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


Scholar’s Research on Black Death and Dying 

Foreshadows a Personal Tragedy

Press Release — Duke University Press October 2002



Durham, NC — They say that death is the great equalizer, but most in the African American community would agree otherwise. Black families are much more likely than white ones to experience the untimely and/or violent death of a loved one. As Toni Morrison wrote in Beloved, “not a house in the country ain’t packed to the rafters with some dead Negro’s grief.”

For Karla FC Holloway, to research and write a history about black death and mourning seemed natural: the story needed to be written, and Holloway, who has always had funeral directors in her family, was a natural to write it. When Holloway embarked on the project more than a decade ago, she had no idea that before its completion, she too would be mourning the premature death of a family member.

Holloway’s book, published this year by Duke University Press, is Passed on: African American Mourning Stories — A Memorial. To research the book, she attended funeral directors’ conferences

and interviewed physicians, ministers, casket makers, and grieving relatives. She visited and photographed the grave sites of prominent black Americans including Richard Wright, Louis Armstrong, Arthur Ashe, Thurgood Marshall, and many more.

Holloway, an English professor and dean of Duke University, reports that whenever she wrote the phrase “black death,” her word-processing program would underscore it with a squiggly green line, suggesting that something was wrong with the phrase or the spelling. “there is indeed something very wrong with it,” Holloway writes, “and this is my point.”

“Our people haven’t had the luxury of thinking we’d die after a good long life,” she says. And they are therefore more likely to plan for their funerals, including the clothes they will wear, the music that will be performed, and the types of cars that will transport the body and the mourners. in one particularly haunting passage, she describes funeral instructions prepared by children and teenagers.

In 1999, Holloway was forced to live the story she was telling. Age age 22, her adopted son Bem was shot while trying to escape from prison. the notifying phone call came to Holloway from the prison chaplain; the next call was from a local television news station. While Holloway and her husband spent hours trying to learn the details, the muted television continually broadcast scenes from his death scene.

She and her husband were too traumatized to make what is known in the funeral industry as “the first call”–the call to a mortician, notifying him of a death in the family. But they soon found themselves conducting the business of the bereaved: calling a pastor, notifying family and friends, arranging for their son’s body to come home.

Throughout the book, Holloway traces a number of practices that are specific to black death and dying” burial associations created by black morticians so that their often-poor clientele could go out in style; the dramatic, almost performance-like nature of black funerals, the bringing of young children to view the body as a piece of cautionary instruction.

All of these practices, Holloway argues, are related to the black way of death, a color-coded pattern that encompasses slavery, lynchings, gang violence, suicides, and targeted medical neglect. Black death means that African American mothers are more likely to hear about their child’s death from reporters than from a doctor or family member.

Although the persistent theme of premature, violent death, Holloway writes, “invaded my serenity . . . well before my son’s life took its final, tragic turn,” she had no idea she would endure the story of black death ad dying that she was researching. She decided to include Bem’s story in her book because “I couldn’t write it without him.” She says, I do not tell his story for judgment or absolution. i tell it because it has the characteristic of an ‘incident report’ that is, finally, community property.’

Telling Bem’s story in print has put Holloway in the position of being an expert–both professionally and personally–on black death and dying and on grief and mourning in general, a subject she discussed movingly during National Public Radio’s September 11 anniversary coverage. She says, “I have come to feel that telling his story is a way for me to publicly claim him as my beloved child. That experience of the book is one I had not anticipated, but one I cherish.”

Contact: Lisa M. Dellwo, Publicist / 919-687-3639 /

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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



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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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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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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