Come See Me at AWP in DC! (That rhymes)

I know I haven’t posting every day on  the blog, y’all, but please cut me some slack. I am really trying to write on my novel every single day, and trying to break that writer’s sweat I told you about. (Matter of fact, I wrote for an hour this morning! Yay for me– and thanks to my friends of blog and their super-great energy that they send me! I feel it everyday!)

And then, later this week, I will be at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference, otherwise known as the Creative Writers Family Reunion, so I am running around like the proverbial headless chicken, preparing to leave town.

If you are a writer who also teaches–teaching is how many of us writers pay our bills, but not all of us, you probably have heard of the AWP Conference, which takes place during the spring semester of every year. (I wish they would schedule the conference during a set, ongoing time from now on, because it would allow me to make some concrete plans. If you are with the administration of the Conference and you are reading this, this is a hint to you!)

I didn’t attend AWP last year in Denver, because, well, I like to attend the conference when there are a lot of Black folks attending, and how many Black folks do you know who live in Denver, Colorado? (Or I should say, how many do I know? Which is, like, none.) No offense. I’m sure the other folks who live in Denver are wonderful human beings, but I can see a whole bunch of nice white folks right here where I live. I don’t have to travel on a plane, risking bed bugs and what not, to do that.

But this year, AWP is in Chocolate City, USA–that would be Washington, D.C. for the uninitiated–so my plane ticket is bought, my hotel reservation is made, and all my outfits are picked out, though I didn’t go crazy this year shopping ahead of time, like I did last time. I am all about being a Sassy Black Frugalista, from now on.

And I am on a panel at AWP this year! I talked it about it with my friend the poet January O’Neil; she and a group of other writers have decided to blog about the Conference. (The blog is not affiliated with AWP, but still, it is completely sassy, because you need to know these things, believe me.)

Check me out by clicking this link!


Be Encouraged Today, the Funky Way

I was thinking about all my folks out there, and I wanted you to know, I’m trying to stay on my path, too, these days, and I’m trying to stay encouraged. This Grown Woman’s Journey is something else y’all. I’m feeling good these days, but still, I need all the encouragement I can get.

So I thought I’d give y’all a little encouragement today, too, to keep you motivated AND funky.  This is how we get down, on the red clay side of town.:-)

Love y’all.

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Breaking A Writer's Sweat

A little after this New Year, I posted about not being obsessed with my weight, which is hard, since I’ve been obsessed with my weight since, like, forever.  [The post was called “A Perfectionist’s (Sort Of) Happy New Year, Part 1] I talked about how people binged over the holidays, then started the New Year intent on getting their diet and exercise regime together.

In the same way, many creative writers talk about how many pages they are going to generate daily and when they were going to finish a project, when they have had a dry spell with the writing–when they feel they haven’t been behaving in the “healthiest” of ways creatively.

At the end of last semester, I couldn’t get any writing done because I gave into my students who somehow could not find the time all semester long to meet with me and suddenly absolutely needed to do that in the last two weeks of school. I was meeting twelve to fifteen office hours a week, when regularly I meet three. And I was reading the first drafts of student papers that were supposed to be turned in before Thanksgiving.

I was giving everything to my students–a common problem with female professors of all complexions–and I was so tired that I couldn’t concentrate when I sat down write, which had never been a problem with me before, until I remembered that I never tried to take care of myself before. I would just drink coffee and stay up all night and ignore the stress that was making my fibroids bigger and bigger and sapping my energy.

In the past, I would grim it out. But something has happened since I started feeling better. I don’t ignore want to my feelings anymore. I like feeling good and normal. So, I had to decide that I wasn’t going to run behind students who hadn’t turned in papers, just so I could have a perfect score on my teaching evaluations.  Of course, I had a little crying jag before then, when I realized I would never be a prefect teacher, but I got over it and at least my breakdown was in private.

Then, I turned my attention to my writing. One of the three books I’m working on is a novel and instead of trying to pay attention to the rhythms of a novel, I thought I could force it to work like my poetry does. (Which is basically through prayer. I’m not kidding.) Last year, I lied to myself that I would get the novel done in six months without a daily writing schedule. I’d try to write fifty pages in a week, and end up writing nothing that I thought was useful.

Usefulness is a strange concept when it comes to writing. By the grace of God, I am always  full of ideas and words. But sometimes, that’s the problem. I get an idea for a poem, but I’m trying to write the novel. Or, I decide I’m going to write in a straight line with the novel, and some scene comes to me, and it just doesn’t make sense in terms of where I am in my outline.

I want things to go my way, always–like any good perfectionist. I want the words to come to me in the ways I have dictated they will, and at the times they will. Recently, my good friend Crystal Wilkinson, fiction writer and co-founder of the journal Mythium: The Journal of Contemporary Literature, told me that I had to stop strangling my imagination like that. She told me, I had to just write whatever came and then, figure it out later. But just don’t throw anything away.

Frankly, even though Crystal is a well-known writer, I figured she just had it wrong when it came to me and my muse, until I was working on a chapter the other day and realized, I could use some pages I had written–five years ago.

Another thing Crystal keeps saying is, enjoy the journey, and I realize I haven’t done that at all. Even though I finished a first draft of a new poetry book three months ago (not the Phillis book, but another one), I didn’t even take time to celebrate and pat myself on the back. I just started in with revising that new book and continued worrying about when the novel would be done with no rest in between. But after I turned in final grades, I just sat back down at the computer, stopped worrying about the end of the novel, and just said to myself, “Write for today. Just for today.” And then, “Don’t worry where you’re going. Just get there when you do.”

It sounds boring and completely lazy, but actually I’ve gotten more done this way than I have placing huge daily expectations on myself. I can’t say it works everyday, and the perfectionist in me wants anything I write to be, well, perfect, but it does make me feel a little better to devote even just thirty minutes to writing, if that’s all I have. Just like with exercise.

You don’t have to work out for two hours to burn calories. Just break a sweat. So that’s what I’m trying to do with my writing. I don’t have to finish a chapter every day. I just have to write some words, and then, write a few more after those.

The Entire Dream

On Wednesday, I talked about the speech that Martin Luther King, Jr. gave at the March on Washington. Most people haven’t seen that full speech, only the brief minutes about the dream. The man was an oratorical genius and a great human being, and I’m telling you that you really haven’t lived–or thought or philosophized–until you have seen the WHOLE speech Dr. King gave that day in Washington.

But you know I got y’all, so here it is below!:-) (After a brief intro, the speech begins at about 1:15 into the video)

Happy King Weekend, y’all!

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Post-Traumatic Bounced Check Syndrome

A couple of years ago, I started assigning my students to look at the full version of the speech by Martin Luther King, Jr., the speech we now call the “I Have a Dream” speech.  Even though it’s a speech and not really a story, I want my students to learn from the notion of dramatic arc in fiction, how the action rises to a climax, and that makes a really good story. And if anyone can work drama with the word, it’s MLK.

But somehow, the notion of dramatic arc is always lost to them because they can’t get over that there’s so much more to the “I Have a Dream” speech than the thirty seconds they usually see on TV the weekend leading up to the celebration of King’s birthday and then, every hour on that Monday. I say “that Monday” because it very rarely falls on his actual birthday of January 15th.

“Professor Jeffers, what’s the deal with the ‘check’?” they usually ask. “What’s King talking about?”

Then I explain to them that, in fact, this historical speech used to be called “The Bounced Check” speech, because King says,  “In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men – yes, black men as well as white men – would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

He goes on to say that, “It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check that has come back marked ‘insufficient funds.’”

I tell my students that in his speech King uses a profound code, referring to the issue of social—and perhaps even monetary—reparations for the horrors of African American slavery. In short, King is saying America owes Black folks a debt. This isn’t what most folks want to hear, though, Black or White. They like the part about King’s dream. Heck, even I like that part the most. His voice soars when he talks about his dream. The cadence of his voice—it’s almost a song.

I was only a year old when Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, but my mother was a young women almost ten years younger than I am now, and she adored him.  She still does. But like many Black people of her generation, she looked to the Kennedys as a completion of a trinity: MLK, JFK and RFK.

Though two were of another race, all three to her were fallen American heroes, and heroes of the Civil Rights Movement. When I was a little girl, she constantly talked about all the Kennedys had done “for us,” meaning Black folk. She even loved Teddy, who had some dicey situations in his youth, which kept him from being president. In Mama’s eyes, the Kennedys could do no wrong, and I don’t have to tell you that Martin Luther King, Jr. is right up underneath Jesus for her. She mentions at least once a year the time she got close enough to King to shake the man’s hand, and that she wanted to go to his funeral, but I was her baby and we lived too far away.

She talks of these three men in intimate terms, as family, and sometimes, when there are news shows about them and the circumstances surrounding their deaths, she will be sad and quiet for days afterward. More than once, she has said, pointing to the television screen, “They just took him”—one of her trinity—“from his children. From his family. Why would they do something like that?”

I was talking to my mother this past Sunday, the day after the attempted assassination of Gabrielle Giffords and the murder of six others, including a nine-year old child, and she was very upset. Crying, in fact, which, if you knew my mother, you would know is a very significant event.

Up until this year, I’ve only seen my mother cry about five times in over forty years, and one of those times was at my father’s funeral. When we lived in North Carolins, I saw her accidentally slice her hand open with a kitchen knife, and she very calmly picked up a towel, wrapped it around her hand, and then drove her own self to the hospital. My mother is one of those certified Strong Black Woman we depend on so much in this African American community. And so, Mama’s tears shook me to my core, and then when I thought about the assassination attempt on Giffords, I started getting even more upset, to the point where I was put down low all Sunday. I have been sad all week long.

Jared Loughner, the man who allegedly shot Representative Giffords and killed six others acted alone, and sure enough, he was crazy. (I’m not going to try to parse out the psychological terms for what was ailing him. Where I come from, we just call somebody like that “crazy” and reserve a bed for him down to Milledgeville, which is where the state mental institution in Georgia is located.) And his victims were White. Yet Giffords was going against the status quo, taking up the health care banner of those less fortunate than herself, as Teddy Kennedy had.

The current class and racial meanness in this country hasn’t taken over just one man, and the loud hate speech/rhetoric doesn’t come from just one individual, either. But for those of us who are students of history, we know that the ruling classes in this country always used other folks—poorer or less educated or mentally incapacitated—to do their dirty work with keeping other people down, other people who were Black or of a different religion or who wanted to organize unions. Anybody going against the status quo.

In much the same way, Sarah Palin has used violent rhetoric to get her supporters angry—“Commonsense Conservatives and Lovers of America: Don’t retreat; Instead Reload”—then published a map with congressional districts, with each district in the crosshairs of a gun. Sarah Palin’s tactics aren’t new, but they are very effective.  And all too familiar, especially to Black folks.

All you have to do is look at one of those photos of a mob lynching a Black man to see who carried out the orders—poor White folks. But those orders came down from somewhere. Many times, the town newspaper (owned by someone rich) would first whip the mob into a frenzy by publishing editorials accusing a Black man of rape or some other crime and then, give directions for how to get to the lynching site. I’m not exaggerating. Read Phillip Dray’s At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America for documentation on these events.

So even when the victims of hateful political rhetoric don’t look like us, still, many Black folks identify with them, and take their pain as personal.

None of us middle-class, educated Black folks talk too loudly or often about monetary reparations for slavery, and when we do, it’s to make a joke, or to say, with a twist of our mouths, that we won’t ever receive that money. But I think many of us hoped that one day we wouldn’t have to keep revisiting the historical trauma of our parents, and taking their ancestral pain on as our pain. We hoped this time the check wouldn’t bounce for us. We hoped King would be proven wrong, eventually, about one part of his speech, and that the part about the dream would be all we would need.

It is only today that I understand that this event with Representative Giffords has affected me—and my mother—beyond the present, and taken us back to past Black community trauma.  More than once this week, fighting tears, my mother and I have talked about the promise of Barack Obama, at what we thought would happen when a seemingly nice, soft-spoken, intelligent Black man entered the White House. The healing that would occur because of his presence.  We had so much hope for this country.

I had even more hope for my mother, a woman who was born and raised in central Georgia, and remembers when a lynching happened two counties over, when she was a little girl. And years later, who sat with a baby on her lap, in a hopeful time, and thought of the funeral she couldn’t attend.

Mary Turner: A Remix/Love/Prayer (for Kanye West)

Dear Y’all:

I wrote this (scroll below) today in sadness and outrage over the latest Kanye West video, “Monster,” which features lynched Black and White women. I saw the video last night.

If you would like to see the video, here’s the link. I warn you, it is graphic and disturbing.

[UPDATE: A friend of the blog just informed me that the link to the Kanye West video takes you to a blocked page. I’m so sorry. However, if you go DIRECTLY to the You Tube website (not from my blog), and put in the search “Kanye West Monster” it will take you to the official video with no blocking.–I just did that and it works:-)!]

This is not the first time I have written about the tragedy of Mary Turner.(I have a poem in Red Clay Suite about her.) If you would like to find out more about Miss Mary, who was lynched in Valdosta, Georgia in 1918—along with her husband Haynes Turner—you can click on this link. It is from the “Remembering Mary Turner website, which is the website of the “Mary Turner Project,” responsible for a commemoration of her death.

Also, if you click this link, it will take you to a podcast I conducted with Julie Bucker Armstrong, who has written a book on artistic representations of the lynching of Mary Turner. You can download the podcast for free.

There are people who have defended Kanye’s visual representation of female lynching–used as a metaphor to represent his Black male pain over his treatment by the music industry and the media–as “art.”– I hope you can understand why I don’t agree.

Have we come so far that our ancestral memories escape us?

Love,

Honorée

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Mary Turner, A Remix/Love/Prayer

……….for Kanye West

1.

In a book I come upon her, a woman named Mary. A Black woman speaking out for her flesh of her flesh. A Black woman defending a man named Haynes, soon to be absent.

2.

There are gone men in my own family, from death, from pain, taken to the wind, eaten by the voices singing to them.

I think of the absent father of my father–perhaps, the author of all that bled in my house. His was a name spoken with bitterness and longing. His is a name I reach for, a reason and a reconciliation.

3.

Haynes is lynched along with other men. The frenzy of that day.  A rampage. A party. The perfume of dark murder in the air.

Mary cries out in outrage.

Mary lifts her hands and mouth to Jesus.

I’ma tell. I’ma tell. I’ma tell.

4.

In the film, women hang dead with chains, dangling by their necks. Artfully carved faces covered with paint.

A young brown man holds a severed head by the hair. He speaks of pain. He speaks of betrayal. He does not speak of the women dangling in the background.

He does not speak of Mary. He does speak of Haynes.

5.

Here is what happens next.

Mary is not the mother of Jesus. She doesn’t get to live. Neither does her child, eight months gone in the womb.

I’ma tell.

The mob turns on her. When she is dead and hanging, they cut the child from her womb. They take turns stomping it to death. They leave no mark for a grave.

I’ma tell.

If you pass by that spot, a baby’s cries will sound out Jesus.

6.

The book has been closed. My dreams are ongoing.

In my dreams, I reach for Black men speaking softly to me, touching my skin. Healing an uncalled name.

In my dreams, I reach for one of Mary’s hands. Haynes and I walk with her between us. We pat the quickening of her womb.

In my dreams, the child is alive. The two of us laugh as we go walking on that red dirt path. We disappear through the road forced into wood.

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The Perfectionist's (Sort of) Happy New Year, Part 1

Though I haven’t been blogging regularly for the past few weeks while I was finishing up the semester and then, enjoying my holidays, I have been following Twitter and Facebook. All through the holidays, people were posting recipes and talking about all the good food they were eating.

And then, once January 1 came, they were talking about how they were going to suddenly get into shape after eating all that high cholesterol.

I know I ate like a fool over the holidays. My mama baked two sweet potato pies and a red velvet cake and sent them overnight mail to me. I gave away one pie and ate a third of the other pie before I discarded it (but please don’t tell my mama). The cake? Well, I tried to cut it in half and put the rest in the freezer for later.

By later, I mean, immediately after I finished the first half. And that second half was so good after sitting in the freezer for two days, even better than the first half. Y’all should try that next year.

But you know, I didn’t trip on how much I ate, because it was the holidays. And I decided that when the holidays were over, I would not go into Rambo mode trying to lose the five holiday pounds I gained, either. I would just flow and lose it when I lost it. I know this seems kind of like a recipe (excuse the pun) for getting to be a big, fat, Black Southern Belle. But as someone who has obsessed about my weight since I was seven years old, I decided to stop.

Yes, I’ve gained a few pounds right after my fibroid surgery, and I haven’t lost that weight, but whatever weight I am, I know I had enough clothes in my closet to cover it and look completely fabulous at the same time. I decided to stop worrying about the weight and simply enjoy my good health for a while, and ease back into a fit-for-life routine.

I’ve already done that with becoming a vegetarian (back in early August) which naturally added more fruits and veggies to my diet. Since giving up meat, my skin is clearer, I feel better, and strangely enough, my breath seems fresher. And though I haven’t exercised as much as I wanted to recently, still, I try to break a sweat in some way daily, even if that means doing light housekeeping or shaking my booty for ten minutes to Inappropriate for a Radical Black Feminist hiphop music. I figure, no, it’s not an hour workout, but it’s better than sitting on said booty in front of my TV, which doesn’t have cable anyway.

I was a great weight even with fibroids a year ago and I think I can/will be again, but I know that the reason I gained weight is that I didn’t have a life plan together for post-surgery–at least a plan that didn’t include my being absolutely perfect.

It didn’t matter that other women had told me that after their fibroid surgeries that they had gained weight and it had taken time for them to get full energy back. No, Ms. Honorée Fanonne Perfectionist told herself that weight gain and loss of energy might have happened to other, lesser human beings, but not to her.

Sidebar: By the way, I just recently–two months ago–realized that I was a perfectionist and it blew my mind. All my friends knew, but none of them told me. I felt like the joke was on me.

Still, I worried so much about not being the weight I was before, and then I said, you know what? I haven’t been doing what I need to lost the weight with the worry, so why not just be the same weight without the worry and have some peace of mind and still feel pretty?  That doesn’t mean I decided to let myself slide into downright obesity. But it does mean that I don’t want to get into a feast or famine, binge and purge mode, because when that happens, my perfectionism kicks in. And then, I’m miserable. And who wants to be miserable–even if you’re miserable with really good skin?

I’ve been pretty much the same weight since February 2010, but I gotta be honest, it’s been hard to lose those post-surgery pounds. My body is different and so are its requirements and I haven’t figured out how my body has changed yet. Compared to what my body (especially my tummy) looked like before I had fibroid surgery, though, I’m feeling a little too gorgeous these days no matter where I jiggle. Meaning, my flirting has been a bit out of control.

I actually blew a kiss at some child in his twenties the other day at the grocery store parking lot and I had to speed away in my car because he rolled down his window, called me, “Shorty” and asked could he “get that number.” And I was actually thinking about giving him my number before I recovered my senses because, well, he was really cute.