What Black Latchkey Families Stand to Lose.

As controversial a portrayal of black parenting as 'Beasts of the Southern Wild' presents, Hushpuppy's  limited supervision and sense of community were ultimately essential to her survival.

As controversial a portrayal of black parenting as ‘Beasts of the Southern Wild’ presents, Hushpuppy’s limited supervision and sense of community were ultimately essential to her survival.

The little boy who used to live on the second floor, the one with the cornrows grazing the back of his neck and the owlish glasses, never stayed indoors. He was always running, chasing the family cat or asking around, home to home, if a new child in the neighborhood could come out to play. He was nine or so, polite and precocious, always noticing things. You dropped this. You’re forgetting that. He held the lobby door open for my grandmother, my mother, and I whenever he saw us coming.

A boy like that catches the eye, out of doors as he so often is. It was easy, then, to notice that his mother hadn’t entrusted him with a key to his family’s apartment. We knew it because sometimes, he’d linger too long outside the locked, intercom-activated lobby door. We knew it because, while walking up to our own third floor residence, we too often noted that his family’s door was kept slightly ajar. He was either rushing in and slamming it or waiting downstairs for someone to open it when he’d locked himself out.

It was risky, his mom opting to leave their whole apartment vulnerable rather than giving him a key. It was risky, too, to reserve comment and to let them sort through that decision and its consequences alone.

But I remember being nine myself and in need of a key after school. I remember losing it too, on many occasions, and begging the rental office managers to let me borrow their spare. I asked so often they would finally have to inform my furious, frustrated mom.

The memory was what kept me quiet on the days when the neighbor boy sprinted confidently up to his cracked door and slipped inside — and it was also what made me ask if he needed to use our phone or wanted someone to wait with him when he was in the lobby alone.

Latchkey life is a series of covert missions, held precariously in place by a cardinal rule: don’t get caught.

Debra Harrell was charged with "unlawful conduct toward a child," after allowing her daughter to play in a local park during her work shifts.

Debra Harrell was charged with “unlawful conduct toward a child,” after allowing her daughter to play in a local park during her work shifts.

I thought about this code when I heard about Debra Harrell, the 46-year-old South Carolina mom who let her nine-year-old daughter play in a park for three days while she worked her shifts at McDonald’s.

If I’d driven by and spotted Debra’s daughter braiding tall grass at 1pm, then passed by again to find her eating fruit under a shady tree at 4, I would’ve thought little of it. Even if, as in this case, she was there for three days in a row. I may’ve asked, as the concerned observer did in this instance, where the girl’s mother had gone. But if she’d shown me the cell phone her mother had given her in case of emergency and if she seemed safe and unbothered, I would’ve moved along.

Just as all who wander are not lost, all who play outside alone — even all day — are not abandoned.

When I moved into my grandmother’s third floor apartment, my daughter was two and noisy. She was not sleep trained and sometimes she’d let out a squeal or leap across the carpet well after 8pm.

“If you don’t get that girl to be quieter, the neighbors downstairs might call the police,” my grandmother admonished one night.

I thought I’d misheard her but she went on, “They’ll say they heard her screaming or that you never have her in the bed at night. Child Protective Services will come up here and they’ll take her away from you. CPS loves to take black children.”

The warning winded me. My eyes stung. My chest heaved. I wanted to tell her how hurtful she was being and I did. “You’re saying that if CPS came and assessed my parenting, they’d still find cause to take my child. You’re implying I’m unfit.”

“I know you love your child,” she said in a voice that didn’t soften. “But I’m telling you the truth.”

It was a court stenographer’s truth, the truth of a woman who had spent over 20 years transcribing heinous crimes, tragic accidents and separations of children from parents, based on everything from hearsay to hard evidence. It was also the truth of an elder for whom the memory of being policed for playing while black — in the wrong park, on the wrong street, at the wrong hour — was still fresh.

I thought of the boy downstairs, his unlocked door, the infants in the basement apartments who wailed at all hours of night. My daughter wasn’t the only child in the building. Her noise didn’t exist in some disruptive vacuum and it didn’t seem constant enough to warrant complaint.

But I was never able to shake my grandmother’s warning. She was telling me that, as a black mother, loving my child wouldn’t necessarily stop a caseworker from recommending her removal from my custody. It would take months, but eventually, I understood that her conferral of worry was, in its way, her own expression of love.

Cases like Debra Harrell’s frighten me. They reify the idea that the rules are different for my black family. For us, noisy nighttime play or unsupervised daytime play don’t just draw annoyance or concern. They draw authorities. They draw teams of people with the power to determine whether or not our children can come home.

There are parts of parenting that are predicated on privacy, on intimate negotiations of what will and will not be able to work under our own roofs on a given day. Bedtime, dinner, and discipline choices differ from household to household. We have all had moments where we’ve considered ourselves fortunate no one witnessed us bribing our child with candy or snapping at him when a gentler word would’ve been best.

But there are other parts of parenting where privacy is as perilous as it is necessary, like determining when your child is “mature enough” to be left alone for hours at a time. It can be difficult for families with latchkey children — and the strangers who observe their decisions — to know the difference.

At what point does incurious observation become concern? At what point should concern involve intervention? And once authorities have intervened, which infractions should warrant the removal of children from their homes?


Sadly, parents without access to safe, affordable child care often depend on the silence of strangers. For them, that silence is kindness. But true kindness would actually be the opposite. True kindness would be conversation. It would be finding out the full story before it becomes a somber national headline, waiting with the child until her mother arrives, offering to keep an eye on the child at play or helping the family find better local resources.

And it would be educating oneself about the stakes for black low-income and single-parent families. They are higher. More than half of all children entering foster care in the U.S. are children of color. Twenty-six percent of those children are black, which is double to the total population of black children in this country. There is a real precedent for worry that taking a latchkey or unsupervised play situation directly to the authorities will result, not in help for a mother and child, but in a mother losing her child.

The idea that erring on the side of caution can make things worse may seem counter-intuitive until you hear enough stories like Debra Harrell’s, until you have a few latchkey kids as neighbors, until you’ve heard your own family warn you to keep your toddler from being so noisy, lest someone try to take her away.

When the little boy downstairs moved away, it seemed sudden. We hadn’t seen boxes. They’d done the heavy lifting after dark. By the time he said goodbye his family’s apartment was already empty. We both stood there a little longer than we needed to. I was hoping his new neighbors would view his family’s situation as I did: as a negotiation of need, as a case where a simple, “Are you okay?” was often enough to tide the child over until his mother came home.  I hoped his new neighbors would be watchful and supportive, the kind of people who considered alerting authorities to the presence of a latchkey kid playing unsupervised outside, as a last resort.

Carrying Jada: When ‘Standing With’ Isn’t Enough.


Two nights ago, I sat in our bedroom on the third floor with the window open. You were already asleep. The night breeze carried the voices of a cabal of teen boys walking beneath. There is a steep grassy hill behind our building. I never take you to play there. The earth is uneven and I don’t trust the improbability of a long hard tumble. But I’ve always found it a beautiful space, open and green among the brick, steel and concrete, tree-lined, flowering branches blushing white and pink each spring with the promise of growth. It is usually quiet there after nightfall, or it has been during most of the 27 years my grandmother has lived here. But things are changing. The boys were raucous but stealthy, their voices at once overloud and vanquished altogether.

“She got HIV or something. She might got HIV!” One called out.

“She probably got HIV, yo!” Another chimed in, chuckling. “I don’t trust that!” Their chorus of noises rose up to our window like a mist.

I have seen these boys or ones like them. There are no fewer than five when they’re walking through our complex during the day, sagging their skinny jeans, scratching their scalps under tall, untended fades. It’s their eyes I always remember, the furtive way they dart at my face when I’m driving by. The eyes say: do I know you or do you mean me harm?

But this isn’t a binary question. “Or” is the wrong conjunction here.

The boys under the window know the girl about whose sexual health they’re speculating. They know her, are negotiating her worth to them, are laughing. And then they are moving on.

But they’ve left blight in the air. With the casual cruelty of their cackles, they’ve colored each other’s opinions about her with innuendo. It isn’t clear to me if they even know that it is moot to denigrate a woman for contracting a disease she has likely gotten from a man. If it were right or useful or logical to measure morality by one’s illnesses, it seems whoever infected her should be the person yelled about in the town square. Do not have sex with that dude! they should be yelling. At least not without adequate multiple forms of contraception!

Even in 2014, only women are called “loose” in voices that carry. It need only be uttered about us once, in relative anonymity, and the way we negotiate the maze of our days must be altered. We take the stairs. We get to class early. We sit where the whispers are not hot and bearing down from behind. We defend ourselves when we shouldn’t and go it alone when there should be a hedge of homegirls rushing to our aid.

Changing course is no longer enough. Today, casting lots about a young girl’s sexual history, while walking in the summer night under the neighbors’ open windows, is practically innocuous by comparison. At least they are not bragging about having roofied her. At least she is not with them, unconscious and being dragged across the storm-dampened grass as one of them raises his cell phone and gets grainy night video of her. At least they are not pausing on the hill to upload the footage as she lay inert between them. At least I didn’t wake the next morning to a viral trend about the girl the boys behind my building made their punch line.

But there are other girls, other unchecked, overpowering boys, whole communities that reward them for viral shares and social pacts of silence. There are older people, parents and grandparents, aunties and uncles willing to whirl toward the girl when the boy’s name is well-known, willing to grit at those horrified girls, “You know boys act like this. All men want one thing. They are not above unspeakable acts to get it. Nothing is beneath them. What were you thinking?”

What were you thinking?

I do not often write about girls like Jada. I do not closely follow the criminal cases of boys like those who raped and recorded a girl in Steubenville. But I also do not know how not to carry these girls close. I don’t know how not to think about how profoundly both they — and the staggeringly bankrupt boys who laugh while trying their damnedest laying waste to them — have been failed by generation upon generation of rape-enabling. There is no court that can train it out of them, no verdict that translates to justice.

Toward the end of my first year teaching community college in Baltimore, I assigned my students two readings about Amber Cole, a local 14-year-old videotaped against her will while performing sex acts on boys that she knew. The six students present in my class that afternoon, all developmental English-level readers and writers, snickered, feigned offense at the subject matter, scoffed loudly at certain points. But eventually they struggled through the essays.

The time had come for us to discuss. Because we were all black and from Baltimore, because the girls were just three or four years older than Amber themselves, I expected them to empathize with her. I had this naive notion that we would rally in defense of her, if the boys in class did not.

In truth, no one defended her. In truth, one girl said, “I’d rather my daughter come home pregnant at 14 than be all over the Internet like that.” Her friend turned to her in disbelief. “A baby is for 18 years!” she said. “The Internet is forever,” the first girl retorted.

I didn’t know how to recover the conversation. Class ended, and they didn’t wait for me to verbally dismiss them before skittering off, onto a campus and into a world that would offer them no more love or support or absolution than they offered the girl we’d just discussed.

The next semester, in another class of students just as small, I brought up Trayvon Martin and one of my most promising young men said, “I don’t get what the big deal is about him. Boys die here every day and the world don’t rally for them.”

I looked to the other students, anticipating dissent. None came. I had no ready argument, either. But I know now that I should’ve said, “They should.”

They should.

We think it is rape culture or gun violence that will define us as a fallen civilization. But it’s the indifference that will do us in. It’s our fierce commitment to independence — emotional, cultural, financial, spiritual — as our most prized and noble value that dooms us.

We are nothing without each other, nothing if all we can manage is protecting our own children, nursing our individual grief, urging others to be more like someone else who was “independent” enough to “move on” and “dust herself off” and “get over it.”

We look at a little girl like Jada and we call her brave for speaking out against her own ongoing violation. She whose small body has withstood a behemoth of trauma is now expected to be publicly strong enough to fight an Internet meme proliferating faster than her own words can carry.

It is foolish to think that by devoting a few tweets or blog entries over a news cycle we are truly standing with her. It is foolish to think that standing with someone online or in a city hall or by a courtroom telecast on TV is affecting longterm change. I am often of the mind that girls who’ve gone through what Jada has don’t need us to stand with them. They need to be swept off their feet, hoisted onto our backs or shoulders, and carried. We carry the Jadas of the world by teaching their peers, that it is their own inability to empathize with her, their own voracious appetites for cell phone footage of active crime scenes, their own shrugging in the face of others’ tears that eggs their friends on. We carry her by emphasizing to young women and young men already embroiled in these dark, embittering battles that their is us and them when it comes to rape. You are not better if it has not happened to you. You will not be praised for never having done it or for leaving the scene as it’s about to occur and keeping silent about the terror you sensed there, afterward.

We carry her by resisting the urge to find the exact moment of the night in question that she could’ve had made a different choice, that she should’ve been back home, that she should’ve decided to sequester herself in her bedroom until the world stops producing boys who believe women are soulless slabs of sexual objectivity.

We carry her not with outrage, not by calling for blood, but by memorizing her face, memorizing the faces of the boys we pass every day, looking them all in the eye. Holding their gaze holds us accountable.

We carry her by understanding that not every rapist will be dissuaded. This means that, during our lifetime, we will not see a world entirely rid of messaging that enables or people who defend them. So we also carry her by focusing on those capable of change rather than those who willfully choose to label depravity as fraternal bonding or fun.

Even this feels lacking when I look at this girl’s crestfallen face. She is all but weightless on our shoulders; the opposite of burden. But lifting her is something. Dear Lord. It’s a stutter-step.

Why ‘Just’ is Jejune: On Cutting All But an Inch of My Hair.


The first photo I took yesterday that I loved. Probably the 12th attempt or so.

In the bathroom mirror, I tilted my head to the right, the index and middle fingers of my left hand clamping a dividing line between the tight, curly roots of my hair and the 11 or so inches of relaxed hair beyond them. I raised the scissors with my right hand, positioned the blades where my fingers were, like an ax at the foot of a tree, bit my lip, dropped both hands to my sides, scissors still clasped in the the right, and walked out of the bathroom.

I did this three times. Between each I went directly to my phone, toggling between encouraging text messages from my friend Joshunda and Google Images, where I’d searched the term “teeny weeny afro.”

It isn’t just hair. That, I knew before I impulsively decided around noon on the fourth of July to cut my own for the first time ever. Just is a sorcerer’s word; when used as an adjective, it’s meant to minimize impact. When we think someone is making too much of a thing, we say it’s “just” or “only” that thing. We say: you are making too big a deal of it.


My nana has probably had those scissors for all 27 or so years she’s lived in her current residence. Maybe even earlier. We use them for pretty much everything. Even cutting 11-12 inches of hair, apparently. I bought that brush and shea butter today.

No one should be allowed to measure the import of our actions or our response to those actions (or the actions of others) but us. No one knows how great or small the significance of anything is to us, unless we are able to tell them. And when we make the oft-colossal effort to convey that significance, we need to be met with a willingness to understand or at least to respect our outlook.

It isn’t just hair.

Still, I’ve never been fastidious about the upkeep of mine. And I knew I wouldn’t miss it much, were I to part with it on my own terms*.

On the third try, I made the first cut. The scissors may as well have been miked; that’s how pronounced each cut’s echo was in the bathroom. Handfuls of hair fell away in neat swaths. I dropped them into a plastic grocery bag. After the fourth fall of the scissors, the fourth pulling-away-and-plopping of the permed hair into the bag, I was immune both to the sound and sight of it. It would’ve been easy to read into that immunity, to make the moment reductive. Just hair-cutting.


Today’s selfies were fun.

But another sensation rushed into that blank space in the hours and the night to come. To cut your own hair is to make external what is constantly occurring within. Every day we are shearing something. We are clipping away at our anger or impatience or envy. Ideally, we are trimming the parts of ourselves that feel overgrown. And we are also losing something of ourselves every day: youth, naivety, impracticality, an acute desire — nay a near-physical need — to be right. But we are not always in such precise control of that work as we can be with cutting our own hair.

It was too easy, in fact, my whole head shorn in ten minutes. I kept trimming away too-straight ends throughout the afternoon and evening, but the dramatic work — the work that, potentially, would’ve been most traumatic, if I’d hated the outcome — was the quickest.

In this way, a haircut drastic enough to warrant notice or comment, a cut that moves the line between who finds you attractive and who does not, becomes an exercise in coping with the impermanence of all things. It is a way to accelerate the most private, deeply personal work we pursue lifelong. Knowing how simple it is to part with hair — upon which nearly everyone we know projects something: desire, frustration, envy, health, liveliness, a standard by which to judge beauty — makes possible the prospect of parting with harder things. Like people. Like money. Like life. Like jobs.

photo5 (1)

I took quite a few of them. I wasn’t happy with many, but then, I rarely am. That doesn’t seem to have changed with the length and texture of my hair. Also: I keep seeing more straight ends I should probably clip….

When we aren’t thrilled with a haircut — our own or someone else’s — we use the words, “It’ll grow back” as a reassurance.

Maybe it won’t, though — at least not in the form anyone remembers it. And maybe in its protracted absence, something better grows. Like confidence. Like creativity. Like laughter. Like self-reliance. Sometimes hair is a hedge that hides us. We rarely need to remain so obscured.

I probably won’t grow this out immediately. I’ve had length; I’m not wed to it. Besides, the longer it gets, the more dependent I’ll have to be on someone whose knowledge about hair extends beyond cutting it off. I’m looking forward to learning how to care for it at this length and with this texture. I want to see what else else this haircut has to teach me.

In the meantime, I will try not to talk about it much, even if it isn’t just hair.



I’ve come to comprehend, at last, why necessity is referred to as invention’s “mother.” There are few people on earth in as constant a state of need as those who’ve chosen to mother someone. Mothering forces the hand of creativity. Mothers* wrestle with angels and refuse to let go before they are blessed with something — either an actual resource or the means by which to create one themselves. We also wrestle with demons — not just our own but those that would presume to stalk our children. We feel responsible for everything and for distributing everything. When a thing fails, we stay up latest taking stock. When a thing succeeds, it is often because we have risen early to ensure that it would.

This is all to say: I create much more as a mother than I felt capable of creating before I became one. This is, in part, because I no longer have time to consider whether I’m capable of a thing before I undertake it. Often, I simply have to move and make that assessment later; now, too much depends on my movement.

As a writer, the only difference between my childless self and my mothering one is that now, I need what writing well can provide. It isn’t a lofty ideal, an untethered desire. I had endless time for crippling insecurity before I had another person to support. I could put off writing or set myself adrift on a sea of incomplete ideas because when I was alone, writing wasn’t anchored in need. It did it as I worked other jobs. I treated it like a side gig.

Now? I need the capital. I need the community. I need the insight. And I need the empathy. All of it, all of it, is necessary for me to be the best mother I can be. And that makes me fastidious.

Screenshot 2014-06-29 at 4.55.00 PM

Bellow is an invention that comes from this same chamber of need. Writing as a single mother may force greater productivity, but it also seems to insist on a greater sense of isolation.

“I love solitude but I prize it most when company is available.”  — Saul Bellow

I’ve written about this — and so have many others — but there are certain creative spaces that will be restricted to you with a baby or small child in tow. And they’re usually the spaces you need most: retreat spaces, residency sites, travel grant destinations, rooftop networking events, even bars (where readings are being held).

These, of course, are not problems specific to new parents. As a culture we are increasingly of how lack of access perpetuates inequality and works as a barrier to success. We are even beginning to parse what that means for writers, acknowledging the difficulty of becoming successful at it without access to the reservoirs of money and free or reduced-income housing that will allow new writers to work for pennies until they’re put on.

So few are put on — even as they burn through their meager savings and burn bridges with housemates, family and friends, doggedly insisting that a break is just around the corner. It must be. We’re good at what we do.

The more we say it, the reedier our voices feel and the more the sound echoes. Fewer supporters, fewer sound barriers.

Enter Bellow. It’s a very basic setup. All you need is a laptop with a webcam, a strong microphone, either internal or external, and wifi. You need relative privacy or a quiet background and earbuds. And you need your original work.

Each month, a small group of writers will meet on the third Wednesday at 8 PM Eastern and they’ll share their work — not just with each other — but with whomever in the world wants to watch them. We get to witness the facial expressions, nervous ticks and out-loud negotiations you’d make if you were in a dimly lit room in front of an intimate audience.

But you don’t need money, transportation, or even a lot of free time to connect with your crowd. It’s all about raising your voice and finding out who-all will hear you.

“I want to tell you, don’t marry suffering. Some people do. They get married to it, and sleep and eat together, just as husband and wife. If they go with joy they think it’s adultery.”  — Saul Bellow

So many writers, both emerging and established, know what it’s like to be invited to speak at a venue for free and to not have enough gas to get there. We know what it is to sit at home while friends text group-selfies from the pricey writing conference we couldn’t attend. We even know how to look like ethereal, like we’re above commerce and capitalism, when our ability to publish a certain number of freelance writing pieces a month is the only thing standing between us and eviction.

It isn’t much, Bellow. It may not help you make rent — at least not directly — but I’m hoping it becomes a place of understanding, encouragement and opportunity. These are the environs that even playing fields.

Come play with us. Bellow across the fields every third Wednesday of every month at 8 PM EST via Google Hangouts On Air. Connect with is there by adding our Google+ page to your circles and live-tweeting (@bellowseries) while you watch each webcast.

Bringing people into the here-and-now. The real universe. That’s the present moment. The past is no good to us. The future is full of anxiety. Only the present is real–the here-and-now.  — Saul Bellow

*I realize I made some generalizations about mothers in the opening paragraph. I’m usually good about not making blanket statements or applying caveats. But um. The best I can do here is: #NotAllMothers?

How We Reclaim What Alzheimer’s Robs.


You, lower left, taking one of many family pictures on the front porch. Clockwise from you: cousin Stephanie, your daughter, my Aunt Melita and Aunt Lorraine. You loved a good brooch and that particular shade of blue-green.

2128 Leahy Street, Muskegon, MI.

This is what I remember: a white house. Three levels, two bedrooms on the third floor where I was too afraid to sleep alone, your room on the first, where you let me sleep on a living room loveseat, twenty feet away from your door. Wallpaper. Yours was among the only houses I knew that had it. I grew up in brick buildings where family homes were referred to as “units” and leases dictated we keep the walls bare. One of your wallpaper patterns was pink. Maybe one had some green. The sun filled your kitchen. The some of the walls there were white. You had lots of cabinets and each one was full: more than one pattern of china, more sets than you’d ever need for one family gathering. Many dry goods.

Sometimes you had your milk delivered. In the ‘80s. (This is something I have to convince myself I didn’t imagine: the continued existence of professional milkmen in your neighborhood when I was little. But I am pretty sure it was true. I remember the bottles.)

A landing just off the kitchen led either down to the unfinished basement or into the lovely backyard. You gardened. I remember cornflowers. But I don’t know if they were in the grass or on the china or on the walls. You liked blue. I think of you often when I see gradients of blue. We sat in the yard and we counted the birds: cardinals and blue jays excited me most. But you knew more species by name than I would ever learn. We lured them with feeders and baths. We laughed as they pecked and preened and splashed. You were Mother Nature, as far as I was concerned. None of the black women in my life were more natural than you. But on many an occasion, my ears were scalded by the hot comb in your kitchen. I do not think you believed that a woman’s hair should look as wild or as free as her soul.

You loved water.

You loved water.

You let me plant watermelon seeds in the soil. I was never around to see the harvest; I had long returned to Baltimore for the school year by then. You were kind enough not to tell me what came of my little crop experiments. I’m guessing nothing.

Yours was the only home where I’ve ever hung laundry outdoors and waited for the wind to catch it, quicken it, ready it for folding. I remember the wooden clothespins, how I pretended they were people, peasants bowing to the queen standing with the laundry basket under the line.

The basement was unfinished. It had a sink where you washed my hair — a task neither of us relished — and a ping-pong table where you bested us all, match after match, like we weren’t your darling grandchildren, like you weren’t five or six decades older, like you were on a competition circuit. You laughed when you won. And you had the best winner’s laugh, low and crackling with an ageless mischief. It was the clearest indication I had that you had been raised the lone girl among older brothers.

me and gmom at nana's table

Until I was nearly four, I slept with you during my visits. I do not remember much, except what one never forgets about sharing a bed with her grandmother. Ideally, it is the safest place we can know, safer, in fact, than the beds of our parents, if for no other reason than that our grandparents once shared their beds with the children who would become our parents. They have shepherded a full generation before us to the harbor of adulthood. We’ve no reason to doubt they will guard us till we get there.

You and my grandfather in the '50s.

You and my grandfather in the ’50s.

We were only able to share a bed because the other half of yours was newly empty. My grandfather died one month after I was born. You had been married for over forty years and then your nest, long emptied of your four grown children, was entirely empty. There was only you. When I was born, I lived two hours away from you, in Lansing. You liked having me as company, though now that I have mothered an infant myself, I imagine it was the busy work you welcomed: the bathing and diapering, the feeding and bouncing to sleep. You kept me often in those first years. And when I was three, you remarried. Caring for a child is no substitute for the care exchanged in a marriage. You knew what you needed.

You and your new husband took us grandchildren to the fairgrounds. My favorite parts were the three-legged dogs and the flavored lip balm you’d buy me at the Avon tables: cola, cotton candy, mint chocolate chip. These were perks that eased the transition.

You and my bonus grandfather, Mr. A.

You and my bonus grandfather, Mr. A.

I will skip ahead, but I remember more: you sang hymns in soprano. The one wound tightest ‘round my memory of you is the Solid Rock* hymn. You sang it with a such sweet, earnest conviction that I can’t sing it myself without crying. I don’t sing it much anymore. And you taught me scriptures, all from the Pauline epistles. You believed in a different doctrine than the one I was learning at home, but our bibles were the same. The scriptures I link most closely to you is Ephesians 2:8-9: For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: [it is] the gift of God:not of works, lest any man should boast.

You in the early 1940s.

You in the early 1940s.

You could’ve opened a charm school. You were definitely mine. I learned elocution, how to cross my legs at the knee and fold my hands over them. But you enjoyed fishing and RV-ing and pugilism. Sometimes I think city girls are the last to truly comprehend just how many multitudes women can contain, how widely the definitions of “modern” and “traditional” vary. I understood it early, but only because of you. You believed women should be woodsy and refined in equal measure. I’m not sure if you’d approve of where I settled on those scales.

You drove a gray Cadillac. Fast. There were other cars. This is the one I recall.

You and your brothers in the '70s. From left: Uncles Sam, Leroy, Otis, Bill and Alex.

You and your brothers in the ’70s. From left: Uncles Sam, Leroy, Otis, Bill and Alex.

One of your brothers was named Bill. Uncle Bill had some form of dementia. I think it was Alzheimer’s. Not long after his arrival, I stopped spending the night at your house. There were many reasons — and I wasn’t sure about any of them at the time — but perhaps one of the most significant was that, if possible, when you are caring for someone with Alzheimer’s, it is important to keep the household residents he no longer recognizes to a minimum. It is simpler for everyone.

You cared for Uncle Bill until the day he died.

Seminole Shores Living Center, Muskegon, MI.

I don’t think much about the eight years you spent living with diagnosed Alzheimer’s. I visited you a handful of times while you lived at Seminole Shores, but with the exception of the first visit, these were moments long after you would’ve known who I was.

The family filled your room with photographs. You in much earlier times. You with all of us. You with your late husband and your living one. Every time I visited, there were greeting cards from whatever the last occasions may’ve been: Mother’s Day; your birthday; thinking of you. The staff dressed you mostly in sweat suits, because they were easier to don and to remove. You would not have found them flattering. But my aunts brought in a hairdresser to shampoo and style your hair each week and it was long and full and lovely for a while. In this, you would have reveled.

This is you and two girlfriends out on the town in Chicago. It's one of everyone's favorite photographs of you, circa 1940s.

This is you and two girlfriends out on the town in Chicago. It’s one of everyone’s favorite photographs of you, circa 1940s.

I do not think of you much during this time, because I have too few hooks on which to hang the limited memories. The room itself, aside from the mementos, was a unit, one in a hall of others just like it, visited by (thankfully) kind workers and the occasional wandering resident. But it is a not a part of your life I can connect to the rest.

There was no clothesline at Seminole Shores.

Last week, I watched a news segment on model and restaurateur B. Smith, whose early Alzheimer’s has fractured her life in premature and terrifying ways. (The excerpt above is a truncated version, edited by a full four minutes. The fuller, more honest transcript is here.) Her husband, Dan Gasby, is her caretaker. He reminds me very much of your son-in-laws; they too are steady and unwavering, but I would imagine that under Gasby circumstance, they would also feel very much out of their depth in suddenly having to care for a woman whose vibrancy and independence and ambition seemed to have been the very beacons guiding the course of their lives. Before she began to lash out at him and to ignore pointed questions, before she confessed to him what the doctors had told her about her condition, he and B. were business partners: she the visionary and public face, he the bulwark behind the scenes.

When I tell you that the segment staggered me, I am understating it. This woman, whose DC restaurant I visited often before it was shuttered, whose face I saw smiling up at me from packages of Betty Crocker cornbread mix for years, whose lifestyle series I’d watched on TV, struggled to answer questions about the date or found herself suddenly stifling a sob, and it disconcerted me in ways I couldn’t have anticipated.

I am heartbroken for her, irrevocably altered as her life has been and will be. And I marvel at her courage and candor, in willingly offering her story to the rest of us, as a call to reconsider how we think of Alzheimer’s and dementia. They are not diseases that only ravage the very old and the rapidly aging. And they are not illnesses from which we should avert our eyes. Loss of dignity isn’t in the involuntarily forgetting; it is in being discarded because of it.

I wish I had been more attentive. I would have more memory to write in the After and far less speculation. You had been gone for a long, long while in every sense but the bodily one. But I often wonder when the last of your memories retreated down whatever corridor where the rest of them were being held ransom. What were you able to hold onto longest?

I am fine not knowing. Consider that another mystery of our faith.


Here is what I know: you were deeply loved. You were frequently visited. And on the day that you died, I was there. You caregiver called in the morning. It was Saturday. We were speeding the 30-highway-minutes toward Seminole Shores when she called again to say that you were gone.

You looked like you were resting. We sat with your body for hours, waiting for the coroner. My father walked to the lake on the grounds and stared at it alone for a long while. All your children and some of your grandchildren arrived before you were taken to the mortician. We were alert and reverent, as you would’ve been, had it been any of us. The rest arrived later that night or by morning. We leaned on each other and spoke happily, vividly, accurately of you.

We still do. We have your letters, your photographs, an extensive chart of genealogy and most importantly, we have very different memories, distinct recollections and experiences of you. When we place them all together, when we shuffle and tilt and patch them, you reappear.

We still chase down that corridor, unearthing the many reams of your life that felt so irretrievable. We reclaim and recover you.

*You would not have loved this rendition of this hymn. Of that, I’m sure.

How to Spend 9 Years Without the Love of Your Life (A Tribute to Ruby Dee).


Live to be 91. This is the hearty number of years he would’ve wished for you, even if it meant that nine of them would be lived without him. He will know how to wait. Try to remember a time before him. You were just as whole — which seems impossible to fathom, given how full you felt with him near, but it’s true. If you were not, he would not have sought you, found the echoing hollow near your neck and whispered revolution behind the first of many theater curtains. You were always fully his and fully your own. This is true, even now that he’s gone.


Be the matinee idol next door, embodying housewives and grandmothers, Shakespearean shrews and slave women, while coming home to a husband who is writing you lines while you cook him dinner. You are rarely cast as the tragic beauty, nor the cleavage-baring vamp. You do not purr in leotards, are no dancing darling dashing off to the cabarets of France. But a stagecoach is as essential as a rollercoaster. We need long and stable passage more than the adrenaline thrill of a route that ends too soon. This has been why you are so beloved; you are approachable as our own matriarchs, as accessible as every brilliant woman any man worth his salt has been wise and lucky enough to adore.


Laugh at the young folks idealizing your love, wondering aloud how you can possibly go on. Oh, the nights! How long and cold they must seem without the heft of a 57-year love on the other side of the bed! They do not know it all. Even the most glorious partners snore or break wind or talk about someone else they’re romancing in their sleep. And these are not the only nights you’ve slept alone. Besides, don’t these young ones know that you witnessed and weathered and railed against worse horrors together than the inevitable ache of Death willing you apart?


Keep going because he left you marching orders. Look at the children and find him; he is right there, in the ardor of those eyes, in the firmness of their embrace, in their booming laughter. Not every widow and widower is afforded such auspice. Some are wrenched from one another without the least bit of warning. Some are left wondering what long lives would’ve wrought. You are living well and with no end of grace, in part for them.

In brief, be a bit like Ruby Dee: a warrior in your own right, who can conjure the besotted gaze of a newlywed as easily as the stern and steely glare of a no-nonsense elder; an actress, as unwilling to neatly fold away her hurt as to primly pretend she hasn’t dived a thousand leagues’ depth into passion. It all preserves you, loss and love, when you let it. And if you are open-handed, the balm of it protects everyone else you touch.

Then one day, when you are ready and the Good Lord wills, just go to him, like you always have, willing and aimed toward the next great adventure.


Don’t ever think I fell for you, or fell over you. I didn’t fall in love, I rose in it. ― Toni Morrison, Jazz

My Writing Process: Living Better.

photo (2)

I have no idea why I included this photo. I don’t really make this face before or during my writing process. Honest. lol

Oh, man. I really forgot I was supposed to do this by today. Nicole D. Collier graciously, generously, thoughtfully asked me to participate in the blog tour almost two weeks ago, and had I not seen my good friend Joshunda’s insightful response this morning, I would’ve likely gone on forgetting. Nicole is a really lovely writer and a singularly insightful thinker. She writes about things I wouldn’t readily consider. And sometimes when I’m reading Joshunda, I feel like she’s been reading my mind. I’m honored to be in their writerly company.

Apologies, y’all. I’ll try to be both brief and interesting.

1. What are you working on?

Becoming a better, more experienced, more observant, more interesting person. I’m 34 and inward to a real fault. I think my writing tends to suffer because of it. Social media, where I’m very active both for work and leisure, hasn’t always helped; my networks give me more reason to tune out of the world around me and to neglect the very necessary craft-observation of the people I encounter. I’m earbuds-in, head-down a lot of the time and I’m working most on being less invested in what’s going on in the palm of my hand and more invested in what lies without.

Writing people and places and experiences is only as authentic or credible as your witness. Imagination relies on what we can already access; no matter how little the worlds you build in your work resemble the one where we live, those worlds will be populated with ideas and people and experiences that draw on what you’ve seen and done and survived. Sometimes I feel like I’ve exhausted all my observation/experience and need to go out and acquire more… life. But every day is rife with potential, if you’re paying attention. I’m really working on that.

The less abstract answer is: I’m working on a collection of essays, having abandoned a novel manuscript. :)

2. How does your work differ from others’ work in the same genre?

Like a ton of writers/artists have already said: I don’t know that it does. I try to infuse a bit of the voice I use here at my blog — which is poetic and purple, at times — in the film, TV, culture commentary I write. These days, I feel like a lot of people are leaning more on a distinct personal creative nonfiction voice for commentary. It breaks up the “think-piece” monotony.

3. Why do you write what you do?

It’s all I’ve got. For whatever reason, I can’t access fiction, despite the fact that my MFA is in fiction writing. It’s just not something I can do quickly or well. It’s one of the most mysterious, elusive genres in which I’ve tried to write, second only to playwriting in my difficulty with it.

So I write what I can do fast and fairly well because I have a toddler and I’m her primary caregiver — which is to say I no longer have the luxury of struggling for months and years with no finished product to show for it. I can turn around an essay in four hours or less a lot of the time. It’s far more gratifying.

4. How does your writing process work?

These days I just write when, where and what I can. If it requires research, I open Google and do a cursory search. I go down the rabbit hole of long and short-form reporting both on the issue at hand and any tertiary issues that should also be considered. In the reading, I wait for the angle to become clear to me. It usually does after I’ve read between 4-6 strong, investigative pieces.

For blog entries, which I consider to be short personal essays that usually don’t require reporting, I just try to find quiet space to reflect or recollect details. Voice is very important to me here so silence, if I can swing it, is pretty important, as I need to hear the voice I’ll be using. I read aloud for flow (or try to) before hitting send or publish. If I don’t like the flow, I reword until I do.

Up until about a year ago, I was composing almost entirely on my iPhone and pen/paper. I have a particular brand of pen I prefer to use and I favor spiral notebooks. Now I have a Chromebook, and I’m using that to type this. But I still find that my iPhone-writing habit is a bit hard to break. It’s with me everywhere; this Chromebook isn’t.

That’s pretty much it for me.

I’ve asked my good friends Syreeta McFadden and Terryn aka DopeReads to do this next, but since I’m so late asking, I can’t guarantee it’ll be them. If it is, though, expect their installments on June 11.



To Die is Gain: On Meriam Ibrahim and Freedom.

Meriam Ibrahim, pictured with her husband of three years, Daniel Wani, a biochemist and Sudanese U.S. citizen

Meriam Ibrahim, pictured with her husband of three years, Daniel Wani, a biochemist and Sudanese U.S. citizen

For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body. [...] Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. [...] For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him….  — Philippians 1:21-24, 27a, 29, NIV

They say that even in labor, your swollen legs remained shackled and that your son, Martin, just over one and half years old, has been living with you under hellish conditions in Omdurman Federal Women’s Prison since you were arrested in September 2013. Yesterday, the world saw you holding your newborn daughter in a photograph. She was also shown resting in her father’s arms; this was the first time they had been allowed to meet. Her name, by coincidence and serendipity, is Maya, born days before the passing of the most renowned “Maya” the world has ever known. Your baby girl is breathtaking, as is your tiny son, whose large, dark eyes are like yours: serene, aware, uncompromising.

You are 27 and Christian and married. In America, this would be referred to as “doing things the ‘right’ way.” Had you married here, you could’ve danced to “My Baby Just Cares for Me” at your reception — simply because it’s true. No one would’ve questioned the validity of your union or labeled your joy as apostasy and you as an adulterer. You would’ve been lauded, held up as an exemplar of wholesome living. And had you been born here, it would be simple logic that you would adopt the religion of the parent who raised you — but only if you were so inclined. Your mother’s faith, after all, is the one to which you have been most exposed, the faith that you would have observed in action. Your father has been absent since you were six; who can know what he believed, other than that men can leave wives and children whenever they wish?

In America, faith is languorous and theoretical. We are extended the leisure of lifelong contemplation. Many of us are only as close to God as we feel and when we seek Him, it is often because we are wanting, unhappy with ourselves, after moral superiority, or courting approval. We pretend we have not come to Christ for a relationship that’s transactional, but too many of our churches preach that this is exactly what Christianity is: belief that if we perform, we will be rewarded. To be fair, I may be perched at the more cynical end of our faith’s branches. It has been a long while since I have seen fresh fruit from this vantage, so long, in fact, I sometimes wonder if the flock of us here are figs accursed: either tough and underripe or so fat and dripping we are on the verge on rot.

You should be in the throes of an intercontinental love affair, well on your way to joining your Sudanese husband in the home he’s secured for you with his U.S. citizenship and his residence in New Hampshire. By now, your new neighbors should have the benefit of proximity to your faith, so distinct from their own in that it has been threatened with government-sanctioned death. When you get here — and my faith is still strong enough to pray and hope and believe that you will — Americans will try to tell you that we know religious persecution. They will tell you our government has taken prayer out of schools and they’ll give you anecdotal evidence about gunman who’ve asked victims to deny God before shooting them in cold blood. They’ll cite abortion laws and tell you how challenged and buffeted they feel by The World’s changing mores. They’ll also have stories about missionaries at the ready — jailed for smuggling bibles and murdered for sharing the gospel.

Here, in order to access empathy, we distill people into the facets of themselves with which we can identify. To comprehend their plight, we need their reality to bend toward our own, and we discard the dimensions that are too complex or inaccessible to do so. (This is, in some ways, an inversion of what your own government is doing, in isolating the parts of you it cannot comprehend — not just your Christianity, but your insistence on maintaining your agency as a woman, as a daughter of a Christian mother, as a wife of a Christian husband, as a mother to Christian children you are willing to die to see raised in your family’s chosen faith.)

But if we are at our most honest, we would have to admit that a faith strong enough to submit oneself and one’s toddler to disease, interminable confinement, 100 lashes two weeks post-birth, and hanging in two years — as soon as the baby is weaned — is foreign to many of even our most devout. We have little context for women like you — yet women enduring punishments similar to yours are not uncommon. You are being flogged, killed, or threatened with either fate not just elsewhere in Sudan, but in the Maldives and Iran and Saudi Arabia and in countless countries other than my own. I would be remiss and disingenuous to attempt any personal parallel to that kind of suffering; I wish this were true of all of us who know full and well we will never face such brutal conditions.

Nonetheless, forgive my naivety in feeling grateful to have heard of you, at least, while there are still a few days left to fight for you. I’m sorry our embassy has so thoroughly failed your husband. We didn’t act when he first made us aware, waiting instead until your beauty and faith and cherubic children made your story more accessible to our sense of what’s right and just. It feels so late and impotent an effort, but we are fortunate to be forced to reckon with our negligence and what it does to families like yours.

We need to see the cost of unbroken faith, need to be ever reminded that the persecution of the privileged is not equal to that of the oppressed, need to recall what a woman who refuses oppression looks like after months of enduring the worst conditions and least possible care in a country that has always denied her freedom of speech, faith, choice, and identity.

It is not a universal experience. You are your own — and you are willing to die to remain so.

Here, we are often asked if we are willing to die for what we believe in. But we are asked in air-conditioned churches, where interfaith couples are as common a sight as dresses and suits. When we say yes, it feels like a favor; we are willing to give up a world where we have always felt some level of freedom for an eternity where we will feel yet freer. You are giving up a world that has denied you even the most inalienable of rights for a God who has always understood how vital those rights are to your existence.

I hope you live. I pray you do. I believe you will. But if you are martyred in two years or earlier, know that we who remain as witnesses will make sure your son and daughter know why you held on so tightly to yourself and your God. We will be here to help them make sense of your reported words to your husband:

‘If they want to execute me then they should go ahead and do it because I’m not going to change my faith. I refuse to change. I am not giving up Christianity just so that I can live. I know I could stay alive by becoming a Muslim and I would be able to look after our family, but I need to be true to myself.’

We will all be freer for it.

The Limits of Avoidance: Why Women Can’t Hide.


“Stepping onto a brand-new path is difficult, but not more difficult than remaining in a situation, which is not nurturing to the whole woman.” — Maya Angelou (1928-2014)

On Memorial Day, we had four encounters with men. We: three women, walking, near Washington Circle Park: my mother, my daughter and I, hungry after checking out of the hotel where I’d booked a one-night stay. Them: everywhere.

The first man did not ask for money; the sign propped against him on the sidewalk detailed his dire straits. I did not bother to read it before slipping a dollar into his cup. His eyes focused on us for the first time then, looked to the three of us with a flash of surprise that settled into a mix of gratitude and shame. He was still young, perhaps in his early 40s, and healthy-looking despite his apparent hard times. It was my turn to be first surprised — that he seemed so lucid and self-aware– then ashamed for finding that remarkable. His expression compelled me. I wanted to stay until I found something more useful to offer, more enduring than that meager dollar. But we went on.

We rarely go anywhere together, vacationing. When we do, I shoulder the entire expense, and it’s rare that I’m in a position to do so. My daughter, having never stayed in a hotel room, immediately claimed the little double-doored closet as her “house.” When it was time to sleep she sprawled across the stark white linens, making wings of her long arms: a snow angel in slumber. For once, in this queen-sized bed, she had room to flounce and thrash as wildly as she wished without so much as grazing me.

As a family, we are in dire need of more freedom and space. I, as primary breadwinner, am the one who worries most over this, the one who sees what it means when the baby smooths her hand over a wide swath of open bed space and grins deeply in her sleep. At home, she would grimace.

Her father says he is moving back. He mentions it near-daily now. But I do not know what it means. I do not know for instance how long after such a move he would have a place of his own where our daughter could have a room of her own (which is my highest toddler-hope for her). I do not know how evenly we will distribute care and time and expense. I have listened to the promises and know he will we do his best to honor them, but abstractions are difficult to account for; his close proximity can only be something to factor if it becomes a fact.

Until then, the promises make me angrier than I would ever admit.

We are three women defined, in many ways, by the absence of men. My mother knew but rarely saw her father; she was not raised to revere him, but she is a romantic and I believe that, in many small ways, she did. She adapted by loving the idea of men, by flirting not so much with them but with what they might come to mean if they stayed long enough. Her love has the longest arc; it begins by anticipating the happiest, haziest end. And she is rarely afraid of men — whether friend or family or foe — because she is projecting their best selves onto the broken bodies they bring to her. She is seeing their darkest spaces as capable of holding the most light.

I am not like her. I am often afraid of men. They are so foreign, so unknowable, and I become less of myself with them.

We came to DC the day after Elliot Rodger committed mass murder in Isla Vista. By the time we arrived, both media and popular opinion had offered their framing of the tragic narrative: Rodger resented women because no woman had ever wanted him. This, to his mind, was a crime punishable only by death.

He and his entitlement and racism and self-loathing became tent poles onto which we draped our declarations: #YesAllWomen have been menaced by men! And we came to the altars of social media, laying stories at one another’s feet, digital flowers at a makeshift memorial — only we were not quite mourning the dead (not yet). We were mourning whatever parts of ourselves we’d lost to men who’d made demands. We were lamenting the fear that never fails to form in our eyes whenever we are about to reject a man who will not take it well.

The second cluster of men were in the park, a lush, green circle sealed in by a ring of asphalt. One began to yell, hulking and hovering over a feebler man with a cane. We watched from a sidewalk across a street as the yelling man pushed the cane-bearer down. He stayed down as the other man punctuated his accusations with light kicks: “I was your friend! You lied to me and you hurt me!” A third man, who seemed to know them both, looked on. “When the police came to arrest you, I tried to stop them. I did! And this is how you do me?”

“Where are the police now?” my mother chuckled nervously, looking around for a patrol car.

As we watched another man approached the curb where we were waiting to cross. He was carrying a quart jug of iced tea, more than half-empty. While I searched my phone for the nearest restaurants, in part to avoid having to ask anyone else, my mother merrily asked the iced-tea-clutching man if he knew where we could find food nearby.

He turned his entire body toward her, fixed her with a stare both malicious and deeply annoyed and waited a beat before gritting, “I. Don’t. Know.” He kept staring at her after she smiled and said okay. He kept staring at her as I stared at him, dread creeping over my arms like a shawl. Then when he seemed satisfied, he turned himself out toward the street. He never looked toward the fight in the park. Maybe he’d known enough anger and violence and betrayal, too much to be concerned with its presence in others.

We settled at a table in Starbucks with a view of the park from the glass front. As the police pulled up ten minutes later, I asked my mother if she had been afraid of the man at the curb.

She shrugged. “Some men just hate women.”

I used to think I could hide from those kinds of men — or from all of them, really, until I developed a plan for how to safely interact with them. I never went anywhere where I’d feel outnumbered, never drank in public, never answered my phone after I’d felt pressured into giving out my number, only dated men I’d known and observed for months in a shared setting — church, work, school — and made sure I found something countercultural in them: a disinterest in defining themselves primarily by their aggression. And then, after all that, I still knew all I could do was remain wary and guarded and pray.


That was, of course, when I was 17 and had never dated, before I’d met so many confiding women whose most imminent male threats were in their homes (or jobs or churches or schools).

As an introvert, I wasn’t even immediately aware that I was in hiding, that I had made my own world as small as the circles we were strolling around in DC. A life as limited as the circumference of Washington Circle Park’s turnabout — and now, even there, it was clear how easily peril and desperation could commingle.

Like most grown women with little girls in their lives, I worry about what to tell my daughter. I wasn’t told much, myself. Stay away from men seemed to be the prevailing wisdom. I have, for the most part, and I have not been deeply harmed. But this is not owing to some fail-safe formula for reclusion; it is not the result of effectively secreting myself away.

And it is also no way for a little girl to live, pulling herself in when she’s meant to fling forth.

I will need to modify the advice I was given growing up: Listen closely to men. Stay away from the ones whose words belie strange ideas about who women are. Listen for expectations of subservience. Listen for irrational anger, for unreconciled loss, for pain. Only begin to ask questions when you have determined that you do not need to run. And then: listen ever closer.

The last man was toothless and I had a hard time understanding him. He saw the money in my hand at the hot dog truck and looked from my face to the bills to my face. He was old and it was hot, the sun still high in late afternoon. “Water. Water. Water be nice. W-w-water’d be nice.” Flustered, I asked the woman dressing my daughter’s hot dog where she kept the water. She pointed to a cooler to my left. When I opened it, the man said, “Coke, too. Can o’ Coke? Coke be nice.” Handing him the water, I muttered, “This is the best I can do.” I’d spent my last cash on it. My mother shook her head from the car, where she and my daughter sat waiting.

“What did you buy him?” she asked, before noting that I rarely turn anyone down. Then she smiled, likely thinking of how close the man had stood to me while making his requests. “You looked so unfazed.”

I wasn’t. There is little I find as unnerving as a strange man asking for help and in the process of being given it, changing the stakes or asking for more.

He would not have harmed me; he seemed harmless. But I was not unfazed. We sat and watched him acquire more from other tourists, stopping to get Popsicles and soft pretzels for their kids. I was glad he would not go hungry and glad to be back in the car.

We do not know which men will respond to us in ways that will make us feel safe. We do not know which ones will be kind and which are not used to kindness. We do not know what men will simply hate us because we are women. My mother, my daughter, and I encountered all of these types during our two days in D.C. And this is as much a reason to move freely through the world as any. To hide is merely to wait in immobile terror for an unknown evil to find us. And sometimes, it will.

“You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.” — Maya Angelou

To live is to engage every sense and gauge for ourselves our own stakes and the odds. We can live as though every man who comes near us is a bearer of a private apocalypse; we can hunker down, away from them. Or we can claim our space in the world, come what may, because it is our right. Either way, there will be fear. But only on the latter path will we learn to breach our own perimeters and feel free.

Under the Awnings of Powerful White Men: Thoughts on Amma Asante’s ‘Belle.’

Gugu Mbatha-Raw stars as Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay in 'Belle.'

Gugu Mbatha-Raw stars as Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay in ‘Belle.’

“I show up on TV because I have the cover of a powerful white man.” – Melissa Harris-Perry, The New School, Black Female Voices series, November 9, 2013

True favor isn’t often courted. It is bestowed by condition or order of birth; it stems from long observation, from arbitrary affinity. It is built from the bestower’s personal ordination or, just as likely, from sheer auspice.

If you have to curry it, the favor will be fleeting. If you must work hard to retain it, you will find yourself in a position most precarious: the circle within which you mingle has an imperceptible crack, and you will be all too aware that you are one quip from slipping through it.

In Amma Asante’s gorgeous film, Belle, Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay is a favored niece of William Murray, Earl of Mansfield and Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales. Dido was also biracial, her father a navy admiral who left her in Murray’s care, following her enslaved mother’s death in the 1760s.

The film explores this central conceit — that it is favor which saves Dido from a life of enslavement, favor that elevates her above conditions of servitude within the Murray manse. Belle makes a point of asserting that the only reason Dido is left with the Murrays is because of her father’s blood. Much is made of her legal right to residence in the household. But we know what tenuous claims (if any) white blood afforded blacks during the 18th century. If biracial children were to be free at all, it was solely at their white parent’s behest.

Favor, then, was as much a requisite for freedom as moral, legal or genetic imperative.

When Belle arrives at the house as a girl, her first exchange with Murray establishes that he finds her “clever.” They are looking at paintings of their family in the halls of his vast estate (paintings which will be a recurring theme, as the film is based on a real rendering of Dido and her white cousin, Elizabeth, with whom she was raised). In fact, Dido’s cleverness is noted by all the white men she meets.

Tom Wilkinson plays Dido's great-uncle, William Murray, Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales.

Tom Wilkinson plays Dido’s great-uncle, William Murray, Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales.

In the Austen tradition after which Belle seems patterned,  a woman’s cleverness is a commodity. It aids within a larger social system meant to undermine and underestimate women. In tales like these, men are always a bit surprised when women are clever. We can tell the good fathers and brothers and suitors from the despicable ones when they do not scoff at or feel threatened by a woman’s quick wit, talent or intellect.

Dido has three such good men near her. First her father, who’s only seen briefly, plucking her from the slums and insisting she is loved. He is so effusive in favoring her, it’s tempting for viewers to doubt him. Instead, his adoring tone sets up what will come for Dido: a charmed life in which her uncle and an eventual abolitionist suitor, John Davinier, both protect and praise her with the same fervor.

Sam Reid plays one of Belle's suitors, John Davinier.

Sam Reid plays one of Belle’s suitors, John Davinier.

I loved Belle. I loved its delicate treatment of race. We aren’t often offered portraits of 18th century life for blacks who aren’t enslaved. We aren’t often offered an onscreen reprieve from the brutality marking the era.

But this gentility is also troublesome. Dido is sheltered enough that she is unaware of the slave ship insurance case her uncle in the process of deciding until Mr. Davinier tells her. She has to plead with him to do so.

Unlike her uncle, Mr. Davinier expects Dido to be more “in touch with her blackness,” more vocal about it and less concerned with the frivolities of upper class life. (That expectation is compounded by his initial resentment that Dido’s station of birth is higher than his own.)

Meeting Mr. Davinier does, in fact, lead to a racial awakening. We know that Dido has never felt fully integrated into the Murray household; she’s required to dine alone and only invited to certain functions. She is fully aware that it’s because she’s biracial, but she also expects a change in station. She is surprised when she is not permitted to court as openly as her white cousin does. She is surprised whenever inequity presents itself at home.

One gets the sense that, if Mr. Davinier had not arrived to provide Dido with broader racial context, she simply would not have had it. (Here, it’s worth noting that — at least for part of the film — there is one other black woman present: a free black maid named Mabel, whose only lines in the film are offering to help Dido comb her hair and protecting Dido from being caught sneaking out. If the two women had been permitted more screen time or a single private conversation, we likely would have had the film’s only Bechdel Test-passing scenes, and Dido’s context for race would not have been confined to such narrow white gazes.)

Bethan Mary-James is Mabel.

Bethan Mary-James is Mabel.

Aside from Victorian fantasy, Belle is also part cautionary tale. It warns us against a race-blind approach to transracial adoption. There is no sheltering black children from the atrocities they may face beyond the gates of an all-white household. And it’s foolhardy for both parent and child not to anticipate how large race will loom in a black child’s life — even when that child is favored.

Late in the film, William Murray asks Dido just exactly what it is she wants. He is resigned and weary, convinced he’s given her everything he possibly could. He’s right. He has. But providing her a personal insulation from racism hasn’t been enough.

Earlier this year, Melissa Harris-Perry found herself in trouble with transracial adoptive parents for hosting a segment that featured a photograph of Mitt Romney’s adopted black grandchild. A panelist quipped, “One of these things is not like the others” and Harris-Perry chuckled knowingly at the truth of it. Kieran Romney will be raised in an all-white household in conditions of great wealth, but he will not experience life like the rest of his family.

Perhaps it is easier to make that point in a 90-minute film than in a 5-minute TV segment. But here it is: the favor of powerful white men does not shield black children from the blight of racism, neither does “white blood” when it courses under black skin.

It’s a lesson every child of color living under the awnings of powerful white families must learn. Even within their crystalline castles, life for us won’t be no crystal stair.