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

A Memorial to the Family Business

By Karla FC Holloway


The funeral home in Louisville held both our fascination and our fear. After all, my sisters and I were only visiting; but our Kentucky cousins were, quite literally, at home in the upstairs residence of the family funeral home. For them, living stairsteps above the lingering floral scent of the viewing room, the always-locked embalming room, and the ruffled pillows and bronzed caskets on display in what would have been a bedroom was a matter of everyday life. But for my sisters and me, Louisville visits were grand drama. 

Our frightened giggles filled our bedrooms as we regaled each other with spooky stories of ghosts wandering through the house and scarier ones of bodies leaving cushioned, billowy caskets and creakily finding their way upstairs. From our perspective, every imagined noise during those sultry summer nights came from that darkened staircase that led down to the S. Leroy Mason & Sons Funeral Home.

Many years later, I found myself immersed in the history of death and dying in Africa America. I was preoccupied with the stories of our burials (Why was James Weldon Johnson’s gravestone the least notable among the graves of the Nail family, his in-laws?); the currency in the business of burial (How many cars does it take to put on a respectable show at a Funeral?); and the ways and means of our funeralizing (Do you touch the body? Take pictures? Weep? Wail? Cremate?). As important a question for me (and others who wondered at my macabre preoccupation) was how I came to this interest in writing a book about Black death, dying and the business of Black burial.

Frankly, I wasn’t sure.

Perhaps the memories of those summertime visits to Louisville had not fully faded, but begged some adult renegotiation. Or it may have been that my research was a way of discovering my own generational space in my father’s story.

On the den wall of my childhood home, included among a series of family honors and awards, was my father’s diploma from Worsham College of Mortuary Science in Wheeling, Ill. — a relic of a career brought to an abrupt end when he married my mother. During my high school years, a news reporter’s feature story about his professional accomplishment as Deputy Superintendent of the Buffalo, N.Y. Public Schools opened with a comment about the citywide familiarity with my father’s serious demeanor. the reporter speculated that his “grave” affect might lead some who did not know he was an educator to easily imagine a mortician. Then it revealed to a rather surprised Buffalo community the career he almost had in the burial business. So it may have been that I came to my interest in this business honestly.

Nevertheless, whatever the space of its origin. I had no idea that Passed On: African American Mourning Stories would be anything other than a narrative and photographic history of this profession and its folk. But in the midst of telling stories of Black death, i found mine own buried within. Our son suffered from a mental illness that would portend a troubling childhood and eventually lead to his demise. he died his own violent death, killed by a prison guard’s bullet as he attempted escape through a cotton field.

When i stumbled my way back from grief to a writing life, the book was no longer a professional exercise, but a personal mourning story. Given what I had already written about our youth, given the statistics and the vulnerability that shrouded too many of our children, somebody’s child was always and already a breath away from the story Somebody’s child was mine as well.

As much as the spaces of funeral homes were mine for childish reverie, and as consistently as they ere a particular space of loss insulated within a culturally practiced expression of grief and mourning. I finally wrote Passed On as “memorial,” one answer to the culturally conditioned query: “Who’s got the body?” In this story of the ways we died and were funeralized, in this record of our burial places and mourning spaces and, yes, in this recollection of my own son’s final days, passed On recalls a century-long experience with death and dying in African America that belongs, finally, to each of us.

Source: The New Crisis (March/April 2002)

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Karla Hollloway’s experience reflects that [recalling the life that passed]. Holloway, a professor of English and dean of the humanities at Duke University, is the author of Passed on: African American Mourning Stories — A Memorial.

Holloway tells of her son, whom she and her husband adopted at age 4 after the boy had been abused and shuffled between foster homes. he was a polite, thoughtful and compassionate child, but his rage stayed buried deep inside until mental illness overtook him.

The beloved boy became a violent man who embarked on a reign of terror, committing horrific acts. Imprisoned for rape and accused of murder, he died while trying to escape from prison.

This son’s funeral stands out from all the rest. “I had always had a certain skepticism about rituals. I gained a new appreciation for the power of ritual to give us a way to leave the space [of despair], turn around and keep moving,” Holloway said.

“I don’t remember who was at my son’s funeral. It was the music, the heavy accent of the flowers, the sermon, the solace, the sense of being held, not literally but metaphorically, that brought me balm and solace.”

She remembers the minister speaking of hope in a season of despair in words that touched her soul. “Don’t let it make you bitter,” he quoted from James Baldwin’s novel, Another Country. “Try to understand. The world’s already bitter enough, we have to try to be better than the world.”

Holloway’s grief still echoes in her voice. “I guess it made me feel I still had a spirit in that moment–that moment when you’re not sure anything is left inside you–and that I was being given a task. maybe that’s part of what the best funerals are about. they don’t end with the moment: They leave you with a sense of purpose.

Source: Judith Graham, Chicago Tribune (April 28, 2002)

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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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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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Allah, Liberty, and Love

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By Irshad Manji

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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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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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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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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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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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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