The Practice of Creativity

Posts Tagged ‘African American women writers

I had an awesome cover reveal yesterday at Black Girl Nerds for “Reenu-You” my new sci-fi novella. Today Reenu-You is launched!

What if a visit to the salon could kill you? What if a hair product harbored a deadly virus? My novella is about viruses, the politics of beauty and unlikely female heroes. It’s got a thriller and apocalyptic feel.

Kat, an out of work ski instructor, just wants to pack up her dead mother’s things, leave New York City and return to Aspen. Constancia, a talented but troubled young woman, just wants to start her first semester of college. They both use a new hair product called “Reenu-You”. Within days, along with other women of color, they find themselves covered in purple scab-like legions— a rash that pulses, oozes, and spreads in spiral patterns. They are at the epicenter of a mysterious virus spreading throughout the city. Is it corporate malfeasance or an orchestrated plot to kill minority women? These unlikely heroines are forced to confront their deepest fears to save themselves and others.

 

Want to check this novella out? Of course you do! My publisher is hosting a giveaway on their site. Just go here and enter to win! While there check out a snippet of the essay that I wrote for their ‘Inspirations and Influences’ section. The full essay is included with the e-book!

Tip 6: Make a literary pilgrimage

I decided to use a recent visit by my godsons as motivation to make a literary pilgrimage to visit the town of Edenton, NC where Harriet Ann Jacobs lived and made her escape from slavery. Harriet Jacobs wrote Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Written by Herself originally published under the pseudonym Linda Brent in 1861. I read about her remarkable life in college and have been fascinated with her story ever since.

A literary pilgrimage can take many forms. It can mean a visit to a deceased writer’s home or estate, or a walk about their favorite town or city, exploring places that were important to them. It can be refreshing to take a break from your writing routine and connect with a writer that you admire by visiting places that shaped them.

Not all literary pilgrimages are arduous, but this one had elements of difficulty. My partner Tim and I were going to begin our trip with our godsons (visiting from Minnesota), by first going to Edenton and then ending up on Ocracoke Island. When I initially called the Historic Edenton Visitor Center to arrange a tour, I discovered that they would be closed on the first leg of our trip. And, I also discovered that only certain docents conducted the Harriet Jacobs tour and work on certain days. So we rearranged our trip so that we could get there later in the week, thus ending our sightseeing in Edenton before heading home.  A few days into the trip, I called a second time to arrange a tour.

During this call, the person explained that the main ‘Harriet Jacobs docent’ was out on vacation, but perhaps another person who occasionally did the tour could fill in. But, the person on the phone sounded skeptical that this other docent was going to be available.  She said that there were materials available for a self-guided tour.  I thought OK, we’ll just show up and do the self-guided tour. Not ideal, but doable.

The afternoon we arrived in Edenton, we were tired and it was already close to 90 degrees. This the last leg of our trip after watching wild ponies in Ocracoke, seeing the Lost Colony play in Roanoke, and feeling the exuberance of invention at the Wright Brothers’ exhibit in Kitty Hawk. It also looked as if it was going to rain which made me doubt everyone’s willingness to do a self-guided tour.

We were in luck, however, for when we arrived at the Visitor Center, we were met by an older woman named ‘Miss Carolyn’ (a native of Edenton), and she graciously walked with us and gave us a thorough 90 minute tour. Although not the primary docent on Harriet Jacob, she was a great resource and and enthusiastic guide.

The brief story about Harriet Jacobs goes as follows: Although they were enslaved, the Jacobs family had a great deal of relative freedom in the small town of Edenton. Her father was an accomplished carpenter, her grandmother, a well-known cook. After her mother’s death, Harriet went to live in the home of her owner Margaret Horniblow; Margaret taught her how to sew and read. It was assumed by Harriet and her family that Horniblow would emancipate her. Unfortunately, this was not the case and Harriet and her younger brother found themselves in the home of Mr. Norcom (there seems to be some historical evidence that Mr. Norcom somehow interfered with  Horniblow’s wishes and/or will). Mr. Norcum became obsessed with young Harriet and made many sexual advances on her. At the time it was common that enslaved women were often sexually brutalized by any white man that lived on the plantation (or off).

After dealing with this terrible situation for several years and trying other remedies (including beginning a liaison with Samuel Tredwell Sawyer, an unmarried, powerful white lawyer and future US Congressman), Harriet ran away and went into hiding. She first hid in the homes of friends, in nearby ‘Snaky Swamp’ and later in the home of her grandmother Molly. Harriet hid in her grandmother’s small attic above a storeroom for six years and eleven months. Norcom continued to search for her and briefly jailed her children (children from the liaison with Sawyer), her brother and an aunt hoping to flush her out. She successfully escaped in 1842 and made a life in New York. Norcom and other members of his family continued to search for her.

She was able to buy her children’s freedom and became prominent in the abolition movement. She completed Incidents in 1858. She had bad luck initially as two book publishers who acquired the book both went out of business before it came to print.

Harriet purchased the plates of her book and had it printed in 1861. This endeavor I imagine cost a small fortune. I had forgotten that self-publishing options were often a route for disenfranchised people to make their voices heard. She published it originally under a pseudonym as to protect the living members of her family still in slavery.

We were able to visit the church that Harriet and her family attended, the jail where her family members were imprisoned and the harbor where she escaped as part of the Underground Railroad.

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We also walked and looked at places where houses once stood that Harriet hid in.

The property of the Visitor Center has created a replica of Molly’s attic where Harriet hid. IMG_9976

She was able to sit up, but could not stand up. She had a small peep hole to look out of and the entire area was about 11 feet long, 4 feet wide and 3 feet high. Her grandmother would bring her food and occasionally she could come down, but the majority of the time was spent there. I can’t imagine the ways in which Harriet had to keep her mind occupied. Amazing.

My eldest godson Andrew, who is 14,  had read the book last year for class, so he knew many of of the details. It was so nice to share a piece of history with them.

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The power of the word is remarkable and and has often been used to fight injustice. I felt truly moved walking around Edenton and thinking about Harriet. If any of her family members’ graves had been marked, I would have left something on them as an offering, but unfortunately that was not the case. I have only scratched the surface in recounting the highlights of the life of Harriet Jacobs. For more, read Incidents in Life of a Slave Girl, and visit this site.

I’d love to hear if you’ve gone on a literary pilgrimage or are planning one.

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Audre Lorde (February 18, 1934- November 17,1992)

Today is Audre Lorde’s birthday! Audre Lorde was an essayist, poet and activist who referred to herself as a “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet,”.  Audre Lorde’s work has shaped and inspired two generations of writers, scholars, and activists. Lorde produced several volumes of poetry and created new directions in nonfiction with her untraditional memoir (Zami, A New Spelling of My Name), but she was not only a famous poet, she was also one of the most compelling black feminists of the past century. The topics she chose to write about broke open taboos on race, class, the role of ‘difference’ in the second wave women’s movement, breast cancer, sexuality, eroticism, marginality, and the necessity of theorizing about the interlocking nature of oppression. The body of her work has left a legacy for all those concerned with social justice.

I discovered her in college as a budding feminist thinker. I was deeply influenced by feminist literary theory and contemporary women authors. I found her work useful as she helped to redirect second wave feminist organizing to focus on the strength that is found in differences among women as opposed to believing in a mythical norm of the ‘universal woman’. At that time, I was finding my own voice at Bard College and involved in activism on campus (e.g. reproductive rights and fighting for ‘multicultural education’) and interested in feminist theorizing.

At the beginning of my senior year, I organized a group of friends to attend one of Audre Lorde’s final public appearances. Audre Lorde helped to a create conference called ‘Yo Soy Hermana/I Am Your Sister’. It was held in Boston. It called upon second wave (and budding third wave) feminists to come together to strategize, celebrate and develop new skills in feminist coalition building and action given the challenges young women and men faced globally (i.e. poverty, HIV/AIDS, repression of LGBT communities, sexual violence, etc.). My young female friends, all of us of diverse and multiracial backgrounds, found ourselves in a larger feminist and womanist community than we hadn’t dared imagine (or could imagine at Bard–a predominately white, private, liberal arts college). There were over 1000 activists in attendance from over 20 countries. The two days were packed with workshops, keynotes, plenaries, readings, and impromptu gatherings. During the conference, I felt that symbolically a baton was being passed from Lorde and other feminist elders to us in the audience. We were inheritors of the many benefits that Lorde and others had struggled for, yet, we still faced a world that was still fraught with inequality. What would we do with our knowledge and burgeoning power?

Her work inspired me to go on to graduate school. I felt a deep urgency to bring new voices and new ways of knowing into the academy, especially those from historically marginalized communities. I was eager to continue studying how feminist theory challenged typical assumptions about everyday social patterns that seemed ‘natural’. Everyone at Bard did the equivalent of an honors thesis, called the ‘Senior Project’. The tools and theory-building skills I acquired in my classes prepared me to write a senior project on the evolution of rape law reform of the 1970s and 1980s.  In my graduate school applications, I quoted Lorde, “In our world, divide and conquer must become define and empower.”

Those words resonated deeply with me because I felt that coalition building and self-definition were the building blocks of feminist theory and could be applied to both research and activism. It’s a quote that still remains a guiding star in my life.

It’s only been in the last few years that I have come to appreciate the other gift that Lorde offered which is that she claimed everything about her—emotions, intellect, all forms of creative writing, activism and theory. She fought to live her life holistically and self-defined. As I have, over the past several years, been intentional about making more space for a scholarly *and* creative life, I find her example life affirming.

I hope you put Audre Lorde on your reading list this year either as a new reader or as someone rediscovering her work.

Recommended Reading:

Poetry: The Black Unicorn (1978)

Memoir: Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (1982)

Essays: Sister Outsider  (1984)

Scholarship: I am Your Sister: Collected and Unpublished Writings of Audre Lorde (2009)

Photo Credit:http://www.nedrajohnson.com/audre.htm

This post originally appeared on She Writes


Michele Tracy Berger

Michele Tracy Berger

Author, Academic, Creativity Expert I'm an award winning writer.

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