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for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes


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we are more comfortable with a fabled Africa then we are with Virginia

or the Deep South. There is no fear connected in our minds

to the wide savannahs, beautiful coasts, etc. of Africa.




photo left:  Mama, a painting  by Kaki                                                                                         photo right: a photograph by Sonny Rivers of Jerusalem Church


Mama's Letters from Jerusalem

Beyond the Potomac or Beyond the Atlantic?

A Response by Amin Sharif




I have just read your essay about Jerusalem and consider it to be a jewel in the crown of CBAJ. It shows a man at peace with his rural, southern roots. As you know, I find it difficult to deal with my own. Perhaps, this is because my own family roots are so fragmented and scattered.

Your letters give me a chance to once again take up the subject of African and African-American ancestry. As you know, I am not greatly enthused with Afro-centrism-although there is some merits to it. I find that part of its appeal is the replacement of real past (in America) with a fabled one (of Africa). In fact, we are more rooted to the past of slavery, Jim Crow, etc. than we will ever be to our ancestors and kin in Africa. As I have told you, we will always know more about Uncle Joe, Aunt Mary or, in your case, Mama--than we will ever know about those who were/are our cousins in Africa. It is this turning away from the familiar faces we know to unknown faces across the sea that bothers me.

Of course, I know why we are more comfortable with a fabled Africa then we are with Virginia or the Deep South. There is no fear connected in our minds to the wide savannahs, beautiful coasts, etc. of Africa. We have a primordial urge, as all humans do, to return to paradise. Perhaps more than any people on earth, we Africans-in-America need a paradise after dwelling in hell for so long. On the other hand, our experience in America is rooted in fear (white racism) and continues to be so. If we are to look at the past we have experienced in America, we must come face to face with it all -- lynchings, rapes, cotton fields, and a thousand humiliations. We can not see our families and not be touched by the fear that pervaded their lives. By turning to Africa, we move beyond all of this.

Now, those who embrace Afro-centrism will say that I have no understanding of the damage done by the separation of Africans-in-America from Africans-abroad. My answer is simply that I fully acknowledge that damage. But only if they will acknowledge that a similar damage is constructed when we honor our African ancestors more than the ones who have fed us, clothed us, and loved us in flesh and blood. Why should near-mythical ancestors who we have never looked upon be more dear to us than those we know? I am a thousand times more comfortable with your mother, my mother than any ancestors I might have abroad.

It is time that we come to realize that we are far from Africa. Africa was our cradle but all men (and women) must leave their cradle to experience the world. We acknowledge Africa as the place we came from and honor her. But I refuse to be fixated by all of that. We have long left Africa. And when we return to her (if we choose), we will be like a son or daughter returning after having gone out into the world. We have seen different things. Yet we are a new kind of African raised up from an American experience that we can not deny. Your letters are my proof -- beautiful and vibrant! You have made me wish to hold your mother's hand and kiss her cheek. She is, as all our ancestors in America are, a testament to our greatest. 

There is much to be considered in your letters and I hope that you will time to time make your experiences accessible to others in the CBAJ family. I have little to contribute in this regard. Let my envy of you and your family be an impetus for further writings. It is late and I will speak to you further about this subject tomorrow.


The Editor Responds

Your remarks are a great uplift to my spirit. I appreciate them greatly. In such expositions as Mama's letters, many will miss the point. But your statement above has come very close to giving expression to the sentiment and motivation of this letters project. In a manner these letters are related to the slave narratives collected in the 1930s by the Federal Writers Project. Of course, Mama was not a slave though she worked like one (as little as fifty cents a day or five cents an hour); but she was indeed the granddaughter of Christian slaves. And it has been through her and her stories that I have gained a vital sense of our antebellum ancestors and their children.

These letters are a kind of praise song, given in her own words, to a life that is now fading -- a life in which family and extended family were substantially important, carriers of traditional values and ethics and a great means that sustained life and culture. In those times, that era, there was a great respect of parents and the "elders" or the "patriarchs" (as Mama has phrased it) and the leaders of the village and the church. It tells of a time, a pre-cynical time, before today's hyper-exploitation and individualism which has more or less generated greater classism and criminalization within our communities.

These letters recall a time, though harsh materially, that was rather great and boundless in spirit and community. Hopefully, it will remind us that much that exists today is far below what is indeed possible for the human spirit, namely, the spirit of endurance and sacrifice. They set a high spiritual standard that must be a part of our daily meditations if we are to extract ourselves from this present oppression and surpass the horrors of post-modernism and unbridled world powers, too willing to unleash to dogs of war and destruction when such resources are needed to alleviate the worldwide problems of poverty.

As ever and always, RL


Family Stories


Black Mama, White Son

                A Response to "Black Mama, White Son" by Lewis Lawson

The Confessions of Walter Cotton

Conjuring & Doctoring  

Dwarf's Lament

Father Son and Mary

Me & the Devil at CrossHairs  

Tale for Sam Williams

TeeJay’s Song: Shadows at Midnight  

Driving the Blues Away: Or Dying by Degrees  Responses to “Driving the Blues Away”     Home to Jerusalem   / The Education of Black Folks in the South: 1860-1935

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Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America

By Melissa V. Harris-Perry

According to the author, this society has historically exerted considerable pressure on black females to fit into one of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the Matriarch or the Jezebel.  The selfless Mammy’s behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to white folks’ domestic concerns, often at the expense of those of her own family’s needs. By contrast, the relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.     

Professor Perry points out how the propagation of these harmful myths have served the mainstream culture well. For instance, the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for black females to feel a maternal instinct towards Caucasian babies.

As for the source of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their own bodies during slavery given that they were being auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless, it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate indiscriminately.

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

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update 14 May 2012




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Related files:  The Official History of Jerusalem Baptist Church     Black Church     Public Education in Sussex County  Sussex County A Tale of Three Centuries