Monday, December 9, 2019

Other Worldly: N. K. Jemisin & Jamal Campbell's Far Sector

There's worldbuilding and then there's extensive, incredible worldbuilding. N. K. Jemisin and Jamal Campbell are (spoiler alert) involved in the latter. They're out here in Far Sector giving you new races and an otherworldly city.

We've had a few different black writers enter the domain of comic books over the last few years. Ta-Nehisi Coates. Eve L. Ewing. Roxane Gay. Nalo Hopkinson. Sheena C. Howard. Nnedi Okorafor. And now the award-winning science fiction and fantasy novelist Jemisin joins the field with her debut on Far Sector.

For three years in a row, Jemisin won best novel Hugo Awards, one of the most prestigious literary prizes for science fiction and fantasy. She brings her outlook as an accomplished writer in one far out realm to the far out world of comics. Sojourner “Jo” Mullein, the protagonist of Far Sector , is a Green Lantern, and she's covering a case in a city on the furthest reaches of the universe.

In the opening issue, Jemisin introduces these three races: the @At, the Nah, and the keh-Topli. The story takes place on this expansive space of twenty billion citizens known as the City Enduring. At one point, Jo notes that the sky of the city is not real. "Each day," she explains, "the city builds a new composite sky image from its citizens' imaginations."

In an interview with Charles Pulliam-Moore, Campbell pointed out that he produced the visuals based on Jemisin's extensive "worldbuilding notes." Campbell observed that "When I came on, she had these huge documents about the different races that inhabit the City Enduring, their environments, their histories—everything. My job was to figure out how to convey all of that information visually and physically without, you know, a huge paragraph of descriptive text to get the important ideas across."

Jemisin's commitments to incredible worldbuilding are evident in the first issue. And her talents do not go unnoticed. Reviewers complimented the debut issue on what she does. "The City Enduring feels like one of the biggest creative flexes in terms of world-building," writes Kenneth Laster for Multiversity Comics. Ritesh Babu writes that "Jemisin and Campbell make for a hell of a team here and on the whole, the work is basically a gigantic flex in world-building talent."

I'm looking forward to where things go with the work. It's clear that Jemisin will likely take us in new directions.

• A notebook on comic books

Graywolf Press publications by black writers during the 2010s

Take a look back on the production of black poetry during the 2010s, and you'll likely note the important presence of Graywolf Press, which has had an a tremendous decade. Well, really, we could say the press has had a remarkable run in the 21st century with respect to black writers. Since 2000, the press has published more than 30 books by more than 18 black writers.

Claudia Rankine's Citizen -- sometimes classified as prose poetry, sometimes classified as essays --has been one of the most popular black-authored books of the past decade. But that's not Graywolf's only big success. Tracy K. Smith's Life on Mars won a Pulitzer Prize for Poetry. Danez Smith's Don't Call Us Dead was awarded the Forward Prize for Best Collection and the Poetry Society of America's Four Quartets Prize.

Here's a roundup of some of their publications -- poetry, fiction, and nonfiction:

2010: Crave Radiance: New and Selected Poems (hardcover) by Elizabeth Alexander
2010: Skin Inc.: Identity Repair Poems (hardcover) by Thomas Sayers Ellis
2010: Missing You, Metropolis by Gary Jackson
2011: Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith
2012: Crave Radiance: New and Selected Poems (paperback) by Elizabeth Alexander
2013: Skin Inc.: Identity Repair Poems (paperback) by Thomas Sayers Ellis
2013: Urban Tumbleweed: Notes from a Tanka Diary by Harryette Mullen
2013: Scratching the Ghost by Dexter L. Booth
2014: The Art of Daring: Risk, Restlessness, Imagination by Carl Phillips
2015: Turning into Dwelling by Christopher Gilbert
2016: Bestiary by Donika Kelly
2017: Don't Call Us Dead by Danez Smith
2018: Wade in the Water (hardcover) by Tracy K. Smith
2019: Wade in the Water (paperback) by Tracy K. Smith
2019: Heed the Hollow: Poems by Malcolm Tariq

2011: Erasure (reprint) by Percival Everett
2011: Assumption by Percival Everett
2013: Percival Everett by Virgil Russell by Percival Everett
2014: Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine
2014: Love is Power, or Something Like That by A. Igoni Barrett
2014: Glyph by Percival Everett
2014: Song of the Shank by Jeffrey Renard Allen
2015: Half an Inch of Water by Percival Everett
2015: Rails Under My Back (reprint) by Jeffrey Renard Allen
2016: Blackass by A. Igoni Barrett
2017: So Much Blue by Percival Everett
2018: This Mournable Body: A Novel by Tsitsi Dangarembga
2018: A Lucky Man (short stories, hardcover) by Jamel Brinkley
2019: A Lucky Man (short stories, paperback) by Jamel Brinkley

2012: The Grey Album by Kevin Young
2014: The Art of Daring; Risk, Restlessness, Imagination by Carl Phillips
2017: The Art of Death by Edwidge Danticat
2017: Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists...Fake News (hardcover) by Kevin Young
2018: Bunk: The Rise of Hoaxes, Humbug, Plagiarists...Fake News (paperback) by Kevin Young
2019: The White Card: A Play by Claudia Rankine

Graywolf Press, Black Writers, and Book History
Black Book History, February 2019
Graywolf Press and African American Poetry
The Graywolf Press black poetry mix & Christopher Gilbert
Graywolf brings Christopher Gilbert to a new generation of readers
Select Graywolf Press Books by Black Writers, 2000 - 2013
Black Poetry published by Graywolf Press

Thursday, December 5, 2019

From Tougaloo and UNCF-Mellon to SIUE

Rae'Jean Alford delivers student address at Black Graduation ceremony 

In October 2016, at a UNCF-Mellon meeting, two literature professors -- Ebony Lumumba and Miranda Freeman -- from Tougaloo College informed me that they had identified "the" student for our graduate program at SIUE to recruit. I'm always bugging Lumumba and Freeman about sending me one of their top students. Her name's "Rae'Jean Spears," I was told, and they'd put me in touch with her.

Two-and-a-half years later and Rae'Jean (Spears) Alford was delivering the student address at our black graduation ceremony. The time has flown by. Rae'Jean was just doing her visit in spring of 2017, at SIUE, and now, she's completed her master's thesis on novelist Jesmyn Ward.

As an undergraduate at Tougaloo, Rae'Jean was an English major and UNCF-Mellon Fellow. Many years ago, I had traveled a similar path as an English major and UNCF-Fellow at Tougaloo.

Rae'Jean is a wonderful multi-direction thinker. Over the last two years, she's engaged me in so many different conversations. African American literature. HBCUs. National politics. Mississippi and the South. Education. Memes on Twitter. In a single brief conversation, she'd move from laughing to getting really serious back to laughing to raising questions to changing her mind and coming back with more questions. Again, a wonderfully multi-directional thinker.

The UNCF-Mellon program bestowed me with many gifts over the years. But who knew that one of those gifts would come by way of Tougaloo's Lumumba and Freeman sending us this vibrant emergent scholar?

Rae’Jean Spears: Notes on the first semester
Rae'Jean Spears: the critical facilitator and conversationalist
A notebook of entries by Rae'Jean Spears

A Different World: Black Women, Hair and Cosmetics on College Campuses

Lakenzie Walls

How are young black women from urban areas adjusting to college life in Edwardsville?

This semester, I interviewed fifty-eight black college students, thirty-one of whom are young women, on campus concerning their academic journeys in college. A few young women mentioned acquiring beauty-related "side hustles" due to the lack of black hairstylists and beauty supply stores in Edwardsville.

I was completely in awe when one student expressed interest in selling eyelashes, which is the latest trendy beauty craze. Soon after I interviewed the student selling eyelashes, I began noticing a pattern in some of the young women's interests and side hustles.

Nowadays, adjusting to life in a small town might be hard for someone that's from a large city like Chicago. In a big city, black women have access to an abundance of hairstylists, nail techs, makeup artists, and beauty supply stores that cater to their needs.

The affordability of some products is another factor that prompts students to start businesses. One student stood out from the rest when she announced plans to sell affordable lip gloss. I think the lack of hair care options and the price of cosmetics in small towns with college campuses are creating unique opportunities for side hustles for some business-minded black women students.

Academic Journeys: An Oral History Project

Lakenzie Walls is a graduate student in the English, Language and Literature Program at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.

Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Haley Reading Group: reflections

[The Best American Science and Nature Writing (2018)]

This semester, we read and commented on:
• Ross Andersen’s “Pleistocene Park”
• Sophie Brickman’s “The Squeeze: Silicon Valley Reinvents the Breast Pump”
• Susannah Felt’s “Astonish Me: Anticipating an Eclipse in the Age of Information”
• Caitlin Kuehn’s “Of Mothers and Monkeys”
• Ceridwen Dovey’s “Dr. Space Junk Unearths the Cultural Landscape of the Cosmos”
Which article was most important or useful to you? Why or how so?

Monday, December 2, 2019

Black cultural critics and minefields after reviews of Queen & Slim

Although black cultural critics are quite pervasive these days, their works and opinions are rarely the story. Thus, it was notable over the weekend when many people on social media discussed black critics in the aftermath of some negative reviews of Queen & Slim.

Brooke Obie's review for Shadow and Act and Angelica Jade Bastién's review for Vulture spurred considerable conversation. Some people complained about black critics critiquing a film with a black writer, a black director, and lead black actors. Those complaints were really harsh, expressing concerns about racial solidarity.

One observer noted that “Even if what you say is true [critiques of Queen & Slim], it’s wrong for you to down another sister’s art publicly. It’s hard enough for Black women to make it in Hollywood without having Black saboteurs doing their dirty work."

Another observer referred to Bastien as a sellout (i.e. "Auntie Tom") based on her review. Those comments, and there were many along those lines, reflected some of the challenges that black cultural critics face when and if they offer unflattering appraisals of black art.

In response to some of the harsh backlash, Bastién tweeted that "being a black woman and a film critic is such a minefield sometimes." Obie wrote that "Spotlighting, critiquing, lifting up Black art and Black artists is what I do all day long for a living. It is a JOY. I am the happiest I've ever been! It's still an emotional minefield." The use of "minefield" by both critics is noteworthy.

For black cultural critics, one wrong step on a seemingly hidden trigger, and things can explode. There were many positive reviews of the film, but that was apparently less important than those two negative reviews, and growing critiques on social media. Novelist Kaitlyn Greenidge noted that "The reason these discussions about black art are so fraught is because of the very real economics of how its disseminated--the argument is always, you criticize this movie/book/show/play, another one won't ever get made."

Fears and worries among black folks that public criticism of black artistic production by black critics could jeopardize future black artistic productions were on full display, animating some of the exchanges. For some, black cultural critics should primarily affirm and advocate for black art and artists. But doesn't this setup create tremendous barriers for black critics?

"Too much pressure is put on black film critics to protect blk art and we have to release all that. There are films w/n the last 2 yrs I kept shut about bc I was afraid of losing connections or access," tweeted Valerie Complex. "Some of your blk favs have blocked blk critics who are critical of their work. While white critics get carte Blanche to say whatever. This is the pressure, this is the fear that comes with being a blk critic and it’s not fair," continued Complex.

The online conversation about what black critics should and shouldn't do was so pronounced that even Queen & Slim screenwriter Lena Waithe chimed in. "We haven’t overcome until we can have honest opinions about each other’s work in public," tweeted Waithe. "We don’t mind being a part of that shift. I’m sending love 2 every black critic whether you loved it or hated it. You have the right to write your ass off about it. And y’all have."

Just as some people had responded negatively to the reviews by Obie and Bastién, there were many who followed up with affirming support for the two critics. That's good. But I wonder how many of those minefields remain in place. The next time black cultural critics offer critiques of productions we're supposed to support, we'll see what happens.

A short checklist of black cultural critics

A short checklist of black cultural critics

I was recently writing about black cultural critics. Below is a checklist of a few of the folks I've followed over the years. (I'll add more soon).

General (including film, television, profiles, special topics, etc).
Michelle Alexander -- The New York Times
Joel Anderson -- Slate
Charles Blow -- The New York Times
Jamelle Bouie -- The New York Times
Rembert Browne -- freelance
• Rebecca Carroll -- freelance
• Jelani Cobb -- The New Yorker
• Vinson Cunningham -- The New Yorker
Gene Demby -- NPR
• Michael Harriot -- The Root
• Jemele Hill -- The Atlantic
Wesley Morris -- The New York Times
• Kelefa Sanneh -- The New Yorker
Jenna Wortham -- The Ne York Times

Film and television
• Angelica Jade Bastién -- Vulture
Aisha Harris -- The New York Times
• Jennifer Hill -- Shadow and Act
• Soraya Nadia McDonald -- The Undefeated
• Evan Narcisse -- Gizmodo
Brooke Obie -- Shadow and Act
• Charles Pulliam -- Gizmodo

Brittany Luse and Eric Eddings -- The Nod
Bomani Jones -- The Right Time with Bomani Jones
Wesley Morris and Jenna Wortham -- Still Processing
Jemele Hill -- Jemele Hill Is Unbothered

Hilton Als -- The New Yorker

Doreen St. Félix -- The New Yorker
• Zadie Smith -- various, including The New Yorker

• Greg Tate, various

• Melanye Price

Jesse Washington -- The Undefeated
Marc J. Spears -- The Undefeated

David Betancourt -- Washington Post
Omor Holmon -- Black Nerd Problems
Evan Narcisse -- Gizmodo

Darryl Pinckney - New York Review of Books
Kevin Young

• Black cultural critics and minefields after reviews of Queen & Slim