Tag Archives: African American

Contemporary Black Voices

There’s a lot of great African American writing out there these days, waiting for you to discover it. Thanks to blogs like For Harriet and White Readers Meet Black Authors, it’s easy to keep up with new–and new-to-you–authors and titles. Your friendly neighborhood librarians are, of course, another great outlet for keeping up with Black literature, fiction, poetry, and memoir. Here are a few recent titles to consider.

Photo from Louis Cameron's African American Flag Project - click through to see more images.

Photo from Louis Cameron’s African American Flag Project – click through to see more images.

residueThe Residue Years, Mitchell S. Jackson. Her name is Grace, and she desperately needs some. His name is Champ, and he desperately wants to be one. They are mother and son, recovering addict and drug dealer, dancing in different ways to the same tune. Set in Portland, the story begins with Grace graduating from rehab and struggling to find a job, pay the bills, and renew her relationships with her children. Champ spends his drug earnings lavishly on his mother, trying to help her achieve a better life, but Grace feels wrong about taking it. Champ, for his part, doesn’t always feel good about earning it, but with the costs of living and a baby on the way, it’s the fastest, easiest path to success…right up to the point where it isn’t. A sobering look at how hard it can be to break destructive patterns, even when you want to.

The Awesome Girl’s Guide to Dating Extraordinary Men, Ernessa T. CarterThursday has never been interested in awesomedating any guy longer than a month, but lately she’s been having these strange dreams about accepting a stranger’s proposal in–of all places–a farmers’ market. The dating guide she borrows from a husband-hunting friend becomes her go-to source of advice, supported by the loving–and sometimes blunt–input from her group of girlfriends. Although the story revolves around Thursday’s complicated search for true love, her friends Sharita, Risa, and Tammy are also having their own struggles. But at least they can all count on each other to stay grounded about what’s important. Keep a box of tissues handy on the way to the happy ending, then cry for joy when the power of love and friendship carry the day. Solid chick-lit with some gritty themes.

birdThe Good Lord Bird , James McBride. In the aftermath of a church fire, an unusual manuscript is discovered in a lock box: the narrative of former slave Henry Shackleford who, through a series of both comedic and not-so-funny mishaps, finds himself a) fighting in abolitionist John Brown’s army, and b) spending a large portion of his life pretending to be a girl. Fans of historical fiction will find much to love here, as Shackleford’s fly-on-the-wall adventures–related with dry, dead-pan delivery–take him all over the country, meeting the likes of Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, culminating in a front-row seat at Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry.  McBride does an amazing job capturing what historical events must have looked and felt like to the common people of the time, and his 2013 National Book Award for the adventure is well-deserved.

Men We Reaped, Jesmyn Ward. Novelist Ward (Salvage the Bones) turns from fiction to memoir with an exploration of her reapedhometown, DeLisle Mississippi. Five men important to her, including her brother Joshua, died between 2000 and 2004. While the surface causes varied, the underlying reason was horrifyingly simple: hopelessness brought on by feeling trapped in their circumstances. Ward pulls no punches in examining the experience of being both poor and Black in the contemporary South, the lack of work (any work, much less meaningful work), the forced choice between staying home and repeating old patterns or getting away and “making it” but being unable to spend your life surrounded by the people you love best. Beginning with her own family’s roots, then spiraling out into the many stories that make up DeLisle’s closely-knit Black community, Ward weaves a ferocious tapestry of love, loss, and, ultimately, her choice to live in spite of the dying.

mcmillanWho Asked You?, Terry McMillan. Betty Jean’s worked hard all her life, and retirement is only six years away. However, the double-whammy of her husband’s unexpected illness and her daughter’s disappearance means that Betty Jean has a sick man to care for and two grandchildren to raise. Her sisters have strong opinions on how she should handle these plot twists, but Betty Jean is determined to do what she thinks is right, no matter what. Told by a colorful cast of characters in alternating chapters, Who Asked You? is a large-hearted look at one woman’s life as perceived by her family, friends, and neighbors. McMillan (Waiting to ExhaleHow Stella Got Her Groove Back) leaves  no stone unturned with her candid and funny take on growing older and weathering the unexpected, and readers who enjoy stories about family ties will root for Betty Jean and her kin as they learn to love each other better.

Your turn: what African American titles and authors have you been reading lately?

Leigh Anne

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Cool New Digital Tools

The Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh proudly presents some cool new digital tools for library users.  Grab your CLP card and take these electronic resources for a spin.

ProQuest Historical Newspapers

What it is:   The Pittsburgh Courier in digital form

What it does: Provides full-text access to 91 years’ worth of a prominent African American newspaper.

What you can do with it:  Explore local history; supplement your geneaology research;  get a different view of local and world news;  teach your students about African American history;  search for interesting events that happened on your birthday.

Bonus feature:  You can also search the ABI/Inform business database from the same screen.

If you like it:  See also The African American Experience, or visit The Pennsylvania Department to use Newspaper Archive, another cool digital tool from ProQuest.

Global Issues in Context

What it is:  A clearinghouse of information on current topics and controversies.

What it does:  Collects massive amounts of information into one place, and represents all sides of challenging issues.

What you can do with it:  Get credible information faster; stop wading through 5 million Google hits; read non-partisan information from reputable sources; educate yourself about different cultures and customs; set up RSS feeds for world news sources (separate sign-up required);  challenge your first impressions; become a well-informed citizen.

Bonus feature:  Contains lesson plans and other educational resources for teachers, as well as research and other study guides for students.

If you like it:  See also CQ Researcher Plus Archive and Opposing Viewpoints Resource Center.

Questions, comments, praise and censure can be directed to info@carnegielibrary.org .  And don’t forget:  your chance to weigh in on what role technology — among other things — should play in the future of the library is coming up soon.  Visit the Community Conversation page for more details.

–Leigh Anne
Who will be back with another cool digital update as soon as she can get the dohickey to work correctly with the thingamabob

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JSTOR

For the moment, my favorite database in the Library’s Collection is JSTOR, a repository of archival materials of 1000+ scholarly titles on music, humanities, social sciences, art, and science.  It is available for use at the CLP Oakland Library.

JSTOR’s focus is back-issues of titles which are unavailable in many public libraries because of varying demand as well as the ever-increasing costs of storage.  An important value of JSTOR is its provision of full-text articles which in one case dates to the 18th century; in contrast, other databases typically limit full-text provision to materials published after the mid-70s.

In its coverage of nearly 50 disciplines, JSTOR has been a source of information for topics both within and outside the margin of popular, mainstream discourse.  Its inclusion of fifteen titles covering the African American experience, for example, includes Alva Hudson’s comparison (Reading Achievements,  Interests, and Habits of Negro Women) of  the reading habits of poor, middle, and upper-class “Negro” women and is a cornerstone of contemporary studies of intersectionality. Other highlights are Emmett J. Scott’s compilations (Letters of Negro Migrants of 1916-1918, More Letters of Negro Migrants of 1916-1918) of letters to Southern Blacks from friends and family who had moved to the “greener pastures” of the North. More than a million African Americans relocated during the first part of the twentieth century, and few sources relay their hopes and courage and struggles as compellingly as these primary sources. JSTOR holdings supplement the Main Library’s current subscriptions to African-American related journals which include:

American Legacy

Black History Bulletin

Crisis

Ebony

Essence

Jet

Journal of the Afro-American Historical & Genealogical Society

-Gwen

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“Sister Outsider:” Audre Lorde

Audre Lorde and blue jay feather by ni dieu ni maître

"Audre Lorde and blue jay feather" by ni dieu ni maître

Nearly every article on poet and activist Audre Lorde makes use of her self-description: “I am a Black, lesbian, feminist, warrior, poet, mother doing my work.”   Lorde valued identity as a source of her work, and said, “My poetry comes from the intersection of me and my worlds.”  Regarding identity, Lorde considered herself a “continuum of women,” “a concert of voices,” and spoke of putting parts of herself to work for other parts in the service of her vision. Critic Pamela Steed Hill wrote, “Her work is both staunchly political and direly personal as she addresses the issues of women’s and gay rights,” as well as racism and, later, her battle with cancer.  “But these subjects, vital as they are, do not define the real heart of Lorde’s creative inspirations as a poet.  Her work often explores relationships between people.”

Lorde was born in Harlem New York to Caribbean immigrants.  As a young woman, she used poetry as  communication, reciting poems in response to questions, and began to write when she couldn’t find the poems to explain her feelings.  She earned a master’s degree in library science from Columbia University in 1961, married and had 2 children shortly after, and divorced in 1970.  After that, she committed to two successive long-term lesbian relationships.

In 1987, Lorde moved to St. Croix, US Virgin Islands.  Her home, which she shared with her partner, was among the many destroyed by Hurricane Hugo in September 1989.  In response to her and the island’s experience after the storm, she wrote several poems, such as the startling and moving “Restoration: A Memorial 9/18/91,” which includes the lines:

“Somewhere it is Tuesday
in the ordinary world
ravishment fades
into compelling tasks
our bodies learn to perform
quite a bit of the house is left
our bedroom spared
except for the ankle-deep water
and terrible stench.”

She also published the essay “Of Generators and Survival–Hugo Letter,” which detailed her home’s wreckage and included scathing criticism of the US government’s inadequate humanitarian response to the disaster.

Her poetry was published regularly throughout the 1960s, and she authored over a dozen poetry collections, a memoir of her experience with cancer, a “biomythographic” novel, and a collection of essays and speeches.  She also founded Kitchen Table Women of Color Press and attended numerous workshops conferences and panel discussions as a keynote speaker.  She received numerous awards and grants for her work, and taught at colleges in the US and Germany.

She was deeply involved with various political movements, and was a figurehead in the movements for racial equality and justice, feminism and gay rights.  She viewed the different causes as overlapping and inseparable, and often criticized the movements for their reluctance to accept others who were the victims of different prejudices, arguing that, in order to succeed in the fight for equality, all oppressed people must join together to understand their differences and use them as bridges rather than barriers. Her impassioned message of understanding and inclusiveness radiates from her work.

Lorde was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1978 and had a mastectomy.  Teaching at the the time, she chose not to have a biopsy and instead employed homeopathic treatments.  In 1984, she found out that the cancer metastasized to her liver, and she died of cancer in Germany in 1992, working and writing up until her death.  Her words and work remain as empowering and inspiring now as ever, as the movements to which she dedicated her life continue today.

Her activism was inextricably tied to her writing.  In her 1977 essay, “Poetry is Not a Luxury,” she wrote, “For women, then, poetry is not a luxury.  It is a vital necessity of our existence.  It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action.  Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought.  The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.”

Themes Lorde fearlessly addresses in her poetry and writings include:

  • racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, and elitism
  • violence motivated by discrimination, including police brutality
  • motherhood, parent/child, and other relationships
  • daily life
  • domestic and international contemporary events
  • African mythology
  • love

While she considered herself to be primarily a poet, Lorde also published essays and appeared as the keynote speaker at numerous conferences.  She also wrote many open letters in response to current events, such as national and international crises, events within the activist community, and the violent deaths of well-known figures, unknown African-American women and other victims of hate crimes.  A few of the victims of these crimes reappeared in several poems and writings.  Among them: Clifford Glover, a 10-year-old boy shot to death by a police officer whom a jury found not guilty, and Patricia Cowan, a young African-American mother and actress who was brutally murdered in 1978 by a African-American man after showing up to audition for his play.  Lorde also mentions in her writings personal acquaintances, public figures, fellow writers and activists.  Ideas and phrases recur across formats in her work.

Central to Lorde’s philosophy is her “theory of difference,” which she detailed in many of her speeches and essays:

  • “[Racism, Sexism, Heterosexism and homophobia are] forms of human blindness [that] stem from the same root—an inability to recognize the notion of difference as a dynamic human force, one which is enriching rather than threatening to the defined self, when there are shared goals. … It is based upon the false notion that there is only a limited and particular amount of freedom that must be divided up between us, with the largest and juiciest pieces of liberty going to as spoils to the victor or the stronger.  So instead of joining together to fight for more, we quarrel between ourselves for a larger slice of the one pie.” (“Scratching the Surface: Some Notes on Barriers to Women and Loving: ”)
  • “And where the words of women are crying to be heard, we must each of us recognize our responsibility to seek those words out, to read them and share them and examine them in their pertinence to our lives.  That we not hide behind the mockeries of separations that have been imposed upon us and which so often we accept as our own.  For instance, ‘I can’t possibly teach Black women’s writing—their experience is so different from mine.’  Yet how many years have you spent teaching Plato and Shakespeare and Proust?  Or another, ‘She’s a white women, and what could she possibly have to say to me?’  Or, ‘She’s a lesbian, what would my husband say, or my chairman?’  Or again, ‘This woman writes of her sons and I have no children.’  And all the other endless ways in which we rob ourselves of ourselves and each other.” (“The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action”)

Fellow Eleventh Stack blogonaut and poetry expert, Don, said of Lorde, before our 3 Poems By Discussion on her work last week, “Her pacing is impeccable – a strong, powerful stride forward -Her poems always seem like dispatches from the front, every inch of love and dignity fought for, tough grueling battles, but always fought from the center of love, love is always the touchstone and bitterness never gains any purchase.  For her, the political is what it should always be, personal, grounded in humanness.  An outstanding woman and poet.”

To listen to some recordings of Lorde’s powerful, inspiring readings of her poetry and speeches, go to creativecommons.org and search for “Audre Lorde” or check out the audiobook Our Souls Have Grown Deep Like the Rivers: Black Poets Read Their Work.  Also available in CLP’s collection is her biography, Warrior Poet: A Biography of Audre Lorde.

–Renée

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Share the History: Celebrate Black History Month

Here at the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, we are very excited to Share the History this month!  In branches all over the city, there are programs for adults, teens, children and families to celebrate Black History Month

At the Main library, the special events include a lecture and discussion on Pittsburgh’s Underground Railroad, presented by Soldiers and Sailors Museum historian John L. Ford, and a workshop on The History of African American Beauty and Culture in Pittsburgh, featuring Celeta Hickman, oral historian for the Teenie Harris collection at the Carnegie Museum of Art.  These two programs are in addition to the regularly-scheduled Sunday Afternoon Music, World Kaleidoscope!, and Books in the Afternoon book discussions, which this month will feature hip hop artists Lucid Music, Shona Sharif African Drum & Dance Ensemble, and The Time of Our Singing, by Richard Powers, respectively.

At our Downtown & Business location, several lunchtime programs include film screenings of documentaries on Martin Luther King, Jr. and Zora Neale Hurston, as well as a classic film starring Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn and Sidney Portier; a book discussion of Dreams from My Father, by Barack Obama; and a live presentation entitled The Souls of Black Baseball: Barnstorming the Keystone State, which examines the rich history of black baseball in Pennsylvania.

In other locations, we have a discussion of African American music at the Carrick library, an opportunity to share your favorite memory at the Hill District branch, a film screening and discussion at the Squirrel Hill branch, and An Evening with Beverly Jenkins, the popular historical romance author, at the Homewood library.  (This one is presented by Pittsburgh Arts and Lectures, and is the only event that is not free; tickets are just $10.)

Now if that’s not enough for you to do, there’s more!  We have partnered with the August Wilson Center for African American Culture to present Family Read-Alouds at East Liberty, Homewood, and the Hill District.  Other read-aloud events, a teen book discussion of The Liberation of Gabriel King, and craft programs round out the activities for young people.

So if you were wondering how you were going to make it through the dark, winter month of February, look no further than the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, where you can join your community in sharing history at the library.

-Kaarin

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Toni Morrison – A Mercy

The recent brouhaha over American literature and the Nobel Prize, ignited by Horace Engdahl of the Nobel Prize jury, has stirred up lots of emotion parochial and patriotic but thankfully, at least not yet, patriarchal. No matter what one thinks of the fact that America was characterized as “too isolated, too insular,” one thing can be said for the Nobel committee: they got it absolutely right when they selected Toni Morrison in 1993.

Morrison’s new novel, A Mercy, is a lyrical revelation, a book that solidifies her reputation as one of our finest writers, living or otherwise, and is one of the best, most powerful novels of 2008. Some of Morrison’s hallmark characteristics are in evidence: the plot moves forward in non-chronological fits and starts, with events being revealed from multiple, not always meshing, points of view, a story that centers on slavery and race in America from an historical perspective, and a narrative style, language and execution that challenges the reader to be at her/his very best.

Set in late seventeenth century colonial America, this is the story of Florens, a young slave, who is reluctantly accepted as compensation in a bad business deal by Dutch trader Jacob Vaark, and the life she comes to live on Vaark’s small New York estate. The lives of the women, both fellow slaves, Lina and Sorrow, and Vaark’s wife, are minutely recounted in all their burdensome drudgery, replete with sorrow and despair nearly beyond human endurance. The sheer brutality of their lives is immense, emphatically underscored by a devastating small pox epidemic.

In this video, Morrison herself briefly discusses the main character and how the plot comes together.

In a novel this brief, it would be telling in the worst way to give away important plot details. Suffice it to say that the story builds inexorably, with almost spiral-like undulations, to a conclusion that is as powerful as it is devastating. In her portrayal of characters, masterful manipulation of time, and head-on confrontation with race in America, there are echoes of that other American Nobel laureate, William Faulkner. The ultimate ambivalence of the title itself, in its final revelation by Florens’ mother, brings to mind another award winning major American novel of the 1970’s.

The criteria for the Nobel Prize in Literature are open to interpretation and analysis. From a quick glance at the list of American Nobel laureates – Sinclair Lewis, Eugene O’Neill, Pearl S. Buck, William Faulkner, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Saul Bellow, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Czeslaw Milosz, and Morrison – one might glean a certain commonality of concern particular to the human condition as a whole, often as seen through the lens of oppressed peoples. Whatever the criteria, in theory or execution, 10 Americans of the 108 laureates is nothing to sneeze at. This is a large world and it must be shared, virtually and otherwise.

And that, of course, is exactly the point of said commonality and no one illustrates that better, with more force, beauty, and resonance, than Toni Morrison. A Mercy builds upon a legacy that can make us all proud, Americans and Nobel jury members alike.

Don

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Shelf Examination: African American Fiction

Pittsburgh is a city whose neighborhoods are rich in African-American culture and heritage. Take, for example, the Hill District, home of the legendary August Wilson, whose legacy resonates throughout the Carnegie Library’s brand-new Hill District Branch.  There’s also Homewood, where John Edgar Wideman both spent his youth and set much of his writing. However, I could go on all day and not even begin to do justice to the proud history and hopeful future you can find within Pittsburgh’s borders.

It’s the same way with the African American fiction collection:  because it spans multiple genres, and reflects various aspects of the African American experience, it’s almost impossible to sum it up with three or four titles.  And yet, we soldier on!  Here’s a very quick peek at some of the titles and authors you’ll find on our shelves.

Diverse fiction for a diverse city...

Diverse fiction for a diverse city...

The Book: 72 Hour Hold, Bebe Moore Campbell.

The Plot: A mother struggles to help her adult daughter cope with bipolar disorder, but is limited both by the law and by society’s discomfort with the mentally ill.

Pick this up if you like: mother-daughter relationships, novels that explore contemporary medical issues, style and tone similiar to thrillers, but with literary use of metaphor.

The Book: Talking God’s Radio Show, John High.

The Plot: This dream-like (or is it nightmarish?) novel revolves around Jesse Rivers, his surreal experiences in an orphanage called “Camp Jesus,” and his adventures after his subsequent escape.

Pick this up if you like: Psychological fiction, coming-of-age stories, poetic prose, stories told in flashback, Southern gothic.

book jacket book jacket book jacket

The Book: Man Gone Down, Michael Thomas.

The Plot: The American dream takes a screeching turn for the worse for a young black man who, though successful up to now, finds himself estranged from his wife and children.  Given only a short time to put his life back together, can he figure out a way to keep everything he holds dear?

Pick this up if you like: Narratives that rely heavily on flashback, portraits of contemporary manhood and fatherhood, stories set in Boston or New York, the challenges of earning a living and building a life.

The Book: Short Stories of the Civil Rights Movement, ed. Margaret Earley.

The Plot: A group of short stories and personal recollections loosely grouped around relevant historical themes, such as “Sit-ins” and “Desegregation.”  Contributors include Z.Z. Packer and Alice Walker.

Pick this up if you like: Historical fiction, anthologies, short stories, literary fiction, multi-cultural collaborations.

When you’re done with these, you’ll be ready to explore the collection’s African authors, or perhaps some of its inspirational offerings. You can also try familiar picks from classic authors or dive into the controversial, yet compelling, world of street lit (also known as urban lit).  As ever, if you want to learn more, or have questions about authors and titles, just ask a librarian.

Books?  Yep, we've got those...

Books? Yep, we've got those...

Whew.  Trying to do justice to all of our genres and formats was a mammoth task.  I hope you’ve enjoyed this overview series, and that you’ll stick around for your Nonfiction Fix, the first installment of which was inspired by one of Kaarin’s previous entries.

Happy reading!

–Leigh Anne

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