The Big Idea: Denise Crittendon
In northern Namibia where clean water is scarce, Himba women cleanse their bodies by bathing in billowing streams of smoke.
In South Africa, a tribe known as the Xhosa, speak a language that’s almost magical — filled with musical-sounding clicks, alliterations and ancient proverbs.
On the rugged cliffs of Mali, West Africa, Dogon villagers live undisturbed in tiny huts located high above a remote expanse of rain forest. Yet they continue to shock Western astronomers with their advanced knowledge of the stars.
Growing up, I knew nothing about these enchanting ethnic groups and had no idea Africa was so mystical. But in the 1980s, I made my first sojourn to The Motherland and when I returned, I was not the same. Dogon mythology simmered in my mind. Ancestral rituals clung to my memory. I couldn’t stop thinking about the profound wisdom of the elders and the intrinsic beauty of my people.
For decades, this was the center of many of my conversations. Since I was a journalist, I even wrote articles praising Africans and African Americans, extolling virtues that most of the world had overlooked. A few years ago, I took that passion a step further and began infusing it in the pages of my first novel, Where it Rains in Color.
A sci-fi/fantasy hybrid, Where it Rains in Color represents my leap from the rough-and-tumble arena of newspapers into a more supernatural realm. Here, I could let my mind penetrate a new thought barrier and usher people of African descent into a better tomorrow. Here, was an opportunity to catapult an entire race far into the future, an opportunity to see black captains commandeering vessels streaking through space.
More importantly, it was a chance to focus the spotlight on one of the most riveting realities I witnessed overseas — the graceful strut and inexplicable strength of the women of the savannah. I can still see them, their eyes distant, their rhythms subtle, gliding like gazelles across vast stretches of terrain, oblivious to the enormous bundles perched on the crowns of their heads.
These are the women the world will never understand. How can they tote bundles three times their body weight? How do they move with such ease without tipping their heavy cargo? Scholars from around the globe have studied their technique. A number of cultures have tried to perfect it. But no one’s been able to figure out the hands-free form of transport that is the domain of African women. Is it a special spiritual awareness? A rare alignment with the heavens? Is it the hue of melanin-saturated skin downloading the UV rays of the sun? Is it wooly tufts of tightly coiled hair, standing erect, defiantly saluting the sky? Are these coils electromagnetic antennae?
While writing Where it Rains in Color, I answered these questions and more. I explored the anti-aging properties of the pigment, melanin, and I presented it as a miraculous healing agent that promotes the regeneration of human limbs. On Swazembi, the planet I conjured up, health and happiness prevail and everyone takes pride in the black aesthetic. Eurocentric beauty standards are nonexistent and there are no negative connotations for the word, dark, (ie.dark ages dark forces, dark comedy). On the contrary, the terms dark, black and indigo are the loftiest expressions one can use. My protagonist is not revered despite her black skin but because of it. The inhabitants are not accepted by a galaxy that simply tolerates their presence but by a coalition of worlds that embrace and admire them.
Yes, problems do arise in this utopic society. But the mishaps are not based on race and not rooted in misogynoir. Coined in 2010, the label, misogynoir, describes a particularly heinous form of misogyny that targets black women by bashing, demeaning and stereotyping. Because of my burning desire to right wrongs, I used Where it Rains in Color to counteract racist perspectives and offer a different point of view. I imagined a technicolor world so captivating it commands respect. I plucked it out of the creative dreams I had at night and I searched for just the right insights to support it.
When taking walks through parks, I made note of both flowers and weeds. Flowers require tending, but weeds, so noxious and despised, are independent. The wind disperses their seeds and they have no need for bees, or horticulturists. They are sufficient in their own right.
Not so with Homo sapiens. In the garden of humanity, we all need one another and we share a collective yearning to be appreciated. So, in my sci-fi/fantasy I elevated Black women by planting us in an exotic new milieu that flaunts our allure and shouts out loud: We are here. We are mahogany. We are golden. We are bronze. We are suede. We are Black as the night.
And We Belong!