Thursday, January 29, 2009

Cuban Concert Redux

Cuba is never far from my mind. The trip last spring remains still a life affirming, life altering adventure after almost a year. And the music is always in my head; I find myself humming a Latin tune and doing the salsa around the house. Attending a rooftop concert at Pablo Mene'ndez’ house in Havana was one of the highlights of the trip. Born in Oakland, Mene'ndez went to Cuba with his mother, blues and jazz singer, Barbara Dane, and never came back. The concert on the rooftop of his home at twilight was amazing. Cuban jazz and blues beats, we just couldn’t get enough.

Earlier this week, one of my Cuban trip colleagues sent an email saying that Mene'ndez would be at Yoshi’s, a popular supper club in Downtown Oakland. Wednesday night was free and the ticket price was right. It was on and poppin’ and Mene'ndez and the members of Mezcla did not disappoint. They put on a show peppered with Mene'ndez’ stories of his love for Cuba (pronounced koo-ba) and the contrast of that country with the Bay Area. How the mixture of races in Cuba is the same here; the rich diversity and love for art and music. Evidently, Mene'ndez has quite a following in the Oakland/San Francisco Bay Area as the place was packed. It was standing room only (we had good seats) but nobody was complaining; just jammin’.

He was joined by Barbara Dane, his mother, who, as an activist in the 60s, sang folk and freedom songs at rallies and sit-ins. Mama still has it in her 80s, scatting and harmonizing with the best of them. It was a great night. It wasn’t a rooftop in Cuba but it was the next best thing. Pass the mojitos.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

He's the President-- Get Over It

He’s the President, Get Over It

We have a new President and the whole world knows it. Folks from all over the world are singing his praises from school children to the elderly. The world has been waiting for this moment almost as long as we have, since Barack Obama came into the national arena in 2004. Yes, we have a new President and whether you like or not, he is here to stay. Matter of fact, if you don’t like it, I don’t want hear about it. He's the President--get over it.

A friend of mine sent me an email of this woman’s column, a black woman at that. This person went on to say that the world is rejoicing but she is not and cannot be happy for Barack Obama. My friend asked me what I knew about this person and what could I found out other than she is a Republican. (See my earlier column- Black Republicans- Who Needs Them? I was at first curious, but the more I read, the more ridiculous she sounded. This woman has all the credentials Condoleezza Rice has; masters and PhD degrees and some of the most elite colleges in the nation, a lecturer and professor at universities, but she sounded stupid. I stopped reading and shot off an email to my friend that: 1) the nation, make that, the entire world was elated for President Barack Obama’s inauguration, that; 2) I was not going to let some azz hole dampen my elation and enthusiasm, and furthermore 3) I was deleting the email and erasing the person’s name form my memory; I could care less what nonsense she was spewing and wasn’t nobody studyin’ her anyway. Get over it, lady. Barack Obama is the President.

As a matter of fact; now that I am on the subject, for all you haters out there, don’t say anything to me negative about, not only Obama, but Michelle, his kids or anybody in his family. I was talking to a co-worker Thursday, who told me she had to walk away from another black woman who criticized Michelle’s Inaugural outfit and her ball gown. She couldn’t just say, she didn’t like it; it wasn’t her taste but that quote” her dress was ugly and she doesn’t dress her girls right.” My friend told me, “That is what is wrong with our people. We always have to be negative about each other. That woman is so beautiful; she stands tall and proud with grace and anything she puts on is beautiful; I just had to walk away.” That is exactly how I felt. I had had someone tell me something similar over the phone from another campus that same day. I just had to shake my head. I am sick of negative people. Always moaning and complaining; some of them, poor things, are so negative about life in general, they cannot rejoice in victory for tearing down and dissecting every move our First Family makes. Get over yourself. It is not about you. Geesh! As my grandmother used to say, if you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothing. Get over it!

Monday, January 19, 2009

Where the Line Bleeds--A Southern Tale: Review & Commentary

I read a lot of books, about 100 a year. I read some good books, and some great books; needless to say, I have also read some bad books. Every once in awhile I run across a book that resonates with me emotionally and leaves me with a feeling that belies the publishing industry’s assertion that black readers are satisfied with reading mediocre writing, drama for drama sake, gratuitous sex, and drug warfare.

Jesmyn Ward, debut author of Where the Line Bleeds, in my opinion, has created a work of art. Now, I know that art is in the eye of the beholder, or is it beauty?; maybe I am getting confused with another saying. Is it one man’s art is another man’s garbage? No, that’s not it—but you get the picture. What are the ingredients or essential criteria that make me sit up and take special notice with some books? Besides the fact that I am a nerd, albeit, a cool nerd, as my daughter says?

Give me a southern setting, family dynamics, descriptive scenery, a sense of place, flawed, wounded characters, cultural aspects, conflict and good writing and you got me on GP. Put the story together in the backdrop of African American culture that is real, reverberates with a contemporary and current theme juxtaposed with historical aspects and that makes for the Dera Williams stamp of approval. Beware, this book is not for everyone, and maybe not for most people and from the reaction of my online book club, I might be the lone fan in my reading circle.

It is the summer 2005, in the rural town of Bois Sauvage on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, and 18 year-old twins, Joshua and Christophe DeLisle have just graduated from high school. Joshua is able to obtain employment at the dock, a job “with good money” while Christophe, unable to secure a job, drifts into selling drugs; he feels it is his only option. Their lives are influenced by the area in which they live—90 miles from New Orleans, in a small town, where segregation is practiced by tradition as it is in most small southern towns, by the socio-economic status that is endemic to these conditions in the South and the U.S. in general, by their Creole culture, by the limited opportunities and the seemingly low expectations and aspirations of the characters; this is not a pretty story. On the eve of Katrina, when the nation was exposed to the ills of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast; with all the inadequacies that America witnessed and appalled the majority of us, the DeLisle twins; their beloved maternal grandmother, Ma-mee; their mother, Cille, who abandoned them; their crack addicted father, Sandman, and a host of other relatives, friends and townspeople are like characters in a play called Disaster About to Happen.

I felt as if I were sitting in a theatre, a witness to a family and a people on the verge of a crisis; a series of scenes of people playing roles that were foreshadowed to end badly. Someone said Southerners move slowly; I can attest to that as a frequent visitor to the South, place of my birth. The hot, lazy summer days, time moving at a snail’s pace, summertime in the rural South is like no other. Sweet tea, swatting flies, family gatherings, Friday fish frys; there is an attitude of I’ll get to it when I get to it. The fictional town of Bois Sauvage could have been the rural town where my family reunions in Arkansas on the Louisiana border are held or any of the surrounding towns . Joshua and Christophe could be any one of my young male kinfolk who are victims of their circumstances; wracked by poverty, lack of employment, lack of ambition, lack of opportunities, real and imagined, drifting, aimless; their biggest hope to get a job at the mill or plant where their fathers and uncles work; the jobs that have dried up, that are no longer available. Walking around with a beer can in one hand and a blunt in the other, occasional trips to the gambling boats on the Misssissppi, making babies, and bringing another generation into the same vicious cycle. Despite integration decades ago of schools and workplaces, there is the pervasive awareness of racial differences, complicit consciously or unconsciously by both black and white in keeping it alive. Driving along the highways of Arkansas and Louisiana, I have seen the fine, stately homes that are inhabited by whites, homes the native blacks see on their way to Little Rock or Shreveport or the nearest Wal-Mart as the Highway 110 Joshua and Christophe drive by on the way to New Orleans; places they cannot imagine to live in and the simmering resentment that is carried in their hearts.

These were the circumstances and the breeding ground; the stage I saw that was set for Katrina when I was down South in 2005 just one month prior to the biggest natural disaster of the century. But as the Gulf Coast was virtually washed away, I see hope; hope in the rebuilding, and a change in our nation with a new presidency and a renewed hope by those who have felt disenfranchised and displaced.

I loved the nuances of the characters, their dialect so reminded me of my childhood friend’s New Orleans born family; the characteristics of a black family with Creole roots; the family loyalties and closeness. This was a story about twin brothers and their unconditional love, loyalty and conflict, about mothers and sons, about fathers and sons and the complex emotions of abandonment, and choices that can change lives in a blink of an eye. There was some exquisite writing, phrases reminiscent of Morrison--- “The marsh greenery shuddered and bent into the caress of the air crossing from the gulf to the lake……” (pg 161). Having said that, I will admit Ward did occasionally get bogged down in details and that is coming from someone who thrives on detailed stories. She also overdid it on the metaphors and similes; indicative of writers who obtain a MFA in writing. There is this belief in degreed writing programs that the more literary devices used the better; this is so not true, in fact an oversaturation can be deemed amateurish. But do not get it twisted; this is a literary work; it is not urban fiction as it has been defined by publishers despite the presence of young people and drugs.

So, there you have it. The thoughts of Dera R. Williams; I loved this book but as much as I did, I would not recommend it to my local book club; I can see them cursing me out, right and left about the long meandering sentences. So, my recommendation would be for other nerds that are lovers of southern, family dramas with a literary bent that address social issues.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Are Black Women Looking for a Heroine?

As Black Americans, are we always looking for a hero or heroine? I was forced to stop and examine this question because of an online conversation I had with someone about Michelle Obama. I had sent to this person what I considered a very well-written article, American Girl, by Ta-Nehisi Coates for The Atlantic. Coates has deftly made the correlation of being black and being American as being synonymous with his portrayal of Michelle Obama. I do not know if the person I sent the article to did not read the entire article or just did not get it because her remark was that she was sick of the drama around Michelle Obama and black women seeing her as some kind of queen, and that black people are looking for a hero.

Wow. That was two days ago and I have not responded as yet. I thought it was best to get my thoughts together because I did not trust what I wanted to say or that it would come out the right way. So, I am asking, is this true, are black people looking for a hero? I had forwarded several articles about the Obamas and especially the ones on Michelle. Many of them were black women writing about Michelle as a shining example of the ultimate black woman. Some of them were quite adoring, a little syrupy maybe, but I found no problem with them. So I am thinking now, are we putting the future First Lady on a pedestal; are we building her so high on the throne because we are hungry for someone to look up to?

Speaking for myself and myself only, I do not put anyone on a pedestal. Only God can be elevated to the status of royalty as far as I am concerned. But I give credit where credit is due. I feel a kinship, a sense of sisterhood with the future First Lady. In a world where black women are vilified and disrespected on an everyday basis, of course I delight in a woman such as Obama, beautiful, intelligent, accomplished, a devout mother and wife as being an example of a black woman we ALL can be proud of. That is it, plain and simple. Nothing more.

Just after Thanksgiving, I was sent an email about submissions to an anthology for a book of letters to Michelle Obama to be published by SUNY Press. It was due in a couple days, December 1 and I wondered what I had to say that would be significant but I sat down and typed up something I was finally pleased with. To my surprise and delight my submission was accepted. The goal was reached to have the book published in time for the Inauguration January 20. So now, I am doing some shameless promotion of Go, Tell Michelle, African American Women Write to the New First Lady. Am I in need of a hero or heroine? I don’t think so. Do I think First Lady Michelle Obama is worthy of being recognized and feted? She is all that and a bag of chips.

Go, Tell Michelle

Behind the idea for the book: Uncrowned Queens

Friday, January 2, 2009

First Quarter 2009 Reading Challenge

It’s a new year and with that comes new books. I belong to several literary groups, newsletters, and book clubs and such I am able to keep up with the latest releases. There are a number of promising books I want to read in 2009. APOOO, my online book club, is starting the New Year with a book challenge, The First Quarter 2009 Reading Challenge. The deal is to read thirteen (13) books from January 1 through March 31, 20008. That is not actually a challenge for me because I generally read 100 books or close to it yearly. Thirteen books average out to be a little over four books a month. A piece of cake. Most of the members can easily read 13 books in three months but there are a few members, who for various reasons, read slower. They have decided to take the challenge and by actually publicly making a commitment and posting the books they plan to read, it gives them the incentive to do so.

My list includes a number of 2009 releases and they include fiction and nonfiction, including several memoirs. In truth, though I plan to purchase and read them, more than likely they will not all be done by March 31 (BTW that is my birthday) even if they are released during that time.

Books I am planning to read are:

Something Like Beautiful by asha bandele. I have enjoyed everything this Sister has written. Daughter is one of my favorite novels. Something Like Beautiful is a follow-up to The Prisoner’s Wife, both memoirs.

The Washingtons of Wessynton Plantation: Stories of My Family’s Journey to Freedom by John F. Baker. Baker traces his family history going back to George Washington’s plantation. As a genealogist, I love family history and this promises to be as exciting as Annette Gordon-Reed’s The Hemingses of Monticello, which is already in my possession and on my list.

The Black Girl Next Door: A Memoir by Jennifer Braszile. A coming-of-age story by a sister who grew up in Southern California’s white suburbia.

The Ties That Bind: A Memoir of Race, Memory and Redemption by Bertice Berry. Again, more family history by an author whose fiction I have enjoyed. The fact that Berry is from Savannah, Georgia makes this more an anticipation as it is one of my favorite cities.

Bring on the Blessings by Beverly Jenkins. What can I say? Beverly is the queen of Black historical romance and in this story she brings some of her historical characters ancestors in a modern setting. I can’t wait.

Triangular Road: A Memoir by Paule Marshall. I have long admired this veteran writers since I read Brown Girls, Brown Stones at least 25 years ago. The daughter of West Indian born parents, this promises to be both historical and cultural.

God Only Knows by Xavier Knight. After reading the review by one of my sister APOOO reviewers, I knew I wanted to read it. This Christian-themed mystery sounds like a winner.

That Devil’s No Friend of Mine by J.D. Mason. One of my favorite contemporary literary authors, I love her writing style and her take on familial relationships.

Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead. I have been scurred to read this author. This coming-of-age story set in an African American enclave sounds more palatable then his past offerings.

Life is Short but Wide by J. California Cooper. This sounds like vintage Cooper.

Best African American Fiction: 2009 edited by E. Lynn Harris. I am salivating at the thought of so many great literary authors in one volume. Helen Lee, Mat Johnson, and Chimamanda Ngozi, Adichie are just a few of the writers.

Best African American Essays: 2009 edited by Debra Dickerson. Contributors are Walter Mosley, Jamaica Kincaid, Malcolm Gladwell and James McBride. Rut rah!

These are just a few. Others are carryovers from 2008; the aforementioned The Hemingses of Monticello, A Mercy, The Island of Eternal Love, Palace Council, and Black and White.
Still others are The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Rampart Street, In the Laps of God, The Audacity of Hope (yeah President Obama), The Red Tent, and my current read, Red Light, Green Light.

To check out what folks will be reading in the First Quarter 2009 Reading Challenge and to post your books, go to

Happy Reading!