Review of Angie Cruz’s Dominicana

Dominicana by Angie Cruz

Several months ago I received an email in my inbox from an organization called One Book, One Bronx.

Because, as you know, I am an avid lover of literature, I clicked on the link to be taken to the wonderful world of an online bookclub that centers authors of color.

I immediately signed up and was overjoyed to log on for several Wednesdays at 7 pm for an hour and half of lively discussion of Bernice McFadden’s Sugar (2000).

Led by the wonderful Barbara Dubison, it was a whirlwind experience, filled with laughs and insights and inspiration. 

While I was disappointed in McFadden’s ending to Sugar I was hooked on the club—the invitation to share my love of Black literature with other Black literature-loving adults who also live full lives and who “get” the many ways that a good story enriches and enlivens us, was a much needed clam in the midst of isolation. 

A book that I was recently turned on to vis-a-vis One Book, One Bronx and more specifically, Ron Kavanaugh who runs the book club, was Dominicana (2019) by Angie Cruz. The novel is an absolute masterpiece, told from the perspective of a 15-year-old girl named Ana who is married off to a man more than twice her age.

Most of the novel’s action takes place in 1965 after Ana immigrates to New York with her husband, Juan, also Dominican. Juan portrays himself as a “successful” immigrant who can save Ana and her family from the poverty of the Dominican countryside. In reality, he is a day worker with barely a pot to piss in, let a window to throw it out of (as my mom used to say).

Each of Cruz’s characters is well-developed and left me feeling wholly invested in their fates—this includes Juan’s. But, this is especially true for Ana, of course, with whom the reader can easily empathize. She is young and naive and we might say, sold off to Juan with the hope that the marriage will result in immigration for the rest of the family. 

This imperative to immigrate is a reality even today for many impoverished people from other countries. They are sold the American Dream only to be confronted by a waking nightmare once they arrive. 

In terms of form, something that I don’t remember ever seeing before, but which is incredibly effective in terms of narrative style, is the absence of quotation marks. It’s a brilliant choice because it allows the reader into Ana’s head and heart so that we, in a sense, become Ana. Because she is so young her experiences are largely unfiltered, pure. We can tap into her sense of isolation, disorientation, loneliness, and ambition. The seamless connection that Cruz makes between what is seen, felt, heard, spoken by Ana impels us to also experience her disillusionment and gradual, but inevitable awakening. 

One of the things that I loved about the novel is the author’s engagement with the complexities of race and racism in a Dominican/American context. Perhaps surprisingly, there’s no mention of Haiti in the narrative. If you know anything about the island that Christopher Columbus decided to name Hispaniola, then you know that 2/3 of the island was, for a time, colonized by the Spanish. The other 1/3 was colonized by the French (the history is long and complicated, but that’s a different post). 

In 1822, after the Dominican Republic had been “freed” from colonial rule by the Spanish, Haitians ruled the entire island. This was a problem for many reasons for the Dominicans. The imposition of language and religion was not well-received by the Dominicans, understandably. But at the base of Dominican resistance to Haitian rule—let’s face it—was race. These people who saw themselves as proximate to whiteness and in opposition to blackness as Haiti claimed it, were not interested in what Haitians were offering. It is why, to this day, Independence Day for Dominicans is a celebration of their independence from Haiti, not from Spain. 

Even though some of the action of the novel takes place in the DR, again, the author focuses on the Dominican experience of race in a U.S. context, and more specifically, in a Washington Heights, New York context. The Cancions live in a primarily Dominican neighborhood, but it is also where the Audubon Ballroom is—the site of Malcolm X’s murder. So, in the midst of Ana’s racist husband’s ranting about “the blacks” we have an outsider’s impression of what the murder of a great civil rights activist meant to the African American community and most, importantly, one particular woman (we never know if it is his wife) who returns to the site of the murder for several months after the scene of the crime has been cleared away.   

I mentioned at the outset of this review that I learned about Dominicana because I’m part of a wonderful bookclub, One Book, One Bronx. Well, one of the cool things about “a member” is that authors of the book being studied will often join the conversation. This past Wednesday, indeed, Cruz visited with us and answered some of our questions. It really was a treat!!

I learned, for example, that the narrative technique that enamored me—the absence of quotation marks around dialogue, is actually common in Spanish writing. Cruz also noted that another reason she used that technique was because people often skip to the dialogue when reading literature, but, for her (and I completely agree) the other parts of the narrative—facial expressions, movements, etc—are equally critical to the story. Without the demarcation the reader is forced to take everything in. 

I also learned that Dominicana took 10 full years for Cruz to get right. The effortlessness that comes through on the page took time and sacrifice; a valuable lesson for all aspiring writers. 

Cruz was pulled away from the conversation by family obligations so I didn’t get all of my burning questions answered. Nonetheless, we continued talking and as usual, afterwards, I couldn’t settle my brain enough to go straight to sleep. I can think of no better reason for insomnia. 

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Review of Lee Daniels’ The United States vs. Billie Holiday

The whole time I watched Lee Daniels’ The United States vs. Billie Holiday I thought, “Ignorance is bliss,” an adage to which I used to wholeheartedly subscribe. And now I know that after so many years of breathing (an accomplishment) in ignorance, there has been a high price to pay, 

The United States vs. Billie Holiday

I don’t remember how I came to Lady Day. I know that it was not through my family. Billie Holiday, like the incomparable Nina Simone, was NEVER played in my childhood home.

I learned about Simone through some bizarre movie I watched when I was in my twenties about young waywards who were recruited by some agency to work on “the right side of the law.” One of the characters, a young woman, early twenties, in her perpetually depressed, although genius state, listened to Nina all the time. I was intrigued and looked up the woman who inspired such brooding brilliance. Of course, once I heard her and knew who she was I was hooked. 

But then the question becomes for me, “Why did I have to wait until I was in my twenties and watching a crappy movie to find out about this amazing Black woman artist and activist?!

Nina Simone

Instead of, or perhaps, alongside Depeche Mode, Nina Simone’s music should’ve been rolling off my tongue. 

Later still, I learned about the high price that Nina paid for her activism. And I’m angry that the community she stood up for, risked her life for, abandoned her. I feel like I abandoned her. 

Ignorance is not bliss; not in a country that works overtime to silence truth and the tellers of truth. 

Knowing Ms. Simone’s music and her story would’ve done wonders for my sense of self as well as the possibilities that this body held while I grew like a wildflower in an open field of prickly weeds. 

The same is true for my relationship with Ms. Holiday. 

Somewhere along the way I heard “Strange Fruit,” but I was introduced to Billie through songs like “All of Me,” and “Ain’t Nobody’s Business.” 

Such songs are fun to sing along with, but ultimately they’re disempowering to young black girls who don’t know what a healthy romantic relationship looks like. 

Such songs seep into their subconscious and become their reality. 

Unrequited love was the most I could hope for. On the other end was physical, mental, and spiritual abuse. None of these is acceptable.  

It’s all of this unacceptability and the resulting destruction to one’s personhood are played out in Daniels’ film. 

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The film has been widely criticized, with one person writing “the direction and storytelling are laborious, without the panache and incorrectness of earlier Daniels movies such as Precious (2009) and The Paperboy (2012). A cloud of solemnity and reverence hangs over it, briefly dispelled by the music itself.” 

WTF?? The woman was driven to drugs by the trauma of growing up a poor black girl in the United States. As a final f* you she is murdered in her hospital room as she lay dying—and there should be no “solemnity” or “reverence” for this woman who literally gave her life for the truth???!! Seriously??!!

Contrary to another critic who calls the film “forgettable” and “muddled” I was so haunted by the story that I barely slept the night I watched it. What some are reading is muddled is in fact, Daniels’ commitment to not letting the seemingly isolated story of someone who has been dismissed as a drug addict go uncontextualized. 

The failure of the Senate to pass an anti-lynching law in 1937 has everything to do with the bill that is currently before the Senate. The black and white stills of yesteryear have everything to do with the disenfranchisement and disregard for black life that today we witness on cell phone video. For me, such critiques speak to white America’s desire to retreat to “innocence” in the way that James Baldwin thought about it. They have no desire to face the destruction they have wrought. But as Baldwin also said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

Nina Simone and James Baldwin

The scene that reads much like a dream sequence speaks to the way that the violence to which black people are regularly subjected haunts not just our nightmares, but our waking lives. 

What don’t people get? It’s really quite simple. 

The United States vs. Billie Holiday should be seen and then as much about the woman’s life as possible should be researched. The same is true for Nina Simone (What Happened Miss Simone? And that new trash in which Zoe Saldana is cast should be avoided).

Check out Nina Simone’s tribute to Lorraine Hansberry:

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Review of George M. Johnson’s All Boys Aren’t Blue

For the past few months I’ve been reading George M. Johnson’s All Boys Aren’t Blue: A Memoir Manifesto (2020).

All Boys Aren’t Blue

You may be asking why it would take me several months to read a book that is a little under 300 pages, includes photos, and is in a rather large print.

The narrative is straightforward, the chapters short, and engaging. 

I would ask the same question. 

The answer is, I assigned the book to my students as one of three that they could choose from.  So, I’ve been reading along. 

I assigned the book because I love my students and I want them to know that they are seen, that they more than matter—all of them. But I also assigned the book for myself. 

Because I am also a student–sometimes a good one–and I want to learn. 

So that I can be a better teacher. 

All Boys Aren’t Blue is Johnson’s personal exploration of his coming of age as Black queer male. 

If you’ve grown up Black around the time that Johnson did (they’re in their 30s) you know that being Black and queer made for a difficult childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood. 

It could very well get you killed:  “Father Accused of Murdering 14-Year-Old Because He Didn’t Want a Gay Son’ Gets Reduced Bail, House Arrest”

All Boys is a hard read, not because of the language—the book is actually a young adult (YA) publication so the language is very accessible. Rather, it’s hard because I’m (ahem) a few years older than Johnson and I grew up in a Black community with two brothers. 

I remember that in school, one of the worst things you could be called was “faggot” or “gay.” 

And these were terms that were flung around high school hallways and locker rooms as easily and offhandedly as someone’s given first name. 

There were lots of other words that got thrown around, but that’s a conversation for another day. 

The thing is, the ability for someone to call someone else those names was predicated on the belief/sureness that the person being called those name was in fact, not gay. One of the things that Johnson manages to convey is how painful it was to grow up hiding this critical part of their identity. And I was reminded of my classmates who both used those terms and who were on the receiving end of them—how many of them hid themselves like Johnson? 

I was also reminded of a toxic work environment in which I worked in my early 20s. It was in an agency that was founded to serve the, at the time, largely black and brown community of Bed Stuy (gentrification is putting an end to that). It was a largely female space and one in which the  worst insults would jokingly be hurled across the office. And those insults would be received with a belly laugh before being hurled right back. 

It was not a good place for me so I left. 

But I had the option to leave.  

When you’re in grade school or middle school or high school or worse, in a household, you don’t have the option to leave. 

Fortunately, for Johnson, their family loved them enough to navigate a terrain that was filled with landmines in Black communities. 

I was reading Johnson’s book at the same time that I was reading Sonya Renee Taylor’s The Body is Not an Apology (2018), again, because I want my students to feel good in their bodies (I am often reminded of Baby Sugg’s forest sermon). 

The Body is Not an Apology

Reading the two together was quite the trip because, not only did they bring up memories of the—let’s face it—horrors of high school, but also that toxic work environment in which hurtful language was used as a bonding mechanism.

Because like “gay” and “faggot,” words like “ho” and “bitch” could work for or against the person who was at the receiving end of it.  

I don’t spend time in high school hallways anymore. And I have been blessed with the ability to extricate myself from toxic work environments (at least in the immediate). 

But Johnson’s memoir reminded me of those who are not here (alive) or who walk about deeply wounded, punished for the “crime” of expressing their fullest authentic selves. 

Taylor’s treatise reminded me of too many of us who are trapped in a poverty of the mind that uses hateful words to speak to and about our brothers and sisters, which is really to speak to and about ourselves. 

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The Little Things: Nope

I have immense respect for Denzel Washington and his acting chops. It doesn’t hurt that he is a particularly gorgeous black man. 

Denzel Washington

The last thing I saw him in was August Wilson’s Fences (2016) starring opposite Viola Davis. Then I learned that he had bought the rights to all of Wilson’s plays. So when I saw him speak about the film version of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020), a masterpiece also starring Davis, my respect for the man and his work only grew. 

When I saw that he was starring in a new release, The Little Things (2021), I jumped at the chance to see him in action again. 

First, I’ll admit, I haven’t seen much of Washington’s more popular work. So, it’s quite possible that the atrocity that I saw unfold on screen in The Little Things is not an anomaly—perhaps someone can tell me. 

The Little Things is a kind of police thriller, centering Washington as the protagonist, Sheriff Joe Deacon, who is seemingly haunted by the unsolved serial murders of several women years before. The film takes place in 1990 when the murders have started again. Deacon joins forces with detective Jim Baxter to solve the crimes. 

The Little Things

The two set their sights on a local creep, Albert Sparma, who spends his free time following unsolved crimes, occasionally confessing to them. 

The pair are like dogs with a bone, so focused they are on Sparma as the culprit that they ignore any evidence to the contrary. 

I couldn’t agree more with Matt Goldberg who, in his review, places the film in a larger context, as it should be. Films are not made in isolation. There are reasons that certain years and places are chosen. Whether the director, John Lee Hancock, was conscious of his decisions or not, his choices are bold slaps in the face to those of us who are all too familiar with the way these kinds of things play out and at whose expense. 

As Goldberg observes about the plot, “The problem is that the film is too sympathetic towards Deke and Baxter. Ultimately, they are the film’s heroes, and when they cross that line of doing an evil thing, the film gives them a cop-out by showing that Deke’s shooting was accidental and Sparma basically had it coming by taunting a guy who was already primed to kill him.”

Again, the film is set in 1990. By doing so, perhaps Hancock hoped to avoid dealing with current events, but again, as Goldberg reminds us, “these events have sadly always been current. Rodney King was beaten by LAPD officers in March 1991, five months after the events of The Little Things, and it’s not like King was the first person ever assaulted by the police who then got away with their crimes. Creating a narrative about how cops commit crimes in the name of personal closure and then feel kind of guilty about it afterwards is letting powerful people off the hook. While it is possible to thread this needle of cops melting down in their search for answers…The Little Things comes off as kind of tone-deaf. It’s one thing to ponder the inner lives of your officers, but Hancock ultimately turns a blind eye towards what these cover ups do to a society.”

Monsters and Men

Reflecting on The Little Things, I was reminded of another cop film that I recently watched: Monsters and Men (2018) which, using the Eric Garner murder as inspiration, explores the fates of three men of color, Manny, Dennis, and Zyrick, who take different paths to resolution in the aftermath of the police murder of a local man, Darius Larsen. 

Monsters’ director, Reinaldo Marcus Green, tries to take a nuanced approach to the choices that people make when faced with an impossible situation. The thing that I left that film with, however, was the question of why it is always people of color who must bear the burden of “doing the right thing.” 

Manny’s life is pretty much ruined by the two white cops who are responsible for the murder of Darius, and who are free to continue with their “bad apple” behavior of harassing black men who are simply trying to live their lives. 

Zyrick is willing to sacrifice his chance at the baseball majors to stand up for justice. 

Dennis chooses to place himself squarely behind the blue wall because he has a lot to lose if he decides to do otherwise. 

Again, the film attempts some nuance. But again, my question remains. Larsen, who served in the military, is dead and blamed for his own murder, while the “bad apple” trope is trotted out as if the whole freaking bushel is not rotten to the core. 

Similarly, in The Little Things, Sparma had it coming. How dare he taunt a cop who has a wife and two girls and who “only wants to do the right thing:” find the depraved murderer of women?

But, it seems clear to me that the only things Sparma’s guilty of are being poor, alone, and morbidly fascinated with unsolved crimes. 

Conversely, both Deacon and Baxter are portrayed as good cops who accidentally did bad things. 

And since Sparma is white, then it can’t be about race, right? 

And since Deacon is black and gets his foible covered up by a white man and a black woman it really can’t be about race, right? 

Actually, what this casting does is again, point to the corruption of the whole system while playing into the hands of those who would argue that there is no problem of race in the (in)justice system. 

The danger in this kind of move is that, as we have seen again and again, if it is not checked, the truth gets rewritten in the American imagination, while the reality remains ignored. 

I’m surprised and really disappointed that Washington let himself be used in this way. 

So, nope. 

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Review of Joy Harjo’s Crazy Brave

Joy Harjo

For the longest time I had the United States poet laureate, Joy Harjo’s memoir, Crazy Brave (2013), in my Amazon wishlist. The book’s cover, which features the profile of a beautiful raven haired woman, made me want to know more about her. 

Crazy Brave

I have always felt a kinship with indigenous people and their struggles, which, as a person of African descent, clearly aligned with my own.

Then, of course, there is Julie Dash’s groundbreaking 1991 film Daughters of the Dust, which intrigues with the intimation of long-recognized kinship between indigenous people and people of African descent. 

And as a student of “Caribbean” cultures and histories I have learned about the maroon communities that were populated by both indigenous people and those who had been enslaved, but who together escaped to the mountains in search of refuge and respite from the barbarism of European colonialism. 

A long time ago friend gifted me with Jack A. Forbes’ Africans and Native Americans: The Language of Race and the Evolution of Red-Black Peoples (1993), but the book was dry and I was young, so it has sat on my shelves for decades. I do not plan to read it.

Last year as the work to honor and uphold Standing Rock took root while the capitalist Earth rapists forged on I came across Dina Gilio-Whitaker’s As Long As the Grass Grows: The Indigenous fight for Environmental Justice, from Colonization to Standing Rock (2019). Again, it seems daunting. But I plan to read it.

There is so much I don’t know, so much to know.

The need to learn more about indigenous struggles became even more urgent this past year as I read story after story about how, as it has done in African American communities, COVID 19 has decimated indigenous communities

Beyond the news I figured I’d work with the personal, but how?

The universe was ready with an answer when, during my brief stint as part of a women’s writing group I was sent a poem by Joy Harjo entitled “Remember

Here’s a video of Harjo reading “remember”:

https://www.joyharjo.com/videos/remember-by-joy-harjo

I was brought to tears when I first read her words and have returned to the poem again and again—when I need to ground myself and remember what is truly important—which is often. 

So, I returned to my Wishlist and ordered Crazy Brave on my kindle. 

I immediately fell in love with the directness of the writing, intertwined with the poetry as Spirit worked through Harjo.

There are four sections introduced by orientations to the narrative via the four directions of the Earth, the Sun, the Winds, and the Waters: East, North, West, and South. 

The narrative chronicles Harjo’s life from childhood through to early adulthood when she steps into her power as a writer. 

Harjo’s story is a powerful one. She reveals a lot in a direct manner through her mastery of the word, but there are worlds in the silences.

Reading Crazy Brave is an experience that you have to have for yourself. 

I promise, you will be forever changed for having done so.  

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Celebrating True Love: Rev. angel Kyodo williams and Frederick Douglass

This past Sunday was Valentine’s Day, celebrated far and wide by millions of people, or at least hundreds of thousands.

But what many do not remember is that February 14th is also the chosen birthday of the great abolitionist and suffragist Frederick Douglass.

Douglass was a man who embodied Love in the most expansive sense. risking his life over and again to free those who were enslaved mentally, physically, and spiritually.

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Before we get into the other stars of this post, let’s listen to the words of another Freedom Fighter whom we commonly associate with Love: Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Check out Dr. King ‘s definition of Love:

So, in honor of Love in its broadest sense, I share with you a powerful TED Talk by a contemporary spiritual warrior, Rev. angel Kyodo williams.

Rev. angel Kyodo williams

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And now onto Douglass:

10 Facts You Might Not Know About Frederick Douglass

Thanks to the National Parks Conservation Association

Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass escaped slavery at age 20 and went on to become one of the most important political activists fighting for emancipation and the equality of all people. He published three autobiographies, spent years writing and editing an influential abolitionist newspaper, broke barriers for African Americans in government service, served as an international spokesman and statesman, and helped combat racial prejudice during the Reconstruction Era. And yet there is even more to know about Frederick Douglass’ remarkable story than the facts we learn in school.

Here are a few things that might surprise you about this pioneering historic figure as the National Park Service prepares to celebrate the bicentennial of his birth at the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site in Washington, D.C., February 17-18, 2018.

  1. One of the reasons we celebrate Black History Month in February is because of Frederick Douglass. Historian and educator Carter G. Woodson founded the precursor to Black History Month, “Negro History Week,” to coincide with the time of year when both Douglass and Abraham Lincoln celebrated their birthdays. Although Douglass was born into slavery and his actual birth date is unknown, he chose to commemorate his birthday on February 14.

2. Douglass was the most photographed American of the 19th century, sitting for more portraits than even Abraham Lincoln. Douglass intentionally sought out the cameras, believing that photography was an important tool for achieving civil rights because it offered a way to portray African Americans fairly and accurately. He intentionally did not smile for the camera because he wanted to counter “happy slave” caricatures that were common at the time, particularly in places such as minstrel shows where white actors performed racist skits in blackface.

3. Frederick Douglass chose his name from a poem. Douglass was born with the name Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey. After he successfully escaped slavery in 1838, he and his wife adopted the name Douglass from a narrative poem by Sir Walter Scott, “The Lady of the Lake,” at the suggestion of a friend.

4. Douglass became a free man thanks to help from European allies. His first autobiography, “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave,” was so popular after it was published in 1845, he feared the publicity could lead to his capture, and he chose to live in Ireland and Britain for two years. While abroad, he went on a speaking tour and his British supporters were so moved, they collected funds to purchase his freedom in 1846. His autobiographies remain some of the most important and widely read accounts of slavery today.

5. Douglass was the only African American to attend the First Women’s Rights Convention held in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. Shortly after the convention, Douglass wrote in his influential weekly abolitionist newspaper, the North Star, “In respect to political rights, we hold woman to be justly entitled to all we claim for man.” In 1866, he cofounded the American Equal Rights Association with Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and other feminist leaders supporting suffrage for all people.

6. During the Civil War, Douglass passionately helped enlist free black men to fight in the Union Army, convinced it would help African Americans win freedom, respect and full citizenship. He wrote persuasive articles in his weekly newspaper, and when President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 allowing African Americans to serve, two of Douglass’ sons were among the first to enlist. Douglass also helped improve conditions for the soldiers, meeting with Lincoln on issues such as equal pay and merit-based promotions, which African American soldiers eventually received.

7. Douglass was the first African American to receive a vote for president at a major political party convention. The vote came from the Kentucky delegation during the Republican National Convention of 1888.

8. Douglass was also the first African American to receive a vice presidential nomination when Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for president, chose him as her running mate at the Equal Rights Party Convention in 1872, although he did not acknowledge the nomination or campaign for the office.

9. Later in his life, Douglass did much of his writing and deep thinking in a one-room cabin that he referred to as his “Growlery.” This odd name for the building on Douglass’ Cedar Hill property in Washington, D.C., was likely a reference to “Bleak House” by Charles Dickens; in the book, the character John Jarndyce has a small library next to his bedroom where he goes when he needs a place of refuge. Today, the Park Service maintains a replica of the Growlery at the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site made with materials from the original stone structure.

10. Many of Douglass’ possessions were lost in a devastating fire in 1877. Douglass was visiting Washington, D.C., in 1877 when his home in Rochester, New York, burned down in a suspected arson that destroyed most of his family’s possessions. He went on to purchase Cedar Hill, the property that would become his final home and the national park site in his name, and he lived in the nation’s capital from that point on instead of returning to New York. Hundreds of Douglass’ letters and the only known complete set of Douglass’ newspapers were lost in the 1877 fire, and no photographs of the Rochester home survive. All of the books, furniture and photographs that firefighters saved from the blaze were sent to Cedar Hill, however, and the Park Service continues to preserve surviving artifacts, from his collection of walking canes to the violin he taught his grandson to play. In 1927, the city of Rochester built a public library at the site of Douglass’ former home that was formally renamed the Frederick Douglass Community Library in 2016.

Learn more about Douglass and his legacy at www.nps.gov/frdo

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Happy Birthday Mr. Douglass!!

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Review of Men Sa Lanme Di by Arnold Antonin

Men Sa Lanme Di

Men Sa Lanme Di (Ainsi Parla la Mer) (So Spoke the Sea), a short by the wonderful Arnold Antonin, is a meditation on and by Mother Ocean.

The title echoes that of the celebrated noiriste, Jean Price Mars’ ethnographic study, Ainsi Parla l’Oncle (So Spoke the Uncle), which called for a celebration of Ayiti’s Black and Indigenous  wisdom embedded in her folkloric tradition. In 1928, at the height of the 19-year American military occupation, Price-Mars did the unthinkable. He proposed that, contrary to the many lies that had been told about the worthlessness of Ayitien people’s cultural practices, the truth was that those traditions held the key to the island nation’s true wealth. 

Men Sa Lanme Di draws on that tradition of uncovering Ayiti’s many gifts, not from the perspective of its people, but from Mother Earth, which has sustained them in their ongoing struggle for true liberation.

It was the ocean that brought Christopher Columbus to Ayiti in the 15th century.

It was that same ocean that brought enslaved Africans to the island to be consumed for the benefit of Europe.

It was the land on which their descendants toiled, again for centuries, before, under the shelter of the night sky and deep in the forest, they called upon the natural powers of their collective spiritual traditions to defeat the French, making the nascent Black nation the first in the western hemisphere, even while surrounded on all sides by slaveholding countries!! 

In the twentieth century that ocean brought German businessmen to the island and then the Americans who overturned Ayiti’s constitution and for the entire time of the occupation, flew the American flag at the palace.

The land witnessed and supported the armed struggle by valiant men and women, Cacos, to resist that occupation. 

Arnold Antonin has directed many films that celebrate Haitian history and culture. I have written about one of my favorites, Les Amours d’un Zombi (2010), a satirical work that reclaims the figure of the zombi, so long wielded against the Ayitien people. Gary Victor, a well-known master of the macabre, who wrote the script for Les Amours, also wrote the script for Men Sa Lanme Di

Gary Victor

(On a side note, when I reached out to Mr. Antonin as I was writing a book which featured Les Amours in one of its chapters, he was extremely gracious, helpful, and supportive of my work. 

I met Mr. Victor one night in Port-au-Prince at a fun little place called La Detente. He was also very gracious and patient with me as I gushed about how much I loved his work.) 

Men Sa Lanme Di was part of the African Diaspora International Film Festival that ran back in December. I didn’t get to see it on its first run, but caught it when there was an encore screening of some of the festival favorites in January.

I’m glad I did. 

The writer and director pack a lot into a mere 49 minutes. 

I love that the story of Ayiti is told by Mother Ocean and supplemented by talking heads.

I love that they begin by informing the viewer that all of the scenes that they are about to witness were filmed in Ayiti and if what they see challenges their perception then they need to change their perception!

I love that all the people featured speak Kreyol.

I love that the film draws from a wide swath of the population, calling on visual artists, sevites, politicians, conservationists, entrepreneurs, historians, fishermen, fish sellers, biologists, deep sea divers, among others, to contribute to the collective story of the interconnectedness of humanity and the natural world. 

I love that the film begins with Ayiti’s beauty. 

I love that it really strives to present a balanced picture of the nation’s strengths as well as her challenges. 

Watching the film made me want to jump on a plane, to feel the sun on my skin. To visit with my beloveds, suck sticky sweet mango from the peel, sip a cold Prestige, eat aransaw and spaghetti, because even though they are both imported Haitians know how to combine the two to make something spectacular, or eat okra soup with pounded yam, a dish brought over to the island with enslaved West Africans, and that can still be found in Port-au-Prince, if one knows where to look.

Part of the work of Men Sa Lanme Di is to wake the viewer up to the crisis that Mother Ocean is in. To that end, Antonin and Victor spend a good deal of the film highlighting the pollution that is choking Ayiti’s waters. 

It is a horrifying picture. 

The collaborators make clear that unless something is done now to reverse the damage there will be nothing left of Her.

And reflecting a Vodou sensibility that ALL of nature is connected, they intimate that without Her there is no us. 

It was hard to watch that part of the film. I was reminded of La Saline and Cite Katon, makeshift areas that sprang up when Francois Papa Doc Duvalier imported thousands of people from the countryside to vote for him and then abandoned them in the city in the 1950s. I was also reminded of when I first lived in Ayiti and would buy my lunch from a marchande. To do so I and anyone else who wanted to buy from her had to bring our own container from home. Now, when you buy take away you get it in a styrofoam container and, to add insult to injury, have it wrapped in a flimsy black plastic bag!! 

I was also reminded of the farming community in the Arbonite region where I’ve spent time and the waste crisis that they are dealing with as a result of the popularity of energy drinks like Toro, sold in plastic bottles and styrofoam containers and plastic bags that pollute the streams and rivers.

The banana leaves that used to serve as plates are shunned for disposable ones and fingers are shunned for sporks. The spaghetti packages that once held their now staple breakfast ingredients blow in the wind to be eaten and never digested by the goats and cows. 

There was one thing I did not agree with Antonin and Victor on: that is in laying the blame for Ayiti’s pollution problems solely at her feet. I remember a few years ago, the then president of Ayiti tried to cease the importation of styrofoam containers from the Dominican Republic, a very profitable business. In retaliation, the DR began expelling Haitian workers…again! How does one stand up to that kind of bullying!? 

We also have to remember that the deforestation that is responsible for so much of Ayiti’s top soil washing into the sea did not begin in the past few years. It didn’t begin in the past few centuries. It began with the French who cut down Ayiti’s forest in order to build a plantation economy and introduce livestock.

It began with the metropole’s bottomless hunger for mahogany and other woods which were shipped to France to be made into furniture. 

It came with the Christians who teach that the trees that are sacred to sevite such as the Mapou, but which also signal the presence of water, are evil and should be burned and cut down!

With slavery and colonization came the stripping away of the wisdom that had sustained generations of farmers who, by the way, were stolen from their homelands because of their agricultural prowess. Now we want to blame Haitian farmers for trying to eke out a living from soil that has been drained of all of its nutrients?! 

While yet again, those who profit from their wanton exploitation of the land and her people get away unscathed!

No!!! 

Again, No!

In the end, Antonin and Victor, channeling Mother Earth, encourage Ayitiens to leve, kanpe. 

If only the rest of the world would take its foot off of her neck. 

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Arnold Antonin

Arnold Antonin is known both inside and outside the country for his social, political and cultural commitment. With more than 60 films to his credit, he directed the first Haitian feature film.

He was honored for his body of work at the Djibril Diop Mambety Prize at the Cannes International Film Festival in 2002. He was awarded three consecutive times the Paul Robeson Prize for the best film from the African Diaspora at the FESPACO in Ouagadougou in 2007, 2009 and 2011, as well as numerous prizes and mentions in various festivals for his documentaries and fiction films. He was president of the Haitian Association of Filmmakers (AHC) from 2005 to 2009.

In 1986, he founded the Pétion-Bolivar Centre, one of whose primary objectives is to encourage the democratization of the audiovisual sector in Haiti. It is also through this organization that Arnold Antonin directs his documentaries and fictions.

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Remember Our Power: An Inspired Nudge from Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

A few weeks ago I wrote about the magnificence of Nnedi Okorafor’s short story “Mother of Invention.” I’ve also been reading Sonya Renee Taylor’s The Body is Not an Apology, which I mentioned in a post a few weeks before that. It would seem that the universe in her infinite wisdom was sending me literature to help guide me toward a more loving relationship with my body. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s short story, “Zikora,” was just what I needed to set out boldly the path of self-exploration that so many women have yet to even recognize, let alone move toward. 

The story is very short, but mighty. To summarize, the narrative action takes place in a hospital room and explores the emotional storms endured by a young woman, Zikora, who is about to give birth as her mother sits by, detached and emotionally unavailable. Through flashbacks the reader learns that Zikora is a successful DC lawyer, abandoned by her lover as soon as she told him she was pregnant.

We also learn of moments in her college years when she allowed a man to abuse her body. Finally we learn of Zikora’s mother’s painful past and struggle for dignity after her husband deserted her, his senior wife, for a woman who bore him a son. Indeed as has been written about the text, as Zikora undertakes the travail of childbirth, “she begins to see more clearly what her own mother wants for her, for her new baby, and for herself.” But, more importantly, at least for me,  it also explores how freaking difficult it is to live in this world in a female body. 

The similarity between Okorafor’s depiction of childbirth and that by Adichie is in their rawness; the way that they detail the experience of childbirth in all of its earthiness, primality, and let’s face it, gore. And at the end of it all, both women usher through a precious new life. 

Tell me that’s not power. 

And it is just one of the many magics of womanhood that should be revered, not rejected as Anwuli’s and Zikora’s former partners do. It should not be devalued as too many of us do when we hand our power over to men as Zikora does as a young woman. It is found in insisting on our dignity as Zikora’s mother and Anwuli eventually do. 

Both short stories, Okorafor’s “Mother of Invention” and Adichie’s “Zikora,” were cathartic, gifting me with the ability to remember my own difficult youth and younger adulthood and, with a renewed conviction, reject the disempowering stories that I have been fed about my femaleness.

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Like “Mother of Invention” you can read Adichie’s “Zikora” for free here.

Check out Adichie’s brilliant TED talk “We Should All Be Feminists” while you’re at it:

Finally, two greats joined the ancestors in the past couple of weeks:

The beautiful and talented Emmy and Tony award-winning actress, Cicely Tyson, passed away this past Thursday at 96.

She had just recently published her memoir, Just As I Am (2021)

https://variety.com/2021/tv/news/cicely-tyson-dead-dies-1234895188/

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The incomparable Hank Aaron, nicknamed “Hammer” or “Hammerin’ Hank,” also passed away a little over a week ago at the age of 86.

While I’m not a big baseball fan, I do have immense respect for his groundbreaking work! He was a beautiful soul.

Rest in Power, Dear Ones!!

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Ok, that’s it for now…

Until next week, as usual,

Walk Beautifully!!

Toni

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The People’s Inauguration is Live!

From The People’s Inauguration Website

America is in transition—will we birth a multiracial democracy where every person is safe and free? The answer lies with us.

Valarie Kaur, renowned civil rights activist, author, and founder of the Revolutionary Love Project, invites you to The People’s Inauguration—a free, 10-day online journey to help us reckon with all we have lost and point us toward a vision of the society we can build together, grounded in love.

In Valarie’s words: “Revolutions do not happen only in grand moments in public view, but also in small pockets of people coming together to inhabit a new way of being.”

Join Valarie and an extraordinary community of visionaries, artists, activists, and healers in this global movement to reclaim love as a force for justice and change in our world. In the wake of recent turmoil, violence, and insurrection, it is more important than ever to come together around justice, healing, and renewal. May The People’s Inauguration be medicine for the moment.

Ten Days of Revolutionary Love

All evening conversations take place at 5pm PT / 8pm ET

Day 1, Friday, January 22, WONDER

Baratunde Thurston, Allie Young & Simran Jeet Singh

Day 2, Saturday, January 23, GRIEVE
Rev. Dr. Traci Blackmon, Rev. Michael-Ray Mathews & Najeeba Syeed

Day 3, Sunday, January 24, FIGHT
Ai-jen Poo, Caitlin Breedlove & Isa Noyola 

Day 4, Monday, January 25, RAGE
Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis, Rabbi Sharon Brous, Amy Olrick & Maggie Wheeler

Day 5, Tuesday, January 26, LISTEN
Sister Simone Campbell & Van Jones

Day 6, Wednesday, January 27, REIMAGINE
Brian McLaren, Lisa Sharon Harper, Deepa Iyer & Sherrilyn Ifill

Day 7, Thursday, January 28, BREATHE
Seane Corn, adrienne maree brown & Daphne Frias

Day 8, Friday, January 29, PUSH
Rev. angel Kyodo williams & Susan Raffo

Day 9, Saturday, January 30, TRANSITION
Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson & Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III

Day 10, Sunday, January 31, JOY
Ani DiFranco, Resistance Revival Chorus, Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis & Dr. Parker J. Palmer

Then join Monday, February 1 for a special send-off from Valarie!
https://thepeoplesinauguration.org
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And Still We Rise!: Amanda Gorman and the People’s Inauguration

Amanda Gorman, National Youth Poet Laureate, read her “The Hill We Climb” at the inauguration of the 46th President of the United States, Dr. Joseph Biden, Wednesday, January 20, 2021

Now 22-years-old, West LA raised Gorman was named Youth Poet Laureate of Los Angeles at the age of 16.

At 19, while in college at Harvard, she was named the first-ever National Youth Poet Laureate.

Amanda Gorman, Youth Poet Laureate

24 Hours of Reality: “Earthrise” by Amanda Gorman

“Earthrise” by Amanda Gorman

The Miracle of Morning

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The People’s Inauguration

Again, yesterday thankfully, found the nation and the world witnessing the inauguration of the 46th president of the United States, Dr. Joseph Biden.

The prayer is that the country and the world will be able to get down to the work of healing after four relentless years of vicious bodily, mental and spiritual assault–trauma ya’ll!

To support this process, Valarie Kaur, founder of The Revolutionary Love Project, entreats anyone who is interested in our individual and collective healing to participate in The People’s Inauguration, making a vow to “collective renewal, accountability, and a strong moral vision for the country we could become.”

https://thepeoplesinauguration.org/about/#oath 

The People’s Inauguration on Beth Zemsky Podcast

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Until next week,

Continue to walk beautifully!

Toni

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