Category Archives: Literature

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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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In His Own Words: Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1927-2014)

Solidarity with our dreams will not make us feel less alone, as long as it is not translated into concrete acts of legitimate support for all the peoples that assume the illusion of having a life of their own in the distribution of the world.

Latin America neither wants, nor has any reason, to be a pawn without a will of its own; nor is it merely wishful thinking that its quest for independence and originality should become a Western aspiration. However, the navigational advances that have narrowed such distances between our Americas and Europe seem, conversely, to have accentuated our cultural remoteness. Why is the originality so readily granted us in literature so mistrustfully denied us in our difficult attempts at social change? Why think that the social justice sought by progressive Europeans for their own countries cannot also be a goal for Latin America, with different methods for dissimilar conditions? No: the immeasurable violence and pain of our history are the result of age-old inequities and untold bitterness, and not a conspiracy plotted three thousand leagues from our home. But many European leaders and thinkers have thought so, with the childishness of old-timers who have forgotten the fruitful excess of their youth as if it were impossible to find another destiny than to live at the mercy of the two great masters of the world. This, my friends, is the very scale of our solitude.

Nobel Prize acceptance speech, Dec. 8, 1982

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Broadway Preview: A Raisin In The Sun

By Kendra James

On Thursday night WNYC presented A Raisin In The Sun: Inside Look at The Greene Space in New York City. Joining moderator Elliot Forrest for an hour long discussion on the new Broadway production of Lorraine Hansberry’s play were director Kenny Leon with cast members, Anika Noni Rose, Sean Patrick Thomas, and Stephen McKinley Henderson.

Our readers are encouraged to watch the video in full (it’s an hour long, but a good Friday afternoon lunch time distraction). The discussion and the subsequent Q&A has that rare perfect mix  of a great moderator, intelligent and thoughtful panellists, and an engaged audience that proceeded to ask insightful questions. Some of the discussion highlights included:

  • Kenny Leon has done A Raisin In The Sun several times in various productions, including the production with Sean Combs that premièred on Broadway ten years ago.  When planning for this production he wanted the audience to ask, “What does it mean to do this play ten years later?” The panel pointed out that African-American plays often lack reinventing for new generations, but that a show like Raisin should be affected by events like the election of a Black president and the two Stand Your Ground trials in Florida.
  • Also in that vein, Leon wanted this audience to see Travis (the Younger’s son) not just as a boy, but as the man that he’d become. It was important to him that people actively engage and think about what his life would be like in America ten years from the moments presented on stage.
  • Stephen McKinley Henderson gave a cold reading of Langston Hughes’ poem Harlem which provided Raisin its name.
  • Broadway always seems a bit starved for original content when the new season rolls around. As mentioned this is the second revival of Raisin in 10 years, and it joins shows like Aladdin, Rocky, The Bridges of Madison CountyCabaretLes Miserables, and many other revivals or adaptations coming this spring and fall.  So it was appreciated when a blogger from Arts In Color got up to ask if the cast had any favourite young POC playwrights producing original material fit for the stage. Answers included Danai Gurira, Robert O’Hara, Dominique Morisseau, Marcus Gardley, Lydia Diamond, and Katori Hall.

A Raisin In The Sun also stars Denzel Washington (Walter Lee Younger) and Sophie Okonedo (Ruth Younger) and begins previews at the Barrymore Theatre (home of the original production in 1959) on March 8. Thanks to WNYC for having us, and to Anika Noni Rose for not laughing when I told her about the time I auditioned to be Tiana for Disney On Ice.

The SDCC Files: Arturo’s Collected Coverage

By Arturo R. García

This year, we expanded our coverage at San Diego Comic-Con to bring you more panels, more interviews, and more images from pop culture’s weekend-long prom. Kicking us off: a roundup of all but one of the panels I attended, in Storified form. I’ll have a recap of Rep. John Lewis’ (D-GA) appearance on Wednesday, along with some extra material.

 

Also, to clarify one item from the Black Panel recap, there really was a “Black Spider-Man” there who was not cosplaying Miles Morales. He was ahead of me in the line to ask questions of the panel:

Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements

Community activists Adrienne Maree Brown and Walidah Imarisha wrote in asking us to share their social justice themed science-fiction anthology project being funded via Indiegogo.  With 44 days to go they’re approximately an eighth of the way there. From their funding page:

Greetings! We are Adrienne Maree Brown and Walidah Imarisha, two community organizers, educators, writers and self-proclaimed nerds. We have individually and collectively been working to bridge the visionary qualities of science/speculative fiction with radical community organizing practice.

We thought there was no better way to do this than with our current book project: Octavia’s Brood: Science Fiction Stories from Social Justice Movements. It’s an anthology of radical science and speculative fiction written by organizers and activists.

We need to raise $8,277 to cover the cost of designing and printing the anthology (with a release date of summer 2014), as well as to fund a national tour where we will not only do readings of the anthology, but writing workshops and organizing strategy sessions where we can support communities turning their visionary ideas into concrete action!

We have received overwhelming support from everyone we tell about Octavia’s Brood. Because we believe in the principles of communities organizing and supporting themselves, we are turning to our strongest supporters and allies, our visionary community, to birth Octavia’s Brood into the world.

In a week where we’ve seen just how wrong crowdsource funding can go, I once again invite our readers to send us Indiego, Kickstarter, and other crowdsourced funded projects that might be of interest. Let’s help see some worthwhile artists get a seat at the table.

Black Pulp features Walter Mosley, other black authors

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Book cover illustration by Adam Shaw

Publisher Pro Se Productions, dedicated to the “classic fiction of pulp magazines and adventure tales” and “push[ing] the boundaries of modern genre fiction,” has a new offering: Black Pulp. The new book features black characters in leading roles–a departure from the literary genre, popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Glossy pulp magazines, noted for shocking tales of adventure, mystery, crime, horror and mayhem, rarely featured African American characters or other characters of color, and certainly not in heroic positions. In fact, in a review of the book, Hard-Boiled: Working-Class Readers and Pulp Magazines, Andrew Loman notes the conservative ideology of classic pulp, as well as the genre’s “obvious misogyny, homophobia and racism.”

Novelist Gary Philips, who originated the concept for Black Pulp, says, “While revisionism is not history, as Django Unchained signifies, nonetheless historical matters find their way into popular fiction.  This is certainly the case with new pulp as it handles such issues as race with a modern take, even though stories can be set in a retro context.  Black Pulp then offers exciting tales of derring-do and clear-eyed heroes and heroines of darker hues appealing to all.”

Black Pulp features an essay on “the nature of pulp” literature by award-winning author, Walter Mosley.

I’ve got this waiting on my Kindle and I can’t wait to dig in!

Book Excerpt: “Seeing Things” from Godless Americana

By Guest Contributor Sikivu Hutchinson

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The two young men of color walk through the gallery transfixed. There is so much to see and so little time to see it in; no docents handy to provide a frame, no earphones to squawk on about context and artist’s intent. The trip from their South L.A. school to the L.A. County Museum of Art (LACMA) in the Miracle Mile section of Wilshire Boulevard is, figuratively, a world away. As the first car-euphoric corridor in Los Angeles, Miracle Mile still retains its sheen. The museum’s multi-million dollar exhibits and au courant architecture showcase the pinnacle of Western culture—from classic to modern to contemporary avant-garde. The wing that the students walk through is the brain child of billionaire philanthropist Eli Broad, an ethereally lit sanctuary that brings them face-to-face with artist Glenn Ligon’s anatomy of black otherness. Ligon’s exhibit beckons with written evaluations from his elementary-school teachers. Their comments range from praise to quizzical disappointment. One implies that he is squandering his potential. Another pronounces that he has insufficient “black consciousness.” As records of one student’s arc, they are unremarkable, inviting a voyeurism that only piques interest in the context of the artist’s success. However, as grade-school primers of the genealogy of Ligon’s marked body and, implicitly, that of all black students, they are deeply moving.

In the art gallery, time is suspended. It is crafted as a hermetic space, a rebuke to the outside world where quiet contemplation is a rare commodity, fast becoming the province of the super rich. At this particular exhibit, guards of color stand silently at the ready. There is a black presence stationed in every room, a reminder of the invisibility of people of color in the high-flying corporate art scene. With their stiff uniforms and stoic expressions, the guards both comment on and perform the authority of the museum. They are there and not there, breaking from the tedium of their posts to remind students to put away their cell phones and refrain from taking pictures. They protect the secular sanctity of the gallery space through the veneer of enforcement, adding another layer of seeing and surveillance.

What do the students see in a culture in which they are trained to view art and aesthetics as the province of white geniuses? How do they navigate seeing in a culture in which the vision of white geniuses defines universal standards of beauty, value, goodness, and human worth? How do they learn, as Carter G. Woodson says, to breathe, swallow, and regurgitate the template of white universal subject-hood as sacred creed and covenant? How do they learn—how did they learn—to become blind to themselves, to see themselves as the Other?

The politics of seeing are part of what drives God lust. God provides a blank canvas for all fears, anxieties, hopes, ambitions, and dreams. He/she/it becomes the tabula rasa for the dreamer, the universal fail-safe for the fucked-up, the crushed, the abject, and the abandoned. In an intensely capitalistic, racially segregated culture, God-dreaming is a kind of art-making. God is closely tied to self-making and invention. It’s a realm that offers both the illusion of agency or control and the conceit of subjection.

Ligon’s show includes a re-examination of the infamous Robert Mapplethorpe Black Book exhibit from the 1990s. Photo after photo of naked black men sprawl next to quotes from commentators, critical theorists, and art mavens. The quotes weigh in on the public blasphemy of eroticized black male bodies, musing about whether Mapplethorpe’s images were exploitative. The comments run the gamut from appreciation to outrage, many of them conceding the ambiguity of representation and desire. Interspersed with the provocative poses of the mostly taut, virile young men, Ligon’s arrangement of the quotes underscores the ways in which the black body has always existed as contested space, as politicized. In an era in which mass incarceration and criminalization have become the predominant media for black embodiment, Mapplethorpe’s photographs are even more difficult to view within the lens of aesthetic pleasure. Mapplethorpe’s identity as a prominent white gay male photographer cannot be separated from the photos’ reception. Nor can his identity, power, and privilege be distanced from the tragic downward spiral of his black gay subjects, many of whom died of AIDS. It’s nearly impossible to imagine a black gay photographer gaining intimate access to the lives of white men for a similar photo essay. Heady pronouncements of colorblind equality are even more farcical in the context of the segregated art world, where artists of color are routinely ghettoized into “ethnic” shows. But art-making has an especially critical relationship to knowledge construction and human value. Who has the authority to make art, whose art will be considered as “great,” canonical, or universal is deeply connected to the standards of what is worth being seen.

Glenn Ligon's “Notes on the Margins of the Black Book” (1991-1993), based on photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe. (Photo: International Center of Photography)

Glenn Ligon’s “Notes on the Margins of the Black Book” (1991-1993), based on photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe. (Photo: International Center of Photography)

In the twelve-plus years since Ligon’s original Mapplethorpe exhibit, and fifteen-plus since the book’s publication, the art world template for the white genius as all-seeing and all-powerful has not changed. What has changed during this period is that HIV/AIDS has become a leading cause of death for young African Americans and mass incarceration has been deemed the “New Jim Crow.” Against this backdrop, God-lust amongst African Americans has morphed into a more fevered, strategically public practice. It’s not uncommon for young blacks to retort that some wayward person should get “right with God.” It’s rare to go to a black public event that isn’t kicked-off or concluded with a prayer from a local pastor. On TV shows like CNN’s Black in America: Silicon Valley, scenes of black folk bowing their heads and joining hands in prayer before a stressful event are pro forma. Black NFL players like Kurt Warner and coaches like Tony Dungee routinely attribute their success on the field and in life to God’s co-piloting. Over the past several years some Black churches have even declared Halloween a new “Satanic” ritual, offering their own kid-friendly, fall-themed festivals as suitably God-fearing alternatives. T-shirts and paraphernalia with Scripture and religious references flood the streets in predominantly black communities, where disposable income is an oxymoron for most.

Embracing, invoking, and bowing down to God have become shorthand for achieving upward mobility. In Essence magazine, Tasha Smith, a popular actress and fixture in Tyler Perry films, reflects on her journey to success. This particular actress is habitually cast as the kind of ball-busting Sapphire alpha men love to hate and white women love to fetishize. Smith’s specialty is channeling the hand-on-hip, tell-it-like-it-is, keepin’-it-real “bitch” who is never afraid to slice and dice her man in a high-octane public throwdown. Consequently, the reader is “shocked” to learn that she was once an atheist—frustrated, adrift, and emotionally scarred by a traumatic childhood. It’s implied that her lack of faith was a kind of spiritual albatross. As told to Essence, her subsequent transition to a God-fearing woman of faith hastens her rise to fame, wealth, love, and redemption via that rarefied cultural vehicle—the Tyler Perry film. The profile on the actress assures us that giving one’s life/fate over to God is an authentic rite of passage, a naked reclamation of self in the midst of a cold spiritual wilderness. God enables vision, and, ultimately, upward mobility. Godlessness signifies rudderlessness and absence of self-control, a potentially fatal flaw for a black woman trying to bootstrap to a moral life. Being a “good black woman” is defined by masochism. It is only through the crucible of self-sacrifice, by extending one’s faith until it hurts, that redemption can be achieved.

Witness: an acquaintance experiencing extreme economic hardship pledges to lay her life down to God after an email solicitation yields a gift of $50. The “ask and ye shall receive” regime of the prosperity gospel has become the cult of true blackness. On the surface it’s a rebuke to black invisibility, a bird flip to a dominant culture that revels in the myth of black downward mobility driven by lazy blacks shuffling from government handout to government handout.

If God is Black America’s co-pilot, then what does that say about the landscape of 21st century United States, where black wealth is virtually nonexistent? What does it betray about a country where residential segregation of African Americans and Latinos has become more prevalent now than during the 1980s? It’s tempting for some religious skeptics of color to dismiss these displays as indicative of backward thinking from uneducated black folk. But, as the faith-based pandering of President Obama and other politicians demonstrate, education and religiosity are not mutually exclusive. Just as there is no shortage of storefront churches in poor black communities, there is no shortage of mid-sized to megachurches in middle-to-upper-middle-class black neighborhoods. Faith and religiosity don’t exist in a political, social, or economic vacuum. Nor are they static. One female interviewee from the 2010 gospel documentary Rejoice and Shout acknowledged that Christianity was originally the “white man’s religion” but dismissed the claim that blacks were brainwashed or indoctrinated. The gender pageantry of the Black Church is on vivid display in the grainy archival footage from this fascinating documentary (and document) of black life in the early 20th century. Black women getting the Holy Ghost crowd the church aisles, writhing, gesticulating, and testifying to the Lord’s transfixion. Every now and then the camera captures a swooning male congregant, but, for the most part, the men sit upright and respectable in the pews as the reverends hold sway in the pulpit. It’s implied that performance and possession—the raw abandon of getting the Holy Ghost—are a woman’s medium, a manifestation of their natural sexual otherness, their closer relationship with the body, and, thus, their irrationality. Here, religious performance, the collision between sacred and secular, becomes a kind of artistry. Ecstatic religious expression is portrayed as a powerful device in a social context that does not afford poor black women agency, creativity, or visibility.

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Sikivu Hutchison’s book, “Godless Americana: Race and Religious Rebels” is now available.