Harlem-based writer, Brooke Obie, has some ideas about freedom that you need to hear. In her debut novel, Book of Addis: Cradled Embers, the first book in a three part series, she tells the story of 17-year-old enslaved Igbo girl, Addis, who kills her enslaver, the president of the new country Amerika. In this story, Addis is on the run for her life and for the freedom of her people.
We spoke with Obie about why the slave narrative is still a necessary and revolutionary form of writing for Black people. We also discussed Obie’s own personal journey, and why she believes her novel is crucial at this political moment.
Black Youth Project: Tell me about yourself. How did you come to write this book?
Brooke Obie: I have had a few different careers. When I graduated from law school I went into political writing and research. I was obsessed with Barack Obama! But I quickly became disenchanted with politics and the legal system. It seemed like I was propping up a system I didn’t believe in. I needed to find a new way.
Around 2009-2010, I read The Hunger Games books, and they were enjoyable, but it upset me because all the dystopian fiction is just about white people fearing what they’ve done to Black and brown people the world over would be done to them. It’s them getting to have a revolution, having their big come up. I wanted to write a book about the roots of our oppression. I wanted to write something that would be liberating for Black folks. And that was something that I loved about fiction.
I believe that Black and brown people have been in dystopia for a very long time. The things white people fear now with the Trump presidency, we’ve been fearing. I wanted to shine a spotlight on our stories.
I wrote this book based on Oney Judge, an enslaved woman owned by George Washington. She ultimately escaped Washington and lived into her 70s—but Washington always pursued her. On her deathbed, reporters asked her how she felt about dying in poverty and if she made the right choice and she says, “Yes, I’m free.” It was so inspiring for me.
When I stumbled upon Oney’s story, I realized that I was never taught her history. When people say they are tired of slave stories, I say, “You don’t know enough!” People have been intentionally erased from our history, and until we understand that, we will never understand the depths of our history or what we have internalized.
I wrote this book in Black vernacular, after realizing I was still dealing with the anti-Blackness with which I had been socialized. I’d been socialized to dismiss Black vernacular as a sign of poor or no education, but the more I studied Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston and so many others, the more I found that educated Black people chose to write in Black vernacular because they saw the power and beauty in the way we speak. In a white world that tells you what is and isn’t “proper” English, writing in Black speech is inherently revolutionary: we have made English our own, and that is a sign of resistance. So I couldn’t write this book in Standard English; I wanted to write a book about Black revolution in a revolutionary way.
BYP: What are the most important themes in this book?
BO: There are many, but one is filtering out anti-Blackness. In my book the words “darkness” and “Black” have positive connotations: slaves long for darkness, because that is how they can escape, how they get free. I want to train the mind to see darkness and see Blackness as beauty.
Another important theme in the book is Black motherhood. People talk about police brutality as an issue of reproductive justice for Black women; we make reproductive decisions based on conditions around us. Enslaved women would kill their own children to protect them from slavery, to gain back autonomy as mothers, or distance themselves from their children like Addis’ mother Taddy does in the book. Slavery absolutely perverted Black motherhood and we’re still feeling the impact of that today.
I wanted my readers to face the question: what happens when a Black mother makes a choice out of trauma that you don’t like? Black mothers are damned if they do and damned if they don’t. Let’s examine why and get to the root of misogynoir.
BYP: Why a slave narrative? Why is this still important for a modern audience, or in this political moment?
BO: I would consider my book a “neo slave narrative,” because it is fiction. Slave narratives were written for white and abolitionist audiences–they were either filtered through a white person or validated by a white person. Abolitionists did not want these slave narratives to be too bad, however, so they would edit them because they did not think white people would believe the true horrors of slavery.
In my book, the narrator is a part of the community. This story is written to Black people, in Black vernacular. No convincing needs to be done. Thanks to social media and self-publishing platforms, we’re in this time where we can tell our own stories in our own ways. The aftermath of Philando Castile’s murder was on Facebook Live, which enabled his girlfriend [Diamond Reynolds] to tell his story. We are no longer trying to get people to see our humanity. Our stories now are about rallying our people together–and other people are either going to get with that or not. It is about freedom for us, for our communities.
BYP: How did this book help you get free?
BO: I published the book myself. A lot of this was about getting over rejection from the industry, going to Black editors, going to white editors and them both saying, “Nobody is going to want to read this story.”
I asked myself, “Have I done the research? Have I done the work? Do I feel awesome about this book?” And the answer was yes! So I just decided to get it out, to stop looking for external validation. I want to get free, I try to be intentional about the things that I do.
Since then my process has been all about finding the people who have the same intentions that I have. It was about getting this book in the hands of people who care and are excited about what you are doing.
BYP: What is the role of gender in this book?
BO: This story is just an homage to all the Black women who have made my life possible. It was important for me for this to be a femme-centered story because of how central to every resistance movement women are.
When Black women get free, everyone gets free because we are community based and we are inclusive. There is a community in this book called Meroë that’s based on wanted African egalitarian societies where patriarchy didn’t exist until colonization; communities that celebrated genderqueer people. That’s the utopia in this book and it shows that freedom is not about Black people replacing white people as oppressors. It’s about all of us being free.
BYP: How do you relate with Addis, or how do you expect audiences to relate with her?
BO: I want people to see Addis as a 17 year old girl, who loves very hard and is a very passionate person, and makes mistakes. Hopefully she comes alive, hopefully you get mad at her! She is a young girl who has not had her mother.
She has this great, great love with another enslaved man, Ekwueme, who has to accept that she’s screwed up. He reminds people that slavery poisons the mind, that slavery screws people up. So hopefully people will see the mental enslavement Addis has to work through, recognize some of that in themselves, and get free like she tries to.
BYP: How is freedom conceptualized in this book?
BO: For Addis, she gets to go to a place that seems to be very free—the village Meroë. The people either have free papers or they were born free people. There is egalitarian rule, it is a democratic society, it is guided by spiritual principles but all have their own faiths. There is lots of acceptance and they feel like they are free, but the people still have this deal with the state of Pennsylvania that they will not try to get equal rights if the state leaves them alone.
I feel like there are a lot of upwardly mobile Black people who may see themselves as free, but if others around you are not free, are you really free? Addis shows the communities in the book that they cannot be free without the freedom of all. Freedom cannot just be for you or the people you love. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
It is not just about the ACA passing, it is not just about marriage equality. If Black trans women are free, then everybody is free. It is about what is going on with the most oppressed people in our society. We should put all energy at the margins. That is how we obtain freedom.
BYP: Is there anything you would like for our readers to know?
BO: I would like for people to check out the Book of Addis syllabus. It lists the books and movies and everything else that impacted me in the writing of this book. It is very accessible. If you do not know anything about Black people, these resources will give you a great start.
We have to get to mental freedom. Now is the time. Yes, get out into the streets, but educate your friends and family, get into these books and resources.
Create beautiful art; stay creative as resistance because the purpose of oppression is to try to steal your divinity, but your divinity is your creativity.
Photo Credits: www.brookeobie.com