Magic in the ‘Hood

I was watching Globe Trekkers on PBS and the host was in a small village somewhere in Senegal where a group of young boys and girls were participating in a rites-of-passage dance and celebration. They were dressed in colorful beads and fabric and were surrounded by their family and village members. I couldn’t help but think of the different groups of junior high school students I come across in the afternoon running into stores, throwing snowballs, and being their usual rowdy selves and imagine them in the same setting being nurtured and upheld by their community.

I must admit, I’m a hopeless romantic when it comes to indigenous cultures. Though, there are some ancient rituals that are detestable and unjustifiable in my oftentimes limited Western world view, but as a former cultural anthropology minor and mythology geek, I can understand the stories and cosmology that may have influenced these practices. After all, mythology is where story and culture converge. It sets the stage for how a people view the universe and their place in it. So according to this, what traditions and rituals have been set in place for pubescent urban preteens to let them know that they are at the threshold of adulthood—that they one day will be the ones they’ve been waiting for, the purveyors of their ancestors’ truths? If a whole generation drops the ball on perpetuating their stories—whether history, legend, or myth—then the power of being able to determine their people’s fate, their propensity to survive and thrive in a future world that they themselves would have created, is lost.

We’ve already dropped the ball. Amidst the common pitfalls of violence, failing schools, and under-employment, there’s no room for legends of flying, shape-shifting, time-traveling folk. The ability of a culture to imagine the world as a broad, magical universe with layers and unfathomable possibilities is directly tied to socio-economic status. When the basic needs of food, clothing, and shelter are met and there is absolutely no doubt that survival is not threatened by unforeseen elements—natural or manmade—maybe only then can we begin to ponder at the possibilities of magic and spirits and the unseen.

What are the folktales that our children remember? What folkloric traditions have been passed down? Some would argue what purpose do these serve. Brer Rabbit, Dr. Buzzard and the Bolito Man, the tall tales of John Henry have all been quietly tucked away replaced by the occasional Black History month book and the “problem novel” in YA literature—Keisha and Raheim get [insert black boy/girl in the ‘hood issue here]. There are, of course, a good amount of literature for children of color, but the number pales in comparison to how many stories that require them to bend their imagination, peel away at the reality of their existence, and envision themselves as powerful beings capable of determining the fate of the world.

Multicultural YA and middle grade fantasy/sci-fi is a force to be reckoned with. There are so many rich cultural traditions and folklore to pull from. Haitian mythology (yes, there is one) is a huge playground for me. And in African American culture, the late Virginia Hamilton has given us a myriad of stories. Why not reinvent these tales for the upcoming generations? Just as Eurocentric fantasy novels build upon the world of vampires, faeries, and sword and sorcery, kids in ‘hood can be introduced the magic of hoodoo, Caribbean carnival characters, or the mystical creatures that live below the subway.

I’ll never forget the time I heard Sister Souljah on a radio interview where she described her book The Coldest Winter Ever as urban fantasy. My ears perked up because I understand urban fantasy to be a story with magical elements within an urban setting. But her definition was that her novel was certainly urban and the events taking place were what most people fantasized about—lots of money, power, bling, and unabashed fabulousness all wound up into the archetypal comeuppance. Urban fantasy, indeed.

There is this notion that for a wayward group of young people who are lagging behind in test scores, being incarcerated, and having babies too early and out of wedlock, magic and imagination are not enough—they aren’t tangible, they don’t provide practical solutions. Ultimately, we and our children end up playing scripted roles in someone else’s story, adhering to another people’s mythology that perpetuates power and greed. After all, the post-apocalyptic sci-fi stories tell us best what our fate will be: we won’t survive long enough to see extraterrestrial imperialism in full effect. We’ve fed stories of getting into college, getting a good job, and making it out the ‘hood to our children, while the others, after having had huge dosages of sci-fi and fantasy narratives, have contemplated , researched, and quantified the possibility of breaking into whole other dimensions.

Here is a list of African American speculative fiction (fantasy, sci-fi, horror, paranormal) for young readers found on Zetta Elliott’s blog:

1. Justice and Her Brothers by Virginia Hamilton (1978)

2. Dustland by Virginia Hamilton (1980)

3. The Gathering by Virginia Hamilton (1981)

4. Sweet Whispers, Brother Rush by Virginia Hamilton (1982)

5. The Magical Adventures of Pretty Pearl by Virginia Hamilton (1983)

6. Shadow of the Red Moon by Walter Dean Myers (1995)

7. The Golden Hour by Maiya Williams (2004)

8. 47 by Walter Mosley (2005)

9. Zahrah the Windseeker by Nnedi Okorafor (2005)

10. The Hour of the Cobra by Maiya Williams (2006)

11. The Hour of the Outlaw by Maiya Williams (2007)

12. The Marvelous Effect by Troy CLE (2007)

13. The Shadow Speaker by Nnedi Okorafor (2007)

14. Racing the Dark by Dawn Alaya Johnson (2007)

15. A Wish After Midnight by Zetta Elliott (2008)

16. Pemba’s Song: A Ghost Story by Marilyn Nelson and Tonya C. Hegamin

17. The Ancient Lands Warriors Quest by Jason McCammon (2009)

18. Asleep by Wendy Raven McNair (2009)

19. Dope Sick by Walter Dean Myers (2009)

20. Explorer-X Alpha by LM Preston (2009)

21. The Goblin King by Dawn Alaya Johnson (2009)

22. Olivion’s Favorites by Troy CLE (2009)

23. Awake by Wendy Raven McNair (2010)

24. The Clone Codes by Patricia McKissack et al. (2010)

25. Bleeding Violet by Dia Reeves (2010)

26. Manifest by Artist Arthur (2010)

27. Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes (2010)

28. Shadow Walker by LA Banks (2010)

29. Slice of Cherry by Dia Reeves (2011)

30. Cyborg by Patricia McKissack et al. (2011)

31. Akata Witch by Nnedi Okorafor (2011)

32. Mystify by Artist Arthur (2011)

education, Mythology, publishing, sci-fi/fantasy, teens, YA fiction

2 Responses to Magic in the ‘Hood

  1. I adore science fiction and fantasy. I teach young adults (18-22) year olds at a high school diploma program. One of the interesting occurences is that they can't stand sci-fi. In our books passes and and book talks, they are very derisive of fantasy and crave "real" books, which usually means "urban". This interests me because what they think of as real, books, are not real, they most definitely have aspects of reality, but the drama is greatly condensed and glorified in a way that is not reflected in their lives. Granted, many of my students' lives are tough, I will not deny that, but given the toughness, I would think that they would want to explore alternate realities, the way I did to flee a difficult life. But perhaps the glamourized nature violence of urban fiction makes it into fantasy. Many of my students are at the middle school reading level, I will have to try some of the works that you have suggested.

  2. Welcome! says:

    Thank you for reading & commenting, Billy. Yeah, Sci-fi/fantasy is a toug sell for "relunctant readers" (an industry term to describe your students). The speculative elements in novels have to come from their worldview in order for them to be even marginally interested in envisioning other realities. Some of the titles mentioned do this, others don't. It's still unchartered territory.

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