Black History Profiles: Day Twenty-Eight

Name: Eugene Bullard

Basics: A native of Columbus, Georgia; Bullard was the seventh child born in his poor family.  He fought in both World War I and World War II as an aviator in the French Army.  During World War II, he tried to fight for America but due to segregation there were no black aviators allowed at the time.  He is a hero in France to this day but once the Nazis took over he was forced to flee with his family back to New York City, where he remained.  He was awarded four of France’s highest medals for heroics and was even given their equivalent of the rank of Knight.  In an embarrassing incident for the US Government, Charles DuGalle came to America to personally shake Bullard’s hand but Bullard was nowhere to be found.  Unfortunately, the heroism he carried in France meant nothing in racist America and Bullard was working as an elevator operator at the time.  He was eventually found and DuGalle embraced him in front of an international audience as a hero.

Why I Chose Him: This story spoke to me on so many levels.  How many unsung heroes are there like Bullard in the black community because the racist country that is America would not acknowledge them?  Let that question sit, soak and marinate.  If you truly realize the horror of that then you will understand exactly why we need Black History Month.

Gabi, a Girl in Pieces: Necessary Intersectionality

So I walked into this novel not quite sure what to expect.  Not in terms of writing, but what to expect from myself.  Because to be quite honest; my knowledge of Mexican and Mexican-American (this book taught me there is indeed a difference) culture was surface level at best.  Yes, my list of friends include people of Mexican descent but that doesn’t precisely translate into understanding their culture, their history, and their struggles.  So I came into this book ready to learn.  And learn I did.

I learned cultural perspectives I had never considered. I was forced to confront angles of racism that I had never really thought about.  Cultural nuances were brought to my attention.  In the midst of these different perspectives, I also found great points of commonality.  Points of shared hurt and disappointment.  In short, this book did what all good books should do.  It brought me into its world and made me comfortable staying in it.

So based on the title, it’s pretty obvious the focus of the book is the character of Gabi.  She’s a Mexican-American high school senior and like so many teens she is dealing with a whole host of things that she probably shouldn’t have to be dealing with.  She has two best friends; one is pregnant and the other’s gay.  Her Mother is a bit domineering and is always harassing her about something whether it’s Gabi’s weight or why she shouldn’t leave for college.  She has a Father who is a drug addict that keeps trying to get back into some kind of normalcy but isn’t able to get there.  And to top it all off she has to navigate the treacherous roads of sex and boys.  It’s a lot but it’s also incredibly and heartbreakingly normal.

An unfortunate criticism that book reviewers tend to lob at minority writers working in the field of Young Adult literature is that they throw too many problems in.  These reviewers can’t handle race, sexuality, and drugs all in one novel.  It’s too much for them and they want these writers to narrow their focus.  All that criticism proves to me is that we need more diverse reviewers.  Minorities in America understand intersectionality and don’t run away from it.  At no point did I feel overwhelmed by the number of issues thrown out in this book.  I have seen Gabi lacking self-esteem because of her weight.  I have known Gabi in his efforts to try and find her place in the world.  There are many like Gabi right now and their stories deserved to be told unabashedly.  This novel does that.

The author pulls you into these issues and never does it start to feel like she’s preaching or she’s trying to get you to agree with a perspective.  She simply puts it out in its most honest, raw form and leaves it out there.  Gabi’s thoughts about her weight and the relation to how her Mother makes her feel are laid out without judgment.  Sebastian’s journey through his sexuality thankfully stays away from a completely hellish scenario and is often dealt with humor and fun.  The Father’s addiction to drugs is brutal in physical details, but also makes sure the emotional response is as eye opening.

Never do I get angry with the people in Gabi’s life and that deserves a hefty round of applause for the author.  It’s easy in difficult situations like these, especially ones in which you can personally relate, to get angry with the characters.  Anger is an easy emotion and I think for that reason many writers in this field fall back on it.  This novel doesn’t do that.  Not once was I mad with anyone.  I felt disappointment, sadness, joy, hope, but never anger.  That’s a testament to the story’s ability to make you feel like the characters in this book are as much your family as they are Gabi’s.  Empathy is cultivated through the writing naturally.

Many of the details in this book were revelations for me.  As an African-American, I often thought it was just our community who would accuse people of doing things that meant they were “acting white”.  I almost laughed when I saw that Mexican-Americans do the same and often for some of the reasons African-Americans do.  My Grandmother often pointed out promiscuity as something that “white people” did.  It seems small, but it was the first detail that really taught me something in the book.  There was an intersection of culture there and along the way I found other things we have in common.  A love for cooking.  Families that sometimes seem too tight knit.  Drug issues.  Religion and the excesses that come along with it.  A strong rejection, unfortunately, of homosexuality.  I saw these things unfold in the book and each one brought me more into the story.  We were communicating, the story and I.

But for all the things I could relate, there were elements of the story entirely new for me.  It wasn’t until recently I really started to understand the large palette of skin tones that people of Mexican descent can come in.  Gabi’s struggle of being too light and seeming to not want it was something that took me a bit to wrap my head around.  I was so use to a world perspective in which lighter skin is upheld (erroneously of course) as being better.  Confusion gripped me trying to think why this would be a problem until Gabi quickly pointed out why.  Her skin color created an illusion of whiteness that allowed good ol’ American ignorance and racism to be brandished in front of her without abandon.  Then I got it and felt instantly terrible because racism is bad enough, but to be around in its purest form must be a painful experience.  I was shown a new side to racism I had never really considered before.  It made me think of my own ancestors and how awful the act of “passing” as white must truly have been.  The anger that must have simmered in their hearts was put on full display for me by Gabi.  So, in a way, the novel made me reflect and consider a new perspective on even my own history.  Bravo!

Gabi, A Girl in Pieces is a wonderful young adult piece that properly shows how to handle intersectional identities while still keeping the writing level superb.  It successfully avoids the pitfall of being a school special and also dodges becoming something so depressing that you’re left empty afterward.  No, this story at its conclusion made me hopeful and privileged.  Hopeful that through these kinds of stories being told we let all the Gabi’s of the world see their worth.  Privileged because I think this novel left me better than when I began it.

PUBLISHER: Cinco Puntos Press (http://www.cincopuntos.com/)

AMAZON LINK: http://www.amazon.com/Gabi-Girl-Pieces-Isabel-Quintero/dp/1935955950/

AUTHOR FB PAGE: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Isabel-Quintero/1484113661803075/

Black History Profiles: Day Twenty-Seven

Name: Marlin Briscoe

Basics:  He is the first black quarterback in major league football and was drafted by the Denver Broncos in 1968.  He was eventually traded to the Bills and from there traded to the Dolphins were he won a pair of Super Bowls.  He led the undefeated 1972 team with four touchdown receptions.  After retirement he became a successful businessman and is today the director of the Boys and Girls Club in Long Beach, California.

Why I Chose Him: Sports and athletics are important to the black community.  And I think the problem with that only comes in when it’s our only focus.  But there is a great deal of black excellence in the sporting community and many successes that come from it.  We shouldn’t ignore this community simply because it’s one that we’re stereotyped into.

Black History Profiles: Day Twenty-Six Double Feature

Name: M.K. Asante

Basics:  One more native of Philly to add to my Black History Month list.  This writer started honing his craft and pursuing it as a career at the age of 16.  The author of four books, his most memorable is his memoir Buck.  But he doesn’t just write.  He’s a filmmaker, rapper and a college professor.  If nothing else, he is to be respected because he had the great Maya Angelou as a mentor.  He is currently a professor at Morgan State University and received tenure there at the age of 26.

Why I Chose Him: Well, my friend suggested to me that I do a profile on this guy.  So there’s that.  But reading his story made me want to anyway.  He’s young and he’s powerful.  We need these visionaries.  We need everyone to do their part and no I don’t expect you to cover as many fields as he did.  But recognize that even your small trickle into the collective bucket helps to fill it. If you’re a writer then write damn it.   If you’re a musician then play music.  If you’re a speaker then get out there and start talking.  We don’t have to agree on everything, but we must agree to all do what we feel is best in our hearts to help our community.

Black History Profiles: Day Twenty-Six

Name: Whoopi Goldberg

Basics: Let’s just cut to the chase, Whoopi is elite.  There’s no way to get around it.  She’s an EGOT, meaning she is one of a handful of people who have won an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar and Tony Award.  Whoopi has been in over 80 productions and is an international star.  She is the second African-American woman to ever win an Oscar and in 1990 was named the NAACP’s Black Entertainer of the Year.  Her accolades are numerous and all well deserved.

Why I Chose Her:  She’s a legend.  Period.  We have to honor our legends while they are still here.  I admire Whoopi’s hard work, perseverance and humor throughout her life.  She’s a fantastic role model for all.   So many of her performances have embedded themselves into the psyche of the black community that there is no way to argue that this woman isn’t an influence.

Black History Profiles: Day Twenty-Five

Name: Sheryl Underwood

Basics: A comedian and talk show host, Sheryl is a smart businesswoman and multimedia entrepreneur.  She owns her own production company and is considered to be one of the hardest working comedians today.  A host on CBS’s The Talk, the show received a Daytime Emmy nomination with her as part of the cast.  In 2008, Underwood was elected the 23rd President of the National Zeta Phi Beta sorority.

Why I Chose Her:  Sheryl may not necessarily have been the “first” at anything, but she is a hard worker and certainly has blazed some trails for female comedians.  She’s contributing positively to her community and that’s something to applaud.  Also, she represented thousands of women internationally in her role as President of Zeta Phi Beta.  She’s proof that accomplishments are what we as a people should be aiming for.  Not compliments and the approval of others.

Black History Profiles: Day Twenty-Four

Name: Alice Walker

Basics: A native of Georgia, Walker is one of the most respected African-American writers of today.  Because an eye injury she received while she was young, Walker withdrew from the world and found solace in books and writing.  She graduated valedictorian of her high school class and later attended Spelman College.  Walker’s most famous work is The Color Purple for which she received The Pulitzer Prize and The National Book Award for.  Walker is also a prominent voice in the black feminist movement.

Why I Chose Them:  For various reasons (some good and some bad), the African-American community often makes a lot of jokes at the expense of this book (mostly because of the movie) and I think that is a shame.  I’m not sure how Walker feels about how her work is treated today, but there should be a certain level of seriousness when it’s approached.  It’s okay to crack jokes and make light of things because that is often a coping mechanism in the black community, but we can’t forget the serious issues that artists like her try to address.  And we need to have some degree of seriousness about them.

Black History Profiles: Day Twenty-Three

Name: Nikki Giovanni

Basics: A phenomenal poet, early in her career she was dubbed the “Princess of Black Poetry”.  The author of 30 plus books for adults and children, Giovanni has a long, storied career.  Her autobiography was a finalist for the National Book Award.  She was named one of Oprah’s 25 “Living Legends”.  Giovanni’s spoken word poetry has also received numerous accolades including a Grammy nomination.  Currently, she is a University Distinguished Professor at Virginia Tech.

Why I Chose Her: I’m a writer and it really doesn’t get any better than Nikki Giovanni.  She’s creative, funny, powerful and honest.  I think that last trait is the most important one and something we all need to hold on to and remember.  Honesty, true and unabashed, has to be practiced no matter our station in life.  A public spotlight is a harsh one and sometimes it’s easy to see why people might refrain from giving their complete truth.  Giovanni doesn’t do that.  A spade is a spade no matter what microphone is in her face and that’s a tenacity we should all admire.

Black History Profiles: Day Twenty-Two

Name: Sidney Poitier

Basics:  A native of Miami, Poitier moved to New York after a short stint in the Army to pursue acting.  Upon arriving in New York he made a deal with the American Negro Theatre to get acting lessons in exchange for being a janitor there.  For years he worked as a stage actor and made his Hollywood debut in 1950.  He scored his first Academy Award nomination in 1958, but he didn’t win until 1963 for Lilies in the Field.  This made him the first African-American man to win an Oscar.  In 2009, Poitier was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama.

Why I Chose Him:  He is one of the greatest actors to ever grace the screen and he set a milestone for many after him to follow.  The sad part in this is that it took many decades for another African-American man to win in the category he won.  His story is a reminder of both perseverance and also a reminder to us to acknowledge one another’s greatness.  Waiting on the mainstream to hand us scraps or provide us with tokens will never be enough.

Black History Profiles: Day 21

Name: Janet Hubert

Basics: A Chicago native, Janet studied at the Julliard School of New York City.  She had a stage career before transitioning to TV and into the role we all know and love her for as the first Aunt Vivian on “Fresh Prince of Bel-Air”.  She captured our hearts with her commanding presence on the screen and more than any other character on the show she easily walked the road between the classes.  Her character maintained upper class charm while never forgetting where she came from.  Unfortunately, she found herself dismissed from the show due to contractual reasons and has since had a controversial relationship with Will Smith.

Why I Chose Her: I chose her because she’s a part of many childhoods and she’s the Vivian we all think of as “the real Vivian”.  She brought spunk and class to that character.  And I think her portrayal of that character is important for the black community.  We can achieve economic status without forgetting our roots.  Being smart, classy, and wealthy are not things we should demonize as if someone having those things means forgetting some part of yourself.  It doesn’t.  They can all coexist and until we get back to a mentality where success isn’t demonized we’re not going to get anywhere.