1984 and About Writing by Samuel R. Delany

1984 & About Writing by Samuel R. Delany | Tempest Challenge BHM

When I teach writing classes I always warn my students that they’re going to get tired of me saying “Samuel Delany says…” because Nisi and I quote him so often. Over the course of his multi-decade career he’s written almost as many insightful essays on writing as he has fiction. So his book, About Writing: Seven Essays, Four Letters, & Five Interviews, has a permanent place on my syllabus.

However, there’s one other non-fiction book of Delany’s that also had a big impact on my writing, and that’s 1984. It’s a collection of letters Delany wrote during this year and is the first book of letters I read that made me want to be a better letter writer. I wrote about it for NPR a couple of years ago:

Out of print and sometimes hard to find, this collection of 56 letters is worth the effort to procure. They chronicle a year of renowned science fiction author Delany’s life from his own perspective — we never see his correspondents’ letters — in a way that is part memoir-distant and part close-friends-intimate. The letters offer both a wide angle view of life in 1980s New York City, and a narrow window into the life of a working writer, IRS issues and all.

Been rereading this book thanks to the Month of Letters. One day I’ll even get around to posting about it. What always strikes me about Delany’s letters is how frank they are, no matter if he’s writing about sex or the realities of writing. I also appreciate that, when writing letters to friends about craft or books he’s reading, his casual, conversational tone makes his ideas easier for me to grok.

Delany’s essays are often like his fiction: brilliant, complex, and sometimes impenetrable upon first read. You’re highly rewarded for reading and rereading and gaining understanding, but sometimes it takes much work. This is why the Four Letters part of About Writing is the most well worn part of my copy.

Whether you’re interested in history, in the art of letter writing, or in mastering the craft of fiction, both of these books should be in your To Be Read pile.

Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi

Kintu by Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi | Tempest Challenge BHM

Here’s the post where I admit that while I am a big reader of books by Black authors, I have not yet read much by African authors. That’s due to many factors, including a huge To Be Read pile. Still, I didn’t want this month to go by without mentioning some African writers you should read, and so I asked for help.

Author Geoff Ryman pointed me to his series on Tor.com exploring African writers of SFF. There are only two posts so far, but they are extensive. Super sweet. One author I had heard of and have her book in my large pile is Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi. I’m reposting Geoff’s entry on her book Kintu in full here, but that doesn’t mean you should not go to Tor.com and read the whole long post and the one before it about SFF writers from Nairobi.


It is dusk. Miisi is sitting on a three-legged stool near the angel’s trumpet shrub with his back against the hedge. He double-storey house is a ruin. The roof and parts of the walls on the top floor are in disrepair. A man stands above him. Miisi feels imposed upon because he cannot see past the man. The man is covered in bees. He has a single hair on his head as thick as a big rope.

“Get up and come with me,” the man says.

Miisi knows he should ask: who are you? Come with you where? But instead he whines, “You know my hip is bad” as if he and the man have known each other for a long time.”

….

Miisi and the man are standing on a hillside. They are surrounded by trees. The place is familiar even though Miisi is sure he has never been there. The bee man touches a tree and looks it up and down. “This tree will be at the centre,” he says as he walks around it still looking it up and down. “It will make the central pole.” Miisi is puzzled but the man adds, “Find a tall man, ask him to take ten strides,’ the bee man takes a stride. “in every direction around this tree and build a dwelling.”

Now they are standing at on the other end of the hill Miisi and the bee man have been taken together on the hillside for years now.

‘This is Nnakato,” the bee man points to the ground. “You must retrieve her and lay her properly.” He looks at Miisi. Even his eyes are bees….

—From Kintu, (Book V, Misirayima (Miisi) Kintu)

Kintu is a huge book. Huge as in big—big time span, many characters. Its first hundred pages recreate the politics, family structures, conversations, and beliefs of the Buganda kingdom in the 1750s. It is one of the surprisingly rare attempts in fiction to imagine an African culture undamaged by invasion. It tells the story of how a curse is directed at all the descendants of Kintu Kidda.

Kintu then leapfrogs over the colonial era, to show how the curse has affected four modern Ugandan families. It saves up Idi Amin until you have read many other things you don’t know about Uganda, but then really gives you the devastation of his downfall and the war in two major stories. It saves up any discussion of neo-colonialism until it is sure you’ve absorbed a lot of less familiar information. It bounces back and forth in time from the 1970s to the 2000s, showing you the same cities and towns in different eras. Four branches of the Kintu clan are each given a book each around a major character. Scores of secondary characters also have key roles in the plot, detailed in roughly 450 pages of succinct, powerful writing.

The hinge between the historical novel and the contemporary one is a grandmother relating the legend of the Kintu Kidda curse—and that version differs from the historical reality. We hear different versions of the story and are shown the flexibility and practicality of oral literature. In one tradition, Kintu has disappeared completely and only his wife Nnakato is revered. Tradition survives alongside modernity, but continually overwritten (or rather over-spoken?), useful, alive.

Kintu is huge in impact. Richard Oduor Oduku who we met in Part One, Nairobi said this about Kintu, unprompted during his own interview:

“That book is so big here. It presents a world that has its own integrity and social relations. There is no recourse to external explanation for the curse or for undoing it.

“Sometimes we—you­­—get surprised by how much you don’t know about who you are. For me Jennifer’s book is a link to an on-going world that has not been intruded upon and does not have to pay homage to a disruptive force. Something we have longed for a long time.”

There is not a white character in the book. The colonial era is not described (one of the oldest characters, an obsessive Christian, remembers colonialism with fondness; another character’s grandparents are mentioned as living through it). For the most part, except towards the end, Western education and the diaspora are irrelevant.

Its author is well aware that the book, in its own world, has gone mega.

“Jacob Ross one of its first readers said that Kintu is the kind of novel that would become a national book. There was a genuine excitement about it in Uganda that I’d never seen before, a buzz about it. People had been saying that Uganda was a literary desert. There were so many misrepresentations that Ugandans didn’t read. Instead it kept selling out editions in East Africa. I got a letter from the Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Buganda (a cultural entity inside the political one of Uganda.) It tells a Ugandan story in an Ugandan way.”

Until very recently the usual way for an African author to succeed was to win an award, or to publish in the West and be validated there. The success of Kintu came with African publication. Just before this interview, Kintu finally found a publisher in the USA (Transit Books). No UK publisher has as yet been found—for a book that is already regarded as a masterpiece. Most UK publishers said something like “It’s too African.”

Too African? The highest possible praise.

Kintu was submitted for the Kwani? Manuscript Prize and won first place, meaning that Kwani published it in Kenya for distribution in East Africa by the Kwani Trust. Since then it’s been accepted for publication in West Africa by Farafina Press. Within Africa, on African terms, it became a bestseller.

The same year as first publication (2014), Jennifer won first the African region, then the overall Commonwealth Fiction Prize for “Let’s Tell This Story Properly.” Kintu went on to be long listed for the Etisalat Prize in Nigeria. Jennifer Nansubuga Makumbi became a name to be reckoned with.

Book One: Kintu Kidda establishes the importance of twins in the Ganda culture. Kintu marries two twins, one for love, one for reproduction—his beloved wife, Nnakato, seems infertile. The second wife’s children are treated as if they belonged to the first.

Book Two: Suubi Nnakintu is set in 2004 tells the story of Suubi and Ssanyu, two twins. They therefore have the same actual names —Babirye and Nnakato—as Kintu Kidda’s wives. But the name Nnakato would give that away, so Suubi gives herself the name Nnakintu. It’s a lie. Any Ugandan would know someone called Nnakato is a twin. That’s something that Suubi wants to overwrite. This is only one of many subtleties of plot and culture that this Western reader did not get.

Her twin Ssanyu Babirye died as a child and haunts Suubi, enraged at being denied.

The first (attack) happened eight years ago on the morning after Suubi’s graduation. She had lain half-awake in bed when a sensation of being “locked” —she could not open her eyes or move or scream—came over her. Yet she could see a young woman standing above her bed looking down on her. The woman looked exactly like Suubi only she was so emaciated that it was surprising she could stand at all. Her skin was dry, taut and scratched. Her hair was in thick tufts. She even wore Suubi’s floral blue dress with an elasticated waist-band, yet Suubi had discarded that dress ten years earlier.

‘Who are you?’ Suubi had tried to ask.

‘Who am I, who am I ?’ The woman was very angry.   ‘I am Ssanyu, Ssanyu Babirye, you chameleon! Stop telling lies.’

Says Jennifer: “The story of Suubi and Ssanyu is of the duality in the novel. The duality that is Uganda. We are both Europeanized and Ugandan. We speak both traditional language(s) and English. Someone goes to church, but then will go to the traditional healer. Someone is a scientist but will have an intense spiritual life. We have this saying in Uganda: God help me, but I’m going to run as well. We think two ways at once.”

This duality of holding traditional and modern together is fundamental to Makumbi’s own life story. In the critical element of her PhD, which also consisted of a draft of Kintu, Makumbi talked about her own biography.

One of my earliest memories is of story time in the evening in a village with my grandfather. Another is in the city foraging through my father’s bookshelves of adult books looking for something readable. The most vivid memory however is of my grandfather, who was traditional, and my father, who was thoroughly colonised, arguing about where I should live. My father insisted that I should be brought up in the city where I would get a ‘proper’ education while my grandfather argued that I should remain in the village to get grounding in tradition first, that schools there were just fine. A compromise was reached when I was four years old: I would study in the city with my father and spend term breaks with my grandfather. From then, the conflict between my father and grandfather took on the multiple facets of urban vs. rural, modern vs. traditional, Western vs. African, written vs. oral. Little did I know that this nomadic existence would be replicated at an international level: shuttling between Uganda and Britain as an adult.

In the village, the Luganda language was protected from outside influences. In the city, Jennifer was forbidden to speak Luganda, which was called “vernacular.” BBC English was the standard, and her father force-fed her Western literature. Her first experience of storytelling was in the village, retelling Goldilocks or Cinderella as new tales in Luganda. This novel Kintu could be seen as reversing that process—retelling traditional material for modern audiences.

The same PhD thesis describes Kintu as being a hybrid of forms—the Ganda myth Kintu ne Nnambi hybridized with the Christian myth of Ham.

Kintu is divided into Books to mirror the form of the Bible, especially the four gospels, and the story is crossed with the Biblical story of the curse of Ham—the most poisonous of all Biblical stories for Africans. Ham was reinvented as the cursed progenitor of all black people, assigned by God to slavery. The story of Ham is laced through the book. However this intrusion only appears in parts set in modern Uganda. Kintu of the 1700s has his origins in the first man on earth according to the Ganda, Kintu. It is important to note that you also see Christianity evolve from the stiff English version followed by the characters Kanani and Faisi to an Africanised version in 2004, where forms of traditional African worship are firmly entrenched in the Christian worship.

Really? Biblical? I didn’t get that at first reading at all. My first impression was of being lowered into the Ganda culture as it exists independent of Western intrusion. 

OK, like Ham, there is a curse—a Tutsi man’s son is adopted by Kintu who slaps the boy once in reprimand—and the young man dies. His biological father Ntwire lays the curse—and all the subsequent history of the clan can be read as a struggle between Kintu’s protective spirit and Ntwire, who is determined to blight their lives.

How does that echo the story of Ham? Ham was cursed by his own father, Noah, for mocking his drunken nakedness. No adoption, no accidental homicide, no curse of one family by another. The sanest interpretation of the Biblical story is that Ham was made a servant of his brothers for his lifetime only. But colonialisation drove itself and its religion crazy. Apologists for slavery made the curse inherited, so that Ham’s children were slaves, and as a mark of the curse, their skins were darkened.

Makumbi’s thesis says:

Kintu Kidda is a trident character, a kind of an unholy trinity figure. A fusion of three characters, he is a nameless and timeless ancestor of the author whispered about in family circles who brought the curse of mental health problems in the family. He is Biblical Ham, son of Noah,[1] from whom Africans supposedly descend. But most of all, he is Kintu the first man on earth in the Ganda creationist myth, Kintu ne Nambi.

The first surprise is how close personal and close the story is to the author herself—essentially the family is Makumbi’s own. She herself is a daughter of Kintu.

The second unexpected element is how this actual family story is ANOTHER kind of hybrid—of tradition and science, or at least a psychiatry-based diagnosis. 

But how does it resemble the Biblical myth of Ham? Again, from the thesis:

Biblical Ham brings to Kintu’s character in the novel the idea of the potency of a person’s curse to another and the disproportionate severity of the retribution in relation to the offence committed. Biblical Ham also cements the notion of perpetuity through inheritance.

In other words, Noah’s curse was unfair. Though Ntwire’s only son was taken from him, the ruin of so many lives over hundreds of years is disproportionate.

Is there a recognition of God’s unfairness, implicit in each Book’s tale of suffering? One of the key characters is called Yobu/Job. There is something of Job in each of the Books of Kintu, including an undertow, like the Biblical book, regarding the inexplicable unfairness of God.

Each of the books focus on one terrible life after another—Suubi, starved by an aunt, and nearly kidnapped to be sold as a human sacrifice only to be haunted by the ghost of her dead twin. Kanani, made one-dimensional by a dour colonial form of Christianity and the betrayal of his children, who bear a child between them. Isaac Newton, unable to walk or speak until six because of child abuse, living through the post-Idi Amin war, and who is convinced his beloved only child is infected with HIV. Miisi, who not only loses his sanity but 11 of his 12 children to war, violence, and AIDS.

Humanity is made to suffer. Kintu is also the name of the first human in Ganda mythology. “Kintu” is a variant of the term “obuntu” or “Ubuntu” which means humanity and leads to the term Bantu which means humans in Luganda.

So the third prong of Kintu Kiddu’s origins, being the first human in traditional Ganda belief, universalizes these Books of suffering to include us all, European and African, American and Asian. In this sense, we are all of us children of Kintu, cursed to suffer disproportionately for history laid down centuries ago. I find this reading touching; since, I suppose, it includes me.

 

It’s not just Job or his twin sister Ruth who have Biblical names. You might need to speak Luganda to see that many of the characters have names from the story of Ham. Most significantly, the first son of Kintu named in the opening, and who is unfairly lynched for theft is called Kamu—Ham. Other characters are named for the sons of Ham—Puti (Phut, Ham’s son), Misirayimu, the long form of Miisi is a form of Mezraim, Ham’s son and Kanani is the Luganda form of Canaan, also Ham’s son. The name of the major character, Isaac Newton, manages to reference not only the Bible, but also the intrusion of European history and science.

This use of hybridized Christian/traditional names is not unique in works of what can be called African traditional belief realism. In her PhD dissertation, Makumbi points out that in The Famished Road, the figure of the abiku child, a birth from the spirit world is called Azaro, a form of Lazarus. Her thesis also examines Ng?g? wa Thiong’o’s transposition of the Jesus story to Africa, The River Between.

Though I noticed some sacrificial lambs in the ending, Makumbi’s dissertation points out other resemblances to Christianity at the end—there is a father, a mother goddess, and a son.

However, Kintu has as its epigraph an 1863 quote from John Hannington Speke, the first European explorer to encounter the Ganda. In the quote, Speke sees Africa with its sons of Ham condemned to slavery as “a striking existing proof of the Holy Scriptures.” And of course that meant their position as servants was ordained by God.

The real curse of Ham is colonization. The stories of Kintu also embody the deformities of culture and character inflicted by the curse of colonialization.

“In school as a child I was taught that we Africans are Hamites. I hope this version of ‘History’ is no longer taught in Uganda. This idea that I am a descendant of Ham was deeply engrained in me until somewhere in secondary school we were taught that we are Bantu—which means human, really.”

The last two Books of Kintu confront Europe through the character of Miisi. Miisi is a more familiar figure from African fiction than most of the characters. Miisi is the Western educated man who returns. Miisi, in fact, was educated in both the Soviet Union and Oxford, so he combines many strands of Western thinking—imperialism but also a strand of European resistance to it.

As a controversial writer, Miisi pens an African fantasy that retells Frankenstein in Africa (much as the child Jennifer Nansubuga retold the story of Cinderella). It reads like a new myth called Africanstein. Makumbi, alert to issues of language, tells us Miisi writes it first in English and then translates it into Luganda.

EKISODE

Buganda unlike the rest of Africa was sweet-talked onto the operating table with praises and promises. Protectorate was plastic surgery to set the sluggish African body on a faster route to maturity. But once under the chloroform, the surgeon was at liberty and did as he pleased. First he severed the hands then cut off the legs and he put the black limbs into a bin bag and disposed of them. Then he got European limbs and set upon grafting them on the black torso. When the African woke up, the European had moved into his house.

Africastein is unlike any other passage in the Books of Kintu. Stories get re-told but only orally. This one is a highly symbolic, single-author fixed piece of written mythology. It stands out, though quite short. It strikes the most piercing note of anti-colonialism in the novel.


As I said, please go check out the other African authors Ryman talks about at Tor.com.

Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools

Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools by Monique W. Morris | Tempest Challenge BHM

One of the unfortunate side-effects of the spotlight on how often police and other government authority figures target, unduly punish, or kill Black boys and men is that the narrative tends to ignore the fact that this stuff happens to Black girls and women too, at rates that are just as alarming.

The #SayHerName Campaign seeks to document, highlight, and bring into the light the names and stories of the Black women who suffered violence at the hands of police in the U.S., a cycle that starts in grade school. That’s why books like Pushout are important to read.

The description below may be triggering due to an explanation of sexual trafficking and violence.

Fifteen-year-old Diamond stopped going to school the day she was expelled for lashing out at peers who constantly harassed and teased her for something everyone on the staff had missed: she was being trafficked for sex. After months on the run, she was arrested and sent to a detention center for violating a court order to attend school.

Just 16 percent of female students, Black girls make up more than one-third of all girls with a school-related arrest. The first trade book to tell these untold stories, Pushout exposes a world of confined potential and supports the growing movement to address the policies, practices, and cultural illiteracy that push countless students out of school and into unhealthy, unstable, and often unsafe futures.

For four years Monique W. Morris, author of Black Stats, chronicled the experiences of Black girls across the country whose intricate lives are misunderstood, highly judged—by teachers, administrators, and the justice system—and degraded by the very institutions charged with helping them flourish. Morris shows how, despite obstacles, stigmas, stereotypes, and despair, black girls still find ways to breathe remarkable dignity into their lives in classrooms, juvenile facilities, and beyond.

I haven’t read this book yet, but Melissa Harris-Perry recommended it, and that’s good enough for me. If you have read it, or you do in the near future, please do share your thoughts in the comments below or on Twitter using the #TempestChallenge hashtag.

Linda Addison author of How To Recognize A Demon Has Become Your Friend

Linda Addison Will Scare You (In A Good Way) | Tempest Challenge BHM

If the new movie Get Out is the first time you’ve heard of some Black folks creating media in the horror genre, then you seriously need to take your butt to the nearest online bookstore and check out Linda Addison’s work. Linda is most well known for her horror poetry, which has earned her multiple Bram Stoker Awards given out by the Horror Writers of America. My favorite collection is How To Recognize A Demon Has Become Your Friend, but her contribution to Four Elements is a close second.

Linda produces the kind of writing that draws you in whether you’re particularly into poetry or not, and even if you’re not so big on mainstream horror. Just listen to her read “Precious” to get what I mean (scroll down a ways).

Eden Royce, who is way more eloquent than I can hope to be, said this about How to Recognize a Demon Has Become Your Friend:

…her poetry is moody and melodic; the meter weaves a dimly lit path and you feel compelled to follow. The verse itself is seductive, almost playful—the picture of elegant disturbia. The prose included in the book is a combination of sub-genres, and you get a taste of homespun magic along with science fiction-laced Gothic horror.

You should read this excellent interview with her in the HWA’s Women in Horror Month series, then pick up a copy of one or all of her poetry collections, then visit her website for a list of other places to find her stuff, and also check out Sycorax’s Daughters, a horror anthology of fiction & poetry by African-American women (some new, some known), edited by Addison, Kinitra Brooks PhD, and Susana Morris PhD.

Parable of the Sower by Octavia E Butler

Parable of the Sower / Parable of the Talents by Octavia E Butler | Tempest Challenge BHM

You all didn’t think you were going to get through this whole month without me recommending a Butler novel, did you? I think everyone should read all of Butler’s works. But this recommendation in particular comes to us from author Nnedi Okorafor:

Nigerian-American World Fantasy Award winner Nnedi Okorafor said 1984 is not the dystopia that feels most relevant to her at this point in history. “After everything that happened, I’m not reading 1984, I’m not reading Fahrenheit 451, I’m not reading A Handmaid’s Tale. I’m reading Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler. I feel like if we’re looking for any answers or where we’re going, it’s definitely in Octavia’s work.”

Speaking to The Stream on Al Jazeera, Okorafor read from the African-American novelist’s 1998 sequel, the Nebula-winning Parable of the Talents, which features a presidential candidate, Andrew Steele Jarret, who rises to power by promising, like Trump, to “make America great again,” and whose supporters are known to form mobs to burn and feather and tar those who don’t “quite match Jarret’s version of Christianity.”

Okorafor added that “the definition of dystopia depends on the group of people.”

True dat. Read the whole article. Then snag copies of Parable of the Sower & Parable of the Talents and read them.

My Life, My Love, My Legacy by Coretta Scott King

My Life, My Love, My Legacy by Coretta Scott King | Tempest Challenge BHM

At the beginning of this project I exhorted people to spend the month reading books that weren’t only about the Civil Rights struggle, and this pick is not a deviation from that. Coretta Scott King was more than just Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s wife, as has been brought to national attention lately. Hers is the letter Senator Elizabeth Warren was trying to read when Mitch McConnell called her out of order and silenced her. (Interesting to note that later some male senators read the letter and Mitch didn’t try to cock block them.) In said letter, Mrs. King did not mince words:

Mr. Sessions has used the awesome powers of his office in a shabby attempt to intimidate and frighten elderly black voters.

…he lacks the temperament, fairness and judgment to be a federal judge.

…The irony of Mr. Sessions’ nomination is that, if confirmed, he will be given a life tenure for doing with a federal prosecution what the local sheriffs accomplished twenty years ago with clubs and cattle prods.

Welp.

You can read the whole letter here or listen to Elizabeth Warren read it below.

Coretta Scott King played an integral role in maintaining Dr. King’s legacy, but that’s not all of who she was. Her memoir, My Life, My Love, My Legacy, showcases that. Put together by journalist and scholar Rev. Dr. Barbara Reynolds from recorded conversations across 30 years, it focuses on Coretta, not just Mrs. King.

February Tempest Challenge Day 9

Sun Ra and Afrofuturism | Tempest Challenge BHM

At the beginning of the month Legacy.com posted a video celebrating Afrofuturist artists that have passed on. Check it.

For a more in-depth explanation of Afrofuturism, read this excellent primer by Ofeibea Loveless:

In the early ’90s, cultural critics began to talk about the reinterpretation of aspects of African-American life through the lens of speculative fiction. Thus, the term “Afrofuturism” was born. It’s become a surefire way to categorize the quirky, the deep and the cosmic visual, sonic and literary elements of all things black and speculative. It’s generally defined as the “literary and cultural aesthetic that combines elements of science fiction, historical fiction, fantasy, Afrocentricity, and magic realism with non-Western cosmologies in order to critique not only the present-day dilemmas of people of color, but also to revise, interrogate, and re-examine the historical events of the past.”

As always, read the entire thing.

A wide range of artists fit under this umbrella, from Octavia E Butler and Samuel R Delany to Jean-Michel Basquiat to Parliment Funkadelic and Janelle Monae. One of the early Afrofuturists, who was doing his thing long before someone coined this term, was poet and performer Sun Ra. When I first encountered him it was in a used bookstore where I picked up a copy of This Planet Is Doomed: The Science Fiction Poetry of Sun Ra[1]. The poems in this slim little book blew me away and made me mad I had not heard of this man before that time. I’m not into Jazz, otherwise I might have.

VICE did a pretty good examination of the man and his work a few months ago while covering the release of a new book about him:

The quest for that “better day” came to define Sun Ra’s interstellar-themed music and philosophy of Afrofuturism, and that urge to write and speak more carefully would become a rule by which he lived his extraordinary life. Most of his poetry has gone largely unnoticed, while his music—which has influenced genres as diverse as dub, Detroit house, and post-rock—has seemingly become more celebrated with each passing year. But inseparable from his wide-ranging free jazz experiments was a distinct philosophy and set of sociological observations that were equally revolutionary and forward-thinking.

On the surface, the flamboyant and often-costumed Sun Ra may seem like a free jazz eccentric, but delving into his lifelong writings—which have appeared on record jackets, hand-folded pamphlets, or personal diaries—on subjects that ranged from anthropology to science fiction reveals a profoundly studious man with a focused and well-defined worldview. The cosmic language he favored (take song titles like “Tapestry from an Asteroid,” or the record Soul Vibrations of Man) can seem like a bunch of astrological, futuristic jargon and symbology selected at random to appear as extraterrestrial and “out there” as possible, but in every case there’s well-placed significance to the celestial forms chosen that bleeds throughout all the jazz maestro’s creativity.

You can listen to his music on YouTube; his books are a little harder to find for reasonable prices. However, I suggest picking up a copy of Sun Ra: Collected Works Vol. 1 alongside the poetry book mentioned above. With this you can delve into the mind of a man who, if not actually from Saturn, definitely thought more astronomically and universally than most people ever do. And if you’re an artist of any type, that’s more than worth examining.

Footnotes

  1. I had no idea that copies on Amazon are going for $50 – $100. I guess I should dig out mine? Don’t worry, the eBook price is $10.[]
February Tempest Challenge Day 8

Why Black Stories Matter – Adam H.C. Myrie | Tempest Challenge BHM

Poet Adam H.C. Myrie is as fed up with the limited scope of Black history learnings we get during this month as I am, and wrote a fantastic blog post exploring why Black Stories Matter:

A long time ago I remember watching American History X, a 1998 crime drama that followed the journey of a young man into, though, and out of the Neo Nazi movement. There was a particular scene in this film that stays with me even today. One of the main characters was a high school student sitting at the table with his father discussing his English homework. As he listed the books his class was covering, his father suddenly looked up from his plate and asked why great books are being exchanged for Black books. Let me say that again, he asked why GREAT books were being replaced by BLACK books. At the time, barely in high school myself, I simply brushed it off as an aspect of a character I was meant to dislike. The depth of what he said was completely lost on me.

Fast forward a few years later. Still in high school, I had left Canada behind and had made a new home in Jamaica. That year in English class, one of our required readings was a book called Things Fall Apart, by Nigerian Chinua Achebe. While I had a many years long relationship with stories from Africa in the form of folktales in children’s books and family histories from my late grandfather, this was different. This was the first time I had come into contact with a novel that not only told a story about Africa, but from Africa through the eyes of an African. My Jamaican English teacher, to whom I will always be grateful, shared with us a quotation from the late, great Mr. Achebe: ‘Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.’ It was then that I properly understood the weight of what I had just read. After reading the novel, I thought about the line from that film and I understood why Black stories mattered.

Yes. This. All of it. Read the entire thing.

One line in particular from this post struck me so deeply that I want to stitch it on a T-shirt: “Slavery and the civil rights movement did not make us Black.”

Say that out loud.

Slavery and the civil rights movement did not make us Black.

Preach.

Myrie’s blog came to my attention because, for Black History Month, he’s highlighting Black poets in his regular Poem of the Week posts. The most recent is the poem Black Iraqi Woman by Faleeha Hassan. Here’s a short taste:

He affirmed: “During a pressing famine,

I devoted myself to watching over every breath you took.

I would thrust my hand through the film of hope

To caress your spirit with bread.

You would burp, and

I would delightedly endure my hunger and fall asleep.

I could only find the strength to fib to your face and say I was happy.

I would feel devastated when you fidgeted,

Because you would always head toward me,

And I felt helpless.”

Read the whole beautiful poem here. Find more of this poet’s work here. Check out Adam H.C. Myrie’s poems and other writings here.

February Tempest Challenge Day 7

Melissa Harris-Perry at ELLE | Tempest Challenge BHM

If you want to understand some of the stuff going on in America today through the lens of someone who deeply understands Black history (not just grade school Black history but the whole cloth), then you should be reading Melissa Harris-Perry’s content over at ELLE. Her pieces are like her: smart, insightful, and more concerned with understanding and action than clickbait.

If you don’t know much about Harris-Perry you probably know that she had a show on MSNBC that she very publicly left (or was fired from, depending on the source). She’s not the only Black or brown person to be shoved off/leave MSNBC or parent NBC due to white nonsense, the most recent being Tamron Hall[1]. All of these incidents just make me aware of how important it is to have woke Black people in journalism, both on TV and in magazines and newspapers. These perspectives on the news are so rare, and becoming rarer thanks to aforementioned white nonsense.

After you’ve read Harris-Perry’s stuff on ELLE, check out her book Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America.

Footnotes

  1. Who responded to NBC hiring the Friendly Face Of Racism, aka Megyn Kelly, by leaving altogether before they could try to use her as a shield when Megyn inevitably does something to prove she deserves the title Friendly Face Of Racism. Okay, I am only inferring that last bit.[]
February Tempest Challenge Day 6

Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters | Tempest Challenge BHM

In addition to Black History Month, February is also The Month of Letters/International Correspondence Writing Month. The challenge there is to write a letter and send it through the postal service every day (except Sundays) and to answer all the letters you get during the month. I am a fan of letter writing for the nostalgia of it, but I’m a bigger fan of letters continuing to exist because they are a specific kind of window into history. A couple of years ago on NPR Books I wrote:

The loss of letters impacts our culture to the core, because letters are a chronicle of history. Through them, people of every age, background, social standing, and culture add folded and stamped rectangles to a historical tapestry shared by official accounts, news stories, and later revisions. Without letters, we lose an integral way of seeing and understanding history.

That’s an important problem to consider during Black History Month. As a black woman, I’ve always experienced and filtered my understanding of black history through multiple layers: What I learned in school, what I learned from books and documentaries, and what I learned from listening to my family. This last, more intimate view of history has always been the most valuable to me. And so I look for it beyond my relatives and ancestors — in collections of letters.

Reading letters is a great way to understand the giants of Black history beyond the narrow narratives they’re usually confined to and also beyond the narrative those people crafted themselves. For example, this book: Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters.

In her public life, Hurston was an unreliable narrator: She fudged or lied about details of her life — out of necessity as well as out of vanity — to the point that her autobiography has been dubbed a work of fiction by some. A different woman emerges from the personal letters found in this biography. Is this the more authentic Zora Neale Hurston, just because the words were never intended for the public? Even Kaplan says that “every letter is a performance,” yet still acknowledges that they provide an insight beyond what can be gleaned from her published works. The letters here cover her life from 1917 to 1959, through the Harlem Renaissance, her time with the WPA, her anthropological work, and more.

You should, of course, read all her works. But read this, too. It’s another lens into history, one we don’t always get, especially the farther back you go.