Unburying the Lost Boys, Pt. 2: the real-life horrors at the Dozier School

MARCH 2014 UPDATE: The University of South Florida exhumed 55 bodies from the cemetery.

In 1937, my great-uncle, Robert Stephens, was buried at the Dozier School in Marianna, Florida, with perhaps up to 100 other boys who never came home after being sentenced to the notorious reformatory. Last September, I went to Marianna with my father, husband and son to observe the beginning of exhumations at the site. I started writing this post the first week of September in 2013, and I’m only completing it in January of 2014. This was hard to write.

 This is not only a story about the past. This story illustrates why our criminal justice system—racially biased and more and more dependent upon private prisons—is itself in dire need of reform.

Dozier School dorm (present day)  PHOTO: Tananarive Due

Dozier School dorm (present day)
PHOTO: Tananarive Due

 “Having so few inmates makes the crops come in slow;

I fear we will not finish gathering the corn by January.”

–Dozier School Superintendent Walter Rawls

Letter to the Board of Managers,

Dec. 1, 1906

Saturday, Sept. 1, 2013

The deputy sitting parked in his cruiser at the tree line gives us a slate with a form to sign, passes out badges we clip to our clothes.  Then he directs us to Boot Hill, the cemetery hidden in the woods on the former grounds of the Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys in Marianna—Florida’s most infamous reformatory.

“Follow the dirt road along the tree line,” the deputy says. “Turn left at the mudhole.”

And so my husband, Steven Barnes, drives on with a carload of us: me, our 9-year-old son, Jason, and my 78-year-old father, civil rights attorney John Due. It’s only ten-thirty in the morning in Marianna, but the day already promises to be hot.

We drive into the moss-draped woods.

We are puzzling over what the mudhole might look like when Jason spots it—a huge puddle of thick mud on the roadside. Suddenly we are at the site of unearthed secrets.  Makeshift crosses mark earlier visitors’ best guesses about where the dead are buried beneath the red soil.

Saturday, Sept. 1, 2013, after a lengthy fight waged by families and survivors white and black, journalists, the NAACP, the Florida Attorney General’s office and the University of South Florida, researchers began their careful digging far from the crosses—where radar equipment used by USF forensic anthropologist Erin Kimmerle’s team found signs of unmarked graves.

PHOTO: Edmund D. Fountain / Pool / Tampa Bay Times via AP

PHOTO: Edmund D. Fountain / Pool / Tampa Bay Times via AP

One of the boys who died was my great-uncle Robert Stephens, who was reportedly stabbed to death by another boy in 1937. But in the fog of misery and mystery, how can we have blind faith in the claims made by Dozier?

Until the Florida Attorney General’s office called me in March, I had never heard about Robert Stephens, the uncle of my late mother, Patricia Stephens Due, whose name was listed in the Dozier School records as one of the boys who died there.  He was fifteen when he died.

My aunt, civil rights activist Priscilla Stephens Kruize, says she never heard about him or his death.  I do not know if my grandmother ever knew that her husband had lost a brother there.  Robert Stephens died two years before my mother was born.

Seventy-six years later, in 2013 Rev. Ronald Mizer of St. James AME Church, the Jackson County NAACP president, led a prayer with my family beneath the mossy trees as researchers paused their digging.  My father, husband, son and I held hands and bowed our heads.

(left to right) Rev. Ronald Mizer, John Due, Jason Due-Barnes (9), Steven Barnes PHOTO: Tananarive Due

(left to right) Rev. Ronald Mizer, John Due, Jason Due-Barnes (9), Steven Barnes
PHOTO: Tananarive Due

Afterward, my husband planned to take our 9-year-old son, Jason, to a nearby tourist attraction while my father and I stayed behind to watch the excavation. But Jason surprised us all: he chose to put on gloves to sift through the soil with researchers.

Jason picked up a shovel to try to unearth his family’s past.

“Look at that!” my father kept saying, watching his grandson at work.

This unburying has been a process of years. Of tearing down the woods.  Of digging shallow trenches. Of revealing long-held secrets. Of searching for anyone who might remember the dead—who might have heard a lost boy laugh or cry, or who lay awake nights in worry.  Some of the stories are so old, dating back to 1900, that no one is left to remember.

Jasondigging1

My son Jason (then 9) works along USF researchers to search for the remains of his distant relative, Robert Stephens, and the other Lost Boys
PHOTO: Tananarive Due

My father, husband, son and I came to mourn a stranger who was far from a stranger. Though we never knew of Robert Stephens, his loss had a ripple effect on my mother’s father and therefore on my mother.  That loss shaped attitudes, family dynamics, dreams.

What is any family’s incalculable toll when a child never comes home?  Has died violently?  Was likely imprisoned unjustly because of his skin color, like so many of our children still are today?

Last July, my father and aunt went to Tampa to witness the DNA swabs taken from surviving family members of the lost.  One of the men, named Robert Stephens after our long-dead relative, told the Tampa Bay Times that he volunteered a swab to help “find the truth.”

Not everything that’s buried is gone.

****

The stories from the Dozier School’s history are harrowing. The more you learn, the worse it gets.

The Dozier School operated from 1900 to 2011. It was finally closed in 2011 after a history of investigations and complaints.

A Dozier School building today.  PHOTO: Tananarive Due

A Dozier School building today.
PHOTO: Tananarive Due

According to the Tampa Bay Times, which pioneered coverage of the story, in 2008 survivors came forward with stories of widespread physical and sexual abuse. In the CNN interview linked below, a family member alleges that her brother was murdered at the hands of school guards.  In 2009, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement said it found no evidence of foul play at the site.

But in 2012, USF’s Kimmerle used the ground penetrating radar she has used to investigate war crimes around the world for the United Nations—and she found traces of 19 more grave shafts than the FDLE.  There are more bodies than there are records for.  School records show that another 22 boys died at the school, but their bodies were never accounted for.  Kimmerle believes most of the boys buried there were black, though both black and white students died at the Dozier School.

Who are the dead boys, and how did they die?  Reports show that a fire claimed 12 lives. A flu epidemic claimed others.  But it doesn’t account for so many dead.

Ovell Smith Krell’s brother Owen Smith was sent to the school in 1940, and she told CNN that her family never saw him again.  School administrators reported that he ran away and later died of pneumonia, but a former Dozier student later told her Owen was shot and killed by Dozier school administrators when he tried to run away across an open field.  Dozier School survivor Robert Straley told CNN that other boys were killed there too.  HEAR THEM ON CNN HERE.

WhiteHouse

Fifty years later, grown men are haunted by the screams from the White House, where the beatings were dispensed.  Survivors have created their own website: www.whitehouseboys.com.  (In a moving Miami Herald video on the site, Michael O. McCarthy describes a brutal beating where he was struck more than 30 times: “They destroyed my childhood,” he says.)

Black survivors of the Dozier School have a Facebook page.

As one survivor, Charles Stephens, described it last April, two men held him down on a table while a third man lashed him. He said his back was so torn to shreds that his shirt had to be removed by a doctor.  His parents were unable to visit him that weekend.  He never told them about the horrors of his beatings, he said—he told the story for the first time in a room full of strangers meeting to advocate for exhumations at the school.

Charles Stephens, left, and Cocomo Rock, right, were both at the Dozier School. PHOTO: Tananarive Due

Charles Stephens, left, and Cocomo Rock, right, were both at the Dozier School. They traded accounts at a meeting near the school in April, 2013. 
PHOTO: Tananarive Due

“I stayed in the infirmary two weeks after my last beating,” said Stephens (no relation), who spent 18 months at the Dozier School in the 1960s, when he was 13. At age 61, the Panama City resident told his story publicly for the first time at the meeting last April.

“I ain’t never got over it, but I survived it,” he said, voice quavering. “I’m sure some little kids died of pure fear.  …Every time I went [to the White House], I made sure I got sent first so I wouldn’t hear the screams and hollering.”

Charles Stephens is white.  Other survivors were black—as are the majority of the dead, researchers believe.  But although the boys at the Dozier School were segregated by race, white and black boys suffered together.

Jacksonville resident Cocomo Rock, who is black and sports dreadlocks, was sent to Dozier in August of 1966, when he was eleven.  He lived there 22 months.  As he listened to Stephens recall his time at Dozier, he could relate all too well.

“I counted every day and every moment I was here,” Rock said.

Another survivor tells a story about how he found a single bright pebble to train his thoughts away from his White House beating, held it oh-so-tight to forget the pain—and still keeps the pebble in his pocket to this day.

Burials records at Boot Hill stretch from 1914 to 1952, although the report cites school-related Dozier deaths until 1973.

The culture of abuse, survivors say, lasted beyond the last recorded school death in 1952.

The reformatory was all wrong from the start.  According to the USF report, Florida led six investigations into the “school” in its first thirteen years. Boys in chains. Boys whipped mercilessly. Boys leased out for labor.

In Florida, prisoners were in a convict lease system.  (In the wake of bogus vagrancy laws, according to the USF report, Florida’s black prison population rose dramatically, with convicts turned over to labor agents.)  And the Dozier School was a labor farm—which, despite its name, never had desks in its early years, according to the USF report. Boys were put to work.

Dozier School History USF

In 1906, the school superintendent complained that the school had too few inmates to bring in the crops; the Board of Managers changed sentencing guidelines and eliminated fees, and the population of children grew. (I can’t help thinking about Luzerne County Judge Mark Ciavarella in Pennsylvania, sentenced to 28 years in prison for accepting kickbacks in exchange for sending juveniles to privately run detention facilities in a “kids for cash” scheme.)

Were boys shot or mauled while trying to escape? Or was “trying to escape” a euphemism for random offenses at the jailers’ discretion?

Remember: the Dozier School is set against set against the backdrop of bitter racial hatred and oppressive Jim Crow laws of Florida’s past. A former juvenile inmate said at the April 2013 meeting that Dozier guards “set the dogs on you” if children tried to run.

And enough boys died at the Dozier School that it had its own cemetery.  Surviving records indicate that the institution tended to underreport the actual number of deaths.

KimmerleApril

“These are children who came here and died for one reason or another and quite literally have been lost in the woods,” Kimmerle told CNN.  “It’s about restoring dignity and if not putting a name to them, at least acknowledging and marking that they’re here.”  SEE KIMMERLE ON CNN HERE.

Ultimately, the state of Florida’s legislature approved $90,000 for the excavation. The U.S. Justice Department gave another $423,000 to match DNA from the remains to family members.

Said a survivor, Robert Straley, on CNN: “I’m angry at the state because they let this go on for 68 years and did nothing about it.”  He said he was beaten with a leather strap and that some school leaders killed boys and made them disappear.  “It’s important to find all the boys who were buried there. They’re practically crawling out of their graves crying, ‘Help remember me.’”

We hear you, children.  We hear you.

Watching my son sift through soil at the grave site. (September, 2013)

Watching my son sift through soil at the grave site. (September, 2013)

MY COMPLETE FACEBOOK PHOTO ALBUM: https://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.10201870003772295.1073741826.1249308782&type=1&l=226a980a4e

SEE THE FULL REPORT UNIVERSITY OF SOUTH FLORIDA INTERIM REPORT ON BOOT HILL CEMETERY AT THE DOZIER SCHOOL:

http://news.usf.edu/article/articlefiles/5042-boot-hill-cemetery-interim-report-12-12.pdf

ADDITIONAL LINKS:

2009 Tampa Bay Times roundup: http://www.tampabay.com/specials/2009/reports/dozier/

2013 Tampa Bay Times excavation coverage (with photos): http://www.tampabay.com/news/politics/stateroundup/human-remains-found-in-shallow-hole-at-dozier-school/2139448

http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/09/03/us-usa-florida-school-idUSBRE9820V020130903

http://www.myfoxtampabay.com/story/22088542/2013/04/26/state-funds-agreed-upon-for-unmarked-grave-search

http://www.tampabay.com/news/humaninterest/in-marianna-dig-for-truth-encounters-desire-to-keep-past-buried/2114932

http://www.cnn.com/2013/03/12/justice/florida-boys-graves/index.html?c=us&page=0

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/10/us/10dozier.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1&

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Danger Word: how my first short film is giving birth to my feature screenplay

Update 7/13: The My Soul to Keep feature screenplay I wrote with my husband, Steven Barnes, is finished and being shopped. 

In December, I posted here that I was going to begin working on a My Soul to Keep screenplay (with husband and collaborator Steven Barnes).  Today, we’re on page 73.

A novel's journey to the screen. (Old drafts.)

A novel’s journey to the screen. (Old drafts.)

Progress hasn’t been easy.  But as Cosby Chair in the Humanities at Spelman College, I’ve been inspired by teaching talented students, guest speakers like director Ava DuVernay, and an Octavia E. Butler Celebration in March that featured a Black Science Fiction Short Film Festival and shorts like Pumzi, Wake, and The Abandon.  I’ve also had interest and input from directors and producers.

But since My Soul to Keep was in development at Samuel Goldwyn Productions and Fox Searchlight in past years, I understand that there is a long road between a producer’s query and a movie.  I have lost author friends who never lived to see it: Octavia, L.A. (Leslie) Banks, E. Lynn Harris.

Several other screenwriters have written drafts of My Soul to Keep in development, but Steve and I had never written our take.  I realized that emotional factors were blocking my writing progress.   It was so difficult to coax my Muse out to play when I couldn’t promise that the writing would be anything except a long exercise toward disappointment.  As a screenwriter on other projects, I’d been down that road before.

Then Steve and I decided to co-produce our first short film, Danger Word:  15 minutes on a shoestring budget.  We’re flying to the rural New York location to begin the shoot in two days–and it has already changed everything.  Taking control of my creative process in the film world has coaxed my Muse out again. (To learn more about Danger Word and how you can support this film, please click here to see our Indiegogo page. Our deadline is approaching!) 

The idea to do a short film came out of the blue.  In the wake of the Octavia E. Butler Celebration, other filmmakers were also inspired to pursue funding for their projects: M. Asli Dukan, who is in post-production for her groundbreaking black science fiction documentary Invisible Universe; and Atlanta writers/filmmakers Milton Davis and Balogun Ojetade, who recently completed an Indiegogo campaign for their steamfunk short film Rite of Passage: Initiation.  (Trailers for both were screened at the Celebration.)

Suddenly, we believed.  We had an audience.  We could do it.

You can do it.  Sometimes artists forget those four simple words; the very words that propel our art.  But between HD video and crowd funding, the film landscape has become more accessible.  It isn’t easy by any means, but it is easier. (Our preproduction campaign in progress, for example, has been powered by social media, primarily Facebook.)

Danger Word stars Frankie Faison

Danger Word stars Frankie Faison (“The Wire”)

Enter Danger Word.  That was the first piece of prose I ever wrote in collaboration with Steve, so it’s only fitting that it will be our first film together.  Originally published in the Brandon Massey’s 2004 Dark Dreams anthology and re-imagined as an episode in our 2012 YA horror novel Devil’s Wake, it’s the story of a young girl and her grandfather who have survived the zombie plague in his wooded cabin–and how an outing goes terribly wrong.  Rural location. Two main characters.  My friend Luchina Fisher had just directed a short film in 2011, Death in the Family, and she was excited about directing Danger Word.  The first day I floated the idea on Facebook, a prospective cast member wanted to see a script.

And in the midst of the duties of a producer–everything from fundraising to helping with decisions about casting to the makeup/FX artist–Steve and I have steadily been working on My Soul to Keep.  We will finish our first full draft soon.

If you haven’t read it, My Soul to Keep is the 1997 supernatural thriller that launched my African Immortals series: it’s about a 500-year-old immortal, Dawit, who breaks away from his secret brotherhood to find love with his daughter and wife, Jessica.  It’s a thriller with a love story at its core.

Why has Danger Word helped so much in the creation process for My Soul to Keep?

Because as a novelist who took up screenwriting later in my career, I struggled with the notion of spending weeks or months on a project that might never see the light of day.  Sure, I wrote drawers of unpublished fiction when I was learning my craft, but I’d been spoiled by book contracts and the certainty that someone would read my work.  Since most screenplays are never produced, period, screenwriters don’t have the luxury of that certainty–or even that likelihood.  Twelve drafts later, a project might die in film development–and that’s if you’re lucky enough to get twelve drafts.

And screenwriters of color face obstacles that make a tough industry even tougher.

But watching Danger Word come to life–hiring a veteran actor like Frankie Faison to star in it,  watching an excellent team assemble around a story about a girl and her grandfather–has convinced me that I can make a film.

And if I can make a short film, I can make a longer film.   If I can make a longer film, I can make My Soul to Keep one day.

My Muse likes that idea just fine.

Learn more about Tananarive Due at www.tananarivedue.com 

To contribute to Danger Word, CLICK HERE TO GO TO INDIEOGOGO 

To see the panel of authors at Spelman College’s Octavia E. Butler Celebration of the Fantastic Arts on March 21, 2013, CLICK HERE for the YouTube video.  (Panelists included Tananarive Due, Steven Barnes, Samuel R. Delany, Nalo Hopkinson, Nisi Shawl, Sheree R. Thomas, Brandon Massey and Jewelle Gomez.)  

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Unburying the Lost Boys at the Dozier School (a real-life horror story) Pt. 1

UPDATE 8/30: On my way to Marianna, Florida, with my father, husband and son.  Exhumations will begin. The remains of the Lost Boys, including my mother’s uncle, will soon be brought into the light. 

ORIGINAL POST:

————————

Why do you write horror?  How can horror fiction be escapism? 

That familiar query from readers pops to mind as I’m riding with my father from Atlanta down to northern Florida to visit the site where the notorious Dozier School for Boys once stood as a real-life boogeyman to juvenile offenders from around the state of my birth.

Some former prisoners say boys were beaten, tortured, sexually assaulted. And as the cemetery behind the school still attests—called “Boot Hill” by locals—some of the boys sent to the Dozier School never came home.

Praying for answers at the makeshift cemetery: (left to right) Sam Palmer, John Due, Elmore Bryant

Praying for answers at the makeshift cemetery: (left to right) Sam Palmer, John Due, Elmore Bryant

One was a 15-year-old boy named Robert Stephens, my late mother’s uncle.  In 1937, Robert Stephens died after allegedly being stabbed by another inmate.  He was unceremoniously buried on the school grounds, along with 30 other boys the school had official records for. The school blamed a fire for some of the deaths, an influenza epidemic for others. (The school opened in 1900 and only closed in 2011 amid investigations.  The deaths may have continued until the 1950s.)

But University of South Florida researcher Erin Kimmerle, who has used radar equipment tested at mass grave sites in regions like Kosovo, says at least 50 bodies are actually buried at Boot Hill.  No records exist of how or why they died.

Some Dozier School survivors fear the worst, claiming that torture and beatings might have gone too far.  In a CNN story linked below, a Dozier survivor recalls being haunted by seeing a black boy punished in a clothes dryer and being too afraid to come to his aid.

Today, the Florida legislature voted to allocate $200,000 to the university to exhume the bodies and do DNA testing to try to identify the remains and other tests to try to determine the cause of death.  Over the past several weeks, the Florida Attorney General’s office and Dr. Kimmerle have reached out to families to inform them that they suspect relatives are buried at Boot Hill and to be certain that no one objected to exhumations.

One of those families was mine.

As far as I know, my late mother never heard the story of her uncle’s death at Boot Hill, or perhaps did not know of his existence.  He died two years before she was born. But for some families, the missing boys were an open wound that kept parents awake at night with unanswered questions.

Families have been hard to reach.  In most cases, surviving relatives who knew the boys are very aged or long ago passed away.

Although white boys were buried at the Dozier School too, investigators believe the majority of the dead were black.

For now, they are simply the Lost Boys.

At noon Saturday, local and state NAACP leaders are holding a community meeting at the Dozier School grounds.

“There’s no responsibility or accountability as to what happened to these boys,” says my father, civil rights attorney John Due, who often gets emotional when he talks about the Dozier School.  As we’re driving, he’s reminding me that my late maternal grandmother had a traumatic response to growing up in northern Florida, where Marianna is located.

Tananarive Due with her father, attorney John Due

Tananarive Due with her father, attorney John Due

When she was young, her own family had a tragic brush with the state’s criminal justice system when her half brother was executed as a juvenile.  I witnessed how that loss reverberated through the generations, having an impact long after he was gone.  My mother and grandmother did not like to discuss the execution publicly.

“Somehow we need to get some answers about what actually has happened at the Dozier School, and we need to reconnect to the total community of north Florida,” my father says. “We cannot continue to live hiding, hiding, hiding, this trauma.  We need to face it and then move on.”

But in a criminal justice system that is increasingly privatized and a War on Drugs that continues to target the poor and offenders of color, “moving on” is easier said than done.  Even if the screams of the boys at the Dozier School have been silenced, countless inmates—juveniles and adults—still languish in a deeply flawed criminal justice system.

Will finding the remains of the Lost Boys help insure that the horrors of yesterday are not repeated today?

I would like to think so.

But regardless, every child buried at Boot Hill had a story to tell—and hopefully those stories will soon find the light.

Tananarive Due, the Cosby Endowed Chair in the Humanities at Spelman College, is an American Book Award winner and NAACP Image Award winner.  She has written twelve novels and a civil rights memoir, Freedom in the Family: a Mother-Daughter Memoir of the Fight for Civil Rights (with her late mother, Patricia Stephens Due).  She and her husband, Steven Barnes, are currently co-producing a short horror film, Danger Word, starring Frankie Faison: www.dangerwordfilm.com.

ADDITIONAL LINKS ABOUT THE DOZIER SCHOOL:

http://www.myfoxtampabay.com/story/22088542/2013/04/26/state-funds-agreed-upon-for-unmarked-grave-search

http://www.tampabay.com/news/humaninterest/in-marianna-dig-for-truth-encounters-desire-to-keep-past-buried/2114932

http://www.cnn.com/2013/03/12/justice/florida-boys-graves/index.html?c=us&page=0

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/02/10/us/10dozier.html?pagewanted=all&_r=1&

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I’m looking for 3 current Spelman College writers to send to Miami (VONA) in January. Here’s why.

Most of us know that becoming a writer takes voracious reading, good teachers and readers, conscious living, and endless practice. But the importance of a community cannot be overstated.  Not only does the right community of writers give you the careful readers every writer needs to grow, but community lends a sense of homecoming that can electrify your art.  For writers of color, who face specific issues of ethnicity and race both in their work and in the publishing world, a community can feel as necessary as oxygen.

That’s why I love the Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation (VONA), co-founded by Elmaz Abinader, Junot Díaz, Victor Diaz and Diem Jones, best known for its annual summer workshops for writers of color at Berkeley.  I have taught at VONA, and it’s an unforgettable experience.

Writers at VONA

In January, VONA is returning to the University of Miami for its three-day intensive workshop during the Dr.  Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.   Here’s the faculty:

In fiction, Nigerian novelist Chris Abani (Graceland).  In poetry, Willie Perdomo (Smoking Lovely). Watch Perdomo on HBO’s “Def Poetry Jam” on YouTube. In memoir, Elmaz Abinader (Children of the Roojme: A Family’s Journey from Lebanon).  And M. Evelina Galang (Her Wild American Self), director of the MFA program at the University of Miami, is conducting a residency. It’s the same top-notch VONA faculty over a long weekend. In Miami.

Programs like VONA matter to developing writers.  That’s why, as the new Cosby Endowed Chair in the Humanities at Spelman College, I’m looking for three Spelman writers to send to Miami VONA.

Yes, it will be challenging—Spelman students are undergraduates.  Although VONA has no educational requirements, many VONA writers are post-MFA and at the cusp of publication, if they haven’t been published already.  But it’s never too early to learn the importance of a writing community…especially when our students will return to campus to help other Spelman writers build a stronger community of their own.

The public at large can apply to VONA via its website. (Nov. 5th deadline): http://voicesatvona.org/Miami_VONA_2013.html

(left to right) Pulitzer Prize-winner Junot Díaz and M. Evelina Galang (instructors) with VONA/Miami participant Alejandro Nodarse

But if you’re a student currently enrolled at Spelman College (or know one), please continue reading below. (Oct. 26th deadline):

IMPORTANT: Spelman scholarship applicants should NOT apply through the VONA website.  In order to be eligible for the scholarship, you must submit to Tduespelman@gmail.com by October 26th.  Late applications will NOT be considered for the scholarship. (However, if you do not win and want to submit to VONA to pay your own way, you will still have time to apply to VONA directly via the website by Nov. 5th.)

APPLICATION REQUIREMENTS (Please read carefully)

PERSONAL STATEMENT: Your personal statement might carry as much weight as your page submissions.  Write at least 300 words explaining 1.) Why writing is important to you, 2.) What you hope to accomplish at VONA, and 3.) What your goals are as a writer. (Double-spaced)  Longer statements are permissible.

IN ADDITION: WE MUST SEE A SAMPLE OF YOUR WRITING

Indicate which genre you are applying for in your heading, i.e.:

Fiction and Memoir: 20 pages of your best prose.  It may be an excerpt from a longer work, a single work, or excerpts from shorter works. (Double spaced and proofread)

Poetry: 10-15 pages of your best poems.  Long and short poems in all forms are accepted.  (Single spaced and proofread)

ALL GUIDELINES MUST BE CAREFULLY FOLLOWED IN ORDER TO BE ELIGIBLE FOR THE SCHOLARSHIP.

Submissions must also:

1.)   Be sent electronically to Tduespelman@gmail.com in Word, attached as a text file.  Do not include any portion of your application in the body of the email.

2.)   Have a heading that includes your name, email address, telephone number and preferred genre (Fiction, Poetry, Memoir).

3.)   Be solely your original work.

4.)   Include the words VONA APPLICATION in your subject heading so it will be easily seen.

REMINDER TO SPELMAN STUDENTS:  You should visit the VONA website for reference at  http://voicesatvona.org/Miami_VONA_2013.html), but do not apply to VONA/Miami directly from the website unless you have received notification that you did not win and you are willing to pay out-of-pocket.

All scholarship applications will be processed by Spelman faculty.

QUESTIONS?

Send any questions to Tduespelman@gmail.com with the heading VONA QUESTION.

Good luck…and write on!

Tananarive Due, a novelist and screenwriter, is the Cosby Endowed Chair in the Humanities at Spelman College in Atlanta.  She is the author or co-author of a dozen novels, including the African Immortals series (My Soul to Keep, My Soul to Take) and the Tennyson Hardwick mystery series with her husband, Steven Barnes, and actor Blair Underwood. Her website is www.tananarivedue.com.  FOLLOW her on Twitter @tananarivedue

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The long walk of faith: a novelist decides (again) to write her own screenplay

When I was in college at Northwestern University, I asked Stuart M. Kaminsky the best way to break into screenwriting.  His answer: write novels.  (Nowadays, when adaptations comprise at least 50 percent of produced films, his advice rings just as true.)

In my case, he turned out to be right.  Almost as soon as my first novel, The Between, was published in 1995, I got calls from producers—including Spike Lee’s 40 Acres and a Mule Filmworks—who were interested in producing it as a film.  It was eventually optioned for a year by Longbow Productions, which produced A League of Their Own.  Then it stalled.

I got closer to the screen with my second novel, My Soul to Keep, which Blair Underwood optioned for three years before it was in development for seven years at Fox Searchlight. It once got so close to production that the studio exercised its option.  (Translation: Instead of renting to own, they bought it outright.)  “We will make this movie,” the studio president told me in the commissary one day.

Good times.

Just a few of the many unproduced drafts of My Soul to Keep

After the rights to My Soul to Keep reverted to me last year in the midst of my mother’s long illness (and her death this past February), I weighed several options.  I was tempted to option it to a producer and director I know and respect who wanted to pitch it as a television series.

Then I was offered a screenwriting class at Spelman College, where I am the 2012-2013 Cosby Chair for the Humanities, and I got an idea:  Why not write a screenplay for My Soul to Keep?

I earned membership in the Writer’s Guild of American (WGA) based on an adaptation of my novel The Good House I wrote with my husband and collaborator, Steven Barnes.  We developed the script with the production team that had brought My Soul to Keep to Fox Searchlight—Blair Underwood and Nia Hill and D’Angela Proctor of Strange Fruit Films. With Forest Whitaker attached to direct, we sold three drafts.

But, as with My Soul to Keep, it never got made.  And in all of those years of development, I had never written my own adaptation of My Soul to Keep.

If you teach a subject you love, you know how the teaching experience can energize you, and I needed a boost of energy. Steve and I had developed a dramedy called Inauguration Day (a family drama centered around President Barack Obama’s inauguration), a horror script called The Pack, and pitched everything from an adaptation of Octavia E. Butler’s Patternmaster to a zombie television series we eventually wrote as our most recent novel, Devil’s Wake.

After years in Hollywood, hearing everything from “Do the characters have to be black?” to suggestions from producers that were so far afield that they sounded like kiss-offs (though never at Searchlight or from my own team), screenwriting came with a sting. As I told my screenwriting students on the first day of class, screenwriters can’t just self-publish a screenplay and expect people to read it as if it were poetry or prose.  Screenplays need a major element—production, which can cost a fortune—to see the light of day.  Beyond that, screenwriting is so collaborative that it’s a very different experience from writing a novel.

Because my screenwriting has been so speculative—and I needed to make a living—I haven’t written a screenplay since 2009.

But suddenly, a perfect storm.

I don’t have a novel under contract.  I’m leading a class of eager screenwriters.  We’re studying screenplays, talking to screenwriters and trading ideas.  It’s the perfect laboratory for writing.

And that’s exactly what I’m going to do.  I’ve barely written a word of fiction since my mother’s death, beyond the deadline heat to finish my latest suspense novel with Steve (and in partnership with Underwood), South by Southeast, which will be published this Sept. 18th.

But I am going to write a draft of My Soul to Keep.  Probably three or four.  Maybe five or six.  Or twelve.

Steve is also a good influence on me.  He has been developing a screenplay with a major producer over the past few months, and watching him work has inspired me.  He’s on his third draft and still going strong.

But don’t expect me to post a writing diary and updates on this blog.  This is the last time I plan to write about it.  Too many writers spend precious time talking about our projects when we should be writing.  Like Nike says, I’m going to Just Do It.  (Journalism students, I’m also setting a blogging example, as you can see.)

The road is long between the decision to write a screenplay and the final project on the big screen—much of which is out of my control.  But that’s show business.

As a twentysomething Miami Herald reporter who aspired to write novels, I had an idea for a book about a woman who discovers that her husband is a 500-year-old Ethiopian immortal.  But when I sat at my keyboard to face the blank screen, fear paralyzed me.  What made me think I could write such an ambitious story?  What if I failed? The same fears haunt me now.

Now, as then, I recall words from the I Ching:  A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

Students, let’s walk together.

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ACTION! How editing a book trailer taught me to flow without words

Writers, you know the feeling:  mind racing, heart pumping, fingers flying on the keyboard.  That’s creative flow.  I have fallen into flow while writing novels, short stories, screenplays, poems, and blogs, beginning with the picture books I wrote as young as age four.

But last weekend, something remarkable happened:  I fell deeply into flow, but I wasn’t writing.  I wasn’t even typing.  I was using iMovie to edit the video I’d shot earlier that day on my iPhone.

Despite having written several screenplays—my husband and I sold three drafts of our adaptation of my novel The Good House to Fox Searchlight—I had never edited video.  Last year, when I shot a book trailer for my novel My Soul to Take in my basement, I did it in one take precisely so I wouldn’t have to edit video.  When I noticed something bothersome in one of the scenes, I went down and shot the whole thing again.

But my ideas for a book trailer for the upcoming novel I co-authored with my husband, Steven Barnes, were more elaborate than a single take would allow.  Although the trailer would be short, I wanted to sew it together in the style of the horror movies Steve and I love.  And since I wanted to recruit my 8-year-old son as the star, I didn’t necessarily want him to be present during scenes I thought might frighten him.

Atria Books–July 31, 2012

Our novel, Devil’s Wake, is a YA/crossover novel about teenagers seeking safety and community after an infection that mimics a zombie outbreak, although we never use the word “zombie.”  The trailer is intended to create a mood more than to convey the plot.

I could have taken a YouTube tutorial on how to use iMovie 11, but instead I signed up for a free workshop at my local Apple store.  In a single hour of furious note-taking, I learned enough to get me excited and ready to work.  (If you don’t have a Mac, you can use Windows Movie Maker.)

I started small, using iMovie’s trailer template.  While it didn’t allow me the flexibility of adding my own sound, it had a polished look that gave me ideas for how to splice the rest together.  And although the template only allowed for several two- to three-second clips (approximately), I discovered that if I continued the next clip where the last one left off, I could create a sustained shot—for instance, my son walking down the stairs for several seconds.

I know, it doesn’t sound like much—but I was ecstatic. I was obsessed.  I examined clips in tenth-of-a-second increments, looking for the right places to splice, the way the film majors in my dorm used to when we were undergraduates at Northwestern.  I hunted for just…the right…spots.

I was in flow.

That day, I learned that storytelling is storytelling for me, whether it’s written or visual.  Maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised, but I was.  Stories don’t have to be told in words.

When I teach my screenwriting class at Spelman College this fall, I’ll give my students a short assignment to shoot and edit a video themselves—so they can experience filmmaking from the inside out while they write their screenplays.

That’s especially important in an industry that makes precious little space for projects by people of color—but all screenwriters should realize that writing a script is only the first step.  If they ever want to see their movie made, they might have to shoot, direct and finance it too.  (That is also true for novelists hoping to be discovered by Hollywood.)

No, I don’t think I’m Spike Lee or Kathryn Bigelow.  My little trailer is just a newbie effort.  No crane shots or tracking shots—yet.  To me, the important lesson was the realization that I had no reason to fear the technology, and that I could use editing to create illusions and impressions that would tell my story.

I hope to shoot at least two more trailers before the book is published in July, this time without the safety wheels of the template.   Next time, I want to use sound.

And screams.

TO SEE THE FINISHED TRAILER, CLICK HERE. 

Tananarive Due, the incoming Cosby Chair of Humanities (2012-2013) at Spelman College in Atlanta, is an American Book Award winner and NAACP Image Award winner. Her website is at www.tananarivedue.com.

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This Little Light: writing through pain and loss

Today is not the day.  It could be but it is not.  Today is today.

–Audre Lorde

Recently, my father and I spent most of the day at my mother’s bedside—him with his laptop and me with mine—and spun words to try to whisk ourselves somewhere else.  Anywhere else.  I worked on my upcoming mystery novel; my father, a civil rights attorney, worked on his memoir on race and racism.

While my mother slept, we wrote to try to dull the pain of her dying.

My mother, civil rights activist Patricia Stephens Due, is gravely ill with thyroid cancer.  After a two-year fight with ups and downs, advances and setbacks, my sisters, father and I are realizing that she will not be with us much longer.  Her moments of responsiveness are farther apart.  Her body is weaker and weaker.

Although in years past I found comfort in journaling during times of crisis, I have been unable to journal about the experience with my mother’s illness.  I wrote a column about her cancer fight for CNN.com [SEE STORY HERE] last June, but since then I have been largely wordless.

Holding my mother's hand

Instead, I am busy.  In addition to the time I spend with Mom, I teach my classes at Spelman College, I’m raising my 8-year-old son, Jason, with my husband, and I’m racing to finish a novel that has been competing against my mother’s illness since the day it was born.

But the novel, which I’m co-authoring with my husband, Steven Barnes, is far from a burden—now, my novel is my sanctuary.  When it is finished, I’ll be expelled from my world of imagination, left to face the reality of here and now.

Recently, I assigned my Spelman freshmen a literacy narrative, an essay recalling a significant encounter with reading and/or writing during their formative years.  As an example, I shared my experience as a 14-year-old during race riots in Miami, the day in my junior high school cafeteria I first learned that I could write to save my sanity.  My essay, “I Want to Live,” described a society without bigotry and hate, and writing it made a pain in my chest go away.  I remember my mother telling me how lucky I was that I have writing as an outlet.

Mom also taught me the power of writing as a tool of preservation.  In 2003, we co-authored a nonfiction civil rights memoir, Freedom in the Family: a Mother-Daughter Memoir of the Fight for Civil Rights, which is oh-so-precious to me.  If we do not write our own stories, Mom always said, they will never be told.  We must write, she said.

And here is my old friend, yet again.

Over these past difficult years, months and hours, watching my mother’s decline, I often have reassured myself with the stanza in Audre Lorde’s poem, “Today is Not the Day,” which she wrote while fighting breast cancer:  Today is not the day. / It could be but it is not. / Today is today.

Those words have served not only as an inspiration through this season of uncertainty, but also as a reminder that Lorde herself found refuge from her cancer battle in her writing.  One day, I hope writing will help ferry me to the other side, too.

But I know that writing will not patch every hole, or stanch every tear.  I have heard about a writer I admire who reportedly could not write for a year after her own mother’s death.  Writing, like everything in life, has its limitations.

But as my father and I sat in my mother’s room together—each of us transporting ourselves to a different world—I remembered anew what a blessing writing has been in my life.

Today was not a good day with my mother medically, and I am writing.

Tomorrow, I will be writing.

We write.  We write.  We write.

UPDATED 2/8/12:  Patricia Stephens Due died on February 7, 2012.  From CNN’s “In America” blog:  http://wp.me/p1Ezur-1PM

For more information about Patricia Stephens Due, see Wikipedia.

Hear an interview with Patricia Stephens Due and Tananarive Due on NPR’s “Fresh Air” (2003)  LISTEN

(left to right) John Due, Patricia Stephens Due and Tananarive Due outside of the White House after the inauguration of President Barack Obama in 2009

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