Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Falling Back to Black

ABOVE PHOTO: Bill Cosby (Randy Miramontez /
By Karen E. Quinones Miller
This whole Bill Cosby situation has me remembering witnessing a one-car accident in the Chestnut Hill section of Philadelphia back in 1993. 
I was the first one on the scene and helped a well-dressed African American woman out of the car–she had run into a lamppost. 
She clung to me for a moment, and since she didn’t seem hurt, I asked if she needed to use my cell phone. Before she could answer, a group of concerned white people came rushing over to assist, and the African American woman pushed me away so hard and fast I almost fell as she rushed to meet them. 
A little hurt, but much more befuddled, I got back in my car and watched the unfolding scene. 
The group momentarily crowded around her, breathing concern and offers of assistance, but as they realized what I had already ascertained — that the woman was drunk — they slowly peeled away until she was alone. 
She then staggered over to my car, and I let her in, once again offering my phone so she could call for help. After she called her husband, she said she didn’t want to “bad talk white folks,” but my not abandoning her proved that Black people know how to stick together. 
I was so pissed I could have hit her. 
Instead, I told her I had to leave so she’d have to wait outside for her husband and the tow truck. 
It gave me great satisfaction that just as I pulled away it started to pour down rain. 
A couple of years later, when O. J. Simpson was acquitted of killing his wife and Ron Goldman, I remembered that woman and that incident. 
And now, as Bill Cosby makes his appeal to the “Black media,” I’m remembering it again.
I think it is interesting that Cosby has asked the Black media to stay “neutral” regarding the sexual abuse allegations being made against him. Not objective. Neutral.
There is a big difference between neutral and objective. As a wordsmith, I know the difference…and I’m sure Bill Cosby does, too.
During World War II, Switzerland remained neutral. They didn’t join either the Allied or the Axis forces. They didn’t want to choose sides. They wanted to stay out of it; to stay neutral. 
Even when the human atrocities being committed by Hitler and the Nazis came to light, the Swiss continued to be their banker and their vault. In fact, after the war many Jews had to appeal to the Swiss government for the return of their artwork, heirlooms, and personal treasure. 
So, really, the Swiss actually profited from their neutrality. 
To be a neutral journalist means not caring who is right or wrong. 
To be an objective journalist – on the other hand — means not letting your personal biases affect you as you write about what is going on, or blind you as you seek the truth. 
It also means then presenting that truth in a fair and balanced manner.
So, this Black member of the media will not be staying neutral… can’t stay something I never was. 
But I will always strive to be objective. No one should expect me to be more.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Join a Writing Group

 Theresa Brunson                                        Diane McKinney Whetstone

One of the questions I'm asked most often when out on the lecture circuit or out on a book tour is: What advice would you give aspiring authors?
         My answer is always the same. Join a writing group.
         What, you might ask, is a writing group?
It’s simply a group of writers who get together on a regular basis to give each other critiques, advice, and support. And for someone who’s just starting out, it’s the best thing you can do to get your literary career started on the right track.
“It was a tremendously helpful experience for me,” says bestselling author Diane McKinney-Whetstone. “Some writers don’t like to have the writing read, but I loved the feedback I was given.”
McKinney-Whetstone was a member of the Rittenhouse Writers’ Group when penning her first novel, “Tumbling,” which was published in 1999 to critical acclaim.
“I was stealing time from everything – stealing time from my life to work on this novel, and I had no idea if I was doing anything right,” says McKinney, who has since published four other books with Harper-Collins.  “It wasn’t until I joined the group that I finally felt validated. And the criticism was helpful.”
McKinney-Whetstone – who is polishing up a new novel due out late next summer – is one of the most successful novelists to come out The Rittenhouse Writers’ Group, which has been around since 1988. The writing group is actually a series of quarterly writing workshops, and costs more than $500 per quarter.
But a writing group doesn’t have to be pricey to be good. In fact, most writing groups are free and quite worth your while.
Book writing is a solitary task and you can worry for hours, days, or weeks, about whether or not you’ve described something in just the right way. You don’t want to find out when you finally submit your manuscript to a literary agent or a publisher that you did, indeed, get it wrong – because that one little mistake may not be so little in their eyes…and might lead to a rejected manuscript.
“According to my sister – the only one I showed what I knew was soon-to-be a New York Times bestselling novel – I was the greatest writer who ever set pen to paper,” says Veronica Axelrod, a receptionist from North Philadelphia. “But when I started sending it out to literary agents, all I got were rejection letters.”
But not only were they rejection letters, Axelrod says, they were form rejection letters . . . the worst kind. Which meant the agents didn’t even think enough of her writing to give her encouraging comments.
A despondent Axelrod was browsing in a bookstore and saw a posting from a woman looking for writers interested in forming a writing group. She jotted down the number, gave the woman a call, and the following month she was a member of The Love of Writing Writers’ Group.
“It wasn’t until I joined that I found out that my book was constantly changing points of view from first-person to third-person. A big no-no,” Axelrod says with a laugh. “Looking back at that manuscript now, I’m actually embarrassed.”
Love of Writing – which has no membership dues – has seven members and meets at a different member’s home each month. None of the writers have had a book published yet, but four of them have had short stories published in literary magazines.
Theresa Brunson, a Philadelphia attorney, had been working on her novel, “The Get Money Clique,” for years in private, never showing it to anyone. It wasn’t until she attended a writing workshop that she realized that her masterpiece had a big problem.
 The average novel is between 63,000 and 95,000 words long. Brunson’s manuscript was well over 200,000 words.
A few months later, Brunson joined the Eveningstar Writers’ Group. “The Get Money Clique” was trimmed down to a manageable 98,000 words, and she’s received interest from two different major publishers.
“I love the camaraderie that a writing group offers, and the feedback you get from the different personalities in the group,” Brunson says. “It built up my writing skills, but it built my confidence, too.”
Eveningstar, which has no membership dues, was created in 1999 by a group of four women, none of whom had ever published a book. Since its creation, five members have had novels published by major publishers, and two more have self-published their books. Members and past members include the late Leslie Esdaile Banks, Hilary Beard, Jenice Armstrong, Mister Mann Frisby, Fiona Harewood, Akanke Tyra Washington, and, ahem, Karen E. Quinones Miller.
Most writing groups meet once a month, but Eveningstar meets weekly. Members submit up to 20 pages each Sunday, and then meet on Tuesday evenings at a member’s home to have their submissions critiqued.
The good thing about this is everyone’s work gets feedback, and suggestions on next steps, every week. The bad thing is meetings sometimes last up to five hours.
It’s grueling, but it seems to work. At least it does according to Sharai Robbin, who recently signed a two-book contract with Strebor Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.
“Meeting weekly keeps me writing since I have to submit something every week,” says Robbin, whose book, “Candace Reign,” will be published next fall. “Eveningstar keeps me accountable, and it keeps me motivated.”
Not all writing groups meet in person. There are a number of groups whose members have never met face-to-face, but get together over the Internet to share and critique each other’s works.
Jennifer Coissiere, author of the self-published novel, “Crossing Over,” has been a member of Snaps 1000 Words for a little over a year. But although she and her fellow members – Shonell Bacon, PR Burson, Makasha Dorsey – all have published or self-published novels, they only use their writing group to critique each other’s short stories and essays.
“Someone had an idea to write 1,000 word stories inspired by a picture, and that’s how the group started,” explained Coissiere, though the members do offer each other encouragement and advice on their individual books.
Coissiere’s group has a website,; Eveningstar Writers’ Group can be found on Facebook; and the website for the Rittenhouse Writers’ Group is The Love of Writing Writers’ Group has no Internet presence, and is not currently accepting new members.
So what kind of writing group should you join? It depends on what kind of group fits your needs. Some people prefer groups that meet monthly because of busy schedules. Others prefer weekly groups because it keeps them motivated to write on a daily basis.
Not all writing groups critique all genres. If you’re interested in writing a memoir, make sure that the group you’re considering joining is interested in more than fiction.
My advice would be to ask if you can sit in a couple of meeting to see if you can actually handle the critiques the members offer. And don’t ever join a group where the members are cruel with their critiques, or make them personal. The rule is it’s the work that is to be critiqued – not the author.

Saturday, December 06, 2014

Law Enforcement's Message To Black Community

IT WAS BACK in the 1960s, and I was living in Harlem. A white police officer chasing a criminal through the Foster Housing Projects fired at the man and missed. The bullet pierced the skull of a young African-American boy, a bystander.
That lone white officer was surrounded by scores of African-American and Latino residents, and you know what he did? He knelt down and scooped up the boy's lifeless body in his arms, and cried as if it were his own son whom he killed. And do you know what those many housing-project residents did? They tried to comfort the officer. And when the child's mother finally made it to the scene, they told her it was a horrible accident. Many of them then prayed - with the mother and the officer - over the boy's body before it was taken away a few minutes later to the city morgue.
That officer's grief didn't "unshoot" the boy, but it did something else I couldn't name as an 8-year-old watching the scene.
It wasn't until 18-year-old Michael Brown was shot and killed in Ferguson, Mo., in August that I realized what that something else was. And how much it mattered.
Of course, it would be irrational for anyone to think that Darren Wilson, the officer who killed Brown, should get down on his knees and cry.
But it would also be irrational to believe that a community wouldn't be up-in-arms about the fact that Brown's body was left in the middle of a street - uncovered and unattended - for more than four hours in the hot August sun. Or that they wouldn't be upset witnessing the police refusing to let his distraught parents approach their dead son.
"Having raised two African-American males, the thought of that happening is just unfathomable," said Linda Richardson, a Philadelphia community activist I spoke with shortly after the incident. "I was just distraught looking at the video and screaming, 'When are they going to put something over him?' To show that kind of disrespect was just unreal and unbelievable."
If Richardson felt that way just watching the video, imagine how the people at the scene felt.
Patricia Bynes, a Democratic committeewoman in Ferguson, seemed to feel the same way as Richardson. She told reporters that it was "disrespectful" for the police to have left the body there in plain sight.
"It also sent the message from law enforcement that, 'We can do this to you any day, any time, in broad daylight, and there's nothing you can do about it.' "
The message sent by law enforcement - that was the "something else" that I couldn't articulate way back in the 1960s.
Harlem is no stranger to riots. They rioted in 1935, in 1943, in 1966, and again in 1968. And, yeah, we had a small riot (by Harlem standards) in Washington Heights, a neighborhood bordering Harlem. All of the riots were started in response to either a police shooting or police brutality.
Yes, Harlemites were veteran rioters. So why didn't they riot after that white police officer killed a very innocent young boy? Maybe because that police officer's very obvious grief sent a message that our feelings, our rights, our lives mattered to him.
Maybe the people in Ferguson did riot the day after Michael Brown was shot because they received a very different message.
In Wilson's testimony to the grand jury that decided whether he would be charged for killing Brown, he described the teenager as looking like a demon; not a human.
And although it's true the citizens of Ferguson - which is 67 percent African-American - were not privy to Wilson's testimony when the rioting started in August, they'd had bitter issues with their police force, which is 94 percent white.
Last year the Missouri Attorney General's Office released a report that said Ferguson police were twice as likely to arrest African-Americans during traffic stops than whites. The U.S. Justice Department is currently conducting a civil investigation to see if that police department has a pattern of using excessive force and/or racial profiling.
Hundreds of African-American citizens of Ferguson stood outside that August afternoon: Looking at the body of an unarmed teenager. Staring at the teenager's family, crying because they were not allowed to check to see if they body was really that of their child. Having their questions ignored by police who refused to give any information. Those citizens received a message that they had been receiving for years - that their feelings, their rights, and perhaps even their lives, meant little to the police.
It's a hard message to receive. A hard message not to answer.
The complete opposite of the message sent that 1960s Harlem summer.
Thank God.