I am a child of the south. I have some very fond memories of growing up in the small town of Ariton, Alabama. I am a proud, southern writer and many of my family and friends reside there, so the south will always be home for me. But similar to Countee Cullen, in his poem, “Incident,” a great deal of my memories are clouded by the sting of racism. Perhaps the racism that hurt the most was from those “benevolent racist.” They were kind-acting. Wanted the best for everyone, even if it meant the continuation of segregation. In their minds, we all would be better off if we just kept things the way they were. But if you questioned them about their “attitudes,” they would insist that they “don't see color.” Many of their close friends, they would say, were “Colored, Negro, Black, African American, etc.” My short essay, “'Lost in 1993” is about my first day of college at Auburn University. As much as I knew I had overcome to get there, it took the actions of one student to spiral me downward into the rabbit hole of self-doubt. “Lost in 1993” is my story of falling, but it is also my story of getting back up.
Lost in 1993
“Are you lost?” he asked, smiling, with an almost tender concern on his face as I stood hesitantly at the door of the classroom. I had followed the sound of lighthearted conversation and banter; sure that one of those self-assured unknowns would know where I was supposed to be in the next ten minutes. I entered the room. The room had tables and chairs arranged in an awkward circle and the view from this room on the 9th floor of the Haley Center was breathtaking. I could see Jordan Hare Stadium from the windows. I imagined my son and me there watching ballgames together. I sighed. This was my dream deferred and in spite of everything that had seemed to sidestep me from this dream through the years, I had finally made it!
I smiled at the guy who stood there waiting for my response. I guess I was in such awe of actually being in the place I'd dreamed of for so long, that his questions flowed right through me without even registering in my psche. Plus, he had a Jesus-like look of patience on his face. Like if I never spoke, he would have still waited there looking welcoming and affirming. I was relieved for his concern. I had been circling the halls of the Haley Center for several minutes and I was afraid of being late for my first official graduate class.
I had approached getting into Auburn University’s graduate school like I had approached everything else in my life—with grit, determination and the tenacity of a pit bull. I had secured grants, scholarships, housing and daycare for my son, so, the first day of class had been a long time coming, but in spite of, or maybe because of all that I had gone through to get there, I just knew I was about to live out my greatest dream.
I reached out my hand to shake his. He seemed to hesitate for a moment. I even remember him looking at my hand in a strange manner, as if something was wrong with it, but before I could withdraw it, he grasped my hand firmly.
"Hi," he said. "I'm *Court."
Although concerned about being lost, my face could not contain its smile, particularly since the young man and his friends were behaving so friendly. I thought to myself, these are my fellow comrades and they are welcoming me. My smile threatened to split into halves, thirds, and into an unrecognizable mass of teeth and gums.
"Hello," I said, shaking his hand firmly. Just like my daddy had taught me. Always look people in their eyes when you shake their hand, he had told me. The mark of an educated person is one who is not afraid to look a man straight in his eyes.
I wanted to tell this smiling fellow that my first class was medieval literature and yes, I was lost. I wanted to tell him I liked Beowulf. I had read it in high school, and when I realized that we would be studying it in my graduate class, I pulled it out and reread it, making all of the intelligent sounding comments in the margins that I could think of. I wanted to be prepared. I wanted to tell him all of those things, share with him my excitement, but before I could say another word, he quantified his question; still, with the same benevolent smile he’d had from the beginning.
“You know this section of the Haley Center is for graduate students? Right?”
He sounded so innocent. But the alarm system that people of color possess that alerts us to the fact that we have just been hit with an invisible racist hand slap started chiming in my head. Like the loud, ominous sound of church bells. Instead of the words I know he spoke, I instead heard: You know this section of the Haley Center is for White’s only? Right? I think at that moment I dropped my eyes to the floor, and tried to regain the composure that had surely slithered off of me into a limp pile by my feet.
To this day, Court does not know that his words took me back in time. If questioned about the incident, if he even remembered it, he would probably say he meant no harm. And you know, I would probably believe him. But it wouldn't change the sting I felt when he said it. In that moment, he violently tossed me into the rabbit hole that led back to the segregated south of my youth where I peed in Colored’s Only bathrooms and drank from my people’s very own personal drinking fountains that spewed out bitter streams of water.
Slowly, I looked back up at Court again. He was still smiling. I studied him. He was dashingly handsome. Like a young Dean Martin or Clark Gable. But in that moment he became ugly. Like a steely-eyed Bull Conner ordering water hoses to knock down innocent, brown faces whose only crime was the desire to partake in civil disobedience. His few words stripped me of the advances Colored people had made and I was once again reminded me that I was The Other—the story that existed outside of the margin.
Court was a benevolent racist. The kind who meant no harm. Later, he would "compliment" me by saying things like, "Well, one thing is for sure, Angela. You will always have a job" OR he'd say, still with a smile, "It's not easy getting a job if you are a white man."
When he said things like that, I would find my anger rise up inside of me like the dry bones that came to life again in the biblical story. I had run out of compassion’s milk to offer to the ignorant lips of the Court’s of the world. I had run out of prayers of forgiveness for their lack of understanding of how their words were the matches that caused invisible crosses to burn.
In that moment, I was no Jesus praying for his offenders. I was praying for that Old Testament God of vengeance to rear his head again and strike down those people like Court who continued to drape themselves in the covering of ignorance.
But on that monumental day when Court asked me if I was lost, I realized something important. That day wasn’t just for me but it was for my grandparents, my dad and mother, Miss Eveline who used to give me Wrigley’s Spearmint gum during church services, my aunts and uncles and cousins, and all those elders from my home town, alive and dead, who never even got a chance to sit at the welcome table because they were too busy serving at it.
Remembering that important fact allowed me to swallow hard and smile at Court and his merry band of men, and reply in a voice filled with confidence and pride,that even surprised my ears, “No, Court, I’m not lost. I’m where I belong. Would you mind helping me find my way?”
Authors Steven Barnes and Tananarive Due
Tananarive Due (tuh-NAN-uh-reev DOO) is an American Book Award-winning author and the author, co-author and editor of over 15 books. She is the Cosby Chair in the Humanities at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia and currently, she and her husband, award winning science fiction writer, Steven Barnes, are producing a film based on their co-authored book, Devil’s Wake.
Short film based on the novel DEVIL'S WAKE.
Thank you for agreeing to do this interview. I have made it no secret to my friends, family and strangers that you are one of my favorite writers, so I appreciate the opportunity to ask you a few questions. You’ve said in other interviews that you wanted to be a writer from the age of four. At what point did you make the decision that you wanted to write science fiction?
I have written a bit of science fiction, but I see myself more as a dark fantasy or supernatural suspense (horror) writer rather than a science fiction writer. They are all in the family of speculative fiction; however, I remember being drawn to stories of space exploration and talking cats when I was a very young writer in elementary school. All children imagine stories of the fantastic, but it was hard for me to let them go when it was time to be a “grown-up” writer and take workshop courses at Northwestern University. My storytelling in the mimetic universe was very stale compared to my stories of the fantastic. For some reason, I become more deeply engaged in stories that are examining reality through the lens of metaphor.
If we had the opportunity to eavesdrop on your writing process, what would it look like? What are your rituals and practices for creating your great stories?
The most important element, perhaps, is music. I don’t always remember to listen to music when I need to write, but especially with a longer project like a novel or screenplay, nothing plunges me into “flow” state faster than a writing soundtrack. I create a specific soundtrack for almost every long piece of fiction I write. When I wrote Joplin’s Ghost, I listened obsessively to Joplin’s ragtime. When I wrote My Soul to Keep, I listened to a lot of early Louis Armstrong and world music. For post-apocalyptic zombie series, I prefer classic horror movie themes and epic, frightening themes and driving beats from musicians like Nine Inch Nails. Every long writing project has a music story behind it. It can be especially painful with screenplays, since I have yet to have a feature produced, so if I happen to hear a song from the soundtrack later, I might feel fresh disappointment.
In what way has teaching writing to others helped or hindered your own writing?
Aside from most writers’ innate desire to help pass on the lessons that helped them develop into professionals themselves, I find that hearing my own philosophies reinforced in a classroom situation can often translate to better habits in my writing life. I’m currently the Cosby Chair in the Humanities at Spelman College which has been a blessing. I wanted to take some time to breathe and concentrate on the work I have neglected. I found it difficult to spend time writing screenplays because of the financial pressure on my writing to create income, so I have been concentrating more on screenwriting and even filmmaking. That has been the big surprise to come out of teaching. I am also shifting more toward short fiction, exercising muscles that don’t get used in the same way in the world of a novel. In some ways, teaching has enabled me to feel like a student again.
It isn’t easy balancing career and family, but you and your husband, Steven Barnes, seem to have found a method for making it work. What advice would you give others who want to be successful writers but don’t necessarily “see” how they can balance everything?
I love being married to another writer, but I have learned that it’s very challenging to balance just the financial side in a two-artist home. Teaching has created more stability in our lives, and Steve has developed a great line of self-help and writing courses he sells online at www.diamondhour.com. So there’s that piece, and that’s a major piece—sources of income outside of the art. Raising a young son is another challenge, with serious time demands. All parents have to strike that balance of nurturing the marriage, nurturing the children and nurturing their careers…and perhaps writers have to also try a bit harder not to let their eyes glaze over in a faraway land while their children are present.
“Balance” is a series of course corrections, much more a journey than a destination. And at the core of that is the nurturing of self—diet, exercise, meditation—that often gets forgotten. I was recently at a women’s empowerment luncheon in Atlanta, and a speaker made a great point that we can’t forget to nurture our girlfriends too because they are there to help us navigate the more difficult times. That’s why it’s an unexpected thrill to find myself working with both my husband and best friend on a short film, since it’s a project in common that gives us plenty of excuses to exchange ideas and talk to each other.
You and Steven Barnes have collaborated on numerous novels (the award-winning Tennyson Hardwick mystery series and now Devil’s Wake and its sequel, Domino Falls), and you have said that the two of you have developed a writing strategy that involves one of you writing the first draft rather than you writing collectively. How did the two of you decide to adopt that practice for co-writing?
Having worked in Hollywood and co-authored novels with science fiction greats Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, Steve has been a collaborator for much of his career. I was new to collaboration. I never would have conceived of a process where two writers are virtually side-by-side as they work, and Steve introduced his collaborative practices with other novelists to ours. I take first draft in the Tennyson Hardwick series we write in collaboration with Blair Underwood; Steve takes the first draft in our YA zombie series, which is a blend of science fiction and horror. Another rule Steve taught me: someone always has to have the final say, and generally it’s the writer who takes lead on the first draft.
In an interview with Lit Stack, you mention that Devil’s Wake was born out of a short story you wrote with Barnes. Do you have any other works that started out as short fiction but evolved into a longer work?
Actually, yes—my second novel, My Soul to Keep, evolved from both a poem I wrote in high school called “The Eternal Man” and a short story I wrote later called “The Anniversary,” about a woman whose husband leaves her without explanation after ten years—but he has never aged, never gotten sick.
Recently you announced you and Barnes would be working with director Luchina Fisher to produce a short horror film, Danger Word, based on the novel Devil’s Wake. Why did you and Barnes decide to take on this huge undertaking without the financial backing of anyone other than yourselves, friends, family and fans?
I could write a dissertation on why we’re co-producing Danger Word, but I’ll distill it to the practical: I’ve had film inquiries about my novels since my first book was published in 1995, Steve and I have sold three drafts of a screenplay to a studio, and we have both had works fall in and out of option. The bottom line is, we want to live to see our work produced. I know too many writers, including Octavia Butler, who never lived to see it—and we both love film, so it’s an important milestone to us.
Beyond that, I want to be an example to other writers, actors or would-be producers who are sitting on the fence and believe it’s too difficult to be a filmmaker. So many artists opened my eyes to the possibilities in independent and short films--Ava DuVernay (I Will Follow, Middle of Nowhere) and emerging artists like Bree Newsome (Wake) and Keith Josef Adkins (The Abandon—a web series pilot). And I can’t forget the influence of Luchina’s short film in 2011, Death in the Family, which also truly inspired me. Once you see a string of others walking across the tightrope, you believe you might be able to walk up there too.
Lastly, I know the impact of film and television. I remember watching Diahann Carroll as “Julia” and being fascinated by her son, Corey, who might have been the first black child I saw on TV. I remember how special it was when my family gathered to watch The Cosby Show, and how breathtaking Star Wars was. Those images are important nutrients. Danger Word is a zombie film on the surface, but I look forward to creating a visual blueprint that will help teach our girls to be strong.
If readers would like to support the making of Danger Word, what can they do? What are some of the incentives for donating (other than supporting an amazing short film)?
Our first fundraising deadline is May 25, when our projected shoot begins, so it’s a huge help just to pass the word and subscribe to our website: www.dangerwordfilm.com. We also have a Facebook page and a Twitter page: @ZombiesFreak on Twitter.
But the bottom line is, we have a little over $5,100, and our production goal is $15,000. That’s a long way yet to climb.
We’ve learned a great deal after observing Kickstarter and Indiegogo campaigns, and as a donor to other projects, I know how important it is for donors to feel recognized. We offer social media shout-outs, website listings, T-shirts, digital downloads, DVDs, a chance to be a zombie—all the way to a genuine producer credit on IMDb.com.
Thank you Tananarive Due. Good luck with the film and all of your upcoming ventures.
It’s growing close to the anniversary of the death of my daddy’s physical body. I’ll never forget the day he transitioned to the other side -- the day my beloved daddy, M.C. Jackson, exited this world to go join the elders who had gone on before him...his mama, daddy, sister and brothers. His sister-in-laws, cousins, best friends, nieces and nephews.
I know Heaven was jumping on that day he showed up. "Hey Lonnie, is that your brother M.C.?" someone asked, probably Mr. J.W. or Mr. Sonny Boy. Uncle Lonnie squinted, I'm sure, as he tried to get a good look. "Sure walks like him. Hey Preacher, is that you?" Uncle Lonnie called out. He used to call everyone Preacher, especially Daddy. "Yeah, it's me," Daddy called back. "Is that you, Lonnie?" Neither waited for confirmation. Both brothers, no longer encumbered by aches and pains, took off running towards each other. "My brother," they both said quietly as they embraced. And before you know it, there came Uncle J.C., Comer, Tony, Aunt Georgia Mae, Big Mama, Grandma Georgia and Grandpa Lee. All celebrating. All laughing and pounding Daddy on the back saying, "Welcome home, boy. Welcome, home."
If I think about Daddy dying and the story becomes a great homecoming for him, well, how can I be sad about that? But more often than not, I think about his final day, and my final day to spend with him. Below is a poem I wrote to commemorate that day when my world stopped for a time.
Daddy went to sleep.
That was it.
No grand speeches.
No fond farewells.
No wink of the eye.
No “Hang in there, kid.”
I was expecting more.
I had prepared myself for one last
But there was only a quiet.
A final in…a final out…and then
My best friend closed his eyes
I know you haven’t left me, Daddy…not really. But sometimes, I just want to reach out and touch your hand. Feel those callused, rough hands smooth away the tears I feel on my face now as I write. Have you take those hands and rub away the worry lines on my forehead as you tell me to stop frowning or I'll get wrinkles for sure. I want to look into your eyes and see the love I know you feel for me even with this great distance that exists between us. I want to smell that scent that is uniquely you…Ivory soap, tobacco, sweat from your day’s toil, and yes, a bit of the dark liquor that we both knew you drank because your life was no storybook and oftentimes, taking a little “nip” was the only way you knew to cope. I want to feel your arms embrace me, letting me know that if every person on earth forsakes me, you will always have my back.
Daddy, I would never pray for you to come back from where you are…you suffered so much in your latter days, what type of daughter would I be to call you back, even if I could call you back. But I do wish you’d whisper to me a little louder some days. Speak my name through the wind so that I know that distant breeze is meant just for me. Fly over me in the body of an eagle, so I know that even on my worst days of missing you, you are right here with me just like you said you would be. So death, back up, you have no sting.
Soon after I was violated by an adult “posing” as a family member, I started thinking about ways to protect myself. I was too afraid to tell what really happened to me, so I knew I had to come up with my own ideas for keeping me safe. My body started “sprouting” womanly features at a very early age. I was what some folks would call big boned or thick.
By the time I was eleven, when the abuse took place, I was no longer wearing a training bra, but instead, I was wearing at least a B or C cup. So I knew my first task was to change my body. Nerd that I was, I decided I would “research” how to lose my excess body fat so that I could look more like an eleven year old. I went to the library and checked out diet and exercise books and I then tried to embark on a healthy path towards losing weight…not easy when your dad is an ex-Navy chef. Daddy was always cooking amazing foods, and I was always a sucker for his barbecue ribs, coleslaw, chicken and dressing, collard greens, macaroni and cheese, fried chicken, and the list goes on and on and on. At first, I allowed myself all the water I could drink, six or seven crackers for breakfast and lunch, and at dinner, I would eat whatever daddy cooked. Well, not so smart because by dinner time, I was ravenous. I ate everything in sight, and daddy, the quintessential southern gentleman, thought it awesome that his biggest fan loved his cooking so much that she ate seconds, thirds, and sometimes, fourths of whatever he cooked. Little did he know that I was dying inside, knowing that every bite I took added more temptation to my hips, thighs, breast and backside. Then, I discovered purging.
My discovery of purging actually happened by accident really. At this point in my life, there were no stories about Anorexia or Bulimia, so I didn’t have a name for what I was doing. The Karen Carpenter story had not been revealed, so for all I knew, I was inventing a new way to cope with food. The beginning of my food phobias and addictions began one night when I ate way too much, and within an hour, I was violently sick. I don’t know if it was in that moment or later on that I developed the “bright idea” to continue purging after every meal, but either way, that became my way of dealing with my desire to eat and my desire to get smaller so my body wouldn’t be attractive to anyone, particularly lecherous old men who messed with little girls. During high school, my weight fluctuated. There was a time when I was as low as 110 and as high as 135. No one ever knew my pain because I kept that part of my life secret. Just like the abuse. The weight of the things I carried just kept getting heavier and heavier.
I continued this behavior for several decades –throughout all of my twenties and half of my thirties. When I met my husband, I was down to about 110-112 pounds (not a healthy weight for someone who was 5'5"). Pictures of me at that time are extremely scary. I looked sick, and I was. I rarely ate, and when I did, I picked at my food. My husband is an amazing cook, so I would make sure I ate but I chewed my food for so long that no one really noticed that I barely consumed anything. I began to rely on booze to help me deal with my demons. I was functioning, but just barely. I held down a job. I mothered my boys as best I could. I tried to be a good wife. But inside, I was dying. And to add insult to injury, I felt like the worse black woman ever. I mean, weren’t we the divas who celebrated our hips and thighs? At that time, white women were beginning to get butt surgeries and breast augmentations to add on the very parts that I despised when they were on my body. I hated the catcalls. I hated the dudes who “stepped to me” and said things like, “Them thighs are looking hot, mama.” Their words alone, made me feel violated. But I hated that I felt that way. I wanted to be the upbeat chick who had a quick comeback. The chick who celebrated their words instead of feared them.
I grew up with Queen Latifah singing about our beauty and talent and our need for self-respect. I had a daddy who always, always said I was smart and beautiful. My husband, Robert, told me every day that I was the most beautiful woman in the world, but for some reason, their words didn't compute. I felt like a freak. An anomaly. The more I tried to stop my destructive behavior the more I found myself binging and purging. I got to a point where I would only eat foods of a certain color and each food had to be organized on my plate in a certain way. At that time, I gave up meat completely. It didn’t fit in my color scheme. Then I went vegan. I wanted no animal byproducts in my system at all. Now I am back to being vegetarian with the occasional fish.
The good news – I have stopped binging and purging. I am working on my diet and exercise, but it isn’t easy. My years of abusing diet pills and laxatives have cost me a lot physically. My metabolism is shot. But I am not giving up. I am healing. Hopefully, this post will help others. Hopefully someone out there who reads this post will realize that they are not alone and those of us who did survive are all in this recovery thing with them. That is my hope and prayer.
IF YOU HAVE AN EATING DISORDER, OR YOU KNOW SOMEONE WHO DOES, PLEASE CONTACT THE NATIONAL EATING DISORDER ASSOCIATION BY CLICKING HERE.
A few posts ago, I encouraged writers to read their work. There is something so scrumptious about tasting the words of your characters in your mouth. You become the conduit through which they are heard and felt. I have always loved performance art. Perhaps, if I didn't have such difficulty memorizing dialogue/lines, I would have auditioned for the stage. Maybe the fact that memorization is a chore for me, I instead focus on getting the voices of my characters just right. I know I will never perform in a play (unless I am the character who enters stage left, nods at the people in the audience, and then walks off stage right). Therefore, I must allow my creative process to help me engage my characters orally. My ultimate goal is, after I've "written" and "talked" my characters into existence, someone who reads a story written by me will "hear" the voices of the characters as if I or the character herself were speaking them out loud. So, below, I share with you my reading of my short story, "Something in the Wash." This story is part of the thesis I wrote entitled Wade in the Water. Please feel free to leave comments below about your writing/reading experiences, or just talk about writing with me.
Those of us who write, often complain that we don't have enough time. I do it. But when I really think about the hours of the day that I spend checking email, Facebook, Twitter, mindless television -- I realize that I do have time. The real problem is not the time, but the motivation. So I have decided to try a little trick. Instead of saying I don't have time to write, instead I am going to start saying to myself -- until you write something, anything, you don't have time to eat, drink, sleep, grade papers, watch television, talk to the people you love, answer the phone, email, Facebook, Twitter, etc. Basically, using the words of Celie in the Color Purple, until I do right by me...well, I will not give my attention to ANYTHING else. Sounds radical, and I am not sure if this mind trick will work, but I am going to try it. I need to tell myself that nothing is more important than my need to write. I need to convince myself that I am a better wife, mother, daughter, sister, aunt, teacher, friend, etc. when I write. I need to remind myself that I feel good when I am putting words to paper; when I am allowing the spirits dwelling in my head to come alive on paper.
So today, I make that commitment to myself. We'll see how it works. Oh, and I would love to hear how you make that time for your writing.
as he ran, his swollen feet stumbled
but he didn’t stop
visions of snarling, angry beasts
forced his aching muscles
the cold wind gnawed hungrily at his flesh
and the tree branches
etched their marks of ownership
across his face
the night sounds surrounded him,
betraying him to the baying hounds
whose excessive barking grew louder
with each step James took
desperation threatened to overtake him
so he frantically searched –
his eyes flitted back and forth
searching for something,
festered sores cried out for his attention
but he only ran faster
tears mingled with the dread of capture
marring his once proud face
James now knows that there is no freedom
there is only this –
the constant, endless, angry barking
of the master’s hounds
coming to take his soul away.
© Angela Jackson-Brown
When you look at me, you see not just an
adopted baby of unknown pedigree
but a baby shuffled from one
Front Porch Monarch to the other,
each trying to mark me, massaging their
imprint into my skin with gnarled fingers
in an effort to make me their own.
a love child cradled by my daddy’s callused hands,
hands that were rubbed soft with Jergens Lotion and Vaseline
after long days of toiling for what seemed like at times
only a few dimes and nickels.
A country child begat by country folk who often got pecked
by the beak of Jim Crow but who occasionally
got the chance to peck him back.
A blues child who jooked just as hard as the grown folks when
J.W. Warren plucked blues harmonies
in the guise of gospel tunes in order to satisfy
both the tea drinkers and the shine sippers who
all congregated under the Saturday night altar
of stars and vast, Alabama skies.
A sometimes fearful child who was warned about
the Billy Bobs, Joe Nathans, and Cooter Lees
who whooped it up on back country roads and side streets--
screaming racial epitaphs that burned crosses into
the souls of the hearer, but in a pinch these men
would do you right – whether you were white or black.
But most of all
I am a storyteller who is tied to generations of
other proud storytellers whose
stories I carry in my belly like unborn babies, waiting
for the day when Emancipation comes, so I can
be one of the first to set our stories free.
© Angela Jackson-Brown, 2012