Literary Ancestors: Charles W. Chesnutt

“Read our literary ancestors. It is the quintessential path to becoming a better writer.”

–Jewell Parker Rhodes

I love a good short story. There’s nothing wrong with an extended work of fiction, but there’s something about the careful crafting of short stories that always gives me such a thrill. A few years ago in an African American literature course, I was introduced to the literary great and short story master that is Charles W. Chesnutt.

Chesnutt was born in 1858 in Cleveland, Ohio, to free Black emigres. He was a brilliant storyteller and wrote fiction, plays, poems, and nonfiction, all of which centered around the diverse lives of African Americans. From 1899-1905, Chesnutt was considered one of the most influential and respected African American fiction writers in the United States. During this era, he published three collections of short stories and three novels.

The first short story I had the privilege of reading by Chesnutt was The Goophered Grapevine, which first appeared in The Atlantic’s August 1887 issue. This story completely blew me away. The Goophered Grapevine takes place in an enslaved south and features the famed trickster archetype character, native to African and African American folktales. The Goopherd Grapevine essentially follows the story of a white couple looking to buy a plantation; however, they arrive and learn from trickster, Uncle Julius, that a conjure woman has “goophered” (or conjured) the grapevines, making them inedible. If you want to find out how the rest of the story pans out, I’ll let you head over to The Atlantic to check it out.

What I love about Chesnutt’s work is that he was no stranger to exploring themes of folk magic, like in his 1899 short story collection, The Conjure Woman. He didn’t limit his work to these themes, however. I’ve also had the great pleasure of reading Chesnutt’s The Passing of Grandison, which again borrows from the trickster archetype. In The Passing of Grandison, a white male wishes to win a maiden’s love and thinks that in freeing an enslaved man named Grandison, she will believe him to be brave and honorable. He certainly frees Grandison, but to much surprise, Grandison returns to the plantation.

When I read of Grandison’s return, I was confused—and maybe even a bit angry with him. Why would any sane person return to slavery? All I’ll say is that Grandison was much more intelligent that I, or anyone else, was giving him credit for. If you’re interested in hearing how his story played out, you can read The Passing of Grandison here.

For me, Chesnutt is a noteworthy author because he acquired literary success in a time when it wasn’t exactly easy for African American authors. Further, even in his great success, he stayed true to his own roots (in more ways than one) by always highlighting African American themes and culture.

BHM ’21: Angie Thomas

I couldn’t help but save my current favorite author for the very last day of Black History Month. This is none other than the #1 New York Times Bestselling author, Angie Thomas. Thomas was born and raised in Jackson, Mississippi. Before becoming an author, she was actually a teen rapper—something I found completely unsurprising when I thought about all of the references to hip-hop in her novels.

I first discovered Thomas the summer after graduating high school back in 2017. I was looking for books by young, Black authors. As an aspiring children’s book and young adult author, I set my intentions on reading books similar to the ones I’d like to write, but I want to be clear that though written for young adult audiences, Thomas’ works of fiction transcend age.

Her debut novel, The Hate U Give, was one I couldn’t put down after I picked it up (as were the two that followed). This novel began from her senior project in undergrad, and after becoming a New York Times Bestseller, it was adapted into a film starring Amandla Stenberg, Russell Hornsby, and Regina Hall. As I say in most cases, the book was worlds better than the movie, though they were both truly phenomenal.

Thomas went on to release On The Come Up, in 2019, a beautiful work of fiction following the journey of a Black teen rapper. Thomas’ newest novel Concrete Rose was released this past January, and I must take a moment to sing its praises.

Set in 1998, Concrete Rose is a prequel to The Hate U Give and follows the life of seventeen-year-old Maverick Carter—a Black teen father on the brinks of flunking out of high school and struggling to find his way out of gang affiliations. And if you’ve read The Hate U Give, you know that Maverick Carter turns out alright—he’s a successful business owner with a beautiful wife and family—but this novel tells us his story.

One of the things I love about Thomas is her ability to capture the language and culture of Black people. One of my favorite moments from Concrete Rose is when after playing basketball, Maverick’s mother says to him, “Boy you ripe!” Though a simple comment, it reminded me of the way many of the Black women in my family speak, and it brought me so much joy to read it.

Thomas’ stories beautifully reflect the lives of Black people across America. After the release of Concrete Rose, I had the pleasure of joining one of her virtual book tour events via Zoom (finally, the pandemic offers something favorable). Thomas explained that in writing Concrete Rose, she wanted to humanize Black boys and show their ability and right to feel and express emotion. I was blown away by this comment, because while it may seem small, it’s a necessary expression the entire world needs to see.

Thomas is an author who makes history with every word she writes, and I’ve learned so much from reading her novels. No matter who you are or what your background may be, Thomas’ three novels are books I would encourage all people to read.

BHM ’21: Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi. Coates. If you know anything about how I feel about his work, then you know that for me, his name certainly has a *drops mic* effect. He’s an author I mention as inspiration in every writing or literature course I enroll in. I first discovered Coates my freshman year of college when my English class watched one of his interviews. I was blown by his intellect and poise.

Coates is a Baltimore, Maryland native who attended Howard University. Currently, he lives in New York City where he is a writer in residence at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. I read Coates’ essays for several years before I ever read one of his books. He’s primarily the author who got me into reading The Atlantic, a publication where he spent several years as a national correspondent. Here, he penned powerful essays like “The Case for Reparations” and “I’m Not Black, I’m Kanye,” two of my personal favorites.  

Coates is skilled in the English language in ways I can’t even begin to describe, and the ways in which he tackles Black (and American) issues in an unfiltered, yet analytical manner is something I aspire to do. After having taken nonfiction courses at the University of Central Florida, I was urged by several professors to read his 2015 nonfiction work, Between the World and Me. I admittedly pushed it off for some time, mainly because I was always reading a ton of books for school and really wanted to give it my undivided attention. But when I did finally read it last summer, it quite literally changed my life.

The National Book Award winning Between the World and Me seemed to offer exactly what I needed as a young Black man living in America. The book is entirely one letter penned from Coates to his young Black son, where he shares his own life journey and helps make sense of the Black body. It was so powerful for me, that after I finished reading it, I had a poster printed with a quote taken from an earlier section of the book (which you can see in this week’s photo). This book is one that I’m certain I’ll read with my own children as they grow and search for understanding of their place in America.

Coates is also the author of nonfiction books, The Beautiful Struggle and We Were Eight Years in Power, and released his debut novel, The Water Dancer, in 2019. Additionally, he’s the current author of Marvel’s Black Panther and Captain America comics. Coates’ awards and honors include the MacArthur Fellowship, The National Book Award, an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work, a GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Comic Book, and more.

I admire Coates’ versatility—he’s successfully documented beautiful stories in multiple genres and mediums: essays, articles, culture commentary, nonfiction, comics, and now, fiction. In every literary work, Coates transcends the limits of genre and does so in a way that progresses the stories of people of Color in America. For me, a writer like Coates is one whose name will go down in history next to remarkable writers like DuBois and Baldwin.  

BHM ’21: Octavia E. Butler

This week, I am excited to reflect on the icon and mastermind that was Octavia E. Butler. I can’t quite remember how I discovered Butler’s work, but one thing I’m certain of is that I wasn’t interested in science fiction until I saw the literary worlds she created. Butler was born on June 22, 1947, in Pasadena, California. Raised by a widowed mother, Butler attended Pasadena City College and spent time studying at the Clarion Fiction Writers Workshop.

The first book I read by Butler was her 1979 Kindred. Until Kindred, I’d genuinely never seen science fiction explored in such a way through Black characters. Kindred is a powerful novel, set in the 1970s, about a young Black woman named Dona living in California as a newlywed and aspiring author. Dona finds herself being repeatedly and uncontrollably transported to an enslaved South. What’s most interesting of all about Kindred is that the plantation Dona finds herself on is owned by her white ancestors. Yes, you read that correctly. Here, I saw Black history and science fiction meet in a really profound way.

After beginning this novel last summer, I was excited to see Butler’s name on the reading list of a literature class for the fall semester. Here, I discovered Butler’s Parable of the Sower, a science fiction novel written in 1993, set in a 2020s Pasadena, California. This post-apocalyptic novel is notable because of the way it tackles common themes of Butler’s writings like climate change, intersectionality, and poverty. You recognize the title, Parable of the Sower, from Matthew 13 in the Bible. Butler followed Parable of the Sower with Parable of the Talents in 1998.

Ironically, just at the moment we were about to begin Parable of the Sower as a class, I noticed the novel was sitting at the top of the New York Times Bestseller list—an entire fourteen years after Butler’s 2006 death, and more than twenty years after its initial release. At minimum, I think this speaks to Butler’s gift of crafting science fiction with highly probable implications for the future. Just give the novel a read, if you’d like to see for yourself.

Butler has been the recipient of a collective of awards, but I think it’s worth remembering that in 1995 she became the first science fiction author to be awarded the MacArthur Foundation “Genius” Grant. Among the list of Butler’s other awards are the PEN American Center Lifetime Achievement Award in Writing, two Nebula Awards, and two Hugo Awards. In 2010 after her death, she was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame.  

Butler is an author I will always hold in high regard. Science fiction wasn’t something I’d read much beyond middle school, and certainly nothing I’d ever seriously considered writing. But after reading only a few of Butler’s masterpieces, her dedication to creating Black characters in science fiction has inspired several of my own stories. As a Black woman in science fiction, Butler’s texts are proof that she did not believe in limits.

“There are no real walls around science fiction. We can build them, but they’re not there naturally.”

Octavia E. Butler

BHM ‘21: Christopher Paul Curtis

To kick off my first Black History Month post, I’m excited this week to honor Christopher Paul Curtis, an author whose stories showed me at a young age that I wanted to be a storyteller. Curtis was born in Flint, Michigan on May 10, 1953. His writing career began after graduating high school and beginning work at Fisher Body Plant No. 1, a general motor assembly factory based in Flint. In a Scholastic interview from 2011, Curtis recalls hating this job and spending his breaks writing. In these moments, writing became a refuge for him.

After realizing how much writing impacted his life, Curtis and his wife worked out an agreement that would allow him take time off from work and spend days in the public library, writing. Using tools like The Writer’s Market (an important resource still used by many writers today), Curtis decided to enter his first book into two contests. Unfortunately, he didn’t win either contest—however, working out completely in his favor, Random House was still interested in publishing it. In 1995, Curtis’ first children’s novel, The Watson’s Go to Birmingham – 1963, entered the world. In 2013, this novel was adapted into a film, starring notable actors like Anika Noni Rose, Wood Harris, and Skai Jackson.

Of the books I’ve read by Curtis, my absolute favorite is undisputedly his 1999 novel Bud, Not Buddy. This novel was remarkable for me for several reasons, but mainly because in reading Bud, Not Buddy, I began to understand the way words held the ability to move and teach. In just elementary school, this children’s novel took me on a journey through race relations, music of the early twentieth century, and a quest for one’s family during the Great Depression. Coolest of all was that the main character looked like me, and he had people around him who talked like my family did. I felt represented and seen. In his Scholastic interview, Curtis noted that when he writes, he always tries to catch the language and reflect how the characters spoke in the story’s given time period.

Curtis has a host of other books, like Elijah of Buxton and The Mighty Miss Malone. In every book, he showcases brilliant, Black youth and draws in incomparable historical contexts—a primary goal of my own writing. Of his most notable works, he’s several times received the Newbery Award, the Coretta Scott King Award, and the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction.

As I continue forward in my writing career, Curtis is an author I’ll always look to for skill and inspiration, but also as a reminder of why I wanted to be a writer and storyteller. Being able to work with children has allowed me to find some of my favorite books by Curtis in classrooms, and I hope that one day I am able to teach from them.