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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

She shrugged. “Some men just hate women.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bethan Mary-James is Mabel.

Bethan Mary-James is Mabel.

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

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

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

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

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

Bringing the Girls Back to Themselves.

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It’s been 26 days.

Today, I am looking at my knees in a series of photographs from yesterday. They are, like my elbows, slightly darker than the skin around them. Somehow both knobby and amorphous, they are fleshy hinges without much definition. Sometimes they ache at random, now that I am over 30. They are not the only joints that grow angry and ache for days. They are not even the most painful. But an aching knee makes me feel oldest. It is an ache-as-emblem, reminding me of what has been and what is to come. I am happy with them now, but I could not have said this 20 years ago.

In middle school I worried over the darkness of my knees and elbows (and my lips, which have always been naturally brown, rather than pink). People attach their own connotations to this kind of brownness: you smoke; you’re roughened; you’re unscrubbed. The other girls I knew had liquid skin, no bumpy interruptions or rough notes, nothing suggesting wear or coarseness. They did not look like they’d been crawling. Their knees and elbows did not suggest they knew a world of scrapes or scabs or groveling.

One of them, a friend, once told me that if I rubbed lemon halves on my elbows, it would exfoliate any dry skin that may have been altering the elbow’s “natural” coloring. She did this once a week herself, she said. “It works.”

But I never tried it. At 13 I could not fathom weekly beauty regimens. I did not feel beautiful, so the practice didn’t seem worth it.

Such superficial concerns, worry over knees and elbows. I spent too many afternoons wondering if, in 20 years’ time, they would be covered in folds of extra flesh or whether they’d support the long brown stalks models flaunted as they clopped across runways.

But these seem the appropriate worries of a fairly unfettered youth. We wonder if we will ever be fully sorted out and how our sorted-out selves will function. I’d like to believe that sense of mystery can be universally understood, even if not experienced. Sometimes, I imagine that before the schoolgirls in Chibok were taken, when their bodies were still their own, they too stood alone in mirrors silently taking stock, pinching, head-tilting, appraising their smiles, making secret negotiations with their reflections over how they would and would not let themselves look and behave when they were grown.

They wouldn’t wear bad hair — whether purchased or scalp grown — wouldn’t get too skinny; wouldn’t let any baby weight keep clinging long after the babies had stopped, wouldn’t leave home without plummy lipstick and kohl ringing their eyes, would never go anywhere without a touch of gold at the wrist or neck.

Not if I can help it, they’d whisper aloud.

Or maybe there were no wouldn’ts at all. Maybe there was only the most important would: they would be happy with themselves, however they would be.

The future, afar off, should leave room for such negotiations. It should be built of lofty looks and high thoughts and a long stretch of years to plan how to reach them.

School was only one step. But for them, it was such a monumental one.

By the time I reached high school, I had stopped obsessing so over knees. I’d tried to stop centering looks at all. A mediocre student, I was too worried over whether I would be able to go to College. College was always invoked in hushes at home, the capital C all but visible whenever the word was uttered, and it stood to everyone’s reason that if I went and I excelled, the superficial would begin to take care itself. I’d be earning enough to pay for any adornment I’d need: the professional multi-degreed woman would subsume the gangly adolescent inside.

I do not know how misguided it is for me to think of myself at their age as I think of the Chibok girls. But it is the way I contextualize the enormity of their loss. I weigh it against what I worried over, what I hoped for, and I see that those markers of adolescent identity — which seem so frivolous, when we’re old enough to see what we have become — are the things that hold us together, the traits that give an account of who we are.

It is not the names of the girls I’ve wanted to know during their 26 days of captivity. I have wanted to know what they were studying, which of them planned to defy her father’s wish that she become a doctor and to instead pursue dance or a life in letters or a career in aviation. I have wanted to know which ones loved pressing the pads of their fingers into their natural hair so much that they encouraged others to do the same, just to feel the joy of it. Which ones longed to fall in love? Which had been harboring unexpressed crushes? Which worried over the roughness of her knees or the shape of her lips or the sharpness of jaw and elbow?

And which of them cannot, at this point, remember any of this about herself anymore? Which has been indoctrinated, convulsively ill, brutally assaulted? Which wonders if anyone is coming? Which has such tenacious parents she cannot fathom any outcome other than being rescued by them? Does word of their nation’s women in protests, if it has reached them at all, serve to shore them up? Does it reaffirm the import of women’s education? Do they hear in the battle cries the sounds of the grown selves they can still become?

I have no end of questions.

Yesterday, Mother’s Day, I cuddled with my daughter and took a ton of pictures. We photograph ourselves and each other, endless snapshots for which she has grown poised and expectant. She has been watching me as I’ve slowly reclaimed the parts of myself that felt so misplaced after motherhood: the body confidence, the brain whose thoughts seemed permanently covered in postpartum haze. She loves to look at these pictures later. She is studying something of herself in them. She is looking back and forth between herself and me.

Right now, I am how she understands womanhood. But there will come a time when she defines it for herself. No mother wants those definitions marked with unmerciful violence, with traumas for which even she has no frame of reference. No mother wants her daughter robbed of healthy adolescence, of the luxury of long, unhampered years to see what the end will be.

I want those girls found and recovered, but I have no delusions about what long-term captivity and torture does to the psyche. I know what it is capable of erasing. More than rescue, I want them to retain their memories of themselves in the life before. I want them to look at themselves 20 years hence and marvel at how much the woman before them embodies what they’d imagined for themselves all these years ago, in dormitory mirrors. In my imagination they will glimpse their degrees on the walls behind them and allow themselves private, daily shudders at what they were forced to endure to earn them. And they will face the world without fear of dark fates, for they know they possess what is needed to stare the darkest down.

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

Five New Nola Darlings? Actresses Who (Might Could) Gotta Have It.

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Tracy Camilla Johns, the original Nola Darling, in 1986′s ‘She’s Gotta Have It’

At Alyssa Rosenberg’s Act Four today, I wrote about the news that Spike Lee will be writing and directing a She’s Gotta Have It half-hour TV series for Showtime. The show’s already in development, but as far as we know, he hasn’t cast his new Nola Darling yet. I have some ideas — and I encourage you to add yours. Consider this post a fun little companion piece to the Act Four essay.

1. Cassandra Freeman

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Freeman has worked with Spike before. She played Denzel’s love interest in Inside Man. The appearance was brief, but she shone in the limited role. It required her to be sultry and tough; she rose to it. Her IMDB page suggests that she’s worked steadily since then, in increasingly large roles — but I’d love to see how she’d interpret a lead character like Nola Darling.

2.  Tracey Heggins

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If Tracey were chosen, it would be a total missed opportunity if the casting directors didn’t at least consider her ‘Medicine for Melancholy’ co-star Wyatt Cenac for the role of Mars Blackmon.

Heggins already has experience with playing a free spirit, flirting with the concept of polyamory (or, at the least, infidelity) in films like Medicine for Melancholy and last year’s short Black Girl in Paris (adapted from Shay Youngblood’s novel of the same name). It remains unclear to me whether or not Heggins has the action chops to carry her own weekly series, but she definitely has the necessary air for embodying Nola.

3. Naturi Naughton

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Naughton’s acting chops have been steadily evolving since she first hit the stardom scene as a teen pop singer-turned-actress. She already has a new series in the works, but if that doesn’t pan out, I could definitely see her taking a solid shot playing Nola Darling.

4. Emayatzy Corinealdi

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After a breakout lead role in Ava DuVernay’s Middle of Nowhere, Corinealdi seemed poised for other high-profile work. And this could be a great, challenging next step for her.

5. Yaya Alafia

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Whether it’s a reality TV modeling competition or a critically acclaimed indie film, Yaya Alafia rarely missteps. Her Ivy League pedigree and poise blend well with her earthiness — and I’d love to see what she’d do with a meaty role in a series like this one.

Post up your own picks in the comment section!

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

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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:

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How We Lost 200 Black Girls in 12 Days.

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Look at her little face. Call the Prince William County Police Department if you see it.

In Manassas, an apple-cheeked girl with a Minnie Mouse bow in her hair has been missing since April 23. She is 14, bespectacled, and was last seen in an outfit fashioned of head-to-toe heather gray. Her name is Dean and she is black, and because she is black, the national public was only informed of her disappearance via Twitter — a full five days after it occurred.

We are feverishly retweeting for her. But by now, we have to wonder what our retweets are worth.

The first hours after a child goes missing are the most critical. Every passing minute takes with it small sips of our optimism — and we are the only ones who even bother with optimism, we who can look into the faces of black and brown girls we don’t know and see something of ourselves.

We are all we have. Daily, we make each other’s empathy enough. We spread it thin and wear it raw. We tear it and pass the scraps down the aisle. But we always seem to learn of what lurks too late. We protest and our wails ring tinny ’round the choir stand. By the time our dissent projects, evil has already gained colossal ground.

I do not believe many disappearances are sudden. They are fastidiously planned, painstakingly executed — and even when the grown, hulking captors are not quite as clever as the welterweight girls they take, they wield the advantage of forethought. Often, they have watched and waited, perhaps walked with or ridden with, texted, even fed, the children they intend to steal. The children — the innocents — even those with the sharpest of wits and the bravest of faces — are simply no match.

Of course we do not expect them to be, though one would never know it by how slowly the public acts when the children who’ve been taken are black and brown.

By the time they take our girls, the captors have also studied the rest of us, long enough to know how we — their parents, their communities, their government, and their media — will respond to losing them. They know whether that response will pose a threat; in turn, they act only as brazenly or covertly as necessary.

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In the northern Nigerian state of Borno, close to 200 schoolgirls are missing. They were taken at night, but their captors, all members of the extremist group Boko Haram, could just as easily have attacked by day. It would seem they have been building to this. Boko Haram slaughtered 59 schoolboys in February. They have razed entire villages. And now, they are stealing and selling and ravaging teen girls by the hundreds.

Because the girls are black and halfway around the world, I (and likely much of America) first learned of them via social media, after they had been in the capture of rapists and murderers for a 12 full days. And it is only the constant, viral pressure of people who can compel themselves to care that their increasingly harrowing journey is now being covered by international media.

But few are sure what is accurate to report — and that is by design. Alexis Okeowo writes at The New Yorker that Nigerian military nakedly lied about having recovered “most of the girls” in the hours following their disappearance:

A day later, the military retracted its claim; it had not actually rescued any of the girls. And the number that the government said was missing, just over a hundred, was less than half the number that parents and school officials counted: according to their tally, two hundred and thirty-four girls were taken.

In truth, the only escapees were young women who took matters into their own hands and, aided only by adrenaline and auspice, ran.

If it is the number of girls who are gone that staggers us Americans — if we cannot fathom armed gunmen driving 234 girls deep into the forest and keeping them for weeks without even the mildest risk of retribution — it is only because we have not been paying close enough attention.

Bad men (and bad women) do not become this brazen overnight. Centuries of history, both personal and public, embolden them. History whispers: Violence subdues opposition. Apathy is an ally to evil. Governments that do not move swiftly to apprehend those who steal and torture their citizens will move too slowly to catch us. Big guns and ample ammunition intimidate even the most loving of parents — and if they are not turned away by the rumor or sight of our weapons, we need only use them. Every silent day deepens a disappearance. 

It is possible to lose hundreds of black girls at a school in a single night for much the same reason that, every day, here in America, 400 black children are reported missing: historically, too little has been done about it. And when we move it is with the torpor of slowly waking giants.

Our children deserve better than they’ve gotten — and perhaps insurgents and kidnappers understand this better than we do. If they are leaning against a towering legacy of inaction, we can only fight back by toppling the tower. We can only win by being quicker than they are. We must cycle through online awareness and outrage faster and transmute that momentum.

The girls in Chibok were taken nine days after Dean Moyo went missing in Manassas, Virginia. Thousands of black children have disappeared here and abroad in that short time — and the critical, most early hours of searching have since been lost. The names of many will remain forever unknown to us; the faces of others will only reach the eyes of those with Twitter and Tumblr and Facebook accounts. To the extent that any large scale action is being taken on their behalf, we are advancing it, with our shares and retweets and reblogs. We are digitizing the door-to-door flier and amplifying untelevised Amber Alerts.

But there is more to be done, far more than hand-wringing and haranguing one another about how little society cares for the black and brown. We care for each other — and we have managed it while jointly enduring our own horrors. Care has gotten us through chattel slavery. Care sustained us through an underground syndicate of unreported lynchings. Care has led to reconciliation decades after genocidal slaughter.

We care for each other. It is imperative that we continue to. There is as much power in sustaining that care as there is in any insurrectionist’s plot to eradicate us. Often, it is all we have. But it burns. It has been known to light fires under dictators, known to turn enslavement camps to ash. Care is an oil that never fails to ignite.

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.

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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.

Let’s Talk More About Intercontinental Blackness.

Note: If this post seems dated, it is. I wrote it a couple weeks ago, but not for this space. I pitched it to another publication that ultimately opted to pass on it. It also isn’t written in a voice entirely consistent with my other work here, but that, too, is because I intended to publish it elsewhere. If it helps, some of the content in Smith and Adichie’s discussion has become quite relevant in the past two days, with the news of first-generation American of Ghanaian descent Kwasi Enin who was accepted to all eight Ivy League colleges. USA Today’s report on Enin’s accomplishment goes out of its way to include this quote from a college admissions expert: “He’s not a typical African American kid.” At any rate, I hope you’ll read and engage it. 

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Begin with the common ground. It will, at first, seem hard to find, hidden as it is by a thick underbrush of assumption — African immigrants in the U.S. are haughty; African Americans don’t respect themselves — and tangled as it is in the foliage of frustration — Africans come to America and distance themselves; black Americans distance themselves by not bothering to distinguish between African countries’ histories. Yes, the common ground will seem miniscule at first; we are all so invested in our distinct cultural identities, all so protective when discussion about them is broached. But if we are ever going to have candid conversations about our intercontinental experiences of blackness, we’ll need to begin at the borders we share.

Authors Zadie Smith and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie had this in mind on March 19 when they shared a stage at Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. Their conversation primarily centered on Adichie’s latest novel, Americanah, which grapples with the differences in the ways American-born blacks and African immigrants perceive (and internalize) race and racism in America. Since its release last year, Americanah has gradually made more public the long-simmering tensions between many black Americans and people of color born and raised abroad.

This public discourse is long overdue. Never before have black intercultural experiences been so multifarious in America. Between 2000 and 2010, the African foreign-born population doubled in size, growing from 881,300 to 1.6 million. And the recent raised profile of black British actors in America has deepened our need for nuance. This was readily apparent at this year’s NAACP Image Awards when host Anthony Anderson spent much of his opening monologue making superficial differences between black American and black British actors a running joke. He couldn’t seem to let go of accents and “difficult-to-pronounce” names such as Idris Elba (who is of Sierra Leonean and Ghanaian descent), Chiwetel Ejiofor and David Oyelowo (both of Nigerian descent) and Lupita Nyong’o (of Kenyan descent).

The show could have used its opening to build a transcontinental admiration society, encouraging us to look into some of the actors’ pre-Hollywood work or to note how many languages and accents they’ve had to learn to work in the U.S. film industry. But Anderson went for the shallowest observations, at a time when our need for nuance and depth couldn’t be more imperative. A few viewers balked at Anderson’s divisive jokes on Twitter, stating, “I really wish Anthony Anderson would quit the African vs. African American nonsense. It’s ignorant and unnecessary,” and “Black Twitter needs to handle whoever wrote Anthony Anderson’s opening monologue.” But Anderson’s lazy either/or quips are representative of larger incurious ideas about what black looks and sounds like in America and abroad — ideas that should be publicly challenged at every turn.

Challenging cultural assumptions seemed the order of the day, as Zadie Smith interviewed Adichie at the Schomburg — especially as Smith, herself of Jamaican and British descent, shared her perceptions of Nigerians and, at times, asked Adichie to confirm or debunk them. “Every Nigerian in London says they’re a prince, and we have no evidence otherwise,” Smith quipped. “There are maybe two princes in the whole damn country,” Adichie replied. They shared how the American use of “brother” and “sister” as racialized terms of endearment is foreign to them. “No black person in England would call me sister in a million years,” Smith noted, while Adichie said Nigerians do use “sister,” but it isn’t racialized.

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This kind of “We do this. Do you?” tone permeated the discussion — and some topics elicited responses that seemed aware of how close every word might draw them toward a conversational landmine. Both writers’ faces seemed to brighten when they unearthed a shared experience or custom. And where their ideas and perceptions diverged, they listened intently, set on reaching an understanding. To be sure, they both had very specific ideas about African Americans and about America’s approach to engaging racial discourse. “In America, there is a willful denial of history,” Adichie observed. Both agreed that whites in the U.S. find it difficult to understand the role of race, and Adichie further mused, “I keep thinking: how can white people not get it, if they know the history of America?”

It was a bit disorienting, as an African American woman, watching these black women born and raised abroad discuss the function and dysfunction of race in U.S. It always is. Race plays such a central (and fraught and psychological and emotional role) in my experience as an American that it’s fairly surreal listening to women of color discuss it with the distance of cultural anthropologists. That insularity can be a barrier to African Americans’ candor with black immigrants.

But there was no denying Zadie Smith’s and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s deep reverence for the black experience in this country. Smith, having seen a documentary with graphic depictions of public lynching, long before visiting the U.S., admitted to Adichie, “The first time I came to America, I couldn’t believe the streets weren’t burning.” Adichie also acknowledged, “The ethnic group I most admire in America is African Americans.” It was as important for me to hear their affirmation of my racial history and experience here as it was for me to listen to their own experiences of blackness in the U.K. and Nigeria.

In truth, there is more at stake in African immigrants’ and African Americans’ conversations with one another than in our interactions with whites in the U.S. Often, whites in America view the experience of blackness as a flat plain, regardless of complexion or nationality; here, stereotypes are primarily assigned by skin color, not country of birth or rearing. In the context of white supremacy, blackness is associated with primativism, regardless of where the black experience is lived. Even when this isn’t overtly expressed and even when, as in Smith’s and Adichie’s cases, black immigrants are considered “good black” because they aren’t African American, they still are not insulated from racism here.

This is where we find our largest plot of common ground. In America, racism visits us all. The currents our ancestors have crossed, even when traveling toward destinations that couldn’t be more far-flung from one another suggest that we stand a strong chance of forging crosscultural bonds. But doing so will mean tossing away the chaff of a loaded question’s intimations before answering it. , Adichie did this at the Schomberg when an audience member asked her to speak directly to her impressions of African-African American relations in the U.S. She ventured gingerly, “We’re trying to forge the bonds between Africans and African Americans, not crack them,” and stuck with a short answer. Keeping our tenuous bonds from cracking will also mean treading lightly along those borders we do share; the most innocuous misstep can derail our bridge-building efforts. It will mean holding some hearsay in reserve; not every rumor about another culture bears repeating. And we must refrain, no matter how tempting, from taking new acquaintances to task for past slights we’ve borne at the hands of their countrymen.

When we begin to pull up the overgrowth of our cultural misconceptions, we find that there is nothing flat about this plain. It is mountainous and nourishing and fertile. We come bearing our different kernels of truth, and it is only when we openly share them that our common ground can widen and our intercultural understanding can grow.