I wrote about Bendito arriving in my life around the time that it seemed a number of people discovered a 2014 Bark article I wrote about Cleo and the fraught relationship some Black folks have with dogs. The folks at the podcast An Animal Saved My Life over at The Dodo were kind enough to interview me about my sweet Bendito, who very soon will be 1 year old. I hope you enjoy it, especially if podcasts are your jam.
Black Book Stacks on Substack
Before I was a journalist, my favorite non-fiction writing and non-journaling activity was to attend readings or lectures featuring Black authors and take copious notes. So it is a kind of coming full circle that I’ve started a Substack newsletter focused on book reviews related to books for and by Black people, Black Book Stacks. (About a year ago, I started a YouTube channel of the same name, which you can view here and if I have a Bookshop store you can find here.)
I always had the innate sense that being a writer was not just about putting words to paper and hoping that others would read those words. I was always searching to put the words I wrote into a tradition. Writing was another way of trying to belong and to solidify a place for myself in a world that seemed bent on my erasure or destruction.
I have vivid memories of a small royal blue Mead notebook that was thick as a brick. I carried it with me to the old Barnes & Noble on Astor Place, through Washington Square Park, up to Emma Willard and Vassar. I had the privilege of listening and trying to absorb the wisdom of Jamaica Kincaid, Gloria Naylor, Janet McDonald, Elaine Brown and so many others. I was a careful collector of Black women writers’ quotes, usually because I couldn’t afford to purchase books of my own and I didn’t not want to vandalize library books. Quotes were the happy compromise; they were short enough for me to carry wherever I went. These were the breadcrumbs and manna they left for me in a trail to who-knew-where but I gobbled them up. Every nugget was a jewel in my crown.
As I made my way in journalism, it became harder and harder for me to give myself permission to keep up this witnessing practice in the same way. Mostly because of time, but also because I realized that such forums and opportunities to hear Black writers and share space with them were fewer in other states and cities. It just so happened that reading the work of Black women in particular was my self-paced MFA program. Sometimes, I had the opportunity to profile, interview and write about them, as was the case with Octavia Butler in 2004 and Alice Walker around the same time. But mostly, I was just glad to have their work to sit with and revel in.
Over the years, I’ve continued to focus my attention on the work of Black writers because, as more of the world knows now, we live in a world where white supremacist capitalism means that what is considered valuable is everything but Blackness or real intimate discussions of all its flourishing contours in spite of and beyond the gaze of the consumption of white people. What I mean to say, I think, is that Black literature has always been a miracle to behold. In part because it comes from a people who have a shorter lineage in the Americas of thriving in literature because of the legal restrictions that forbade them to read and write. Our resilience and perseverance and faith, all bound up in the Word, continued both in an oral tradition and on paper.
The overcorrection here, I’ve found, is that when it comes to fair critique or evaluation of the work of Black writers, is that our books are either ignored, as if they never happened, especially beyond the date or week of their publication, or they are elevated as neutral objects for sale without a real analysis of them and their context. That’s what my new newsletter is aiming to help create in the world. I hope that if that sounds of interest to you, that you’ll subscribe. Looking forward to seeing you on the list.
Book Review: Caste by Isabel Wilkerson
Happy summer, as happy as it can be, I suppose. I wanted to drop by to rave a little about Isabel Wilkerson’s masterpiece, Caste, publishing soon and definitely one for you to pick up. Here’s my full review from the Sunday Boston Globe and an excerpt:
“With an old house, the work is never done, and you don’t expect it to be,” writes Isabel Wilkerson in her new book, “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents.” “America is an old house.” It is a simple analogy that is classic Wilkerson, whose previous book, “The Warmth of Other Suns,” chronicled the Great Migration through the masterful weaving of thousands of narratives within the United States. In her new book, which should be required reading for generations to come and is as propulsive a reading experience as her debut, she turns her attention to India, Germany, and what their histories have in common with America’s.
A significant work of social science, journalism, and history, “Caste” removes the tenuous language of racial animus and replaces it with a sturdier lexicon based on power relationships. “Caste is the infrastructure of our divisions,” Wilkerson explains, “an artificial construction, a fixed and embedded ranking of human value that sets the presumed supremacy of one group against the presumed inferiority of other groups on the basis of ancestry.” Using examples from around the world, she goes on to demonstrate how the codification of caste throughout the world has hardened economic and political inequality into seemingly permanent markers of difference.
School Library Connection Author of the Month Interview
I’m delighted to share a Q&A with School Library Connection as its December Author of the Month. I got to share my love of The Bronx, the story behind Ava Murray’s name in the I Can Write the World series and more about faith, solitude and writing across genres. I hope you’ll check it out. You can read the whole thing here, but I’ve included an excerpt below:
I love the way Ava’s mother uses the window frame to explain how journalists “frame” stories. It seems like so much of our news these days is framed to fit a particular narrative, rather than to express the truth. Why do you think this started to happen, and what can be done to fix it?
Thank you; it wasn’t until I had the great honor of sitting on a panel at the 2019 Bologna Children’s Book Fair with Rudine Sims Bishop, whose beautiful description of books as windows preceded Kim’s description in the book, that I thought more about the significance of how we talk to children (or don’t talk to them) about how stories are framed, or shaped.
I think that it’s fairly recent in society—adjacent and aligned with the rise of social media—that everyone sort of considers themselves a journalist. When you think about it, journalists are witnesses, people who report what they see. So in a way, everybody’s right. What everyone doesn’t necessarily have, though, are the ethics that go along with what professional news gatherers have—this inclination to shine a light on injustice and unfairness. Most news reporters get into the business (and it is increasingly considered mainly a business) with the aims of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable. But I think the reason why news more often resembles propaganda now has to do with a kind of commodification of truth and certainly of news. Integrity or nobility are less emphasized than they used to be because most media moguls are looking for revenue to survive in an environment where no one thinks they need an intermediary for news.
One thing I think all of us could do more of is to consider how powerful our platforms are, whether you think you have one or not. All of us who write, for example, have presences online. How can we use that to help others share their opinions or their stories more mindfully? Sometimes it’s as simple as asking these questions, which I love and did not originate with me: “Does it need to be said? Does it need to be said now? Does it need to be said by me?” The other thing is if we are all journalists, now, it shouldn’t just be when it’s comfortable or cute, but all the time. Ask more difficult questions. Who is the source of this information? Are they lying to me about their objectivity? Why do I believe them? Why should I believe them? When in doubt, find your own credible sources and go with that.
On the legacy of Toni Morrison
“In time, writing became a way to ‘order my experience…’ It’s always seemed to me that black people’s grace has been with what they do with language.”
Late last year I received a copy of The Source of Self-Regard. I guarded this galley with my life, and from the first page, I felt fed. Redeemed. Seen.
I was completely astounded by it, and by the possibility of writing about Toni Morrison for the first time after years of steeping myself in her work. I did what I always do when I’m intimidated by the prospect, by the responsibility, of trying to do someone justice: I went overboard with research. Flung myself into the stacks at the Schomburg. The above quote comes from the 1987 book, Toni Morrison: An Annotated Bibliography by David L. Middleton. Here are my other notes:
Born 1931 in Lorain, Ohio
Chloe Anthony Wofford
Shortened her name to an abbreviation of her middle name purportedly (and with regret) because no one could pronounce Chloe. The theme of claiming one’s name emerged –noted in entry – in her fiction – from third novel, Song of Solomon (1977) to Tar Baby, her fourth ( 1981)
Graduated from Howard in 1953, English Major, classics minor
Master’s from Cornell in 1955 – her thesis was on suicide in the work of William Faulkner and Virginia Woolf.
She taught for two years at Texas Southern University in Houston, then returned to Howard as a faculty member.
She married Jamaican architect Harold Morrison in 1958
They had two sons together, Harold Ford and Slade Kevin. They divorced in 1964.
She moved w/sons to Syracuse where she worked as Random House textbook editor. Began writing at night as therapy for her loneliness when her sons were in bed.
Transferred to NYC in 1967 to headquarters for Random House editing acclaimed black women writers like Gayl Jones and Toni Cade Bambara.
She kept teaching – at SUNY Purchase 1971-72, Yale, 1976-77. She left Random House in 1983; Appointed Albert Schweitzer chair at SUNY Albany in 1984. Stayed until 1989, when Princeton appointed her Robert F. Goheen Professor of the Council of the Humanities at Princeton University. (Note from me: That means 2019 marks the 30th anniversary of Toni Morrison becoming the first Black woman to hold a chair at an ivy league university.)
When I am overwhelmed with sadness and grief, like now, I reach for books. Toni Morrison made it so that when I reached for books, I saw the most glorious, complicated and layered parts of myself as a black woman becoming. When I joined the Well Read Black Girl sisterhood for a viewing of the documentary about her life, Toni Morrison: The Pieces That I Am, it felt like we were witnessing a celebrity in the room with us, like she was talking to every black woman in the room even though we were in a crowded theater in Brooklyn.
She did not know me, but she knew me, because her work reached into my soul and embraced the core of me. That is some of how I feel about Toni Morrison’s work; Toni Morrison who lived by the Hudson, recovered from personal tragedies and still, rose. Still, she wrote. Not just anything — everything. The following paragraph did not make it into my Bitch Magazine review of The Source of Self-Regard:
It is easy for us to take for granted Morrison’s vision, the scope and depth and breadth of it. How far she could see into our future from the quiet of those dark nights of her loneliness. The Bluest Eye, for example, was a precursor for this time – showing us that we would continue, always to vilify the acts of sexual assault against black girls or against women, at least, and maybe sometimes we would consider those two to be in the same category, but we would always excuse the perpetrators of that violence in the bodies of black men. It is easy to look back now that Morrison is nearing the end of a storied, established life, not to put her in a grave or anything, and applaud or be dismissive of the soaring loveliness of Beloved. If the book’s failure to win the 1987 National Book Award or the National Book Critics Circle Award despite notable acclaim was any indication – as these things go, it was taken as such – the idea that a mother willing to kill her children instead of submitting it to a life of slavery was so great a leap that it took an open letter published in the New York Times Book Review signed by 48 prominent black writers to have the literary establishment look again at their discomfort. The following year, Morrison won the Pulitizer Prize.
I would be a less proud, confident, whole black woman writer were it not for the gifts of Toni Morrison. She was and is a literary light for the ages. I will miss her sharp, soft language, that keenly spiritual eye and of course, always, forevermore, the narratives she had left to write, if there was any more for her to give.
I’m too gutted to read her eulogy to James Baldwin in its entirety this morning. But this part, this is what I feel about Toni this morning:
You knew, didn’t you, how I needed your language and the mind that formed it? How I relied on your fierce courage to tame wildernesses for me? How strengthened I was by the certainty that came from knowing you would never hurt me? You knew, didn’t you, how I loved your love? You knew. This then is no calamity. No. This is jubilee. ”Our crown,” you said, ”has already been bought and paid for. All we have to do,” you said, ”is wear it.”
And we do, Jimmy. You crowned us.
Happy Pub Day to I Can Write the World
You can buy the book on Indie Bound, Barnes and Noble or Amazon. Please review this book on Amazon and Goodreads please!
Patsy Review in TIME Magazine
I loved Patsy so much that I got the beautiful book hangover that one gets when you miss the 400+ pages that took you on an epic journey. I’m really proud of this TIME Magazine review:
There have been few narrative epics that effectively tally the emotional, logistical, physical, psychological and financial trials of the black female immigrant and mother or, likewise, the impact on the family of a black woman who dares transform herself. Dennis-Benn maps the internal terrain of black women yearning to be free — without romanticizing or ignoring their flaws. Yes, her central characters are persistent, but they can also be naive. Yes, these are strong black women, but they’re also human, and they’re nearly broken by loneliness, despair and a sense that they’ll never belong. Showing us the triumphs and pitfalls of these two parallel rites of passage, Patsy fills a literary void with compassion, complexity and tenderness.
New York Times Book Review on Elizabeth Acevedo’s New Book
When I heard Elizabeth Acevedo read at last year’s inaugural Bronx Book Festival, I understood exactly why The Poet X was as important and astounding as the author herself. It wasn’t just an authentic narrative for authenticity’s sake, but a work of beauty particularly for women of color meant to inspire them to find their voices and paths. It took my breath away.
With The Fire on High was similar – a beautiful page-turner. I couldn’t wait to share with y’all that I got the assignment of a lifetime to write about it for the New York Times Book Review. Below is an excerpt, but if you read the whole thing, I’d love to hear your feedback — especially if you’ve read the book, which you should definitely get a copy of.
Xiomara is like the more subdued fictive kin of Emoni Santiago, the self-possessed heroine of Acevedo’s second novel, WITH THE FIRE ON HIGH (HarperTeen, 400 pp., $17.99; ages 13 and up). A talented aspiring chef and unapologetic teenage mother, Emoni is as stubbornly committed to following her dreams as Xiomara is, but she cares less about other people’s perceptions. Anchored by her baby girl, Emma, and her grandmother Gloria (whom she calls ‘Buela), Emoni is sure of everything except whom she can trust as she chases her dream of running her own kitchen.
The nomenclature theme nods to Emoni’s maturity and integrity, and her attention to detail. She knows her own name is a signifier of her Afro-Latinx identity; “Emma,” on the other hand, “is the kind of name that didn’t tell you too much before you met her, the way mine does,” Emoni tells us. “Because nobody ever met a white girl named Emoni, and as soon as they see my name on a résumé or college application they think they know exactly what kind of girl they getting.”
What a wrong assumption. “Information ain’t free, so my daughter’s name wasn’t going to tell anybody any information they didn’t earn.”
Black Magic Women & The Power of Vulnerability
Last night, I was watching Brene Brown’s The Call to Courage and so much of it resonated with me because what writers do, all the time, is meet risk and vulnerability with courage. We have this in common, of course, with other artists: Actors, visual artists, musicians. I spend a lot of time wondering about the paradoxical nature of how our culture both obsesses over creation and art and devalues it, simultaneously. It has become part of my personal and spiritual practice to do what Maya Angelou is quoted saying in Beyonce’s film, “Homecoming” which I’ve seen three times now (and is definitely another Netflix film for you to watch, which is “Tell the truth. To yourself first.”
To that end, I wrote about a trend I’ve watched emerge in recent years online for Topic about Black spirituality particularly among young black women. The TL; DR version of this is that traditional church institutions (not unlike government, I might add) have tried to suppress and belittle women’s sexuality, personhood and desires for centuries. I think that seeing the perverse ways in which the negation of people’s true selves manifests — in pedophilia in the Catholic Church, in homophobia and transphobia that warps relationships in similar ways in the Black Church — has led thousands of Black women and many others to choose a different way. In some ways, creating individualized spiritual practices for oneself is nothing new. But I believe it’s become more popular because we are seeking more control over our worlds and our lives. And it’s just too painful to hand over our personal power to patriarchal systems that fundamentally ask us to remain faithful to systems that make us feel shame for wanting to be free.
Here’s an excerpt for that Topic piece:
TO UNDERSTAND WHAT nontraditional Christianity looks like for many black millennials, we have to, perhaps unsurprisingly, turn to the internet. There, one can find a robust community of black and Afro Latina women leveraging social media to gain followers and clients—the majority of them also black women—while offering free guidance about how to use the energy of the cosmos to their benefit.
Over the past seven years, I have noted, with some delight, a growing and powerful group of young people, primarily women, preaching messages of self-empowerment, intuitive guidance, and ancestral reverence. They are everywhere, from Twitter and Instagram to YouTube and the crowdfunding platform Patreon.
It makes sense: in a world where young people’s attachment to smartphones has become one of their most intimate relationships, it would follow that divinely inspired messages of empowerment would reach us via our devices, like everything else we think has meaning. (No judgment—I used to sleep with my phone, too.) And because most social media is used predominantly by women and people of color, there’s a natural synchronicity to digital interactions that allows for seemingly disparate groups to connect to alternative forms of faith.
So that piece was the most vulnerable I’ve been about my faith journey pretty much ever and it gave me a gigantic vulnerability hangover of the sort that is probably tiny compared to what Brene Brown describes in her special. Nevertheless, it was with so much joy that I watched “Homecoming” again and again and got back all of the energy that was expended over ten revisions of the Topic piece, which I kind of loved every minute of. I was tweeting about the fact that Beyonce is the best entertainer of all time and thankfully one of my former colleagues (thank you, Omar!!) suggested me as a writer who could attempt to slay writing about “Homecoming” for Book Plus Film.
This was so much fun to write! Here’s an excerpt, but please do read the whole thing:
Beyoncé is the greatest entertainer of our era and one of the quietest, most silent workers in the game. But she’s a lot of other things, including a scholar. She doesn’t talk about it; she is about it. Her references make evident her awareness and respect for history. She wields silence strategically, working behind the scenes until she’s ready for you to see what she’s been doing. This, along with other methods evident in Homecoming, connects her to a tradition of Black women guarding our sacred inner lives–what historian Darlene Clark Hine calls a “culture of dissemblance.”
In the Reconstruction Era, the Historically Black Colleges and Universities to which Beyoncé pays homage directly in Homecoming offered alternatives to Black people in the South who had no other outlet for edifying themselves spiritually and intellectually. Black women perfected the art of protecting their inner lives through performing personae of intimacy and vulnerability. The damage slavery wrought to our spirits, bodies and position in American popular culture meant the broader world considered us worthless.
But we reclaimed our value and worth through the important, necessary alchemy of consorting with and among ourselves to transform ugly stereotypes. We would never be protected like white women, or valued in the same way, but we had ourselves. We had one another.
“Without community, there is no liberation,” Audre Lorde said.
“The most disrespected woman in America is the Black woman,” Malcolm X said.
A Modern-Day Nefertiti
The truths that unfurl in “Homecoming” flip what most people thought they knew about Black Girl Magic into a two-hour spectacle of reunion pageantry, Black Boy Joy intersecting with a Texas Bamma steeped in the glory of her abundant, glorious Black womanness.
Throughout the athletic and awe-inspiring performances that make up Homecoming, Beyoncé as always, does multiple things at once. She channels a spiritual clinic on how to birth one’s singular vision while also allowing us, as viewers, to project our dreams onto her everywoman canvas. She signifies with subversive and overt joy, refracting and projecting light that’s illuminated by a pulsing, alive darkness.
Beyoncé summons us in Homecoming to witness an intimate-looking, vulnerable and considered return to herself. This, she tells us, is her homecoming, too. We feel that without her having to say a word as the show begins. A Black woman drummer commands the camera’s attention with a ferocity that every living being on the stage will soon match. A modern-day Nefertiti saunters her way to her pyramid of vibrantly clad dancers, singers and a Black orchestra, a swelling, uproarious band that aptly represents the pinnacle of swag.
Lane Moore’s How to Be Alone
“Your commitment to survival is more than a notion; it’s a balm, an affirmation, an eternal love note, and a sacred love manifestation that starts as a whisper and rises into the atmosphere. How to be Alone gave me closure. What a gift it is to know that there’s another person in the world who’s so brave and true to her spirit that she survived the hardest parts of being alive. Instead of sinking into despair or madness; being waylaid by bitterness or tragedy; or turning the grueling and terrifying dark of isolation against yourself, you’ve transmuted it into a fire so bright that it blazes brilliantly, with a classic, universal humanity. James Baldwin said, “You think your heartbreak is unprecedented in the world, and then you read.” How To Be Alone is like that.”
— In which I write a very vulnerable open letter-review for Bitch Media to the beautiful bad ass Lane Moore, whose tremendous and lovely book, How To Be Alone, really helped me sort some things out in the best, most heartbreaking way. Shout out to those of you who remember my Single & Happy blog & eBook days. Feels like a lifetime ago now.
P.S. New Yorkers: Lane will be in convo with the HQ host (!!) at The Strand tonight at 7 p.m.