Category Archives: books

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Killer Secrets: An Excerpt From Tamara Winfrey Harris’ New Book

By Arturo R. García

Author and Racialicious alum Tamara Winfrey Harris.

Longtime readers of the blog will remember friend and alumnus Tamara Winfrey Harris: Tami’s voice, which many of us first discovered through her blog What Tami Said, has been essential reading in the POC justice ecosystem for years.

But over the past few years, her reach has expanded, and she’s been published everywhere from The Guardian to Salon to — just last week — The New York Times.

Well, we’re proud and happy today to be able to share with you a part of her most pivotal work yet: The Sisters Are Alright: Changing the Broken Narrative of Black Women in America, in which she takes on the stereotypes regularly used to deride black women in the US — their romantic lives, their mental health, their beauty and more.

“The more Americans face stereotypes about us in media, pop culture and other places, the more they are subconsciously ‘activated’ where real black women are concerned, affecting the way we are seen by potential employers, partners, the government and others,” she writes.

The book will be out on July 7, but is already available for order online; it’s already ranked as the No. 1 new Gender Studies release on Amazon. An excerpt can be seen below.

In 2003, the California Black Women’s Health Project found that only 7 percent of black women with symptoms of mental illness seek treatment. And, according to a 2009 National Institutes of Health manuscript, a 2008 study of African American women’s perspectives on depression found that many “believed that an individual develops depression due to having a ‘weak mind, poor health, a troubled spirit, and lack of self-love.’”

A member of the mental health profession currently working in higher education, Adrianne Traylor says, “I am cognizant of our community being left out of mental health discussions, not having appropriate access to mental health support, the cultural restrictions and barriers that keep us from seeking that support and that there are really not enough competent therapists to deal with situations that are unique to the black experience in America.

Finding a black therapist to refer a client to is extremely difficult. Even when it comes to self-care, I think. ‘Who am I going to talk to? Who am I going to refer myself to? Who can I talk to who can really understand what makes my situation unique as a black woman?’ We really lose out in the mental health equation — particularly when it comes to areas of depression, stress, and anxiety.”

Members of the black community often learn that mental health care is something they neither need nor can afford — economically, socially, or culturally. Black folks are encouraged to take it to the Lord in prayer, but Adrianne stresses that many mental health issues cannot be ameliorated by a pastor, friend, or family. Some mental illnesses require intensive therapy or psychotropic drugs, and not getting that treatment can be devastating.

Her own family provided her with a strong example of this cultural challenge. Adrianne says she grew up surrounded by women who exemplified the positive aspects of “black women always being strong and resilient and always being able to carry everything.” But as she grew older, “I saw the [unwillingness to pursue mental health care] weighing more heavily on the women in the family, because it seemed they were the ultimate repositories for sanity and intactness for everyone.”

When she was a teen, the house where Adrianne was born burned down. It was her grandmother’s home and had been the center of many family memories. The loss was devastating to Adrianne. “But I remember watching [my grandmother], who was temporarily living in this itty-bitty house out in the country, and on the one hand admiring her strength. She had lost everything — her physical mementos of her life with her husband — everything. She seemed so strong and seemed on the surface to be coping. But I wondered what happened when she went to bed at night. What did she do then, when no one was looking at her? I started thinking if we were wearing a lot of masks to get through our lives and whether they were helping or hurting us.

“As you become older and more aware of family dysfunction . . . it is an awakening. You’re oblivious to things as a kid and then your eyes open. You realize that the things that seemed like such strength could have really been someone doing what they could to hold things together.”

Thirty-five-year-old Vivian St. Claire* is a high-achiever, perfectionist, and inveterate “good girl.” She earned a PhD before she was thirty “because I was bored.” Vivian also suffers from clinical depression. And three years ago, she had a nervous breakdown, driven in part by her relentless drive to meet societal expectations.

Despite her academic and professional success, Vivian couldn’t shake the notion that she was a failure as a woman. A late bloomer in affairs of the heart, who was always more confident in intellectual pursuits than romantic ones, Vivian was childless and single, having just broken up with the man she once thought she would marry. “I never wanted to be the single black woman, and I think that fear created that whole pressure.”

Her undiagnosed clinical depression began to spiral out of control as Vivian grappled with fears about her personal life, her weight, and other issues. She began taking Ambien to cure the insomnia it caused — Ambien, red wine, and occasionally marijuana.

“I would black out,” she says. “It was just all this very unhealthy mix of me trying to hide from a lot of different things. I know I was all over the place.

“Another part of my depression is I had a pact with myself: if I wasn’t married by thirty-five, I was going to kill myself. I very much planned everything out for my life. At thirty-five, my plans ran out,” she says.

“That came out when I had my breakdown. My parents were in the room. While I was being evaluated, my mom was just sitting there silently crying.

“I would like to be more open with my struggle with depression — let close friends and things know,” says Vivian. But she admits her openness is tempered with the realities of being an academic hoping for tenure and a desire not to “embarrass” her parents. Although they were there during her breakdown, they still have not processed her mental illness.

“My mom is fine with it for other people, but not her children— even though her brother is a paranoid schizophrenic.”

As her parents helped her complete paperwork that would commit her to the hospital, Vivian was surprised to hear her father answer in the affirmative when asked about mental illness on his side of the family.

“‘Oh, yeah, your Auntie So-and-So has this. Your uncle is paranoid schizophrenic and whatever.’”

Black families often keep mental health histories under wraps, treating suffering members like guilty secrets. Quoting author Nalo Hopkinson in the book Brown Girl in the Ring, Vivian points out, “We as a people — our secrets are killing us.”

It was a hard road back to mental health. Healing required that Vivian learn to be gentle with herself, to practice physical and mental self-care, to let go of her perfectionism, and to refuse to see her mental illness as a stigma.

“Today, I would say I’m the healthiest I’ve ever been — mentally and physically. I’ve come to a peace with myself. Yoga, therapy, being open about my mental illness and my medication, having coping mechanisms, and staying healthy — they are just part of my life now.”

Her voice catches as she describes her pride at making it through: “At this point, every day it’s a blessing that I’m happy, that I’m content with myself, and that I’m okay. I’m very proud of myself. I’m proud every day, because at least I keep holding on. It’s not so much of a struggle for me anymore.

“Putting other people’s pressure on me almost killed me. I’ve had to become comfortable with the uncomfortability of not being perfect. I’m amazed at the woman that I have become. . . . Sorry, I’m getting a little emotional, but it’s been hard. It’s been very hard. But I’ve earned a life beyond thirty-five years.”

Learn more about Tamara Winfrey Harris and The Sisters Are Alright at www.tamarawinfreyharris.com.

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The Stories That Shape Us [Essay]

by Guest Contributor

THE STORIES THAT SHAPE US

The only Nigerian Nobel Prize winner was Wole Soyinka, a Nigerian playwright and poet who was recognised for his contribution to literature in 1986. Clearly, Nigeria is not lacking in literary talent, yet books written by national authors and published by Nigerian publishing houses are shockingly scarce. The authors are far more likely to be picked up by Western publishing houses before they have a chance to become successful back home.

Such was the story with globally acclaimed authors such as Chinua Achebe, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Wole Soyinka himself. “The best writing is not about the writer, the best writing is absolutely not about the writer, it’s about us, it’s about the reader,” – Ben Okri, Nigerian poet and novelist. So why must the most relatable stories be road-tested on a western audience before being released for whom they were intended?

NO PLACE LIKE HOME

Literature knows no bounds. The range in style and substance varies massively, which means there are countless levels on which a story can appeal to a reader. An individual’s go-to genre might be fantasy or sci-fi, books that give them the chance to escape into a world which is completely alien to their own. However, reading about even the most fantastical of worlds doesn’t measure up to the thrill of reading about the city and even the streets you grew up around. The familiarity and intimacy you feel with the text when the characters are travelling a road you too know so well is entirely different – it’s a melancholic sort of pride like reminiscing about old times with a dear old friend.

During an inspirational talk at the TED conference in 2009, the Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talked about how Nigerians (and people of colour in general) struggle to find other ethnic characters that they can identify with. Continue reading

Jeff Chang/Who We Be. Image from

Who We Be Examines the War on Multiculuralism

“Color is not a human or a personal reality, it is a political reality.” – James Baldwin

This is not a book review, because Who We Be isn’t really a book. It’s more of a thoughtful examination of how the United States arrived at this point in racial history.

Long time friend of the blog Jeff Chang is the author of the American Book award winning Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip Hop Generation and editor of the anthology Total Chaos: The Art and Aesthetics of Hip Hop. To say we’ve been waiting for Who We Be is an understatement.

But in the introduction, Chang frames the core of the most recent case of racial backlash. Explaining the outsized reaction by some whites to President Obama, Chang notes:

In the 1830s white minstrels had put on blackface, creating space for the white working class to challenge the elite, while keeping Blacks locked into their racial place. Obama now appeared as a dual symbol of oppression. Because of his Blackness, he was even more of an outsider—and in that sense, even more American—than them. But he was also the president. His Blackness did not just confer moral and existential claims, it was backed by the power of the state.

And there went everything.

As much as we like to talk about the inevitability of America being majority-minority in 2042, the events playing out across the nation show that most places are outright hostile to the idea that people of color are equal Americans, with the same rights, privileges, representation, and agenda setting power bestowed to whites. Chang turns his critical eye to shifts in culture which becomes documentation of rise (and fall?) of multiculturalism. Continue reading

#WeNeedDiverseBooks: Historical Fiction and Making Reading Fun

Gotta catch ’em all– the history nerd’s pokemon

By Kendra James

Like most of my friends in elementary school, I was obsessed with The American Girl dolls and books The dolls lacked comprehensive diversity back then, in that they had one single doll of colour until 1997. I owned Felicity Merriman, a white girl who lived in colonial Williamsburg, but received Addy Walker, a former slave who escapes from the South into Philadelphia, soon after she debuted in 1993. As per my mother’s rule, I read all six of Addy’s books before being gifted the doll. But unlike Felicity’s, I didn’t often revisit them for pleasure. In my constant search for American historical fiction with protagonists of colour written for young readers, I often come across the same problem I did when I was younger: it’s all really depressing.

Addy Walker’s story begins in Meet Addy while she’s still enslaved, and I have vivid memories of one paragraph where her overseer forces her to eat tobacco leaf worms. If you had asked me, when I was younger, to state a fact about Harriet Tubman I would have told you about the time her mistress threw a porcelain sugar bowl at her head. Meanwhile, Felicity’s biggest worry in life in Meet Felicity was saving a horse. My favourite young adult historical fiction author, Ann Rinaldi, wrote stories that spanned across races, but her romantic stories about southern belles and women of the revolutionary war were always more fun to read than her sanitised retellings of the Jeffersons and the Hemmings or Sioux boarding schools.

In pre-Mattel age when the American Girl Doll franchise was still owned and partially run by Pleasant Rowland and her Pleasant Company, I devoured their 90 page novels about young girls scattered throughout various points of American history. Back then they were a genuinely decent source of early education and introduction into various facets of American history for an 8 year old girl. I credit the dolls and their books for the love of middle and young adult historical-fiction I took into my adult life, but that doesn’t mean they were all fun.

Maybe I fixated on strange things when I was younger, but it was always the worst elements of these books, American Girls and others, that stuck with me, and I get the feeling that’s not the experience for the little girls with a wider variety of characters who look like them to choose from.

White characters not only get a wider variety of books to choose from, but books in a wider variety of settings. Characters of colour in American hist-fic tend to exist strictly within certain boundaries of time or not at all. African-Americans exist within the boundaries of slavery, the Jim Crow South, or the Civil Rights movement. Native Americans exist in the mythical west until about 1870 or so, Asian-Americans exist during World War 2, only in the west (and only from Eastern countries), and I had to reach out to our followers to fill in the gaps my childhood reading material left when it came to Latin@s.

These stories need to be told, of course. Diverse literature for young readers is extremely important. The world needs YA literature about Japanese Internment during the Second World War, but they shouldn’t be the only books Japanese-American children get to see themselves reflected in. This isn’t to encourage the erasure or minimalisation of the realities that people of colour have historically faced, but rather a desire for authors and publishers to realise that all of us existed in America outside the times of our most publicised oppressions. And that, even during the most difficult times, we still had lives that didn’t necessarily completely revolve around the overhead political themes of the day.

With that in mind, and because I’m 26 year old woman who still reads almost exclusively YA and middle grade fiction, I’ve compiled a list (that is by no means complete) of historical fiction with POC characters that might allow young and middle adult readers to have a little more fun with their reading escapism.

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In Her Own Words: Dr. Maya Angelou (1928-2014)

Author, poet and educator Dr. Maya Angelou, January 1993. Photo by Getty Images via achievement.org

I thought I would be a poet and playwright. Those were the two forms I really enjoyed. I made my living as a journalist, of course, but I thought that I would just stick with those and I would become better and better and better. But in ’68 … I was at a dinner — now this is name-dropping, but these were the people — James Baldwin had taken me over to see Jules Feiffer and Jules’ then-wife, Judy Feiffer, and we talked all night, and I really had to work very hard to get a word in because they’re all great raconteurs.

The next day, Judy Feiffer called a man who is still my editor at Random House and said, “If you can get her to write an autobiography, I think you’d have something.” He phoned me a number of times, Robert Loomis, and I said, “No, I’m not interested,” until he said to me, “Well, Ms. Angelou, I guess it’s just as well that you don’t attempt this book because to write autobiography as literature is almost impossible.” So I thought, “Oh, well, in that case, I better try.” Well, I found that’s the form I love. I love autobiography. … It challenges me to try and speak through the first-person singular and mean the third-person plural.

NPR, 1986

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The ‘N’ Word Through The Ages: The ‘Madness’ Of HP Lovecraft

By Guest Contributor Phenderson Djeli Clark, cross-posted from Media Diversified UK

When, long ago, the gods created Earth
In Jove’s fair image Man was shaped at birth.
The beasts for lesser parts were next designed;
Yet were they too remote from humankind.
To fill the gap, and join the rest to Man,
Th’Olympian host conceiv’d a clever plan.
A beast they wrought, in semi-human figure,
Filled it with vice, and called the thing a N*gger.

– H.P. Lovecraft, On the Creation of N*ggers (1912)

Author H.P. Lovecraft

I had come to believe that by now the racism of H.P. Lovecraft, the celebrated author of horror and fantasy, was a settled matter — like declaring Wrath of Khan the best film in the Star Trek franchise. Arguing against such a thing should be absurd. I certainly thought so after the matter was thrust into the spotlight in December 2011, when author Nnedi Okorafor won the esteemed World Fantasy Award — whose statuette is none other than H.P. Lovecraft’s disembodied head. Okorafor had been unaware of the depths of Lovecraft’s “issues,” until a friend sent her his 1912 poem,On the Creation of N*ggers, where blacks are fashioned by the gods as “a beast … in semi-human figure.”

This was no one-off, some “misspeak” by the author. Lovecraft’s racial biases ran deep and strong, as evidenced by his stories–from exotic locales with tropic natives lacerating themselves before mad gods in acts of “negro fetishism” (Call of Cthulhu), to descriptions of a black man as “gorilla-like” and one of the world’s “many ugly things” (Herbert West — Re-animator). This was no abstract part of Lovecraft’s creative process, where he was trying to imbue his work with some hint of realism. Rather, these were expressions of his foremost thoughts, a key part of his personal beliefs, most notably his virulent xenophobia towards an increasingly diverse American society emerging outside of his Anglo-Saxon New England.
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Author Samuel R. Delany Named Grand Master Of Science Fiction

By Arturo R. García

Science fiction author, futurist, essayist and literary critic Samuel R. Delany was honored at this past weekend’s Nebula Awards as the 30th writer to be bestowed the title of Grand Master by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA) in celebration of his body of work.

“This award astonishes me, humbles me, and I am honored by it,” Delany was quoted as saying after the honor (formally known as the Damon Knight Memorial Grand Master Award) was formally announced late last year. “It recalls to me — with the awareness of mortality age ushers up — the extraordinary writers who did not live to receive it: Roger Zelazny, Joanna Russ, Thomas M. Disch, Octavia E. Butler — as well, from the generation before me, Katherine MacLean, very much alive. I accept the award for them, too: they are the stellar practitioners without whom my own work, dim enough, would have been still dimmer.”
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