Magic, Memory, and Myth: On adrienne maree brown’s “Fables and Spells”

By Candice ThorntonMay 31, 2023

Magic, Memory, and Myth: On adrienne maree brown’s “Fables and Spells”

Fables and Spells: Collected and New Short Fiction and Poetry by adrienne maree brown

ONE OF THE MOST significant meditations I have ever experienced occurred while watching A Wrinkle in Time (2018). Knocking at 30’s door, having barely survived a brutal Saturn return—only to find myself drowning in sheer panic and uncertainty during the initial stages of COVID-19 chaos—I found myself deeply moved when Mrs. Which asks Meg, “Do you realize how many events, choices, that had to occur since the birth of the universe leading up to the making of you? Just exactly the way you are?” A wave of emotions swelled, and as I tried to answer that question, I wept. I called the known names of the ancestors and loved ones who kept me and thanked the spirits of those benevolent ancestors whose names were anglicized, erased, or forgotten over this lifetime. In moments of chaos, conflict, disappointment, grief, and uncertainty, Mrs. Which’s question often helps me to re-member.

Re-membering grounds me in gratitude and solemness as I sankofarrate—engaging the memories of my foreparents who survived, and at times, flourished in the face of US chattel slavery, Jim and Jane Crow, cissexism, misogynoir, and more. Linear time is suspended as I expand across timelines, calling them and future versions of myself forward, locating opportunities to relinquish and restore. Sankofarration, initially coined by John Jennings, is “a cosmological episteme that centers the act of claiming the future as well as the past.” By sankofarrating, I actively divest from colonial capitalistic cisheteropatriarchy—seeking every opportunity to “go back and fetch” that which was hidden, misrepresented, or stolen. I engage intuitive and spiritual technologies that have been invalidated by state-sanctioned religious violence. I reclaim short-lived moments of joy, locating opportunities to transmute communal and intergenerational fear, grief, and rage into things more useful for liberation and world-building.

In her 2022 book Fables and Spells: Collected and New Short Fiction and Poetry, adrienne maree brown brilliantly facilitates endless opportunities not only to re-member but also to learn new ways to liberate, love, resist, and exist. Fables and Spells opens with brown poignantly articulating that “[i]t can take a while to recognize what you are when the lineage has been swept away. I reach back for the tools I was given to be in and shape the world, and at first, I cannot find them.” She names witching as a tool of her liberatory praxis and explains:

Witching is a practice of engaging the essential, natural world with magic and supernatural intentions. Throughout history there have been many names for witches and the work of witches, including shamanism, sorcery, healing, herbalism, midwifery and doula labor, conjuring, rootwork, ritual and spellcasting.

Her witching practice includes writing, according to brown: “I feel and channel, I get taken over by the need to express something that feels true, and I listen.” Furthermore, brown asserts that “the work [she does] is to repeat the instructions of love that want to be heard, over and over.” Every page in Fables and Spells offers readers liminal space to emerge, to grieve, to commune as and with celestial bodies, and to learn and develop their own spells. Throughout the volume, brown names and illustrates many of the intuitive and spiritual technologies that descendants of dispossessed people have been systematically separated from.

The book opens with “radical gratitude spell.” Although the entire spell is beautifully articulated, the first stanza’s opening can disarm the most defensive and distrusting souls:

you are a miracle in motion
i greet you with wonder
in a world which seeks to own
your joy and your imagination
you have chosen to be free
every day as a practice.

As the spell continues, brown articulates some of the most compassionate affirmations. The final lines read:

i want you to know
i honor the choices
you made in solitude
and i honor the work
you have done to belong.
i honor your commitment
to that which is larger
than yourself
and your journey
to love the particular vessel of life
that is you.
you are enough
your work is enough
you are needed
your work is sacred
you are here
and i am grateful

In a society that often requires commodification of self and others and that breeds competition, distrust, and selfishness for survival’s sake, brown’s radical gratitude spell models the divinity, disruptiveness, and necessity of affirming compassion. More importantly, brown reminds us that, despite all the things that separate us, our survival and wellness are best served by understanding that we are reflections. By acknowledging the “commitment to that which is larger than yourself,” brown signifies a South African philosophy that explains the complementary nature of community. For people socialized within or inhabiting individualistic cultures, umuntu umuntu nagabuntu, or “a person is a person because of people” is something that must be modeled and embodied, not performed by allyship and virtue signaling. Furthermore, Fables and Spells holds sacred space not only for the messiness of unpacking inherited burdens and learning new ways of relating, but also for transmuting that which has served its purpose.

While the poetic spells are entrancing, brown captures the imagination through dynamic characterizations and circumstances, vivid settings, and the employment of memory as a narrative device. While locating diverse manifestations of emotional and intuitive technologies and capitalistic cisheteropatriarchal epistemologies, brown reminds readers of, or introduces them to, tenets of liberatory praxis. Octavia E. Butler tried to tell us, especially through Parable of the Sower (1993) and Parable of the Talents (1998), to consider the implications of our beliefs, identities, practices, and policies. Butler’s Parable series vividly illustrates umuntu umuntu nagabuntu, in part because of how Black/diasporic concepts inform her complex characters and semiotic settings. Similarly, in brown’s short stories “The River,” “Call the Water,” and “Harness the Water,” brown simultaneously incorporates cosmologies and ontologies of Black, Brown, Indigenous, and Melanated people and signifies Butler’s literary corpus.

Notably, brown’s short stories transport readers through generations of history, creating vivid depictions of dispossession, marginalization, resistance, and liberation. In Moorings and Metaphors: Figures of Culture and Gender in Black Women’s Literature (1992), Karla F. C. Holloway explains that “memory is culturally inscribed” and “[t]he mythic dimensions within [Black femme/women writing] stress the intimacy between myth and cultural memory.” Moreover, Holloway asserts that “[m]emory is a tactile path toward cultural recovery. When we complicate this value with the de-stabilizing activities of traditional historiography, we are forced to acknowledge the distinct versions of memory that myth, as an a priori oral text, recovers.” Through “The River,” brown illustrates how memory, as a path toward cultural recovery, also serves as an effective narrative strategy.

In this story, the narrator describes the protagonist as a “water woman” who “had been born not too far from the river, Chalmers, on the east side.” This “water woman” recounts her grandfather telling her that “Black people come from a big spacious place, under a great big sky. This little country here, we have to fight for any inches we get. But the water has always helped us get free one way or another.” For descendants of enslaved Africans in the United States, particularly those whose families navigated the Great Migration, this story is significant because of the way brown uses memory and setting to articulate the lived experiences of racialized and gendered people, to collapse timelines, and to contextualize the far-reaching implications of environmental injustice, gentrification, and social inequity. Not only does brown brilliantly remind us of our connection to the water; she also demonstrates that the water and the land are living with nightmarish memories of humanity.

The water woman asks her dear friend, “What’s up with the river?” He laughs, and then says, “Your river? Man, Detroit is in that river. The whole river and the parts of the river. Certain parts, it’s like an ancestral burying ground. It’s like a holy vortex of energy.” Such characterizations and semiotic settings signify deities and spiritual information while simultaneously articulating the nuances of systemic racism and poor stewardship of stolen land, but also the perseverance and power of descendants of dispossessed people. Like Butler’s parables, brown’s fables permit readers to interrogate their positionality and relationships with the planet, human and nonhuman inhabitants, institutions, and other cosmic entities.

Reading Fables and Spells is a phenomenally transformative experience. As a Black, Gender-expansive, Queer, Disabled, Neurodivergent spiritualist and educator of predominantly first year undergraduate students at an HBCU, I am excited to incorporate Fables and Spells to contextualize writing, especially creative writing, as a tool of liberatory praxis. I am excited to welcome new faces with the warmth and wisdom of her poems and stories. Above all, I am grateful for “juneteenth spell,” which opens:

i dedicate my life force to black people

that we may celebrate and leap forward
know freedom without waiting
that when our chance to be courageous comes
we feel no hesitation

And for “aug 3, 2020,” one of brown’s “Black August Haikus,” which reads:

i matter to people who
matter to me, who
love all the ways i am free

we matter to people who
matter to we, who
love all the ways we get free

And I carry these words from “not busy, focused; not busy, full” as an affirmation in my own sankofarration process:

i am so full of ancestors and characters and I can’t tell which is who
but they are a chorus
telling me humans are not the protagonist
and nothing i can say is more brilliant than a stand of trees or a mycelial warning
or a newborn’s first shuddering dance

Fables and Spells is transformative for many reasons, but similarly to Mrs. Which’s question, adrienne maree brown’s writing inspires deep reflection that, with a bit of courage, truth-telling, and vulnerability, facilitates paradigm-shifting revelations that can help readers embody the medicine of her magic.


Candice Thornton (they/them/theirs) is a multi-hyphenate creative, cultural preservationist, scholar, and educator based in Atlanta. Broadly speaking, Candice’s research interests combine their love of Black folx, linguistics, comparative literature, and hermeneutics to examine how oral and literary traditions of the African diaspora articulate the complexities of Black consciousness and temporality.

LARB Contributor

Candice Thornton (they/them/theirs) is a multi-hyphenate creative, cultural preservationist, scholar, and educator based in Atlanta. Broadly speaking, Candice’s research interests combine their love of Black folx, linguistics, comparative literature, and hermeneutics to examine how oral and literary traditions of the African diaspora articulate the complexities of Black consciousness and temporality. Their article entitled “Transcendence: Facing Intergenerational Trauma through Octavia E. Butler’s Kindred and ‘Bloodchild’” was published in the Science Fiction Research Association Review, and their essay “Myth and Memory in Twelve Years a Slave, Kindred, Beloved, and The Good Lord Bird” is a forthcoming chapter in Racial Discourse in American Literature: A Collection of Essays (Edwin Mellen Press).


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!