Homespun Images

Homespun Images


ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



The literature of Black Memphians offers many examples of individuals

who refused to be defeated by obstacles such as racism, sexism and classism



 Books by Miriam DeCosta-Willis

Daughters of the Diaspora: Afra-Hispanic Writers (2003  / Singular Like a Bird: The Art of Nancy Morejon (1999)

  The Memphis Diary of Ida B. Wells (1995) / Erotique Noire/Black Erotica  (1992) / Homespun Images ( 1989) 

*   *   *   *   *

Homespun Images

An Anthology of Black Memphis Writers and Artists

Miriam DeCosta-Willis & Fannie Mitchell Delk, Editors

Philip Dotson, Art Editor

Funded by The Memphis Black Writers’ Workshop

LeMoyne-Owen College / Memphis, Tennessee / 1989



Preface by Fannie Mitchel Delk

The Memphis Black Writers’ Workshop was founded nearly a decade ago. Born in 1980 at LeMoyne-Owen College, the Workshop was the brainchild of a group of writers who longed for opportunities to develop their craft; who knew that others in the Memphis community needed kindred souls with whom to share the pleasures of literature; who longed to experience the joy of breathing life into a poem or a story or a painting or a photograph; who needed to record the sagas of their foreparents, so that the deeds of these strong men and women would live forever in the minds and hearts of the young.

The guiding philosophy of this organization of writers and painters and musicians and preachers and photographers and philosophers is that the literary arts are important to the cultural vitality of a people and of a place. Thus, the Memphis Black Writers’ Workshop aims to foster, to promote and to support creative writing in the community.

To help writers develop their craft, to encourage an appreciation of literature, to offer activities that underscore the significance of writing, and to enhance the creative and intellectual environment of Memphis–these are the objectives of the organization. To achieve these objectives, the MBWW has offered to the community, in general, and to Workshop members, in particular, poetry festivals and symposia where Dudley Randall, Sonia Sanchez, Lance Jeffers, and John Oliver Killens read from their works and conducted writing workshops. Workshop members have written vignettes on famous Black Memphians for “Lest We Forget,” a Black History Month video presentation of WHBQ television, Channel 13, and have also completed research projects on local history.

During Tennessee Homecoming ’86, the group presented “Homespun Images,” a series of programs which examined the importance of community, of home, in a writer’s work. Offered were sessions on fiction, poetry and nonfiction led by writers Arthur Flowers, Paula Giddings, and Nikki Giovanni. Fittingly, this celebration was the idea, the seed, for Homespun Images: An Anthology of Black Writers and Artists.

In rich soil, the seed was planted. Out went the call for manuscripts. In came contributions from 85 Memphians. The Editorial Review Board selected the works of 53 writers for inclusion. In rich soil, the seed grew to be a young plant, nurtured by authors and artists, examined by reviewers, proofreaders, and editors. And so, the plant that started from the seed of a homecoming celebration came to be called Homespun Images, a year-long project that is the single most ambitious project of the organization. It is at once the raison d’etre of the Memphian Black Writers’ Workshop.

Acknowledgements go to the members of the Editorial Review Board: levi Frazier, Jr., co-founder, Blues City Cultural Center; Bee Jay Freeman, MBWW member, and professor of English, Shelby State Community College; Mose Yvone Hooks, Assistant Dean of career Studies, Shelby State Community College; Rhynette Hurd, Assistant Professor of English, Memphis State University; Reginald Martin, Associate Professor of Composition, Memphis State University; and Yvonne Robinson-Jones, Associate Professor of English, Shelby State Community College. The Workshop members are also grateful to proofreaders Vera Clark and Mae Fitzgerald, both active members of the group, and Noah Bond, the immediate past chairperson of the Memphis Writers’ Workshop.


“Down Beale Street and into the Heart of Memphis”

 Images of Home in the Works of Black Memphis Writers

By Miriam DeCosta-Willis 


… we took the train … into Memphis. From this point on the panorama of the unfolding of this vivid and virile river town has been a part of my daily observation.  —Fred Hutchins

… there came the lynching in Memphis which changed the whole course of my life. —Ida B. Wells

The big passenger boat turns the bend and the Oldcity looms up on the bluff … an overgrown rivertown. Home. The Oldcity and mudrich delta land that it guards is one of our strongholds. We are plentiful here. Here we are strong. —A.R. Flowers

Memphis. A rivertown nestled in the bend of the Mississippi River. Steamboats, ferry boats, and cotton barges ply the dark treacherous waters before unloading their cargo on the cobblestone landing at the foot of Beale.

Memphis. A city high on the bluff, where Chickasaw Indians built towns overlooking the water and Hernando DeSoto made boats to cross the river and fur traders erected forts along the shore. A frontier town, rough and wild in those early days. Someone once called it “a primitive and Pestilential little mudhold,” but by the 1900s it was known as the Murder Capital of the World.

Memphis. The first stop on the journey north from Natchez to Chicago. Thousands poured into the city: escaped slaves came on foot in the 1860s; the sharecroppers arrived in mule-drawn wagons at the turn of the century; the more affluent drove to town in Model T Fords after World War One; and the dispossessed crowded into segregated trains during the Depression.

Memphis became home to uprooted Mississippians–country folk who brought their guitars and banjos, their colorful language and tall tales, their folk tunes and blues rhythms to the big city. Memphis became home to writers whose words and images evoked the awesome beauty of the southern landscape and the terrible quick violence of its people.

Ida B. Wells came north from Holly Springs, Mississippi in the the 1880s to teach, but she later became a journalist, describing in her diary the social events of the community–the church fairs, school programs, and literary meetings–while exposing the naked underside of the city in a series of scathing editorials, like this one in the Inter-Ocean:

. . . . three respectable colored men were lynched in cold blood in Memphis, Tenn., March 9th, 1892 . . . [As] a direct result of the Commercial Leader and the actions of the leading citizens of Memphis, May 25, 1892, my newspaper business was destroyed, my business manager run out of town, and myself threatened with death should I ever return. . . .

Fred Hutchins viewed the city somewhat differently. In the 1890s, he left Michigan City, Mississippi in a wagon and took a train to Memphis. Almost seventy years later, he wrote a book which captured the legends and anecdotes of Memphis at the turn of the century, and recorded stories about Boss Crump, W.C. Handy, Casey Jones, and the woman who predicted the fall of the city on March 5, 1906.

Hutchins was one of many Blacks who migrated from southern plantations to northern cities (although his journey was only 60 miles north to Memphis), and he conveys in his work some of the wonder and excitement (like the breathless excitement of Savannah-born Erma Calderon: “I was like Alice in Wonderland. I had never seen such beautiful scenery in all my life–all lit up. All of these people–all of these hundreds of thousands of people walking up and down the sidewalk. Well, my God!”) that the Big City as an image evoked in the imagination of country folk–an important theme in Afro-American literature of the period.

In 1900, T.O. Fuller moved to Memphis from a small town in North Carolina. A prolific writer, he presents in his autobiography a different view of the city,

The multiplicity of churches was a very interesting feature of Memphis. Forty colored Baptist churches for one city seemed a marvel. Spectacular funerals were new to me also.

A few years later, Sutton E. Griggs, who became one of the city’s most prominent ministers, moved to Memphis from Texas. Griggs wrote more than nine books between 1899 and 1929, including novels which he published and promoted himself. During the same period, Miles V. Lynk, editor of an anthology and author of a play, an autobiography, and a history of the Spanish-American War, moved to Memphis from Jackson, Tennessee. 

Just before the First World War, George W. Lee deserted the small sharecropper’s shack on a plantation near Heathman, Mississippi and headed north to Memphis, where he became a nationally-acclaimed novelist and folklorist. Several years later, a young man, soon to be recognized as one of the most outstanding writers of the twentieth century, arrived in the Bluff City. Richard Wright recalled in his autobiography

I arrived Memphis on a cold November morning, in 1925, and lugged my suitcase down quiet,empty sidewalks through winter sunshine. I found Beale Street, the street that I had been told was filled with danger … I walked down Beale Street and into the heart of Memphis, my body was thin, my overcoat shabby, and each gust of wind chilled my blood.

From Mississippi, Texas, North Carolina, and West Tennessee they came—that first generation of writers, who “walked down Beale Street and into the heart of Memphis.” Proud men and women, they described their extraordinary lives in a series of memorable diaries and autobiographies, while they recorded the accomplishments of the race in their biographies, histories, and prose narratives. Their works were didactic and polemical because, like most educated Blacks born in the perilous years following the Civil War, they were committed to racial uplift in their professional and community activities, as well as in their intellectual and creative efforts. 

They were doctors, ministers, teachers, and missionaries, who also happened to write. Only one—the pistol packing Ida—was able to sustain herself, however precariously, by her writing. She notes in her diary that the Detroit Plaindealer paid her $2.00 per article and one editor paid her expenses to a press convention, but the editor of the Indianapolis World paid her with a two-year subscription (“Cheeky that,” she remarked, refusing to write for that paper again). 

Many writers, like Fuller, Lynk, and Griggs, printed their own novels and histories because American publishing houses refused the works of Afro-Americans except for works, like Paul Lawrence Dunbar’s dialect verse, which reinforced negative stereotypes. As Richard Barksdale notes, “Dunbar’s portraits of dancing, contented Black people, living a rural life of free of hunger, illness, and privation, comforted white America and eased its guilty conscience.”

Social realities shape the work of Black Memphis writers whose themes often reflect an ambivalence toward their native city. On the one hand, they write nostalgically of a warm and embracing community of relatives, friends, and neighbors who evoke an image of “home”; while, on the other hand, they describe a city where attitudes and lifestyles reflect a history characterized by segregated public facilities, lynchings and an infamous assassination. 

The positive images, however, prevail. In the 1980s, for example, A.R. Flowers, who left Memphis for the brighter lights of New York City, looked back nostalgically to the Memphis of his youth remembering the Oldcity, the rivertown, in the mudrich delta. Like many writers—John Oliver Killens (his mentor), Ernest Gaines, Sonia Sanchez, and Alice Walker—who left the South in search of opportunities and resources to support their craft he discovered that his creative roots are grounded in Black southern culture with its distinctive language, music, legends, and folk types (conjure women, blues singers, and witch doctors). 

The Memphis of his novel is the city of his childhood, of his growing up years—Riverside Park before the expressway and Beale Street urban renewal, a Beale Street of music, legend and poetry:

Beale Street

Wailing the blues

Dancing the shoes done left me

Moaning, longing to belong … but




This street, as well as the people and places associated with it—Pee Wee’s, W. C. Handy, the Midnight Ramble, Rufus and Carla Thomas—looms large in the imaginations of composers and poets who view it as a symbol of Black urban life. Many early writers like G. P. Hamilton and George W. Lee describe in their works a golden age when Beale Street was the political, educational, business and cultural center of Memphis’ Black community; some contemporary writers, however, criticize the virtual destruction of the street by developers who neither understand nor appreciate the historical significance of Beale Street.

This disillusionment with urban life is a major theme in contemporary literature, but many Memphis writers prefer to describe the city of their youth, particularly in their personal narratives. Lula Reed, for example, depicts the Sunday morning services and Christmas celebrations of the North Memphis neighborhood where she grew up seventy years ago, while Vera Clark juxtaposes her Shannon Street of the thirties against the infamous street recently described by the press, noting that events would have been different

if they [the men who died] could have gone with us in spring to a creek baptizing, in summer to a front-porch wedding, in fall to a hogkilling or just one Saturday night, watched in awe, while Daddy wrung a chicken’s neck for Sunday’s supper …

And Gloria Wade-Gayles remembers the housing project where she grew up in the forties as a place where neighbors nurtured children with ghost stories and sweet potato pies, and where families supported each other against the incursions of Main Street (like Peabody Hotel, a symbol of White privilege and authority in Black writing).

Nostalgia for the past is a recurring theme in literature, but it is much more than a literary convention at the hands of Black writers whose memories of the past underscore the deracination of uprooting of their community, which ends in isolation, alienation and disaffection. The literary return to the past evokes a racial history, community values, and a cultural heritage that was transmitted by the elders (the ex-slaves of Elma Stuckey’s poetry), the grandmothers (the Ginger Nolas of the projects), and the preachers, like the one described by Reuben Green:

Man of God by calling, but often a teacher, healer, carpenter and undertaker by necessity, it was the Black Preacher who took down the mutilated bodies of Black men after the mobs had done their worst.

The preachers and the grandmothers were the culture bearers who celebrated the rites and rituals of the community—the countless baptisms, weddings, family reunions, and worship services—told stories that were transmitted from one generation to another, and sang the songs that strengthened the ties that bound people together.

Social realities continue to shape the work—the themes, tone, points of view, and forms of discourse—of contemporary Black Memphis writers, who, like their literary predecessors, are concerned with self-identity (as determined by race, gender, and class) and with the cultural legacy of the past, Black Memphians, including those of the present generation, write within the framework of an Afro-American literary tradition which was shaped by history (the African past, slavery, the southern plantation system, the Great Migration); developed out of rural-urban folk culture, emphasized social themes, particularly racial protest; and was expressed primarily in non-fiction, including such genres as the essay, oration, sermon, autobiography, personal memoir, and narrative history.

Non-fiction is now and has been the forte of Black Memphis writers. The autobiographies of Virginia Broughton, Ida B. Wells, Mary Church Terrell and Miles V. Lynk (all born in the mid-nineteenth century) are paralleled by the more recent works of Henry Bunton, W. Herbert Brewster and Terry Whitmore; the biographical sketches of famous Blacks by Roberta Church, Robert Waller, George Hardin, and Sterling Stuckey, have earlier models; the literary anthologies of Hugh Gloster, Beverly Guy-Sheftall, and Miriam DeCosta continue a tradition established by Lynk’s The Afro-American School Speaker and Gems of Literature; Addie Jones, Mildred Green, and Ron Walter examine local history, as did G.P. Hamilton, T.O. Fuller, and Fred Hutchins; while writers like Gloria Wade-Gayles, C. Eric Lincoln, Reginald Martin and Horace Newsum have produced textbooks, religious works, and books of literary criticism. 

Some of these scholar-critics are also imaginative writers—poets, short story writers, novelists, and dramatists—whose fictional works reveal as well as a teacher and scholar, Gloria Wade-Gayles is a poet who also writes works of literary criticism; Horace Newsum writes textbooks and works of socio-political theory, as well as poetry; C. Eric Lincoln is a distinguished scholar who also writes poetry and fiction; and A.R. Flowers, a novelist, publishes essays and book reviews.

The themes of creative writers and of scholar-critics, are often similar. The themes can be grouped into two major categories: those related to personal discovery and self-awareness, and those which examine the community within the context of a broad cultural heritage. The first category includes such themes as childhood memories, self-identity, kinship ties, the search for knowledge, and personal trauma (love betrayed, the death of a parent, and racist or sexist oppression). Childhood memories, for example, inform the personal narratives of Vera Clark and Charlotte R. Bush, as well as the poetry of Elma Stuckey and Cheryl Tate Lambert. Larry Conley’s “Notes From a Father,” and Cornell McNeil-Rudd’s “1986 … continued from 1959” study the complex bonding of parent and child, while other works examine male-female relationships, using erotic images to evoke the physical pleasure of love:

when the candles burn low into

sculptured designs, I purr

to the rhythm of your gentle strokes            (Wade-Gayles)


before we ever slept together,

and I knew the luscious mole on your back

and every beige crevice that leads from your curved

bottom.            (Martin)

Poets, Saville, Knight, Stuckey, and Matthews suggest, sometimes bitterly, sometimes humorously, that relationships between Black men and women are often destroyed by infidelity, insensitivity or opportunism,

He’s a con man from his hear,

I give the devil his due.

If your husband dies don’t publicize

‘Cause he’ll be after you.            (Stuckey)

while playwright Jerry McGlown, in The Laws of Change, examines the fantasies and disillusionments of an interracial couple with different needs and expectations.

According to writers who matured during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and the Women’s Movement of the 1970s, failed relationships often result from Walker and Carolyne Matthews explore the problems and enigmas of women, while scholars like Joyce Young and Beverly Guy-Sheftall probe the complex forces which define women, drawing upon personal experiences and sensibilities to explain herstory. Memories of her mother reveal the source of Black feminism to Guy-Sheftall, who writes reflectively: “Though my mother, Ernestine, would certainly not have referred to herself as a feminist, she, like countless other Black mothers, instilled in their daughters a Black feminist sensibility which I believe has been critical to our survival as a race.”

Other writers describe female archetypes (church women “clapping their white-gloved hands like thunder” and sirens “with over-sized buttocks in painted-on pants”), as well as the rites and rituals of womanhood: sexual “coming of age,” child-bearing, mothering, the “change,” and the horror of abortion, painfully exposed by writers such as Alice Walker, Ntozake Shange, Audre Lourde … and Memphian Nan Savile:

It is our life

that floats in this jar

torn from me

and pickled,

Its death

Immortalized in formaldehyde;

On occasion, sensitive male poets graphically describe the rituals of womanhood. Etheridge Knight, for example, recalls the birth of his son:

When / the blood of your birth / is / screaming


like a fountain from

the white thighs of your mother—

•           •            •

As / she issues you / forth on a sunday night,

(on a chilling, raining, sun / day / night)—

The men also write of their own pain, sometimes speaking with the plural voice, the “we” of their collective oppression—“They hunted us like animals,” (Harry Bryce) and “i see fragments of my dreams hanging imply in pale bloody hands,” (Isom W. Jones)—or with singular, “I,” like Ethridge recalling the intimate details of lost love, imprisonment and drug addiction:

… I had a ball till the caps ran out

and my habit came down. The night I looked at my

grandmother and split / my guts were screaming for

junk / but I was almost contented / I had almost

caught up with me.

(The next day in Memphis I cracked a croaker’s crib for a fix).

Pain and suffering often lead to individual growth and maturity, as Thelma Balfour discovers when she examines her mother’s death from caner and her own paralyzing fear of the disease. For Balfour and other essayists, the act of writing can be a catharsis, which permits them to convert destructive emotions (fear, anger, hatred) associated with painful past experiences into sources of personal growth, knowledge or action. 

The literature of Black Memphians offers many examples of individuals who refused to be defeated by obstacles such as racism, sexism and classism—obstacles which made them determined to become strong, independent, and committed. In “Reflections,” Vasco Smith describes the racial incidents that shaped his social consciousness, which Gloria Wade-Gayles recalls her grandmother’s lesson—that racism pushes Black people “”back” into strength.” Biographers and historians also tell inspiring stories of Memphians like Sojourner Truth who made outstanding contributions to their communities in spite of the strictures of a rigidly enforced caste system.

Biographers of Robeson and Terrell demonstrate that the literature of Black Memphians frequently moves thematically from the personal to the political, from the individual to the group, because writers understand that, for most Afro-Americans, the individual achieves significance within a larger social context (family, church, community), which in turn must be set within a historical framework. Writing about nineteenth-century Afro-American literature, Stephen Butterfield noted that the “self is conceived as a member of an oppressed social group, with ties and responsibilities to the other members. It is a conscious political identify, drawing sustenance from the past experience of the group …”

The “ties and responsibilities” may relate to family (however defined: nuclear, extended, grandmother- or mother- headed household, “outside” and “inside” children): a geographic neighborhood such as Orange Mound, New Chicago, or Bear Water, which is bounded by railroad tracks, a dead-end street, or a factory; or the Black community. In their works, many writers portray a “love-bound family,” consisting of grandmothers weaving tales of the African past, mothers who take their children to church on Christmas morning, and fathers … yes fathers like Harry Bryce’s “Hue Man”

When the Father Man

the meat and potato/Man

the “I want you to be like me”/Man

the hue/Man

The family is often large and extended with a host of uncles, aunts, and cousins several times removed, who gather together, as they do in Starling’s poem “Family Reunion,” to celebrate the present and remember the past.

Reunion is the gentle painful fingering of textures

Made by weavers gone from us

Loved long, revered:

And, the yet raw grief on touching

The bare places made where those cut off too soon

Have left their tracings.

The family is centered in the home. The house, the physical structure in which the family lives, may be very humble: an apartment unit in Memphis public housing project; a little place by the railroad tracks in the Delta where Cornell McNeil-Rudd grew up before her family moved to the house on a red gravel road in North Memphis; or the make-shift flat that Lula Reed remembers:

… we rented two of the servant’s rooms in the tenement house. The dilapidated dwelling was an old slave-time “mansion,” cut into flats for Black residents.

—but home is more than a house; it is the place “where the heart is, where all around are reflections: sights, sounds, impressions” (Delk); it is a place where all the small daily rituals of family living (plaiting hair, swapping lies, and serving the preacher Sunday dinner) cement relationships. Many of these rituals, particularly the verbal kind like telling tales, swapping lies, gossiping, and playing the dozens, take place on the front porch, which connects the family, physically and symbolically, to the neighborhood.

The front porches were large enough for a few potted plants and three straightback kitchen chairs brought outside on warm summer nights. It was on these front porches that women gathered after sundown to discuss children, husbands, neighbors, teachers, preachers, and, of course, White folks. (Wade-Gayles)

The front porch opens onto the neighborhood, a section of town noted for its schools, churches and businesses (Hyde Park School, Friendship Baptist Church, Waller’s Grocery and the Barn Nite Club), and characterized by the people (snowball men, snuff-dipping women, hot tamale vendors, and witch doctors) who live and work there. The Memphis of these poets and novelists is a Memphis of the past, evoked to the underscore the importance of community and a tradition in the preservation of Black culture. Some writers are more cerebral, more sanguine about the urgency of preserving institutions like the independent Black church and the historically Black college. 

Reuben Green and George Hardin underscore the importance of the Black minister as an institutional leader in the community; Mildred Green examines the role of Black musicians—performing artists, as well as music teachers, choral directors, and band leaders—in the history of American music; and Carla Thomas discusses the problems in the music industry. C. Eric Lincoln makes an eloquent plea for the survival of the Black college,

When the enormous contributions the Black college has made to the development and the welfare of America are properly assessed, one wonders how this nation avoided declaring it a national treasure …

while Mae Fitzgerald underscores the importance of LeMoyne-Owen College to the city.

The themes, symbols and images of Memphis’ Black writers are echoed in the works of the city’s photographers and painters who capture the textures and rhythms of Black life: blues singers from the Mississippi Delta, church sisters dressed up in their Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes, and children pouring over textbooks in a one-room schoolhouse. 

Ernest Withers, a photojournalist, has recorded the social, political and business activities of the community for almost forty years, while photographer Robert Jones, who grew up in North Memphis and developed his craft at the Memphis Art Academy, traveled through Mississippi documenting the revivals, fish fries, blue concerts, and folk festivals of the Delta. The “singing eye” of each photographer—Leonard West, George Hardin, Morgan Murrell, and Eddie Jones—looks upon the external world from a different angle: there is irony in Hardin’s photograph of a Black child fondling a White doll; there is mystery and intrigue in Eddie Jones’s triple images of a man; and there is a quiet beauty in Sengstacke’s photograph of a Muslin woman at prayer.

These visual artists are fascinated with Black life in its varied forms, but their images also underscore the unifying elements in African, Caribbean, and Afro American culture: delight in color and rhythm, love of music and dance, master of words, religious expressionism, a bittersweet view of life, and inner strength Philip Dotson’s dream visions and Harold Neal’s Haitian dancer conjure up ancient ancestral spirits; Kenneth Williamson’s weatherbeaten barn and Kazi Lawrence’s impressionist landscape evoke memories of the land (underneath all is the land); while Lawrence Houston’s slave ship and Arctick Smith’s cottonfields summon up painful memories of Black history—capture in a distant land, the middle passage, enslavement in a foreign land, and economic exploitation. 

Painters and photographers look beneath the surface for the “forms of things unseen”—the hopes of children at play, the fears of old men in the twilight of their lives, and the expectations of a young couple at their wedding celebration. The visual and verbal images are similar: Beale Street after dark, the Mississippi River in the distance; church steeples silhouetted against the sky; ministers leading a march; and silent mourners in front of the Lorraine Motel.

The visual images underscore and undergrid the written word, suggesting that, in spite of differences of tone, technique and mode of expression, there is a thematic thread that runs through the fabric of Black art in this city. It is the theme of Memphis as home with all that the world connotes—a place of origin; the physical, emotional and spiritual space that an individual inhabits; and a complex network of personal relationships (family, neighborhood, community) which define the self. Memphis has been home to generations of writers: many were born in the city; some moved to Memphis from other places and stayed; other lived in the area awhile and then moved on in search of greater opportunities. 

Writers were deeply affected by the city, its large Black population, distinctive language patterns, rich musical heritage, vibrant folk culture, rural/urban/suburban tensions, southern fundamentalism, racial polarization, and political conservatism. Such diverse elements explain in part the ambivalence that many writers feel toward Memphis, an ambivalence that finds expression in the blues forms, that “minute to smile, hour to weep in” dichotomy about which Etheridge writes:

You get the blues in twos

when you / be living

Like I / be living

In Memphis Tennessee

Homespun Images • Copyright © 1989 by Miriam DeCosta-Willis • Wimmer Brothers • Memphis, TN


Preface (Fannie M. Delk)


Introduction (Miriam DeCosta-Willis)


I. Non-Fiction

Fannie M. Delk Of Baptisms, Black Children and Dreams


Vera Clark Shannon Street–Sunshine and Shadow


Gloria Wade-Gayles Pushed Back into Strength


Carry Conley Notes from a Father


Cornell McNeil-Rudd 1986 . . . Continued from 1959


Lula Reed The Miracle at Claude’s Tree


Vasco Smith Reflections


Thelma Balfour Fears


Ron Walter Memphis Black Pioneers


Black Memphis Leaders


Roberta Church Mary Church Terrell


Frances M. Hassell Linked Lives


Robert L. Waller Now Whatcha Bet?


Miriam DeCosta-Willis Historic Landmarks of Beale Street


Mildred D. Green Selected Black Memphis Musicians


Timothy Lee Matthews An Interview with Carla Thomas


Reuben H. Green The Black Preacher


George E. Hardin A Son of Tennessee


C. Eric Lincoln The Historic Black Colleges


Mae Fitzgerald Sketch of a Memphis College


Sterling Stuckey Paul Robeson’s Early Years


Horace E. Newsum King and the Vietnam War


Beverly Guy Sheftall Remembering Sojourner Truth


Joyce L. Young Black Women as Leaders


II. Poetry

Harry Bryce Our Backs Were Unbending


Beyond the Canebrakes


Shiftin’ Soil (For Harry A. Bryce)


The Mississippi River Remembered


I have paid my dues Laud      Tell me its time to Fly


Trumpet Talk for Handy


Bee Jay Freeman Roots






Mute Comprehension


Elma Stuckey Tenement


Night and Sunshine


Sis Rose






These Old Feet


E. Payne Starling Family Reunion


Carrion Birds




Etheridge Knight A Poem for Myself


Haiku 1


Memo #43


The Birth of a Black/Baby/Boy


Prison Graveyard


The Bones of My Father


No Moon Floods the Memory


He Sees Through Stone


Once on a Night in the Delta


a black poet leaps to his death




Circling the Daughter


Cheryl Tate Lambert Mr. Crump


Summer of Sixty-Two


Nan Saville Encounter


Thursday’s Child








The Empress Revealed


Tommie Lee Ray Woman


country freedom


Reginald Martin What I Think It Is/What It Has Always Been


The Spectre In-Between


Gloria Wade-Gayles ageless love






for my grandmother


a woman’s beatitudes


Sunday Ritual


Daniel W. Durr The Marriage


The Passionate Night


Frank Lamont Phillips for Sandra








Last Night


Lillie M. Jackson Ambiguity


Irene Thompson The Drum She Say


No Name


For a Crystal Butterfly


Black Lament


Yvonne Robinson-Jones Dealings of the Big Top


The Tragedy of the American Hybrid


The Urban(e) Plantation


Charlotte Bush Untitled


Sermon on Sunday, June 3, 1979


Fannie Taylor On Electing a President




The Champ


I’m Never Embarrassed


Horace E. Newsum A Streetcar Named Desire


William Herbert Brewster The City for Freedom Now


An Ode to the Black Woman


Isom W. Jones explanation in miry clay


burn bright the fire


Joyce M. Winters A Love Song for All Memphis Men


The Ladies




Dessie M. Walker on being a woman




Carolyne Matthews just lying still




Shell Us




Carl E. Brown Hidden Dreams


III. Fiction and Drama

A.R. Flowers Another Good Loving Blues


Levi Frazier The Witch Doctor


Reginald Martin Everybody Knows What Time It Is


Violet Leigh Franklin Coleman The Deacon of North Memphis


Joyce L. Dukes How Many Miles to Bethlehem


Frank Lamont Philips Will a Matchbox Hold My Clothes


Cheryl Tate Lambert Tanks


The Awakening


The Beale Street Cat


The Three


Reginald Beal Zeus


Charlotte R. Bush Jesus and Nanny


Jerry McGlown The Laws of Change


      posted 2 December 2005      

Miriam DeCosta-Willis, author and college professor, was born 1 November 1934, in Florence, Alabama. She received her B.A. at Wellesley College in 1956; her M.A. Johns Hopkins in 1960; her Ph.D. Johns Hopkins in 1967 in Romance Languages. In 1967 she joined the faculty of Memphis State University as the first African American member, and while there agitated for more black staff members. When King was assassinated in 1968 she was in the march that erupted into violence and the police used mace on her.

DeCosta-Willis became a professor of Spanish and in 1970 chairperson of the Department of Romance Languages at Howard University. At Howard, she was exposed to Afro-Hispanic authors. In 1975 DeCosta-Willis left Howard and in 1979 returned to teaching at LeMoyne-Owen College. She remained there for ten years before taking a position at George Mason University. Leaving in 1991, DeCosta-Willis took a position with the University of Maryland, where she remained until her retirement in 1999. DeCosta-Willis served for ten years as an associate editor of SAGE: A Scholarly Journal on Black Women. She is co-founder and a former chairperson of the Memphis Black Writers Workshop, and has served on the Memphis Arts Council advisory committee and a review panelist for the National Endowment for the Humanities. DeCosta-Willis has four grown children. She divides her time between Washington, D.C., and Memphis.

Published Works:

Daughters of the Diaspora: Afra-Hispanic Writers (Kingston, Jamaica: Ian Randle Publisher, 2003)

Singular Like a Bird: The Art of Nancy Morejon (1999)

The Memphis Diary of Ida B. Wells (Beacon Press, 1995)

Erotique Noire/Black Erotica (New York: Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1992)

Homespun Images (Memphis, TN: Wimmer Brothers, 1989)

Blacks in Hispanic Literature: Critical Essays (1977

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Pilgrimage  to an  Ancestral Land: Ghana  / Miriam in Ghana

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Notable Black Memphians (Miriam DeCosta-Willis)—This biographical and historical study by Miriam DeCosta-Willis (PhD, Johns Hopkins University and the first African American faculty member of Memphis State University) traces the evolution of a major Southern city through the lives of men and women who overcame social and economic barriers to create artistic works, found institutions, and obtain leadership positions that enabled them to shape their community. Documenting the accomplishments of Memphians who were born between 1795 and 1972, it contains photographs and biographical sketches of 223 individuals (as well as brief notes on 122 others), such as musicians Isaac Hayes and Aretha Franklin, activists Ida B. Wells and Benjamin L. Hooks, politicians Harold Ford Sr. and Jr., writers Sutton Griggs and Jerome Eric Dickey, and Bishop Charles Mason and Archbishop James Lyke—all of whom were born in Memphis or lived in the city for over a decade. . .  .

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#10 – John Henrik Clarke and the Power of Africana History  by Ahati N. N. Toure

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#25 – Beyond the Black Lady: Sexuality and the New African American Middle Class  by Lisa B. Thompson

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Blacks in Hispanic Literature: Critical Essays

Edited by Miriam DeCosta-Willis 

Blacks in Hispanic Literature is a collection of fourteen essays by scholars and creative writers from Africa and the Americas. Called one of two significant critical works on Afro-Hispanic literature to appear in the late 1970s, it includes the pioneering studies of Carter G. Woodson and Valaurez B. Spratlin, published in the 1930s, as well as the essays of scholars whose interpretations were shaped by the Black aesthetic. The early essays, primarily of the Black-as-subject in Spanish medieval and Golden Age literature, provide an historical context for understanding 20th-century creative works by African-descended, Hispanophone writers, such as Cuban Nicolás Guillén and Ecuadorean poet, novelist, and scholar Adalberto Ortiz, whose essay analyzes the significance of Negritude in Latin America. This collaborative text set the tone for later conferences in which writers and scholars worked together to promote, disseminate, and critique the literature of Spanish-speaking people of African descent. . . . Cited by a literary critic in 2004 as “the seminal study in the field of Afro-Hispanic Literature . . . on which most scholars in the field ‘cut their teeth’.”

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Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America

By Melissa V. Harris-Perry

According to the author, this society has historically exerted considerable pressure on black females to fit into one of a handful of stereotypes, primarily, the Mammy, the Matriarch or the Jezebel.  The selfless Mammy’s behavior is marked by a slavish devotion to white folks’ domestic concerns, often at the expense of those of her own family’s needs. By contrast, the relatively-hedonistic Jezebel is a sexually-insatiable temptress. And the Matriarch is generally thought of as an emasculating figure who denigrates black men, ala the characters Sapphire and Aunt Esther on the television shows Amos and Andy and Sanford and Son, respectively.     

Professor Perry points out how the propagation of these harmful myths have served the mainstream culture well. For instance, the Mammy suggests that it is almost second nature for black females to feel a maternal instinct towards Caucasian babies.

As for the source of the Jezebel, black women had no control over their own bodies during slavery given that they were being auctioned off and bred to maximize profits. Nonetheless, it was in the interest of plantation owners to propagate the lie that sisters were sluts inclined to mate indiscriminately.

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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Negro Digest / Black World

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 — The Founding of Haiti 

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updated 18 October 2007




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