Toward a Life Worthy of its Art Direction.

On Monday, Medium’s Working Parents series published my essay on juggling the demands of parenting and freelance writing. It’s risky to write with candor about things like this when your employment prospects are constantly in flux. I’m never sure, when I’m at my most publicly honest, how it’ll affect any future hiring — and I’m not naive enough to believe that it won’t. But I also don’t know how to bottle anything up without it seeping its way into writing (ask my family or my exes). Whenever I feel especially alienated in a relationship or isolated in a situation, every word at my disposal grows a tentacle. I gather them and push them out toward anyone onto whom they might latch. And when I hear back from someone who says, “Yes, this has also been my experience,” or, “Now I understand your experience of our interaction,” every tensed nerve relaxes. The tentacles retract and words, at least in those moments of peace, simply become words again.

I also just think it benefits people to know what they’re getting when they get you. Sometimes I write to announce myself to strangers. In daily interaction, we don’t reveal even a fraction of what we’re thinking, feeling, fearing, or hoping. And we probably shouldn’t. But I’ve always felt that, when or if anyone ever wishes to know, there should be a manual for them, some shorter way to troubleshoot than the interminable, unaided process of trial and error.

I’ve heard back from several mothers this week about that piece and I’ve appreciated every exchange. We could all stand to have less pressure to hide essential parts of who we are. I’ve also gotten some very thoughtful leads from readers for flex work, remote work, and part-time work, and that’s been very touching. Every lead like that feels like encouragement to keeping finding ways to spend time with my little girl and, in a culture where I’ve seen unmarried black mothers harshly lambasted — and criminalized — for making these kinds of choices at the expense of their highest earning potential, I’m exceedingly grateful for that form of support.

Regardless of what happens, whether I take a full-time office job or continue working from home, I won’t forget those of you who validated my decision to freelance in my daughter’s first five years.

Every week has its own anatomy for the work-from-home single parent. Monday was chill and Tueday started out the same way, until I got an email offering me a labor-intensive project with a quick turnaround that I’m slated to begin this weekend. Wednesday and Thursday also brought new work responsibilities. I’m glad, then, that while my daughter was at school Tuesday morning, I decided to take these photos. I’m glad that when she got home from school, she joined me.

In the Working Parents essay, I focused on how difficult it is to juggle work and mothering. I centered the demands. But I didn’t talk about the lulls, the gaps between assignments, the ways in which the unexpectedly long waits for overdue checks can confine you to home (because you’re afraid to spend the money you have left and every time leaving home, it seems, involves an expenditure), and the ways you have to get inventive to avoid being listless or afraid or frustrated.

We take photos together and separately for countless reasons: to kill time, to bond, to giggle, to record this rare era — one that will draw to a close, for better or worse, before other of us is ready to let it go. Our self-portraits are also another way to shift our narrative. We create our story, add glamour in the places bleakness is poised to fester, add cheer when we’re feeling sort of down, add purpose to a day that is light on duty.

Most parents and their children do this. We fill our cell phones with moments. My family’s are intentionally artsy because we have time to make them that way. If these moments are merely our highlight reels, as so many have observed about what makes its way to social media or blogs, then what we choose to share says everything about who we think we are, who we aspire to be, and how we hope others perceive us.

I hope I’m perceived as thoughtful. Creative. Dramatic. Daring. Whimsical. Optimistic. Protective of my daughter’s wonder. Protective of my own. I hope I appear to be aiming toward an elsewhere, while relishing life right where I stand. 







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Three in a Day (and Other Feats).

I managed to catch this before the story rotated out of the feature spot. I think the sight of my story being the lead on the homepage will always thrill me, even when it only lasts a half-hour. That never gets old.
I managed to catch this before it rotated out of the feature spot. I think the sight of my story being the lead on a homepage will always thrill me, even when it only lasts a half-hour. That never gets old.

I’ve had a busy week, juggling multiple deadlines, and as fortune would have it, everything I wrote was published today: the latest of my weekly columns at New Republic and Washington Post Act Four, as well as a quick piece for Rolling Stone.

Here are links to those:

The Personal Essay Economy Offers Fewer Rewards for Black Women” – New Republic

The Perfect Guy and the Drawbacks of Colorblind Filmmaking” – Act Four

10 Things We Learned from Cosby: The Women Speak Special” – Rolling Stone

I honestly don’t know I managed to put out these three pieces this week. Some weeks are just “How I Got Over” weeks; from the other side, you see the chasm between fixed points and marvel that you made it. In addition to those three pieces of writing, I had a few other deadlines, meetings, obligations, trips. And the requisite duties of full-time caregiving for a daughter who’s becoming increasingly expectant of my time and attention, because we’re together roughly 21 hours a day every weekday (and 24 hours a day most weekends). She used to care less whether I was nearby when she was younger; now any distance we have from one another seems to overwhelm her. That makes conducting phone interviews, trying to write coherent sentences in momentary emptiness of the next room, fielding work calls hard, or just finding an uninterrupted stretch of minutes to compose a single, complete, and purely adult thought very challenging.

I don’t know if I’m a good enough writer to convey just how challenging it can be, so I won’t belabor it. Just know that this week, in particular, it all got the best of me. It’s important to admit that — and if there’s anyone around to help when you reach that breaking point, that critical mass of responsibility, tell them immediately and be very specific about what they can do to assist you.

A few days ago, I was looking at Twitter like I do compulsively every day and decided quite extemporaneously to stop tweeting. I took about five days off before I tweeted out my articles today and thanked some folks for sharing them (Thank you, if I didn’t tweet you directly; I saw it and I appreciate it). It was a good decision.

I’m not a cold turkey person; I don’t handle sudden and total abstinence well. It’s just hard for me to make drastic changes and stick to them. So I’ve still been reading my feed, but I’ve been refraining from active participation. My life has gotten really noisy, and I’ve been looking for ways to quiet it. This has proven to be an effective way to do that, at least in the short-term.

That said, there are a few things I just can’t resist sharing:

  1. This local news clip I cannot stop watching, because it’s amazing from start to finish:

  2. This really endearing story about a boy deciding to forgo the use of his prosthetic eye, because of Fetty Wap — and Fetty Wap’s nuanced, self-aware response, which thanks the boy’s mom for being “a fan of him as a person” (if not a fan of his music, because… yeah) and thanks the boy for being a fan of Fetty Wap, the artist: 

  3. I definitely would’ve tweeted yesterday about how I spent a few hours traveling by car to an all-Bilal soundtrack. I would’ve shared these two versions of “When Will You Call,” the raw, “She just left me, and I’ve forgotten the purpose of soap and water” original version and the “I’ve had some distance and I can be a bit more mature from a reasonable remove” Terrence Blanchard version. I would’ve noted that this song chronicles a textbook case of ghosting, which didn’t have a name back in 2001 when the track was released. I would’ve mentioned that I used to feel as anguished as he sounded when I listened to this as a 21-year-old. But when I listened yesterday, I wondered what he did that made her decide not just to leave but not to let him know why she was doing it. Age and experience can drastically alter the way we listen to songs. Early Bilal reminds me of when I was a senior in college (His first album dropped that year, and I’d never heard anything like it). In retrospect, he just sounds so impossibly young and petty and angsty — like we all were at that age and still are on occasion, if we’re being honest. I’ve connected with a lot of his later music (and I listened to a ton of it yesterday), but there’s something so nostalgic about First Born Second. Certain albums and artists make you feel like you can reclaim time; as long as you can revisit their past works, your own past — however naive or fraught– is never entirely lost.
  4. This was so good, I just went ahead and tweeted it, break-be-damned: 

    Please read that. It’s so important.

  5. Lastly, I *might* have shared this clip from early yesterday evening. It was around dusk and at that time, I was fielding second-round essay edits, stressing over a proposal, considering quitting professional writing, starving myself. So I thought it would be a great time to dance. My daughter, who was dealing with some toddler-level stress of her own, did not agree:

Dispatch from Freelancia.


I wasn’t supposed to be in town this week. I was supposed to be in New Mexico, about 30 minutes from Albuquerque, at a writing retreat. I’d been looking forward to it since April: the desert, the solitude, the productivity. Though I’ve been incredibly fortunate this summer, having traveled to Yale (three days) and to DC (two days, commuting) for training in digital storytelling and media appearances, respectively, neither of those opportunities — as useful as they’ve been — afforded me quiet, unmarked time to write. The writing retreat would’ve given me seven whole days, the longest stretch of time I would’ve spent away from home and away from my daughter not just this summer, but in the five years I’ve been a mother.

I was really ready for it.

I’d envisioned myself writing at least one (but ideal two) nonfiction book proposal(s) and finishing the rough draft of a YA novel, returning home with reams of handwritten notes for new projects, my brain swept clear of its dusty preoccupations. (In all my fantasies about free time, my reach exceeds my grasp.)

The trip didn’t pan out. I thought I’d have childcare for the entire week. I didn’t, and I couldn’t get an alternative solution together in time to attend.

The irony is that this was still the most productive writing week I’ve had in quite some time — distractions, kid in tow, and all.

I wrote two essays on Sunday, one that would run on Monday, the other on Tuesday. I spent the middle of Sunday night, between 1 am and 5 am, turning around edits on the Monday piece, and spent Monday afternoon turning around edits on the Tuesday piece. Then I turned my focus onto a piece that was due on Wednesday, one that required interviewing (and transcribing an interview) and watching a documentary. On Tuesday night, a reporter for the Baltimore Sun’s Insider blog called at 9 pm to interview me for a column called “The 410 in 140,” which focuses on Baltimoreans who use Twitter in noteworthy ways. I managed to file the essay with interviews late Wednesday (after staying up until 4 am Tuesday night/Wednesday morning to work on it); the piece ran Thursday. Thursday, I also pitched what I’ll be writing for Monday’s column with The New Republic and Thursday’s contribution to the Washington Post Act Four blog.

Today, I’ll be attempting to schedule and conduct interviews for the Monday column, as well as doing research for it.

You can find all this week’s essays and the Baltimore Sun Insider interview, in order of publication, here:

That level of productivity, when coupled with all the other demands on my time and resources, comes at a cost. And the anxiety I feel about generating ideas, meeting deadlines, and writing well — every time — is compounded by the freelance net 30 (or 40 or 60) payment terms. When I’m writing anywhere new, I’m never quite certain when I’ll be paid (and the onus is, of course, on me to invoice for payment in a timely manner, which I don’t always remember to do, because: other deadlines, responsibilities, invoices, obligations).

I love being this busy with the work of writing. I don’t love what the business of freelance writing does to my heart rate and stress levels. I hope it will always be okay for me to express that here, at my personal blog, without seeming ungrateful for the opportunities I’m being afforded. I wish I’d had access to this level of candor about the business of writing when I was, say, 18 and picking English as a college major, or even 26, when I borrowed thousands in loans for my creative writing MFA. I don’t believe in discouraging anyone who aspires to a career in new media writers, but I do believe they deserve to know what awaits them. I think more of us are being open about the rigors and challenges attendant to this life — and that can only benefit future generations of workers.


I’ve been giving some thought to how much of my life is spent online. One of the questions I fielded for the “410 in 140” piece was about whether or not I feel a pressure to use Twitter constantly. The answer is tricky. The relationship between the freelance writer and social media is an essential one. In much the same way that syllabi and lecture prep, grading, and holding “office*” hours are necessary, unpaid labor for adjunct instructors at colleges, social media use is necessary and unpaid labor for new media writers. It’s a basis for research, a space to solicit interview subjects, a platform for carrying out the kind of intellectual debate I imagine goes on between colleagues in the brick-and-mortar newsrooms to which I don’t have access (only, on social media, that debate is more inclusive, occurring as it does across class lines, regardless of city, state, or country of residence, with far more diversity along race, gender and disability lines).

I can say for certain that, to whatever extent I’m on anyone’s radar as a writer about culture, race, motherhood, or anything else, it’s owed to my online presence. Everyone goes about growing a readership differently. My way has been slow, with an emphasis on quality over quantity (even now, though it’s thrilling to occasionally discover raw numbers of clicks or unique visitors, I try not to linger too long on the size of an essay’s reading audience. I care more about how memorable and affecting a piece is, what — if anything lasting — it contributes to the larger discourse on an issue, and what — if anything — it compels a reader to do). Interacting with people online, thanking them for reading and sharing my work, trying to emphasize to them that we’re in ongoing dialogue and that I’m trying not to write at them, so much as to them, and that I’m not interested in having the last word on any topic, simply because I’ve been fortunate enough to have my word published — these are the cornerstones of approach to writing for new media and for growing an audience in a grossly oversaturated market.

But I do crave a greater sense of balance. I envy my friends who nobly take “social media breaks,” a week here, 30 days there. I covet how refreshed they always seem when they return. I’ve never been good at cutting off any activity or person completely cold turkey. I don’t know if that’s due to a lack of discipline or simply that I’m better at making long-term changes when I do so gradually and moderately. But I probably won’t ever have a long lapse of online silence. A day here or there, where I’m on deadline or actually (gasp) out gallivanting through the tangible, analog world around me, perhaps. But I imagine even then, I’ll tweet once or twice.

This is especially true now that I’m up to two weekly columns — one at The New Republic and one at The Washington Post Act Four. I can assure you that there isn’t enough pre-existing knowledge or opinion or insight in my head for me not to be reading news stories or engaging with other thinkers about the news of the day. The most efficient way for me to engage in that work is via my Twitter feed.

In the last few month of the year, however, I do want to make more of an effort to step away. Quality over quantity is a principle that needs to operating in my personal life, too. I’m quite proud of how much work I put out this week, over a number of publications. But this week was also supposed to be about retreating, getting some physical and emotional distance, and recharging. I’m hoping to make my weekend about that (… while also working on my Monday column).

*Adjuncts don’t typically have brick and mortar offices — and certainly not ones that they don’t share with anywhere from one to 40 other people.

Life with a Five-Year-Old Coworker.


In the past ten days, I’ve started three different potential blog posts, but I’ve been overcome with ennui somewhere between the opening paragraph and the halfway point of each. If I’m bored with the work, I know that you’ll be twice as bored. So I’m not going to publish any of that.

Since my last entry here, I’ve been published at twice, once about Bill Cosby and more recently about Black Twitter (I spoke about the latter — among other things — on L.A.’s KCRW Press Play on Friday).

I’ve also written more weekly contributions for The Washington Post’s Act Four, about my friend Daniel’s fantastic young adult novel, Shadowshaper (and about the state of YA lit for black and brown kids generally), about “The Astronaut Wives Club” and its dogged insistence on Disneyesque racial commentary, despite being set in the early 1960s; and most recently on the news that the Obamas’ first date is being made into a Before Sunrise/Medicine for Melancholy-type romantic dramedy.

Last weekend, I spent two days in D.C. at Women’s Media Center, where I was part of Progressive Women’s Voices Class of 2015.

When I couldn’t find anyone to watch my daughter for 10 hours per day (eight in training and two in round-trip Baltimore-DC driving commute), the Center kindly provided two amazing caregivers for my daughter. The first day, she timidly crept up to me as I sat in U formation at a table, trying to focus on the work ahead. I scooped her into my lap and rested my chin in the downy crown of her head. I felt so empowered in that moment, so supported. It was one of few moments in my parenting life when I felt like Having It All might not be the myth we’re convinced it is, that if work and life can never be quite balanced, they might at least have sweet, small clearings like this one at some of their intersections.

I breathed in the scent of my daughter’s hair, an admixture of cremes and jojoba, proud of myself for my tentative strides toward caring for it myself, ever since my mother — who’d lived with us since I gave birth and who, aside from being my first-string childcare back-up, was also my kid’s only hope for fashionable, healthy hairstyles — had moved away a month before.

My first-ever attempt at a milkmaid braid (or twist, as it were). I was so proud that I took pictures! Next up: learning to cornrow. ... Maybe.
My first-ever attempt at a milkmaid braid (or twist, as it were). I was so proud that I took pictures! Next up: learning to cornrow. … Maybe.

I was starting to get the hang of this, I thought. Finally. A full five years in. I’d worried that, with one less person to fall back on, the plates I’d already been struggling to spin would definitely topple. But here I was, managing a rigorous training program, surrounded by wildly accomplished women — chiefs of staff, directors of government agencies, nonprofit founders, news analysts, people who’d confidently testified before Congress, all of them the kinds of change agents I hope my own child will grow up to become. And here she was in my lap, being so serene and well-behaved. Here we were — miraculously — making it.

Then she lifted her head from my chest, and for a second, her face clouded. So did mine. “Are you o—?” I started and she answered by vomiting. Oatmeal, an orange wedge, a single bite of a chocolate muffin. There it all was in my lap.

So much for uncomplicated triumphs. Motherhood is a sustained effort at maintaining professional competence while struggling to mask the faint waft of toddler vomit lingering in the fabric of your smart little rayon-blend, business-professional romper. It’s practicing how to sound like an “expert” in an interview while rushing into the lobby between takes to rub your kid’s belly, make empathetic cooing noises, and apologize in advance to the sitter for any repeat-hurling performances (Mercifully, there were none). Because my attention was so divided, I didn’t entirely understand the assignment we were supposed to complete toward the end of Saturday’s session.

I ended the day flustered and deeply unsure of what I was even doing there. Had I experienced something like that at a training session before becoming a mother, I certainly would’ve excused myself from the table to cry. I was close this time.

But the thing that forced the tears back into their ducts was that I knew how hard I’d fought even to get to the building that morning. To load my child up and drive her here, to find our way out of a poorly designed underground parking garage without freaking out, to recover my calmness after getting lost in D.C. as I so often do, to keep telling myself that my acceptance to this program wasn’t a fluke and that someone more deserving without so many self-perceived obstacles should not, in fact, be here instead of me. Those things were as difficult as managing the heartstring-tugs of a nauseous child and the eight hours of new material that needed to be synthesized and practiced immediately. But I’d done them. Here we were. I’d do this, too.

Binder full of women(‘s media training material).

By Sunday, I knew that no matter how I performed in the day’s exercises, the training had already given me invaluable experience in managing my life. It helped me refocus on Beyond Baby Mamas, an undertaking I’d ironically convinced myself I was too busy simply trying to survive as a mom to devote the necessary attention to. It taught me not to be afraid to articulate my needs as a parent entering a professional space and, more importantly, to seek out spaces that are welcoming of and accommodating to me as a parent. Those spaces do exist and, when possible, I am entitled to enter them. Where they don’t yet exist, I now have a precedent for what such spaces should look and feel like. And above all, attending PWV media training boosted my confidence in my ability to juggle the unexpected with the anticipated, with my daughter in tow.

I’ve had few greater moments as a mother than the one I felt last weekend, when it became clear that my daughter understood what I was doing at Women’s Media Center as work — that even at almost-five-years-old, she is capable of comprehending that our world’s responsibilities are broader than the work we do at her school and in our apartment. As a (mostly) work-from-home mom, that felt momentous.

She was thrilled to return to the offices on Sunday. “Are we going back to work?” she asked and I knew then that she’d approached the weekend with her own sense of duty and viewed it with her own sort of seriousness.

Her voice and, often, her laughter filled the corridor outside the conference room, and some of the deeply gracious women there were calling her “Dr. Story” because she was wearing and wielding her Melissa and Doug lab coat and check-up tools. It should be said that, no fewer than ten times over the course of those two days, trainers and trainees asked after her recovery from the upset-tummy episode, and/or offered their own commiserating, encouraging anecdotes about their own kids’ projectile vomit.

I’m happy to report, our second day onsite was completely bile-free.

Children, Church, and Charleston-Writing at Vox and WaPo.

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Last week, I spent four evenings at a local United Methodist Church where my daughter was attending Vacation Bible School. My grandmother suggested I sign her up. She’ll be five on the first day of August and she’s reached a tipping point as it relates to social interaction.

When I moved back to Baltimore from Grand Rapids when she was one, I did it in part because my mother, my grandmother and her father’s parents were here. (The other major factor in moving had to do with the a greater breadth of career opportunity on the East Coast, as opposed to the Midwest.) But I didn’t take into account that by moving here, she wouldn’t have access to a single cousin. I’m an only child. My mom was raised as an only child. Her dad’s closest brother lives four hours away (and all three of his daughters are just about grown). She has zero extended family, beside grandparents, here.

I’d forgotten how big a deal that is. I wasn’t raised near cousins, either. And without siblings, I spent a lot of time alone as a kid. Most of my social interaction occurred at church. I still keep in touch with my church friends because of that; they kept me from complete childhood and adolescent isolation in ways they’ll never be able to imagine.

Most of the kids at VBS knew each other; they were a part of that church’s family. Many of them also had siblings and were attending with them. Only two girls were around my daughter’s age and they weren’t really playing with her because they had big sisters to shadow. Instead, my kid found herself surrounded by protective, older boys. They took her hand to lead her to the next station or small group activity. They gave her bear hugs. They looked down at her to make sure she was mouthing the right words and making the right gestures during song time.

It wasn’t lost on me that we were gathering in a church at night, that we were mostly black congregants, that predominantly black church gatherings at night have become sites where we have to worry over our safety in ways we haven’t had to in over 40 years.

I was introducing my daughter to church not just as a place for Sunday worship but a space where one’s sense of family is expanded. I’ve never seen as much joy on her face as I did on those nights.

Eliana Pinckney (left) and Malana Pickney (right) with mother, Jennifer (center) walking to the South Carolina statehouse
Eliana Pinckney (left) and Malana Pickney (right) with mother, Jennifer (center) walking to the South Carolina statehouse

I watched her beam and I thought of those girls, Eliana and Malana. I thought of how one of them was there that night, at bible study, waiting on her Daddy to be done for the night. I thought about the trauma etched onto their faces as they were photographed following his casket to the statehouse (under the shadow of a scornful flag). I thought about the bright white bows in their hair as they sat on either side of their mother in the front pew at his funeral.

The Pinckney girls and their mother at Rev. Clementa Pinckney's funeral
The Pinckney girls and their mother at Rev. Clementa Pinckney’s funeral

Church is family to them, too. I hope the other children there help them smile again, deeply smile, even if it may take years for them to see the edifice itself as a site of pure and guileless joy.

I wrote about the enduring importance of the black church now, in my first piece for Vox. You can read it here. (Many thanks to Dylan Matthews and Lauren Williams for the opportunity and editing, respectively!)

I also wrote about Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s new novel, Balm, at the Washington Post and how eerily resonant it is right now, set as it is on the cusp of the Civil War’s end.

It took me about a week after the massacre to submit anything to a publication about it. I blogged here first, as I often do when I’m trying to process something horrible, unsettling or difficult. I don’t have to be as coherent, precise, or formal in this space. And I feel more confident that the people who read me here are patient, nurturing, and supportive, as I try to work through tough emotions within a safe online community context. That’s important for people like me, who don’t have as many people to touch, soothe, or talk to in person as others.

Community matters. To the extent that any of us have a public voice, we owe its credibility and impact to the people who allow us to vet our first instincts and initial thoughts without condemnation.

Thanks to you all.

Say nice things about Baltimore (and Prince!).


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


  • 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 with my email address: stacialbrown at gmail dot com.


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.

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


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.


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:

Anatomy of a Failed Piece of Writing (Mine).


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.


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.

Downtime and First Bylines.

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

Screenshot 2015-02-13 at 4.19.56 PM

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.