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.

I recently made one of my semi-sporadic trips to the library and got two books: 2011 Pushcart Prize XXXV and Published & Perished.

In the Pushcart Prize book, I read a short story, Mr. Tall by Tony Earley, that has me stumped. Now, I don’t easily get stumped by reading material but I finished the story with  an exclamation along the lines of “no, you didn’t end the story like that!” I mean, seriously! I was reading along, getting into the characters (which includes the natural environment) and boom! it takes such a sharp left turn, I feel like cold water was thrown on me. I want more! I want to know what happened with the characters, particularly the two involved in the ending of the story. (Even though it was published roughly three years ago, I still don’t want to spoil it for potential readers). Of course, being fond of good writing, I will be reading more of his work. I am officially a fan.

Mr. Tall is the first thing I read in Pushcart Prize XXXV but I will be reading more and reviewing what I find appealing.

Published & Perished contains a series of essay by writers on writers. There is, of course, canonical writers writing on other canonical writers; for instance, Ralph Waldo Emerson on Henry David Thoreau. As if that wasn’t enough of an introduction to canon writers, it also includes Julian Hawthorne on Ralph Waldo Emerson. Before I have to return the book to the library, I will make my way through the entire lot. For now, though, I started with writers a little closer to my heart: Toni Morrison on James Baldwin and James Baldwin on Richard Wright. The memorial (that’s a more apt word choice than essay) Toni Morrison wrote for James Baldwin is one of the most moving things I have ever read. I was unaware that their connection was so deep. Here is an excerpt:

No one possessed or inhabited language for me the way you did. You made American English honest – genuinely international. You exposed its secrets and reshaped it until it was truly modern, dialogic, representative, humane. You stripped it of ease and false comfort and fake innocence and evasion and hypocrisy. And in place of deviousness was clarity. In place of soft, plump lies was lean, targeted power. In place of intellectual disingenuousness and what you called “exasperating egocentricity,” you gave us undecorated truth. You replaced lumbering platitudes with an upright elegance. You went into that forbidden territory and decolonized it, “robbed it on the jewel of its naiveté,” and un-gated it for black people so that in  your wake we could enter it, occupy it, restructure it in order to accommodate our complicated passion – not our vanities but our intricate, difficult, demanding beauty, our tragic, insistent knowledge, our lived reality, our sleek classical imagination – all the while refusing “to be defined by a language that has never been able to recognize [us].”  In your hands language was handsome again. In your hands we saw how it was meant to be: neither bloodless nor bloody, and yet alive.

I found the James Baldwin essay on Richard Wright problematic in that I don’t know enough of the dynamic between the two writers to put what Baldwin had to say in context. I shall have to research it more before I could legitimately comment on it. I found a link that gave me a little bit of the history. Here is an excerpt:

As is often the case, pioneers get displaced by their successors. This was certainly the case with Richard Wright and James Baldwin. In 1949, before any of his novels had been published, Baldwin turned on Wright and other writers of naturalistic fiction in an essay, “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” appearing first in a now defunct magazine, Zero, and later that year in Partisan Review. “Literature and sociology are not one and the same,” Baldwin argued. He said the problem with protest novels dealing with Negroes, beginning with Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, is that they define the Negro by the conditions under which he lives, they fail to present him as a human being. And readers, said Baldwin, get “a definite thrill of virtue from the fact that they are reading a book at all. This report from the pit reassures us of its reality and its darkness and of our own salvation.” This was a frontal attack on Wright’s belief that literature should be an instrument for social progress, and it led to a rupture between the two. In his book, Nobody Knows My Name, Baldwin recounted the difficult conversations they had had: “All literature is protest,” said Wright. “You can’t name a single novel that isn’t protest.” To which Baldwin replied that “all literature might be protest but all protest was not literature,” which prompted this rejoinder from Wright: “Oh, here you come again with all that art-for-art’s sake crap.”

However, after Wright’s death, Baldwin had this to say:

I had identified myself with him long before we met: in a sense by no means metaphysical, his example had helped me to survive. He was black, he was young, he had come out of Mississippi and the Chicago slums, and he was a writer. He proved it could be done — proved it to me, and gave me an arm against all the others who assured me it could not be done. And I think I had expected Richard, on the day we met, somehow, miraculously, to understand this, and to rejoice in it. Perhaps that sounds foolish, but I cannot honestly say, not even now, that I really think it is foolish. Richard Wright had a tremendous effect on countless number of people whom he never met, multitudes whom he will now never meet. This means that his responsibilities and hazards were great. I don’t think that Richard ever thought of me as one of his responsibilities — bien au contraire! — but he certainly seemed, often enough, to wonder just what he had done to deserve me.

Related Links:

New Yorker interview with Tony Earley

Tony Earley reading Love by William Maxwell

James Baldwin : His Voice Remembered; Life in His Language

The Toni Morrison Society

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.