I wonder what I'd choose, given the choice/between silence and noise, words or a voice. -- "Beyond the Sun," Aaron Espe and Claire Guerreso
I may have mentioned this here before — in fact, I’m almost certain I have — but I sing to keep calm. It’s one of the only things I do that pushes my overactive thoughts (and anxieties) to the periphery. Ironically, singing quiets me. Much like fiction-writing, it requires a good deal of my creative focus, especially if I’m harmonizing. I have to be able to hear myself, and in that way, I’m granted the fleeting luxury of ignoring everything else. Everyone should adopt a hobby that affords them that privilege, something that inwardly soothes but has the potential offer something distinct — and free — to the world outside. Historically, writing has satisfied those aims for me, but for the past three years or so, it’s been far more stressful than calming — in no small part because I’ve increasingly relied on it for income, and also because bigger reading audiences mean heightened self-consciousness. Sitting down to a blank screen meant approaching it with a sense of post-writing strategy: How (if at all) would I defend myself in the face of critique? How would I help the publication market the piece so that it had maximum reach within its first 48 hours? How much would I have to make myself available to converse about whatever I’d report or disclose? How fast could I finish it, so that I could quickly invoice it, and after the invoice, would the payment arrive before Bill X was due, if I really rushed the copy?
The lines between silence and noise seem to disappear for writers of certain types of new media content. And on my most cynical days, it becomes hard to determine whether I’ve just written a required number of words, inanimate, flat uninspired, or infused those dry bones of vocabulary with true voice and with life.
I’m hoping that my new professional direction will recalibrate my relationship to writing as something I simply want to do for myself and others, rather than something I have to do to feed my family and help my employees with their bottom line. Joyfulness during the practice of writing is rare. It’s important to protect and reclaim it if and when you can.
I know you're down. When you gon' get up? -- "Get Up," Amel Larrieux
Amel Larrieux’s first solo album, Infinite Possibilities, dropped when I was a junior in college and since then, this song has always been able to straighten my spine and set my feet due north after a period of aimlessness. (This just occurred to me, but this song is simply a much more beautiful way of delivering the exact same message this guy does in that old, classic for-profit college ad. “Get Up” is just as urgent but absent the comical disgust.)
You'd say this is all there is/and every time you blink you'd miss/another piece of this wondrous world. -- "Good Goodbye," Lianne de Havas
I hate letting go of people I love before I’ve made peace with it. I want every relationship that has to end to do so with mutual, bittersweet resignation and resolve. I want the fanfare of a poignant farewell. But how often are any of us granted that (and even when we are, it’s still emptier than we’d hoped, isn’t it?). Sometimes I just have to force myself forward, when I really want to be like Atreyu was with Artax in the Swamp of Sadness:
I’m not sure what Lianne La Havas wants us to take from her gorgeous song, “Good Goodbye,” but what I get from it is validation of how hard it is to accept when people are truly gone, when what you’ve wanted most was for them not to be.
Edited to add a fourth Acapella with zero context:
(How dope is Acapella, though? Really. Even though it’s trendy and millennial and the clever teens and twentysomethings using it will move onto something else by the end of the year, this app, which I just found out about three days ago, is my Patronus and probably will be a long, long while.)
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.
It’s been a really rough week and I’ve written three hard pieces. One is hosted here, about Tamir Rice and his far too untimely, unjust death). Before that, I wrote about how the role of makeup has changed for me after becoming a mother. That was published last Sunday at Buzzfeed Ideas, but I don’t think many people had time to read about that between all the national tragedy we’ve been managing in the days since.
Then the night of the announcement that the St. Louis grand jury would not be indicting Darren Wilson, despite his testimony about why he murdered Michael Brown sounding like something straight out of D.W. Griffiths’ Birth of Nation, I started writing this piece about how the women in my household were processing the news. It went up the next afternoon. (As an aside: I really like writing for Buzzfeed Ideas, and that’s largely because of Doree Shafrir, who edits my work there. Pitch to her, writers.)
I think I was so busy trying to write something about the announcement that I didn’t immediately process it. I also think that because I was so deeply invested in the outcome of the George Zimmerman trial and I’m still not entirely over his acquittal, I couldn’t put much stock in the outcome of this grand jury consideration of an indictment. It’s been clearer with Ferguson. Every agency of authority in the state of Missouri has conspired to protect the shooting officer here. And that’s been terrifying for every day since August 9.
Anyway, it’s the day before Thanksgiving and I’m trying to hold love and hope and gratitude in the same crowded heart that’s already so swollen with anger and defeat. So I’ll let what I’ve already written speak to what I’m currently feeling. I wrote about Michael Brown and Ferguson sixtimes this summer. Not much has changed there.
On a cooler note, a Twitter friend told me that my very first Buzzfeed Ideas piece, on parenting and empathy, is now available as an audio-read at Umano.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!