ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes


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She could have been an artist with her sense of color and design,

 her feel for space and texture, her gift for making a room her own



Miriam DeCosta-Willis                                                                                                                                            Fannie Delk



 Books by Miriam DeCosta-Willis

Daughters of the Diaspora: Afra-Hispanic Writers (2003  / Singular Like a Bird: The Art of Nancy Morejon (1999)

  The Memphis Diary of Ida B. Wells (1995) / Erotique Noire/Black Erotica  (1992) / Homespun Images ( 1989)  /

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Through My Open Window

                                               —for Fannie

By Miriam DeCosta-Willis


So often in the dark I look out over the city—pinpoints of light against an ebony landscape, ribbons of cars streaming across the 14th Street Bridge, planes flying low over the Potomac—and I remember


the quiet beauty of her days

the simple dignity of her ways

It was noon on a Memphis-hot August day, 1979, that I first saw her there on the second floor of Brownlee, filing stacks of yellowed papers, throwing out manila folders, and rearranging desks and chairs.  As she organized the artifacts of her life, she imposed her own particular sense of order on the chaos of campus life:  a picture of a student here, a postcard from a friend there, interminable lists of “things-to-do,” school books set down neatly in piles.

She could have been an artist with her sense of color and design, her feel for space and texture, her gift for making a room her own

a lived-in space

           warm with touch and look and word

                                             a hot cup of tea

                                             a few minutes of healing

                                             a smile

           bright with sunlight and desk lamps and fluorescent bulbs

           green with philodendron and wandering Jew,


6:35 a.m., August 21, 1985, “I just called to let you know you’re on my mind.  Bye,” she said.

And again in February 1986.  “Here’s a little care package [two aspirins, a bandaid, an herbal tea bag, a note] to get you through today.”

10:35 p.m., October 20, 1988.

“Why do you always call when I am crying?” I asked.

“Have you ever wondered why we are friends?” she replied.

She sensed the shapes and contours of things unspoken, the mysteries of yesterday, the ragged unravelings of today, the formless intuitions of tomorrow.  She had this feeling for things, this intuition about people that was uncanny and sure.  Open but guarded, warm but reserved, she held back with dignity and strength while the rest of us rushed out to embrace life with a wild, frenetic passion.  We just took for granted that she would always be there, solid and unshakable like a rock . . .

“But I’m so slow,” she often complained, unaware that the predictable rhythm of her life, the steady beat of her tempered hours, the inevitability of her measured offerings were the balm that calmed and soothed those of us who moved, always under pressure, with a quicker step in a wider circle.

                                                writing, writing, always writing


words fleshed out,


            summoning up

                        the smooth planes and rough edges of our lives

                        yesterday memories: births and deaths and baptisms

                        dreams of what we might become given the seamless beauty

                                    of Black lives

words on big yellow pads—in that careful, precise script of rounded o’s and open e’s—

spilling across pages into articles and books

sheets of paper—“bits and pieces,” she called them—spread out over dining room table

and kitchen chairs, and then pulled together in that correct, ordered style of hers


                                                teaching and loving it

“But why? Twelve hours and so many students, classes after school, classes in the evening, classes on Saturday, meetings with students on Sunday?”

“Black students need us,” was the simple explanation for everything: too much work, too long hours, interminable summer months without hiatus.  “But I’m going to do better, I promise.  I’m going home early on Tuesdays and Thursdays.  I’m going to start thinking about me.”  She never did, of course.

            a gentle woman . . .




                                                                                    . . . like Wordsworth’s violet

                        delicate, blooming but a day, leaving a

                        sweet fragrance on the air

her self

                        submerged beneath the crystal waters of a lake

                        hidden below the placid surface of a stream


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                        the lucid prose of her life pristine and clear

                        like puddles of rain on a starlit night

Note on Fannie Delk

Rudy, one of the projects that I finally got around to during this trip is organizing the rest of my papers to donate to the library here.  I have a stack of unfinished articles, notes, and papers, among which is this piece that I wrote on the death of my dear friend Fannie Delk.  We were colleagues, co-founders of the Memphis Black Writers Workshop, and co-editors of Homespun Images.  Right after the book came out in January, she started complaining about stomachaches and two months later she underwent surgery for colon cancer.  I moved to D. C. in August, and two weeks later she died.  As you can imagine, finding this piece brought back a lot of memories.  I'm not a poet but I wanted to express some of her beauty.  I never published this, but I'm submitting it to you, in case you think it's okay, as a tribute to her.

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Whenever I'm working on Memphis projects, in this case twothe Etheridge paper and "Notable Black Memphians"—I connect with so many people who've been out of my life for years.  I just got through talking with an older friend, who was in my workshop and also Etheridge's, and I discovered that she's in a nursing home and has an amputated leg.  She was so moved to hear from me.  I've probably talked with 25 or 30 friends & acquaintances since I've been here, and that's evoked all kinds of mixed emotions and complicated memories.  I've driven through parts of town—once elegant or neat with green grass and picket fences—where the houses are now crumbling, boarded up, and graffiti-covered.  It's very sad.  But it's getting me in the mood and frame of mind to write this blues-sad testimonial.  —Miriam

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Notable Black Memphians (Miriam DeCosta-Willis)This biographical and historical study by Miriam DeCosta-Willis (PhD, Johns Hopkins University and the first African American faculty member of Memphis State University) traces the evolution of a major Southern city through the lives of men and women who overcame social and economic barriers to create artistic works, found institutions, and obtain leadership positions that enabled them to shape their community.

Documenting the accomplishments of Memphians who were born between 1795 and 1972, it contains photographs and biographical sketches of 223 individuals (as well as brief notes on 122 others), such as musicians Isaac Hayes and Aretha Franklin, activists Ida B. Wells and Benjamin L. Hooks, politicians Harold Ford Sr. and Jr., writers Sutton Griggs and Jerome Eric Dickey, and Bishop Charles Mason and Archbishop James Lyke—all of whom were born in Memphis or lived in the city for over a decade. . .  .

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The Memphis Diary of Ida B. Wells

Edited by Miriam DeCosta-Willis

Foreword by Mary Helen Washington. Afterword by Dorothy Sterling

*   *   *   *   *'s 25 Best Selling Books



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Blacks in Hispanic Literature: Critical Essays

Edited by Miriam DeCosta-Willis 

Blacks in Hispanic Literature is a collection of fourteen essays by scholars and creative writers from Africa and the Americas. Called one of two significant critical works on Afro-Hispanic literature to appear in the late 1970s, it includes the pioneering studies of Carter G. Woodson and Valaurez B. Spratlin, published in the 1930s, as well as the essays of scholars whose interpretations were shaped by the Black aesthetic. The early essays, primarily of the Black-as-subject in Spanish medieval and Golden Age literature, provide an historical context for understanding 20th-century creative works by African-descended, Hispanophone writers, such as Cuban Nicolás Guillén and Ecuadorean poet, novelist, and scholar Adalberto Ortiz, whose essay analyzes the significance of Negritude in Latin America. This collaborative text set the tone for later conferences in which writers and scholars worked together to promote, disseminate, and critique the literature of Spanish-speaking people of African descent. . . . Cited by a literary critic in 2004 as "the seminal study in the field of Afro-Hispanic Literature . . . on which most scholars in the field 'cut their teeth'."

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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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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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Negro Digest / Black World

Browse all issues

1950        1960        1965        1970        1975        1980        1985        1990        1995        2000 ____ 2005        


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

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of Haiti 

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posted 22 March 2006 




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