A WAY WITH WORDS: Wanda Thomas Littles mixes poetry and prose to tell a young man’s coming-of-age story in the Jim Crow South.
Wanda Thomas Littles loves words. She uses them to both entertain and uplift her readers. In her new novella Preacha!, shemixes poetry and prose to create the story of a community that rises above the ignorance of hatred to become people of God’s grace and forgiveness.
Wanda, who is also a contributing writer for UrbanFaith, has authored several books of poetry, including That I Might Be Free and Come Sunday Morning. She lives in San Antonio, Texas, with her husband. We spoke to her about Preacha! and what she hopes people will experience when they read it.
URBAN FAITH: The title of your novel is Preacha! What is the story about, and what led you to write it?
WANDA LITTLES: This is essentially a story of how a young boy’s strong faith in God takes mistreatment and abuse and turns it around. It’s set in a small Alabama town during the peak of the civil rights movement in the 1960s, a time when the black community was challenged both by the racism from whites on the outside, and racism within the community — with black people of darker and lighter complexions showing prejudice against one another. When I sat down to write Preacha! I had no pre-conceived notion to make a statement about any cause, condition, or issue. I wrote from God’s Spirit within me and these ideas took me back to a time that, as I reflect now, were probably some of the best, most life-impacting times of my life.
Naturally as a Christian, I felt compelled to show that we need to recognize Christ in our midst and do what He says do when we are faced with problems and trouble, because His is the only way that can bring lasting peace. As the title character says, “Love always wins,” and Jesus is love.
Preacha! is a work of fiction, but were there real-life experiences in your journey that shaped the story?
Despite the fact that one of the characters has my first name, the only real-life experiences that shaped the story are just those that came from me as an observer of life in my small town and being privileged to know my family history. But as far as anything outside the normal historical issues of being black in the South, there is nothing autobiographical there.
Who is your target audience?
I start with Southern blacks of a certain age, but I believe the story will appeal to a great spectrum of people regardless of age, race, or any other thing. I wrote it for everyone. Everyone who wants to know what life was like for African Americans in in the South in 1965.
In today’s society, there’s a values crisis when it comes to faith, marriage, and family. Were you attempting to address any of those challenges?
I did not set out to preach or teach, but I do think I show that despite the injustice of the times in which we lived, we were essentially a people of faith who taught our children the importance of God, family, and others. Our parents showed love by being right there with us in our homes and communities. They set firm boundaries and gave us standards to live by, and there were certain things in that structure that you did and did not do. Unlike today where anything goes, the values and respect we were taught then kept us grounded. I was not trying to address those issues, but when all was done the book spoke loudly to those very things.
When readers are finished with your book, how do you want them to feel?
I want them to feel exhilarated. I want them to feel uplifted and to know that God cares — that He knows and loves them.
I want readers to take from this story the things that will help to make their lives better as they pursue the best possible life. I want them to share it with those who need encouragement. And I suppose my ultimate goal for the book is to show what reconciliation and forgiveness looks like between those who are experiencing broken relationships.
Who are some of your literary influences?
Nikki Giovanni, Maya Angelou, and Helen Steiner Rice are writers I like on my poetic side. When in comes to prose, I enjoy Nikki Grimes, Karen Hesse, and Amos Oz.
What’s next for you?
Currently I’m ghostwriting a memoir called A Desperate Faith for a missionary from Uganda who lived through the Amin and Obote regimes, and I’m praying that it will be as well received as Preacha! has been.
For more information about Preacha! and Wanda’s other books, visit her website, www.wandalittles.com.
BRIGHTER DAYS: Whitney Houston onstage in 1986. (Photo: Peter Mazel/Newscom)
A friend of mine and I secretly joke about people’s dramatic, gushing proclamations after a celebrity death. We often wondered how someone could be honestly “devastated” by the passing of an individual whose music/voice/personality we’ve only digested through a middleman such as the radio, a Letterman interview, or a blockbuster film.
I wondered this until Saturday, February 11, 2012. I was in Baltimore doing community outreach when MSNBC released a breaking news text that Whitney Houston had passed in her hotel room. My immediate reaction was disbelief. And then the calls came in from my family and friends, checking to see if I knew yet and asking if I was okay. Every call seemed like a damning confirmation and I thought, “Maybe if people stop saying it, it won’t have really happened.” So I got into my car for the long drive home, too numb to really display any emotion. I started the engine and before I could stop it, I heard the pure, clear voice often called “America’s Voice” lean into the gospel classic “I Love the Lord.”
Then it hit me.
This was the voice of a woman who was no longer with us.
I could tell you how the tollbooth guy seemed genuinely concerned by my tear-streaked face during our transaction, but I’d rather share something more useful. Whitney’s life and music taught me a few things:
1. Sexy doesn’t have to mean blond and blue-eyed or skimpy and short. Whitney burst on the scene in the ’80s with big hair, leg warmers, and off-the-shoulder tanks. With her mother Cissy Houston’s guidance and her cousin Dionne Warwick’s backing, Whitney Houston became the face of the All-American Girl, and she didn’t even have to writhe around the stage or downplay her “Blackness.” The world hasn’t been the same since, and it isn’t a good karaoke night until someone sings “I Wanna Dance with Somebody.”
2. Love is a contact sport. As the child of a minister, there were few secular artists whose music made it into our house, but there was no avoiding the big, powerful and family-friendly sound of Whitney Houston. Furthermore, my military elementary school in Texas followed the National Anthem with “One Moment In Time” as a form of civic inspiration, every single morning. Before I got to find out for myself, I learned that sometimes love hurts so bad, love is timeless (“I Will Always Love You”), and that anxious, nervous feeling I got whenever I saw that boy from my class was normal (“How Will I Know”). She even taught us a little healthy self-love with “The Greatest Love of All.”
3. Women are multidimensional. These days, filmmakers anxious to sell tickets give acting gigs to anyone with a recognizable face, making the “singer slash actress” role almost assumed. Whitney, though … she did it right. Whitney not only headlined the soundtracks for The Bodyguard, Waiting to Exhale, and The Preacher’s Wife … but she acted in them. Let me say that again, she ACTED in them. Whitney was more than a pretty face who could sing; she was a mother, a wife, a philanthropist, an actress, and a producer. She truly epitomized “I’m Every Woman” and taught me from an early age that I could be too.
4. Everyone makes mistakes. For four years straight, I was Whitney Houston for Halloween. And not just because it was a relatively cheap costume, but because she was gorgeous, well spoken, had an amazing talent, and seemed like such fun to be around. She wasn’t human to me; she was larger than life. But while Whitney’s voice inspired and brought joy to millions, her life was often spotted with rough times. Unlike you and me, Whitney didn’t have the luxury of enduring these trials with a finite spotlight cast by her family and friends; Whitney went through it all publicly. While this glaring spotlight may have laid bare her pain, it served to remind us that everyone has problems and everyone stumbles.
The woman that I most wanted to be like growing up has died at 48, leaving her 18-year-old daughter motherless. Her well-known battles with addiction offer cautionary lessons of their own, but they don’t tell us anything about her private struggle to overcome them. That is now between Whitney and her Creator. I won’t speculate about the cause of her death, because big picture-wise it doesn’t matter. What matters is that we recognize the very human quality of the entertainers that enrich our lives.
Whitney’s voice made her unique. But Whitney’s troubles made her one of us. And for that, I am grateful.
I haven’t stopped missing Whitney since I got the news. But while I’m sorry she’s left us, I’m thankful that her music itself provides a salve to help heal the wound in our hearts.