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.

Black Game Maker Creates Hillman the Game

This story was originally published on February 19, 2019.

For updates on Hillman the Game and In All Series-Ness, visit https://www.iasgames.com/.

It all started with foam poster board, construction paper, and a sharpie to create a prototype. Now Tanisha “Queen It Shall Be” Hall is launching her first board game: Hillman the Game.

Board games are not just entertainment for her. She enjoys moving pieces, seeing characters, and interacting with them. One of her favorite board games is Clue because “You have to figure it out!” But something was missing from most board games she played: Black People and Culture. Her board game company In All Series-Ness is on a quest to change that by creating games based on Black TV shows, movies, and original content.

The name In All Series-Ness is a pun that shows her dedication and focus. She was accidentally brainstorming with relatives when she said, “I want people to take this seriously,” and a cousin replied, “In all seriousness.” It was a light bulb moment: “Oh, I want to do TV shows, series, all series-ness. It’s something to remind me to continue. It’s not one thing I want to put out there and stop. I have to keep going.”

One of her goals is to create games for folks to sit “face-to-face instead of screen-to-screen.” And I sat down with her recently at the Richland Library to discuss her journey and play the game. When she walks in the room, you take notice. She’s wearing wooden unicorn earrings, purple lipstick with beige ombre, and an ice blue wig. Originally from Brooklyn, NY, Hall has lived in Columbia for seventeen years. She is a poet, cook, wife, and mother of three. She hosts a monthly interactive poetry open mic called The Writer’s Block Poetry Show.

Hillman the Game is named after the fictional university in the 90’s sitcom A Different World. “I have many favorites when it comes to black television and cinema. One show that made me want to fulfill a dream of going to school is A Different World. I loved The Cosby Show, but A Different World represented the escape from parents at the cusp of being an adult. I was a kid, and seeing this made me say, ‘You mean I could be away from my parents with other black kids and learn?’ It was also my first introduction to HBCU’s.”

Little ole’ Black girl me making Black-as-hell board games

Building the game, however, was a time of discovering her power and self-worth. “There are not a whole lot of us (Black game makers) over there,” she says of the board game industry. She says there are mostly role-play games, with some novelty, trivia, and adventure. And then here comes “Little ole’ Black girl me making Black-as-hell board games.”

She pushed forward and enlisted help from Quinn McGowan, a comic illustrator from Memphis, Tennessee. The two of them met while “troll strolling” on social media. He created the board and character pieces and the illustrations on the currency. The character pieces feature characters from the A Different World including Dwayne Wayne, Whitley Gilbert, Kimberly Reese, Freddie Brooks, Jaleesa Vinson, Walter Oakes, Col. Taylor, and Ron Johnson. Meanwhile, the money features some of the professors and staff like Mr. Gaines, Professor Foster, Dean Hughes, Dean Winston, Dean Davenport, and Dean Barksdale. Denise Huxtable even makes a special appearance in the game.

Initially, she was hesitant about seeking outside help. “I was scared of who to talk to about it. We come from a state of fear…fear was there somewhere in your childhood. You don’t want nobody to steal your stuff. I had to really step out on faith. Nobody near me has the resources.” But reaching out to others was a game-changer for her.

“Creating this game has introduced me to a whole world of black game creators I had no clue existed. The community is love. Everybody wants to help everybody,” she said.  Another individual who was important to her success was the creators of the Martin Trivia Card Game, Rick and Jason Gray, who are also the creators of www.hellozumble.com.

Jason gave her advice on doing research on trademarks, connecting her to other game makers, and answering all of her questions. With an illustrator in place and free consultations from someone who has created a game, she was able to push through her challenges. At this point she thought, “All of these doors are opening. I can’t stop, won’t stop. Stopping is stupid.”

She had her fair share of challenges, not only financial or facing fear, but believing in herself. “You get put face-to-face with what you don’t like about yourself and what you need to change. For me it was my people-pleasing side. This is my creation and I can’t please everyone. This put me face-to-face with how I see my self worth. Lots of times I felt bad saying I made a game. We’re taught to be humble and sit down, especially black women. I took a thought and put it into a thing and you can touch it now. It’s okay for me to talk about it. Working for my self has been the most challenging job I’ve ever had and the most work I’ve ever done! I’m proud to say I made this game.”

Experience the game:

Hillman the Game Launch Party was on Tuesday, February 19th.

See the Facebook event page for pictures and videos of the event.

Own the game:

Pre-Order Campaign on IndieGoGo

Begins on Tuesday, February 19with Special Prices plus shipping.

  • Standard Version with game mat for $44
  • Deluxe Version with game board for $60
  • Alumni Version, includes standard game, deluxe board, 9 additional event/trivia cards, and signed artwork from Quinn McGowan, the artist who drew characters, $200 plus shipping

Stay up-to-date on Social Media:

@inallseriesness (FB, IG, Twitter)

@hillmanthegame (IG)

@queenitshallbe (FB, IG, Twitter)