Saturday, June 18, 2011

Father’s Day and Birthday Tribute

As the country celebrates Father’s Day, I have thoughts of my dad who died in 1990. June is also his birthday month; he would have been 87 years-old June 12. When I see the state of so many families, and black families, in particular, I think how blessed I was to grow up with my father, and that he was an involved father.

In 2008 I published a piece through Five Sisters Publications called Our Black Fathers: Brave Bold Beautiful. Hopes for a Dad’s First Born was borne out of a letter Daddy wrote to me when I was nine months-old. I got my penchant for writing naturally as attest to Daddy’s writing skills that served him well as editor of his college newspaper. When he wrote this in early 1952, we were living in Little Rock, Arkansas and the words he wrote was indicative of the conditions we were living. Arkansas was the south and therefore governed by Jim Crow laws. Yet his letter was also full of hope, hope for a future that transcended racism.


Hopes for a Dad’s First Born

A whiff of tobacco, the curling smoke of a pipe, an olive bathed in a martini, a brand new book with pages still stuck together. Those images and senses bring back memories of my dad.

To "Cocoa"
Hopes for a Dad's First Born

Not quite 9 months old are you, my darling – bordering between a baby's chubbiness and a little girl's nymph-like slimness. The laments "Momie" and Da da" have attained distinctness, but words with more than one syllable are beyond your grasp. I look into your pecan-brown face, with the dark eyes so like your mother's, and I think of all the hopes I have for you. Hopes which, if they are to crystallize, must survive a world on the brink of nihilism.

So begins the letter Daddy wrote to me over fifty years ago when I was a toddler. I recently came across this letter while going through some files of documents; birth certificates, diplomas, and the like. My mother had given the letter to me a few months after my father’s death in 1990. As the first time I read it, again I was touched and amazed at the words my father had written to me, his eldest child and daughter.

Laybon Jones, Sr. loved to express himself through the written word. He fancied himself a wordsmith as well as a philosopher on the order of Socrates. He was on his college newspaper staff and at one time thought of journalism as a career. He delighted in fancy writing pens and kept a well-stocked office at home.

You are happy, my sweet, as only a baby who has had the love and care of devoted parents could be. But what about your chances for happiness when you are 21? Through your formative years will I be able to shelter you from the ravages of a cruel world? I have no illusions that I will. Yet I trust to God that He will imbue me with the strength to impart to you an intrinsic armor of love and beauty that will withstand the adversities of a temporal existence.

Daddy had a proud spirit, one born of growing up in poverty and learning to cope with the abandonment by his own father at a young age; having to scuffle and work hard to prove that he was capable of achieving success. Deep down he had an inferiority complex about growing up poor in the 1920 and 30s, of being disadvantaged because of his black skin, and the feeling of shame of coming to the big city of Little Rock wearing the same ragged coveralls he wore in the small farming community in eastern Arkansas where he was born. The little country boy tried to fit into his new community in the midst of the Jim Crow laws of the South, while determined to avail himself of new friendships among the up-and-coming African American middle-class of that city.

He shielded us, me, my younger brother and sister, from as much pain and hurt as he could. Raised in multi-cultural California, we were not prepared for separate public facilities when we went on our family summer trips to the 1960s South. We expressed amazement more than fear when a raggedy truck roared by with a motley crew of bedraggled young adults began to hoop and holler and heckle us as we road down the Texas highway in our brand new Buick. Daddy calmly told us to look straight ahead and to hold up our heads. He refused to acknowledge ignorance on any level.

I wish I could tell you that you were born into a world of brotherhood and love for all mankind. But to tell you this would only make your awakening more poignant and frustrating. So I must tell you the truth; “the unrelenting bitter truth” The world isn't serene and garden-like, it is turbulent and savage. While there is some vestige of brotherly love scattered about the various facets of the earth, the core of mankind is hard and replete with hatred, avarice and prejudice. Nations are against nations; ideologies are clashing, with their ominous voices echoing throughout the world. Men are dying – some for what they believe – others for that they don't understand.

We moved to Oakland, California from Little Rock, Arkansas when I was two years old along with other Black families who migrated to California for better employment and economic opportunities. Daddy’s first job was at a furniture store where he was a stock boy. There is a picture of Daddy that used to hang in the hallway of our home; a young man in a pristine white sailor suit, proudly worn as an enlistee in the United States Navy. He is poised and well groomed, wearing an air of assurance because that was how he portrayed himself, as a king on a throne. He was six feet, three inches in height with a sinewy lean build that commanded attention. He posed for that picture, one leg propped up, leaning forward, looking directly into the camera, flirting with it, that was my Dad.

But it isn't all dark, my honey. For a ray of hope penetrates the abysmal well of confusion and
frustration. That ray of hope springs from the progenitors of this generation. And you of my flesh and blood I fervently hope will fortify yourself to meet the tide.

It is my hope that you will possess strength, dignity without ostentation, and love tempered with understand. To insure this, I must teach you to revere His word,....thou shalt love thy neighbor as thy self.....". Stand up straight and look the world in the eye. Face the vicissitudes of life with resolute calmness. Never tire of a deep thirst for knowledge and understand. Never lose a respect for the desires of others. And, above all, keep the faith in God and confidences in yourself.

Daddy liked the finer things, a cold martini, a good biography and first-class hotels. He appreciated a woman wearing a hat to church on Sundays and a minister that exalted the Word of God in an old-fashioned but dignified manner. He also exposed his family to travel, books and the love of learning with a broader view of the world that was beyond our society’s self-imposed limitations.

Books were important to him and consequently they became so to his children. We had built-in book cases in my childhood home and they were always filled with books, all kinds of books. There was no censorship in the Jones household; anything in that bookcase was fair game. It was there I discovered James Baldwin, Langston Hughes and William Faulkner. There was a variety of nonfiction titles that far exceeded my comprehension at age ten or twelve years old, yet no book was off limits; we could read or attempt to read anything that was in that book case.
Serving in the military was a means to an end for my father. He served four years in the segregated Navy during Word War II, became eligible for the GI education bill and enrolled at Philander Smith College, a small, Black Methodist college in Little Rock at the age of twenty two. He graduated four years later and married my mother and had three children of whom he was very proud. He had a remarkable career track; real estate broker, educator, director in a government agency and a consultant for minority contracts.

When I pass by the newsstand in downtown Oakland, I cannot help but think about Daddy going there every Sunday after church to pick up the New York Times. He would come home, light his pipe and prop his feet up on his desk and immerse himself in what was going on in the world. Daddy was taken away much too soon but he lived to see sweeping changes in the country, including the transformation of the South through the civil rights movement. The same luxury hotel in Dallas which we were not allowed to darken the doors in 1963, welcomed us with open arms in 1968. Daddy not only achieved some of his goals and dreams, he lived to see his children, one of who was that little chubby girl of nineteen months, achieve some of their dreams.

Dera Williams
November 13, 2007

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Featuring Author Lutisha Lovely at Marcus Book Store

Lutisha Lovely Book signing Marcus Bookstore, March 5, 2011l

When I walked into Marcus Bookstore on Saturday night, I was greeted by
Cherysse, the proprietor and the author for the evening, Lutisha Lovely. She was wearing skinny jeans and comfy boots, dreadlocks down her back and a big, welcoming smile. I knew very little about Lutisha Lovely. I had heard about her drama-filled church-based books but had not read them. I had however, read her Zuri Day romance books. But more on that later…

All Up in My Business with emphasis with hands on hips and rolling head is the book she is promoting and the first of a new series. She said she didn’t want to be known just for faith-based church drama so she and her editor came up with the idea of a wealthy family series set in Atlanta to branch out into mainstream fiction and relationships. Lutisha loves the city of Atlanta and although she was born and raised in Kansas, and now lives in southern California, she has spent many good times in Hotlanta. Her first release party was held there for her sixth book in the Church series, Heaven Forbid. She likes the idea of the historical and cultural aspects of African Americans when asked why Atlanta? But actually she stressed the story could take place in any large southern city where black folk love good food. The Taste of Soul restaurants run by the Livingston clan serves up more than tasty soul food.

Lutisha feels like her characters talk to her, come through her. It took her about nine months to write AUIMB, but she is always writing two books at one time, promoting another and editing another. Her publisher, Kensington contracted models for the book instead of using stock photos which speaks volumes about their belief in her value. Publishers Weekly named AUIMB as top one of the 10 picks for their spring book releases and used her cover. She highly recommends the trailer:

Lutisha has an acting background, has been a broadcaster for the Kansas City Chiefs and a managing editor for a magazine. She also wrote plays and poetry. She worked in the dot come industry and made a lot of money until it went bust. She sat down and wrote the first 30 pages of Sex in the Sanctuary in one sitting. She is a PK (preacher’s kid) and knows the mega-church community well and though she knows intimate details, her favorite mantra is, “Don’t ask me, don’t try to bribe me, I won’t tell.”

Lutisha self-published SITS in 2004 and inspired by E. Lynn Harris; she sold her books at beauty salons, grocery stores, and gyms. As a new writer she reached out to well-known writers and was rebuffed; by names that we would know-----“Don’t ask me……….” LOL

In 2005, she went to Book Expo in Los Angeles with remaining three books of her first print run of 100. She met the acquisitions editor from Kensington who asked to read SITS. Within a few months she was offered a contract and she had been told that it wasn’t supposed to happen that way. Lutisha feels that her use of a professional editor and graphic artist showcased her professionalism.

Then her editor asked her to write romance which she thought would be a breeze as she grew up reading the genre, but she learned that romance was very formulaic and she needed to master the rules of writing romance. Thus Zuri Day was born; a Caribbean sister, bohemian type sister with attitude. She is a persona/alter ego to the point she gets into character (this is where her acting background comes into play) to the point she has requested two badges when she attends the Romantic Times conference next month. She will release her sixth romance next month. I have read a few of her titles including her first, Lies Lovers Tell. She has written a total of 14 gooks, 13 of those written from 2006 on.

Lutisha read the prologue with attitude and her effervescent personality just flows out to the crowd and we were grinning during the whole signing by her captivating stories of going to Jerusalem as an actor to film Biblical films. She loved interacting with the Israeli’s and Muslims much to the Christian film producers' chagrin. When I asked how her family and parishioners back home feel about her books, she said she received a few letters claiming blasphemy. Her father, who she adores, flipped through one book and told her she appears to write very mature material but her parents don’t read her books but are very supportive of her career and accomplishments. She considers herself a very spiritual person but her views on Christianity have changed from the traditional sense.

Side note: As many of you know Marcus Books is in the community and occasionally we get a “community member” who comes in and disrupts things but Lutisha handled it good and he was soon gone happy. But she had us rolling when she said, “Now if he really wanted to go there, he would get crazy meets crazy.” It was such a treat to be in her presence, she wanted pictures with everyone and just felt at home. A married couple drove two hours from Sacramento to see her. They are avid fans and read her books together. And before I forget, Lutisha gave a shout out to APOOO and especially to Donnica who is a reviewer for our review team and gave it a thumbs up.

I enjoyed reading All Up in My Business and look forward to Mind Your Own Business, the second book she has just finished writing. The third books title is Taking Care of Business. It may be hard times in publishing but this sister proves if you have the right stuff, you can make it happen.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

My Most Interesting Ancestor

Most Interesting Ancestor- Fannie Rowland Thompson Gilliam

I loved to hear my mother, Vivian Rowland Jones, talk about her favorite aunt. Fannie Rowland Thompson Gilliam was born in 1867 to Hester Duckworth, a former slave and the man who brought her from South Carolina as part of his property, Dr. James Rowland (aka Doc Rowland) in LaPile, Arkansas of Union County. Fannie was one of three children of that union. The other two were a girl who died in infancy (name unknown) and my great-great grandfather, John Rowland. That made her my great-great aunt, the sister of my mother’s grandfather.

Fannie appeared to have the most colorful life in the Rowland clan as she is the one who got away from the “sticks” of LaPile in rural southern Arkansas and the harsh farming life of that community during a time when the majority of African Americans in the southern United States were striving to survive less than twenty years coming out of slavery. Doc Rowland, who was her father and the man who was the slaveholder of her mother, acknowledged his children and they took the Rowland surname. Like many white men who fathered children with black women, he had an interest in their life. It is unknown if he had part in Fannie pursuing an education. I do not know how it was Fannie attended college in New Orleans around the 1880s, nor could my mother or aunt tell me, which would be a six hour drive from her hometown by today’s standards. Nevertheless, she attended Straight University, a college for Negroes, which offered courses of study ranging from elementary to college-level courses in music, law and theology. In 1886, Straight discontinued the Law Department and began to focus on the liberal arts, industrial arts, and teacher training. In 1934 Straight College (changed in 1915) merged with New Orleans University to become Dillard University, a historically Black college which still exists.
My mother remembers a picture of Fannie and some of her classmates, all light-skinned women as she was. It is not known if she completed college or what was her course of study. There is a story that one day she and a group of her classmates were walking down the street near the university and her bloomers fell down on the ground. She was of course embarrassed. One of the girls said “Just step over them and keep on walking.” And that is what she did.

Fannie married a J. Thompson in her 20s and they were later divorced. No children came from that union. Reportedly, she was unable to have children. She had another short-lived marriage thereafter. In 1908, at 41 years old she married widower Robert Gilliam from Clark County. Robert was a widower and father of a young daughter, Otelia. Otelia Gilliam later married Samuel Rowland, who was Fannie’s nephew through her brother John, and my mother’s father. That is how my mother’s maternal and paternal side became joined. When I was younger I would get confused when my mother referred to Fannie as both her great aunt and her step-grandmother. They all lived in LaPile, then Huttig in Union County. Fannie became more like a mother than a step-mother to Otelia and they shared a close relationship.

Fannie was a lover of literature as evidenced by her collection of books by Shakespeare and other literary wonders such as the Afro- American Encyclopedia 1891 that my mother still has. According to my mother, she also liked to sew and was quite fashionable. A few years ago when were visiting Huttig, we went through an old trunk at “Old Place” that was filled with antique buttons that Aunt Fannie and Grandmother and Otelia used in their sewing. She was of medium height, a light-skinned woman with long curly, fine hair. She belonged to the Mt. Olive A.M.E. Church in Huttig, a community next to LaPile. Fannie died in 1945 and was buried at Batts Chapel Cemetery.

Monday, January 17, 2011

I Have a Dream

I am resurrecting my blog and what better day than Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday? In past years, I have been lax about celebrating this important day but for some reason, this year was different. Was it the tragedy in Tucson, the overtone of racial intolerance or the rising murder rate among young blacks right here in my hometown of Oakland? I don’t now and I decided not to give it too much thought. So when I attended Taylor Memorial United Methodist Church in West Oakland last Sunday and heard about their Martin Luther King, Jr. program and instead of sleeping in late, I decided to attend their 10:00am program.

Yesterday at a service at Lake Merritt UMC, where Rev. Beasley preached, several people seemed eager to tell their stories. One older white gentleman worked in Harold Washington’s office in Chicago during the struggle. A woman said her father, a minister stood against racism in their small Illinois town and remembered she was in college when King was killed and how the black students would not let her and her roommate participate in their circle of protest.

Taylor Church was packed including the balcony. As a result they opened up two more media rooms to stream in the program. I was in one of those rooms but I didn’t feel any less detached from the beautiful singing, dancing and poetry from young people of different races. I the guest speaker was Marianne Williamson of the best seller Return to Love. A quote from that book has been erroneously attributed to Nelson Mandela. “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.” Williamson, spiritual author, lecturer and conscious woman, recalled the day she learned of Martin Luther King Jr.’s death. She was a young teenager and was at home with her mother getting ready for dinner when they heard the news. They were devastated and when her father came home, the first words out of his mouth were, “Those bastards killed him.” She went on to say that some school history books have reduced the Civil Rights movement to one paragraph and there is increasingly a move to whitewash this country’s history--- it is up to us to see that is not done and to continue to carry on King’s dream.

“Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” said King. Yes, indeed, when I looked at the Oprah Show as she showed clips of previous shows, I have hope. There were the white teenagers who taunted the Little Rock Nine in 1957 and the racist who has recently adopted two black teenage boys. We have a long way to go but there is hope. I too, have a dream.

Dera R. Williams
January 17, 2011