We’re so pleased to be able to host an essay from R.J. Joseph. A wonderful perspective on what celebrating Women in Horror Month as well as Black History Month have always meant, and continue to mean, to her.
Lending a Voice to the Stories of Black Women
By R.J. Joseph
My maternal grandmother, Mother Dear, was a soft-spoken woman of few words. At the times when she felt like talking a little bit, about teaching us something about her past—our past—we all gathered around to listen. Those times were few and far between. Mostly, Mother Dear listened and laughed softly at our antics or the stories on the television. I often wondered if she ever wanted to say more and I understood that even if she had wanted to, she wouldn’t have. She was the perfect example of the elderly Southern woman who deferred to everyone around her, especially men and white people. Mother Dear never looked any white people or men in the eye when she spoke to them. She did so with her head bowed, tones hushed, non-confrontational. She never questioned them or their authority. When I think of what Black History Month and Women in Horror Month mean to me, I think of my Mother Dear and the stories she could have told that were silenced by the demands society made on Black women.
I grew up in a different time from sweet Mother Dear but I was still handed down the “strongly suggested” mandate to keep quiet and not speak of certain things. Folks didn’t like a woman who talked too much or who was too smart. Don’t ask too many questions. Don’t have too many answers. Don’t talk about distasteful stuff, especially in mixed company. I got real good at moving around so quietly the adults forgot I was around. This was the only way I could try to see these “rules” in action. How was I supposed to squelch the questions that bubbled up inside me every time I encountered something new? What should I do when someone asked me something and I knew the answer but another adult slowly shook their head from side to side to discourage me from the resulting discussions I so craved? It was difficult for me to remember all the rules, so at a pretty young age, I simply gave up trying to understand them. I asked the questions. I gave the answers. I talked about whatever I wanted to talk about…on paper.
As a child, I hadn’t yet grown into the bravery to tell my horror stories out loud or welcome anyone else into my horror world. My loved ones knew I was full of words and liked to tell stories and they encouraged me in telling certain stories. Appropriate stories, like about morals and good little girls and respecting adults unquestioningly. Mama supported my storytelling wholeheartedly. The rest of the adults in my family, not so much. They tried to steer me away from the dark topics that called to me, begging to be explored. They wouldn’t even talk with me about the things I wanted to know or tell me the stories I wanted to hear. They talked in hushed tones about the distant cousin who perished in a car accident where the details didn’t quite add up. They whispered about hearing unexplained noises on the porch when my paternal grandfather passed away. I wasn’t supposed to hear these things. I grew into a proficient eavesdropper and got all the details, anyway.
The secret knowledge and stolen snippets of stories expanded inside my head. They grew large, nourished by my incessant quest to learn and question everything around me. When they were too big to hold inside any longer, they burst forth, onto the paper. Darkness poured, oozing out from underneath the ink, covering the world outside my imagination. I couldn’t resist my destiny to tell the stories. I gleefully leaned into the generations-long Black tradition of storytelling as a way to pass on knowledge, the way Mother Dear did in those rare occasions she opened up to us. We need this history and these stories so we understand that the stories and history we’ve been fed might not be quite accurate in regards to actual events or our experiences.
Because of Black History Month and Women in Horror Month, my stories and voice are given some validation. I use this voice to speak for the Black women who may have wanted to tell all kinds of stories but who weren’t allowed to. I use this voice loudly, unabashedly, unapologetically. I use this voice to speak for my sweet Mother Dear who could have told us so many stories. They wouldn’t have been horror stories because she just wasn’t into that sort of thing. But her tales would have been welcomed. And revered, just as we revered her.
Rhonda earned her MFA in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University and currently works as an associate professor of English. She has had several stories published in various venues, including two anthologies of horror written by black female writers, the Stoker award finalist Sycorax’s Daughters and Black Magic Women, as well as in Campfire Macabre, a flash fiction anthology, Slashertorte: An Anthology of Cake Horror, and the Halloween issue of Southwest Review. Her academic essays have also appeared in applauded collections, such as the Stoker award finalists Uncovering Stranger Things: Essays on Eighties Nostalgia, Cynicism and Innocence in the Series and The Streaming of Hill House: Essays on the Haunting Netflix Series. Rhonda’s essay from The Streaming of Hill House, “The Beloved Haunting of Hill House: An Examination of Monstrous Motherhood” is also a Stoker award finalist for 2020.
Her most recent short story, “Witness Bearer”, can be found in the charity anthology, Twisted Anatomy: An Anthology of Body Horror.
Rhonda can be found lurking (and occasionally even peeking out) on social media:
Amazon Author Page: amazon.com/author/rjjoseph