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Thursday, September 29, 2016

On being a "revolutionary artist"

This week, writer/filmmaker Ava DuVernay premieres her documentary The 13th, which explores the history of and profound racial bias in our system of mass incarceration, at the New York Film Festival. (It debuts on Netflix and some theaters Oct. 7.) 

Director Ava DuVernay

Also premiering this week: the Netflix series Luke Cage, where showrunner/writer Cheo Hodari Coker chose to make Cage’s superhero costume a hoodie as a way to honor Trayvon Martin and bring racial bias to light. (Not to mention how rare black superheroes on TV have been.) Both approaches are an act of artistic revolution.

 What makes art “revolutionary”?

My first experience with revolutionary art was Alex Haley’s Roots. I read it when I was 11, and Kunta Kinte’s defiance gave me air and light. I began recording my own family’s oral histories and hand-writing a story about a young girl’s experience on the Middle Passage. Haley gave me the desire to better understand my world and a mission to try to right the wrongs of history--through my writing.

Today’s social-minded writers and artists are faced with a prime opportunity to help change the narratives of exclusion and disempowerment and create the stories WE think should be told to help build a better world.

When we think of social justice activists, we often think of people like my parents--my father, John Due, still a civil rights attorney at 81, or my late mother, Patricia Stephens Due, who spent 49 days in jail after a sit-in at Woolworth’s lunch counter in 1960 and was arrested multiple arrests in the 1960s. Or, we think of the Black Lives Matter movement and other activists staging protests in Charlotte and across the country. Or San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick refusing to stand for the National Anthem.

My mother arrested in 1963

Whether or not we attend a protest or ever leave our computers, artists are revolutionaries too. But how can we create world-changing art without Message overwhelming Story? What are effective storytelling techniques to help readers embrace your passions? How can your own work be more inclusive? How do you write The Other?

Starting Oct. 7, my husband and collaborator, Steven Barnes, and I are offering a six-week webinar course: “Revolutionary Art: Writing for Social Justice.” With a combination of lectures, recorded interviews, and appearances by artists such as writer/producer Reggie Hudlin, six 90-minute segments will help artists gain clarity on the ways art can be revolutionary and help advance the national conversation on social justice.  (Since all sessions are recorded, students can listen when they have time and take the course at their own pace.)

My novel-in-progress has been one of my most emotionally difficult writing projects, but one I think could also be important: it’s about a 12-year-old boy sent to a children’s prison in Florida in 1950. The novel will have ghosts, but the true horror is in the prison system itself, the quiet bureaucracy, and a town’s conspiracy of silence. (This novel was inspired by the real-lifeDozier School for Boys, where my great-uncle died in 1937.

Although it’s a historical novel, I hope readers will see the many parallels between Jim Crow criminal justice and our criminal justice system today.

My short story collection, Ghost Summer—which just won a British Fantasy Award—introduces this novel’s fictitious town of Gracetown, where history lives in the soil and my characters must battle monsters both from without and within. Not all of the stories in the collection are set in Gracetown or have social justice themes, but all of them raise questions about what it means to be human—and since black characters have historically been so underrepresented in literature, even a declaration of humanity is a still a revolutionary act.

What does your revolutionary art look like?

Even as I grew up hearing stories of my mother’s heroism in the face of teargas and taunts, she made sure I understood that art is an important tool in activism. She knew I wanted to be a writer from the age of four, and she pointed out that the NAACP assigned a lot of resources to the Beverly/Hills Hollywood in the 1960s because the civil rights organization understood the importance of IMAGERY and STORIES to help create change. My respect for my parents and their passion for civil rights was so great that if they had even hinted that writing was a waste of time, I might not be a writer.

My parents believed I could raise my voice in my own way. You can too.

Writing for social justice need not be literal—like N.K. Jemisin’s novel The Fifth Season, which recently won a Hugo Award and is packed with imaginative fantasy world-building—but was inspired by Ferguson. And often, the mere insertion of characters from disenfranchised populations in our art can have a profound impact on creating new narratives.

We are superheroes. We are wizards. We are world-changers.

Steve and I both have taught extensively: I’m currently teaching Afrofuturism at UCLA, I’m on the faculty for the summertime VONA writers’ workshop for writers of color, and I’ve lectured at the Geneva Writers Conference. We both just returned from lecturing on a fantastic Caribbean cruise for writers, where we found a tribe of writers of all races and background who want to make a difference. Next March, I’ll be honored to appear with Dr. Angela Davis and other panelists at Black Women Rise in West Palm Beach, Florida.

I sign petitions, write letters, and contribute to causes when I can, but my primary voice is through my art. And in striving to make my characters as real and human as possible in the face of unimaginable odds, I hope to present a blueprint for change for all of us.

The course starts soon. Listen to the free sample and read what we’re offering. And please pass on our URL to a friend: Hope to see you there!

Tananarive Due is an American Book Award winner, NAACP Image Award Winner, and British Fantasy Award winner. She teaches Afrofuturism at UCLA. Her website is

Thursday, October 8, 2015

Free webinar Friday: "Avoiding the Top 3 Mistakes New Writers Make" (and Effie Brown bonus)


What a week!

Last week, I launched my new short story collection, Ghost Summer, at EsoWon books in Los Angeles, where I was interviewed by awesome "Project Greenlight" producer Effie Brown. (To get a link for audio and video to that interview and join my mailing list, sign up here.)

Effie and I talked about my experiences transitioning from novels to screenplays, and I revealed some of my worst mistakes as a new screenwriter.

But mistakes are a part of life for all writers.

That's why I'm conducting a free webinar at 9p ET / 6p PT Friday (10/9) with husband/collaborator Steven Barnes on "Avoiding the Top 3 Mistakes New Writers Make." 

I am not only an author and screenwriter, but I have taught writing at the MFA level for eight years, as well as undergraduate and post-graduate. I have been a writing coach and mentor. Too often, my students repeat the same mistakes...and I'd like to help you avoid making them too.

If you sign up for my mailing list, you'll receive the links to Effie Brown's interview AND a link to sign up for the webinar--and you'll be the first to hear news and offers. Or, you can simply sign up for the webinar. 

Hope to see you there!


Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The toxic racial imagery in Fear the Walking Dead -- and why Black Lives Matter on TV too

DeRay Mckesson (left) and Ferguson protesters in Missouri in 2014. No photo credit provided. 
1-12-19 update: This post refers to early episodes of this series. The racial inclusivity changed significantly, but I have left this post up to inform and educate other horror television creators on how to avoid pitfalls of racial imagery common in horror. --TD 

As a lifelong horror lover who has co-written and co-produced a short zombie film, I've often pondered why zombies have so taken hold of the public imagination. An uncomfortable revelation dawned on me in 2014 as I watched the police army amass in reaction to protesters in Ferguson:

We--people of color, and black people in particular--are this country's zombies. We are the horrifying shadow suburbia is afraid will slip through the window at night. We are the reason for the U.S. history of stockpiling guns, dating back to fears of slave rebellions. Terror over the nation's "browning" make us the shambling masses who drive people to lock their doors and fantasize about barricades and sudden flight. It's not true for all of us who love zombies, obviously, and it's usually not conscious--but it's the simmering social subtext.

Recently, science fiction author Greg Bear echoed my observation during a lunch with me and my husband, author Steven Barnes, at the World Science Fiction Convention (Worldcon): American horror, he said, has its origins in fear of The Other.

Which brings me to the new AMC series "Fear the Walking Dead," which had so much blatant anti-black imagery in its first two episodes that even white reviewers took notice. The word The Hollywood Reporter used was "polarizing," but I'm comfortable with "racist." This week, Vanity Fair published the rhetorical headline "Has Fear The Walking Dead Inherited The Walking Dead's Race Problem?"  Another blogger wrote yesterday on how the show is angering fans. And this post from a black writer: "Why I'm Quitting Fear the Walking Dead: It's Kind of Racist."

If you've been paying attention to the show's predecessor, "The Walking Dead," these charges of racial bias against black men in particular are far from new. My husband stopped watching it with me after the strong Alpha from the graphic novels, Tyreese, was killed off after being rendered utterly ineffectual on the TV version. (This after the insulting creation and sacrificial death of "T-Dog," who was even more ineffectual.) We've heard the dismissive "Who, us?" responses from showrunners, basically, "Hey, it's the zombie apocalypse--everybody dies!"

The parade of dead black men from "The Walking Dead" 

But "Fear of the Walking Dead" shows its hand in ways that even its predecessor did not. During a moment in Episode 2, I said to my husband, "Oh, God--do you think they would...?" And his response, even as someone who had disavowed "The Walking Dead" was: "They wouldn't. It would be too obvious."


One of the frustrations that led to me making my own horror short film was the tropes around black characters, particularly how often black characters die first. It's a kind of "death lite"--not the real people, but just enogh to scare us for the real characters' safety.  Blacks also tend to appear as Spiritual Guides or Sacrifical Negroes (or, in the case of the film Annabelle, as both). I blogged about this while we were crowdfunding in 2013: "Eulogy for the Sacrificial Negro."

So what did "Fear the Walking Dead" do?

The first character killed off was black. Not just black--but a black drug dealer. And a weak black drug dealer who is fought off by his jonesing white client. So, yes, from the very start, the show has introduced an ineffectual black thug as the first zombie to die. A thug's black body laid out on the street. (As a culture, that's how we like men's black bodies: laid out dead on the street.)

But it doesn't stop there, oh no.

Episode 1 also managed to throw in a good old-fashioned black man jump scare with the school principal, a la the weak Candyman sequels.

Then came Episode 2, which doubled down on the imagery. Because, boo-hoo, the white teenage girl's black boyfriend is INFECTED. (I could almost hear the collective sigh of relief as she was forced to leave him suffering in bed before he could bite anyone--or turn into a more serious relationship.)

And then came the moment when my husband said "They wouldn't."

While scavenging for supplies, survivors run across the shambling form of--you guessed it--the black school principal, who must be violently dispatched with a fire extiguisher. So all three of the black men the main characters have in their circle, the only black people we know, are either zombies or infected. In the first two episodes.

The showrunner, Dave Erickson, blamed it on casting. And then, even after they realized what had gone awry (assuming they considered it "awry"),  they said they wouldn't change it because the story is the story. So, whatever.

I might have been able to swallow all of that without being so angry I could barely get to sleep if not for the cynical use of protest imagery as a backdrop to the zombie storyline. So now, all of a sudden, they're so politically astute that they can throw in a protest against a police shooting that turns into a riot. Because, hey, that's what would happen, right? Never mind that these are real issues and real crises based on the same societal fear of black men the show feeds upon.

I wrote off the issues in "The Walking Dead" as a "blind spot," i.e. what happens when you have a show with a diverse cast without a diverse writing room. (Correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think there are any black writers for either show. I would LOVE to know if there are; clearly, they need some backup.) But despite the protestations of the showrunner of "Fear the Walking Dead," the use of black male death in this show FEELS much more intentional. More like the desired effect.

What is also maddening in both shows is a kind of divide-and-conquer use of diversity, i.e. the Asian-American character in "The Walking Dead," Glenn (played by Steven Yeun) is tough and sexual, and the black FEMALE character, Michonne (played by Danai Gurira) is dynamic and singular, so we're not supposed to notice the way the black men are treated. Likewise, "Fear the Walking Dead" features Maori actor Cliff Curtis and several Latino/a actors, including one of my very favorite performers, Ruben Blades.

In these shows, the successes of other marginalized groups come at the specific cost of black men.

 I admit it: I kept watching "The Walking Dead" because of Michonne even after my husband quit. I have a Michonne action figure on my desk. And I wanted to like "Fear the Walking Dead." It's exactly the origin story I've been waiting for, and so much of it could work for me except for the blatant visual hostiliy to my race.

What we call "just entertainment" is never that. I have an 11-year-old son, and I believe that the imagery on shows like this makes the world less safe for him (although he does not watch it). Gives solace to people who do not like him, or might want to hurt him, based on his skin color. Makes him seem like more of a monster because that is the way society is ready to treat him.

I also have some specific suggestions for the teams behind "The Walking Dead" and "Fear the Walking Dead": stop your deny, deny, deny strategy. Your shows have a problem. Face up to it, say it's not all right, and vow to fix it.

And this is a message to all TV: Since you now love featuring actors of color because of the shifting Nielsen demographics, add more writers of color. Hire more black showrunners.

Stop the lazy line "There aren't any black writers who write horror." I have appeared in anthologies full of black horror writers, I know other black horror screenwriters, so there are many. Look around. If you must, do a national search like "Saturday Night Live" did.

You'd be surprised at the gems you can find when you stop denying and decide it really matters.

Tananarive Due is a novelist and screenwriter based in Los Angeles. She teaches Afrofuturism at UCLA. She has won an American Book Award and an NAACP Image Award. Her website is at 

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Tananarive Due's first short story collection, Ghost Summer (Sept. 1)

Publishers Weekly (Starred review) - “In these extraordinary tales, American Book Award–winner Due (My Soul to Take) uses a clear-eyed view of history to explain (but never excuse) the present.” 

Ghost Summer named one of Publisher’s Weekly’s “Most Anticipated Books of Fall 2015”

About Ghost Summer:

Whether weaving family life and history into dark fiction or writing speculative Afrofuturism, American Book Award winner and Essence bestselling author Tananarive Due’s work is both riveting and enlightening. In her debut collection of short fiction, Due takes us to Gracetown, a small Florida town that has both literal and figurative ghost; into future scenarios that seem all too real; and provides empathetic portraits of those whose lives are touched by Otherness. Featuring an award-winning novella and fifteen stories—one of which has never been published before—Ghost Summer: Stories is sure to both haunt and delight.


On Ghost Summer: 

“Tananarive Due’s characters quietly move into your heart and take up residence. You love them, you fear for them, and they scare you half to death.” –Nalo Hopkinson, author of Hominids and Brown Girl in the Ring

“Beautiful and terrifying. Tananarive Due is the modern master of horror and humanity.” –Daniel José Older, author of Shadowshaper

"When you read a Tananarive Due story you know you are in for a treat. She pulls you in from the very first line and does not let go. " –Dolen Perkins-Valdez, New York Times bestselling author of Wench and Balm

On the works of Tananarive Due:

“I enjoy reading the kind of novel that seduces me right into it and makes me forget about work or sleep. My Soul to Keep does that beautifully.” —Octavia E. Butler

“Ms. Due accomplishes the hardest thing of all with deceptive ease, creating characters we care about on their most human level.” –Stephen King

“Smart, soulful, craft Tananarive Due deserves the attention of everyone interested I contemporary American fiction. …She is one of the best and most significant writers of her generation.” –New York Times bestselling author Peter Straub 

Friday, December 12, 2014

Online Screenwriting Workshop January 10-31, 2015 with Tananarive Due and Steven Barnes

Are you working on a screenplay or want to get started on you? Would you like input from industry professionals on your screenplay idea?
Are you an author who would like to learn to adapt your books to film?
Whether you’re a screenwriter, a novelist or a producer, there has never been a more exciting time to try to get your foot in the door in television and film. But it all begins on the page – with a terrific screenplay or teleplay.
After a successful fall workshop, authors and screenwriters Steven Barnes and Tananarive Due (WGA) are offering an online screenwriting workshop Jan. 10-31 to help you whip your project into shape. For the next 48 hours, you can register for the early-bird fee of only $250.  (Until midnight PST Friday, Dec. 12.) Then our Christmas rate is $300 until Dec. 24th.  Regular registration if $350–so save $100 by registering now. Space is limited.
Here’s what one of our writers said midway through our fall workshop: “I want to thank you and Steve for an incredible experience thus far.  I have truly learned a lot…..and I went to FILM SCHOOL!”
Here’s what you get:
  • One 30-minute personal phone consultation with Steven Barnes or Tananarive Due
  • Notes on 10 pages of your screenplay and treatment/outline. (Choose whether to receive notes at the start of the workshop, during, or at the end of the workshop.)
  • Four weekly hour-long video Google Hangouts sessions with instructors Steven Barnes and Tananarive Due
  • College-level syllabus with outside viewing and reading
  • A guest appearance by an industry professional to answer your questions
  • Peer review from other screenwriters in the workshop
Here’s what the workshop requires:         
  • Registration fee ($250 early-bird / $300 regular / $350 late)  SPACE IS LIMITED)
  • An existing screenplay or a screenplay idea you can outline
  • RECOMMENDED TEXTBOOK: Story by Robert McKee
  • Willingness to participate in peer review with other workshop members
  • Internet access for one-hour weekly Google Hangouts lectures / discussion
Who are the instructors? 
Steven Barnes
New York Times bestseller Steven Barnes has written more than twenty-five science fiction, fantasy, and horror novels. His “Stitch in Time” episode of “The Outer Limits” won an Emmy. The NAACP Image Award winner also has written for “The New Twilight Zone,” “StarGate,” Andromeda,” and “Ben 10.” He has been nominated for  written for Hugo, Nebula and Cable Ace Awards. In 2013, he and his wife, Tananarive Due, co-wrote and co-produced the short film “Danger Word,” based on their novel,Devil’s WakeHe and Due recently sold a cable TV adaptation–details soon!
Tananarive Due 
Tananarive Due, a member of the Writer’s Guild of America (WGA), has been named to the Grio100 and Ebony Power 100. The Essence bestseller and NAACP Image Award winner has also won an American Book Award for The Living Blood. She recently received a Lifetime Achievement Award in the Fine Arts from the Congressional Black Caucus. She is the former Cosby Chair in the Humanities at Spelman College. In addition to co-producing and co-writing the short film “Danger Word” with Steven Barnes, she currently has several book projects under option. She and Barnes recently sold a cable TV adaptation of one of her ovels–details soon! 
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