February Tempest Challenge Day 9

Sun Ra and Afrofuturism | Tempest Challenge BHM

This entry is part 8 of 18 in the series Tempest Challenge: Black History Month

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 Ra1. 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.

  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

This entry is part 7 of 18 in the series Tempest Challenge: Black History Month

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

This entry is part 6 of 18 in the series Tempest Challenge: Black History Month

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 Hall1. 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.

  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

This entry is part 5 of 18 in the series Tempest Challenge: Black History Month

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.

February Tempest Challenge Day 4

Scott Woods: Just Read Everything He Writes | Tempest Challenge BHM

This entry is part 4 of 18 in the series Tempest Challenge: Black History Month

Just in case you didn’t think I was serious about how I want you to read all kinds of stuff by Black people this month, I bring you a recommendation that isn’t just about a book. I challenge you to read Scott Woods. Just all his stuff. Everything. Don’t hold back.

Scott is many things: a slam poet, a cultural critic, a dude who does not mince words, a true artist. He has two books of poetry out now and soon (hopefully very soon) he’ll have a novel out in the world. I’ve read a draft of that novel. It is fucking fantastic. I cannot wait for it to be out in the world so everyone gets a chance to read it.

Until then, you’re just going to have to satisfy yourself with his other writing. Like his blogs.

Those of you who joined me in the hate pile-on for the movie Gods of Egypt may remember me linking to Scott’s essay on the matter: Gods of Egypt is the most racist film ever.

Gods of Egypt is the most racist film in the last one hundred years. It is the most diabolically conceived, politically incorrect, and unapologetically racist film since The Birth of a Nation (the 1915 white one, not the 2016 black one, and how cool is it that we have to clarify that now?). It is more racist than Song of the South and Soul Man, which is no small feat. It is more racist than Mississippi Burning, The Revenant, The Help and Dragonball Evolution. It is more racist than the eye-rolling Bringing Down the House and The Last Samurai. It manages to somehow be more racist than Blended and Dances With Wolves. It is more racist than Dangerous Minds and its didn’t-bring-shit-to-the-party cousin, Freedom Writers. It is magically more racist than The Green Mile. It has unseated my standing favorite, The Lone Ranger, for most racist movie, and I thought Johnny Depp’s Tonto was going to get us to at least 2020.

His writing is funny and insightful and deep and engaging and you cannot read a bunch of it and come away not understanding that Scott is everything.

And then you read his poetry.

And then you listen to him perform his poetry.

So, here’s what to do next. Go to Scott Woods Makes Lists and subscribe. Then go to Scott Woods Writes and subscribe. Then go to his YouTube channel and subscribe. Then check out Urban Contemporary History Month and We Over Here Now, his poetry collections. Read. It. All.

You can thank me later.

February Tempest Challenge Day 3

The Temple of My Familiar by Alice Walker | Tempest Challenge BHM

This entry is part 3 of 18 in the series Tempest Challenge: Black History Month

Even people who don’t know much about Black authors know who Alice Walker is or just that the book The Color Purple exists. If you haven’t read that book or watched the movie, you should. Right now. Then, after you’re done, pick up The Temple of My Familiar.

Temple is not exactly a sequel to The Color Purple, though some characters from that book do appear in this one. It’s also not a book that’s easy to classify. It weaves in and out of the lives of several characters across many timelines and, in some cases, many lifetimes. I read the book when I was a teen and didn’t fully grok it, yet also never forgot it. When I read the book as an adult I still didn’t fully grok it, I just appreciated it more. Walker plays with character and structure in this book in ways that are not always successful but are always engaging. The best part is that each of the characters represents some different way of being Black, a rare thing in American novels.

After you finish this book, go read all Walker’s other books because she’s Alice freaking Walker, people.

February Tempest Challenge Day 2

Black Women in 19th Century American Life | Tempest Challenge BHM

This entry is part 2 of 18 in the series Tempest Challenge: Black History Month

A couple of years ago I wrote a piece for NPR Books highlighting literature that proves Black people existed in certain time periods (despite popular misconception) and that, where they existed, they were more than just The Help. My favorite of the books I mentioned is Black Women in Nineteenth-Century American Life: Their Words, Their Thoughts, Their Feelings. I like this one best because it’s a collection of contemporary writings by these women, not just about them. One of the best ways to understand history and the people in it is to read their own words.

The biggest reason I wanted to include this book is because it contains the writings of Dr. Rebecca Lee Crumpler:

The first African American to publish a medical text… also the first black woman to earn a medical degree. She wasn’t alone in this for long; within a few years she was joined by Rebecca J. Cole and Susan McKinney Steward, and by 1900 there were also Matilda Arabella Evans, Ida Gray Nelson Robbins, Eliza Ann Grier, and Sarah Parker Remond.

For Remond, her career as a doctor was a second one. She was a prominent lecturer and abolitionist who traveled throughout the US and to Europe to lecture against slavery, rouse foreign support for the Union cause, and advocate for freedmen once the war ended. She retired to Florence, Italy — where she earned a medical degree and set up a practice that lasted for 20 years. She never went back to America.

Did you ever learn about this woman in school? I sure didn’t. Just like we didn’t learn about Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan, or Mary Jackson of Hidden Figures fame.

February Tempest Challenge Day 1

Tempest Challenge: Black History Month Edition

This entry is part 1 of 18 in the series Tempest Challenge: Black History Month

Black History Month 2017 has already gotten off to a dubious start, at least in Washington. Not that this is very surprising. Within that rambling mess of a speech you may note that the specific names mentioned are the names we always hear during February’s festivities–King, Parks, Tubman, Douglass–names that reflect the narrowness of most Black History teachings. Most white people (and, sadly, far too many Black people and other POC) will only hear about Slavery and The Civil Rights Struggle as if these are the only two significant periods in Blackness and as if the people associated with those eras are the only people worth remembering. This is bullshit, of course. Let’s change that.

The Tempest Challenge has been on a hiatus, and the vids will continue to be as I work out what I want to do with that project over the long term. For this, though, I don’t need vids, just a blog.

Here’s what I challenge you to do every day during the month of February: Read something by a Black person that isn’t only about pre-Civil War American slavery, the Civil War, or the Civil Rights Era.

Read fiction, non-fiction, articles, letters, whatever, as long as it’s written by a Black person. Don’t limit your definition of Black Person to African-Americans. Black covers the African diaspora and writers currently in Africa and is not limited to people descended from those brought to the Americas as slaves.

This month I or someone who is awesome will offer you suggestions for what to read. Feel free to drop your own suggestions in the comments. Use the #TempestChallenge hashtag on Twitter or Instagram to share your favorite reads.

To get us started, my first suggestion is The Space Traders, a short story by Derrick Bell. You can read it online or you can pick up a copy of Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora and read it there.

There are two pieces of fiction that so effected me that they jacked me up for years after reading them. The first was Kindred by Octavia Butler. The other is The Space Traders. Thought they’re very different stories, the reason they jacked me up so hard is the same. They are both so true that it scared me as a Black person. With Kindred, I easily pictured myself as Dana and thought about what would happen to me if I found myself in her position. I didn’t think I would have survived. It scared me to think that. With The Space Traders, I pondered what would happen if the incident that kicks off the story happened in America right then (I first read this in the early 2000s when Bush 2 was in office) and realized that it would play out as written, which was an upsetting thought.

Bell published this story in 1992. One might have been lulled into thinking that it wasn’t prophetic during the eight years Obama was in office. I challenge anyone to read that story today and tell me that it’s not entirely possible.

If you don’t think so, then you don’t know your Black History.