by Sheree Renée Thomas
The year has seen me thinking about spiritual matters and exploring its roots and history in my work and in some of the art I admire most. Perhaps it is the loss of dear friends and loved ones, or the ever-growing sense and recognition that none of us are promised tomorrow, but I have enjoyed this exploration and hope it will yield sweet fruits in my own work. One of the highlights of the year was having an opportunity to help celebrate the legacy of Octavia E. Butler with writer Tananarive Due and some of my favorite authors, filmmakers, and artists at Spelman College this past Spring.
Between what felt like a family reunion led by Steven Barnes’s lively and inspiring informal “green room” talk on health and happiness from a focused physical and spiritual practice, to beautiful futuristic art and films, and a multimedia lecture on Afrofuturism and music by celebrated DJ Lynnee Denise (check out her Girls Gone Vinyl Project)
Another fun conference was Onyxcon V held in August at the historic Auburn Avenue Research Library in Atlanta. Onxycon is the Southeast’s largest convention celebrating the presence of the African diaspora in popular arts.
Founded by artists Iyabo Shabazz and Joseph R. Wheeler, this summer’s conference covered writers’ and artists’ tips to how to collect and appraise black popular media like comic books and vintage movie posters. The participants included museum curators, comic book professionals, and even the founder of a soul food museum. The other added treat besides meeting new friends was a chance to see a small but beautiful exhibit of paintings by children’s book illustrator R. Gregory Christie who also runs an open studio in Atlanta.
The conference was a great experience before the back-to-school grind. The end of the summer meant the end to some of my favorite guilty pleasures, including watching obscure and fascinating foreign indie films like I’m Not Scared, the amazing Italian movie that I won’t spoil for you since it was a little surprising and made this closet tearjerker boohoo inexplicably, or the fabulous silent, black-and-white Spanish Snow White adaptation I saw.
Set in the 1920s, Blancanieves explores the world of bullfighting, where the neglected and abused daughter of a beloved Spanish matador is rescued by a family of bullfighting dwarves (I kid you not!), who goes on to glory and tragedy, as befitting the Grimm fairy tale. The cinematography was beautiful, the costumes and actors were memorable even though as usual, the seven (or is six?) dwarves are never given anymore than broad strokes of characterization.
Special praise should be given to the wonderful child actress, Sofia Oren, who delivered a pitch perfect performance, and I loved the music and the over-the-top scenery-chewing satire of the stepmother’s performance. Maribel Verdú as Encarna was a Femme Fatale Betty Boop with some serious issues and a fierce wardrobe to match. While Blancanieves is no The Artists (it didn’t seem to take itself quite as seriously and in case you were wondering, no, no bulls were slaughtered on or off camera for this film), it is well worth watching in my humble opinion, especially for anyone who enjoys a little lore and magic in their movies.
My other guilty pleasure this summer included fussing at the Magical Negroes of the show I love to hate but can’t stop watching, The Vampire Diaries, and its great spin-off series set in New Orleans, The Originals with yet another Magical Negroe with an interesting backstory. Neither of these shows can be watched without also consulting TV.com’s hilarious photo recaps.
Speaking of Magical Negroes, in late September, a couple of days before my birthday, I saw stop. reset, the new Signature Theatre play by actress and playwright Regina Taylor in New York.
Taylor’s science fiction play set in a black independent publisher’s Chicago offices was a moving meditation on how grief can scar the soul and how future tech can enslave or set us free. How one took the play’s ending depended upon whether or not you saw lead Carl Lumbley’s final “transition” as a visitation of the spirits, a riding of the loa, or a case, as one critic saw it, as “contagious insanity.” Needless to say, I loved this nuanced work and the awesome public discussion that took place following the performance.
And speaking of contagious insanity… watch Tina Mabry’s Mississippi Damned. For me, it was a little like watching a Kara Walker picture come to life. Enough Said.
Ashe to Amen: African-Americans & Biblical Imagery is a sensational, provocative traveling exhibit that features work by 50 artists who explore a wide range of faiths, from hoodoo to Vodou, from traditional African religious influences to Islam and Christianity. My favorite works in the exhibit included the amazing 3-dimensional praise tent that is crocheted by artist Xenobia Bailey. Xenobia is an astonishing artist who came of age in Seattle among a few of Jimmi Hendrix’s influences
This wildly colored textile sculpture is large enough for a priestess or a mother and child to climb inside it, and it is vaguely reminiscent of the intricately woven Camerounian Bamileke crowns worn in Central Africa (or perhaps more memorably, by ZZ Top).
“Sister Paradise’s Great Wall of Fire Revival Tent” by Xenobia Bailey
Antique Bamileke hat and contemporary iconic hat worn by musician Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top
Bailey’s sculpture seemed sentient, magically alive with its two great unblinking eyes staring down at museum visitors, as if the “Mystic Seer” could see right into our souls and minds. I must admit that I had to resist my inner child’s desire to climb right in and sit cross-legged upon the emblazoned sun that adorned the floor beneath the sculpture.
Renee Stout’s thrilling neon installation piece, “Church of the Crossroads” evokes Esu, Elegba, and Papa Legba more than the hooded Ku Klux Klan reference that was featured in the accompanying description of my local museum in Memphis, The Dixon Gallery and Gardens. Organized by New York’s Museum of Biblical Art and curated by artist and scholar Leslie King-Hammond, Ashe to Amen is one of the first exhibits that trace the shared roots and connections between African and Biblical traditions.
Three poetry and fiction volumes by the late author Wanda Coleman (1946 – 2013) and an essay in The Nation have had an impact on my writing life. When I first read A War of Eyes and Other Stories and African Sleeping Sickness: Stories and Poems (Black Sparrow Press, 1988 and 1990) I had no idea that Coleman also had a connection to a creative writing institution that would serve as a safe haven and encouraging lighthouse for my own journey. A married mother of two by age twenty, Coleman worked numerous day jobs while seeking out writers’ workshops on nights and weekends to help hone her craft and develop the gift she had shown since she began publishing her poetry in a local newspaper at age thirteen. The Watts Writers Workshop was one of those invaluable spaces for Coleman.
January 1, 1966
January 1, 1966: Budd Schulberg (center) conducts a session of the NEA-supported Watts Writers' Workshop. Schulberg created the workshop in his living room in response to the 1965 Watts riots. Photo credit Los Angeles Times
This workshop founded by Budd Schulberg (probably most well known for his award-winning screenplay, On the Waterfront) would also inspire Fred Hudson, a former librarian, playwright of The Legend of Deadwood Dick, and Paramount Studios screenwriter (The Education of Sonny Carson) to create in 1971 the Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center in Manhattan where I was a student and later, an instructor.
Nat Love aka “Deadwood Dick”
Fred Hudson, Founder of The Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center
Wanda Coleman began her writing journey as a reader seeking refuge from the racism of 1950s society and the cruelty that can mark anyone’s youth. Seeking solace, she said that she became an avid reader at a time when public libraries “discouraged Negro readers.” A native of Watts and long considered its unofficial poet laureate, Coleman published over twenty books over four decades, writing eloquently and with dark humor about racial injustice and gender inequality. Not one to mince words, this former critic and columnist for the Los Angeles Times once caused a mini tempest in America’s literary community when she published a scathing critique of beloved Maya Angelou’s A Song Flung Up to Heaven and a follow-up response in The Nation entitled “Book-Reviewing, African-American Style.” This essay got her banned from at least one independent black bookstore and earned her publishers a flood of letters.
At a time when aspiring black women writers were faced in the public sphere with laboring in the wake of literary giants like Angelou or Morrison, Wanda Coleman’s collection, Heavy Daughter Blues: Poems and Stories,1968-1986 (Black Sparrow Press, 1987) was an exciting discovery that offered yet another distinctive voice and view of life that inspired me. And while she is no longer here to offer her powerful live readings or no-nonsense, hands-on writers’ workshops, the spirit and brilliance of her writing—her poetry, her fiction, her essays--will continue to inspire other women writers to find their voices and carry on.
Wanda Coleman (1946-2013)
Sheree Renée Thomas is the author of the chapbook, Shotgun Lullabies: Stories & Poems (Aqueduct Press, Conversation Series) and the editor of Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora and Dark Matter: Reading the Bones. Her work has appeared in storySouth, Callaloo, Essence, The New York Times, The Washington Post Book World, Renaissance Noire and in anthologies, including most recently The Moment of Change: An Anthology of Feminist Speculative Poetry. In 2014, Sheree will speak in New York at the exhibition panel for the Studio Museum of Harlem’s Afrofuturist exhibit, The Shadows Took Shape and at the Center for American Literary Studies (CALS) symposium, “Alien Form: Genre and the Production of Ethnic American Literatures,” hosted at Pennsylvania State University.