Book Review: Black Genealogy: Poems by Kiki Petrosino and Lauren Haldeman (2017)

Friday, January 26th, 2018

A haunting cry across the chasms of time and injustice.

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free electronic ARC for review through Edelweiss.)

You want to know who owned us & where.
But when you type, your searches return no results.
Slavery was grown folks’ business, then old folks’.
We saw no reason to hum Old Master’s name
to our grandchildren, or point out his overgrown gates
but you want to know who owned us & where
we got free. You keep typing our names into oblongs
of digital white. You plant a unicode tree & climb up
into grown folks’ business. You know old folks
don’t want you rummaging here, so you pile sweet jam
in your prettiest dish. You light candles & pray:
Tell me who owned you & where
I might find your graves.
Little child, we’re at rest
in the acres we purchased. Those days of
slavery were old folks’ business. The grown folks
buried us deep. Only a few of our names survive.
We left you that much, sudden glints in the grass.
The rest is grown folks’ business we say. Yet
you still want to know. Who owned us? Where?

In Black Genealogy: Poems, Kiki Petrosino explores her attempts to name and locate her ancestors – a matter made all the more complicated and frustrating for the descendants of slaves. Dehumanized, objectified, and stripped of their personhood, scant records exist to reaffirm the individuality, the bonds, the very humanity and being of kidnapped, trafficked, and enslaved humans. Of her search, Petrosino laments: “For a whole page, instead of talking about H, Old Master counts his glass decanters from France.” And so her journey is arduous, frustrating – at times, even harrowing.

In the second half of the book, Petrosino’s ancestors answer her call. They are angry, amused, loving: everything you imagine an aged great-grandmother to be. They cry out to her across the chasms of time and injustice, both delighting in and envying her living, breathing body.

Bookending and separating these two pieces are several untitled comics, visual adaptations of Petrosino’s poems by illustrator Lauren Haldeman. Petrosino is haunted by a Confederate reenactor, and his Cheshire cat-like like grin.

The three parts of the book – Petrosino’s prose, her ancestors’ poetry, and Haldeman’s drawings – work wonderfully together. While I do love the poems best, the various components complement each other in a way that I can only describe as masterful. The result is alternately beautiful, sorrowful, and downright chilling, as with this more-than-vaguely threatening exchange Petrosino shares with the soldier:

The essays – okay, more like modestly-sized paragraphs – in Part I are sometimes confusing but, to be fair, I think this is supposed to echo the journey of Black Genealogy: the reader’s experience is meant to mirror that of the author.

A strong 4.5 stars, rounded up to 5 where necessary.

Read it with: Octavia Butler’s Kindred. For some reason, the illustrations really reminded me of the graphic novel adaptation. I blame it on the lingering, sinister grin.

(This review is also available on Amazon, Library Thing, and Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you’re so inclined!)

Book Review: Your Guide to Cemetery Research, Sharon DeBartolo Carmack (2002)

Wednesday, June 15th, 2005

Great Guide for Genealogists & Graveyard Enthusiasts Alike!

five out of five stars

Let me begin by saying that I’m by no means a genealogist (not even an amateur genealogist!). In fact, I’m not even all that interested in my family’s history. Rather, I’m just someone who loves snooping around cemeteries, the older and more obscure, the better. This is the first genealogy/cemetery research book I’ve read, so I can’t really compare it to any others.

That said…”Your Guide to Cemetery Research” is a valuable tool for genealogists and graveyard enthusiasts alike. Sharon DeBartolo Carmack begins by explaining how to locate your ancestor’s vital records, including death certificates, obituaries, death notices, wills and probate, prayer and memorial cards, and mortality schedules. She then illustrates how you can use this information to find out where your ancestors are buried (and also tells you how to go about locating the cemetery itself). She describes the different types of cemeteries, as well as what sort of records they may have kept. The reader will also learn how to search a cemetery for the desired grave or plot, and how to read, record, and interpret the information on and around the marker. Especially interesting is her discussion on how the aggregate information in the graveyard can give you a picture of what the community was like when your ancestors were alive.

DeBartolo Carmack provides tons of helpful, hands-on, how-to advice for use inside the graveyard. She explains how to make a rubbing or cast of the tombstone, and offers ideas for different types of crafts to get the whole family interested (reunions in cemeteries, cemetery scrapbooks, and cemetery quilts, to name but a few). Her section on photographing markers and tombstones is particularly enlightening. Additionally, she offers tips for those wishing to undertake cemetery preservation or transcription projects.

She includes a few chapters on funerary customs throughout time and across cultures as well, but I thought these chapters were the weakest; they struck me as somewhat superficial and out-of-place. Then again, funerary customs is a topic I’ve done extensive research on; maybe newbies will find it more helpful or informative.

Perhaps my favorite part of “Your Guide to Cemetery Research” are the appendices, which include a lengthy list of gravestone artwork/symbols and their meanings; a time line of deadly epidemics and disasters in the U.S.; and a sample cemetery transcription form. The next time I go strolling through a graveyard, I’ll be sure to have this guide in tow. It increased my understanding and appreciation of graveyard art exponentially. Instead of just admiring the aesthetic aspects of the markers, now I can use “Your Guide to Cemetery Research” to interpret the inscriptions and artwork. [“What’s that over there? A child’s headstone, with a lamb lying down? Let’s see, we’re in New Orleans, and the death date is 1878, so perhaps the baby died of yellow fever!”]

Above all else, it’s reassuring to find that I’m not alone in my cemetery addiction. DeBartolo Carmack takes her family along on graveyard picnics, so I guess my fiancé doesn’t have it all THAT bad!

(This review was originally published on Amazon and Library Thing, and is also available on Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you think it so!)