Dark Girls should have romance too

Mags was a hit when her cover came out a few months ago--all due to the amazing Kanaxa!

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.

My turn in The Brightest Day–“A Sweet Way to Freedom”

The esteemed Beverly Jenkins wrote the forward and she tells you all about Juneteenth!

The esteemed Beverly Jenkins wrote the forward and she tells you all about Juneteenth!

So excited to bring you a sneak peek of my story in The Brightest Day anthology, “A Sweet Way to Freedom” This anthology, featuring novellas centered the Juneteenth holiday, allowed for writers of African American historical romance come together to commemorate the occasion when the word of emancipation reached the last group of the formerly enslaved in Texas.  My story, “A Sweet Way to Freedom” introduces readers to Winslow, Georgia, the setting of my Migrations of the Heart series.  The romance is between Arlo Tucker, the town’s musician and bad boy, and the school teacher (who went to school at Milford College), Missouri Baxter.  Here’s a blurb and excerpt:

Blurb:

When Arlo Tucker stepped foot into the holier-than-thou Georgia hamlet of Winslow, all he wanted to do was profit from those who might want to have a drink in his good-time place. He did not imagine that, in their mutual loneliness, he would get all tied up with the new schoolteacher Missouri Baxter. He had a run of bad luck with women. They had some fun, but he surely didn’t mean to get her caught up in the family way.

In 1910, schoolteacher Missouri Baxter will not go back to her home town with a big belly all by herself. Arlo needs to come with her– as her husband. With God on her side, she’s got nine months to teach a most reluctant student an important lesson about what marriage meant to their people and show him “A Sweet Way to Freedom.”

Excerpt:

Arlo ran as fast as he could to the school house after Ruby and her sister came to his place in the woods to tell him what their mother had done. His vision of two women with big bellies fighting did not come to fruition though. He panted with relief when he reached the door of the schoolhouse and saw them in civil conversation with one another. Whew. But then Missy called him a nasty name.

Not like her at all, but not entirely unexpected. He had been down this pathway before, and always managed to negotiate his way away. Only this time, he didn’t want to be away. What could he do to help her to see that he was here now, even if he had been away for a while before?

Arlo moved to her side, to be right there for her but she backed off from him as if he were made of fire. Made sense now that he had burned her. That’s what happened to his women, no matter what his intentions. But he couldn’t stay away from her. He wouldn’t. “Missy, there’s no need for name calling. Ruby and them told me what was happening and I came to see what I could do.”

“Oh, Arlo.” The words of disappointment came from his big sister, filling the space between him and Missy.

Why were the two women he loved most in the world coming together? “Sissy. You should be at home resting. Really. Why are you here?”

“I got up from my bed of affliction to tell Miss Baxter of the board’s decision. We, we have to let her go when this school year is done.” His heart lurched in his chest at this news.

“Is there no end of foolishness in this town? You all are going to fire her for something that’s my fault?”

“I was there too, Arlo.” He loved that she gave him a slight smile. Not all her memories of him were bad. That was quite a change. For him.

“Really. This is just disgraceful. What’re you going to do about this?” Lona made it clear she didn’t care for their exchange just now. But Arlo wasn’t sure. Maybe the thing to do would be to take Missy somewhere away from this backwater gossipy town and set up his place somewhere else where folks weren’t so full of judgment.

“Do?” Missy shifted from one foot to another. “I don’t know if there is anything for him to do, Mrs. Bledsoe. You just fired me from my job.”

Ahh. He had to give Missy that. She was not only the most beautiful woman he had ever met; she could use her mind quick enough as a counterpoint. The feeling of her curves responding to him made him want to go back to those passionate times. She confirmed everything he thought about her when he first laid eyes on the schoolteacher last year. She was something amazing, like a bright star in the heavens.

“You paining me, Miss Baxter.”

“I don’t know what you mean, Mr. Tucker.”

“Anything? Nothing?”

She folded her arms, making her burden much more apparent. “For you to do.”

Yes, the women always got like that. Eyes narrowed, arms folded, mouth all twisted up in disarray. They always started one way with him, with willing smiles and stolen kisses. Only later did they have narrowed eyes when things got too rough …and complicated. “I don’t know about that, now. I may have a say or two in these things.”

“Oh, Arlo,” Lona said, a familiar refrain he had been hearing since he was knee high, “are you going to stand by this woman? Please say yes. I don’t want her to lose her only source of employment.”

“Stand by her? As I am now?”

“No, Arlo.” Lona stamped a thick ankle on the ground. She really should be at home, not here getting up into affairs that were no concern of hers. “You know what I mean. I mean marry her.”

“Marry her?” he echoed. He stood next to Missy, as his sister requested, not even realizing how tall she was next to him. Yes, something about her schoolteacher veneer made him want to take her by her thickened waist and…marry her. Right now.

Except her eyes, those dark eyes in her sweet, smooth brown skin—those eyes had already skewered him for a roast.

“I’m not looking to marry anybody.”

Wait. Had he said the words or had she said them? The words in his mind came out from between her lusciously pink, teasing lips. The lips of a Nubian goddess.

“What did you say?” His sister’s attention turned to the teacher now. Yes, Missy had spoken the words in his mind. Out loud. For his sister to hear.

What wounded more, that she knew what was in his mind already—even before he could think it—or that she didn’t want to marry him? Was it possible for one thing to wound more than another?

The  Brightest Day will be available on June 1 in as an e-book on Kindle, Nook and itunes.

The Brightest Day will be available in print in late summer 2015.

The New Year’s specialist–Walt Harper

When I was growing up, New Year’s Eve was a time for family.  We would get together at my uncle’s hours and play games to ring in the New Year. However, to many Black Pittsburghers, a New Year’s or even just a weekend night out wouldn’t be complete without going to Walt Harper’s Attic or later Harper’s, the famous nightclubs owned and operated by local jazz legend, Walt Harper.

 

One of the ongoing themes in Isabel Wilkerson’s book about the Great Migration, The Warmth of Other Suns, is that a lot of the success that African Americans experienced in the north would not have been possible in the South.  Seeing other African Americans succeed, like Walt Harper, certainly inspired other African Americans to try.  Harper was born in Pittsburgh in 1926 to relatively middle class parents, but from beginning his upbringing in that academic-rich section of Pittsburgh—Oakland—meant that he had ready access to all of the cultural amenities that PMI (last week’s post) and later the University of Pittsburgh, could provide to a developing young jazz pianist.  His talents meant that he was able to travel all over the city and play for parties and proms.  His engagements with Errol Gardner and Stanley Turrentine, jazz legends in themselves, meant that his reputation was secure.

 

He played at the legendary Crawford Grill, the place I discussed to two weeks ago.  However in the late 1960’s (and I suspect that the building of the Civic Arena had something to do with it), he opened up his own nightclubs in the downtown area.  He had engendered so much good will going around the Pittsburgh area playing those parties and proms, that it seemed like a long overdue move for an African American man to own and operate his own nightclub in downtown.  He also played for the home Steeler games for years.  He died in 2006.

 

This reflection on Walt Harper represents the end of my look at Pittsburgh music. I first found out about him when the Harpers intersected with my family when my cousin married one of Walt’s nieces–a story for the fiction pages.

 

Who decides? Eugenics in the United States between the World Wars

An Emerald’s Fire is book 5 of the “Migrations of the Heart” series and deals with an issue that increased in popularity between the World Wars.  Many are familiar with the ways that Nazi -era Germany sought to use selection as a way to create a master race and to rid themselves of “undesirables.”  However, many are not aware of the history of eugenics in this country as a way to control the population.  According to Professor Robert Rydell, eugenics is a science that advocates improving inherited qualities of a race by controlling mating. Many are aware of these experiments were conducted in Nazi Germany, but it was a very popular theory here in the United States. By the 1920’s people thought it enough of a branch of science for it to be included in high school textbooks.

In 1915 in San Francisco, Mary Watts organized an exhibit at the world’s fair called “Fitter Families for Future Firesides.”  (the picture is from the exhibit). Quite alliterative, but the purpose of the exhibit was to show how certain people had desirable characteristics to be passed on into the population.  The darker side of eugenics involves the control of the bodies of the “feeble-minded” as well as those who were not of the most desired race. So these practices disproportionately involved African American people as well as special needs individuals.  An Emerald’s Fire asks the question of what happens when these policies impact someone who is both special needs and African American.  The controlled practice most used was sterilization.

In 1924, Virginia passed the Racial Integrity Act citing the need for sterilization to prevent a drain on state monies.  As a result of these acts in Virginia and other places, 60,000 people were sterilized against their will before the 1950’s. What stopped them?  According to Rydell, word of the Holocaust leaked out of Germany just after World War II and Americans began to question their practices of racial prejudice. Sterilization, as a method of control, fell away in practice but the laws were not repealed for many years after that.

Should human beings  decide what constitutes a quality life or is that for God to decide? What does a family do when they believe that are helping a loved one live a better life, but that person disagrees with the idea?  These are the central questions of An Emerald’s Fire. It’s the conflict that threatens to tear the Bledsoe sisters apart–forever.

Meet the real-life inspiration of Virgil Smithson

I beg your indulgence during this, the month of my birth, as I continue to reflect on the events, circumstances and real-life characters that formed the basis for my nineteenth century characters in the “Home to Milford College” series.

The hero of The Preacher’s Promise, Virgil Smithson, seems to be have a bit of a Superman complex.  He’s a preacher who draws crowds with his fiery oratory, a skilled blacksmith who bought his own freedom, he’s the town’s mayor and is on track to join the statehouse as a representative for the state of Georgia—all just after the Civil War ends.  Impossible? See the life story of one Reverend Wilkes B. Flagg (pictured above from the Georgia Archives), a blacksmith whose story actually predates Virgil’s story by several decades.

Reverend Flagg bought himself and his family out of slavery.  In the Reconstruction era, he bought a lease on a large former plantation of more than 1,000 acres and established a community where the formerly enslaved could earn a living for themselves.  He also established a black school at his church and was able to attract teachers from the American Missionary Society to teach black children. His school was the first to teach African American children in Milledgeville, Georgia. The church that he established, Flagg Chapel Baptist Church, still stands today. He died in 1878.

The more that I learn about history, the more I learn we are taught so much about the generalities of history and not as much the particular exceptions who do not fit in to any particular rule.  Thanks to exemplars like the Reverend Wilkes B. Flagg, I am able to create historical heroes like Virgil Smithson—a strong Black man every bit the hero for my teacher heroine, Amanda Stewart.

For Chapter one of Amanda and Virgil’s love story, see my entry as part of Harlequin’s So You Think You Can Write contest.

http://www.soyouthinkyoucanwrite.com/manuscripts-sytycw-2013/the-preachers-promise/

The top fifty will be selected this week.  If you like the story, feel free to leave a comment at the end—it’s not exactly a vote, but it can’t hurt!

Swimming in the Summertime

Olympic Swimming Pool Fast Lane Category:Outdo...

Olympic Swimming Pool Fast Lane Category:Outdoor_swimming_pools (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While I was visiting my family in Pittsburgh this week, I watched an episode of the excellent Pittsburgh history documentary series that reminded me that once Champ and Delie reached the “Promised Land” in 1935, they saw what they believed to be real progress.

On the episode of In Pittsburgh called, “North Park v. South Park,” documentarian Rick Sebak discussed the state of the art, Olympic sized swimming pools built in both of these large parks in Allegheny County.  These pools were constructed as part of the CCC core projects that kept Americans working during the Great Depression.  The pool in North Park, which still exists, was supposed to be used for Olympic swimming trials in for the 1936 games, but they couldn’t finish it fast enough.

However, South Park went to the extra expense and trouble to build an extra pool that was not so large called Sully’s pool. Sully’s pool was the place where African American Pittsburghers of the late 1930’s went to swim.  These two pools existed side by side in South Park until the early 1970’s when the larger, natural rock pool in South Park was closed.  The pool that exists for use today in the park is the one formerly known as Sully’s pool.

Newly arrived migrants from the South, like Champ and Delie were probably glad to have a Sully’s pool.  Swimming in tax-payer supported pools was always a risky proposition in the Southern United States in the first part of the 20th century.  Some communities maintained separate pool hours for African American citizens, but other communities banned them from swimming there altogether, by custom if not by law.  So, when they wanted to swim, African Americans had to use quarries, ponds, swimming holes or skipped swimming as a practice altogether.

Not having a place to enjoy swimming has led, I believe, to embraced beliefs among African Americans that swimming is an activity that is not “for us” and swimming as being “bad for our hair.” Over generations, the fear of being rejected at public swimming pools has contributed to  a larger percentage of African American children who drown in swimming accidents.

So while the mere existence of a segregated pool seems horrible and backward to us now, Sully’s pool represented real progress to the newly arrived Champ, Delie and their large brood of adopted children.

Lynching isn’t an old word

Ida B. Wells Barnett

Ida B. Wells Barnett (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Historians point to economic factors as preeminent reasons for the start of The Great Migration around 1915.  That is true.  However some people began to fear for their safety as well. Prior to 1915, lynchings occurred with an alarming frequency across the last years of the nineteenth century and the first few years of the twentieth century. Activists like Ida Wells Burnett engaged in rigorous protests against the vigilante punishment.  However, the shift in technology from agricultural to mechanical jobs also triggered African Americans to leave their homes.  This tightening of the economy spurred an uptick in the number of lynchings that occurred across the South.

When people think of lynching, they think of African American males facing vigilante justice for sexual attacks against white women.  However, as Ida Wells-Burnett herself pointed out at the time, interracial sexual attacks were rarely the reasons for these punishments that occurred outside of the law. For example the lynching that first stirred her to activism came about because one of her friends dared to open a new grocery store in the black community that threatened to siphon off the business of the grocery store that was already there.

One reason why the word remains firmly a relic of a hundred years ago is because an official definition of the word means two or more people have to be assembled to carry out the punishment.  Another reason the word is not used more often is there is the mistaken belief that lynching can only occur with a hanging. However, many don’t know that lynch victims were often burned or shot.

People of various races, sometimes even women, were lynched during this time period. But the repeated use of this vigilante crime against African American males in the first part of the century drove them seek new economic opportunities elsewhere.  They feared a lack of safety for themselves and for their children.  They also understood that there was no way to obtain justice in the criminal system where they had no voice.

A neighborhood watch official who carries out vigilante justice because he fears increased theft of property in the community and subsequent economic loss is representing more than one person when he shoots someone who he wrongfully believes is engaging in that thefts.

It’s time for that word, lynching, to make a comeback.