A unique and sometimes frightening story with a surprising ending, this is another tale of the lengths to which people of color will go to pass for white to gain the benefits of whiteness. For one New England family this has succeeded quite well by sending a too dark daughter back South to live with relatives and never allowing her to come to the town where the rest of the family lives. It fails when a too dark child is born and the parents keep her with them. It is also a tale of gender identity and how rape and abuse can destroy and deform and of resilience in the face of endless obstacles. This is not an ordinary novel.
Book a Week-20: “Sankofa”, Chibundu Onuzo
After her mother dies, Anna searches through her mother’s belongings and discovers a hidden diary written by the African father she never knew and about whom her white mother, who never married, told her nearly nothing. She travels to Scotland to have the diary authenticated by an expert, researches, and discovers her father had to return to Africa, became a revolutionary, and then president (or dictator, depending on the source) of a small African nation. She also learns that he is still alive.
Leaving behind a daughter and white husband from whom she is separated, Anna decides to travel to Africa to find her father. Treated unequally as a biracial child in England, in Africa she is seen as “obroni”, white. Thus, the book addresses issues of racial identity, family acceptance (she does find her father) and belonging, and tells a tale of the adventures of a middle-aged woman in search of self.
One Book a Week-16, “The Promise”, Damon Galgut
Winner of the 2021 Booker Prize, this novel illustrates the dismal consequences of colonialism and racism. South Africa before and after apartheid comes alive in this story about an Afrikaner family whose matriarch dies young enough to leave her husband with three children, only one of whom is old enough to be on his own. In her dying, she returns to her Jewish roots much to the horror of her husband and many others. Her youngest daughter overhears her dying wish which her husband promises to fulfill even though he has no intention of doing so. This remains an underlying thread, the promise which this daughter never forgets.
The difficult, often prejudiced and unequal, relations between the races underpins the actions of most of the characters, leading a few to greater humanity and kindness, but most into lives of loss, disappointment, and anger.
In Honor of My Father
He lays on his back on the cold, hard, blue linoleum floor after
the midday dinner of homegrown roast beef, potatoes, wilted
lettuce salad, hot coffee, coconut topped cake. His left arm
forms a right angle at the elbow as the back of his wrist rests
on his forehead, touching the slight curliness of his not quite
black hair. His left leg stretched out straight, right one drawn
up, knee jutting out. The sleeves of his worn, pale blue dress
shirt rolled up; his overalls show signs of wear and washing.
Every day after dinner he naps in the same spot in this same
position for exactly fifteen minutes before returning to the field.
Seventeen years after his death, one day as I napped, slowly
driving off, astonishment stuck. There I lay exactly as my
father used to so many years ago, my left arm forming a right
angle, wrist on my forehead, left leg stretched out straight, right
one drawn up, knee jutting out. I remember not just in heart
The body always knows.
Taken at the top of Mt. Evans in Colorado when I was a child.
No females in my family had long hair.
Dad did not like it,
said it showed male domination
Once when grown and gone
from home, I began to grow mine
When he saw it, he told me
he thought it unbecoming.
I cut it.
Mom said she had long hair
when she was young.
Her dad forbade her to cut it.
In her twenties she chopped her golden locks
off, flapper style, then hid her head
in a scarf, afraid.
Note: This poem is from the family section of my book, “On the Rim of Wonder”.
In the summer on hot, humid nights, you can hear the corn grow. My great grandfather, my grandfather, and my father grew corn. I grow corn in that same rich loess soil of Northwestern Missouri. Soil laid down by Ice Age glaciers thousands of year ago. Only on a few hill tops, here and there, will you find non glacial soil. Repeatedly, daily, I walk by the sacred corn plant of life painted on my hall corner. This sacred corn corner houses three corn maiden kachinas and a drum decorated with corn maidens. I give thanks to corn for my house and the life I lead.
I sing the song of ancients:
Anazazi, Hopi, Zuni.
I sing the song of an America long gone.
Maya, Aztec, Tolmec.
I sing the song of life: colors of the rainbow
golden, red, white, blue.
I sing the song of now: thick, endless
I sing the song of hope and joy:
an ancient reclaiming,
a klaidescope of colors,
butterflies and fireflies.
I sing the eternal human song.
This is a Navaho kachina. Kachina are actually Hopi, but Navaho artists now make kachinas as well. The first corn maiden kachina I bought.
Spotted corn kachinas, on the left, are unusual. It took me years to find one. The kachina on the right was created by R Pino, who is both Hopi and Navaho.
Every year Pendleton runs an art contest among Native American students. The winner’s art work is transformed into saddle blankets. This design, created by Mary Beth Jiron, is the latest in this Student Series. There are three corn maidens on each side of the blanket, representing the different varieties of corn grown by native peoples, yellow, red, blue, white, black, and spotted.
The Story Circle Network Conference and My Commitment: This Is What I Know
When I first started blogging more than two years ago, I committed to blogging once a week. That I managed for a year or so and then since that time, it became more sporadic. Full time job, writing poems for my book, visitors, mini vacations, all sorts of stuff got in the way. Really, I let it lapse, but refused to give up. Last Thursday, I drove to Austin with my daughter and grandson for the biannual Story Circle Network Conference. The plan: while I conferred, they played. The Story Circle Network is an organization for women which encourages women to write, to tell their stories, to share these stories, and when possible and desired, publish those stories in various forms from memoir to poetry. This was my second time to attend and my first time to attend as a new board member. A former mentor/teacher of mine, Len Leatherwood, facilitated a workshop entitled “Transforming Your Writing Life in Just 20 Minutes a Day”, the last workshop I attended. She blogs everyday. I follow her blog. No matter what, she sits down and writes 20 minutes minimum a day separate from the writing she does with her students–she teaches writing privately in southern CA. One of her recent blogs has been accepted for publication–a piece of flash fiction. She nearly begged us to commit to this kind of writing practice. Previously, I had refused, flat out refused, partly thinking that if I tried it, more than half the resulting writing would be crap. Nevertheless, she and her workshop convinced me that at least for one month I must try this. Now all of you following my blog will be inundated with daily blog posts. I am filled with curiosity as to how people will respond. Maybe it will be like my Facebook posts–yes, I am an almost addict–the posts I consider most meaningful for the universe at large are the ones people ignore and the ones I consider personal trivia receive the most response. Maybe I will track what appeals to my readers. Some I won’t know because with blogging I share to Facebook and to a couple of professional networks, I have no clue who read what. Once I received an email regarding a poem I posted. Although it never showed up as a like, the lady actually told me she read my poem in church! Who would have guessed. I forgot to time myself so have no idea how long I have been here writing.
Here I am writing about why I am writing. On the stove I smell Jasmine rice cooking. I love Jasmine rice from Thailand. I am a very picky rice eater and prefer to mix equally white Jasmine rice with black and red. For one thing, it looks lovely when done–a sort of dark reddish purple. Since I sautéd chopped garlic in olive oil, then added the rice and sautéd for about 15 more seconds, then added water and some broth just before I started writing this, the smell of Jasmine rice fills the house. I piled a bunch of paper towels on the top before I put on the lid or you can use some cloth towel–a habit I picked up from my Iranian ex-husband. Iranians really know how to cook rice. I am also drinking a glass of Cupcake Shiraz which I bought on the way home from work. And yes, Shiraz is also the name of a city in Iran where they actually grow grapes or at least used to. But of course, drinking wine is no longer acceptable in Iran or at least not publicly. Good Muslims do not drink at all.
I did write something worthwhile while in this workshop and will share–doing this last because it won’t count as my daily writing since I wrote it yesterday.
This Is What I Know
My parents loved me, really loved me.
My mom was proud of my accomplishments.
Dad gave me a love of books, intellectual curiosity, and a
sense of wonder.
Mom gave me a love of music, beauty, and cooking.
Happiness is a choice.
I do not believe in luck. You make your own luck.
Life is an exciting adventure.
Horses give me joy.
Singing gives me joy.
Dancing gives me joy even if I rarely have the opportunity.
Family relationships can be distressingly complicated.
I am proud of my children and their accomplishments.
Religion matters much less to me than 99 per cent of the people I know.
Ethnic and religious prejudice distress me and I do not
understand those kinds of attitudes.
I am a good writer.
I want to make a real difference in the world.
I am happy 99 percent of the time.
Blessings flood my life.
My close friends and children and grandson are more
important to me than they know.
Writing has enriched my life.
I have few regrets:
One I have rectified;
the other I cannot–
my dad is dead.
Barbara Lewis Duke, pretty, petite, blue-eyed and blond, my mother, one
fearless, controlling woman. Long after Mom’s death, Dad said, “Barbara was
afraid of absolutely no one and nothing!” They married late: 34 & 38. He
adored her unconditionally. She filled my life with horses, music, love,
cornfields, hay rides, books, and ambition. Whatever she felt she had missed,
my sister and I were going to possess: books, piano lessons, a college
education. Her father, who died long before I was born, loved, fancy,
fast horses. So did she. During my preschool, croupy years she quieted my
hysterical night coughing with stories of run away horses pulling her in a
wagon. With less than one hundred pounds and lots of determination, she
stopped them, a tiny Barbie Doll flying across the Missouri River Bottom,
strong, willful, and free.
Recently I decided to try writing poems about a few family members. Months ago on this blog I published a poem about my Grandmother along with the marriage photo of her and my grandfather, who was so much older than she (22 years) that I never knew him at all. In June I posted photos of the trip I took back to Missouri where I grew up. While a few things remained the same, I felt very sad about some changes and kept thinking how my dad must feel if he were watching. He died in 1996, lived in the same house for 80 years and on the same farm all his life. He labored long and hard to make the homeplace beautiful.
The house where he was born
Only the old carriage house stands.
The young man who farms the land cannot bear to tear it down.
The ancient burr oaks and black walnuts
bulldozed into waste piles or sold for greed.
The house he lived and loved in for eighty years
still stands on land his family owned for more than 100.
Strangers live there:
He sees the well trimmed lawn,
new picket fence,
The pond he proudly built and stocked with fish reflects the summer sun.
The tree filled park between the pond and house
He wonders why someone would destroy such beauty.
The walnut grove where he ran cattle
The pond where his grandson caught the giant turtle
plowed over and planted to corn and soybeans.
Several months ago I decided to participate in the Human Genome Project through National Geographic. When I called to order the kit, the young man reminded me that as a woman, I would receive only one half of my ancestry, the female half. Since women do not have a Y chromosome, a woman can only trace her female family line through her mitochondrial DNA. He suggested I use my grandson’s DNA so I would receive complete results. Of course, that meant that in the end, I would have to factor in what I knew about his father’s family and deduct that to determine my own. After the Geno 2.0 kit arrived, we took his cheek swabs and mailed them off. This week when we returned from an 11 day family road trip, the results arrived. With the results came detailed explanations of human migratory history and even comparisons of populations with DNA most like his. Although none were close, the top two groups were people in Bermuda and Mexican Americans. Luckily, the information contained a detailed explanation of the people of Bermuda. The Native American results I expected since his great grandfather was Navaho. Other parts came as somewhat a surprise. Once again I am taking a poetry class and now working on publishing a book of my poetry so I decided to write a poem about this experience.
The results loom before me on
the computer, percentages:
Northern European, Mediterranean,
Native American, Neanderthal,
sub Sahara African, South African–
as in the Bushmen in the Kalahari,
Northeast Asian, Southwest Asian.
Suddenly, calculations move through
my brain. I look again, add, subtract,
recalculate, stare, ponder. Is there
a family secret I missed? How will
I know, from whom?
Everyone I could ask is dead.