Meet nine black writers from Northern California

February 22, 1998
Elisabeth Sherwin --

You can't celebrate what you don't know. With that thought in mind, here is a reminder about nine black writers, all of whom live in the Davis/Sacramento area of Northern California, all of whom should be celebrated during February, which is African-American History Month.

The first, Clarence Major, is the most literary of the group. He is a professor of English and creative writing at UC Davis.

Major grew up in Chicago and was a precocious reader at an early age. He chose an academic path and after earning a Ph.D. taught at UC Boulder for 12 years before coming to Davis in 1989. He is known for both his scholarly work and his novels. Each novel has a radically different voice - in "Such Was the Season" he adopted the voice of an elderly black woman, in "Painted Turtle" he adopted the voice of a young Native American woman. In "Dirty Bird Blues," his most recent work, he speaks through the voice of Manfred Banks, a young alcoholic blues musician living in Chicago just after World War II.

Jackie Banks and Terris McMahan Grimes of Sacramento make up a team of sorts. Banks is the author of several books for juveniles, kids age 8 to 12, including one called "Egg Drop Blues." Her books feature sixth-grade twins named Judge and Jury.

Banks and Grimes became the vice president and president, respectively, of the Sacramento chapter of Sisters in Crime when it was founded in 1995. SinC was founded nationally to give women mystery writers opportunities to be more widely marketed and reviewed.

Since then, Grimes has published two mysteries, "Somebody Else's Child" and "Blood Will Tell" with her third in the series, "Other Duties as Required," due out this fall. Grimes' character, size 16 Theresa Galloway, is enormously popular with working women. Theresa juggles all the demands that can be placed upon a married working woman who has two teen-agers and an aging mother.

Two black poets live in Davis, Traci Gourdine and Sandy L. Holman. Gourdine teaches at American River College and at several state prisons as part of the Arts-in-Corrections program. Holman self-published a book of poetry and has recently also published a children's book. Holman's picture book is titled "Grandpa, Is Everything Black Bad?" That book will be available in local stores this spring.

Tongele Ngbatana, the Catholic priest at the Newman Center in Davis, published a book on Zaire, "From Congo to Zaire to Congo," in an effort to acquaint people in this country to the problems and solutions in his native land.

"Zaire is a modern-day tragedy," he says. But it doesn't have to stay that way. Ngbatana (pronounced "Batana") has a bachelor's degree in engineering, a master's in philosophy and doctorate in theology. He has those bases covered, but is assembling a team to take back to Zaire when he returns. If you have something to offer, you can reach him at (530) 753-7393.

Linda Raymond of Orangevale earned her master's in creative writing at UC Davis. She published "Rocking the Babies" in 1994 and won the American Book Award in 1995 for her tale of two grandmothers at a Midwest hospital who sit together and rock babies while they tell each other stories.

Raymond is currently working on her second novel.

Folklorist Pat Turner, chair of the African-American and African studies department at UCD, hit upon a gold mine of interesting material when she began studying and collecting rumors, folktales and urban legends in the black community. The Vacaville resident has published two books, "I Heard it Through the Grapevine" and "Ceramic Uncles and Celluloid Mammies" and has several more in the works.

She'll tell you why many young blacks refused to wear costly Reebok athletic shoes in the mid-80s. (The rumor held that Reebok profits supported apartheid in South Africa.) Or why many black men refused to eat Church's fast-food chicken. (Was there an additive in the chicken designed to make black men sterile?) She'll tell you why these rumors or ones like them persist today and what purpose they serve in black communities.

Another Vacaville resident, Lt. Col. James C. Warren, USAF (ret.), wrote a book called "The Tuskegee Airmen Mutiny at Freeman Field," which describes an event that took place in April of 1945 near the end of World War II. At that time, a group of black officers, members of the famed Tuskegee Airmen, attempted to integrate an all-white officers' club in Freeman Field, Ind. Warren was one of those officers. Now 75 years old, Warren hates the idea that he has become "history" yet says his story is important in terms of race relations in the armed services.

From poetry to prose, fiction to non-fiction, history to academics, the Davis/Sacramento area has plenty of black writers to celebrate.

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