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Friday, September 25, 2009

Celebrating our friend E. Lynn Harris

CAPTION: Posing with E. Lynn Harris and my mother, Patricia Stephens Due, at Books & Books in Miami.

OK…send prayers up. I'm off to my meeting with one of Hollywood's most powerful ladies. Got the suit on and the new scent I purchased yesterday and I'm ready for my close up.

--E. Lynn Harris’s last Facebook update to 3,800 friends and readers,
posted the day he died

When I think of E. Lynn Harris, who died on July 23, this is the moment I remember: I’m walking in a sea of humanity in Manhattan, hitting a crosswalk as two waves prepare to meet from opposite sides. There, dead-center in my path in a bright crimson jacket, walks E. Lynn Harris—with a grin for miles. That is my mind’s snapshot of Everett Lynn Harris, New York Times bestselling author, trailblazer and stellar friend. The prince of the city, afloat on effervescence, a warm face in a sea of strangers.

E. Lynn, how do I count the ways? You gave us all so much. Did you live your life to the marrow because you knew you would only be visiting with us for so short a time?

Friday, Sept. 25, is E. Lynn Harris day, and many of us whose lives were touched by E. Lynn Harris’s work and spirit want to help him fulfill one of his last unrealized dreams: E. Lynn wanted to be #1 on the New York Times bestseller list. He had ten New York Times bestsellers—remarkable for a black male writer—but he never hit #1.

With his posthumous novel MAMA DEAREST, we hope to help make that happen. I will join writers nationwide to participate in E. Lynn Harris Day Friday. I will appear at 7 p.m. Friday, Sept. 25, at ESO WON BOOKS, 4311 Degnan Boulevard in Los Angeles. (For more information, call 323-490-1048). A complete list of E. Lynn Harris Day events can be found at

Nationwide this week, authors like Eric Jerome Dickey, Victoria Christopher Murray, Tina McElory Ansa, RM Johnson and others have been appearing in Atlanta, New York, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., New Orleans, Dallas, San Francisco, and other cities.


In both fiction and in life, E. Lynn Harris was a giant. In the world of African-American fiction in particular—those tightly-knit networks of book clubs, readers and writers—a mighty tree has fallen, shaking our forest floor.

E. Lynn tried to clear the path for the rest of us.

Read the remembrances on the news and the internet, and person after person cities E. Lynn Harris’s generosity, whether or not they knew him personally. He offered grace to everyone in his presence. He embraced the spirit of entrepreneurship while enchanting readers with his novels again and again. But it wasn’t just his novels readers fell in love with: Reader after reader remarks that they feel like they knew him, that he was a member of their family.

To me, what is most remarkable about his ascent is the unlikely way in which it came about. The black community is not unique in its history of homophobia, but homosexuality was far from a comfortable topic in black America when E. Lynn began publishing.

Then E. Lynn Harris introduced a sexually conflicted character named Raymond in his novel Invisible Life. He hauled self-published novels in the back seat of his trunk because he had a story to tell. He wrote from his heart, and his heart was so big that legions followed him.

E. Lynn Harris’s fiction told gay readers that they were not voiceless, nor were they alone. For straight readers, he opened the closet door and shined in a light. Gay or straight, readers loved him. He made his characters feel real, which our readers demand, and the author’s sweetness and love always shone through.

The proof is in the pictures: Reader after reader, me included, displayed photos of themselves posing with E. Lynn at a book signing. In city after city and town after town, E. Lynn Harris made his readers’ day. In his photos, his smile never faltered.

He was beloved.

No one ever forgot an E. Lynn Harris book-signing. He was a showman whose main act was being himself, a gentleman author in the truest sense. He wanted the last person in line to feel as cherished as the first person in line—and his lines were hundreds of readers long.

When I first started publishing, I was lucky enough to be seated next to E. Lynn Harris at a Black Expo at a convention center, where his line snaked as far as I could see. I was still shocked to be published in those days, and only a handful of readers knew who I was.
While E. Lynn Harris signed autograph after autograph, I watched the master at work.

He was personable. He looked into readers’ eyes. He was happy to stand up and pose for pictures. He was willing to sign a stack of books, no matter how large. If he was tired, he didn’t show it. Everyone left his table with a huge smile. Once in a while, Lynn looked up and addressed the waiting crowd: “This is a new writer, her name is Tananarive Due, and you have to read this novel--THE BETWEEN.”

Each time he did, three or four people bought a copy of my book.

And so the day went on.

In the years to come, he became my most consistent mentor. He had advice at every stage on the business end of publishing. Even if he was on book tour, it seemed that any email sent to E. Lynn was usually answered within the hour—if not immediately. (And this was in the days before Blackberries.) He once told me that he answered 200 reader emails a day!

My mother, Patricia Stephens Due, was my manager in the early part of my career, so she and E. Lynn ran into each other often on the book circuit. Once, she gave Lynn a mantel clock and pen holder styled with books—and when he later gave us a tour of his Chicago apartment, the clock was prominently displayed at the top of his desk. When we told him that we wanted to write a book about the civil rights movement, he got excited and encouraged us with instrumental advice. That book later became Freedom in the Family: A Mother-Daughter Memoir of the Fight for Civil Rights, which I co-authored with my mother.

E. Lynn told me he wanted me to make an appearance in Arkansas—and announced that he was going to fly me in and put me up in a hotel out of his pocket. “More people need to know you,” he said.

I wasn’t the only one, by far.


In recent years, I had not seen E. Lynn Harris often—which was why it was so thrilling when we were both nominated for NAACP Image Awards this year, and I was able to give him a long-overdue hug at a party at CAA in February.

Even then, he was on the phone with our agent, taking care of late-night business. At the time, Lynn was on his tenth week on the New York Times bestseller list. Like me, it was his first NAACP Image Award nomination in a long while, and he was excited. (He first heard the news of the nomination from a friend, author Victoria Christopher Murray.)

Ironically, although he was in California on book tour, he had a conflict on awards night, so he wasn’t able to make it for the red carpet and awards ceremony. But he asked me and Steve to look after Brandon, a 21-year-old young man he’d adopted as his son. Brandon sat in our row, excited to see the likes of Will Smith on the stage. (When Brandon graduated from college in the spring, E. Lynn plastered Facebook with photos, bursting with pride.)

Although we were nominated in the Literature category for our collaboration IN THE NIGHT OF THE HEAT (co-authored with my husband, Steven Barnes, in partnership with actor Blair Underwood), I never felt any sense of competition with E. Lynn. (E. Lynn helped launch our Tennyson Hardwick mystery series with a blurb for CASANEGRA.)

He emailed me after he heard that we’d won: Congrats to you guys. I had a feeling you would win. You're a fabulous writer and your time on the list is coming. Thanks for looking after B. He texted me and the excited me was busting out of my phone.

We sent each other comments back and forth each other’s Facebook pages from time to time, but that email after the Image Awards is my last real correspondence with him.

Gracious, vintage E. Lynn Harris.



I was first introduced to E. Lynn Harris through Blanche Richardson, the longtime owner of Marcus Books in Oakland—the oldest black bookstore in the nation. At my first book signing in Oakland, she laid a stack of my first novel on a table with Post-Its listing several names: Terry McMillan. Octavia E. Butler. Tina McElroy Ansa. Bebe Moore Campbell. Walter Mosley. E. Lynn Harris.

I was blown away, so nervous that my hand practically shook as I signed the books. Blanche wanted to make sure I as properly introduced to the titans in black fiction.

I don’t know how my career would have caught any wind without independent black booksellers like Blanche, and our black bookstores are dying. The loss is incalculable.

Now, in the midst of ongoing hardship, has come a terrible blow. An unimaginable blow.

I heard about E. Lynn Harris’s death on Facebook, that chaotic village square that is rife with town criers when there is news to share. R.I.P. E. Lynn Harris, read several status updates from my friends, reminiscent of the R.I.P. Michael the weeks before.

This had to be an internet hoax! I steadfastly refused to believe it could be true.
In my mind, I had just talked to E. Lynn Harris the day before, because he had posted a giddy update from Los Angeles during a book tour stop.

On Thursday, I fired back a cyber pat on the back—Let’s all storm Hollywood together!!!—as did at least 70 of his other Facebook friends. A writer’s Facebook friends are a fascinating blend of complete strangers who read your books, current real-world friends, family, and people you haven’t seen since elementary school. They’re a supportive bunch. E. Lynn went into his meetings with the Facebook winds at his back.

As far as we were concerned, we had just talked to him and he was doing great.

I like to think that E. Lynn died happy.

By accounts I’ve heard, he had a great day of Hollywood meetings—which is, in itself, a kind of Hollywood ending. Hollywood is the writer’s last mountain, and E. Lynn might have felt that much closer to his dream of bringing his work to movie audiences.

He had optioned his works before, and he wrote screenplays and teleplays in addition to novels. According to a Facebook posting, he also had a Broadway show in the works. (He appeared on Broadway as the narrator of Dreamgirls in 2001, and later appeared in Love Letters to America.)

Actress Lela Rochon Fuqua posted a remembrance on his Facebook page: What a loss...what a talent. Wish we could have gotten one of those books made into film. Thank you! Thank you! for all that you have contributed to the arts. My prayers got out to your family. Rest my brother. Love, Lela

I remember him telling me how devastated he was when Aaliyah died in her 2001 plane crash, when he was left with the same sense of disbelief: But I was just talking to her!

E. Lynn, we were just talking to you.

The passage of days doesn’t make it any easier to believe that you are gone.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

My Father's Oral History Mystery: Lyles Station and the 1857 "Round House Battle"

CAPTIONS: [Left] Black schoolchildren at the school at Lyles Station, circa late-1800s. (My great-grandmother may be one of the darker girls on the right.)
SOURCE: Lyles Station Historic Preservation Society.

[Right] Me posing at age 11: "My Own Roots"


By 1977, Alex Haley’s Roots had swept the nation—and suddenly I was interested in knowing my family history. Had there been a Kunta Kinte in my family’s past? A Kizzy?

As a parent now, I can only imagine how happy my father was when his 11-year-old eldest daughter—whose biggest preoccupation was stealing his legal pads to write stories about kids on space ships and talking cats—approached him and said, “Dad, do you know any stories about our ancestors?”

My father’s face lit up. "Did I ever tell you about Lyles Station and the Battle of the Round House? It’s a story my grandmother told me, and her mother told her.”

The story she told my father about Lyles Station, Indiana, is recounted in the book I co-authored with my mother, Patricia Stephens Due: Freedom in the Family: A Mother-Daughter Memoir of the Fight for Civil Rights. (My great-grandmother in Indiana, Lydia Stewart Graham, died only three years later, in 1980, when she was 89.)

I was so enthralled by the story that I created a school project called “My Own Roots,” illustrated with my father’s drawings and family photographs, pictured above.


“In the 1850s, not long before the Civil War, a slave master in North Carolina decided to set his slaves free. He bought them a parcel of land in Indiana under his own name. Now these freed slaves had somewhere to go, land where they could build their own houses and start their own farms. So they packed up everything they owned and drove the wagon train from North Carolina to Indiana.

“When they arrived, they began to farm the land. They had bumper crops, better than they expected. In town they sold what they grew, so they were not only feeding themselves, but they were earning money. And they were so prosperous that they started attracting attention to themselves. The white farmers who lived around them started getting jealous. And this came at a time when a lot of folk in Indiana were putting pressure on the governor to make it a slave state. They started thinking, ‘Now who are these niggers making all this money?’ That’s when the trouble started.”

Even as a child, I had heard plenty about that kind of trouble. Stories like that didn’t have happy endings for black people.

My father went on: “Well, sure enough, one night after it was dark, the neighbors of those freed slaves came in a surprise attack. The freed slaves were sleeping in their beds when the shooting started. But they had thought about what to do in the event of something just like this, so they all ran to what’s called a ‘round house.’ That was a big, sturdy building where they stored their farming equipment. They had their rifles in there, too. The men passed out the rifles and shot at their attackers through the narrow windows of the round house, while the women climbed up into the loft and reloaded the guns.

“Suddenly, the door came crashing down. The armed white farmers began swarming inside. But again, the freed slaves were ready for them. They had lined up on either side of the door with battle-axes raised over their heads. When the farmers broke in, they swung those axes down. They won the fight, but it caused a big problem, of course.

“Even the governor had to get involved. He helped them move to a settlement called Lyles Station. Freed slaves from all over came to Lyles Station to settle in a place where their neighbors wouldn’t bother them. They built a thriving community. And my grandmother was born in Princeton, Indiana, which is near Lyles Station. They still have family reunions at Lyles Station.”

When my mother and I were researching Freedom in the Family, I was unable to verify my great-grandmother’s story of the Battle of the Round House, although I contacted the Lyles Station Historic Preservation Society. (There is a children’s book about Lyles Station by Scott Russell Sanders, A Place Called Freedom, which does not include the Round House Battle either.)

But my Great-Grandmother Lydia always stood by her story.


My father, John Due, is now a retired civil rights attorney with his own grandchildren, but he has never forgotten that story he heard at his grandmother’s knee. He also has great curiosity, a fondness for the internet and a skeptical mind.

This year, he and his cousin Glenn in Indiana began researching to try to verify the story of the Round House Battle—and their digging mined gold. The most definitive account my father found was an article by university social sciences professor Randy K. Mills that ran in “Black History News and Notes,” a quarterly publication of the Indiana Historical Society Library, in August of 2005. The article is entitled “’They Defended Themselves Nobly’”: A Story of African American Empowerment in Evansville, Indiana, 1857.”

The article details how a family named Lyles journeyed from Tennessee to Indiana after being freed by their slave-master, quoting a direct descendant named Carl Lyles who said they were told to only travel at night and follow the North Star, and that “records show that by the mid-1850s Lyles men had purchased substantial holdings” in Vanderbergh and Gibson counties. [My father believes that our family journeyed some time later, from North Carolina.]

As in my great-grandmother’s story, the article says that the freed black thrived, and a community of about 200 freed blacks and escaped slaves lived in a remote community called The Bayou. “In truth,” Mills writes, “the Lyles probably could not have found a more anti-black region of the state in which to live.”

At a time when kidnapping a freed black was a lesser offense than stealing a horse, as Mills notes—and when lynchings and fears of slave uprisings abounded—an altercation arose between the Lyles family and white neighbors over a hog. According to newspaper accounts, the Lyles’ hog escaped into the field of a white neighbor named Thomas Edmonds. Twenty-four-year-old John Lyles was outraged, although the whites claimed they were merely trying to trap the hog to return it to its owners. The Lyles men were reportedly armed with “clubs and guns,” according to the newspaper The Daily Enquirer.

John Lyles allegedly struck one of Edmonds’ sons with a gun muzzle, causing a serious injury that appeared life-threatening, and the elder Edmonds was also injured. The Lyles men were charged with “assault and battery, with an attempt to commit murder,” according to Mills.

Five Lyles brothers were arrested and freed after posting $1,000 bail—itself almost unheard of at that time. As local newspapers reported these events, the public grew inflamed. The Enquirer urged whites in Union Townships to “[rid] herself of the large numbers of free blacks who now infest it,” according to Mills’ article.

Then, on July 25, 1857, a group of up to 100 heavily armed white men converged on the Lyles family cabin. As Mills writes, they would have brought a cannon if they had not been thwarted while trying to steal it from the courthouse. Instead, they began their attack armed with guns. Before it was over, at least one white man was dead and there were scores of injuries.
The sheriff convinced the Lyles brothers to go into protective custody in Evansville to await trial, and they eventually resettled in what became known as Lyles Station.


Despite a few discrepancies, the article seems to corroborate some key elements of the story my great-grandmother told my father—but it still left gaping questions in his mind. First, how were so few whites killed? And how did the Lyles family avoid extermination? During the 1960s civil rights struggle more than a hundred years later, Southern blacks lived in terror of being killed for far milder offenses than the Round House Battle.

In Tulsa in 1921, between 25 and 300 blacks were killed in riots that erupted after reports that a black youth had tried to rape or assault a white woman; 35 blocks in the black community of Greenwood were torched. John Singleton’s movie Rosewood recounts the tragic destruction of an entire black town after a black drifter supposedly raped a white woman in 1923. And Emmett Till, only 14, was beaten to death in Mississippi in 1955 for allegedly flirting with a white woman.

During the civil rights movement of the 1960s, my mother and other civil rights workers were shot at in Quincy, Florida, at for trying to register blacks to vote while she was a field secretary for the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE). Southern blacks lived in terror of reprisals for civil rights activism.

The more my father researched the Battle of the Round House, the more questions he had, especially when the characters and personalities came to life: He learned that a man who was killed (or severely injured) in the attack was a county commissioner, Alexander Maddox. And the sheriff who supposedly intervened to help ferry the blacks to safety, John S. Gavitt, would seem to have been the last person to take on that role.

“He was a federal marshal before he was sheriff. As a federal marshal…he had a reputation for arresting famous abolitionists. One of them was from Philadelphia who helped blacks escape from Alabama. He caught up with him in Indiana, arrested everybody, got a judge to find them guilty, and while he was transporting them to abolitionist allegedly tried to escape and got killed. This guy was a character, just like Wyatt Earp in the west. It seems very odd.”

But then again, maybe not.

"Let’s look at the choices he has: They had telegraphs in those days. They could have telegraphed the governor’s office and gotten permission to bring over the Indiana militia, and they could have gone down and protected the blacks from that attack. They could have used the same relationship to arrest white attackers. The newspapers would have a field day about not providing law and justice for white people.”

Mills’ article does not mention an intervention by the governor, but my father believes it was inevitable.

"The paper said the sheriff moved the Lyles group back to Gibson County,” Dad says. “The sheriff had no authority to do that in another county. He had to have authorization from the governor.”

Dad goes on: “The story from my grandmother makes more sense, that it was the governor—who controlled the Land Office—who provided new lands for the brothers and our foreparents back in Gibson County, which was only about 15 to 20 miles away from Union Township. But this was an otherwise secret arrangement, because the anti-black politics were very hostile, and the governor could not politically show his hand. The sheriff took the responsibility because he was a lame duck anyway.”

The intervention of Indiana’s governor could explain the sheriff’s stance—but why did the governor make his choices? Why relocate the blacks to new land?

Dad goes on: “All these years, I assumed the governor was some liberal—but this was a Democrat. [In 1857, Democrats were the pro-slavery party.] So what was the motivation for the sheriff and the governor to save our foreparents’ lives so that you and I could exist today?”

For the answer, my father studied the political landscape of the time, when slavery had divided a nation at the eve of the Civil War and immigrants were pouring into Indiana from Germany and Ireland. And, as noted by Mills in his article, a local newspaper lamented that some locals preferred to live near the freed blacks—who were successful farmers contributing to the community—than the immigrants.

“It was good business for the political parties to have these Europeans active in politics,” Dad says. “They became the backbone of a new Republican party that was developed in Indiana. Abraham Lincoln was reaching out to them in order to develop the new Republican party.

“President Buchanan and the Indiana governor and sheriff were allied with the Southern Democrats. The Germans and the Irish immigrants voted the sheriff out of office, so he was pissed off anyway. There was a class prejudice against the Germans and the Irish.”

Did politics and ethnicity trump race in the aftermath of the Battle of the Round House? And even if that was the case, why would Indiana’s governor go to the trouble of relocating the freed slaves and providing them with new land?

The answer, my father believes, lies with my ancestors' roots in North Carolina. The blacks were farming the land, but it had been purchased for them by a white slave-owner.

“It wasn’t for their rights—it was for the right of the former slave-owner,” my father theorizes. “The governor of Indiana, the sheriff in Evansville, had common understanding as Southerners. Evansville, although it is in the free state of Indiana, had a Southern culture. They were just interested in the slave-owners.”

Furthermore, Dad says, it was smart business to keep a profitable black community.

“Indiana was in a serious depression, basically the way we are today,” Dad says. “They went into serious debt using public funds to build the Wabash Canal and the railroad. The value of these farmers is that they were able to go into the market and help pay off the debt. Their produce helped supply profit for the buyers and the suppliers and traders using that railroad. It was about business.”


This was the same year as the infamous Dred Scott decision of 1857, where the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that slaves and their descendants—even if they were freed or born free—could never be U.S. citizens and were not protected by the Constitution. Since blacks were not deemed citizens, they also could not sue in court. Legally, blacks were at the mercy of their communities’ whims, as many blacks would be for generations to come.

My father’s theory is that the slave-owner made the original journey with the freed blacks on the wagon train to ensure their safety, and so that he could purchase the land for them. So not only did this North Carolina slave-owner decide to grant freedom to persons whom the law considered only property, but he shepherded their safe passage.


“We have been brought up on how slavery was one thing—horrible,” Dad says. “Atrocious. Mean-spirited. Treating people like they’re animals. It doesn’t have to be that way. In the western part of North Carolina, western Tennessee and western Kentucky, relationships between slaves and slave masters were much different than relationships between slaves and slave masters in Mississippi or Georgia or Alabama.

“One reason is, in the Deep South there were big plantations and the slave-owner practically didn’t know who the slaves were. But in Roots, remember the slave-owner and Chicken George working together? That was common in North Carolina. Slave owners and slaves worked together. It was more of a relationship. He knew that if he did not take care of them as freepersons, they would be taken in North Carolina to be sold to slavery to somebody else.”

And my father believes the roots of go deeper than a slave-owner who recognized his slaves’ humanity because they worked side-by-side.

After months of research and pondering, my father believes he found the core answer by looking at old family photographs. My great-grandmother and grandmother were both fair-skinned. In the historical photograph he found from a school at Lyles Station in the late-1800s, he notes that most of the black children pictured are also very fair.

What if the freedmen weren’t just slaves—what if they were the slave-owner’s children?

“He had no duty to free his slaves, no duty after freeing them to buy this land to settle. You can talk about laws or the Constitution, but human beings are social animals. And all social animals care for their children,” Dad says.

Most of us do, anyway.

Perhaps my father will never know if he’s right about his theories about the “Battle of the Round House” and the founding of Lyles Station, and his curiosity is not yet satisfied.

Who knows? Perhaps my forebears only survived because of a long-ago gift from a father who had a change of heart.

Whatever the answers to the mystery from history, my great-grandmother’s story has never died.


John Due can be contacted at

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

MAY APPEARANCES IN L.A. & MIAMI—YES, MIAMI! (with Edwidge Danticat)

In May, I have three appearances in Southern California—and I’ll be appearing with Edwidge Danticat in Miami May 21!!! I am not officially on book tour, but it feels that way!

LOS ANGELES—MAY 9 (Saturday) and MAY 17 (Sunday):

I’m honored to be a part of a group show at the Pounder-Koné Art Space, where my novel Blood Colony will be featured in “Cooperative.” The show runs May 7-31. I will attend the opening reception from 6 to 9 p.m. May 9 (Saturday), and I will return to read from Blood Colony at 3 p.m. --CORRECTED TIME--Sunday, May 17. The gallery’s address is 3407 Glendale Boulevard in Atwater Village (Los Angeles).

"Cooperative” features women painters, filmmakers and writers, also including Elizabeth Colomba, Julie Dash (Daughters of the Dust), Meri Nana-Ama Danquah, Tonya Engel, Loren Holland, Tamara Madden, Akosua Adoma Owusu, S. Pearl Sharp and Lisa Teasley. My book reading is at 7 p.m. Sunday, May 17.

If you’ve never been to the Pounder-Koné gallery, please come get an introduction. Like so many people, I have a lot to learn about art…and the shows here are terrific. The gallery is co-owned by marvelous actress CCH Pounder (“The Shield”), who is a gracious hostess. I’ve seen her personal art collection, and her taste is really special to behold. As a novelist, I’m just happy to be invited to share a night with fellow artists in a beautiful place.

LOS ANGELES—MAY 16 (Saturday)

I’m an alum of Northwestern University, and I’m attending my first NU Club of Los Angeles event: The “Author, Author! NU Authors Bookreading” scheduled from 3 to 5:30 p.m. Saturday, May 16. The event is at the Studio City branch of the Los Angeles Public Library, 12511 Moorpark Street in Studio City.

Also appearing: screenwriter and novelist Allison Burnett (Fame and Feast of Love); playwright, screenwriter and novelist Sally Nemeth; Richard Bangs and Douglas W. Kmiec, a Catholic law professor who was denied communion in Los Angeles for supporting Barack Obama.

Admission is free and open to the public. Books will be on sale for signing.

MIAMI—MAY 21 (Thursday)

I am appearing with Edwidge Danticat in Miami, and I couldn’t be more excited! We’re taking part in a program entitled “Black Diaspora Authors: Edwidge Danticat & Tananarive Due” at the Historical Museum of Southern Florida in Miami.

First, I don’t make it back home to Miami nearly enough, especially since my parents moved to upstate Florida. And secondly, Edwidge Danticat is a treasure in world letters—both in fiction and nonfiction. Her latest book, Brother, I’m Dying, chronicles the painful journey of her Haitian uncle, who died while neglected in custody of U.S. customs; winner of the National Book Critics Circle's Award for autobiography.

Edwidge and I will read from our work and discuss how living in South Florida has influenced our writing. I feel honored to appear with her.

The event is at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, May 21. The Historical Museum of South Florida is at 101 W. Flagler Street in Miami. For information, call 305-375-1492.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Martin Luther King's telegram to my mother at Leon County Jail

I just returned from a trip to help my mother, Patricia Stephens Due, organize the library-quality papers she has collected since my parents were involved in the 1960s civil rights struggle. (Much of which we used as research while co-authoring Freedom in the Family: A Mother-Daughter Memoir of the Fight for Civil Rights.)

This past weekend, Mom reflected on Dr. King's assassination in April of 1968, recalling how her phone started ringing and didn't stop. How she had to swallow her own agony to try to comfort other activists, who were half-mad with grief while cities burned with hopelessness. My mother was especially upset that she was unable to attend the funeral—she’d recently had a Caesarian section to give birth to my new baby sister, Johnita. My father, civil rights attorney John Due, represented our family for Dr. King’s funeral in Atlanta.

My mother knew Dr. King. She had his private telephone number.

Dr. King was the unassuming young pastor she first met when he made a presentation at a CORE workshop (Congress of Racial Equality) she and her sister attended as college students in the summer of 1960. Before CORE, my mother had been a typical college student practicing her music, discovering her social life.

A year earlier, a family friend had bribed Mom and her sister, Priscilla, into attending the CORE meeting at the tail end of their summer vacation in Miami. (He promised them a steak dinner at Wolfie's! Wolfie's, at the time, was the only restaurant in Miami Beach that served blacks.)

But they never got to dinner.

Dr. King and Rosa Parks had gained national notice during the Montgomery Bus Boycott from 1955-1956. Blacks had also launched a bus boycott in Tallahassee, Florida, in 1956, although it happened right before my mother and aunt arrived at Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, where they attended college.

In the fall of 1959, still students at FAMU, Patricia and Priscilla Stephens organized a CORE chapter in Tallahassee. By 1960, six months later, she and her sister were in jail. They had been arrested after ordering food at a Woolworth lunch counter in Tallahassee during a sit-in. My mother, aunt and three other FAMU students were the first Jail-In in the nation during the student sit-in movement, choosing jail rather than paying a fine. Next year is the 50th anniversary of the Jail-In.

My mother and aunt ultimately spent 49 days in Leon County Jail, garnering international attention. At the time, my mother was 20 years old.

As my mother and I filed papers in her library these past few days, I ran my fingers across the yellowing stacks of typed and hand-written letters the jailed students received from all over the world--people of all races who were bewildered and outraged that black students could be sent to jail for trying to order food in a public restaurant.

On March 19, 1960, the five jailed FAMU students received a telegram from Dr. King. He knew a thing or two about being thrown in jail, and he offered these words:

"I have just learned of your courageous willingness to go to jail instead of paying fines for your righteous protest against segregated eating facilities. Through your decision you have again proven that there is nothing more majestic and sublime than the determined courage of individuals willing to suffer and sacrifice for the cause of freedom. You have discovered anew the meaning of the cross, and as Christ died to make men holy, you are suffering to make men free.

"As you suffer the inconvenience of remaining in jail, please remember that unearned suffering is redemptive. Going to jail for a righteous cause is a badge of honor and a symbol of dignity.

"I assure you that your valiant witness is one of the glowing epics of our time and you are bringing all of America nearer [to] the threshold of the world's bright tomorrows."

The world's bright tomorrows.

Brightness hasn't reached everyone, especially in this flailing world economy, but in 2009 we are all waking in one of the tomorrows Dr. King wrote about.

This past weekend, I sat with my mother while she remembered Dr. King's assassination. How she had to tend to that ringing phone. How concerned she was that people she cared about would be hurt in the night's riots. Wondering what the future held.

On April 4, 1968, these bright tomorrows must have seemed oh so far away.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Tananarive Due & Steven Barnes to appear in New York March 28, March 29

I don’t get to New York nearly enough, so Steve and I are really looking forward to two appearances coming up on March 28 and March 29, and we hope to see you there!

The first appearance is bittersweet but very timely: A celebration of the life and works of Octavia E. Butler on Saturday, March 28. The next evening, on Sunday, March 29, a program in Harlem will celebrate Tananarive Due. (An incredible honor for me!) Both events are open to the public for $10 ($5 for students and seniors). More information follows:

Saturday, March 28

A few weeks ago, I realized that it was the third anniversary of Octavia E. Butler’s death. For me, it was a sad morning.

I remembered missing my last chance to see her at a Fledgling book-signing at Eso Won Books here in L.A. only months before she died. (It was Halloween, and my son was going trick-or-treating for the first time.) And how, months later, an email arrived from a magazine journalist who had a friend who lived in Octavia’s Seattle neighborhood and had heard a heartbreaking rumor. And how Harlan Ellison, her mentor, called us to confirm our worst fears: Octavia was gone. It is still difficult for me to see her photo.

But while these past three years have been a struggle for all of us who knew and loved Octavia’s work—and Octavia the person—she is not really gone at all. Her literature remains. Our memories remain. Her vision remains.

My husband, Steven Barnes, and I have been invited to New York to help celebrate Octavia, returning to a beloved and familiar venue.

The National Black Writers’ Conference Bi-Annual Symposium is celebrating the life and works of Octavia E. Butler Saturday, March 28. It’s a daylong symposium, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., at Medgar Evers College, 1650 Bedford Avenue in Brooklyn. Steve and I will reflect on Octavia and the influence of her work early in the day.

Steve and I both knew and loved Octavia. Steve had known her for decades, and I met her in 1997 at the same conference on black speculative fiction at Clark Atlanta University where I met my soon-to-be husband. After that conference, my life would never be the same. Octavia kept a photo from that conference framed on her wall—me, Octavia, Steve, Samuel “Chip” Delany and Jewelle Gomez. “My other family,” she explained when we remarked upon it.

Now, a new family in black speculative fiction will appear to honor her: Other panelists throughout the day will include my hubby and fellow NAACP Image Award winner Steven Barnes (Lion's Blood and the upcoming Shadow Valley, his sequel to Great Sky Woman), New York Times bestselling author L.A. Banks (The Vampire Huntress Series) and fantasist Nnedi Okorafor, author of Zahrah the Windseeker.

For more information, visit

Sunday, March 29

I have to put modesty aside to help promote this one:

UpSouth Inc. and the Medgar Evers Center for Black Literature are sponsoring a very special evening entitled “Voices and Visions of New American Dreams: Celebrating a Master Storyteller—Tananarive Due.”

To say that I feel honored and humbled is an understatement. I live every day in the knowledge of how blessed I am to be able to make a living doing what I love. I’m gratified that readers support my work, period. That’s something no writer can take for granted, especially during tough economic times.

When I started publishing, I had never heard of speculative fiction. I had read Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day and Toni Morrison’s Beloved (and lots of Stephen King!), but I had never read other black writers who wrote about the supernatural, or who wrote about the future.

I’m embarrassed to say that Steven Barnes and Octavia E. Butler had escaped my notice until after I’d written My Soul to Keep (1997). (Now, the number of writers of color who identify themselves as horror, fantasy or science fiction writers has grown so much that they have their own internet networking sites!)

But I stepped out on complete faith with my first novel, The Between (1995), with the hope that someone would care about the stories I wanted to tell of life, death, healing and love—with a few spooky moments. Without the success of Terry McMillan and Waiting to Exhale, my road would have been much harder.
It has been a magical, life-changing ride ever since.

I want to thank my editor at Atria Books, Malaika Adero, as well as the other organizers for their hard work creating this event in my honor. And I want to thank my faithful readers for carrying me thus far on the way.

The event is at 5 p.m. at Faison’s Firehouse Theatre in Harlem, 6 Hancock Place/124th Street (between Morningside and St. Nicholas avenues).

Steve and I will be presenters, as well as poet and author Opal Palmer Adisa (author of Until Judgment Comes and Eros Muse).

There will be books for sale, and I will be happy to sign them. I don’t make it to New York nearly often enough, so I’ll also be glad to see friends and readers.

For more information, visit
Hope to see you there!

Sunday, February 15, 2009

An NAACP Image Award for IN THE NIGHT OF THE HEAT---and a complete list of winners!!!

CAPTION: (left to right) Blair Underwood, Tananarive Due and Steven Barnes on the red carpet at the 40th NAACP Image Awards. Photo credit:

I’m excited to announce that Steven Barnes, Blair Underwood and I received the 2009 NAACP Image Award for our mystery collaboration In the Night of the Heat, the second novel in our Tennyson Hardwick mystery series! (I was also nominated for Blood Colony, my latest African Immortals novel.)

Wow. [For a complete list of winners announced Feb. 12, see the end of this entry.]

The other nominees in the category were my friend E. Lynn Harris for Just Too Good to be True, Bonnie Glover for Going Down South and James McBride for Song Yet Sung. Formidable competition, to say the least. So I didn’t expect to win—especially since the blessing of a double nomination meant that I was likely to split my voters.

I’ve only been nominated for an Image Award once before—for The Black Rose in 2001. I didn’t win. It was an amazing experience, and an eye-opening one: Since that night, I’ve watched the Oscars with much more empathy for the nominees who ALMOST got to take the statuette home.

This time, I told myself I was simply going to go and enjoy the ceremony at Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles. No expectations. My sister Lydia really wanted to fly in from Texas to support me, but she couldn’t arrange it—so I invited my friend Farai Chideya, an author and commentator. (Since Steve’s daughter, Nicki, couldn’t make it because of classes at UC Irvine, Steve invited his niece, Sharleen Higa.)

For almost a week, I was a ball of nerves. It took so much energy for me to prepare for the ceremony and the receptions and parties, I ended up writing notes for my acceptance speech in the car on the way. Even then, it felt like a foolish jinx to write anything at all.

The Novel category was presented in the pre-show, not televised live on Fox, but the pre-show had to run on time so that the live show could run on time later. (And no one wants to be the one cut off by the “get-off-the-stage” music they play at awards shows.)

We had 45 seconds for a speech. Blair had told us beforehand that if In the Night of the Heat won, he would accompany us to the stage, but he would leave the remarks to us. (Steve and I are the authors of the Tennyson Hardwick novels, and Blair is like our “producer,” with a strong hand in discussing content and the character who bears his face.)

Even split in half instead of thirds, that left only 22 seconds apiece for an acceptance speech.

And then there was the surreal element. When the name of our book was called, almost all rational thought fled my mind. I don’t remember the walk to the stage at all. All I know is that I ended up at the microphone first. I remember thanking my parents. I thanked Steve (“my collaborator and soul-mate.”) And I thanked Blair (“for his vision and a wonderful character in Tennyson Hardwick.”) And my editor, Malaika Adero at Atria Books. In retrospect, it seems as if I was just rattling off names.

Now that the fog of the day has cleared, I wish I’d had the time, or presence of mind, to say what the NAACP Image Award really means to me. My fantasy speech would have gone something like this:

“I stand here today on the 100th birthday of National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, less than a month after the inauguration of the nation’s first black president, and I am humbled to receive this award.

First, I want to thank my parents, John Due and Patricia Stephens Due, who raised me and my sisters Johnita and Lydia to know our history—and to believe that an individual CAN change the world. For me, this is a homecoming. We were raised at NAACP meetings, attending NAACP conventions and demonstrations, and I was tested and trained as a young writer in the NAACP’s high school ACT-SO competition, founded by the late Vernon Jarrett.

I also want to give a special thank-you to the NAACP for being the only major Hollywood award that includes a Literary category! Thank you for recognizing that authors of fiction, non-fiction and poetry deserve a place at the Welcome Table, too.

I want to thank my collaborator and soul-mate Steven Barnes, an extraordinary teacher who has always given me room to fly. We have distinct voices in our solo work, but our collaborations have brought us new and surprising harmonies.

And thanks to Blair Underwood, who has taught us through example how to maintain grace and dignity in this battleground called Hollywood.

We conceived of the Tennyson Hardwick novels as a way to tell stories of healing and redemption that matter to all of us—while at the same time hoping to empower ourselves to have more control over how characters of color are portrayed on the screen.

We hope we are walking in the right direction.

Most importantly, thanks to God—who has brought us all thus far on the way. I have been blessed every day to make a living doing the thing I love. In these difficult economic times that are hitting writers hard, I cannot, and do not, take that for granted. I can only hope that through my writing I give back a portion of what has been given to me.”
Even that doesn’t sum it all up, but it’s closer.

The Image Awards included memorable performances by Jennifer Hudson, Stevie Wonder, Beyonce and, along with a tribute to Nobel prize-winners Al Gore and Kenyan environmental activist Wangari Maathai.

But my favorite moment was the tribute to Muhammad Ali, who suffers from Parkinson's disease and therefore could only sit on the stage. The crowd rose to its feet when he came into sight, and a booming chant erupted from the audience: “Ali! Ali! Ali!”

I was happy to have the chance to be in that room and shout the Champ’s name.



After we received our award, Blair ushered us out of the auditorium to walk the red carpet. Since red carpets are not a part of a writer’s normal life, we were happy for him to lead the way.

Even the walk out of the auditorium was great fun. As we passed through the rear, a gaggle of ladies who were fans of Blair’s let out appreciative, throaty hisses and calls, their voices just loud enough to be heard. “Hey, sexy!” “Love the book!”

Grinning, Blair turned to Steve and said, “See what happens when I hang out with y’all?” (Thanks, Blair—but book lovers or not, we doubt that the cloud of pheromones floating from those seats had much to do with our clever turns of phrase.)

Next, the red carpet, where a bank of about 40 photographers awaited. We stopped to pose at three spots along the carpet, and all the while the photographers tried to direct our gazes: “Blair, look up!” “Look left!” “Look right!” Flashbulbs strobed around us.

Other arrivals were posed behind us, and there were disgusted cries from the photographers when a publicist just behind Steve wouldn’t get out of the way of the shot.

Other arrivals that day included Halle Berry, Sean Combs, Dakota Fanning and a gaggle of other celebrities, so Blair made sure to explain who we were: “Image Award winners!” he said, and spelled our names out for them. When the cameras from “Access Hollywood” and “Entertainment Tonight” found Blair, he made sure we were included.

Not exactly a typical day in a writer’s life.

After the Image Awards, at one point we were standing fewer than five feet from Will Smith backstage, although we didn’t have a chance to speak to him—or his wife Jada Pinkett-Smith, who was with him. At the after-party, Steve and I shared a table with actress CCH Pounder (“The Shield”) and actor Jeffrey Wright. I also stopped at NAACP chairman Julian Bond’s table to give him greetings from my parents, who know him as civil rights activists.

All in all, it was an unforgettable night.


Here is the complete list of 2009 NAACP Image Award winners.

Congratulations to all of the winners and Image Award nominees!

Outstanding Comedy Series
"Tyler Perry's House of Payne" (TBS)

Outstanding Actor in a Comedy Series
LaVan Davis - "Tyler Perry's House of Payne" (TBS)

Outstanding Actress in a Comedy Series
Tracee Ellis Ross - "Girlfriends" (CW)

Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series Lance Gross
"Tyler Perry's House of Payne" (TBS)

Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series
Keshia Knight Pulliam - "Tyler Perry's House of Payne" (TBS)

Outstanding Drama Series
"Grey's Anatomy" (ABC)

Outstanding Actor in a Drama Series
Hill Harper - "CSI: NY" (CBS)

Outstanding Actress in a Drama Series
Chandra Wilson - "Grey's Anatomy" (ABC)

Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series
Taye Diggs - "Private Practice" (ABC)

Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series
Angela Bassett - "ER" (NBC)

Outstanding Television Movie, Mini-Series or Dramatic Special
"A Raisin in the Sun" (ABC)

Outstanding Actor in a Television Movie, Mini-Series or Dramatic Special
Sean Combs - "A Raisin in the Sun" (ABC)

Outstanding Actress in a Television Movie, Mini-Series or Dramatic Special
Phylicia Rashad - "A Raisin in the Sun" (ABC)

Outstanding Actor in a Daytime Drama Series
Bryton McClure - "The Young and the Restless" (CBS)

Outstanding Actress in a Daytime Drama Series
Debbi Morgan - "All My Children" (ABC)

Outstanding News/Information - Series or Special
"In Conversation: Michelle Obama Interview" (TVOne)

Outstanding Talk Series
"The View" (ABC)

Outstanding Reality Series
"American Idol 7" (FOX)

Outstanding Variety - Series or Special
"UNCF An Evening of Stars: Tribute to Smokey Robinson" (Syndicated)

Outstanding Children's Program
"Dora The Explorer" (Nickelodeon)

Outstanding Performance in a Youth/Children's Program - Series or Special
Keke Palmer - "True Jackson" (Nickelodeon)

Outstanding New Artist
Jennifer Hudson (Arista)

Outstanding Male Artist
Jamie Foxx (J Records)

Outstanding Female Artist
Beyoncé (MusicWorld/Columbia Records)

Outstanding Duo, Group or Collaboration
Jennifer Hudson feat. Fantasia - "I'm His Only Woman" (Arista)

Outstanding Jazz Artist
Natalie Cole - "Still Unforgettable" (DMI Records)

Outstanding Gospel Artist - Traditional or Contemporary
Mary Mary (Columbia Records)

Outstanding World Music Album
Cheryl Keyes - "Let Me Take You There" (Keycan Records)

Outstanding Music Video
"Yes We Can" - ( Music Group/Interscope)

Outstanding Song
"Yes We Can" - ( Music Group/Interscope)

Outstanding Album
Jennifer Hudson - "Jennifer Hudson" (Arista)

Outstanding Literary Work - Fiction
"In the Night of the Heat: A Tennyson Hardwick Novel" -
Blair Underwood, Tananarive Due, Steven Barnes (Simon & Schuster/Atria Books)

Outstanding Literary Work - Non-Fiction
"Letter to My Daughter" - Maya Angelou (Random House)

Outstanding Literary Work - Debut Author
"Barack, Race, and the Media: Drawing My Own Conclusion" -
David Glenn Brown (David G. Brown Studios)

Outstanding Literary Work - Biography/Auto-Biography
"The Legs Are the Last to Go" - Diahann Carroll (Amistad)

Outstanding Literary Work - Instructional
"32 Ways to Be a Champion in Business" - Earvin "Magic" Johnson (Crown Business)

Outstanding Literary Work - Poetry
"Hip Hop Speaks To Children: A Celebration of "Poetry With A Beat" -
Nikki Giovanni (Source Books/Jabberwocky)

Outstanding Literary Work - Children
"Barack Obama: Son of Promise, Child of Hope" -
Nikki Grimes; Illustrator Bryan Collier (Simon & Schuster)

Outstanding Literary Work - Youth/Teens
"Letters to a Young Sister: Define Your Destiny" - Hill Harper (Gotham Books)

Outstanding Actor in a Motion Picture
Will Smith - "Seven Pounds" (Columbia Pictures)

Outstanding Actress in a Motion Picture
Rosario Dawson - "Seven Pounds" (Columbia Pictures)

Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Motion Picture
Columbus Short - "Cadillac Records" (Sony Music Film/Parkwood Pictures)

Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Motion Picture
Taraji P. Henson - "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" (Paramount)

Outstanding Motion Picture
"The Secret Life of Bees" (Fox Searchlight)

Outstanding Independent Motion Picture
"Slumdog Millionaire" (Fox Searchlight)

Outstanding Documentary (Theatrical or Television)
"The Black List" (HBO)

Outstanding Foreign Motion Picture
"The Class" (Sony Pictures Classics)

Outstanding Directing in a Dramatic Series
Ernest Dickerson - "Lincoln Heights: The Day Before Tomorrow" (ABC Family)

Outstanding Directing in a Comedy Series
Kevin Sullivan - "30 Rock: MILF Island" (NBC)

Outstanding Directing in a Motion Picture (Theatrical or Television)
Gina Prince-Bythewood -"The Secret Life of Bees" (Fox Searchlight Pictures

Outstanding Writing in a Motion Picture (Theatrical or Television)
Jenny Lumet - "Rachel Getting Married" (Sony Pictures Classics)

Outstanding Writing in a Dramatic Series
Shonda Rhimes - "Grey's Anatomy: Freedom Part 1 & 2" (ABC)

Outstanding Writing in a Comedy Series
Erica D. Montolfo - "The Game: White Coats and White Lies" (CW)

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Inauguration 2009: The light beyond my parents' tall shadows

“Mama exhorted her children at every opportunity to ‘jump at de sun.’ We might not land on the sun, but at least we would get off the ground.”
--Zora Neale Hurston


My journey to Washington, D.C., with my parents—John Due and Dr. Patricia Stephens Due—and my sister Johnita ended, in many ways, as my family’s journey began: with an act of defiance.

For weeks before the inauguration, my mother had talked about wanting to gather soil in Washington, D.C. to take home and mingle with the rich red clay of Gadsden County, Florida, where she was born and lives now. Then, she would plant a tree in honor of the fallen foot-soldiers whose shoulders Barack Obama stood on to get where he is. I suggested that we make a pilgrimage to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue and collect her soil near the White House grounds.

It was the day after President Barack Hussein Obama’s inauguration. Most of the masses had begun their way back home, but many of us still lingered. My parents and I reached the gate at the rear of the White House, an iconic image we know so well from movies and television—the visual symbol for the greatest power on planet Earth.

A sidewalk for visitors ran parallel to a restricted driveway where vehicles could only enter with proper identification. The only thing separating our pedestrian sidewalk from the restricted driveway was a thick ceremonial chain linked low to the ground—beyond the chain, a three-foot strip of colorless grass and soil, then the asphalt the police were guarding. The White House itself, closer to our sidewalk, was protected by a much higher iron gate.

After we posed in front of the White House gate, I noticed an eight-foot gap in the chain on the driveway side, so grass and soil were easily accessible. Seemed like a good spot! My parents agreed, so I brought out a little spoon and squatted to loosen at the hard soil so my mother would have enough to scoop into a little plastic bag.

With the White House gate less than six feet away and the Washington Monument behind her, my mother kneeled to gather the soil…and I readied my camera to take her picture.

We did not go unnoticed by the police officers monitoring the crowd. A uniformed young male officer approached my mother and said belligerently, “Move—NOW.”

My mother was kneeling, and in her heavy winter coat she was slow to rise. Instead, she tried to explain her purpose. When the officer cut her off, she seemed puzzled by his hostility.

“You stay on THIS side of the chain—that’s why it’s there. Move NOW,” he said again, in that voice that most people would leap to obey.

But my mother is not most people. She has never been one to simply do as she was told, whether by a police officer or anyone else. And this police officer had a sharpness in his tone that brought back bad memories of police officers in Tallahassee, Ocala, St. Petersburg, Miami and New York who had carted her to jail in the 1960s.

In those days, the only terrorism in the news was domestic—but those bomb blasts and attacks by police dogs and fire hoses were never called “terrorism.” On that winter day after the inauguration of the 44th president, my mother was still wearing the dark glasses she has been forced to wear since a police officer lobbed a teargas canister in her face during a peaceful Tallahassee march when she was only 19. Her eyes have been sensitive to light indoors and outdoors since.

My mother spent 49 days in jail for sitting-in at a Woolworth lunch counter. The police had tried to order her to move back then, too. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. sent a telegram to her and the four other Florida A&M students, including my aunt, Priscilla Stephens Kruize, who were a part of that Jail-In. (It was the nation's first Jail-In during the student sit-in movement.)

The confrontations didn’t end in the 1960s: In 1992, in the wake of Hurricane Andrew in Miami, my mother faced off against a swarm of police officers who raided my parents’ property in the dead of night because of a mistaken report of a “suspicious black man in a white van.” By pure luck, my parents and cousin were not hurt that night.

At the White House gate, as I saw the growing defiance on my mother’s hardening face, I had a nightmarish vision of our once-in-a-lifetime inauguration trip ending at the police station and on the nightly news. My father and I hushed her and coaxed her away, promising better soil elsewhere. (For a time, two or three officers followed us, watching.)

My mother got her soil. Upon the advice of a kindly White House park ranger posted near the visitor entrance, we chose softer, richer soil in a non-restricted area. My mother was more afraid of the hungry, fearless squirrel approaching her than she had been of the police officer. She scooped up as much as she liked—far better soil than at the other site.

Later, we could laugh. My sister Johnita, who had stayed behind in our warm hotel room, was aghast at the story: Whey didn’t Mom simply do as she was told right away?

“Don’t you know your mother by now?” my father said.


My family’s character has always been shaped by my parents’ courtship in the civil rights era. Instead of “dating,” they went to meetings and protests together—and fell in love.

My mother was visible and audible on the front lines. My father’s legal mind toiled and strategized behind the scenes. He once represented Dr. King after in arrest in St. Augustine, and helped pioneer an important strategy to bypass state courts in civil rights cases.

My parents raised us in meetings and on picket lines. Last year, we celebrated an early family holiday on Election Night, when my sisters and I brought our families to watch the returns in Quincy, Florida. I’ll never forget the shout of joy that rang through the house when the words “President-elect Barack Obama” first appeared on the television screen.

Naturally, my parents wanted to go to Washington for the inauguration.

But decades of community activism and political involvement had not borne any offers for tickets. My parents are great at giving, but not so good at asking—so my sisters and I asked on their behalf. I posted a blog entry right here, wrote letters and begged my Facebook friends.

My sister, in a leap of faith, booked us a hotel room to share. Tickets or no tickets, we wanted to experience the inauguration too.

Moments before my redeye took off for Washington, a sudden email appeared on my phone: TICKETS!!!! Andre L. Gaines, a screenwriter I met when I spoke at my alma mater Northwestern University years ago, had a friend who works for someone in the Obama administration. He’d forwarded the email with my blog essay, and when his friend read it, he offered my parents Silver tickets.

I rushed straight from the airport to the convention center to pick up the tickets. “After that email you sent…it was the least we could do,” Andre’s friend said.

The honor of your presence is requested is requested at the ceremonies attending the inauguration of the President and Vice-President of the United States…

Alone, when I held the two tickets in my unsteady hands and read them, I cried.

And so my trip to Washington began with tears.

And blood.

I’ve never had a nosebleed before—but as I sat in the Starbucks in the lobby of the Renaissance Hotel the morning I arrived with my tickets, I realized my nose was bleeding. Excitement? Dry, cold air? At the time, I was typing a journal entry on my laptop…and when the initial surprise passed, I plugged my nose with a Kleenex and typed one-handed, rapid-fire.

As I think back on it, the blood was symbolic. My mother and I wrote a memoir together, Freedom in the Family: A Mother-Daughter Memoir of the Fight for Civil Rights—not to mention our virtual home-schooling on black history twelve months a year—so I didn’t need Martin Luther King Day to remind me of how much blood had been spilled. A little nosebleed seemed like a small price to pay. I barely noticed; I didn’t even excuse myself from a crowded table to go to the restroom.

I had too much to write about.


I was on a budget, as usual, so I didn’t pay to attend any balls—but my sister had been invited to two free functions and brought me as her guest: One to a Reception sponsored by Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (a friend of Obama’s whom many political insiders believe taught Obama a thing or two about politics), and then to the Inaugural Ball sponsored by, co-founded by Henry Louis Gates.

The Root’s ball was a Who’s Who. I ran into an old friend, author Amy Alexander, and we wandered the room with her friend Victor, who pulled me out of my shyness. I got a polite smooch from Spike Lee, who told me I was a “marvelous writer.” I had a quick chat with director John Singleton, who remembered me from an earlier meeting. I ran into my friend, author and commentator Farai Chideya, who was with her mother.

We even had an Oprah moment! We were standing beside an elevator when The Original O herself climbed out, and for a moment I was standing only five feet from her. My hand was practically outstretched for an introduction (we spoke on the phone years ago, and I know she enjoyed my novel My Soul to Keep), but her burly bodyguard was suddenly standing between us. Another elevator car opened, and she was gone in a blink.

(Maybe next time, Oprah!)

Other attendees included Alice Walker, Bob Woodward, Chris Tucker, Biz Markie (who deejayed!), a slew of former co-workers from The Miami Herald, and too many others to mention.

And the week was just getting started.



Monday was Martin Luther King Day. My mother stayed behind in the hotel room, but Johnita, Dad and I went to the Washington Monument to join the eager crowds anticipating a history-making day. In August of 1963, married only since January, my parents journeyed to Washington on the "Freedom Train" to attend the March on Washington as special guests. Returning 46 years later, my father was brimming with memories as the past and present collided.
It felt like coming Home.

I’ll never forget the ocean of smiles. Smiles were our universal language.

Jumbotrons played excerpts from Barack Obama’s remarks on Sunday, his voice ringing across the Reflecting Pool and throughout the National Mall. Sojourners of all races, ages and ethnicities from across the country and the world snapped photos of strangers who asked. Wheelchairs were plastered with Obama stickers. Obama’s name was on hats, scarves, jackets, purses, and buttons, reminiscent of a giant sporting event where everyone was rooting for the same team.

Politeness unparalleled. Shining eyes. Everyone shining. All races. No races.

My father recalled his earlier visits for the March on Washington and the Million Man March, gazing at the wonder of Now. My sister, father and I took a photo in front of the Washington Monument, standing tall to stab the cloudy sky.

But there were no clouds in the faces of those of us gathered there.

There was an Illinois Ball in our hotel that night, and German shepherds on leashes led Special Police officers through the lobby. These weren’t the dogs of Birmingham, Selma and Tallahassee, even if they were the same breed. These were the dogs of The New Day.

Irony visible in every blink of the eye.

An older white woman sitting primly in ball finery in the lobby—someone’s grandmother—held a striking vinyl handbag with Barack Obama’s image, so I asked her if I could take a picture of her with my video camera. She agreed. “You should see the other side!” her female companion said, and she flipped it over to show another photo: Barack with Michelle, Malia and Sasha, all grinning.

The Obama family’s faces pulled me out of videographer mode, and I was just a witness again: I stared, struck anew. A black family so much like mine—on this woman’s purse.

(Why can’t I write about these days without tears?

As a child, my family was not welcome. When I was three years old, my parents tried to enroll me in Montessori school in Miami, but no school would accept me because of my brown skin. I went home and covered the offending skin in baby powder. “Mommy, will they let me go to school now?” In the fifth grade, young children and teenagers called me “nigger” as I walked to elementary school. Our neighbors threw tomatoes at our Cutler Ridge house and put rocks in our gas tank.

We were a part of the neighborhood, but apart from the neighborhood.

A part of the nation, but apart from the nation.

Pain with nowhere to go, except in my writing. Pain taught me how to write.)

“What a beautiful purse!” I said, smiling. The rest could not be put to words.

The lobby flooded with ball-goers and security officials as motorcades and police motorcycles wailed past on the streets outside. Red velvet ropes and blue security lights checking identification. A school-mascot style giant Abraham Lincoln strolled the lobby floor.

U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. passed me, walking toward the elevator, and I called to him to introduce him to my parents. “Congratulations to us all,” he said.

Inside the hotel bar, called the Presidents’ Sports Bar, a large black and white photo of Barack Obama as a young boy with a baseball bat had a prime spot—a stone's throw from photos of Teddy Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy.

What strange world is this?

Whatever dream this is, please don’t let me wake up.



Our wake-up call came at six a.m. as directed, but when we turned on CNN we could see that we had overslept by hours. The Mall was already crowded with those who had been up since four, or those who could not sleep at all.

As we rushed to dress, Johnita learned that she had an offer for even more coveted Purple tickets for our parents—in the standing Senate section, right in front of the Capitol. We only had to make it to Sixth Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, blocks from the Capitol, to pick them up!

By that time, my cold-weary sister had already decided that she wanted to watch the inauguration indoors at the Newseum rather than trying to use the Silver tickets, so I planned to walk my parents to their Purple section seats and then fare the best I could. We set out together, but we expected to be separated before the swearing-in ceremony.

A driver got us as close to our destination as road closures allowed, and then we walked, melting into the wall of humanity literally blocking the street.

It was 8 a.m. By inauguration standards, it was very late.

When there was no movement forward in the crowd, we found an alley. When police on the other side told us we could not pass, we ducked into the coffee shop on the corner to circumvent the blockage. We walked with a mission.

We had only been outside for a few minutes, but my fingertips and ears were already tingling in the cold. (Yes, Northwestern University is in Evanston, Illinois, right outside of Chicago, but I loathe the cold!) I cast suspicious gazes at my father’s thin, fleece-lined coat, wondering how in the world he would last the day.

Once we reached the Newseum, where our new tickets awaited, we stood outside with a crowd for 15 or 20 minutes while our entrance was negotiated with the guards at the door.
Inside—we savored the heated hallways.

From the rooftop, we had a great view of the Capitol building only three blocks down the street—seemingly close enough to touch!

One last family meeting, and Johnita hugged us before my parents and I set down in the elevator armed with two Purple tickets. Cell phone service was spotty, so I knew that it was possible I wouldn’t be able to get back inside after I walked with my parents—assuming I could make it back that far at all!

At the door, we asked a U.S. Marshal advice about the best route.

“This street is closed,” he said. “You’ll have to go to Seventh, and then the gates won’t even open until 11.”

Our resolve deflated. For a ceremony beginning at 11:30 a.m., that was cutting it close.

“What would YOU do?” I asked him.

“I would stay here,” he said.

And so we did.

(After reading about the horrific difficulties experienced by Purple ticketholders in particular, thousands of whom were stuck huddled in a claustrophobic tunnel for hours, I am thankful every day that we made that decision. I mourn for a nameless elderly black woman I read about who called it the worst experience of her life—and many others suffered too.)

We had a lobby and large television screen practically to ourselves indoors—and when we wanted to brave the cold, we could go to the rooftop and see Pennsylvania Avenue below us, lined with police officers on either side.

On one end, we could see the Capitol building—and on the other, almost out of sight, the blur of the crowds at the Mall. (I was on the rooftop when I saw former President George W. Bush’s helicopter fly away.)

A shout filled the streets, and we saw a motorcade pass under our noses on Pennsylvania Avenue. After snapping a rooftop photo of my parents with the Capitol in the background, we went inside to watch the proceedings on TV.

Sen. Ted Kennedy, hours before his collapse, looked hale and joyful on the monitor. The appearance of former President Jimmy Carter reminded me of being Malia’s age, when my family was invited to meet then-candidate Carter and pose for a photo with our family and the late Florida Rep. Gwendolyn Cherry at a Miami hotel.

Malia and Sasha appeared on the TV screen like Sunshine itself.

There were others in and out of the lobby—other observers whose names, for the most part, we did not learn. Cooks watched from a far end of the hallway while police officers with bomb-sniffing dogs patrolled the elevators and rooftop.

But my family might as well have been alone.

When the ceremony began, we sat in a row on a sofa, mesmerized, our hands unconsciously clutching at each other as we watched the images unfold—my father’s hand on my sister’s shoulder, my sister’s hands on my father’s knee and mine, my hand on my sister’s knee and my mother’s, my mother’s arm around my shoulder. A human chain. (We missed you, Lydia, but we know you were there with us, too!)

At noon, while the gorgeous John Williams musical composition played, a caption on CNN’s screen pointed out that Barack Obama had just officially become president although he had not been sworn in. On television, I saw Michelle reach to her husband from where she sat behind him…and gently squeeze his shoulder.

A human chain.

We watched the oath, practically holding our breath. There were no shouts, no cries—only the silence of our witnessing. We all shed tears.

During President Obama’s inaugural address, I grabbed my video camera and ran back up to the rooftop, where I could hear his voice ringing up and down the street. The words were muffled to my hearing, but the resolve was clear.

My family was on the rooftop together when President Obama’s motorcade drove down Pennsylvania Avenue behind the V formation of police motorcycles—Secret Service officers walking beside the slow-moving vehicles—and the street erupted with a roar that seemed to shake the walls around me. The floor beneath me.

The roar shook me to my bones.

“He’s getting out of the car!” a voice cried from the other side of our rooftop, and although we ran as quickly as we could to try to get a better angle, the new President and First Lady were out of our sight.

We rushed back inside to see with our own eyes on TV.

There on Pennsylvania Avenue, Barack and Michelle Obama walked, smiling and waving. They walked free of fear.

On inauguration day, we all walked.


Our rooftop perch gave us a great view of the parade.

My mother was a junior at Florida A&M University the first time she was arrested, and my father attended law school there to become a civil rights soldier in his own way. Although women weren’t permitted to march in the band in the late-1950s, my mother played trumpet and bassoon in FAMU’s highly-esteemed concert and symphonic bands. (In junior high school band, I used to play trumpet duets with her.)

My parents contributed money to help the 400 members of FAMU’s marching band attend the inauguration parade—and we were watching from above as the band’s opening peals of “Celebration” filled Pennsylvania Avenue. My parents shouted and waved, as excited as children again.

When my mother was their age, she gave up childish things. And, like all veterans, my parents have not often made room for joy.

As the FAMU band played on, I saw the young people they might have been.

Thank you, Mom and Dad!

Thank you to the fallen of all races who did not live to see the day.

Monday, January 12, 2009

A simple appeal: Inauguration tickets for my parents

CAPTION: John Due and Dr. Patricia Stephens Due with infant Tananarive

I am looking for Inauguration tickets for my parents, who are longtime civil rights activists in Florida named John Due and Dr. Patricia Stephens Due. Beyond my campaign calls and carefully-budgeted contributions, I am a political outsider…so I am making a simple appeal.

My parent celebrated their 46th wedding anniversary on Jan. 5, and the first lesson they passed to their three daughters was the most profound lesson there is: Individuals can change the world for the better.

My parents were foot-soldiers in the civil rights struggle. Like thousands of other activists of all races, they never got a holiday or a stamp—but without their sacrifices in the 1960s and beyond, we would not be inaugurating Barack Obama on Jan. 20.

As the late novelist Octavia E. Butler told us, “The only lasting truth is Change.”

But change always comes with a price.

To this day, my mother wears dark glasses even indoors because her eyes were injured by a teargas bomb thrown in her face by a police officer during a nonviolent march in Tallahassee in 1960. She was also shot at while trying to register Florida voters in 1963 and 1964. My father, who once represented Dr. King after an arrest in St. Augustine, got a call from the FBI warning him that he might be the target of a racist’s bomb—and that was in the late-1980s. U.S. bombings were in the news; home-grown, just like in Birmingham. I remember that call well.

So, yes—I want my parents to see the official ceremony up close; far more than I want to actually witness the Inauguration myself…although I surely do. My parents wouldn’t only be attending for themselves: They would be there on behalf of the countless other activists who did not, or could not, make it to witness this day.

In 2003, my mother and I published a memoir we co-authored: Freedom in the Family: A Mother-Daughter Memoir of the Fight for Civil Rights. Researching that book about ordinary people doing extraordinary things, I learned first-hand how many of the 1960s activists did not make it to 2009 in body, mind or spirit. The war against them took a toll that is still vibrating through the next generations, and time is stealing them away day by day.

But some of them, like my parents, made it to Election Night. And Inauguration Day.

My mother talks about bringing back soil from Washington, D.C., to mix with the red clay of her birthplace in Gadsden County, Florida. Then she wants to plant a tree in honor of all of the foot-soldiers whose shoulders President-elect Obama is standing on.

Neither of my parents expected to get caught up in a political movement when they went to college. But in 1960, as a junior, my mother was arrested at a sit-in at a segregated Woolworth lunch counter in Tallahassee. When she refused to pay her fine, my mother, aunt and three other Florida A&M students spent 49 days in jail, becoming the nation’s first Jail-In.

They received a telegram of support from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and baseball great Jackie Robinson published a letter my mother wrote from jail in his New York Post column.

My father, then in college in Indiana, read about my mother in Jet magazine and applied to Florida A&M’s law school so he, too, could join the movement sweeping the South.

The rest is history. A lifelong match was born. This weekend, my father wrote my mother a heartfelt note explaining why he wouldn’t dream of attending the Inauguration without her if they couldn't both arrange to go: “To go without you—when we are life partners—would have been like going to the 1963 March on Washington without you. It would have been impossible.”

Most children think their parents are special, but my sisters and I had constant confirmation. We saw their names cited in books. The phone rang constantly; people and organizations in need of guidance or support. One day, my mother put in a call to the governor’s office, and then-Gov. Bob Graham called back within an hour.

Although I attended public schools, my parents practically home-schooled me and my sisters with children’s books about Martin Luther King Jr., Cesar Chavez, black cowboys and other oft-overlooked figures in American history. Mom, in particular, didn’t just haul it out in February: We heard about our history all year long.

While my parents often reminded us that Martin Luther King Jr. was just a man like anyone else, we always took the day off from school for his birthday, long before there was a national holiday. We drove to Miami’s Torch of Friendship and stood in a circle to say what Dr. King had meant to us. Then we would have pancakes and go home, where often my parents opened up the house to guests—activists and politicians and students—and played speeches and watched footage. Dr. King’s vibrato delivery always brought tears to my eyes.

Knowing that history—and the pride and perspective it gave me—meant the world to me. That’s why history is so firmly fixed in nearly everything I write. History has great power.

When Roots swept the nation in 1976 and I wanted to learn my family tree, my father told me story about freed slaves who built their own community in Indiana called Lyles Station—and fought off an attack by jealous whites. He even drew me pictures of a rousing battle in a round-house barn, with women handing their men rifles as the men stood firing from the rafters.
I had never heard a story like that in any of my history books.

I didn’t follow the path of the activist, and my parents supported my passion to spread ideas using my writing rather than a picket signs or a megaphone. (Although, trust me, I’ve had plenty of experiences with picket signs, and even a megaphone…)

When I left the anti-apartheid takeover of the administration building at Northwestern University in the late-1980s to go out to dinner with a departing friend—rather than face arrest like my more courageous mates—I was embarrassed to tell my mother that I’d sold out.

But when I called Mom to relate the shameful tale, she said, “Darling, I’m glad you didn’t get arrested. I went to jail so you wouldn’t have to.”

I went to jail so you wouldn’t have to.

Those are powerful words for a child to hear from her mother.

Instead of celebrating Thanksgiving or Christmas as a family last year, my sisters and I brought our families, including five grandchildren, to visit my parents in Quincy, Florida so we could all watch the election returns together. It was a night I’ll never forget.

But I can only imagine what it meant to my parents. And because of their sacrifices as students, I was permitted the luxury of an extended childhood throughout my college years. I had time to develop my craft by day and fill my nights with laughter.

My parents are in fairly good health, but they are 69 and 74. The trip to Washington, D.C. won’t be easy on them. But they want to go.

And since they’re going…I wish they had Inauguration tickets.

All I can offer is gratitude, but if you know of available tickets, please contact me at


Some months—some years—start out just right.

Last week, I was checking in on Facebook when I saw a note on my Wall from Blair Underwood’s publicist: CONGRATS ON THE IMAGE AWARD NOM!!!!

What nomination?
She said Blair Underwood, Steve and I had received an NAACP Image Award nomination for In the Night of the Heat.

I had heard nothing about it. I haven’t been nominated for an NAACP Image Award since The Black Rose in 2001, so I had gotten out of the habit of checking. When I saw the website at http:/, I almost fell out of my chair:

I received TWO nominations: for In the Night of the Heat, my mystery collaboration with Blair and my husband, Steven Barnes--AND Blood Colony, the latest in my African Immortals series. I am grateful beyond expression.
(The NAACP Image Awards will be broadcast on Fox at 8 p.m. Feb. 12. To cast a vote, join the NAACP at Wish us luck!)

It’s not just a feeling of affirmation after years of walking a difficult literary road. It’s not just that In the Night of the Heat celebrates my 10-year life partnership, and creative collaborations, with the wonderful Steven Barnes. Or that it’s a sign that our partnership with the talented Blair Underwood is bearing fruit, helping pave the way for the movies we all crave.

It’s much deeper than that.

When I was growing up, my parents used to pack us up every summer to attend NAACP national conventions. I was raised on the oratory of Benjamin L. Hooks and Ted Kennedy, and on NAACP picket lines.

As a high school student, I was a winner in the NAACP’s academic competition—the Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics, or ACT-SO, founded by Chicago columnist Vernon Jarrett. Each summer, I swam in a sea of brilliant high school students of color from around the nation, and we nourished each other’s dreams. The NAACP’s ACT-SO is one of the finest youth programs there is.

And, as the former president of the Greater Miami NAACP Youth Council, I know my NAACP history: The interracial civil rights organization was founded 100 years ago, in 1909.

Frankly, it all just takes my breath away.

And this is a month that is already full of might.

A presidential candidate who electrified my imagination since the day in April 2007 when I heard him speak at my church, First AME Church of Los Angeles, is about to be inaugurated the first black president: I am rarely right about any sweeping predictions, but I knew Barack Obama could win that day. I was so sure, I typed a transcript of his speech and sent it to my friends—and later posted it on my blog [1/7/08].

On election night, a shout of joy in my parents’ living room echoed against the framed plaques and newspaper articles that bespoke the price of the journey. A television screen as big as life proclaimed it: PRESIDENT-ELECT BARACK OBAMA.

On some level, I still don’t believe it.

This weekend, my parents and one of my sisters will meet me in Washington, D.C., for a family sojourn to the place where history will be engraved forever. None of us has a ticket to the actual Inauguration—not yet—but we want to breathe the city’s air that day. Together.

Even in these very scary economic times, it all feels like riches beyond measure.
Thank you, NAACP.
And thank you, readers, for the honor of telling you stories.