#1MinFiction: Cycle

I was relieved to have a boy. That he was lighter than his father. That the Missus wouldn’t abuse him like all the others I bore.

He was raised with his white half, grew up to give me commands.

When his sister was born, I tried to keep them apart. She was black like me, slept in the attic…

At night, years later, I hear the stairs creak under his heavy boot. My stomach twists in knots when she reemerges with the sun, her dress torn.

—Nortina


Monday’s One-Minute Fiction challenges you to write a story in one minute, no more, no less, based on the prompt provided. Monday’s BlaPoWriMo / Black History Month-inspired prompt was the above photo of a mammy and her charge or, perhaps, a mother and her child. In that time, the lines were often blurred.

 

Book Review: Kindred by Octavia Butler

Book Description:

60931Dana, a modern black woman, is celebrating her 26th birthday with her new husband when she is snatched abruptly from her home in California and transported to the antebellum South. Rufus, the white son of a plantation owner, is drowning, and Dana has been summoned to save him. Dana is drawn back repeatedly through time to the slave quarters, and each time the stays grow longer, more arduous, and more dangerous until it is uncertain whether or not Dana’s life will end, long before it has a chance to begin.


Kindred, a neo-slave narrative (fictionalized account of slavery), shows how slavery can still affect us, even when we’re generations removed from it. For Dana, it has a very literal effect. While unpacking her things in her new home with her husband, Kevin, Dana falls under a sudden dizzy spell that sends her back in time to antebellum Maryland, where she meets a distant white relative (hence the title, Kindred). She’s drawn to him each time his life is in danger and must assimilate herself into a very different era and culture — become a slave — and when needed, save his life enough times so that he can eventually father her great-grandmother. Every time Rufus draws her, the stay grows longer, extending from hours, to months, to even years, and Dana must come to terms with the fact that she must play the part of a slave woman, denying herself the basic freedoms she had back in 1976, in order to survive until she can find a way back home.

So often we treat slavery like a history lesson — a dark chapter in our country’s distant past that we choose to forget or pretend has no relevance in today’s world when that couldn’t be further from the truth. Slavery very much becomes a reality for Dana, and no matter how hard we try to ignore it, it has been a reality for us too. Think of terms such as light skin vs. dark skin (house slaves vs. field slaves), Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome, the “N” word, white guilt, or white privilege — all are effects of slavery that still sting today.

Chapter three presents an excellent example of white privilege. It’s Dana’s third trip back, and this time, Kevin accompanies her. In this chapter, we learn that Kevin is white. For two months, Dana and Kevin “act” out their roles of slave and slave master. Then Kevin makes the mistake of saying life in antebellum Maryland isn’t so bad. To him, it would be like acting, but Dana is constantly reminded how she fits in this world. She sees the little black children play slave auction, learning their own objectification early. She’s forced to watch a man have the skin whipped off his back — a warning to the other slaves against insubordination. And later, she herself receives the same beating for teaching another slave how to read.

But Kevin will soon learn that antebellum life isn’t so easy, and it will age him, tremendously.

Reading Kindred made me want to retrace my family tree, as Dana had. While my Ancestry DNA results revealed a lot about my heritage, they did little to connect me with my distant relatives, so I found a 100% free database to search for records using the names I had from our family tree.

Unfortunately, especially for blacks in America, we will inevitably reach a date where all the information suddenly stops. For me, it was 1870, roughly seven years after Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation abolished slavery in the U.S. From that 1870 census, I learned that my great-great-grandfather, who was rumored to have been white, was actually labeled mulatto, and his parents — also mulatto — were more than likely born slaves. As far what happened to them prior to 1870 — who their parents were, who their masters (and most likely my distant relatives) were — I’ll probably never know.

That’s how slavery slaps you in the face sometimes.

Like it slapped Dana, and beat her, and whipped her, and attempted to rape her. That’s another harsh realization Dana has to face about her ancestors (and I about mine, as well); it’s highly probable that she — or rather, her great-grandmother — was not conceived from a mutual love between two parents, but from one overpowering the other simply because there’s nothing that tells him he can’t.

What’s most striking about this novel is its concept of home. The more time Dana and Kevin spend in the past, the harder it becomes for them to adjust to normal life when they return “home.” And even when they’re back in 1976 California for good, the first thing they do is fly to Maryland to visit their ancestral home to see what happened to the people who had become like family to them.

Of course, they’ll never know what happened. If they did, we wouldn’t still be asking questions today.

Why do we continue to run back to the past? Yesterday, I was telling my aunt that every year, there’s a new movie or television special out about slavery. This year, Hollywood is releasing two feature films: Free State of Jones and The Birth of a Nation. On TV, the History Channel is presenting Roots on Memorial Day, and Underground premiered earlier this Spring on WGN.

I fear we’ll always have questions about our troubling past, and no matter how many books we read, how many movies with watch, how many plantations we visit, or how many historical databases we search, we’ll never find the answers we seek. We may be over 150 years removed from slavery, but it’s not rid of us yet. It probably never will be. It’s why I love how this novel ends so much. Some may find the ending unsatisfying, but can any answer we receive from slavery ever truly be satisfying? What happens on Dana’s final exit from the past is a very literal and physical illustration of how slavery snatches so much away from us, even when we’ve never experienced it ourselves.

Kindred is probably the best novel I’ve read so far this year, and while I felt some parts could have been edited or polished better, especially in the beginning and in some of the character dialogue, it didn’t make that much of a difference on my score…

4.5/5 stars!

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Asphyxiated Andrew

A“I married Andrew when I was sixteen. We were just silly children then, but so in love.” Grandma leaned back in her chair and wrapped the blanket folded in her lap around her arms.

A gray-haired man pulled up beside me in his wheelchair—though he didn’t seem to need it. He used his feet to steer, taking small steps forward and pushing the wheels to catch up.

“Marcos, I was starting to worry,” Grandma said.

A wide grin spread across Marcos’ face, revealing a whole row of missing teeth. “Yeeeeeaaaah!” he said, his voice rising and falling like ocean waves.

Grandma clicked her tongue when she noticed me staring. He must be one of her regular listeners, the ones who didn’t—or couldn’t—talk much.

“Now, where was I?” Grandma said. She slid down into the cushion of her chair to get comfortable. “Andrew’s parents were sharecroppers, and very poor. He told me he only owned two outfits: the overalls he worked and played in, and the slacks and button down he wore to church.”

“How did you two meet?”

Grandma winced. She hated being interrupted. I hoped my question would disrupt the flow of her rehearsed monologue, and she would forget what she had planned to say altogether—memory of a fabricated life failing her. But her face soon relaxed, and she continued on, unfaltering.

“It was breezy that day. I’d finished early with my chores, so I decided to sit on the porch and blow dandelion seeds into the wind. That’s when I saw him. No shirt on. The flap of his overalls unbuckled. His sweaty pecks glistening in the hot, summer sunlight.”

“Grandma!”

“What? You notice those things.” Grandma winked. “He was beating on our fence like it was a set of drums. Now, my Daddy was no carpenter, and that fence was the sorriest thing you’d ever see. Just walking by would knock it down. So I marched right on up to him and asked what was he aiming to do, beating my fence like that. That’s when he told me about his dreams of becoming a famous Jazz musician playing the sax like Coltrane.”

Grandma sat up and snapped for the nurse who had just walked by. “Bring me Blue Train, will you?”

“Yeeeeeaaaah!” Marcos shouted.

The nurse left to retrieve the record from the bookcase on the other end of the common area while Grandma opened the lid of the small box on the table next to her, which turned out to be a record player. The nurse returned with the record, and Grandma slid the vinyl from the sleeve and careful placed the needle in the groove. Slowly, the smooth rhythms of the blues filled the room.

Grandma swayed her hips with the music. Her voice was softer, in harmony with what played on the record. “He’d been working odd jobs to save up some money for a sax. He was down to the last couple dollars. I knew I had more than that in my piggy bank upstairs. Been filling that sucker up since I was old enough to know what money was. So I went back in the house to get it and cracked it open on one of the pickets. I told him I’d let him have the money on account I be the first person to hear him play.”

“And were you?” I asked.

“Played for me on our wedding night,” Grandma said proudly, her chin in the air.

“Yeeeeeaaaah!” Marcos said.

The music picked up tempo. Marcos began tapping his feet and nodding his head left to right while Grandma shimmied her shoulders, as if she were about to get up and dance.

“So how’d he die?” I asked.

Grandma raised her finger. She closed her eyes and held out her hands in front of her, drumming her fingers on her thighs as if she were the pianist on the record. I watched Grandma and Marcos play their imaginary instruments for another five minutes until finally the cymbals clashed and the song faded into silence.

“Daddy never liked Andrew. He much preferred I marry somebody rich.” Grandma sighed and turned the volume down on the player as the fluttering notes of the sax twirled above our heads on the next track. “Andrew had a gig at this juke joint called Tammy’s. He’d been suffering from a nasty bug all week, and by that night it had gotten even worse. We should’ve canceled, but we needed the money. We were living at my parents’ place. Daddy kept going on and on about how I’d hurt myself marrying a boy who only had a pre-owned saxophone to his name.”

“What happened?” I was leaning forward in my seat. Marcos too. Everyone was, closing in on the space between us and Grandma, hanging on her every word.

“The first half of the show was great. We should’ve stopped there. But the audience wanted an encore, and Andrew was kind of a big head.” Grandma lightly chuckled. “He was in the middle of playing one of his own compositions when he fell into an awful coughing fit.” Grandma stretched her neck and scratched at her throat. “You know how after you’ve been coughing for a long time, you heave to catch your breathe?”

I could barely move. It was as if time itself had frozen as we waited on Grandma to finish. In the back of my mind, I could hear that high-pitch whistle creeping into my eardrums, like in suspense films after the rising music suddenly stopped, and you anticipated something frightening to jump at you on the screen.

“I still don’t understand how it could’ve happened. How he could’ve sucked in the air so forcefully just trying to catch his breath that it would detach from the sax and go straight down his wind pipe.”

“What?”

“The mouth piece,” Grandma barely whispered. “It was so impossible. Maybe that’s why it took so long for someone to get on the stage and help him. But by then it was too late.”

“No one called 9-1-1!” I was so upset about someone so young and with so much talent and potential dying so soon—like the Coltrane’s, the Holiday’s, the Hendrix’s, and so many others—I’d forgotten that he more than likely wasn’t even real.

“What good would that do when the closest negro hospital was 45 minutes away?”

“Yeeeeeaaaah!” Marcos added, as if confirming that while Andrew himself might have been imaginary, Grandma’s assertion about segregated hospitals and the lack of compassion for negro boys choking on instruments was certainly true. The history books proved it.

Grandma sighed and folded her hands in her lap. “I was made a widow after only three weeks of marriage.”

“Think of it this way,” I leaned forward and patted her knee. “If Andrew hadn’t died, you would’ve never met Paw.”

“Oh no, there were many others between Andrew and your Paw, Meg.” Our background music ended, briefly leaving the room in total silence. Grandma flipped the record to the other side, and started the player up again.

“I wasn’t in mourning two days, before Daddy found a doctor for me to marry,” Grandma said, then mumbled just loud enough for us to hear, “I wonder where the good doctor was when Andrew was dying.”

“So did your second marriage last longer?”

Grandma rolled her eyes. “Yes, but sweetie, let me tell ya, it ain’t always better marrying rich, especially when that rich husband’s name is Burt.”

—Nortina


I hope you enjoyed the story of Andrew from 26 Husbands–26 Unusual Deaths. Be sure to check out other “A” posts from the A to Z Challenge.

Black Poetry Writing Month: Write a Poem of Self-Discovery

the self-hatred of don l. lee

i,
a one time,
loved
my
color—
it
opened sMALL
doors of
tokenism
&
acceptance.
(doors called, “the only one” & “our negro”)
after painfully
struggling
thru Du Bois
Rogers, Locke
Wright & others,
my blindness
was vanquished
by pitchblack
paragraphs of
“us, we, me, i”
awareness.

i
began
to love
only a
part of
me—
my inner
self which
is all
black—
&
developed a
vehement
hatred of
my light
brown
outer.

—Haki Madhubuti (9/22/63)

 

In 1974, upon his return from a trip to Africa, poet, Donald Luther Lee changed his name to the Swahili, Haki (meaning “justice”) Madhubuti (meaning “precise, accurate, and dependable”). In an interview years later, he explained that adopting an African name would help him arrive at a “final destination of self.” (Source: Poetry Foundation)

Madhubuti’s poem, “the self-hatred of don l. lee,” is interesting because it doesn’t describe the same kind of self-hatred described in Baraka’s “Black Bourgeoisie.” Instead of running from his blackness, the speaker runs to it. In fact, he fears he’s not black enough. While he was never ashamed of his “color” before, he didn’t fully understand its significance, using it instead for “acceptance” into white circles, as the cool, “token” black friend. However, after reading the works of writers, historians, and Pan-Africanists such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Richard Wright and others, he opened his eyes to a new version of himself, became aware of his African roots, and wanted to embrace all of it.

I like this poem because it reminds me of a slight identity crisis I had earlier this year. Back in November, I finally made the leap and bought an AncestryDNA kit (it helped that it was on sale for 20% off too). I’ve always been curious of my background. What part of Africa were my ancestors from? Who in my family is white? Am I part Native American (like every other black person in America claims to be)? After 6 weeks, I received the email that my results were in, and . . .

DNA

I’m half Nigerian! I’m also thrilled to see that I have a little Senegalese in me too, since I’ve always believed I was related to Phillis Wheatley somehow ;). My DNA is also a compelling mapping of the Atlantic Slave Trade, as the majority of African slaves came from West African countries.

Now I find myself facing the same dilemma as Don L. Lee. I’m 91% African, but I know nothing about the continent; I know nothing about Nigeria. How can I embrace my roots? Change my name, my clothes, my hair? Would I even fit in if I ever visited, or would they look at my light brown skin and call me white? And these results don’t reveal any additional information about my ethnicity. Am I Yoruba? Am I Igbo? Am I Fulani?

I won’t say my recent self-discovery has lead to a developed hatred for my American self, as it did for the speaker of this poem. Nortina is not going anywhere. America is just as much a part of me as Africa is, and while I would like to know more, I’m happy that I at least have a country to point to now. I am Nigerian.

For today’s BlaPoWriMo prompt, write a poem about self-discovery. What is your history? Your roots? How will you embrace your newly discovered self?

Black Poetry Writing Month: Write a Poem that Remembers (Black) History

at the cemetery, walnut grove plantation, south carolina, 1989

among the rocks
at walnut grove
your silence drumming
in my bones,
tell me your names.

nobody mentioned slaves
and yet the curious tools
shine with your fingerprints.
nobody mentioned slaves
but somebody did this work
who had no guide, no stone,
who moulders under rock.

tell me your names,
tell me your bashful names
and I will testify.

the inventory lists ten slaves
but only men were 
recognized.

among the rocks
at walnut grove
some of these honored dead
were dark
some of these dark
were slaves
some of these slaves
were women
some of them did this honored work.
tell me your names
foremothers, brothers,
tell me your dishonored names.
here lies
here lies
here lies
here lies
hear

—Lucille Clifton

 

If there is anyone out there who still questions the importance of Black History Month, I encourage you to read this poem by Lucille Clifton. Clifton was inspired to write the poem after taking a trip to Walnut Grove Plantation in South Carolina and noticing that there was no mention of slaves. “Be serious!” she said in a 1995 interview, a two thousand acre plantation in early nineteenth century South Carolina definitely had slaves.

She suggested that the tour guide check the inventory—since slaves were considered property—and they discovered there were ten slaves; however, this number did not include women, who apparently weren’t even valuable enough be considered part of the inventory. This struck a chord within Clifton, and she found her poem.

Just as in Walnut Grove Plantation, many labors, accomplishments, etc. of blacks go unnoticed, overshadowed by that of whites. For example, Thomas Edison is credited for the invention of the light bulb, but how many people know that it was a black man who actually made it work? Or that Deputy U.S. Marshall, Bass Reeves, a black man, was the inspiration behind the Lone Ranger series. Black women rarely receive the recognition they deserve either, often fading into the background. We see it politics, Hollywood, at home. Sometimes, black women even do it to themselves. I read in a book once that you can always measure the racial progress of the country by looking at the status of black women because they are usually the last to receive their “freedoms.”

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This is why that last line in Clifton’s poem is so important. “Hear.” We’ve got to stop being ignorant to our history, to the struggles of people less fortunate than us. I think we all “know” what happens outside our little worlds we close ourselves in, but we choose to remain blind and use the excuse, “Nobody told me.” Listen, racism isn’t as covert as you think. Injustice happens in plain sight every day, and too many people write it off as “shit happens.” No, shit like this shouldn’t happen. Not if we know our history. Not if we understand the struggles of others.

You see, we cannot ignore history. History doesn’t go away. The past isn’t back there, the past is here too.

—Lucille Clifton fromThe Language of Life: A festival of Poets. By Bill Moyers

For today’s BlaPoWriMo prompt, write a poem that remembers history. Too many voices of our black foremothers and forefathers go unheard. They have a place in our story too. And although it may feel embarrassing or uncomfortable, it needs to be heard. Force your readers to open their ears and listen.

—Nortina

Black Poetry Writing Month: Write a Poem for the Community

The Negro Speaks of Rivers

I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul as grown deep like the rivers.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

—Langston Hughes

 

Besides freedom, a common theme in African American poetry is community. In school, we called it the “collective we.” It’s a way of thinking that African Americans exhibit even today. For example, after the tragic death of Trayvon Martin and the later acquittal of his killer, neighborhood watch captain, George Zimmerman in 2013, President Obama publically came out and said that Martin could have easily been his own son. It’s a mentally that we all share: if injustice happens to one of us, it happens to all of us.

Beyoncé received a lot of criticism from conservatives and cops for her portrayal of police officers in her “Formation” music video. In the video, the camera pans over graffiti that says, “Stop shooting us,” throughout the video, she is sitting (or standing) on top of a New Orleans police cruiser as it sinks underwater, and at the end of the video, a line of riot police officers surrender to a child dancing.

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Conservatives called this an attack against police and said she should be grateful for the officers who protect her everyday—at her shows, appearances, etc. However, what they fail to realize is that Beyoncé isn’t speaking for herself, but for thousands of brothers and sisters who don’t have a voice—for the children in Flint, Michigan dying from contaminated drinking water while corrupt officials still keep their jobs, for the unarmed teenagers who are murdered for “looking” suspicious in hoodies and jeans, for the black men in prison serving excessive sentences for victimless crimes.

Similarly, Hughes brings the community together. His poem takes us on a journey through our history, back to the birth of civilization at the Euphrates, then deep into the heart of Africa along the Congo, up the Nile overlooking the great Egyptian pyramids, and finally to the mighty Mississippi where news of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation freeing the slaves echoed along its banks.

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Mississippi River, New Orleans

For today’s BlaPoWriMo prompt, write a poem for the community. Use your words to unite a people. Lend your voice to a silenced generation. Provide an atmosphere of learning and understand by taking them on a journey through their heritage.

—Nortina

#BlaPoWriMo: Dark Girls – A Tribute to Phyllis Wheatley

#BlaPoWriMo: Boycott the Dark Girl (poem)

Boycott the dark girl!

Don’t tell them about race; Middle America
doesn’t want to face your afros and wide nose,
your full lips and round hips.

Boycott the dark girl!

Rip open your blouse, measure the humpback
on which a nation’s edifices are housed,
count the scars from raw cowhide
whipped in formation of a chokecherry plantation.

Boycott the dark girl!

Mend your heartstrings across the violin bridge,
play an empowering song with the bow of your fist.
Splash shades of brown through the stadium field—
a prism of acceptance, their politics must yield.

Boycott the dark girl!

A call for peace, an end to violence
is an attack, they say.
You were beaten, raped,
your genitals dissected and put on display.

Dance on the boycott, dark girl;

Hatred can’t make them turn you away.
Your purple skin is imperial; reclaim your domain
as you slay on the stage in Black Panther berets.

—Nortina

#BlaPoWriMo: Self-Portrait (poem)

All brown children color
their faces. First families
shades of yellow, red, black.
Self-portraits traced with edges
of brown crayons; they know
their identities long before
they are taught race.

What color is my skin?
A resounding tale of fallen shackles,
of long tenancies on distant
masters’ lawns, of coal-painted
faces dancing on stage, of misplaced
ballots and grandfather clauses,
of front row seats on public transit,
of Black Power and Panthers,
of raised fists and Afro puffs,
of Black berries sweeter than sugar,
purple juice on their puckered lips.

Why do we color?
African lineage documented in
mixing shades of nude on pallets,
wielding artistic instruments—
colored pencils, crayons, markers.
With every brushstroke
They match their complexions;
Tiny realists never white-washing,
erasing their existence.
We are here.

Little brown children, present
yourselves as unabashed
workings of self-identity.
Do not cover your skin
for a fearful colorless society;
coat it in a deeper mahogany.

—Nortina


Black Poetry Writing Month: Will you join the challenge? This is a revision of a poem written last year. Click here to read the original version.

Double Standards

A king can have any woman his heart desires. He can leave his bride’s chambers for that of another, and another, and another. He will mistake her broken heart for illness, send her off to a cottage in the country with healing waters while he philanders with his mistresses throughout the halls of the palace. The vibration of the bodies still felt through the cushion of the queen’s throne seat when she returns.

He impregnates women, populates half the kingdom with his bastards, meanwhile, his queen’s womb is left empty. She is the hallow shell of a woman. Unloved, unwanted, until a poet comes to court and sweeps her off her feet with his eloquent words.

She chuckles to herself when he reads his poem to the king’s pleasure. Hearing her words from the night before repeated back to her, “Dear heart, how like you this?” Remembering his moist lips on her shoulder as he loosened her gown from behind.

But an adulterous queen is treason.

He doesn’t have the heart to watch her head tumble into a blood-soaked basket. Still lips meeting her lover’s one last time. He’s whisked another mistress off to Calais for the weekend.

Nortina


Flash Fiction for Aspiring Writers is a weekly challenge where you write a story in 100-150 words (give or take 25 words) using the provided photo prompt as inspiration. I apologize for going over the word limit today. Creativity has been slow this week, so I had to snatch it up when it came. Thanks, Sonya, for inspiring this story with your photo! You may have helped me kick my writer’s block.

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