On October 11, 2011, my father walked into his barn. The day started like any other day. He likely made his cup of Sanka coffee and maybe he ate a bowl of Frosted Flakes. He got in his 1987 dark blue, king cab, Ford Ranger, and went about his day.

Some how during the morning Neta, a neighbor, needed her sink fixed. And my father, the handy man that he was, went about the business of fixing it.

On October 11, 2011, my father walked into his barn to get some tools to fix Neta’s sink. He did not walk back out.

In many ways his death was a double whammy: I lost my father and my last surviving parent. The two people most responsible for me being on earth had left.

That was 8 years ago today.

The month of October doesn’t hit me like a flood like August does. (Go read Dear August for more on that.) It’s more of a slow trickle. Maybe it was the suddenness of the heart attack.

I was a student at the University of South Carolina, in my first year of an MFA in Creative Writing. I was taking notes that morning in my American Romanticism class. I always dated my notes: 10-11-11. I loved how that date looked, how the ones lined up.

After the funeral, I took care of his affairs and returned to USC. I could hear him say, “Don’t use me as an excuse to quit!” and used that as my motivation to return. The alternative was to drop out, and become an expert pity party planner, and that did not seem useful or practical.

It was hard. I was angry. I was depressed. I ate a lot of donuts. I didn’t want to be around people. I hated burying my father at twenty-eight years old, which reminded me of burying my mother at twenty-three years old. It felt so unfair that they wouldn’t see me reach thirty. Or that my father would never walk me down the aisle.

I went to grief counseling, and that helped me heal. I started going back to church, and that helped me heal. The anger subsided. The depression began melting away.

And I began writing about my father more, about how the collard greens he planted kept growing. My father’s father kept a garden, too. So when I honor my father, I am honoring the grandfather I never met. And when my brother keeps a garden, he is honoring them both.

On this October 11, 2019, I am full of hope, joy, and love. I am proud to be L.J. Bartell’s daughter. I remember the lessons he gave me through his quiet strength and endurance. I laugh when I think of his trickster ways. And though I miss him everyday, I know he isn’t really that far away since love has no known address for death and doesn’t know how to fail.

This morning I will walk into my classroom. I will drink a cup of coffee. I will go about the business of teaching. I will cry when I need to, and I will laugh when I need to. I will tote with me the love and memories my daddy left.

Tsundoku’s Little Cousin

I can’t control myself around books.

It can be a library or a bookstore. Doesn’t matter. I’m absolutely giddy over and about them. I buy them obsessively. I buy them when I don’t need them. I buy them even when I have ones at home I haven’t read. I buy them when I am literally in eye and ear shot of the author and can wait in line to get my copy signed. If I didn’t love books and food so much, I’d be a wealthy woman.

The term Tsundoku is Japanese for “leaving a book unread after buying it, typically piled up together with other unread books.” Tsundoku is my life story.

As an English teacher, I am an avid reader. As an English teacher, I have historically not had enough time to work on my own reading and writing. Enter Reclaiming my Time (Thanks, Auntie Maxine!), my theme for this school year. This school year I am being intentional about writing my own poetry and writing pieces for a nonfiction book about Bluefield, and reading books I want to read, some of which will help me hone my craft as a poet/writer, and others that will expand my knowledge base.

I thought it would be fun to compile all of the books I have started but haven’t finished yet. What you see in the picture (and list below) are those books (Ghost Of by Diana Khoi Nguyen is not pictured because I am reading that one at school with my students during independent reading time.) These books do not include the books I have bought and haven’t read yet. I’ll save those for when I make it through these books; hopefully by the end of the year?

This version is Tsundoku’s little cousin who is slightly more responsible. But only slightly.

Yes, most of these are books of poetry, but truly savoring and dissecting poetry takes time, which could contribute to why I’ve started so many without finishing.

I’m interested in the books you have that you have started and haven’t finished yet. Snap a picture of those books and attach it to the comments below, or just send me the titles of these books. You can also Tweet them to me: @bartelliyo.

I’m trying to build my what I want to read next list…

My Tsundoku’s Little Cousin List

  • Selected Poetry by Nazim Hikmet
  • Collected Poems 1948-1984 of Derek Walcott
  • The Collected Poems of Sterling Brown
  • The Collected Poems of Lucille Clifton, 1965-2010
  • Neon Vernacular: New & Selected Poems by Yusef Komunyakaa
  • The Practice of Poetry, Edited by Robin Behn & Chase Twichell
  • Thief in the Interior by Phillip Williams
  • A Bound Woman is a Dangerous Thing by DaMaris Hill
  • Albanza by Martin Espada
  • Mindset by Carol S. Dweck
  • Everyday Millionaires by Chris Hogan
  • Ghost Of by Diana Khoi Nguyen (not pictured)
  • Omits work related books (Yikes!)

Dear August,

When you come around, I get a tightness in my chest. And it’s not entirely because I’m a teacher about to start school.

August 2006 was the last month of her life. Barbara McCray Bartell.

Her oncologist had put her on oxygen that January when the cancer spread from her colon to her liver to her lungs. She had an oxygen pack that went with her into the Dollar General and the Piggly Wiggly, and there was an oxygen machine bubbling like an aquarium at night at her bedside.

August 16, 2006 she quit chemo. A little over two weeks later she died on August 31.

A combination of grief and dread settles in my bones in August. My body always remembers, even when my mind isn’t actively thinking about it. It always comes in August.

This August writers Toni Morrison and Paule Marshall died. August 9 would have been 45 years of marriage for my parents. The second week of August teachers went back to school, and the first day of school was the following week.

Stress, grief, sadness, anxiety, excitement.

On August 11 Aunt Christine dies. I go to the funeral and feel as if I am standing on behalf of my father, representing for him. My cousins are doing the same for their parents who have already joined their siblings in that Great Peace up yonder. We hug each other. It’s been months and for some years since we’ve been in each other’s presence. I hug many people I do not know. I introduce myself as L.J.’s daughter and they say, “Oh, I know!”

At the funeral, Aunt Christine’s grandsons played the piano and sang Shirley Cesar’s “I Remember Mama.” I cried like I did last month when I was playing the song one Sunday morning. I cried too because Aunt Christine was a quiet, humble woman who was full of love. Although she couldn’t talk, walk, or eat by herself when she died, what I remember most about her is her smile and quiet strength, the way her eyes lit up when I would refer to myself as her favorite niece.

When my mother died and I survived, I thought I could endure any death and be fine.

Then my father died five years after. L.J. Bartell.

And that grief too was a survival, and I thought that any death after this one would be easier to endure.

But each time someone I love dies, the grief becomes new again. The impact of it is compounded and expanded. It’s as if I’m grieving all of their deaths at once.

And that’s how I felt, August: constantly tired, angry at times, crying others, and mostly in need of a nap.

But among that I welcomed a new school year with new teachers and students. My best friend celebrated another birthday. Today I am going to my cousin’s Renewal of Vows. I’m excited for him. He has a beautiful family filled to the brim with love. I’m looking forward to seeing more of my family.

Yesterday, I went to my school’s first football game of the season. I sat with one of my co-workers and her family. She told me how she doesn’t really know the game. I told her about my brothers, how they played in high school and I learned the game by sitting in the bleachers with my mom, how she explained the game to me in those moments sitting on the cold benches in the crisp night.

In that moment, she’s not that far away from me. She’s gone and she’s here.

Not Just for Black People

Visiting the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture is a requirement for every American. No, no, no, not just for Black Americans, for all Americans.

In June, I joined a sea of people from all over the world to visit the museum in Washington, D.C. I went as a part of a field experience for the Culturally Relevant Class I took last year with Dr. Gloria Boutee. My classmates were teachers, elementary, middle, and high school, from throughout my school district.

I was struck by the images I saw in the museum, but I also observed how others interacted with certain exhibits. A Black father knelt before a KKK exhibit and whispered to his small sons, who looked like they were four and five years old. A woman explained to a teenager the difference between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois in the Debating the Path forward exhibit.

The long line to wait to view the Emmett Till Memorial.

The Emmett Till Memorial is the only part of the museum where photo and video is not allowed, at the request of the family. His mother Mamie was brave in the face of grief, ignorance, and hate. She showed his beaten and mutilated body to the world in 1955, and many cite the moment as the spark to the Civil Rights Movement.

The Till Memorial had a long line. It was like the viewing line at a funeral where you wait to see the deceased one last time. A Mahalia Jackson song was playing and we slowly shifted pass the empty coffin. The coffin is the original coffin Till was buried in; he was re-buried in a new coffin in 2005 after his body was exhumed.

Although the coffin was empty, it still felt full to me. The weight of what happened to Emmett Till weighted on me as I waited in the line. The weight of the whole narrative of being Black in American weighed on me throughout the museum.


My Black history begins at my grandmother’s knee. How she told me the story of her life over and over and how one day I finally realized her repetition meant she wanted me to remember. And so I started writing it down so I could remember, and later so that others in the family could remember too.

In my early writing is poems about and poems written in the voice of my grandmother. She was the first original storyteller, my griot, who bore the story to her quiet granddaughter.

At some point I realized Black history went beyond my grandmother’s story, that there were gaps and information she didn’t have access to, and that’s when I hit the library and read every book by and about Black people I could find.

I reckon my Black history IQ was pretty high, but the experience I had walking through the museum, looking at the pictures and videos, reading the stories, walking inside of a slave cabin taught me that I have much more to learn.

Frazier Baker was a schoolteacher appointed to postmaster in the predominantly white Lake City, SC. A mob eventually set fire to his home as he and his family slept. He and an infant daughter were killed trying to escape. His wife and other children survived. I lived 20 minutes from Lake City for the first half of my life and had just heard of this last year…


In the basement of the museum is African American history. It begins with the African Slave Trade and as I walked up, I read and listened to stories about the experience of slavery, Reconstruction, and the Jim Crow era. The top of the museum is sports, arts, and popular culture. When you come up out of the basement, there is a contemplative fountain there for reflection.

Reflection is built into the museum experience because they know that the experience of wading through the 300+ years of oppression is a heavy one. I’m still processing the museum, the words, images, and sounds contained in it.

As we move forward, our country will have to reckon with this history, and its long reaching legacy. Just last month there was a House hearing on reparations for slavery. “It is impossible to imagine America without the inheritance of slavery,” writer Ta-Nehisi Coates told the House panel.

This history is living with us now, and how we face it, or not, will impact the future of this nation.

Who Dey People Is?

Who dey people is?

Growing up, it was the first question my mom would ask if I was interested in “going with” a boy.

She wanted to be sure he wasn’t some distant cousin I had never met. I had to find out his last name and his parents’ names and his grandparents’ names. All of this had to be cleared so we would avoid the dreaded “kissing cousins.”

Who yo’ people is?

I come from an insanely large family on both sides. My mother and father had well over 15 siblings apiece, that includes step-siblings and half-siblings, who I always assumed were full siblings growing up because the words “step and half” were never used. Our family tree is strong and shows no signs of stopping anytime soon.

I remember as a teenager always meeting a new cousin, who would invariably talk about how the last time she or he saw me I was when I was a little baby. And in my mid-30’s I am still meeting new relatives and making new connections to my blood relatives.

This took on a whole new path when I took a DNA test.

At first I was defined as simply 96.3 percent Sub-Saharan African, but now the service can tell me that that I am 22.9 percent Nigerian, 19.6 percent Congolese, and 15. 4 percent Ghanaian, Liberian, Sierra Leonean and some other West African and Southern East African origins, 1.9% European, and 1.7% East Asian/Native American.

Who is my people?

One of the features of the DNA service is that it connects me to DNA relatives. It shows exactly how much DNA connects you to that individual. The DNA is only shared with permission from both indvidiuals.

So far, I have been able to confirm only one person: My maternal grandfather is her great-grandfather. Her father is one of my first cousins. We have 3.75 DNA in common.

However, there are many more DNA relatives I have, but we are unable to find ancestors in common through the names we have available to us through our respective families. And other than the blood we have in common, there likely never will be anything we will have to connect us to one another.

American slavery robbed many Black Americans of the ability to construct a complete family tree. It will always be fractured, it’s growth stunted.

When I saw the worldwide map of all of DNA relatives (just the ones using this DNA service) I was overwhelmed at the enormity of it. Most of them are on the East Coast, but there were some on the West Coast as well and a few in Europe and Africa. From looking at their pictures, they range from White to multi-racial to the various complexions of Black.

I sat at my computer and cried for my relatives, the ones represented on my screen and the ancestors who surely experienced the brutality of slavery. And more than anything I contemplated on the pain of having a child or spouse sold away and never hearing from them again.  

Who is my people?

They are those DNA relatives on that map, but they are the Bartells too and the McCrays and now the Boykins as well. They are the people who called me Jenni Lou growing up; they are the people who came to my graduations and basketball games; they are the people who love me and who pray for me.

And isn’t that the miracle of the Black family? That despite the institution of slavery being an active destroyer, our ancestors were still able to make and maintain family throughout these generations. That the ones who were sold away were welcomed by other families in those new places they found themselves. That although they didn’t share blood, they shared something much more powerful, and together found the will to survive.

That’s the enduring story of my people. Dat’s who we be.