“How can we conjure the wondrous world we believe in?”
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It’s a common misconception that writers create characters or situations that have a direct parallel to their lives or the people they know. It’s not always that straightforward, and many times happens on a deep, unconscious level. For Black History Month, I’ve invited a few writers to explore how history — whether personal or family or country or world — affects their fiction.
Today’s Guest Essay is by Andrea Hairston
For many years I have taught various courses in 20th century Black Theatre, focusing on how 19th century blackface minstrelsy and its 20th century progeny served as a catalyst for many black theatre and film artists. In our discussions of black performers who donned the minstrel masks, many students couldn’t understand why any self-respecting African American would act in a coon show or why Native Americans acted in Wild West Shows. Despite our (obvious) complicity in any number of contemporary atrocities, students insisted they would never have done minstrelsy or “stood around watching horrible things going down on stage and off.”
Although I persuade them of the complex choices facing 19th and early 20th century performers, I realized that to a degree, I secretly shared my students’ smug, superior attitude. Shocked by my own self-righteous judgment, I determined to write about characters who we, given the luxury of historical distance, might dismiss or hold in contempt. On sabbatical, I researched blackface, hoodoo, vaudeville, and early film for a novel and a course I now teach on minstrelsy from Daddy Rice to Big Momma’s House.
I finally have a draft of the novel, Redwood and Wildfire! I decided to embody people who chose to act in coon shows, Wild West Shows, and early blackface comic films. I wanted to discover their humanity and increase my own.
One of the major characters in my novel was inspired by my mother’s aunt who was born in 1889 and who was by all accounts a fierce conjure woman. I witnessed her personal power as a child. She was tireless and fearless. “I ain’t scared of nothing!” she said once before jumping on the triple-dipper, mountain rollercoaster in Pittsburgh to inspire great grandchildren who were too scared to ride. With minimal formal education, she was a teacher, union organizer, rabble-rouser. Age didn’t slow her down. She started a Head Start program at seventy-five and received a ten-year plaque at eighty-five for exemplary service.
I have always had enormous respect for my great aunt. She inspired and challenged me to be an engaged citizen, a fearless artist, and a free woman. She told me wild tales of her exploits from the turn of the century. Her stories were far from the standard hoodoo/voodoo tales! So I used her to create the character of a conjure woman/performer in theatre and film at the turn of the twentieth century—Redwood Phipps.
My father’s family, the Hairstons, is a prominent multi-ethnic American clan with books chronicling the family tree and large reunions. I have always shied away from what I considered circus get-togethers. Growing up, too many of the relatives on this side of my family wished to claim any identity other than one with an African ancestry, talking ‘bout Indian this and Irish that. Coming of age in the 60s, I glibly attributed the Hairston’s (multi-cultural) family myths to denial and self-hatred. It seemed to me that they were all too happy to be Cherokee or English, but screamed “I ain’t African!” when connections to that “dark continent” were mentioned.
In my righteous anger and black pride, I simplified what was going on.
I now wish I’d paid more attention to the tall tales the old folks told. I did remember stories from my grandparents (who were both very fair) about the trials and tribulations of the black, Native American, and white folk who wove a good life in the midst of turbulent and destructive times. I used these stories to help fashion my second major character who has a multi-ethnic background and did early Westerns—Aidan Wildfire.
Through research and also through teaching the class on minstrelsy and film several times, I developed a deep appreciation for the richness, complexity, and brilliance of people coming up from Georgia and making a life on stage and screen in turn of the century Chicago. Here was a treasure trove of stories that haven’t been told—people whose lives we often cannot imagine. Aida Overton Walker, a major African American actress, writing in the Indianapolis Freeman in 1906, deplored the fact that the general public didn’t have the faintest idea about the lives of colored performers. She also lamented that during her ten years of performing in and producing plays, there had “never been even the remotest suspicion of a love story.”
So Redwood and Wildfire is a romance, exploring the lives of “colored” performers from Walker’s time.
I also had a great time delving deeper into hoodoo. Hoodoo is an African American “magical” practice encompassing everything from herbal medicine used to cure physical and psychic ailments to the creation of fetish bags for attracting lovers or punishing enemies. The power of hoodoo is the power of a community that believes in its capacities to heal and determine the course of today and tomorrow. My Georgia hoodoos are word wizards casting a spell with story, singers and dancers shaking reality with their hips, conjurers jazzing up our minds and leaving troublesome gods to the Baptists and Vodou practitioners. Still, many folks condemned hoodoo as backward superstition—a belief system we needed to let go of in order to be acceptable to a modern society.
At the core of Redwood and Wildfire are brilliant, powerful characters whose options are limited by real-life Injun and coon shows. We don’t live in a meritocracy now and we certainly didn’t have one in 1910. It’s a grand myth, a grand fiction, but indeed the American Dream of social mobility is still a dream, not a reality [PDF].
People with power, talent, and beauty don’t necessarily get wealth, success, and happiness. The tragedies that befall us are not simply caused by the flaws in our characters. Power and talent can be a torment in a system stacked against you. People can shun the magical ones, be jealous or frightened of brilliance. Social forces can thwart even the strongest will and structural reality can crush individual imagination and agency.
In all of my stories, History and the Future are always manifest in the now, in the Present. As a writer, I ask, even if folk are talented, powerful, and beautiful, what do they need in order to come through a treacherous world, whole and creative?
How can we conjure the wondrous world we believe in?
This is the struggle I love to write about.
Indeed, this is the struggle I live.
Her speculative novel, Mindscape, was published in March, 2006 by Aqueduct Press. Mindscape was shortlisted for the Philip K. Dick award and the James Tiptree Jr. Award.
She has just finished a new novel, Redwood and Wildfire, for which she received the 2004 Speculative Literature Foundation’s Older Writer Grant.
(Extremely) Selected Bibliography
Mindscape (2006) Aqueduct Press
Griots of the Galaxy, a short story in So Long Been Dreaming: Postcolonial Visions of the Future ed. by Nalo Hopkinson and Uppinder Mehan (2004)
“Double Consciousness,” in Afro-Future Females: Black Writers Chart Science Fiction’s Newest New Wave Trajectory ed. Marleen Barr (2008)
“Octavia Butler–Praise Song to a Prophetic Artist,” article in Daughters of Earth ed. by Justine Larbalestier (2006)
The Black Women’s Survival Kit, play, commissioned by Rites and Reason to tour New England
Eating The Night – Performance Piece with Music, a Video Documentary for The Folk Traditions Video Series funded by Springfield Cable Television
Read her full biography and bibliography at AndreaHairston.com.
Photo Credit: Micala Sidore