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.
Like “Mother of Invention” you can read Adichie’s “Zikora” for free here.
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!
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.”
To learn more about the woman behind the name I watched the documentary, All In: The Fight for Democracy (2020), produced by Abrams and available on Prime Video.
Here’s a preview:
The fact that the film is behind a pay wall is unfortunate. It should be widely available for free or low cost, because knowledge is power. Understanding that the voter suppression that we have seen reinvigorated in the past few years is out of a playbook that has been wielded by those who hold onto their power with a death grip for centuries is critical to our ability to resist it.
All In is not just about Abrams. It is inextricably about the long American tradition of exclusion and suppression that has been kept in place through the deployment of ideological, psychological, political, economic, and physical violence.
I appreciate this fact about the film as an extension of what I have witnessed over and again in Abrams’ words and deeds: that the fight that she has taken on is not just about her. But it is about us all if we, as a nation, hope to ever live up to the promise of democracy (a challenge that the great Frederick Douglass issued back in 1852 with his speech, “What to the Slave is The Fourth of July?“)
We’re still asking that question almost 200 years later.
Abrams’ hard work in Georgia has paid off, paving the way for the Senate victories by Jon Ossoff and Rev. Raphael Warnock, both Democrats, solidifying Georgia’s political transformation, and ensuring that President-elect Joe Biden will have an easier job.
I encourage you to check out All In: The Fight for Democracy. It is heartbreaking and enlightening. It will put into perspective the shameful and disgusting behavior we saw unfold at the capitol building a few days ago.
The organization that Abrams founded, Fair Fight PAC, promotes fair elections in Georgia and around the country, encourages voter participation in elections, and educates voters about elections and their voting rights. The organization brings awareness to the public on election reform, advocates for election reform at all levels, and engages in other voter education programs and communications.
To end this post I share with you a video that I very gratefully received in my inbox the morning after the Georgia elections and that reminded me of another amazing Black woman, Ella Fitzgerald.
I have recently found two short stories that brought back some hard memories. They were both cathartic, gifting me with the ability to remember and, with a renewed conviction, reject the stories that I was told about about my femaleness.
Self-love is an ongoing process, especially if you’re a black woman.
This is why I love literature so much.
It allows the reader to see herself in the characters.
And to imagine a different way of being in the world; a way that supports a liberated life.
A most basic synopsis of “Mother of Invention” is that a young mother-to-be in future Nigeria finds herself caught in what would, for her, be a deadly pollen storm. Abandoned by her child’s father, her smart home is her only companion as she goes into labor while the storm kicks up outside.
I learned about the story from LeVar Burton Reads when he spent a couple of weeks reading the story and the third week in an hour-long interview with Okorafor.*
I highly recommend it.
Okorafor is a master storyteller, prolific and gifted in her attention to the details that make all the difference in storytelling. “Mother of Invention” is no exception, vividly depicting not only the natural environment of the Delta region in which the protagonist, Anwuli, lives, but also the environment created by the smart home and the A.I., Obi 3, the only one on whom she can depend. Okorafor also does a wonderful job of creating an emotional environment that holds on to the listener/reader with Burton’s interpretation of the story adding several important dimensions.
The story is riveting and rendered in such a way that the reader/listener is left at one point in the narrative believing that there is no way Anwuli is going to come out of the storm and the birth alive.
Yet Okorafor imagines a way out; a lesson for those of us who at certain points in our lives, feel like there is no way we will escape our circumstances. There is always a way.
But what struck me most about the story and the telling of it is the way that Okorafor brings into stark relief the fact that no matter how much humans try to separate ourselves from nature, we are nature and nature will reclaim us.
In the midst of the sterility that we associate with A.I. technology: flat, smooth, shiny surfaces, the absence of the human, there is Woman at the center, bringing new life into the world in the most organic way possible. There’s no sterilized hospital room, no masked, suited, and gloved doctors and nurses, no hot water, no epidurals, no bright lights, or brand new blankets in which to wrap the newborn, no sterilized scissors with which to cut the umbilical cord. There is a lone woman in pain, laboring to bring life to another as she fights to save her own life. There’s blood and gore and Earth smells, and Anwuli’s body’s violent reaction to allergens as it tries to keep her alive.
And in the end there is a brand new human being and his mother who will be able to nourish him for months with only the milk of her body.
Burton asks about the graphic rawness of Okorafor’s depiction of childbirth in his interview with her.
Her response reinforces her gift as a writer: that she has given birth and even in the midst of the travail she was mentally noting the experience so that she would be able to write about it!!!
How incredible is that???!!!
Okorafor is a true artist, always collecting fodder for her fertile imagination.
I absolutely love that she uses her experience as a woman and an inventor of worlds to bring certain facts to light: again, that humans are the Earth, that women are freaking amazing with our ability to not only nurture life within our bodies for nine months, but continue to do so once that life is out in the world.
And that out of the mud grows the lotus.
This is what all the pain is about and what a gift it has always been.
If only our society would celebrate the gift of the Feminine, rather than try to dominate it, humiliate it, suppress it, objectify it, abandon it.
If only we could stop hating ourselves for our power.
“Mother of Invention”,** A Locus Award Finalist, was originally published in Slate as part of Future Tense, a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society. It’s also available in Future Tense Fiction: Stories of Tomorrow (2019).
I’ll leave it there for now and will continue with the second most recent short story to change my life in the new year!
* Another short story that Burton read on his podcast, “The Winds of Harmattan,” so haunted me that I did a painting about it!
So, I’ve been taking guitar lessons for a little over a month.
I’m a terrible student, easily moving from one Saturday to the next without so much as looking in the direction of my instrument, propped up in the living room, so accessible.
In these past few weeks, it’s become abundantly clear to me that I want to be able to play without doing the work to get to actually playing. I want to be able to innovate without knowing the rules.
When it comes to my painting I’ve been doing it for so long that I wholeheartedly embrace the sentiment expressed by the great jazz musician, John Coltrane, when he declared, “Damn the rules, It’s the feeling that counts.” Indeed.
Perhaps there will come a day when I’ll be able to say the same thing about my guitar playing.
For now though, I need to learn the rules.
Which brings me to a beautiful documentary film that I got to watch during the New York African Diasporic International Film Festival, BaddDDD Sonia Sanchez(2015)!
Yes, there are five d’s in “Bad,” because the Sister-Elder is just that fierce and more. As Maya Angelou crowned her, she is “a lion in literature’s forest” and winner of several major literary honors, including the American Book Award in 1985 and the Harper Lee Award in 2004.
I grew up sort of knowing that Sonia Sanchez was a special kind of gift to the Black arts. She and Amiri Baraka, Nikki Giovanni, Maya Angelou, James Baldwin, to name a few.
But I can’t say that I willingly read much from her—partly because I’m much more into prose than poetry.
Sister Sonia is a foremother of modern-day hip hop.
Someone who has not trained their ear might not get the syncopation, the innovation, the artistry in it.
But one of the things that comes through in the documentary is the mastery of the English language that made the 60s generation’s work so powerful, yet seem so effortless.
Before they got to that point they needed to know the rules. As Sanchez says in one of her poetry classes, “Form will not deform you.”
Directed by Sabrina Schmidt Gordon, Barbara Attie, and Janet Goldwater and distributed by California Newsreel, well-known for their long commitment to revolutionary film, BaddDDD Sonia Sanchez is really well done, capturing the enduring vibrancy of Sister Sonia who was 80 years old at the time of filming.
Six years later, Sister Sonia is still going strong.
The film features interviews with conscious hip hop artists like Talib Kweli and Yasiin Bey (aka Mos Def), Questlove, as well as former colleagues and various scholars, all of whom speak about the contributions that she has made to humanity’s collective imagination, as well as the sacrifices that she has made as part of her commitment to revolutionary social justice. The filmmakers also thankfully, spend a lot of time with the poet herself, giving her the space to testify in her own words to her art and struggle.
The result is a thorough, thoughtful documentary that honors and celebrates the life of a revolutionary artist whose commitment to her people has gone hand-in-hand with her immense talent.
Since watching the film I’ve adopted one of her sayings: “Walk beautifully”
I mentioned last week that the Clintons have done some real harm in Haiti. In the name of transparency I will provide evidence of the most obvious and egregious ways that the pair has compounded Haitian suffering, rather than alleviate it.
Bill Clinton’s decision to send surplus rice from Arkansas, where he is from, to Haiti during his presidency decimated Haitian rice farming.
Yes, he apologized. But the damage has been done and cannot be undone.
Like the pig eradication program that decimated the creole pig, a staple of the Haitian agricultural sector in 1978, the Haitian farmer to this day, has yet to recover from the rice debacle.
You may say, “But that was Bill, not Hillary’s doing.” Well, let’s look at Hillary’s track record excerpted from Johns Hopkins University student newsletter:
Hillary Clinton and her husband have been heavily involved in Haitian aid and intervention, both in the 1990s and with the 2010 creation of the Clinton-Bush Haiti fund. The aid programs tied to the Clintons have been heavily involved in forced or coerced sterilizations of Haitian women, a huge reproductive rights issue. A 1993 report from the U.S. Agency for International Development outlines a goal for intervention in Haiti of establishing 23 sterilization facilities. Yet it also suggests the “elimination of the practice of requiring physician visits.” Essentially, this document states that the sterilization of Haitian women is more important than regular pap smears or pelvic exams.
The film, set in Haiti, is called Trois Machetes (Three Machetes). In fact, as a brilliant example of recentering focus, the machetes are actually the protagonists of the film. Their handlers are Saint-Juste, a grossly exploited agricultural worker, his son, Dorvil, a young man who hopes to travel to Chile to make something of himself, and a preteen “orphan”, Benjamin, who lives with them.
For those who know anything about Haiti and their spiritual tradition, Vodou, they’ll recognize the presence of the lwa (spirit/god) Ogou, often associated with the machete, throughout the film. Ogou is not only the god of war, but it is he who opens roads. He is the lwa of travelers. As such, he is the one before whom Dorvil kneels at the Vodou ceremony he attends. These two aspects of Ogou—war and road openings—clash in the film, culminating in what the audience can assume is a tragic end.
Along with the machete, the audience will recognize the prominence of the color red, also associated with Ogou. We see it in Dorvil’s red shirt that he wears sometimes around his neck, the red handle of his machete, distinguished from those that Saint-Juste and Benjamin carry, which have black handles. And most obviously at the Vodou ceremony that Dorvil attends to ask Ogou to open the way for him to travel to Chile. As soon as the god begins his descent, a red satin scarf is tied on the body and around the machete of his horse.
The film is beautifully rendered with lots of close-ups that linger on aspects of the film that the filmmaker, Matthieu Maunier-Rossi, wants to draw the audience’s attention to: the designated placement just outside the house of each of the three’s machetes. Sainte-Juste’s slamming the machete into a coconut tree so that he can sharpen it, the complexity of Benjamin’s emotions evident on his face even though he says barely a word throughout the entire film.
These close-ups are reinforced by haunting music that tells of long-held pent up male vital energy that is on the verge of boiling over. The music and the masterful cinematography keep the audience on edge, especially as the machetes are not only featured, but centered.
This last bit leads me to another point that I want to make; that is, the ubiquitousness of machetes in rural African and Caribbean environments. It is nothing to see people walking along a path holding machetes, or friends gathered together on the road, chatting, laughing, their machetes resting at their sides, or being used to gesticulate, to point or make a point.
Because it’s a tool, not a weapon.
Of course there have been many instances when machetes have been used to harm. The news is replete with such stories (I just watch another film from Kenya, The Letter, about the murders a few years ago of the elderly by their younger relatives who wanted to take their land).
What I’m pointing to is a worldview.
I’ve always marveled at this way of rural African and Caribbean people’s thinking about machetes; have been quite enamored with it, in fact.
Trois Machetes does a brilliant job of illuminating the two sides of the machete as both tool and weapon. For most of the film, the machete is a tool, used to dig holes so one can defecate, to dig up the soil so that seeds can be planted, to open coconuts to sell at local bars for a few coins, for youth martial arts training. But in those last moments of the film, lasting just a few seconds really, the machete becomes something else, channeling the tornado-like swirling energy that has been stored in Haitian male bodies and that has had nowhere to go for centuries. Such energy—the domain of Ogou—meant to be creative and life-giving, rightly becomes destructive and death-dealing in the face of centuries of blocked roads.
I did a painting based on Clinton’s article. It’s called Caterpillars and plays with the idea of caterpillars as ravenous (little) creatures that devour plants so that they may flourish and evolve and the man-made caterpillars that gut the land in the name of development.
Just to be clear, I love the little caterpillars. I make sure that when I find them on my walks in nature, I wait for them to cross ahead of me and marvel at the beauty that they are and that they will become. They live in harmony with the plants, because they “be” as part of the natural world.
Humans, not so much.
The imperialists take and take and take until there is no more to take and then they leave the land they have ravaged (raped) to perish.
Because they do not “be.”
This death-dealing orientation to the environment has meant in the past and means in the present that those who have lived off the land for generations are forced into cities because after so much exploitation and degradation, the land no longer sustains them.
What becomes of those displaced?
They arrive disoriented and out of step in the concrete jungle to blend in with their displaced sisters and brothers, unemployed and unemployable, hungry and destitute, left to perish.
The film takes place in an unnamed African country in which the Chinese have ensconced themselves and with the support of the corrupt African government, mine for gold. More specifically, the film centers an older African man whose wife is very pregnant and who may have to have a cesarean section.
The African man, Yohani, receives absolutely no compensation for the beautiful and rich mountains that the miners bore into. Every time he tries to confront the Chinese foreman, Cheng, about the miscarriage of justice, Cheng quickly bribes the lawyer that Yohani brings with him.
During one of these visits in which Yohani is playing the macabre game that has played out countless times before, first a white British man, Donald, visits Cheng to try to do business and then a large piece of gold is found by one of the workers.
Following a very disturbing scene that is indicative of the shit in which Africa is mired in its dealings with foreign entities, Yohani manages to leave the mine with the gold. His hope is to sell it so that he can secure a safe birth for what the audience can assume is his first child. Cheng ends up murdering Donald, Yohani is blamed for it and he along with his young friend, Gangi, go on the lam.
In a mere 1 1/2hours, the filmmaker, Yuhi Amuli, manages to comment on corrupt African governments that sell the land and its people to the highest bidder, corrupt local officials who do the same, and foreign entities, both governmental and private that continue with the legacy of colonialism, raping Africa and its people who are rendered powerless to defend themselves and their land.
But the film also beautifully renders the strength and resilience of those Africans who have and continue to say “Enough is enough. You have taken too much from us. And we will fight you for what is right and just.”
In one poignant conversation between Donald and Cheng the audience is introduced to some of this history of foreign savagery when Donald tells Cheng to “remember who was here first.” Cheng counters with his own little history lesson, reminding Donald that the Chinese were trading with Africa in the 15th century when it was, according to him, “the most peaceful place on earth.” Indeed, Africa was trading on an equal and mutually beneficial level with many other regions of the world centuries before the transatlantic slave trade disrupted (corrupted) everything. Dr. Henry Louis Gates chronicles some of this history in his wonderful series, Africa’s Great Civilizations.
I was particularly interested in watching A Taste of the Land because during my year in Benin Republic I witnessed first-hand the Chinese’s exploitative practices. Most notably, how in Cotonou they built businesses to extract money from the Beninois people, but did not put a dime into building the country’s economy. In other words, all the money the workers made they sent home. They only did real (aka big) business with other Chinese people and the workers all lived together (men) in shells of houses cooking, washing their own clothes, and cutting each others’ hair.
It was great to see that finally, someone was dramatizing the irreparable damage that the Chinese, as inheritors of European imperialism, are doing. While watching the film I kept thinking about African American slave narratives and the way they were written to expose to the world the injustice of slavery as a way of ending the institution. I see Amuli’s film as serving a similar purpose, laying bare the barbarism of modern-day colonialism.
But, as I’ve always lamented about this wonderful festival, too few people are exposed to the brilliance of the filmmakers who contribute. Instead, the majority of us are happy to remain zombified by the drivel that Hollywood vomits on an all-too-regular basis.
How many of us will know this truth?
In another conversation between Yohani and Gangi, Yohani asks Gangi what ethnic group his name comes from. Gangi responds that he doesn’t know because his family is from the city.
No one’s family is from the city.
Again, the conversation between the two men—one old, the other young and hail—speaks to the displacement of people from their homelands as a consequence of imperialist “development” that is predicated on subduing and destroying the land. The resulting barren soil that no longer produces enough to sustain agriculture or worse, the land that is stolen from people with the blessing of the African government means that people are kicked off of or forced to abandon their land and plant themselves in the concrete jungle.
Later Gangi tells Yohani that he wants the gold so that he can get on a boat heading to Italy where his cousin already lives. Yohani tells him that the village needs him.
His entreaty goes unanswered.
Of course, the exchange comments on Africa’s brain drain whereby the young and hail feel compelled to seek life in other, mostly European, countries while their home that needs them is left to wither and die. All while they expend their intellectual and physical labor to build their adopted “homes” while they are treated as subhuman and live and often die in subhuman conditions.
Indeed, if we remember the father of African cinema, Ousmane Sembene’s Mandabi (The Money Order) all too often, when they make it to those other nations they are stuck doing menial labor like the street sweeping that is shown in the film and which sets off the film’s plot.
I can’t tell you how many young, strong, intelligent people I met in Benin, in Ghana, in Haiti, in Jamaica, who are either unemployed or underemployed; people with masters degrees who drive moto taxis because that is all the work they can get. And I should add that the vast majority of the moto taxis in Benin are manufactured in China and produce incredible amounts of air pollution.
The destruction is vast and deep, touching every level of the African landscape including the people who are treated as if they are just another part.
Many of the films in the festival are social justice works AND really beautiful. I wish more people were hip to them.
Because you can’t unsee what you see.
You can’t unlearn what you learn.
And you can’t remain silent once you know the truth.
As a college student I majored in Comparative Literature. It wasn’t until the very last year of my four-year tenure that I came to know that black women writers existed around the world when a black woman scholar of Comparative Literature whose regular gig was at an HBCU taught a class in it as a visiting professor.
As soon as I could I signed up for her class entitled “Third World Women’s Literature.” For the next several years that wonderful woman taught me numerous lessons beyond how to critically read black women’s literature: that there was such a thing as a doctorate, that black women had them, that black women write brilliant fiction and have been for a very long time, that I had options.
That professor, whom I’ve mentioned several times in this blog, was a big fan of Walter Mosley. Largely out of respect for my mentor’s choices in literature, I began reading Mosley’s works. While most know the author for his Easy Rawlings series, I have actually eschewed those and instead, have devoured Blue Light(1998), one of his sci fi novels which I love, Debbie Doesn’t Do It Anymore(2014), On the Head of a Pin and The Gift of Fire(2012), from the time when he was doing that wonderful thing where he had two books in one, oriented in opposing directions, and which, include, I believe, his own drawings. I’ve owned his first young adult novel, 47(2005), for a number of years and plan to read it soon. One of my all-time favorite articles is one Mosley wrote about the appropriateness of black people writing science fiction entitled “Black to the Future.” (You can find the essay in Sheree R. Thomas’ edited collection, Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora (2000).To help me understand how we got where we are politically, I’m reading his Twelve Steps Toward Political Revelation (2011).
As you may be able to tell, I’ve become a kind of reluctant Mosley fan.
Mosley is as brilliant, talented, funny, provocative and “a credit to the race” as ever.
One of the texts that came up again and again in the zoom chat was Killing Johnny Fry: A Sexistential Novel (2005). Mosley addressed the readers’ obsession with the book, which of course, made me want to read it post-haste!! So even while the interview was in session I ordered the book for my kindle as well as his latest offering, The Awkward Black Man.
Almost as soon as the interview was over I settled down to read Killing Johnny Fry and pretty much obsessed over it until I was done a few days later. It’s a great novel.
But what struck me more than the plot or the artistry of the writing was the subject matter. The novel is described thusly on Goodreads: “When Cordell Carmel catches his longtime girlfriend with another man, the act that he witnesses seems to dissolve all the boundaries he knows. He wants revenge, but also something more. Killing Johnny Fry is the story of Cordell’s dark, funny, soulful, and outrageously explicit sexual odyssey in search of a new way of life.”
I’m not quite sure what’s “soulful” about the novel and the protagonist doesn’t just catch his “longtime girlfriend with another man.” Cordell is a black man and his lover is a black woman. The man he sees her with is white. The act that Cordell sees them engaging in would be, I suspect for some, considered degrading. And she calls him “daddy” while they’re doing it! There are many layers of problematic meaning embedded in this fact alone. Add to that the fact that his girlfriend, Joelle, calls Cordell “L,” which for me, immediately summons the symbol that people make on their foreheads with their index finger and thumb when they don’t want to come right out and call someone a loser, or as my students use it, as in “take an L,” a loss. Either way, not a good thing.
The way that Cordell goes about searching for “a new way of life” is largely by engaging in sex that would easily be featured in porn videos. This is in between bouts of vertigo that frequently overtake him and which seem almost critical at certain points, but which also signify his dying to being one way in the world and born to another.
(Interestingly, if you type in Brown’s other novel, All Night Visitors, along with his name on Amazon a selection of porn magazines pop up.)
But something’s changed in me in the ensuing years. Where in my earlier years, I empathized with the protagonists: seemingly hapless black men who were fetishized and objectified by white women, this time with Mosley’s novel, it was the women I was most interested in: Cordell’s emotionally distant mother who is apparently the reason he is such milquetoast, Joelle, his cheating girlfriend with whom for several years he’d had sex that would put a Tasmanian devil to sleep, but whom we later learn was terribly abused as a child. There’s ambitious Lucy who seems the epitome of white bread that’s longing to be toasted. And then there’s Sasha, the most tragic of them all. The lone black woman, Monica, is a single mother who wants to send her baby girl to a Montessori school so that she can have a better chance at life. Like Brown’s protagonist George Washington’s, Pat, Monica is the only one for whom Cordell seems to have genuine unambiguous affection.
There are several ways that Mosley’s Killing Johnny Fry intersects with Brown’s The Life and Loves and Laferriere’s How to Make Love. Maybe I’ll write an article about it one day. But for now, suffice it to say that I think that these authors, each very talented and perceptive, are working out some long-held ambiguities and stereotypes around black masculinity, capitalist consumption, white women’s predatory nature as agents and beneficiaries as well as victims of racist patriarchy, and a deep desire to honor and uplift black womanhood while recognizing how difficult that is sometimes.
Killing Johnny Fryas well as the other novels mentioned in this post, are worth reading one, two, three times.
I believe I speak for all the people who were present at that interview that I’m very grateful to Black Classic Press for featuring Mosley, even though the author’s latest collection is not even published with them!! For me, that’s an example of true collective upliftment.