If You’re a Writer or Want To Be

If You're a Writer or Want to BeWhen I speak at genealogy and history conferences about researching enslaved people in Virginia, I am continually surprised that, afterward, I get more questions about writing than I do about anything else. People buy my books about African American history, but they buy more of my books about writing.

So today, I want to share with you – in case you have a need for it – that I’ve just released a new book for writers. It’s entitled Love Letters to Writers: Encouragement, Accountability, and Truth-Telling, and it’s comprised of 52 letters I wrote to help writers on this journey.  It’s a gentle book, or at least I hope it is.

If you’d like to pick up a copy, you can order one at the links below:

And of course, if you have writing questions, don’t hesitate to reach out to me at [email protected]

Thanks, friends.

Can We Listen? A Challenge and a Book Giveaway

Can We Listen? A Challenge and a Book Giveaway

Photo by Farrel Nobel on Unsplash

The other night, I watched Oprah lead a discussion with Trump supporters and Trump detractors. I sat with hope, wanting – truly – to understand how people could have voted for and then still support the current president.  I didn’t hear anything that helped me understand because, well, because everyone there was so angry, so settled into the seats of their opinions (much as I am in mine) that it was just a shouting match.  I couldn’t finish watching – it was just too agitating for me. Maybe they came to some place of understanding by the end? I pray.

I’m seeing that same dynamic play out all over social media these days – as people, again me included – are steeped in arguments about Colin Kaepernick’s protest about police violence about black and brown bodies. Somehow, here, the flag and the national anthem have become the focus, as has patriotism and respect, and I’m seeing a whole lot of vitriol about honoring our nation . . . and very little about honoring all our nation’s citizens.  (There, see, there’s my perspective.) But more, I’m just seeing fighting.  So much fighting . . .

And we need to fight. We need to disagree. We need to discuss.  I just wish we would speak more on the discussion end of things.

But more and more, I think we’re settling into enclaves of belief, unfriending people who disagree with us, publicly shaming those who don’t take action the way we think they should, dismissing other human beings because of their perspectives and, yes, still because of their skin color.  My heart breaks over this because I know that the more we segregate ourselves, the more our divides will grow.

You’d think we’d learned this from our entire national history, but, alas, we haven’t. We have forgotten – perhaps deliberately – that healing and unity come from knowing one another in a real, daily kind of way. When we see our neighbor hanging his laundry on the line or watch the woman down the street walk her children home, when we are more focused on helping the family whose house has just burned down than we are about who voted for whom . . . that’s how we become allies and then friends.

One of my goals for the rest of this year and into the next is to really listen, at least once a day, to someone whose perspective on the world is different than mine – either through nationality, through ethnicity, through political affiliation, through gender, through sexual orientation, through the ability of their bodies.  I want to listen, to try to understand, and to let their perspective change mine.

I’d like to invite you to do that with me, not because we are wrong – I certainly think I’m right; if I didn’t, I’d change my mine – but because healing only comes through knowing one another. I truly believe that.  (And also, we may be wrong.)

To encourage us in this small journey of healing, I’m giving away two copies of a wonderful book called Gather at the Table: The Healing Journey of a Daughter of Slavery and a Son of the Slave Trade by my dear friends Sharon Leslie Morgan and Thomas Norman DeWolf. The book tells the story of their literal and figurative journey to find out about their families and to look honestly at the history that harmed both of them.  Sharon and Tom are each giving away one copy, so if you’d to be entered to win, please leave a comment below and tell me how you will attempt to listen to someone who is different than you in the coming two weeks.  I will select the winners using a random number generator on Friday, October 6th.

Or if you’d like to buy a copy of Sharon and Tom’s book from their publisher, Beacon Press, the Press will give 10% of the proceeds to the powerful anti-racism organization, Coming to the Table.

This isn’t easy work, friends, but surely none of us want us to divide so strongly into factions that we never hear one another and never heal ourselves.

Food Is Love by Sharon Leslie Morgan

Food Is Love

(Originally published on Michael Twitty’s Cooking Gene Memories (22 November 2016) http://thecookinggene.com/memories-page/)

When I was growing up in Chicago, the kitchen of our Southside apartment was the center of my universe. Not only was food cooked there, it was a place of existential meaning. It was where corn was shucked, drinks were poured, peas were shelled, homework was done, tears were shed and laughter peeled. It was the source of Thanksgiving dinner, issuing forth its bounty in innumerable serving dishes, hot from the stove, onto the table in the dining room – the next room over.

The kitchen table could just as easily be used to hold and serve food as to host a card game. It provided a roof under which I and my cousins would play around the feet of ever present guests. On hot summer nights, it was the room we passed through to get to the back porch, where my grandfather, Paw Paw, would sleep on a cot under a navy-blue velvet sky. On cold winter nights, it was a place entered through a heavy curtain that kept the cold air in the rest of the apartment out while we sat around the open oven door, rubbing our hands to keep warm. When we were sick, it was the location of my grandmother’s (Maw Maw) rocking chair, in which she rocked us well after rubbing us down with Vick’s vapo rub, eucalyptus oil, or turpentine, depending on the ailment.

Food Is Love by Sharon Leslie Morgan

No one person taught me to cook and a veritable army of people have added to my repertoire over the years. Like a sponge, I sucked up lessons as a child from both of my parents, three grandparents, aunts, uncles and older cousins. My grandfather taught me how to fry red snapper a la Mississippian. My grandmother contributed chicken and dumplins’, informed by her roots as a farm girl in Illinois. My other grandmother taught me the Italian spaghetti of her parent’s home country. My father taught me to make gravy. My mother taught me Louisiana Creole gumbo, which she learned as a 15-year-old bride in New Orleans. My aunt June taught me to make some mean barbecued pig feet. Through the years, I have trekked all over the world, enjoying the comraderie of friends’ kitchens in the Caribbean, Africa and Europe. I learned to fry escovitch fish in Jamaica; create shark and bake sandwiches in Tobago; sacrifice, skin, and cook every inch of a sheep in South Africa, and prepare bitter leaf greens with bush meat in Cameroun.

There is no one recipe I can point to as definitive. My overall food concept is one of “pan-African cuisine.” I believe from experience that all people of African descent eat pretty much the same things, cooked in very similar ways. No matter where we are in Africa or the Diaspora, we eat and enjoy corn bread, corn meal porridge (grits, pap, and ugali), beans (of all colors), greens (of all kinds), chicken (fried or fricasseed), lots of fish and mountains of rice. Our love of spices, including hot peppers, is universal.

The greatest thing I learned from absolutely everyone that contributed to my culinary education is that “food is love.” I therefore do not hesitate to pass it around! I once owned and cooked at a restaurant in Paris (Bojangles) that offered pan-African culinary delights, seasoned with live music. Years after the fact, diehard fans still remember me and my food.

I can only surmise that people like me and Michael Twitty inherited “the cooking gene” — and I could not imagine life without it. Michael writes extensively on the subject in his new book: The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South (Amistad, 2017).

 

Sharon Leslie Morgan is the co-author with Thomas DeWolf of Gather at the Table: The Healing Journey of a Daughter of Slavery and a Son of the Slave Trade (Beacon Press, 2012) and the author of Paris in a Pot: Living a Dream in the City of Light (Morgan Publishing, 2016). She is the founder of OurBlackAncestry.com, a genealogy community devoted to African American family history.

The Color of Love – A Guest Post by Sharon Leslie Morgan

The Color of Love - By Sharon Leslie Morgan

Photo by JORGE LOPEZ on Unsplash

I’ve known Sharon for several years now after we were introduced by a mutual friend. Sharon and I both love history and genealogy, and she teaches me all the time about how to speaking the truth with love does not need to be either unkind or timid.  She is the creator of Our Black Ancestry, an AMAZING community of people looking for the stories of their black ancestors. It’s just $25 to become a member, so I hope you’ll consider doing that today. Now, enjoy Sharon’s powerful story. 

Just like everyone else, my family tree includes an assortment of characters from the unsavory to the sublime. The two I want to talk about are my grandmothers. Both were white women who married black men in the 1920s.

My father’s parents, Dora Federico and Bob Leslie, tied the knot in 1922. My mother’s parents, Jennie Waymoth and Louie Nicholson, followed suit in 1926. When they did so, miscegenation was illegal in 38 states. A “Racial Integrity Act” was on the books, which made it illegal for white people to marry anyone with “a single drop of Negro blood.” The Ku Klux Klan was on a rampage to protect white women from the “savage” lust of black men. The Red Summer of 1919 (a wave of race riots in dozens of cities throughout the North and South) was a recent memory and black people were being lynched in record numbers. It was not until 1967 that interracial marriages were allowed in all states.

Dora’s parents were Italian immigrants. Her father arrived in America in 1878. The proudest moment of his life was when he was granted citizenship in Mount Vernon, New York in 1897. The family moved to Chicago sometime before 1910 and he was dead when his daughter married my grandfather, a widower with three children. The Federico family thought Bob was a “dark Dago” because of his light brown skin and straight hair. When they found out differently, it didn’t stop them from helping the newlyweds get established in the bootlegging business, under the stewardship of Al Capone.

Dora, with whom I spent most of my summers, spent her later years working as a domestic for rich white people in Rockford, Illinois. Although she loved her employers (and I resented them for taking her away from me every day), she was not fond of white people in general. Later, when I read the history of Italians in America, it was easy to see why. Italians suffered extreme prejudice and violence at the hands of white, Anglo Saxon Protestants. They were restricted to low-income, low-class jobs and attacked for their Catholicism by the Ku Klux Klan. In 1891, eleven Italians were killed in New Orleans in one of the largest mass lynchings in American history.  During World War II, Italians thought to be loyal to their homeland were incarcerated in internment camps, just like the Japanese.

When Dora died in 1983, I was so distraught I spent three days locked in her bedroom, crying inconsolably. I met her Italian family for the first time at her funeral, when I was thirty-two years old.

Jennie Waymoth, on the other hand, was born into a family of Scots-Irish who came to America at an unknown date. She grew up in the small farming community of Sidell, Illinois and met Louie Nicholson in the Illinois Central train station in Chicago. He worked on a train. She waited tables in the station restaurant. After their marriage, her family pleaded with her to come home — for four years, through the births of her first two children, who looked white. When her third child emerged with a skin that matched his father’s , they declared her dead. In 1932, she went to visit her sister Sylvia (who also lived in Chicago) with all three of her young children in tow. Inseparable growing up, Jennie was stunned when her favored sibling derided her with “You better get away from my door. You know (my husband) doesn’t want any niggers in his house.”

When I found Jennie’s relatives online, we had many pleasant conversations as I shared the details of my grandmother’s life. My correspondent was happy to know she hadn’t died and agreed that I should visit. There was, however, a catch. I was informed: “My mother lives with us and still keeps the old ways. She would not want a black person sleeping in our house.” I felt what my grandmother must have felt that day on her sister’s stoop.

It takes a long time and a lot of lessons to learn what it means to be black and how one should relate to people who despise you. I am still on the learning curve. I once had a friend who described seeing a “colored” water fountain as a child. He really wanted to drink the water because he thought the spigot would spew a rainbow. Then there was my time in South Africa, a country that had recently been emancipated from the chains of apartheid. Many newly enfranchised people derided the dream of a “Rainbow Nation,” noting that rainbows do not have a band of black.

I was twelve years old in May 1963 when my grandmother Jennie dropped dead in front of me. I remember standing in the kitchen doorway watching her drink a glass of water. Gazing out of the window over the sink, she quenched her thirst, remarked “What a beautiful day,” and collapsed onto the floor – dead from massive heart attack. I was too stunned to even cry over the loss of one of my primary care givers.

That was the same year (six months later) when President John F. Kennedy was assassinated for reasons black people surmised had much to do with his championing of civil rights. In 1968, riots erupted after Rev. Martin Luther King was murdered by a white supremacist. I was a college student, trapped in the student administration building at the University of Illinois. When I heard the mayor announce a “shoot to kill” order, there was no doubt who it applied to: Me. A year later, I was an unwed mother, wondering how to raise a child in a world embittered by rancor and fear. There was a period in the 1970s when I could barely have a relationship with my surviving Mama Dora, having become profoundly and painfully aware of her whiteness. I am now ashamed of my reaction, but when all was said and done, I was totally turned off by white people – all of them. I did not want to acknowledge them as part of my family. I did not want to be friends with them. And I certainly would not have crossed the color bar to marry one. I could not comprehend how my grandfathers made that leap, coming as they did from birthplaces in Alabama and Mississippi.

Until recently, the story of my grandmothers was not part of my conversation; at least not within the context of race relations. As a child, I didn’t consciously think about what race they were; they were just my grandmothers. The segregated black community in which I grew up and into which my grandmothers were seamlessly adopted wrapped its arms around everyone. I eventually came to terms with the fact that I loved them both – dearly and unconditionally.

These days, my grandmothers are top of mind — maybe because I am now a grandmother myself, one with a burning desire to leave the world a better place. Resolution of the racial conundrum lies at the heart of that aspiration. That is why I embarked on a journey with a white man whose ancestors were the largest slave traders in US history and co-authored a book with him* to document an approach to racial healing.

My grandmothers left me with two cherished mementos. On my ring finger, I wear Dora’s diamonds. Some years after Dora’s death, Aunt Lottie climbed onto a step stool, dug into the deep recesses of a closet shelf, and handed me a wadded up ball of Kleenex. Inside were seven loose diamonds belonging to Mama Dora that I had set into a ring. Around my neck, I wear Jennie’s ivory cameo; one that has passed through many generations over 150 years. Both pieces of jewelry are reminders of a past I must deal with in order to embrace a future in which the paradox of love and acrimony has been resolved.

In an ideal world, race would be a mere descriptive, not a pejorative. As it stands, it informs a global construct that keeps one group of people (white) in power and another group (people of color) in submission. It is disproportionately destructive because it lies at the core of many other isms; influencing how people deal with gender, religious belief, and ability.

In thinking of my grandmothers, the classic Bill Withers song “Grandma’s Hands” comes to mind. I love this song that describes through metaphor the essence of one of the most dearly beloved in every family. Neither of my grandmothers “clapped in church on Sunday morning,” although both were believers in God. They didn’t play tambourines, though one cut a mean step on the dance floor. If their hands “use to ache sometime and swell,” I didn’t notice as they worked tirelessly, without complaint.

When I get to heaven, it will be those hands I seek, fully expecting Dora and Jennie to greet me in their loving arms for what will surely be a grand reunion.

 

 

Sharon Leslie Morgan is the founder, webmaster, and historian for OurBlackAncestry.com, a website devoted to African American genealogy. She is an expert in African American consumer marketing as well as a writer. A native of Chicago, she lived abroad for many years in the Caribbean, Europe, and Africa. She is the co-author, with Thomas DeWolf of Gather at the Table: The Healing Journey of a Daughter of Slavery and a Son of the Slave Trade*. Her first book, My Daddy Is A Cool Dude, was published in 1975 by The Dial Press and nominated for a Caldecott Medal. She is also the co-author of Real Women Cook: Building Healthy Communities with Recipes that Stir the Soul and of Paris in a Pot: Living a Dream in the City of Light*.

 

*These links are affiliate links, which means if you buy something after clicking on them, I get a small commission, which helps me pay the bills for hosting this site. So thank you.

Immersing Myself In African American Voices

Immersing Myself in African American VoicesI’m still working out how to use my voice to bring more justice, to break down white supremacy, to remember those our society and our institutions have intentionally forgotten.

One of the ideas I’m considering is committing to read almost exclusively African American authors for the rest of 2015. I need to make some radical choices to shift my perspective, to unnormalize my own whiteness.  This may be one way I try to do that.

As I read from Drew Hart‘s Trouble I’ve Seen this morning, I realized how very much I am still steeped in white supremacy, how so much of my understanding of the world is shaped by the idea that the white perspective is the right perspective . . . or worse, that it isn’t perspective at all, but truth.  I need to dismantle that for myself, first, so I can help dismantle it for others.

Years ago, when I was still teaching freshman composition, one of my students, Michael, said, “Why is white English the right English, Ms. Andi?”  I’ve carried Michael’s question with me for years. It’s one of those shaping statements, the ones that burrow in and disrupt.

I’m learning that when I feel uncomfortable, I need to pay attention. When something challenges my perspective, I need to silence my urge to defend myself or feel hurt and turn instead to empathy, to reach and stretch to understand.  It’s not a pleasant thing, this growing, this unnormalizing whiteness, not for this white woman.  But it’s essential.  Absolutely essential as a work of justice in my own heart.

So I am, I am going to read almost exclusively books my African American authors for the rest of this year.  I’ll be sharing my thoughts on those books here, and I welcome your recommendations for my reading.  What books by African Americans would you recommend I read?  Please share in the comments below.  

Today, I leave you with the Bowie State Cheerleaders using their bodies and their talents to speak the truth.

Unsettling Racism in the Church – The Work of Austin Channing and Drew Hart

Unsettling Racism in the Church: Austin Channing and Drew HartLast week, at the Festival of Faith and Writing in Grand Rapids, Michigan, I had the opportunity to hear Austin Channing and Drew Hart had finished laying out some truth, I was tearing up and tingling with the energy of honest accountability.

Channing said:

I try to be authentic. I am giving voice my experience of the world.

Hart said:

My goal is to unsettle people. My goal is to change people.

When an audience member asked them to explain why they used the phrase “white supremacy” instead of white hegemony or other less, what he called, “antagonist” terms, Hart broke down the history of white supremacy and laid out the realities of our society.  Channing said, “I’m not trying to antagonize. I’m telling you about my experience of a world that antagonizes me.”

I’m weary of the blue-eyed, yellow-haired Jesus. I’m weary of segregated Sunday mornings. I’m weary of the church acting as if racism is not our problem, so I am eager to learn from Channing and Hart so that I can work to dismantle the racism that is part of my faith tradition and my society more generally.  Because, after all, as a white woman, it is MY JOB to break that down.  It’s my responsibility to unsettle people, to be about the work of unsettling racism.

I highly recommend you follow both of these folks, on social media and through their blogs (linked above.) Also, be sure to check out Hart’s new book, Trouble I’ve Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism.  I can’t wait to read it.

Karen Branan Comes to God’s Whisper Farm

Karen Branan at God's Whisper Farm on April 23, 2016On Saturday, April 23rd, author Karen Branan will be at God’s Whisper Farm to read from her book, The Family Tree: A Lynching in Georgia, a Legacy of Secrets, and My Search for the Truth.  

The provocative true account of the hanging of four black people by a white lynch mob in 1912—written by the great-granddaughter of the sheriff charged with protecting them.

Harris County, Georgia, 1912. A white man, the beloved nephew of the county sheriff, is shot dead on the porch of a black woman. Days later, the sheriff sanctions the lynching of a black woman and three black men, all of them innocent. For Karen Branan, the great-granddaughter of that sheriff, this isn’t just history, this is family history.

Branan spent nearly twenty years combing through diaries and letters, hunting for clues in libraries and archives throughout the United States, and interviewing community elders to piece together the events and motives that led a group of people to murder four of their fellow citizens in such a brutal public display. Her research revealed surprising new insights into the day-to-day reality of race relations in the Jim Crow–era South, but what she ultimately discovered was far more personal. As she dug into the past, Branan was forced to confront her own deep-rooted beliefs surrounding race and family, a process that came to a head when Branan learned a shocking truth: she is related not only to the sheriff, but also to one of the four who were murdered. Both identities—perpetrator and victim—are her inheritance to bear.

The reading will take place at God’s Whisper Farm in Radiant, Virginia (just north of Charlottesville and south of Culpeper, Virginia) at 7pm on April 23rd.  Guests are invited to a potluck supper at 5pm before the reading.

The event is FREE and open the public.

 

Grandma Lula’s Story – Phyllis Lawson’s Quilt of Souls

Phyllis Lawson's Quilt of SoulsI met Phyllis Lawson online, as is the way with this world-wide web of ours, a few months ago, and I loved her instantly for two reasons: she was passionate about her family history, and she was equally passionate about sharing that history.

And for good reasons, Phyllis’s book, Quilt of Souls is one of the best family memoirs I’ve ever read. It is beautifully-written and unflinchingly honest without being in the least bit bitter or cruel.

Phyllis says,:

Quilt of Souls is a book the world needs to have. It is more than my personal memoir; it is a historical unveiling of hushed bloodlines and stories of a time and place that got swept under the carpet- powerful, intense, poignant stories that need to be heard.

At the age of four years old, I was plucked off my front porch, from the only family I knew, and delivered sixteen hours away to land on the doorstep of Grandmother Lula, who I never met before. I was abandoned by my mother, pure and simple. I needed a miracle and that miracle took the form of an old tattered quilt (a family heirloom) that my grandmother made out of the clothing of long lost loved ones who died in the face of extreme bigotry, racism and ugliness that was pervasive to that time.

Lula Horn (1883-1986), through oral tradition, and through the weaving of ripped up pieces of clothes transformed into quilts, told me the tragic stories of my ancestor’s lives and deaths. Each piece of cloth woven into the quilt had the blood, sweat and tears of Black people living and dying at the hands of unconscionable injustices. The weaving of their clothing into a quilt mended each broken life back together with each pull of the thread.

I highly recommend you pick up Phyllis’s book, Quilt of Souls, and get out the tissues. It’ll break your heart and then stitch it back up again, like a quilt sewn with all of Grandmama Lula’s love.