ChickenBones: A Journal

for  Literary & Artistic African-American  Themes



The black church has come to understand its critical space in the rituals

of the dead. Funerals have been its everyday business, and the black

church brought ceremony and extended ritual to this experience. Its

passion has been, from my perspective, the ways and means of catharsis;

and is responsible in great measure for the sustained resilience

and strength of these vulnerable communities.

Karla F. Holloway  


 Other Books by Karla FC Holloway


Bookmarks: Reading in Black and White  /  New Dimensions of Spirituality (1987) 

Mooring and Metaphors: Culture and Gender in Black Women’s Literature

Codes of Conduct: Race, Ethics, and the Color of Our Character  / Passed on: African American Mourning Stories — A Memorial

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Passed On: African American Mourning Stories

A Memorial

By Karla FC Holloway


Other Reviews


African-American burial and embalming rituals, funeral services and undertaking industry are all examined in Passed on: African American Mourning Stories — A Memorial a cultural analysis of death and dying among 20th-century  black Americans. Duke University English professor Karla F.C. Holloway combines historical research with interviews of present-day undertakers and others as she chronicles the discrimination and violent threats faced by black funeral parlor owners; the development of rituals like open-casket services and processions; and the influence of disproportionately violent black deaths on mourning practices. Punctuated with Holloway’s personal stories (including that of her son’s death), the book is an elegantly written survey for general readers and cultural historians alike.

–Publishers Weekly

After the violent death of her son, Duke University professor and author Karla FC Holloway found herself dealing with loss, grief and the finality of death. Like many authors, Holloway found that researching and writing about the rituals of death became the catharsis for her own pain.

In Passed on: African American Mourning Stories — A Memorial, Holloway creates a “portrait of death and dying in twentieth-century African-America.” Holloway’s endeavor feels random, and at times, vacillating among historical accounts of the emergence of African-American funeral home businesses, to a short study of violence in the African-American community, to the various “rituals of death” that have developed over the century.

Holloway suggests that the violence that has historically plagued African Americans has played a significant role in the perception of death in African-American culture. She writes, “The generational circumstance may change, but the violence done to black bodies has had a consistent history . . . paired with the cultural expectations of an open casket, presented a particular challenge to the black mortician’s skills.”

Historical factoids, such as the origins of funeral wreaths and observations of such traditions as the “homecoming”– the great trek South when a family member living in the region passes — are interesting, yet when offered alongside pictures, and very real accounts of brutality and violence, her observations seem more like random trivia than seamless information.

The documentation of African Americans and their death passages, as they were, are intriguing. However, Holloway’s transgression from the cultural and historical origins to stories focusing on the deaths of famous African Americans somehow lessens the scope of what seemed to be the true intention of her work, to present a thorough look at death through the cultural eye of African Americans.

Michaelyn Elder, a Harlem writer and editor —Black Issues Book Review

Holloway shares her research into the seldom-explored subject of death and dying in the African American community. Confining her investigation to contemporary mourning rituals, she interviewed countless numbers of funeral directors, ministers, casket makers, physicians, and bereaved friends and relatives. By interweaving these conversations with visits to the gravesites of prominent black Americans and examples of death and grief as portrayed in literature, music, and the media, she provides an in-depth analysis of the unique psychology of death prevalent in African American society.

According to the author, African Americans live more closely and deal more realistically with the philosophical concept and physical reality of death than do most other Americans. This close association with grief and tragedy has culminated in a number of distinctive religious and secular ceremonies and traditions that are examined in this fascinating sociological survey.

–Margaret Flanagan — Booklist

Carry Me Home: Karla FC Holloway says her new book about African-American funeral practices must have been in her blood. But hse never thought it would become a piece of her broken heart.

She has always had funeral directors in her family, and her father was licensed as a mortician, though he never practiced. (“My mother said, ‘You may touch them or me,’ and fortunately he chose her,” she says.) So Ms. Holloway, an English professor and the dean of humanities and social sciences at Duke University, had long wanted to write about the history of black death and dying.

“No culture bases so much of its identity on the persistent rehearsal of commemorative conduct as does African America,” she writes in Passed On: African American Mourning Stories . . . . “Some notion of racial memory and racial realization is mediated through the veil of death.” As the victims first of slavery, then of lynching, riots, medical experimentation, malnutrition, segregated medical care, executions, or gang violence, black Americans “haven’t had the luxury of thinking we’d die after a good long life,” she says in an interview. “Is it any wonder that the passion of the ‘home going’ has such a dramatic narrative context.”

In addition to reading newspaper articles and other archival sources, Ms. Holloway attended conventions of morticians, visited them in their homes, and talked to them at funerals–for people she knew, as well as for strangers.

“‘Our people like to put on a good show’,” Ms. Holloway quotes black morticians as saying. Black funerals tend to be longer, louder, and more of a performance than white funerals. “Viewing the body, touching, kissing, lingering–the contact is important.” Funeral anguish becomes a ritual venting of the community’s broader grief. And children are often brought to see the body, as a kind of warning. “This kind of instruction shouldn’t be part of any parent’s experience,” says Ms. Holloway.

Nor should what happened to her own son. Bem, whom she and her husband had adopted at age 4, had begun to show signs of mental illness as a teenager. he was serving a 95-year sentence for rape and attempted murder, and facing capital murder charges as Ms. Holloway was doing her research. Working on the chapter about executions, she found that she was writing about “what I expected would be his end, and I had to stop. It was too much.” Then, in 1999, he was killed, shot in the back while trying to escape from prison. His death became headline news.

“I had not expected the book to be tied to my own heartbreak,” says Ms. Holloway. “It was not until I tried to save myself by going back to the book that I realized I couldn’t write it without him.” She wove the tale of Bem’s death and funeral into the fabric of Passed on: African American Mourning Stories — A Memorial and gave the book a second subtitle: “A Memorial.”

Passed on: African American Mourning Stories — A Memorial is also a memorial of sorts for the black funeral industry, which is increasingly under threat from larger, white-owned businesses. In a strange sense, that shift brings black funeral practices back to where they were in the early 20th century, when, Ms. Holloway learned, most black people were buried by white morticians. “Whites were often as disrespectful to black bodies in death as they were in life,” she writes, and family members were forced to use the back door to white mortuaries. But they were discouraged–often by the threat of lynching–from drawing businesses away by setting up their own funeral homes.

By mid-century, though, segregationist impulses ensured a thriving black funeral industry. African-American embalmers claimed–and still claim, says Ms. Holloway–to be more skilled than their white peers, because their work often required them to mask the effects of a violent death. The neighborhood mortician, often the only man in the neighborhood who wore a suit all week, became a leading community figure. he had a fleet of fancy cars that he would rent out for other services. And black morticians set up burial associations and death insurance to cover fancy funerals, since it was important to their often-poor clientele to go out in style.

“I went into the project kind of resentful of the claim the black funeral business has on our lives–all the money involved, the people who would give up medicine in favor of funeral insurance,” says Ms. Holloway. But the cathartic effect of black funerals, she decided, “helps make African-Americans the resilient and hopeful people that we are.

Those funerals may begin to look increasingly like white funerals, she fears. in the 1990s, white morticians began to lure bodies away from black funeral homes. often corporate-owned rather than family-owned, the white businesses are more modern, and able to extend credit to families who can’t afford funerals–who haven’t, for example, taken out death insurance for their children. And wealthier black families are attracted to the more-prestigious white funeral homes. The decline of the black funeral business is inevitable, Ms. Holloway says, “It’s a business so tied to money, and black money is now so much more integrated. I wanted to capture it.”

–Jennifer K. Ruark, The Chronicle of Higher Education

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Karla Holloway is the William Rand Kenan, Jr. Professor of English and Dean of the Humanities and Social Sciences at Duke University. Her research and teaching interests focus on literary and cultural studies, twentieth century African and African-American literature and linguistics and the association between literature and linguistics. She is the author of four books, most recently Codes of Conduct: Race, Ethics, and the Color of Our Character and has recently completed her fifth book, Passed on: African American Mourning Stories — A Memorial. This project is a cultural and historic look at bereavement, death, dying, and burial in twentieth century African America.

Karla FC Holloway is a distinguished scholar, writer, and public figure. She began researching African American death and dying over a decade ago. During the course of her research she attended funeral directors’ conventions, interviewed ministers, casket makers, and grieving relatives, and visited the gravesites of dozens of prominent African Americans. While she was writing Passed On, she experienced the deaths of her son and her mother in 2000, both of which touch the narrative in moving and personal ways.

She was Director of Duke’s African American Studies Program from 1995 to 1999. She has taught at Duke since 1992 and has also taught at North Carolina State University, Western Michigan University, and Old Dominion University. She has received numerous rewards for her teaching and research.

Holloway has appeared on PBS and NPR and has written for various publications, including Emerge and Belles Lettres. She is also the author of Mooring and Metaphors: Culture and Gender in Black Women’s Literature. She is currently speaking around the country to audiences ranging from doctors to ministers to writers on death and dying, end-of-life and palliative care, and the African American experience.

Passed on: African American Mourning Stories — A Memorial.. Duke University Press $24.95

*   *   *   *   *’s 25 Best Selling Books



#1 – Justify My Thug by Wahida Clark #2 – Flyy Girl by Omar Tyree #3 – Head Bangers: An APF Sexcapade by Zane #4 – Life Is Short But Wide by J. California Cooper #5 – Stackin’ Paper 2 Genesis’ Payback by Joy King #6 – Thug Lovin’ (Thug 4) by Wahida Clark #7 – When I Get Where I’m Going by Cheryl Robinson #8 – Casting the First Stone by Kimberla Lawson Roby #9 – The Sex Chronicles: Shattering the Myth by Zane

#10 – Covenant: A Thriller  by Brandon Massey

#11 – Diary Of A Street Diva  by Ashley and JaQuavis

#12 – Don’t Ever Tell  by Brandon Massey

#13 – For colored girls who have considered suicide  by Ntozake Shange

#14 – For the Love of Money : A Novel by Omar Tyree

#15 – Homemade Loves  by J. California Cooper

#16 – The Future Has a Past: Stories by J. California Cooper

#17 – Player Haters by Carl Weber

#18 – Purple Panties: An Anthology by Sidney Molare

#19 – Stackin’ Paper by Joy King

#20 – Children of the Street: An Inspector Darko Dawson Mystery by Kwei Quartey

#21 – The Upper Room by Mary Monroe

#22 – Thug Matrimony  by Wahida Clark

#23 – Thugs And The Women Who Love Them by Wahida Clark

#24 – Married Men by Carl Weber

#25 – I Dreamt I Was in Heaven – The Rampage of the Rufus Buck Gang by Leonce Gaiter


#1 – Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable #2 – Confessions of a Video Vixen by Karrine Steffans #3 – Dear G-Spot: Straight Talk About Sex and Love by Zane #4 – Letters to a Young Brother: MANifest Your Destiny by Hill Harper #5 – Peace from Broken Pieces: How to Get Through What You’re Going Through by Iyanla Vanzant #6 – Selected Writings and Speeches of Marcus Garvey by Marcus Garvey #7 – The Ebony Cookbook: A Date with a Dish by Freda DeKnight #8 – The Isis Papers: The Keys to the Colors by Frances Cress Welsing #9 – The Mis-Education of the Negro by Carter Godwin Woodson

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

#11 – Fail Up: 20 Lessons on Building Success from Failure by Tavis Smiley

#12 –The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

#13 – The Black Male Handbook: A Blueprint for Life by Kevin Powell

#14 – The Other Wes Moore: One Name, Two Fates by Wes Moore

#15 – Why Men Fear Marriage: The Surprising Truth Behind Why So Many Men Can’t Commit  by RM Johnson

#16 – Black Titan: A.G. Gaston and the Making of a Black American Millionaire by Carol Jenkins

#17 – Brainwashed: Challenging the Myth of Black Inferiority by Tom Burrell

#18 – A New Earth: Awakening to Your Life’s Purpose by Eckhart Tolle

#19 – John Oliver Killens: A Life of Black Literary Activism by Keith Gilyard

#20 – Alain L. Locke: The Biography of a Philosopher by Leonard Harris

#21 – Age Ain’t Nothing but a Number: Black Women Explore Midlife by Carleen Brice

#22 – 2012 Guide to Literary Agents by Chuck Sambuchino #23 – Chicken Soup for the Prisoner’s Soul by Tom Lagana #24 – 101 Things Every Boy/Young Man of Color Should Know by LaMarr Darnell Shields

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

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Aké: The Years of Childhood

By Wole Soyinka

Aké: The Years of Childhood is a memoir of stunning beauty, humor, and perception


a lyrical account of one boy’s attempt to grasp the often irrational and hypocritical world of adults that equally repels and seduces him. Soyinka elevates brief anecdotes into history lessons, conversations into morality plays, memories into awakenings. Various cultures, religions, and languages mingled freely in the Aké of his youth, fostering endless contradictions and personalized hybrids, particularly when it comes to religion. Christian teachings, the wisdom of the ogboni, or ruling elders, and the power of ancestral spirits


who alternately terrify and inspire him


all carried equal metaphysical weight. Surrounded by such a collage, he notes that “God had a habit of either not answering one’s prayers at all, or answering them in a way that was not straightforward.” In writing from a child’s perspective, Soyinka expresses youthful idealism and unfiltered honesty while escaping the adult snares of cynicism and intolerance. His stinging indictment of colonialism takes on added power owing to the elegance of his attack.

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Faces At The Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism

By Derrick Bell

In nine grim metaphorical sketches, Bell, the black former Harvard law professor who made headlines recently for his one-man protest against the school’s hiring policies, hammers home his controversial theme that white racism is a permanent, indestructible component of our society. Bell’s fantasies are often dire and apocalyptic: a new Atlantis rises from the ocean depths, sparking a mass emigration of blacks; white resistance to affirmative action softens following an explosion that kills Harvard’s president and all of the school’s black professors; intergalactic space invaders promise the U.S. President that they will clean up the environment and deliver tons of gold, but in exchange, the bartering aliens take all African Americans back to their planet. Other pieces deal with black-white romance, a taxi ride through Harlem and job discrimination.

Civil rights lawyer Geneva Crenshaw, the heroine of Bell’s And We Are Not Saved (1987), is back in some of these ominous allegories, which speak from the depths of anger and despair. Bell now teaches at New York University Law School.—Publishers Weekly

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So Rich, So Poor: Why It’s So Hard to End Poverty in America

By Peter Edelman

If the nation’s gross national income—over $14 trillion—were divided evenly across the entire U.S. population, every household could call itself middle class. Yet the income-level disparity in this country is now wider than at any point since the Great Depression. In 2010 the average salary for CEOs on the S&P 500 was over $1 million—climbing to over $11 million when all forms of compensation are accounted for—while the current median household income for African Americans is just over $32,000. How can some be so rich, while others are so poor? In this provocative book, Peter Edelman, a former top aide to Senator Robert F. Kennedy and a lifelong antipoverty advocate, offers an informed analysis of how this country can be so wealthy yet have a steadily growing number of unemployed and working poor. According to Edelman, we have taken important positive steps without which 25 to 30 million more people would be poor, but poverty fluctuates with the business cycle.

The structure of today’s economy has stultified wage growth for half of America’s workers—with even worse results at the bottom and for people of color—while bestowing billions on those at the top. So Rich, So Poor delves into what is happening to the people behind the statistics and takes a particular look at the continuing crisis of young people of color, whose possibility of a productive life too often is lost on their way to adulthood


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Forged: Writing in the Name of God

Why the Bible’s Authors Are Not Who We Think They Are

By Bart D. Ehrman

The evocative title tells it all and hints at the tone of sensationalism that pervades this book. Those familiar with the earlier work of Ehrman, a distinguished professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and author of more than 20 books including Misquoting Jesus, will not be surprised at the content of this one. Written in a manner accessible to nonspecialists, Ehrman argues that many books of the New Testament are not simply written by people other than the ones to whom they are attributed, but that they are deliberate forgeries. The word itself connotes scandal and crime, and it appears on nearly every page. Indeed, this book takes on an idea widely accepted by biblical scholars: that writing in someone else’s name was common practice and perfectly okay in ancient times. Ehrman argues that it was not even then considered acceptable—hence, a forgery.

While many readers may wish for more evidence of the charge, Ehrman’s introduction to the arguments and debates among different religious communities during the first few centuries and among the early Christians themselves, though not the book’s main point, is especially valuable.—Publishers Weekly  / Forged Bart Ehrman’s New Salvo (


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Santeria: The Beliefs and Rituals 

of a Growing Religion in America

By Miguel A. De La Torre

This book by Miguel De la Torre offers a fascinating guide to the history, beliefs, rituals, and culture of Santeria — a religious tradition that, despite persecution, suppression, and its own secretive nature, has close to a million adherents in the United States alone. Santeria is a religion with Afro-Cuban roots, rising out of the cultural clash between the Yoruba people of West Africa and the Spanish Catholics who brought them to the Americas as slaves. As a faith of the marginalized and persecuted, it gave oppressed men and women strength and the will to survive. With the exile of thousands of Cubans in the wake of Castro’s revolution in 1959, Santeria came to the United States, where it is gradually coming to be recognized as a legitimate faith tradition.

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Allah, Liberty, and Love

The Courage to Reconcile Faith and Freedom

By Irshad Manji

In Allah, Liberty and Love, Irshad Manji paves a path for Muslims and non-Muslims to transcend the fears that stop so many of us from living with honest-to-God integrity: the fear of offending others in a multicultural world as well as the fear of questioning our own communities. Since publishing her international bestseller, The Trouble with Islam Today, Manji has moved from anger to aspiration. She shows how any of us can reconcile faith with freedom and thus discover the Allah of liberty and love—the universal God that loves us enough to give us choices and the capacity to make them. Among the most visible Muslim reformers of our era, Manji draws on her experience in the trenches to share stories that are deeply poignant, frequently funny and always revealing about these morally confused times.

What prevents young Muslims, even in the West, from expressing their need for religious reinterpretation? What scares non-Muslims about openly supporting liberal voices within Islam? How did we get into the mess of tolerating intolerable customs, such as honor killings, and how do we change that noxious status quo?

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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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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 /

George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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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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update 14 July 2012




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Related files:  Karla FC Holloway–Press Release   Karla FC Holloway The Memorial to the Family Business  Other Reviews of Passed on by Karla FC Holloway 

Karla FC Holloway Sailant Review