I love it when interests come together.
Three of my loves (opera, learning about African-American women, and writing) came together as I wrestled with how to adapt Richard Wagner’s Die Valkyrie, the second opera of his Ring Cycle, to a Reconstruction/Gilded Age New York setting with African-American characters.
In Act III of Wagner’s opera, the Valkyrie are nine sisters who bring dead heroes from the battlefield to defend Valhalla — the hall of the Gods — for Wotan who is their father and the king of the gods. Fixed in my mind were images from productions showing the sisters all the same age. Check out this youtube video of the Royal Danish Opera’s production to see what I mean: https://youtu.be/FPcrqkViZKw. My Valkyrie are not immortals who never aged. Unless I made them nonuplets, I had to figure a way around the birth order problem.
Then it hit me. My Valkyrie didn’t have to be blood-related sisters. They could be sisters of a sorority. Women’s literary societies of the nineteenth century were places where women escaped the limitations placed on them by society. They could exercise their intellect and share their opinions freely without fear of ridicule or contempt. My Valkyries’ common bond wasn’t to be in service to a man’s goals as depicted in Die Valkyrie, but the pursuit of their own self-actualization as warrior women — artistic warrior women. This is where love number two came into play.
In a previous post on this blog, I shared how disappointed I was that in a box of thirty-six famous African Americans, only six were women. With my idea of creating a sorority, I decided I could base my Valkyrie on the women of the Harlem Renaissance.
I knew already of Zora Neale Hurston, Nella Larsen, Jessie Redmon Fauset and Dorothy West. I went in search of five more and came across this fantastic list of twenty-seven fabulous women (of whom I’d only known about thirteen): https://www.thoughtco.com/women-of-the-harlem-renaissance-3529259.
Now before you object, I know that the Harlem Renaissance took place in the 1920s and early 30’s. Originally, I had thought of basing my Valkyrie on African-American women who participated and battled white racism in the suffrage movement in the 1890’s, but once I latched onto the creative energy generated by the Harlem Renaissance women, everything clicked. So much so I’m having a hard time keeping my story to its original time period.
Anyway, this list gave me twenty-seven heroines from which to draw my nine Valkyrie. Should I base Brunhilda, the defiant Valkyrie who dominates Acts II and III of this opera on Zora Neale Hurston or Josephine Baker, both defiant trailblazing rule breakers? I’m leaning toward the remarkable Jessie Redmon Fauset. Langston Hughes called her “the midwife of the Harlem Renaissance” because as literary editor of the NAACP’s The Crisis magazine from 1919 to 1926 she helped birth the writing careers of many writers and poets of the Harlem Renaissance. Which of the remaining women should I use to round out my sisterhood of warrior women? What new women might I find to use instead? As my research continues, the possibilities stretch before me endlessly. I’m having so much fun learning about these women I have to fight to stay out of the research abyss and move into love number three: writing.
The images and herstories of these women continue to fuel my imagination. I’ve already outlined one of their gatherings. They’re enjoying their exploits, sharing how they’re mentoring women as protégés and men to be true allies. I’m looking forward to writing the confrontation between Brunhilde and Wotan. If you’d like a summary of Wagner’s story, check out this link: https://www.britannica.com/topic/Der-Ring-des-Nibelungen/Story-summary-of-Die-Walkure.
My adaptation of Wagner’s Die Valkyrie is a story of women’s empowerment and agency. With the artistic warrior women of the Harlem Renaissance as my guides, I’m hoping my version of the story will be a source of empowerment and agency for all its readers.
Better To Marry Than To Burn
Freed Man seeking woman to partner in marriage for at least two years in the black township of Douglass, Texas. Must be willing and able to help establish a legacy. Marital relations as necessary. Love neither required nor sought.
Caesar King’s ad for a mail-order bride is an answer to Queen Esther Payne’s prayer. Her family expects her to adhere to society’s traditional conventions of submissive wife and mother, but Queen refuses. She is not the weaker sex and will not allow herself to be used, abused or turned into a baby-making machine under the sanctity of matrimony. Grateful that love is neither required nor sought, she accepts the ex-slave’s offer and heads West for marriage on her terms. Her education and breeding will see to that. However, once she meets Caesar, his unexpected allure and intriguing wit makes it hard to keep love at bay. How can she hope to remain her own woman when victory may be synonymous with surrender?
She pulled the wagon to a stop. “Care to take over?”
She held the reins before him. He nodded. She handed over the reins, crossed her arms and stared at him. “Tell me more about Emma.”
He shrugged. That kind of detail hadn’t been part of the bargain, but…
“Not much to tell. She used to teach us slaves in secret, then openly when Union forces secured our town. I was her star pupil. We married and came West for a fresh start. She died giving birth to twin boys soon after we arrived. They followed her within a few hours.”
A soft light shone at him from her eyes. “Sorry for your loss.”
“None needed. Good comes from bad. Death, not slavery, took my boys from me. They never had to live as someone’s property.” He sat a little straighter. “Our children will never have to worry about that.”
“Our children?” She swiveled in her seat. “You made no mention of wanting children, just marital relations as necessary. I understood that to mean intercourse.”
“I wrote I wanted to leave a legacy.”
“A legacy. Not a dynasty.”
“Legacy. Dynasty. Is there really so sharp a distinction?”
“To my mind there is. I understood you meant to affect future generations—endow schools, found churches, create civic associations. I didn’t realize that meant children. I agreed to having sex, not having children.”
“Of course I want children.” His brows grew heavy as he frowned. “Doesn’t having sex lead to having children?”
“Not with the right precautions.”
His frown deepened. “Precautions?”
“There are many ways to prevent your seed from taking root, Mr. King.”
“I want children, Mrs. King.”
Her lips twisted and her brow furrowed, but she kept her silence.
“All right,” she said. “You can have children with any woman you like. I won’t stop you. I free you from any claim to fidelity.”
“Legacy—or dynasty if you will—means legitimacy. No bastard will carry my name, not when I have a wife to bear me children.”
Her tone signaled she didn’t.
Wild Rose Press: https://www.thewildrosepress.com/books/better-to-marry-than-to-burn
Find out more about Michal here: