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  


Passed On: African American Mourning Stories

A Memorial

By Karla FC Holloway


Karla Responds to Questions


What does it mean to have written a portrait of death and dying in twentieth-century America?

Perhaps most important is the opportunity to capture the image of the business of death and dying, as well as its practice, for the record of our cultural history. Memory would certainly preserve them; but I felt it important as well to make this a recorded history.

Death is very much a business. What role has the black death care industry played in twentieth century?

Black funeral directors and morticians made certain that the practice of their craft, and the experience of black folk–who died in record numbers throughout the century–came together in a way that respected the cultural moments of our dying, and that enabled, however horrific our deaths, the integrity of the rituals associated with death and burial. They knew the communities they served, lived within them, socialized within them, and serviced generations of families. >

Why focus on the black death care industry? What is unique about it? How  did you research the industry?

Black professionals “had” black bodies throughout most of the century. Their practiced attention to our rituals and our bodies (how do you ‘do’ black hair? how do you repair a lynching victim for burial? what kinds of cosmetics are best for a body that gets darker at death?) made certain that the ways and means of our cultural practices were revered during the funeral service. To research this, I went to archives, funeral parlours, conventions of funeral directors, visited morticians and ministers and spoke to embalming chemical businessmen and “garment” makers.

How has violence, including lynchings, executions, and gang violence, > affected the experience of black death in the twentieth century? In what ways did Jim Crow laws impact African American death?

These experiences obviously meant that black folk died more frequently, more violently, and “out of our time.” In other words, black folk are vulnerable to black death (a death related to our skin not our character) from the moment we are born. Consider infant mortality tables. Even the stress of living Jim Crow led to the higher incidences of stroke and high blood pressure that contributed to black mortality…not to mention the inequities that made our living conditions hazardous.

How can the prominence of death and dying in African America be seen in music, film, and literature?

It is, quite simply, ubiquitous. Death is a theme that recurs in every artistic genre, including dance. (Recall Bill T. Jones’s “Still Here”)

The church is of central importance in African American life. What roles > has the church played in relation to death and dying? What relationships > exist between churches and the death care businesses?

Ministers and morticians have had an intimate relationship throughout the century past, including, sometimes, being the same person! Churches sometimes featured the name of both on programs and bulletin boards. 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.

Your research took you to the graves of many prominent African Americans, > including Billie Holliday, Arthur Ashe, and Thurgood Marshall. How did these > visits shape and impact your project?

They actually gave me some calm in a project that was often quite discomfiting. These quiet and solemn spaces held different kinds of memories. Although the book is not morbid–I believe it is finally evidence of our cultural resilience and hope, the graves were ways for me to see ‘the rest of the story.’ The story does not end with burial, I found as many narratives within graveyards and cemeteries as I found at deathbeds–the submarine sandwich and can of Fosters beer on Louis Armstrong’s grave…the elderly Jewish couple who kept Billie Holiday’s grave tidy.

In what ways is this book a memorial?

It is cultural memory of African America in the twentieth century, and a memory of mine own. The story of my son, framed at the book’s beginning and near its end is means of memory that I cherish.

Your research took on a personal quality when you lost your son Bem. In what ways did this experience affect your project? How as Bem’s death illustrative of the larger themes in your book?

I found his death inseparable from the stories I told of the losses of our children. It dramatically changed the tone and timbre of the book, and it ironically proved the thesis, that African America is vulnerable to the ravages of black death. This vulnerability was mine as well.

You have spoken across the country on end-of-life issues. What do you have to say to those involved in end-of-life-care, particularly those caring for African Americans?

Understanding the cultural experience of our death and dying in America means we have to have a great sensitivity when we bring the idea of “dying well” to a population that experiences dying every day often without the balm and solace and calm that hospice would offer. Acknowledging the histories of institutionalized racism that our medical facilities own is critical before we offer these same facilities as spaces where one might learn to “die well.”

Contact: Laura Sell, Publicity, Duke University Press / (919) 687-3639 / Fax: (919) 688-4391 /

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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

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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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