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!

four_half-stars_0-1024x238

Book Review: Pretty Baby by Mary Kubica

pretty-baby-mary-kubicaBook Description:

She sees the teenage girl on the train platform, standing in the pouring rain, clutching an infant in her arms. She boards a train and is whisked away. But she can’t get the girl out of her head… 


Have you ever read a book that just completely ruined your life? You never asked for it. You just wanted something to occupy the time when work was slow, or when boyfriend still hadn’t called you back. You didn’t expect to get swept into this twisted realm of lies, sexual abuse, kidnapping, and murder, to the point that once you finally got to the end, you had a mental break just like the characters.

While many novels that I’ve read lately lollygag for the first two or three chapters before finally getting to the plot, Mary Kubica’s Pretty Baby opens right into the action.

Heidi Wood, a charitable woman who works for a nonprofit organization helping illiterate refugees and other unfortunate souls, spots the wretched Willow Greer with her infant daughter standing in the pouring rain—apparently invisible to the rest of the commuters on the train platform—and can’t resist the urge to help her. Eventually, she invites Willow and baby Ruby back to her home, much to the dismay of her never home investment banker husband, Chris, and her temperamental 12-year-old, Zoe.

As the novel progresses and you learn more about Heidi and her past, you start to wonder if maybe it wasn’t Willow she wanted to save, if maybe her motivations for bringing Willow and Ruby into her home were more perverse than we might have thought. Eventually the question becomes not whether Willow will pose a threat, but is she or any of the other characters safe, alone in that house with Heidi? Once you reach the climax of the novel, everything happens so quickly, you’re forced to go back and read it again to identify the exact place in the novel where it all suddenly went south.

Overall, Pretty Baby is a great read. There were some parts where the plot dragged, but I’m glad I stuck it out. I wouldn’t quite classify it as a psychological thriller. In a psychological thriller, I want my head to spin, and unfortunately, Kubica’s plot twists didn’t surprise me as much as I wanted them too. However, there were some surprises that I didn’t see coming, and while I figured out the ending early on, the quickness of how everything deteriorated was definitely a shock.

Unfortunately, I do have two major issues that almost got this book shelved. First, am I the only one who thinks that telling a story from three or four different points-of-view is extremely overdone? Personally, I think it disrupts the flow of the story, especially if the next character’s chapter doesn’t pick up where the last character left off. For example, the end of one of Chris’ chapters had me dying to know what happened next. Unfortunately, I had to go through six or seven Willow and Heidi chapters to get there. It didn’t help that all of Willow’s chapters were set in her past (by the way, the novel is written in present tense—something excitingly different). By the time I got back to Chris, the novel had jumped to the next day, and all that tension from his previous chapter was gone.

Secondly, I absolutely hated Willow’s foster father, Joseph. Not because he was an unlikeable character, because anyone who reads my writing knows I live for unlikeable characters. Joseph, however, was obnoxiously unlikeable, and his character was so stereotypical that I was left wondering if Kubica put any imagination into his profile at all. Why is it that every literary antagonist that is a devout Christian is so despicable that his very existence would cause Jesus to swallow his own vomit? I’ve seen this type of character in too many novels. Note to writers, if you’re thinking about making your novel’s main antagonist a hypocritical Christian, stop right there! I promise you, it’s been done before, in every genre. There is no way you will ever be able to make that kind of character original. Avoid the melodrama and take another route.

Thankfully, Willow’s chapters were usually short, so I didn’t have to deal with that disgusting pig for long.

Other than those two cons, I really enjoyed Pretty Baby, and for that, I give it (drum roll, please) . . .

3/5 stars!
3-5

A lot of Amazon reviewers said that her debut novel, The Good Girl was much better. I’ll be the judge of that. I’ve already downloaded the free sample, and if I like it, I’ll buy the book and finish reading, but first . . .

 

Why I Didn’t Finish It: The Ophelia Cut by John Lescroart

ophelia-cut-john-lescroatBook Description:

When a brutal rapist is murdered, a loving father stands accused of the crime. Defense attorney Dismas Hardy must defend his brother-in-law and old friend Moses McGuire in a thrilling case that hits far too close to home.


So, I’m thinking about starting a new book review series title, “Why I Didn’t Finish It.” I know it’s strongly advised that authors don’t give bad reviews, but as some of you may know, I didn’t find my pot of gold at the end of the reading rainbow in 2015. I read a dismal five books! While I attempted to read plenty more, I found myself giving up on a lot of novels for a variety of reasons—editing, dull plot, unbelievable characters, etc. So, in case that drought continues in 2016, I just want to explain to you how it is absolutely possible for an avid reader such as myself to only finish five books in a year.

It took me three months to read Pretty Baby, and it took me that long because I was really trying to give The Ophelia Cut a chance. Co-workers would see the book on my desk collecting dust and say, “Oh, I love his books! I can never put them down!” Well, I couldn’t even pick this one up. I literally fell asleep on the last chapter I read, and for most of the novel, I had no idea what was going on. Finally, a co-worker said to me, “It’s ok to let it go, Nortina.” So I did.

My mistake might have been choosing a book that was 14th in a series. Of course, I didn’t know that at the time, and when I found out, I was under the impression that it could stand alone. It couldn’t. From the beginning, I was lost. There were way too many characters to keep up with, and because I’d never read the previous books, I couldn’t connect with any of them. They also kept referring back to an event that happened in the last novel, and I felt Lescroart didn’t provide enough background on what happened or why it happened so that I’d understand how it would eventually connect to the events of this novel. Add on top of that, the main conflict of the story, the thing that hooked me into choosing the book in the first place, the above quoted description, didn’t even happen until well after I’d given up.

I might give John Lescroart another chance, preferably with a stand alone novel, but I’m on a mission to read more than five books this year, and I cannot be held back.

So what do you think? Have you read Pretty Baby or The Ophelia Cut ? How did you like them? I’m crossing my fingers that “Why I Didn’t Finish It” will be a one and done. I hate giving up on books.

My next novel to read is Octavia Butler’s Kindred. Hopefully it won’t be June before I write a review!

Black Poetry Writing Month: Write a Poem in Dialect

Southern Road

Swing dat hammer—hunh—
Steady, bo’;
Swing dat hammer—hunh—
Steady, bo’;
Ain’t no rush, bebby,
Long ways to go.

Burner tore his—hunh—
Black heart away;
Burner tore his—hunh—
Black heart away;
Got me life, bebby,
An’ a day.

Gal’s on Fifth Street—hunh—
Son done gone;
Gal’s on Fifth Street—hunh—
Son done gone;
Wife’s in de ward, bebby,
Babe’s not bo’n.

My ole man died—hunh—
Cussin’ me;
My ole man died—hunh—
Cussin’ me;
Ole lady rocks, bebby,
Huh misery.

Doubleshackled—hunh—
Guard behin’;
Doubleshackled—hunh—
Guard behin’;
Ball and chain, bebby,
On my min’.

White man tells me—hunh—
Damn yo’ soul;
White man tells me—hunh—
Damn yo’ soul;
Got no need, bebby,
To be tole.

Chain gain nevah—hunh—
Let me go;
Chain gain nevah—hunh—
Let me go;
Po’ los’ boy, bebby,
Evahmo’. . . .

—Sterling A. Brown, from Southern Road (1932)

 

Dialect was historically viewed as unsophisticated by the literary elite. They thought the use of vernacular exposed a writer’s failure to use correct grammar and understand proper English.

The presumption is present in art even today. Rihanna’s latest single, “Work,” was received negatively by a lot of reviewers because they didn’t understand the lyrics and assumed it was just lazy gibberish, when in fact, she was speaking Jamaican Patois, an English-based creole language with West African influences. Knowing that Rihanna is a native of Barbados, her singing in a language/dialect common to her region would represent a big part of her identity and artistry.

Work, work, work, work, work, work
He said me haffi (He said I have to)
Work, work, work, work, work, work!
He see me do mi (He saw me do my)
Dirt, dirt, dirt, dirt, dirt, dirt!
So me put in (So I put in)
Work, work, work, work, work, work
When you ah guh (When are you going to)
Learn, learn, learn, learn, learn
Meh nuh cyar if him (I don’t care if he’s)
Hurt, hurt, hurt, hurt, hurting

Screen_Shot_2016-01-27_at_8_08_20_AM_0

Sterling A. Brown’s “Southern Road” uses choppy dialogue and local colloquialisms to illustrate a chain gang member lamenting his woes while performing hard labor. The repetition of lines and the ababcb rhyme scheme creates a musical tone to the poem. While on the surface, it appears very simple, “Southern Road” is a lyrical poem that creates a strong sense of setting, strikes the visual and audio senses with the repetition of “hunh” as the speaker brings down the hammer over and over, and provides a literary medium for social discourse and conversations about race.

Today for BlaPoWriMo, write a poem in dialect. How do you express your identity using colloquialisms? What sophisticated concepts can you express with uncomplicated words and phrases? Illustrate a scene that invokes the senses and summarizes our culture.

—Nortina

Black Poetry Writing Month: Write a Poem for the Activist

If We Must Die

If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursed lot.
If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe!
Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one deathblow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!

—Claude McKay, from Harlem Shadows (1922)

 

Claude McKay’s poem “If We Must Die” was written amidst violent race riots in the summer of 1919 which included 28 public lynches. McKay famously used the sonnet form to speak against racism and call his community to action, to fight back.

The beauty of “If We Must Die” is that it’s universal. Even without knowing the history behind it, anyone facing oppression can identify with the powerful message within its lines. It’s even said that Winston Churchill read the poem in the House of Commons during World War II and that many British soldiers carried copies of the poem on their person.

Almost a century later, McKay’s poem still speaks to a generation fighting for their lives. Last year saw a rise in a new kind of civil rights activism, the Black Lives Matter Movement, in the aftermath of the deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, John Crawford, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray and so many other unarmed brothers and sisters, unjustly slain, killed by law enforcement under questionable circumstances, seemingly with no remorse.

Stephen Lam / Reuters
Stephen Lam / Reuters

Screams for justice rose above the flames consuming cities like Ferguson, Missouri and Baltimore, Maryland. While the majority of protests were peaceful, many turned violent, but all were met with stiff police response in full-on riot gear.

Demonstrators put on die-ins in large shopping malls and on the sides of highways, saying, if they must die, they will not leave this earth until the world knows and respects that Black lives still exist and matter equal to every one else.

Today’s optional prompt for #BlaPoWriMo is to write a poem (bonus points if it’s a sonnet) that condemns racism. Write a poem for the contemporary activist who refuses to be picked off by an establishment that views her race as expendable. Write a poem for a people who will not be made victims anymore.

—Nortina

Oreo Cookies | Chapter 3 | Part 4

Cheyenne: Mixed and Matched continued

“So I bought that gargantuan turkey for no reason!” Rebekah’s blond hair tumbled from the crown of her head as she stood in front of the bathroom mirror and plucked Bobbi pins from her high bun.

“I really wanted to cook the turkey for everyone.” Cheyenne sat on the lid of the toilet, knees drawn to chin.

“There’s always next year, sweetie.”

“I won’t be in Mrs. Watson’s class next year!”

“Well.” Rebekah shook out her hair, scratched her scalp. “I’ll just stick it in the freezer. We’ll eat it for Christmas. You’ll cook it for the family like you always do.”

“Oh, alright.” Cheyenne poked out her bottom lip and slid down from the toilet. She wrapped her arms around her mother’s thigh and stared down and her pedicured toenails, painted pastel pink.

“Being an Indian could be fun.” Rebekah traced the tip of her fingers down the back of Cheyenne’s neck then slipped her hand underneath Cheyenne’s sweater and rubbed her back between her shoulder blades. “They have powwows, and you already wear your hair in pigtail braids. And what’s cooler than a headband with a feather in it?”

“Am I part Indian?”

“That’s an odd thing to ask.” Rebekah lifted Cheyenne’s chin toward her. “Did someone tell you that?”

“Mrs. Watson said I look like it, and my name is Indian.”

“Cheyenne can be a girl’s name too,” Rebekah said in a high-pitched voice, as if trying to convince herself. “I thought it was cute.” Rebekah leaned over Cheyenne and tore a sheet of toilet tissue from the roll behind her. She dampened it under the running faucet, brought it to her lips. “That woman’s got some nerve,” she said to her reflection in the mirror as she forcibly wiped red lipstick from her lips. “She’s been trying to figure out what you are ever since you started at that school.”

“But what am I?” Cheyenne asked.

Rebekah sighed, balled the wet, pink tissue in her fist and tossed it into the trashcan. “I don’t know, sweetheart. Your father once told me he had a little Cherokee in him, but they all say that.”

“They all who?”

Rebekah squatted to be at eye level with Cheyenne. She grabbed Cheyenne by the shoulders, pulled her closer so that their noses almost touched. “You’re my daughter. That’s all that matters,” she said. “Now come on, let’s buy your costume. You’ll be the cutest little Indian princess on stage.”

 

They searched unsuccessfully for a Pocahontas costume. Halloween had passed. The ghost and ghouls replaced by turkey balloons, harvest colored placemats, two for one foil pie dishes, and from the back corner of the stores, artificial snow, reindeer lawn decorations, diamond-shaped evergreens, and glass ornaments crept onto the shelves.

Rebekah didn’t want Cheyenne to look like every other dressed-up Indian girl. “We’ll make one instead. Yours should be unique anyway.” They pieced the outfit together from store to store. At the Shoe Department, Rebekah bought kids’ moccasin slippers. Then from across the street at Michael’s Arts and Crafts, she bought needle and thread—super glue if sewing proved to be too difficult—brown, yellow, and orange beads to decorate the moccasins with, and crane feathers for the headband.

At JC Penny, they browsed the racks for brown fringe skirts. “Do they have anything that isn’t short?” Rebekah complained. On the clearance rack, she found a sepia suede skirt that came down just past Cheyenne’s shins. It was two sizes too big. In the fitting room, Cheyenne held her arms out to the side while Rebekah stood behind her and pinched the fabric together at the waistline. If she bought it, she would have to pin it down and hope the skirt would stay up above Cheyenne’s slim hips. “We’ll make it work,” she said. In the women’s department, she picked up a brown leather belt and a leather fringe vest. “Funny how they call all this stuff cowgirl clothes,” Rebekah scoffed as the sales clerk scanned the price tags at the register. “Like the Westerners didn’t steal it from somebody.” Cheyenne drummed her fingers on the counter, anxious to see how all the pieces would look together on her.

They spread old newspaper across Cheyenne’s bedroom floor. Cheyenne lay on her stomach while Rebekah cut the vest in half then snipped the fringe into thinner, shorter strips. Cheyenne, under her mother’s warnings not to glue her fingers together, squeezed droplets of superglue onto the backs of the fringe pieces, flipped them over, and pressed them onto the suede skirt at the waistline so that it fashioned a belt, and just above the hem so that the fringe tickled her legs when she walked. Once she had completely circled the bottom and top edges of the skirt with fringe, she laid it to the side to dry, and then they started on the sewing.

Cheyenne strung the beads onto the laces of the moccasins while Rebekah threaded the needle. Then Rebekah sewed the laces together so that the beads wouldn’t fall off. Next, Rebekah beaded the thread and weaved it into the sides of the moccasins. The beads hung off the slippers like crescents and jangled when she shook them. “It’ll be like you’re a little grass dancer!” Rebekah exclaimed as she sat the moccasins next to the skirt.

Lastly, Rebekah wrapped the leather belt around Cheyenne’s head to measure the circumference needed for the headband then cut off the unnecessary ends. To tie it together, she wrapped the belt into a halo, stuck the needle through the two belt holes on the end and looped the thread around several times until she could not tear it apart. Then Cheyenne poked the stems of the feathers through the holes and pulled them partway down so the fuzz would fill the space and hold the feathers in place.

“Shall we try it on?” Rebekah picked up the headband and carefully slid it down Cheyenne’s head to the top of her ears as if crowning a princess. She tugged at the feathers so they stood erect at the back of Cheyenne’s head. “How does that feel?”

Cheyenne hurriedly nodded her head until she was dizzy.

“We did a banging good job! You’re gonna look awesome in that play.” Rebekah swept Cheyenne up into a tight bear hug and planted a wet kiss on her forehead between the top of her headband and her hairline.

© Nortina Simmons

Oreo Cookies | Chapter 3 | Part 3


So I’ve been promising a conclusion to Chapter 3 for the past several weeks now. Promises are made to be broken, but again, I’m promising that it will come next Friday. See you there! 🙂

Oreo Cookies | Chapter 3 | Part 3

Cheyenne: Mixed and Matched continued

Rebekah’s stories of Cheyenne’s father became more spirited as the year progressed. The air cooled in September, and the leaves transitioned from green to bright yellows, rustic reds, and crisp browns in October as Rebekah’s face lit up and a wave of nostalgia swept over her.

By the holidays, the slightest provocation could incite a fond memory. A classic recipe folded down, sticking to the last page of an old scrapbook reminded her of the time she nearly burned the house down baking his grandmother’s infamous coconut cookies in the oven at 500 degrees. When she and Cheyenne raked the leaves in the yard, Cheyenne often dove into a pile, lay in wait for Rebekah to return with a black garbage bag. As she began to stuff the leaves into the bag, Cheyenne popped up like a Jack-in-the-Box, startling Rebekah so that she placed her hand over her heart, exhaled uneasy laugher as memories of his hand reaching from underneath the bed to snatch her foot, his face behind a Jason mask greeting her as she exited the bathroom resurfaced to the front of her mind.

She sat Cheyenne between her legs on the front step, plucked the crunchy, broken-off tips of leaves from Cheyenne’s tangled hair and reminisced on the pranks she and Edmund played on each other in college, from water balloons, to plastic rattlesnakes, to dead stinkbugs in her shoes.

“You’re just like him. Walking around here like a ghost. Waiting to jump out of the corner and scare me.”

Cheyenne leaned back, pressed her head into her mother’s chest, extended her tongue to touch the tip of her nose. “Did he do this a lot?”

“You’re such a silly bean,” Rebekah said, kissing her forehead.

 

Thanksgiving was quickly approaching and Rebekah had a refrigerator full of food she wasn’t allowed to touch. Gayle was the cook of the family. Her turkeys were always moist, the stuffing never mush, the skin crispy—it snapped like potato chips when she sliced it.

Cheyenne never asked why they always ate Thanksgiving dinner with Gayle and Grandpa Richard; why she never met the fretting aunts who pinched Rebekah’s butt that one Christmas and fed her until she could no longer fit her clothes; why her only memories of her father came from stories Rebekah told her when she was on the verge of sleep. She couldn’t miss what she never had, what she never experienced, and cooking with Grandma Gayle was so much more enjoyable than worrying about why the other half of her family was absent. She would massage the turkey in melted butter, licking her fingers when Gayle wasn’t looking. She’d pry open the turkey’s legs, whistle inside the cavity and wait for an echo while Gayle mixed roasted vegetables into the stuffing. Together, they would fill the cavity with large spoonfuls until the stuffing spilled out into the roasting pan. Then Gayle let Cheyenne, a recent expert a shoelace tying, knot kitchen twine around the legs.

This year, on top of cooking with Gayle, Cheyenne and the rest of her kindergarten class would put on a Thanksgiving production for the entire student body of Pembroke Elementary and their families. A Feast for All, Mrs. Watson had named it; a play that would trump all Thanksgiving plays because they would have real food on stage, would pass out plates to the audience during the final curtain call. The students waited in line to receive their assignments from their teacher— who would be characters and who would be responsible for preparing the meal. Cheyenne was confident that she would be tasked with cooking the turkey. She had three years of practice with Gayle. She’d even told Rebekah to buy an extra bird, one big enough to feed the whole school. They’d browsed the poultry bins at three different grocery stores before they found one at twenty pounds.

“This thing is bigger than you when you were a baby,” Rebekah said, breathing heavy. “Maybe Grandma should baste you and stick you in the oven.”

The bag boy helped them carry it to the car. He and Rebekah held either end of the paper grocery bag while Cheyenne stood between them, hugging the bag as if it were one of her toys. The coolness of the refrigerated turkey inside seeped through the bag and chilled her chest. When they returned home, they stuffed the bird in the bottom drawer of the refrigerator where all the cold air sank and concentrated.

Cheyenne perked up when she heard Mrs. Watson call her name and write it on the blackboard. Mrs. Watson turned around, looked up at the ceiling, deep in thought, and tapped her bottom lip with the chalk, leaving a line of white dust. “You can be the Indian chief’s daughter.”

“But I wanted to do the turkey.” Cheyenne drooped her shoulders and hunched her back.

“That will be Rebecca’s job.” Mrs. Watson pointed the chalk to her left at Rebecca, who looked at Cheyenne over her shoulder and smirked, only the left side of her lips parting to show her white teeth.

“My dad has his own restaurant. It’ll be a piece of cake.”

“But I’ve been helping my grandma cook Thanksgiving turkey since I was two.”

“I think you’ll make a great Indian princess. You’ll be little Pocahontas. You’ve seen the movie, right?” Mrs. Watson said.

Cheyenne turned her back to hide her tears.

“Aren’t you part Indian anyway?”

Cheyenne shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t know.”

“Well, I only thought because of your name. And you look—” Mrs. Watson spun around and wrote ‘little Pocahontas’ on the blackboard next to Cheyenne’s name. “Never mind. You’ll be the Indian princess. Join the rest of the tribe.” She pointed her stick of chalk behind her toward the back left corner of the room, where four other students huddled and whispered. Cheyenne dragged her feet in their direction.

“Welcome, my princess,” Ricky Reynolds said, his voice deep, coming from the back of his throat, bouncing like a steady heartbeat. “I am Chief Candlestick.” He and the other three Indians, Natasha, Susie, and Luis Gomez snickered behind their teeth, then opened their arms and pulled her into the circle.

© Nortina Simmons

Oreo Cookies | Chapter 3 | Part 4

Oreo Cookies | Chapter 3 | Part 2

Cheyenne: Mixed and Matched continued

By five, most children knew of the stork that dropped their tiny infant bodies wrapped in cotton blankets off at their parents’ doorsteps, but Rebekah told a different story. She tucked Cheyenne in bed, plugged in her Little Mermaid night light, and as Cheyenne’s droopy eyelids fluttered, fighting off sleep, Rebekah told her tales of beans in ovens at Christmastime, of great aunts swarming around her, squeezing her arms, slapping her thighs, fretting about seeing her bones, why she didn’t eat real food, how she could push out a baby with those narrow hips. They fed her deep fried turkey, honey glazed ham, sweet potato casserole, macaroni with a burnt layer of cheese on top, rice with giblet gravy, collards cooked in neck bones. A dinner that fed the soul.

Rebekah unbuttoned her jeans, put on a Christmas sweater she found folded underneath the tree when her own sweater pulled too tightly across her satisfied stomach. Santa’s face on her chest, but instead of the rosy cheeks she knew as a child, his was a roasted chestnut brown.

The family stood around the piano as the matriarch’s long, thin fingers fluttered over the keys and sang “Jesus, Oh What a Wonderful Child,” the only song she knew how to play. They stomped their feet, clapped their hands to the up-tempo music, sang from deep within their guts, their dinner sitting at the pit of their stomachs creating a bass that projected their voices, filling the room, seeping through the walls, pouring out into the quiet neighborhood. When the song ended, they started again. A reprise growing louder, more animated. The women began to dance, raising their arms, exalting the Father for the birth of His Son. Jumping up and down, shaking their heads, tears streaming down their cheeks, they shouted, “Glory! Glory! Glory!”

During the third reprise, Edmond snuck Rebekah down to the basement where she was greeted by clouds of her breath in the darkness. As they climbed down, they could see the yard decorations through the high rectangular window to the left of the staircase. Rudolf’s hooves blinked, the multicolored net lights grazed the bottom of the bushes, the luminary bags lit up the walkway.

The basement floor was cleared of clutter. He had pushed all the unused furniture—broken end tables, old box springs, worn out couches—against the walls, making space in the center of the floor for an air mattress. He guided her to the bed, and they lay together on the cold floor, cocooned in the ragged quilt, legs entwined. She fell asleep rapt in the flashing Christmas lights reflected on the windowpane, wrapped in his arms.

“You were due in September,” Rebekah told Cheyenne. “You came a month and a half late, the week before Halloween. My little pumpkin pie. You browned a little longer in the oven.” She kissed Cheyenne’s forehead when her breathing became steady, when her stomach rumbled with dreams of a weeklong feast devoured in one night and of a Santa sitting on the extinguished yule log in the fireplace, attempting to wipe the soot from his face with his beard, succeeding only in deepening it into his skin and the fibers of his hair.

© Nortina Simmons

Oreo Cookies | Chapter 3 | Part 3


This week’s installment of Chapter 3 is only short because the scene I have planned for next week is going to be pretty long and I didn’t want to break it into parts. So stay tuned for the very long conclusion to Chapter 3! You don’t want to miss it!

Oreo Cookies | Chapter 3 | Part 1

Cheyenne: Mixed and Matched

Cheyenne’s mother, Rebekah, had long, blond hair, smooth as silk. Whenever she stepped outside, it turned white as her eyebrows, absorbing the sun’s rays, a natural bleach. When wet, it was yellow and clumped together like sunflower petals. She would comb her fingers through the strands, lifting her roots at the crown, raking her hair over her shoulders, the ends dropping from her French manicured nails, brushing across her elbows and settling at the small of her back. It dried into wind-swept beach waves. She often styled her hair in a French braid down her spine, weaving the sections together until she reached the base of her neck. Then Cheyenne would crawl behind her, rise on her knees and twist her stubby fingers back and forth, in and out down the braid until she couldn’t go any further and swung the end of the tail over her mother’s shoulder, and Rebekah loosely tied it with a rubber band.

Cheyenne was her mother’s twin, just a few shades tanner. Her green eyes matched Rebekah’s, their noses a pair of acute triangles, lips full only when puckered, pink as the distant horizon at sunset. “We are gorgeous women,” Rebekah would say as she tousled her hair in the bathroom mirror, bent down toward Cheyenne, who could barely reach the sink, and pinched her cheek, creating a natural blush. “Save the makeup for the people who need it.”

Cheyenne’s hair was as long as her mother’s, though not as elegant. It was a brownish blond with copper undertones, thick, especially at the crown and the nape of the neck. After she broke four teeth in her comb and snapped that handle on her favorite brush, Rebekah opted to style Cheyenne’s hair only when wet. It shrank into tiny curls when she lathered it with shampoo, suds filling the bottom of the sink. She rinsed it out and scooped a heaping of conditioner into her palm, spread it over Cheyenne’s hair like butter on pancakes, wrapped a plastic grocery bag around her head and had her sit on the edge of the kitchen sink in front of the window—where the sun bared directly through at exactly eleven o’ clock—and played Cat’s Cradle with her for half an hour. “Your hair is beautiful, sweetheart,” she said in her cool voice, breath like mint, “but I gotta soften out those curls. Make them easy to work with.”

When she rinsed out the conditioner, she split the hair down the middle, tied one half in a side ponytail and out of the way so she could blow dry the other half. She stuffed Cheyenne’s ears with cotton balls to muffle the harsh sound of the blow dryer’s motor, and using the pick attachment, combed out the curls. The first half was always easiest, the curls still wet and loose. The pick glided down the length of it as if her hair had been freshly pressed. Dried, Cheyenne’s combed out, wavy tresses extended just past her shoulder blades, and Rebekah French braided it, like her own hair, into a pigtail.

The second half was partially dry when she started on it—the ends were still damp, but the roots had begun to frizz. Flyaway strands had curled around each other into knots, and she plucked them out, yanking Cheyenne’s head back, Cheyenne screaming for her mother to be gentle. Rebekah pressed her hand down on Cheyenne’s crown to stabilize her head and ripped the blow dryer through her hair, clumped shed hairs floating to the floor, Cheyenne lightly whimpering as the pick scraped across her scalp like claws.

Often, Cheyenne’s grandmother, Gayle, would visit while Rebekah was attacking the stubborn second half of Cheyenne’s head. Gayle wasn’t as pretty has her daughter, her hair, a dirtier blond than Rebekah’s, always tied in a low ponytail underneath a visor hat, her face and shoulders rusted red under the sun after playing tennis all morning at the country club.

She brought saltine crackers and peanut butter, sat at the kitchen table where Rebekah styled Cheyenne’s hair, and scooped dollops of peanut butter onto the crackers, pressed them together to make sandwiches. As Rebekah’s yanks became more forceful— Cheyenne’s hair quickly drying into a tight, frizzy puff before Rebekah could smooth it out with the blow dryer—Gayle placed a cracker sandwich into Cheyenne’s mouth, the thick peanut butter gluing her tongue to the roof so that she couldn’t open it wide to yell. She made faces, smacking her lips, to distract Cheyenne from the pain in her head.

While Cheyenne giggled and laughed, tracing the lines around Gayle’s tight, thin lips, Gayle leaned over the plate of saltine crackers and peanut butter on the table, sucking her front teeth and flicking crumbs from her fingers, staring at Rebekah struggle to tame the child’s hair.

“Why don’t you just perm it? Save yourself the trouble,” she said, the tight skin on her forehead pulling into shallow wrinkles as she frowned.

“I can’t, Mom. It’s part of her heritage.”

“A nappy head? I would think there are better things you’d want to cherish.”

“You would, wouldn’t you? You never liked Edmond to begin with,” Rebekah said, tugging Cheyenne’s head back as the pick attachment snagged a knot.

“Ouch, Mommy!”

“I’m sorry, honey. Almost done.” She lifted the last section of hair at Cheyenne’s temples and gently racked the dryer through, using her other hand to cover the tender edges.

“Be careful that you don’t call your mother a name you’ll regret,” Gayle said, wagging her finger.

Rebekah switched the dryer off and slammed it on the kitchen table. “After a while, one arm will be buffer than the other!” she said winding her arm and rolling her shoulders. She took the cotton balls from Cheyenne’s ears and kissed both earlobes. “All done, sweetie. Now I’ll just braid it like we always to Mommy’s.”

Cheyenne nodded, sucking the peanut butter from her tongue, crumbs surrounding her mouth.

“Way to change the subject.” Gayle said and pinched the wiggly Cheyenne who was ready to plant her feet firmly in the grass and stretch her body up towards the sky after sitting nearly two hours on her bottom.

© Nortina Simmons

Oreo Cookies | Chapter 3 | Part 2

Oreo Cookies | Chapter 2 | Part 3

Susie: Black Inside and Out concluded

“Get your hands off of her like that, boy.” She took his shirt by the collar and yanked him back. He stumbled into his sister, stepping on her toe. She stood still, staring up at Gabbi, and pinched her face in, as if her eyes and mouth were being drawn toward the center at her nose. Then she dropped her jaw. A high-pitched scream escaped her mouth and she cried a tearless wail. The boy sprinted toward the park benches, leaving his sister behind.

Gabbi waved them both off with the flick of her wrist. She crouched in front of me, holding me by the shoulders. She checked my arms, the scrapes on my knees from being dragged out of the sandbox and across the park, the scratches on my face from the tree bark. She wiped the tears from my cheek with her thumb, pressed her fingers against my bruised nose. “Does that hurt, sweetheart?” I nodded and wrapped my arms around her neck, relieved that she had saved me from my ordeal, upset that I was left alone to face it in the first place.

She scooped me into her arms, wrapping my legs around her waist. “Where the hell is your mother, huh?” she whispered, kissing my earlobe.

“She left. She left. She left,” I sobbed, rubbing my sore nose into the crook of her neck.

“Excuse me, ma’am?”

A woman with a baby strapped to her chest tapped Gabbi’s shoulder. She had the same lackluster orange hair as my tormentors, with flyaway strands defining gravity. Her hair stopped at her shoulders, the ends curled like the hook of a coat hanger. She held the boy’s hand at one side while the sister hid behind the other leg, poking her head around her thigh to look up at Gabbi.

“Is everything alright?” she asked.

“Well, I don’t know. Why don’t you tell me why you’re not watching your kids run around terrorizing my baby.” She patted my cheek as I rested my head on her shoulder.

“Maybe she didn’t realize they were just playing?” She cradled the two children against her legs as if protecting them from Gabbi, as if she were the aggressor and not them. “He told me he was just playing cops. You see, he wants to be a police officer just like his dad.”

“Does his dad teach him that all little black girls are criminals? Look at my baby’s face!” She turned my chin, traced her fingers down the scratches on my cheeks, pointed to the peeled skin on the tip of my nose.

“You know how boys are. They play a little rough.” She shrugged her shoulders, tapped the top of his head. He pulled at the hem of her shirt, jutting his lower lip.

“That’s why you teach them early to keep their hands to themselves, and to recognize when the other kids are no longer having fun so they won’t grow up to be rapists and murderers.”

“How dare you question my parenting when you left your child here by herself in the first place!”

Gabbi ignored her accusation and pointed her finger directly in the boy’s face, nearly touching his nose. “What that boy needs is a good whopping.”

The woman pushed both of her children behind her and squared her shoulders. Gabbi was much taller than she. Her leather boots added almost three inches. Despite being shorter, the woman poked out her chest, rose as if being inflated, leveling her eyes with Gabbi. She curled her lips as she spoke. I could feel her hot breath on my ear. It felt like pins prickling my skin, digging into my eardrums. “How hypocritical of you,” she said. “You question me as a mother because my children were just playing and your daughter got hurt, then you turn around and suggest beating them!”

“It’s called discipline.”

“It’s called child abuse! I should call child services on you.”

I began to sink out of Gabbi’s grasp. I kicked my legs, frantic that I was slipping back into the possession of the police officer in training. I could feel his eyes piercing a hole through his mother’s body as he followed my descent, and as I drew closer to the ground, the tension created by our proximity felt as if all the air around me had been sucked away, and I was sealed inside a vacuum tight container.

Gabbi dipped down to pull me back up, sitting me snuggly on top of her forearm. For a moment, I was saved, but I wanted to escape from that park, be back at our apartment where kids chased one another with sticks, caterpillars clinging to the ends of them, threw hay in their hair, played ding dong ditch on the elderly neighbors, and raced back and forth across the street before the next car came.

I would sit on the front stoop outside of our apartment drawing stick figures with chalk. I would watch men in clothes that swallowed them stand outside the corner store, smoking cigars, sprinkling the ashes on the curb. They would sprint in the opposite direction when they saw flashing blue lights approach, heard the wailing sirens. They would hold their pants up to their waists, ankles smaller than my wrists, feet slipping out of untied shoes as they ran. I couldn’t understand why they ran if they did nothing wrong. Gabbi smoked too. She pretended that she didn’t, but I would see her sneak out back with the pack Marlboros stuffed in her sleeve, the cylinder shape of the lighter visible in her back pocket. I would peek through the blinds of the window and see the clouds of smoke billow from her mouth, dissipate in the air. When she returned, she would place two Altoid mints on her tongue and squirt her neck and arms with lavender scented perfume before scooping me into her arms. I’d asked her why she didn’t run like the others when the police drove through the complex. Her response didn’t resonate with me until now.

“If you look a certain way, no matter what you do, you’re always seen as the back guy. Cops don’t trust you, and you don’t trust the cops.”

“How you ‘posed to look?”

“Not like them.”

I watched the family over Gabbi’s shoulder as she carried me back to her van. The brother and sister crouched to the ground, plucking blades of grass while the mother bounced the baby against her chest, staring ahead of her, her eyes drooping, her mouth twisted downward, as if she were bored. I studied their features to find a difference. Their clothes were different. I stood out from the other children in the park with my denim overalls, but I suspected the difference Gabbi was referring to was more than just a preference of cotton over denim. I looked at their hair, all stringy and flat while my dark brown hair was styled into four large twists—one in the back, two on the sides, and one in the front—held together by pink and green barrettes. But the men in my neighborhood wore their hair in various styles—cornrows, long dreadlocks, close shaves—and the cops who chased them were equally as diverse in their hairstyle choices, ranging from bald to having hair as long as women.

Gabbi buckled me into my car seat, mumbling how she would kill Mom when she found her. She pulled the door closed, and I pressed my face against the window, my breath fogging the glass. What did I have in common with the smokers who ran from the police and what did the police have in common with the little boy who tried to arrest me? As we slowly pulled off, I saw him suddenly slap his arm, probably swatting at a bug. I looked down at my own arm, the same color as Gabbi’s, my parents, the running men in my neighborhood. A dark brown, the color of the markers I used to color in the self-portraits I drew on the inside flaps of coloring books, and loose receipt paper Gabbi emptied from her purse onto the kitchen table. Gabbi always told me to draw on white paper. I could see the colors better. Maybe that’s why the striking red imprint left on his arm was so clear, even from the moving van. The surrounding skin was the same color as the blank pages I drew on.

Does his dad teach him that all little black girls are criminals? I remembered Gabbi asking the woman. But I wasn’t black. Not like the night sky. Not like the television screen when it was turned off. Not like the ski masks bank robbers wore over their faces in the cartoons, and when they took the masks off, the bank robbers looked like the little boy and the police officers, not like me.

I crossed my legs my car seat as Gabbi cruised down the street searching for my father’s car, listening for his rattling speakers. The worst Mom could’ve done was leave me in the park, but she wasn’t a bad person. She’d asked someone to watch me until she returned. And she said that Daddy missed her. A bad person wouldn’t care enough about her to miss her, to want to spend time with her. And Gabbi saved me from a bully. Bad people were the bullies not the heroes.

The only bad people I knew chased innocent men down their own streets for no reason. They turned a blind eye while children they were assigned to watch over were being harassed. They forced their unsuspecting peers to play their rough games and laughed at them when they cried. They spewed threats from their mouths when asked to correct their foul behavior. And none of them looked like me.

© Nortina Simmons

Oreo Cookies | Chapter 3 | Part 1


Last week I had the worst case of writer’s block imaginable! Late as it is, here is the conclusion to chapter two, and chapter three will still be posted this Friday now that I’ve purged myself of all the distractions.

Oreo Cookies | Chapter 2 | Part 2

Susie: Black Inside and Out continued…

I wanted to get a glimpse of my dad, finally see his eyes. I would run home, compare them to my own in Gabbi’s vanity mirror. Both dark brown, pupils slightly dilated, gray trimming around the irises. But the windows were tinted, and Mom only cracked the passenger door open to slide in, as if to conceal his identity. Or was it me she was trying to hide? She didn’t look back to wave goodbye, didn’t drag me to the car so that we could finally meet, or point a finger toward the girl sitting alone in the sand box, surrounded by screaming children and their watchful parents. “There’s your little girl. She loves your present,” I imagined her saying.

I slammed the fire truck into the sand, using it as a shovel to dig a hole. When the truck wasn’t enough, I used my fingers, sand collecting beneath my nails. I scooped handfuls out, tossed them in all directions, spilling some in the grass. I would bury my truck at the bottom of the sandbox, and with it, all thoughts of my dad.

I was scratching at the wood base when I felt a finger poke the side of my neck.

“You’re under arrest for speeding!”

He looked like a giant standing on the ledge of the sandbox. He pointed a pale finger in my face, the other hand on his hip. His hair was a light brownish-orange and the same length as the bangs that covered his eyebrows and brushed his eyelashes as he blinked. Behind him, a little girl jumped hysterically, laughing and pointing. Her teal dress looked as if she’d been rolling in dirt all day. Mud streaked down her stomach, grass clung to the hem. Her hair was the same color as his. Flat and lifeless, it wrapped around her shoulders like a shawl as she jumped, moving only when she whipped her head to the side.

I slid to the other side of the sandbox and began a new hole. I didn’t like how the boy stared at me, how he stood over me, pointed his finger at the empty space between my eyes as if I were an object her was claiming possession over, and how his sister danced behind him, cheering him on. I turned my back to them. They’d soon walk away once they realized I wasn’t interested in playing.

Around the playground, a little boy kicked his legs back and forth, swinging higher and higher while his mother stood behind and pushed each time he returned. Two older kids raced each other down the monkey bars, each grabbing the other’s hand at the center to slow the other down and make him fall. A little girl wearing a Sesame Street t-shirt sat on a low-hanging branch in a tree, cupped her hands over her eyes and counted to ten while the other children scurried to find hiding places, tripping over one another and raised roots. Any one of them could’ve been arrested for running, speeding.

Instead, his cold hand tapped my shoulder.

“Did you hear me? I said you’re arrested.”

“You’re going to jail! You’re going to jail!” His sister twisted her hips from side to side, sticking her tongue out as she sang.

“No I’m not,” I said.

“Your truck was speeding. You have to go to jail,” he said.

“Lock up! Lock up!”

“Leave me alone.” I curved my shoulder to shield my face, hunched over my fire truck pushed the sand up to the ladder that was slightly curved down. The boy’s shadow loomed over me, fists pressed against hips, posing as if he were a superhero arrived to rid the playground of crime. I looked up at the bench across from me where the woman Mom had asked to watch me still sat. She ducked behind Better Homes and Gardens, pretending to read a recipe for pork medallions. She crossed her bare right leg over the left; it bounced again and again, kicking the air as if a doctor were constantly hitting her knee with the reflex hammer. Behind her left calf, underneath the bench, lay one of the boys playing hide and seek. His eyes darted back and forth from me to the girl bending over the seesaw, looking behind trees in search of the other players. I wanted to switch places with him, be protected behind the woman’s thick legs, unknowingly sheltering one child while she ignored the one she was assigned to watch over. I looked toward the street, hoping to see Gabbi’s van pull to the curb, feel the vibration of my dad’s music prickle my skin. Would he return to become the hero, an embodiment of the fire truck he gave me, more than the absentee father his photograph portrayed who never revealed his eyes and left his only daughter to face her persecutors alone?

I pulled my fire truck from its grave, shaking off sand. Some flew into my eyes, and I pinched them shut, trying to squeeze the sand out of them.

His skin felt like ice against my wrist. I heard the crack of plastic as my fire truck fell from my hand, hit the side of the wood sandbox, and the crooked side mirror finally popped off. With one hand clamped onto my wrist, he curled his slender fingers around my upper arm and yanked me to my feet.

“Come on. You’re going to jail,” he said.

“Move it!” his sister chimed.

“No! Stop!” I tried to break away, tug him down back into the sand with me and wrestle myself out of his grasp, pry his fingers from my arm turning blue under his tight grip, but he was much bigger and stronger than me. He dragged me over the ledge out of the sandbox, scratching my nose against the splinters. I curled my body and turned to the side, planted me feet into the ground, and with all my strength, I pulled back as though we were playing tug of war and my arm was the rope. As I was gaining momentum, pulling him down to the ground with me, his sister knocked her knee in the center of my back. My shoulders curved back with the force and I fell forward.

My face by his feet, the boy let go of my arm, giving me the false security that he had grown tired of harassing me. I lay catching my breath, the blades of grass bending backward as I exhaled. I raised my head, and traced the dark outline of his body in the grass in front of me. It shrank down as his arms curled under my armpits and he picked me up again, his legs straddling my body. I screamed for Gabbi as he waddled me over to a tree on the outskirts of the playground, behind the benches that served as a perimeter. My cries fell on deaf ears. It was as if we were the only three there.

He slammed me into the tree, mushing my face against the bark. My nose bent downward as the bridge collided with the tree trunk; I couldn’t breathe. Against the weight of his palm pressing into my crown, I shifted my head to the side, skidding my cheeks, piercing skin. I took two gulps of air.

“Assume the position!” he said, and while he held me down, his sister’s hands patted from my ankles up my leg, to my hips and waist, and down the other leg. “Check for weapons.”

My eyes burned from the tears and the sand. My temples pounded. My vision blurred. My stomach floated on the tense air. I’d begun to give up hope when I heard a voice so close I could touch it.

“I’m gone for five minutes and all hell breaks loose!”

It was Gabbi.

© Nortina Simmons

Oreo Cookies | Chapter 2 | Part 3