Blackgirl Songs for Summer Writing.

Me, when someone asks when I'm gonna write a novel.

Me, when someone asks when I’m gonna write a novel.

Summer is always when I sacrifice words to the genre-volcano of fiction. If you check the fiction tag here, you’ll find that two-thirds of the entries were posted during the summer months. One summer I even blogged half a novel draft. The only reason I can figure for that pattern is that during the traditional academic school year, I’m not often in “fiction headspace.” I typically spend those months talking about current events, creative nonfiction/personal essays, or field-specific research and citation.

I alluded to this recently here when I wrote about my writing process, but fiction is very difficult for me to write. I find it incredibly daunting. This was part of the reason I chose it as a concentration for graduate study. I wanted to get a firmer grasp on how to write it. But what I found was that my peers tended to be more structurally advanced than I was (many of them had either majored in creative writing in undergrad or participated in other formal writing instruction before attempting our degree). Because I’d never studied creative writing, aside from one poetry class in my first year of grad school. I found a lot of classroom discussion overwhelming. I remember actually crying in one craft class during my first year because I felt so underwater. Everyone sounded like they were speaking a language I not only hadn’t ever heard but didn’t know existed. I spent all of grad school being drawn out by instructors, hardly ever offering feedback without being prompted. And I always felt like I was guessing.

Wow. That entire last paragraph was a tangent I hadn’t intended to draw. But the point was: I find fiction elusive — and there always seem to be new impediments for me as I try to grasp it. The most recent has been motherhood. It requires me to be more practical in thought and economical with time and resources. For me, fiction requires a great deal of time for contemplation and invention. You may be drawing on personal truths and lived experience but you’re constructing it on untilled terrain, drawing on blood memory and pure imagination.

It is hard for me to do that. I always feel like I should be doing something else: working, trying to find work, actively parenting.

But recently, I found out that, as is the case with many of my summers, one of my work contracts is ending and it won’t be renewed, which means that, while I search for other work, I’m affording that long stretch of summer-waiting time I knew so well as an adjunct. And I’ve opted not to return to adjuncting this fall, so the world feels just terrifying and wide-open enough for me to be daring again. Truly daring. And right now, to be “truly daring” is to fit fiction into the current structure of my life the way I’ve managed to fit in blogging and essay-writing.

The groove I hope to get into while writing this summer.

The groove I hope to get into while writing this summer.

At this point, you’re probably looking for the playlist the title of this post promises. The wait’s over; I’m totally shutting up now, except to say: these are the songs I’m listening to and performances I’m watching as I try to be truly daring as a writer-of-fiction this summer. They aren’t new, and if you follow me on social media, you’ve probably already seen some of them. But enjoy:

1. Lianne La Havas – “Twice”

La Havas’ voice is without flaw on this cover, but I’m just as entranced by the barnyard motif. Generally, I love how intentional she is about creating synergy between her performance space and her performances.

2. Liv Warfield – “Why Do You Lie?”

Warfield is the definition of “truly daring” as a stage performer. She sings with her entire body the way I aspire to write with the whole of mine.

3. Emily King – “Distance”

I’ve a thing for rooftops. I always have. I’ve romanticized them, written them into stories as a girl, all that. But when I’ve actually been on them, it’s almost always been overwhelming. Watching King perform this gorgeous track on one reasserts the rooftop as a place of romance and creativity and possibility.

4.  Valerie June – “Workin’ Woman Blues”/”Rain Dance”/”Somebody To Love”

This NPR Tiny Desk Concert was my first introduction to Valerie June. She’ll be a summer staple, sounding as she does of wraparound porches with swings, stallions circling, swekerchiefs and sun tea.

5. Georgia Anne Muldrow – “More and More” (featuring Bilal)

So, so much love in this song, in all Georgia’s songs. Black love, black pride, black togetherness. “We, we are a tribe. Don’t go on thinkin’ no one’s on your side.” Word.

6. Lianne La Havas – “No Room for Doubt”

Another example of gorgeous scene and lovely singing.

7. Alice Smith – “So Bad”

Full disclosure: I’m only including Alice Smith here because of some very dear friends. It’s a highly coincidental, uncanny story.  On February 20, my girl @dopegirlfresh tweeted that she’d decided the day before that Alice Smith sings like I write. On February 19, my friend Alisa sent me a Facebook message with a link to this magazine spread and wrote, “Somewhat random, but Alice Smith did a spread for InStyle for her new album and she reminded me so much of you.” Those were completely unrelated musings. Then, my dear friend Joshunda saw Alice Smith perform at the Howard Theatre last weekend and when I asked her how it went, she said she loved it and Smith reminded her of me. So clearly, Alice Smith and I are soul sisters or something. I’m not in the regular practice of listening to her work, but I loved the performance above and this one at Grand Street Bakery is moving, too. There’s a lot of aching in her face when she sings. She can conjure the feeling of being lovelorn fairly easily. I can, too, whether I’m actually feeling it or not. That’s something I’ve recently learned and I suspect it’ll serve me well writing fiction.

That’s it for now, but I’ll check back in later this summer with a progress report. Hopefully, this project will stick and whatever words I offer to the volcano this year will finally appease it. For a while. :)

Feel free to add your own summer writing playlist below. I’m always interested in what artists serve as writers’ muses or background noise.

 

Levels to This: One Week at WaPo.

The dream is work.

The dream is work.

In the moment that a dream is being realized, reckoning is not immediate. You will not necessarily feel capsized by awe and appreciation. You may barely be moved. More people should tell us this. Success isn’t often cinematic. It does not rain down like Publishers Clearinghouse confetti, does not announce itself with an oversized check. Success is merely more work. You may feel distinctly alone in it, may pretend to be surprised by it, for in truth, it is a bit surprising to find yourself, after year upon year of head-down toil, interrupted by recognition and requests. And it’s genuinely exciting, isn’t it, to be a person working among the people whose work — and comportment, post-success — you’ve been studying the whole time?

But you aren’t bowled over by dreams made manifest. Not all hard work is rewarded in the same ways. Some hard work isn’t rewarded at all. No one knows this better than those of us who have waited — and are still waiting — for their Moment. Still, it’s the law of averages. When you’re consistent long enough, it stands to reason someone will remember having glimpsed you in the eaves and crannies. You were always here. You just weren’t where they’ve asked you to stand now.

My week writing at Alyssa Rosenberg’s Act Four at The Washington Post wrapped Friday and I’m still on cloud nine about the opportunity. It taught me things about myself and stretched me pretty far beyond any realm where I’m comfortable. But I was also struck by how calm it all felt — even the panicky moments when, at 11pm on the night before a post was due, I still hadn’t settled on a topic.

I thought I’d be more afraid or soaked in euphoria or unable to function at anything other than writing for a property branded by one of the country’s foremost papers.

And then I remembered: I’ve been vetted for this.

I had my first heart palpitations, shortness of breath and crying jags six years ago when I started teaching college composition. Anxiety intensified two semesters later when I found myself teaching six college courses on three campuses. And it did not go away when I learned to scale back, learned that “drive” at the expense of physical or mental health is empty at best and perilous at worst.

There is nothing wrong with the slow rise, the circuitous, meandering exploration of many paths. We are not all meant to be meteors. Some of us are satellites: we hover, capture, study. We wait. There is no shame in it.

In waiting and working, you learn what you’ll need for the next level. Writing well on next to no time is a necessary skill, but so is turning offers down or skipping the pitch when you’re feeling that familiar chest-tightening angst that will prevent you from executing the full article well or with timeliness. And you should exercise, which I don’t. And you should eat, which I do too infrequently. And you should sleep in ways that are unbroken, and I fail at this as well. But all of it is work. Keep at it and the pebbles and boulders and weeds get familiar. You will know where you’re going.

I am telling you all this because nobody told me. This is not a lament; some things are better discovered alone — and I’ve been fortunate to have the benefit of company more successful than I for most of my adult life. But maybe something I’ve said here will help you. Enjoy yourself when you win; just don’t look to the heavens for fireworks when what you should be hoping to find there is greater revelation.

Here are links to what I wrote last week. I’m not too humble to admit I liked all of it and not too proud to concede I could’ve written some pieces better.

Fun fact: when you write for an online component of a daily paper, people don’t just leave comments on the post; some write to your personal email account. That freaked me out at first. It renders null any “don’t read the comments” policy you have. Mercifully, everyone who took time to write me last week was kind.

Monday: http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/act-four/wp/2014/05/05/where-are-the-black-ballerinas/

Tuesday: http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/act-four/wp/2014/05/06/can-we-avoid-mistakes-in-responding-to-the-nigeria-kidnappings/

Wednesday: http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/act-four/wp/2014/05/07/why-we-should-worry-about-a-resurrected-shes-gotta-have-it/

Thursday: http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/act-four/wp/2014/05/08/will-the-remake-of-private-benjamin-miss-the-originals-point/

Friday: http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/act-four/wp/2014/05/09/kim-kardashian-admits-she-is-only-now-aware-that-racism-exists/?tid=pm_opinions_pop

I’m Guest-Blogging at The Washington Post This Week!

Image

I’ll be here all week!

I didn’t want to say anything here until I had an official first link to share. Now that I have one, here’s this week’s big news: I’m filling in for the incomparable Alyssa Rosenberg this week at her WaPo blog, Act Four. If you’re not already reading Act Four, you totally should be; it’s incredible. There’s no one like Alyssa. I’ve been following her for years, beginning with her work at ThinkProgress, and I’ve never ceased to be impressed by how much insight she can infuse into TV, film, and culture. I was first astounded then honored that she invited me to do this. It’s not every day that someone you admire is gracious enough to share such an illustrious platform with you. When it happens, there’s little else to be but awestruck and deeply grateful.

I’m pretty sure I’ll be pinching myself all week long. I even went big and showed my first byline there to my nana (who is kind of hard to impress). This did the trick; she gave me the eyebrow-raise and head-nod of approval. Woot! Hopefully some of this week’s readers will do the same. :)

Oh! Also: if you have any topic suggestions for me to cover — related to pop culture or politics (I’m great at the former, not nearly as well-versed at the latter) — leave them in the comments section here. I’m writing one post a day till Friday. I can’t guarantee I’ll get to any topic you may suggest, but it’d be really nice to hear from you.

In the meantime, watch the breathtaking Michaela DePrince perform this spot on impression of the way my heart feels right now:

Image

Elevators: On Outkast and Adolescence.

He was obsessing over something new, like he did every summer, swinging an outstretched arm from side to side in front of him and swaying like a like a brother entranced. “Meee and yoooou,” he crooned, “Yo’ mama and yo’ cousins, tooooo…” He wouldn’t stop and I had no idea what he was talking about. “Rollin’ down the strip on voooogues…”

“Wait. What are ‘vogues?’ What is this?”

“You never heard-a Outkast?!”

It was the same routine whenever I saw him. My cousin Joe would roll in from Chicago, a year younger than I, impossibly charming and popular — football star that he was, and jone on me for not knowing about some artist or group he’d just made his new obsession.

I’d been raised with a mild, sporadically enforced “secular music restriction.” I couldn’t listen to uncensored hip-hop or suggestive R&B at home and it never bothered me enough to try to sneak it that often. I gleaned most of my knowledge of ’90s R&B and hip-hop from classmates singing hooks and from lingering a bit too long on Video Soul or Rap City during the hours I spent alone after school.

I also relied pretty heavily on my cousins who, during the summers I spent with them in Michigan, kept a constant loop of BET, MTV, cassette dubs of radio broadcasts, live radio, and VHS-taped videos going in their homes whenever we weren’t outside playing.

Had I known that ’90s hip-hop would mark the pinnacle of the genre, its highest creative, inventive, and political height, I may’ve resided more in the moment. If I had known that the cream of our crop would skim itself off into Hollywood or clothing lines, flavored vodka or death, early retirement, Vegas acts or obscurity, I might’ve snuck my own constant loop of their best works in through headphones at home.

And if I’d done that, I wouldn’t have seemed so hopelessly out of the loop with Joe. We would’ve been swinging our outstretched arms from side-to-side together. But fortunately, I paid attention to the hook he sang that day, and “Elevators” became my earliest introduction to Outkast. I wish I could say I stuck closely to their discography from that day on, but I didn’t. I have my songs, my preciouses: “Rosa Parks,” “Liberation,” “In Due Time,” and yeah, “Ms. Jackson,” and yeah, “Hey Ya!“. Still. But I don’t claim to be a die-hard Outkast fan. What I can claim is that they would become one of the most vibrant, critical tiles in the mosaic of hip-hop comprehension I managed to cobble together before it became unrecognizable to me again.

I loved that they met and formed their group in high school, loved that they’d managed to hold onto each other as long as they did, even as it was obvious the root from which they sprang was splitting, clearly sprouting different fruit.

It isn’t easy.

My high school had its own inseparable duos. Plenty of them. But the ones I knew best were Ryan and Curtis, stars of our magnet program, who’d met a year earlier at our middle school. Ryan had come to us from California, which made him exotic. He didn’t talk or act like a Baltimorean and he didn’t dress like one. Back then, none of us knew much about different performances of blackness, but if we had, we would’ve recognized that the way he stood straight with his shoulders squared, the way when he liked a girl he just told her, the plainspeak of him without accent or accessible slang, was his own expression of culture. I don’t know if he was raised in a black community. But the rest of us were — and it had led us to very regional, perhaps limited, ideas about what being black meant. It was a testament to Ryan that the coastal exchange rate of his cool transferred so evenly at a new school in Baltimore.

Curtis more closely resembled us; he was raised in Baltimore (as far as I know) and he talked like it, an exaggerated “-ew” in his “-oo” words, a pronunciation of the word “dog” as “dug,” of “marry” as “murry” and “Murray” as “marry.” He dressed like it: loose, low-slung pants, polo shirts (which were in then), and Timbs.

By high school, Ryan and Curtis were a bonafide inseparable pair. They were comic powerhouses in the grand tradition of ’90s duos: Kenan and Kel, Marlon and Shawn Wayans, Theo and Cockroach, Dwayne Wayne and Ron. During high school, Curtis adopted the name Kaine, an homage to the lead in Menace II Society. I think Ryan just kept calling himself Ryan.

If you pay close enough attention to boys who are close like this, when you really observe them together, you understand that the ease of their fraternity belies something deeper. You won’t know much of what forged that bond or what welds it. But best believe: it is not as simple (or as perpetually fun) as it looks.

Outkast’s early oeuvre underscores that point.

One for the money yes uhh two for the show
A couple of years ago on Headland and Delowe
Was the start of somethin good
Where me and my nigga rodes the MARTA, through the hood
Just tryin ta find that hookup
Now everyday we look up at the ceiling
Watchin ceiling fans go around tryin ta catch that feelin  — Dre, “Elevators”

 

Got stopped at the mall the other day
Heard a call from the other way
that I just came from, some nigga was sayin somethin
talkin bout “Hey man, you remember me from school?”
Naw not really but he kept smilin like a clown
facial expression lookin silly
And he kept askin me, what kind of car you drive, I know you paid
I know y’all got buku of hoes from all them songs that y’all done made
And I replied that I had been goin through tha same thing that he had
True I got more fans than the average man but not enough loot to last me
to the end of the week, I live by the beat like you live check to check
If you don’t move yo’ foot then I don’t eat, so we like neck to neck    — Dre, “Elevators” 

It’s a song about growing, about trying to carrying each other’s weight as you climb and the pressure of it and the nostalgia of lower stakes.

At some point during high school Curtis moved in with Ryan after his father took a job in another school district. It seemed to have made them even closer, more like actual brothers — with all the subtext attendant to sibling relationships — than friends. But I could be wrong.

I don’t know much about the inner lives of boys. It’s what makes consuming what they create and consume so significant. When they are thoughtful or wise, it comes across in the music. When they’ve been taught misogyny, there’s no hiding it. Their ethics waft up along with their vices, all flotsam fully visible on the surface of their songs and sayings.

Me and my nigga we roll together like Batman and Robin
We prayed together through hard times and swung hard when it was fitting
But now we tappin’ the brakes from all them corners that we be bending
In Volkswagens and Bonnevilles, Chevrolets and Coupe de Villes  — Big Boi, “Aquemini”

And sometimes you can tell by what they listen to, by which verses move them, which ones they can recite as easily as their family’s names, what is important to them, what will eventually sink them or carry them ashore.

Twice upon a time there was a boy who died
And lived happily ever after, but that’s another chapter
Live from home of the brave with dirty dollars
And beauty parlors and baby bottles and bowling ball Impalas
And street scholars that’s majoring in culinary arts
You know how to work bread, cheese and dough
From scratch but see the catch is you can get caught
Know what ya sellin’ what you bought  — Dre, “Aquemini”

After high school, you lose people or lose track of them. I did, anyway. I have no idea what happened to Ryan. But I know Curtis died. I didn’t find out until the weekend after his funeral. This was before social media. I found out from an old friend with whom I didn’t keep in regular touch, once we were in college. We happened to email each other that weekend. She said she thought I knew. But how could I have?

Back then, I thought high school — its dramas, high notes, all its sordid bonds and break-ups — was ballast you cast off on the way to adulthood. I didn’t keep close to anyone. I had yet to recognize its value.

Last night, Antwan “Big Boi” Patton and Andre “3000” Benjamin took to Coachella’s opening night stage and performed a collection of their hits for over an hour. When Big Boi chuckles as he calls out, “Outkast… twenty years,” it’s poignant for those of us who understand what it’s like to keep a friend that long or to lose one you wished you still had. And watching them at 39 perform songs they wrote in their early 20s, songs about a future they’re now living, a friendship — a brotherhood — they’ve managed to maintain, reminds us of something essential about ourselves.

We are here to record, recall, and recount each other’s stories. We are here to bond with one another, to laugh at crass jokes together, to say things we don’t actually mean and double down on problematic things that we do. We are here to change — ourselves and one another — and to remind each other of who we were before, to reel one another back in when we’ve gone too far. We’re here to leave each other, to grow our hair out and get strange and make our own music without one another. Then, we’re here to listen back when we’re alone and realize we’re good; we have our own chops; we can run a full race and win without our legs tied. But the three-legged race is better. We are not quite as good apart as we were when we first got together.

I met a gypsy and she hipped me to some life game
To stimulate then activate the left and right brain
Said baby boy you only funky as your last cut
You focus on the past your ass’ll be a has what
That’s one to live by or either that’s one to die to
I try to just throw it at you determine your own adventure
Andre, got to her station here’s my destination
She got off the bus, the conversation lingered in my head for hours
Took a shower kinda sour cause my favorite group ain’t comin with it
But I’m witchya cause you probably goin’ through it anyway
But anyhow when in doubt went on out and bought it
Cause I thought it would be jammin’ but examine all the flawsky-wawsky
Awfully sad and it’s costly, but that’s all she wrote
And I hope I never have to float in that boat
Up shit’s creek “it’s weak” is the last quote
That I want to hear when I’m goin’ down when all’s said and done
And we got a new joe in town
When the record player get to skippin and slowin down
All y’all can say is them niggas earned that crown but until then   — Dre, “Rosa Parks”

Letting Go of Graceland.

Image

In 1996’s Crooklyn, Zelda Harris (l) plays a daughter who doesn’t quite understand but deeply loves her father (Delroy Lindo).

The house was airy, small, like other old homes on side streets in northeast Grand Rapids: set on hills of uneven earth, floors of hardwood, walls my father had painted and trimmed in warm, thoughtful contrasts. It smelled of his soap and his cologne, of the dog he’d sent away in preparation for my arrival. By my early 20s, everyone took for granted that I was afraid of dogs, but my childhood cynophobia was starting to wane then. My father’s family had always taken it seriously — insomuch that I often stayed in their homes instead of his, in part to insulate me from the 60-pound breeds he preferred. When the terror seemed real — at some point, all dogs bared their teeth, gave chase, growled with unnegotiable menace, didn’t they? — I was grateful for their fastidiousness. But over time, all the special arrangements made me feel both guilty and quarantined. Over time, I wondered if the dogs weren’t an excuse for us to spend even more time apart.

The scent of fried fish or ground beef would commingle this air, but now the rooms were crisp and nearly antiseptic. My father loves to cook, his thin fingers skittering on the air over a skillet, drizzling minced garlic into it like rain. It is only after he’s done so that I can imagine any space I share with him as a kind of impermanent home.

I had been told before entering this house for the first time to expect my own bedroom. My aunt said it was lovely, just off the living room, and here it was to the left of the front door. She was right. The walls there were purple, because he knew it was my favorite color. The shag rug matched the walls and the bedspread was zebra print, a species I never would’ve imagined inhabiting a room I’d call my own. It wasn’t quite what I’d call my style, but in truth, I did not have a style. For years, I did not live in homes that allowed tenants to alter the colors of the walls or carpet. Instead, I made collages I rarely hung and slept under comforters I hadn’t chosen for myself. Though the room my father designed for me was not what I might’ve created for myself, it was thrilling to stand in, all the same. It was summer and sun soaked every inch of the space. I basked in it but offered a measured smile. “It”s really nice,” I said hoping I sounded pleased enough, impressed enough, happy enough.

He was between marriages. His first was when I was 20. I sobbed in a bathroom stall at the wedding. The marriage lasted just under two years; during it, I spoke to him on the phone maybe twice. It ended badly, but now that wife was gone and along with her a Great Dane my father had brought into the union and had loved at least as much as he loved me. She had convinced him to have the dog euthanized because its torn claw had bled onto her white carpet. In the dissolution he had also lost some of my childhood photographs. I wasn’t aware that he had been keeping any to begin with. It wasn’t that I didn’t think him emotionally capable; it just hadn’t occurred to me to ask, and now, before I could see for myself what he’d held of me and looked at during our long stretches of silence, they were gone.

The house was on a street called Graceland, and this was fitting — not because of any relationship to Elvis, who my father detested, convinced the crooner was a stone racist, but because I could already tell it was a landmark — a place fit for laughter and reconciliation, with a backyard just big enough to bury all our bygones.

I am accustomed to burial. I don’t remember anything that truly aches. It is all locked somewhere, entombed. I suspect this is why, even at my most joyous, I am also vaguely sad; my subconscious has been hefting a graveyard of suppressed memory.

1973's 'Paper Moon' features real-life father and daughter Tatum and Ryan O'Neal. His character spends the entire film denying he's her biological father, even as the cross the Dust Bowl running cons on country folk and warming to each other.

1973’s ‘Paper Moon’ features real-life father and daughter Tatum and Ryan O’Neal. His character spends the entire film denying he’s her biological father, even as they cross the Depression Era Dust Bowl conning on country folk and reluctantly warming to each other.

I don’t remember my father before I was seven. We lived hundreds of miles apart from the time I was four until I was 27. I saw him during summers. And sometimes I only saw his mother and sisters, even when he was right in town. He didn’t call or write much. Some years, I spotted Friend of the Court check stubs in my mother’s bedroom. Some years, I did not. I remember the amount of the checks; it changed. Most years, it was not enough to feed me for a full month, not enough to buy a prom dress or two full new outfits at the outset of a school year. It may have been enough for a sturdy pair of sneakers — on sale — and, perhaps, one dinner entree at a family-style restaurant — with a coupon. No one complained about this. I knew early the cost of such complaints. Some men were jailed. Others ran when they saw their children on the street. They blamed the mothers, blamed the child. The better men also blamed themselves. (The best only blame themselves.) But all this blame was far too large a barter for a few extra dollars in a monthly check.

We kept quiet, and I learned, like most children whose names appear in family court cases, that what a man spends on you is no measure by which to gauge his love. It is no measure of love at all. Men rarely spend much on me. I’m afraid to want it, afraid to accept it. I never ask. And if he does spend more than I can afford for myself, I offer to pay it back. The men I choose tend to accept that offer.

When I was little, my father spent years without consistent access to a telephone. He said he didn’t like them, but what I heard was that he didn’t like me. If he was fine not having a phone, he was fine not talking to me. I have come to consider time as the more telling expenditure. Those with whom you choose to spend yours matter most.

We are still horrible about keeping in touch. We both have phones.

He was only renting the Graceland house, but for the right long-term tenant, the owners would consider a sale. Against my better judgment, I fell for the place, with all its evidence of my father’s enthusiasm to enfold me in his new life’s sanctum. Me! who’d never had a room in a home where he’d lived in all my days. Sure, it had come after I was grown, in the aftermath of a divorce, but perhaps this was best. I was still young enough at 22 to learn what it felt like to be the kind of only child who could, at any moment, command her father’s undivided attention. Here, I could experience him at his least encumbered, his most hopeful.

Dad beams when he’s done something right. Puffed-chested and preening, he pretends in those moments that he is a man who never gets it wrong. His voice can shrug on a cloak of dismissive confidence. Of course. Absolutely.

But when the braggadocio has been rubbed raw, his voice can also quaver, his eyes turning glassy and brimming with watery hope. I’m sorry. I should never have. I won’t again.

He is an actor. I have seen him play any number of leads. Flawed, hulking men who scoff at and cheat on their understated wives, heaving the great sighs of fallen heroes, convinced the whole world has done them wrong. He has been Jelly Roll Morton. Walter Lee Younger. Coalhouse Walker. Troy Maxson. Audrey II. He can pitch himself into any posture. This is a skill that only serves to make his true feelings more inscrutable.

I stayed with him in the Graceland house for an uninterrupted weekend. We fell into our easy pattern of watching rented movies and movies on cable and movies in theaters. He prepared our ritual meals: taco salad, expansive breakfasts, fried seafood. I am always most certain he loves me when I taste the food he’s cooked for me. There is a care, a precision, but also something daring, untraceable, perhaps the singular spice of his hands.

Like many black men, he is an insomniac, nocturnal. On the rare occasions I stayed over with him, I wanted to match him minute for waking minute. We could stay up till 2 a.m. before one of us dozed; it was usually him. And I talked years into those minutes, all those missing months we’d spent apart. I wanted to make him laugh, to keep him current on who I was becoming and what I was accomplishing. I wanted to keep him. On those nights, I sounded most like my mother.

My mother’s voice is a marathon; she is talkative in a way that can be physically exhausting. As a conversationalist, I am more of a leisurely jogger. It is hard to keep up. I am not conditioned to listening or speaking at length. My father is much more like me; when a room has emptied of everyone but us, he doesn’t say much at all. He is comfortable with silence. I suspect he wishes he had more of it.

It’s rare and has been more recent, but I have seen him take off his outside self, the pelt of him that laughs raucously and recounts all the fights he’s gotten into and survived, the actor’s self. And I have found him in a chair, spectacles set low on his nose, peering at the pages of a thick trade paperback, wearing a frowzy sweater. In those moments, he looks ten years older than he is, but happier than I’ve ever seen him.

If I had known that he could be so much like me in that way, I would not have worked so hard to fill our silences. He did not need to be entertained. And I never felt that my performances were good enough, anyway. They served only to teach me another wrong lesson: you cannot expect your love for someone to reroute the trajectory of his life — and it is possible to be deeply loved by someone with whom you will always feel your wants hold too little weight.

Toward the end of the weekend in the Graceland house, my father told me he didn’t know how long he could keep it. He had lost a job shortly after renting it and the payments were beginning to overtax him. Oh, but it’s only a matter of budgeting! I said, sitting up straighter in my chair. We can do this, I thought (and may’ve said aloud; I don’t remember). If you want it enough, we can keep it.

I suppose I knew by the time I walked out of the house that this would be my only visit. I had had enough similar experiences with him to know what he would see fit to hold and what he would turn loose.

After the summer, he moved in with the woman who would become his second wife. I did not sob in a bathroom stall at their wedding. When I sleep in their home, it’s in a guest room next to theirs. Their two dogs are always present. I am not afraid. They refer to the three of us as their children. Now, they both cook. It is different, but nice.

I have long since let go of the Graceland house; I wasn’t there long enough to grow attached to it. But letting go of the glimpses my best moments with my father gave into what might’ve been a different life, what might’ve been a healthier relationship with him, is much harder. Years ago, we could’ve been capable of more. We could’ve coexisted in that quiet home where what we needed from each other stood a chance of being better understood. And if this had been so, it would be easier now for me to leave other men whose expressions of love feel delayed or intermittent. How hard it is has been to reconcile that which I once knew was possible with that which currently is.

And even this is a lesson: as long as there is life, new grace can be extended and accepted. But we cannot restore what has been left too long to rot. The rot must be discarded, its girders leveled and gutted. It is rigorous work that so many of us are less inclined to undertake in our advancing age. But say we do begin. Say we were to both agree to bruise ourselves, rebuilding again. If new blueprints are drawn, they must be rendered with steady, unflinching hands. Every need — space and time and true forgiveness — should be made more explicit and all that has been buried must be bared.

We Have Known Boys (But None Have Been Bullet-Proof).

Image

Jordan Davis (1995-2012)

I have known black boys, known them in airless classrooms where the scent of their too-strong cologne worked overtime masking the cling of their sweat to skin and hormones. And I have known their scratching, grabbing, tugging at the belt loops of too-big pants, have involuntarily memorized the plaids and imprints on their boxers.

I have known boys like underripe fruit, a pit of eventual sweetness at the core of them, encased in a bitter pulp, toughening from too little tending or underexposure to light. I have watched them become principles in death when they were not finished learning what it would mean to be principled in life.

I have known them nursing dreams with slimming odds of realization, heard them reasoning with the wardens behind their private walls, scraping at the doors some white man’s stubborn shoulder intended to force closed.

Listen. You have heard them, smelled them, touched them, too. Groping boys. Maddening boys. Boys who, had they the luxury of longer lives, would grow to regret how they treated girls, how they dodged their daughters or fought the smallest dudes on the yard.

Had they lived, they would’ve shuffled home, hats in hand, hugged their mamas, clapped their daddies’ shoulders, nodded like men who understood remorse, who’d been leveled by regret and learned to talk about it.

Had they lived, they would’ve borne enough concussions to concede their desire for millions at the the expense of unscathed minds. And maybe they would’ve been Marines like Jordan Davis hoped he might be, maybe aviators like Trayvon envisioned himself or husbands like Jonathan Ferrell and Sean Bell were so close to becoming. Maybe they would’ve grown to guess that the cost of longer life was a hunching of one’s height at a white woman’s door, a soft knock rather than the screams that often escape the frantic or crowded or injured. Maybe they would’ve conceived children with women with whom they couldn’t bear to live — and all over again, they would find themselves having to grow, to lean toward a quickly dimming light and to become tender when it was far more tempting to coarsen.

They would’ve learned to be less clumsy, less clawing, to kiss as though they had the promise of many unthreatened years. They might have lived long enough to make tenuous sense of the finite number of American fates black men meet, long enough to marry well, then poorly, then well again.

Perhaps.

But we are losing them too soon to know, while they are yet boys. We are replanting our underripe fruit, graveyards becoming our gardens, and tending far more memories of boys than moments with full-grown men. It gets harder to talk to these could-have-been-towering trees, these possibly-flowering plants whose fruits we’ll never know.

And every day, there are new boys among us. We raindance for them. Grow. Live. We campaign for them. Grow. Live. We keep them from harm even when harm might be their better mentor. Hide. Grow. Live. And we guess for them. Grow. Live. And we know for them. Grow! Live! Living alone never ensures what a boy will become, but black men, above all, are the boys spared long enough to live. This is the look of hope, our lowest bar to clear: boys reaching bullet-free adulthood and outreaching everyone’s fear.

I’m writing a monthly column for Vitae.

vitaejpg

Vitae, a new social media/interactive extension The Chronicle of Higher Education, recently launched, and it’s starting out strong with fantastic columns by professors, higher ed staff, and students. I was fortunate enough to be invited to be one of them!

Here’s my first piece, “The Greatest Mixtape Ever Made.” Exciting!

If you’re a college instructor/prof, a grad student, or an alumnus/a who just likes to keep up with other academics and academic musings, I encourage you to start a profile there and add friends to your circles. It’s fun!

Going Off-Script: On Re-Defining Co-Parenting.

With every visit, you more closely resemble the man I recognize: tall enough to provide shade but slighter of frame than you’ve been for a long while. You’d gotten larger in these last years, enough so that on those rare occasions when I consented to your request for an embrace, you felt unfamiliar inside my arms.

But I suppose this was because there were other reasons you were uncomfortable there.

To celebrate our daughter’s third birthday, you came to town two days afterward, at 7 am on a Saturday. We’ve been warmer with each other for weeks, having little choice but to bond, trapped as we were under an avalanche of bills: reopening closed off corridors en route to an escape, outrunning, outwitting, repaying, rejoicing.

(Maybe love among people like us is just leading each other through labyrinths, is just doubling back after you’ve left.)

At the airport, you asked for a hug. “No,” I said. “Maybe later.” There are the confidences shared struggle restores — and there is affectionate touch, which is earned in other ways entirely.

Even so, I am surprised at our ease, surprised to find not even a hint of the old anger, my insides untightening with you near, rather than winding themselves into ulcerous knots, willing you to leave.

Listen: I am very different. I have loved and lost another. I’ve a life you no longer know and having new things to hold aloft excites me. Even the pain is new; even that is an odd relief. I am still collecting the parts of myself I’ve sloughed while risking fresh affections, still accepting that some things cannot be reclaimed, still wondering if, both with him and with you, the problem is me.

Do I drive you all away by being too writerly, too willing to retreat onto pages, where all the comfort, confessing, caressing and madness occurs in a place apart, when it should performed in person?

Only you know how far I can be from timid. Only I know how dark your days have been. My own days were darkest when something of you sat stirring in me, curling into the girl we gaze at today, in abject awe. Five months is a long time to grow a girl alone. A long time wondering over my worth. A long time spent listening to others’ whispered predictions. He’ll come back, they said. He’s a good guy.

They meant that when you did — and I suppose I always suspected you would — I should be grateful to have you. I should coerce you into marriage so both we and our child could suffer the delusion that neither you nor I would ever leave again.

But I’ve liked the leaving. I’ve liked flitting to spaces away from you — and relearning each other on return. This is the foundation of our friendship.

Before the girl, it was I who did the leaving. I’m sure it was unfair to insist that you were not allowed. But the baby meant you owed me; I knew the script. “Good men” dive headfirst into fatherhood with women they claim to love. It is only the cowards who need time, only the villains who leave.

If I had listened to you, looked at you, limb-walked far enough out that your words were not drowned in the chaos of the he-never-loved-you winds, I may have understood that we would always find ourselves here again: at ease and okay. (But would we have salvaged something worth sustaining? Would we have avoided the avalanche?)

Our daughter is wary when you appear, seemingly out of thin air: on screen, in person. She turns her head away; she tucks her chin. She needs to be coaxed out of an instinct to close herself off.

Of course, she has inherited this from me. It occurs to me now that I do her no favors by not appearing open with you.

This time, I sang her the refrain of a song she understands. Like you, she understands better in song. “Grow-own-ups! Come baaaack,” I cooed. And she turned to you and offered her first hug, ten minutes into your stay. She would sing it to us again throughout the day. It would rend our hearts.

What is rote for us is insurmountable for her. Perhaps love among families like ours is to stop sojourning toward other loves and to settle here. Maybe the only happiness we deserve is hers.

You were only here for two days. On the way back to the airport I said: I don’t want to get back together. You said you understood. And there is something different in these rides away now, a wistfulness, a reassurance.

It has been twelve years. You always come back.

I left the car this time, walked around to your side, offered an unsolicited embrace: brief and fairly far apart, but an offering. You are thinning out again: a recollection in my arms. “All right,” you said to yourself. “All right.”

Maybe the truest love is a resignation. Maybe it is resisting the pre-written script. I do not know.

But here we are. Here we are.

For Now, We Are Still Alive.

Beloved, the hope that I owe you — the hope to which you are entitled — is not something I can cloak in gossamer metaphor. I cannot paint you the Pangaea that all parents feel they should.

But neither will I speak to you as though the very sky is a fraud, as though our lives are a set breaking down, are a studio lot in foreclosure. There is no walking away from this, as we would from a dimly lit theatre at the close of a sobering film. 

We are real. And for now — just for now — we are still alive. 

When the time comes, we will not speak of expectation. I will tell you what happened to the lanky boy down South, taking the shortcut to a home after dark in what once was a sundown town. It will be more than a familiar narrative, even the first time you hear it. It will be an ancestral refrain; it will moan from within your own marrow.

I will tell you: at the moment when his murderer was acquitted, I did not hold you closer, as many black parents do in these seminal moments. I did not hold you at all. For a moment, my arms would not lift. For a moment, you were all but alone. You were smiling, your dark eyes dancing with gorgeous mischief, as you held out a box of Teddy Grahams you weren’t supposed to have.

Distracted, I poured you more than a handful. I poured you all that was left.

The murderer smiled when he heard he was free and his lawyers boasted of their own legal prowess. They preened and grandstanded like heroes. They clucked over how long it took for the murderer to be granted his freedom and surmised that he would never have been charged at all if he were black like the boy that he killed.

The State Attorney also smiled, as she had many months ago, when the murderer was in fact arrested — 45 days after he left the boy dying in the grass, of a gunshot wound to the heart. I remember her then and how she basked beneath a press conference halo, being alternately terse and coy, playing to the rafters with actress’s affectation. “Those of us in law enforcement are committed to justice for every race, every gender, every person, of any persuasion whatsoever. They are our victims,” she’d said.

I recall the “our” clearest of all. (Few words, you’ll learn, are more disingenuous than “our” when a black child has died in the street and black folks begin to understand that the law will not hold his killer accountable.) 

Last night, before I could reanimate enough to embrace you, I watched the State Attorney grin again, just after she chastised all the parents and advocates and media — both social and mainstream — for raising our voices loudly enough to force an arrest in the first place. “For a case like this to come out in bits and pieces served no good to no one.” 

Here is all that you should know: we are the only our there is. There would be no case for her to concede had our bits and pieces not been lain at her feet and then cobbled together to give voice to the gun-silenced child. 

No, I will not speak to you of expectation. Expectation of any protection at all feels an increasingly empty enterprise for black mothers. But I will find the hope I owe you. It will be communicated with candor, not fear. I will stoke it with dreams of an imagined eternity, where every man gives answer for every of his actions. I will build it, floor up, in communities constructed with care and by choice. We — you and I — will get through this, together. We — us and our own — will invite the bewildered to join us. And when we have amassed enough hope to shore us up, we will run toward this behemoth, which cradles in its bottomless belly a legion of unavenged black bodies.

If we die, we won’t do it afraid. We will do it while standing our ground. 

Wishes for Daughters in Darkness, at Dawn.

May affection be a simple enterprise for you. May you never know entanglements with men who disengage quickly while you thrash about like a swan in the rings of a six-pack. I wish you friendships with discreet women; relatives whose opinions of you are not forged by the opinions of others; gentlemen callers who do not condescend. I wish you emotional slip knots, the limber stealth of escape artists, the willingness to remain tethered at the right times.

(Indulge me; I am your mother. My wishes are potent.)

May your heart never become such that it is only contented by playing the Nightingale. Do not be too tender, neither too eager to heal. May you never learn to use your own ribs as splints; do not break any bit of yourself to reset the men who are broken. May you laugh at the idea of women like your mother, who seek only the feral and the numb, then romanticize bringing them home. Do not wait by the shore for anyone’s return but your own — better, may you never know this pining. May you never set yourself adrift to become more present for others. Know the sound of yourself, listen for the whisper of your God, hear the hiss behind the lips of the man who cannot love you.

If anyone is able to indict you, may it be for the bluntness of your honesty, not the dullness of your deprecation. May your chest never be a bat-filled belfry. Love is crazy-making; may its loss leave you mercifully sane.

And when you grow, child, when you grow: may you never apologize for it. When you feel yourself unfurling as a tree, may you never withhold your figs. No one is owed your origin story. Give it only to those whom you trust and only when there is something to be gained.

Do not long for those who’ve made themselves isles. There is water between you now, but someday the plates may shift. You must be able to breathe regardless; may you never deprive yourself air. Never dive into seas for those already wielding life preservers; when the time comes, they will not share. May you never believe yourself a rescuer where you are regarded as little more than a spectacle.

And when you go, child, when you go: carry all these many wishes with you. May they never feel as weighty as a burden. May they ever be airy as embers. May they aid you in bearing quite little resemblance to me.