Friday, August 12, 2005

Are You There God? It's Me With More Books!


Before the summer's out, I'm going to revisit some of my favorite books from my youth. Maybe it's the 'dog days' of summer taking me back to the days of riding to the library on my bike, anxious to get lost in a new story. I was practically addicted to Judy Blume's Are You There God? It's Me Margaret. I must have read it hundreds of times between the ages of 10 and 12. Like Margaret, I was new to the suburbs and I was trying to make new friends. As a black girl, I found it very interesting that Margaret was half-Jewish, because in those days, I just thought of all "white people" as, well, white! My mother never raised my sister and I with platitudes like "Jewish people are like this" or "Polish people are like that", so really, I had no idea. In fact, it would take several racist remarks I heard as an adult by a person who just couldn't believe that all people weren't raised to judge others by their surname. Among other (stupid) things she said: "What do you mean you don't know if she's a Jew! Can't you tell by her name?" Now, of course, I can tell, and who cares!

When I was around 13 or 14, I was completely riveted by the dark, very sad, and possibly true diary of an addicted teenager, Go Ask Alice, anonymously written in the 1970s. Another favorite was I Hate To Talk About Your Mother by Hettie Jones. I didn't realize until recently that the author was also Hettie Jones, as in ex-wife of Amira Baraka and mother of writer Lisa Jones, who wrote one of my favorite early '90s books Bulletproof Diva: Tales of Race, Sex and Hair. I remember really loving I Hate To Talk About Your Mother and reading it over and over again, because the girl in the book was half-Dominican and she had all kinds of hair and boy issues that I could totally relate to. Even though her mother was white in the book, I kept picturing Diana Ross if there was ever a movie version. I've been looking online for it, but I think I'm going to haunt a few used/rare bookstores and see if I can luck up on it first.

Also, I still read the books in Maya Angelou's autobiography series, especially The Heart of a Woman and Singin' and Swingin' and Gettin' Merry Like Christmas. I love Dr. Angelou on so many levels...

Langston Hughes is another hero to me beyond books. I can never get enough of his poetry or his stories, not only for their quality, but just for the pure love and humor and dignity that he saw and illuminated in black people. I can say the same for Zora Neale Hurston. Both writers got in trouble with the black establishment of their day because neither believed that African-American writers were duty-bound to advance political and social agendas in their work. W. E. B. DuBois himself famously declared "I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda," but Hurston thought otherwise. She said that she knew that "Negroes were supposed to write about the Race Problem," but "I was and am thoroughly sick of the subject. My interest lies in what makes a man or woman do such-and-so, regardless of his color."

In The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain: A Defense of Racial Art in America, Hughes wrote:

“We younger Negro artists now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful, and ugly too. . . . If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves.”

Alice Walker once said that she couldn't understand how Zora Neale Hurston's critics "couldn't see the love" in her work, and I couldn't agree more.

Thankfully, both Hurston and Hughes felt free enough to write from their hearts, which is ultimately what every writer needs. Writing has enough pressure without the weight of the world on your shoulders. Come to think of it, I think I'll tack Spunk (one of my favorites) and The Best of Simple on to my summer reading list.

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