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The West Coast Feminist Literary Magazine Society is curating
submissions for a special issue of Room (est. 1975), a quarterly
literary magazine that explores and celebrates the female experience
through the creative talents of Canadian women writers.

Issue 40.3 will feature the theme of “migration”–interpretive
literary works exploring topics of movingforming and changing.

The editors explain it best:

Contributors can also submit original, thought-stimulating prose and poetry that express women’s courageousness, passion, susceptibility, and whimsicality. Prose can include interviews, essays, fiction, reviews, and profiles. Artwork is also welcome.

Room magazine intends to provide readers with work that articulates the elaborate, distinct, and surely priceless lives of diverse women.

Word length: up to 3500 words for prose; up to five poems for poetry; up to five images for artwork.

New Pay Rates: $50 CAD for one page, $60 for two pages, $90 for three pages, $120 for four pages, $150 for five or more pages. $50 for one or two pages, $60 for three pages, $80 for four pages, $100 for five pages, $120 for six or more pages.

Deadline: January 31, 2017. Read Room magazine’s submission guidelines.








AFROPUNK Mixtape #24:

In The Face Of Evil

01. BLXPLTN – New York
02. Malik Maluko – Ampulheta
03. Interlude: Solidarity
04. Kevin Abstract – Miserable America
05. Iris Gold – Revolution Riders
06. Interlude: Stand Up Fight Back
07. Pay To Cum – Gotta Have It
08. A Tribe Called Quest – We The People
09. Jorja Smith – Imperfect Circle
10. Childish Gambino – Redbone
11. King Black – Die For It
12. Willow Smith – November 9th
13. Interlude: Protest Footage (November 9th)
14. Junior Astronomers – FPM
15. Elle Winston – Heavy Now
16. Askmeificare – ‘Merica On Fire
17. Bodega Dream – Don’t Shoot







CHAPTER 1: Defining BAM

Definition. The Black Arts Movement is an arts movement whose objectives were three-fold: 1. to establish Black leadership of Black cultural expression directed to a Black audience, 

2. to propagate a Black Aesthetic, and 

3. to produce socially engaged art that promoted the Black Freedom/Black Liberation struggle. 

This definition distinguishes BAM from a simple racialist position that any art produced by Blacks is “Black Art.”

BAM and Black Consciousness.  A Black power, or Black consciousness, perspective called for Black leadership and mass involvement; a Black Aesthetic; and socially engaged art which openly advocated Black Freedom/Black Liberation struggle. During the 1965 to 1976 BAM highpoint, all across America via involvement in local neighborhood youth-oriented (preschool to college) organizations, art collectives and community-based arts agencies, Black artists were on the move, attempting to create artwork which spoke directly to Black people out of the above listed triad of Black power concerns. Moreover, this movement was dialectical in that it was not a simplistic following of one premise to its logical conclusion but rather an ongoing, dynamic and constantly developing interplay of theory directing practice and practice, in turn, shaping the development of new theories, and also of individually developed dreams and ideals which were attempted and/or actualized by grassroot groups across the nation who, in the process of making the ideal into reality, created new dreams and ideals. 

After the growth of local organizations, the second step in the local/national/local (L/N/L) dialectic was BAM becoming nationally self-conscious. LeRoi Jones’ coining of the name for the movement is indicative of the fruition of this second step. In his autobiography Baraka (aka Jones) recalls:

One evening when a large group of us were together in my study talking earnestly about black revolution and what should be done, I got the idea that we should form an organization. On Guard had been long gone, because of  its obvious contradictions. We needed a group of black revolutionaries who were artists to raise up the level of struggle from the arts sector. There was Dave Knight, White, Marion, C.D., Leroy McLucas, the Hackensack brothers (Sammy and Tong), Jimmy Lesser, Larry, Max, plus Corny and Clarence and Asia Toure. We would form a secret organization. Tong asked me what would it be called, it came into my head in a flash, the Black Arts. [page 197]

Note that some of the names used are pseudonyms, specifically Sammy and Tong Hackensack who are really Charles and William Patterson. Also note that “Max” refers to Max Stanford, the founder of RAM, Revolutionary Action Movement. Stanford was a political activist and not an artist. Thus, at its inception, BAM was a marriage of art and politics.

The third step in BAM’s dialectic of development was the adoption of the nomenclature and the general principles by Black and Black-oriented organizations nationwide. 

A word about “Black-oriented” organizations is necessary to illustrate the varying levels of development. The Free Southern Theatre (FST) initially was an integrated organization which performed adaptations of “classics” as well as original work. One can easily imagine the bemused, if not confused, reaction of sharecroppers in the Mississippi Delta to the 1964 production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot. By 1969 FST was all Black and those same Mississippi Delta viewers were literally and profoundly “moved” by a pre-New York performance of LeRoi Jones’ Slaveship. The audience was aroused to militant action. There were actual civil disturbances following the production. Moving its audience to action was an intended goal of this play and of BAM.

The FST Slaveship example has an interesting footnote. Gilbert Moses, one of the founders of FST, was the director of the FST version of Slaveship which toured the deep south. On the basis of his innovative work on that version of Slaveship (which used a portable set that could be carried in a van and set up in a variety of venues), Moses was tapped to do the Broadway version of Slaveship which played to critical and popular success. Although the nation as a whole became aware of Slaveship as a result of the Broadway success, within the national BAM context, it was the FST production that actually launched Slaveship. 

On the one hand, FST was a precursor of BAM, but through the dialectical L/N/L process, FST also became a major proponent of BAM. Those who look for a linear, progressive development and do not take into consideration dialectical developments make a major mistake. 

Karamu House, founded in 1949 by the Jelliffe’s in Cleveland, Ohio is another example of local arts movement which both preceded BAM and then became a BAM-influenced institution struggling around the triad of BAM concerns: Black leadership/Black audience, Black aesthetics, and social relevance to the Black struggle. 

By 1970 most local, Black-oriented, arts organizations began referring to themselves as “Black Arts” organizations. There was Black Arts/Midwest, Black Arts West, BLKARTSOUTH, etc. That was how BAM developed. Moreover, these organizations generally followed the guidelines laid down in the BAM publications. A July 24, 1975 letter from an aspirant BAM member in Sedalia, Missouri (“a small town in central Missouri (Sedalia) located between St. Louis & Kansas City”) addressed to Joe Goncalves is but one example which clearly illustrates this point. M. D. Briscoe writes: 

“We are in the process of setting up a black cultural center to serve the brothers & sisters in this area. Theatre & poetry will be the foundation of our learning media so The Journal of Black Poetry is one of the necessary communication links we must have. Please send information about subscription price & a sample copy if possible, and any information and/or contacts that can help our growth. We are small with much to learn. Our principle goal is to develop Pan-Africanistic thought. All help is needed & will be appreciated. [Dingane / “Letters”]

Goncalves has a clutch of such letters literally from around the world that are similar to the one cited above and that demonstrate how closely people identified with BAM. This is how BAM developed, coalescing from grassroots/local activity, formalized on a national level, reasserted by the grassroots. 

Internal Contradictions. When we review the staffs and editorials of BAM journals we find that there is clearly no single leadership, no single line. In fact, if anything, there is an ongoing struggle around leadership and ideology. Sometimes this struggle for ideological leadership takes on a personal tone of ad hominem attacks. Sometimes former allies become bitter enemies and vice versa. By 1970 LeRoi Jones/Amiri Baraka becomes a leading, although not uncontested, figure. However, Jones/Baraka’s popularity notwithstanding, there was no single centralized BAM leadership. 

The lack of centralized leadership was both a strength and a weakness. The strength was that BAM organizations could reflect the particulars of their local situation and the local grassroots artists could determine their own specific direction in implementing general BAM guidelines. This contributed to a strong decentralized base of activity nationwide. However, the lack of a central leadership was also a major liability, especially when BAM formations were beset by financial strictures and ideological infighting. 

For example, when John Johnson shut down Black World, there was no national leadership in place to negotiate with Johnson on Black World’s behalf nor was there an organization in place to facilitate the development of a new independent literary magazine which could follow up on the now defunct Black World. An effort was made in 1976 to found First World but the new journal was not able to sustain itself and the Hoyt Fuller edited follow-up journal folded after a handful of issues when Hoyt Fuller suffered a heart attack and died in 1977. 

Time and again, especially after the lost of key individuals or the closing down of key BAM institutions, BAM adherents were unable to mount an effective national response. The decentralized focus/lack of centralized structure and/or leadership was a major debilitating internal dialectic of BAM.

External contradictions. There was a second disruptive dialectic at work. This dialectic was external and intentionally disruptive. The establishment defunded BAM institutions and established alternative “acceptable” institutions. The target audiences for these philanthropic created (as opposed to grassroots created) organizations was the BAM audience. Baraka points to The Negro Ensemble Company is an obvious example of this trend.

Later, after the word “black” had cooled out some and the idea of even “black art” had sunk roots deep enough in the black masses, where it could not simply be denied out of existence, the powers-that-be brought in some Negro art, some skin theater, eliminating the most progressive and revolutionary expressions for a fundable colored theater that merely traded on “the black experience,” rather than carrying on the black struggle for democracy and self-determination. Then the Fords and Rockefellers “fount” them some colored folks they could trust and dropped some dough on them for colored theater. Douglas Turner Ward’s Negro Ensemble is perhaps the most famous case in point. During a period when the average young blood would go to your head for calling him or her a knee-grow, the Fords and Rockefellers could raise themselves up a whole-ass knee-grow ensemble. But that’s part of the formula: Deny reality as long as you have to and then, when backed up against the wall, substitute an ersatz model filled with the standard white racist lies which include some dressed as Negro art. Instead of black art, bring in Negro art, house nigger art, and celebrate slavery, right on! [Baraka / Autobiography pages 214-215]

Yet, this is not the most insidious example of this dialectic. The most insidious is the development of “Blackploitation” movies to push aside and replace the Independent Black Cinema movement which was an active part of BAM. We will briefly discuss this development in a later chapter. 

Notably, the “alternative” and “establishment initiated” Black(?!) artistic thrusts are all distinguished by either a lessening or an eradication of the BAM ideological triad. Especially with the blaxploitation films, the directors as well as the producers of establishment “Blackness” were often Whites. The development of a Black aesthetic was mooted in favor of a return to “craft” and “standards” (code words for the readopting of traditional Euro-centric aesthetical concerns) or in favor of an emphasis on entertainment. Needless to say, social engagement was downplayed or entirely eliminated. Time and time again this central antagonistic dialectic is introduced by the establishment as a means of regaining control of Black artistic activity. Without an understanding of both the central internal and external dialectics which were put into play during the sixties and seventies, BAM’s achievements as well as BAM’s losses can not be accurately assessed.

Other contradictions.  Examples of other dialectics at work include the internal effort to control Black publishing and to resist cooption by the external establishment or by establishment oriented and/or establishment sponsored forces who were ostensibly “Black.” Internally, this dialectic is illustrated by the development of Black publications and presses, Black bookstores, and an attempt to develop a Black book distribution system. Externally, this dialectic is illustrated by two boycott efforts: 1. The Ed Spriggs led boycott of Clarence Major’s New Black Poetry anthology and 2. The boycott of Essence magazine early in its development. Both of these boycotts should be understood in context.

BAM was not a “skin game.” Just being biologically Black was not sufficient. The triad of concerns was the base criteria used as points of definition and focus. Thus, in 1968 Ed Spriggs wrote “ON THE ‘BOYCOTT’ black writers/white publishers: an alliance that boycotts black publishers” first published in The Journal of Black Poetry and later reprinted in Black Art Black Culture, a collection of articles from The Journal of Black Poetry. Spriggs raised a number of very important issues, issues which retain their relevance in the 1990s. I quote him at length.

what I want understood is this boycott thing, and it is necessary to deal with this, is that this did not come about due to a personal clash with Clarence Major. I mean it is not about C. Major the man, the poet, but the ideological stance that is him, a lot of other Black writers and until recently, myself. and another thing that needs clarification is that it aint about International Publishers per se, yeah, we dig where they at. along with a lot of other publishers in that same direction and Praeger, say, in the opposite…

I took a stand, boycott. it’s time for that. it grew out of a telephone conversation with c major. while we talked the necessity to take the stand crystallized. repeat: black writers are being exploited even when they’re talking abt black power thru the white press. i mean some cat’s total economics and prestige depend upon the white publishers–not that they want it that way. we can break that up if we want to. our publishers will never be able to break out of this system if the boost doesn’t come from the black writers. swamp our publishers with the level of material that we turn over to the white publishers and domestic and international distributiorships will be a reality before the present system crumbles. there are many levels of power. let’s move on up a little higher.

We already have black publishers (no matter how minor some are) who consistently work with us. are we ready for that? c. major wasn’t. even tho he had been published in dudley r’s Broadside press anthology (For Malcolm X) and in the Journal of Black Poetry. Journal of Black Poetry is printed and published by black people entirely. Jamerson printing company does the job for the Journal. julian richardson, owner of Success Printing company does the job for Black Dialogue. Richardson and Associates are publishing a reprint of the Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey in paper and hard covers. san francisco could become the black publishing capital of afro-america if we had our souls where our mouths are. a lot more could be said abt the way we could support black publishers and what kind of changes we wld have to go thru to initiate that support. but we need to think, talk and act on this right away quick. we can take up the challenge now. we need to. unless some of us are already too revolutionary to entertain this kind of thing. it’s still possible for us to get our cookies and help the black publishers get theirs too.

repeat. it’s abt discontinuing the freeze we have dealt out to black publishers by ignoring their existence. me? i’m nuttin on every thing directed to the mother country’s houses that shat shld and cld be published black. so i wont get a poem here or a piece there. my life could never depend on it anyway. of course there are a couple of things due to come out that i let go of before i saw the necessity for this stance. no matter. we’ve got to stop the contradiciton at the point that we become aware of them. black publishers are laying in the cut waiting for the righteous black writers. black writers can bail them out.

There are institutions to be built. we’re young and strong enough to build but we’ve gotta have the vision. we have the power. if you don’t believe it just ask dial, harpers, wm morrow, grove, merit, marzani and munsell or even international publishers. couldn’t julian richardson, dudley randall and lafayette jamerson get into some very heavy drama if they could get just a little play from our co-opted black writers? you know they could. holes in yr front because you choose not to. fatten up. writers. black. seeking new dimensions of power. talk to me baby. we been laying back too long. [Spriggs / “On The ‘Boycott’,” pages 11 and 13-14]

Today, there is not one major literary anthology widely used in Black Studies, Black literature, or related courses that is both edited by Blacks and published by a Black press. The absence of Black control of the presentation of Black literature is indicative of how completely the establishment view dominates the discourse about and the actual production of Black literature. Worse than the reality of this alien and often antagonistic domination, is the reality that most of us see no major contradiction in the fact that the overwhelming majority of Black literature is produced by non-Black publishing concerns.

In a similar vein, a capitalist, entertainment orientation for the arts is generally acceptable in the nineties. But during the BAM era Blackness was more than a skin game. Thus, Askia Muhammad Toure’s call for a boycott of Essence in protest of “firings” and of interim editor Gordon Parks’ hiring of whites as art director and graphic illustrators. Undoubtedly, this protest helped pushed Essence towards a pro-Black position much faster than the magazine may have moved on its own.

Recently, in New York, Sister Hattie Gossett, an outstanding Black editor, was fired by the management of a new magazine for “inefficiency”. (Sister Hattie had worked “efficiently” for a year and a half at Redbook, a national women’s magazine. She quit her job at Redbook to join Essence in order to work for Black people.) Hattie Gossett is well known for her uncompromising Black views. We suggest that this is the real reason for her firing. About two weeks later, the editor, Miss Ruth Ross, a Black professional sister quit Essence magazine over an alleged “breach of contract.” So Essence magazine is now without the services of the two Black women editors who were to help launch it.

When the word of Sister Hattie’s dismissal passed along the grapevine, Black writers began to withdraw their work from the magazine. … Blackhearts!! we urge you to BOYCOTT ESSENCE MAGAZINE THROUGHOUT THE COUNTRY, AS ANOTHER “GAME” BEING RUN ON BLACK PEOPLE BY SLICK NIGGAS HUSTLING “BLACKNESS” FOR PROFIT; AIDED BY AN UNCLE TOM EDITOR WHO HATES AND DESPISES BLACK CREATIVE ARTISTS [Toure / “Report On The “Essence” Magazine Affair,” page 108] 

From the example of these two boycotts, we can clearly discern that BAM was more than a simple reversal of the racist notion that if you’re white you’re right and if you’re black you’re wrong. BAM understood that unity around biological Blackness was not sufficient to advance BAM’s specific ideological goals. 

Two other major dialectics at work were around 1. the question of integration, specifically inter-racial marriages, and 2. “the woman’s question.” BAM proponents were opposed to inter-racial marriages and were slow to respond to “feminism” which was viewed as a “middle-class, White woman’s thing.” The non-resolution of these contradictions led to splits between BAM and high profile integrationist-oriented Blacks and also to splits between BAM and Black women who prioritized politicality on gender issues. Alienated from BAM, many of these forces either forged new fronts of activity or joined existing establishment activities. 

On this note, there is an interesting development. A number of high profile, male BAM spokespeople previously had been involved in inter-racial relationships. When they became BAM advocates they took an extremely hard line on inter-racial relationships. I postulate that they were inclined toward the hard line because as men they generally did not have the day to day responsibility of rearing the children produced from the interracial unions. LeRoi Jones is, perhaps, archetypal in this regard. 

On the other hand, Black women who had been parties in inter-racial relationships and who had responsibility for rearing the children of those unions, did not take such a hard line. Alice Walker is an example of this. Undoubtedly, the Black male “holier-than-thou” hard-line alienated a significant number of important participants and potential participants. 

The splitting of marriages and organizations based on race was a particularly painful development for a number of people who were veterans of the Civil Rights movement. Some of these veterans had made tremendous personal and political commitments to actualize integrated relationships. The advent of BAM strained many of those relationships to the breaking point. This strain accounts for some of the anti-BAM animosity which often manifests itself when BAM is accused of being “racist” or “crow-jim.” While I do not intend to blow this contradiction out of proportion, at the same time I do not intend to overlook the racial split and the hard feelings that resulted. Some of those feelings are still being worked out by people who were “negatively” affected.

The “race” contradiction was not just a personal issue. This contradiction was most violently played out in the conflicts between SNCC and the Panthers, and between the Panthers and so-called “cultural nationalists.” In relation to SNCC, the Panther position was that Panthers could work with anyone and that they had no hang-ups with Whites because they had never been controlled by Whites nor had Whites been leading members, whereas the Panthers believed that SNCC was obsessed with excluding Whites because Whites had once played dominant roles in SNCC. This, as well as the Panther antagonistic position on “cultural nationalists,” involved a great deal of exaggeration and some outright falsification. In relation to BAM, however, this produced another point of alienation. 

After initially working together, BAM and the Panthers split forces in the late sixties. Emory Douglas, who was the Panther Minister of Culture, and, to a lesser extent Eldridge Cleaver, were both involved in early West Coast BAM activity. Emory did the cover for Sonia Sanchez’s book of poetry, Homecoming, and also contributed artwork to The Journal of Black Poetry. However, once the split intensified, Emory was directed by the Black Panther Party not to participate in any BAM activities. In hindsight, we can easily see that this was a self-destructive schism, but at the time the split played itself out as a major ideological battle. 

Thus, the dialectic of assertion/alienation, i.e. the militant assertion of a political position alienates those who do not share that position. When the position in question has both personal and social implications in terms of mates, friends and associates, invariably what starts out as an ideological debate quickly degenerates into backbiting, infighting and self-destructive activities. Given its radical departure from the then existing norms, we should not be surprised that BAM was in constant internal turmoil as well as sometimes mired in “bickering and backbiting” centered around many prominent members of the more status-quo oriented artistic and political Black community.

—Kalamu ya Salaam









Kenny Garrett Quintet
- Jazzwoche Burghausen 2015  


Track List:
1. Boogety Boogety
2. J-Mac
3. Pushing The World Away
4. Chucho’s Mambo
5. Spanish-Go-Round
6. Happy People
7. Wayne’s Thing

Kenny Garrett – alto sax, soprano sax
Corcoran Holt – bass
Trevor Watkis – piano
Marcus Baylor – drums
Rudy Bird – percussion

Kenny Garrett Quintet – Jazzwoche Burghausen 2015
Live at 46. Internationale Jazzwoche Burghausen, Wackerhalle, Germany, March 19, 2015





NOVEMBER 12, 2016

NOVEMBER 12, 2016





“Yet Lives And Fights”:

Riots, Resistance, And



“The riot in New Orleans–murdering negroes in the rear of Mechanics,” 1866. Credit: The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

“The riot in New Orleans–murdering negroes in the rear of Mechanics,” 1866. Credit: The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

How civil war in the South began again
—indeed had never ceased; and how
black Prometheus bound to the Rock of
Ages by hate, hurt and humiliation, has
his vitals eaten out as they grow, yet
lives and fights.
~W. E. B. Du Bois,
Black Reconstruction in America


Reconstruction, in most states, went forward by blood, not by decree.

In July 1866, Republicans gathered at the Mechanics Institute in New Orleans to discuss drafting a new state constitution. Despite stubborn Democratic and pro-Confederate resistance, Republicans—a coalition of abolitionists, Northern whites, Unionist southerners, members of Louisiana’s large formerly free community of color, and those recently freed by the assassinated Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation—believed they could successfully draft a state constitution that offered suffrage to freedmen and citizenship to freed men, women, and children in the aftermath of the Civil War. Some of these Republicans were idealists; some were naive. Most had faith in the strength of their coalition.

When the sun dawned on July 30, 1866, over the sixth ward of New Orleans, residents of the city gathered to watch the events. Politics remained the formal terrain of white and, to a limited extent still, black men, especially black veterans. However, men, women, and young people of all races made their way to the sites of meetings. Black residents in particular listened at windows and gathered in the street outside meeting places to discuss among themselves what citizenship and suffrage meant for them in a post-emancipation society. Political meetings would also have been opportunities for petty commerce as coffee and praline women and watermelon men sold their wares to would-be politicos arriving and departing the scene. Black residents would also have been going about their business on that day, hurrying from one place to another, oblivious to what was about to happen.

New Orleans Race Riot, 1866 (Source:

New Orleans Race Riot, 1866 (Source:

Many were against calling the convention and were likewise
antagonistic to extending suffrage to black men. Democrats,
secessionists, and planter sympathizers fought the meeting.
Mayor John T. Monroe declared the convention illegal. Police
Chief John T. Adams led a police force of anti-black and
pro-Confederate sympathizers to monitor events. On July 30,
when convention go-ers and observers marched “with drum
and fife” to the Mechanics Institute to convene
, pro-Confederate
police lined their path.

Tensions rose as marchers moved through the city. Many were harassed on their way, including by police gathered for the occasion. One man was arrested. Convention attendees finally arrived at the meeting place—only for police to turn on them and begin shooting. Details around the riot differ. W. E. B. Du Bois describes the beginning of the massacre as initiated by “a signal shot…and the mob deployed across the head of Dryades Street, moved upon the State House, and shot down the people who were in the hall.”

Black veterans and residents returned fire, scrambled into the building for protection, and mob violence scattered in all directions as spectators fell to gun shots, assaults, and marauding white rioters. General Baird mobilized federal troops to end the fighting, but arrived too late to stop the worst of the battle. About forty to fifty people were killed. Three white victims stood out as Republican members of the convention or vocal sympathizers: A. P. Dostie, a local dentist; Republican member John Henderson; and Rev. Jothan Horton. The vast majority—Du Bois claims the rest of the dead—were black people.

When General Sheridan gathered reports on the fighting later, he described it as a massacre:

The more information I obtain of the affair of the 30th in this city the more revolting it becomes. It was no riot; it was an absolute massacre by the police which was not excelled in murderous cruelty by that of Fort Pillow. It was a murder which the mayor and police of this city perpetrated without the shadow of a necessity: furthermore, I believe it was premeditated, and every indication points to this. 1


The Mechanics’ Institute (or Mechanics Hall) Massacre, considered one of the most violent race riots of the Reconstruction era, helped to usher in Congressional Reconstruction, providing Congress with an excuse to propose (and for states to ratify) the Fourteenth (1868) and Fifteenth Amendments (1870). It followed conversations and attempts at the federal and state level to extend suffrage to black men, including deliberate organizing by formerly free blacks, black veterans, and a black community determined to fight for an end to even the shadow of bondage.

It is discussed by historians as a race riot and as a street brawl, but not always in the terms offered by Sheridan when he reported on it to his superiors. By comparing it to Fort Pillow, Sheridan placed the Mechanics Institute Massacre both in the tradition of war—skirmishes and battles between states—and in the tradition of state violence against black people who dared to bear arms, exercise their right to participate in the political process, take up space in the cities and towns they live in, and fight for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

The archive for the Reconstruction era is filled with moments like these—black men, women, and children determined to live out the promises of emancipation and move forward, progress, make change, and find themselves facing unbelievable levels of state violence and repression. There were bloody, dark, and terrible moments where lives were lost and it seemed like the promise of freedom would not be fulfilled. And there is no solace in or for these moments.

Black Prometheus “yet lives and fight” again and again, but it doesn’t feel good and it isn’t easy. The people killed in New Orleans that summer day did not return to their families, and to describe those who lived the tale as having survived does not capture the pain, fury, and grief of the experience or the betrayal of the promise of emancipation. Nor can pragmatism be comforting or comfortable. Presumably black veterans attending the meeting bore arms, just in case. This likely helped some in the moment against the abject state violence enacted against them, but their arms did not then and do not now help us mourn.

The Mechanics’ Institute. The Historic New Orleans Collection (Source:

The Mechanics’ Institute. The Historic New Orleans Collection (Source:

What Reconstruction does teach us is that the bloodiest struggles and the most terrible betrayals have always occurred in the wake of black success, of gains in a freedom struggle that has been in motion since Africans arrived in Virginia in 1619 (and in New Orleans in 1719).

Whatever might be at stake since the results began filtering in on Tuesday night, it is clear that the country remains in the throes of that battle, and that is, indeed, a civil war and epic struggle to define what freedom means and who it will include. It also continues to be a bloody struggle. While we have yet to see how bloody this 21st-century battle will get, a terrible truth must be faced—it will get worse before it gets better. And the worse it gets, more than likely, the closer we are to a port in the storm and the harder we need to fight. This is what Reconstruction teaches us.

  1. Telegram, P. H. Sheridan to U. S. Grant, August 2, 1866, in House, New Orleans Riots, 11. 


Jessica Marie Johnson is an Assistant Professor of History and Africana Studies at Johns Hopkins University. Her research interests include women, gender, and sexuality in the African diaspora; histories of slavery and the slave trade; and digital history and new media and has appeared in Slavery & Abolition and Meridians: Feminism, Race and Transnationalism. Follow her on Twitter @jmjafrx.




NOV 26, 2016

NOV 26, 2016






How Did Fidel Castro

Hold On to Cuba

for So Long?

The combination of geography, charisma,
and authoritarianism that helped the revolutionary
outlast 10 American presidents



Fidel Castro’s death came more than a decade after the Cuban revolutionary and authoritarian first handed power to his brother Raul during a severe illness. Castro resigned permanently in 2008, prompting then-President George W. Bush to declare his hope for a democratic transition and vowing that “The United States will help the people of Cuba realize the blessings of liberty.”Cubans have not yet realized them. Raul Castro began to open Cuba’s economy, and accelerated that opening through a rapprochement with the United States beginning in 2014, which later saw President Barack Obama nominate an ambassador to the island for the first time since the Eisenhower administration and significantly loosen America’s five-decade trade embargo. But Cubans still could not choose their leaders; as Human Rights Watch noted: “Many of the abusive tactics developed during [Fidel’s] time in power—including surveillance, beatings, arbitrary detention, and public acts of repudiation—are still used by the Cuban government.” While Obama offered a measured statement on Fidel’s death, declaring that history would judge his legacy, Cuban American members of Congress were blistering. “A tyrant is dead,” remarked Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, a Florida Republican representative. “Castro’s successors cannot hide and must not be allowed to hide beneath cosmetic changes that will only lengthen the malaise of the Cuban nation.” The Cuban blogger Yoani Sanchez declared in Spanish on Twitter that Castro’s legacy was “a country in ruins, a nation where young people do not want to live.”

The morning following the announcement of Castro’s death, I spoke with Peter Kornbluh, the co-author of the recent book Back Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations Between Washington and Havana, which chronicles the countries’ history of discord and long path to normalized relations. Kornbluh is one of the leading historians of U.S.-Cuban relations and had spoken to Castro several times; he describes himself as a lifelong advocate of normalized relations, out of the belief that the decades of hostility that only recently began to thaw served neither the United States nor the Cubans still waiting for the blessings of liberty. (As Jeffrey Goldberg notes, Fidel himself “reveled in his half-century confrontation with America, and, he knew, I believed, that it would be more difficult for Cuba to resist battalions of Yankee capitalist hoteliers and an invasion fleet of Fort Lauderdale-based cruise ships than it was to defeat the hapless landing party at the Bay of Pigs.”) What follows is a transcript of our conversation, condensed and edited for clarity.
Kathy Gilsinan: As a very basic question to start, how in your assessment did Fidel manage to hang on for so long?
Peter Kornbluh: Fidel Castro was one of the world’s longest-serving leaders. I guess he was only short of queen Elizabeth, which doesn’t seem a very apt comparison—he wasn’t a monarch, of course, he was a leader of a revolution. It was a combination of extraordinary charisma, nationalism, and authoritarianism that managed to keep him in power. Fidel had the luxury of Cuba being an island, and him being able to let many of the people who might organize against him simply leave or flee the island. Over the course of a number of years there were repeated immigration crises. Fidel opened kind of an escape valve for tens of thousands of people to leave—very dangerously of course, many times, like the Balsero crisis—and many others have simply left Cuba. But of course the vast majority of Cubans stayed, and some of them benefited tremendously from the revolution. Others did not. 

Gilsinan: Who benefited from the revolution?

 Many of the people who lived in the rural countryside, [people who] had no access to health, education, clean water, housing. You need to remember that Cuba was a relatively well-developed Caribbean island before the Cuban revolution, but there was a lot of social expectation and a tremendous amount of inequality. Just to give you an example, Cuba imported more Cadillacs than any other country in the word, for the wealthy class and for the U.S. elites who vacationed and lived in Cuba. After the revolution Fidel famously announced, “We don’t need Cadillacs. We need tractors.” And he banned the import of all new American cars and transferred the money that would have been otherwise used by the state for those types of imports to buying agricultural equipment and making an effort to develop the countryside—building housing in the countryside, schools, hospitals, and creating educational opportunities for Cubans, that particularly rural Cubans would not have otherwise had.

Gilsinan: To talk about Cuba as a global power, how did he manage to wield such disproportionate influence, relative to his position at the helm of this small island that became increasingly poor following the revolution? To what extent was this the power of being able to stick it to the United States so consistently?
Kornbluh: I think this is Fidel Castro’s greatest legacy: transforming Cuba from a regular-sized Caribbean island into a player on the world stage completely disproportionate to its geographic size and location. There is no doubt that while the impact of Fidel’s vision and socialist principles on Cuban society will be debated for years if not decades to come, his impact on Cuba as nation in the global arena, as a sovereign, proud, and supportive nation on kind of the correct side of history if you will—supporting the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa; the efforts very early on [supporting] small groups of guerrillas called the Sandinistas to overthrow the brutal and greedy Somoza dynasty in Nicaragua; having kind of the Cuban equivalent of Doctors Without Borders, sending tens of thousands of doctors around the world on free medical missions, to be supportive of other communities that didn’t have access to doctors—Cuba really gained in tremendous prestige, influence, and impact.
And that is completely indisputable, and you’re going to see that in the outpouring of condolences from world leaders today, and in the presence of many of those leaders at the memorial service for Fidel. And Cuba today is a proud country, and a respected country, throughout the region of Latin America and in the Third World. You’ll see the quotes from Nelson Mandela, for example, who said, we can’t even put into words the importance of Cuba’s support for our movement. The United States found itself on the other side of the anti-apartheid movement. In the confines of the White House and the Oval Office Henry Kissinger referred to Fidel Castro as a pipsqueak, denounced him for his role in Africa in the mid-1970s, and actually developed contingency plans to invade Cuba. But on the world stage Fidel Castro was a giant. He was the David versus Goliath when it came to Cuba versus the United States.

Gilsinan: Not in all cases on the right side of history, right? Certainly not on the right side of the Cold War, and elsewhere in Africa—Angola, for example.
Kornbluh: His role in Africa and Angola was an anti-colonial role, but the CIA was on the other side, really, and Kissinger as well. If you look at the history carefully, the Eisenhower administration kind of pushed Fidel right into the arms of the Soviets. They were kind of thin-skinned about his anti-American rhetoric. They’d never known a Latin American leader to say the things that he said about the United States, and his impudence at the time—his willingness to say, “Why should Cuba have to play by one set of rules, where you tell us what to do and you get to do whatever you want? We’re a sovereign country, and the revolution means that we can act independently, that’s what the revolution was for.” And he was constantly reminding the United States of this issue, every time a president would say let’s negotiate better relations, here’s what we want from you—you  know, get out of Africa, or terminate your relationship with the Soviet Union—Fidel’s response would be, “I don’t tell you how to run your foreign policy, and I don’t deserve to be told how to run mine.” 

“We were all Fidelistas. Until after
the revolution when you lined those guys
up at the wall and shot them.”

Gilsinan: When in your view was the best opportunity not to,
as you say, “push Cuba into the arms of the Soviets”? You’re
saying that that wasn’t inevitable?
Kornbluh: If you look carefully at the Eisenhower era and the early months of the Kennedy administration, you’ll see that the CIA started to plot overthrowing Castro about six months into 1959, after Castro had come to visit the United States on an extended visit. When Castro was here the CIA secretly met with him and tried to recruit him to try to identify the communists in his government and get rid of them. It wasn’t always that the CIA and U.S. government officials were against Fidel; the CIA initially saw him as a spiritual leader of democratic forces in Latin America. Batista, who he overthrew, was such a thug. I worked with Fidel and his office on organizing 40th anniversary of the Bay of Pigs [in 2001]. And we took the deputy manager of the CIA’s Bay of Pigs operation, Robert Reynolds, down to Cuba, and I arranged for him to be the first speaker at the conference. He sat across the conference-room table from Fidel, and said, you know, when you were in the Sierra Maestras [with] the guerrillas, fighting to overthrow Batista, I was a member of the CIA’s Caribbean task force, and we were monitoring your progress. And we all saw you as a very romantic figure. He looked at Fidel and he said, “We were all Fidelistas. Until after the revolution when you lined those guys up at the wall and shot them.”
Gilsinan: That was the turning point? 
Kornbluh: There was a series of turning points. The executions were
not really the turning point, but they became kind of a propaganda
asset for the Eisenhower administration. Fidel was unbelievably
furious about this because there hadn’t been a single statement in the
press about how Batista was butchering innocent Cubans for years,
and the United States had supported him endlessly while he was
doing this. And then Fidel comes in and the revolution succeeds, at
tremendous bloodshed and cost to many many Cubans, from Batista’s
bombing with U.S. planes, U.S. bombs given to the Cuban air force.
And then suddenly human rights was an issue after the revolution,
when it never was before.
The turning point was the agricultural reform,
which nationalized land that was held by U.S. agricultural corporations,
and a lot of Fidel’s rhetoric and anger, which U.S. officials couldn’t
really see past. And kind of an overreaction to the first Soviet mission
to Cuba, which at that point was not a military relationship. Fidel only
declared Cuba a socialist state after the preliminary attack in the Bay
of Pigs, at the point he understood that they were going to be attacked
by the United States. At the funeral of the initial Cubans who were
killed in what was considered the first airstrike, to take out his air
force, by the CIA, he announced that Cuba was going to be a member
of the socialist bloc and he basically called on the Soviet Union to
protect them. But the actual assault came that night. There was no
military relationship between Cuba and the Soviet Union until after
that point. And then of course, because of that attack, Fidel was for
more predisposed to accept the Soviets’ offer of nuclear missiles to
deter another attack.

“Cuban society certainly is evolving
economically. And somewhere
down the line that is going to have
a cultural and political impact.”


Gilsinan: How much has changed since Fidel stepped down?

Kornbluh: Quite a bit has changed in Cuba since Fidel Castro stepped aside 10 years ago. He was felled by a severe case of diverticulitis, two botched operations, internal septic shock—he almost died twice. His brother took over in what was a seamless transition of power—shows you very clearly that this wasn’t just a one-man rule in Cuba, it was very institutionalized, the Communist Party system. Those who somehow hope that now that Fidel has died there will be upheaval or political change in Cuba are going to be disappointed.

But much has changed. That’s another reason I don’t think there’s going to be the upheaval that some people actually want, in the United States. Raul Castro understands that in order to have what he calls “sustainable socialism” you have to be able to generate resources that can be distributed, and the state is not able to do that. He has created a private sector which now accounts for almost 27 percent of the Cuban workforce; it’s largely tied up in tourism, but not completely. It continues to grow, but very slowly, in some ways too slowly for the Cuban population that has waited a long time, and has had its expectations raised by the normalization of relations with the United States. But with the social and economic changes under Raul Castro, Cuban society certainly is evolving economically. And somewhere down the line that is going to have a cultural and political impact. But things have changed. At this moment we have a normal U.S.-Cuban relations of sorts, the president of the United States has gone to Cuba—I had the great honor of going with the White House press corps with him—and it’s been an extraordinary dynamic. That dynamic was already kind of under a shadow from the new president-elect, before Fidel died last night.

Fidel’s death has kind of put Cuba on the agenda in a dramatic way. The fight over his legacy is one that’s going to require Trump taking a position—obviously the Cuban American community, hardline Cuban Americans in Congress demanding that Trump reverse what Obama has done and punish the Cubans for whatever. So there’s a dark shadow falling over the extraordinary initiative taken by Raul Castro and Barack Obama, that’s now almost at its second anniversary, with everybody wondering, will Donald Trump be the businessman and see the positive side of continuing commercial and economic relations with Cuba in a normal way? Or will he be the political figure who makes good on his campaign rhetoric of “reversing” Obama’s executive orders unless Cuba “meets our demands”?

Of course the whole history of Fidel Castro’s leadership and life is that
Cuba doesn’t yield to the demands of the United States of America.

Gilsinan: Has Trump made any specific demands?

He only made them in the context of trying to win the Cuban American votes in Miami, saying that his demands were going to be for religious freedom, political freedom, etc. Whether there’s been any back-channel discussion between the United States and Cuba so far, I don’t know. The Obama administration opened up this extraordinary back channel to Cuba, as the title of our book suggests, and that channel is still open. And I assume that messages have still been passed through it, regarding the incoming administration. But what Castro’s death does is takes kind of an issue that was going to stay kind of low-profile and down on the totem pole of Trump’s agenda, which would have allowed quiet communications and kind of a “let’s get to know each other” period after Trump was sworn in, to now being something that loud and noisy and high-profile and contentious, and that will only continue through the period of the memorial service in the coming days for Fidel Castro, and that’s too bad.For all the narrative of him waving his fingers and screaming about those awful Yankee imperialists, he understood that the security and validity of of the Cuban revolution would be safeguarded through normal, respectful relations with the United States. And he reached out to every president since Kennedy, quietly, secretly, every once in a while publicly, to say, “As long as you treat us with respect, we’re willing to talk to you about what your interests are.” And the documents are indisputable on this—we have all the messages that he sent to Kennedy, to Lyndon Johnson, to even Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. They show somebody who was really very invested in a better relationship with the United States—not to the point of sacrificing his revolutionary principles, but in saying that coexistence was possible. I think that’s the message now that the Cubans hopefully will be able to send, and that will be received positively by the incoming administration.

Gilsinan: Are you hopeful about that?

No, I’m not. I’m not as hopeful as I would like to be. Obama has worked very hard to make this normalization process irreversible—he has opened the doors to travel, he has gotten the airline companies invested, he’s gotten some of the hotel companies invested, he’s gotten some of the agricultural interests in various key Republican-dominated states invested in a process of better commercial relations. So he’s trying to make it a lot harder for Trump to simply dismiss all of this and reverse it. When you go back to the history of U.S.-Cuban relations and you see that really the breach in relations came over rhetoric, and thin-skinned U.S. officials—you know, we’ve got the most thin-skinned U.S. president-elect probably in the history of the presidency at this point. And somebody who loves to be a bully, and somebody who plans to bring new meaning to the expression “the bully pulpit” of the presidency. I am worried, because of Cuba’s defensiveness, and because Cuba refuses to be bullied, I am worried about how quickly the situation could deteriorate. I’m worried that it will, but hoping that it won’t.










NOVEMBER 22, 2016

NOVEMBER 22, 2016





Don’t call me Toubab


Author in front of Kanifing Estate, Gambia via Instagram.

Author in front of Kanifing Estate, Gambia via Instagram.

It is mid-September. I am walking alone in the streets of Old Jeswang, a small neighborhood in Banjul, the capital of The Gambia, where I have been working as a health promotion intern for two weeks. I am wearing an H&M black and white stripped dress, an African print head wrap and pendant earrings.

“Toubab, Toubab, Toubab!” White person. People passing by shout, smiling and waving at me.

I am black. I am African. I am Rwandan. I look around. But there is no one but me. I stop. Partially shocked, partially amused. I wave and smile back. I think to myself, they are just kids. They don’t know. I walk.

Two weeks later, I head to Mustapha’s shop to get chicken and onions for the Yassa Gannarr I am about to cook for the first time. The Mauritanian shop keeper greets me. Amused and as if to provoke me, he calls me “Toubab”.

Not again, I think.

“Duma Toubab!” I am not a Toubab, I reply smiling, to hide what’s boiling inside of me.

As a Rwandan diasporan living in Montreal, my coming to The Gambia means a lot of things. Not just a break from Canada, but my first trip back to the continent after forcibly leaving Rwanda behind in 1994. It means experiencing what I always thought of “home,” but away from Rwanda.

Like many other Africans living in the diaspora and traveling to the continent for the first time, my trip to The Gambia symbolizes a long-awaited return: familiarity, comfort and kinship that is somewhat hard to find in places where we are constantly othered. For the first time, I am not a visible minority. Back in Canada, my blackness goes unquestioned. I am dark. My hair defies gravity.

My trip also means that I can see and experience The Gambia without Eurocentric lenses; on my own terms, not defined by some anthropological jargon-filled book. I am well aware of the many privileges I wear. As an African studies major however, I have grown critical of both overly pessimist and romanticized misrepresentations of Africa as an academic subject.

How dare do they call me Toubab? I am not here for it. I can’t bear to be othered.

I am not one to preach the romanticized unification of Africans or black people as “one people,” or fervently defend nationalism and patriotism. I know I am “other”. I am Rwandan and raised in Canada. But somewhere deep down, I wish they recognized a little bit of themselves in me. It is their association of me with whiteness or the West that I can’t take.

When I ask my Gambian friends about the meaning of the term, especially targeted at me, they reply that it is custom to refer to visibly white people and foreigners raised in the West as Toubabs. For them, it is more my lifestyle and habits that define me as a Toubab than my mentality. I am the typical “western lazy student”. I don’t wake up at 6am on weekends to clean my house or cook for the day. However, I adapt fairly easily, eat all local meals with no refrain, and hang out mostly with locals unlike my fellow western friends. Locals call Indians, Lebanese or Chinese people by their respective nationalities regardless of their western upbringing, so why not me?

I reflect a lot on authenticity. What does it mean to be truly “African”? More so, to be a “real African” woman? I surely do not meet the local criteria. Non-African foreigners aren’t expected to enact “authentic Africanness,” but I am, because of my heritage. I have failed at the test and thus, I am Toubab. Some won’t even acknowledge my Rwandan background, because I have never seen Rwanda. To them, I am Canadian. Period.

I surely was raised in Canada, but having spent most of my teenage and adult years fighting against skewed beauty standards, ideas of modernity and superiority rooted in white supremacy, I just couldn’t accept it. Even so, because for many, it meant that I was rich, that North America was better than The Gambia. Sure, our living conditions are different, but it is those romanticized ideas of the West that hurt the most.

I do not blame them, though. I realize how much we as diasporans, have a duty to bridge the gap. No more faking that we “made it.” No more romanticized African immigrant tales. As much as I am privileged, being called Toubab also signifies the erasure of my blackness and what it means to be black in white spaces. It signifies the erasure of my upbringing in the West as a Rwandan child, by Rwanda parents, who tried their best to inculcate in me the traditions, culture, history and language of our homeland while navigating exclusion, discrimination and feelings of not belonging.

Taiye Selasi, in her TED Talk (“Don’t ask where I’m from, ask where I’m a local”) proposed that home is where one grew up, lived or worked. As a “multi-local,” she (with British and American passports and living in Rome) rejects the concept of “coming from one country” as countries are merely concepts, their boundaries often unfixed, artificial. But what if my hometown, the country I grew up in hasn’t embraced me as local yet? Where am I local? What if I find solace in the resilience, the culture, the traditions of a land I have never seen?

As a diasporan, the constant quest for authenticity and belonging is one I grapple with on a daily basis. Longing for a land I have never seen. Not being western/White enough. Not being African/Rwandan enough. Processes of identity-making are complex. Ultimately, the hurt is rooted in constant feelings of not belonging. However, I now find solace in knowing that my acceptance is mine alone.













The House on Coco Road is an intimate portrait of an activist and teacher
who moves her children from Oakland, California to participate in the
Grenada Revolution only to find her family in harms way of a U.S. military
invasion. It is the filmmaker’s search for historical and emotional truth
that will confirm his mother’s place in American history.
damani-baker_House on Coco Road.jpg


A native of the Bay Area, Damani Baker is a Brooklyn-based director and filmmaker. His first feature documentary (with co-director Alex Vlack) about the life and music of Bill Withers, “Still Bill,” opened theatrically to critical acclaim in 2009 and was acquired by Netflix, Showtime, and BBC. Previous work includes “Return,” an award-winning film that explores the genius of traditional African medicine. Damani’s career spans documentaries, music videos, museum installations, and advertisements, and he has worked for clients including Rainforest Alliance, Puma, IBM, and Wieden+Kennedy, among others.

His current projects include over 10 films for museums in Nigeria and Chattanooga, Tennessee for Ralph Appelbaum Associates, Inc. Damani is a Sundance Fellow and alum of Filmmaker Magazine’s “25 new faces in independent film.” In addition to his work, Damani is a professor in the filmmaking, screenwriting, and media arts program at Sarah Lawrence.



Jon’s a filmmaker and musician.  Over the years he’s worked as a producer, DP, director and editor.   His work includes “Still Bill” about legendary songwriter Bill Withers, “The After Party” about arrests during the 2004 presidential conventions,  “Jazz Days” a series of global concerts sponsored by UNESCO and Thelonious Monk Institute, “Herbie Hancock’s Possibilities”, the award-winning short “Flavio”, and videos for Herbie Hancock, Antibalas, Raul Midon, Kaki King, Lionel Loueke and Lizz Wright.   In 2015, Jon produced “Holy Forest” an album of songs recorded in The Gambia and the US.  He’s now producing “Africa Calling”, a project in partnership with UNICEF, USAID, Angelique Kidjo and students from Benin’s CIAMO school of music to raise awareness around malaria treatment and prevention in West Africa.

Meshell Ndegocello.png


Meshell Ndegeocello is a singer-songwriter, producer, bassist, and vocalist. Her music incorporates a wide variety of influences, including funk, soul, jazz, hip hop, reggae and rock. She has received significant critical acclaim throughout her career, and has ten career Grammy Award nominations. She has been credited for having “sparked the neo-soul movement.” Her 11th album “Comet, Come To Me,” was released in June 2014.

Ndegocello’s music has been featured in numerous film soundtracks including` How Stella Got Her Groove Back, Lost & Delirious, Batman & Robin, Love Jones, Love & Basketball, Talk to Me, Tyler Perry’s Daddy’s Little Girls, The Best Man, Higher Learning, Down in the Delta, The Hurricane, Noah’s Arc: Jumping the Broom, and Soul Men.






October 21, 2016

October 21, 2016











By Nneka Okona


Earlier this year, as I celebrated my 30th birthday at home with only a roasted chicken, garlic mashed potatoes, and sautéed green beans as company, I thought about how much travel meant in me, not only as a woman—but as a black woman. I joke a lot with my father about how travel is in my blood. I’m the daughter of an immigrant. My father came to this country some 40 or so odd years ago from Lagos, Nigeria, making me a first generation Nigerian American. It wasn’t until nine years ago when I completed the paperwork to get my passport and left the country on my first international trip to Kingston, Jamaica, that a part of me was reignited. It felt like I was reawakening to a dormant aspect of my psyche and spirit. 

And I ran with it. 

Three years later, I traveled to Madrid and became profoundly aware of my Blackness, more than I ever had in my hometown of Stone Mountain, Georgia, where I was never different and was always surrounded by people who both looked and sounded like me, with familiar Southern accents and lingering drawls. When I think about the nine months I spent in Madrid, all the traveling I did while living there and all the travel I have done since then, my memories are framed by a sense of others cowering at my difference. Of feeling lonely and misunderstood and hungering for connection and less isolation. I wanted to stop experiencing daily microaggressions, and I wanted to be done with the exhaustion of dealing with them. 

But I also wanted for my lived experience to matter as is, to not need to be justified with a laundry list of examples and verifiable examples. I wanted my anguish to stand strong and true on its own and for other expats to stop telling me I was being too sensitive, reading too much into things and holding too much of a chip on my shoulder. I wanted to stop being told my blackness came with a responsibility I must uphold and that it was my role to explain who I was, how I was, and to be a graceful teacher whether I wanted to or not. I wanted for ignorance to not be bliss and for what I was experiencing to not be treated with willful obliviousness. 

I turned to books. The words of other black women, the traveling, wanderlusting ones who had gone before me, experienced the same things I had or other things I hadn’t, were ministry to my soul. Before travel memoirs became a phenomenon, before the Elizabeth Gilberts and Cheryl Strayeds of bestselling contemporary travel writing, there were Black women writers trailblazing in this ever-shifting genre. 

Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica, is Zora Neale Hurston’s firsthand account of her travels to Haiti and Jamaica in the 1930s to both experience and understand voodoo and its surrounding cultural context. It’s less a journey of personal growth, as most travel memoirs tend to be, and is instead a living and breathing historical account of an oft misunderstood and demonized cultural and spiritual practice. 

Fifty or so years later, Maya Angelou’s All God’s Children Need Traveling Shoes was published. In this work, Maya writes about her experience living among a group of black American expats in West Africa—Ghana to be exact—and the inner revelations surrounding home, belonging and racial and ethnic identity. The essence of this work is brought home in this quote, a personal favorite of mine:

Perhaps travel cannot prevent bigotry, but by demonstrating that all peoples cry, laugh, eat, worry, and die, it can introduce the idea that if we try and understand each other, we may even become friends.

* * * *


In Madrid, a friend recommended Lori Tharps’ Kinky Gazpacho: Life, Love and Spain because the experiences I chronicled for her reminded her of Tharps’ writing. Tharps tells her story of Black identity through the personal renaissance she experiences while coming to understand Spanish culture, weaving in childhood memories, as she finds herself not only as a woman, but a Black woman.


From there I wandered to Faith Adiele’s Meeting Faith, a poignant travelogue of one woman’s journey to becoming Thailand’s very first Black Buddhist nun. Adiele juxtaposes so many seemingly opposing forces through the pages of her memoir—eastern and western religious philosophy, connectedness and the isolation of the path to ordination, redefining her life and what was important her in real time. Reading this book felt as if I was joining her as a companion on a journey. 


Emily Raboteau’s Searching for Zion was the memoir that most piqued my intellectual curiosity. Raboteau has a gift for telling a vivid story, and it makes you want to research and learn more about untraveled corners of the world and the stories waiting to be told there. Her memoir is as much a tale of self-discovery, of finding an inner sense of belonging as a biracial woman, as it is a chronology of her travels from Israel to Jamaica to Ethiopia, where she traces the roots of Black Jews, Rastafarians, and the historical ties that connect them all. 


Amanda Epe’s Fly Girl was my next read. Epe’s account of jaunting across the world as a flight attendant for British Airways is more lighthearted, but it nonetheless touches on things that resonate with me deeply. She documents the cultural clashes she experiences with each new country and city—as a woman, as a woman of color, as a black woman—and even talks openly about discrimination in the airline industry. As a black woman with darker skin, she describers what it felt like through the flight attendant application process, being rejected time and time again, being “the only one” when she first started out, and how she bore witness to gradual change. 


Perhaps the most soul-stirring read of all was Noo Sara-Wiwa’s Looking for Transwonderland, which took me through the heart of Lagos, where I have my own roots as well. To this day I’ve never visited Lagos; there are family members who still live there I’ve yet to meet. Reading Sara-Wiwa’s captivating account of her travels in Nigeria put chills down my spine. 

All these books were as consolatory to me as they were informative and inspiring. And these five travel memoirs written by black women allowed me, in a small way, to feel vindicated—to feel that women like me are worthy of publishing travel stories and being seen and heard for penning them, just like those of other white women who had written their stories too. 

* * * *

Some months ago, I was talking with another black woman about how with each trip I take, travel means so much more to me—especially knowing the history of travel as a Black person in America. I told her many of my relatives and friends had no interest in traveling and that this frustrated me. She cautioned me, gently, in not being haughty and judgmental and suggested I read The Green Book.

I was confused. I wanted to be right. I mean, why wouldn’t people want to see more of this big, vast world if given the chance? But after reading The Green Book—otherwise known as The Negro Motorist Green Book written by Victor Hugo Green—I had so much more perspective. 

The Green Book was first published in 1936 and was followed up with many subsequent, updated editions through the years until its final publication in 1966. The idea behind The Green Book was simple: to provide an all-encompassing resource for black Americans who wanted to road trip through the country. In the Jim Crow era, traveling while Black could come with many roadblocks—being refused a stay at a hotel, not being able to refuel your car during your journey, arriving too late in sundown towns and fearing for your safety. With The Green Book, you had a quick guide at your fingertips to navigate all these different scenarios. Eventually, Green expanded his guide to include international locales and even founded a travel agency. 

Travel remains a privilege even today, and its important to remember the fraught history of black Americans who feared exploring their own country because of the color of their skin. And so I celebrate the names and written voices of these black women travel writers—Zora Neale Hurston, Maya Angelou, Lori L. Tharps, Faith Adiele, Emily Raboteau, Amanda Epe, and Noo Sara-Wiwa—as heroes because they were brave and because they believed enough in what they had to say to share it with the world. I uphold them high and mighty for the other Black women who will now come after them—traveling, seeing the world, transforming, growing, shifting, tenaciously writing about it, inspiring others, continuing this ripple effect—following the path they so graciously trailblazed.


Nneka M. Okona
is an Atlanta based writer whose work has appeared in USA TODAY College, The Wall Street Journal, Travel + Leisure, EBONY Magazine, xoJane, Matador Network, BlogHer, Clutch Magazine, Zora Magazine, Busted Halo, Marietta Daily Journal,and more.













Rising Writer

The Rising Writer Contest is for a first full-length book of poetry by an author 33 years old or younger. Autumn House believes in supporting the work of younger, less-established writers who will become the voices of an emerging generation.

Guidelines for the 2017 AHP Rising Writer Contest:

For the 2017 contest, the preliminary judges are members of the Autumn House staff, and the final judge isAda Limón. The winner will be awarded publication of a full-length manuscript and $1,000. The contest opens November 1, 2016 and the deadline for entries is January 31, 2017. For further questions, feel free to email us.

  • Must be author’s first full-length collection (previous publications of chapbooks or self-published books are fine).
  • Authors must be 33 years old or younger in this calendar year
  • The winner will receive book publication, $500 advance against royalties, and a $500 travel/publicity grant to promote his or her book.
  • All finalists will be considered for publication.
  • Poetry submissions should be approximately 50-80 pages.
  • Contest results will be announced on our website
  • Please include with manuscript: Cover letter with current contact information (name, address, phone number, and email address), table of contents, and acknowledgments of previously published poems.
  • We only accept electronic submissions through our submission manager
  • $25 reading fee to enter