PR’s Afropalooza Novel Pick: DESSA ROSE by Sherley Anne Williams

Yesterday, I wrote that I was so excited about Black History Month that I’d decided to celebrate this year by nicknaming BHM “Afropalooza.”  (I’m still feeling pretty happy about the nickname, by the way.)

In addition, I thought it would be really great to read a novel in February. Now, I like brand new novels. Those of you who read the blog regularly or who follow me on Twitter or have “liked” my Facebook Fan Page know that I’m not only a writer, but also, a serious reader as well.

But during Black History Month, I like to return to some of the past books that really made an impression on me. That’s why I chose Dessa Rose by Sherley Anne Williams as the official 2012 PhillisRemastered Afropalooza Novel Pick.

You can find this wonderful novel on Amazon.com in both print and Kindle versions. For those people who prefer another bookstore, you can order from Powells.com by clicking here. Or you can order from BarnesandNoble.com by clicking here, where the book is available in print  and Nook form.

Or, if you prefer to visit a fabulous independent bookstore like The Wild Fig  (in Lexington), co-owned by the fabulous, brilliant novelist (and my good friend) Crystal Wilkinson, and her equally fabulous partner, the arist and poet Ronald Davis, even better! You have nearly two weeks to get your independent bookseller to order Dessa Rose for you.

We will have THREE Twitter Chats on Dessa Rose during the month of February, all at 4:00pm EASTERN STANDARD TIME: February 12, 19, and 26.  We will be using the hashtag, “#Afropalooza.” 

On February 12, we will discuss the Prologue and the first section. February 19, we will discuss the second section, and finally, on February 26, we will discuss the third section and the Epilogue.

If you miss one of the Twitter Chats, don’t despair! Because you can always read the timeline later on and catch-up.

Poster of Dessa Rose, the musical

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So let me tell you about this beautiful book, Dessa Rose, by Sherley Anne Williams.

I first read the novel nearly twenty years ago when I was in graduate school. I picked it up in Tuscaloosa, Alabama at the Book Rack, a great used bookstore that was around the corner from my apartment. I only paid two dollars for it, and there was no picture on the cover. I know you’re wondering how I can recall all that. I can’t. I still have the book. (It’s sitting right by me as I type this blog post.)

Set in the 1800s before the Civil War, this novel is based on true stories, and it depicts the unfolding friendship between two women, one Black and unfree and one free and White. Ruth Elizabeth (Rufel) lives on farm and has been abandoned by her husband. Dessa Rose is a runaway slave.  Their friendship is the miracle that defies the racial and social constructs of their time. (Yes, those are my own words.)

As a young, aspiring writer enrolled in a Master of Fine Arts program in Creative Writing, the novel really made an impression on me, because I’ve always been interested in realistically depicted friendships and/or love between Black and White people, and I’ve always admired writers who could successfully get in the heads of all of their characters with a light hand–and an authentic, non-stereotyped understanding.

In Dessa Rose, Sherley Anne Williams depicts her characters with so much grace, and I’ve returned to this novel so many times since. I recommend it to everyone, because Sherley Anne Williams did not get the attention she deserved, though she was a well-known poet.   And she was a respected literary critic as well.

AND there was an Off-Broadway musical based on the novel! It was featured at the Lincoln Center in New York City.

I just love Williams’s work so much, and she modeled to me on the page that I could write whatever the Spirit moved me to write, instead of being pigeon-holed into one literary genre.

So, I hope you will return with me or read the novel for the very first time. Either way, please join me on Twitter on February 12, 19, and 26 at 4pm EST to discuss Dessa Rose by Sherley Anne Williams. And remember to use the hashtag, “#Afropalooza”! It’s going to be completely sassy all month long.

Afropalooza, Baby!–I just had to say it one more ‘gain.

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Afropalooza Starts in TWO Days! Are You Ready?!

Ida B. Wells-Barnett

On February 1, my favorite month in the whole, entire year starts. That’s right! It’s almost Black History Month! Or, as I have renamed it, it’s almost time for “Afropalooza”!

I had the “palooza” part, but I just couldn’t  figure out the rest. One of my brilliant Twitter followers helped me by going through a few suggestions, and then we came up with the perfect name.

But why “Afropalooza”?

Well, for me, Black History Month is not only a month of education, but celebration. It’s the time that I can reflect on those African Americans who have done great things for this country, and quite frankly, I can give thanks that none of them were wearing saggy pants and diamond encrusted, gold grill fronts—and thereby Embarrassing The Race—when they did all those great things.

Their fashion sense is enough to celebrate, because back in the day, Black folks who worked for the race usually dressed cute in their pictures.  So not only were those people doing good, they were looking good. (See how pretty and neat and dignified Mrs. Ida B. Wells-Barnett looks in her picture?)

But there’s even more extra-goodness.

There are those classic African American films in which the Black folks are front and center. Not any of that African American “sidekick” stuff where we only exist in the movie to stroke some White lady’s hair or listen to her boyfriend troubles because we have no men of our own. Or where we only exist to get killed around minute twelve in the movie while the White hero dodges a bullet. Unh-unh.  We live through the whole movie and our hair gets stroked and we’ve always got a man.

And in many of the films, Black-on-Black love is a focus. Who can forget James Earl Jones and Diahann Carroll in Claudine? Or, Abby Lincoln and Ivan Dixon in the great (admittedly, more than a little bit patriarchal) Nothing But a Man?

And ooh! Billy Dee Williams and Diana Ross in Mahogany AND Lady Sings the Blues!

Sidebar: Ladies, If you’ve never watched Lady Sings the Blues, once you do, you will never get past that scene where Billy Dee—he doesn’t need a last name—is sitting in the audience listening to Diana Ross—but she does need a last name and I don’t know why—and his face is covered in shadow. But then, he lifts his face. And then, every woman in the theatre or living room or wherever you are watching the movie starts screaming. Because Billy Dee is just that fine, even with that perm of his.

Look, don’t  nobody care that Billy Dee was one of only ten Black men in America who wasn’t wearing an Afro in the early 1970s. I would have run my fingers through Billy Dee’s politically anachronistic hair in a minute. I’m trying to tell you what I know.

And then, there’s African American music.

During Black history month, I can listen to the many African American musicians who made music and didn’t once call women the h-word or the b-word in their songs,like Dinah Washington, Ray Charles, Billie Holiday and Scott Joplin. (I’m just being random here. There are so many.)

Or, I can read the great intellectuals and activists like W.E.B. DuBois, Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Anna Julia Cooper, on down to people like Malcolm X and Audre Lorde. Or I can look at the artwork of artists like Elizabeth Catlett, Romare Bearden, Faith Ringold or Kara Walker. Or I can be grateful for the contributions of inventors and scientists like Madame C.J. Walker (no relation), George Washington Carver, Daniel Hale Williams, and others.

And I can read (and recite) wonderful poems and stories and novels by Black writers. Let’s go all the way back to Phillis Wheatley, who published the first book of poetry by an African American, in 1773, and then come up to Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Huston–author of My Most Favorite Novel in the World, Gwendolyn Brooks, Rita Dove, Edward P. Jones, and Toni Morrison–and Audre Lorde again, because she was every woman.

Is it any wonder I call it Afropalooza?

Sidebar: this year, I decided that I would choose a “slept-on” African American novel for my blog followers to read. I’ve chosen Dessa Rose by Sherley Anne Williams, which is an absolutely wonderful book. And we’re going to have some Twitter Lit Chats about it! So stay tuned for directions for the Afropalooza Book Pick Club.  You know you want to!

Now, I know some of my new readers (who may or may not decide to come back and read the blog, which is absolutely their choice) may be All Blacked Out right about now.

If so, I’m going to keep it real with you. This is a Black blog that keeps African Americans at the center of the discourse. I make no apologies. Why? Because I’m, like, Black, and it’s, like, my blog. And if you think I’m changing just to get hits for a blog I don’t even get paid for, well, you’re going to be disappointed.

I say the following with all the love and respect I have inside me.

Listen, if my own aunt who told me I’d never be happy if I didn’t get married and have kids couldn’t change me in thirty years–and by the way, I’m very happy– do you really think some complete stranger I’ve never met will cause me to change?

And feel free to go ahead and leave mean comments for me. As long as your comments don’t contain profanity and hate-speech, I’ll be more than happy to publish them!

In the words of the great African American comic Flip Wilson, “What you see is what you get” with this blog. If you loved my latest post, you’re probably going to keep on loving subsequent posts.  If you hated it, well, I can’t do much except say I’ll miss you when you’re gone.

And here’s another thing.

Please know that during Black History Month, you’re going to see me feature a bunch of real light-skinned folks mixed in with darker folks. Those light-skinned folks are not “biracial” or “half-White”—they’re Black. Why? because they identified as Black, and proudly.

So just because you might think that someone who is not one hundred percent African should identify as something else, guess what? You don’t get to choose how someone identifies what culture he or she feels comfortable in. That person gets to choose.

That’s right, I said it. It had to be said.

I don’t throw shade on any other “race” or culture. I just love myself. And in my opinion–which I have a right to have–being Black is completely fabulous. Which is why I have such a big ego right now. Yes, it has its hardships, but I’ve survived.

If Harriet Tubman can free a hundred folks from slavery, I think I can get over the saleslady following me all around the store because she thinks I’d risk going to jail for stealing a thirty-five dollar blouse.

And no,  I don’t want to be lighter or have straighter hair. And no, I don’t wish some Angel of Jesus would come down from heaven and free me from the so-called misery of being Black. What I wish is that mean, prejudiced people would get some [insert expletive adjective] home training and some more love inside themselves.

But let me be clear on something–crystal clear because in the past three days people have been misquoting me and taking me out of context left and right. It’s quite amazing (and annoying).

Under no circumstances am I dismissing or attempting to demean folks who choose to call themselves Biracial or Multiracial instead of Black. (And don’t you dare try to say I said that.) I give Biracial and Multiracial folks all the respect and glory of naming themselves, which is their right. The point is, it’s their choice, not mine. And it’s not your choice, either.

But it’s also not the choice of Biracial or Multiracial folks to go back through history, look at people who had White or Indian parents/ancestry, and then try to insist that “blood quantum” means that a person who identified as Black back then wouldn’t be Black now. Guess what? Most of these folks are dead. All we know is what they called themselves then. And they called themselves Negro–which means “black” in Spanish–Black, African American, or Afro-American. And they didn’t want to be anything else. Deal with it, pretty please.

So Happy Two Days Before Vanilla- and Buttermilk- and Caramel- and Chocolate- and Coffee-Colored Folks Who Decided They Had The Right And Privilege To Love Themselves Fiercely and Call Themselves Black History Month, y’all!

And let the fabulousness begin!

Below, I’ve included that iconic scene from Lady Sings the Blues. You really need to watch the whole thing to get the full effect, but if you are impatient for The Moment, it occurs around minute 2:25.

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