The dancing boys are between the ages of 8 and 11. If this clip is any indication, they are dancing primarily for women, perhaps for their mama(s) and aunties, perhaps for company their matriarchs had over for dinner — the kind of friends who’ve become family, their bonds forged by action rather than blood.
Fittingly, they are dancing to a remix of a song called “We Are Young.”
The boys have practiced. Their steps are likely self-choreographed, perhaps in the space of a single hour. Children have that kind of undivided time, that singular dedication to looking coordinated and cool. The littler one leaves more room for spontaneity. He’s sillier; if you watch closely, you see his concentration break, his gameface mug crack into a gleeful grin. The older one is already showing signs of adolescent self-consciousness. He is more concerned with nailing the steps than granting himself joyous abandon.
The older one is wearing an “I Can’t Breathe Shirt.” I wonder if he requested it or if it was given as a kind of initiation.
This country will teach both boys counter-intuition. America will convince them that the galala and and suo that come naturally to them, whenever they are in the presence of drums, should be quelled to comfort the rhythmless. They’ll be taught that the borankana undulating in their bones should be controlled, tightened into the space of a subtle two-step. They will be instructed that only certain forms of filial touch are socially sanctioned, that any movement that jetes outside the lines will activate their peer circle’s latent or brazen homophobia. They will be taught that the funga alafia is no longer an acceptable form of welcome, that when a body is black and male, it is more weapon that welcome, that when a black male body enters adolescence, all of its every movement is unwelcome.
I am willing to wager they’ve already had several lessons.
But I find them riveting because they are so young, because this is still their favored social play. I’m impressed by their seriousness, by their commitment to lockstep, by that moment toward the end that transports me back to the land of schoolyard handgames every time I watch this clip (and I watch it a lot). I want them to understand that they are the embodiment of centuries of dance tradition. I need them to know how sacred that is and to defend it just a little while longer. I wish them college majors in dance and kinesiology. I wish them the social protection (and not the patriarchal gender politics) of black fraternities, for those remain among the few, rare spaces where the uninhibited range of a black male body for dance is still more revered than reviled.
Mostly, I wish them long lives, fewer reasons to rock police brutality tribute tees, the slowing of time so that they can seize these last un-self-conscious moments and commune with their dances of their ancestry — even if their exact origins remain unknown. I wish them a continuation of dance trends that favor their ability to behave like the euphoric children they deserve to be. I wish them an endless summer.
In a story I wrote two weeks ago, I briefly mentioned my old church on Park Heights Avenue, directly across from Pimlico racetrack. (I always mention our proximity to the track because I vividly recall when we’d walk out of church and see trainers beginning to run their horses for each new season. In retrospect, it underscores the gross inequity in that area, within the fence, hundreds of thousands of dollars in invested and gambled revenue are being spent for Triple Crown season, while just beyond the Pimlico gates lay one of the city’s roughest communities.)
I’ve written here about that church and my childhood friends before, but to recap: the friends you make in a church youth group are of a particular sort that you do not forget. They’re different than school friends because you see them at their most vulnerable, through interaction with and admonition from their parents and siblings; working in service of something beyond themselves; ushering or a joining youth choir or feeding snacks to smaller children in children’s church. When elementary, middle, and high school grade levels or choices to attend private, public, or magnet programs begin to separate school friends, church friends remain together, under the same roof, seeking the same sanctuary, sometimes their whole lives long. And when they worship, when they weep or dance or yell or collapse, when they wear suits and dresses on Sundays when no one else in their social lives has ever seen them in one, you learn to keep their secrets.
Nikia was one of my best church friends around the end of middle school, going into high school. She and her little brother Eugene (aka Junior) came to the church with their aunt, Vernetta, around that time and I remember them as inseparable. If some brothers and sisters bug each other senseless, these two seemed to have an enviable understanding of one another and a love and respect that just radiated whenever they were together.
I still ride for my youth group friends, but when I when I left that church at 16, I fell out of touch with most of them (until the rise of social media reconnected us).
Three or four years after I left, Junior was killed by Baltimore City Police. The shooting’s officer’s story was published in The Baltimore Sun. Nikia’s account of the last moments of Junior’s life have never been given similar weight in print. Until now. One of the greatest honors I have as a writer these days is being trusted to amplify the stories the people I love have guarded and carried and wanted to share for years, with anyone who would care even a fraction as much as they do. I’m glad I finally got to honor Junior’s legacy in this piece about Marilyn Mosby’s decision to charge the cops who killed Freddie Gray and what a few Baltimoreans think may be next for the city in The New Republic.
In other news:
I was on a Chicago-based radio program called This is Hell last weekend, discussing unrest in Baltimore City. You can listen here. (Also check out the May 1 broadcast of The Bill Press Show, where I offered a few remarks.)
Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Tracy K. Smith wrote a memoir about life with her mother, who succumbed to cancer when Smith was in her early 20s. For Slate, I wrote about why the quiet, uneventful grace of the story is revolutionary in a publishing world that doesn’t often make room for healthy slice-of-life vignettes about black mothers and daughters.
Prince gave an incredible, moving show in Baltimore on Mother’s Day and I still can’t believe I not only got to attend but also to write about it for The Washington Post.
There’s still time to donate to my Thread at Yale fundraising campaign — but if you want to contribute at this point, please do so via the PayPal option. I explain why here (Scroll to the last few paragraphs.), but the short of it is that I won’t be able to access the funds I raised a month ago until well after the New Haven trip is over, and I have to use my own extremely limited resources upfront to finish making tuition payments and to travel there, then reimburse myself on the back end. If anyone’s ever been through that, you know how dicey a process self-reimbursement can be. I know you’ve all already been amazingly, staggeringly generous, and I thank you for it. If there’s anyone else who didn’t get to give and would like to, however, you can do it via the Indiegogo link by selecting PayPal (the only option that releases contributions immediately) or contribute directly through PayPal.com with my email address: stacialbrown at gmail dot com.
I wanted this post to be longer but in order to keep it timely, here’s a micro-post with links to all the writing I’ve been doing this week. I hope to do a more in-depth recap of this wild week in writing later. Until then:
I attended Freddie Gray’s funeral at New Shiloh Baptist on Monday — and left about 90 minutes before the riots broke out within blocks of the church.
Baltimore has had black commissioners and black mayors, off and on, since the early ’80s. It hasn’t done much to improve relationships between government and poor black citizens.
I’ve been glued to local news since Monday. Here’s why I’ve favored their coverage over MSNBC’s and (obviously) CNN’s.
All Freddie Gray did to set in motion the fateful events that led to his death was look an officer in the eye. One chilling thing I learned writing this: running from police “unprovoked” is grounds for “reasonable suspicion” and subsequent arrest — but only in “high-crime” (read “poor, predominantly black”) areas. When the Supreme Court ruled in favor of this, Justice Antonin Scalia used the following scripture as rationale: “The wicked flee when no man pursueth.” — Proberbs 28:1a.
When I was expecting my daughter, I wrote prolifically — mostly about the experience of first-time pregnancy and how alone I felt while I was carrying her. I posted a lot of that writing here, then pulled some of it because I thought I might shop a memoir about it (What’s left of the published posts can be found here. If you choose to read any of that, it works best to read chronologically, which means starting at the bottom, with this post).
I continued to write as much as I could after her birth and, for a number of reasons, ranging from my part-time job as an adjunct instructor, which took me away from home for a few hours a day, to my quickly-acquired proficiency at composing drafts exclusively on my cell phone, I was able to maintain decent output.
She’ll be five in a few months and I definitely feel like I’m hitting a wall. I decided last spring to take first a semester, then a year away from teaching. I’d scored a fellowship with Colorlines.com, where I was responsible for managing their social media and engaging their rapidly growing readership. It was basically a one-year position with the company and it paid much more than I would’ve made teaching and allowed me to stay home with my daughter more, so the teaching hiatus was a no-brainer.
When that job ended last November, I interviewed either by phone or in person with several impressive publications (sometimes for more than one position) and figured my odds of being hired full-time with one of them were pretty high. Five months later, however, and I’m still without a full-time job as a writer or editor — a circumstance, I’ve learned, is fairly common, even among much stronger writing and editing candidates than I. My only income at this point is as a freelance writer — which wouldn’t be a problem at all, if I were writing at the output I used to be able to and if any of the writing I’m able to do paid more.
Something happens when you’re home all the time with a four-year-old who only attends school two hours a day and you don’t have the freedom to leave her in someone else’s care nearly as often as you’d need to, in order to attain the kind of silence you require to generate ideas worth pitching, to actually pitch them, and then to write the piece as quickly as you’d have to in order to win the assignment and keep current with the news cycle.
The mind dulls — and you have to be increasingly inventive about sharpening it. Now that I have no job to escape to (Trust: a job is definitely an escape for a parent-writer.), and home is full of preoccupations, I’m physically tenser and less agile, creatively.
My daughter has special needs and, often, I vacillate between the temptation to homeschool her (which would result in even less writing time and, by extension, even less income) and finding more extracurricular programs for her to attend that will aid in her development in the many hours she spends outside of school. The latter option would also mean less dedicated writing time, but at least I could steal the moments she’d spend in a class or in a social group to try thumbing out a few essays on my phone.
It’s difficult to explain this sort of life to people with traditional jobs, pristine time management skills, and the luxury of undivided work attention. But the short of it is that life with a small child and without a full- or even part-time, out-of-home job is a trial-error, hook-crook, catch-as-catch-can existence. I’m rarely able to get away and the less time I spend in a childfree, silent environment, the harder it is for me to sharpen my writing — or even to maintain its current quality.
A few months ago, I did something I always do when I feel trapped. It’s something I’d recommend to anyone who feels backed into a corner. Indeed, it’s the only way I’ve ever gotten out of a corner — and I’ve been pressed into many.
Here’s what I did: I swung wildly at opportunity, giving no thought to the cost or logistics. I launched myself toward anything that looked remotely like a life raft, reasoning: This could turn out to be sinking flotsam or it could be the very thing that will bear me up and carry me toward a new shore, the right shore, a more permanent solution.
I got into grad school that way. I was living back home in Baltimore, working a job that barely supported me and my mother, who was living with me. I began to feel trapped by the burden of rent on a two-bedroom apartment and all the other costs associated with living and supporting two people. And then, Sarah Lawrence accepted me. It was the only school of the three to which I applied — all outside of Maryland — that did. That made my decision for me. I needed move to New York. This was 2004. I tried hard — so hard, in fact, that when I didn’t find off-campus housing (SLC doesn’t offer graduate housing), I resolved to take Amtrak from Baltimore to Penn Station in New York, then Metro-North from Grand Central two times a week for classes.
I was so desperate for a big, life-changing leap toward relief that I’d convinced myself this was doable. Then, the first day of classes, it rained. The storm waylaid my train somewhere between Delaware and Philadelphia, and I got to the Bronxville Metro-North Station, a mile or so away from campus, just as my second-ever class as a grad student was beginning in one of the many Tudor cottages on the school’s rolling greens. I’d missed my first class entirely. I walked the mile in the rain with a flimsy hooded windbreaker bearing the college’s name as my only shield from the downpour. I got to class completely drenched and introduced myself in a small voice, shaky with tears.
I knew then — and not a moment before — that it wasn’t going to work. I’d been so tenacious. I had leapt. A door had opened. I had run toward it. I’d followed the prescription of every easy aphorism we hear in life. And I’d gotten my feet on dry ground. Sarah Lawrence was everything I knew I needed then: an escape from years of compound responsibility, a chance to qualify myself for better work, a life of independence and solitude.
But the timing was off. That first day, with its rain delays and its mile-long foot trek at the end of a five-hour commute, let me know in no uncertain terms that this was the dream I was meant to realize, but not under such treacherous conditions. If I moved at that level of haste and desperation, I’d rob myself of the respite I was seeking. I’d merely be trading one type of nerve-fraying stress for another.
The next day, I talked to admissions about deferring enrollment for a year and they granted my request. Those were dark days; I was listening to a lot of Elliott Smith at my job (where my coworkers had already thrown me a going-away party and my supervisor had granted my request to telecommute while I studied out of state). Returning to the office was humiliating and demoralizing, even though everyone there was supportive and polite and patient with my daily, nonstop moping.
For the next 12 months, I focused on getting out of that apartment, getting out of Baltimore, moving to lower Westchester, and attending the classes I’d dreamed about, with the people I’d met at orientation the year before (who’d all be second-years by the time I returned, graduating during the spring of my first year).
It happened for me — and it was much easier the second time around, in some respects, but it was still difficult to leave my mother without the apartment I’d been providing for us both. That was the thing I couldn’t allow myself consider if I wanted, at last, to escape.
Single motherhood, over time, has backed me into the same kind of corner. I’m financially supporting a child and my mother again. I don’t have enough income to adequately do so. It often feels like I’ve only qualified myself for the kind of work that doesn’t pay regularly, quickly, or sufficiently. I’ve enough credentials to adjunct, but after six years at that, I’m not a competitive candidate for a full-time professorship. I’m good enough to write short essays for part-time income, but not quite desirable enough a candidate for full-time hire at a major publication.
And I still haven’t written the right manuscript — the one I want to send out into the world, the one some generous reviewer will dub, “a promising work from an important new voice.” Doing that often feels fairly far away while I’m parenting, stressing over money, trying to be thoughtful and incisive in all my for-hire writing about the news and trends of the day.
So I did something I’ve been putting off in all the eight years since I graduated from Sarah Lawrence and certainly in the nearly six years between pregnancy and now: I started applying for bigger, broader things. I applied for Code for Progress’ minorities in code fellowship, in hopes that I might acquire a new skill and the chance at earning a livable wage from a single company. I applied for several summer fellowships and retreats. And I applied for a program at Yale that would teach me how to be a better journalistic storyteller.
Some of you know that I got into the Yale program, because you helped me fund it via Indiegogo*. I also just learned that I received a single mother’s fellowship to the A Room of Her Own Foundation’s summer retreat in New Mexico, which covers the costs of registration and housing, but not travel. Do I know how I’ll get there yet? No. No, I do not. But that’s my process. Swing. Miss. Connect. Cross every bridge I possibly can — even the most rickety and unstable among them — just as I approach it. Sometimes, a foot falls through a rotted slat, other times, an entire leg. But I’ve always made it across — or I’ve veered toward a stabler bridge.
Dreams are never neatly wrapped. They don’t arrive already assembled. But you do not achieve them by wringing your hands. You can only lay hold to them by reaching. And your reach must always, always exceed your grasp. Your dreams should leave you storm-drenched and weary. They should make you sob over their seeming impossibility. They should render you sleepless. You should want to throw all the disparate boards and cogs that you thought might interlock and simply don’t. And, if you’re a person of faith, you will always find yourself begging and bargaining with the God you serve. You’ll fling yourself at His feet in surrender.
That way, when you hold the finished thing in your hand, when you arrive at the end result — the brighter shore, the other side of the canyon, you will never be able to say that you got there alone. You’ll understand acutely the limits of your own imagination, your own tenacity, your own income, your own insight. Something a little extra, a little beyond your pale, a little miraculous transpired while you railed and while you rallied.
By God, by jove, by the myriad wonders of risk itself, here you are.
* I can’t thank everyone enough for funding my trip to Yale in June! Everyone who contributed did so so quickly, it humbled, awed, and staggered me. I appreciate it so much and hope I’m able to continue maintaining whatever quality it is that inspired you all to help me. I hope I’m able to continue being, not only the kind of writer you want to read, but the kind of writer who encourages you to write for yourself. If you’ve noticed, that campaign, though fully funded, is still open. That’s because — in true messy-dream-delivery fashion — Indiegogo won’t let me close the account or withdraw funds until after June 13. I selected a 60-day campaign, completely underestimating the generosity of friends and strangers. And now I’m being forced to keep the campaign live and the money in a holding pattern until that 60 days are up.
I haven’t submitted my deposit for Thread at Yale yet, because it will need to come out of my very limited bill-paying money, until I can reimburse myself at the end of June. But I will before the first of May. (Don’t worry, givers! I’m going — and I’m frequently updating you via social media while I’m gone.)
In the meantime, I’m placing the link here, in case anyone who hasn’t yet contributed might feel compelled to make my life slightly easier by giving through Paypal and not via Indiegogo’s credit card form. Apparently funds contributed through Paypal can be immediately disbursed (yet another fact I wish I’d known beforehand).
I’ve already asked a lot and you’ve given beyond my wildest dreams, simply because I worked up the boldness to ask. So I hope it doesn’t hurt or wear on anyone’s patience or kindness if I ask again.
Yesterday marked the publication of my third column at WaPo’s Act Four (if you missed the news, I’m a weekly contributor there now. Seriously. Pinch me.). I wrote about Trevor Noah, who I knew nothing about until it was announced Monday that he’ll be the new host of The Daily Show. My second piece was about Mo’ne Davis. The first was about the transition of an amazing multicultural bookstore inside 14th and V’s Busboys and Poets location in DC to a Politics and Prose satellite store. I love Politics and Prose, but it’s pretty white by comparison. For context, 85% of the children’s books at the old store, Teaching for Change, were either by or about children of color, which is unprecedented. The rest of the stock was similarly targeted toward readers of color and it was a rush walking in there, every single time. It’ll be missed.
I also wrote about Rihanna, ’90s black pop princesses, middle-school bullying, and my long learning curve for self-advocacy yesterday, over at Medium. If you read that one and dig it, please share it. It could use a bit of a push.
I’m considering starting a weekly newsletter for writing links and announcements like these and for letting y’all know what I’m reading on- and offline (right now, I’m knee-deep in James Hannaham’s Delicious Foods, Tracy K. Smith’s memoir Ordinary Light, a re-read of James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk, this interview with Kiese Laymon, and hopefully, Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, which I’ve borrowed as a non-renewable digital copy from my local library. It’s due back in about 11 days and I’m not sure I’ll get to it before they gank it back).
If that kind of Tinyletter deal is something that interests you, something you’d sign-up to have emailed to you on a weekly basis, leave me a comment letting me know. I’d like to gauge interest before I start anything else.
Also, apropos of nothing, two days ago on YouTube, I found this long lost unreleased Dilla beat I rocked for months after he passed away back in 2006. It still goes. Y’all should give it a spin today:
I discourage easily. This will come as no surprise to people who regularly read my work here. And I’m just coming to terms with the fact that all my days are marked with either a vague or an acute melancholia. I’ve always known that, but I’ve never been comfortable publicly, directly owning it. I can’t say that I’m depressive; I’ve never seen a therapist, never been diagnosed with anything. I do bear some of symptoms of depression, but I’m never quite incapacitated by these symptoms. They just sit with me, like familiars. And I function. Sometimes, in fact, they help me function, as it relates to writing.
I try not to talk about this too often, for two reasons. The first is that, when I’m sad or suffering from a fairly intense crisis of confidence or a bout of ongoing disappointments or genuine panic about the possibility that things may not actually work out in the end, people tend to think I’m fishing for affirmation and reassurance. I can assure you I’m not above fishing for affirmation — words of affirmation are my love language — but if I’m expressing an insecurity here at my blog or even on social media somewhere, I’m not trying to make others feel obligated to cheerlead for me. In truth, I have enough wonderful friends and family who do that without any prompting. They’re exceedingly patient about it and they never scold me for ingratitude or seem put-upon for their efforts. They’re just good to me, for whatever reasons, and I’m more grateful for them than I can say — even when I’m too down to see the goodness aligning all around me.
The other reason is less general, tied to the culture within which I was raised. I grew up in church in the ’80s and was reared at the height of the Word of Faith Movement. Positive thought and language was central to that approach to belief, and if you said that you were sad, you’d be chastened not to “confess that over your life.” It made God — who was a granter of declared desires, a supplier of needs and of supernatural self-confidence — look really bad. A lot of times, I heard in sermons that my personality, my reticence to hide my sadness, was an indictment against biblical truths like, “We are more than conquerors through him that loved us” or “Be anxious for nothing but in everything through prayer and supplication with thanksgiving, make your request made known unto God” and “Do not be sorrowful, because the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
There was an emphasis on renouncing negativity — and sometimes, the labeling of things as “negative” — like certain moods, emotions, or creative expressions — felt untenable to me. “Don’t claim that” and “don’t confess that” were oft-repeated admonitions, especially during adolescence. So, in conversation, I learned not to express sadness. Or insecurity. Or jealousy. Or malaise. Or discouragement. Or feelings of inadequacy. Or fear that I wouldn’t find someone I loved enough to marry. Or fear of marriage, period. Fear of attracting (and re-attracting again and again) a certain kind of man, a certain kind of career outcome, a certain kind of fate. Those currents continue to pulse under my skin. Sometimes, they still show on my face. But I manage them by writing. Putting my “negative” experiences on paper comes with its own chastisement, but I’m better able to handle that than someone coming up to me and accusing me of not trusting God.
I am talented and I work hard at writing — or at least I work consistently at it. I read a lot. I try to develop informed opinions and challenge myself to articulate them well. And I also just want to move people. Especially the melancholy people. And even more specifically, the people who have internalized opinions of themselves that are hypercritical, unflattering, or ugly. I write for the self-conscious and for the people who cry over words, both good and bad ones. I write for those who feel compelled to hide — and for those who take tentative steps into spotlights. I write for the people who shrink at center stage, because they aren’t sure how they got there or if they want to stay.
And I don’t know. It’s hard to find homes for that writing sometimes. Welcoming homes, homes that pay, homes that don’t discourage lyricism or honesty. But I can also attest that, when you write — even when you feel most transient — so, so many outlets will open their doors. You will entrust something of yourself to them, and in turn, they will entrust something of themselves to you. And it will be okay that none of these spaces become permanent homes.
You are not always down and out, when you are discouraged. You are not inadequate when you aren’t working where you want, at the pace you want. And your real feelings are more useful to others than any you may feign for those who are uncomfortable with candor. You aren’t “making a liar out of God” by being honest with yourself. For me, at least, “confessing” my actual, fraught, deficient, uncertain, doubting, terrified thoughts before God and man are an expression of how much I trust God not to condemn or abandon me. Honesty about how often I sit with sadness or how close discouragement often feels, that is the true measure of my faith.
In many ways, I think it also accounts for the opportunities I’m afforded. They are many. I am at once overcome and relieved and intimidated by them. I’ve no need to apologize for that. My joy has never been invalidated by my sadness.
Starting next week, I’ll be writing for my friend Alyssa’s blog, Act Four, at The Washington Post. I’ve guest-blogged there before. Though I’ve blogged about both of those experiences, here’s something I didn’t share: the first time Alyssa invited me, she said that maybe it would turn into something more frequent. As is usually the case when I hear that, I didn’t hold the maybe in my palm. I didn’t turn it over or envision it or name-it-and-claim-it. I simply thought: if it will be, it will be. I put both the bridge and the crossing of it out of mind, until… well, now. May my measure of faith and my melancholic heart carry me over.
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 was a big week, in that way. I also had some emotional debris burble up to my surface when I was least expecting it. Sometimes, depending on your vantage and how much tears cloud your vision, it’s hard to see things like new freelance publications as the marvels that they are. Every time I get to place an essay anywhere, any time my brain functions from the first paragraph to the last, each time an editor is patient enough to press — What does this mean? Can you make this clearer? This needs a stronger conclusion. — I’m blessed. I’m fortunate. I’m spared.
I’ve been having a difficult time with trying to make a career of the work I believe I do best. I didn’t think it would be easy, but I also thought that once I got close to The Doors, I wouldn’t have to jiggle the knobs quite so hard. I thought I’d have the right ring of keys, that one of them would work. And one will. I have not exhausted them. One will.
If it seems that when I write about writing strides and the pursuit of a full-time writing career, I am in my most angst-ridden state, it’s because I am. It’s very easy to feel like an outsider looking in here, to feel isolated or confined to the outer court, when your friends are at the table of honor. And after a certain level of hope-shoring and deflation, you start to believe that it’s as likely to happen for me as it is not to — and if it doesn’t, I need yet another backup plan, yet another field of ability to pull from my hat or my ass. But it doesn’t take long to be reminded that this isn’t a feeling unique to me. The air is thin enough to make me think I’ve reached my top — the highest peak I’ll be able to climb. And I’ll start declaring what I’ve learned as though this is it; this is where I’ll plant my flag; this is the height from which I’ll begin a descent, from which I’ll have to prospect my next mountain, my next climb.
But this is never the height. Whenever I start to rappel, to scale my way down the side of a mountain, convincing myself that I need to be more practical, I need to earn more, I need to be able to offer my daughter greater creature comfort than piecemeal checks and short-term contracts will ever afford her or that I’m getting older, that I’m aging out of the new media market, that I don’t think I can stand to hear another “We went another way,” or “You’re great but not quite what we’re looking for,” a person’s word of encouragement, a new email from a new publication or an old friend, or just my own softer, more confident inner voice tightens my slack.
Last night, at the end of a day I spent crying pretty much from the time I dropped my daughter off at preschool until Scandal* started at 9 PM, word broke on Twitter that consummate journalist David Carr had died. I wasn’t as familiar with Carr as most of my Twitter feed, but I caught up quickly. One of the first and most frequently shared quotes from the iconic, generous, innovative editor and writer was this:
I couldn’t have read anything timelier or more comforting than this at the close of a dark day. The best writers, the ones who make it, leave as much of themselves to friends as they do to strangers. Last night, reading some of the many words he left behind, this stranger was as grateful to him as she would’ve been to a friend. Indeed, last night, it felt as though he became one.
*Scandal is really off-the-rails this season, right? Meanwhile, How to Get Away with Murder is greatly improving, now that the students are relegated to just quietly freaking out while Viola Davis stunts on every actor who dares share screen time with her. I would not have predicted this four episodes ago.
I hope there is a meadow and treetops without end where you are, the grasses beneath you so thick they catch and hold the voices calling out to you from your bedside. I hope you hear your mother, too, ululant on the wind. You are not alone; hear the voices. You are not alone; tell your demons. You are loved, even by us, the fickle, cruel-faced public. You are loved by the Maker you may be poised to meet. Wherever you are, girl, I hope you are climbing, and from an uppermost perch, I pray you can see clearly the truth of who you are.
We remember the girl you were, the woman we prayed you’d become — even if the becoming itself would’ve required a miracle. Instead, the miracle is that you’ve held out as long as you have. Instead, the miracle is that you still have time.
Over the years, we lamented your odds, raised as you were with parents whose wealth often waylaid their efforts to keep lucid and clean. We rooted for you in spite of them and rooted for them, in spite of themselves. We are still rooting.
But I also understand where you are: someplace distant and exacting. You are hanging from a limb that you are no longer gripping. The snag and the crack are conspiring. Soon that limb will turn you loose. There’s no telling where you will return. Perhaps you will be here, awake, surrounded. Your father weeping, your siblings sighing, your truest friends deeply relieved. Or you may open your eyes elsewhere, a flatline braying in the breeze.
I am unbiased. I believe you should float toward the sounds that bring you greater peace. I believe you should be where you feel you most belong.
I was 14 when you were born, the embodiment of your parents’ frenzied, fully public love. You were born under the glare and pop of flash bulbs, the light too harsh for your soft brown eyes. You were pulled toward center stage with pride, and you stood under the beam of your mother’s spotlight. But you were always timid there, waiting where she asked you to, unsure, but echoing the words you were told. It was clear that she wanted to build your confidence. It was also clear that you would’ve preferred those lessons to be meted out in the privacy of someplace sacred and silent.
I remember worrying, in those moments when it was most obvious that your parents were unwell. You were a family, laughing, traveling, spending. You were a family, unraveling. We all worried over you, some of us even voicing unkind predictions. Armchair clairvoyants that we we were, we saw your future forging itself with sorrow.
But this is not what any of us wanted for you. A tub, a tomb, like your mother’s. There are other ways to get back to her. There are other ways to get back at her. I wish you’d found the healthier ones. And maybe you may find them still.
If there is, in fact, a meadow, if there are towering trees and voices in the grass, if there, you can understand how much you are wanted, how imperative it is for you to be well, then where you are is where you should be. And when the bough breaks, may the arms into which you fall be loving, baptismal, and warm.
Every January, I reassess what I want to do with this blog. Every year (for the seven it’s been in existence), it serves the purpose it’s meant to. I was fortunate enough last year to have appearances and publications to announce, as well as meditations on news and culture to publish. I’m not sure what 2015 will hold. Maybe more of the same. Or maybe the landscape will change.
I just know this year has been strange so far.
First, I was paid an extra month’s salary for my last contract job. It was an oversight. But it was I’ve never been on the receiving end of that kind of financial oversight: a full check — directly deposited — for the entire month of December. I didn’t work the month of December; my contract ended on November 30. I really, really could’ve used the money. Seeing my account balance after its deposit really drove home that point. And it wasn’t clear how soon anyone in accounting would catch the error (if ever). Of course I knew I couldn’t keep the money. But knowledge and action found themselves briefly at odds.
The first thing I did was start telling people*. And the first person I decided to tell was a great friend who I suspected — but wasn’t entirely sure — would see things as I did. In situations like these, when I need a minor pep talk to prepare myself to be as ethical as I know I have to be, the people I consult have to be people who won’t tempt me. They can’t be people who’ll remind me that I’m not working or point to the bills I could pay with the money or spend a half-hour calculating an invented New Math about labor-to-time-to-worth-to-pay ratios.
I just need someone who will calmly confirm what I need to do. In this case, I chose the right person and set about doing the right thing. (If that pays off in any obvious, estimable karmic way in the future, I’ll let you know).
What the incident reminded me is how closely we have to monitor our ethics, how intentional we have to be about listening to our consciences. People always talk about listening to your inner voice — and/or to the still, small voice of God — but that isn’t always the immediate, logical response. You have to quiet worry — which is loud — and your propensity for sketchiness, which can be quite imperceptible at first, in order to follow the suggestion of your conscience.
The only other big thing that happened this year is that, in catching up with a friend I rarely get to talk to, I accidentally texted the very person we were discussing. And what I was saying wasn’t glowing. It was hurtful and infuriating to the unintentional recipient and it severed an already taut, hair-thin cord we’d both been working hard to hold up at its ends.
What that incident is teaching me is that I am not the same person to everyone. To some, I’m caring and kind and generous and fair; to others, begrudging, bitchy, and patently unfair in my characterization of them.
As a person who often wants more than anything to please and to remain unobjectionable and inoffensive — even at high personal cost — it bothers me a great deal to know that I can be hurtful and nasty, ferociously unlikable. It scares me, in fact, because I am inclined to believe the worst about myself. If I know that someone I care about finds me hurtful or given to betrayal of confidence, or inflexible or unforgiving, even cruel, I worry that he isn’t the only person who sees me that way — or worse, that I’ll eventually reveal myself to be that way with everyone I love.
But what’s real is that every person views us a bit differently than the next — which means that each encounter with any of them gives us a new opportunity to be the version of ourselves we hope (but often fail) to be, with everyone. We have an inexhaustible capacity to be incredible for some and deeply offensive to others. And when we have been the latter, there may be no convincing the offended party that we can be better to them than they’ve experienced us to be in the past. Sometimes, we have to settle for being someone’s personal definition of terrible.
I apologized. The jury’s still out on whether or not it will be accepted, but I think in accidentally revealing what’s frustrated me, I feel like a more genuine, if less likable, person. Losing my place in a person’s high esteem feels worth it if, in the end, I’m not pretending to be better than I actually am.
… At least that feels like the lesson today. Check back with me in a week or two, and I may sound like someone else entirely.
Read the DuVernay piece. I’ve been told it’s not too shabby. I hope you’ll be able to concur.
* I tell someone nearly everything about myself. I don’t know why; the reasons change. The person changes. It’s part accountability and part confession/absolution. Sometimes I just need confirmation that I’m not irrational — or that I am. I’m not a talker, by any stretch, but as someone who spends as much time close-lipped as I do, I’m a near-full discloser. Secrecy, in my personal experience, has proven overrated. Discretion, on the other hand, has value beyond measure.