ChickenBones: A Journal
for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes
Reading the Bones, which is an illusion to the practice of gleaning futuristic information
from animal bones that is still alive in Africa and the Caribbean, the twenty-five
stories and three essays cover a wide range of writers from the African Diaspora.
Books by Sheree R. Thomas
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Edited By Sheree R. Thomas
Following on the heels of the first innovative and highly praised collection of speculative fiction by black writers, comes the much anticipated follow-up, Dark Matter: Reading the Bones (Warner Aspect Hardcover; $29.95; January 2, 2004) edited by series creator, Sheree R. Thomas. In this continuation to the critically acclaimed Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora from the African Diaspora (Aspect; 2000), a winner of the noted World Fantasy Award for Best Anthology, Thomas has once again gathered a group of extraordinary writers, with stories and essays in the science fiction, fantasy, and speculative fiction genre.
Aptly subtitled, Reading the Bones, which is an illusion to the practice of gleaning futuristic information from animal bones that is still alive in Africa and the Caribbean, the twenty-five stories and three essays cover a wide range of writers from the African Diaspora. Included are acclaimed authors such as Samuel R. Delany, Tananarive Due, Nalo Hopkinson, and Walter Mosley, as well as an array of emerging writers serving up an offering of haunting and disturbing tales that stretch to the farthest reaching corners of the human imagination.
From award-winning science fiction veteran, Samuel R. Delany, “Corona” (1967) is the story of an intergalactic rock star and the effect of his hit song on a telepathic little girl, while Nalo Hopkinson’s “The Glass Bottle Trick” (2000) is an eerie tale of one man’s hatred of his dark skin and the bizarre outcomes it leads to. Amongst the newer contemporary voices, one will be hard pressed to see nannies with quite the same innocence after reading “Old Flesh Son” (2004) by Haitian writer Ibi Aanu Zoboi, who weaves a hypnotic story about about the power of one woman’s persuasive chant.
It seems fitting that the anthology opens with “ibo landing” (1998), a story of the middle passage crossing told in stark and wrenching imagery by ihsan bracy. “Desire” (2004) combines raw animal energy with sensuous magic as Kiini Ibura Salaam illustrates the boundless sexuality waiting to be unleashed even in a seemingly dead marriage. Henry Dumas’ “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” unfolds in a series of throbbing, electric jazz riff and motifs and culminates in a stunning conclusion.
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After the spectacular Dark Matter (2000), Thomas offers something of a mixed bag in her second anthology of speculative fiction from the African diaspora. Of the stories set during the days of slavery, ihsan bracy’s “ibo landing” proves that stylization of subject matter can be more powerful than historical fidelity. The shimmering, brutal outlines created by such simple sentences as “each in their own way understood the distance. they would never again be home” stay with the reader for a long time.
By contrast, the weight of research muffles the emotional impact of a story like Cherene Sherrard’s “The Quality of Sand.” Similarly, Charles R. Sanders’ “Yahimba’s Choice” seems written by an anthropologist studying a distant culture, the story unable to move past surface ritual and wooden dialogue.
The strongest entry is Kiini Ibura Salaam’s “Desire,” an experimental retelling of a folktale that’s wonderfully fresh, with exquisite detail: “Quashe’s back formed one gleaming stretch of reptile skin. Her torso, neck, and arms were honey-amber, human-soft skin moist with river dew.” This story will probably appear in at least one year’s best collection.
Other stories of note include Pam Noles’ “whipping Boy” and Tananarive Due’s “Afternoon.” Solid reprints from Samuel R. Delany and W.E.B. Du Bois, among others, round out the volume, along with several essays of varying quality.
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Editor Sheree R. Thomas’ first anthology of science fiction by African-American writers, Dark Matter, was released in 2000 to critical acclaim. Her second entry in the series, Dark Matter: Reading the Bones, $25.95, 416 pages ISBN 0446528609), once again showcases a wonderful selection of new and established writers. Thomas’ latest collection is a wide and deep survey of the burgeoning field she defines as “speculative fiction from the African diaspora.”
The 24 stories range from straightforward science fiction (by writers David Findlay and Kiini Ibura Salaam), to reprints from the field’s leading lights (Nalo Hopkinson, Samuel R. Delany).
Cherene Sherrard’s “The Quality of Sand” is one of the key stories. Escaped slaves Jamal and Delphine run a pirate ship in the 19th century Caribbean. When they rescue a woman from Jamal’s home country, there is an unexpected and deep recognition between them. Sherrard’s successful mix of slavery and freedom, gender and religion, belief and duty mirrors many of the concerns expressed elsewhere in Reading the Bones.
Some of the writers explore the darker aspects of life such as Hopkinson’s version of the Bluebeard fairy tale, “The Glass Bottle Trick,” Kevin Brockenbrough’s near-future vampire story, “‘Cause Harlem Needs Heroes,” and Pam Noles’ “Whipping Boy,” in which the lead character cannot escape his role of taking his people’s pain into himself. Given that, there is still space for humor throughout.
Reading the Bones illustrates the strength and diversity in the field of speculative fiction and makes us hop that many more volumes in the Dark Matter series are yet to come.
–Gavin J. Grant, Bookpage
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Sheree R. Thomas’ groundbreaking 2000 anthology Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora came as something of a revelation to many readers, not so much because of its historical content (only three of the stories dated from earlier than 1967, and a good swath of African-American fantastic writing went largely unexplored), but because it revealed the breadth of interest in SF, fantasy, and horror among contemporary black writers; no fewer than 15 of 28 stories were original to the volume, and the contributors included not only familiar names with already-established reputations in these fields (Octavia Butler, Samuel R. Delany, Steven Barnes, Jewell Gomez), but well-known authors from other fields (Walter Mosley, Amiri Baraka) and newer writers such as Tananarive Due and Nalo Hopkinson, whose reputations have grown substantially since the publication of that anthology.
Like that first volume, Dark Matter: Reading the Bones consists mostly of new stories (17 out of 24, plus two essays and a transcript of a panel discussion) and reveals a slight emphasis toward SF (with a third of the stories reasonably so classifiable). Again, the historical material is rather thin, with only five stories dating from earlier than 2000; Samuel R. Delany’s “Corona” (1967) and W.E.B. Du Bois’ “Jesus Christ in Texas” (1920) are the oldest pieces in the book. Ten of the authors represented in the new book also had stories or essays in the earlier volume, lending a trace of déjà vu to what originally had seemed a voyage of discovery.
Thomas avows that she had no preconceived framework in mind in selecting or inviting contributions, yet what she ends up with suggests — as did the first volume — that there is indeed a sensibility at work among these writers which has largely been marginal (read: barely visible) in the genre traditions involved. If SF and fantasy have historically gotten nervous about sex and politics, the contributors to Dark Matter are downright assertive.
There’s a far more overt voice of protest in many of these stories, while at the same time there’s a more comfortable focus on matters of sensuality and the body — sometimes even in the same story. Walter Mosley’s “Whispers in the Dark,” for example — the lead story in his 2001 Futureland collection and one of the strongest — features a brilliant kid in danger of being removed from his poor black family as part of a government-sponsored elite education program, until his uncle rescues him by selling various parts, including his eyes and his sex organs, in order to raise the money needed to keep the child at home.
This notion of a brutal bureaucracy invading people’s lives is also central to Charles Johnson’s “Sweet Dreams,” in which a government strapped for cash in the wake of anti-tax initiatives is reduced to taxing people’s dreams; in Wanda Coleman’s “Buying Primo Time,” in which a woman artist barters sexual favors for loans needed to buy additional weeks of life from the “Life Security Assurance Council”; in Jill Robinson’s “BLACKout,” which depicts an unexpected and unpleasant aftermath to a decision to pay government reparations to descendants of slaves; and in Kalamu ya Salaam’s “Trance,” about a time-travel project to recover lost black history which is threatened by a worldwide “One Planet” movement to eliminate cultural diversity by turning everyone a uniform shade of beige.
With the exception of the latter, which is the longest and most fully-developed SF tale in the book, most of these are little more than provocative ideas dressed in barely serviceable plots.
Those tales which focus more on matters of the body than the body politic include Charles R. Saunders’ “Yamiba’s Choice,” featuring his heroic Doussouye challenging the ancient spirits who seem to demand ritual clitorectomy; Kiini Ibura Salaam’s “Desire” and David Findlay’s remarkable “Recovery from a Fall,” which recast religious or mythical tales in sensualist (and sometimes narratively experimental) terms; Pam Noles’ “Whipping Boy,” which adapts the old sin-eater legend into a modern horror story involving select individuals whose role is to absorb — in rather graphic terms — the frustration and rage of the urban poor; and Ibi Aanu Zoboi’s “Old Fresh Song”; in which an embittered homeless woman who gains sustenance by absorbing the life-energy of babies meets her match when she encounters a nanny who is also a soucouyant.
Meeting one’s match is another recurrent theme in the tales, sometimes in terms that directly reflect a kind of pop-culture wish fulfillment. Douglas Kearney’s brief “Anansi Meets Peter Parker at the Taco Bell” is pretty well summarized in its title (Peter Parker, for those who forgot, is the alter ego of Spider Man), while Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu’s “The Magical Negro” pits a Conan-like barbarian hero named Thor the Brave against a jive-talking, cigar-puffing brother from another fantasy.
In Kevin Brockenbrough’s “Cause Harlem Needs Heroes,” a Harlem besieged by vampires and abandoned by the government is protected instead by a family of legendary vampire-killers. And in John Cooley’s “The Binary,” evil Japanese spirits called oni are challenged by supernaturally empowered good guys called “binaries” because of the ancient spirits which co-inhabit their bodies.
The slave trade also comes up against supernatural balance sheets in ihsan bracy’s poetic re-visioning of an Ibo legend in “ibo landing” and Cherene Sherrard’s “The Quality of Sand,” in which a band of what in any other context would be called pirates rescue the prisoners of slave ships.
A more purely science-fictional treatment of the slavery theme on a planet called New Bahama; the story represents one of the most thoroughly-realized SF settings in the book, along with Andrea Hairston’s novel fragment “Mindscape,” in which a mysterious glittering barrier divides a world into isolated segments, and the Kalamu ya Salaam’s story already mentioned.
Music is the guiding metaphor in both Henry Duma’s “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and Samuel Delany’s “Corona” (as in the first volume, Thomas rather oddly reaches back into the early years of Delany’s career for this tale), and art of another sort shows up in Tyehimba’s Jess’s ingratiatingly manic “Voodoo Vincent and the Astrostoriograms,” in which a street artist is given the power of prophecy and gets his comeupance when he fails to use his newfound wealth to help his people.
It’s not surprising that even even the early Delany is one of the most beautifully written pieces in the book, and it’s equally clear why Nalo Hopkinson (here represented by “The Glass Bottle Trick,” a kind of duppified version of Bluebeard) has emerged as one of the field’s more distinctive voices in the last few years (see above). Tananarive Due is another writer whose reputation and skill have grown noticeably in recent years, although her “Afternoon” is more of a clever conceit (a dermatologist who treats werewolves) than a fully-realized story.
The most famous name in the book, of course, is the oldest: W.E.B. Du Bois, whose avuncular homily “Jesus Christ in Texas” is far less compelling than his “The Comet” in Thomas’ first volume.
As with the first anthology, or as with any anthology of largely original stories by largely newer writers, Dark Matter: Reading the Bones is predictably uneven, with some writers tentatively and awkwardly probing the possibilities of the fantastic, some driving their lessons home with a hammer, and some finding entire new ways of using these materials, but it again serves to remind us that fantastic literature, at least in terms of the popular genres, has barely begun to open its doors to alternative voices and sensibilities.
–Gary K. Wolfe, Locus (11/03)
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Sheree Renée Thomas is a writer, editor, small publisher, educator, and mother whose work has appeared in numerous publications and literary journals. She is the co-publisher of the literary journal, Anansi: Fiction of the African Diaspora, owner of SEER Editorial Services, and founder of Wanganegresse Press.
Wanga Presss first title, Mojo Rising: Confessions of a 21st Century Conjureman by Arthur Flowers was short-listed for the Hurston/Wright Foundations LEGACY Award and the PEN Open Book Award. A Cave Canem Fellow and a 2003 New York Foundation for the Arts Fellow in Poetry.
Thomas’ fiction and poetry are anthologized in Role Call: A Generational Anthology of Social and Political Black Literature and Art (Third World Press), 2001: A Science Fiction Poetry Anthology (Anamnesis Press), Bum Rush the Page: A Def Poetry Jam (Three Rivers) edited by Tony Medina and Louis Reyes Rivera, and Nalo Hopkinson’s Mojo: Conjure Stories (Warner 2003), as well as the literary journals African Voices, Black Renaissance/Renaissance Noire (NYU/Indiana University Press), Meridians: feminism, race, transnationalism (Smith College/Wesleyan University Press), Drumvoices Revue: 10th Anniversary Anthology (SIUE), Obsidian III: Literature of the African Diaspora (NCSU), Voices: The Wisconsin Review of African Literatures (University of Wisconsin at Madison), and Ishmael Reeds KONCH.
In 2003 she was awarded the Ledig House/LEF Foundation Prize for Fiction for her novel, Bonecarver, and was nominated for the 2003 Rhysling Award in the Short Poem category for her poem, “Starry Crown.” Her work, “Black River Ritual” also received Honorable Mention in The Years Best Fantasy & Horror: Sixteen Annual Collection (St. Martins Griffin, 2003). As a journalist and book critic, her reviews have appeared in Upscale, The Washington Post Book World, Black Issues Book Review, QBR, American Visions, and Emerge Magazine.
A native of Memphis and the mother of two daughters, Thomas is a member of the Beyond Dusa Women’s Collective, the New Renaissance Writers Guild, and teaches creative writing and short fiction at the Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center in Manhattan. Her first anthology, Dark Matter: A Century of Speculative Fiction from the African Diaspora, won the World Fantasy Award and the Gold Pen Award. Her second book, Dark Matter: Reading the Bones, was released on January 2, 2004 by Warner Aspect. She is currently editing a third volume in her groundbreaking black science fiction series, tentatively titled Dark Matter: Africa Rising, in addition to Eldersongs, her oral history and poetry program, and other writing projects designed to uplift, engage, and enlighten the community.
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Report of the Research Committeeon Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings Thomas Jefferson Foundation
Based on the examination of currently available primary and secondary documentary evidence, the oral histories of descendants of Monticello’s African-American community, recent scientific studies, and the guidance of individual members of Monticello’s Advisory Committee for the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies and Advisory Committee on African-American Interpretation, the Research Committee has reached the following conclusions:
Dr. Foster’s DNA study was conducted in a manner that meets the standards of the scientific community, and its scientific results are valid.
The DNA study, combined with multiple strands of currently available documentary and statistical evidence, indicates a high probability that Thomas Jefferson fathered Eston Hemings, and that he most likely was the father of all six of Sally Hemings’s children appearing in Jefferson’s records. Those children are Harriet, who died in infancy; Beverly; an unnamed daughter who died in infancy; Harriet; Madison; and Eston.
Many aspects of this likely relationship between Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson are, and may remain, unclear, such as the nature of the relationship, the existence and longevity of Sally Hemings’s first child, and the identity of Thomas C. Woodson.
The implications of the relationship between Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson should be explored and used to enrich the understanding and interpretation of Jefferson and the entire Monticello community.Monticello
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Thomas Jefferson (April 13, 1743 July 4, 1826) was the principal author of the Declaration of Independence (1776) and the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom (1777), the third President of the United States (18011809) and founder of the University of Virginia (1819). He was an influential Founding Father and an exponent of Jeffersonian democracy.
Sarah “Sally” Hemings (Shadwell, Albemarle County, Virginia, circa 1773 Charlottesville, Virginia, 1835) was a mixed-race slave owned by President Thomas Jefferson through inheritance from his wife. She was the half-sister of Jefferson’s wife, Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson by their father John Wayles. She was notable because most historians now believe that the widower Jefferson had six children with her, and maintained an extended relationship for 38 years until his death. When Jefferson’s relationship and children were reported in 1802, there was sensational coverage for a time, but Jefferson remained silent on the issue. Four Hemings-Jefferson children survived to adulthood. He let two “escape” in 1822 at the age of 21 and freed the younger two in his will in 1826.
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By Annette Gordon-Reed
Attorney Gordon-Reed (law, New York Law Sch.) presents a lawyer’s analysis of the evidence for and against the proposition that Jefferson was the father of several children born to his household slave Sally Hemings. Gordon-Reed is not concerned with Jefferson and Hemings as much as she is with how Jefferson’s defenders have dealt with the evidence about the case. Her book takes aim at such noteworthy biographers as Dumas Malone, who has been quick to accept evidence against a liaison and quick to reject evidence for one.Library Journal
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By Virginia Scharff
According to historian Scharff, Thomas Jeffersons most closely guarded secrets, the most fiercely maintained silences, all had to do with the women he loved. It stands to reason that in order to fully understand a man as tremendously gifted and as deeply flawed as Thomas Jefferson, one must also understand and appreciate the women who collectively formed the foundation of his life and shaped the nature of his legacy. Although Jeffersons mother, daughters, granddaughters, wife, and enslaved mistress were all fascinating women who played distinct roles in his life and legend, they were also creatures of their time and place, living, enduring, and playing by the rules of a patriarchal, male-dominated society. By studying these women Scharff not only opens a window to the heart and soul of one of our nations founders but also resurrects their own contributions to our nations history.Booklist
The chapter on Sally Hemings does not add much new information, but it certainly lays out the facts we know in a comprehensive and well organized fashion. Much like Professor Gordon-Reed, the author carefully explains the strange dual-family existence that prevailed at Monticello, and how servants integrated with the Jefferson family as they all lived together. As regards the two daughters, they too emerge from the historical darkness and we learn a great deal about them and their important role in TJ’s life and activities. As I read each chapter, I learned all manner of things of which I had not been aware, and I have read a lot of material on TJ. So women are central to the story, but there is also an abundance of additional facts and perspectives that very much enhance the book. Ronald H. Clark
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By Annette Gordon-Reed
This is a scholar’s book: serious, thick, complex. It’s also fascinating, wise and of the utmost importance. Gordon-Reed, a professor of both history and law who in her previous book helped solve some of the mysteries of the intimate relationship between Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings, now brings to life the entire Hemings family and its tangled blood links with slave-holding Virginia whites over an entire century. Gordon-Reed never slips into cynicism about the author of the Declaration of Independence. Instead, she shows how his life was deeply affected by his slave kinspeople: his lover (who was the half-sister of his deceased wife) and their children. Everyone comes vividly to life, as do the places, like Paris and Philadelphia, in which Jefferson, his daughters and some of his black family lived. So, too, do the complexities and varieties of slaves’ lives and the nature of the choices they had to makewhen they had the luxury of making a choice. Gordon-Reed’s genius for reading nearly silent records makes this an extraordinary work.Publishers Weekly
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From The World and Africa, 1965
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update 17 July 2011
Related files: Dark Matter Contributors