There are some uncomfortable truths about America, the land of my birth. It was stolen from murdered Natives, built on the backs of enslaved Africans, and enriched the lives of various racist European immigrants. So what does one do when you are descended from French colonizers, Choctaw Natives, and stolen West Africans?
You write speculative fiction of course.
You try to center marginalized people. You try to build worlds where people look like you, talk like you, walk like you, think like you, and engage the world as you do.
When I was nine-years-old, I could never understand why Medusa was not immortal. As part of the triad of Gorgon sisters, why did her two siblings receive the gift of everlasting life while she will always be remembered as the snake-haired head in Perseus’ hand? This was one of many great ancient mysteries to me. I read European myths and legends from my World Book Encyclopedia for children with wonder. I always had a soft spot for villains. No one listened to them. They were misunderstood. Loki. The Minotaur. The Sirens. Wile E. Coyote. Maleficent. Even Lucifer. Yeah, I said it. Satan. (He was God’s favorite angel, remember?) Deep down I knew Medusa was more than just an enraged woman who turned men into stone. More than just another side chick punished by Athena and stripped of her beauty for sleeping with Poseidon inside Athena’s temple. I would avenge this legend one day. At least that’s what I told myself at nine.
Fast forward to 2013. I attended my first official SF convention at WisCon. I met Daniel José Older, one of the editors of Long Hidden at a panel. I told him I would be submitting a story. He was encouraging. Two months later I would see Daniel again at ReaderCon in Boston. I was stressed. My first potential submission was 13,000 words long and counting. I told him I was still trying to cobble together my story. Later that day I attended a panel on hair in SF/F. As the panel talked about tresses, body hair, pubic hair et al, it was writer Veronica Schanoes who discussed how she had to look at black women on YouTube videos to learn how to manage her thick, dark, curly hair. As a Jewish woman with stubborn curls, she had to look outside of white female hair care to appreciate the beauty of her own mane. She started mentioning black hairstyles and my inner voice ran back to the decades-long Medusa file in my brain. Maybe it wasn’t her face they feared. Maybe it was her hair. I wrote on my yellow notepad in that room: Black hair is seen as negative. Nappy. Rebellious. Unmanageable. A lot of black women hate their hair because it isn’t naturally straight. Fuck that. Black hair is magic. Dreds are powerful. Where are the stories about fierce black hair?????
After the panel I walked up to Veronica and thanked her for mentioning black female hair. I told her I was inspired to write about dreds in a future story. She was excited about that and we exchanged contact info. During an evening meal with my former Clarion roommates Sam and Ruby, I told them I would have to come up with another Long Hidden submission story. My original epic tale set in the 1400′s about West Africans encountering Europeans for the very first time *(and fleeing to the Americas to hide their futures inside the gigantic Olmec stone heads in Central America with La Raza) was too long. It was a novella or potential novel. That shit could not be rendered in 7,000 words. I was determined to submit something worthy of a project like Long Hidden. I shared the story that was bubbling in me. A counter move to my expanding African/Olmec epic. A little ditty about black cowboys and Mexican vaqueros in the Old American West. Sentient black female hair. And Medusa. As I stuffed my mouth full of crab cakes and tender greens, Ruby looked at me and said, “You look more relaxed talking about this story.” I agreed. This was a good sign.
One of my favorite rappers is a female M.C. from Los Angeles named Medusa. At one point in time, I lived in the same Leimert Park neighborhood as her. I would see her driving in her yellow classic car. Just cruising. Her ‘fro always bangin’. I would catch as many live performances of her as I could. One of my favorite songs by her is a cut called “I Pimp My Lyrics”. I always thought it was bold of Medusa the black M.C. to take that name from Greek/Roman mythology. It was like she knew her flow was so dope that she could turn rival lyricists to stone if they got caught in her cypher. I sat in my ReaderCon hotel room and listened to Medusa’s song again. I started brainstorming images. A snake-haired woman. Hair that looked like so-called “dread-locs”. Natty Dreds. Rastafarians. Rastas took the style from Africa. The Mau Mau in Kenya. The Maasai. Locs dipped in red ocher. Africans had locked their tresses since the beginning of time. Kemetic (Egyptian) folks painted and sculpted their hair on pyramids and Holy papyrus scrolls. Greeks and Romans took plenty from Egypt. Mystery Schools. Libraries. Intellectual property. Religion. Treasures. Women. Where did Medusa come from? A simple internet check linked me to several sources. Although she was part of Greek/Roman Mythology, surprise, surprise, the great Medusa hailed from North Africa. Libya to be precise. In an area known as Rebu Tehenu. I imagined dark-skinned Nubians living in that place. Black people. People having skin that could withstand the desert heat, and hair that would inspire a myth. My mind grasped the possibilities and went back to the original question I had as a child. Why was Medusa a mortal being and not immortal like her sisters?
In my world she would still be a mortal being. Not just one person, but a tribe of nomadic people. They would become “Medu”. The Greek meaning of “Medusa” was “guardian”. A guardian of the temple. Who would my Medu guard back then? Maybe they had been revered as temple guards for ancient Egyptians and then banished to become nomads because of their dangerous hair. Dark thin locs seeping poison. Or maybe neurotoxins? Who else would be the best defenders of revered temples? Remember Pam Grier in “Coffee” and the razor blade she pulled out from within her afro to fight some haters? Imagine a grip of ancient Pam Grier’s (Yes Lawd! Heavenly mother/father thank you for Pam Grier, Amen.) with hundreds of natural razor blades swinging from dred locs. Those who feared them would make up tales of the enemy having snakes in their hair. Turning enemies into stone and shit. Y’know how basic old timey folks were. That’s how myths are started. I would bring this ancient African myth to America and plant her in New World soil.
In the mid 90′s I already had a ton of historical research from studying various Native people outside of my own Mississippi tribe, who struggled with the onslaught of Western expansion. At San Diego State University I was a Social Science major and a Native American Studies minor. I read about black cowboys/cowgirls, Mexican vaqueros, gender queer women going West, and all the brutal Indian Wars with broken treaties. I knew the erased and forgotten people who did real shit despite what the John Wayne flicks showed. I visited the nearby town of Julian, California during its Pioneer Days Celebration and watched black men on horses wearing 10th Calvary uniforms re-enact Buffalo Soldiers. I asked many of them how they felt about admiring historical figures who were often ordered to kill Natives by the U.S. government to grab land for white people. I was met with uncomfortable stares while questioning the pride of being named Buffalo Soldiers by Natives while removing them from their homelands. I had planned to write the great American novel about black pioneers after slavery, the Native people who intermarried with and helped them, and the real life black pioneer town of Nicodemus, Kansas. Nicodemus is the only all-black town west of the Mississippi still in existence. I was going to lay that history out.
I never got past three chapters.
What can I say? Life.
I knew the cattlemen’s world inside and out. I still had the old journal with all my research notes. Hell, I didn’t even need my notes anymore. I had absorbed all that history to the point where I could just tell a simple story. I just needed a protagonist to carry the words. She came to me during ReaderCon. But only after some heart-wrenching news.
I was walking to the vendors’ room to cop some merch before I ran out of money. My head was buzzing. I found out my Clarion instructor Jeffrey Ford was nominated for a Shirley Jackson Award (he won!), I was meeting talented new people, and I was feeling like a real writerly person on the verge of getting it together in the SF/F community. My cell phone vibrated. My sister had sent a text from California. I read it. “You see the news?”
I knew the Trayvon Martin verdict was due. I purposely kept my phone off the whole day that Saturday. I only turned it on to check the time. I hopped on Twitter. Trayvon’s murderer was found not guilty. Anti-blackness had won again. Black life was not worth a damn one more time in America. I went to my hotel room and cried. I didn’t want any white faces to see my anger. I needed to be alone. See the news on TV. Rage with the souls of millions of black Americans who felt what I felt. Again. Hurt. Betrayal from the justice system. Anger at old white women on the jury afraid of dark bodies and siding with a fucktard who had imagined a threat cloaked in a teenaged black body. Black like me. After an hour, I calmed down. Straightened my back. I told myself, “Be who you be.” They were the first words I wrote for “Medu.” I was going to write this story just for my nine-year-old self. I put on my headphones. Played Mos Def/Yasiin Bey’s rap classic, “Rock n Roll” on continuous loop:
(Huh) My great-grandmomma was, from a plantation
They sang – songs for inspiration
They sang – songs for relaxation
They sang – songs, to take their minds up off that
fucked up situation
I am… yes I am… the descendant (yes yes)
of those folks whose, backs got broke
who, fell down inside the gunsmoke
(Black people!) Chains on they ankles and feet
I am descendants, of the builders of your street
(Black people!) Tenders to your cotton money
I am.. hip-hop
“It’s heavy metal for the black people”
I am.. rock and roll (rock and roll.. rock’n'roll)
BEEN HERE FOREVER!
They just ain’t let you know.. (HA!)
My protagonist, Lil Bit, is a cowgirl dressed as a young boy of that time on the cattle trail. She is Medu. A Medusa. A black child with powerful hair. A mortal being made immortal by me.
She been here forever. You just ain’t know.
- Dykstra, Robert R. The Cattle Towns. Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf Inc.,1983. Reprint.
- Katz, William Loren. The Black West: A Documentary and Pictoral History of the African Americans Role in the Westward Expansion of the United States. New York: Touchstone, 1996. Print.
- Katz, William Loren. Black Indians: A Hidden Heritage. New York: Antheneum, 1986. Print.
- Richmond, Robert W. Kansas: A Land of Contrasts. St. Charles: Forum Press, 1974. 4th ed.
- Soule, Gardner. The Long Trail: How Cowboys and Longhorns Opened the West. New York: McGraw Hill., 1976. 1st ed.
- Promised Land on the Solomon: Black Settlement at Nicodemus, Kansas by U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Rocky Mountain Region