Archive for the ‘writers’ Category

Staceyann Chin (1971- ) is a slam poet from Jamaica who now lives in the country of Brooklyn in New York City. She travels the world performing and teaching poetry. Unlike most poets she has been on Oprah’s television show and has her own Blockbuster Online page.

I thought maybe she was just television-driven fluff, that she had no substance, but when she made me cry at her grandmother’s death – not mine but hers – then I knew she could write.

She was a slam poet before slam poets were in fashion, when it was still underground in New York. Like in Ancient Greece, slam poets perform their poetry for an audience with judges picking the winner. Their pieces generally run three minutes long and tell a story. A video of one of her pieces is at the end of this post.

She got into slam poetry almost by accident: one day she went to the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. The rest is history.

Her first published book is not of her poetry – she is not ready for that yet – but a  story in prose about her first 24 years: “The Other Side of Paradise” (2009).

She was born on Christmas day in Montego Bay, Jamaica, the unwanted daughter of a rich Chinese businessman and a poor black woman. Her mother left the country soon after and Chin was brought up by her grandmother, then in her sixties. Although unwanted by her mother, her grandmother loved her unconditionally. No one has ever loved her more. Because her grandmother could not read, Chin read the Bible to her, especially the psalms – a slam poet in training!

All that ended at age nine when her mother arrived from Canada, briefly, and put her with a great-aunt whose sons tried to force her into sex. She was shifted from house to house without a home, till age 16 when she went away to boarding school and then university – paid for by a Chinese businessman who denies he is her father.

At age 21 while at university she found out she was lesbian. She only told close friends: in Jamaica  you cannot live openly as a homosexual and expect to not be beaten up or, in the case of women, raped.

As much as she loved Jamaica, she had to leave: it would not allow her to live freely as a lesbian. So at age 24 she came to New York:

New York was my godsend. As soon as I landed, I knew I was in a place that welcomed misfits.

No one in New York cared if she kissed girls. She was free! Yet not free: she was black. In Jamaica, because of its colourism, she was favoured for her light skin. But in America she found herself at the bottom – for the very same skin, now seen as black. America may have been more enlightened about lesbians, but it was way less enlightened about black people.

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Anatole Broyard in 1971 at age 51

Anatole Broyard (1920-1990), an American writer, was the first black literary critic for the New York Times – but the thing was, they did not know he was black! He passed for white. His daughter, Bliss Broyard, wrote about it in “One Drop” (2007).

Broyard was born in New Orleans into a Creole family that was a liberal mix of both black and white. Going by his daughter’s DNA test, Broyard was about 34% black and 56% white – a common mix for Puerto Ricans. Growing up in New York he got into fights because he was too black for the whites and too white for the blacks. In his high school picture in 1937 he looks black.

But then a year later on March 2nd 1938 he went to the Social Security office to apply for a government tax number so he could work. Right there on the form, which we still have, you can see him make his decision: he marks Negro but then scratches that out and then marks white!

Before he went off to fight in the Second World War he married a black Puerto Rican woman and had a daughter by her, Gala. But when he came back from the war he divorced her. He then proceeds to make a name for himself as a white writer, marries a white woman and moves to a white neighbourhood in a very white town and brings up his son and daughter as white. They had no idea he was part black till he was on his deathbed (though his wife and some friends knew).

The New York Times would not have hired him as a literary critic if they knew he was black: blacks, after all, can only write about “black” subjects! It is the same reasoning that Hollywood uses too: black actors can only play “black” characters. Blacks are not seen as “universal”, but whites are.

Broyard thought that he did not need to be black or white, that he could just be himself. But to succeed as a literary critic he had to present himself to society as a white man, which meant turning his back on his mother and two sisters, who lived as black (one sister could pass but not the other).

One time his mother wrote him a letter begging to see her grandchildren before she passed away. He let her see them – once. They did not understand who she was.

That makes him sound ice cold, but his daughter says he was a loving family man. She says the way he had to keep the two sides of his family separate tore him apart inside.

When his daughter found out she was part black she thought it was cool, but did not like how her father had kept it a secret from her for 25 years. She supposes that he wanted to spare her the pain he went through growing up.

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Lorraine Hansberry (1930-1965) was an American writer, best known for the play, “A Raisin in the Sun” (1957). It was the first play by a black woman to appear on Broadway.

James Baldwin:

… never before, in the entire history of the American theater, had so much of the truth of black people’s lives been seen on the stage.

It is such a great play that even with a limited actor like Sean Combs playing the lead it is still powerful.

The play is about a black family that buys a house in a white suburb – something her own family did. The first two acts are kind of slow but the last act about moving day is pure, utter genius.

In 1961 it was made into a Hollywood film starring Sidney Poitier, who had played the lead on Broadway. She wrote the screenplay.

Her two other main plays are “The Sign in Sidney Brustein’s Window”, which was on Broadway in 1964 but was not a hit, and “Les Blancs”.

Some of her writings were made into an autobiography after her death, “To Be Young, Gifted and Black” (1969). James  Baldwin wrote a beautiful introduction, “Sweet Lorraine”.

Incomplete works at the time of her death:

  • “Toussant”, an opera
  • “All the Dark and Beautiful Warriors”, an autobiographical novel

She was also thinking of doing plays on Pharaoh Akhnaton, Mary Wollstonecraft and Charles Chesnutt’s “The Marrow of Tradition” (1901).

Born on Chicago’s Southside. her family moved to a white suburb when she was eight. Angry whites gathered in front of their house.  A brick was thrown through the window that narrowly missed her. The police were unwilling to protect them. Later the state supreme court ordered them out of the house.

In 1948 she went to the University of Wisconsin. There she became interested in left-wing politics and theatre, studying Ibsen and Strindberg.

In 1950 she dropped out and headed for New York. There she took courses at the New School and, for three years, wrote regularly for Paul Robeson’s Freedom. Later she taught school in Harlem and took part in protests. At one protest she met Robert Nemiroff, whom she married in 1953. In 1956 he wrote a hit song with a friend (“Cindy, Oh, Cindy”) which allowed her to become a full-time writer. She started writing “A Raisin in the Sun”.

In 1960 she wrote “The Drinking Gourd”, a television show for NBC about slavery. NBC never aired it because it was too violent and too “divisive”. But you can read it in “Lorraine Hansberry: The Collected Last Plays” (1983).

In 1962 she joined SNCC and a year later she and James Baldwin went to see Robert Kennedy, then the Attorney General, to try to get him to understand race in America. In time their words sunk in.

In 1963 she began to lose her strength: the doctors said she had pancreatic cancer. Two years later she was dead – at age 34. Over 600 came to her funeral in Harlem.


Her going did not so much make me lonely as make me realize how lonely we were.

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DanyelSmithDanyel Smith (1965- ) is an American writer, best known as the former editor-in-chief of Vibe magazine. Yesterday she started work as executive editor of theroot.com. She has written two books: “More Like Wrestling” (2002) and “Bliss” (2005). She is married to Elliott Wilson, former editor-in-chief of XXL magazine!

I know I have read her stuff because her name is familiar, but I could not tell you what. She has written for Vibe, the New York Times, The Rolling Stone, Spin, The New Yorker, the San Francisco Guardian and others, writing mostly about music, particularly hip hop.

She was born in Oakland, California. At seven she started writing. At ten her family moved to Los Angeles, There she went to an all-black Catholic high school for girls. She got into Berkeley and went there for a few years but then dropped out without telling her parents.

She lived with her sister in Oakland and started writing. This was the 1980s when hip hop was something new:

When I first heard hip-hop, there’s no way to describe how it affected my life . It was such a great conversation, and no one was writing about it. I was happy to.

Then her stepfather appeared, driving up from Los Angeles, and asked what was going on. He took her to the offices of the San Francisco Bay Guardian and made her show her work to someone who could gainfully employ her. She met Tommy Tompkins: “Danyel was a remarkable individual, strong-willed, interesting, and cantankerous.”  He saw her talent and hired her. His advice to her about writing: “Just tell the truth. Tell your truth and you will be fine.”

Her articles started appearing in Rolling Stone, Vibe and others. In 1993 she took an offer to work for Billboard in New York. That did not work out but soon she landed at Vibe. In 1997 she became its first black editor-in-chief. Then in 1999 she left.

Over the next three years she wrote “More Like Wrestling” about two sisters living in Oakland in the 1980s in the age of crack. It is one of the first novels by and about black Oakland.

One editor saw the book and told her that she had to make a decision whether or not she was writing for black people or white people. And that she needed to have clearer heroes and heroines in the book.

The New York Times said her prose was “lyrical if sometimes rocky”. Michael Eric Dyson said it was “a work of beauty and moral complexity about love in its resplendent and damaging incarnations.”

The writers she looks to are Zora Neale Hurston, Terry McMillan, Toni Morrison, Gloria Naylor, Joan Didion, Cristina Garcia, Sister Souljah and Ernest Hemingway.

“Bliss”, came out in 2005. It gives an inside view of the music industry. She says it is about “living with pain – not about forgiving or forgetting it”.

In 2006 she returned to Vibe. It was troubled and under new owners. In 2009 it went broke.  Now she is at The Root.

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junot_diazHere is a part of it from The New Yorker, December 25th 1995. Think of Diaz as a teenager somewhere in Jersey in the 1980s:

Dinner will be tense. You are not good at talking to people you don’t know.

A halfie will tell you that her parents met in the Movement. Back then, she’ll say, people thought it was a radical thing to do. It will sound like something her parents made her memorize. Your brother heard that one, too, and said, Sounds like a whole lot of Uncle Tomming to me. Don’t repeat this.

Put down your hamburger and say, It must have been hard.

It was, she will say.

She’ll appreciate your interest. She’ll tell you more. Black people, she will say, treat me real bad. That’s why I don’t like them. You’ll wonder how she feels about Dominicans. Don’t ask. Let her speak on it and when you’ve finished eating, walk back through the neighborhood. The skies will be magnificent. Pollutants have made Jersey sunsets one of the wonders of the world. Point it out. Touch her shoulder and say, Isn’t that nice?

Get serious. Watch TV, but stay alert. Sip some of the Bermudez your father left in the cabinet, which nobody touches. She’ll drink enough to make her brave. A local girl will have hips and a nice ass but won’t be quick about letting you touch her. She has to live in the same neighborhood as you do. She might just chill with you and then go home. She might kiss you and then leave. Or she might, if she’s reckless, give it up, but that’s rare. Kissing will suffice. A white girl might give it up right then. Don’t stop her. She’ll take her gum out of her mouth, stick it to the plastic sofa covers, and then move close to you. You have nice eyes, she might say.

Tell her that you love her hair, her skin, her lips, because, in truth, you love them more than you love your own.

She’ll say, I like Spanish guys, and even though you’ve never been to Spain, say, I like you. You’ll sound smooth.

You’ll be with her until about eight-thirty, and then she’ll want to wash up. In the bathroom, she’ll hum a song from the radio and her waist will keep the beat against the lip of the sink. Think of her old lady coming to get her, and imagine what she would say if she knew that her daughter had just lain under you and blown your name into your ear. While she’s in the bathroom, you might call one of your boys and say, Ya lo hice, cabrón. Or sit back on the couch and smile.

But usually it won’t work this way. Be prepared. She will not want to kiss you. Just cool it, she’ll say. The halfie might lean back and push you away. She will cross her arms and say, I hate my tits. Pretend to watch the TV, and then turn to her to stroke her hair, even though you know she’ll pull away again…

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JuneJordanJune Jordan (1936-2002) was an American writer, poet and professor. And one of my favourite authors. By the 1990s she had become one of the top black women writers in the country. She was best known as a poet, though she wrote children’s books and essays too.

She was born in Harlem. Her parents came from Jamaica and believed in the American dream. They later moved to Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn. Her father was a postman, her mother a nurse. Her mother was “shadowy” but her father was “very intense, passionate and over-the-top. He was my hero and my tyrant.”

Her father beat her, from the age of two, while her mother stood by and did nothing. Her mother would later kill herself. Jordan was sent to an all-white boarding school in New England, when that kind of thing was rare.

Growing up she read and studied the writings of dead white men, but one of them she particularly liked: Walt Whitman.

She went to Barnard and fell in love with a white man. They married – in 1955 when that kind of thing was rare, even in New York. She dropped out of school, had a son and helped to put her husband through grad school. But it did not last: in 1965 they divorced.

After that she supported herself mainly by teaching English literature at universities: City College (late 1960s), Sarah Lawrence (early 1970s), SUNY Stony Brook (1980s) and Berkeley (1990s). At Berkeley she taught black and women’s studies. She made full professor in 1982. She cared about her students and loved teaching – she did not see it as a burdensome duty like some professors do.

Jordan began writing poetry at age seven. She never stopped writing, whether it could pay the bills or not. She saw words like a lover, seeing their naked beauty and their naked faults. She did not write the sort of books that could be made into Hollywood films or be safe enough to become best-sellers.

But that was her strength. She wrote the truth, she wrote what she saw with her eyes and felt in her heart. But they were not just in her heart: The things that were inside me that I did not know how to say, she knew how to say them and she did.

First they said I was too light
Then they said I was too dark
Then they said I was too different
Then they said I was too much the same
Then they said I was too young
Then they said I was too old
Then they said I was too interracial
Then they said I was too much a nationalist
Then they said I was too silly
Then they said I was too angry
Then they said I was too idealistic
Then they said I was too confusing altogether:
Make up your mind!
They said, Are you militant? Or sweet?
Are you vegetarian or meat?
Are you straight? Or are you gay?
And I said, Hey! It’s not about my mind.

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jamesm26James McBride (1957- ) is an American writer and jazz musician. He is best known as the author of “The Color of Water” (1996), which became a number one bestseller in America and is required reading at many schools and universities. He also wrote “Miracle at St. Anna” (2004), which Spike Lee made into a film of the same name in 2008. McBride has written music for Anita Baker (“Enough Love”), Grover Washington, Jr and Barney (no, not “I Love You”).

In 1981 when he worked for the Boston Globe, he wrote a column about his mother for Mother’s Day. It got so many letters that he made it into a book, “The Color of Water”.

His mother was a rabbi’s daughter who ran away from home to Harlem in 1939. She married a black man and became an outcast among whites. Even her own family cut her off. She found herself a white woman bringing up her 12 black children in Red Hook, a poor black ghetto in New York. All 12 children got university degrees, two of them becoming doctors. McBride himself studied music at Oberlin and journalism at Columbia.

As a boy McBride noticed that his mother looked different and asked her if she was white. She said she was “light-skinned”. She always talked about whites as “they” and never as “we'”. Her past was a mystery. He asked her what colour God is. She said, “the colour of water”.

Race was not something she liked to talk about. The book “The Color of Water” tells the story of his mother’s life and, in parallel, his own life and how he comes to terms with colour:

I didn’t want to be white. My siblings had already instilled the notion of black pride in me. I would have preferred that Mommy were black. Now, as a grown man, I feel privileged to have come from two worlds.

He sees himself as black but came to understand that blacks and whites are pretty much the same on the inside. His Jewish background is part of who he is, but he is Christian.

His next book, “Miracle at St. Anna” is about four black American soldiers who fought in Italy in the Second World War as part of the mostly black 92nd Division. Like his first book, it also shows the ugliness of racism and yet at the same time  the underlying oneness of mankind.

His latest book is “Song Yet Sung” (2008). It is a true-to-life story about a slave woman who is being hunted down while she flees north towards freedom. It shows how slavery worked in practice, how it affected the moral lives of both blacks and whites.

His advice to writers:

  • You learn writing by writing.
  • Most books are written between five and seven in the morning.
  • Do not wait; start now.
  • When you fail, get back up, forgive yourself and try again. (Only about half of McBride’s books ever see print.)

Most of that goes for musicians too.

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hooksGloria Watkins (1952- ), better known by her pen name of bell hooks (all lower case), is an American professor, a leading black feminist writer and thinker. She wanted to be a poet but made her name as a feminist by showing how white and racist feminism is.

Her catchphrase is “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy”: not only is American society built by and for rich white men, built on divisions of race, class and sex, but the losers – blacks, women and the poor – are brainwashed into accepting it through education, television, music and film.

That is why she likes to talk about Madonna and hip hop: they both started out speaking truth to power but then sold out, singing the white man’s song, the old song of women as sex objects and black men as violent brutes. That is what those rap videos are about. Spike Lee, meanwhile, did not sell out but then wound up getting sidelined.

She says America is not so much racist as white supremacist. Racism is about how people think and feel, it is something that comes from living in a white supremacist society, that is, a society built to favour whites over others.

Blacks living in such a society are brainwashed, they have colonized minds. They learn to look down on themselves, to hate themselves. They buy into the “black is ugly” message they hear all the time. They suffer from internalized racism.

The road to freedom is education. That is why she teaches. An education, that is, based on reading books, asking hard questions and thinking for oneself, education that tears apart the lies, that decolonizes your mind. A free society can be built on nothing less.

She grew up in the American South in Jim Crow days, on the black side of a small town in Kentucky. Until she went to high school she lived in a world of home and school that was largely the creation of black women. Her school was black, even her teachers were black. It was the old black Southern world that “offers ways of knowing, habits of being, that can sustain us as a people.”

Then she won a scholarship to Stanford University and found herself thrust into an all-white world.

Even though Stanford was a world of learning and ideas and books, none of the books spoke about what being a black woman in a white world meant – the self-hatred, the injustices, the racism and the sexism both. She looked and looked for a book that would speak to her, for her, but found none. So at age 19 she started writing the book herself in between her studies and her work. In time it became “Ain’t I a Woman?: Black Women and Feminism” (1981).

She expected her ideas to judged, weighed  and even found wanting, but she did not expect them to be crushed under a landslide of angry words. Many white feminists hated the book, but many black women loved it. In any case it made her name.

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senghor02Leopold Sedar Senghor (1906-2001) – his last name sounds like Song Gore – was a Senegalese poet, scholar and statesman. He was the first president of an independent Senegal, a French poet and one of the top black African thinkers of the 1900s, one of the founders of the negritude movement. He was also the first black African admitted to the French Academy, long the preserve of white men.

He was president of Senegal for 20 years, from 1960 to 1980. He was one of the few African leaders to leave office peacefully and one of the few who had a free press. People said he kissed up to the French too much. He said a country as poor as Senegal needs a friend.

Senghor was born in a small town along the Mamaguedy, 100 km south of Dakar, Senegal. He grew up Catholic in a land that was mostly Muslim. He went to a missionary school and loved to read French books. In time he became one of the top students in Senegal and won a scholarship to study in Paris.

So in 1928 he got on a ship to France and left Africa. Thus began what he called his 16 years of wandering.

In Paris he became friends with Aime Cesaire of Martinique and Leon Damas of French Guiana . Like Senghor, they found themselves caught between two words, one black, one white. The white world was tellling them it had all the answers, that their blackness was holding them back. Yet they found whites cold and stiff and full of themselves, living in “the world that has died of machines and cannons.”

So together they came up with negritude: the idea that black thought, feeling, art and ideas were just as good as those of Europe. It became a movement among black writers, an early form of black pride.

Senghor loved France and the French language and yet he also loved Africa too. He felt torn, something he wrote about in his poetry. He felt like he was two different people. Yet choosing to be just one would narrow him. So he chose neither and remained whole.

He got his degree from the University of Paris in 1935 and became a French and Latin teacher in France. Because he was black some of his students were surprised to see that he wore clothes!

Four years later war came. Senghor fought for France with the Tirailleurs Senegalais, France’s West African army. He spent two years in a Nazi German prison camp. There he wrote a book of French poetry.

After the war he represented Senegal in the French National Assembly. He pushed for greater freedom for Senegal, but not for outright independence. He also pushed for Senegal and French Sudan (now called Mali) to become one. He thought that so long as Africa remains divided into little countries it will remain weak and poor.

In 1962 his name was in the running for the Nobel Prize for Literature. He lost to John Steinbeck.

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Michael Eric Dyson

dysonMichael Eric Dyson (1958- ) has been called one of America’s foremost black thinkers. He is a professor of sociology at Georgetown University and a talking head on NPR, CNN and Bill Maher. He is well known for opposing the views of Bill Cosby about poor blacks.

He sounds like a preacher but talks about hip hop. He thinks for himself and tries to get past what he calls “the labored seductions of all narrow views of black life, whether they be racist, essentialist, or otherwise uncritically disposed toward African American culture.”

As a scholar he has written books for the general public on Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Tupac Shakur and gangsta rap, presenting  the truth, as best as it can be known, against the simple-minded, self-serving ideas most people have about such things. He has also written books about Katrina, Bill Cosby’s views, the colour line and why he loves black women!

He wrote “Making Malcolm: The Myth and Meaning of Malcolm X” (1994) so that people now and in the future, in America and abroad, can understand what Malcolm X was all about and how his ideas can help them. Both Angela Davis and Chuck D say it is a great book.

Bill Cosby blames poor blacks for their own troubles. He sounds almost white. Dyson says Cosby only looks at what blacks are doing wrong, not at what whites are doing wrong, which is just as much a part of the picture.

Dyson grew up in Detroit’s black middle-class in the 1960s and 1970s. He read through the Harvard Classsics, the great writings of dead white men, and listened to Motown.

At 16 he got a scholarship to a good boarding school. When he arrived there he got the shock of his life: nearly everyone was white. He now saw that he had grown up all his life knowing only black people. The racism he faced there – the names, his room getting messed up and his stuff destroyed – made him angry and before long he got kicked out.

His life went down hill from there: soon he had a baby on the way and no work except to hustle on the streets. But he kept going to church. He loved speaking so he found out how to become a Baptist minister. In time that led him to study, and then later to teach at some  of the top universities in the land. He started writing too, at first to get some money to help his brother, who was in prison on a second-degree murder charge.

Dyson once said of himself:

I think of myself as a Trojan Horse. I don’t have an earring in my nose or ear. I don’t have my hair combed back in a ponytail, or rough-hewn. I look like an insider. But there’s a whole lot of Negroes inside of me. There’s a whole lot of black men inside of me. And when I get in somewhere, I let them out.

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kola-boof2-721640Kola Boof (1972- ) is a Sudanese-American writer who is best known as the one-time mistress of Osama bin Laden.

She says that one night in Morocco in 1996 she went out to eat with her date. Later Bin Laden and his men arrived and he saw her. His men told her date to leave and brought her to Bin Laden’s table. They talked. Later that night he and his men came to her hotel room. He raped her. A Moroccan prince later backed up her story.

In fear for her life she became Bin Laden’s lover. He flew her to Medina and put her up in La Maison Arabe for six months. She last saw him in 1998.

Peter Bergen of CNN says she is making it all up: Bin Laden was never in Morocco in 1996.

She has also helped to get guns for the SPLA, which was fighting for the independence of southern Sudan. The Arab-speaking Muslims in the north have killed millions of blacks in the south and sold others as slaves. (Alek Wek  fled the violence there.)

Boof is from Sudan but not from the south. She was born at Omdurman, across the Nile from Khartoum, the capital. Her parents were both foreigners: her father was an Arab from Egypt, an archaeologist. Her mother was blue black, as she puts it, an Oromo from Somalia.

Her parents stood up against how blacks were kept down and made into slaves. They were killed for it. Boof went to Egypt to live with her grandmother. That did not last: her grandmother thought Boof was too dark to fit in and sent her to live with an Ethiopian couple in England. Her new parents in turn thought she was a witch and so she wound up in America in Washington, DC, brought up by a Black American couple:

I knew that I was special and that I had been placed with very special people in a very special paradise. I felt that something magical was going to happen. You must understand that the Black Americans are very magical people – because their hearts are broken.

She had to deal with American black self-hatred, something she writes about in her book “Diary of a Lost Girl” (2007).

She learned English in part by watching “Days of Our Lives” and other soap operas on television. She would later write for “Days of Our Lives”! To this day she loves soaps but thinks they have fallen behind the times.

When she read Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye” it changed her life:

It planted art inside me and it possessed me, because at 14, it was the first time that I had heard somebody tell the truth in America.

She sees writing as a “constant struggle for ‘sincerity'”, as a way to express the painful truths that have been killing her inside all her life.

As a writer she is not well known but she has her fans, like Derrick Bell and Chinweizu, who speak highly of her writing.

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sennaDanzy Senna (1970- ) is an American writer, best known for her book “Caucasia” (1999), a coming of age story about a girl who is somewhere between black and white. It is about a mulatto who is not tragic. Something Senna knows about first-hand.

Her parents were both writers and both worked for the civil rights movement. Her mother was white, coming from an old-money Wasp family in Boston that once traded slaves. Her father was a black Mexican. Senna, born in Boston, was in between, able to pass as white or black.

But not as biracial: in Boston in the 1970s there was no such thing. You were either black or white. Her parents brought her up as black.

You told us all along that we had to call ourselves black because of this so-called one drop. Now that we don’t have to anymore, we choose to. Because black is beautiful. Because black is not a burden, but a privilege.

She saw herself as black. But because she could pass for white she could hear the things that white people said about blacks behind their backs.

She found that no matter how much whites might talk equality and Martin Luther King and all that, they were still just as hung up about race as blacks were – they just had a different, more subtle way of talking about it. Subtle or not, it was still hard to hear it.

People who do not know her tend to think she is Jewish or Arab.

These days she sees herself as being mixed yet black:

I think of myself as mixed, and I think of myself as part of a long history of African-American writers, so I don’t see them as so distinct as people do these days.

She says not being white helps her as a writer because it gives her an outsider’s point of view.  In writing courses she took she noticed that white men, at least those who were not Jewish, had a hard time picking something to write about.

Even though she had been writing stories since at least age 11, when she went off to Stanford she studied medicine instead. But the science courses were too hard and, besides, she found that writing was something she just had to do.

The writers who made her know she should be one too were Colette, James Baldwin and Dostoevsky. She particularly likes Baldwin’s “Giovanni’s Room” and Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment”. And also Ralph Ellison’s “Invisible Man”.

“Caucasia” was her first book. It was so good it became a hard act to follow. For two years she wrote nothing. In time she did write another book, “Symptomatic” (2004) whose hero is also biracial, but this time more of a tragic mulatto. Her latest book is “Where Did You Sleep Last Night?: A Personal History” (2009). She also writes for magazines, especially about the way race and sex affects how people think of themselves.

She is married to writer Percival Everett.

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L. Sprague de Camp (1907-2000) was a writer of the Golden Age of science fiction in the 1930s and 1940s. Not quite on the level with Asimov, Heinlein or Arthur C. Clarke, but up there.

He wrote over a hundred books in the course of 50 years. He especially liked to write about time travel, ancient history, magic and pseudo-science, mainly in the form of stories about adventurers, but sometimes as non-fiction. He helped to keep Robert E. Howard’s Conan the Barbarian alive into the 1980s when it made it onto film.

Ballantine books says he is “a man with the mind of an archaeologist, the heart of an adventurer, and the soul of Indiana Jones.” He was also a scholar and a gentleman.

His single best book is probably “Lest Darkness Fall” (1939). It is about an archaeologist who suddenly finds himself in Rome back in the year 535 in the time of Justinian. He becomes an inventor….

Most of his books are good, light reads. While he is a good writer, he has never taken his writing so seriously as to think of it as art. For him it was just a way to make a living. Yet he did win the Nebula (1978) and the Gandalf (1995) as a grandmaster of both science fiction and fantasy. He also won the Hugo in 1997 for his autobiography.

Born in New York, he went to Caltech to get his engineering degree. During the Second World War he worked at the Philadelphia Navy Yard with Asimov and Heinlein: “For three-and-a-half years, Heinlein, Asimov and I navigated desks and fought the war with flashing slide rules.” He and Asimov became good friends.

De Camp is a materialist, a big believer in science who applies reason to everything – particularly to things like UFOs, creationism, Atlantis and racism.

Even when he writes about a world where magic or time travel is possible, he is thorough in applying strict reasoning to it. He has that kind of mind. He is also careful to get his facts right and make sure that the science of his science fiction is, in fact, science.

His love of facts and getting them right and his love of telling stories of adventure and stories of what-if is what makes him good. You feel like you are back in time or in his other world.

His love of facts and adventure took him round the world to places like Uganda, Iraq, Guatemala, India and Easter Island. When he was writing a book about ancient cities, he went to visit their remains first-hand.

It also took him all over Texas when he wrote about the life of Robert E. Howard, the creator of Conan. His matter-of-fact truthfulness angered Howard’s fans. De Camp also wrote a book about another author he loved: H.P. Lovecraft.

De Camp wrote books well into his 70s.

He was married to the same woman for almost 70 years, his “rewrite gal”. He died on her first birthday after she passed away.

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Adam Mansbach (c. 1977- ) is an American writer best known for “Angry Black White Boy” (2005) and “The End of the Jews” (2008). He seems to be one of the few white American writers these days who writes about race and whiteness. Tim Wise also comes to mind.

Mansbach is Jewish, but his family was not all that religious and did not practise the old Jewish ways. Instead he grew up on jazz and especially hip hop in a white, well-to-do town just outside of Boston. He loved hip hop when it was still largely a black thing. That put him into a strange position with both blacks and whites. He became an outsider in both worlds.

The day that changed his life was April 29th 1992. He was 15 and heard that the policemen who beat Rodney King were found not guilty. How could that be? He saw the video over and over again on television of the white policemen beating an unarmed black man senseless. Who could doubt their guilt?

He was shocked that the policemen walked free, but what shocked him even more was that no one in his white town cared. No one was angry or anything. While Los Angeles burned it was just another day where he lived.

He and a teacher at school led a walkout and went to city hall to show their anger and make people maybe think a bit.

All this made him think about race, white people and his own whiteness. So years later he wrote a book about it, “Angry Black White Boy”.

It is about Macon Detornay, a young New York taxi driver. He robs his rich, white customers because of their race. Everyone thinks he is black, but he turns out to be white! He becomes famous and calls for a National Day of Apology where whites tell blacks how sorry they are for all the injustice they have done. Things get out of control from there…

Mansbach wrote the book in what he calls a hip hop style – just like Kerouac wrote some of his stuff in a sort of jazz style of prose.

Mansbach says whiteness is hard to understand because it is everywhere. That makes it hard to see. It does not stick out like blackness does. But he does understand that the way society works – from the police to the courts to the banks and so on – that it is all set up to suit whites and winds up screwing blacks.

Some things he has said:

… the legacy of black folks in America is so profound that it functions as a metaphor for all humanity.

I think that for every community there are outskirts, margins… To me, those margins are where art comes from.

Like if you don’t know Diana Ross, you might think Puffy is a genius.

The genius of graffiti is that five million people see your art.

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When I was younger there were certain Americans authors that I just loved, while I had little patience for the others who were supposed to be so much better according to my English teachers.

Here are the ones I read the most: James Baldwin, Amiri Baraka, June Jordan, Jack Kerouac, Henry David Thoreau, Sinclair Lewis, Ntozake Shange, Noam Chomsky, Gloria Naylor, Erich Fromm, Edward Said, Alice Walker, Zora Neale Hurston, Lewis Mumford.

Half are black, half are white. Two are foreign-born. But there is something that 10 of the 14 have in common: early in their lives they all lived in the same bit of America: Uptown Manhattan, Manhattan north of 110th Street in New York. Like me.

As far as I know Thoreau, Chomsky, Sinclair Lewis and Alice Walker have never lived there. But the other ten have, either in Harlem or at one of the universities next to it (or both):

  • Harlem: Baldwin, Naylor, Hurston, Jordan, Baraka
  • Barnard: Jordan, Shange, Hurston
  • Columbia: Baraka, Kerouac, Fromm, Said
  • City College: Mumford

Themes and ideas that keep coming up in these authors, whether they are black or white:

  • Many of the things you hear about America are self-serving lies.
  • If you are not careful, American society will make you into a soulless machine.
  • Most Americans are cut off from their own true feelings.
  • A hollow falseness lies at the heart of mainstream America.
  • American society has injustice built right into it.
  • America is split down the middle by race.
  • See things as they are, not as everyone says they are or wish they were.
  • Money and progress are not necessarily always good things.
  • In the end it all comes down to power.

Of course, some of these are things you can know just by being black anywhere in America.

Manhattan north of 110th Street is not part of apple-pie America. The image of Harlem becomes burned into your mind forever. The poverty. The rank injustice of race. It is so overpowering that it can cut through the blindness of even white people. At least some of them.

So even if you have money, even if you have white skin, even if you have had the best that America has to offer, it is hard to live there and believe that America is anywhere near as wonderful as it seems on television or in the history books. Not if you are honest. Not if you value the truth. Not if you see with your own two eyes.

The big smile that has been pasted over America comes to seem like the big lie.

And the angry things that Michelle Obama says make complete sense to you. The Southside of Chicago seems to be the same sort of place. And you start to wonder if Barack Obama, who once went to Columbia and has lived in the Southside all these years, you wonder if he truly means everything he says or if he is just kissing up to the mainstream.

But at least you know he knows. You do not know if John McCain knows.

Postscript (2014): Obama is kissing up to the mainstream all the way. Sickeningly so. 

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