Wednesday, February 26, 2014

family

There is truly a reason why anything written by J. California Cooper has a permanent home in my library.

Her work is lyrical, poetic, thoughtful, and troubling.

Reading family Front Covertook my heart on a journey of deep reflection, connection with the human spirit, pride in the survival of my people, and saddness for the evil that rested in the heart of man to do the things that slavery allowed him to do.  That whiteness became the license to rape and kill and destroy and hate.

Even in hating the actions, in reading her work, one understands the universality of the black mother and was transported back, in a way, to what the creation of man was like in the very, very beginning.

This is more of narration of one of the "great cloud of witnesses" who in wanting to spare herself and her children more indignities that were in the land during the decades before the Civil War, she inadvertently set them on a course that would affect decades.  Becoming a watcher and traveler in that space between life and death, she watched over multiple generations and reported on the actions of man.

In her narration, we expanded issues of family, how the Law of Maternal descent decided the fate of sons who shared the same blood, how the kindness of one who shared the same color allowed one of her daughters to simply breathe life in a faraway land.

J. California Cooper has mastered the first-person narration, while limited by the sight of a ghost narrator, we still feel the helplessness of the enslaved women, the horror of rape, the compromises of  trying to live in a tangled world, and the fear of losing a status based on chattel.

We are all connected.  In America, one truly can not know if the family lines include other races or not, especially if those origins are in the slave south.  We never know the shrewdness and forethought of a foremother who was using her limited education to pave a way for future generations to walk on their own land or the greed of another that wanted to own everything to wash away his blackness.  We never truly know.

This short little book is appropriate for upper level middle school all the way to adult.  There are a couple scenes that may be disturbing, but the beauty of J. California Cooper's writing is that she does not write graphically, one can understand the horror without fully describing the color of the assault.

I loved this book.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Books, Books, Books, In Honor of Black History Month

It  is Black History Month and as my city continues to honor the contributions of the children of Africa in America, I pause to add a bit of literature to that celebration.

I have literally read and reviewed lots of books that are complete, fully realized, and filled with depth about black men and women.  Some are literary fiction (I neither read nor review that urban erotica genre stereotype pushed out by some publishing houses as black female fiction) and some are non-fiction works.

Some of the books I've read, fiction and non-fiction, that I highly recommend include:


  • The Wake of the Wind by J. California Cooper
  • The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson
  • Black Girl in Paris by Shay Youngblood
  • Still Life in Harlem by Eddy Harris
  • The Street by Ann Petry
  • Let The Lion Eat Straw by Ebele Oseye
  • Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid
  • Angel of Harlem by Kuwana Haulsey
  • Fifth Born by Zelda Lockhart
  • River Cross My Heart by Breena Clarke
  • Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
  • A Gathering of Old Men by Ernest J. Gaines
  • Brothers and Sisters by Bebe Moore Campbell
  • What You Owe Me by Bebe Moore Campbell
  • I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
  • Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama
  • The Wedding by Dorothy West
  • Breath, Eyes, Memory by Edwidge Danticat
  • The Seasons of Beento Blackbird by Akosu Busia
  • River Woman by Donna Hemans
  • Cane River by Lalita Tademy
  • Red River by Lalita Tademy
  • Redemption Song by Bertice Berry
  • Daughter by Asha Bandale
  • No Crystal Stair by Eva Rutland
  • The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander 
  • Miss Ophelia by Mary Burnett Smith
  • Sula by Toni Morrison
  • Love by Toni Morrison
  • Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
  • Island Beneath the Sea by Isabel Allende
  • the darkest child by Delores Phillips
  • Sister Citizen by Melissa Harris-Perry
  • Browngirl, Brownstones by Paule Marshall 
  • The Taste of Salt by Martha Southgate
  • Shifting Through Neutral by Bridgett M. Davis
  • A Million Nightingales by Susan Straight
  • The Gathering of Waters by Bernice mcFadden
  • Nowhere is a Place by Bernice McFadden
  • Wench by Doren Perkins-Valdez
  • Song Yet Sung by James McBride
  • Who Does She Think She Is by Benilde Little
  • Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
  • For Colored Girls who have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf by Ntozake Shange
  • Cane by Jean Toomer
  • the air between us by Deborah Johnson

There are literally hundreds of books I could recommend.  These are ones I've read and that own a place on my bookshelves.  There are so many that are stacked by my desking waiting for me to read and review.  I just finished Miss Ophelia by Mary Burnett Smith and enjoyed the coming of age novel.
Words etched on paper and bound together carry the wonder, mystery, love, hurt, pain, joy, life, and existence of a people far beyond any caricatured rendering of their experience.  One of the reasons I started reviewing black female literary works was to combat the sexualized covered my daughters and I encountered at one of the major bookstore chains.  She is a budding writer and an avid reader, we were hunting for something to read and on yet another endcap, all the titles and covers of the "African American Fiction" section were all experiences foreign to me and all the black women I know.  My quest has become my passion and sharing it with you is my purpose.
Happy reading!  
Tayé Foster Bradshaw has reviewed many of these books, they can be reached and found on this site.  Feel free to leave your comment and thoughts about the books.  


Miss Ophelia

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Coming of age stories have the power to attach themselves to our memory and live there forever.

This tender tale, set in 1948 rural Virginia, is just such a sweet reminisce, told in the first person, of Isabel "Belly" Anderson and the summer of her eleventh year.

Eleven is that right-on-the-cusp age between childhood frivolity and puberty angst.  That time of carefree wonder and innocent curiosity.  It is when one just wants to sleep past seven, drink lemonade, eat homemade chocolate cake, read books, and eavesdrop on the adults still acting like children -  especially in the slow moving, Jim Crow, quiet summer south.

The book brought an imagined scene between my daughters, ages ten and twelve, to our annual family cookout, also in July, and them listening to the last remaining matriarch talk about her childhood.  Children are mesmerized by elders talking about how they used to play, their friends, worrying about how they braid their hair.  My aunt, still wears her real hair in two long plaits that are wrapped around her head like a crown, just like Miss Ophelia.  She would have been a younger sister of the primary women in  woman, like Miss Ophelia, Isabel's mother, Lizzie, Miss Ella, Miss Myra, and Aunt Rachel. Her mother, my grandmother, would have held the quiet wisdom of Miss Mattie, my great-grandmother, the aging presence of peace like Miss Janie.  All the characters were as real as sweet tea in the summer time.

Mary Burnett Smith slowly drew me into the story.  Belly trying to understand what was happening with her two-years-older best friend Teeny.  Being right on that cusp of childhood, Belly was not interested in boys or spending time with anyone other than her friend, her books, and maybe, tolerating her bachelor Uncle Willie who never seemed to grow up.  In Belly, we feel the confusion, hurt, and anger she felt at events happening around her, like unwillingly being sent to spend the summer with Aunt Rachel who was having some mysterious surgery.  We could feel her only-child lonelieness consoled in the boxes and boxes of books that the rich white people gave Uncle Willie to give to her once they learned she loved literature.  Remembering how much a dime could buy and how childless Uncle Avery promised one for every book she purchased, visions of new ribbons and a piano dancing in my head right along with Belly.

The story's retelling also reminded me of the gentle friendship formed that summer when Isabel was taking piano lessons from Miss Ophelia and witnessed the blossoming of a forbidden love.  In her lessons, Miss Ophelia, down from New York after her father passed away, gently added refinement and a love for the humanities, to the still impressionable eleven year old.  Their friendship lasted throughout Belly's adult life and left such an indelible impression, that the retelling of it makes us feel the love that still remained in her heart for her beloved friend.

The story is set against the backdrop of small, segregated Southern town where everyone literally knew everyone and social structure centered around the Baptist church, the power of the Deacons and the Church Mothers, the sin of gossip, and the freedom of children to just run and play - as long as they stayed out of grown-folks-business.

Perhaps ended with more questions than answers, just like life, even as an adult coming back to her hometown to remember that special summer, we appreciate that sometimes the trees tell a tale, and every rosebud has a narrative.

I had my own Miss Ophelia when I was about the same age as Belly.  She was beautifully dark, like Miss Ophelia, and while married with children already, she gave me the attention my motherless heart desired.  She didn't correct like a mother or be stern like a teacher, she just gently guided through our Sunday School and BTU lessons, being a refined example of womanhood and love.  Reading this tale took me back to that summer of 1976 and Mars Hill Missionary Baptist Church in the rural part of Columbia, MO.  For a moment, I remembered how much I just wanted to be around her and watch her every move, learn from her.

This tender tale can be shared with tweens and will be one, along with A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, that belongs on the bookshelf forever.

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