Zora Neale Hurston was not a fan of the Fisk Jubilee Singers style of singing.
Last week, I was reminded of the strong opinion Zora Neale Hurston had in her perspective of how spirituals should be sung. For her, things started to go wrong with the Fisk Jubilee Singers. She talks about this in her essay “The Characteristics of Negro Expression” and blames them for putting forward this folk material in the wrong way. She insists: “I am of the opinion that this trick style of delivery originated with the Fisk Singers: Tuskegee and Hampton followed suit and have helped in spreading this misconception of the Negro spirituals.” She calls their style, “the Glee Club Style.”
As a Zora Neale Hurston scholar, and the daughter of a spirituals scholar, I was always torn by the insistence of her way and from what I knew in what I had grown up with. I’ve decided, and I hope Hurston might agree if she knew the current cultural climate, that we’ve got to hold on to these cultural treasures in any way we can. As you read this blog post, these works of literary art and faith are fading from our culture. From my perspective, holding on to something is better than nothing.
To me, the difference in how these songs are interpreted made for a natural conflict in my upcoming work, The Songbird’s Stand. My heroine March Smithson has her own views about the songs of her childhood, but the mysterious new teacher who comes to Milford College, Julian Lewis, has his own ways. Who will win? Is there such a thing as a victory in a battle of wills over intellectual property? I hope to bring you the answer at the end of March.
Meanwhile, here is a selection from my family singing group, The Gift of Song, as directed by my father. This song, “Don’t be Weary Traveller” is another one of those clever code songs, if you listen to the words. Aren’t the singers just welcoming some tired dude to Jesus? Listen closely. Just amazing.
It’s great when people say they “just love Zora Neale Hurston.” Wonderful, because she most certainly loved herself. As she was. I don’t mean that in an egotistical way. She was unafraid to fully accept who she was in American society. She made no apologies and no excuses. Her ideas are still too radical for a lot of people, but most especially women, to accept. Despite all of our advances, today’s women still make excuses for themselves, and if asked, will express the desire to “change something” rather than loving themselves for who they are.
Zora was way, way, ahead of her time in that she didn’t have list. This is why, if someone says they love her, they need to be ready to embrace all of Zora. A lot of her philosophy was expressed through themes in her novels, but more directly in her essays and in her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road. In her landmark essay “How it Feels to be Colored Me,” her take on racism is truly memorable, “I have no separate feeling about being an American citizen and colored. It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company! It’s beyond me.” People are still blown away by this take on racism. Her view shakes readers by their shirts: You are the stupid one if you let race separate us. Amazing.
She talks about pride in who she is at the beginning of the essay: “I am colored but I offer nothing in the way of extenuating circumstances except the fact that I am the only Negro in the United States whose grandfather on the mother’s side was not an Indian chief.” She clearly means to confront those who embrace a potentially distant heritage rather than embracing the one right in front of them.
Zora showcases her pride in herself the moment she steps out of the door: “At certain times, I have no race, I am me. When I set my hat at a certain angle and saunter down Seventh Avenue,…for instance.” A number of readers want to take that as conceit or arrogance. So a woman just be proud of who she is without those labels? Very radical.
However, if you profess to love Zora, you have to love all of her. When most people speak of their love, they mean her most famous novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” Usually, they aren’t talking about her conservative viewpoints, her Republican politics or her stance against Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, et. al. Her stance against that landmark decision wasn’t entirely radial at the time. A number of very famous Negro League baseball players were against Jackie Robinson joining the major leagues for the same reasons. But no one wants to talk about those stances now. Too hot. Too controversial.
Another controversial part of the famous essay says: “Someone is always at my elbow reminding me that I am the granddaughter of slaves. It fails to register depression with me. Slavery is sixty years in the past. The operation was successful and the patient is doing well, thank you.” Her attitude here has been assessed as flip, or disrespectful. Her dismissal of slavery as directly involving her is echoed in the views of young people today.
She held many complex viewpoints about many things: her attitude towards marriage, her decisions not to have children but a career instead, her shifting, elusive sexuality as well as her attitudes about race are enough to make her an equal opportunity offender. She wouldn’t have cared. Zora didn’t seek to satisfy you, but sought to satisfy herself. Her lesson in self-care, to me, was to take care of herself first. Admittedly, she did this to the exclusion of other people in her life, including her family who professed not to know that she needed closer medical attention at the close of her life. She just didn’t tell them. She probably thought it was her business and not theirs. And then there was the matter of the way she didn’t have much to pay for her funeral or even for a headstone. But if you know Zora, then you know her attitude about that was probably, so what? I’m dead. What do I care?
She may have even known that literary warriors like Alice Walker would care enough to come along and validate her enough to put that late date that she wanted on her headstone. This week it was Zora Neale Hurston’s one hundred and fifteenth birthday. Not that other, higher, number. Folks better recognize!
2015 has been quite a learning year for me. 2015 always be the first time I realized that I’m not young anymore, the first time I had to go see the doctor again after a physical, the first time that I’m faced with the fact that I don’t wear a red cape and that I’m not immortal. So my word of the year reflects my understanding that I have to do better for myself by making sure that instead of rushing through things, or overly worrying about the future, I need to take time and experience Joy while I am in the moment.
It’s going to be a tough one. I’m pretty hard headed. I have a lot of pressures in my life. But clearly I have to find a way to deal with these pressures so that I can experience joy on a much more regular basis. I must do better. For example, most folks know that when authors release a book, they mark the occasion in some way. Maybe they have dinner with their families or buy a special piece of jewelry to mark the occasion and make it special.
So, what did I do to mark my three releases this year in the “Migration of the Heart” series?
What did I do for myself after I won two awards this year?
Any celebration after the 4.5 star review from RT magazine?
That is a shameful record. I have got to do better. Even if the people in my life don’t see or understand my accomplishments, I have to see them, acknowledge them and not downplay them as if they didn’t matter. Because they do.
So, you may have heard, The Representative’s Revolt, the third book in my Milford series, released the other day. And yes, so far I’m keeping up with my old record of doing nothing. I’m racking my brain to think of what I can do to commemorate the occasion. It’s hard because I’m such a nerd. I don’t wear jewelry, I don’t like fancy restaurants because I always feel as if I can make it better (and cheaper), and I’m allergic to flowers. But I will do something. Feel free to hold me accountable.
My blog will change a bit in 2016, so that I keep these lessons in front of me. (I told you I was hard headed). The first blog of the month, which will still appear on the second Sunday, will be focused on someone who might have learned this lesson about self care the hard way. The second blog of the month will still focus on the historical knowledge I’m researching for my novels. At other points in the month, I may still post about something worth reporting about myself, as I have been doing. But 2016 is a year where I become a student, and I’m determined to get the lesson. And en(joy) the learning process.
Thank you so much for your support and a Happy New Year to you all!
My goodness, I was so busy being Immersed two weeks ago, I forgot to put up a blog post! Well, as I launched a new book in November and am preparing to put out another in December (The long-awaited The Representative’s Revolt) I guess that I am human. But I’m stopping here to inform you all that, A Treasure of Gold did win the RT best cover poll for November. Thank you for your votes!
Now, A Treasure of Gold may be selected to participate in the RT cover of the year poll. I don’t know how all of this works, but I will keep you posted if my book is selected to participate. The slate will be revealed sometime in the middle of December, so I may make up for the missing blog post anyway. The next blog post–the last for 2015–will be the reveal of my word for 2016. I chose it a while ago, because I was forced to. And that’s all I’ll say for now. 🙂
In the meantime, please know that I appreciate all of the support, votes, book purchases and even comments for all my endeavors. It means so much.
A Treasure of Gold, Nettie Bledsoe’s story, releases on Tuesday. You’ll be seeing plenty of blog posts from me this week about how I came up with the idea and other influences.
So, with your indulgence, I’m posting a personal plea instead of my usual historical content. I want to ask you to please, vote for the cover of A Treasure of Gold in the RT cover contest for November. It just takes a few seconds, it doesn’t cost anything and you don’t have to sign up for anything. I didn’t think that RT would review this book, much less select the cover for this contest. I would appreciate any help in keeping Treasure high and visible to show that people care about this type of work.
Remember (I sure do), that it was about two and a half years ago that I was told by a publishing official that my work would not sell in publishing for 20 years.
Here is the link. Feel free to forward or share with others:
Thank you so much to everyone for so many wonderful and lovely birthday wishes yesterday. I’m very grateful for another year of life and will do my best to bring you some engaging and exciting work over the next year. In that light, I’m posting the great 4.5 review that Treasure of Gold received from RT Book Reviews. I also don’t believe that I made an official cover reveal of The Representative’s Revolt, here on the blog, which is now with the editor and will soon come back to me for more fixing. It’s looking like the start of December for this one.
Please know how very much I appreciate your support for my projects. Here’s to another busy and fulfilling year!
African American naming practices have established patterns, intention and a history.
The intense spotlight has once again landed on African American naming practices, thanks to the foolishness of Raven-Symone. However, I thank her for the opportunity to discuss this subject once again because the practice of African American onomastics (the branch of linguistics that deals with names of people) is not nearly studied well enough or thought carefully enough about. Part of my interest in onomastics comes from being a writer and my understanding of how names reflect a great deal about the history and back story of characters. I certainly knew this to be personally true because the other part of my interest came from my own name as an unusual one and in understanding how my unusual name has shaped me a person.
Let’s get this understood first, just as Kim Love pointed out on Twitter: Naming is a coded language that reflects the class position, hopes, dreams and aspirations of the parents who are naming the child at that time. This includes African American parents. People need to give up the long-held incorrect notion that people, of whatever color, are not thoughtful about what they name their child. That is simply not true.
Whenever I create my African American characters, I always start with the name, because the name tells me about the character’s parental background. For example, in the “Migrations of the Heart” series, my family of sisters were all named after jewels, in some form, because their father, John Bledsoe, insisted that his girls were precious to him. Just by naming his girls, he asserts that the girls have a right to be in the world, certainly a varying attitude about young black girls at turn of the century Georgia. This outlook of their father’s molded them to be young women who stood out in their own way from their larger community. The two deceased baby brothers of the Bledsoe sisters were both named after their father because John and Lona thought it better that their sons didn’t stand out at all.
Raven-Symone herself needs to give some thought to what her parents intended for her by following, as they did, rather standard African American naming practices. Instead, she followed the example of the horrifying video that The View showed before she uttered her foolishness by uttering a made-up name “Watermelondrea.” This is not a name that follows these well-established linguistic patterns and practices, but instead, continues to play upon old stereotypes about African Americans. Her actions cause great harm and further the notion that African American onomastics is a random, and not a thoughtful practice.
The discomfort that people have with these African American naming practices comes because the language patterns don’t “fit” into larger society. They stand out. But did anyone ever consider that was the intent in the first place? That these parents, from their perspective, meant for their child to be seen as a full human being, even in that second when someone is forced to have to think about how to utter the child’s name? It’s a strategy that seems misguided to some, but ultimately it is about achieving the same end as parents who name their children something more conventional—giving their child full humanity.
I find it interesting that now, all parents want to name their child something unique and that naming practices have steered sharply away from naming children something conventional. This was clearly the intention of Raven-Symone’s parents and to me, her utterances came off as ingratitude to her parents. They intended for her to stand out from the beginning and she certainly has, potentially due to her singular name.
I’m grateful to my parents, even though there was a brief period of time when I was young that I longed to be Susan. I’m glad that my musical parents named me what they did. Having had an unusual name meant that I’ve always been prepared for the reaction I often get—that people stop and consider it. African American parents have only wanted some kind of consideration for the humanity of their children. Naming their children with this created, coded language has been a way for some parents to try to get the attention and consideration of a society who wouldn’t care about the child as a person in other ways, just because of skin color. It may not be an approach some people agree with, but that is the intention, nonetheless and should be given more thought and compassion.
Any resemblance between Jay Evans and Idris Elba is on purpose. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I originally put this post two years ago while I was working on A Treasure of Gold, which releases on November 10, 2015. Besides, it’s always good to have an excuse to look at Idris Elba, who is Jay Evans in my mind. Enjoy and I’ll see you in a few weeks!
The blog post this week was triggered by my reworking of my Golden-Heart nominated story A Champion’s Heart. The story starts off when the hero encounters a numbers boss to ask him for money to engage in a prize fight. The numbers racket or what’s also known as the policy game, was a form of small-stakes gambling engaged in by mostly people in the African American community. The stakes were small ones, but once won, (determined by the last three or four digits of the volume of the New York Stock Exchange or from the Clearinghouse) the winner would have a nice pot of money that would last a little while.
The men who ran the policy game in Pittsburgh, where my stories were set, performed a certain kind of community service in using their profits to fund scholarships or as in the case of Gus Greenlee, to fund the Pittsburgh Crawfords baseball team in the Negro leagues. It was no accident that the team was named after the world famous Crawford Grill, where Greenlee held sway.
He was supported in the numbers racket by William “Woogie” Harris, brother of the famous Pittsburgh Courier photographer Charles “Teenie” Harris. Woogie owned the Crystal barbershop in the Hill district where he was headquartered. He also owned the house where the National Negro Opera Company was maintained.
Pittsburgh’s numbers racket was smaller than in large cities like New York in Harlem or Chicago. Because their stake, at least initially, was smaller, these two men were able to run things across all of the Pittsburgh neighborhoods from about 1925 to the 1940’s. However, as it is discussed in Kings by Nathan Thompson, other people wanted to buy into the numbers racket. With Pittsburgh’s smaller stake, it took a longer time for Greenlee and Harris to be pushed out of the racket and they, unlike other numbers men, were able to die as old men in their beds.
Jay Evans, my numbers boss and the hero of A Treasure of Gold, is a tall, handsome, dark-skinned drink of water who dresses in custom-tailored suits and has a big heart for the community. Greenlee and Harris were sort of short, round and light-skinned, but their contributions to Pittsburgh have not been acknowledged until recently. Their philanthropical attitudes helped me to create this timely African American man who, in his appearances in my two stories set in 1923 and 1935, is very much at the center of running things.
Mags was a hit when her cover came out a few months ago–all due to the amazing Kanaxa!
I don’t know if it’s a God thang or just an amazing coincidence that I chose to show Dark Girls (2011) as a text in my composition class this week. I say this because just this past week Samhain Publishing released my historical romance that was partially inspired by Dark Girls. If you don’t know the film, it is a documentary that explores the colorism, or prejudice, that dark-skinned women face throughout the world.
I’ve always been interested in exploring a colorism theme because it has long been an integral part of Black life. Some years ago, when I started to get back to my writing and I wanted to write about colorism in a contemporary romance, I pitched the idea to an editor. She was very excited about my overall idea, but then said, I needed to make the hero and heroine the same shade. Or don’t mention it their color. She said: ”Oh no, we don’t deal with colorism in romance. It’s too painful. The conflict is good enough anyway. Better to stay away from all of that.”
I need to thank that editor because that comment was one more thing that nudged me toward writing the historical romance. I knew that colorism was something I could deal with in much more pointed terms if I dealt with how rampant and pernicious it was in the early 20th century. It’s an issue that appears from the very first page of the first book, A Virtuous Ruby. However in the second book in my series, it is Margaret Bledsoe as the heroine in A Most Precious Pearl who has lived colorism as a personal issue. Her hurt and pain as the darkest Bledsoe sister is the key source of her internal conflict. The story is, in part, about her struggle to love herself so that she can be loved by Asa at the end of the story.
The film is not perfect, but I credit Dark Girls with bringing some healing to this issue in the 21st century. Since I pitched in 2011, I have seen other writers in that same line take up discussions of colorism in their romances. To me, I saw a real turning point happen when I revealed the cover of A Most Precious Pearl. There was a great deal of approval and support for it. I was pretty stunned at the number of people who commented that they loved the cover. I cannot have imagined such an overwhelming phenomenon happening even as briefly as 10 years ago. There has been change and I’m happy to see it.
So it may be that society is turning a corner on this issue. I certainly hope so. It’s time that we work past it. There are times when I still see some comments in some of my social media that make me wince. However, it is clear to me that we all deserve love. I certainly hope that some of you want to see how that love comes to fruition between Mags and Asa in their love story.
The recent slippage in standards of The New York Times brings to mind the hero of my upcoming release, A Most Precious Pearl. Asa Caldwell, the hero of my story, is a journalist and is heroic because he was relentless in bringing across a story from a diverse point of view–something we are sorely in need of today.
Asa is based on the many intrepid reporters who sought to get a story to publish a differing point of view in his newspaper. I situated Asa at a real newspaper, The Pittsburgh Courier. In the first decades of the twentieth century, The Pittsburgh Courier and The Chicago Defender were not just local–they became national newspapers. Pullman porters on the railroad disseminated them to towns all across the South so that people would stay informed know that there were struggles going on everywhere and not just in their small towns.
Editor Robert L. Vann (pictured here), who helmed The Pittsburgh Courier for many years, who sought to let Black people in the south know of other working opportunities elsewhere and sowed the seeds for The Great Migration. In Robert L. Vann of The Pittsburgh Courier: Politics and Black Journalism, Andew Bunie puts forward a Robert Vann who wanted journalists like Asa Caldwell, to go to the front lines of World War I and cover the story of the poor and demeaning treatment of the Black soldiers who were sent there. W.E.B. DuBois expressed the same point of view in The Crisis as well. Telling this story directly lead to the soldiers understanding they deserved better treatment when they returned to the United States. Too many people think the seeds of the Civil Rights movement were sown in the 1950’s, but the insistence on better treatment started a long time before that–just after World War I. Journalists played a key role in conveying this story–heroic indeed.
The insistence of Vann and his fellow editors that reporters “go out and get” the story makes me think that too many journalists are now too content to sit behind a computer screen. Without diverse points of view the “danger of one story,” as Chimamanda Adichie discussed, increases. Without more diversity, esteemed newspapers like The New York Times will continue to slip in their standards and will continue to write half-hearted apologies and explanations for how they messed up. I have many students who are still interested in entering journalism as a profession, despite the many changes in the field. I hope to expose them to editors like Vann, who would surely encourage them to keep telling their stories and to get out from behind the computer to see the world for themselves–to confirm the necessity for multiple points of view.