Poetry: longing

longing

“i scuff at sidewalk bottle caps,

mouthing your name as i pass shriveled milkweed stalks and snuffed-out cigarettes.
once, the clock hands pointed north. they mock me now with each degree elapsed,
each angle pointing to a slew of compass-rose regrets.

mouthing your name as i pass shriveled milkweed stalks and snuffed-out cigarettes,
i hear the second hand’s advance tally my silences like rosary beads,
each angle pointing to a slew of compass-rose regrets.
if only i could pull your name from this unmerciful stampede!

i hear the second hand’s advance tally my silences like rosary beads.
every dull tock measures out those quinine conversations, sly unripened smiles, and yet i know
if only i could pull your name from this unmerciful stampede,
the cobwebs binding me to mute labyrinths of time might let me go.

every dull tock measures out those quinine conversations, sly unripened smiles, and yet i know
your redwood hands could  be the ones to rescue me, and then
the cobwebs binding me to mute labyrinths of time might let me go…
oh, how can i speak when these dark flocks of raven-fears still cluster in my mind like minutemen?

your redwood hands could be the ones to rescue me, and then –

once, the clock hands pointed north. they mock me now with each degree elapsed.
oh, how can i speak when these dark flocks of raven-fears still cluster in my mind like minutemen?
i scuff at sidewalk bottle caps.”

This beautiful piece was written by am immensely talented young girl who goes by the name chasingcloudbursts on deviantart.com. Even though it’s not, strictly speaking, a perfect pantoum she is able to create, in poetic form, the feeling of longing. Each metaphor has a powerful effect, each line pushing the momentum of the piece. The result is something memorable, haunting, and very effective.

This is not the only gem of this author’s gallery. Links to full pieces are in the title.

Silence

Silence pressed down, heavy on her shoulders, like a thick blanket of snow smothering her with its chilly purity. She sat and closed her eyes, trying to fill the gaping hollow within her chest, searching for the memory of the living, burning chords that had once sealed it.

Trying her hand at prose, chasingcloudbursts delivers a story that is all at once beautiful in it’s descriptions and totally heartbreaking.

a plea for self-acceptance

my dear,
the swirls and coils of pen
along the margins
of your history notes
reflect
the constellations swimming
in your eyes.

The simple and consist descriptions create a subtle and memorable effect.

those quicksand eyes

i flew like icarus
on daisy featherwings
heedless of the serpent coils
of your gravity

Again, beautiful and simple imagery.

chasingcloudbursts is very good as simple, able to produce short pieces and long pieces with the same sort of effortless imagery and metaphor. Her words fall together like they are in just right right place. Find her full gallery here.

If you’d like me to feature your writing, send me a message here.

Advertisements

Divergent by Veronica Roth

Divergent_logo2

 

 

 

Plot Summary:

In Beatrice Prior’s dystopian Chicago world, society is divided into five factions, each dedicated to the cultivation of a particular virtue–Candor (the honest), Abnegation (the selfless), Dauntless (the brave), Amity (the peaceful), and Erudite (the intelligent). On an appointed day of every year, all sixteen-year-olds must select the faction to which they will devote the rest of their lives. For Beatrice, the decision is between staying with her family and being who she really is–she can’t have both. So she makes a choice that surprises everyone, including herself.

During the highly competitive initiation that follows, Beatrice renames herself Tris and struggles alongside her fellow initiates to live out the choice they have made. Together they must undergo extreme physical tests of endurance and intense psychological simulations, some with devastating consequences. As initiation transforms them all, Tris must determine who her friends really are–and where, exactly, a romance with a sometimes fascinating, sometimes exasperating boy fits into the life she’s chosen. But Tris also has a secret, one she’s kept hidden from everyone because she’s been warned it can mean death. And as she discovers unrest and growing conflict that threaten to unravel her seemingly perfect society, Tris also learns that her secret might help her save the ones she loves . . . or it might destroy her.

I’m just going to come right out and say it: I really did not like this book. This is a truly interesting world presented with a clear voice within the writing – the writing was good enough that I could not put the book down (even though I really, really wanted to). But it is almost completely devoid of compelling characters. Four is amazing, Tris’ parents were both very interesting, but Tris herself was a whiny neutral mask sort of character who only ever succeeded in pissing me off. On top of that, there was not much depth presented within the factions of the world. The following review will contain slight spoilers for the entire series (but I keep away from major events).

“Becoming fearless isn’t the point. That’s impossible. It’s learning how to control your fear, and how to be free from it.”  

See? Good writing!

Tris has a tendency to whine about how difficult her situation is in this book. She acts as if she’s surprised that succeeding in Dauntless is difficult and the characters around her are painted with disdain when they try to tell her she’s be unreasonable. While I understand that this is a natural thing that many people go through, it’s not something that I can entirely stomach reading. It kind of cemented this as a YA novel, giving us a protagonist that was such a stereotype of a teenager that it forgot to remind us that not all teens are dumb. I don’t want this to seem scathing, but Tris, as a character, was weak. She was presented as this strong woman, and there were very real times where she could not be strong, and that was nice. There were very real times where she had to be selfish, where she had the right to be a little annoying. And there were times when she was being ridiculous and no one was willing to call her on it. It very well could just be me and my perception of her, but most of the time Tris made me want to throw my book across the room. And Four, arguably the strongest and most compelling character in this book, was not strong enough to redeem the entire book. As, for me, a book is only as strong as its characters.

On top of that, the book is filled with unnecessary deaths. Not unnecessary in the frame of war, unnecessary in a literary and practical sense. As in, someone gets shot in the face where they could have easily been shot in the knee and knocked out. And then the author framing said senseless murder as justified and in self defense, even though there was no reason for that person to be shot in the face. And Then, Tris’ reaction to these deaths vary to the point where she goes between 100% understandable to 100% robot in the space of only a couple of chapters. Which can also be understandable, but it doesn’t make sense in the way that the story and the character were framed.

 

I did consider reading the rest of the series, but I was so upset by Tris that I wasn’t sure. So I read ahead, talked to many who had read the books, and decided that I did not need to see more of this world. Why? Because the villains of this world come in one shade, and that seemed to be Erudite. There is not a single Erudite character within this series that is not a completely asshole. And, so you don’t have to check back up there if you don’t already know, Erudite is made up of the intelligent. It is the faction that was created under the belief that ignorance is the root of all evil. As a Ravenclaw, I do take her treatment of this faction a bit personally. They were all robots, which I understand. But they were also all selfish and generally framed as the bad guys. Not one of them stepped forward to say what their faction was doing was wrong. And, if that happened, there isn’t a single die-hard fan I’ve talked to who can remember it. In this world, Erudite is treated like Slytherin. And I have a problem with both. Roth’s treatment of Erudite completely undermines the main idea of the series – that people can’t be categorized like that. Her argument seems to be that people can’t be categorized like that unless they are logical thinkers – those guys are the worst. I can’t get behind that.

Overall, I did not like this book. It was definitely an interesting read, and I do (sort of) understand how so many people can love it. If any of the points discussed above bother you, you probably won’t like it. However, if you’re a fan of The Hunger Games or Twilight, you might really enjoy this.

As a final thought, I don’t want it to seem like I think people are wrong for enjoy this book or the other books listed above. To each his own. I’m only saying that I didn’t get much from it, and ‘I’ has never been synonymous with ‘everyone’.

Good day.

Q & A: I have a story in mind. How do I write a good novel out of it?

Q & A: The new series in which I answer questions from around the interwebs (mostly Quora) of or relating to read and writing.

The Question
I have a story in mind. How do I write a good novel out of it?

The Answer

Writing a ‘good’ novel can take years of effort. Writing a novel is one hell of a process. Having written one myself, I feel like I can give some advice in that regard.

The write a good novel, the first objective you must have is to complete a first draft. As many writers might confirm, this is actually the most difficult part of the process. I struggled with it for about three years, giving up completely once or twice. So here are some things you could do to make it easier on you:

  1. Figure out your process
    Some people (and I am not one of those people) can just sit down and write with a vague idea of where they want to go in their mind and the story just evolves and plot points arise as they write it. Other people (like me) need to map out the story down to every last detail before they can even dream of starting the story. Story mapping ‘just to be safe’ may not help either – as it could cause people to feel constrained within their outline. So it is very important to figure out: do you need to plan or don’t you?
  2. Give yourself a break
    Many will tell you that you need to write every day and you need to create your own inspiration and all that. While it is important to discipline yourself, if you force yourself to write a story you will eventually start to resent it. It will become and chore and then you’ll never genuinely want to do it. If you miss a day of writing, it’s fine. And if you need a break from your story, take a break.
  3. Never forget: The first draft is SUPPOSED to suck
    The first draft of a book is like the first draft of most anything. It’s messy, the plot development and character development are all over the place, and the writing – it’s a stone’s throw away from garbage. <b>Don’t you edit a thing</b> until you finish that first draft. There is a lot that is going on while you write that draft, and you can make changes, you can move things around. Let the story evolve. But don’t really start editing until you get through that important draft: the shitty first draft.

So when you have something that may someday be a book, and you want to make it good, there are a few things you’re going to want to focus on. For me, the most important thing is the characters.

I can forgive shortcomings in a plot if I love or connect with the characters in some way. Alternation, if there isn’t a single character I can connect with then I quickly lose interesting. You want to write a story full of complex, compelling characters. They don’t just need to seem like real people, they need to be real people. To the creator, at least. There are many things you want to avoid when writing character, like too much power or the everyone-loves-me-even-though-I’m-aggressively-average syndrome or the my-life-is-hard-so-I-get-to-be-an-asshole fallacy (See: Mary Sue and Gary Stu). But there are also many things that you need to pay attention to. The question you have to ask yourself is: Why should people care about my character? And it’s your job to answer that question.

The process of creating a character can quickly become very similar to getting to know a person. Once in creation, you need to give your characters room to breath. If you smother them too much, you could interfere with the natural flow of the story and suddenly Neville and Luna don’t end up together. It’s a tricky balance, that is. There are a lot of really great character questionnaires out there to help you get to know these people, but my favorite right now is The Ultimate Character Builder. The questions are simple, but they go deep. You can really get a lot out of something like that.

After the characters comes the plot. You want your story to be interesting, you want it to seem new whether it’s a new take on an old idea or something you haven’t seen before. The most important part of a story is that you, as the author, loves that story. It is your story to tell, and if you don’t love it then it will be evident in your writing. On top of that, you probably won’t be able to finish a draft in the first place. If you can’t love your story, you can’t expect anyone else to love it either and it 90% isn’t worth pursuing.

There is a lot to be said about the plot of a story. But if you want to make it ‘good’, if you want to make it something that people will praise, then you want to do something different. It doesn’t need to be totally new (very few things are, these days) but you will want it to feel fresh. Don’t become obsessed with this ideal. if you do, it will probably come out lacking. What you want to do is let your own quirks fly out onto the page. You have a very distinct experience in the world in that no one else has ever been you. I’m not saying it’s okay to rip off the plot of Star Wars because no one’s seen it quite like you have – I’m saying that if you have and idea, and you love it and you nurture it, that fresh feeling will usually just come right along with it.

As a final thought, when crafting your story and your characters there are a few questions you’re going to want to ask yourself:

  1. Why is that particular character the protagonist?
  2. What is the catalyst of the story? What got these characters started on this path? What changed everything?
  3. What is the climax of the story? What is your story leading up to?
  4. What id your protagonist’s goal? What are they trying to accomplish?
  5. What is stopping him/her/etc.?
  6. How does he/she/orwhathaveyou change over the course of the story?
  7. What are you trying to say? Why are you writing this story?

If you can answer those questions, you can get a whole lot closer to making something good. Now, this sin’t a magic formula, i haven’t imparted on you some great wisdom. It’s your story, it’s up to you to tell it. You need to trust yourself, you need to trust someone else and ask them to be honest with you, you need to take criticism, but you need to be confident in your work. Don’t be afraid to finish it.

stop letting fear hurt your progress. there are other things in life that deserve fear. this is not one of them. we’re making art, here. it’s supposed to be fun. -raspil

Write well, my friends.

Wild Seed by Octavia Butler

51ZwSFC2vpL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Plot Summary:

Doro is an entity who changes bodies like clothes, killing his hosts by reflex or design. He fears no one until he meets Anyanwu. Anyanwu is a shapeshifter who can absorb bullets and heal with a kiss and savage anyone who threatens her. She fears no one until she meets Doro. Together they weave a pattern of destiny unimaginable to mortals.

Genre: Science Fiction, Speculative fiction

Publication date: 1980

This is a truly unique book. Unlike the majority of the science fiction genre, Wild Seed deals with the biological. On top of that, it takes place in the past; between about 1740 and 1840. While the majority of the story takes place in America, the opening of the story takes place in Africa – the homeland of both Doro and Anyanwu. It deals with themes of control, gender roles and connects heavily to the ideas of Natural Selection and Evolution.

“When her enemies came to kill her, she knew more about surviving than they did about killing.”

When I first read the plot summary of this book, I was intrigued. I have always been a fan of speculative fiction and biological science fiction (Children of Men is one of my favorite movies), and this is extremely reflective in my own writing. I haven’t been able to much much biological science fiction out there (Peeps or Parasite Positive by Scott Westerfeld is a good one), but this one is definitely a gem. The writing style is simplistic; Butler is not attempting to bury her themes under piles of words. Rather, the events and the dialogue within the story are chosen carefully to get across her point. The result is a beautifully crafted story about many, many things.

The characters also have a wonderful interplay with each other and in the eyes of the readers. Doro, the oldest of the characters (he is more than four thousand years old) is too old and too powerful to be considered human anymore. He is generally viewed as the ‘bad guy’, but I look at him as more of a representation of control. He is certainly not a good person, but he is also a very complex kind of of character. The catalyst of the story is when Doro find Anyanmu. At more than 300 years old, she has had many children and many husbands and has had to watch all of them die. She has very high morals. Often viewed as the hero of the story, I view Anyanwu as a representation of nature, Doro being the force trying to control her. Coming between these two characters is Doro’s mortal son, Isaac. A good man, he loves both Doro and Anyanwu. And though they are both many times older than he, he serves as the humanizing center and the voice of reason between the two. He is the force that balances them. Together, they can be viewed to make many statements about control and colonial life.

As a whole, the book was wonderful. If you like biology or Toni Morrison (or both), you will probably really enjoy this book.

How to Beat Writer’s Block

 

 “Try not. Do or do not. There is no try.” – Grandmaster Yoda, The Empire Strikes Back

This is the advice I’ve been given time and time again, and if it seems like a load of barnacles, it’s because you just aren’t dao enough, man.

No, but I’m sure you know the feeling. It’s the middle of the day, you’ve sat down to write – you’re trying to beat this thing without inspiration, you’re going to break down those walls and…and…nothing. You stare at the keyboard. You type a word. You misspell that word. Backspace. You misspell it again. Spell check cannot identify the word. You’ve failed as a writer.

Saying that anyone can beat writer’s block by writing is like saying anyone can beat obesity by dieting. Really, some people can do it. But, we’ve been told time and time again, even body is different. My weight is not the same as your weight. So it should come to no shock to you that my mind is not the same as your mind. When I can’t write, I can’t. There are no words in my mind to even get onto the page – and to beat wordlessness by producing words is a ridiculous paradox that is extremely frustrating to attempt. So what do you do?

Read. This solution is one of many, of course. Pick up a book, go through some poetry, binge on wordpress, deviantART, fanfiction – bring words to your mind. Because within each of these stories there is an exchange between author and reader, a secret sort of conversation where two people can share ideas without having to ever talk to each other. When you become invested in something, it becomes easier to throw that investment into your own writing.

Watch. TV, movies, YouTube. Watch slam poetry because the poets read those words in a way you could never read them. What YouTubers talk about thinks that you love. Watch a TV show that makes you invested in the plot as it unfolds episode by episode by episode by episode. Watch poetry unfold on the screen of a film. Or dick and fart jokes. Whatever tickles your fancy. Watch these words, hear them spoken, and let it resonate within you. Then throw it all at your computer keyboard.

Listen. Your favorite band, a string quartet, Justin Beiber, whatever makes you happy. Whatever you love. Feel the words. And, like previously stated in my over-stated hippie rant, write it down, man.

When it all comes down to it, everything that has already been created has a struggle behind it. The struggle of the artist, the struggle of writer’s  block, what have you. And everything created is a conversation between the creator and the viewer, the performer and the spectator. When you feel the words, the space between words, the things that words cannot say, perhaps, you’ll find your own.

Veteran writers scoff at the idea of inspiration. Don’t wait for inspiration, they say. And they’re right. Make your own inspiration. Because it’s there, it’s always there. And, even if someday you forget it like they have, you have to learn how to find it. It isn’t just there. Not for most of us.

So, when faced without the unimaginably empty weight of being unable to write, become close with something you love. And if that doesn’t work, get a pen and a stack of papers. Write a sentence on the first paper and burn it for existing. Keep going until you’ve burned enough pages to fill a book. Realize you’ve burned a book. Write about that.

Good day.

Black History in Literature, Part 2: Novels

“Discrimination is the hellhound that gnaws at Negroes in every waking moment of their lives to remind the that the lie of their inferiority is accepted as truth in the society dominating them.” – Martin Luther King Jr.

There are many ways to stand up against discrimination, and one of those ways, I believe, is to write about it. During these times, some may have felt that writing about it was the only thing they could do. In many cases, it was. To write about anything is to put something to question, no matter the topic. Within every book there is a question. Within every poem, play, essay, short story, or what have you, there is a question. There is very rarely an answer. By briefly examining these important and influential novels, I hope to identify these questions. In doing so, I can gain as well as give a new perspective on the experience of a black person in the US. I know I’m going to miss some really important ones (mostly because I haven’t read them yet), so don’t forget to leave some of your favorite African American based books in the comments below.

Immediate disclaimer: I haven’t read The Color Purple or 12 Years a Slave yet.

Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis

It’s 1936, in Flint, Michigan, and when 10-year-old Bud decides to hit the road to find his father, nothing can stop him.

It’s 1936, in Flint, Michigan, and when 10-year-old Bud decides to hit the road to find his father, nothing can stop him.

“A bud is a flower-to-be. A flower in waiting. Waiting for just the right warmth and care to open up. It’s a little fist of love waiting to unfold and be seen by the world. And that’s you.”

This was one of the first books I ever loved. I first read it in fourth grade as teachers and parents urged me to branch away from Junie B. Jones and Captain Underpants (I had a high reading level, and they insisted I use it). So this is the book that I picked. I think this is important, first and foremost, because it is a children’s novel. It doesn’t have the intensity or complexity of something by, say, Toni Morrison. It’s digestible to young readers, and with this honest portrayal of a young black boy during the great depression, I find that important. In my mind, the book has always been representative of the eternal question: when things get so hard, why keep going? Because, the book answers, ‘when god closes one door, he opens another.’

“Just like when there’s a time that a smart person knows enough is enough, there’s a time when you know you’ve got to fight.”

Push by Sapphire

Precious Jones, a illiterate sixteen-year-old, has up until now been invisible: invisible to the father who rapes her and the mother who batters her and to the authorities who dismiss her as just one more of Harlem's casualties. But when Precious, pregnant with a second child by her father, meets a determined and highly radical teacher, we follow her on a journey of education and enlightenment as Precious learns not only how to write about her life, but how to make it her own for the first time.

Precious Jones, a illiterate sixteen-year-old, has up until now been invisible: invisible to the father who rapes her and the mother who batters her and to the authorities who dismiss her as just one more of Harlem’s casualties. But when Precious, pregnant with a second child by her father, meets a determined and highly radical teacher, we follow her on a journey of education and enlightenment as Precious learns not only how to write about her life, but how to make it her own for the first time.

“Every blade of grass has its Angel that bends over it and whispers: ‘Grow, Grow’.”

This novel gives insight as to what it’s like to live poor and forgotten, live knowing that system thinks you don’t matter and most consider you to be a lost cause. In this story, Precious is a “black object in a world of hopelessness and despair”. While the details of her story are not remotely universal, the core of her story is something that too many people share, including a disproportionate amount of black people. Precious, for the majority of the story, is simply surviving. Is there more to life? Is there a way we can break out of this, find something better? The answer: if we all hope together, maybe.

“I say I drownin’ in river. She don’t look me like I’m crazy but say, If you just sit there the river gonna rise up drown you! Writing could be the boat carry you to the other side.”

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

The Bluest Eye tells the story of black, eleven-year-old Pecola Breedlove. Pecola prays for her eyes to turn blue so that she will be as beautiful and beloved as all the blond, blue-eyed children in America. It is a vivid evocation of the fear and loneliness at the heart of a child's yearning, and the tragedy of its fulfillment.

The Bluest Eye tells the story of black, eleven-year-old Pecola Breedlove. Pecola prays for her eyes to turn blue so that she will be as beautiful and beloved as all the blond, blue-eyed children in America. It is a vivid evocation of the fear and loneliness at the heart of a child’s yearning, and the tragedy of its fulfillment.

“Along with the idea of romantic love, she was introduced to another–physical beauty. Probably the most destructive ideas in the history of human thought. Both originated in envy, thrived in insecurity, and ended in disillusion.”

Why should we love something when it is not beautiful? This book. Just…this book. Something that is hugely important that people often miss – this is not negatively looking at blue eyes and blonde hair. It’s honestly critiquing society. Pecola’s love and need for blue eyes was representative of a life she would have preferred. The white, middle class life. She loved the idea, and love can be so dangerous. Love perpetuates beauty, and to many black girls beauty, in their minds, is impossible. Because they can never be white. This is important and continues to be important because this is still a problem in society today. When asked who the prettiest, smartest, nicest child is in a line up of identical cartoon children (save for their color), children chose the light skin. Whiteness is what we continue to behold as beautiful – the white face, the white figure. It’s not nearly as bad as it was in the past, but we still have a ways to go. This book is a beautiful take on the identity of a young black girl who doesn’t think she’s beautiful.

“Love is never any better than the lover. Wicked people love wickedly, violent people love violently, weak people love weakly, stupid people love stupidly, but the love of a free man is never safe. There is no gift for the beloved. The lover alone possesses his gift of love. The loved one is shorn, neutralized, frozen in the glare of the lover’s inward eye.”

To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee

50-anniversary-cover

Tomboy Scout Finch comes of age in a small Alabama town during a crisis in 1935. She admires her father Atticus, how he deals with issues of racism, injustice, intolerance and bigotry, his courage and his love.

“If there’s just one kind of folks, why can’t they get along with each other? If they’re all alike, why do they go out of their way to despise each other?”

This book talks a lot about innocence, morality, and sympathy. In includes a lot about the struggles of a black man and community through the eyes of a young girl as she tries to figure out how people divide themselves. It is difficult to comprehend how a person could hate another person without first knowing that person, passing judgement with a glance. Reading a white child trying to make sense of it adds some kind of sense to the whole thing. What these people are doing, it’s not looking. They can’t tell the difference between a mockingbird and a blue jay, although they’re sure that one is bad and the other’s good. A blue jay can’t see through the mockingbirds eyes – it’ll go on sure it’s a mockingbird. There is a real struggle to be able to sympathize with other human beings, to discover that these people are, in fact, human beings. We are all different, but we are all the same. We are unequal, but equal. We are all human. When we have enough sympathy to realize the humanity of the people around us, we can see our own.

“When they finally saw him, why he hadn’t done any of those things . . . Atticus, he was real nice. . . .” His hands were under my chin, pulling up the cover, tucking it around me. “Most people are, Scout, when you finally see them.”

Beloved by Toni Morrison 

Sethe was born a slave and escaped to Ohio, but eighteen years later she is still not free. She has too many memories of Sweet Home, the beautiful farm where so many hideous things happened. Her new home is haunted by the ghost of her baby, who died nameless and whose tombstone is engraved with a single word: Beloved.

Sethe was born a slave and escaped to Ohio, but eighteen years later she is still not free. She has too many memories of Sweet Home, the beautiful farm where so many hideous things happened. Her new home is haunted by the ghost of her baby, who died nameless and whose tombstone is engraved with a single word: Beloved.

“Beloved looked at the tooth and thought, This is it. Next would be her arm, her hand, a toe. Pieces of her would drop maybe one at a time, maybe all at once. Or on one of those mornings before Denver woke and after Sethe left she would fly apart.”

This book is not about slavery. It’s about people, and what happens next. What are you, when one day you become more than another man’s property? At what point do you become free? Beloved is a character who belongs complete to other people. Her life depends on the love and attention of Sethe and Denver. And she is empty and falling apart. To Sethe, at least, she would rather her children be dead completely than dead on the inside – “if I hadn’t killed her she would have died and that is something I could not bear happen to her.” To Beloved, she cannot distinguish death from the white man – the skinless man with a whip is after her. This is the embodiment of both death and slavery. Slavery took the personhood and the identities of an entire peoples, sapping them and leaving them to discover something different when it was through with them. People keep doing this to themselves and to each other, and this is a kind of slavery that we cannot allow ourselves to be subjected to. We have to remember slavery and the wrongness of the past hundred years for the same reason we must forget. Who are we, without it?

“But suddenly she saw her hands and thought with a clarity as simple as it was dazzling, ‘These hands belong to me. These my hands.’ Next she felt a knocking in her chest and discovered something else new: her own heartbeat. Had it been there all along? This pounding thing? She felt like a fool and began to laugh out loud.”

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurtson

their_eyes_were_watching_god3

One of the most important works of twentieth-century American literature, Zora Neale Hurston’s beloved 1937 classic, Their Eyes Were Watching God, is an enduring Southern love story sparkling with wit, beauty, and heartfelt wisdom. Told in the captivating voice of a woman who refuses to live in sorrow, bitterness, fear, or foolish romantic dreams, it is the story of fair-skinned, fiercely independent Janie Crawford, and her evolving selfhood through three marriages and a life marked by poverty, trials, and purpose. A true literary wonder, Hurston’s masterwork remains as relevant and affecting today as when it was first published—perhaps the most widely read and highly regarded novel in the entire canon of African American literature.

Sexuality, power, independence. This was one of the first major books by a black woman about a black woman and one of the many gemstones of the Harlem Renaissance. I could never do it any justice, so I’ll live you with it, and let it speak for itself. Let me know what you think about it in the comments, and have a very nice day.

“It is so easy to be hopeful in the daytime when you can see the things you wish on. But it was night, it stayed night. Night was striding across nothingness with the whole round world in his hands . . . They sat in company with the others in other shanties, their eyes straining against cruel walls and their souls asking if He meant to measure their puny might against His. They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God.”

Part 1 – Part 2

Black History in Literature, Part 1: Poetry

“I don’t recognize any white culture. I recognize no American Culture which is not the partial creation of black people. I recognize in American style in literature, in dance, in music, even in assembly-line processes, which does not bear the mark of the American Negro” – Ralph Ellison

It’s black history month here in the states. You know, that month we have dedicated to talk about a piece of the history of our nation separately from the rest of our history. God forbid we talk about black people in May or October. Even our history is segregated. If you didn’t gather, I am not a fan of black history month. What happens in most schools I’ve been to is this: we talk about Martin Luther King Jr., Jackie Robinson, and Rosa Parks. We talk about the history of black people in the states in the frame of a couple people who fought for our rights and gave us so much – but we ignore everyone else. Malcolm X is a side-bar paragraph (if I could call it a paragraph) in the textbooks and we don’t even look outside of our country. We are led to believe that slavery was American, and that it’s horrors were mild. We are led to believe that King almost single-handedly gave us rights. That the civil rights movement ended in the the late sixties and everything was just fine after that. We never get the full story. We get the manufactured vanilla take on the history of a peoples. So what I say is this: if you feel the need to dedicate a month just to ‘black history’ (which as actually also American History, World History even) then don’t insult us further. Tell us the truth. Because without it no one will know how far this country has come or how far we still have to go.

What it comes down to is this: the experience of a black man in this country was and still is (to some degree) vastly difference than the experience of an Italian man, an Irish man, a Chinese man, and Mexican man and so on. The true experience of a black American is unique, just like the experience of all Americans throughout history. If we want to talk about black history, we cannot do so without considering the experience of blacks. And there are few better ways to do this than to examine literature. This is the start of my series examining ‘black literature’ to give a better idea of the experience of the black American. We’re going to begin with poetry.

Hope is a huge part of African American literature, hugely prevalent in spirituals and speeches of leaders throughout the years it was the force that kept us going in times of hate and inequality. This hope, beautiful and powerful, always reveals a sort of deeper pain, expressed heavily in more modern works. Both of these connect to the journey referenced heavily throughout all things connected to black culture. Finally, the point that everyone seems to miss when discussing black history, is the issue of identity. What does it mean to be black in America? What does it mean to be black in the world?

I, Too by Langston Hughes (1902-1967)

I, too, sing America.

I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the Kitchen
When Company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.

Tomorrow,
I’ll be at the table
When company comes.
Nobody’ll dare
Say to me,
“Eat in the kitchen,”
Then

Besides,
They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed –

I, too, am America.

This poem is about hope. Hope, freedom, and equality. We get that sense from the very opening line, as the narrator says he’ sings America’. In the African American community, ever since slavery singing has always been connected more than anything else to hope. Their songs were always about looking forward, going home, and finding peace. He has hope for America. He will not let the oppression bring him down. Because tomorrow, in the future, he will be their equal. And they will look back on these times and be ashamed that they treated the blacks so poorly for such a ridiculous reason. Blacks are as much a part of this country as every one else, they had a hand in building it, protecting it, and loving it. It was this attitude, these sorts of writings, that appeared in the center of the civil rights moment.

Lift Every Voice and Sing by James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938)

Lift every voice and sing
Till earth and heaven ring
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise,
High as the list’ning skies, let it resound loud as the rolling sea
Sing a song full of faith that the dark past has tought us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.

Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chast’ning rod,
Felt in the day that hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat,
Have not our weary feet,
Come to the place on witch our fathers sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past, till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our star is cast.

God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who has brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who has by thy might,
Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met thee,
Least our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget thee,
Shadowed beneath the hand,
May we forever stand,
True to our God,
True to our native land.

This song is highly regarded as the Negro National Hymn, filled with messages of hope and references to this journey that the black people have taken so far and the journey that lies ahead. This came post slavery to rejoice in the abolishing of slavery. When you get down to it, this is a powerful piece. Simply reading it is explanation enough. What is perhaps most powerful is the final line. ‘True to our native land.’ Native land, meaning the USA. Written in 1900, this came during a time where blacks had few rights afforded to much of the rest of the country. The wound of slavery was fresh, and people were still living in fear. But they rejoiced, and they were still somehow proud to be American. And they were marching on, walking to the victory of the future.

The Negro Speaks of Rivers by Langston Hughes (1902-1967)

I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood
in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New
Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

This poem speaks to the journey of the black people. Each line of the body stanza references a great river. The Euphrates river is the longest and most important river of Western Asia. In the Bible, it was one of the four rivers that split off from the main river flowing out of the Garden of Eden. The Congo river is the deepest river in the world. The Nile, of course, is the longest river in the world and it flows north. The Mississippi river flows from one end of the US to the other, and the Union army gaining control of this river was a big part of their victory in the civil war. His soul is the shared experiences of the black people and the ancestors of the black people. His people have seen so much and like the river, he knows that while it may flow slowly it will eventually end up all in one place with other rivers. His people are connected to each other and to the other people of America and of the world. These connections and these shared experiences give him insight and hope. He knows where he’s been, and he he has hope about where his people will end up.

jasper texas 1998 by Lucille Clifton (1936-2010)

for j. byrd

i am a man’ head hunched in the road.
i was chosen to speak by the members
of my body. the arm as it pulled away
pointed toward me, the hand opened once
and was gone.

why and why and why
should i call a white man brother?
who is the human in this place,
the thing that is dragged or the dragger?
What does my daughter say?

the sun is a blister overhead.
if i were alive i could not bear it.
the townsfolk sing we shall overcome
while hope bleeds slowly from my mouth
into the dirt that covers us all.
i am done with this dust.    i am done.

This poem is utterly without hope. It has given up. Because in 1998, in Jasper, Texas, James Byrd Jr., a black man, was dragged behind a pick up truck to his death. The people are still singing of hope and brotherhood and through the image of this man’s head, Clifton asks why. Why should I call a white man by brother? Why do these sorts of things still happen. This is the pain of a writer, of a man dragged behind a pick-up truck, of a black community pushed back into hopeless fear. If I were alive I could not bear it – it has all become too much. The final line is giving up as surely as it is standing up. He’s done with life, he has given up. But the writer is done with the dust, the evil and senseless acts. She sees these terrible things and she’s doing what she can do – she’s writing about it. she’s making people see it and question it. This is Clifton speaking out with pain to bring the world to a higher standard.

Passing by Tori Derricotte (b. 1941)

A professor invites me to his “Black Lit” class; they’re
reading Larson’s Passing. One of the black
students says, “Sometimes light-skinned blacks
think they can fool other blacks,
but I can always tell,” looking
right through me.
After I tell them I am black,
I ask the class, “Was I passing
when I was just sitting here,
before I told you?” A white woman
shakes her head desperately, as if
I had deliberately deceived her.
She keeps examining my face,
then turning away
as if she hopes I’ll disappear. Why presume
“passing” is based on what I leave out
and now what she fills in?
In one scene in the book, in a restaurant,
she’s “passing,”
though no one checked her at the door –
“Hey, you black?”
My father, who looked white,
told me this story: every year
when he’d go to get his driver’s license,
the man at the window filling
out the form would ask,
“White or black?” pencil poised, without looking up.
My father wouldn’t pass, but he might
use silence to trap a devil.
When he didn’t speak, the man
would look up at my father’s face.
“What sis he write?”
my father quizzed me.

Larson’s Passing is about two women who are childhood friends. One of them starts to “pass” for white, and marries a racist, who eventually discovers and kills her. This brings about the idea that denying one’s race may only accomplish killing you in some way, whether it be literally or figuratively. My favorite line in this poem comes in the middle ‘Why presume “passing” is based on what I leave out and not what she fills in?” Race is more than skin deep. It’s a complex identity built through shared culture and ancestry. Someone with light skin might be black as surely as someone with dark skin might not. Any white person (say, one of purely European descent) can say they are black as surely as an Italian cannot one day decide to be Dutch. They can identify with and respect, even adopt the culture, but the blood that beats through their veins will always be a part of who they are.

Rwanda: Where Tears Have No Power by Haki Madhubuti (b. 1942)

Who has the moral high ground?

Fifteen blocks from the whitehouse
on small corners in northwest, d.c.
boys disguised as me rip each other’s hearts out
with weapons made in china. they fight for territory.

across the planet in a land where civilization was born
the boys of d.c. know nothing about their distant relatives
in Rwanda. they have never heard of the hutu or tutsi people.
their eyes draw blanks at the mention of kigali, byumba
or butare. all they know are the streets of d.c., and do not
cry at funerals anymore. numbers and frequency have a way
of making murder commonplace and not news
unless it spreads outside of our house, block, territory.

modern massacres are intraethnic. bosnia, sri lanka, burundi,
nagorno-karabakh, iraq, laos, angola, liberia, and rwanda are
small foreign names on a map made in europe. when bodies
by the tens of thousands float down a river turning the water
the color of blood, as a quarter of a million people flee barefoot
into tanzania and zaire, somehow we notice. we do not smile,
we have no more tears. we hold our thoughts. In deeply
muted silence looking south and thinking that today
nelson mandela seems much larger
than he is.

I’d like to leave you with this piece. I have been considering it for some time now, mostly identifying with the idea of being black, not African. I’m sure there is much more to this poem, and I would like to know what you think of it. Or any of the poems, for that matter. Leave your thoughts in the comments below, and have a nice day.