Department in 1995 to produce the African Burial Ground

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Memorial on Foley Square in New York City.

Barbara Chase-Riboud’s new historical novel, Hottentot

Venus, was published in 2003. It was awarded the American

Library Association’s best fiction prize in 2004.

Barbara Chase-Riboud

Never Be Afraid

Making things look easy is a matter of politeness. . . . Letting people

know that you are carrying a burden is a third world attitude

towards life. . . .

Can a five-year experience be a life-defining experience?

Like the “Princess and the Pea” fairy tale, as a child I

refused to sleep under the weight of bedcovers, and so my

mother invented flannel pajamas that covered me from head

to toe and allowed me to sleep uncovered. Once, when my

aunt baby-sat for me, she left the window open and then insisted

on drawing the covers up around my neck. Each time

she did so, I would kick them off, stating in all truth that, “my

mother doesn’t cover me up.”

“Nonsense,” insisted my aunt, “the window’s open, and

you’ll catch your death of cold. “I will not be responsible”

and, as she left the room, she pulled the covers up again and

turned off the lights. The third time I kicked the covers off

and she pulled them up again, I sat up in my bed and punched

her in the nose. “I told you that my mother doesn’t cover me

up,” I said. From that day on I was “Miss My Mother Doesn’t

Cover Me Up.”

Source: ©Barbara Chase-Riboud.

My five year-old outrage that truth, as I saw it, was not

being respected turned my tiny fists into engines of mass

destruction. This passion for truth and telling it as it is has

served me well throughout a double career of searching for

truth in beauty and beautifully sculpted objects and pursuing

truth in narrative and history.

I remember as an 11-year-old poet, I was accused of copying

a poem I had written all about autumn leaves and death

and was commanded by my teacher to stand up in front of the

whole class and “confess.” When I refused to admit something

I hadn’t done, I was sent to the principal’s office and

when I again refused to confess my “crime,” my mother was

sent for, with the threat of suspending me from school. As my

mother had actually witnessed me writing my poem on the

edge of the dining room table, she declared that I would

never set foot in that school again. And I never did. It was my

mother who took me out of middle school and enrolled me in

high school, but it was my grandmother who comforted me.

“Never be afraid,” she said, “they can’t take what’s in your

head. . . .”

Of course in the course of my life, I learned that they CAN

take what’s in your head, but I never forgot the first part of

my grandmother’s admonition: “Never be afraid.” Fearlessness

(which has sometimes been described as recklessness)

has followed me through a long career as a sculptor and

writer. I wanted to read about historical truths that had

somehow been “taken away” from history: Sally Hemings of

Monticello and her daughter Harriet, Nak-shi-dil of Topkapi,

Joseph Cinque of the Amistad, Anna Mckinsie of Montreal,

my 18th-century fugitive great, great, grandmother, Cleopatra,

Not according to Plutarch, and, most recently, Sarah Baartman,

the mother of scientific racism, known as the Hottentot

Venus.

Each time my grandmother’s words come back to me

“Never be afraid” and the stubborn five-year-old voice still in

my head repeats, “My mother doesn’t cover me up.” Words

that can still get me into a whole lot of trouble. But as the

great 20th-century Russian poet Anna Akhmatova put it. “A

poet is someone you can never give anything to and you can

never take anything away from.” Just like my grandmother

said.