Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Afro Europe writing emerging - Kadija Sesay and Araba Johnston Arthur

The recent reports on social uprising and rioting in Britain raised awareness about the social tension in the Black British community, or in many cases, made people aware that there is a Black British community,  at all.

Kadija Sesay, Publisher, Sable Lit Magazine
At the Harlem Book Fair in July, I had a brief conversation about the growing emergence of new Black British writing with Kadija Sesay, publisher of the literary magazine, SableLit, and a writer and activist. Kadija had just participated in a panel on Black British writing standing on its own merits. The panel included poet Dorothea Smartt (ShipShape). The writers discussed Black literary activity in England and elaborated on complexities of ethnic and mainly Caribbean national identities that inform the writing categorized under the umbrella of Black British writing in the "post-colonial" era.

Here is a link to a radio interview today that Kadija Sesay participated in on the program Africa Now with another guest, activist Araba Johnston Arthur; topics include the new brand of Black British writers who have emerged in the last four or five decades, following what is known as the post-colonial era (writers such as Kwinton Lesi Johnson and Caryl Philips).

Araba Johnston Arthur, a Black Austrian writer, talked about Black Austrian writers tending to write in the English language rather than in the German, and intentionally using the term, "Black," because the term carries with it the force of Black power and Black consciousness (associated with the Black power/ consciousness movement in the United States.) Araba implied that there is essentially no equivalent term in German that carries the context of "Black power." Literature has played a significant role in resistance and, she said, "[it] still does play a very important role in making our experience more visible in talking back in the form of art." Admittedly, I have read no Black Austrian writers (that I know of)--this interview has raised my consciousness of the existence of a Black Austrian community at all.

On Africa Now, Kadija spoke of the social unrest that exploded a few weeks ago in Britain. Acknowledging that social media played a role in instigating riots--and suggests that the authorship of some text messages she saw were questionable--perhaps fabricated to perpetuate the unrest. She is right about the critical importance of literacy among Black youth and the significance of the arts in developing young people's potential. Agree with her also that critical reviews of art is essential. SableLit is working with youth, sixteen and older, to help them to advance their literary talents and to get published. In this its tenth year, SableLit has been awarded government funds to expand its work.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Sister Citizen

Just received in the mail my copy of Melissa Harris-Perry's Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America.  Can't wait to get to it. (I caught up with Harris-Perry at her publisher [Yale UP] in May.)

Sister Citizen by Melissa Harris-Perry
Skimming the table of contents, it's obvious that Harris-Perry takes a non-traditional approach to the topic of Black women's understanding of ourselves in relationship to American citizenship and politics. Preceding her chapters on myths, shame, disaster, strength, God and Michelle (FLOTUS, of course), are excerpts from Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God and Alice Walker's The Color Purple, as well as poems--"Praise Song for the Day" by Elizabeth Alexander and "The Bridge" by Kate Rushin--and a lyric, "No Mirrors in My Nana's House," by Ysaye Maria Barnwell (Sweet Honey in the Rock.)

Harris-Perry uses literary passages as an overarching frame to discuss negative stereotypes that undermine Black women as we navigate the all too real American social and political terrain. The myths she isolates are the "Mammy" (the Black woman devoted to white people's needs); the "Sapphire" image (the angry Black woman) and the "Jezebel" (the myth of the hyper-sexed Black woman.) That we are negotiating the impact of these myths while trying to be all we can be to our families, acting as if we don't need any help, is problematic. In fact, Harris-Perry calls out Black women on our self-sacrifice, letting us know the high price of trying to fulfill the myth of the "Strong Black Woman."

A blurb on the dust-jacket by Lester Spence (Johns Hopkins University/political science) says that Harris-Perry "does an excellent job of weaving literature, social science, and personal accounts to produce a powerful work on black women's politics. Brilliant."

I've been yearning for the voices of regular, ordinary Black women to reach the national stage on critical topics of American discourse--whether education, employment, our children and youth. Hope this book helps to break down walls to liberate more Black women to participate in the political struggle in America. Our voices are desperately needed at every level of political engagement. Organizing along common interests is the key.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Help: Truth, Fiction, and Authenticity

Welcome guest blogger, Susan Monroe. Susan is coordinator of School 29 Literacy Project, based in New Haven, CT.
Guest Blogger: Susan Monroe
Last week we learned that among the personal affects left by civil rights pioneer Rosa Parks is a six-page essay detailing an attempted rape by a white neighbor. Reportedly, Parks’ family refuted the essay as a “story,” but most, including me, have accepted the tale as plausible, factual.

Handwritten page of Rosa Parks' essay
After reading an excerpt, I was struck by the timeliness of a first person account of a black domestic. However horrific the content, I welcomed this authentic voice speaking from the past, and I accept it as an important artifact in the chronicle of oppression and sexual exploitation that is tied to race and class.

At the time the essay was written, Parks worked as a maid for a white family and like other women in that position was not only vulnerable to social and economic oppression but also to sexual aggression for the sake of survival. The previously unknown account illustrates how the shame of sexual exploitation can suppress self-expression in the form of outrage, dignity and agency, in sum, how shame can suppress retaliation. It seems fair to assume that Parks recorded the incident, held onto the essay, but felt too vulnerable to share it.  Writing out her experience may represent the only form of agency Parks felt was available to her without entrusting herself and the experience to public record. In response to learning about the essay, a friend announced to me,  “I believe Rosa Parks was a writer.”  She was.

Why am I posting this on Now Rise’s book blog? What does all of this have to do with books? Rosa Parks did not write an autobiography but took part in several “as told to” memoirs, most notably Rosa Parks: My Story, 1999, with Jim Haskins, but in just a few days a film based on Kathryn Stockett’s best selling novel, The Help (2009), will open in theaters. The book has been wildly popular but not without controversy.  I imagine the film will be, too. I have read The Help prompted by a desire to take part in the discussion surrounding it, and I eviscerated, er, uh, discussed it for it’s scandalously bad editing that robs Black southern dialect of any hint of poetry, music or suggestion of literacy of its speakers—dialect so badly written and imagined that a reader might not know whether to laugh or cry upon reading it (that is, if she can read it), dialect so badly written that it brings into questions the literacy of the writer, not that of the maids whose  speech patterns she attempts to imitate. Had Stockett or her editors ever read an artistic or poetic attempt at Black dialect?  And to whom is Aibileen speaking? We never know.
The Help

That aside (and that is a major pass), The Help has been chided for its lack of authenticity. In short, socially and politically conscious readers have noted that The Help is yet another book, film, etc., that places a white protagonist, power and privilege, at the center of and as the impetus for black political awakening and change. In this case, Stockett places Skeeter, a young white woman, as civil rights catalyst among a group of black maids in a fictional Mississippi town. In the world of The Help, the civil rights movement lurks murkily in the background although characters live in the midst of Medgar Evers’ bloody murder and the ever-emerging political power of Martin Luther King, Jr.  Somehow the maids that Skeeter engages are not impassioned by these happenings. While others are participating in sit-ins, being arrested and beaten, the maids in this community place their bets on an anonymously published book to bring about change.

With this scenario, Stockett unwittingly captures a complexity and paradox of race relations. The Help robs black women (black people) of their own social and political agency (a common device now practically a trope) while simultaneously servings as a testament to people who allow themselves to be exploited this way. The maids’ complicity in helping Skeeter is, in fact, the most authentic aspect of book. However, from a critical standpoint, I am most concerned with the notion of agency, especially in light of Rosa Parks’ found essay and from the standpoint of African American literary expression. I’ll leave the novel’s treatment of nascent modern feminism on the heels of the civil rights movement for another writer. 

What pains me is this. Aibileen, the maid whose voice begins the novel is a woman known for the power of her prayers, which she composes in a notebook. Aibileen (also the unacknowledged source for a housekeeping column Skeeter is hired to write for a local newspaper) takes the initiative to write out her narrative for her portion of Skeeter’s book. Oddly enough, given her propensity for writing, Aibileen has the most severely written dialogue in the novel. “Law,” she remarks again and again in Stockett’s crude rendering of black speech—that’s  “Lawd” or “Lord” for the rest of us. This treatment of Aibileen’s language is important since it potentially signals how the reader of The Help may perceive her writing. Skeeter says that she cleans up Aibileen’s writing, but does Aibileen write as badly as her speech has been rendered? If so, what are we to make of its value? Her intellect?

But what, you might ask, from the perspective of the novelist could be better than placing a pen in the hands of one of the maids? I would answer not giving that maid something authentic to say. Like Aibileen, Rosa Parks was a writer and recorder of authentic experiences, for instance, in her capacity as secretary to civil rights organizations. Her surviving essay about a near rape has entered and forever redirected the discourse surrounding black servitude by validating what many of have already known to be true. Given this reality, what would a maid in The Help's fictional Jacksonville, Mississippi write about? What would a personal narrative be?
By her own account, Kathryn Stockett had difficulty finding a publisher for The Help; she has said that at least 60 publishers rejected the novel and that those who eventually did publish the book knew nothing about Jim Crow law.
I just wish that if in the time it took to have her novel published Kathryn Stockett had made room for Aibileen to truly speak.