“The people of Texas are informed that, in accordance with a proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free. This involves an absolute equality of personal rights and rights of property between former masters and slaves, and the connection heretofore existing between them becomes that between employer and hired labor. The freedmen are advised to remain quietly at their present homes and work for wages. They are informed that they will not be allowed to collect at military posts and that they will not be supported in idleness either there or elsewhere.” —General Orders, Number 3; Headquarters District of Texas, Galveston, June 19, 1865
Today marks the first time America will celebrate Juneteenth as a federal holiday after 156 years of it being a staple in the African-American community.
Known by several names, such as Emancipation Day, Black Independence Day, or Jubilee Day, this African-American holiday celebrates the day when after two and a half years, enslaved people in Texas were told of their freedom on June 19, 1865, by Maj. General Gordon Granger and Union troops.
Yet, their White slave owners did not let them go so easily. Some owners even made a point of not telling the people until after harvest time was over. And if an African person tried to leave before that time, they’d be attacked and killed.
To combat this, Union soldiers and other government representatives had to intercede on the African people’s behalf since Confederate states, like Texas, refused to let go of the system that upheld American Chattel Slavery…kind of like how it is today…I digress, though.
It should be clear that the African people did not always have the freedom to be free, let alone celebrate Juneteenth in public as they saw fit, and had to be creative in how they rejoiced.
If you want to learn more about the holiday or just read some excellent African-American fiction, read the following books.
To Teach Kids
If you have small children, broaching the topic of American Chattel Slavery can be challenging. Using Folktales and simple chapter books can help ease the children into the topic and break down these horrific times into manageable bites for their little minds.
My favorite childhood collection of folktales is The People Could Fly by Virginia Hamilton. This collection covers 24 African-American Folktales that were handed down from our ancestors.
These tales include stories of Bruh Rabbit, Bruh Alligator, Little 8 John, and the reimagines our people having secret magic that kept them strong as they labored while being enslaved. Hamilton draws on Black spirituals and Diasporic folklore as well in this book.
Pulitzer Prize winner and historian, Annette Gordon-Reed, does an excellent job breaking down the history of Juneteenth in On Juneteenth, a short nonfiction work. Piecing together American history, her family’s history, and episodic moments from her life, Gordon-Reed tackles the question we all have of “why now?”
If you are unclear where to start in learning about this holiday as an adult, get this book by Gordon-Reed as your starting point.
My audiobook copy of “On Juneteenth” was provided by Libro.fm.
Written over the span of 40 years, Ralph Ellison’s second novel, Juneteenth, or as it’s known in its longer and completed form, Three Days Before the Shooting, is the story of a racially ambiguous man, Bliss, who was raised by an African-American Baptist preacher named Alonzo Hickman. In his adult years, Bliss has chosen to pass as a White man and ends up becoming a race-baiting U.S. Senator known as Adam Sunraider (think Candace Owens, but worse). All is going smoothly until Hickman and his congregation shows up, and Bliss has to face the music of his life.
In this novel, Ellison evokes the African-American experience and crafts a tell that calls the pain of enslavement and the Jim Crow Era, the joy of the Harlem Renaissance, and everything in between.
You can read either the whole manuscript with Three Days Before the Shooting (over 1100 pages) or only read the Juneteenth edited version (400 pages) that was pieced together by Ellison’s longtime friend and biographer, John F. Callahan.
Lewis’ story cover captures what the voyage of the Middle Passage felt like and how Lewis survived being enslaved. Reading Lewis’ story gives a modern person the perspective of what emancipated would have meant to an African person who survived being enslaved. It is another short read, but it packs a punch.
Prairie View A & M Universityalso has first-handaccounts of emancipated Africans who speak to their feelings of hearing the jubilant news on June 19, 1865, that you can read through in their archives.
Written by another Pulitzer Prize winner, Caste, tackles the world that the emancipated Africans were sent into and how that world got crafted into the America we now inhabit.
Wilkerson gets to the core of the White owners’ frustration and anger at having to let their “property” go in the aftermath of the American Civil War as she dissects the American caste system. While the players have changed, the fact still rings true that America is about the “haves” and “haves nots.” With this in mind, Wilkerson notes in her book that, “The hierarchy of caste is not about feelings or morality. It is about power—which groups have it, and which do not.”
Let me know down below if you’ve ever read any of these books or if they’re on your TBR!
An electrifying novel about the meteoric rise of an iconic interracial rock duo in the 1970s, their sensational breakup, and the dark secrets unearthed when they try to reunite decades later for one last tour.
Opal is a fiercely independent young woman pushing against the grain in her style and attitude, Afro-punk before that term existed. Coming of age in Detroit, she can’t imagine settling for a 9-to-5 job—despite her unusual looks, Opal believes she can be a star. So when the aspiring British singer/songwriter Neville Charles discovers her at a bar’s amateur night, she takes him up on his offer to make rock music together for the fledgling Rivington Records.
In early seventies New York City, just as she’s finding her niche as part of a flamboyant and funky creative scene, a rival band signed to her label brandishes a Confederate flag at a promotional concert. Opal’s bold protest and the violence that ensues set off a chain of events that will not only change the lives of those she loves, but also be a deadly reminder that repercussions are always harsher for women, especially black women, who dare to speak their truth.
Decades later, as Opal considers a 2016 reunion with Nev, music journalist S. Sunny Shelton seizes the chance to curate an oral history about her idols. Sunny thought she knew most of the stories leading up to the cult duo’s most politicized chapter. But as her interviews dig deeper, a nasty new allegation from an unexpected source threatens to blow up everything.
Provocative and chilling, The Final Revival of Opal & Nev features a backup chorus of unforgettable voices, a heroine the likes of which we’ve not seen in storytelling, and a daring structure, and introduces a bold new voice in contemporary fiction.
Adira: Ms. Walton, thank you so much for the opportunity to interview you about The Final Revival of Opal & Nev! Congratulations on your debut novel! The Final Revival of Opal & Nev was a rollercoaster of a read, and I loved every second of it. Can you tell me how you went about coming up with this idea and researching to create such an intricate novel?
Dawnie Walton: I’ve always been interested in interrogating my teenage obsession with alternative and indie rock. Seeing the 2003 documentary Afro-Punk and understanding that there was an audience of other Black fans who might be interested in those explorations too was a crucial first step to even dreaming about a book like this. But it would take another 10 years, and another documentary, for the spark of Opal & Nev to really ignite. Watching Twenty Feet From Stardom, I was mesmerized by concert footage of Talking Heads and their two Black women background singers, Lynn Mabry and Ednah Holt. I didn’t know their names at the time, but I couldn’t take my eyes off them. I had this image of one of them at center stage with David Byrne — not at as his backup, but as his equal partner. That image wouldn’t let me go, and was the start of the characters I developed.
A: For me, Opal & Nev were so well-written, I honestly felt like they were real music artists that I was just discovering while reading your novel. This made me curious about your influence for each character and the acts that they come in contact with as they were becoming stars.
I noticed that your Instagram page is curated with Black musicians. But were there any musical artists in particular who you drew on when creating Opal and Nev’s characters or the other musical acts in your novel?
DW: Yes! Each character is an amalgamation of real artists whose music and public images I’ve found interesting in different ways. There were three core inspirations I looked to while developing Opal’s style and substance — Grace Jones, Nona Hendryx, and Betty Davis — but there are bits of other bold, envelope-pushing Black women in there too (Eartha Kitt and Nina Simone, for instance). For Nev, I was thinking more about career trajectories and the concept of the chameleonic rock star, especially those men who’ve had success across a long span of time and changing musical directions. There’s the Brits like David Bowie, Elton John, and Rod Stewart, but also hints of Bob Dylan.
A: In my mind, I initially went to Grace Jones as a stand-in for Opal when you described her character as being “dark-skinned” and having a flamboyant style. My choice also has to do with the fact that Opal was initially meant to be a sort of “muse” for Nev like Grace Jones was for various artists throughout her time in the spotlight.
Yet, Opal immediately turns into a main attraction, and when her talent starts to rival Nev’s, she switches from an accessory to an adversary in the end. This is also something that we see happen to Sunny, the story’s editor, in her workplace. This made me think of a line in the article, “When Black Women Go From Office Pet to Office Threat” by Erika Stallings, where Stallings says, “when Black women resist their status as pets, they find themselves transforming into a threat.”
While I know Stallings is talking about corporate America, was the choice in making Opal a muse for Nev meant to reflect the way Black female artists are pigeonholed into walking a fine line between being pets or caricatures of themselves versus taking on full autonomy as artists?
DW: I wanted to broach the power dynamics between the two characters. Opal initially joins Nev as a “featured singer” — the album is still his, and the songs are all from his perspective. Opal is looking for any way into the business that she can get, but, as she tells Sunny in hindsight, she was uncomfortable with that status as muse. She felt an expectation from Nev that she would inspire and sharpen his work, and yet she had her own dreams and her own work to do. So once Opal breaks out following the pivotal concert that launches them to the spotlight, that power dynamic between them suddenly shifts, and Nev finds it difficult to cope with that. His resentment is a piece of the fallout that dooms a true partnership between them.
A: As clear as I could picture Opal in my mind, I found that I couldn’t pinpoint Nev so easily. This felt symbolic to me since Nev’s character waffles between being this loveable character into morphing into someone less loveable as he gains fame.
While his character isn’t as detestable as one of the Bond Brothers, a Southern rock band in the novel, or even as verbally off-putting as Howie Kelly, the record owner Opal and Nev are signed to, Nev makes several very specific choices that call his allyship into question. Where the music industry pigeonholes Opal, Nev is giving free rein to experiment with his craft. Are we as readers meant to come away with a specific feeling or understanding from this dynamic and Nev as a character?
DW: This gets at the chameleonic quality in Nev that I mentioned earlier — the ways in which he is afforded unlimited chances and opportunities to be whatever kind of artist strikes his fancy, in a way that Opal is not. That aspect is not actively Nev’s fault; it’s simply his privilege, and the way that people like him benefit from systemic white supremacy while others like Opal are thwarted. Where things get more dicey is…well, we’re getting into spoiler territory now, LOL. So what I’ll say is that Nev’s relationship to his own privilege, especially in those moments when his ambition drives him, becomes quite eyebrow raising.
A:You touch on the theme of community in The Final Revival of Opal & Nev multiple times where Opal is concerned. From the fans, who christen themselves as “The Mercurials,” to her sister, Pearl, and best friend turned stylist, Virgil, Opal is constantly surrounded by her tribe on her journey through stardom. Yet, it seems that Nev suffers a far different fate.
Was there a specific definition for “community” that you kept in mind as you wrote each characters’ storyline, and if so, how did you use that definition to influence how you wrote each main characters’ ascent to stardom?
DW: I was very intentional in giving Opal family, both birth (Pearl) and chosen (Virgil, Miss Ernestine, Jimmy, even Sunny, to a certain degree). That community is key in supporting her, yes, but also holding her to account when she needs it. She carries that community with her wherever she goes, and as such she’s able to think more broadly, more communally, about who she is becoming, how she steps into the world, and how she uses her platform. That community mindset, in my experience, is part of that “Black abundance” Kiese Layman writes about in Heavy. So while both characters are unique, yes — different, quirky, whatever you want to call it — I would make the distinction that Nev is actually an individualist. Now, take the definition of that to an extreme, and you can imagine how their paths clash and diverge.
A: Even though Opal & Nev are the main focus of your novel, Sunny, the editor, plays a big part in my love for your book. Her passion for her craft and desire to get to the truth behind the night her father, Jimmy, was murdered was so well-written, I got chills reading her parts. How did you manage to create such a clear voice for her character and the other characters in your novel?
DW: Sunny was easy for me to channel because she’s an extension of my own conflicts, curiosities, and cultural critiques. Writing her Editor’s Notes at times felt like putting on my old journalist’s hat — being open to (but also squinting hard at) the characters and their stories, analyzing them from every angle. At other times, especially toward the end when the professional distance Sunny tries to keep begins to falter, she became a vessel for my experiences as a music fan. Through her, I write about how it feels in your body to hear live music, or how your heart might break when someone you’ve idolized disappoints you.
As for the other characters, I just tried to lock into the quirks of their voices. I thought about each one down to the curse words they would or would not say. Strangely enough, that was very helpful in differentiating them.
A: There’s been a lot of talks lately in the book-o-sphere about this idea that publishers are pigeonholing Black, Indigenous, and other authors of color (BIPOC) into writing stories based around “trauma” since many publishing houses deem this as the key to having a bestseller. Even though there is a traumatic event that takes place in Opal and Nev’s story that’s a main element in your book, the story itself doesn’t necessarily revert to being about trauma. How do you approach striking such a well-rounded balance in your writing that allows readers to be informed without becoming overwhelming by horrific events you’re writing about?
DW: Black life is not 100 percent trauma or 100 percent joy, and I wanted all the Black lives in this novel to feel very real in terms of that balance. But here’s the other thing, and it’s quite simple: I loved Opal. Mess and all. And because I Ioved her I rooted for her, and I wanted my intended audience — other Black women who could perhaps see aspects of themselves in her — to root for her too, to have hope for her, to see her living out more than pain. So I gave her laughter, some luxury, and moments of leisure; I had her landing some punches of her own. There’s a chapter in the book where I send Opal on vacation to Paris for rest and perspective following a volatile tour, and I worried that I would be criticized for going on a tangent from the core plot — but for me, that chapter’s not a tangent at all. I had drawn a character who valued herself, and so self-love and care were part of her story. I worried about young Opal as if she were my responsibility, my charge.
A:Since The Final Revival of Opal & Nev revolves around music, do you have any songs or artists that you’ve been listening to or watching during Quarantine?
DW: My fascination with 1970s music continues, and the research around this particular book had me digging into the catalogs and deep cuts of Black women whose hits I already knew (like Grace Jones, Tina Turner, and Poly Styrene). And every now and then a hidden figure will pop up and I’ll get obsessed. Tina Bell, the frontwoman of the Seattle proto-grunge band Bam Bam, is relatively new to me, and so are many of the artists the scholar Maureen Mahon writes about in her book Black Diamond Queens.
A: Can you give us a sneak peek into what’s next in your writing? Will there be a film or television adaption for The Final Revival of Opal & Nev or possibly even a sequel?! 🙏🏿❤️🤞🏿
DW: A screen adaptation would be an absolute dream. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for it! At the moment I’m not planning to write an Opal & Nev sequel, although I’m playing around with an idea loosely inspired by a section of the novel (about Sunny’s coming-of-age) that got cut. I still love that section, it just didn’t belong in O&N. I hope it might be something entirely new.
A: Can you offer any tools or advice for people who want to write multi-faceted stories, like yours, to help them hone their craft?
DW: The first thing I always say is that you have to be obsessed with the story you’re telling. That mix of passion and extreme curiosity will bring you back to the page again and again, even when it gets very hard, and will keep the process feeling like play. Second, if your story has multiple characters, approach each — even the ones who are questionable — with some degree of empathy. Understand the factors that led to their identities, and you’ll find a way to crack their stories wide open.
A: Ms. Walton, I really appreciate you taking the time to talk to me! Your novel is definitely one of my top reads of the year. I can’t wait to read what you’re working on next!
DW: Thank you so much for these thoughtful questions!
Dawnie Walton was born and raised in Jacksonville, Florida. She earned her MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop (2018) and holds a journalism degree from Florida A&M University (1997). Formerly an editor at Essence and Entertainment Weekly magazines, she has received fellowships in fiction writing from MacDowell and the Tin House Summer Workshop. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, with her husband. The Final Revival of Opal & Nev is her first novel. Visit her website at https://www.dawniewalton.com.
“For a colonized people the most essential value, because the most concrete, is first and foremost the land: the land which will bring them bread and, above all, dignity.”
― Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth
In Mildred D. Taylor’s prequel of the Logan Family Saga, “The Land,” she follows the patriarch of the family, Paul Edward Logan, during the 1870’s to 1880’s in the American South. Paul Edward is a man of mixed Native, African-American, and White heritage. The recently emancipated son of a well-off White land owner, Paul Edward is learning the rules of what it means to be a multiracial man in this new Southern world where both, Whites and Blacks, are coming to terms with Slavery ending.
Taylor does an excellent job of showing depth in Paul Edward and the surrounding characters’ development as the story progresses. This was my second reading of this book since high school, and I got mad all over again for Paul Edward. Where a less assured writer may have skirted the origins of Paul Edward’s mixed heritage and feelings of discomfort at not being fully White, Black, or Native, Taylor leans into these emotions.
Taylor allows her readers to see Paul Edward’s parent’s relationship in the confines of the Reconstruction Era along with how it affects their White and Black children. The emotions in the book are raw. Issues of racial identity, family dynamics between a slave holder and his Black children, and ownership of land for Blacks and Whites of varying class sizes all get tackled in a way that parses through the messiness, but remains true to real life.
This is important since the Logan Family Saga stories are based on Taylor’s own family history, and is relatable for any one who has grandparents who grew up in the American South and experiences the harsh race relations of this region. Taylor story felt familiar to me because in Paul Edward’s struggle to acquire land, I heard my grandparents and parents’ belief echoes about why land ownership was so important.
Because of the rawness in Taylor’s writing and how well she depicts the harsh realities of the Reconstruction and Jim Crow era for African-Americans, I’m always in awe that this book is actually categorized as children’s fiction. That being said, I HIGHLY recommend this book and that you read the series in order including the novellas!
The next novellas in the series to read are “The Well: David’s Story” and “Song of the Trees,” which shifts over to the main narrator for the rest of the series, Cassie Logan. The Land and The Well follow the two patriarchs, Cassie’s grandfather, Logan, and her father, David, and give essential information about the relationship between the Logans and their White neighbors.
“People can cry much easier than they can change.” ― James Baldwin
What was the last over-hyped book that left you feeling unsatisfied?
I finished Stamped From The Beginning by Ibram X. Kendi last week for my African-American Literature course and felt as if Auntie ‘Retha had taken up residence in my body.
While it is clear that Kendi put a lot of work into this book, it was very much a “beautiful gowns” type of text for me…or rather “beautiful sources.”
From the offset, it is jarringly clear that this book was written pre-2016 Election when many folks believed they were living in a “post-racial” world and were congratulating themselves for having elected a Black man for president. This sentiment of us being “post-racism” props up Kendi’s book’s thesis that “everyone’s a little bit racist, so no one should really be allowed to call another person out. We’re all equal in ALL ways.” #Paraphrase
And, this is where Kendi lost me.
To be fair, Kendi direct quote about Anti-racism is:
“Anyone can believe both racist and antiracist ideas…[and] to think as an antiracist: [is] to think there is nothing wrong with Black people, to think that racial groups are equal.”
The latter part of this is a beautiful sentiment, but that first part brings us into a sticky territory that teeters very close to absolving racist from the harm they’ve inflicted.
White people’s racism gives you 400+ years of oppression.
It gives you Tulsa and Rosewood.
It gives you the Klan/a corrupt police force, the “school-to-prison” pipeline…
a “not guilty” verdict in the Breonna Taylor case…etc.
A non-Black POC or indigenous person showing anti-Black sentiments hurts my feelings and leaves me baffled. But, it is rare that any of these groups have the power to inflict the level of harm and injustices that I experience at the hands of White people. This isn’t to say that these groups don’t need to dismantle and unlearn their behaviors.
However, the presentation of facts in Kendi’s books makes it seem as if the collective onus is on ALL of us when this work is a top-down process where the colonizer and those in power have to dismantle whole systems to truly bring us “equal.” This contrast to the BIPOC community, who could unlearn every bit of their biases and anti-Black sentiments and still be left without access to participating fully in American systems. This fact contributes to us trying to create hierarchies that would give us some semblance of “power” over each other.
Yet, Kendi’s book repeatedly ignores this fact when analyzing Black historical figures. The narrative he creates does not do enough to dismantle the notion behind “why” these individuals held these racist beliefs. And, even though I, as a #wellreadblackgirl could recognize the “why” behind these Black historical figures’ self-hating beliefs, I worried about the average reader identifying these same reasons when trying to dismantle their racism.
Add to this Kendi’s erasure of Black female scholars and their contributions to each era he spoke of the outside of him using them to prop up the idea that we’ve contributed to the “hatred” and “degradation” of Black men, and you can see why I wasn’t impressed by this book.
I feel as if Kendi’s is too ambitious in the timeline he tries to cover. Yet, I understand why it is beloved by all the #AntiracistBookClubs and why Kendi has become the darling of White America as they strive to become “Anti-Racist™️”. I would just say that there are other books that express the ideas presented in this book more precisely and in a more balanced way.
A: Thank you for your time, Ms. Dixon! I got a chance to read your essay collection, The Incredible Shrinking Woman, and your poetry collection, No God In This Room, last month, and both pieces really resonated with me!
What was the process like writing and getting The Incredible Shrinking Woman published? Did you find your experience with an independent press different than working with a larger publisher?
AD: The manuscript started as a series of individual essays in 2012. I was going through a pretty rough breakup and I found poetry wasn’t giving me the space I needed to express everything I was feeling. I began writing personal essays as a remedy. In 2016, I attended a creative non-fiction conference and started toying with the idea of pulling together a book. I threw together every essay I’d written over that four-year span and started trying to make sense of it. It didn’t go too well and I went back and forth in adding and subtracting pieces from it. I continued to write and publish work from time to time and in late 2019 I thought I’d come up with a decent manuscript. I researched presses I thought would be a good home for the book and came up with a list of four. I did not pursue publishing with a larger press at all. Fortunately for me, Split/Lip was on my first-choice list and wanted to give the book home.
Working with an independent press has been great! From the very beginning I’ve felt that they were not only interested in the book, but also me as a person. Writing personal essays can be a very scary thing and having a group of people working on your project who respect that is a gift. Being with an indie press allowed me to have a stronger voice in the kinds of edits I was willing or unwilling to accept. I also had amazing freedom in deciding on my cover design, promo events, and blurbs. It felt more like a collaboration than someone doing me a favor by publishing my work.
A: Did you have a specific audience in mind when you were writing The Incredible Shrinking Woman?
AD: I generally consider myself my first audience and from there I hope to find a connection with people who’ve had similar experiences. I hope that I am writing for people who feel on the fringes or invisible—kinda like background music. Those people who help make the world go ‘round but aren’t necessarily the ones in the spotlight. I think it is important to craft stories for audiences who are dynamic and interesting in ways that may not always get attention. There is a world of people who feel as if they don’t have a voice and I hope that in my exploration of my own invisibility and shrinking I am helping them be seen and heard as well.
A: In a virtual craft chat with The Writer’s Center, you mentioned “wanting to be seen and then being afraid when you [were] seen [and] working through what you’re asking people to see.” Did this sentiment play into naming your essay collection The Incredible Shrinking Woman?
AD: The collection had several names, but this one seemed to fit the best once the final slate of essays was solidified. When I began writing, I thought I was writing about something completely different, but as the manuscript progressed it seemed more and more, I was writing about ideas of shrinking and invisibility. I’d never considered just how much time I’d spent trying to fit into boxes and roles that never seemed to contain all I believe I am. But I also had to confront what it means to be seen. Asking for it and actually having it are worlds different. There’s a bit of a play on words with the title, too. There is the active shrinking that takes place, but there are also elements of a sideshow or exposure in the use of the word incredible.
A: My favorite essay in your collection is “Reader’s Insert.” In the piece, you say:
“For as long as I can remember, I’ve slipped myself into roles that don’t quite fit, roles that aren’t quite real…I’ve always felt invisible, so accurately telling the story of me starts with a disappearing act.
Invisible. It’s a word that has gotten blowback from friends and family in ways I never expected. I suppose they think they see me. But I don’t think anyone really does. At least in terms of a whole person, that is.”
This quote resonated with me because, as a Black woman, there seems to be a substantial gap between the expectations placed on us individually and as a group versus the actual empathy that is offered to us as human beings. Instead, we seem to be rendered as invisible or treated as pieces of a whole. Did your perception or definition of yourself change as you wrote this collection of essays and came into your voice as a writer?
AD: My greatest fear putting the collection in the world was being exposed and judged. I thought people would see me as weak or damaged in some way, but I found that I grew more confident personally and creatively as the collection took shape. I think it is partially because I was able to let go of some experiences that had been weighing me down and also realizing there are dynamic parts of me I should share with the world despite my fears. As well, by examining some of the issues in the collection, I was able to see parts of myself I couldn’t while I was in the thick of it. I learned I am much stronger than I knew and that I have so much to offer to not only myself but also the world. I think writing the book helped me unlock portions of myself I’d hidden away in order to fit what I thought the world wanted to see of me.
A: Your essay, “Native Tongue,” was another favorite for me. One of the things I loved about your essays is the way that you give voice to those Black girls who aren’t labeled as being “conventionally Black” in the way you described your cousins as being with their “Salt N’ Pepa hairstyles” or even your best friend, Greta. Why was it important for you to tell this particular story of coming into your Blackness in “Native Tongue?”
AD: It was important for me because I think sometimes there’s an idea that if you are born into a particular background you settle in smoothly. For me, I always felt loved and cared for, but I struggled to find where I fit within the confines of the culture around me. I so badly wanted to be like my cousins and my parents, but I never considered the idea there were other avenues that were tailored to me. And I think it was important to recognize and acknowledge my own narrow view of what I thought Blackness entailed.
A: There’s a line in “Vagina, Slightly Used,” where you say:
“It’s because I’d felt so invisible my entire existence that I gathered greedily what was laid out before me. I’ve always felt like my being deemed desirable by a man was a fluke.”
In the same way you give voice to the “non-conventional” Black girls, you represent for women who are believed to take up too much space physically with their bodies and those Black women who are denying themselves a “fairytale ending” because the world said we can’t/don’t deserve one.
Currently, soundbites of “image consultants,” like Kevin Samuels, and celebrities, like B. Simone, are going viral for shaming Black women for daring to believing we deserve a happy ending. Do you feel as if there is starting to be a movement to commodify the inherent “shame” that Black women, like yourself and I, are fed throughout our lives by mass media and brands?
AD: I do. I think people are so intent on solidifying their own importance, and pockets, that they are willing to sacrifice the well-being of others in order to do so. I think it’s easy to prey on people’s insecurities while setting impossible standards they can never achieve because the goal posts always move. There is a part of me that feels some of this is a backlash to the “less desirable” women starting to gain confidence or ignoring what society thinks they should be. The shameful part of it is when other Black people, who know discrimination and harm first hand, take part in it denigrating their own people for the sake of profit and popularity.
A: The Incredible Shrinking Woman is raw and has so many visceral moments that left me, as a reader, swept up emotionally in your words because of their authenticity and how true they rang in my lived experience as a Black woman. How were you able to draw on so many powerful emotions as a writer, and not become bogged down by them long enough to get your thoughts onto the paper?
AD: I was able to do that in some instances, but there were a few times that I got lost. I couldn’t read “Liturgy” without crying for about a year after I wrote it. Part of that was because I hadn’t really dealt with that grief. Fortunately, I’d processed, or started to process, most of the other topics I covered in the book. I look at my subjects as a bruise. If I can touch it and there is only an ache then I feel safe writing about it. If there is marked pain, then I know that I am not ready to fully explore that topic for public consumption.
A: Music is heavily attached to your writing with your father being a DJ. What’s on your playlist now?
AD: I have a playlist for everything, but there are few things I have on repeat right now. “Everything I Wanted” by Nuq, “Moment” by Victoria Monet, “Good & Plenty” by Alex Isley, “I Mean It” by PJ, “Vibe” by Cookie Kawaii, and “Whoa (Remix)” by Snoh Aalegra feat Pharell Williams. I’ve also been using “Whatever Lola Wants” by Sarah Vaughn and “All Blues” by Miles Davis to craft a few pieces on my plate at the moment.
A: What writers or pieces of art have influenced your writing?
A: Do you have any advice you would give to people who want to write?
AD: I would say write for yourself before anyone else. If there is no heart or passion behind what you are writing your audience can tell. If you don’t like what you are writing why would your readers?
A: Thank you so much for your time, Ms. Dixon! I can’t wait to read more of your work!
Athena’s work has appeared in various publications both online and in print. She is a Pushcart Prize nominee (2016, 2017), a Best of the Net nominee (2017), a Callaloo fellow (Oxford 2017), a V.O.N.A. fellow (2018), and a Tin House Workshop attendee (Winter 2019). Athena is a member of the Moving Forewards Memoir Writers Collective. Additionally, she has presented at AWP (2013, 2020), HippoCamp (2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020) and The Muse and the Marketplace (2019) among other panels and conferences.
“Reading is an exercise in empathy; an exercise in walking in someone else’s shoes for a while.” – Malorie Blackman
What have you been reading this February?!
This year, I have been focusing less on giving books a star rating and more on how books connect across the Africana Diaspora literary canon.
While So Long A Letter by Mariama Bâ is by a Senegalese novel, the issues Bâ covers in this novella mirror topics that so many African-American women have written about.
Bâ speaks of female friendships and how they sustain us, like Toni Morrison in Sula and Alice Walker in The Color Purple.
She speaks of messy affairs in marriages and how love can look different for each person, like bell hooks in All About Love and Changes: A Love Story by Ama Ata Aidoo.
And when I think of scholarly theorist Bâ is communing with, Wicked Flesh by Jessica Marie Johnson and Thick: And Other Essay by Tressie McMillan Cotton, come to mind in the way Bâ stands up for female agency and independence in a society which demands that Black Womanhood appear under the thumb of the patriarchy as a thing of lesser value. Bâ writes about Ramatoulaye, her protagonist, struggle to assert herself as an educated single mother who attempts to assert herself in a society that does not see her as a valuable asset once her husband throws her to the side for his second wife.
Bâ’s writing is intriguing, and to the point, and for anyone who loves a drama-filled read that’s also character-driven, please give this a read.
I saw in your talk with Madeline Dyer for 2020’s YA Thriller Con that one of the inspirations behind this novel came from the loss of your uncle in Jamaica. I’d first like to extend my condolences for this personal loss. I know as an artist, drawing on personal pain is sometimes a source of inspiration. But, how were you able to balance grieving while also going through the writing process of telling such a detailed story about gang culture, police brutality, and political intrigue without being sucked back into that headspace?
Desmond Hall: I really like what the great actor Francis McDormand said about her art. She felt she had to figuratively pick at her wounds to keep them fresh, so she’d be able to access her pain, and apply it to her work. She actually dreaded the closing of her psychological wounds. This is a type of method acting that I think applies to writing as well.
A: So often, the way that many people get introduced to Jamaica is as a country that’s akin to “paradise.” In my course on Globalization and Transnationalism, we watched the documentary Life and Debt, which spoke about how often we as tourists are never seeing the “real” Jamaica or partaking in the actual culture when we come to this island to visit. This made me think of how when reading your novel, readers are introduced to another viewpoint of your homeland that lingers just under Jamaica’s surface in the form of gang culture. Why did you feel that this story was important to talk about as a Jamaican?
DH:Your Corner Dark is a specific story, but also a universal one. The book touches on police brutality, gang culture, defining masculinity, and political intrigue. Those topics are just as relevant here in the States. I’m just telling the truth that I know.
A: In your talk with Dyer, you mentioned that the title of your book is the Jamaican equivalent of the saying, “between a rock and a hard place.” In true fashion, Frankie is stuck between two worlds. On the one hand, he is a student who aspires to be an engineer and create things that will ease the hardships of he and his neighbors’ lives. Yet, Frankie is also living in a world that wants to box him in and make him become a part of gang culture even though everyone around him acknowledges that Frankie is “too smart” to go down this path. How did you balance telling Frankie’s story between these two realities while making it believable?
DH: I think one of the keys is Frankie’s interiority. We get to know how he experiences the angst of having a father who he feels doesn’t understand him. We understand Frankie’s fear and admiration for a dangerous and charismatic uncle. We sympathize with the evil acts he feels compelled to commit. We also get to feel his shame when he ventures into a social class above his rank, and gets intimidated by sushi.
A: One of my favorite parts of Your Corner Dark is the usage of Jamaican patois, the “unofficial language of Jamaica.” For me, the richness of this dialect draws from hearing Jamaicans speak their language out loud, similar to how I feel about hearing African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) being spoken. This got me thinking about Nate Marshall’s poetry collection, Finna, where he mentions that AAVE isn’t necessarily a dialect that’s meant to be written down but is meant to be spoken. Did you find a similar issue come up with your characters as you shaped their dialogue?
DH: I’m not familiar with Mr. Marshall’s thoughts on the matter, but I do believe It’s important to note that a lot of Jamaicans speak the Queens English as well as patois (Patwah in Jamaica). We have a lot of fun with the language, verbally, and in written form. In fact, a lot of the newspapers run social commentary cartoons, and the characters often speak in a thick patwah.
A: I mention this because, at one point in the story, when Frankie hears Leah “chat patois,” he is shocked because he says that some Jamaicans aren’t comfortable with speaking in patois. As a reader who is not an #OwnVoices reviewer, I was unsure if this was indicative of the class issue between Leah and Frankie, which is a topic that comes up several times, or if there was a variation of the dialect that Frankie, a person from the country would speak, versus Leah, who is from the city.
The Jamaican upper middle class has a tendency to be very conservative, even to the extent of reviling Rastafarians, even though Rastas are featured in our tourism advertising. This disdain also extends to speaking patwah. It’s similar to how some Americans look at the southern drawl (Dolly Parton actually points this out!). Frankie is aware that Leah is from the upper middle class as most kids are in his fancy school, and he worries that Leah may harbor some of those upper middle class tendencies.
A:In your talk with Dyer, you also mention that Your Corner Dark is your “love letter to Jamaica.” What is the one thing you want your readers to take away from this story?
DH: I want them to understand more the complexity of Jamaica. Seven days and six nights at the resort won’t show people the real Jamaica, even with excursions.
A:Your background as a screenwriter really shines in this novel! As I was reading Frankie’s story, I was in awe of the fact that so much of the story’s content’s felt as if they are primed to be on the “big screen.” Have you thought of turning this book into a screenplay?
DH: It’s funny you ask because I’d originally written this story as a screenplay, and back in the day, it was a runner up in the IFP Screenwriting contest in NYC.
Over the last few months, we’ve been having meetings with a few TV producers, so we’ll see.
A:You also mentioned that you moved from Jamaica to Jamaica, Queens in New York City. Does this shift in geographical location have any bearings on the types of stories you write about?
DH: I think all my experiences come into play when I write. I remember talking to the great screenwriter, Budd Schulburg. I asked him how he came up with that great line from the awesome movie, ON THE WATERFRONT. “…I coulda been a contender…instead of a bum.” He said he was in Gleason’s boxing gym, and overheard a palooka saying those words to his manager. Mr. Schulburg said he quickly jotted down the line because he knew he would use it in a script one day. That day didn’t come until many years later, but he knew to catalogue the encounter. Essentially, he was telling me to draw from all my experiences, and use anything relevant to help render the story I want to tell.
A:What are some of your writing influences or authors you deem as “must-read?”
I’m moved by Richard Price, and how he imbues crime stories with so much humanity. I wish I could be as harshly real as James Baldwin or as deep as Toni Morrison.
In the YA space, I love reading Jason Reynolds and Courtney Summers.
A:Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
-Grubstreet is a great writing school.
-There’s a famous quote about how published authors are the ones who didn’t give up.
-The SAVE THE CAT book(s) are quick and easy ways to add the power of story structure to your arsenal. If you want a more in depth way, take the Mckee Story Class, and buckle up.
Thank you so much for your time and for the opportunity to interview you, Mr. Hall!
Desmond Hall was born in Jamaica, West Indies, and moved to Jamaica, Queens. He has worked as a high school biology and English teacher; counseled teenage ex-cons after their release from Rikers Island; and served as Spike Lee’s creative director at Spike DDB. Desmond has served on the board of the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids and the Advertising Council and judged the One Show, the American Advertising Awards, and the NYC Downtown Short Film Festival. He’s also been named one of Variety magazine’s Top 50 Creatives to Watch. Desmond lives outside of Boston with his wife and two daughters.
Over the last month, I had the chance to read Punching The Air by Ibi Zoboi and Dr. Yusef Salaam thanks to the kindness of Harper Collins and Karina @AFirePages. As an avid Ibi Zoboi fan and an admirer of the tenacity of the Exonerated Five, getting an ARC of this book was one of the highlights of my year.
Zoboi and Dr. Yusef Salaam book follows the story of Amal, a sixteen-year-old Black artist, who is convicted of a crime of aggravated assault against a White boy. But, Amal’s real crime stems from being born Black.
Thus, when readers see Amal claiming his innocence in court and being convicted to a harsh sentence at a young age, it hurts. As a minority reader, you will more than likely not only remember Dr. Yusef and the Exonerated Five’s case, but probably can also relate to Amal’s plight because you remember the a loved one or friend who’s also experienced harsh sentencing and lost years behind bars.
What I enjoyed most about this #OwnVoice novel in verse is that it is not only raw and real, but it feels honest. Amal is a character that I saw my brother, cousins, and nephews in. He is a boy who has high hopes, but gets painted as a monster by society instead of embraced for his art and potential.
The White educators and lawyers in his life masquerade as these Anti-racist figures and do-gooders, but when their feet are held to the fire, they act in their own self-interest.
Zoboi and Dr. Salaam’s book is an essential read, and I hope that you also pick it up and read it alongside Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson and The New Jim Crowby Michelle Alexander.
for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow was enuf by Ntozake Shange Choreopoem Review
Shange’s choreopoem was very interesting to read. In the beginning I was confused by Shange’s abbreviations and had to use guess work to figure out what she was saying, but as the choreopoem went on, I got better at discerning what she was saying since she frequently repeated certain words like cd (could) or waz (was). Thank goodness for this because the action in this choreopoem speeds by and if you’re not on point, you’ll easily miss something. Since this was a choreopoem, the actual character building isn’t really meant to be full blown. In addition, Shange’s motives for creating the characters is meant more so for them to represent ideas than for them to actually have personalities.
For Colored Girls Movie Review
While I did like this choreopoem, I would have to say without actually seeing a visual interpretation of it (be it a theatrical production, the tv movie, or the film adaptation), one could get lost fairly easily. Since I read this choreopoem for an assignment and watched Tyler Perry’s film adaptation in tangent with reading Shange’s work, I have to say, I actually got a better feeling for what Shange was doing with her work from watching Perry’s movie. Without seeing Shange’s work in action, I would have just chalked this read up as an overblown classic, but the visual representation made this piece one of my favorite…movies that is. I know this is harsh, but I still felt as if Shange’s work would be better off packaged as simple poems in written form opposed to as a single unit that is meant to be read as a full chorepoem/play. And yes, I am aware that Shange admits that she did write these poems singuraly and later preformed then as a collective unit however, I must go off of how it was presented to me in it’s published form.
Perry’s film on the other hand was OUT-STANDING! At the time this film came out, I was under the impression that it would be similar to his other works and that the film itself was scary since it deals with subject matter like, abortions and rape. However, I was pleasently surprised to find that Perry handled everything tastefully. The actresses he chose to represent each character was phenomenal and fitting. I especially enjoyed Loretta Devine as the lady in green and Anika Noni Rose as the lady in yellow. These two poured their hearts into their characters and it shows.
Out of all the poems though, my favorites from both, the choreopoem and the film would have to be “somebody almost walked off with all my stuff” and “no assistance” performed by Loretta Devine in Perry’s film and “my love is too…,” which was performed by all the colored ladies in the film and choreopoem. from the film version and “dark phrases,” which was also performed by all the colored ladies in the film and choreopoem in the written form.
This choreopoem is something I would recommend that everybody read and watch at least once. It’s definitely gives one food for thought. But, beware, viewer discretion is advised.Shange’s work isn’t for a younger audience, it’s better suited for individuals who can truly grasp what is being talked about in the poems.
This is one of my favorite scenes from the Tyler Perry film. Have a look and tell me below if you have ever seen the movie or the choreopoem performed.
I also love the way Ntozake Shange critiques Tyler Perry’s movie in this discussion too. It offers a lot of insight on the the final production of the movie that adds another layer to what transpired in the movie.
The thing about classics of any kind is that you never know what you’re going to get when you read or watch them. You can look up all the reviews you want, but until you’ve cracked open the book or movie for yourself you can’t be sure if any classic is right for you.
I have often heard people gush over Lorraine Hansberry’s play, A Raisin In The Sun and told myself there was no rush to read it on my own because I would eventually have to read it for some class. Sadly, this book never actually made it onto the required reading list for any of my classes so it was left up to me to read it at my leisure. This summer, I finally had a chance to pick the play up from my mother’s collection while I waited for my own boxes to be shipped from Pittsburgh. My ultimate reaction was that this play was nothing like I expected to be. Instead, it was infinitely better.
A Raisin In the Sun Play Review
A Raisin In The Sun follows the Youngers, an African-American family living in South Side Chicago sometime between the end of WWII and the present. The Younger family includes Mama/Lena, a retired domestic worker;Walter/Brother, her son who has big dreams of making it; Ruth, Walter’s wife; Ruth and Walter’s son, Travis; and Beneatha, Walter’s younger sister who wants to become a doctor. As the play begins, the Youngers are all anticipating getting the insurance check that covered Walter Sr., Mama’s husband who has recently died.
For once, I can actually agree with the general consensus and say that this particular play is worthy of the title of classic. Everything in Hansberry’s play felt extremely relevant and real to me, from the characters who were trying to figure out how to spend their new found fortune to the themes that Hansberry brought up about African-American’s place in American society. Even on paper, the characters’ emotions and actions are mapped out and shown so well that watching a film or live performance for Hansberry’s work was actually unnecessary. I personally enjoyed each aspect of the play and could see how certain issues such as, the idea of the black man’s ambitions being unrecognized or the questioning of whether blacks are better off assimilating into the American culture vs. African culture are still relevant. Yet, when I watched the 1961 film adaptation, I wasn’t necessarily as impressed by it like I was with the play.
Each person in the family has big dreams of what they want to do with the money when they get it, however, Walter is the most vocal about his plans. When the check finally comes, Mama takes the money and buys a house in an all-white neighborhood with half of it and gives the rest to Walter with strict instructions to put half in the bank for Beneatha’s medical education and use the other half for whatever he sees fit. Unfortunately, Walter does the opposite and things start to unravel from there.
A Raisin in the Sun Movie Review
For starters, the movie added and deleted key scenes that were important to the overall message of the play. In one deleted scene, Beneatha cuts her permed hair off and everyone is shocked by her actions. This depiction of going natural was empowering in the play. In the film, this scene is cut so that instead of physically shedding what is implied to be her “assimilated American habits,” Beneatha just goes into a monologue about how she will not take on anymore American habits and will instead identify more with her African roots. In my opinion, this scene would have been amazing if it was acted out properly by Diana Sands who played Beneatha.
Likewise, the scene where the Youngers’ neighbor comes in to borrow cleaning products before the family moves and warns/reminds Mama that going into an all-white neighborhood to live is dangerous for the times. This particular scene while not as profound as Beneatha’s hair cutting scene would have been good to show that not only whites were weary of the trouble that could come from blacks and whites living together. Yet, directors of the film chose to show only the white viewpoint instead in the visit that Mr. Linder who acts as the “welcome committee” to the Youngers’ new neighborhood makes to the family’s South Side apartment.
Even though the film did delete these two scenes and add scenes where Walter is sitting in a bar or shown chauffeuring his white boss around, I did somewhat enjoy it because of Sidney Poitier’s acting in the role of Walter. Out of all the actors in the film, he gave the best performance to me. His emotions were raw and he embodied the idea of being a man who the world had beaten down on to a T. Seeing him play Walter alongside Ruby Dee who played the role of Ruth was interesting since these two seemed to have good on-screen chemistry. While I did enjoy Diana Sands in her role as Beneatha, I was a little annoyed with her character in general in both the play and the book. However, I did chalk this up to being just part of the acceptable emotions that Hansberry’s play was meant to draw out of me.
I would definitely recommend the play and the 1961 movie adaptation. I eventually hope to get a chance to watch the 2008 film adaptation to see how Sean “P. Diddy” Combs acted in his role as Walter. Not to mention Phylicia Rashad is one of my favorite actresses so I would love to see her in the role of Mama as well.