Adjusting my Posture with Elaine Welteroth’s “More than Enough.”

After I graduated from college, confidence exuded from ever pore of my body, and I believed that there was absolutely nothing I could not conquer. I thrived on competition and sought new challenges. Then at 30, I moved away from my small suburban pond into an urban ocean where for the first time I encountered more competition from people as qualified as myself. Although I was a little rattled, I simply readjusted and kept pushing with a continued since of invincibility. Then I got married and had my son at 35. My confidence wasn’t shaken this time, it collapsed. Being responsible for the well-being of another person completely dependent upon you in a city without any family is terrifying. Being a first time mother without a bank of parenting experiences to draw from for encouragement left me stumped and without direction. I constantly doubted all of my decisions. Writing a 30 page paper didn’t really help me when it came to sleep and potty training, or childhood asthma attacks. The responsibilities of teaching full time were added problems that left me periodically crying in a corner during my planning period. Although I maintained a convincing exterior in my power suites, heels and exemplary work reviews, underneath I had lost my luster and above all my confidence. I felt that at any moment everything would come tumbling down.

My confidence somewhat rebounded within the last two years; however, I continued to lament at the fact that the self-assured women I was in my 20’s and early 30’s had disappeared forever. For a time, I unsuccessfully and superficially searched for her until I read Welteroth’s More than Enough. I was slightly reluctantly at first because I am almost a decade older than Welteroth and I thought that her advice or experiences would be out of reach for a proud member of Generation X.

I could not have been more wrong. I could relate to so many of her life lessons.She had aspirations of attending Stanford but settled for a state school to be close to her “First Love” who held little to no ambition and eventually flunked out. She was a chronic over achiever who worked hard to reach the level of success and notoriety she always wanted but along the way had to learn how to carve out her own space in places where she was the only African American woman in the room. When working alongside big names in the fashion and journalism industry, she had to learn to hold her head up and constantly remind herself that she was just as deserving of an opportunity to make a name for herself as her prep school, Ivy league, vacationing in the Hamptons counterparts. I was also inspired by her continued hustle and honesty in detailing events in her life that did not always go as planned.

There was one sentence that resonated with me the most. “Walk like you have the strength of your ancestors and community at your back.” It helped remind me of the blood that runs through my veins. Their struggle and sacrifice is my birthright to my spot in “the room.” Their DNA makes up every muscle fiber in my body and gives me strength to not just preserver but tear down mountains.

I realized that the person I was when I graduated college and before I became a mother never disappeared. She simply stopped dreaming. All of her dreams where centered on her son and her son only. I stopped believing in her. I believed in everything else except her. I believed in the abilities of others but not my own. I believed that others deserved more but not myself. I believed others deserved a seat at the table while I had to stand.

Welteroth’s courage to pursue new experiences and challenges reignited that spark I haven’t felt in years and had me looking in the mirror to remind myself to stand straight, keep my chin up, and walk like I have a right to a space in the room.

Million Dollar Applause for Colson Whitehead’s The Nickel Boys

If you bump into me on the street and you notice the matching luggage weighing down both of my eyes and ask me what happened, I will simply reply “It was all Colson’s fault.” On July 16th, Whitehead released his much anticipated novel The Nickel Boys. I first need to confess that I am already partial to this story because it is based upon the Dozier Academy, an actual reform school for boys that operated in the state of Florida from the early 1900’s until 2011. About two years ago, a number of unmarked graves were discovered on the academy’s campus. Upon careful examination of the bodies, it had been discovered that the remains belonged at the time to unidentified young men who suffered from life threatening forms of physical trauma. Upon careful research, Whitehead learned that the school had been clothed in rumors of allegations of sexual and physical abuse and in some cases murder by the school’s administration and faculty. Students sent to the school were often orphans or kids as young as five accused of petty crimes. Many of these allegations were overlooked for the school provided a nice source of free labor for the state of Florida.

My heart bled for Curtis Elwood, the main character of the story. He was born in raised in Tallahassee, Florida and reared by his grandmother. He comes of age in the 1960’s and grows intoxicated with the teachings of Dr. Martin Luther King and his nonviolent ideology after his grandmother gifts him a record of King’s famous speeches. He almost makes his grandmother regret giving him the record, for he plays it continuously and memorizes every line of every speech. His admiration and energy is harnessed by a young teacher who proudly wears the scars he earned from his time in SNCC (Student Non Violent Coordinating Committee). I was so inspired by Whitehead’s portrait of this young teacher. As soon as he enters the class, he instructs all of his students to use a black marker to strike a line through all of the offensive messages left in their hand me down books from the white schools before they begin their lesson. He is Curtis’ first direct line to the movement. I was also excited by the fact that in the book Elwood attends Lincoln High School in 1964 which was the same high school and year my father- in law attended the school and like Curtis provided a pipeline to SNCC which was operating nearby on FAMU’s campus. Like my father -in law, Curtis participates in the 1964 sit in at the local Tallahassee movie theater. His teacher along with everyone else in the community sees Curtis’ potential and eventually offers him the deal of a life time: an opportunity to take college courses as a high school junior at a new nearby university.

Curtis is ecstatic . Unfortunately, he never arrives at the school. On the way he hitchhikes and is picked up unknowingly by a young man driving a stolen car. When they are pulled over, he is quickly sentenced to a period at the Nickel Academy. When he arrives, he is comforted by the exterior which is almost an identical mirror image to the university he would have instead attended. However, the inside and the horrors that await quickly introduces him to a new battle ground to test his commitment to the nonviolence movement. Among the psychological, physical, and sexual abuse he witnesses and in some cases experiences first hand, he has to determine to what extent can he still “love his enemy.” More importantly, he has to fight to resist slipping into the terrifying submissive, apathetic, and helpless role assumed by so many of the men in his community as their only coping mechanism under white supremacy. I am not sure but I believe the latter scares him the most.

I loved loved loved loved this book! We live in an age where King’s image has become safe and almost Mr. “Rogerish.” King was a radical. King was non-compromising. Whitehead’s repeated use of excerpts from King’s speeches throughout the book reminds us of just how radical the nonviolent movement was. I can not wait to use this book as a teaching tool this year.

Also , please read it to the very end because it has one hell of a twist. My only issue, is that the book had to end.

Review of Lalita Tamedy’s Red River and a History Lesson on the Difference between a Riot and a Massacre

Reconstruction has always been an era in U.S. History that has intrigued me the most. For a period to have held the most promise for the United States to work towards living up to the principles and ideologies espoused by its early designers, it is also the darkest period in U.S. history which is given the least amount of time for analysis in most U.S. schools. I speak from experience, for it was the smallest chapter in my 11th grade U.S. History textbook and was conveniently skipped by my much esteemed U.S. History teacher who confidently told me that I wouldn’t amount to much 😉

Since I learned about it in college, I continue to devour any additional information I can obtain on the subject whether it’s held in a textbook, historical novel, film, or piece of art.

I was first introduced to Lalita Tamedy through Cane River, her first breakthrough novel published almost twenty years ago. She held a pretty successful career in corporate America but left it to pursue a literary career writing historical fiction. Cane River primarily was based upon a story of the different generations of the women in her family in antebellum Louisiana. This breakthrough novel had many of us, including myself, rummaging through my family’s old photographs and documents to reconstruct my own history. I started this blog decades after I first read it and I have to eventually write a review because it still remains my all time favorite book.

Red River picks up after Cane River in Louisiana during Reconstruction. Unlike Cane River, the men of her family are the primary subject of this story. The book begins when some of the men of Colfax decide to defend the local courthouse. Members of the Lost Cause have refused to acknowledge recent election results in which Freedmen were able to cast their ballot for the first time. The men of the town have decided to force open the doors of the courthouse and defend their newly elected sheriff who just so happens to be a carpetbagger with little to no roots in Louisiana. It is clear throughout the entire novel, that their willingness to risk their life is not on behalf of the new sheriff but for the defense of their rights as American citizens and as men, and their children’s dreams.

Harper’s Ferry 1867 publication. “The First Vote.”

They wait in vain for reinforcements from the federal government and although they put up a valiant effort, are soon defeated after white supremacists from outside towns and parishes with weaponry used in the Civil War force the men to surrender. The author’s great great grandfather participated in defending the courthouse and was able to get out alive. However, that was not the case for most. Those who surrendered were systematically tortured and murdered. According to Tamedy, over 150 African American men were killed for simply asserting their rights as American citizens. Prominent historian Eric Foner labeled this day “one of the most bloodiest acts of carnage” in Reconstruction.

The first half of the book details the massacre and Tamdey’s ability to wisk you away to that night amid the same emotions that permeated the air in 1873 is noteworthy. I literally couldn’t put the book down and I loved that as I read I could feel the fear, resolve, helplessness, and hopefulness the men experienced at the court house. I also enjoyed her window into the emotions the women felt, for it reminds her readers that the defense of this courthouse was based on the courage of both the men and women of the town. Unfortunately, it took me a while to finish the second half where she detailed the life of her great grandfather’s children. Their fight to build a school and assume their positions as leaders in the community among stories of who married whom was hard to maintain my interests after the massacre and it felt at one point like the story was dragging.

However, I will say that this book is worth a read. It taught me the difference between a massacre and a riot. Although these men valiantly fought back, the level of unjust and unwarranted cruelty exemplified by the white supremacists of Louisiana can not be defined but as a massacre. It has led me to start reevaluating how I will refer to late 19th and 20th century race riots this coming school year. The sign below is the only marker that exists today where the newly freedmen of Colfax chose to sacrifice everything for their constitutional rights. Their story incenses me today when I hear Trump supporters attempt to define what patriotism looks like and who can only be labeled as true patriots. The “150 Negroes” who died in Colfax on Easter Sunday 1873 are the prototype of true patriots.

This marker is a disgrace. There is no mention of the bravery of the 150 “Negroes” referenced in the sign or their cause.

Respect and Reverence for “A Gathering of Old Men”: a Tale of Redemption

I am thoroughly convinced that in my past life I roamed the streets of New Orleans or Sao Paulo adorned in bright colors ,dancing carefree to Rag time jazz, or complex Samba beats. I have not yet had the pleasure of traveling to Brazil but I swear when I visited New Orleans I felt I had been there before and was being welcomed home. I know that both places have been romanticized and are not paradises without their share of economic and racial problems. However, New Orleans has been one of the only places where I felt completely enveloped and surrounded by historic imprints of the African American culture. No one can visit New Orleans without acknowledging the “swag” its been blessed with by its African and African American residents throughout the centuries.

For that reason, I am naturally drawn to any work of literature created by Ernest J. Gaines. I love his storytelling and plots. But above all, I appreciate the respect he shows each of his characters and his ability to tell a story and simultaneously open windows to the rural African African American Louisiana culture. The story centers around a murder of a white landowner with a reputation for harassing the local African American farming community by a number of potential elderly African American men living on and near the farm. All of the men claimed to have committed the murder, but it is apparent only one could have actually carried out the crime.

Ernest J. Gaines

Each of the men have a backstory and I love the fact that Gaines provides them all with an opportunity to share their life’s accomplishments and regrets in Jim Crow Louisiana. Each story is historically invaluable because it provides readers unfamiliar with Louisiana or a basic history of the South with an understanding of how the South stole all of the men’s ability to be men because of the color of their skin. This opportunity is their last opportunity for redemption for some life changing event in which they failed or lacked the courage to stand against Jim Crow. I absolutely loved this book and felt that any of the past male members of my family coming of age in the Jim Crow South could have been one of the characters in this book. This book would also be a great teaching or discussion tool for young men of color today trying to figure out how to muster the courage to stand straight in an era of income inequality, mass incarceration, over policing of African American communities, and police brutality.

“Dream Land Burning” by Jennifer Latham Burned a Hole in my Soul

I review quite a few young adult books because I am a high school teacher and our school librarian has created an out of this world book club that would make any bibliophile salivate. She brings in the most amazing authors of  a diverse array of young adult and adult works.  Last year, she invited Jennifer Latham to discuss her book, Dreamland Burning. Now I love a good mystery book as much as the next; however, this book made my soul shiver. To begin, the book crosses between two eras in Oklahoma history: modern day and 1921. 1921 is a pivotal period in Oklahoma history, for it was the year of the Tulsa Race Riots. The Tulsa Race Riots occurred during a period of heightened racial turmoil in U.S. History following the conclusion of WWI. Latham visited our book club when she was still a resident of Oklahoma and she shared the amount of research she conducted for her book. Her firsthand research and interviews with survivors and their descendants is what makes this book so enthralling. 

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She centers her story around Rowan Chase a teenage biracial amateur detective  who accidentally unearths a skeleton dating back to the 1920s  in her backyard during a renovation. As the police and Rowan work to recreate the story surrounding the skeleton, Rowan finds herself unraveling a past steeped in racism, blood, and tears that many members of the community white and black have tried to keep buried. Not only does the author give an account of the consequences of violent white supremacy in the 1920s that led to the riots but also incorporates the little known story of the Osage Nation with William the teenage son of a white Oklahoman man and Osage woman who survived the riot. I was aware of the Tulsa Race Riots and have given many lectures on it in school. However, I was unaware of the specific injustices the Osage Nation suffered in the 192os. The Osage Nation had become one of the wealthiest Native American tribes in America at the turn of the century after oil deposits were found on their reservation. The Oklahoma state legislature passed a law requiring the finances and spending habit of Osage Indians to be overseen by whites. Many white men married Osage women preceding a spike in mysterious murders and suspicious deaths of Osage women.

While Rowan attempts to process the events that led to the 1920s riot, she finds herself at the center of a racially charged uprising in her own time involving a fatal incident of police brutality and the plight of undocumented immigrants attempting to make a better life in Oklahoma.  

This book is a MUST READ. It is a great source of historical fiction but it is an equally  awesome “Who done it?” The ending is not predictable!!! I loved it and I hope that this book is one day turned into a film.

Laurie Halse Anderson’s “Ashes: The Seeds of America Trilogy.”

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Everyone who knows me knows that I am an absolute history nerd. I live, eat, sleep, and breathe history and always have.  I particularly love learning and sharing the history of people who have traditionally been silenced and marginalized.  However, there was always one era in history that I had absolutely no interest in learning.  I would purposefully put my head down in silent protest whenever it was the topic of discussion by my 11th grade U.S. History. I absolutely hated learning about the American Revolution. It had always been presented to me as a period  where Black people were completely absent or simply sitting around and twirling their thumbs while white patriots and Englishmen battled it out for control of the 13 colonies.  It was not until graduate school  when I learned that could not be farther from the truth.

In fact, not only were enslaved men and women present at almost every major battle of the Revolutionary War, slavery and Black participation  was a major influence right down to a section of the original draft of the Declaration of Independence blaming King George for the  colonists’ dependence upon slavery. Thus, I was excited when I heard about Anderson’s  Ashes, a young adult historical fiction novel about Isabel, a young black woman (which almost made me do a dance) on a quest to find her developmentally challenged sister Ruth who had been sold away. She is accompanied by Curzon, a young runaway who initially cast his lot with the British as a volunteer soldier seeking his freedom only to be tricked and suffer detrimental consequences and later join the Patriots.

The story highlights the challenges, hopes, fears, expectations, choices, and overall experiences of Blacks during the Revolutionary period, particularly Black women. Isabel, the main character, is the quintessential heroine. I appreciate the author’s ability to show her strength and vulnerability. The Revolutionary era was a time of great uncertainty and I never felt Anderson, who is white, tried to simply lump Isabel and Ruth’s entire experience with one completely identical to their white female counterparts.  At no point could her readers forget that every trial Isabel was enduring was a result of the fact that she was  Black, a runaway, and a woman. Ashes was an  interesting story rooted in solid historical research and I thoroughly enjoyed it. However, I have to admit, I was once again disappointed with the ending. I hate to spoil the story for those who have not read it, but Anderson leaves her tale on a very optimistic and naive outlook. Isabel and her family step into a new country believing it will embody the  Enlightenment ideals white, Black, free, and enslaved patriots fought for. I acknowledge the fact that many Blacks who  fought in the war on the side of the Patriots held the very same optimism. Sadly, my knowledge of the Black experience  in early American History prevents me from being able to share such a hopeful ending. The new country  missed its opportunity to completely abolish slavery and instead cemented  an inhumane institution in the very legal documents that define our country today. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the book and will actually use it as a teaching tool in my high school African American class.

By the way, I guess this might be a great time to share the fact that I was nominated for an Outstanding Teacher Award by my local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. I do not believe I have a chance of winning; however,  I am honored to have been nominated. I will find out later this month if I won 🙂

Later Gators!

 

 

 

Going Back in Time with Auntie Zora: A Review of Barracoon by Zora Neal Hurston

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The Harlem Renaissance has always fascinated since childhood. Every characteristic of this era intrigues me from the artwork, to the literary accomplishments, to the birth of jazz which happens to be my favorite genre of music. This was also a period of internal migration on levels never before seen in U.S. History where  from 1916-1970 over six million African Americans escaped a racist and oppressive South and moved north carrying with them their rich cultural heritage and hopes for a better life. Life influences art and with memories of life in the South still fresh in their minds, Great Migrationers channeled their experiences through their art.  Langston Hughes, Claude McKay, Alain Locke, and Countee Cullen are household names. Unfortunately, female authors are less known. Zora Neal Hurston is the exception. Their Eyes Were Watching God,  her most popularly known work of fiction, was made into a movie for television starring Halle Berry. Yet Hurston was not solely a fiction writer and in fact was a successful anthropologist who studied cultures from the African diaspora.   

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Barraccoon,  was an example of her anthropological research that was completed well before her death but was just recently published. Barraccon is the story of a Cudjo Lewis an ex-slave living in Alabama in 1927. Over a period of weeks, Hurston works to gain his trust so that she could capture the story of his teenage years in West Africa, kidnapping by Dahomey female warriors, brief period of enslavement in the United States on the cusp of the Civil War, and his navigation as a freeman trying to protect his family after slavery in a hostile South. Hurston’s methods to gain Lewis’ trust is almost as intriguing as the events of his life and left me with a new appreciation for how to treat our elders and their stories with patience, respect,  and care. This woman has and always will have my respect for effort to capture our history and culture in fictional or academic scholarship. Definitely worth a read and gave me pleasure to add it to the shelves in my  home library.