Monday, July 30, 2012

Journey to Freedom

Why would a free black living in the North after having been emancipated voluntarily go back to the south risking being enslaved again? That question and many others were answered at the lecture and book signing of Lois Leveen, author of The Secrets of Mary Bowser, at the African American Museum & Library in Oakland on a sunny afternoon on Saturday, July 28, 2012.

The nation, especially the southern states are celebrating the sesquicentennial, actually it is easier to just say the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. As a native southerner— though California raised, and a regular visitor to the south, I have struggled with both my love for history, especially African American history, culture and literature and my love for the south and my dislike for reminders of such a painful period for black Americans and the nation and my feelings about southerners who still revel in their Civil War heroes and their proclamations for States rights. My love-hate relationship with the south and the Civil War makes me a reluctant student of Civil War history.

After listening to and meeting Dr. Lois Leveen, I think I somewhat have made peace with my ambiguous feelings. Lois was born and raised in New York, but as a lover of history and African American literature and history, became a student of the Civil War history by default. She is a regular contributor to Disunion, the New York Times coverage of the anniversary of the Civil War. She has taught history and literature at universities and is now lecturing at libraries, museums, universities, and bookstore on the same topic. She is also a feminist and has taught African American literature and history and has been influenced by bell hooks and June Jordan.

Dr. Leveen’s lecture consisted of three parts, Mary Bowser, Weaving History into Fiction and Reflecting on Making Up the Past. She first heard of Mary Bowser from reading A Shining Thread of Hope by Darlene Clark Hines and Kathleen Thompson. This book about black women in American history had a scant few lines about Bowser, a woman who was born into slavery, emancipated, educated and lived in Philadelphia, who went back to the south and became a slave again in order to aid in the abolition of slavery by becoming a spy in the Confederate White House under President Jefferson Davis. Wow! Powerful and mind-boggling, to say the least.

What kind of woman would do such a thing? Actually, Bowser’s life was not well documented, nor is there much evidence about her. Lois never meant to write a novel about Mary Bowser when she set out to research and write her story, but because of the lack of documentation, she culled from her extensive research and created an imagined life through fiction. She had a letter from Mary’s former owner, Elizabeth De Lew ib Richmong, Virginia and other documents and writings in which she was able to create the Mary Bowser in the book. It isn’t even certain the picture rumored to be Mary Bowser is in fact her. Unfortunately, Mary Bowser’s journals were discarded by her family in 1952. Though the evidence is sketchy, there is enough evidence to substantiate there was a Mary Browser and that she had an innate intelligence and photographic memory that served her well as a Civil War spy.

Why have most of us not heard of this woman? Well, for that matter, how many people know of other black woman heroes during the Civil War and Reconstruction and beyond? Most school children have heard of Harriett Tubman and Sojourner Truth? But how many know of Phillis Wheatley, Francis Watkins Harper, Mary McCleod Bethune, and Ida B. Wells? But hasn’t it always been that black women’s accomplishments were hidden and minimized? Zora Neale Hurston said the black woman was the mule of the world. How evident is that in American history?

Dr. Leveen’s lecture incited an excitement to research more about the Civil War, the south and about free blacks and their status in cities like Philadelphia, and other Eastern cities. Recent reading of both nonfiction and historical books has also added to my enthusiasm. I recently read nonfiction The Invisible Line: Three American Families and the Secret Journey from Black to White and The Right-Hand Shore by Christopher Tilghman which is fiction. Both of these books explore black life after the Civil War. Ironically, I am currently reading Freeman by Pulitzer prize-winning Leonard Pitts, Jr., a story about a man who has been free for 15 years, living in Philadelphia and who goes back to Mississippi at the end of the Civil War to look for his wife. Though this is fiction, Pitts’ research tells us this was not unusual. Former slaves set out to find their loved ones, even if it meant going back to a hostile south.

A book club member has already given her stamp of approval for The Secrets of Mary Bowser, so I am eager to get into it and read about real life characters that Leveen referred to such as David Bustill Bowser and Dangerfield Newby. Dr. Leveen posed the question of why was the Civil War a significant part of American history. Indeed her insightful presentation left me with a renewed interest in Civil War and slave and free black history.

July 29, 2012

Friday, June 29, 2012

VONA: A Community for Writers of Color

Downtown Berkeley was shining with the rock stars of literature Thursday night. I attended the Voices of Our Nation Art Foundation faculty reading at Berkeley City College. VONA, as it is better known is a writing program for writers of  color.   As Diem Jones, director of VONA said, it is a community of writers that was founded so that creative voices from cultures that until very recently went unnoticed. Diem went on to say 70% of the writers are people of color, and don’t you remember going to writing programs or workshops and being the only black or Latino or Asian?

I am an alumnus of VONA when they were still at University of San Francisco; they are in their second year at U.C. Berkeley. Being in a community of writers where you have an affinity with others who look like you, where you can write about your culture without excuse, or you know that the critiques are based upon your writing rather than snide comments about a character that is unfamiliar to the majority. I remember attending the Squaw Valley Writers Conference several years ago and out of over 500 writers, there were maybe 20 black writers. I remember one of them telling me that she was verbally attacked in her workshop repeatedly about her characters or writing. One classmate asked her, “Do your characters have to be black?” WTF! A writing community such as VONA is a place to create freely without apology.

Students came from all over, from a range of ages, at different stages in their writing careers. There were New Yorkers, southern Californians, Floridians, one from Puerto Rico and one from Nigeria. They came to glean all they could to sustain their writing for a little while longer. But the stars of the night’s events were not the students and there were 94 of them, in fiction, memoir, poetry classes, LGBTQ narrative and some in residencies. The focus was the illustrious faculty. With authors like Sci-fi author Tananarive Due, literary fiction writers Mat Johnson and poets Willie Perdomo and Patricia Smith, there was plenty to be star struck about. They read from either works in progress or published works.

The formidable Nuyorican Willie Perdomo read from a work-in-progress with a character of theme of Bon Bon to rhythmic rap of his tongue simulating bongo drums. The petite Maaza Mengiste read a moving passage from her acclaimed novel, Beneath the Lion’s Gaze, set in Ethiopia during the Haile Selassie regime. Minal Hajratwala read from her memoir about immigration, Leaving India. She talked about being American born did not remove her from the pain of immigration politics. Randall Keenan and Mat Johnson are two brothers I can listen to for hours on end. They both read from their fiction works-in-progress. Both were engaging and witty, Johnson lamenting about ghosts, and Keenan about Capoeira and art. Math was hoot, saying he never had so many students willing to let him make them cry. M. Evelina Galang, a Filipina, is currently writing about women during WWII but she read from a past book about a teacher who empowers a group of young students of color. Tananarive Due kept us spellbound reading from her fourth book in her Living Blood series, My Soul to Take. In speaking with her later, she told me she is teaching at SpelmanCollege in Atlanta. Co-founder Elmaz Abinader, writing chair at Mills College read from her memoir about her father (who is now 102 years-old) as a boy in war-torn Lebanon. Faith Adiele, also faculty at Mills, read from her already 600-page memoir manuscript about traveling to Nigeria to find the father who had abandoned her. Closing out was Affralacian poet Patricia Smith. “Lysol” was heart-rending as she spoke of a mother who wanted to wash away her daughter’s dark skin. The daughter kept saying, “I’m black, I’m not dirty.” Powerful! The audience rose to their feet.

Two veterans of VONA were missing. Pulitzer Prize winning Junot Diaz, also one of the co-founders of the program is ill, as is David Mura. Junot has been a draw for years, pre-Pulitzer, for his outspoken demeanor, and his sharp New York, sometimes acerbic critiques. David as the residency instructor is known for his thorough, straight forward guidance of fine tuning your manuscript. They were missed but both are on the road to recovery and will be back next year. Well wishes to both of them.

It was truly a reunion of VONA alumni, staff and others in the writing community. One of the first people I saw when entering the auditorium was Jacqueline Luckett (Searching for Tina Turner & Passing Love), also a VONA alumnus. I saw Aya de Leon who was the facilitator of a black women’s writing group I was involved with in the 1990s. She is at U.C. Berkeley teaching poetry and was instrumental in bringing the poetry of Tupac to the curriculum there. I got reacquainted with Kira Allen, who used to host poetry readings at La Pena in Berkeley. Carolina DeRobertis, whose books about women in Argentina and Chile have received much acclaim, was there due to give birth any day. She taught English at Merritt College where I am. I saw another colleague, Cleavon Smith, English faculty at Berkeley City College, who just had a play staged.

I missed seeing Nakia White, the daughter of my good friend Denise. I was delighted she had gotten into the VONA program despite it being highly competitive. I asked around about her and Maaza Mengiste said she was in her class and that Nakia is an excellent talented writer, which I already knew. You go Nakia!

I am so glad I didn’t let a sinus headache keep me from Thursday’s event. It was well worth the ten dollars I had to pay for parking. VONA is such a needed and necessary program. There is now a program in the winter at the University of Florida and I hear talk about a program possibly in New York. VONA, a writing community for the people.

June 28, 2012

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Southern Writers 4th of July Countdown Blog Tour

I am a member of Southern Writers on the She Writes writing site. We are embarking on a blog tour. The information is below. Note: I am a guest blogger on June 29.

The She Writes Southern Writers 4th of July Countdown Blog Tour

The Southern Writers of She Writes cordially invite you to The She Writes Southern Writers 4th of July Countdown Blog Tour.

The purpose of this tour was to give as many of the members in the Southern Writers group a chance to offer their hospitality by having others visit their home blogs.

During the week leading up to the 4th of July, two blogs will be featured every day sharing their interpretation of the tour’s theme: “Southern Living.”

People who leave insightful comments on the blog post(s) during the tour will be entered into a random drawing to receive a special Southern Living-themed prize (worth $50) donated by Zetta Brown and Author/Publisher Services.

The more blogs you visit and the more comments you make throughout the tour, the more chances you get.

It would be nice to turn this into an annual event if interest warrants so come on out!

Tour Date: Wed. June 27

Blog Name: Sweet Music on Moonlight Ridge

Blog Owner: Ramey Channell

Title: "Evolution AND Creationism: The Birth of a Southern Novel"


Tour Date: Wed. June 27

Blog Name: My Writing Journey

Blog Owner: Charity Bradford

Title: "Hospitality, Welcome to the South"


Tour Date: Th. June 28

Blog Name: Ruminations and Reflections

Blog Owner: Rebecca Elswick

Guest Blogger: Natalie Parker-Lawrence

Title: "Patrice Melnick: Louisiana Poet, Festival Muse"


Tour Date: Th. June 28

Blog Name: Holly's Narrative Dream

Blog Owner: Holly Raychelle Hughes

Title: "Pictures and Words"


Tour Date: Fri. June 29

Blog Name: Musings & Meanderings: Thoughts on Life and Healing

Blog Owner: Melanie Pennington

Title: "The Flavors of My Childhood"


Tour Date: Fri. June 29

Blog Name: The Full-Bodied (Book) Blog

Blog Owner: Zetta Brown

Guest Blogger: Dera Williams

Title: "Not Your Storybook Southern Belle"


Tour Date: Sat. June 30

Blog Name: Delani Bartlette’s Travel Blog

Blog Owner: Delani Bartlette

Guest Blogger: Stacy Allen

Title: "Changing The Past, Inventing The Future"


Tour Date: Sat. June 30

Blog Name: Emily Kennedy, Author

Blog Owner: Emily Kennedy

Title: "Southern Gentlemen"


Tour Date: Sun. July 1

Blog Name: Ryder Islington, Author

Blog Owner: Ryder Islington

Guest Blogger: Deidre Ann Banville

Title: "New Orleans Caulbearers"


Tour Date: Sun. July 1

Blog Name: A Penny and Change

Blog Owner: Penny Leisch

Guest Blogger: Trisha Faye

Title: " the moon goes on shining"


Tour Date: Mon. July 2

Blog Name: Zetta's House of Random Thoughts

Blog Owner: Zetta Brown

Title: "Texas Tornadoes and Other Memories"


Tour Date: Mon. July 2

Blog Name: Reflections of a Mississippi Magnolia

Blog Owner: Patricia Dorsey

Title: "A (Southern) Life in Poems"


Tour Date: Tue. July 3

Blog Name: A Penny's Worth

Blog Owner: Penny Leisch

Guest Blogger: NancyKay Sullivan Wessman

Title: "Books & Business & Reality: No magic bullet"


Tour Date: Tue. July 3

Blog Name: The Novelette

Blog Owner: Laura Gschwandtner

Title: "Southern Living with True Grit"


Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Be Still: The Essence of Water

This past Saturday I attended a self-care event hosted by the Black Women’s Media Project. The Be Still Retreat, which is free of charge, is given quarterly and in its seventh year. This was my third time attending and it has always been an uplifting experience for mind, body and soul. Self-care practitioners including, health conductors, holistic healers, physical fitness experts, yoga instructors and massage therapists share their wisdom and gifts with the ladies who range from early 20s to some in their 80s and diverse ethnicities and cultures.

Dr. Frank Staggers is a constant guest speaker. A well-known community physician, his lecture about the effects of diabetes and hypertension among African Americans is worth paying for. Dr. Staggers extols the benefits of attaining and living a less stressful life in order to lessen the symptoms of high blood pressure and to live a longer life. He suggests that we practice being still; a time when you turn everything off, including your mind. Just sit and be still. When Dr. Staggers patients tell him that they relax by reading or sewing, which is not good enough. The brain and mind is still working. In order to fully relax, one must turn off both of those.

So he had all 150 attendees sit in a relaxed state and just be still. Initially, your mind is running a mile a minute, all kind of scenarios play in your head, but eventually the mind releases the cares of life and your body loosens up and your thoughts turn to nothing… but peace and tranquility. Dr. Staggers suggest we practice this stillness two or three times a day, if possible. He suggested water sounds, especially of the ocean accompanies your meditation. Water is calming and soothing. Think of sitting on the beach watching the water; the sun shimmering over crystal blue water and your mind just floats away.

Be still.