When it is finally ours, this freedom, this liberty, this beautiful
and terrible thing, needful to man as air,
usable as earth; when it belongs at last to all,
when it is truly instinct, brain matter, diastole, systole,
reflex action; when it is finally won; when it is more
than the gaudy mumbo jumbo of politicians:
this man, this Douglass, this former slave, this Negro
beaten to his knees, exiled, visioning a world
where none is lonely, none hunted, alien,
this man, superb in love and logic, this man
shall be remembered. Oh, not with statues’ rhetoric,
not with legends and poems and wreaths of bronze alone,
but with the lives grown out of his life, the lives
fleshing his dream of the beautiful, needful thing.

Excerpted from Collected Poems of Robert Hayden

Today, I came across a site called NaBloPoMo (National Blog Posting Month). I was immediately inspired by the suggestion for today’s blog post: How Do You Feel About the Name given to you at birth?

I do not possess the name I was given at birth. We parted ways, legally, over a decade ago. Since assuming my true name my life has changed in fundamental ways. I have gotten married and divorced. I had a child and he’ll be entering first grade in September. I have written and published three books. I have published the work of three other authors. However, the change that underlines and informs all other changes is that I am more myself.

My mother let my father name me and he named me according to naming practices which also decided his name. I was the first daughter of my mother so my name was ordained. Apparently, it wasn’t significant that my dad had two older daughters; one of whom happened to be the first daughter of her mother. Therefore she and I shared the same name. With the hindsight of 20/20, it seemed as if I was designed to fit into a construct; one which didn’t fit. As a result, I was Toby with his foot cut off, not Kunta who had a penchant for running from slavery.

When I learned about freedom, I wanted to be free and freedom meant a new name. Frederick Douglass, not Frederick Bailey. Harriet Tubman, not Araminta Ross. Assata Shakur, not JoAnne Cheismard. In other words, I wanted the freedom that comes with self-naming. However, ironies of ironies, in obtaining that freedom, I became more bound to my family, more my mother’s daughter, more decidedly African than I had been under my birth name. To quote a Bessie Head character, “I [was] just an African”.

Reading is Evolutionary

March 18, 2010

Two years ago a blogger for Circle of Seven Productions posted a blog/rant on my space in favor of reading and literacy. As part of it, she issued a challenge: “I challenge anyone reading this blog to write one blog…just one…encouraging people to read. Encourage them to encourage others to read. READ ANYTHING!”

As I find myself getting almost orgasmically excited by my latest read (The Book of Night Women by Marlon James), my mind traveled to my response to the challenge.


Reading is Evolutionary

It was the diary of a young girl living in an era I could never go back because time moves forward.

Just like time, my eyes moved forward through each page growing more and more enamored of the first book that touched me in my black girlness. It was beyond affirming.

That book, The Color Purple by Alice Walker set me on the path to being a writer because it enabled me to see how our life stories can contribute to literature.

It also helped me to redefine the definition of fiction. I have heard a lot of people (black men in particular) say that they don’t read fiction because they’re tired of “lies” or some statement to that effect. I believe however that those statements miss the point of black “fiction”.

It is (or should be) indisputable that prior to the mid to late 20th century our voices were censored. What better way for a people to get in where they fit in that to position their works under the banner of fiction. Is Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man total fiction? Or does it resonate with the experience of black men, regardless of their generation? Toni Morrison’s Beloved was based on the life of Margaret Garner. Margaret Garner’s story isn’t fiction. Is Sethe’s? My favorite James Baldwin novel is If Beale Street Could Talk. I recognized the main character, Tish, in the faces, lives and pride of my sisters. Black fiction is not automatically fictional.


Even though I am an advocate and a believer in well-written, reality-based “fiction”, that is not the only thing I read. As someone who intimately understands the saying “those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it”, I also read history. In high school, a teacher slipped me the Autobiography of Malcolm X on the sly. It was a thick paperback that I had to rubber band together in order not to lose any of the pages. Reading that book led me on the path to researching the Black Revolution of the Sixties. My research deepened my awareness of black resistance. At no point were we passive.

Regardless of the danger, we struggled to learn to read when it was dangerous to the point of death. Frederick Douglass described in his autobiography of the poor white boy who showed him how to read. The Free African School movement is an indication of our desire to reclaim what was stolen from us and learn.


Reading is Evolutionary.