I’ve been looking forward to the 2nd Annual Bronx Book Festival now for several months, and I can’t believe June is almost here. VIBE Magazine announced the line up last week & I’ll be speaking on a panel & reading from my new love, I Can Write the World, which publishes June 15th. (Have you pre-ordered? No? You’re in luck because here’s a link…)
Panel: Publishing Debunked
Time: 11:00 AM – 11:45 AM
Location: Fordham Plaza Main Stage
Panelists: Norma Perez-Hernandez (Assistant Editor at Kensington), Joshunda Sanders (I Can Write The World), Queressa Robinson (Literary Agent at Nelson Literary Agency), Alexis Daria (Take the Lead)
Moderator: Saraciea J. Fennell, founder of The Bronx is Reading
Description: Join editors, agents, and authors from the Bronx as they debunk the publishing industry for Bronxites.
Signing: 11:45 AM – 12:15 PM
Panel: Indie Power Hour
Time: 12:00 PM – 12:45 PM
Location: Fordham Plaza Main Stage
Description: Join three Bronx-based indie authors as they read from their current works. Readers include Joshunda Sanders (I Can Write The World), Josue Caceres (Bronx Stories & Heartbreak), Yajaira Eduardo (If at First You Don’t Succeed)
And it’s special to me that I’ll be there for a dozen reasons, including that just last year I was writing about the significance of the festival for the Village Voice, fellow Vassar alum and Tight author Torrey Maldonado will also be participating & I’m so proud of Saraceia for reinforcing her vision of creating a literary community that thrives in the Bronx. I hope you see you there — organizers ask that you register for this free event at this link.
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.
I am ecstatic to share my review for Bitch Media on Toni Morrison’s stunning collection of speeches, essays and meditations, out today, The Source of Self-Regard. I inhaled it and underlined entire paragraphs over the last two months. I went to the Schomburg for something else entirely and found an annotated bibliography that informed a lot of this piece. These glimpses and pieces of her are the nation’s greatest living novelist at the top of her form and the most intimate look we are likely to get at her most closely guarded feelings and emotions — especially as it relates to the writing process.
The third section of the book, “God’s Language,” begins with the most beautiful piece of writing I have ever read—the eulogy Morrison delivered at James Baldwin’s funeral on December 8, 1987. It is also the closest glimpse we’ve had into Morrison’s personal relationships. Morrison lays her heart bare for a friend in a short poetic jubilee that’s reminiscent of Smokey Robinson’s recent speech at his childhood friend Aretha Franklin’s homegoing service.
“Jimmy, there is too much to think about you, and much too much to feel,” she begins. “The difficulty is your life refuses summation—it always did—and invites contemplation instead. Like many of us left here, I thought I knew you. Now I discover that, in your company, it is myself I know. That is the astonishing gift of your art and your friendship: You gave us ourselves to think about, to cherish.” Morrison might as well be speaking about herself. For me and many other writers, Morrison demonstrates how to be in a world that’s committed to your destruction. “You gave me a language to dwell in—a gift so perfect it seems my own invention,” she continues.
Throughout the book, Morrison reveals herself to be a teacher-student who is not just giving readers information that they’re expected to take in and regurgitate. Instead, she’s a “literary homegirl” (a phrase that she actually uses in the text). Referring to a friend as a “homegirl” implies a sense of ease in the presence of someone who knows and loves us, who evokes in us the joy, relaxation, comfort, and depth we typically only associate with home. Home is where we learn who we are, if not who we will become. Home is the starting point. In the title essay, delivered in Portland in 1992, Morrison explains how she viewed self-regard while writing her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Beloved. Morrison’s lecture deeply resonates with me because it gives context for arguably her most famous work, which at its heart, offers Black women an artistic vision of our liberation.
“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.
It makes total sense that Book Lovers Day would fall right in the middle of the hottest days of summer, when there really isn’t anything better than sitting in front of the air conditioning (or some other cooling device) and reading. As it happens, as I’ve been in the homestretch of finishing a work in progress for young adults, I’ve also been immersed in reading books for young readers of color by writers of color — like a message of love from the universe. Here are some of the books I’ve read & been reading lately that have won my heart:
Fresh Ink: An Anthology: I got a sneak peek at this one (Oh, the rewards of being a book nerd are few, but feel so enormous sometimes…) since the pub date is next week, on August 14th. I love the color, and adore the mission of We Need Diverse Books, cofounded by the anthology’s editor, novelist Lamar Giles. Here, he’s compiled fresh, and beautiful short stories by a constellation of YA’s strongest voices. I’m not all the way through, but stand-outs so far are “Why I Learned to Cook” by Sara Farizan, (whose third novel, Here to Stay, is incredibly timely and comes out this fall) Walter Dean Myers’ “Tags,” a one-act play that’s previously never been published and Melinda Lo’s (adorable) “Meet Cute.” I can’t wait to dig into the rest of the collection, especially stories from Daniel Jose Older & Melissa de la Cruz and Nicola Yoon. This is a collection that isn’t to be missed — it fully represents the world in which our youth live, which is what makes it so fresh. There are parts of Eric Gansworth’s “Don’t Pass Me By,” that are laugh out loud funny, and other moments of regular ‘ol teen angst that show that stories in own voices are also universal stories of kids who are just kids. The book is a relief.
Courage: One of the things that’s inspiring about talking to writers who write for a young audience and particularly for children of color (who often don’t see themselves reflected in literature, so get turned away from books at a young age) is that they often have such an interesting path to get to the page. Barbara Binns is one such author — and I interviewed her for Kirkus about her first middle-grade novel to be published by a large press, Courage. After other careers, Binns took a brief foray into romance writing for adults before she learned that the Black boys, in particular, are often resistant or struggling readers because no one really writes for them. She’s written to try and fill the gap for years, and Courage is another, larger step in that effort. It’s the story of 12-year-old T’Shawn, who is navigating the loss of a parent, the homecoming of a formerly incarcerated older brother, a crush and being the newest addition to his swimming team.
Proud: Young Reader’s Edition: “People think that there are limitations to what women and people of color can achieve,” Muhammad said when I interviewed her for Kirkus Reviews. She made history in spite of a number of odds as the first woman to compete in hijab, and more adversities that she describes in both the adult and young adult versions of her memoir. “It’s part of my life’s work to break through that box people try to put you in.”
I’m reading some other books, of course, but I’ll save all that for another time. What are you reading this summer? How are you liking it? What’s your favorite?
I’ve been reading some of the beautiful and important memoirs of the Movement for Black Lives that are forthcoming from Black feminists like Barbara Ransby & Charlene Carruthers as well as screening Rest in Power: The Trayvon Martin story, which begins airing tonight on the Paramount Network, since the end of June. I wrote about the docuseries, as well as the books, for the Village Voice:
“They say that time heals all wounds. It does not,” observes Sybrina Fulton, Trayvon Martin’s mother, in Rest in Power: The Trayvon Martin Story. “Had the tragedy not been so public, I probably would have taken more time to grieve, but I wasn’t given that type of privilege.”
The six-part documentary series, produced by Jay-Z and the Cinemart, begins and ends as it should, with the murdered seventeen-year-old’s parents. Over the course of subsequent episodes, the audience hears a series of 911 calls from Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman, the aspiring police officer who became neighborhood watch captain in his previously exclusive gated community in part to live out a racist vigilante fantasy.
Rest in Power establishes a pattern of behavior from Zimmerman: He calls the cops so frequently on Black children who moved to his neighborhood after the 2008 economic crisis that dispatchers know his voice and refer to him by his first name. Yet, as the series documents, it still took more than forty days, not to mention the intervention of media-savvy civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump, for Zimmerman to be arrested and charged with Martin’s fatal shooting, and to get the killing reported in context by the media.
Martin’s death was the first real major convergence of race and policing in President Barack Obama’s presidency after the euphoria of post-racial liberalism had worn off. In Rest in Power, we see Obama graying at a rapid pace, weary, saying that if he had a son, his son “would look like Trayvon.” He doubles down and says that, put another way, he could have been Trayvon Martin when he was younger. As author Mychal Denzel Smith puts it in an interview, it becomes clear that there will always be more Trayvon Martins than Barack Obamas.
Rest in Power captures this monumental moment in American resistance with moving detail, showing scenes from protests around the country. And forthcoming soon are some additional invaluable histories of this period that provide a broader picture of the modern articulation of Black protest and mobilization in response to racist and vigilante violence.
These books are particularly remarkable because all too often, the narratives of resistance that do exist are positioned as though cisgender heterosexual men have always been at the forefront. As these works demonstrate, Black women have been the unsung architects of many of these protest movements — and they have only recently started to get their due.
Indeed, as we see the signs of hate rising all around us today, it becomes clear that Black women tried to warn us. Khan-Cullors notes this in When They Call You a Terrorist, writing on how she and her co-founders of Black Lives Matter as a movement were nearly erased from early reporting: “Despite it being a part of the historical record that it is always women who do the work, even as men get the praise — it takes a long time for us to occur to most reporters in the mainstream. Living in patriarchy means that the default inclination is to center men and their voices, not women and their work.”
That is true both for how she situates the BLM founders in relation to Martin’s case and for how she writes about the uprising in Ferguson, Missouri, after unarmed teen Michael Brown’s shooting by police officer Darren Wilson. In a chapter dedicated to activism in Ferguson, Ransby profiles Black feminist organizers, including Darnell Moore, Kayla Reed, Brittany Ferrell, Alexis Templeton, and Jamala Rogers.
“When I suggest that the movement is a Black feminist-led movement, I am not asserting that there was no opposition and contestation over leadership, or that everyone involved subscribed to feminist views,” Ransby writes. “Nevertheless, when we listen carefully, we realize that the most coherent, consistent, and resolute political voices to emerge over the years since 2012 have been Black feminist voices, or Black feminist-influenced voices.”
The spring before I left the Bronx to go to boarding school, to accept a scholarship that would change the entire trajectory of my life, I had an abortion. I was 15.
I was raised a devout Catholic; I’ve always been a deeply spiritual person. But I also had been so desperately lonely for such a long time. My high school boyfriend was a dumb ass and so was I. But he was lonely, too, in a different way. Poverty, violence, rage: They make you want the instant gratification it seems that sex can provide when you’re young.
I got pregnant not long after my mother had a manic episode during which she threatened to kill me. I’d run away from home to my best friend’s apartment in the projects as a temporary solution, to gather my thoughts. That was the weekend, when I was 14, that I first had sex. Looking for safety, a home, somewhere, with someone.
I had been keeping a journal daily for at least six months up to that point. When I told social workers I’d applied to boarding school, that I didn’t want to go home because it wasn’t safe, but I just needed a few more months to figure something out, they told me I could go to a group home, but it was unlikely that I could go to boarding school from any group home.
Reluctantly, I returned home. When she tried to hit me again, I held her wrists. “The next time you hit me, I will hit you back.”
It was a small win compared to what came next, which was that she found my journal, which, because I was an idiot, detailed how ambivalent I was about a future I didn’t know I could believe in. On one hand, I believed that if I had a baby, my boyfriend would always have to love me, and it would mean on some level that at least two people — he and the child — would have to love me. Right?
On the other, I have never wanted to be a mother. I have seen what this world does to Black babies. I am named for one who was killed at 12. A day does not pass when one is not harassed, though these days, it feels lucky that they are not murdered.
My mother’s discovery of my journal triggered our visit to Planned Parenthood, where she recited her rosary, loudly, while we waited to see the doctor. This was, for the doctors, a red flag, that she would be so bold. They saw us separately — in retrospect, I don’t know if this was legal or not. Is it safe, they wondered, to tell her that you’re pregnant?
“Absolutely not,” I said, shaking my head.
When they called her in, they lied to her. I lied to her on the day that I went to have the abortion with one of my Catholic school classmates. I have never cried so much or so hard in my life as I did as I mourned my deepest shame.
By then, the packet of summer reading for my first year at the new elite school had arrived in the mail. I had stopped writing things down. I was going to read my way to my future.
Last Friday evening, I was first in line at the Harry Belafonte Library in Harlem to listen to the first in a series of talks co-presented by the National Book Foundation and the New York Public Library called Notes from the Reading Life featuring two Black women I admire: Thelma Golden and Kaitlyn Greenidge.
Golden has been at the helm of The Studio Museum in Harlem for 17 years, and she is currently serving as Director and Chief Curator. Greenidge is the author of We Love You, Charlie Freeman (and, it must be said, has one of the best Twitter TLs in the game.)
It’s rare that I get to hear two Black women engage in a loving and wide-ranging conversation that centers a Black woman’s engagement with books and reading merely for fun. So of course, I took notes.
The value of attending talks like this is to remember how rejuvenating it is when Black women frame conversation and also how we view story versus how story is framed for us — and frankly, against us. Often, when others are charged with framing aesthetic conversation, in particular, they center themselves and put us at the margins.
For an artist, this makes it hard to invoke the imagination because you never spend any time in a rich, creative or fertile environment. But being in the audience for Golden and Greenidge was one such experience for me.
Golden started by saying she was excited about the renaming of the NYPL branch on 115th street where the talk was held on behalf of Harry Belafonte, and, “to walk in and see the photo of Langston Hughes, to be here in the Alvin Ailey community room — all cultural giants.” And then she underscored that it’s the work of the Studio Museum of Harlem to elevate such giants in ways that often aren’t.
Greenidge started by asking Golden who made her a reader. And Golden mentioned her father, who was born in Harlem, and worked in the building, actually, where the Studio Museum, now is, when it was a bank.
“Arthur Golden was a reader who loved literature. My mother was from Brooklyn. New Yorkers will understand this; when they got married, they compromised and moved to Queens,” she said, to my delight. (It’s hard enough trying to date someone from a different borough I can’t even imagine trying to marry one. Different blog for a different day.)
She described growing up in Queens in a house with what was then known as a den full of books from her father’s library, but no television. He was deeply interested in literature and encouraged her to read.
Her theory is that because she was born in 1965, when he was 40 — considered old for a parent in those days — he let her read anything. Or as she puts it, “We had a relationship to books that was very wide.”
She read both A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Paule Marshall’s Brown Girl, Brownstones when she was as young as 11, noting with laughter that her mother was very early trying to recruit her to view Brooklyn as the best borough. She read the latter again when she was 16 and again when she was older.
Her mother was from Barbados and grew up in Brooklyn with her siblings in a house purchased by her family in 1926 where some of her relatives still live.
“It wasn’t until I re-read Brown Girl, Brownstones that I really understood my mother and her journey and her quirks,” Golden said. You can think you know about the life of your mother, that it may resemble something that you read in a work of fiction that feels real.
But by reading Marshall’s work, Golden said, “They were all of a sudden actual facts. I asked her later in life, ‘Why did you give me that book?’ She said, ‘I wanted you to understand me better.'”
I don’t imagine I’ll have children of my own, but if that ends up being the path, I imagine this would be such a profound experience…to learn more about the inner life of your mother this way, both in person but also via a book that she loves and gifts to you.
Greenidge said, “I think what you’re describing is the magic of reading for kids. Children can be kind of narcissistic. We think the first time we feel something is the first time its happened.” Golden agreed and expounded on the idea of thinking her experiences were singular and the power of learning they were connected to history.
Which brought us to James Baldwin’s Another Country. (At this point, I admittedly got distracted from the bane of my existence and my lifeline to the world, my smartphone, but I believe I heard Golden said she took a seminar at Smith with James Baldwin when she was student) and he asked her who her favorite character in the novel was. And she said Ida, Rufus’ sister.
I came to quickly enough to hear this gem, “My father went to the same middle school as James Baldwin, and Countee Cullen was their teacher.” (!!)
I was so enamored of this because I have such generational envy for what Harlem was like during the time when Baldwin lived. I know I’m romanticizing it and it was probably as problematic and complex for Black women to navigate emotionally and artistically as every other space is today. But the richness, the products of the period, suggest that the magic had a power that provided at least some possibilities for transcendence. And that’s the part I love and very selfishly wish was still present/actively cultivated for Black writers, at least.
Walker is an example of what it means to be an exceptional living Black woman writer, much like Toni Morrison, the author of another Golden favorite, Sula.
Of all the luscious Morrison books I’ve had the privilege of savoring, Sula falls, for me, just slightly below the Scriptural supremacy and spiritual force in Song of Solomon. But Golden described Sula so poetically, noting that she loved reading it because it was “layered with all the things I know about the world.”
Golden said she never read The Bluest Eye, which is a statement I actually love. Although I did read it, and found that Pecola Breedlove’s envy of blond hair and blue eyes was actually quite resonant for me, I love a contrarian and this assertion (among others) gave me a sense of that streak in Golden. The spectacle of little black girls who hate themselves because they are not white is actually also not the healthiest or most edifying experience for young black girls, so I was happy for Golden, and envious, too, wanting to experience this vicarious liberation from thinking of my beauty in relationship to whiteness and having that praised even from the very beginning — of a life or of a career.
Still, Morrison is not only America’s greatest living novelist, but she is the originator of our current Black literary renaissance, insofar as writers like myself, readers like Golden and almost every Black woman writer I’ve ever known or met who perseveres through self-doubt and the other perils of the writing life have uttered and taken to heart Morrison’s words, “If there’s a book you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”
“That informs my work as a curator, to provide room for so many artists of African descent, to make art to allow us into space,” Golden said. “Toni Morrison is, to me, a rigorous example of Black genius.”
It was nice to be reminded of Maya’s habit of keeping a hotel room in any city in which she visited, so that she could write without interruption, accompanied only with “two books, a bottle of sloe gin and a deck of cards,” Greenidge informed us.
Angelou’s work in memoir was the first instance of showing Golden, she said, “the stories we create of ourselves…the importance of the creation of our artistic selves. We get to make for ourselves a world that doesn’t make space for us.”
As for Americanah, Golden’s husband is Nigerian and lives in London. Along with the work that she leads and is invested in, she’s tied to Africa, then, “not just in the past, but also art, culture and ideas in the present.”
As a result, she said that she “felt profoundly seen,” by Americanah, in the same way she did by Zadie Smith’s On Beauty. “It’s what happens when outsiders look at your culture.”
Other notable aspects of the talk included the following:
When Greenidge asked Golden which book she would give to a small child if she had to, she mentioned Whistle for Willie by Ezra Jack Keats.
She recalled someone giving her a copy of Invisible Man and finding it formative. She mentioned that someone should write a biography of Ralph Ellison’s wife, Fannie Ellison — do your thing, Internet!
Since we were in Harlem, and Golden had made note of the pictures of Langston Hughes and other cultural giants of the neighborhood earlier, Greenidge mentioned the I, Too Arts Collective the literary nonprofit helmed by author Renee Watson that has continued to do God’s work preserving Langston Hughes’ brownstone and has transformed it into a site of community for writers of color. “I wish it had not been so hard. I wish it had been a natural act. So much of history is not in buildings. It’s in the neighborhood. I hope that while we continue to move toward our future, that we can continue to honor our past. This is a community with a deep and rich history. This wasn’t just a setting for great work. This neighborhood created opportunity for artists. I hope we can preserve that in ways that people will be able to touch and feel in the future.”
You should go to some of the future Notes from the Reading Life events if you’re in New York or if you’ll be in town for one that’s upcoming. Tonight, it’s a conversation between Tim Gunn & Min Lee. I’m so sad to say I’ll miss the conversation (in the Bronx!) between Desus Nice & Rebecca Carroll at the Bronx Library Center on June 15th — but you shouldn’t.
I wrote about the Bronx Book Festival for the Village Voice and how the Bronx is having a resurgence of the book scene with the work and leadership of Saraceia J. Fennell and Noelle Santos, but there were a couple of quotes from one of the panels that I wanted to add in the spirit of Throwback Thursday that didn’t fit in the context of the story that I wanted to put here.
“In this nation, the women’s movement was started by Black women. If we’re going to create a movement in this country that’s inclusive, we have to acknowledge indigenous women who get erased, and Black women specifically. That’s still not understood, which is why we struggle with solidarity. If your movement doesn’t lift all boats, we’re not going to win.” — Sofia Quintero
“A large part of resistance is rejecting rejection…Part of the feminist project, especially in the arts, is a more liberating masculinity. It’s not that they don’t have privilege. Our feminism has to be one that heals and liberates everyone. We have to inform the brothers, but the brothers gotta do their own labor.” — Roya Marsh is one of the poets in the beautiful Black Girl Magic anthology, which you can buy here.