Sarah Ladipo Manyika’s “Between Starshine and Clay” is a rare and important book – Toni Kan

Sarah Ladipo Manyika’s book, Between Starshine and Clay is rare and important.

Published as non-fiction, it is filled with interviews, profiles, and portraits of 12 extraordinary individuals drawn from politics and advocacy, literature and arts, as well as the quotidian but exciting world of 100 years old Willard Harris, a senior citizen of San Francisco.

This is a book that refuses to be pigeon holed as it plays with form and structure. One minute it is a Q&A, then a fly-on-the-wall profile and before you know it, its creative non-fiction, employing the best tools of fictive narrative to tell true and personal stories.

But it is actually, in many ways, 13 portraits: of 12 people and a place; the South Pole.

Told over 21 pages with the title “The White Continent”, the portrait of the South Pole is on the surface a visceral account of a (wo)man’s encounter with extreme nature but in the hands of a maestro like Manyika it assumes greater significance as a comment on life and race and fear especially as a woman in our unsafe, patriarchal and misogynistic world.

In “The White Continent” Ms. Manyika author of the novels In Dependence and Like a Mule Bringing Ice Cream to the Sun writes:

 I’ve never been in a place where, for thousands of miles around me, there is no life form to fear. There are no bears, no snakes, not even mosquitoes, and because I know all the humans around me, I walk without fear of sexual assault by a stranger male of my own species.

Fear is a dominant emotion in the pages of this book. Fear of sexual assault, fear of failure, fear of being shot by the police for walking-while-black, fear of disappointing the race, fear of electing the wrong president, fear of dying.

Fear of different hues stalks the pages of this sparkling and magnificent book.

But fear does not win because in Sarah Ladipo Manyika’s hands and in the mouths of her subjects, it becomes the trigger for positive action and the result is a book peopled by “race men” and women whose words and actions serve to validate, empower and strengthen the black diasporic community and even on the continent.

Manyika who has lived on three continents says the stories came from a predilection for “wondering about other people’s stories” but admits that it is the stories of people in Africa and the African diaspora that she is most often drawn to.

Broken into three broad sections – Creators, Curators and Changemakers, the book comes alive through conversations and meetings both direct and tangential as well as brilliant essays and they provoke us to consider urgent and existential questions.

What does black excellence and achievement look like? Cory Booker recalls asking a woman named Ms. Virginia Jones a question. “I’m a Yale trained lawyer, for crying out loud. What do you mean I can’t help you?”

It asks us to consider more questions; what does a black story of resilience determination and triumph look like?

What does a person of color feel when every win and success is so easily ambushed by failure and oppression?

Between Starshine and Clay ripples with the question; what keeps the mother of a young black male awake at night when the blogosphere is replete with stories of race-related shootings and killings in America?

These are some of the questions that this beautifully curated, deeply felt and wide ranging book confronts and attempts to provide answers to in various degrees through portraits of extraordinary men and women of colour and the portraits are not vignettes or written in the service of a cause; they are fully observed and well-crafted examinations and explorations that provide elucidation on the black and diasporic experience.

Nobel laureates Wole Soyinka and Toni Morrison alongside Soyinka’s former student and friend, Henry Louis Gates Jr and publisher Margaret Busby riff on race, restitution, slavery and systemic racism.

Xoliswa Sithole and Ewan Mariere provide context from the African continent from their vantage points as South Africans while Claudia Rankine, Michael Hastings and Anna Deavere Smith look at the place of art and institutions in conversations around race and the African diaspora.

Michelle Obama, Willard Harris and Cary Booker provide us with more contemporaneous perspectives on politics and the world of the African diaspora from an American perspective.

These men and women talk about issues that range from “the tyranny of merit” to the “one negro syndrome”. They speak about expanding access to women amid the gradual eliding of black works.

They confront issues around the fear that every election cycle evokes in America, what Hastings calls the “pandemic of fury” and how America solves its “race problem through incarceration.”

But through the litany of doom and gloom shines the bright light of hope as Cory Booker insists on “resurrecting hope” while Michelle Obama speaks on the imperative of not shrinking to fit stereotypes.

Willard Harris sums up the book with a succinct quote: “But I don’t think any black person will disagree with me that we’ve come a long way and that we’ve still got a ways to go.”

Author photo credit:

Between Starshine and Clay: Conversations from the African Disapora, Footnote Press, 2022.

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