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Monday, July 30, 2012

2012 BID Fellowship in Brasil: Part 3

church in Pelourinho square
dancers perform Capoeira at Bale Folklorico
I had heard/read Brasil has the most Africans outside of Africa before I went to Bahia, but it was warming and shocking all the same to see exactly what that means, live and direct. Salvador’s landscape, simmering heat, and energy mirrored Ghana’s to me: The red dirt roads, the various stages of construction happening everywhere, the gated communities of mini mansions tucked behind high walls, the cucumber-cool supermarkets stocked with pricey provisions, the Buddha-shaped women wrapped and knotted in African cloth selling smoking street food…

The food in particular was a comfort to me. I recognized kose (they call it acaraje); a sweet fermented corn dough snack wrapped in corn husks that looked like kenkey, and bankye aka boiled cassava which they served at our hotel for breakfast one morning. 

an acaraje stand in itapua, bahia

And then there was the religion.

On our first Wednesday trip to Pelourinho, we were apprised that many in the square who had donned red were doing so in observance of Santa Barbara day, Santa Barbara being an African orixa or god worshipped in Candomble, an African traditional religion practiced in Brasil.  That evening, we saw a procession of men robed in red African apparel, some in masks, drumming in the Pelourinho square.  On a Friday trip to the city center, we were told that many would be wearing white in honor of another African goddess called Oshun. As we rode around town, I noticed businesses named after Yemanja, a goddess of the river; and pedestrians wearing t-shirts/baseball caps hanging in the market celebrating an Olodum Festival. (The Olodum Festival is not religious; Olodumare is the name of God in Yoruba

The professor and poet Joao who came to visit us when we were staying in the Bahian 'burbs as part of a small welcoming committee of Brasilian writers, poets, and culture-keepers, so graciously took time out of his schedule to take us on a walking tour through his hometown, the historic city of Cachoeira. Cachoeira is known for its committed practice of Candomble. He took us to a building in honor of the Sisterhood of the Good Death, a secret society of African women 40 and above who did side work on top of their duties as enslaved captives to buy their freedom and that of others in the community. Joao explained that there had been some opposition to the building by one Catholic priest in the town, but in the end the memory of these women had been preserved by the author Jorge Amado who had been an advocate of preserving Brasil’s African culture. Later that day, Joao took us to a traditional African religious terreira or temple.

Having grown up partially in Ghana, in a Christian home, and being Christian myself, my spirit roiled with discomfort and I felt an inner warning shot fire. In Ghana, as in many countries outside of the West, things of the spirit are not taken lightly. Religious temples, ceremonies, and practices are not casual cultural tour stops, but portals to spiritual realms; and I did not want to invite or entertain any unfamiliar spirit(s).

But having been an Africana Studies major in college, and specifically having taken a course in the Sociology of Black Religion, I was and am well aware of the role religion—particularly Christianity—played in the enslavement, manipulation, and liberation of African people. While legislators, enslavers, and others who directly and indirectly benefited from the free labor force and subjugation of African men and women advanced the Society of the Propagation of the Gospel’s mission to enter “foreign parts", Christianize the African and Indian "heathen” and "savages", and effectively erase all connections to their native culture via language, religion, music, etc; Christian Abolitionists were calling out the hypocrisy and sheer evil of the institution of slavery and fighting for its end. 

Meanwhile, the ancestors of black liberation theology were at work. While many enslaved Africans got the explicit and subliminal message that life would be easier for them with respect to their interactions with the enslavers if they converted to Christianity, many of the forced African emigrés used the slavers’ religion as a cover to preserve and practice their traditional African religions, and/or communicate messages plotting escape from enslavers. In America, Harriet Tubman used Negro spirituals to direct Underground Railroad missions; and later it was no coincidence that the black church in America was a hub of the Civil Rights movement. In Latin America, Santeria and Candomble were examples of how the Africans who were enslaved used the Catholic church’s worship of saints as a cover to worship orixas, or merged the religious traditions into one belief system.

I respect the fact that many Afro-Brasilians so fiercely held onto their beliefs under threat of violence and extinction, and was so moved by the powerful story of the Sisters of the Good Death. The image of these women coming together to subvert the twisted system that kidnapped them from their homes and ripped them from their families by devising the means to buy their freedom and that of others in their community is just rockstar to me—while the converse of the town Catholic priest rallying against them is yawn-inducing. 

Now “Good Death”, Joao explained, signifies the African outlook on death not as a bad thing, but a continuation of another realm of life. As a Christian and African, this resonated with me because I believe Jesus’s death was a good thing—the liberation of mankind from the sin that separates us from God—and his resurrection was the continuation of that good thing; the promise of eternal life to come for those that believe in him. That said, it struck me, as a Christian, how the religion has been used to manipulate African people into docility. As Joao shared the story of the Good Death Sisters, I wondered what I would have done in their situation. Would I have subverted, or would I have gone along with the okiedoke in the name of Jesus, afraid to rock the boat?

I asked myself this question in another way when we went to the Bale Folklorico in Pelourinho. As I watched the men perform the spiritual fight dance of capoeira, flipping and flinging themselves across the stage with acrobatic precision and balletic grace, I wondered why my spiritual guard was down. I also played back the museum visits we had made in Bahia, ambling past religious masks and other artifacts. Why was I comfortable seeing these religious performances and artifacts in environments sanctioned by whites as cultural institutions, and not in their natural environments?

It hit me after the Bale Folklorico just how much had been lost in the trade of human beings as slaves—how much Africa and her culture has been mythologized on both sides with whites dismissing African practice as heathen, pagan, savagery; and the Diaspora so fiercely protecting and preserving it that in some cases Africans journey to Brasil and other African enclaves in the Diaspora to study the indigenous way. Meanwhile, many Africans take it all for granted, even as African culture—as with all cultures—evolves.

Perhaps because Africans who remained on the continent did not feel the need to preserve the culture as much as those who were forcibly removed did, many contemporary Africans make the free choice to observe Christianity and Islam and other religions. I should add that not every Brasilian I encountered was a practitioner of Candomble. I learned later that some of the students that joined us on the tour of Cachoeira opted not to go inside the terreira because they are evangelical Christians. I also saw several Assemblies of God churches as we drove around town. I'm sure, as with every society, there are also many Brasilians of other faiths as well as agnostics and atheists. I should also add that in the narrative of Christianity, one major truth gets left out that one of the oldest Christian churches was founded in Ethiopia in the 1st century, pre-dating the transatlantic slave trade and colonialism as we know it

Spirituality and religion at their purest expression and practice come down to faith. What you believe is definitely molded by the value system you were raised with as a child as well as the experiences you have as you mature into adulthood. At some point, every adult makes the determination for herself or himself to continue in the faith, or lack thereof, they were brought up with, or abandon it for something else. That decision can be clouded by race, ethnicity, and history, but again, in its purest form faith and what you choose to believe has nothing to do with external things. It’s an internal choice that then, ideally, finds its expression in our action.

What does any of this have to do with my adventures as a writer? Well, I think it necessary to hash these things out as best I can for myself, so I can write with deeper honesty and integrity.  

If you haven't already, check out Part 1 and Part 2 of my experiences as a 2012 BID Fellow. Thank you for reading!

Friday, July 20, 2012

2012 BID Fellowship in Brasil: Part 1

I'm a big believer that God orders our footsteps. In other words no meeting or encounter is coincidental. I say this by way of preamble of how I came to take part in the amazing opportunity to join eight writers--Kwame Alexander, Chris Colderley, Tayari Jones, Marjorie Light, Leslea Newman, Deanna Nikaido, Randy Preston, Maritza Rivera--in Salvador da Bahia, Brasil as part of the 2012 BID International Fellowship the first two weeks of July.

Back in May 2010, I went on my first out-of-state trip to promote Powder Necklace at the Afr'Am Festival in Norfolk, VA. I set-up my books in the Literary Cafe unsure of what else to do as I watched the other authors get their hustle on. They hawked their books calling passersby to stop by their tables, dispatching friends and children to hand out bookmarks and other marketing collateral, and explaining their stories on the different panels.

I was incredibly intimidated. I had my big box of books, and I was wearing a cute dress, but I was not prepared. Everyone was gracious to me, but as they peppered me with questions about my plans to market myself and the book, it was clear I was a rookie. One of the writers I met that day was Tinesha Davis, author of Holler at the Moon. She was incredibly supportive and so generous with her story, and information and suggestions about what I could do to get the word out about my book.

A few weeks later, she came to New York to do a joint reading at Hue-Man bookstore in Harlem with authors Kwame Alexander and Victoria Christopher Murray. After the reading, several of us went to dinner. That evening, I learned from Kwame that he was producing the Capital Bookfest. I sank my teeth in as it were, rabidly pitching myself for the opportunity to attend, and he graciously invited me. Over the next six months, I had the opportunity to sell my books and speak on panels in the three cities the Capital Bookfest hosted dates. It was the opportunity of a lifetime, and I will be forever grateful to Tinesha, Kwame, and God for connecting me with both. I really think of them as angels to my literary career.

But fast-forward to Brasil.

I knew Kwame had launched an international fellows program two years ago. We had become Facebook friends and I "liked" all the posts that popped up in my newsfeed that he and Tinesha shared of their time in Tuscany. I never imagined that two years later, I would be invited to the second international fellowship in Brasil!

As the date for my flight approached, I kept fearing something would go wrong because I wanted it so badly; so when we were stopped by American Airlines officials on our way to board the connecting light from Miami to Salvador, I felt my armpits begin to puddle. Half of our group was on the plane, and the other half of us had been held back. We waited a half hour with no explanation as the AA folks called border patrol. Finally, we were told we could board.

When we got on the plane, one of the flight attendants announced the plane was 5000 pounds overweight. My fellow Fellows must have seen my panic because they all graciously came to visit me where I sat in the booty of the plane--literally the last row on the aircraft where I could feel every cough and wheeze of the engine. One of the fellows, acclaimed novelist Tayari Jones, came by to share stories of the craziness that was happening in First Class. One guy was apparently waving cash demanding to be let off the flight.

Anyway, we made it to Salvador after a detour in Puerto Rico to replace the fuel they had dumped to lighten the plane, and it was beautiful. In between get-to-know chit chat with the other Fellows, I stole glances at the panorama whizzing past my window. Later, I was able to process the Bahian vibe and put it into a picture I could understand: it was Ghana x Cali, if that makes any sense. The kiosks, roadside food stands, omnipresent construction, and red clay of Ghana with the omnipresent pounding surf and foaming waves of Surftown USA.

We were staying in a house in a posh suburb of Bahia, called Barro do Jacuipe, a five minute walk to the beach. After unloading our stuff, we headed to the beach to make official intros, share a bit about the projects we planned to work on, and learn about the structure of the Fellowship. The itinerary would include education trips into the city of Bahia along with two free travel days. Aside from one meal a day that we were to enjoy in communal company, we were free to work on the projects we had come to the Fellowship to work on.

Those first few days we wrote and ate and talked into the night (swatting mosquitoes and flies) and respectfully passed around the Vivo internet stick so we could get on the interwebs. One Fellow, prolific author and poet Leslea Newman led a wonderful workshop on formal poetry. (Leslea and I also got wicked lost on a beach walk gone horribly awry.)

The Secretaria da Cultura do Estado da Bahia so generously availed themselves. They organized an evening of exchange between us and Bahian writers, poets, and culture-keepers. They read and sang, and we spoke through the patient translation of one of the officials at the Secretaria over Abara and other treats they brought to our home.

The Secrataria also helped organize a trip into the historic city of Pelourinho for us where we learned that the plaza used to be a popular square for those who enslaved to alternately show off and punish the human beings they enslaved. Pelourinho was also the site where the Afro-Brasilians revolted against colonial rule. Their revolution preceded the independence of all of Brasil, our guide explained. In Pelourinho, we also stumbled upon the foundation for Brasilian writer Jorge Amado. His books looked so amazing, but alas they were completely unaffordable as the taxes on books in Brasil are out of control!

On another day, we drove to the historic city of Cachoeira where Joao, a professor and poet, guided us though the town sharing nuggets of history about the Sisterhood of the Good Death, an order of African women who were enslaved that bought their freedom through side work (doing laundry, making cakes, etc) and ultimately bought the freedom of many others. We also visited a terreira or African temple in the hills of the city and learned a bit about the orixas (African gods) and the Candomble religion which has preserved much of the traditional African religious practices. It was a powerful and conflicted moment for me as a Christian which I'll get into in another (long) blog post. The picture above was taken in Cachoeira.

Later shit happened. One of the bathrooms in the house overflowed and we were forced to pack up abruptly. Kwame and Deanna who helped Kwame organize the trip were amazing at putting the alternative plan together so quickly.

We ended up in a sweet hotel on the beach in Itapua where we spent the rest of our time. Communal dinners continued poolside at the hotel or at the local churrasco, and in between, we scattered around the hotel to write.

I got some writing done, but I think in the end, the greater value of the trip was in meeting the people and getting exposed to the culture. I know I'll see the fellowship's impact in my future work.

Read more about the Fellowship in Part 2

2012 BID Fellowship in Brasil: Part 2

One of the most amazing things about the BID Fellowship experience for me, was learning from and sharing with Bahian poets, writers, and culture-keepers. Thanks to the amazing folks at the Secretaria da Cultura do Estado da Bahia, we had the unique opportunity to visit the home of legendary poet Jose Carlos Limeira. Mr. Limeira gave us a comprehensive review of Bahian culture past and present and then, generously, invited us to present. 

Kwame reading one of his poems in Jose Carlos Limeira's living room 

Kwame Alexander who founded the BID Fellowship gave a powerful talk on the resistance tradition of African-American culture with specific focus on song and literature. He spoke accompanied by poets and BID Fellows Deanna Nikaido and Maritza Riveira, and BID Fellow, Teacher, and Musician Randy Preston who helped illustrate his points about how Negro Spirituals and literature were used to communicate messages among our mothers, fathers, uncles, and aunties who had to endure slavery, and later by the likes of Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Hurston, etc who powerfully documented the black experience in the Harlem Renaissance. He went on to reference the works of J. California Cooper, Nikki Giovanni, Toni Morrison, and others who continued the activist tradition of black literature, ultimately gaining the attention of the publishing industry. 

BID Fellow Chris Colderley, a sharp poet and English teacher, followed with a thoroughly persuasive presentation on why students need to be taught poetry in schools.  He spoke of not only the ability of poetry to help students build facility with written and vocal expression, but of poetry's power to transform the way we look at the world. Of course, we were all sold.

I jumped in here to give a personal talk about how I came to write African stories. Here's a transcript of what I shared below.  It's long so I won't be offended if you read it in sips.

Poets Jose Carlos Limeira & Livia Natalia 
"I came to love African Literature by way of African-American literature. Conveniently—and controversially—corralled into the black book section of my bookstore (and on my big sister’s bookshelf), I discovered April Sinclair’s Coffee Will Make You Black, Bebe Moore Campbell’s Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine, James Baldwin’s Just Above My Head, Gloria Naylor’s The Women of Brewster Place, Toni Morrison’s Tar Baby, Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, Maya Angelou’s All God’s Children Need Travelling Shoes, and so many others.

These books became my gateway to the works of other black authors who weren’t American. By way of black book anthologies, I found Antiguan writer Jamaica Kincaid, and through stellar word of mouth I picked up Haitian author Edwidge Danticat’s Breath, Eyes, Memory and Krik Krak, for example. Some referenced Africa explicitly—like The Color Purple, All God’s Children or Lorraine Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun—while others told stories that I saw shadows of my African story in.

Whether exploring the complexities of the black immigrant experience or the unique dynamic between Africans and African-Americans, or the particulars of being a woman, these books each offered me a distinct mirror. It was liberating to see myself, albeit slightly refracted, on these pages; and so I moved on to African literature.

Now, before I discuss the African books that inspired me, I think it bears explaining that growing up in New York as the daughter of Ghanaian immigrants, my definition of blackness was shaped by African-American culture.  My parents had grown up in Ghana and had experienced the downsides of colonialism, neo-colonialism, and racism, but their identities were not carved by race. Their priority was to get an education, make money, and send it back home. Everything was about “back home” for them. There was always an exit plan—a place they would escape to.

But for me, “home” was our working-class neighborhood in Queens, New York. My friends were the children of immigrants from Panama, Jamaica, Trinidad, and Haiti, and families who had moved to New York from the South. We children came from other places, but we were New Yorkers. And to prove it, we made fun of anything that threatened that identity. I made fun of Haitians. African-Americans made fun of me calling me “African booty scratcher.” Etcetera.

It didn’t help that the Ethiopian famine was in heavy rotation on the news in the early ‘80s. The images of African children covered in flies, their bellies bloated with malnutrition, made me cringe. If that was Africa, I wanted no part of it.

So, in 1990, when my parents took us to Ghana for vacation, my American identity firmly in place, I entered the country feeling superior to, and amused by, all that was “different.” I did not know that my parents had planned that vacation to be a permanent one.

Stuck in Ghana, and now enrolled in a boarding school two hours’ drive from my relatives’ home in Accra, I was forced to confront why it was that I felt better than those born in Ghana. I had to start examining why it was that in Africa, water, electricity, paved roads, and other things I had come to take for granted like cookies and soda and dessert were luxuries.

I was only 15, when I graduated from secondary school in Ghana and returned to the States, so I won’t pretend to have become Kwame Nkrumah. I was relieved to be back in the land of creature comforts, but, still, my perspective on who I was and where I came from had changed—expanded.

I had become proud of my expanded story and wanted to share it; so once again I looked to the African-American experience for help finding my voice. As an Africana Studies and Political Science major in college, I was inspired by the African-American political movement and sparked to find that Ghana’s first president Kwame Nkrumah also got his training from the burgeoning Civil Rights movement, using it to lead Ghana to Independence. In March 1957, Martin Luther King, Jr and his wife Coretta Scott King attended Ghana’s inaugural Independence Day celebration—at the personal invitation of Kwame Nkrumah himself.

In secondary school in Ghana, we read Ghanaian poet and author Ama Ata Aidoo’s Dilemma of a Ghost and South African author Peter Abrams’ Mine Boy, among others; but it was a few years after college, that I started to read African literature for pleasure. Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart and A Man of the People. Buchi Emecheta’s The Joys of Motherhood and The Bride Price. Chimamanda Adichie’s Purple Hibiscus and Half of a Yellow Sun. Ayesha Haruna Attah’s Harmattan Rain. 

Instantly familiar, these books were the closing of the circle for me, helping fill in the gaps from a historical perspective as to why millions of Africans fled their native countries in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s—my parents among them. They spoke of post-Independence struggles, war, gender, and life. Kids going to school. Parents going to work. Couples making love. This was the Africa I had experienced in all its dichotomies, and it was the Africa I wanted to write about.

It was during this period that I started to write what would become my first novel, Powder Necklace—an African story by way of London and New York.

The African story is global.

We know that the African experience is not restricted to tales of village life, or the impact of colonialism or neocolonialism, or immigration. Should African stories, by necessity, be about protagonists living in Africa, or do stories about African protagonists qualify—no matter where they may reside? Or does it come down to the author’s nationality? For example, is white British author Chris Cleave’s book Little Bee about a Nigerian girl in England as African as Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun?

In Brasil, for example, which has the largest population of African descendants outside of Africa; where Acaraje stands sell treats from Nigeria, and traditional African religions are the cultural norm, how do we classify the works of writers like Jorge Amado, Damaris Cruz, or Maria Firmina dos Reis and Machado de Assis?

The African story starts on the continent of Africa, but it has literally travelled around the world—just like the African people. It is a story that has birthed so many other stories—and that needs to be acknowledged and embraced.  Chimamanda Adichie poignantly spoke about the danger of the single story, particularly as it relates to the African story, and I wholeheartedly agree.

The current and next generations of literature students and teachers need to understand the connections between African literature and literary works from other continents; and grasp the influence Africa has had on global literature. African literature—black literature—needs to be talked about, handled, and appreciated, in its fullest context.

But first, we the people need to understand and appreciate ourselves in our fullest context. We’ll need to stop thinking of ourselves as a minority, when in fact, people of African descent are a global majority. Once and for all, we need to know with all confidence that our story—in all its origins and permutations—is worth telling. Because it is."