Monthly Archives: July 2016

My Gullah Week

Thanks to my dear friend and former colleague, Lesley Younge, I have been including the Gullah of the Sea Islands in my teaching of the Transatlantic Slave Trade due to their historic connection to Sierra Leone. While I’d long been aware of this connection it took Lesley to research and create compelling curriculum featuring these remarkable people. And the more I taught this and investigated them on my own the more I wanted to go visit the Gullah myself. This summer it finally happened.  

Last week I was incredibly fortunate to attend an NEH Landmarks of American History and Culture Workshops, Gullah Voices: Traditions and Transformations. Conceived and run by Dr. Robert Stephens and Dr. Mary Ellen Junda, professors of music at the University of Connecticut, it was a remarkable experience. Over many years Bob and Mary have carefully researched and cultivated relationships with members of the Gullah community, experts, and informed academics to created an important and memorable learning experience.

We were centered in Savannah, Georgia. I arrived early morning on Sunday and since my room wasn’t ready and the institute wasn’t starting till late afternoon, I took the hotel concierge’s suggestion and went a trolley tour. While I’d seen Forrest Gump when it came out and knew of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, it surprised and amused me how often the tour guide pointed out places featured in both. At moments we would stop and a costume actor would board, speaking about his or her moment in Savannah history. (On our final morning three of these actors showed up at our hotel’s breakfast, pleasing some of us more than others:)

The institute began with introductions and the glorious Geechee Gullah Ring Shouters. You can get a taste of them here. The next day after a captivating talk by Dr. Erskine Clarke, we went on an African-American tour of Savannah led by the passionate and informed Karen Wortham. Traveling in the same sort of trolley as the day before, I was struck by how different the information I was hearing as we drove through many of the same places.

At the African-American cemetery Karen showed us a whipping tree, pointing out the visible marks of the whip.


She took us to a burial of someone born enslaved who fought with his master for the Confederacy. She said over and over how important it was not to erase these discomforting pieces of history, but to keep them to understand them.

Karen spoke of “The Weeping Time,” the Butler auction  (that I recall being so movingly memorialized by Julius Lester in his Day of Tears)  and of the Ebenezer Creek Tragedy.  She also told us about this hanging tree that is in one of the parks I passed in my tour the day before (but heard nothing about then).



Chilling too were the slave barraccoons near the river. I’d written of the ones in Mende country in Africa is My Home so to see and be in one was just one of the many many tear-inducing moments of the week.


That afternoon we listened to the compelling Dr. Peter Wood and then went off to the Pin Point Heritage Museum. Here we are learning about crab net knitting.


And here is dinner — a yummy lowcountry boil!


On Tuesday we traveled to St. Helena’s Island and the historic Penn Center which was one of the first school for freed slaves , one of the most important African-American institutions in existence. Having long heard about this place it was thrilling to finally see it for myself. We were so honored to have as our guide Mr. Robert Middleton who had been a student there.


The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr used Penn Center as a retreat and stayed at this house.


Many of the beautiful trees are over 400 years old.


We then traveled to St. Helena’s gorgeous public library for a fabulous lunch catered by Gullah Grub and more interesting speakers including the distinguished Emory Campbell, organic Gullah farmer Sara Green (more about her work here),  Victoria Smalls of the Penn Center, and performer (and creator of the television show Gullah Gullah Island) Ron Daise.  Our day on St. Helena’s ended with a visit to the Praise House with Mr. Middleton.


Emory Campbell


Ron Daise


St. Helena’s Praise House

On Wednesday we were taken to aesthetic, historical, and emotional highs by way of visual artist Leroy Campbell.  I didn’t take photos so be sure to go check out his amazing work, especially the on-going series, Gullah Collection.

Our final field trip was to Sapelo Island where there is still a Gullah community of 47 permanent residents. (Great New York Times article about the place here.)  In preparation for this day we had read resident and cultural historian Cornelia Bailey‘s memoir, God, Dr. Buzzard and the Bolito Man and so meeting her was another of many highlights of the week.


Dayrise on Sapelo Island


Resident Mrs. Handy’s son was our tour guide. Loved her additional remarks!


Sapelo Island Post Office


We were incredibly fortunate to be able to wander the Reynolds Mansion (as it is usually occupied — you can rent it for a remarkably reasonable price!)  I’m not going to put all my photos of the place in this post, but it is one crazy place (you can see them on my #gullahvoices twitter feed if you are interested.)



Lunch with Mrs. Bailey was a special time indeed.

For me probably the most emotional day was Friday when we heard from Wilson Moran who spoke of the research done that linked his family to another family in Sierra Leone via a song. I knew about this and had thought I’d seen the movie about it, “The Language You Cry In,” but viewing it early in the morning before Wilson’s talk had me in tears as they filmed it when the war in Sierra Leone was still going on. When Wilson mentioned mutual friends he saw my grin and we connected afterwards. So so moved by this.


There was, of course, much more to the week. My fellow-scholars were so impressive and I loved getting to know many of them. One of them, Line-Andrée Marshallhas done a lyrical, poetic, and beautiful post on our week as well:  “Shall We Gather By the River? Gullah Voices and Echoes.” Please be sure to view it as it is much better than this one.

Thank you, Bob and Mary Ellen and to everyone involved in creating this moving and memorable experience.




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The Art of Translation

I grew up knowing German and so can find certain English translations of familiar books disconcerting. Take Hoffman’s Der Struwwelpeter.  I knew it first in German and delighted in certain rhymes, say the cats warning Paulinchen if she played with matches:

Und M i n z und M a u n z , die Katzen,
Erheben ihre Tatzen.
Sie drohen mit den Pfoten :
“Der Vater hat’s verboten !”
Miau ! Mio ! Miau ! Mio !
Laß stehn ! Sonst brennst Du lichterloh !”

Much later I came across two very different English translations.  One seems to be more common, serviceable, but completely lacking the rhyme of the original.  Here’s that translation for the cats’ warning to Paulinchen:

The Pussy-cats saw this
And said: “Oh, naughty, naughty Miss!”
And stretched their claws,
And raised their paws:
“‘Tis very, very wrong, you know,
Me-ow, me-o, me-ow, me-o,
You will be burnt, if you do so.”

But then one day I came across Mark Twain’s translation.  His lesser known version captures for me far more successfully the energy and rhyme of Hoffman’s original German:

And Mintz and Mountz, the catties,
Lift up their little patties,
They threaten with their pawses:
“It’s against the lawses!
Me-yow! Me-yo! Me-yow! Me-yo!
You’ll burn yourself to ashes, O!”

(If you can, try scanning all three and you may see what I mean.)

Perhaps because of this early experience and subsequent time in countries where other languages dominated, I’ve always been fascinated by translation. So much is involved beyond the simple matching of grammar. Today’s Guardian article, “The Subtle Art of Translation” is excellent, featuring thoughts from a number of translators. While the focus is on adult fiction, their ruminations are completely applicable to all translation, children’s books too. Highly recommended.


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A Monster Calls, New Movie Trailer

So this is very much the antithesis of the BFG movie, I’d say.


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Coming Soon: Jason Reynold’s Ghost

I’m in love with Jason Reynold’s forthcoming Ghost.  Both the book and the title character. Reynolds’ presentation of this feisty, complicated, and endearing young man is deftly demonstrated through his first person narration of this winning middle grade book. It is the story of a young black boy in middle school who has experienced something dreadful, but who doesn’t want attention paid to him because of that. This is a boy who aspires to being a basketball player (though he hasn’t exactly tried to do it) and then, out of the blue, discovers that he has a talent for running. This is a boy who, before he knows it, is part of an elite track team and, by the end of the novel, cares deeply about doing well in it.

In the close first person narration we are with Ghost as he reacts to bullies, to an horrific event that affects who he is, to his new track teammates, to his self-consciousness as to his neighborhood, to his poverty, to his coach, and to simple pieces of his day. Say sunflower seeds. Reynolds describes wonderfully Ghost’s delight in them, eating them, spitting them, and buying them at the local store with his delightful repeated exchange with the store’s owner. It is a small lively thread that winds through the story, deepening our understanding of Ghost as well as those around him. There is superb dialog, real situations, fabulous description (I can just see the shoes — those generic ones he reworks for running and the other pair that is critical to the plot so can’t say more here), and impressive characters. I am certain Coach, Ghost’s mother, his friends and foes at school, and his teammates will stay strong in my mind for some time to come. To me that is one way to consider good writing — does it stay in your mind? Reynolds’ here absolutely does.

Having trained with a coach as part of a track club decades ago I can vouch for the authenticity of the workouts, say those “fart licks” (the real term is fartlek —a Swedish word for exactly what Ghost and his team mates do). I can’t wait for further books featuring Ghost, his teammates, and those great adults in his life.


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Celebrating White Rabbits

It was 152 years ago yesterday that the Reverend Charles Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll, first told his tale of Alice. Since then its elements have been reinterpreted in innumerable ways, one being Jefferson Airplane’s druggy anthem “White Rabbit.”  I was a teen the year it came out —1967— and not a fan. That misunderstanding of my favorite book from childhood as something that was the result of its creator’s use of drugs annoyed me then and still today. But I have to admit that I’ve mellowed about the song itself, especially when I see inventive covers for it.

The Jefferson Airplane’s original

Pink’s (Thanks Michael Sims!)

Amanda Palmer’s

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Coming Soon: Shaun Tan’s The Singing Bones


I’m so pleased that those in the U. S. will soon have an opportunity to see Shaun Tan’s brilliant Grimm fairy tale sculptures in the forthcoming The Singing Bones from Scholastic. I first heard of them several years ago when I met the German publisher Klaus Humann of Aladin Verlag who told me about a wonderful new project — having Shaun Tan illustrate (with small sculptures) Philip Pullman’s retellings of the Grimm fairy tales. Since I do read German (poorly) and was eager to see the book I ordered it from Germany and was not disappointed. (You can read my reaction here.)  I wondered about this new book and so found more information on Shaun’s website.

Naturally I was very keen to bring my illustrations to readers in other languages, but other editions of Pullman’s Grimm Tales for Young and Old precluded this (and worked perfectly fine without them). In any case, there were also many other stories I wished to illustrate so I continued making more sculptures, drawing upon such tales as Thumbling, The Wolf and the Seven Little Kids and Snow White and Rose Red, as well as others less well known. Given the original tales are in the public domain, I decided to make my own book.

Fairy tale expert Jack Zipes  has an informative essay and comprehensive bibliography in the new book. Philip Pullman introduced the Australian edition while Neil Gaiman did a foreword for the American one. The ARC is gorgeous so I can’t wait to see the finished book. This will be a fabulous gift book this coming holiday season.


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J. K. Rowling’s Unfortunate Attempts at Globalization

I remember many years ago seeing a 60 Minutes interview with J. K. Rowling where she showed “Box 1” full of her notes for the Harry Potter books. Now I wonder how many boxes there are and if some of them are full of notes for the international wizarding schools that have recently been announced on the Pottermore site. (Rowling’s introduction to the schools is here.)

Being American, I’ve particularly been attending to those who are expressing dismay, disappointment, and great disturbance when it comes to the North American school, Ilvermorny and the earlier publication, “History of Magic in North America.”  N. K. Jemisin’s post “It Could’ve Been Great” is particularly insightful as she considers the issue as both a fantasy writer and a Harry Potter fan. I also recommend Paula Young Lee‘s Salon article from yesterday, “Pottermore’s Problems: Scholars and Writers Call Foul on J.K. Rowling’s North American Magic” if you need to get a quick overview of the situation.

Because of my particular interest in how Africa is represented to children in America, I’ve looked into the response to another of the schools, Uagadou, in Africa. Digging around I came across this overview of the response, Timothy Burke’s “On Uagadou, the African Wizarding School” which he wrote partly in response to this Washington Post article, “J.K. Rowling got in trouble for how she talks about Africa. Here’s why she may have been right.”  I recommend reading Burke’s post in its entirety as he does an excellent job unpacking many of the issues raised around this particular imaginary school, pointing out that:

You can tell a story that imagines fantastic African societies with their own institutions arising out of their own histories, somehow protected or counterfactually resistant to the rise of the West. But you have to do that through African histories, not with an audit of African absence and some off-the-shelf environmental determinism.

You can tell a story that imagines that imaginary wizarding schools arise only out of histories with intense territorial rivalries within long-standing state systems, but then you have to explain why there aren’t imaginary wizarding schools in the places in the world that fit that criteria rather than frantically moving the comparative goalposts around so that you are matching units like “all of Sub-Saharan Africa” against “Great Britain”. And you have to explain why the simultaneous and related forms of state-building in West Africa and Western Europe created schools in one and not the other: because Asante, Kongo, Dahomey, and Oyo are in some sense part of a state system that includes England, France and the Netherlands in the 17th and early 18th Centuries.

The response to the Japanese school, at least that in English, seems more muted (at least in terms of social media). No doubt far more was discussed in Japan (in Japanese), but I did find a couple of fans raising concerns about the name, writing in English.  Here’s one. And here’s another:

Of all the names she could have chosen, why did JK Rowling come up with “Mahoutokoro”? Are all the foreign magic schools this carelessly named?

魔法所 literally just means “MagicPlace”. It seems like a very careless move on her part. I think she should have spent some time researching Japanese etymology, or at least consulted someone who might have one or two things to say about cool-sounding Japanese school names.

The last of the four new schools is the Brazilian one Castelobruxo.  As with the Japanese school I’m limited in not knowing Portuguese in sensing the response. I did find this one here indicating that Rowling stumbled with this school as well.

All in all, I think that well-intended as she no doubt is, Rowling simply doesn’t seem to have the deep knowledge or understanding of the potential for serious offense necessary to develop worlds based on cultures different from her own, especially those that are too often seen through a white European lens such as she is providing. I do hope the critical response she has received thus far has her reconsidering all of this. Or at the very least, reworking them so they are less problematic. I agree with Lee who concludes:

Stories have the potential to create new possibilities, shaping dreams for a more balanced and harmonious future. What we’ve seen so far of the geographically-expanded Pottermore world suggests that Rowling has done the opposite: Whether consciously or not, she’s legitimized whiteness as a cultural institution and a power structure, replicating the patterns of historical colonialism by establishing wizarding schools in far-away places — North America, Brazil, Japan, somewhere in “Africa,” — as posts on the outskirts of the Empire. And so the latest stories, instead of being exciting and new, seem nostalgic for a time when the sun never set on the British Empire, even as Great Britain now threatens to break apart.




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