BHM: Strength in the “Inbetweenity”

This post was meant to be posted on 2/25 but was eaten by the computer fairies:

I first became aware of Afra-Panamanian-American Veronica Chambers while perusing the local Borders bookstore. As is my custom, I walked through the literature section looking for books with black people on the cover while doing my general shopping. As per usual, very few, if any books highlighted (ie turned out toward the isle or with an on shelf review alerting patrons to a new book) met the basic criteria. Having reached my book limit, I went to the back of the store to the African-American Lit section (which in the chain store I was in actually includes more social science and journalism than lit) and looked for books by or about black women there. On a small desk in front of the isle was Veronica Chambers face looking up at me with a slightly ironic head tilt. I quickly perused the back jacket and put it in my overstuffed cart; the book was Mama’s Girl, Chambers’ third book and autobiography about her parent’s divorce, her move from Panama to the U.S., and surviving endless misdirected abuse from her mother.

Several months later, I was reminded that I had yet to read Chambers 3rd book when I read an article by her about anti-black discrimination at a Latin@ cultural pride festival. Chambers was meant to be the guest speaker for the event. During her multiple conversations with the event organizers, they, like so many others, praised her for being such a prolific and thoughtful writer at such a young age and talked about what a role model she had and would continue to be for young Latinas. When Chambers arrived for the event, that warm and encouraging welcome quickly faded. Despite seeing her name in huge block print on a banner over a large stage with a stack of her books for signing off to one side, Chambers was told by organizers that they were going to move her talk to due to technical difficulties with the main stage. They quickly ushered her to a back room on the edge of the event and said someone would come and get her when it was time for her speech. It wasn’t until hours later that she realized she was locked in and forgotten, in what was essentially a storage room. By the time she got out of the room and back to the main stage, the event was over and her banner hung askew over a deserted stage. It seems that the organizers did not believe that a black Latina could adequately motivate anyone in the community, nor be a role model, or even be Latina. Chambers later discovered that event attendees had been told she had not shown up and the woman who had contacted her to speak and then summarily hidden her and the fact of blackness in Latin@ culture away, wanted nothing to do with her and would not acknowledge what happened.

The erasure of one’s cultural heritage and right to an identity that has been so carefully defined as to exclude you is a common occurrence for Afr@-Latin@s. In both the example of the bookstore and the cultural pride event Veronica Chambers’ blackness negated her Latina-ness. Neither the content of her autobiography nor her smirking image on the cover could combat the perception that Latin@ means brown and black is algo diferente.

Luckily for us, even at 20, Chambers was an unstoppable force. Rather than wallow in the discrimination, she wrote about it to expose the complexities embedded in Latin@ culture and the ways that denial of African roots plays out in the interpersonal relationships of communities every day. As an abuse survivor, she tapped into her own well-honed strength and continued her journalism career and her prolific writing career without skipping a beat.

Veronica Chambers began her journalism career as a freelance writer for magazines like Essence, Vogue, and Seventeen when she was just 20 years old. For 18 years she has been a contributor to a wide variety of publications including Food and Wine Magazine, The LA Times Book Review, and Esquire. Chambers has  advanced from freelance to helping make some of the key editorial decisions in mainstream magazines; she has been the Editor of the New York Times Magazine and a Senior Associate Editor for Premiere Magazine. In a world where both black and Latin@ perspectives are often missing from mainstream media, these accomplishments cannot be ignored. Though her journalistic work has covered many topics it often comes back to the diaspora and the women in it. One of her pieces for Newsweek for instance was a pioneering look at Latin@ youth, that included Afr@-Latin@s. She was also one of the only Afr@-Latin@ writers invited to write a blog column for The Root when it launched.

Chambers is also a prolific writer of children’s, young adult, and adult fiction. Her children’s center on black and Latin@ pride and history almost always centering the stories  of women and girls.Her first children’s book Amistad Rising re-centered the struggle of enslaved black people fighting for their freedom in the Amistad tale, taking back the narrative from people like Spielberg who centered white abolitionists or government machinations over that of the freedom fighters themselves. In so doing, she gives children the opportunity to experience black history from the perspective of self-reliant and triumphant black people, whose message of hope and freedom inspired others to fight with them rather than for them (as silent or passive objects). Her next book, The Harlem Renaissance, continued this vein of looking at the history of African Americans from the perspective and through the voices of black people. While she covered the key figures of the movement, and the conflicts they had with another, she also included and centered women’s contributions to the Harlem Renaissance. As in the case of Amistad, she also included critical information about the mostly white patrons of the arts, both their positive and negative contributions, while never losing sight of the black artists who produced it. (I am stressing the issue of centering black voices here not to diminish the interconnected histories or solidarities amongst white and black people but because both the stories of Amistad and over arching histories of the Harlem Renaissance often erase that centrality in order to talk about the white people who participated, their contributions, and their influence as if black history has no meaning on its own. You see the same thing in such critically acclaimed film’s as The Last King of Scotland in which the story of Ida Min has to be told through the eyes of a fictional white journalist and his love affairs because the director and writers did not believe it would have “broad interest” otherwise.)

Her latest children’s books, Double Dutch Sisterhood and Celia Cruz: Queen of Salsa, continues her emphasis on history and art. Moving away from established historical subjects, Double Dutch Sisterhood takes a popular children’s game and historicizes it, pointing to its important social and historical meanings particularly for young black girls on the playground. Chambers also highlights innovations in Double Dutch by young girls around the world, showing how the game and the social spaces it creates empower young girls to think outside the box. In Celia Cruz, she returns to more recognizable history while at the same time potentially providing young N. American audiences with the history of the most celebrated Afra-Latina artist of our time. The book was named an NCSS Notable Children’s Trade Book In The Field Of Social Studies and among the New York Public Library’s “100 titles for reading and sharing”.

Her young adult novels have been essential to creating a space in publishing for novels about young Afra Latinas and their stories and in expanding the marketing of young adult books about black youth in general. Her two-part series on the growing pains of Marisol and Magdalena expose young adult readers to an accessible look at how young Latinas experience transnational social spaces and lives lived inbetween a lived “here” and an ever present “there”. The first book,  Marisol and Magdalena, highlights generational divide amongst the Panamanian-American community in NYC. While the older, first-generation immigrants, try to help the girls know and retain their roots, they bask in a young adulthood of Latino-ness unconcerned with specificity until Marisol’s mother sends her to Panama. As Magdalena contends with life in the U.S. and how it shapes her sense of herself, Marisol does the same in Panama and both girls learn about belonging, blackness, Latinoness, girlhood and themselves. In the second book, Quinceanera Means Sweet Fifteen, the girls tackle classism and elitism within the immigrant community in which second and third generation youth are often encouraged by U.S. society to see anyone newly returned or arriving as backward. Their struggle to reconnect and to be true to themselves and their cultures highlights contrasting viewpoints, the meaning of identity in transnational immigrant communities, and the struggle of young girls to find their way.

Chambers also offers young adult and adult readers a chance to consider the impact of divorce on the development of young girls in her fictional book Miss Black America (2004) and her autobiography Mama’s Girl (1996). In Miss Black America, fictional teen Angela Davis Brown has to make sense of her abandonment by her mother and a life spent with her charismatic but often absent father. Chambers weaves in key figures in black history like Angela Davis, Assata Shakur, and Muhammed Ali into the story of family loyalty, culture, love and loss. Thus Brown’s life unfolds against a backdrop of social and political struggle for civil rights that continues Chambers’ interest in black history. At the same time, some found the female protagonist less well developed than her father, whose pain and sorrow about both losing his wife and the racism surrounding them are palpable. These moments also highlight the growth of main character Angela Davis Brown who often balks at her father’s bitterness and stresses out over how to heal his sorrow even as she worships him.

Praise for the book recognizes its important to both women’s and black literature in ways that are often missing in mainstream feminist discourse about “women’s and girl’s lit” that often ignores immigrant and woc lit:

“[Miss Black America] Joins Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina and Kaye Gibbons’ Ellen Foster as the great contemporary novels of a young woman’s coming of age.” — Anthony Walton, author of Mississippi: An American Journey

Unlike Miss Black America, Mama’s Girl is autobiographical. Like most of her fiction, Mama’s Girl centers the lives and experiences of women and girls in ways that highlight both real struggles and the hope of overcoming them. Also like her other work, Mama’s Girl highlights the experience of the Afr@-Latin@ Panamanian transnational community and how immigrant hopes and dreams are both thwarted and rewarded in the United States. As the narrative unfolds, we are once again allowed entry into the complex negotiations of immigrant women and their daughters through the harrowing story of a young girl, this time Chambers’ herself. her story is one of abuse by multiple family members whose own disappointments and brokenness often visit upon her body but not her mind. Despite not receiving the support she needs to succeed in school, Chambers’ pushes through to become both an academic and intellectual success. And while her story never pulls punches on the pain around her, she works hard to contextualize dysfunction and disappointment in ways many narratives about black youth fail to do.

Chambers has also written non-fiction books and one collection of essays that focus on women, race, and identity. Her first book, Poetic Justice: Filmmaking South Central Style, came out of an interview she did with then unkown director John Singleton. Chambers had unlimited access to the film Poetic Justice and with Singleton on board, she co-authored a book that not only gives us insight to the youngest director in Hollywood to ever be nominated for an Academy Award but also re-inserted black women into the narrative surrounding Singleton’s early success. Often, Poetic Justice is referred to in terms of the Tupac tragedy and Singleton’s directorial style, erasing Janet Jackson’s  return to film and Maya Angelou’s poetry. Chambers’ book reminds us of the latter and describes the important contributions, insights, and collaborations between black women who had been in the industry much longer than anyone associated with the film and the black men who are often centered in the stories told about the movie.

Her book Having it All: Black Women and Success, co-written with Karen Bates, explores the import of black women to the middle class aspirations and attainment of black diasporic communities. The book incorporates interviews Chambers did with 50 middle and upper class black women in business, media, law, academia, and the arts about how they see themselves and their experiences. Once again blending a narrative of triumph and abuse, Chambers provides a long list of strides black women have made in the U.S. while also discussing the racism, sexism, and racialized sexism/sexualized racism they endure. Ultimately, she sees black women working hard, defining themselves and their place in the N. American landscape with gusto, but also lacking accurate depictions of themselves or understanding in their workplaces.

Her latest non-fiction book, Kickboxing Geishas, marks her first move away from black and Latin@ women’s subjectivity. In 2000, Chambers won a Japan Society fellowship to do research on Japanese women and culture. Kickboxing Geishas represents the outcome of this work. The book explores the radical challenges to gender norms and gender divisions by young Japanese women. It discusses how many of them mix traditional and modern mediums, Western and Eastern cultures, and a feminism of their own to craft new and empowered spaces for women and girls. Finally, by including the voices of several Japanese women and girls she interviewed, Chambers lets Japanese women as varied as Hip Hop artists to CEOs speak for themselves about what it means to be vibrant, successful, women in modern Japan.

Finally, Chambers is also an entrepreneur. Inspired by the response to her children’s book, Celia Cruz: Queen of Salsa, she started her own independent fashion line for girls called Florabunda Tots. The line combines flirty girl’s fashion with Salsa and Afr@-Latin@ diasporic traditions. The clothes are easy to wear, to put on and to wash, and fun.  They also highlight hand made craftsmanship from around Latin America. In 2009, Chambers used the line to help raise money for the Princeton Child Development Center.

Veronica Chambers story, her prolific work, and her own understanding of feminism as intimately tied to black women’s struggles are an inspiration to women and girls across racial, generational, and spatial divides. Her tireless effort to weave history and culture into contemporary stories and research makes her an important contributor to black herstory.

One thought on “BHM: Strength in the “Inbetweenity”

  1. Pingback: BHM: Strength in the “Inbetweenity” « Like a Whisper | YoungLibrary.Com

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