Say nice things about Baltimore (and Prince!).

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In a story I wrote two weeks ago, I briefly mentioned my old church on Park Heights Avenue, directly across from Pimlico racetrack. (I always mention our proximity to the track because I vividly recall when we’d walk out of church and see trainers beginning to run their horses for each new season. In retrospect, it underscores the gross inequity in that area, within the fence, hundreds of thousands of dollars in invested and gambled revenue are being spent for Triple Crown season, while just beyond the Pimlico gates lay one of the city’s roughest communities.)

I’ve written here about that church and my childhood friends before, but to recap: the friends you make in a church youth group are of a particular sort that you do not forget. They’re different than school friends because you see them at their most vulnerable, through interaction with and admonition from their parents and siblings; working in service of something beyond themselves; ushering or a joining youth choir or feeding snacks to smaller children in children’s church. When elementary, middle, and high school grade levels or choices to attend private, public, or magnet programs begin to separate school friends, church friends remain together, under the same roof, seeking the same sanctuary, sometimes their whole lives long. And when they worship, when they weep or dance or yell or collapse, when they wear suits and dresses on Sundays when no one else in their social lives has ever seen them in one, you learn to keep their secrets.

Nikia was one of my best church friends around the end of middle school, going into high school. She and her little brother Eugene (aka Junior)  came to the church with their aunt, Vernetta, around that time and I remember them as inseparable. If some brothers and sisters bug each other senseless, these two seemed to have an enviable understanding of one another and a love and respect that just radiated whenever they were together.

I still ride for my youth group friends, but when I when I left that church at 16, I fell out of touch with most of them (until the rise of social media reconnected us).

Three or four years after I left, Junior was killed by Baltimore City Police. The shooting’s officer’s story was published in The Baltimore Sun. Nikia’s account of the last moments of Junior’s life have never been given similar weight in print. Until now. One of the greatest honors I have as a writer these days is being trusted to amplify the stories the people I love have guarded and carried and wanted to share for years, with anyone who would care even a fraction as much as they do. I’m glad I finally got to honor Junior’s legacy in this piece about Marilyn Mosby’s decision to charge the cops who killed Freddie Gray and what a few Baltimoreans think may be next for the city in The New Republic.

In other news:

  • I was on a Chicago-based radio program called This is Hell last weekend, discussing unrest in Baltimore City. You can listen here. (Also check out the May 1 broadcast of The Bill Press Show, where I offered a few remarks.)
  • Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Tracy K. Smith wrote a memoir about life with her mother, who succumbed to cancer when Smith was in her early 20s. For Slate, I wrote about why the quiet, uneventful grace of the story is revolutionary in a publishing world that doesn’t often make room for healthy slice-of-life vignettes about black mothers and daughters.
  • Prince gave an incredible, moving show in Baltimore on Mother’s Day and I still can’t believe I not only got to attend but also to write about it for The Washington Post

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  • There’s still time to donate to my Thread at Yale fundraising campaign — but if you want to contribute at this point, please do so via the PayPal option. I explain why here (Scroll to the last few paragraphs.), but the short of it is that I won’t be able to access the funds I raised a month ago until well after the New Haven trip is over, and I have to use my own extremely limited resources upfront to finish making tuition payments and to travel there, then reimburse myself on the back end. If anyone’s ever been through that, you know how dicey a process self-reimbursement can be. I know you’ve all already been amazingly, staggeringly generous, and I thank you for it. If there’s anyone else who didn’t get to give and would like to, however, you can do it via the Indiegogo link by selecting PayPal (the only option that releases contributions immediately) or contribute directly through PayPal.com with my email address: stacialbrown at gmail dot com.

 

Say nice things about Baltimore (and Prince!).

I’ve been writing about my beloved city. 

The dining hall that doubled as an overflow room at Freddie Gray’s funeral on Monday, New Shiloh Baptist Church

I wanted this post to be longer but in order to keep it timely, here’s a micro-post with links to all the writing I’ve been doing this week. I hope to do a more in-depth recap of this wild week in writing later. Until then:

  • I attended Freddie Gray’s funeral at New Shiloh Baptist on Monday — and left about 90 minutes before the riots broke out within blocks of the church.
  • Baltimore has had black commissioners and black mayors, off and on, since the early ’80s. It hasn’t done much to improve relationships between government and poor black citizens.
  • I’ve been glued to local news since Monday. Here’s why I’ve favored their coverage over MSNBC’s and (obviously) CNN’s.
  •  All Freddie Gray did to set in motion the fateful events that led to his death was look an officer in the eye. One chilling thing I learned writing this: running from police “unprovoked” is grounds for “reasonable suspicion” and subsequent arrest  — but only in “high-crime” (read “poor, predominantly black”) areas. When the Supreme Court ruled in favor of this, Justice Antonin Scalia used the following scripture as rationale: “The wicked flee when no man pursueth.” — Proberbs 28:1a.
I’ve been writing about my beloved city. 

Bits and Bobs: WaPo Column Recaps and Rihanna-Inspired Writing.

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Yesterday marked the publication of my third column at WaPo’s Act Four (if you missed the news, I’m a weekly contributor there now. Seriously. Pinch me.). I wrote about Trevor Noah, who I knew nothing about until it was announced Monday that he’ll be the new host of The Daily Show. My second piece was about Mo’ne Davis. The first was about the transition of an amazing multicultural bookstore inside 14th and V’s Busboys and Poets location in DC to a Politics and Prose satellite store. I love Politics and Prose, but it’s pretty white by comparison. For context, 85% of the children’s books at the old store, Teaching for Change, were either by or about children of color, which is unprecedented. The rest of the stock was similarly targeted toward readers of color and it was a rush walking in there, every single time. It’ll be missed.

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I also wrote about Rihanna, ’90s black pop princesses, middle-school bullying, and my long learning curve for self-advocacy yesterday, over at Medium. If you read that one and dig it, please share it. It could use a bit of a push.

I’m considering starting a weekly newsletter for writing links and announcements like these and for letting y’all know what I’m reading on- and offline (right now, I’m knee-deep in James Hannaham’s Delicious Foods, Tracy K. Smith’s memoir Ordinary Light, a re-read of James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk, this interview with Kiese Laymon, and hopefully, Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, which I’ve borrowed as a non-renewable digital copy from my local library. It’s due back in about 11 days and I’m not sure I’ll get to it before they gank it back).

If that kind of Tinyletter deal is something that interests you, something you’d sign-up to have emailed to you on a weekly basis, leave me a comment letting me know. I’d like to gauge interest before I start anything else.

Also, apropos of nothing, two days ago on YouTube, I found this long lost unreleased Dilla beat I rocked for months after he passed away back in 2006. It still goes. Y’all should give it a spin today:

Bits and Bobs: WaPo Column Recaps and Rihanna-Inspired Writing.

Anatomy of a Failed Piece of Writing (Mine).

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I didn’t have plans to talk about the Oscars this year — especially not in print. This year, they are not ours to lose. There is, of course, no nomination for the luminous, near-floating Lupita. There is no woeful deflation weighing on Chiwetel’s face as he watches his lifelong dream waft further away from him and closer to the white man who made films like Fool’s Gold and Ghosts of Girlfriends Past for a full fifteen years before Getting Serious About His Craft. This year, I’d planned to regard the awards far more impassively, not with the rigor or attentiveness of someone with anything particular at stake. I intended only to ogle the dresses and to smile at Neil Patrick Harris and to sip wine like a socialite, wanly yawning at 11 p.m.

But I was asked if I wanted to write. And the outlet that asked has been one of my dream publications since long before seeing my byline there felt even remotely attainable. So I tried to develop an argument that began with Jessica Chastain and Benedict Cumberbatch, both of whom had spoken out about lack of diversity and dearth of opportunity for actors of color, in the U.S. and the U.K. I wanted to assert that, perhaps if a critical mass of white actors used their social capital to advocate for diversity, we might see more of it at a quicker rate than we have in decades past.

I am also working on a new fiction project*, and it involves old Hollywood’s lesser-known black actresses. I thought it might be powerful to weave in the story of one of them, whose life I’d just started to research, into the essay I planned to write. When you are writing for your dream publication, you want to create something gorgeous and sprawling and epic but also spare and elegant and searing. A tall order, but one I thought I might achieve by opening the piece with the story of Nina Mae McKinney and her first film, 1929’s Hallelujah.

Historians Donald Bogle and Avery Clayton’s 2013 Criterion Collection DVD commentary for Hallelujah is available on YouTube. Below, I’ve cued up to Nina’s first scene. Listen for about three minutes, as Bogle describes her, and watch her work, to get a sense of how captivating she was:

Hallelujah was one of the first two films that “integrated” Hollywood: a film that took black characters seriously (until this point black folks were played by whites in blackface, almost always as villains and/or buffoons). The filmmaker, King Vidor, was white and already in the prime of his career. Still, the chance he took on employing black actors for a major Hollywood production was a big one. He mined already thriving black entertainment sectors, finding actors who’d worked in “race films“** and musicians playing segregated, all-black clubs in New York and LA to populate the cast. But none of these spots were where he found Nina Mae. Nina was plucked from Broadway. Just 16 years old, she’d shimmied her way into the chorus line of a black Broadway musical review, Blackbirds of 1928. Vidor was transfixed and knew he needed her to play the sweet, seductive con-woman Chick in Hallelujah.

For his efforts in finding just the right star in Nina Mae and telling a story that gave black characters their own passions and predicaments, outside of white households and white communities, King Vidor was nominated for an Oscar in 1930. Nina Mae, of course, was not. It would be another nine years before a black actress was first nominated for an Oscar — for a playing a maid whose story was told solely through her interactions with whites. (Fun fact: Pioneering Academy Award winner Hattie McDaniel had an older brother, Sam McDaniel, who was also a Hollyood actor. He starred with Nina Mae McKinney in Hallelujah.)

Vidor’s confidence in Nina Mae McKinney’s star power wasn’t misplaced. MGM took notice, too, and did something unprecedented as a result: the studio offered McKinney a multi-picture deal. She was the first black actress ever to receive one.

What follows will be a familiar story. Because films with all-black casts were still rare and novel occurrences in Hollywood, McKinney didn’t find much work there that showcased her talents as generously as Hallelujah did. In fact, much of the work on at least one of her contractual film roles was edited out of the final cut. Other roles were simply brief and underwritten. Impatient with the slow march of progress, McKinney left Hollywood for Europe, where she became the first black actress to appear on European television. But even there, super-stardom eluded her. McKinney died relatively young, one month before her 55th birthday. At the time of her passing, she was rumored both to have been struggling with addiction and to have been working, in the last years of her life, as a domestic in New York City.

Somehow, I wanted to weave McKinney’s life story into my essay. But I also wanted to talk about what it’s meant, historically, for the benefits white directors have received for black performances to have far outweighed the benefits, if any, that black artists themselves have enjoyed. I wanted to talk about the Academy’s caprice, how one year it can fete black actors for reliving the atrocities visited on our ancestors, then shut out other black artists, just one year later, for embodying different forebears — ones whose voices held slightly more sway over their generation’s oppressive white regime.

Then, of course, I would need to tie in today’s oppressive white regime (the 94 percent white contingent of Oscar voters). I would need to make an adequate case for white actors appealing to their own — directors, producers, writers, other white actors — that their storytelling and their performances could only be improved by the nuance and challenge racial and cultural diversity provides.

But in the end, whether it was a failure of time or of my arrangement and rearrangement of the words or of the strength of my argument (and I suspect it was some amalgam of the three), my final essay — a patchwork of paragraphs culled from three separate drafts — didn’t make it into my dream publication.

That final essay did find an open, welcoming and generous home. You can read it there.

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The Oscars, however, are tomorrow. And even after the publication of my (decent) post about them, I still felt fairly restless. I hadn’t called Nina Mae McKinney’s career back into our collective consciousness. I hadn’t taken white Hollywood to task and hadn’t had a chance to go on record as commending Chastain and Cumberbatch for speaking out (even if the latter called us “colored” when he did).

I am running out of space here, as well, so I won’t talk about how writers agonize over their rejections and how mine are becoming more frequent, the closer I get to a new rung on the ladder of whatever career I’m cobbling together here. I won’t talk about faith or having it shaken — or about how patient my loved ones are when my insecurities make me really uncomfortable to be near. I won’t describe my daughter’s crestfallen face when she twice found me crying last week. Not yet. Those are stories for other days. Indeed, they are stories I’ve already told you. Let’s not belabor them.

Instead, we can focus our attention elsewhere. I am just one black woman, weathering dashed hopes and reconfiguring herself after what feels like a failed enterprise. I’ve learned, in the past week especially, just how common it is to miss the mark and to gather yourself and go forward, just to miss it again. It’s a story much older than Hollywood, much older than most of our ancestors. But it will always be a story worth revisiting. Somehow, circling back to it always reinforces our foundation.

* Don’t put too, too much stock in mentions I make of fiction projects. Until I get some quiet, dedicate time to flesh them out, they haven’t gained much traction. Right now, I’m hopeful about this one. But get at me in a year and we’ll see where we are with it.

** More on race film history appears in the Bitch magazine piece that was eventually published.

Anatomy of a Failed Piece of Writing (Mine).

Downtime and First Bylines.

Very cool things have been afoot in the past week or so. Take a look:

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I wrote for The New Republic for the first time. Screenshot 2015-02-13 at 4.31.30 PMAnd I also had a first-time byline at Fusion.

It was a big week, in that way. I also had some emotional debris burble up to my surface when I was least expecting it. Sometimes, depending on your vantage and how much tears cloud your vision, it’s hard to see things like new freelance publications as the marvels that they are. Every time I get to place an essay anywhere, any time my brain functions from the first paragraph to the last, each time an editor is patient enough to press — What does this mean? Can you make this clearer? This needs a stronger conclusion. — I’m blessed. I’m fortunate. I’m spared.

I’ve been having a difficult time with trying to make a career of the work I believe I do best. I didn’t think it would be easy, but I also thought that once I got close to The Doors, I wouldn’t have to jiggle the knobs quite so hard. I thought I’d have the right ring of keys, that one of them would work. And one will. I have not exhausted them. One will.

If it seems that when I write about writing strides and the pursuit of a full-time writing career, I am in my most angst-ridden state, it’s because I am. It’s very easy to feel like an outsider looking in here, to feel isolated or confined to the outer court, when your friends are at the table of honor. And after a certain level of hope-shoring and deflation, you start to believe that it’s as likely to happen for me as it is not to — and if it doesn’t, I need yet another backup plan, yet another field of ability to pull from my hat or my ass. But it doesn’t take long to be reminded that this isn’t a feeling unique to me. The air is thin enough to make me think I’ve reached my top — the highest peak I’ll be able to climb. And I’ll start declaring what I’ve learned as though this is it; this is where I’ll plant my flag; this is the height from which I’ll begin a descent, from which I’ll have to prospect my next mountain, my next climb.

But this is never the height. Whenever I start to rappel, to scale my way down the side of a mountain, convincing myself that I need to be more practical, I need to earn more, I need to be able to offer my daughter greater creature comfort than piecemeal checks and short-term contracts will ever afford her or that I’m getting older, that I’m aging out of the new media market, that I don’t think I can stand to hear another “We went another way,” or “You’re great but not quite what we’re looking for,” a person’s word of encouragement, a new email from a new publication or an old friend, or just my own softer, more confident inner voice tightens my slack.

Last night, at the end of a day I spent crying pretty much from the time I dropped my daughter off at preschool until Scandal* started at 9 PM, word broke on Twitter that consummate journalist David Carr had died. I wasn’t as familiar with Carr as most of my Twitter feed, but I caught up quickly. One of the first and most frequently shared quotes from the iconic, generous, innovative editor and writer was this:

I couldn’t have read anything timelier or more comforting than this at the close of a dark day. The best writers, the ones who make it, leave as much of themselves to friends as they do to strangers. Last night, reading some of the many words he left behind, this stranger was as grateful to him as she would’ve been to a friend. Indeed, last night, it felt as though he became one.

 

*Scandal is really off-the-rails this season, right? Meanwhile, How to Get Away with Murder is greatly improving, now that the students are relegated to just quietly freaking out while Viola Davis stunts on every actor who dares share screen time with her. I would not have predicted this four episodes ago.

Downtime and First Bylines.

A Crazy Half-Week and a Today Show Appearance.

2014-12-16On Monday night, I recorded a segment for The Today Show. But that wasn’t even the craziest part of that day. I’d spent much of the morning and afternoon in a job interview (of the type where you have to actively fight the urge to pinch yourself to ensure that you’re even there and also fight the urge to take photos of the building front like a tourist). The next day, I had a phone interview for a different job. And today, as I type this post, I’m headed to New York to interview for yet another position.

I’m not someone with a history of multiple job interviews at once. I’m someone who doggedly applies to things for months at a time without many bites — or with bites that never make it past the first or second round of “quick chats,” tests, and interviews. I’m the person who cobbles together a living, out of multiple part-time or freelance gigs, painstakingly chosen to allow for the most time I can spent with my kid. This? This is new air for me. And it is a mighty, rushing wind.

I don’t know what will come of any of this. But I know that it bears out all those adages you hear about there being no overnight successes and how slow and steady wins the race and what happens when consistent practice meets opportunity.

I never get used to succeeding at things. I always enter new opportunities a bit uncertainly, more than a little awestruck, even as I carry with me all my previous wins. That’s because, alongside those wins, are the more vivid memories of losses. Risks that didn’t pay off. The job offer I wished I hadn’t taken, the poorly-timed personal life choices. The Am I capable? whisper never entirely fades.

But I do feel more capable than I did when I made those choices or took those risks or accepted the first offer of employment, because I really didn’t know what else would come or how long it would take. A willingness to bet on yourself, a refusal to undersell your skill set, doesn’t emerge from the ether one day. Self-confidence doesn’t come solely through outward affirmation (though that helps and certainly, it’s helped me, when it’s come in the form of readers like you, who leave sweet, honest, encouraging comments on this blog). But ultimately, that kind of temerity comes best in the form of work. It comes simply through proving yourself to yourself. It comes from questioning yourself until your “yes” is less mumble than shout. yes, i am capable. Yes, I can do this. Yes, I have the clips to back this up! YES; I AM CAPABLE!

Life is a loom at 35, all loops and snags and corrective weaving, brake pedals. Once patterns come together or reveal themselves to be ill-advised, it seems obvious, and I unravel, cut, stop, change pace, begin again. But at this point I know how the loom works. I know what it takes to make something sturdy and beautiful.

The loom is still large and intimidating, every new idea comes with a yard-length of questions, of doubts. But now, there is less hesitation. Accomplishment is becoming part of my muscle memory — even if it doesn’t reoccur as often or as quickly as I’d like. Even when I don’t feel ready, I’m confident that I can get ready. Fast.

The Today Show producer called around 6pm. I’d barely made it back to town after my job interview. She asked if I could come to the studio at 30 Rock. I called back and said I lived in Baltimore. I can’t. Without any hesitation, she said I could tape here in town. In 90 minutes. To discuss news that’s broken while I’d been stuck in traffic. Did I have an off-the-cuff opinion? Could I process potential implications and parse problems — right then? Yes, I said right away, remembering a time when I would’ve been too intimidated not to just echo my previous can’t. Yes, I repeated through a few more logistical phone calls, I can.

It’s the briefest clip and I know I have a tendency to romanticize small and fleeting moments, but I’m there. In it: the moment, that clip. Ready in a way I would not have a been two or three years ago. Ready, even now, traveling north on a train, in hopes to present my most competent self to potential (amazing) employer, and reminding myself all the way: I can, I can, I can. .

A Crazy Half-Week and a Today Show Appearance.

More at Buzzfeed, on Beauty and Sorrow.


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It’s been a really rough week and I’ve written three hard pieces. One is hosted here, about Tamir Rice and his far too untimely, unjust death). Before that, I wrote about how the role of makeup has changed for me after becoming a mother.  That was published last Sunday at Buzzfeed Ideas, but I don’t think many people had time to read about that between all the national tragedy we’ve been managing in the days since.

Then the night of the announcement that the St. Louis grand jury would not be indicting Darren Wilson, despite his testimony about why he murdered Michael Brown sounding like something straight out of D.W. Griffiths’ Birth of Nation, I started writing this piece about how the women in my household were processing the news. It went up the next afternoon. (As an aside: I really like writing for Buzzfeed Ideas, and that’s largely because of Doree Shafrir, who edits my work there. Pitch to her, writers.)

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I think I was so busy trying to write something about the announcement that I didn’t immediately process it. I also think that because I was so deeply invested in the outcome of the George Zimmerman trial and I’m still not entirely over his acquittal, I couldn’t put much stock in the outcome of this grand jury consideration of an indictment. It’s been clearer with Ferguson. Every agency of authority in the state of Missouri has conspired to protect the shooting officer here. And that’s been terrifying for every day since August 9.

Anyway, it’s the day before Thanksgiving and I’m trying to hold love and hope and gratitude in the same crowded heart that’s already so swollen with anger and defeat. So I’ll let what I’ve already written speak to what I’m currently feeling. I wrote about Michael Brown and Ferguson six times this summer. Not much has changed there.

On a cooler note, a Twitter friend told me that my very first Buzzfeed Ideas piece, on parenting and empathy, is now available as an audio-read at Umano.

More at Buzzfeed, on Beauty and Sorrow.