This astonishing novel takes us on a journey along the river of one family's history, carving a course across two centuries and three continents, from ancient Africa into today's America. Here, through the lives of Mother Africa's many daughters, we come to understand the real meaning of roots: the captive Proud Mary, who has been savagely punished for refusing to relinquish her child to slavery; Earlene, who witnesses her father's murder at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan; Big Momma, a modern-day matriarch who can make a woman of a girl; proud and sassy Cinnamon Brown, whose wild abandon hides a bitter loss; and smart, ambitious Alma, who is torn between the love of a man and the song of her soul.
In The River Where Blood Is Born, the seen and unseen worlds are seamlessly joined--the spirit realms where the great river goddess and ancestor mothers watch over the lives of their descendants, both the living and those not yet born. Stringing beads of destiny, they work to lead one daughter back to her source. But what must Alma sacrifice to honor the River Mother's call?
Release date: July 8, 2009
Publisher: One World
Print pages: 432
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The River Where Blood Is Born
Even now in the hereafter, I still savor the taste of something sweet. I
offer no excuse for myself. In mortal life the elders warned that if I
habitually raided hives, I would come to know bee sting. That if I
wallowed so much in sweetness, I would find it difficult to endure in
times of want.
But you know the proverb. Too much advice is no advice. My discipline was
lax and I overindulged, mouth relaxing open to the nectar of wildflowers,
the sap of sun-ripened fruits. I enjoyed the tang of my husband's honey
long after I had become an elder myself.
It is said that only when a woman passes childbearing, does she come into
her full power. Her menses, no longer spent monthly, returns to nourish
its host. Her womb closes onto itself like a cowrie shell, a shrine no man
is meant to enter. But I was my husband's only wife. How could I deny him
conjugal bliss in his old age? How could I deny myself?
And here I stand, Gatekeeper of the Great Beyond. There are no men in this
village, there have never been. It is a thing we never thought to
question. We are spirit workers, women who have transcended life's earthly
But at times I find myself seized by longings I thought lost in the body I
left behind. The memory of hard hands at the curve of my back. The
surrender of self to the sweetness of flesh. There is a very thin line
between wish and prayer; taboos may be broken in spirit, as well as the
flesh. It is on account of such indiscretion that we may all be punished.
The moment which would disrupt our way of life and forever trouble the
surface of our tranquil waters happens as I take my sunset constitutional.
Those times when work has ended and a woman wants a moment to be alone
with her own needs. And love always tastes sweetest at twilight.
May I draw you a map? My path to perdition leads downhill toward the first
cataract which feeds the River Where Blood Is Born. It twists like a snake
through the forest, descending to meet the water at its own level. We come
upon a spot just beyond the warm-water inlet where cocoons await their
blossoming into birth, near the bridge these unborn daughters eventually
cross over into life.
It is as in the inexorable course of lovemaking. Where river rushes toward
land's end, it has no recourse. It must rebecome, must leave the earth and
meet the air. Must hang suspended, fracturing the waning light. And float,
rather than fall.
The cascade murmurs like the musical moan from deep within a man's chest.
Each drop drifts earthward to collect itself into a shimmering pool of
joy, before gathering momentum to float onward.
Our meeting at the bottom of the waterfall has happened so often, it has
become ritual. I call him, and he becomes. His body, flint black and
shiny, emerges from the rock face beneath the tumbling waters. He moves
toward me and I am ready.
His breath is the wind that lifts my wrapper and I pirouette, shameless as
a young girl in mating dance. My skirts billow above my waist like sails.
With no amoasi to stay my comfort, I settle my seminakedness into a curve
of stone worn smooth by water, warmed by sun. I open my legs and wait,
prepared for the familiar rush of sensation; the kiss of setting sun upon
my face; the surge, the wet murmur of falling waters.
"Come to me, my love," I whisper in anticipation.
But the answer I receive is harsh and unexpected, a dash of frigid water
down the back. My lover's coos vanish, his image retreats into the stone
cliff. I hear instead the voice of my ancient enemy, rising behind me from
the protected inlet of our nursery. There is a man in our midst, someone
other than the phantom lover I conjure in my moments of weakness.
Uncertain whether I have been seen, I yank down my skirts and rise to
search him out, following the sound of his voice.
"Eh-heh. When spider webs unite, can they not bind a lion? Such a net I
will weave from this sacred silk, nothing I capture can escape."
I open the door to admit a man, and this one slips in? I leave the gateway
unguarded and this is what enters? Do you see him? Can you hear him? Will
you imagine the gall of this spider of a man? Singing his own praises.
Misquoting proverbs in his mischief making. He thinks his misdeeds go
It is not his own web that Ananse works. He poaches from our sacred river,
playing fast and loose with our very futures. See him there, crouched
beneath the joists of the bridge, hidden like the unwelcome visitor he is.
Testing the weave of each bobbing cocoon, the unformed bud of each
delicate daughter. Reaching into waters and fishing out unlived lives, wet
as raw silk. Laughing his lisping laugh and unwinding. Waving his spindly
limbs and reeling. Tossing about the silken mass like a malevolent cat.
And spinning a cobweb of confusion from the river of our generations.
He has already unraveled silken threads from nine cocoons, when I reach
into the crevice where he has secreted himself. I watch him squirm and
wonder aloud why I shouldn't simply crush him between the balls of my
"I beg-o, Mistress Gatekeeper," Kwaku Ananse wails. "You would never do me
such a badness. No luck can come to a woman who kills a spider. Nana would
"We will see what the Queen Mother herself has to say about that. I
suggest, however, that you ready your soul to meet your ancestors."
And that, my people, is how Kwaku Ananse, the spider who is a man, the man
who is a spider, came into possession of this story. There are those of
you who may say he came to it by trickery. I prefer to call it the fine
art of negotiation. Even I can't help but admire a man who can think on
Yes, Ananse is hauled before the stool of the Queen Mother of the River
Where Blood Is Born, cowering but crafty. For he, the undisputed master of
all stories, had had just enough time to concoct one of his own.
You must watch carefully or you will miss the precise moment when the mist
gathers itself from water and rises. Do you know how many aspects can
exist in one blueness? Aqua, azure, indigo. Cobalt, turquoise, sapphire,
I will call your attention to how subtly the blues cascade, shimmering in
her garments as she walks. And the sound of living waters; is its music
like anything you've ever heard? Of course not. But then you are not
within your earthly domain. You are in the realm of a goddess. What else
should be expected?
But do not be deceived by the Queen Mother of the River Where Blood Is
Born. Yes, her songs are sweet, but often mournful. Because her waters are
placid does not mean they are shallow. Do not be fooled by the softness of
her smile, the humor that murmurs in the melody of her words. For she is
one who can be as temperamental as she is tender.
She has been known to rage, you know. Her blue waters have been seen
frothing white, tumbling toward ocean. Bubbling over banks. Do not mistake
kindness for weakness. Even Ananse knows better. He quickly unfurls a
cobweb of confusion, a dragnet of flattery.
"Eh, but you are beautiful, Queen Mother," he exclaims, shielding his
bulging eyes from her glory. "Do you want a poor man to go blind?"
"Well," she murmurs, music in her laughter. "I had in mind a rather more
"Yes, yes," he hurries to agree. "Pluck me limb from limb, throw the
pieces to the dogs. Roast me on your open fire, drown me in your deepest
waters. I can die happy today, for I have visited your palace. I have seen
with my own eyes the magnificence of your village. Eh, I cannot wait ..."
And here he begins to contradict himself ...
"... to run home to my village, to tell my people what I've seen."
"Foolish little man," the goddess trills. "You think it is that easy to
back away from death? You think you can bathe in blood waters and ever
again be dry?"
"And don't forget," I remind her. "This man is more than just a
trespasser. He has behaved badly. Look at his handiwork."
I produce the tangled mass of mischief Ananse has made.
"But what is this?" she asks in alarm.
"Bits and pieces of unlived lives, unspoken voices from the daughters of
your descent. Like this Ama Krah, a daughter of Africa destined to wander
I tug one line from the tangle of silk. The fragment of untold story is
revealed, reflected in full upon the face of the waters ...
They had reached the confluence, the place where the Black met the Blood.
A mother's voice seemed to call to them upriver, a voice that only Ama
heard. A wind seemed to tug them downriver, a force which only Ama felt.
They stood confused in the crotch of land where rivers meet. Looking first
one way, then the other.
What name does one give to the not knowing, the wondering? Which road to
take? Which river to follow? Which voice to answer? They waited for a
sign, and finding none, abandoned the way of water ...
"A traveler," Ananse interjects. "There must be one in every family.
Imagine the possibilities, Queen Mother. Word of your name, news of your
fame will wander the world alongside her. And tales like this, of a
daughter named Diaspora; can we let such a journey go unchronicled?"
You may not remember my face. You may never hear my story. So I have left
it here for the time after I am gone. A sweetwater song in saltwater
blues. It whispers in the waves of this wide, wide river. It has sifted
through leagues of sea and settled into sand. It is in the current that
begins in a surge at one shore and ends in a wave at another. And my voice
is just one among many. I am not the only one here who sings or moans ...
"I beg to differ," I interrupt. "I know pain when I see it. And these
women's wanderings have little in them of the pleasure trip."
Our Queen Mother's eyes cloud, a mixture of pride and regret. It is true
that our daughters' destiny rests on the knees of the gods. But even in
heaven we respect the power of mystery. Just how far into tomorrow does
one have the right to prospect? How much of the future can we handle
before the fact?
Of course we are curious to know the people our children will become. But
to preview your daughters' growing pains before they have even had a
chance to live them out? To see such delicate rites tossed about like
toys? To witness the unfolding of your futures at the hands of a man like
Kwaku Ananse? It is a predicament, indeed.
"Ah," she sighs sadly. And even the sound of her sigh is like gently
running water. "It is a bad guest who takes leave of his host by spitting
into the well. Pray tell me now, before you meet your punishment, friend
Ananse. Whatever possessed you to dip into my sacred waters, to dabble
into the lives of my unborn daughters? Have I ever tampered with, or
attempted to reel the weave of your wives' egg sacs?"
"Queen Mother of the River Where Blood Is Born, my name is Kwaku Ananse."
"I am well aware of your name, unfortunate one. It is your story that
causes one to wonder."
This was just the opening he needed. Ananse begins to embellish the very
lie he had been spinning.
"I am a weaver, as was my father and his father before him. I was trained
at the village of master weavers, you must know of it? The place where
royal kente cloth is made from pure silk, the finest in the land. Yes, I
do not like to boast ..."
It is not true, of course. Ananse lives to sing his own praises.
"... but in no time, I was the greatest of all weavers. Mine were the most
brilliant colors, the finest threads, the most intricate designs. I soon
became bored working ordinary fibers, unraveling and reinventing the weave
of imported silks. And I began to experiment with story. Have you ever
seen story cloth, Queen Mother?"
Like a wave that ripples the surface of water, her ageless brow creases in
"A story cloth? No, I must say that I haven't. It sounds intriguing."
Ananse probes the tangle of silk and teases out yet another story line.
"First listen to the voice of a motherless child a long way from home;
songs from the life of one Earlene."
I even had a brief fling with stardom in the forties and off I went to
Europe singing Swing Low, Sweet Chariot to folks who couldn't understand
the words. But it's not about words when that coming for to carry me home
echoes from way deep down. It's about memory on top of memory, layered
like the strata of earth, like the levels of underground water.
As if this was not enough, he extracted yet another thread from his ball
"And you may be happy to know that a certain descendant called Darlene
will lead a more settled life." Another tug, another bit of story unfolds.
... The big, comfortable woman with the kind face and ready ear. A woman
forever in the kitchen cooking while the party's going on. Or at home
baby-sitting while others are out tasting the world's flavors ...
Well, honey, I'm here to tell you. I was ready to take my life out of
mothballs and put it on. Wadn't no sense of me playing momma to no more
grown folks. Putting everybody's needs ahead of my own. I was tired of
sitting in the kitchen nibbling the chicken backs of life ...
"And so," Ananse continues. "I collect threads and fragments from the most
fascinating, the most colorful of stories, and work them into a fabric
that is the envy of all weavers. And the garments made from such kente?
Why, they are worn by only the most beautiful of women."
In spite of herself, the Queen Mother becomes entangled in Ananse's web of
deceit, his tissue of lies.
"Indeed, the most beautiful?"
"But, yes. The highest of royalty, the most magnificent of ancestors, the
most eminent of goddesses ..."
And here he pauses to let his point settle.
"The most eminent of goddesses?" Predictably, the Queen's fury stirs, like
wind upon the water. I love her well enough to know her flaws, one of
which is vanity. And why not? She has earned the right to be prideful.
"And why have I not been included among them? Why have I not been given my
own story-cloth robe to wear?"
"But that is why I am here, oh beautiful Queen Mother! I was planning a
surprise gift, fashioned of silk from cocoons found here in your very own
river. This, Queen Mother, is the material true art is made from; patterns
and textures from the rich imagination of a certain one of your children
who will be called Sara ..."
The river was slim as a blue ribbon and slow moving, more of a country
branch some joker decided to call Broad. It gurgled like a baby as it
meandered along, and Sara heard voices; invisible mermaids who whispered
secrets to her.
... One day the mermaids would help her build a boat, and she would sail
away upon this river. She consulted a tattered atlas and plotted her
escape route. She would go up to the Shenandoah, down the Potomac, across
the Chesapeake Bay, out to the Atlantic Ocean, down to the Caribbean, and
back to her island home .
"No, I say, and no again," the Queen insists. "These are no mere silkmoth
larvae you've dared to handle with your unclean hands; these are the souls
of my unborn daughters. It is not proper to disrupt the fabric of their
lives before they've had a chance to live them. It is their story to make,
"But this is not my power, Queen Mother," the wily one protests. "I do not
craft their stories. I only collect them, assembling the raw materials
into a garment that befits the beauty of its wearer. To forecast your
daughters' destiny is one thing; but to drape its vestments about your
shoulders! Your future need not loom in the distance, when there is a loom
master anxious to serve you. Let us reach boldly into tomorrow, grasp its
shining threads, and weave them into a work of wonder. Witness the tale of
a woman who will be known as Big Momma ..."
... I knew that the Klan was riding the night. Colored folks losing their
land and their lives. Simon Winfield just wanted better for his daughter.
And I watched them boarding that barge. I waved them off. He said he was
taking Early to see some of his people up in Cape Girardeau. She wasn't
even two years old yet. Wasn't even talking good. But she talked that
morning. Said Bye-bye, Mama just as clear. And they took off, upriver.
Ain't never seen them again, neither one of them.
I can see now that the goddess is caught, trapped in Kwaku Ananse's web of
"If anyone should have the right to tell this story, it should be me," I
protest, knowing now he has gained the upper hand. "After all, I am the
Gatekeeper. The intermediary between unborn souls, the world of the
living, and the ancestors who watch over them all. It is I who send our
children out across the bridge, onto their life's journey. And when it
ends, I alone greet them here at the gate, and guide them to their final
rest in this selfsame village. Why not create story cloth from the life of
your own descendants, Ananse? What of Ntikuma, your misbegotten son? You
are not of the Queen Mother's clan. You are not even a woman."
"Ah, but who creates a child?" Ananse dances around the point. "Is it the
mother alone? The world of the living will not be like this village here,
an abode of women. Fathers, brothers, lovers will enter their stories time
He extracts another thread. An image emerges from the anguished life of
one who will become Cinnamon ...
I don't set out meaning to break men's hearts. It's like I'm hungry all
the time, but I can't seem to find the right food. So I taste a little bit
of everything. It's like something's out there calling me, and I can't
figure out who it is. So I go looking for the voice in every man I meet ...
And if that foretaste of sadness leaves a bitter taste in your mouth, it
hasn't affected Kwaku Ananse in the slightest. He turns to the Queen,
stretching as wide a grin as his shrunken little face can muster.
"I have heard of your beauty, your kindness. I know that in all the
universe there is not more loving a mother to be found. Ah, this is the
ultimate challenge of the master storyteller: to create, from the most
delicate materials, a story cloth of such finery, of such magnificence ..."
"Of such lies," I interject, sorry that I didn't crush this interloper
when first I had the chance.
"I know that I am small and weak," he counters with affected humility.
"Certainly, there have been men more handsome ..."
"Behold," I breathe. "He stumbles upon the path of lies, and accidentally
blurts out the truth."
"... but there is no greater griot than I. And you are without poet to
sing your praises here in this palace."
"Queen Mother has her priestess in the world of the living," I point out,
"and her linguist in the hereafter. We all serve her well."
"Allow me to join ranks with them. Even though I am not of your clan.
Although I may not be a woman. After all, the great storytellers have been
weavers, and all the best weavers are men. It is not I who have made it
so. It is the way it has always been.
"It has never been among our people, a woman's work to weave, save perhaps
a basket with which to carry the load of her life. Women are bearers,
deliverers. The salt which makes food taste sweet, the water without which
life cannot exist. I am a mere man, a spider at that. But it is only
proper that I, owner of all the stories on earth, be allowed access to
this one. It shall be my finest work."
The Queen Mother regards him carefully, shaking her blue-turbaned head.
She turns to me and sighs.
"I may come to regret this. Admittedly, he is a rascal. But as for me, I
would like to see the creation of such a story cloth. I would like to
drape this garment about my shoulders. If he has these skills indeed, let
the spider reveal them."
Now, Ananse begins to be cocky with new-found confidence.
"But you realize that I am more than a spider, much more than just a man.
I am the one who spins the rainbow, who rides the winds, who can even
negotiate the skies on a line of my own making. I am he who is called upon
to knit the birth caul worn by the seventh son of the seventh son. I am
the world's greatest storyteller because I am the world's greatest
watcher, the one overlooked in corners. You see?" he continues, pleased to
have proven his point at the expense of these unborn souls. "It is not the
fly on the wall who knows the story. Winged but witless, he has no more
desire than to find the nearest lump of sugar to rest upon, the most
fragrant pile of excrement upon which to feast. He is slow, blundering.
Destined to end up a smear on a swat, a morsel in the tangle of my web.
"I am not mighty like the elephant, nor splendidly maned like the lion.
Few are the poets who sing my praises. But though small, I have never been
defeated, even by larger enemies. History flows from my spinnerets. I was
here at the beginning, and will yet be at the end. Carrying my loom, my
calabash of silks and threads. I alone can reel and work your tangled
skein of story, of songs and daughters."
"It seems, Queen Mother," I point out, "that Kwaku Ananse is overly adept
at weaving the web of self-congratulation. He may be too preoccupied
singing his own praises to do justice to yours."
"I see so. You must not forget, Ananse, that you are merely a teller of
this tale, not a player in it. And you cannot be the sole griot voice of
my clan. Tell the story, Kwaku Ananse, but also teach the art. Animate my
daughters with your magic. In each of my generations, there must be at
least one who masters her own voice, who learns to work the warp and the
weft of her own life."
Ananse reaches again into his bag of tricks.
"But who among them is worthy? Perhaps a daughter like this one, who will
be called Alma ..."
For years the story beads rested in the corner of my underwear drawer. I'd
take them out now and then, but only because they reminded me of her. But
there must be more to their secrets than memory. Alone in the long hours
of Caribbean night I laid them across my bare, hungry body. They seemed to
glisten like they had a light of their own. Endless, like a river that
returns to itself.
And now I desperately seek the way back to myself, to my source ...
The Queen Mother slowly inclines her head in assent.
"In each generation," she reminds him. "At least one."
"And what will be my reward," asks the crafty spider, rubbing together all
eight of his hairy legs, "for passing on so valuable a skill?"
"Only if you are successful, my friend. Only if the story you render is so
flawless, is of such exquisite quality that it is surpassed by none, will
I leave you with your own life."
"Eh! Payment enough, oh Great One," Ananse murmurs smoothly, scrabbling
toward the bridge with a tangled skein of silk balanced atop his head. "I
must prepare for the work ahead of me. I must find the first thread before
I start the story, for all stories must begin at the beginning. There is
only one favor I ask. In this story I shall weave and you shall one day
wear, take the lion's share for yourself. But then if you please, let just
the tiniest scrap float back to me."
And that is how one Kwaku Ananse came into possession of the materials to
weave the story that is about to unfold. Whether he does justice to the
Queen Mother's name remains to be seen. But let me tell you something, my
That spider may have eight eyes in his head, but he does not see all. Even
though I inhabit this quiet village of women, I have something to say. I
have a story to tell too.
Day after day as I watch the bridge stretching from this village of death
to the world of the living, as I welcome new ancestors into eternity, as I
tend the unborn souls sheltered in the inlet of these sacred waters, and
occasionally slip away ... I also work. I watch and I work.
Notice this sweetgrass basket that rests beside me, the plain utilitarian
object Ananse says it is woman's work to weave, a woman's fate to carry?
Come closer, have a look inside. Its subtle simplicity could be easily
You see, this basket holds beads of many sorts and sizes, as delicate as
drops of water. Some more complex and intricate than any spider's design.
I collect them as our daughters enter this village and deposit their waist
beads at death's gate.
If you look closely you can discern within each bead the hues of blues;
this woman's birth, that one's budding of breasts; the first blood, the
sacrament of sex, childbearing, old age, death. Feel their surfaces, the
ridges of happiness and hollows of heartbreak. Hear in them as they meet
each other, the sound of living waters.
It is true we were captured in Ananse's web of deceit. Yet we must
shoulder our share of blame, for we know full well this happenstance is
rooted in weakness. We are blessed with divine graces and cursed with
human frailties, ours being the twin sins of vanity and lust.
The Queen Mother fancies gossamer garments to adorn her beauty. And even a
goddess can be swayed by flattery. I cannot fault her. But for my weakness
for love's sweet honey, I would never know the bite of this one's venom.
In order to celebrate one's triumphs, one must also admit her failings. I
trust this lesson will not be lost on our daughters to be.
Still, the thing that Ananse has started is now water under the bridge.
The spider's web cannot be unwound, nor the past undone. It is now our
future that he weaves, a commission which carries the Queen Mother's
blessing. But which of us knows the story best?
Perhaps you've heard the fable about the struggle between the lioness and
the hunter. The cat does her damage with tooth and claw, ripping away the
hunter's left hand. He fights with spear and machete, hacking off the
lion's tail. The fight rages on, yet neither foe can manage to best the
In the end the lioness slinks away to the bush to lick her wounds, the
hunter limps back to his village. He is bloody but triumphant, holding
aloft the severed tail with his one good hand. Word of his exploits
resound far and wide, even to the place where the lioness reclines with
her pride, nursing her tailless stump.
"How dare he boast of victory," she complains, "when neither of us won the
"No one will challenge the hunter," returns a wizened old headwoman,
flicking her tail to fan the flies, "until the lioness learns to tell her
He thinks he has bested the Gatekeeper, this insect of a man called Kwaku
Ananse. Yes, the spider has his nine sets of yarns to spin. But remember
that cats have nine lives, too. As Ananse dazzles you with his fanciful
designs and shimmering threads, please allow yourself to appreciate the
simplicity of my craft. As you see, I am stringing these beads on a length
of lion's tail. If it is a woman's art, then this is a woman's story.
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