In her new book of memoiristic essays, “Tell Me Your Names and I Will Testify,” Twin Cities writer and arts activist Carolyn Holbrook opens with a visit from a ghost.
The spirit is a tall, stately Black woman wearing an expensive Victorian dress. Although Holbrook was nervous, she knew the ghost was an ancestor because this wasn’t the first ghost to visit.
“My name is Liza,” the ghost said. “You have to tell our stories.”
As she unravels her own journey, Holbrook shows how she went from being a pregnant 16-year-old girl imprisoned in the Minnesota juvenile justice system to an award-winning teacher and celebrated writer.
During a time when this country seems to be in the midst of a historic reckoning, Holbrook’s story should be read as more than a memoir. She sets out to personalize and underscore the resilience that goes into surviving and thriving without resources.
Holbrook’s ghosts don’t haunt her, but those who made narrow, stereotypical assumptions about a Black single mother of five still do.
She recalls the slights and humiliations she endured, even as she was attempting to get established in the literary world: She describes, for example, the excitement her family felt when she won a leadership award. She departed the event to prepare a celebratory dinner with her children, but her excitement was dashed when an angry cashier announced how surprised she was to know that people on food stamps could buy steaks.
“I was so shocked that I couldn’t speak,” Holbrook writes. “She of course had no idea why I was using food stamps. I could have been shopping for someone whose medical condition required a high-protein diet. And she obviously had no idea that most mothers who receive welfare checks and food stamps are not the mythical ‘welfare queens’ that Ronald Reagan painted low-income single mothers to be.”
The essay “Tania’s Birthday” elaborates in her conversational style on how careful Holbrook had to be as she planned her daughter’s party. Burning a frozen pizza can turn a meal into a disaster when there’s no money to replace it.
Another essay reveals the stresses of being the first person of color to hold a leadership position at Minneapolis’ Loft Literary Center.
“My views and opinions were constantly questioned or outright dismissed as unacceptable or invalid,” she writes.
Despite her trials — including a very abusive marriage — Holbrook, the founder of the literary organization SASE: The Write Place, not only succeeded but used her life lessons to help others succeed, too. Her simple, elegant prose serves as a looking glass into a well-lived life. Despite the odds, she conjured out of nothing a successful literary career and strong family ties.
We persist in an era during which stereotyping an African-American person can prove fatal. Holbrook’s work describes the razor’s edge of mere survival and personal triumph — the latter determinedly forged, the former always at risk.
Tatsha Robertson is a New York City-based journalist. She is the co-author of “The Formula: Unlocking the Secrets to Raising Highly Successful Children.”
Tell Me Your Names and I Will Testify
By: Carolyn Holbrook.
Publisher: University of Minnesota Press, 200 pages, $18.95.
Events: Virtual book launch, 4 p.m. Aug. 12, via Zoom; register at z.umn.edu/holbrookzoom. 7 p.m. Aug. 26, Next Chapter Booksellers via Zoom; register at nextchapterbooksellers.com. Other virtual events at bit.ly/31CAwA7.