Monday, August 31, 2015

Sonja D. Williams on Writing "Word Warrior: Richard Durham, Radio, and Freedom"

Those of you following this blog know that I have bouquets of beautiful things to say about Biographers International and their super-crunchy conference, which I attended last June in Washington DC. One of the biographers I was delighted to cross paths with there is Sonja D. Williams, whose biography, Word Warrior: Richard Durham, Radio, and Freedom has just been published by the University of Illinois Press. Herewith some Q & A.

C.M. MAYO: What inspired you to write this biography? 

SONJA D. WILLIAMS: In fall 1994 I had just started working as a writer/producer for the Smithsonian Institution’s Black Radio: Telling It Like It Was project—a 13-part series exploring the legacy of African Americans in radio.  (The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., housed a unit that produced award-winning radio and television documentaries about the American experience). So starting in January 1996, our weekly half-hour Black Radio programs aired on more than two hundred noncommercial radio stations nationwide. 

Of the five shows on my producing plate, I felt the most trepidation about the one exploring African American contributions during radio’s “theater of the mind” heyday of the 1930s and 1940s. Blacks were rarely featured in local or national dramatic broadcasts then. When I found out about Destination Freedom, I was struck by this radio series’ lyricism, dramatic flair, and fiery rhetoric. African American writer Richard Durham created this series in 1948 and for two years he served as its sole scriptwriter. A master storyteller, Durham seductively conjured aural magic, inventively dramatizing the lives of black history makers.

And Durham used his desire for universal freedom, justice, and equality to inform his storytelling choices.

Richard Durham had died in 1984, so my interviews with his wife, Clarice, actor/singer Oscar Brown Jr., and writer Louis “Studs” Terkel provided salient insights. Durham was an astute, Chicago-based writer who employed poetic, hard-hitting prose to entertain, educate, and promote positive social change. He stood behind his convictions, even when the consequences of his actions caused him emotional pain, financial hardship—or both.

Durham’s accomplishments reinforced my own belief that the media, in all its incarnations, should serve a higher purpose than just mindless diversion.  His life was drama itself, full of unexpected twists and turns, of creative invention and reinvention.  His story certainly fascinated me. So after the Black Radio series ended, I planned to work on Durham’s biography. 

Unfortunately, other documentary projects monopolized my time. I also continued teaching in my academic home, the Howard University Department of Radio, Television, and Film. Appointment to an administrative position in my department eventually forced me to sandwich research for this book into spring or summer breaks and other far-too-fleeting time frames.

Still, a Howard University–sponsored research grant in 2002 enabled me to begin immersing myself in Durham’s world. Later, a 2009 Timuel D. Black Jr. Short-Term Fellowship in African American Studies sponsored by the Vivian G. Harsh Society enabled me to spend a summer in Chicago. I practically moved into the Woodson Regional Library, home base of the Harsh Research Collection of Afro-American History and Literature, where Richard Durham’s papers reside. Finally, a sabbatical from my university during the 2010–11 academic year allowed me to make significant progress toward the completion of this book.

C.M. MAYO: Did Durham's family help and/or cooperate with you? 

SONJA D. WILLIAMS: Durham’s family members were extremely cooperative and supportive.  Durham’s wife, Clarice Davis Durham (now 95), generously allowed me to interview her on numerous occasions, and she provided contact information for several of her husband’s longtime friends and colleagues. She also shared documents she had not donated to the Chicago Public Library’s Harsh Research Collection.  

Mrs. Durham’s brother, Charles A. Davis and sister Marguerite Davis offered touching stories and historical perspectives about their brother-in-law, as did Richard Durham’s older sister Clotilde and younger brothers Caldwell and Earl.  And Mark Durham, Clarice and Richard’s only son, provided a wealth of additional information and contacts.

C.M. MAYO: What were the most unexpected and biggest challenges for you in writing this book? 

SONJA D. WILLIAMS: If someone had told me in the early 2000s that it would take between 10 and 15 years to complete Word Warrior, I would have been convinced that this person had abused some crazy, judgment-clouding substance. The longest documentary project on which I had worked, NPR’s and the Smithsonian’s 26-part series Wade in the Water: African American Sacred Music Traditions, was about five years in the making, from its conception by artist/historian Bernice Johnson Reagon to airdate. 

But additional documentary, teaching and administration responsibilities, along with other life demands, soon proved that Word Warrior would take a lot longer to become a reality.  And at times I had to overcome serious personal roadblocks. Was I really up to this challenge?  Who told me I could write a book?  Was I fooling myself? 

I got past those doubts, but not without struggle – and time. 

C.M. MAYO: I believe every book has many angels. Who were the angels for this book?

SONJA D. WILLIAMS: So many angels hovered over this project. Durham’s longtime friends, artist Oscar Brown Jr., journalist Vernon Jarrett and writer/radio personality Studs Terkel were generous with their time, recollections and insights.  Historian J. Fred MacDonald, who died earlier this year, was an angel from the start, providing all types of audio and visual materials and regular encouragement.

Vivian Gordon Harsh, an African American woman I never met, served as an earthbound angel during Durham’s lifetime and a heavenly one in mine. During the 1940s, this pioneering head librarian created and curated a special collection of Negro books and historical documents in Chicago’s George Cleveland Hall Public Library.  Durham spent hours there, combing through the research materials Harsh provided for his Destination Freedom and other projects.  Today, the Harsh Collection is the largest African American archive in the Midwest. It also houses Richard Durham’s Papers.   

And of course, my family members and close friends – angels all – divvied up places to stay, reality checks and butt-kicking critiques.

C.M. MAYO: Were you able to listen to all of Durham's "Destination Freedom" radio shows? (Where are they archived?) Did you have some favorites-- and why? 

SONJA D. WILLIAMS: Of the 92 shows in the Destination Freedom series, I listened to all of the tapes that have survived. Northeastern Illinois University historian and author J. Fred MacDonald discovered and rescued those tapes and scripts from Northwestern University years ago and housed them in his own media archives (now located in the Library of Congress).  From his archives, Dr. MacDonald sent me a huge box containing copies of every Destination Freedom script.  I read every word.  I also listened to Destination Freedom tapes in the archives of the New York Public Library’s Schomburg Research Center of Black Culture, and in the Richard Durham Papers archived in the Chicago Public Library’s Harsh Research Collection. 

It’s rather hard to pick favorites from such a rich cache of dramatic programs.  Of course, a few stand out for their storytelling strengths and messages:

The Rime of Ancient Dodger examined Jackie Robinson’s integration of baseball, starring Oscar Brown Jr. as Robinson and Studs Terkel as a Brooklyn-accented, rhyming narrator. Denmark Vesey recounted Vesey’s revolutionary militancy and his 1822 slave revolt in South Carolina; Negro Cinderella portrayed artist Lena Horne’s young life and social awakening; Premonition of a Panther demonstrated how his sport’s brutality affected boxing great Sugar Ray Robinson; The Death of Aesop displayed the biting humor and wisdom of an Ethiopian slave famous for his fables; The Long Road explored the contributions of women’s suffrage activist and educator Mary Church Terrell. 

C.M. MAYO: Durham was Muhammed Ali's biographer (The Greatest, 1975). Did you find it challenging to write the biography of a biographer? 
SONJA D. WILLIAMS: In part because Muhammad Ali is such a huge personality and significant cultural figure – and because I was fascinated by his story and his fights during my younger years – Ali threatened to take over the chapter about Durham’s work with him on The Greatest. I had to fight with myself to make sure that Durham remained in focus by using Durham’s interviews with historian J. Fred MacDonald, magazine and newspaper articles where Durham talked about Ali, the tapes Durham personally recorded while following Ali during the writing of The Greatest, and relevant interviews with Durham’s friends, colleagues (including his Random House editor Toni Morrison) and family members.

C.M. MAYO: You've written for radio. Did you find writing a book to be similar or a very different process? 

SONJA D. WILLIAMS: While I never thought that writing a book would be a breeze, the research process felt very familiar.  It required the same primary and secondary research muscles needed for documentary production.  I loved digging for information and finding unexpected gems – like Durham’s letters to and from acclaimed writer Langston Hughes, or learning about Durham’s interaction (along with other labor union leaders) with a young Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.  Dr. King had journeyed to Chicago to seek financial support for the Montgomery, Alabama bus boycott he was leading. At that point, February 1956, the boycott was in its infancy and struggling to survive.

But writing for the page (or computer screen) is different that writing for the ear, and my early chapter drafts contained clunky chunks of interview segments or script samples. It was as if an unseen narrator (me) briefly set up an audio clip and then let the clip run uninterrupted, taking up a bulk of the page. While I could let audio segments, sound effects, ambient sound and/or music guide listeners in radio storytelling, it was clear that I had to take a more active role as narrator/guide for a book. 

I had to reorient my mind and my writing.  A struggle.

But if I learned anything from past projects, my work on Word Warrior cemented the fact that hard work, persistence, and faith are essential elements for any creative endeavor. 

C.M. MAYO: What's next for you?

SONJA D. WILLIAMS: I plan to return to my first love, music, and explore the lives, musical triumphs and personal struggles of some contemporary musicians. Wish me luck, faith and persistence!

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Cyberflanerie: Reading, Writing, Podcasting Edition (and My Newsletter)

The Kindle edition of the anthology by Mikel Miller et al, Mexico: Sunlight and Shadows, which has been garnering scads of enthusiastic reviews, is free this Saturday August 29 and Sunday August 30. (This anthology includes an excerpt from my memoir of Mexico's Baja California peninsula, Miraculous Air.)

My mailchimp newsletter went out, fi-nal-ly. I try to get it out every other month-ish, but it's been a busy spring and summer, and to show for it, several new podcasts, articles and other news (my latest book won the National Indie Excellence Award for History!!!) 

May you enjoy the podcasts with rodeo barrel racer Lisa Ferndandes and historian Lonn Taylor. I certainly did... P.S. You are, of course, ever and always most welcome to subscribe.

What I'm reading (and relishing):

Graham Robb's The Discovery of Middle Earth: Mapping the Lost World of the Celts
Thomas Hockey's How We See the Sky: A Naked-Eye Tour of Day & Night
Earl Swift's The Big Roads: The Untold Story of the Engineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways

What I'm working on:

Editing the Marfa Mondays podcast #19, "BBQ Pitmaster Israel Campos in Pecos" (Listen in to the other 18 Marfa Mondays podcasts here.)
For Literal, writing a review (rave-rave-rave!!!) of Sam Quinones' Dreamland: The True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic
What I call a "mini-clip," that is, a brief, edited video, of barrel racers and steer wrestlers at the Pecos Rodeo. (View my other mini-clips for the Far West Texas book here.)

May you have a splendid weekend.

Your comments are always welcome.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Cybreflanerie: Four Vital Videos of Feldenkrais and Anat Baniel Method for Writers (and Other Desk-Bound Dreamers)

New to Feldenkrais? Check out these three videos: Chrish Kresge provides an informative introduction and a bit about frozen shoulders; Gary Waskowsky introduces Feldenkrais in about 7 minutes; and Annie Thoe explains the three principles in 5 minutes.

A few helpful and inspiring videos:


The 2-Minute Feldenkrais Miracle" to Free Up Your Stiff Neck, 
with James Speer


Gary Waskowsky teaches Feldenkrais hand movement 


Feldenkrais Practioner Annie Thoe Demonstates Palming


"Move into Life" with Anat Baniel. A trailer for her book, also gives an overview of the ideas behind her Feldenkrais-inspired methodology. 
(Baniel was one of Moshe Feldenkrais' early students in Israel).

"If you know what you do,
you can do what you want."
-- Moshe Feldenkrais

Monday, August 17, 2015

Just Energy Radio Interview About Francisco Madero's Secret Book

I was honored to do a very fun interview with one of my favorite Texans, Dr. Rita Louise, on her "Just Energy" radio show, about the secret book of Francisco I. Madero

(Just to say, only Dr. Rita would ask, "But did he chop down the cherry tree?")

> Listen to the interview
My mic was a little too sensitive, alas, so if you listen in, you might want to drop the volume. Better yet:

> Read the transcript 

> Visit the webpage for my book Metaphysical Odyssey into the Mexican Revolution: Francisco I. Madero and His Secret Book, Spiritist Manual.

In case you haven't been following this blog, this book-- which is my book plus my translation of Madero's book--recently won the National Indie Excellence Award for History. It's also been getting some good reviews from historians, but what is most interesting to me, and I think should be for historians, is that the, shall we say, metaphysically-inclined have been telling me that Madero's book is something very special, very advanced for its time. (Check out my interview with a modern medium about Francisco Madero as a medium. I haven't met him or ever worked with him in any way, but since Rev Steven Hermann gave the book a great review, and he just published his own book, Mediumship Mastery, I thought his take on Madero as a medium could be very interesting, and indeed it is.) 

Here's the introduction to Dr. Rita Louise's show:

"Welcome to "Just Energy Radio" with your host, naturopath and medical intuitive Dr. Rita Louise.
We have learned from Einstein's theory that matter and energy are one. Physicists believe that all systems of nature have their own particular way of vibrating. From the swinging of a pendulum to the waves of the ocean to the light that brightens the sky each day, each of these oscillates at its own unique rate. The same holds true for every thought, feeling, event or word we speak: each has its own frequency or rate of vibration. What many of us don't realize is when we take everything in our universe down to its simplest form, it is all just energy.
Join Dr. Rita Louise on a journey through time and space where past, present and future collide. Today what you believe may be called into question. What we want to know is: Who made up the rules? Be brave and step outside the box. We are about to turn our world upside down and venture into the unknown. Hold on! We are departing our own beliefs and entering alternative realms. Enjoy the possibilities."

I'm fine with "entering alternative realms," and considering possibilities; otherwise, I never would have been able to write the book I did. (And on that note, I invite you to check out my podcast about the Marfa Lights, and blog post about Maestro Amajur and the Smoking Signatures.) For the extra-adventurous among you, I can recommend these "Just Energy Radio" interviews:

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Adiós, Facebook! The Six Reasons Why I Deactivated My Account

If you cannot find me or tag me on Facebook, as C.M. Mayo "cmmayo1", fear not, I have not "defriended" you!

I've been on Facebook since 2008, back when I was about to start the tour for my novel The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire. It was my amiga the crackerjack historical novelist Sandra Gulland who urged me to sign up. No question, Sandra was right, FB is a powerful way to get the word out about my bookspodcastslectures, workshops and book signings

Plus, FB has been an unexpected pleasure: I could keep up with family, both close and distant, and friends, new, old and previously long-lost. I smiled wide to see photos of a relative's 80th, jokes and memes posted by cousins and neighbors, videos of the antics of one of my old book editor's puppies, and so on. 


In that torrent of FB feed arrived many treasures too, such as artist Hope Swann's daily door picture; gorgeous paintings by other artist friends including Mariló Carral, Kelley Vandiver and Edgar Soberon; a video—  I forget who "shared it"—  of a 90 year old yoga teacher; links to read about fascinating books; political news in Mexico and abroad which I might have missed otherwise; news of a dear friend's book prize (yay, Leslie Pietrzyk!!); and oodles more. 

I am grateful to FB for providing this platform, and grateful to my FB friends (and friends of friends) who have helped make it such a richly interesting experience. (And muchas gracias, Mikel Miller, for recently forming the Mexico writers group on FB and so energetically championing my writing there and including a chapter from my book on Baja California in your Kindle anthology, Mexico: Sunlight & Shadows.)

In sum, as many of you well know, there are excellent reasons to participate on FB. Nonetheless, after months of dithering, I deactivated my account

Here's why:

1. I find it increasingly unsettling that a corporation not only mediates my interactions with my friends and family but also shapes them by its algorithms, then harvests and sells the data on those interactions to third parties. (Translation: it's looking a mite too 1984.)
2. Not all, certainly, but much of the FB feed is trivia (I love you, N., but I don't need to see the sandwich you ate yesterday in Barcelona)
 or upsetting (I agree with you, J., that animal abusers should be punished, but I'd rather not have been slammed with the photos). Some of the FB feed is assuredly not trivia the passing of a beloved grandfather, the birth of a baby, a child's graduation, the adventure of a lifetime but because of FB's algorithms, posts are broadcast to "friends" its bots deem relevant, and it can become so. I mean, if S. didn't invite me to her birthday party, why did she imagine I would want to see a photo of her blowing out her birthday candles?
(I'll admit, maybe I never "got" FB in this regard; I rarely posted anything from my personal life. In the real, meatspace world, social networks are intricately nuanced; FB, for all its "groups" and feed settings and ever-morphing privacy options, turns it into a one-size-fits-all spew. Adding nuance: I guess that's what the algorithm engineers will be working on from the dawn of FB 'til Kingdom Come.)
3. FB is annoyingly addictive, albeit for some people more than others. For me, staying off FB like trying to diet with an open box of chocolates at arm's reach.
Update: And it's addictive by design, of course. It's all about hooking your brain into the machine zone. 
4. If I'm going to get this out the door before I'm 94, I need more time and mental energy to finish writing my book about Far West Texas.
> Yo! Checkout the latest podcast, my interview with rodeo barrel racer Lisa Fernandes!
5. As far as book promotion goes, FB isn't the "wow" it first seemed (especially after, for reasons known only to itself, FB changed its algorithms). Furthermore, although many of my readers are on FB, many are not, or don't follow me there. Yes, one can create author and book "fan pages," but that is a form of "sharecropping" after all, FB owns the digital platform with all the attendant disadvantages for the sharecropper. (My current philosophy: "Likes" on FB are given so promiscuously, they don't mean much, if anything. From my own platform, that is, my website, true fans of my work, legion or scant may they be, are always welcome to subscribe to my free newsletter.) Moreover! As noted above, FB sucks up time and energy that I could apply elsewhere to better effect. (In case you were wondering, for book promotion, apart from writing the next book, that would include blogging, sending out that newsletter, freelancing for magazines, podcasting, an occasional postcard campaign, and... drumroll... answering ye olde email.)
UPDATE: Speaking of "sharecropping, yes indeed, this blog is sharecropping on Google's platform. It has been on my to do list for an age to move the whole enchilada over to WordPress. Stay tuned.
6. Though I will miss the casual interactions of "liking" and "sharing" on FB, I prefer to meet friends, family and colleagues in person, that is, on our terms, not FB's, and also to talk on the phone or by Skype, and... more drums... answer my email. 

Speaking of email: friends, family, students, readers: I am sincerely happy to hear from you! As always, you can write to me at cmmayo (at) cmmayo (dot) com. And now that I'm free of Facebook, I shall be able to answer you in a more thoughtful and timely manner.
As ever, I blog on Mondays.

P.S. To deactivate a FB account, log in, then go to "settings," then "security," then click on "deactivate your account." Oh, but FB doesn't let you go that easily! The whole ooey-gooey-extra-velcroey process made me shake my head and laugh out loud several times. By the way, this is not the same action as deleting the account. I can imagine that I might need to log on again in order to contact someone whom I couldn't contact otherwise, or possibly, for some other very good reason. But to participate as I did before? Definitely not.

UPDATE: Yet another reason to deactivate FB. 

FURTHER UPDATE: November 2017. Still massively relieved to have deactivated FB. In case you were wondering. But still have not yet moved this blog over to WordPress... It will happen.

YET ANOTHER UPDATE: 2018:  See novelist Nancy Peacock's blog post, "Quitting Social Media." 

YE VERILY ANOTHER UPDATE, JULY 2018: Jaron Lanier's Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social media Accounts Right Now.

JULY 2018: A nonprofit's take on FB.

JANUARY 2019: Now the battle is against Whatsapp. I wonder what's next?

> Your comments are always welcome. Write to me here.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Cyberflanerie: Marginal Revolution, Lefsetz Letter, Rachel Laudan, The Contrary Farmer, DC Bike Blogger, Of Two Minds, Femme et Fleur, Good Food in Mexico City, Bookman's Blog

A few of my current blog faves:

The Lefsetz Letter

Bob Lefsetz's illuminating ruminations on the music biz (and misc.)
Sample posts: La Super-Rica and Taylor Swift in Vanity Fair

Marginal Revolution
Extra curious and crunchy economics, food, travel, whatnot by economists Tyler Cowan and Alex Tabarrok
Sample post: Phishing for Phools

The Contrary Farmer
Gene Logsdon on farming
Sample posts: To Survive in Farming, Try Taoism and Deep Trouble Down in the Ground

Rachael Laudan
Food history by my favorite food historian
Sample post: My Great-Grandmother's Industrially Processed Food

DC Bike Blogger
Bike adventures in the Nation's Capital
Sample post: Three Eggs in Space

Of Two Minds

Charles Hugh Smith's observations and advice on the loomin' doom
Sample posts: Don't Let the Dessert Cart on the Titantic Pass You By and Stop Financializing the Human Experience

Femme et Fleur
Milliner Carol Merkel's joyous commentary on fashion, art, and travel
Sample post: Paul

Good Food in Mexico City
Nicholas Gilman, author of a yummy book with the same title
Sample post: Mushroom season in Mexico

Bookman's Log
By author and rare book dealer Greg Gibson
Sample Post: My Bold Plan and Its Daring Execution

Monday, August 03, 2015


This exquisitely written novel by Sophy Burnham is one that I was especially honored and delighted to blurb. Here's what I said:

"An audacious literary achievement in the tradition of Watership Down and Timbuktu, Sophy Burnham's Love, Alba takes a Washingtonian cat's eye view of love, betrayal, high society, and art theft that is at once charming and deeply wise." 

Here's the catalog copy for Love, Alba:

Love! Romance! High society! Art Theft-all told by the wise and witty, little cat Alba, who has her own feline affairs. Lorna, now over 60, has just fallen horribly, head-over heels in love-with a younger man; and worse, he's involved with her best friend, Nikki, and now Nikki, an art conservator, is caught up in international art theft, prison, and other events of everyday life in Washington, D. C. Underneath this light-hearted romp lie serious issues of aging, sexual desire, friendship, sacrifice, and glimpses into the spiritual realm for which Sophy Burnham, the visionary behind the angels phenomenon, is best known. As with her other bestsellers, just reading this inspiring book leaves you happy. 
SOPHY BURNHAM, awarded "Daughter of Mark Twain," is the author of fourteen books, award-winning plays, radio plays, children's books, investigative reporting and short stories. She is best known for her spiritual writing, including A Book of Angels and The Treasure of Montségur. Her works are translated into twenty-six languages. An engaging speaker, she appeared on Oprah (twice), on Larry King Live, Good Morning America, CBS Morning News, and scores of other TV and radio programs. She has spoken at venues as varied as the IMF, St. Louis Art Museum, churches, conferences, bookstores and National Storytellers Association. 

< But my writing assistant, Washi,
is not sure about any novels featuring cats >