black history month

The Talking Drums of West Africa

Over at Global Wire Associates, we released the first article in our yearlong series about the history of communication. We highlighted some of the earliest methods of messaging, ranging from cave paintings to hydraulic semaphore systems.

We briefly touched on all of these methods, but the one that most interested me was the West African tradition of “talking drums.” Drumming for communication continues to be prevalent throughout the region, especially in Nigeria. The drums would communicate specific messages across many miles to different villages. Drumming is also used to celebrate community rituals and religious traditions, as well as tell stories and even gossip. It was also used during wartime to rally the troops.

During slavery throughout the Americas, African slaves would pass their time drumming for entertainment. However, drums were banned because the slaves were communicating to each other over long distances, especially during slave revolts, using a code their owners couldn’t understand.

Go figure!

I have been lucky through my work to travel to Nigeria, Ghana, Benin and Senegal to learn about the different functions of drumming for communication.  Even within the same country, drumming has many different “languages” and traditions.

I found these great videos that explain the history of drumming among African peoples.

Why Black Female Characters (and Authors) Matter

We Need Diverse BooksI read this delightful story recently about a young girl in New Jersey who is collecting 1,000 books featuring a black female protagonist. Marley Dias, an 11-year-old black student, said she was “sick of reading books about white boys and dogs.”

“I was frustrated … in fifth grade where I wasn’t reading [books with] a character that I could connect with,” she said.

The sixth grader started her own social media campaign #1000BlackGirlBooks, with the hope that she can donate the books to a school in Jamaica and help other young black girls relate better to the books they read and the characters in them.

What a great idea!  I only wish I was half as thoughtful as she was when I was 11.

This made me think about the books I read when I was younger.  Unfortunately, I really couldn’t think of that many books by black female authors, let alone books with black female protagonists, at least not in elementary or middle schools.  When I finally started reading books by or about black females in high school and college, the subject was a bit intense for my liking at first.  I remember reading:

I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison

The Color Purple by Alice Walker

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

These ground-breaking books were written by dynamic writers, but the subject matter in all of them can be hard to deal with.  All of these books have either been banned or censored by some school districts around the country at one point.The themes ranged from rape, incest, teen pregnancy, colorism, harsh depictions of racism and domestic violence.   

When I first read these books as a teenager, I was especially horrified and saddened, but then amazed and excited, mainly because they were talking about issues I could relate to as a black female in America.  It makes a world of a difference when you can empathize with the protagonist in a book, and this is especially true when the protagonist looks like you. 

I met up with a black female friend who is the mother of a tenth grader the other day, and we were talking about this very subject.  She said she didn’t want her daughter reading any of the above books because she felt they were too vulgar.  “These books make us [black people] look dysfunctional,” she said.  “This is unfortunate because any of these books may be the first book a student of any color will read about women of color during their school years that can set the wrong kinds of assumptions and tones about black women.”

Okay, I can see where she is coming from.  I know there are a lot of other black people who feel the same way.  Maybe this issue of diversity in the protagonist skin tone should also include diversity in subject matter as well.  Statistically, it is still hard to find books in schools with black female or male protagonists on any subject.  According to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, out of 3,500 children’s books in schools surveyed in 2014, only 180 were about black people.  The numbers are even worse for books about Hispanics, Asians and Native Americans.  This is especially troubling as America will soon become a minority-majority country.

Now, I am not suggesting that we get rid of the white guy authors altogether!  William Shakespeare, Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald are all wonderful authors, who made significant contributions to literature, and kids should still read their books.  But it is time to add more books to school reading lists that better reflect our world today.  

The first step in doing this is to start identifying and putting together book lists that can be used as recommendations to schools and public libraries.  Getting involved with your local school or public library also makes a difference.  Below I put together a list of my recommendations for books by and/or about black females.  I think in the following weeks and months I will also pull together more book lists showcasing many different types of underrepresented groups.  I think if more people did this, there would be more discussion and, thus, more change in the type of literature our kids read.  There is strength in numbers!

However, this is not meant to be a complete list because there are so many books.  While most of them are adult books, many of them can be read by young adults, depending on their maturity level and reading comprehension. I draw this list from my personal experience working in a multicultural book store once and doing advocacy for my local library.  The top ten books on this list are definitely for young adult readers. These are just ones that I thought of off the top of my head.  Please email me if you have any other suggestions for this list or future lists, especially titles for elementary and middle school kids.

The Star Side of Bird Hill by Naomi Jackson

Jam on the Vine by LaShonda Katrice Barnett

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson

Balm by Dolen Perkins-Valdez

The Chaos By Nalo Hopkinson

Fly Girl by Sherri L. Smith

Purple Hibiscus by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Ann Jacobs.

For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf by Ntozake Shange

Caucasia by Danzy Senna

Kindred by Octavia Butler

Annie John by Jamaica Kincaid

Push by Sapphire

Who Fears Death by Nnedi Okorafor

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The Wedding by Dorothy West

Zami: A New Spelling of My Name by Audre Lorde

The Long Song by Andrea Levy

Fruit of the Lemon by Andrea Levy

Never Far From Nowhere by Andrea Levy

White Teeth by Zadie Smith

Zora Neale Hurston: Storyteller of the American Experience

Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston is best remembered as one of the leading figures from the Harlem Renaissance and author of Their Eyes Were Watching God.  She was also a well-respected anthropologist who traveled widely throughout the American South and the Caribbean to collect American oral histories.

In 1938 Hurston joined FDR’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) as a researcher and editor for the Florida Federal Writers’ Project.  Originally the project was tasked with collecting “life histories” for state guides.  However, the project turned into one of the largest and well-researched documentation of the American experience that could be shared with future generations.

Hurston traveled throughout Florida interviewing Americans of African, Arab, Greek, Italian and Cuban descent about their lives and communities.  With a large recording machine loaned to her from the WPA, she recorded songs (some she sang herself) and folktales in many languages. Her travels also took her to the Bahamas, Haiti and Jamaica, with the support of the Guggenheim Foundation.  While she was in the Caribbean, she studied and recorded African inspired dance and voodoo practices.

Her research would become inspiration for many of her later works like Mules and Men, a study of “Hoodoo” practices in New Orleans and African folktales in Florida. Her other book, Tell My Horse, looks at cultural identity and voodoo in Haiti and Jamaica.  Their Eyes Were Watching God was written when she was in Haiti in 1937 and Seraph on the Suwanee, a novel about working class whites in Florida, was penned in Honduras in 1949.

Here are some Hurston’s audio recordings:

“Crow Dance”
While in the Bahamas, Hurston talks about interviewing Dr. Melville Herkovitz, originally from West Africa, about why the crow is sacred.

“Oh, the Buford Boat Done Come”
Hurston sings a song she learned from a Gullah woman in South Carolina. Gullah refers to a community of black Americans living in the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida who have retained their West African heritage.

“Mule on the Mount”
Hurston sings this popular song that can be heard in work camps and recreational sites.

“Mama don’t want no peas, no rice”
Hurston sings this folk song from the Bahamas.

You can hear more of both Hurston’s recordings and other WPA Florida audio recordings at the Library of Congress.


Ousmane Sembene: Freedom Fighter For African Cinema

Ousmane SembeneLast week I attended a special viewing of Ousmane Sembene’s classic film La Noire de… (The black girl of… or Black Girl). With the recent “snub” of Ava Duvernay’s Selma at the Academy Awards, seeing Black Girl reminds us that the African diaspora has struggled to have fair and balanced portrayals in film since the dawn of the medium.

I had the pleasure to ask at this viewing Samba Gadjigo, a French professor at Mount Holyoke College and the official biographer of Sembene, about Sembene’s legendary life and racism in the film industry.  He has spent the greater part of his academic career researching Francophone African cinema and in particular Sembene’s career.

“Sembene was a freedom fighter in African film,” Gadjigo said. “Black Girl was a gift to the world.  Before Sembene, there was a law against Senegalese taking up cameras.  Black Girl was pioneering and revolutionary, as it put Africa on the map.”

Gadjigo is referring to the “Laval Decree”, a 1934 French law that prohibited Francophone Africans from making films.  This was done to control the messaging about colonialism, while stifling free expression by Africans. Most films about Africans prior to independence were made by white filmmakers and were incredibly racist.

After independence, a new crop of young idealist African filmmakers came onto the forefront who saw the medium as a force for political change.  According to Gadjigo, Sembene decided to make films the day Patrice Lumumba was assassinated.  Black Girl is loosely based on a real story that happened in the 1950s and Sembene wrote about it in a short story before the film was made.

Black Girl tells the story of Diouana, a young Senegalese woman hired by a white couple as a maid in France.  Notice that Diouana is “voiceless.”  Her thoughts are only said through a voice over narration.  Sembene did this to show that Africans still didn’t have a voice in the post-colonial era.  Her white employers still had a colonial mentality, by treating Diouana as a slave that can only be appeased by money.

The use of the mask also represents the relationship between Diouana and her employers.  While the mask represents the culture and history of the colonized, the white employers only see it as wall decoration.

Black Girl is known today as the first film directed by a Sub-Saharan African to receive international acclaim.  However, Sembene had limits on the length of the film due to French regulations.  Black Girl was dubbed in French to “use the language of the master.”  The film was made on a shoestring budget, but that was done on purpose by Sembene.  He also preferred to hire unknown actors, or as Gadjigo said, “people off the street” because Sembene didn’t want to become part of Hollywood.  (By the way, you can read an awesome interview with Thérèse M’Bissine Diop, who played Diouana in the film.)

Sembene’s goals was to make films about Africans by Africans.  He was concerned that Senegalese were losing their culture.  French colonial education was limited to a select few, and African history was entirely left out of it. Wolof and many other native languages were banned in Senegal during colonialism.  Sembene saw film not only as a tool of liberation, but also as a way to preserve the oral histories of his people.

Gadjigo said he didn’t see a moving still until the age of 12, but he knew then the power of “hearing with your eyes and seeing with your ears.”  His political awakening came at aged 17 when he read Sembene’s book God’s Bits of Wood, a strong rebuke of colonialism.  Sembene’s literary and cinematic canon have had a strong influence in the post-colonial era to preserve African identity.

“It was important to tell those stories,” Gadjigo said.  “When you lose your language, you lose your history.”