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IMG_1767There’s a reading tonight hosted by the Pan-African Writers Association (PAWA) but I was simply too tired to attend; I think jet lag is finally setting in so I opted to stay at the hotel, order room service, and work on my presentation on “configuring the past and present.” I can hear a preacher screaming “Hallelujah!” outside—there must be a church nearby. I’m watching Ghana TV and a women’s show, The Standpoint, just ended—the Oprah equivalent Dr. Gifty had guests and experts on to discuss life after your husband’s death. This has been a day of death, in a way—today’s program ended with an emotional tribute to Jayne Cortez, OWWA co-founder who passed suddenly last December. I only met Jayne twice but it was clear to me that she was a formidable woman. I was surprised to find myself shedding a few tears during the tribute; I watched Ama Ata Aidoo being helped to her feet—someone holding her cane, someone else holding the mic so her hands were free to hold the bowl—and then she spoke in Fante because she knew Jayne wouldn’t want a libation prayer to be said in English. She had to pause midway to pull a kerchief from her blouse and it was very moving to see this elder weeping for her lost friend. They met in the 1970s so that’s a friendship that lasted nearly fifty years, and I couldn’t help but think to myself, “That will be us someday.” I feel so blessed to be here with my close friends—my life has been enriched and enlarged because of these incredible black women who don’t have the anxiety issues that make me too risk-averse and too content to stay at home. Would I have come to Ghana without them? Maybe, but I’m grateful that they continue to “lift me as they climb.”

IMG_1753I don’t think I can do justice to the four panels I attended today. The first was on getting your work out into the world, and moderator Tara Betts (right, with Camille Dungy) drew rich insights from the three panelists. Latasha Diggs (below right, with Gabrielle Civil)reminded us that it’s not *always* about the book—having one doesn’t make you legitimate, doing the WORK and getting it out there (by yourself, if necessary) is what matters most along with building community. How can you ward off competition between you and your fellow writers? Hang with musicians and other artists working in different media. Kadija George Sesay, publisher of Sable magazine, urged self-publishers to register their publications and get an ISBN/ISSN; that means your work can be catalogued, archived, and then you can be certain that you’re IMG_1754leaving a record behind.

IMG_1759During the brief break Michelle Martin and I went down to the book vendors and did a bit of shopping. No more books! I think I’ve bought ten so far, mostly for my nieces and nephew, though I got a couple of novels for myself today. It’s so wonderful to have the authors sign their books, too. I had lunch with Yolanda Arroyo Pizarro and was thrilled to get an English translation of her novel, Carapace. She and her partner Zulma also wrote out a list of Afro-Latino women writers whose work is available in English. I want to add more Latina content to my Black Women in the Americas class. I was disturbed to learn that Yolanda and Zulma were harassed and threatened in the Osu market earlier this week, but it was wonderful to learn that their homeland of Puerto Rico recently passed legislation protecting the rights of LGBT people. Maybe the jetlag is making me emotional or maybe it’s just being in the presence of so many amazing women—I feel protective of everyone! Protective and powerless at the same time. I should switch gears and go work on my talk because these are the issues I want to address: is it enough to rewrite history, to write black women back into the historical record through art and/or scholarship, or must we MAKE history ourselves? I feel like history is made by women who are bolder than me, but maybe that’s just what I want to believe…

IMG_1745The afternoon panel on Africa, the diaspora, and children’s literature was great. One Ghanaian panelist talked about the need to ensure that girls on the continent have access to education—whether it’s in a traditional school, via cell phone, or on the radio. Another Nigerian panelist, Akachi Ezeigbo, talked about her decision to write girls as heroines in her books for young readers, and Michelle Martin captivated the audience with her slideshow and talk on hair politics in children’s picture books. Deborah Ahenkorah doubled as panelist and moderator and had a chance to share her innovative strategies for getting books into the hands of Ghanaian kids. “If we can send a man to Mars, we can ensure that Ghanaian children have culturally relevant, quality books!” Stay tuned for an interview with Deborah in the next day or two…

The fourth panel was intense; four writers talked about their activism and the ways they channel the ancestors in order to better serve their community around issues like environmental justice and domestic violence. You can learn more about the important, community-based projects coordinated by Angelique Nixon’s nonprofit Ayiti Resurrect. Moderator (and friend!) Ira Dworkin moderated and gave us all an update on the challenges facing women writers in Egypt. You can learn more about the threats facing Mona Prince here.

Ok, time to turn in. I haven’t actually left the hotel compound yet so I’m looking forward to tomorrow’s lineup, which includes a performance by Wura-Natasha Ogunji, Rosamond S. King, and Gabrielle Civil. We start here and then finish at the seashore…

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Last week I interviewed Kelbian Noel, a YA spec fic author that I met while I was up in Toronto. Yesterday Kelbian returned the favor by featuring me on her blog, Diverse Pages. Here’s one of the questions I was asked to consider:

DP: Have you always written about characters of color? What challenges (if any) have you faced in doing so?

ZETTA: When I took a creative writing class in high school, I wrote a picture book that featured white characters. Fortunately, I was failing that class and so wound up dropping it. In college I had my first black professor and he introduced me to the work of Jamaica Kincaid; that changed my academic focus and as I discovered more black authors, I began to write about people of color. I went through a process of “decolonizing my imagination” and it did take some time for me to develop authentic characters that came from the community where I lived. For a while I worried that readers would feel my characters weren’t “black enough,” but the more I traveled and the more widely I read, the easier it became to create credible, diverse black characters.

On Monday I met with a group of amazing young poets at the Brooklyn Public Library and one young writer showed me a picture book she had self-published–all her illustrations showed white children. I hope she finds a “mirror” for her black female self in my books. You can read the entire interview here.

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imagesIf you were at the NYPL yesterday for Betsy Bird’s Children’s Literature Salon then you know that we had a full house (all 80 seats were filled!) and people came ready to both listen and share their insights and experiences. Betsy is an expert moderator, which made it easy for those of us on the panel to share our thoughts on diversity in children’s literature. I met editor Connie Hsu for the first time, and learned about how her experience growing up in Alabama continues to influence her decisions as an editor. Connie’s aware of the importance of tradition but she’s also looking for what’s new, which is encouraging. I was *so* excited to finally meet Sofia Quintero, fierce author/filmmaker/activist and cancer survivor—I had to stop myself from reaching over to high-five her every time she made a brilliant point about the coded terms (“mainstream,” “cross-over”) used to conceal racialized power dynamics in publishing. Sofia works with Book Up and she told us about an experience taking a group of kids from the Bronx into the Barnes & Noble in Tribeca. “Why are there more pictures of zombies on book covers than people of color?” After the panel ended, I met Allie Jane Bruce, a children’s librarian at Bankstreet College of Education who let me know that she works with children who are just as outraged about the lack of diversity in publishing. I’m hoping to meet those young people and hear about their strategies for creating change. During the Q&A session we revisited the issue of David Levithan’s Teen Author Festival, which continues to be overwhelmingly white despite repeated complaints. So how DO we create change?

makers_women640_mediumI watched Makers: Women Who Make America last week and at the end of the 3-hour documentary on the women’s movement found myself feeling rather blue. A couple of black feminists were included in the film and one Latina, but no Asian Americans and no American Indians. It was basically white middle-class women talking about white middle-class women. One scholar was asked to identify the movement’s limitations and she said that the feminist movement had failed to address the needs of working-class women, which has only increased the suffering of women and children living in poverty. White middle-class women have a long history of working with people of color to create change (abolition, the civil rights movement), but there have also been times when white women chose to throw people of color under the bus in order to preserve their own privilege. White middle-class women seem to dominate the children’s publishing industry, and so it was heartening to have several white women approach me after the panel to share their activism and/or to ask about where to start. When white women rise up, they’re a formidable force so I do hope we can stir them out of complacency and into action. We need more allies!

Speaking of allies, it was great to see Lyn Miller-Lachmann at yesterday’s event. Lyn is an award-winning YA author and core committee member of See What We See, the social justice advocacy group that generated a lot of interest during the panel. She’s got a new book, Rogue, coming out next month and I was thrilled to get a copy yesterday. Please support the writers who are fighting for change!

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Third Conference on Women Writers of African Descent

Will Honor Jayne Cortez &
Feature Angela Davis, Sapphire, Evelyne Trouillot, and 50 others
this May in Accra, Ghana

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New York, NY – The Organization of Women Writers of Africa (OWWA) and New York University, in collaboration with the Mbaasem Foundation, will present Yari Yari Ntoaso: Continuing the Dialogue – An International Conference on Literature by Women of African Ancestry. This major conference will put writers, critics, and readers from across Africa, the USA, Europe, and the Caribbean in dialogue with each other in Accra, Ghana, May 16‐19, 2013.

The public can help support authors’ participation at

http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/318981

OWWA is deeply saddened by the loss of its President and Co‐Founder, Jayne Cortez, the amazing poet, performer, and activist described by The New York Times as “one of the central figures of the Black Arts Movement.” Cortez was the driving force behind the first two Yari Yari conferences, and OWWA and NYU’s Institute of African‐American Affairs have committed to presenting the third Yari Yari as scheduled in Jayne’s honor.

The conference will consist of panels, readings, performances, and film screenings, and will be devoted to the study, evaluation, and celebration of the creativity and diversity of women writers of African descent. Fifteen years after OWWA’s first major conference, Yari Yari Ntoaso continues the dialogue of previous Yari Yari gatherings, which were the largest events of their kind, putting hundreds of women writers and scholars of African descent in dialogue with thousands of people. Confirmed participants come from more than a dozen countries, and include individuals who have been Poet Laureates and won a variety of other awards. (See the list of participants below.)
OWWA is actively fundraising to cover the costs of Yari Yari Ntoaso, and the Cortez/Edwards family encourages donations in Jayne’s name to OWWA. Donations are tax-deductible and can be made at http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/318981 or mailed to P.O. Box 652; Village Station; New York, NY 10014.
Yari Yari Ntoaso is FREE to everyone who wants to attend; attendees should register
online at http://www.owwainc.org where information about travel discounts and logistics are also available. Updates will be posted regularly on OWWA’s Indiegogo site and Facebook page.

OWWA Mission Statement:
The Organization of Women Writers of Africa, Inc (OWWA) was founded in 1991 by Jayne Cortez of the USA and Ama Ata Aidoo of Ghana for the purpose of establishing links between professional African women writers. OWWA is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit literary organization concerned with the development and advancement of the literature of women writers from Africa and its Diaspora. OWWA is also a non‐ governmental organization associated with the United Nations Department of Public Information (UNDPI). Board members include Louise Meriwether, J.e. Franklin, Maya Angelou, Rosamond S. King, Margaret Busby, and Maryse Condé.
Confirmed Participants as of January 2013:
Anne Adams (USA) – Scholar of African literature
Ama Ata Aidoo (Ghana) – Fiction writer, OWWA CoFounder
Esther Armah (Ghana, UK, USA) – Journalist, playwright, radio host
Bibi Bakare (Nigeria) – Publisher
Samiya Bashir (Somalia/USA) – Poet
Sokhna Benga (Senegal) – Novelist, children’s author
Tara Betts (USA) – Poet
Carole Boyce Davies (Trinidad & Tobago/USA) – Scholar of African diaspora literatures &
cultures
Prof. Joanne Braxton (USA) – Scholar of AfricanAmerican
poetry
Margaret Busby (Ghana/UK) – Editor, publisher
Gabrielle Civil (Haiti/USA) – Performance artist, poet
Jayne Cortez (USA) – Poet, OWWA CoFounder
Angela Davis (USA) – Scholar of prison abolition
Phillippa Yaa de Villiers (South Africa) – Poet, performer
Latasha N. Diggs (USA) – Performer, poet
Camille Dungy (USA, SFSU) – Poet
Alison Duke (Canada) – Filmmaker
Ira Dworkin (US/Egypt) – Scholar of AfricanAmerican
literature
Zetta Elliott (Canada/USA) – Fiction writer, scholar of literature & publishing
Donette Francis (Jamaica/USA) – Scholar of Caribbean literature
Gladys M. Francis (Guadeloupe/USA) – Scholar of African & Caribbean literature
Kadija George (UK/Sierra Leone) – Publisher, poet
Wangui wa Goro (Kenya) – Translator, poet
Philo Ikonya (Kenya) – Author, journalist
Rashidah Ismaili (Benin/USA) – Poet
Tayari Jones (USA) – Novelist
Madhu Kaza (India/USA) – Fiction writer
Fatou Keita (Cote d’Ivoire) – Children’s author
Jason King (USA) – Scholar of music & popular culture
Rosamond S. King – Poet, Performance Artist, Yari Yari Ntoaso Conference Director
Kinna Likimani (Ghana) – Blogger
Fungai Machirori (Zimbabwe) – Blogger, activist
Michelle Martin (USA) – Scholar of children’s literature
Roshnie Moonsammy (South Africa) ‐ Arts administrator
Micere Mugo (Kenya) ‐ Playwright, poet, scholar of African literature & orature
Angelique Nixon (Bahamas) – Scholar of literature & tourism, poet
Wura‐Natasha Ogunji (Nigeria/USA) ‐ Performance artist
Nnedi Okorafor (Nigeria/USA) – Young adult novelist
Tess Onwueme (Nigeria)‐ Playwright
Hermine Pinson (USA) – Poet, scholar of AfricanAmerican
literature
Sapphire (USA) – Poet, novelist
Lola Shoneyin (Nigeria) – Novelist, poet
Eintou Springer (Trinidad & Tobago) – Poet, playwright
Cheryl Sterling (USA) – Scholar of African & diaspora literature
Veronique Tadjo (Cote d’Ivoire/SA) – Novelist
Coumba Touré – Author (Mali) – Children’s author
Evelyne Trouillot (Haiti) – Novelist
Wana Udobang (Nigeria) – Journalist, blogger, radio host
Gina Athena Ulysse (Haiti/USA) – Performance artist, scholar of Caribbean anthropology &
blogger
Crystal Williams (USA) – Poet
Christopher Winks (USA) – Scholar of Caribbean literature

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For me, being alone is a luxury. Being in London for Xmas was wonderful, but the real indulgence was the days I spent indoors, seated next to the window with my laptop warming my legs. If the curtains were open there was a draft, so I sometimes shut the drapes, turned on the lights to fight the winter gloom, and delved into The Deep. I watched a lot of TV while I was over there, though I managed not to get sucked into watching Lord of the Rings again. Instead I watched back to back episodes of (US) Law & Order, and three or four episodes of Time Team. A writer is a kind of digger and so it’s no surprise that I should be fascinated by archaeology. I’ve got a London novel u_48284861_-29 - Copybrewing in my mind. Ever since I found out about Sarah Forbes Bonetta and Walter Dean Myers’ nonfiction book about her, I’ve been interested in fictionalizing her story. My original idea was to focus on the mulatta sugar heiresses who came to London from the Caribbean hoping some desperate second son would overlook race in favor of wealth. Then I learned there was a large black population in Wales and that intrigued me. Now I feel like anything’s possible since black people have lived in England for hundreds if not thousands of years. For now I’m focusing on Nyla and her initiation into the league of “pressers.” I wrote for hours on Xmas, reaching 10K words, and then did some structural work on Boxing Day. The next day I cleared out of the flat and met my friend Mary for a full English breakfast. I’m so grateful to have friends who love literature as much as I do, and Mary’s a scholar of African American women’s fiction so we talked for hours about black authors and their books. On the flight home I thought about our conversation and the way motherhood impacts a woman’s ability to make art. I’ve blogged before about the film Who Does She Think She Is; mothers are unbelievable multi-taskers and parenting doesn’t preclude making art. But it changes things. I watched Miss Potter while I was away imagesand couldn’t help but frown at the way wealth enabled Beatrix Potter to develop her charming characters and highly profitable book series. She was encouraged to sketch and paint as the child of wealthy parents, she was taken on annual holidays that nourished her imagination, and then she had the choice of accepting an aristocratic suitor or remaining unmarried in her parents’ home. She had the time and means to produce art—something a working class woman wouldn’t have had. I love Peter Rabbit and I know it wasn’t easy for even a wealthy white woman to become a published author at the turn of the 20th century. But most women in the world can’t afford the luxury of a room of one’s own—never mind a home full of servants who silently cook your food and wash your clothes. Mary and I discussed my future as an author and she encouraged me to stay in the academy. I became debt-free this year and plan to work hard at staying debt-free for as long as possible. But as someone who doesn’t write commercial fiction and struggles to place each manuscript, the academy is a decent home. What other job would give me five weeks to write over the holidays? This past semester nearly broke me but I’m developing a new course for the spring and hope that finishing The Deep will lift my spirits. I’m working on my end of year slideshow and was surprised to see how productive 2012 was—I fell short of some goals but achieved others and have a long To Do list ready for 2013. Jayne Cortez passed away yesterday and the death of a great woman artist always reminds me to press on. Tomorrow isn’t promised so produce TODAY…

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imagesRoses are still blooming in the garden. I hadn’t been to the botanic garden in over a month but the shooting in Newtown, CT made me long for solitude. Some of the paths were blocked off due to uprooted trees, but despite the devastation I still felt soothed by the leafless trees. A tufted titmouse peeked out at me from the braided wisteria  and I spotted another new breed while running in the park yesterday. I went to see The Hobbit on Sunday and then came home and watched Lord of the Rings. I want out—I want a way out of the nightmare that our society has become. Right now there’s a conversation on the radio about mental illness but I haven’t yet heard anyone say we need to have a conversation about GENDER. Women don’t commit these crimes. Earlier this semester I had an unstable male student and for weeks I worried he might come to class armed. He was suspended in October but I still keep an eye out for him—we have no real security on campus and the officer I filed a report with was sanctioned (I think) just for admitting this male student had a history with campus security. The administration was so anxious to protect HIS privacy, but what about OUR safety? He was suspended years ago and then readmitted, and almost immediately started to have problems in all his classes. When he allegedly attacked a female student in my other class, I filed a report and that finally got him removed. Today I opened my email and found a lewd message from another male student. I suspect his account was hacked, but still—in my mind it’s all part of the same problem. Looking forward to being in London soon…yes, it’s more escapism, but sometimes you have to believe there really is a way out…

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The Center for Black Literature at Medgar Evers College
of City University of New York

Call for Papers
Honoring the Life and Work of Toni Cade Bambara
Sponsored by the National Black Writers Conference
2013 Biennial Symposium

Saturday, March 30, 2013
Founders Auditorium, Medgar Evers College
10 a.m. – 6 p.m.

Toni Cade Bambara (1939-1995), author of such titles as Gorilla, My Love, The Salt Eaters, and Those Bones Are Not My Child, was a remarkable writer, social activist, educator, feminist, and filmmaker. The legacy of her contributions to the African-American literary canon has rightfully earned her the distinguished reputation of being not only a gifted story teller but also an amazing truth teller.
We invite proposals on one of the following topics:

(1)  The authenticity of portraits of Black women and children as agents for social and political change as they are represented in Bambara’s short stories and novels.
(2) The significance of Bambara’s work as a community advocate and how her travels abroad helped to define her role as an activist and a feminist.
(3)  The impact of Toni Cade Bambara’s works on the African-American and American literary canon

Interested faculty, independent researchers, and students should forward a one- to two-page proposal with literature references by January 15, 2013, E-mail to: writers@mec.cuny.edu.

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It’s Thanksgiving weekend up in Canada, which usually makes me crave Stove Top stuffing and pumpkin pie. This year I actually haven’t thought of holiday food, in part because I have some Canadian friends in town and instead we’ve been catching up on politics. I realize that one way to minimize job stress is to spend a couple of days NOT grading, NOT developing lesson plans, and NOT attending work-related events. The latter is especially hard to do—on Saturday I went to the Brooklyn Museum with friends to see the Mickalene Thomas exhibit, which is phenomenal. I saw one of my students, which I expected, since I offered extra credit to my Black Women in the Americas class. I walked out of the gallery feeling an overwhelming sense of pride—Thomas is brilliant and I’m sure my students will be blown away by her glittering portraits of black women.

I haven’t managed to do any writing this month, which is disappointing. But I was heartened to learn that Teaching for Change has a fantastic post on Banned Books Week and the OTHER barriers to equal expression:

Government censorship, of course, is just one element that determines what we can and cannot read. People often overlook another cultural phenomenon that can have a similar effect: publishing industry censorship. Each year there is a scarcity of excellent children’s picture books published. Missing are titles that reflect the realities of students’ lives and communities while encouraging children to think beyond the headlines.

The data bears out our suspicion: Researchers at the University of Wisconsin’s Cooperative Children’s Book Center find the number of books by and about people of color fluctuating and decreasing slightly, at the same time that children in the United States increasingly come from families of color. This doesn’t mean that those books aren’t being written—rather publishers refuse to seek them out or reject them, fearing they lack universal appeal, or as one frustrated former editor laments, fail to speak to “the lowest common denominator.” Zetta Elliott, author of the award-winning children’s book Bird, writes on her blog that she is fighting to find publishers for her many children’s book manuscripts. Some are “slice of life stories.” Others, like Bird, speak sensitively to childhood trauma.

The post concludes with a list of wonderful books that have since gone out of print. It’s a wonderful resource for teachers and parents seeking books that truly reflect the diversity of our society.

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We’re five weeks into the semester and I’ve already caught my first cold. Stress weakens your immune system, so I suspect that the confrontation I had with two students last week probably contributed to my health breakdown. Or rather, not the incident itself but the fact that I dwelt on it for days afterward. Someone just posted this article on Facebook: “Why I Quit Teaching.” That struck a chord with me. This is the most challenging semester I can remember, and even though the vast majority of my students are following the rules and making progress, I still have a couple who are raising hell. And somehow that makes me want to leave the classroom, which is irrational. On Saturday night To Sir, With Love was on PBS—Sidney Poitier always reminds me of my father: the pencil tie, the fitted suit, the handsome smile. My father taught for more than 30 years, and he taught special ed students here in NYC. He fussed about his students (like I do) but loved them (like I do) and definitely saw himself as a father figure (I certainly don’t). In the film, the students give “Sir” a hard time until he cracks the code and figures out how to connect with them despite the difference in race, class, and culture. He finally gets the dream job offer he’s been waiting for, but then realizes that teaching is his true calling and so tears up the letter. Hollywood still makes those kind of films but the reality is that teachers aren’t meant to SAVE students—we’re there to SERVE students because that’s what professionals do:

A professional is a certified expert who is afforded prestige and autonomy in return for performing at a high level, which includes making complex and disinterested judgments under conditions of uncertainty. Professionals deserve to live comfortably, but they do not enter the ranks of a profession in order obtain wealth or power; they do it out of a calling to serve.

But what do you do with the ones who don’t want to be served? Or think of you as a servant to be given orders? And of course this is about gender because female students never challenge my authority the way some male students do. And perhaps this is a “hypercritical woman thing” where I expect perfection of myself and so continue to focus on the ones who aren’t really trying to grow or learn. I applied for a fellowship today that would give me one full year without teaching. That prospect used to scare me, but these days…it’s looking pretty good! If that acceptance letter comes in the mail some day, I will definitely NOT tear it up.

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Classes start tomorrow so my head is no longer in SC—but before I shift gears, here are some of the photos I took at the Middleton plantation. As soon as I stepped on the bus Saturday morning, the conversation about Gone with the Wind began…to his credit, our driver tried to separate fact from fiction: apparently Rhett Butler was a real person but the film was not shot on site in the South—it was shot in Hollywood. HOLLYWOOD, people. When we reached Middleton Place I was almost relieved to see that the “big house” was no longer standing; the Union army burned it during the war and then an 1886 earthquake reduced the ruins to rubble. And it was never one of those white-pillared houses at the end of a long lane of live oaks (this photo is of McLeod Plantation on James Island). The main house and two flanking guesthouses were made of brick; one guesthouse was left standing but I skipped that tour, opting instead to learn about African Americans’ lives on this rice plantation. My tour guide was a white man from upstate New York—very nice, very informed. But all the interpreters in the Stableyards were also white…which seemed odd. But then how many black folks do you know who’d volunteer to dress up and act the part of a slave? Doug the cooper gave me lots of great information about woodworking tools, which will help since Judah is apprenticed to a carpenter in the sequel to Wish.

Visiting plantations is always challenging because I go in expecting to be misled, which means I’m skeptical of the script that most docents are trained to follow. My guide, Alan, had done a lot of extra research on his own and Doug clearly knew a lot about making barrels. But both insisted that the task system on the rice plantation was preferable to the gang labor system used on cotton plantations. Instead of being forced to labor in the fields from sun up to sun down, 6 days a week, on a rice plantation you were “done” once you finished your assigned task. So a cooper had to make 3 barrels a day, which generally took at least 12 hours. I’m not sure I see that as “better” or “easier” than picking cotton all day. And if you’re planting rice, you have to stand in the muck and snake-filled water until you finish half an acre. When you finish your task, you still have to tend your garden and hunt or fish to make sure you and your family don’t starve. There was no mention of runaways or rebellions…Eliza’s House, a refurbished slave cabin, had a very good exhibit on slave life, but the cabin was decorated to reflect how a freedman might live—and it was quite cozy. I always leave a plantation feeling that the suffering of enslaved people was diminished. Middleton Place hosts a lot of weddings because of its extensive gardens, which were built by 100 slaves over a ten-year period—an extra “task” on top of their regular workload…

My afternoon tour was completely different—my guide was a black man from SC and Al tried to teach us Gullah while explaining how gentrification is changing the racial demographics in Charleston. He also regaled us with songs from Porgy & Bess; we were driven past Catfish Row and saw Porgy’s tomb in a cemetery on James Island. The Massachusetts 54th regiment camped on the grounds of the McLeod Plantation, which is currently being renovated; its slave cabins were occupied into the 1990s by migrant workers. We saw modern housing projects next to massive antebellum mansions where wealthy planters summered to avoid malaria and yellow fever; the Middletons actually went up to Rhode Island from May to September, and I may work that into my novel as well. Charleston was first settled by English planters from Barbados, so the architecture reflects that influence—lots of sorbet-colored houses with long porches that run the length of the house. In the black communities, houses were built one behind the other on a single plot of land, which indicated the residents were all related. The best part of my day was when I met Mrs. Louise Jefferson who was weaving sweetgrass baskets and selling her wares at the Charleston visitor center. I bought a beautiful basket (similar to one Camille Cosby purchased from Mrs. Jefferson) and encouraged this kind elder to record her life story. For just a few moments I felt like I was back in my grandmother’s kitchen, listening to her stories and laughing at her jokes…

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