Locs in the Sweat Lodge: On Shonda Buchanan’s “Black Indian”

By Eisa Nefertari Ulen

downloadAward-winning poet Shonda Buchanan honors multiple literary traditions in her breathtaking new memoir, Black Indian. An educator, freelance writer, and literary editor, Buchanan is a culture worker with deep, decades-long engagement in communities of color. Her work honors the complexity and diversity of these Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities. At once Indigenous, Black Female, Speculative, Feminist, Womanist, Urban, Southern Gothic, and counter to the Tragic Mulatto stereotype in American literature, stage, and film, Black Indian is a quintessentially American narrative.

Even descriptions of decay and violence sing with Buchanan’s poetic voice. In her mother’s city home, “[t]he thin brown carpet is worn down to the color of a deer’s trail” in the woods. Her aunt, like one out of three Native American women and 20 percent of Black women, is raped, and “her body was a scar, because she’d been ripped open like a pig hanging from a spit on a tree.”

Funerals bookend this narrative; the characters, Shonda’s mother, fathers, aunties, grandfather, siblings, and cousins, curse their way through each family gathering. Shonda’s family, the subject of this stunning memoir, is wild. Uninhibited and crass, they cuss, fight, and fumble more often than they catch the ball.

The first funeral, tense, quiet, eerie, sets up the conflict at the heart of the book. This family is in crisis, divided and faltering, unable to touch, even, in ways that suggest warm belonging. This hollowed-out family, Buchanan explicitly asserts, is the result of cultural theft. Buchanan says she resents her

grandfather’s weak, bitter struggle with manhood. His un-knowledge of our past. He was a lousy farmer. He was a horrible father and husband. He beat my mother. He had no memory of what we called the Red Road, no African spirituality of the Orishas of West Africa. Our family was ritual-less: we practiced the ritual of violence.

By the time the second funeral occurs, the distance the memoirist craves from kin has offered her opportunities for recovery. Buchanan reclaims her Indigenous identity, and the rituals associated with her people. Similarly, she has actively engaged the reclamation of her African self. Though her ancestors were stolen, over centuries and via various iterations of dispossession, Buchanan does, indeed, become found, secure in her dual heritage and liberated by the cultures that formed her. Read Rest of Review Here

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