Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Guest post from The Bottom of Heaven

Claudia from The Bottom of Heaven, a blog about "post-modern blackness," submits this guest post about fiction about slavery. I tend to be skittish about reading books about slaves (or any stories that involve mental, sexual or physical abuse), though I did read Song Yet Sung. But this piece challenges that position and because of her recommendation I'm definitely going to check out one of the Beverly Jenkins and see how I do. I love that an English prof can recommend literary fiction and romance in the same post! By the way, Jenkins has a new book out in January called Bring on the Blessings.

Please leave comments for Claudia here or at The Bottom of Heaven.

Everything following is from Claudia:

"Liberating Literature: Encountering Slavery in Black Fiction"

One of the unofficial rules of the monthly African-American book club that I attend is "no slaves" - that is, we don't read stories that take place during slavery. We've read everything else: from Zora Neale Hurston to Walter Mosley and Zane. But rarely do our selections venture into the Antebellum Era. When I raise the issue among the group of well-educated, assertive black female friends, I'm gently reminded that our book club is for fun and relaxing reading.

And stories about slaves? "Too depressing."

Readers who are new to black fiction may be similarly reluctant to immerse themselves in a world that imagines the inner lives and experiences of enslaved blacks and their white owners from years past. For some, the subject evokes guilt or shame that feels devastatingly personal. For others, slavery is too removed from their own experience or, perhaps, an old wound best left alone.

Nevertheless, as an English professor, I know that black writers have found fresh, inventive ways to bring African-American history into genre fiction. There's more here than public whippings and spoiled southern belles. These texts also take risks by exploring the everyday lives of enslaved blacks through sophisticated humor, romance, and unconventional points of view. So before you tackle Beloved or The Known World (two of my favorite novels about slavery), allow me to make the following introductions:

* Meet Charles Chesnutt: This late-19th century black writer's collection, The Conjure Woman, is filled with captivating southern folktales set during slavery. Unlike the Br'er Rabbit Tales adapted by Joel Chandler Harris, Chesnutt's black characters contain a stronger sense of dignity, determination, and intellectual vigor. The elderly black narrator in stories like "The Goophered Grapevine" is both an expert storyteller and trickster figure who finds ingenious ways to protect his livelihood. So if you enjoy Zora Neale Hurston, take a chance with Chesnutt.

* Meet Charles Johnson: Johnson's award-winning novel, Middle Passage, chronicles the grueling transatlantic journey of enslaved Africans, but what distinguishes this novel is the witty, sardonic observations of its free black narrator - a thief named Rutherford Calhoun. He's a stowaway on a slave ship who moves from apathetic outsider to reluctant hero in a surprisingly clever odyssey between bondage and freedom. And if you enjoy Johnson's style, you may also find Ishmael Reed's satirical neo-slave narrative, Flight to Canada, to be of interest.

* Meet Beverly Jenkins: Her historical romance fiction breaks new ground with well-written love stories that take place during and after Emancipation. Her characters are not only former slaves, but New Orleans Creoles, Buffalo Soldiers, and black Seminoles out West. More importantly, she incorporates historical details into her fiction in a subtle and seamless manner, without over-burdening the romance plot; most of her books even include bibliographies. My favorites include Night Song, Indigo, and any novel that features the smokin' hot Le Veq brothers. (Oh yes, and Jenkins is the author that finally persuaded my book club to suspend the "no slaves" rule.)

Just to be clear, my intent is not to "make light" of slavery, or to suggest that these novels should serve as a substitute for tough, honest American history lessons. I only want to acknowledge that when it comes to stories about our turbulent racial past, African American fiction contains a wide range of creative mediums to carry the message. Each of these writers have found innovative ways to approach historical truths that are, at times, "depressing." Given the realities of slavery, this is unavoidable. But if writers like Chesnutt , Johnson, and Jenkins also bring us closer to a shared understanding of how far we have come as a nation, then there is hopefulness, too, and empathy that speaks to the power of great storytelling.

If you've read any of these books, I'd love to hear your thoughts on how they grapple with the subject of slavery. Other suggestions for books and authors are also welcome!


Anonymous said...

I also just read Passion's Furies, by AlTonya Washington, which is a romance novel that not only takes place during slavery, but is set around Denmark Vesey planning a slave rebellion in Charleston, S.C., circa 1822.

Washington doesn't have Jenkins' touch, and the book was clumsier than I'd like, but it's definitely a worthwhile read.

Shauna Roberts said...

I'll definitely try out Beverly Jenkins.

You mentioned in an earlier post, I believe, that you were interested in reading more Octavia Butler. You may want to avoid Kindred. Parts of it take place before Emancipation and are grueling to read.

The Bondwoman's Narrative, discovered by Dr. Henry Louis Gates, is a novel about a slave woman written by a former slave. Oddly enough, it has less brutality and more good white people than many modern books about slavery.

Wilhelmina said...

I have a copy of "Middle Passage" that I have been very reluctant to read, but you've convinced me. I'll make that one of my New Year's resolutions!

Karen L. Simpson said...

"Middle Passage" is a book that inspired me to quit fooling around and get serious about writing. It is a powerful novel.
Beverly Jenkins is a wonderful writer her historical romances deal with slavery in an accurate but life affirming way. What I love about her novel is that she lists her sources in the back so that if readers wants to do additional research they can.

Karen L. Simpson said...

Another good book is by Betty DeRamus called "Forbidden Fruit: Love Stories from the Underground Railroad." She also has another book coming out in 2009 called "Freedom by Any Means: Con Games, Voodoo Schemes, True Love and Lawsuits on the Underground Railroad."

Claudia said...

Thanks everyone for the great feedback! I love these recommendations - some of them I've never heard of before, so this is exciting!

And although, as Shauna points out, Kindred can be a tough read, I actually like Butler's time-traveling story for the way it imagines how a modern, American woman might respond to actual slave conditions - not just the brutality, but the powerlessness, emotional manipulation, lack of privacy, even the lack of medical care. It hit home for me when Dana, the main character, points out the differences between experiencing history and watching it on TV.

the prisoner's wife said...

interesting. i too have fallen victim of not wanting to read Antebellum lit. when i was in college i took a fin de siecle lit course & had a hard time getting through it, although i did enjoy Chesnutt's stories.

i guess i will have to revisit it & give it a chance.

btw: love the idea of your blog. as a black woman writer i think it's VERY important that our stories are not only shared amongst us, but the larger culture as well. time to give those margins a serious kick.

the prisoner's wife said...

btw, again: i JUST picked up your book last night! i'm enjoying it so far. mad at my son (well, not really lol) that i had to stop reading to make him some pancakes.

i think you've got another dedicated reader right here.

Evangeline Holland said...

I recently completed an introductory course in African-American Literature, and loved it all--and was inspired! I'm itching to write a black historical romance, and since reading my assigned textbook, ideas have been tumbling through my head like crazy!

Michelle O'Neil said...

Reading about inhumanity is hard.
I am glad there are authors using creativity to tell their stories in ways that allow readers to keep going with them, rather than shutting the book because it hurts too much.

merc3069 said...

Yay yay yay I just posted several posts on my book related blog about Pearl Cleage. Really digging the blog!