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Michelle's Musings

A Little Yellow Book

During Black History Month, recommendations for creative works by African American authors and playwrights have ticked up, including W.E.B. DuBois' "The Souls of Black Folk." The day before I sat down to write this post, I realized that the other reason this book was on my mind was my recollection of taking my father's copy with me when I left home for college some decades ago.

 

I never read the book in its entirety, and I was moved to search for it among my collection. At first, I was unable to locate it amid the stacks of paperbacks and hardcovers jammed into my bookshelves, some of which perpetually await the opening of legitimate shelf space. As I gave a final sigh and started to turn away from the sagging shelves, the weathered yellow paperback suddenly "jumped out" at me from its resting place atop the uppermost shelf.

 

Copyrighted in 1953, this version of "The Souls of Black Folk" was published in 1961. Its pages, which look like they're about to free themselves from the book spine, are almost as yellow as the cover. Thankfully, the strange odor of decay seems to be fading.

 

The book obviously belonged to someone other than my father as it is filled with annotations in handwriting that is not his. Did he loan it to another person? Did someone give it to him? The elusive answer to this person's identity is as intriguing as the fact that I was able to lay my hands on the book.

 

I find it amazing that DuBois' historic work, considered a controversial but highly touted read back in the day, is being referenced in discussions about racism in 2021, exactly 50 years after the release of this version. In my estimation, I've stumbled upon something worthy of enshrinement. Though the font is painfully small and dense, I plan to gingerly read it from cover to cover and, hopefully, experience some sort of spiritual awakening as I do.

 

But, oh, how I wish I knew whose handwriting and underscoring grace its pages!

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Journalistic Integrity

Paraphrasing Spanish philosopher George Santayana, Winston Churchill wrote, "Those who failed to learn from history are doomed to repeat it."

 

Writing serves a purposeful role in the transmission of information, including the preservation of past and present events for future consideration. During this past pandemic-stricken, democracy-threatening year, I've relied upon the skills of respected journalists to keep me abreast of the staggering pace of evolution of this Nation's history. While in no way diminishing the exceedingly difficult conditions under which health care workers, grocery store clerks, law enforcement members, mass transit workers, garbage handlers, truck drivers, postal workers, and others have toiled to keep us safe and functioning with a minimal degree of normality, journalists also became front-line workers, as they often risked their lives to take us into the heart of developing critical situations and, in most cases, attempt to objectively present what we may not personally experience.

 

As writers, we are unified in our goal to impart information to others. Written words and speech are powerful tools of communication that can be as inciteful as they are enlightening. While journalists have been demonized by those who would prefer to camouflage the truth with "alternative facts," they have persevered at great peril to keep us informed during these tumultuous times. In the hopefully waning era of "fake news," I am thankful that journalistic integrity reliably informed me.

 

Let us celebrate our esteemed colleagues by taking a moment to acknowledge those who make it their mission to convey truth through the power of words.

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The Final Chapter

Most would agree that 2020 has been a year of many firsts, heartaches, dreams gone bust, and precious little good in between. So many twists and turns that we thought we'd never see or experience. Lots of unique stories found their genesis in the Covid-19 pandemic. Empty store shelves early on set the stage for dark suspense. I imagine that we'll see more than a few creative works incorporating this unfortunate chapter in our history.

 

Although many stories have been written about natural disasters, there's something sacrilegious about exploiting the pandemic theme at this time, mainly because we're still in the throes of something akin to Armageddon, the Plague, or the Second Coming of Christ. While there are numerous plot lines, dastardly characters, and an abundance of tense drama to pull from 2020, we would still need to determine what it is our protagonist must achieve by the end of our story. Of course, you'd need a good antagonist to foil her quest to achieve that goal.

 

As we come to the end of this nightmare of a year, we might envision that nightmare ending on a positive note like any good read. Indeed, there are already signs of light at the end of a long and winding tunnel. But we need to stay tuned in, be focused and vigilant, and keep turning the pages of this hellish narrative to reach that satisfying conclusion.

 

On a brighter holiday season note: While contemplating alternate means to celebrate the spirit of the season with family and friends, consider bringing joy into the life of a stranger by doing something kind and unexpected. It will mean the world to them—and to yourself!

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Time for a New Pair of Shoes?

As the close of 2020 nears, I find myself contemplating the sense of renewal that accompanies the start of a New Year, particularly in light of the recent presidential election. Whatever your desired outcome, the results signal the advent of change.

 

Over the last several years, I've repeatedly heard it said, "This isn't who we are" in reference to overt racist acts and the pervasive divisiveness that has infected our nation as well as the lack of empathy and humanity on the part of many of our leaders. I've also heard the retort, "This is exactly who we are." I agree with both statements.

 

While it has been upsetting to witness some of the ugliest aspects of human nature and see that behavior sanctioned by very powerful people, I look forward to a collective raising of our consciousness that will, hopefully, reunite us all as Americans.

 

In the spirit of renewal, this might be a good time to step outside your comfort zone and walk for a bit in a different pair of shoes, contemplating what can be done to heal this country and bring light to darkness. It might also be a good time to bring a piece of writing out from under the pile of set-asides and breathe life back into it. Or you might want to start an entirely new project, maybe even tackle a subject in which you are not well-versed, but one in which you've maintained a latent interest. The latter means doing some research, but it's never a bad thing to broaden one's repertoire of knowledge.

 

While expanding one's horizons should be a wonderful jumpstart to inspire creativity, renewed contemplation might also help unify this nation. May you and your loved ones stay safe this holiday season and find your hearts filled with grace and gratitude.

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Write to Relieve

2020 is a year unlike any other. My stress level has constantly risen as I take in devastating headlines that play across our computer monitors, TV screens, smart phones, tablets, and on and on and on. It's enough to make you throw everything out the window—Oh my! Even after turning off my digital information banks, my worry about the future of our democracy compels me to turn something back on for a brief update, which quickly turns into an extended one. Then I'm back into the cycle of ingesting (with indigestion) more dire news.

 

I recently found that writing helped defuse my angst about what is occurring outside my four walls when I was compelled to change the theme of my blog posts in response to the video of George Floyd's death. I started writing personal essays about my experiences navigating daily life as a woman of color. I also confronted the fact that much of my sentiments about those experiences is consciously and subconsciously suppressed so as not to make uncomfortable those around me who prefer to avoid acknowledging the existence of racism. The essays have been pouring out—I can't write them fast enough! Although I had planned to start a memoir soon, a collection of these snapshots of the larger project may end up replacing it.

 

If you find yourself overcome with negative emotions about the current political, financial, and public health crises, try writing about their impact on you even if you don't intend to publish the material. We must do what we can to preserve our sanities during this difficult time and, as writers, we have a precious opportunity to relieve tension through our creativity. Although a large portion of those who read about my truth will find it entirely different from their own, grappling with it has been downright liberating for me. Fortunately, I don't foresee having writers' block for the rest of this year, or the next.

 

And, consider this: Though we are a nation spawned from an ambitious yet horrific and storied beginning, the fact that we were resourceful enough to carry off this great American experiment and build a brand-new world, and resilient enough to rebuild after 9/11, surely means we can weather yet another storm!

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Tickle Your Fantasy

We are living in rough times, to put it mildly. I can't recall when I've ever known such chaos on so many fronts. We're seeing internal and external interference in our democratic election process in the midst of a divisive presidential election season; an unrelenting deadly coronavirus pandemic with its attendant record unemployment; and ongoing civic protest against longstanding racial injustices. How much more can we take?

 

As writers, we may wonder what we can do to help assuage the negative impact of these dire forces. Turning off the television might help, but we are surrounded by media on which we tend to rely not only for current events but also for information about our industry. So I have another timely idea that syncs with the upcoming National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) in which writers are challenged to produce 50,000 words of a brand-new novel during November.

 

For an escape from the madness, I suggest a writing prompt that goes something like this: Create and write about your ideal fantasyland to which you can get away whenever you need a respite. Your destination can be as fanciful and colorful as one of your more vivid fantastical dreams set in a foreign land, or as serene and meditative as hiding out in an austere hut at a faraway beach in the most tropical of locations where the sun reliably shines and the breeze always calms.

 

Good fiction contains a relatable protagonist—you; a strong plot line; conflict (maybe not so much for this exercise!); powerful dialogue (internal monologue will do well here), and a wonderfully detailed setting. All of these aspects of storytelling needn't be present for this short exercise, but try including those you've previously found troublesome. This exercise can also apply to nonfiction writers who want to spruce up their works with a touch of creativity.

 

The point is to write a short story about a destination to which you can periodically venture and nurture your mental health. Only you can create the ideal escape, because only you know what best tickles your fantasy. No one will criticize your work—except you, of course!

 

So go ahead, and dream big. Though we still have to deal with reality, maybe this exercise will help us reemerge from this nightmare with our sanities intact.

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The Gasp

As mentioned in last month's blog post, I participated in a Zoom videoconference by reading a personal essay on racism in which I incorporated a tragic vignette about a long-deceased ancestor. In this post, I'm sharing my unexpected emotional reaction at the conclusion of that reading, which I believe demonstrates the importance of strong character development in writing fiction.

 

The discovery of a bounty notice posted by my White third great-grandfather (confirmed by DNA) advertising a cash reward for the capture of my Mulatto third great-grandmother and her husband (not genetically related to me) was simultaneously shocking and intriguing. Eager to learn more, I explored the discovery from the perspective of an objective investigator hunting for data. I wanted to know what life must have been like back then for this couple. What were their circumstances at the time they fled?

 

Although the presentation of my discovery was rather matter-of-fact, the vignette elicited gasps from the audience. It wasn't until the subsequent question-and-answer session that I was forced to confront the intimate connection I'd unwittingly made with my "character."

 

The first question asked of me was, "What would you say to your great-grandmother if she were alive today?" Suddenly, I was struck with the reality that this woman was my flesh and blood. I'd engaged in a fact-finding search about the circumstances surrounding her disappearance, but I'd also traveled back into her soul as if I'd run off with her. Contemplating an answer to that initial question, I was overcome with emotion and unable to speak.

 

Strong character development establishes an emotional bond with the reader that elicits a range of feelings, including empathy. I want to inspire my readers to journey into the heads and hearts of my fictional characters where they can linger and develop a connection as profound as that which I experienced. If I can make my readers gasp, then I'll know I've done a decent job!

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An Ancestor's Point of View

Since my last blog post, I've been reflecting on the ramifications of systemic racism. Yesterday, I presented a personal essay via videoconference to a group of Mills College alumnae and their guests after enhancing my June post with details I recently learned through genealogy research. I provided a historical context to my comments on racism by incorporating a brief story about a Reward notice posted in a local paper back in 1837 for a runaway "Negro" male and his supposedly free "Mulatto" wife.

 

DNA technology confirmed the runaway woman to be my third great-grandmother. That same technology confirmed the White "owner" who posted the notice to be my third great-grandfather. Upon further exploration, I found additional White grandfathers of mine with multiple families, some with their White wives, and others with an enslaved Black (described as Mulatto) woman.

 

As I transported myself back to this painful time in history, I tried to imagine what the struggle of day-to-day existence might have looked like for my ancestors. I came up with multiple scenarios that undoubtedly have some basis in fact. I extended that wonder to imagining the methods enslaved people used to cope with their plight.

 

Folklore passed down from my ancestors can be found in the traditions of Louisiana Creoles. While the genesis of that lore is as grim as it is powerful, I've since incorporated it into my current novel-in-progress, much as I had done with my expanded blog post referenced above.

 

The opportunity to enrich my storytelling has also lit a fire beneath my smoldering desire to write my memoirs. Maybe, by presenting their tales through mine, I can do justice to the legacy of my ancestors.

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Melanin Blues

As I considered my next blog topic, I found it difficult to think about anything other than our current political, cultural, and public health crises. More than 115,000 Americans are confirmed to have lost their lives to the Covid-19 pandemic. We witnessed, in broad daylight, life slowly drain from an unarmed, handcuffed African American man who was murdered beneath the knee of a White police officer while begging for his life and deceased mother. Our government saw fit to send armed active duty military forces to intimidate Americans peacefully exercising their First Amendment right. How can we not be affected?

 

The families of George P. Floyd and many others have suffered immeasurable grief at the killing of their loved ones by those entrusted to protect and serve the American people. In the wake of this latest tragedy, widespread peaceful protests against police brutality have taken place against a backdrop of mourning and civil unrest as portrayed day after day on social media and across our TV screens. Amid the devastation of the Covid-19 pandemic and the lack of a coherent national strategy to address this health crisis, the perfect storm was brewing.

 

As a woman of color who navigates day in, day out the landscape of institutionalized racism, I know firsthand what it feels like to get up in the morning and step out of my home, sporting a coat of melanin beneath my clothes. Whether I'm escorted out of a Cal Berkeley fraternity house by two White males who advised that Blacks weren't allowed (to the surprise of my fellow White freshwomen) or attempting to board a plane with other first class passengers and being questioned by an airline employee about the validity of my presence in that section (unlike the White woman ahead of me), I don't exhale until I step back inside my home.

 

Around the second day of protests, however, I noticed something strikingly different from other protests against racism and police brutality: the presence of multiracial crowds pushing for the same cause. A week ago, I saw a White woman standing on a busy street corner of a predominantly White neighborhood, waving a large sign that read, "#BLM Black Lives Matter." The horns of several passing cars blared in support. Email notices from businesses and corporations that usually tout merchandise discounts or privacy policy updates have focused, instead, on what can be done to improve the lives of African Americans who've suffered institutionalized racism for as long as we've had institutions. Additionally, some of my writers organizations have asked members to document their sentiments in light of massive and unrelenting protests against injustice, whether for posterity, venting, or both.

 

It's unfortunate that it took another brutal killing to catalyze a movement yearning for enduring resolutions to injustices that stem from centuries of deep-rooted overt, covert, and systemic racism perpetuated by the silence of those who tolerate it. I am hopeful that change is coming and that Mr. Floyd's death and the deaths of countless other victims of police brutality did not happen in vain.

 

We are weary.

 

We are humans.

 

We are Americans.

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Make it Happen

In my last post (April 15), I suggested that, as writers, we might encourage others to take up the craft during this time of social distancing. We all know someone who's been "dying" to write a book about something. I think those sentiments are earnest for the most part but hampered, in many cases, by the inability to get past go. I suggested a good start would be to read about the craft of writing.

 

Of course, that recommendation applies to other avenues of creation. And there are plenty of online resources out there for the novice in just about any subject one can imagine. How about learning the basics of watercolor painting, or going after that degree you've been planning to pursue or complete? Personally, I've been experimenting with low-calorie, low-carb baking, and I've referred to online video instruction to learn how to "twist" my hair into a BIG curly look that is all the rage these days.

 

More recently, I participated in two Zoom video conferences, the first led by a guest speaker organized by one of my writers organizations. The other was a reading session with six authors arranged by my alma mater's alumnae association. I finally understand how folks have virtual cocktail parties, concerts, and simultaneous movie screenings. The process was fun and efficient.

 

We are an innovative society. We can pretty much accomplish anything if we put our minds to it. If you write regularly but are looking for a stimulating diversion, why not make the most of your stay-at-home mandate by exploring what it is you've "always wanted to do" (besides write)? No better time than the current one to make it happen!

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