Last updated on June 27th, 2017
I attended the AfroSurreal Writers Workshop conference last March 2016 and enjoyed the program and the readings. They honored a graphic writer and I got a peek into the different genres of what surreal writing could be. I was invited by Rochelle Spencer to join. I did not consider myself a surreal writer, but then I remembered I did write a time travel short story that eventually was accepted for publication. I also realized that in fact, some of my writing might be considered surreal or mythical. I like the work the group does in the community and realized I might be able to reach out to the community as well in my work.
The goal of the project is to continue reaching out to the Oakland/Bay Area community to seek to collaborate on projects that would encourage people to tell their stories, to keep the stories alive. Oakland has gone through a tremendous change and shift in population, diversity, and socio-economic climate. Oakland has a wonderful story of African Americans migrating here to pursue their dreams of upward mobility and equal access to jobs, education and home ownership. These stories need to be told so the coming generations will know and own their right to be here and that their ancestors made an impact in the Bay Area.
The collaboration with StoryCorps along with Pro Arts Gallery gives an opportunity for the stories to be further disseminated by their resources having the stories added to other stories at The Library of Congress. There are so many stories of so many people and cultures being collected by StoryCorps.
I was born in 1951 in Little Rock, Arkansas, where my parents had met at Philander Smith College, a private Historically Black College. Although my parents were college educated and my father was a director of the housing project we lived in, we were relegated and mandated by Jim Crow policies. Segregation was alive and well and my parents felt stifled. They did what many African Americans before them and many after them and became a part of the Great Migration. In 1953 when I was two years old and my brother a newborn, we took the segregated train to California months after my father had come.
My mother had taught school for two years before marriage and family in her rural hometown in southern Arkansas, yet when she got to Oakland, she was not able to get a teaching job because she needed a California credential. She went to work in a tomato cannery nights while she pursued a teaching credential from U.C. Berkeley.
This is the story of so many of my friends and people we knew. Many of them with college degrees worked in jobs such as the post office, the Naval and Army supply bases, school cafeteria where a high school degree or less was required. Many worked hard and pursued the necessary credential and degrees needed to work in their field.
My initial desire was to verify or document some of the oral history that I had been told. There were many stories about our heritage and our ancestry that I wanted to know how true they were. My mother, maternal aunt and grandmother told me a lot of stories.
I knew that my mother’s paternal side was of mixed-race, which is not at all unusual in black families. I have traced four generations after me. I know my mother’s surname Rowland was prominent in Union County Arkansas. I have found my great-great grandmother in the home of James Rowland in Arkansas. They were both born in South Carolina so it appears she was brought to Arkansas as his slave. She had two children with him, Fannie and my great-grandfather, John Rowland. What I have not determined is why and how they were able to take his name.
My mother knew her white great aunts who visited them from time to time. I learned in my research that in small rural towns, though it wasn’t spoken of, both black and white were aware of interracial relationships and they were quietly acknowledged.
I have not been able to verify the “Indian” connection. Most black families claim Native blood and sometimes it is true and other times it is not necessarily so. My mother insisted my grandfather’s maternal side had Native blood. My DNA does bear a small percentage, but then DNA is a whole other narrative and since it is a huge brick wall, I’m not really bothered by it.
I did verify that William Gill, the one who was supposed to have Native blood was a prosperous land owner and donated land to open a school for “Colored” children. That school was built sometime in the early 1900s, and I have documented the Gill School in Strong, Arkansas, disbanded in the 1960s. William also donated land for the Gill Cemetery in New London in Union County, which still exists. It is part of a corporation of cemeteries.
My family was also big on ghost stories, which some of them swore by and others rolled their eyes. They were fun and added to family lore.
The process involves countless hours of research and documenting, in my cases census records, slave schedules, city directories, and military records and countless others records.
No, this is a different project. In My Backyard: Stories of Growing up in Oakland are a collection of stories and vignettes of memories dating back from my earliest memories at four years old in 1955 to age 17 in 1968, the year I graduated from high school. Some of these stories have been published. I have been writing these stories since the 1990s, and it is crucial they be put out there, again to retain memory, to remind those of us old-time Oaklanders and the new Oaklanders the way of life and the culture of growing up in the 1950s and ‘60s.
I am not an instructor or professor but came to work in the newly created Africana Center on a part-time basis to enhance the dream of Dr. Siri Brown who believes in black family history. I retired from Merritt in 2013 as a curriculum specialist. I now work with the African-American studies instructors, guided by their curriculum and syllabus, to incorporate family research as part of the history of the U.S. and the role African Americans had in that history. For example, because more records are being made available through genealogy records and the newly indexed Freedom Bureau Records, there is more opportunity for students to find out about their family history.
First, they need to make a family tree base and that entails getting information from their families. They may have a little information or a lot, but we work with what we have. They are asked to collect and write about the stories passed down in their families, no matter how trivial. Also, any myths, belief systems, superstitions, it is all important, and their own history. They are to collect pictures and family documents. They add their own research records from Ancestry.com and Family Search.org and they have begun their family research.
I tell those who say they have little or no family history that it then begins now with them: collecting, researching, making memories so they can be handed down to the next generations.
To do thorough family research, one must research the area where your family originated. It is important that you know the social and political aspects of that area. What was going on in that area when your family migrated? What was the industry of the area? Did those occurrences affect your family leaving that area? So study books and materials in the country or parish your family lived.
Black Roots: A Beginners Guide to Tracing the African American Family Tree by Tony Burroughs. Burroughs is considered the father of black genealogy.
Because genealogy is interactive and learning is further enhanced by collaborating with other like-minded folk, I recommend joining a local genealogy group.
Also, some websites are invaluable:
“Of Sweet Tea and Quilts” is from Our Black Mothers, Brave, Bold and Beautiful. This is about my mother and grandmother having Alzheimer’s disease. This is a subject near and dear to me.
“Quilting a Legacy,” from the A Cup of Comfort for Women series. This was my first publication in 2002 and I still get requests about it. A woman read the story and researched to find me to ask that I do a presentation for Black History Month for her teacher association. It is about my grandmother’s quilt she started when she was first getting Alzheimer’s and how my mother brought it back from Arkansas and finished it.
“In the Company of Women”(Epigraph), Life’s Spices from Seasoned Sistahs: A Collection of Stories from Mature Women of Color. This was a two-page introduction to the book above. The contributors still get requests to go to a college in Contra Costa County to read. I am proud of this because it is about sisterhood and women sticking together.
Mother Wit: Stories of Mothers and Daughters. I was a co-writer on this short story fiction collection with the formidable Angelia Menchan. My two stories, “Song for a Pretty Girl” and “Searching for Mama,” were stories I was proud to give to the world. SFAPG was long listed in a music story contest.
“Back to Harlem,” from the Where is My Tiara anthology is another fiction story where I stepped out on faith to write a time travel going back to the Harlem Renaissance.
I’m very proud of the piece, “Dear Michelle” in the Go Tell Michelle anthology by SUNY Press. The Obamas were new to the White House and the love affair with Michelle was just beginning. She is a force.
Well, I am not a teacher, not in the traditional sense. I don’t have a credential. My role is to guide them in family research to supplement their studies. Many books have influenced me and propelled me to either begin writing or start writing again. I am a life-long reader beginning in kindergarten. I loved the Nancy Drew and Agatha Christie series as a child.
I fell in love with James Baldwin at age 13 or 14. Way above my head but his language was mesmerizing.
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston was a breakthrough for me. I re-read it in an English class after I returned to college and felt the empowerment and desire of Janie, the main character. I knew I wanted to really pursue writing.
Anne Rice’s The Feast of All Saints was an eye-opener to another kind of black history, the story of the Gens de Couleur (people of color) of Louisiana. A friend of mine was studying her family history at the time and this book was monumental in her research, and this fiction book is one of my all-time favorite reads.
Write. It might sound cliché but really that is the key. I am an older writer and there is nothing wrong with that, but I wasted a lot of time with self-doubts and not being disciplined. A writer must be disciplined and set priorities, because often writing is not what you are living from or paying your bills so it can be pushed off as a hobby, as a sometime thing.
These days, young writers need to look at writing as a business and see what you can combine with the writing to be marketable and derive income from the two ventures.
Most of all believe in your voice and your path. Network with other writers that can encourage and mentor you and in turn, do the same.