classic, graphic, alice

17 09 2011

My first response to this was NO! The short story “Carnival Jangle” by Alice Dunbar-Nelson is probably my favorite by the dynamic, Post ‘Bellum-PreHarlem writer. It tells the story of a young Flo, who is lured away by the mysterious and beguiling Mephisto during carnival to masquerade-as a boy. I was concerned that the parameters of graphic novels would diminish the significance of her message; would cause her work to be taken even less seriously. (Was afraid of that when Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage was to be transformed into a graphic novel for D.C. Comics, too…whatever happened with that?) Indeed, I am not a graphic novel fan. But once I collected myself and recalled the story, I decided that instead,  I applaud Lance Tooks for the cultural decendence of such an eloquent, yet neglected black, fiction icon. The backdrop for the story, Mardi Gras, does indeed provide the visual setting that might lend itself to such a transformation. So I will wait, with bated breath, its publication in December, 2012.


elizabeth johnson harris

22 01 2011

from the Special Collections Library at Duke University,

Elizabeth Johnson Harris  Life Story, 1867-1923:

“Rev. Moody was a fine gospel preacher and large crowds of white and colored were out each night to hear the splendid sermons and the beautiful singing by his choir of only two members, Rev. Moody was perfectly free and friendly as a man of God, with both white and colored. He extended a free invitation to one and all, to these services. The audience was sometimes mixed, the crowds were great and the Holy Spirit seemed to be in such control over the house that the color of skin was almost forgotten for the time being.”


utopia: fictions of homogeneity?

11 10 2010

News from Nowhere by William Morris

When Sir Thomas More coined the word “utopia” for his 1516 book of the same name to represent a perfect idea of Plato’s Republic, where there are few laws, no wars and people live in perfect harmony and peace, what kind of place was this really? It is, supposedly, a place where evil no longer dwells, a place where misery and poverty are a thing of the past. Some 19th century Victorians caught hold of this idea and ascribed it to Karl Marx’s blueprint of a working socialist nation. Indeed, William Morris, a socialist, writer and Pre-Raphaelite, created his own utopia in the novel New from Nowhere (1890); except there is a noticeable lack of diversity. To paraphrase the thoughts of Buggin’ Out from Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing:

“How come ain’t no black people in Morris’s utopia?”

Morris suggests the one time existence of such people in the novel which laments the 19th century as one of the last eras run amuck with capitalism and rich people infected with the disease of “Idleness” as a result of forcing others to work for them. And, while he often hints at the binaries of “slaves” and “slave owners”, other than speaking of them in the socialist terms of “workers” and the “ruling class,” he never addresses who these workers are, what they look or sound like, or what their plight is. He never discusses them on any personal level. And, even when the old man Hammond begins to discuss imperialism and the antics of Henry Morton Stanley, he is interrupted by the narrator, much to his chagrin, and to mine.

It’s like when the 1992 movie Boomerang, starring Eddie Murphy, came out. Sure we loved seeing beautiful black folks on the big screen; Eddie, Halle Berry, Lela Rochon, Grace Jones, Geoffrey Holder, etc. But, there was also a noticeable lack of white people—in New York! Come on, now. Even black folks knew that wasn’t right.

So, was the utopia that Victorians wrote about a world where everybody was British—and white? Is it as H.G. Wells suggests in A Modern Utopia (1905) that “The depopulation of the Congo Free State by the Belgians, the horrible massacres of Chinese by European soldiery during the Pekin expedition” …simply…”a painful but necessary part of the civilising process of the world”? I certainly hope not. If so, not only would Morris be disappointed in the fact that London is yet a thriving capitalist society, but he’d likely be disoriented by the level of its diversity as well.


st. louis circuit court historical records project

3 10 2010

“The St. Louis Circuit Court retains millions of records that document the judicial, social, cultural, and economic history of the city, county, state, and nation.”

Freedom Suits Case Files, 1814-1860

These case files consist of 301 legal petitions for freedom by people of color originally filed in St. Louis courts between 1814 and 1860. They make up the largest corpus of freedom suits currently available to researchers in the United States.”

pauline hopkins society

27 08 2010

“The great artist belongs to God, and is imperishable. Like Moses, he stands upon the mount and receives the eternal laws of art. He forgets his inner life, joy and sorrow disappear; he ascends on the wings of the beloved art, and brushing the gates of Paradise translates into his earthly work some of the entrancing melody of the heavenly choirs.”

Pauline Hopkins, “Phenomenal Vocalists,” Colored American Magazine, November 1901.

being the poet laureate of the negro race

14 08 2010

More often than not I’ve been privy to conversations among writers and would be writers about whether we consider, or perhaps, to what extent we consider audience when we write. We are—writers that is—sometimes arrogant enough to believe that our audiences are literary replicas of ourselves and that we truly are writing to please only them; that we are not influenced by publishers or the market and what people are buying, and whether or not our monetary rewards reflect their approval—or disapproval. I think about this whenever I am tempted to self-publish a saucy, urban drama, (not that there’s anything wrong with that), which I’m certain will be a hit, and which will no doubt solve all of my financial, (student loan) woes. For a while now, I’ve felt that this would be an easy avenue to being published, seeing as how publishers seem to believe that this is the only fiction by African American writers worth publishing; that African Americans don’t read more “serious” literature, or that white readers don’t read African American literature.

But, once again, I have learned a lesson from 19th century black authors who struggled through their art. In the book, Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow,  Eleanor Alexander  recounts what she calls the “tragic courtship and marriage” between the Poet Laureate of the Negro Race, Paul Laurence Dunbar, and my thesis subject, Alice Ruth Moore. In recalling his early years as a writer, Dunbar had a hard time reconciling his success as a celebrated high school writer with the disappointments he faced once in the real world. Even the newspaper that published his first poems wouldn’t hire him as a staff journalist—because he was black. But, ironically, once he began writing dialect poetry, and using the style of writing employed by the popular “Hoosier dialect poet” James Whitcomb Riley, his luck changed. Though Dunbar, (as well as Charles W. Chestnutt), remained conflicted about writing stories and poetry which depicted African Americans as “childish buffoons…loyal to their ‘masters,’ the old plantation, and the southern way of life”…and black men who might also be “rapists, slashers, thieves, and murderers,” he also realized that his audience, largely white middle class readers, demanded this of their negro characters. One poem, “A Banjo Song,” where a slave family forgets their troubles just by listening to the music of a banjo, brought him half of what he was making in a week as an elevator boy, from the Chicago News Record.

So what do you think he did?

Humph. He kept writing those dialect poems.

Even in his first two collections of poetry, Oak and Ivy and Majors and Minors, where he includes half poetry in dialect, and half poetry in standard English, the dialect poetry was still the most popular. Even the “foremost literary critic of American letters,” William Dean Howells, said so. His friend, author James Weldon Johnson commented that, although Dunbar tried to “cut away much that was coarse and ‘niggerish,’” his work was still an example of the “traditional mold”…and that “no matter how sincere he might be, was dominated by his audience”.

Now, when I consider my deep, sincere desire to be a published author, I will always think of the Poet Laureate of the Negro Race— and my steady gig with the US government.

researching alice dunbar-nelson (1875-1935)

24 04 2010

I find it interesting (and, admittedly a little annoying), that most biographies about Alice Ruth Moore Dunbar-Nelson are often prefaced with an acknowledgment or statement of her “mixed” racial heritage. (Her so-called “lesbian feelings,” and her brief marriage to poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar are almost, always included.) That some chose to question her “blackness” may or may not have to do with her unique portrayal of “a” black experience. It was a black experience that was different from what was being represented in her time; that of passive, illiterate, Southern plantation darkies who were loyal to their white masters. Her early stories were a portrayal of the racially diverse and cosmopolitan landscape that was New Orleans in the 19th century, of French speaking black folks, and women who questioned the sanctity of marriage. For me, this does not diminish her blackness—or her femininity—in any way. Even Gloria T. Hull enthusiastically reminds us that, “Despite” her “New Orleans heritage of mixed blood and light skin, it is necessary to remember that” Dunbar-Nelson’s “position in America was always that of a colored/Negro/black person” (Color, Sex, & Poetry 52). Dunbar-Nelson had no reservations about this, and demonstrated it in her associations, her activities in numerous uplift organizations—and in her writing. I celebrate and lift her up for her courage, her independence and boldness, and I am excited for the opportunity to enter into her world.