirit leaped and my heart danced for her brilliance. I introduced it to my daughters and we read it ne summer in the Hurston & Hughes Literary Circle.

Toni Morison is still writing, I just received her latest collection of essays and thoughts. She is well into her Elder years and is still inviting us to consider the story.

Today, I pause and celebrate this brilliant work and if you haven't read it, invite you to consider it.

Can't Wait

I started a journey.

It was a journey of self and discovery.

And more reading than my eyeballs could handle.

I entered seminary.

And in a few months, I graduate.

I have a growing stack of to-be-read and reviewed books.

And I can't wait.

So many wonderful authors.

In the meantime, I've encountered stories of another sort in seminary. I've been engaged in the Hebrew Bible, biblical interpretation, and read some amazing rewritings by Black women scholars.

I own more books.

And wait for the moment when I can discover the wonder in those pages.

While I was away, I found solace in bookstores, between study sessions and 1000 word essays, and purchased new works from PanAfrican writers.

I'm culling a list of must-reads for this summer to share with the Hurston & Hughes Literary Circle. That never stopped on my way to the M.Div. This year, we are super excited the world of Black Female Literary Works is even greater with new works for the YA audience. My teenage daughters have plenty of options to see themselves in the pages.

It is our story to tell, we have to tell it and write about it and encourage it.  So, what are you reading? What are you excited about reading?  Me? I'm currently reading three non-fiction pieces, because seminary and graduation looms. One is Too Heavy A Load: Black Women in Defense of Themselves, 1894-1994 by Deborah Gray White. Another is Vexy Thing: On Gender and Liberation by Dr. Imani Perry. And Another is The Forgotten reed: Christianity's Original Struggle against Bigotry, Slavery, & Sexism by Stephen J. Patterson.

Tell me what should be on my post-graduation, summer 2019 list?

Sunday, July 17, 2016

The Turner House by Angela Flournoy

There are some stories that are so familiar, you stop and wonder if it is about someone you know, the telling and the nuiances so known that you barely stop to think about the subtilies.

Such is the debut novel, The Turner House, that intersects a pivotal time in our country with a previous pivotal time, wrapped in the tapestry of history, and weaves  tale that is relevant, important, cultural, and meaningful.

We meet this solid Detroit family against the backdrop of a crumbling city, the undercurrent of the recession, the dashed dreams of wanderers for other suns, and the hope in a promising young man from Chicago who has the audacity to make them think of possibilities. Each of the thirteen children in the family come with their individual stories and connections, some remained in Detroit, others fled the decay for a chance somewhere else to form their own identity, all held a place in their heart for the house that was home.

The themes of family, home, individuality, place, and what makes one feel connected, are all repleat in this novel by Angela Flournoy.  The writing is descriptive, inviting in alternating place between 2008 Detroit and 1944 Arkansas. One can close their eyes and envision the gamble everyone took on a new possibility, the quest for a better life, for a chance to live out one's destiny.

In the novel, we center on Cha Cha, the oldest son of Francis and Viola Turner and the youngest sister, Lelah. The bookend children are also representative of different times and places in the family's story. The oldest carried the mantle of responsibility and being the solid one, even in the shielding of his father's weaknesses from his younger siblings, yet all carried a trace of this unmet need.

We hope with them, we become disappointed with them, we cheer for them, and then we cry with them when we realize that the reason their story seems so familiar is that the Turner House could have just as easily been The Smith House or the Brent House or any other name of family who set out for something different to be met with squaller, at times, and conditions just as bad or worse than what they left. Yet, what held them together was this glimmer into the future where one without a high school diploma or only that, would go on to be the patriarch or matriarch of some with multiple degrees, lands, and homes.

The nuggets of wisdom on the book, like the advice Viola gave her daughters that a "woman without options is waiting for a man to come along and ruin her," were a bit of a precursor to the womanist movement that invited this first generation of northern black women to seek out opportunities beyond the sharecropping or housecleaning of a past generation. We encounter the very real people who made those quests, like my family, from Arkansas to Michigan, and meet their dreams in the  homesteads they established, the educations they procured for their children, and the joy in multiple generations that gather for a matriarch's birthday. They may have "loved everyone but themselves" but in the end, their love carried them past stolen garages from a drugged out neighbor hollowing out the shells of East Detroit left behind with the pirated promises in homes they once could not own.

Angela Flournoy has solidified herself as a promising young writer, a graduate of the Iowa Writer's Workshop, with her ability to bring the unspoken feelings of black men to life. She invites us to listen to the heart and emotional tug of those who want something for their life but are tangled by expectations. She allowed them and us to free ourselves and simply hope, for that is what all the tomorrow's bring, it springs eternal.

◘Tayé Foster Bradshaw* is an avid reader, writer, and latte drinker living in a suburb of St. Louis. Like the writer, she attended the University of Iowa (not the workshop) and like the characters, has family that migrated from Arkansas to Michigan (not Detroit).

*The writer's pen name in celebration of her foremother's and late father's nickname for her

Monday, June 27, 2016

Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

Sometimes, you encounter a book, at it is just not the right time for you two to become acquainted. You put it on the shelf and just wait for that moment.

Such was my experience with Jesmyn Ward's work, Salvage the Bones. I first started the book in 2013 and for some reason, could not connect with the story. It wasn't time, until June 2016 when she called my name and asked to be recognized.

This is the most lyrical, descriptive, imaginative, and visual language I have encountered in a very long time.  The story encapsulated in these twelve days leading up to Hurricane Katrina left me as spent as if I were racing aganst rain to secure myself and my belongings while dealing with the uncertainty of poverty, place, and purpose.

The young protagonist, Esch, is the only girl and up until nine years ago, the  youngest child of this Mississippi Gulf Coast family. Their homestead sitting on land inherited from her mother's family, this young girl is left to help mother her younger brother who lived after their mother died giving birth. She is left to navigate the rural south, modern day oppression, her father's grief, her brother's obsession with China, the dog that was supposed to fight for their freedom, and the confusing message of her female-ness being the only thing of value.

Jesmyn invites us to examine family and what they do for each other, to examine respectability or lack thereof, abject poverty, gender, sex, male bravado, and neglect against the backdrop of a category 5 life altering event that shatters everything they thought they knew.

Set in fictional Bois Sauvage in the tiny eye of the Gulf Coast, this is mirrored after the author's own hometown, DeLisle, Mississippi. The neighboring town in still-segregated Mississippi,  St. Catherine is the beach town that even with the pristine front and only-money-and-whiteness existence, succumbed to the ravages of a storm that demanded attention. She demands that we examine race from a different perspective, told in the first person of a fourteen year old girl trying to figure out what to do with the life-altering event taking place within her soul.

I found myself hopeful and despairing, engaged and challenged, ultimately, satisfied that though the storm tore up more than New Orleans, Katrina shifted the balance for things to come for the Batiste family.

One note to younger readers, this story is on the Honors English list for the local high school for its lovely story, exquisite writing, and coming-of-age narrative, however, it is quite descriptive of some things that may be challenging for those younger-than-high-school. 

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

The Hairdresser of Harare by Tendai Huchu

The cover is the first thing that attracted me to this tender story. I loved her silhouette and as a woman with a loudly proud fro, this make me smile. The pink afro-pick and then upon closer inspection, the things that actually made up the swirls and loops of her hair, I just had to read this book.

Set in modern Zimbabwe, written by a native son, this tale is told in a very African way. There are comical moments hiding the deepest emotions.

I settled in to take my time with the story, in a mere 189 pages, this young man managed to touch on a lot of issues that are very much in discussion today.

Vimbai, the young protagonist, is like a lot of millennials, trying to make her way in the big city. She is an expert hairdresser and as that is a primarily customer-service-driven profession, determined to not let anyone encroach on her budding business. She tangles with the fellow salon chairs, including the owner's daughter and the owner's persistent quest to be profitable.  It was in this that the story takes a turn that I did not expect.

Dumisani seems like the chiseled dream, imagined in my mind's eye like a very dark, very handsome, very charasmatic actor. He breezed into their lives and ultimately turned around what Vimbai knew of herself as a woman.

Woven, like a thousand different threads, it is not until a little over half-way through the book that we discover the real tale, the illusion that threatened to shatter all her dreams and the turmoil that living an inauthentic life spells.

There were times in my reading that I was mesmerized by the lyrical poetry and turn of phrases of the author employed. He wrote about whiteness as an illusion and the invasion of western styled products and images as anything to strip them of their "Africanness." It had moments of 1992-1994 political African interspersed with the universal quest to be, belong, and believe in someone.

Secrets are hinted at, customs are shared and adhered to, and the pages keep turning with that underlying gut feeling that something big was about to happen. Political intrigue, government coup, power, wealth, influence are all minor characters of a tale that is as important now as it was hinted at in the height of the identity movement.

Inheritance, misogany, and of course, traditional patriarchy threaten to overshadow Vimbai and her daughter. Taking twists and turns, we come to the questions of what can a woman have for herself, when can she speak up, and what about the men that betray her heart? To whom is she to be loyal and how many secrets to protect someone must she keep? Is the shame her's or does it belong to the one who defies custom to do something that was still not accepted in African cultures?

Many questions and a final pronouncement leave the reader with acknowledgement that the issues of sexual orientation and relationship continue to be discussed in parts of the world. That women on the other end of a man's hidden life are often left with the emotional damage of their secret, shamed by patriarchy and cultural demands. Had she made the life altering decision to marry, she would have been trapped in an intimately loveless life while he was trapped in a secret shame that almost cost him his life.

This novel draws in the reader with a deceptively simple story of a woman making her way in a modern African country, creating itself anew without British colonial influence. It is not until one is deep into his beautiful writing that the social commentary emerges and brought out the stickynotes and pens for this reviewer. I paused multiple times, while this was published a few years ago, the issues are even more relevant today. As society norms shift, in the United States, among AfricanAmericans and increasingly, African peoples, the issue of those left behind continues to resonate.

The Hairdresser of Harare is a love story, but not just a love story. It is a social commentary, but not just that. It is an African story, but not just that. It is a combination of all that makes us human and the emotional wrestling that is universal.

This debut work by a  young African writer has garnered him a place among the Afro Diaspora writers who include social commentary with a modern twist.  Visit him for his latest work.

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