Denene Millner is a woman of many words. Her writing career started at the Associated Press fresh out of Hofstra University. At a tender age, editors identified the literary GOAT she’s blossomed into. After an eight-year stint as an entertainment and political reporter with the New York Daily New, Millner’s career took a sharp turn. The young journalist added a New York Times Best Selling author to her resume, after her book The Sistahs’ Rules: Secrets for Meeting, Getting, and Keeping a Good Black Man in 1997–and it was up from there. To date, Millner has authored over 31 books and, now, is the Vice President and publisher for Denene Millner Books, her own book imprint that centers storytelling for Black children.
Millner has come a long way from her first published book and books she’s written for others. Her latest title, One Blood, is soon to-be released on Sept. 5, but this book is personal. The long-awaited text is projected to be Millner’s magnus opus. The accomplished author sat down with MADAMENOIRE to discuss her literary journey and blessed us with the honor to drop the cover reveal for One Blood.
MADAMENOIRE: How’s it going?
Denene Millner: Today is my mother’s birthday.
Oh, it is? What a wonderful day to kick off and drop the cover art for your story. One Blood.
This is a highly-anticipated story. Many people know you through years of journalism, children’s books, essay writing, biographies, writing for others. Now, One Blood is a game changer.
That’s what I’m hoping for. It’s definitely something different, so much more different than what I’ve ever done before. People know that I can write, right? I don’t think people know that I can write-write.
To be clear, are you saying that people don’t know that you write in such a high literary form which One Blood is anticipated to be?
That’s exactly it. People know me for being very sharp-tongued, tactical and to the point with my writing. I’m a writer who came up in the press rooms of the NY Daily News. So, it’s a very New York snappy, snarky kind of voice that I learned how to write. That’s something that I’ve been doing since I was in the halls as a political reporter and entertainment reporter for The Daily News in the ’90s.
So that’s my background. You don’t necessarily look to the Daily News for the Atlantic writing. So, I think folks will be really surprised by the storytelling and the level of writing that I’ve done in One Blood.
So, to your point, folks don’t really know you for this literary thing, and here you are doing this literary thing. Did you know yourself as the person that could do write this literary thing?
Always. I’ve always known that I could write this way, but the opportunities to do so weren’t necessarily there. So, people know me for writing blog posts about being a parent. People know me for writing cover stories, maybe for Essence, or writing the column for Parenting Magazine or writing for My Brown Baby, and then for being Steve Harvey’s writer, air quotes.
The range and the writing that I have to employ for those kinds of books is meant to mimic the voice of the people that I’m writing for. Right? So, you’re not going to get One Blood writing for a Steve Harvey book. Steve Harvey’s voice is completely different; Taraji’s voice is completely different.
I think maybe the closest I got to kind of literary writing was writing Jesse Norman’s book, just because she was like, at the time she was born in the 1950s. She’s an opera singer. She’s traveled the world. She had a very specific voice and a very specific way of storytelling that kind of brought it brought good like, I won’t say good writing, but just brought a different kind of writing out of me.
Norman, I guess, has a historical intersection in her story. There’s deep research and analysis. That’s not to undermine the prowess that it takes to write someone else’s words–and in their perspective.
I don’t call myself a ghostwriter because I’ve always written the books and people have known that I write them. I’ve only had one ghostwriting project. All the rest of them, you will see my name in the book as credited as the writer. But people look at people who co-author books or write books for celebrities as, I don’t know, no different than rev.com.
I just ask questions, or they just talk, and then I just transcribe it and put it in the book. And that is such a rudimentary way of thinking about what it is that a co-author does, or writer does. It’s a very specific and particular skill set that takes a lot of time to hone and requires trust from the subjects that you’re working with.
It takes time, and it takes a lot out of you to be able to sit there and interview someone for hours and hours and hours and hours and hours and hours at a time and then take all of that information and put it into a book and then step away as if you had nothing to do with it. It is no joke. I don’t do it as much anymore just because I’ve decided I kind of like the direction that I’m going in with One Blood.
This venture or this journey into novel writing and knowing that you’ve always had it in you to write, why has it taken you this long? Opportunities aside, why has it taken you this long to dive into your own creative work and share with us?
A lot of the writing that I’ve done over the years has been sort of like an extension of my job as a journalist. So, writing for other people just made sense as a natural transition from being an entertainment reporter, being a political reporter, being able to ask questions and then mine and glean that information and turn it into a story.
It’s just a longer form version of me writing a profile for Essence or writing a profile for the Daily News. And then, if I’m being honest, it’s scary. It was scary to let go of something that came really easy to me and exchange that for something that is a bit more challenging. One Blood was challenged. It was not easy to do. It was not easy to tell that story, and it was not easy to employ the writing that I did for it. It took me a minute to kind of wrap my arms around, like, are you really going to do this right? And when you do it, are you going to do it the way that it needs to be done, and are you capable of doing it?
I always knew that I had this writing in me but sitting down and actually doing it as a whole, nether proposition. And so, it was a matter of sitting down and saying to myself, you got to trust that you got this. You can tell this story, and you can tell the story in the way that you intend to write it in a way that is elevated from a snarky headline in the Daily News.
So with your journalism, and biography writing, your essay writing, you writing about topical issues and things like that, an ass of research goes into this work and research is hard. I’m not taking anything away from research– but the information is there for you to find. You have to excavate it, right?
What’s the difference between having to do research for these works that you’re familiar with and have written over the years versus total invention and starting with a blank canvas?
Yeah, man, you’re absolutely right. Like, I could go and find I had a stack of books about as high as my kitchen table to get to know Jesse Norman, right? There are just opera books. There’s books about divas. There’s books about all kinds of storytelling from that medium that all I had to do was deep dive into those and ask her a billion questions and get on the Google and figure it out, basically.
But One Blood was born of oh, my goodness of dreams, of things that I always wanted to ask my mother that I couldn’t because she’s no longer with me in the physical realm. Things that, like, my dad would say, I’m passing about what it was like to be a man in rural Virginia in all of those different aspects of storytelling would come to me in a way that wasn’t, like, sort of the traditional way that I would be able to research a story. And then I started with questions. I was just asking myself questions like, what is it that I wanted to know about Grace? Who is a teenage girl who gets pregnant and has her baby taken away?
Like, what is it that I want to know about this woman? What is it that I want to know about Dolores? Who is the mother who adopts the baby that’s taken away from Grace? What are the questions that I have for this woman? Not just about raising this child, but what it’s like to kind of raise yourself in society that just grossly undervalues you or devalues you or doesn’t value you at all? And what is it like?
What was it that I wished I knew when I was a young reporter in the kind of pouring that into Ray, who is the child of Grace and Dolores, who becomes a mother in her own right. So, it was a lot of sitting around and just thinking and dreaming, literally dreaming and having these thoughts and these ideas come to me and jotting them down on notebooks and pieces of paper and back to envelopes and taking those notes and those thoughts and those questions and really kind of running them through the paces of me.
Thank you for that. Thank you for that answer. What can you tell us about One Blood? You’ve given us a small glimpse with the characters Delores, Rae and Grace, what can you tell us about why this story matters now?
It matters because Black motherhood matters to me. It always has, and it should for everybody else since everybody is expecting Black women to raise them right. Whether it’s raising your children or raising America or raising how we should be voting or raising people without giving us any kind of credit for what we bring to America’s table, we are constantly being asked to save people.
–And being critiqued for how we do it. You have someone like Jason Whitlock who’s says police brutality and resistance is the fault of single Black mothers’ parenting.
Single Black no, he did not. What are you talking about?
He did. He did an interview and made some commentary about Tyre Nichols, police brutality, the video and said that we are seeing is the result of Black men being raised by single Black women.
Pause– Jason Whitlock is a fucking moron. He’s a fucking buffoon. And the nerve of him. The fucking audacity and goddamn– Wow. Okay. Wow. Let me circle on back.
Why does this book matter? Why is it important in this moment, in any moment, really, but especially this moment that it is going to live in?
It matters because Black mothers matter. I’ve said it over and over again before Black Lives Matter came along and said, Black Lives matter. If you look on the earliest iterations of My Brown Baby, it always said where Black moms matter. The reason why I said where Black moms matter was because when I was working at parenting and when I started, My Brown Baby and mom blogs were all the rage, nobody was talking about parenting from a Black woman’s perspective.
There are just ways that we raise our children. There’s ways that we love on our children. There’s ways that we protect our children. There’s ways that we enter into the room as Black women and sort of get a survey of the land and have to move that’s just different from everybody else. One Blood is examining all of that.
It’s like turning it on its back and looking at its underbelly. What does it mean to be a teenage, unwed mother in the rural south? What does it mean to be a mother or try to mother through severe trauma like Lolo does in her book? What does it mean to listen to society and their ideas on what a Black mother and wife and worker should be like?
How we all should just be okay with taking the back seat but being told to drive the car but sitting in the back seat at the same time. What does all of that mean and how should we honor that? How should we honor all of the hurdles that we have to jump, all the mountains that we have to climb so that you can get an understanding of just how resilient and beautiful and brave and hurt and just all of these different adjectives we are?
One Blood tries to explore all of that as best I can through the stories of these three women.
From what I’m hearing, One Blood is also telling some history? I’m hearing a story of migration.
There’s migration for sure. There’s migration. There’s the feminist movement and how Black women fit into that. There’s reproduction and the history of sexual reproduction or I’m sorry, there’s the history of reproduction and sort of sexual abuse of women and how reproduction and reproductive rights play into that. There is balance of work and family life. There’s relationships between men and women, between mothers and daughters, between mothers and sons, between a husband and a wife.
Even down to redlining and real estate and how that kind of dictates how you live in the world very simply, like, where your house is, where you lay your head at, and how comfortable you are there. If you are a victim of a system that kind of corals, you off into one neighborhood. Really, all of it is interconnected, and it’s told through the lens of these three Black women in a way that I don’t think you really get to see very often.
So we’re doing a cover reveal.
Can you tell us about this cover?
Oh, my goodness. So, when St. Martin’s Press and my editor Monique Patterson asked me to give them the names of some artists that I would be interested in creating the covers for this book, I was like, wait, so are you looking for me to tell you some regular names, or are you looking for me to shoot for the moon? They were like, Shoot for the moon. And I was like, I told them the most outlandish things I could possibly think of. And on that list was Tawny Chatmon, who I just knew it would be a long shot to get her or Bisa Butler, or I had a long list of Black women that I was like, let’s try them, let’s try them, let’s try them. And they reached out to Tawny, and she had this series that features little Black girls with big hair and then their ancestors in their hair. I suggested that one of those might be good if we could get her to recreate something like that for the cover that would be awesome. And she said yes. Wow. I wasn’t expecting her to say yes, and she said yes.
And then she asked me who did I have in mind for when I think of what the characters look like, did I have examples of that? And so, of course, I sent a picture of my mom, Betty Millner, and I sent some other pictures, and she created new faces for the hair of this beautiful little chocolate Black girl in sitting with this gorgeous kind of African styled print, and she knocked it out the park. It’s just so pretty. And the designer who the art director who put the jacket together, and my name is all big. Like, I’ve never seen my name on a cover. My name is always with Denene Millner, and you got to kind of zoom in on it to see it. It’s all me, yo. I was like, oh, snap. Look at my name. It’s like big. I’ve not had that.
I don’t know if this is true for other people, but I suspect it is. I know for me, I’m always excited about book covers during the pandemic in my past time. In my pause time, I would kind of post book covers from the because whether I was on punishment or just being curious, those were the books that I had at my disposal to read.
The Donald Goines covers, the Tony Morrison Sula cover, The Bluest Eye cover, those really incredible Black covers were gorgeous. I’m excited about covers for Black books, are you? Why are covers such an integral part of the process? It’s like a marrying process for imagery and literary words.
It’s what you see. It’s the picture that you’re painting, literally, for what you’re going to see in the pages, it’s a calling card. A picture is worth 1000 words. And you really do judge a book by its cover. And we can sit here and say, you shouldn’t, but you know that you do. And you pick up those covers based on you pick up those books based on what the cover looks like. If the cover draws you to it, then you’re going to go over and look at the jacket flap and read about what it is that this book is about that caught your attention.
So, I don’t care what anybody says. You got to get that cover right, and it has to be something that just really speaks to the journey that you’re about to take in those pages. I think Tawny and the art director and Monique really just they knocked it out the park with this one. I’m so proud of this work.
Big up to the team. Thank you for dropping this beautiful cover, this exclusive cover with MADAMENOIRE. We look forward to a conversation and a book club conversation once we get it in our hands. For now, well feast on this delicious excerpt of chapter two
From One Blood by Denene Millner. Copyright © 2023 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Publishing Group.
Through the bedroom window overlooking the backyard, Grace watched Mr. Brodersen, ax in hand, stalk a hunk of a black locust tree he’d been chopping for firewood. He looked angry, which confused Grace, because who could be mad about a wee-bit coming into this world? Babies, to Grace, were like Maw Maw’s Sunday lemonade—filled to the brim with goodness, made with love. A couple times, she babysat Nearest Dandy’s little baby, Evermore, and Grace just couldn’t get enough of how he smelled when she nuzzled her nose against the line of his jaw or how he would gnaw her cheek with his gums when she put her face in front of his mouth. His breath was so sweet—the sweetest thing she’d ever known. Mrs. Dandy warned her not to hold the baby the entire time she was sitting. “She gonna get ruint with you holding her all the time and ain’t nobody got time for no spoiled baby,” she warned. “Put him down, even if he fussin’. He need to learn how to get on in this world without all that coddling.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Grace would always say, and then, before Mrs. Dandy could get all the way out the door good, little Evermore would be back in her arms. She was addicted, and that wasn’t even her baby. Why Mr. Brodersen was acting so funny style about his own child was beyond Grace.
Ms. Ginny’s scream shocked the girl’s attention back to what was going on in the room. The woman’s knees buckled beneath her, and had Maw Maw not been there, surely, she would have fallen clean to the floor.
“Rubelle,” Ms. Ginny said, struggling against the weight of her own breath. “It’s time. I need to push.”
“Now hold on there, Ms. Ginny. You know you can’t push until we know for sure it’s time. Come on now, I gotcha.”
Grace shifted from one foot to the other as Maw Maw pulled back the sheets and helped Ms. Ginny onto the pad-covered bed. Dutifully and quickly, she fetched from the kitchen the kettle of hot water to pour into the white basin at the foot of the bed, which sat on a small table on which Maw Maw had assembled all the tools from her bag.
“Okay, Ms. Ginny, now you lay on back now and settle against your pillow,” Maw Maw instructed. “I’m going to see how far along you are. Whatever you do, don’t bear down just yet, okay? Don’t want that baby getting stuck and we shole don’t want you hurting yourself, now, you hear? You remember the breathing, don’t you?”
Ms. Ginny, face contorted from the pain of a contraction dragging across her groin, nodded.
“Okay, then breathe through it, okay? It’ll help with the pain. I’m going to get my hands washed up and then we’ll go on ahead and get down to business,” Maw Maw said.
For what seemed like an eternity to Grace, Maw Maw stood over that basin and, with great care and precision, scrubbed her hands, fingers, fingernails, and forearms with a brush—the bristles scraping
against her skin so hard, Grace thought that for sure she would scrub her skin clean off her bones. When she was finished, she held her hands up in the air and then reached for one of the white sterile towels she’d set next to the basin, her eyes surveying the room as she toweled off. Scissors. Iodine drops. Vaseline. Soap. Scraps of sterile fabric. Slop jar. Scale. Box and clothes for the baby. She was satisfied; all was in order.
“Okay, let’s get your legs on up and see what’s what,” Maw Maw said as she reached down and lifted Ms. Ginny’s nightdress.
There, splayed before her, was a sight Grace had never before seen in her thirteen years—something she wasn’t sure she should be seeing for herself: a grown lady’s privates. A white woman’s poom-poom. Closest she’d ever gotten to seeing a poom-poom had been not much long ago, when she looked at her own out in the outhouse. Just like a few times before, she’d waited for Maw Maw to go down by the river before she snatched the old, cloudy handheld mirror and rushed into the backyard on her mission to discover what her privates looked like now that she was “a woman” with her monthly. The first time she’d checked, she was eight years old and curious on her own accord—wanted to see the folds and the pink and what was making it feel funny when she put her pillow between her legs as she fell asleep or when she rubbed it with her pointy finger. She snuck the mirror again when she noticed all the fine, curly hair sprouting on her groin area. She knew she would get some under her arms, sure, because she’d seen evidence of it on a few of the older girls in her school one afternoon when the boys were getting on Mabel Tawny for stinking. “All that hair got yo’ pits smelling like a heap a scraps on a hot fire,” Lewis Melton had yelled during recess, with the obvious intent not to inform Mabel about the stench but to call her out in front of the schoolyard full of children who had long, sharp tongues and a short supply of grace. Mabel had cried that day over all the taunting, and Grace, doing her best to be invisible to Lewis’s gaze, said a silent prayer that she never grow hair under her arms for Lewis or anyone else to jones. That afternoon was the beginning of her obsession with hair—where it grew, why it grew where it did, what was supposed to happen when one got it, if everyone had it or if Mabel was just the most unfortunate girl in the world to have under her arms hair that smelled like hot garbage. Grace, armed with that cloudy mirror, would find out a few years later that underarms and heads weren’t the only place hair took up residence. A couple years after that, she would find out, too, that her poom-poom pretty much looked the same as it always had, even if, like Maw Maw said, she was officially a woman and could have a baby on her own. She expected it to be bigger—round like her hips and behind, thick like her thighs, maybe more dull, seeing as only the skin that got kissed by the sun was darker, shinier, and much more pretty than the parts that stayed up under her gunnysack dresses. Not much about it, she was sad to find, had changed after she started bleeding.
But here was Ms. Ginny’s poom-poom—a whole different color from the rest of her pale white skin, and hair that looked much more like that which grew on the top of her head, straighter than curly. And peeking from the flaps and folds was a mass of dark, curly hair and blood and goo, pulsing at the crown of Ms. Ginny’s hole.
Grace grew faint. There was a baby in there.
Maw Maw’s voice snapped her to. “Now you gone feel my fingers right there on the rim, Ms. Ginny. You remember how I massaged you with the other chir’ren?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Ms. Ginny said.
“Okay, good. Keep still and let me go on ahead and rub it. Give you a little relief and make it stop burning, so that baby come out without tearing you to pieces. We don’t want that.”
Grace watched in equal parts awe and disbelief as her grandmother massaged her patient, rubbed her legs with the back of her hand and encouraged her to “bear down” when a contraction rumbled across her belly. She knew what was to come, of course; there was no way Maw Maw would let her attend a birth and assist with it all without explaining to her how babies made it into this world. Grace knew the particulars. But it was something altogether different to see a human—what Maw Maw called “a miracle between a mama and her God”—emerge from between somebody’s legs.
“Okay, Ms. Ginny, this baby almost here,” Maw Maw said as she positioned her hands in front of Ms. Ginny’s Vaseline-slicked poom-poom, one up top, the other below it, almost as if she were about to catch a ball. Ms. Ginny made a low, guttural grunt and then pushed with every ounce of energy she could muster—a push strong enough to get the head, full of bushy curls, out of her body. Maw Maw gently cupped the baby’s head in one hand as she deftly wiped the baby’s eyes with sterile cloth and dropped iodine in each one. Just as she set the drops back on the small side table, Ms. Ginny gave a final heave, sending the entire squirming body into Maw Maw’s waiting hands.
“Whew, look at this pretty baby!” Maw Maw shouted over the baby’s cries. “You got yourself a healthy girl. She just as pretty as she can be. Look here, Gracie!”
Maw Maw was right: she was beautiful—prettier than any of the Brodersens’ other children, who were all fast asleep on the couch.
“Let me see her,” Ms. Ginny demanded with intensity; Maw Maw jumped ever so slightly.
“Now hold on there, now, Ms. Ginny. Let me get her cleaned up for you and get her weighed and dressed. There’s an order to this thing.”
“Please,” Ms. Ginny said, this time more gently.
As if perplexed, Maw Maw gave a long, hard look at Ms. Ginny, who was giving a long hard look at the baby. Maw Maw followed Ms. Ginny’s eyes to the infant, and that’s when, she told Grace later, she saw it: the little girl, moments old, with only a half a minute’s worth of fresh air in her lungs, was wearing the weight of the world on the tips of her ears. They were brown. Not quite the color of those that belong to a black sharecropper, but certainly the tan of a landowner whose family had been working hard to weed out the slavemaster’s offence from generations before. It didn’t take much more than that for Maw Maw to understand what she was looking at—what the stakes were.
“Please,” Ms. Ginny whispered, pleading.
Maw Maw was quiet. She looked nervously at Grace, who was too smart to be oblivious to the heaviness of the room, but too fresh and new to know that both Ms. Ginny, the white wife of a white man with a small farm and six mouths to feed and the pride of every white man who’d come before and would follow behind, and her Black baby were in severe danger.
“Now, now,” Maw Maw said, trying her best to stay calm, as if to keep Ginny calm. “You know we need to get the afterbirth out of you and I gotta get yo’ baby weighed and check her over.” Ms. Ginny opened her mouth to speak, but Maw Maw raised her hand to cut her off. “It’s gone be all right now, don’t you worry, hear? This baby is healthy. She shole is pretty. And the whole world gon’ know she a Brodersen, hear?”
Maw Maw turned her attention to Grace. “Baby, go into Maw Maw’s bag and get out my paperwork and set it up out there on the kitchen table. I’ll fill it out when we finish up in here.”
“I can fill it out, Maw Maw,” said Grace, who was anxious to show off her schooling.
“Naw, baby. The law say I got to fill out that paperwork,” she said. Turning her attention to Ms. Ginny, she added: “And it say I have to be truthful on the birth certificate, too. The truth, that be important.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Ms. Ginny said, nodding. “And we know what the truth means around these parts, don’t we, Granny?”
Maw Maw nodded as she finished bathing the baby and wrapped her in the belly holder; she attached the cloth to a hook weight and held the little girl up with one hand and leaned in to take note of the numbers on the dial. Seven pounds, three ounces. “Yes, ma’am, we do,” she said finally, as she unhooked the baby and swaddled her in a blanket. “Now I need you to bear down one mo’ gin’, Ms. Ginny, so we can get that afterbirth out and I can check it and make sure you and this little one is okay.”
The placenta, bloodied but intact, slid easily from between Ms. Ginny’s legs and onto the birthing pad, on which Maw Maw examined it, checking for tears and any other indiscretions that could indicate her patient might have complications. All was well. Maw Maw would make sure of it. So many other times when the little babies’ ears betrayed the lies, Rubelle Adams made sure of it.
“Grace, baby,” Maw Maw called to her granddaughter, who’d returned to the room, as she wrapped the placenta in several pages of the weekend newspaper. “Take this here and go on out to that pear tree out yonder in the backyard. Ask Mr. Brodersen for his strongest shovel, and then you go on out there and dig up a nice, deep hole, hear? Bury this in it and cover it up real good. You know what to do, baby. We talked about it; you remember?”
“Yes, Maw Maw, I remember,” Grace said as she cradled the package.
When she turned around to leave the room, she ran directly into the mass of Mr. Brodersen’s broad, hard torso. He smelled of earth and sweat and black locust wood. Anger.
“Won’t be no need to bury that up under the pear tree,” he said simply, gruffly.
“Oh, Mr. Brodersen, of course we’ll put it under the pear tree—just like we did for all the other babies. You remember, right? It’s the old way. My mama and my grandmama, too, say you bury the afterbirth under the tree and your babies will never, ever leave you.”
Mr. Brodersen looked Maw Maw in the eye and held her gaze until she got uncomfortable enough to shift from one foot to the other. Her rubber shoe squeaked, the sound piercing through the thick in the air.
It took him only one long stride to push past little Grace and take his place directly in front of Maw Maw. He held her gaze, even as he reached down and took the baby out of her arms. His long
fingers, strong, steady, pulled the blanket back from the baby’s head, and only then did he switch his eyes from Maw Maw’s face to that of the newborn. He stared long and hard, his eyes washing over her tight, black curls, her forehead, her nose and lips and neck. The baby craned her neck and licked out her tongue.
Mr. Brodersen stepped back and turned his attention to his wife, then Maw Maw, then to Grace. There was not even a hint of emotion in his voice, but his command shook Grace to her core. “Take that package and burn it in the stove. Now.”
From One Blood by Denene Millner. Copyright © 2023 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Publishing Group.
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