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Archive for the ‘slavery’ Category

c08_000peterI haven’t blogged much lately. Partly because I was trying to finish Judah’s Tale (I didn’t) and partly because I can’t stand to spend too much time thinking about all the bad news in the world lately (I’m looking at you, SCOTUS). Right now Gasland II is on in the background but I’m not really watching because I’m thinking about islands—England and Nevis. I spent an hour earlier this evening perusing the correspondence of esteemed British gentlemen on either side of a gruesome 1810 case in Nevis in which a planter was accused of cruelly punishing 32 of his enslaved men and women. Their crime? Not doing their work and threatening to leave the plantation. I leave for my fourth trip to Nevis soon and I’m not sure what to expect. A year has passed since I was there last and I haven’t done much writing on The Hummingbird’s Tongue. I’ve given it a lot of thought, however, and will be presenting on experimental writing at a Commonwealth literature conference in early August. It’s time to give these ideas some kind of form, but what do you do with this?

Witness went and sat down in Dr. Crosse’s gallery–Says, that two drivers continued flogging said negro man for about fifteen minutes.–Says, that as this man appeared to be severely whipped, he was induced to count the lashes given the others, conceiving the country would take up the business.–Says, that defendant gave one man 115 lashes; to another 65; to another 47; to another 165; to another 242; to another 212; to another 181; to another 59; to another 187; to a negro woman 110; to another woman 58; to another woman 97; to another woman 212; another woman 291; another woman 83; another woman 49; another woman 68; another woman 89; and another woman 56.

Witness says, that the woman who received 291 lashes, appeared to be young, but most cruelly flogged.

I’m hoping to find the original court documents. I have a few names: Quashy, Ned, William Coker, Nellys Juba, Madges Juba, Catherine, Castile, and Range. Then a slew of witnesses—all white men, of course—testified that they had seen punishments just as severe elsewhere. In other words, this kind of torture was not unusual or extraordinary in the Caribbean at that time. The planter, Edward Huggins, was found not guilty by a jury of his peers but abolitionists back in England used reports of this case to further their cause. I don’t know if I’ve got all my facts straight, but I believe these brutalized men and women worked on the Montravers Estate, and I will be touring the ruins sometime this week. I used some of my grant money to buy a video camera but I’m not sure if there’s any point filming the ruins of a plantation. It reminds me of Claude Lanzmann’s footage of demolished concentration camps. Why document an absence, show what’s no longer there? Because there’s a residue that persists. I need to write…

P7015625Last night I was angry, wishing I hadn’t scheduled the trip for this month. I haven’t finished Judah’s Tale and I can’t gain momentum when I’m constantly shifting my attention to other projects. I have yet another article to revise and swear I will NEVER submit my work to another academic journal. My bad mood took a turn for the worse when I realized that given the choice, I’d rather go to Oxford. I’ve been watching Inspector Lewis lately, which is filmed in Oxford, and there was one shot where two characters were walking by the river and the path went past a golden, walled building that had a gorgeous border of shrubs and flowers. It was a gloomy day, the actors were wearing autumn clothes…one of the suspects worked in a tea shoppe. And the truth is, that is my dream. I don’t like hot weather; I’m not a tropical kind of girl. We’re in a heat wave right now, which might account for my miserable mood. And I realize that when I think about Nevis, I don’t think about serenity. And perhaps that’s why it has taken me so long to start writing this book. My own discomfort around this history, my own family history, the climate, the landscape–it’s hard to look at sometimes (my discomfort, that is). And that’s how I know this book will be SHORT. It’s too hard to balance my shameless fixation with British culture against my righteous indignation at the lasting damage of slavery and colonialism–part of which IS my fixation with British culture…

So bear with me. It could be a bumpy ride.

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lag

IMG_1819I woke at 3:30 this morning—7:30 in Ghana, which was the time I woke each morning for the conference. We touched down at JFK just before dawn yesterday; ten hours to cross the Atlantic Ocean, half a day to fly over 5000 miles. So much about this trip has to do with contrast—between here and there, then and now. I didn’t think of our visit to Elmina Castle as a homecoming; I didn’t stand in the narrow Door of No Return and think I had somehow performed a gesture of reconciliation. I said a brief, silent prayer and tried to keep moving—there were so many rooms, so many levels to explore, so many facts to absorb. The governor’s chambers were at the very top of the castle—and it is a castle, even though that seems like a misnomer to me. There’s a moat and a drawbridge, there are cannon pointedcannons out at sea and inland at “the natives.” And rightly so, since the local Africans helped the Dutch to overthrow the Portuguese, not that that was much of an improvement. The British took over after 250 years but regardless of the colonial ruler, enslaved Africans continued to be marched from the interior to the coast and at any given time at least a thousand people (400 women, 600 men) were held in dark, filthy, airless cells on the ground floor of the castle.  When soldiers condemned2drank too much or abused their “privileges” with the enslaved women, they were locked in a cell that had three windows and plenty of light. But when a slave rebelled, he was locked in the condemned room and left to die—no window, no air, no light. From atop the walls of the castle you could walk in the sun, enjoy the refreshing breeze, look out over the sea and almost forget about the dungeons below—forget about the interior courtyard and the governor’s balcony where hegovernorsbalconycistern stood to survey the enslaved women in order to select his next rape victim. She was then bathed by soldiers with water from a cistern beneath the courtyard before being led up a private staircase the conveniently ended at a trap door right in front of the governor’s chambers. It was hard to stay angry—you felt disgust and rage but then your sorrow outweighed everything else. I was ready to leave Elmina before the tour IMG_1824even ended. Our guide Ato was excellent; I asked him how he managed his emotions and he said he used to come to work early and stand in the dungeons to cry. What did we do? We piled back onto our little bus—after buying books or crafts or fabric from the shops located throughout the castle—and went to a stunning beach resort to have lunch. As soon as we stepped off the bus at Elmina we were surrounded by young men trying to learn our names so they could make personalized bracelets or sea shells for us to purchase after the tour. Elmina’s main industry is fishing but it remains a place of commerce and trade. Tourists pay admission to enter the castle (double if you want to take photos); Ato felt tourism had dropped off since 9/11 but noted that the flight is also expensive. It’s a strange irony that the descendants of those whose ancestors were once enslaved here in West Africa now have the means (some of us) to return and “pay tribute”…IMG_1814

Here comes the rain. I have a library presentation this morning and final exams this afternoon so I’m glad I had yesterday to rest and reflect on my trip. The Yari Yari Ntoaso conference was great—so much talent and wisdom and possibility packed into four days! I know I won’t be able to recall everything that happened since I last blogged on Friday. One of the things about being abroad is that you have to surrender AND adapt to a different way of life. Now that I’m back in Brooklyn I’ve got uninterrupted internet service and no blackouts to contend with, so when I feel like blogging I just sit down and start typing. But in Accra I often couldn’t get online at the hotel, and instead of writing in a journal I just didn’t write at all. It may take me a while to catch up but this is a start…

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imagesSomebody keeps moving the goal line post. And that somebody, of course, is me. I’ve written 3,000 words this weekend and figure if I continue to write a thousand words a day, I will finish The Deep before this month ends (exceeding my self-imposed 40K-word limit). I’ve worked the ending out in my mind but getting there isn’t as easy as it seems—or as quick. I’ve got Nevis on the brain, possibly because I met with my faculty writing mentor last week and I know I am *supposed* to be working on The Hummingbird’s Tongue this semester. Then my mother sent me an email and asked when the sequel to A Wish After Midnight will be ready—her friends are eager to read more about Genna and Judah. Then yesterday, while waiting for the train, I started sarahforbesbonettathinking about my niece and how she hasn’t yet read The Secret Garden. I have an illustrated copy and wondered if I should send it to her, but then I wished I could send her a book that could serve as a mirror for her pretty brown self. Could I adapt the story and set it in the Caribbean? Or what if I combined my interest in Sarah Bonetta Forbes with my love of magic and gardens? A little girl is brought from Africa to England and is placed at an estate where she discovers a secret and makes new friends…This is what happens when I’m nearing the end of a project—my anxiety kicks up and I start looking ahead instead of rooting myself in the moment. Yesterday I came home from grocery shopping and found a sequel to The Secret Garden was on TV. I started to watch it and then switched to the 1949 black and white version of the original, which is on YouTube. Then I watched a three-hour special on gun violence in schools, imageswhich included an interview with a teary Arne Duncan. Then the news. Then Death in Paradise, this problematic British crime show set in the Caribbean. Then my favorite Irish film Once. The amazing thing is that all this television consumption doesn’t stop me from writing. In a way, the background noise helps me to focus on the novel. That’s what I tell myself, anyway. My students turn in their papers on Monday so then I’ll have to switch gears again and get my grading done. And, of course, our diversity panel at the NYPL is this coming Saturday. “There’s enough time.” That’s my new mantra. I’m having lunch with a group of friends today and part of me wants to bail. I need time to write! But I also need to get out of my head for a while—and I need to get these cupcakes out of my apartment. This is day twelve without cake…only 28 days to go!

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imagesI often share that piece of advice when signing books—“Feed your imagination: read every day.” Right now I’m reading A Cupboard Full of Coats by Yvette Edwards, and I got quite a few pages read while returning from Baltimore by train earlier today. I don’t have an iPod; I read on the subway and I *try* to turn the TV off so I can read at home, too. I’ve mentioned before that I now write with the TV on, but it was *so* nice these past two days to NOT watch 3 hours of news reports every evening. I didn’t miss my 4-hour diet of NPR morning programming either because I was too busy hanging out with my dear friend Shadra Strickland! At the last minute I decided NOT to pack my laptop, which meant I couldn’t work on The Deep for a couple of days. Instead of writing I filled up on art and movies and excellent conversation (we also admired the historic Peabody Library). Shadra picked me up from the train station late Tuesday night and we went to an all-nite diner for a bite to eat. It was great to have another artist/professor to swap stories with—how was your semester? who were your best/worst students? are you getting your REAL work done? On the train ride home today I made a plan for 2013. Shadra usually makes a one-year and a five-year plan; I find it really hard to think that far ahead, but it was imageshelpful to make a list of the trips I plan to take, the books I want to finish, and the articles I hope to have published this year. The last item on my list is: “consume more art!” On Wednesday Shadra got up early and made a lovely breakfast for me and Deborah Taylor, librarian at the Enoch Pratt Free Library, who stopped by on her way to work. We talked about children’s books and US presidents and the legacy of Emancipation. As much as I love waking up to silence and solitude, that can’t really compare to freshly baked biscuits and *great* conversation with friends! Later that day (after a midday nap) we went to the Walters Art Museum and saw the exhibit “Revealing the African Presence in Renaissance Europe.” We didn’t get to see the response of contemporary artists at Galerie Myrtis but I managed to find my favorite painting in the exhibit by Jules Arthur. It’s amazing how beauty feeds the soul…this morning Shadra insisted that I watch one scene from Hero and next thing you know, we were watching the entire film in our pajamas and I was practically sobbing as Broken Sword died…I ate way too much sugar in Baltimore (they have great cake!) and we didn’t wind up going for a run, but we laughed a lot and there’s always tomorrow…

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Today began with a migraine but ended with some great news—I found out that I’ve been accepted into CUNY’s Faculty Fellowship Publication Program, which will enable me to spend the spring semester focusing on The Hummingbird’s Tongue. Around noon today, when I could bear to sit at my sun-soaked desk, I scanned and printed out an illustration by Leonard Weisgard from The Little Island. Now, up on the wall, I’ve got an 1871 map of Nevis, an 1817 slave register, the logo for my future Black Dog Arts Center, my partially-completed family tree, and this image:

I spoke with my aunt in Nevis this morning and learned some good and bad news. The good news is that my citizenship application was approved—on my birthday! So I am now a citizen of Nevis. The bad news is that my aunt’s doctor found a mass during her colonoscopy and she has to have surgery next week. I hope to hear soon about a grant I applied for that would fund a trip to the Caribbean in January, but I’m thinking I should just go ahead and book the ticket now. Until I get there I’m sending love and prayers and positive vibes across the sea…

Are you wondering what to get that special someone for the holidays? Why not support Hands Across the Sea, a nonprofit that provides books for Caribbean children? Sonita Daniel, Director of the Nevis Library Service, let me know that Hands Across the Sea has selected Nevis to receive donated books this year so any amount you give will help to provide books for children in Nevisian schools and community centers. I’ve got a school visit early tomorrow morning and think I’ll put the honorarium towards the Steel Pan Band package, which includes a “Selection of 35 hardcover titles from well-regarded Caribbean niche publishers.” Other packages range from $10 – $2500.

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…and you’ll never work a day in your life.” I first heard this years ago, back when I was an avid NBA fan. Marc Jackson told a reporter that his father had given him that advice when he was young, and it made absolute sense to me at the time. I turned 40 a couple of weeks ago, however, and I now know that loving what you do doesn’t mean that you don’t work hard—it just means that at the end of a busy day you don’t feel defeated. You DO get tired, and some days you DO dread getting out of bed. But for the most part, having a job you love means you feel the time and energy you spend are an investment in something important. I spent last weekend in Columbia, South Carolina and was impressed over and over by the enthusiasm and dedication of the librarians and educators I met. On Friday I had dinner with three black women academics (Rachelle Washington, Michelle Martin, and Dianne Johnson) and a recent grad just starting her career in communications. It was an interesting moment—Jasmine laid out her plans for work/life/family and we elders talked about the need for self-care. Rachelle runs a “Sistah Doctah retreat” at Clemson University that provides mentoring and support for black women scholars and graduate students. There have been a lot of articles online lately about the specific challenges black women face in the academy. After my mid-week migraine I had to admit that self-care has not been high on my list of priorities this semester (I just had leftover cake for breakfast). I felt guilty lounging in a hotel room last weekend (I did grade midterms for a couple of hours) but I know that if I don’t slow down, eventually I’ll crash. The semester gets going and you try to “hold on” and “push through,” but that’s not healthy. I haven’t gotten any writing done lately, either, and that just makes me mean…

On Saturday I got some books at the Robert Mills Museum and then walked over to the Richland County Public Library to meet Michelle’s graduate students. They had compiled a list of more than *fifty* questions after reading Wish and we had a wide-ranging conversation about the novel, my writing process, and the challenges of getting published. I also got to learn about their literacy projects, which include books clubs, book drives, and puppetry! The library has its own puppet theater and I melted a little when I saw all their puppets hanging on the wall. I immediately recalled the raggedy old monkey puppet my mother saved for me when she retired from teaching. I need to figure out how to be the kind of professor who gets to play with puppets now and then. Or maybe I should’ve become a librarian! The ones I met in Columbia were so energetic—especially when talking to or about their teenage patrons. The best part of my author presentation was the Q&A and the two young women who talked about their own struggles with writing. “Did your parents support your decision to become a writer?” Uh—no! Not at all. They eventually came to tolerate my writing but you can’t expect *your* passion to mean as much to other people. I often say that being around teachers is like being around family, but the difference is that the teachers and librarians I meet *now* truly value my work. Having dinner with RCPL librarians Heather, Sherry, and Jennifer was a lot fun—we talked about Game of Thrones, trauma in picture books, having immigrant parents, and (of course) the election. Sunday was a day of rest and then I spent Monday at Westwood High School—a beautiful, brand new school just north of Columbia. My librarian host, Marti Brown, is also a student of Michelle Martin so she was familiar with my work and planned an amazing visit for me with her co-librarian Cathy. How often do you show up at a public school and find hot biscuits, grits, scrambled eggs, and bacon?! I ate my fill and then gave a short talk to a nice group of teachers—as long as their day is, they still showed up early to hear about my books. Then I gave a presentation to about three hundred students in the school’s state of the art auditorium—complete with cordless mic and remote so that I was able to roam around and still advance my slides (all tech stuff was handled by members of the broadcasting club!). I told the students later that I wished the kids in Brooklyn could see Westwood High—*every* child should be able to attend a school like that. Before leaving for the airport I had a pizza lunch with the book club and heard a powerful poetry performance by Marshay, the Miss Westwood pageant-winner. They sent me off with a portable Redhawk blanket that kept me warm on the chilly flight home…one of my best school visits ever.

It was lovely to be spoiled like that but it was also good to come home. Getting out of NYC wasn’t easy—we’re still recovering from “Superstorm Sandy” and it was hard to hail a cab since most of them were taken and/or were in line waiting for gas. I got gouged by the cabbie (and lectured on why I should have kids) but I made it to the airport on time and even made my connecting flight despite a one-hour delay leaving JFK. I stepped off the plane in Columbia and looked up at a clear, blue sky—there was sunshine and a strong breeze—and I felt a mixture of relief and guilt. Everyone I met asked how I had weathered the storm and I shared how blessed I felt not to have experienced any flooding or power loss. So many New Yorkers are still homeless, still without power and heat—and it’s FREEZING right now. We had a snowstorm yesterday and there are plenty of empty seats in my classroom because my students are struggling to recover from the storms. I woke up on Monday morning and there was no hot water in the hotel; I immediately went on Facebook and typed up a complaint to post on my feed and then had a reality check. This week has been rather overwhelming but I don’t have the additional challenges faced by those who live along the coast. I have heat, power, internet access, and food. I’m busy, but I’m also blessed. Trying to focus on that fact as I do what I can for those in need.

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It’s another rainy day and I’ll be giving my last midterm later this morning but I thought I’d take a moment to list some upcoming events:

On November 3rd I’ll be presenting at the Richland County Public Library in Columbia, SC. Dr. Michelle Martin of USC is teaching Wish so I’ll have a chance to meet with her graduate students, and then I’ll give a public talk with members of the library’s Teen Advisory Board. If you’re in the vicinity, stop by! Before I return to NYC I’ll have a chance to meet students at Westwood HS. Hopefully being in the South will help me finish up Judah’s Tale–I’m nearing 74K words and hope to wrap up at 80. I’ve already made a list of plantations I hope to visit while I’m in the midlands…

On November 9-10th I’ll be attending the second A Is for Anansi conference at NYU. I’m moderating the SFF panel on Saturday morning but am really looking forward to hearing Michelle Martin’s keynote address the night before. If you’re in NYC you definitely don’t want to miss this! I will miss some of the afternoon sessions because I’ve been invited to speak at Girls Write Now, a fantastic nonprofit that’s celebrating its 15th year of pairing teenage girls with professional writer-mentors. I’ll be speaking about historical fiction and can’t wait to meet these amazing young women writers.

On November 17th I’ll be at the Brooklyn Museum Book Fair—one of my favorite kidlit events! Come out with your kids and enjoy an afternoon of books, authors, readings, and fun activities. The next weekend is Thanksgiving and I’ll be heading up to Toronto. If you’re in the city and would like to book a visit, let me know! Though I may be ready for a break by then…

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