My Memoir Writing Journey

What exactly am I working on now? A lot of things but mostly my memoir. Now that Keep Yourself Full is on its way out, I really want to get this done and I will have to deter a lot of projects to do it. At least until I finish the first draft and then I can work on other stuff and just work on the memoir from there.

This is the hardest writing job I’ve ever undertaken. I have deleted everything I ever sent my email list as a sneak peek two years ago (can’t believe I let you in on that *insert eye-ball roll*) and have started over. I am fifty pages and nine chapters into the first draft so it’s not so bad considering starting over. What I don’t want this memoir to be is an autobiography. I’ve always wanted to write an autobiography, but that’s before I learned the difference between the two.

I learned memoirs differ from autobiographies. Memoirs are popular because they center on one theme and read like novels, making them much more interesting than the chronological format of the autobiography.

Theme

One thing I am working on is not making this psychoanalytic, if that’s the right word. While I’ve endured much trauma in my life, I don’t want this to be a dark history of my crazy. I don’t want this to be a therapy session. This is difficult because I’m not a sugarcoat type person and neither is my mother. I gotta keep it all the way real. I gotta be honest. How do I do this without going too far?

My title is “I Wasn’t Built to Break,” so my theme is to take all the things that have been obstacles and challenges in my life, that could have broken me physically, mentally, and emotionally, but didn’t. This means that I will not go into every single detail of my life but I will focus on certain significant events, starting with growing up in the Robert Taylor Projects.

Anyone who grew up in any of Chicago’s projects is a survivor in my eyes, a warrior. It meant they not only escaped the drugs, violence, poverty, neglect, and gangs, but they also escaped literal death. Perched above the high-risers of Robert Taylor and Cabrini Green, snipers (aka Gang Members) with high-powered rifles would sit on a top floor (in a vacant apartment) and shoot their rivals. These bullets though, often hit innocent bystanders, mostly children. I remember my Uncle coming to school to get us early because the buildings were shooting, and we had to run to our building. When I say it was a Warzone, I mean that literally. And none of us project kids ever got counseling or therapy for the things we saw. Not even the classmates of the seven-year-old Dantrell Davis from Cabrini who was shot by a sniper on his way to school in 1992 in front of his mother, teachers, police officers, and classmates.

Historical

Writing a memoir is no easy task so my approach is to research and write this as if I am writing a Historical Fiction novel, except everything is true. Since I enjoy writing Historical Fiction, I’ll use history as a buffer. Instead of focusing on my experiences only, I want to take us back into the politics of some of what was going on in the world I did not have knowledge of as a kid. There’s my world where I can only see what’s in front of me and around me. As, a child my view is limited not only physically but also mentally and emotionally. I can only understand my current surroundings and circumstances from an eight-year-old‘s perspective (which is the timeframe I am focusing on in the beginning of the book). Then there’s the world at large. How did the decisions of others affect me, one of 21,000 children growing up in what became known as one of the poorest urban communities in the United States, a concentration of poverty they called it, the Robert Taylor Projects?

I want to go into how the projects under the Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) replaced the Chicago Slums, the discriminatory policies like redlining that kept blacks from purchasing homes in their own neighborhoods, the kitchenettes and one-room basements blacks lived in during the 30s, 40s and 50s, the beacon of hope the projects promised as a replacement, the mixed-community that was there (because whites and blacks both lived in the PJs!), the racial riots that never made the news, and the racist policies that caused many white families to move out of the projects and into the suburbs. Also, the Plan for Transformation that demolished Public Housing and replaced them with a mixed-income community of condos and townhomes and what this cultural mix meant for former public housing residents. (There is even history behind the name Robert Taylor. He was a black man on the board of CHA who opposed building the projects on the same land as the slums. He wanted to spread them out, so they fully integrated blacks throughout Chicago. After CHA refused, he quit. To name a building after him in the same location he worked against was disrespectful and an insult to his memory.)

I hope that if I do this, it will be a much more enjoyable read. I want to incorporate both history and personal testimony with the testimony supporting the history. I remember for instance that whole “Homie the Clown” Scare of the early 90s. I remember that because I had nightmares of the clown coming into our apartment and chasing me around the couch. In 1991, rumors surfaced that a man who we called “Homie the Clown” was riding around in a van kidnapping and killing kids. “Homey the Clown,” was the name of a character played by Damon Wayans on the early 90s sketch-comedy show In Living Color. The character was an angry black ex-con who carried a sock for knocking bad kids upside the head. His catchphrase was “Homey don’t play that.” Our “Homie the Clown” was allegedly dressed as a clown and went around kidnapping kids. Rumors said that he rode in a van and liked to stand next to mailboxes eating bananas. This sounds silly now, but it was serious back then, just like the recent clown scares. We got let out of school early and children were afraid to walk by mailboxes. It also didn’t help that Stephen King’s IT had also just come out.

Community

It wasn’t all bad though so I want to talk about the close knit community that existed there too that never made the news. Generations of families grew up together in what is rarely seen today. My mother’s friend, who lived next door, helped her to babysit. People watched one another children, shopped together, stepped up when someone was in need and shared food. We could go next door or downstairs to ask if someone had sugar or flour. We bartered services and passed along information about job openings or what was new at the Aid office and the candy lady was an entrepreneur. She used her food stamps to open a candy store back when you can get one piece of candy for every penny you had, better known as Penny Candy.  People threw house parties and sleepovers. Robert Taylor was not just a concentration of poverty. It was also a thriving community. When things were good, they were really good, and everyone was family. But you didn’t see this on the news. We were not all crack babies. We were not animals.

Black History Fun Fact Friday – Esther Georgia Irving Cooper

Welcome to another Black History Fun Fact Friday. Today, we meet a woman you may not have heard about but who has done tremendous community work for the betterment of education for African Americans.

Esther Georgia Irving Cooper was born on November 28, 1881, in Cleveland, Ohio. While she’s the daughter of former slaves, her mother’s side of the family gained their freedom sometime before the Civil War and came to Ohio from North Carolina in the 1850s. Esther worked for Harry Clay Smith, a black man of the Ohio legislature and editor of the Cleveland Gazette. Esther later moved to Washington D.C. in 1913 as a stenographer in the Forrest Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. It was here that she met her husband, George Posea Cooper, a Tennessee native and veteran of the Philippine Insurrection then serving as a technical sergeant in the Quartermaster Corps at Fort Myer in Alexandria County (after 1920 Arlington County). The couple married on September 10, 1913, and had three daughters. The Cooper‘s valued education and Esther worked part-time as a teacher of English, shorthand, and typing at the National Training School for Women and Girls. She also managed business classes in the adult program of the Arlington County Public Schools as part of the Federal Education Rehabilitation Act.

Esther is best known for her Civil Rights Activism in Arlington County. She became an advocate for the improvement of African American education after deciding not to send her children to Arlington’s black schools because of the poor upkeep. She also took part in many community improvement organizations, lobbied on behalf of the Citizens Committee for School Improvement, and helped organize the Jennie Dean Community Center Association, a women’s group that raised money to purchase land for a recreation center open to African Americans.

Esther also served as president of the Kemper School Parent-Teacher Association, fought to establish an accredited junior high school, and organized and led the Arlington County branch of the NAACP. Under her leadership, the Arlington NAACP launched a court case challenging inequalities in the county’s high school facilities. The group’s efforts culminated in Carter v. School Board of Arlington County (1950), in which the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the county’s separate high schools constituted unlawful racial discrimination.

I love shedding light on the Esther’s of the world because they are not the same ten black leaders we’ve heard about and we hear about repeatedly. These unfamiliar faces help us understand just how powerful our contributions have been to the world as there are so many who are unknown and unrecognized, their names left out of the history books, school curricula, and Google searches. The best way to honor those who have put in great work on behalf of bettering our communities is to act. To pick up the mantle and do what we can from our corners of the world. To use whatever skill, whatever talent, whatever gifts we’ve been given to do our part. The best way to honor anyone we feel has contributed anything significant to this world is to do the work needed to move forward and to take the time to appreciate and to honor those individuals who are still alive and who are working. Let’s not wait until their deaths to support fully. Let us do that now, today, while they live, and let us help them in their endeavors in whatever way we can according to the gifts we have been given. Let us give people their flowers now who deserve them. The next day is not promised. Let us not wait.

Esther did the work. May we do the same, in whatever capacity to which we are able.

Black History Fun Fact Friday – Benjamin Montgomery and a Word of Caution about Black History Memes

 

Welcome back to another Black History Fun Fact Friday.

Today, we are talking about how important it is for us not to let the dreams of our ancestors die. We are talking about picking up the mantel, reversing generational curses, and rededicating ourselves to our forefathers and fore-mother’s legacy. We are also talking about being careful with internet research and sharing disinformation, and we are doing it by looking at the life of one man, Benjamin Montgomery and his son Isaiah.

Benjamin Montgomery was born a slave in London Country VA in 1819 and was sold to a Mississippi planter named Joseph Davis. Davis was the older brother of Jefferson Davis who later served as President of the Confederate States of America. Montgomery was taught to read and write by Davis children and was tasked with running Joseph’s general store on Davis Bend plantation. Montgomery did so well that he was promoted to overseeing Joseph’s entire purchasing and shipping operations. Benjamin learned land surveying, techniques for flood control and the drafting of architectural plans. Montgomery was also a mechanic and an inventor but as an enslaved man, his inventions were denied patents. And even though Jefferson Davis made it a law to allow slaves to file patents, Montgomery’s inventions were still denied. But Montgomery’s inventions was not his only passions. Benjamin also had dreams of owning his own land.

After the end of the Civil War, Joseph Davis sold his plantation to Montgomery and his son Isaiah. Benjamin and Isaiah set out to fulfill Benjamin’s dream by using the land to establish a community of freed slaves but natural disasters ruined their crops and they were unable to pay off the loan to Davis. As a result, the land went back to Joseph and Montgomery died the following year.

Even though this is sad, it gets better. Isaiah (Montgomery’s son), did not let his father’s dream die. He purchased 840 acres of land along with a number of former slaves and founded the town Mound Bayou in Mississippi in 1887. You remember Mound Bayou right? It‘s the first all-black town of Mississippi I talked about it here back in 2016. Isaiah was named the town first mayor.

Be Careful with Black History Memes:

Before I leave you, I must share a word of caution. Since it’s “cool” to be “woke” now, I’ve been seeing a lot of disinformation about black history circulating on memes on social media. Sadly, a lot of these memes are not historically accurate. Hurricanes do not come from the spirits of “enslaved black women.” That’s not true, and that’s not where Hurricanes come from. There is one about Charles S.L. Baker that says that he invented heat. This is also not true. Charles S.L. Baker improved on the Friction Heater and was one of many who received a patent for it. He did not invent heat. Heat had already existed for thousands of years before S.L. was born. Additionally, the meme says the man next to him is his assistant. This is also not true. Some sources say this man is Charles’ brother but no one really knows who the other man is.

There is another meme out about this story that says Montgomery bought the land he was enslaved on. This is false. Montgomery did not buy the land as you have just read. The land was given to him on a loan and then it was taken back. The victory in this story is his son’s determination to pick up where his father left off and to establish a community for freed blacks. That is what this story is about. Isaiah paid attention to his father’s vision, and he dedicated himself to his father’s memory.

Our history is far too rich and deep to have to make stuff up. Please make sure you are fact-checking before spreading information and Wikipedia is not a credible source for research. Only use it when the information presented can be verified by another, credible, source.


The Road to Freedom is being revised and I am looking for readers to give me feedback on it before having it re-edited. Below is what the book is about, and a link to the book on Amazon. I have reduced the price to 99cents for those of you who would like to help me out! (I just changed it so if it’s not showing up yet as 99cents, please check back later.) Simply read the short book and get back to me with feedback and if you are willing, I’d also appreciate an honest review. Thanks so much!

About

Deeply concerned about the state of Black America, a fight with his brother compels a young Joseph to leave his mother’s house and join his friends for a trip to Atlanta for SNCC’s (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee) second conference. Excited to live life on their own, Jo and his friends have left school and the lives they were living for a chance to become part of the movement. With no money and essentially no plan the seven friends, three black and four white, set out for the road when they are stopped by a racist cop who makes them exit the car. The teens are unaware that a mob of Klansmen also await them at the New Orleans bus terminal. Find out in the 3rd installment of the Stella Trilogy how Joseph and his friends discover the truth about themselves in the Jim Crow south on The Road to Freedom.

 

“Wow this was a Great Read!! The road to Freedom:Joseph’s story, may be set In the time frame of the early 60’s but its content is very relevant to today’s current events. The writer takes you on a journey through the eyes of a young man named Joseph. He and his friends begin down a road with only the hope of wanting to somehow help the fight for equality of “African Americans” and to stop the mistreatment they suffered under segregation and Jim Crow laws. They realize that this task would be harder than they imagined.” – Amazon Customer Review

Thank You

 

I want to thank everyone who volunteered to host me on their blog for a poetry tour and for those of you who shared the post. I am booked through August and September. If you would still like to have me on your blog (I am writing one new poem per blog visit so this isn’t the same content over and over again) let me know and I will add you to my schedule. If you choose to comment please also email me so that I can send you the required information you will need.

I will publish the dates and times of the tour later this week with links to all the blogs I’ll be visiting. I’d like to wait for a few more confirmations but be sure you are following this blog and my social media for notice. For now be sure to check out the ORIGINAL post HERE to learn more. Also be sure you are following:

Chris Graham

Don Massenzio

Mary Schmidt

Vearna Gloster

Balroop Singh

Lea

 

 

Thanks again.

Chat Soon,
EC

You’re Invited

The inaugural  Atlanta African American Book Festival is FREE and OPEN to the PUBLIC and will take place on Saturday, July 14, 2018, at Georgia State University. Over 70 authors will convene in Atlanta to present their work to the Atlanta community. Author categories include fiction, non-fiction, romance, YA fiction, middle-grade fiction, and children’s picture books. Journalists, editors, publishers, literary critics, and scholars from various fields will be present. Panel discussions and workshops will engage festival attendees in topics concerning literary industry tips, civil disobedience, activism, emotional and spiritual well-being, restorative justice, and health and wealth. Children’s activities include a story corner and festival dance floor.

I will be one of many authors in attendance and I would be honored to have your support at my table. Since I did not have a launch signing or gathering for Revolution, I’d like to use this as an opportunity for a post-launch celebration. You will have the chance to purchase signed paperback copies of my two most recent books (and not just mine but other authors too), take pictures, take part in workshops, and meet industry professionals. Again, attendance at the festival is FREE so you’ll just need to make it here (food is not allowed inside the venue but there will be food trucks on the outside). This is not just an entertainment event but we also seek to implement community programming that promotes black literary arts and family sustainability within our community. To check out my AAA blog feature, click here.

Black History Fun Fact Friday – Black Wall Street and the Power of Community

On June 1, 1921, in Tulsa Oklahoma, occurred just one of the worst catastrophes to ever grace the communities of Black people. It was then that the systematic destruction of years of building had made manifest in less than 24 hours. Also known as “Little Africa”, the black business district of north Tulsa lay fuming—a model community destroyed, mansions melted down to the ground, hope stretching its mournful arms forward in a desperate attempt to hold on to its dear Greenwood.

Greenwood is a neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma and was one of the most successful and wealthiest black communities in the United States during the early 20th Century, popularly known as America’s “Black Wall Street” due to its financial success that mirrored Wall Street. During the oil boom of the 1910s, which gained the town such titles as “Oil Capital of the World”, the area of northeast Oklahoma around Tulsa flourished, including the Greenwood neighborhood. Home to several prominent Black businessmen, the neighborhood held many multimillionaires.

Greenwood boasted a variety of thriving businesses that were very successful up until the Tulsa Race Massacre. Not only did blacks want to contribute to the success of their own shops, but also the racial segregation laws prevented us from shopping anywhere other than Greenwood, forcing us to be in support of our own people and thus contribute to the success of our own people.

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Due to the fact that Blacks could not shop anywhere else, Greenwood became the mecca of opportunity to build up what they had been shut out of. Instead of complaining that they were not included in the all-white Newspaper, they created their own (two). Blacks were discouraged from using the new Carnegie Library downtown for example for whites, so they built their own smaller all Black branch libraries instead. Not stressing over being left out of restaurants, grocery stores, and public schools, they simply built their own on the backs of a drive toward honest entrepreneurship.

Clothes bought at Elliot & Hooker’s clothing at 124 N. Greenwood could be fitted across the street at H.L. Byars tailor shop at 105 N Greenwood, and then cleaned around the corner at Hope Watson’s cleaners at 322 E. Archer. The dollar in this community rotated 36-100 times, taking as long as a year before it left the community (today the dollar leaves the black community in less than 15mins).

These were not people who started out wealthy; they were neither businessmen nor businesswomen, but being locked out the whole of society (stripped from employment in the oil industry and from most of Tulsa’s manufacturing facilities), these men and women toiled at difficult, often dirty, jobs. They worked long hours under trying conditions, but nonetheless, it was their paychecks that built Greenwood and their hard work that helped to build Tulsa. In fact, following the massacre, the area was rebuilt and continued to thrive until the 1960s until integration came along and allowed blacks to shop in areas that were restricted before.

Let this be an example of the power of support, not just for black businesses, but entrepreneurship in general. While liking social media posts is nice, it is financial support, dedication, and consistency that ultimately helps small businesses to grow into larger businesses, to support and hire its own, to thrive and to possibly, empower an entire community.

Black History Fun Fact Friday – The Community of Africatown

I am always fascinated by the all Black communities African Americans have built over the years. It means that we are capable of coming together economically to build something of our own and have been doing so for some time now. Communities like Black Wall Street, Rosewood, Blackdom and Israel Hill are examples. To learn of more communities, visit a recent post 7 Black Communities that Prospered.

To add to that list, I’d like to talk today about Africa Town, a place I didn’t know about until it has recently made news after suing an industrial plant claiming it released toxic chemicals linked to cancer.

On this day, March 2, 1807, The U.S. Congress passed an act to “prohibit the importation of slaves into any port or place within the jurisdiction of the United States…from any foreign kingdom, place, or country”, banning the Slave Trade. A group of slaveholders then, made a bet that they could still import slaves and could do so without being caught. 110 Africans (Israelites) from the Yoruba Tribe from the interior of Nigeria were taken and held captive aboard the Clotilda, allegedly the last slave ship to bring captives from Africa to America. Led by Timothy Meaher, a shipbuilder and landowner, the ship made it to the port of Alabama in July of 1860. The slaves were removed from the ship and put on a steam river boat and the Clotilda was burned to hide the evidence.

The enslaved were divided between the men who had made the bet but they eventually got caught. Federal Authorities prosecuted the men but the 1861 federal court case of US v. Byrnes Meaher, Timothy Meaher and John Dabey was thrown out because of lack of evidence. After the Civil War Meather freed his slaves and allowed them to work his property. This is the beginnings of the community of Africatown.

The city of Mobile’s Africatown Neighborhood Plan, a blueprint for revitalization and preservation prepared in 2015 and 2016, offers a quick summary of what came next for the community:

“Working in local shipyards and mills, they saved money to buy land including some from their former owners. African Town originally included a 50-acre community in the Plateau area and a smaller one, Lewis Quarters, which consisted of seven acres over a mile to the west of the larger settlement. Lewis Quarters was named after one of its founders, Charlie Lewis. The settlers appointed Peter Lee as their chief and established a governmental system based on African law.

The residents of African Town built the first school in the area. In 1872 they built Old Landmark Baptist Church, which is now Union Missionary Baptist Church. While the community retained much of their West African culture, construction of the church signaled the conversion to Christianity of many of the Africans. They were a tight-knit community known for sharing and helping one another but reportedly had tense relations with both whites and African Americans and so largely kept to themselves.”

Personally, I wish they had stuck with their West African Culture (which is largely Israelite Culture) as many West African Tribal Nations (such as the Yoruba, Congo, and Ashanti) still maintain the laws of the Old and New Testament apart from Christianity. After emancipation, the group reunited from various plantations, bought land, and founded Africatown. They ruled it according to ancient Biblical laws, spoke their own language and insisted on using their original names.

“A Press-Register reviewer wrote of Diouf’s findings: “The old interviews make abundantly clear that Lewis and his comrades were terrified and traumatized by their kidnapping and trans-Atlantic voyage. Their life in Alabama was very difficult, first for a few years as slaves and then in freedom. Not only did they have to contend with prejudice from whites, but their black neighbors considered them to be oddities who were crude, fierce and inscrutable.

Despite the challenges, Africatown’s story is too special to be lost. In fact, it recently was catapulted back to national attention via an unexpected connection on the PBS geneology show “Finding Your Roots.” In one episode the influential musician and author Amir “Questlove” Thompson learns that his personal family heritage includes an ancestor, Charles Lewis, who was taken aboard the Clotilda and became one of Africatown’s founders.

Where the Clotilda’s story ended, Africatown’s began

In 1927, Zora Neale Hurston went to Plateau, Alabama, just outside Mobile, to interview eighty-six-year-old Cudjo Lewis; the last known survivor of the Clotilda, the oldest slave on the ship and also a chief. Details of this interview has been compiled in a never-before-published work by Hurston by Amistad Publishing called Barracoon: The Story of the Last Black Cargo. (A Barracoon is a type of barracks used historically for the temporary confinement of slaves or criminals.) Another book about Africatown is Sylviane A. Diouf’s Dreams of Africa in Alabama: The Slave Ship Clotilda and the Story of the Last Africans Brought to America. The book is the Winner of the 2007 Wesley-Logan Prize of the American Historical Association, the 2009 G. Sulzby Award of the Alabama Historical Association and a 2008 finalist for the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award.

Today, Africatown is struggling with the new attention it’s getting from the discovery of pieces of the ship and the pollution to the air of what residents are saying is causing cancer. “Hosea O Weaver & Sons, an asphalt manufacturer, backs up on to some residents’ properties and is a business that has recently caused most concern. On days when trucks are leaving the plant, some have covers and some don’t have any. If you have a north wind the dust is everywhere,” said Varner. “It gets everywhere and you have to breathe it in.” (Christopher Harress)

Residents of Africatown see it as a double-edged sword. On the one hand, those companies provided jobs for the community and the town flourished economically. However, this also meant dealing with the noise and pollution. Though, according to one of the community’s leaders, environmental concerns are less of a worry now.

“Pollution has been an issue for over 100 years in Africatown, but at this particular time we’re moving to a more clean air environment because we lost some of the contributing forces, like the International Paper Company and all kinds of sawmills, and things of that nature,” said Cleon Jones, Africatown’s community leader and former New York Mets player. “We still have Kimberly Clark but they don’t process wood the way they used to. Our big fight has been against the oil companies, but I think that’s all in compliance now, according to the city and state. It’s always been about creating a buffer between our town and the companies, the noise, pollution, trucks.”