Happy 70th Birthday, Alice Walker!

Alice Walker’s 70th birthday was this past Sunday. Her writings only saved my life. I first got into her work when The Color Purple movie came out. This was right after my grandmother passed away. That movie was the only thing that pulled me out of that funk. “You took my sister Nettie ‘way from me. You knew she was the only somebody who loved me…” Whoa! Celie was speaking my grief. Ma ki da da.

Through the movie, I was introduced to the novel and, in essence, the world of African-American women’s literature. So um, this blog you’re reading right now? Thank you, Alice Walker.

I’ve kinda been in Ms. Walker’s presence at least 3 times in my life. The first was a book signing in Brooklyn for the Possessing The Secret of Joy release where they rushed us past her. (Boo!) Then she stayed in the guest rooms in my dorm during my freshwoman year at Spelman College, but we never saw her. We tried though. Like casually hanging out by the door to her hallway tried until some staff member ran us off. But those instances were teasers really. It’s the third encounter that matters.

I was finishing up my lunch at Whole Foods in midtown Atlanta. I look up and see Alice Walker walking toward the restroom. My first reaction was “WTF!” And my second reaction was “Oh, no!” You see, I had to go to the bathroom too. And there was no way that I was going to be one of those rude fans who slides pen and paper under the stall door while a celebrity was trying to handle their business. And I didn’t want to miss her if she left while I was handling mine. Besides, I already had her autograph (reference my Alice Walker encounter #1).

Well, I really had to go. So I went. And she washed her hands and left out before I was done. Oh no! Foiled by the elusive Ms. Walker again. I washed my hands and went back into the store. By now, I was gonna be late if I didn’t start heading back to work. But eff that. This woman’s work only had a major influence on the person I have become, right? So I look around. She was talking to her companion and was about to push her cart into the main part of the store.

I gently tapped her on the back. She turned and I… Well, what do you say to Alice Walker when you unexpectedly bump into her at the grocery store? I came up with pure brilliance in that split second, if I do say so myself.

“Excuse me, Ms. Walker. I don’t mean to bother you. I just wanted to say thank you.”

Alice Walker’s response was to open her arms and say “Give me a hug.” She wrapped her arms around me. And I turned into a babbling idiot. “Oh my god. I don’t want to bother you. Your writings mean so much to me. I started writing because of you. Blah blah blah…” And then I think I sobbed. Nooooo!

By then the dreadlocked stock girl was looking at us funny. Causing a scene was the last thing I wanted to do. I could easily the berries & juices folk mobbing this poor woman while she tried to do her grocery shopping. I quickly gained my composure and said my goodbyes. But when I stepped out into the parking lot? I. Started. To. (Gasp). Cry.

I was such a mess. I returned to the hair salon/spa where I was working – hella late – in a daze.

“What’s wrong with you, Kaia?”

“I just bumped into Alice Walker. She hugged me.”

“Who’s Alice Walker?” My co-workers were total buzzkills that day.

And that, my friends, is my “I Bumped Into Alice Walker at Whole Foods” story.

Happy Birthday, Ms. Walker. I’ll never stop saying thank you.

Now go read The Color Purple. Followed by The Temple of My Familiar and Possessing the Secret of Joy (in that order). And the essay “Looking For Zora.” That is all.

Note: The documentary “Alice Walker” Beauty in Truth” is currently showing as part of the PBS series “American Masters.” Check your local listings for broadcast times.

Heads Up, Writers
Carina Press editor Rhonda Helms said on Twitter this last week that she is “desperate” for PoC (people of color) historical romances, from 1850s on. She’ll look at any heat level from sweet to super spicy. So please finish writing your African-American historical romances and send them to her.

Gwen Hayes at the historical imprint Scandalous at Entangled Publishing is also look for PoC historical romances.

What I’m Reading Now
I’m still on my African-American educational history kick.  I’m currently reading The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860-1935 by James D. Anderson. I’ll do a write up on it once I’m finished. But so far it’s been both an eye-opener and a pissed-me-offer.

Until next week,
Kaia

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Happy Black History Month!

First off, I apologize for the unplanned blog hiatus. The last few months were the busy season at the day job. But what better time to re-boot than February?

Black Women’s History on Twitter
It warmed my heart to see the #BlackFemStory hashtag pop up on Twitter yesterday. The Twitterverse showed love to Black women to kick off the first day of Black History Month. I was very happy to see that women from all over the diaspora were featured. This included a number of groundbreaking women in Africa, the Caribbean and Europe who were new to me. I encourage you to check it out.

first_classFirst Class & Dunbar High School
I received a number of books focusing on African-American history as Christmas gifts. You’ll see them featured here over the next few weeks as I read through them. First Class: The Legacy of Dunbar, America’s First Black Public High School by Alison Stewart was the first one I finished. Since it first opened in 1870 in Washington, D.C., the school has been known as Preparatory High School for Colored Youth, M Street High School, and Paul Laurence Dunbar High School. Dunbar has had an impressive roster of alumni and faculty in the past. Notables such as activist/educator Nannie Helen Burroughs, blood banking pioneer Dr. Charles Drew and “The Man Who Killed Jim Crow” legal scholar Charles Hamilton Houston were all graduates of the school. Former faculty included Anna Julia Cooper, Mary Church Terrell and Carter G. Woodson (who started Negro History Week, which eventually became Black History Month).

First Class covers the fascinating history of D.C. public schools, the rise of the D.C. African-American middle-class from the Reconstruction era to the Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education decision, and the decline of the school in the latter half of the twentieth century. I have always been fascinated by the story of this historic institution. It is amazing what the students and faculty were able to accomplish during the height of racial segregation in the United States. During the school’s heyday in the first half of the twentieth century, Dunbar’s graduates regularly went on to study at the top colleges and universities in the country. Stewart’s discussion of how outside politics had a direct effect on how the school turned into an academic powerhouse gave me a lot to think about. Anyone who has an interest in education and early twentieth century Washington, D.C. needs to check out this title.

Until next time,
Kaia

Guest Blogger: Shelly Ellis on the Great Migration

Note from Kaia:
This week we are honored to have our very first guest blogger on Aren’t I A Heroine. This article is the result of contemporary romance author Shelly Ellis tweeting that she didn’t have anything to do. I responded by challenging her to tie her contemporary novels to something historical. I didn’t think Shelly would take me up on it, but she did. Now, I want her to write a novel about Althea Gibbons’s backstory AND about Lady Sara. Who knew?

The Great Migration & Contemporary African-American Historical Romance
by Shelly Ellis

Photo Credit by Joe Yablonsky

Photo Credit by Joe Yablonsky

I love romance novels. I particularly love book series that are rooted in a family saga or history. When I wrote my Gibbons Gold Diggers series, I didn’t just want to write salacious stories about ruthless gold diggers/seducers. That would be the easy part.

To give another layer to the series, I wanted to focus on a family, particularly a family of women with their own sense of tradition/legacy. From the outside their traditions seem a bit warped, to say the least, but these traditions are what hold their family together. I also wanted to borrow from my family history by basing the series loosely on the legacy of Great Migration that took blacks from the South to the North. More than 6 million blacks between the 1880s and the 1930s left the South in droves during post-Reconstruction to seek more economic and social opportunities in the Northeast, Midwest, and waaay out West that Segregation had thwarted them in the South. A second wave – or the second Great Migration of blacks – headed north after the Great Depression during 1940 to 1970. (My family took part in both waves.) They traveled to great metropolises like New York City, Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Oakland, and in my great-grandparents’ case, even Washington D.C., joining thriving black communities and expanding into new suburbs.

The matriarch of the Gibbons family in my book series – Althea Gibbons – is no different from these many other black migrants. But instead of leaving behind her sharecropper shack in North Carolina to seek a job as maid, clerk, or hairdresser above the Mason-Dixon Line, Althea decides to find a rich man and marry him. She uses her wit, looks, and her wiles to go from the daughter of a poor sharecropper to the wife of several millionaires.

vibe-vixen-saralouharrisAfter I finished the novel, I stumbled upon another industrious black woman who used her beauty and her brains to help climb the socioeconomic ladder. Sara Lou Harris, one of the first black runway models, was born in 1926 in North Carolina to humble beginnings, much like Althea Gibbons. The daughter of a mill worker and house painter, Sara would later go on to graduate from Bennett College and Columbia University. She became the first black woman to be featured in the New York buyers’ fashion show, the first in a Lucky Strikes cigarette ad campaign, and she was featured on the cover of magazines like Jet and Ebony. She later married John Carter, a prominent barrister in British Guiana (now Guyana) who was knighted by Queen Elizabeth, therefore making Sara Lou Harris, Lady Sara. Who knew a simple girl from North Carolina would earn such a title?

Althea Gibbons doesn’t get any royal titles from her marriages (I wish I would have thought of that!), but she acquires plenty of wealth and teaches her daughter Yolanda how to do the same. Yolanda then teaches these gold-digging lessons to her four daughters – Cynthia, Dawn, Stephanie, and Lauren – the stars of the Gibbons Gold Digger series. The family even develops an unwritten gold-digging rule book that all of them must follow. The sisters quote from the rule book liberally. (A rule that is the theme of each respective novel is featured at the beginning of the first chapter of each book.)

To continue with the “legacy” idea, I have Althea carrying on a tradition she had witnessed in the South where the wealthy landowners would host their children and grandchildren for brunch and tea on Saturdays. (This tradition is fictitious but again, I wanted to add another layer to the story.) The Gibbons family adopts this tradition and it becomes “Saturday brunch at Mama’s” where they connect as a family and discuss their gold-digging exploits. These scenes are where readers get to see the most interaction between the Gibbons characters.

Contemporary genre fiction can be spicy, entertaining, and sexy, but you can also add some depth by grounding it in history and specifically, African American legacy. I hope to do this again in the next series I’m working on now that I’m finishing up the fourth book in the Gibbons Gold Digger series. It will be exciting to see what traditions I can think of next.

Shelly Ellis

As long as she could remember, Shelly Ellis (who also writes under the name, L.S. Childers) has wanted to be a writer. In college, she studied journalism and started out as a crime reporter for a small local newspaper. Now she is an editor at a trade journal in Virginia.

Her fiction writing career began when she became one of four finalists in the BET Books First-Time Writers Contest when she was 19 years old. The prize was having her first short-story romance published in the book, All That and Then Some! She has since been chosen as a finalist for 2012 African American Literary Award in the romance category. Her first novel, The Right Maneuver, debuted in April 2011 and her second, A Love Built to Last, was released in November 2011 and nominated for the African American Literary Award in the romance category. Shelly started her new women’s fiction series with Kensington Publishing, the Gibbons Gold diggers in May 2013, with Can’t Stand the Heat.

She is married and lives in Prince George’s County, Maryland with her husband, their daughter, and their tabbie cat, Barty. She loves to paint, read, and watch movies. Her Twitter: @ellisromance. Her website: http://shellyellisbooks.com/

Denise McNair, Carol Robertson, Cynthia Wesley, Addie Mae Collins, and Sarah Collins

“We could not let little girls be killed…” – Diane Nash, SCLC

4_Little_Girls50 years ago today, on September 15, 1963 in Birmingham, Alabama, a bomb erupted outside of the 16th Street Baptist Church, killing four African-American girls who were in the basement bathroom preparing for the youth Sunday program. This event breathed new life into the Civil Rights movement and was the spark that ultimately led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

Denise McNair was 11 years old.
Carol Robertson was 14 years old.
Cynthia (Morris) Wesley was 14 years old.
Addie Mae Collins was 14 years old.

I take the time to write out their names because many have fallen into the habit of calling them “the four little girls.” For the longest time, I didn’t know who these young ladies were. I only knew that four little girls had been killed in a bombing. It wasn’t until I saw Spike Lee’s documentary “4 Little Girls” that I knew anything about their individual lives.

We need to know their names. We need to remember their names. We need to speak their names. And, we need to know the stories behind the names in honor of their parents, siblings, family members and friends who have had to endure life for these last 50 years without their loved ones.

However, I’d like to see a fifth name attached to this significant event. This name I had not heard before today:

Sarah Collins. She was 12 years old.

Sarah_CollinsWho is Sarah Collins? She was the fifth girl who was in the bathroom that Sunday morning. She’s the one who survived. Intrigued? Here’s the link to her story: http://sarahcollinsproject.com/the-story-1.html#.UjYlN06Dnfw.twitter

I think it’s a shame that it has taken this long for Sarah Collins’s (now Sarah Collins Rudolph) part in the story to get any attention. Her omission from the dialogue reminds me of why I take the time to write about African-American women’s history each week. There’s a tendency to focus on the sad and unfortunate aspects of the history. I think it’s time to focus on the triumphs. Putting those triumphs into a romance novel is a good way to do that.

Image of Sarah Collins taken from the The Sarah Collins Project website.

Countdown to the Next Beverly Jenkins Novel: Happy Labor Day!

Countdown: 3 More Weeks Until the Destiny’s Surrender Release!!!!

I started re-reading Destiny’s Embrace by Beverly Jenkins to prepare for the release to its follow-up Destiny’s Surrender in 3 weeks. With it being Labor Day yesterday, I thought reading about a heroine who is a housekeeper as timely. Mariah Cooper cleaned up what sounded like a nasty house, washed the laundry, cooked meals and made clothes for a living. As I read on, I started wondering about how African-American women contributed to the Labor Movement. Boy, was I surprised with what I found after a quick search of the internet:

Atlanta Washerwoman strike of 1881 – in the same year that my alma mater Spelman College was founded in Atlanta, GA, African-American women shut the city down. The majority of the washerwomen in the city at that time were African-American. They organized themselves into a union and went on strike to demand fairer wages. In other words, nobody in town had clean clothes to wear unless these women were paid adequately. (Or they could always wash their own clothes themselves.) The mayor had to get involved to resolve the dispute. In the end, these sistas were paid what they were worth. Read more about this event at: http://www.aflcio.org/About/Our-History/Key-Events-in-Labor-History/Atlanta-s-Washerwomen-Strike

The Ladies’ Auxiliary of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters –  considered the backbone of the first organized African-American labor union, these ladies’ contributions made this union’s organizing efforts, which included the 1963 March on Washington, a success. This auxiliary gave its members experience in community organizing and legislative lobbying that laid the groundwork for the mid-century Civil Rights movement and their input in the development of future legislation. Read more about these ladies at:  http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=2737

Lucille Green Randolph. Digital ID: 1808225. New York Public Library Lucille Green Randolph – Asa Philip Randolph, organizer of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and of the 1963 March on Washington, was one of the most well-known African-Americans in the early 20th Century Labor Movement. What people don’t know was that he received very little pay from his organizing efforts. His wife Lucille Green Randolph was the breadwinner in their household. A widowed Howard graduate and former schoolteacher when they met, her success as a Harlem hairdresser made it possible for Mr. Randolph to focus on his organizing activities. She was one of earliest graduates of Madame C.J. Walker’s New York beauty college. She catered her services to the elite ladies – both Black and White – of New York City. Her husband was once labeled “the most dangerous Negro in America” by the Federal government. Lucile Green Randolph had the honor of holding the title of the “second most dangerous Negro in America.” Read more about Mr. and Mrs. Randolph at: http://www.nytimes.com/learning/general/onthisday/bday/0415.html
Image Courtesy of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture/the New York Public Library

Hello, aspiring authors of African-American historical romance! Surely you can find some inspiration from these highlights. Readers, can’t you see love happening in 1881 Atlanta or between a socialite hairdresser and a firebrand aspiring civil rights activist in 1914 Harlem?

The REAL story of Harriet Tubman

Harriet_Tubman

Last week, Russell Simmons posted a link to a “comedy” sketch about an alleged Harriet Tubman sex tape. It was implied that Ms. Tubman intended to use this tape as a way to blackmail her master into setting her free. Personally, I felt a deep sense of disappointment and betrayal while I watched the video. I later thought reflected on what Harriet Tubman had accomplished and sacrificed in her life as an African-American women in the United States during the 19th century. That reflection, on the heels of watching the video, quite frankly pissed me off. But I’m not going to use this space to go off on a rant. I’m going to present you with the facts of her life and let you, the reader, make your own judgment.

 

Early Life
Araminta “Harriet” Ross Tubman Davis was born enslaved in Maryland in either 1819 or 1820. Her maternal grandmother Modesty was born in Africa and is said to have been of Ashanti descent (a tribal group that can still be found in modern day Ghana). Her mother Harriet, also known as “Rit”, once threatened to split open the heads of her master and a slave trader if they tried to sell off her children. This event is said to have influenced Araminta’s, or “Minty’s” belief in that resistance to slavery was possible.

As a teenager, an overseer demanded that Araminta help restrain another slave who was about to be punished. When she refused, the slave got away and the overseer threw a heavy metal object at the retreating man’s direction. The overseer missed his target. The object hit Araminta in the head instead, almost crushing her skull. As a result, she suffered from seizures and blackouts for the rest of her life.

“Moses”
Araminta married free black John Tubman in 1844. It was during this time that she adopted her mother’s name and became Harriet Tubman. Even though she was married to a free man, Harriet was still her master’s property. In 1849, Harriet heard talk that she and some other slaves were to be sold. Her husband wasn’t willing to leave Maryland, so she left John behind and ran away toward freedom with two of her brothers.

Along the way, her brothers became frightened and went back to the plantation. But Harriet kept on trekking until she reached the free state of Pennsylvania. There she found work in Philadelphia and began plotting to go back to Maryland to help free the rest of her family. Ultimately, Harriet Tubman went back South, at her own risk of being re-enslaved, between thirteen and nineteen times. It is unknown how many people she actually led to freedom. Estimates range from 50 to 300 people, including most of her family. She was a conductor on the Underground Railroad for eight years and was never captured nor did she ever lose a “passenger.”

Harriet did go back for her husband but he had re-married by then and was not interested in moving north to a free state.

(Note: the “Sex Tape” video was set in 1851. Had the creators bothered to have done their homework, they would have known that Harriet Tubman was in Philadelphia at that time. There would have been no reason to blackmail Master for her freedom. She was already free.)

Civil War
During the Civil War, Harriet Tubman initially served as a nurse in the Hilton Head, South Carolina area. It wasn’t long before she was out scouting with the Union Army, drawing on her Underground Railroad knowledge of how to remain undetected as they mapped the area. She was also able to provide information that led to the Union capture of Jacksonville, Florida. She also led the 1863 Union raid around Confederate mines and across the Combahee River in South Carolina. She continued to serve as a scout and a nurse for the remainder of the war. On her way home to Auburn, New York after the war ended, Harriet’s arm was broken as she was forced from the passenger car on the train into the smoking car.

She didn’t receive a pension for her wartime service until 1899, 34 years after hostilities end. In 1873 a Wisconsin congressman proposed a bill to compensate Tubman for her wartime service. The bill was defeated.

After the Civil War
Harriet Tubman spent the remainder of her life taking odd jobs so she could care for her elderly parents. She teetered into poverty more often than not, in part due to the government’s delay in honoring her soldier’s pension claims. She authorized the publication of her biography as a way to raise funds. She also made ends meet by lecturing on women’s suffrage.

She did acquire a bit of property in Auburn, New York. She set aside some of it to create a home for aged and indigent “colored people.” Harriet Tubman died of pneumonia in 1913 surrounded by family and friends.

Honors
Honors bestowed upon Harriet Tubman include: burial with military honors; a World War II Liberty ship was named after her, the SS Harriet Tubman; a 1978 United States postage stamp; and commemoration every July 20th in the Episcopal Church.

Summary
Please note that I have left out the details of many of Harriet Tubman’s accomplishments. My intent here is to give an introduction to the woman and why how she was portrayedl in the “Sex Tape” video was such an insult. This woman was such a badass in a time when most women, whether African-American or not, had little say in their everyday lives or what could or could not be done to their bodies. To see her reduced to a woman who schemed on her back to become what she was left me speechless. I really did feel like it was a slap in the face of her bravery and sacrifice. Harriet Tubman was never a sexual manipulator. She was a real life American heroine.

Given the theme of this blog, I will add that Harriet Tubman also experienced romance later in life, marrying a man 22 years her junior. (Take that Janie and Tea Cake!)

References

America’s Story From America’s Library (Library of Congress): http://www.americaslibrary.gov/aa/tubman/aa_tubman_subj.html
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center: http://freedomcenter.org/underground-railroad/history/people/Harriet-Tubman
Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harriet_Tubman

Image used Courtesy of the Library of Congress: http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2003674596/