This has got to be one of the strangest novels about slavery that I have ever read. This, despite the nature of the Underground Railroad created by the author. It is strange because the overall tone of the book is dispassionate and as such makes it hard to connect to the characters. Still, I read on until I finished it and I have to say it left me hollow; which is not an emotion I normally end a book with.

I sat on this review for awhile because I was not sure of my response but whenever I thought of the book, I couldn’t come up with any other take on it. Regretfully.

(Originally posted on my book review blog, Diary of a Mad Reader)

I am someone who reads books that break my heart, time and time again. The Book of Night Women broke my heart. Apparently, A Brief History of Seven Killings, which I’m 14 pages away from finishing, is going to do the same. And they’re both by Marlon James.

I so want to say that I hate him and his damn novels but that wouldn’t be true. They resonate too deep for hate. The Book of Night Women stayed with me so long I was extremely reluctant to buy A Brief History. I waited; saw it in my favorite bookstore, saw it win prestige and still said I ain’t buying fucking bullshit that breaks my fucking heart. I nah fi do it.

But…

Marley

whose music reached me before Prince.

Marley

whose reggae connected me to my family in a way no other music does.

And so I bought it…and started reading.

Fucking Marlon James, man. I mean, damn.

I can’t fault him for his knowledge, or sense, of history. I can’t fault him for me reading past the sick ass murder that occurred in the first few pages. I can’t fault him anymore than I could fault Dylan for Masters of War or NWA for Fuck the Police or War for The World is a Ghetto because neither him or Dylan or NWA or War are the originators of this violent ass world I’m raising my son in.

I can’t even fault him for my reaction to a book that I haven’t yet finished, although I only have 14 pages left out of a 686 page novel. I can’t fault him for me feeling sorrow for the fictional psychopath Josey Wales. I can’t fault him because he’s an honest writer. His research is solid. His writing is beyond great. I can’t do anything but finish the novel, post this review and this song…

Selassie I Jah Rastafari

Addendum: I just finished the book. Considering the deranged violence that occurred throughout the book was that I would end it smiling and happy but I did! I’d read the whole tome all over again just to read that ending but first, I need a year or two to recover, just like I did with The Book of Night Women. With this ending, I do believe Marlon James has joined my very small list of favorite writers.

BiNoc

March 29, 2015

the cold came down nordic. each flake landing on its sibling, incrementally adding more depth to the blanketing whiteness. the only contradicting spots roads no one was traveling on. i know. It is my job to see. I am BiNoc, The Eye. Like the third, I see what is not visible. The horizon extends out before me unknowable only until i glance upon it.

i am human; with supernatural vision, yes but human nonetheless. snatch out my heart and i shall expire. that is why they keep me prowling a penthouse not my own, protected, barricaded, by men and women also not my own. i am given everything i want except that which i want most: to forget the horizon and get vertical. to explore up and down instead of left and right. to feel concreted earth beneath my booted feet. i am so hungry i even want to feel the swell of oceans.

water, of any appellation, was something i avoided in my past life. i didn’t drink it. i showered in it daily and that was the extent of my interaction. dishes, clothes, anything requiring water’s cleansing properties was taken care of out of my presence.

only in my dreams did the fact that of the earth’s inhabitants, water constituted the majority become a reality. in my dreams, i was dolphin, shark, shrimp, plankton, dead bodies, even women walking dusty miles to collect water from the rivers or streams i occupied. in detroit, i was blocked from pouring out spouts and diverted to golf courts. in my dreams, i was political in a way i never was whén awake.

Reading Round-up 3.3.15

March 3, 2015

As of this date I have accomplished the monumental task of reading two books from start to finish. It might seem counter- intuitive for a writer to have a problem completing the reading of a book but such is the nature of my life now. The two books read were Watershed by Percival Everett and Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson.

Watershed – I don’t know what I think/feel about this book. I read it and continued reading it waiting for some “action” to happen.  Considering that the story involves Black Panther history as well as the Indigenous struggle at the Pine Ridge reservation, some action was bound to happen, was it not? However, whatever action did take place seemed muted by the main character, a hydrologist named Robert Hawks’ emotional disconnect. I am not yet sure whether that is an indication of the author’s talent or my response to the novel’s very understated action scenes. I will say this: at the end of the novel, after wading through various chapters being prefaced by hydrologist jargon, I felt like the author was smacking me, the reader, by stating that the prefaces were fictional. In researching the author, I discovered that he is considered a satirist or at the very least includes aspects of satire as one of his literary tropes. I’m just not sure yet whether I appreciate that or not. I shall have to read another book or two of his to figure it out.

Brown Girl Dreaming – First of all, chalk it up to my ignorance that I was surprised to find out on opening the book that it was poetry. I don’t pay as much attention as I should. That aside, from start to finish, Brown Girl Dreaming was a delight. So much so, I plan on it being the foundation of a poetry unit for my home-schooled son.

Deeper than that, however, is the strong sense of love and peace I felt upon finishing the book. In that way, it reminded me of how I felt when I finished Clare of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat. Some writers have the incredible ability to write in such a way that reading their works opens up the gentleness of the world. Considering that the world isn’t truly a gentle place, that is a remarkable achievement.

First of all, I want to reiterate the statement inherent in the title of this blog post: that Book of Negroes, which aired recently on BET, is not your average slave movie. It is a movie about a free young girl in Bayo, Guinea who became an enslaved woman in colonial America; who worked for the British side during the American Revolution; who, when the British evacuated New York, managed, ultimately, to get on the flotilla of ships leaving for Nova Scotia; who, after Nova Scotia was discovered to be a new sort of hell, lobbied British parliamentarians to tailor their plans for a colony in Sierra Leone to fit the “Nova Scotians” (one of the terms used to describe the formerly enslaved people). In other words, Aminata, the lead character and narrator of this historical fiction (portrayed extremely well by Aunjanue Ellis), was Harriet Tubman before Harriet herself was Harriet or even Araminta Ross. She didn’t require Harriet telling her Black Loyalist community her version of “freedom or death” in order to get them to continue on the journey they themselves started.

Second of all, if the history of black repatriation to Africa interests you, read historian Cassandra Pybus’ book, Epic Journeys of Freedom,. This book, which is continental in scope, details some of the foundational stories underpinning Lawrence Hill’s historical fiction novel, known in the US, as Someone Knows My Name (because of potential backlash against the word ‘negro‘). Before Paul Cuffe, before Marcus Garvey, 3,000 formerly enslaved Africans picked Britain over America, chose Africa over Nova Scotia and ardently advocated for the freedom to run their new home, the Province of Freetown themselves. So dedicated to being completely, some of those “Nova Scotian settlers” were tried for mutiny and/or sedition by the British. Some ended up exiled from the Province. Others were sold back into slavery in the Caribbean. The list of people who undertook this historic struggle includes Harry/Henry Washington who had freed himself from enslavement to George Washington; Daddy Moses (Moses Wilkinson), blind, crippled yet still bound for freedom; Thomas Peters, born in what we now call Nigeria, who tried, three times, to escape before finally achieving success as a result of his service to the British during the American Revolution.

The politics of the matter covered, I now want to get to the heart of the matter. The real beauty of Book of Negroes is that it is a love story. It is extremely rare when we get to see black men and black women on the big or small screen loving each other in a way that practically defines the word love. Under the most extreme of circumstances, Aminata and Chekura, despite the dysfunction of their first meeting, are able to bond in such a way that their love survives their initial meeting, decades of enslavement, runaway status in New York, the cold, rocky land of Nova Scotia and ends up in Freetown where Chekura meets his heroic end. There have been love affairs between the enslaved depicted before. The one that immediately comes to mind is between Six-o and the Thirty-Mile Woman, so-called because Six-o walked thirty miles to be with her. Of course Toni Morrison’s Beloved is a fictional exploration of the reality of Margaret Garner but it has been historically demonstrated that the enslaved sort to build and maintain love and familial connections throughout of enslavement, despite the anti-family nature of the institution.

The narrative of most slave movies are usually dominated by men, whether black or white, enslaved or free. From Roots to Glory, from Amistad to Django, the male perspective  dominates. In Book of Negroes, it is a woman, Aminatta herself, who tells her story. Because of that, we, the audience, gets to witness aspects of enslaved women’s lives usually ignored or marginalized. For example, there is the very brief scene where Georgia who, in the hierarchy of the enslaved plantation community, functions as a doctor/mother figure, gives Aminata a tea to drink which would protect her against unwanted pregnancies. There is also the character of Berthilda Mathias, a freeborn woman married to a runaway who Aminata meets in New York.. When Berthilda’s husband gets taken off the ship headed to Nova Scotia by British soldiers (obeying the dictates of the Treaty of Paris which demanded the return of the “property” of America’s founding fathers as well as newly American plantation owners), she decides to relocate her and her daughter to the Georgia her husband escaped from in order to free from slavery. All throughout this movie (and book) the connection the enslaved had to each other was fought for and honored.

 

**** I don’t know if BET, the channel Book of Negroes aired on, will show it again. However, Book of Negroes can be viewed on the Canadian Broadcasting site.****

 

ExiSextial

February 11, 2015

A six month hiatus and complicated alliterative lines derails my mind and sends me. A poet to my core, I read for sustenance and my home is the antithesis of a book desert. The other night I was disturbed in the middle of a line. Thrust upon until I recognized need. Frustration squared.  Go away. Come closer. Orgasmic. Isolationist. This is me now.  Forty and fuckable. Forty and fortified. Forty? Closer to fifty.

This is knowing. This is expression of the no longer dormant, dormouse clitoris, the forsaken nub of flesh. Empty vagina used to convulsing in on itself, welcome to the pleasuredom.

This is knowing I don’t want the snuggling or afterglow to outlast inspiration that arrives out of the blue, that needs to be written down, recorded and recreated with no notches or markings of kills.

I walk solo and when I ran, I ran solo. Huffing and gasping. Conniption bound, solo. This is me remembering running, remembering inedible meals of rice noodles and vienna sausages masquerading as spaghetti and meatballs. This is me assuaging the need, yours and mine, channeling it back into the pen while the ink still runs.

A pelvis is how paleontologists determined that the oldest bones in the world, our mysterious yet venerated ancestor, Lucy. Another factor is canine teeth and I bite into my ignorance.

The man who secrets and succors explores and secretes. He is my dreamscape and when I wake, he is there as well.  Uncategorically. He can also disperse like ether.  But not now. Now he is drawing me away from the keyboard, away from the Great Rift Valley, away from the Lower Awash, away from canine teeth and ancient pelvises into the here and now world of he and I.

Dear Sewafe,

For the first time in a very long time, I am not coming to see you. I am taking Funmi to see a play called Desdemona in New York City. It is a reworking of Othello. Well, that’s not a totally accurate way of describing  it. It is more a reappropriation or retelling. Instead of Othello being the main character, Desdemona is. It’s written by Toni Morrison and is, apparently, the result of  her fulfilling some sort of contract she had with a white theater director.  You know that I’ve long adored Toni Morrison’s writing although I am not one for plays and such. However, I have to give Funmi an alternative to Shakespeare. She’s been driving me crazy. If her head isn’t buried in a bible-sized edition of the complete collection of Shakespeare, she is her room practicing, out loud, her role.

Yain Kain 

Dear Yain Kain,

What do you mean you’re not coming to see me? You know how much I depend on the visits. They keep me sane and help keep at bay some of the demons in here. To top off that bad news, you’re taking our daughter to see one of your womanist writers? You know I never approved of  your reading them and have told you so time and again. If these were the old days, I would forbid you from taking my daughter to the city where I was captured.  But these are not those days. The only thing I insist is that you contact and stay with one of the brothers, preferably Sundiata.  

Sewafe

New York? My name! New York! Who is Sundiata?

In Prison Town, USA, quiet, farms and a very white social order dominate. In New York City, cars, noises and smells on top of smells proliferate.  I’m too old to hold my mother’s hand but still, I stay closer than I do normally. Instead of flitting my eyes all about to take everything in, I keep them locked on her.  Out of the blue,  she started shaking her head and muttering under her breath about my father’s protective tendencies. Before I could ask, she was swept up in big bear hug by a man with the longest locs I’d ever seen. My mother was laughing and at the same time saying “put me down, Sundiata. I’m a grown woman with a daughter!” But I don’t think she really meant it because on her face was pure pleasure.

Next thing I know, I’m being swept up into the strongest arms I’ve ever felt outside of my father and hugged just as tightly as my mom was. I think I fell in love with him right then and there. Of course, I couldn’t express that or show how shocked I was that my mother was being so girlish and soft. Instead, I stiffened and ordered him to “put me down!”

He acquiesced without that wide smile leaving his face. “So you’re Funmilayo, huh? Sewafe has told me all about you!” Before I could respond, my mother pointed out our luggage. He picked up our bags easily and with my mom chatting his ears off, walked us to his car.

Being the family secretary all correspondence passes through my hands. It never ceases to amaze me how I never have a name in my parents’ letters to each other. It is always my daughter, your daughter, our daughter, she; anything but my name. It makes no sense; especially because my parents take naming very seriously.

However, that’s standard. What’s not standard is my mother saying I can go to Hollywood after high school. That is so startling I want to take advantage of it. On Monday, when I go to school, I’m going to sign up for the drama club. I’ve got stars in my eyes.

I’m used to being the sole drop of chocolate in a sea of vanilla. After-all, prisons aren’t exactly located in the hood. So it was no surprise  that only white faces looked at me when I entered  the room set aside for the drama club. However, it was surprising that the girl from the prison visiting room was there. Not only was she there but during introductions, I found out she directed most of the plays the school did.

The next play scheduled was Shakespeare’s Othello. When I heard that, I burst out laughing. Who on earth are they going to get to play Othello? The only brothers I’ve seen in the school are jock types firmly oriented toward sports. Chloe nodded at me and all eyes turned in my direction. It was scary for a minute but then I decoded the nonverbal communication. They wanted me to play Othello!

I could  hear my mother in my head: “They want you to not only deny your womanhood but also to play a miscegenator? Do you have to kiss Desdemona?” I could see her point but a role is a role.  Or is it? I told Chloe that I would have to think about it. Then I picked up my things including the script and left. I could hear her calling after me but I didn’t stop. She can wait.

 

Dear Sewafe,

Your daughter came home today with a look on her face combining both guilt and defiance. I didn’t even have to ask “what happened?” before she spilled the proverbial beans. That drama club wants her to play a black man in love with a white woman; not just any man, mind you but Othello, the original OJ Simpson. She tried to mitigate it by telling me that the director is a play girl whose father is in prison with you there. She said she saw the girl when she last visited you. Do you know the father? What can you tell me that will help me to help her navigate this? Self-determination applied individually, is, sometimes, a hard concept to unite behind.

Yain Kain

Dear Yain Kain,

The father participated in the Scourge economy. In here, he articulates revolution but I’ve been down long enough to see through a con. If you need visual representation, check out a television show called OZ. There was a character on that show that captures him perfectly: Adebisi except he doesn’t involve himself in homosexual behavior. The mother has been up here a few times.  According to the grapevine, their visits never go well. Now she just sends the girl.

Yes, self determination is a hell of a concept but it’s time to loosen the reins before she starts calling us the oppressor. We have to trust that we’ve educated her sufficiently for her to make the right decision(s).

Sewafe


Yet again it is as if I have no name but I do!  Allow me introduce to myself. I am Moyamba Funmilayo Sewafe Salma Yain Kain Yaa Asantewaa Nzingha Ida Lisabi Alice  Claudia Nomzamo Winfreda Wangari but everyone, except my parents that is, calls me Funmi.

Once again, I am inking a new address on the envelope that contains the briefings my dad demands. It is only now that I pick up on the long-established pattern. Our frequent moves are tied to his. Every time he’s transferred, my mother relocates the family. We orbit my father like the earth does the sun. How much life-giving heat can the sun give from behind prison walls?

Soon it will be time for another visit. I don’t want to go anymore and told my mother so. I shouldn’t have bothered. A copy of Slave!, my father’s autobiography, was removed from the bookshelf and given to me to read yet again. It didn’t matter to my mother that I already knew it by heart. She just quoted Harriet: “I could have freed thousands more, if they had known they were slaves”.

It being the heart of winter, there is only one other person on the prison bus; a girl of my age and complexion but not my temperament, apparently, as she’s bobbing her head to the loud ass music coming from her earphones. Sighing, I bury my head in Slave!

An hour later, processed and searched, the girl and I sit at our respective tables and wait for our fathers. The other girl’s dad comes first and gives her a bear hug. His head was ji Jaga lean, Sam-Jackson-as-Shaft smooth and burnished like the bronze camel my dad arranged for my fifth birthday.

The Brother, as my mother calls my dad, comes next through the door. Over the years, his hairline has receded  “like Nkrumah”, he always says. He sits straight-backed. No hug. No touching.  Just his eyes on my face and four hungry hands stilled on formica.

My eyes slide over to the girl, only to catch her eye-stalking my dad and I. “The Scourge,” says The Brother, who hasn’t stopped staring. In other words, drugs; the first four letter word I ever heard. Her dad was so affectionate, though, I can’t help wishing that my dad had sold weight to an undercover or something instead of robbing a bank.

“Is that why you didn’t want to come see me?” he asks me with the West African inflections that will outlast his death. He always could read me with a glance. I just nod and watch as he retreats from the conversation but not my presence.

Dear Yain Kain,

I know you’re going to tease me again because after she visits, I always start my letters off with how much she reminds me of you when we first met.  Remember how our parents contrived to keep us meeting and engaging? The stubborn cast of your lips as you struggled to avoid what only they knew was inevitable. You remonstrated with them constantly. I still hear your voice: “Didn’t we come to this place to throw off old customs like arranged marriages? Am I going to graduate school to only be this man’s wife?” Oh, you tried and tried but in the end… Here we are, husband and wife, twenty years and counting. It was your stubbornness that came to mind after I received that affirming nod from my daughter.  I want to label her selfish but I’m not so sure after all. Where does self-determination and our daughter intersect?

Sewafe

Dear Sewafe,

Upon receiving your letter, I immediately went to your daughter to get her to fill in the context. It honestly gave me a headache trying to decipher her repeated references to an actress named Kerry Washington and a film about Ray Charles that we saw years ago. Finally, she stopped dissembling. She wants to be an actress! She doesn’t want to go to our alma mater. She wants to go to Hollywood! You say she reminds you of me but she reminds me of you! Did you listen when I cautioned you about that bank? No! Neither is she going to listen to any negation of her dreams. Where does self-determination and our daughter intersect? In Hollywood.

Yain Kain

Being the family secretary all correspondence passes through my hands. It never ceases to amaze me how I never have a name in my parents’ letters to each other. It is always my daughter, your daughter, our daughter, she; anything but my name. It makes no sense; especially because my parents take naming very seriously.

However, that’s standard. What’s not standard is my mother saying I can go to Hollywood after high school. That is so startling I want to take advantage of it. On Monday, when I go to school, I’m going to sign up for the drama club. I’ve got stars in my eyes.