Typically, when I spend the night at the house of local artist Rudy Fig I expect that there will be a lot of art making, snacking, and cuddling with her 17-month-old son Vincent. And while these things still happened, this time I went with a slight ulterior motive.
“I have something to show you,” I tell her.
“What is it?” she replies apprehensively.
“Don’t worry, it isn’t dirty,” I laugh as I pull an unassuming book out of my bag. I give it to her and ask her to look through the artwork and the writing and tell me what she thinks. Because Rudy Fig is known well for fantasy artwork that is so sweet and tart that could rot the teeth right out of your head I figured it would be fascinating to see her perspective on a book of fairy tales that many have never heard of before. Many people don’t know that African-American fairy tales exist to begin with.
Her Stories is a book of fairy tales, myths, and historical accounts with black women as the predominant cast of stories that have been retold by Virginia Hamilton. It is illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon and these images, as Fig gleefully put it, are “creamy,” meaning that the colors are rich and full, the line work is crisp, and there is clean and clear detail throughout. There is no question that this book looks good.
At about this time Rudy’s son Vincent comes in from his afternoon nap and I ask if I can read them a story. I pick my personal favorite “Malindy and Little Devil,” a short story about a young girl who blissfully and unintentionally outsmarts a small demon who is trying to trick her out of her soul. Vincent is more preoccupied with my hair then with the story, but he loves the pictures. Afterwards I let him listen to some Corrine Baily Rae on my iPhone and I think he fell in love.
My reason for doing this is that I think there is a bit of a disconnect between black people and our cultural narrative. During times of great oppression you unwillingly relinquish control of your stories over to people and forces perceived to be more powerful and our modern stories still rarely get told (and Tyler Perry doesn’t count). So, the idea that going back through history to find the source of this narrative seems rife with frustration, exhaustion, and possible dead ends. But in truth, black America has existed for a good long while now and our stories are everywhere; we take them with us wherever we go and I think it’s time we start discovering and sharing them. I guess this was my attempt at doing so.
Every culture has its fair share of stories about glittering mermaids (“Mary Belle and the Mermaid” and “The Mer-Woman Out of the Sea”), fairies (“Mom Bett and the Little Ones A-Glowing”) and talking animals (“Lena and Big One Tiger”). Since supernatural stories are in right now, it gives me a sense of relief that not only does everyone have a place at this literary table but that the feast at that table is more diverse and interesting than vampire- werewolf teen love triangles.
Later on in my stay—and after putting Her Stories down—Fig and I go into her studio to work and I notice a small painting of what looks to be a black girl with blue-and-yellow-streaked hair sitting in the corner. It’s unfinished so I have no idea where Fig will take it, but it was a strange little reminder that I brought Her Stories to the right place.