The B Word Blog

Literary Ancestors: Frederick Douglass

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

–Jewell Parker Rhodes

Until a couple years ago, I was never a fan of reading (or writing) nonfiction. It bore me. This is in part due to my lack of interaction with engaging nonfiction, but mostly due to my lack of an open-minded reading perspective. Falling in love with African American literature helped gauge my perspective of nonfiction in a more positive direction, and I owe much of this to the writings of Frederick Douglass. 

I was reading Douglass’s writings around the same time I was introduced to other remarkable autobiographies from enslaved people, like Harriet Jacobs (whose work I’ll be revisiting through Literary Ancestors soon). It was also the time when my perspective of slave narratives dismissed them as something the world had heard, read, and seen enough of—until I read them first hand and realized there was so much I hadn’t heard, read, or seen. And I realized then that if I hadn’t, there was an entire world outside of the classroom I was in who never had and probably never would. 

Douglass’s Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave is remarkable for me for two fundamental reasons. First, I attribute this work of nonfiction as one of three primary narratives that served in helping me fully understand the true barbaric nature of American chattel slavery. Part of why I felt like we’d experienced the stories of enslaved people enough was because there was so much I didn’t know that I didn’t know. I think this in and of itself sounds odd, maybe even a bit contradictory—but there were so many things I was unaware of that enslaved Africans and African Americans endured. This mere fact is somewhat shameful, especially in considering how widely known and respected Douglass is as an American scholar. There were grievances included in his narrative that simply made my draw drop, having, even at over 20 years old, just learned that it is a part of real history. But, I’ll explore this further in a few weeks. 

The second and main reason Douglass’s autobiography is so remarkable for me is because of the connection it draws to literacy. As always, when discussing a work of literature, I never want to give too much away and spoil the reading for those who are interested. However, when Douglass recalls events of the earlier years of his life, he discusses his journey to learning how to read. 

As a young child, Douglass began receiving reading and writing lessons from his mistress (the wife of his master/owner—I really hate having to use such terms). Shortly after these lessons began, this mistress was reprimanded by her husband in front of Douglass, explaining that if she taught someone like Douglass to read, it would “forever unfit him to be a slave.” He further explained that Doulgass would become “unmanageable” (you can find this section in chapter six of the narrative).

As expected, Douglass’s reading and writing lessons stopped here—but he describes how in that moment, he “understood the pathway from slavery to freedom.” For him, that pathway was fighting for his literacy. The argument imposed by Douglass’s master ignited a deeper fire in himself to learn, and so even without a teacher, Douglass relied on witty and sometimes dangerous means to teach himself to read. 

Reading was his pathway to freedom, and something about this shakes me to my core in the most profound way possible. Douglass didn’t stop at himself, either. After he’d taught himself to read, at the risk of everything between extreme beatings and even death, Douglass, still an enslaved man, started a sabbath school to teach other enslaved people to read and write. In chapter ten, he discusses his success in creating within them a strong desire to learn to read. 

I’ve always loved reading and writing, but Douglass’s journey makes my relationship with these “pastimes,” and the possibilities of being an educator, so much more meaningful. There’s an ancestral connection—and importance—to literacy. To consider the way the simple act of learning or teaching a Black person to read could have resulted in death, reading and passing along the stories of people of Color becomes so much deeper for me. 

And for this, I’m grateful to Douglass for his journey and his will to learn and share what he’d learned with others. 

Why I Didn’t Watch Derek Chauvin’s Trial

Last week, I was summoned to jury duty for the first time. I had never stepped foot into a court room until then, but it wasn’t as lively as court rooms have always seemed when I watched Judge Mathis or Judge Judy with my mom. Being meticulously questioned by attorneys during the jury selection process did in some moments feel like I, as well as the other prospective jurors, was the one on trial. I couldn’t help but revisit a few nationally televised trials—and I’m not exactly referring to the thirty-minute contracted shows that are apart of daytime televisio

Trayvon Martin was murdered by George Zimmerman on February 26, 2012. I was in seventh grade, and the shooting happened less than 15 minutes away from my house. I watched the painful roar that spread across my hometown. My brothers and I regularly walked to the convenience store on the border of our neighborhood to get snacks and drinks. It could have easily been one of us.

A year later, the summer before I entered high school, I sat on my knees in front of the television watching every second of the trial. Young Trayvon had been murdered, but it seemed he was the one who’d been put on trial. It was as if the matter at hand was not Zimmerman’s guilt or innocence, but Trayvon’s. On July 13, 2013, when Zimmerman was acquitted of Trayvon’s murder, I was completely broken, devastated, angry, and hurt. It was the first time I could remember being conscious of the plague the American judicial system could be to Black people. Before then, such realizations weren’t lived experiences for me, but rather things I read about from the past. Trayvon was only a boy, and his opportunity to become a man was taken from him. We never saw justice—or even accountability.

As police killings of African Americans across America have become as normal as school shootings, I think it’s warranted to state that my generation has slowly become desensitized to seeing this. We watch men and women get shot or beaten while the world stands by, watching through iPhone camera lenses or now, a policeman’s body camera.

At the wake of Derek Chauvin’s trial for the murder of George Floyd back in 2020, I remembered the pain and devastation I felt when the jury announced Zimmerman’s acquittal. Posts raced across social media pages, some even through direct messages or mass text messages, reminding everyone of the coming trial. We hoped and we prayed for justice, whatever that may truly mean or feel like.

But I chose not to watch Chauvin’s trial. I didn’t want to watch it happen in live action, the way we’d all watched him murder Floyd. I didn’t want to watch highlights the next morning on the news, either, and I didn’t want to read social media recaps of what had happened or what had been said by who. I didn’t want to be reminded that when a Black person is murdered, they’re put on trial instead of their murderer.

I was pleasantly surprised when Chauvin was found guilty of all three charges, and while this doesn’t exactly feel like justice, it certainly feels like accountability. Accountability is a step in the right direction. Chauvin’s conviction will be remembered as a historic juristic decision, one that I’ll likely discuss with my children when they read about it in their eighth grade U.S. history textbook.

But looking back, even if only a few months ago, I don’t know that I regret not watching the trial. This wasn’t an attempt to escape reality; in fact, I understand that I’ll never be afforded such a luxury. I can only imagine the way Floyd’s family has clung to their seats for the duration of the last year—and especially during the trial—unable to escape a single moment. Nevertheless, as a Black man navigating the toils of America every day, I knew that I needed to protect my mental health. And I think that’s a noteworthy part of history, too.

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.