Notes from a Black First-Time Third Coaster. 

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There still so many things I do not know. I am still teaching myself radio/audio lingo, still smiling and nodding, willing my eyes not to glaze over when veterans strike up conversations with me about equipment, technique, format, reach. And I haven’t quite figured out the stubborn resistance I feel to immersing myself in this culture.

A year in, I still feel content in the wading pool; I may never deep-dive.

I attended this year’s Third Coast International Audio Festival, in part to test that reticence and to challenge it. It was my attempt at immersion therapy: go, engage, become.

Third Coast was my last of five audio/public media conference/festival visits this year, but it was the first I attended as an off-duty participant. The others I was invited to by AIR as a panelist or presenter. I could tell that the vast majority of the crowd had long wanted to be there, felt affirmed by their presence among peers who wanted, largely, what they did. I quite enjoyed proximity to them, but I never felt like one of them, not fully.

When you enter a professional field because you have won a competition, the experience of learning about that field is different than if you discover it of your own meandering accord. It is the difference between being set up on a blind date and meeting the love of your life spontaneously in the aisles of the bookstore or supermarket. The blind date may be a forever-match but there is often  an element of doubt, borne simply of the particular circumstance. You are here because your presence was suggested and now it is up to you to decide if you are wanted or welcome. And it is also up to you to decide if you are desirous and welcoming.

That takes time.

When I was making the first season of The Rise of Charm City, I was rapturous about the possibilities of public radio and podcasts. I was thoroughly enamored and this oblivious to the culture’s many flaws and challenges. I thought I knew them, anyway; public radio shares a boundary with print media — and I know its limitations well.

In the few months since our first season wrapped, the rosiness of my new world has wilted a bit. This isn’t due to any artistic love lost. If I could, I’d devote copious time to producing and learning to produce deeply personal, high-concept projects. I’d do it to the neglect of other art/work-related things (and I have done a bit of that, if I’m being honest).

My unmoored feelings have more to do with all that I still do not know and will have to teach myself and/or spend a great deal of money being taught, if I am to keep ambling down this professional path. And speaking of financial responsibility, I’ve had time to realize how closely an indie career in audio production resembles my experiences with freelance writing and adjuncting. Together, the three fields form a lovely fishtail braid but, depending on the month, they may not be able to feed me.

Production is creative and inspiring and when I am among audio producers and employees at all levels of public media, I always get the sense that I am with people who wholeheartedly believe in the power of their work to guide the course of our culture. They are doing the arts work many public school districts have defunded. They are educating adults whose curiosity about life experiences other than their own is insatiable. I deeply admire that kind of social largesse. I contribute to it as much as I can. I am also always looking for ways for my daughter and I to live beyond the imminent possibility of personal financial collapse.

So there’s a tension here. It always exists when I enter spaces of relative privilege. I rarely feel unwelcome — quite the opposite — but I do often feel that my presence — as a Black woman, deeply financially indebted to institutions of similar privilege, for the degrees they conferred, which grant me access to spaces like Third Coast in the first place — is fraught. I can’t seem to just go and abide and relish. I always feel like I’m in white professional spaces in response to something, to solve something, to contextualize something. I am there for all the people who can’t be, there to learn what I will now have an imperative to teach. And that — the constant awareness of it — is draining.

What I know is that 700 people attended this conference this year and I didn’t have to search the room for people of color; they were all around me. I know that some of them — myself included — were there precisely because white people in positions of hiring and grant-funding power intentionally sought to bring them into the profession. And I know others were there without any institutional invitation; they are the door-kickers and the builders of their own infrastructures, solving representation problems without waiting for big media companies to even identify mis- and under-representation as problems.

Public media is moving its needle. Third Coast, by extension seems to be working hard at a greater level of inclusivity. That should be acknowledged and appreciated. It is also still exclusive of a lot of the people it should include and we can’t stop pointing that out, either.

Last year, I was tasked with creating a public media project that would reach audiences that public media does not typically reach. A year later, it’s difficult to measure how successful I’ve been at that. I am more confident that I produced work that represented that audience fairly and sought to avoid treating them merely as subjects on whom I’d report and to whom I’d never return. For me, that is just as important. And I can’t help but wonder if it would be, if I weren’t Black or a woman or a mother or someone who lives near, if not in, the communities I cover.

As far as I can tell, public media still struggles with hovering over rather than drilling down. And there are many reasons for that, none of which are uncomplicated. (For more context on what I mean here, see the tweets below.) Podcasts, liberated as they are from some of the journalistic constraints of other public media outlets, can go a long way toward addressing that gap. If people of color can afford to produce them. If public media works both to invite and retain them. And if people like me are willing to leave the wading pool, willing to give the arranged date a real shot, rather than succumbing to the same disillusionment that prices and pushes us out of other fields of work and study.

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An addendum: I was about two paragraphs from finishing this when news of Gwen Ifill’s passing broke. I’d be remiss if I didn’t say: black women have always been willing to pioneer these fraught spaces, to absorb the first wave, to stand firm while their white colleagues try and fail and try again to become truly inclusive, truly validating of our experience and what it brings to our reporting. I wouldn’t be able to have my angst-filled, lofty musings about my really expensive trip to an audio conference and what it means (or doesn’t mean for my professional future) without Gwen Ifill and all the women like her taking their rightful place in institutions that don’t always or immediately acknowledge that rightfulness at all. Love to her and hers — and safe passage. May we ever honor her invaluable contributions.

Surviving the Game. 


Each generation faces crises that convince them the world will end while they are still alive to witness it and when that end feels nearest, the people turn in toward themselves and face their God (or the Exceeding Nothingness they believe awaits). They slide the Great Abacus of Days, take account of their stewardship over time and resource. They reckon with what’s left of the ailing planet. (The other stars and any societies they may harbor will have to fend for and contend with themselves.)

If there were more films about what it is like to be Black on the brink of apocalypse, everyone would understand how I am so calm and so quiet, weeks away from our stateside seat of power changing hands, years away from the total erosion of the tundras that have kept so much calamity at bay, surrounded by those who deny things are as bad as all manner of evidence suggests. 

If more white folks read books from the Black perspective of Armageddon, no one would bother wondering why we who have long had our vote denied and suppressed do not loudly panic over impolite elections. We who have been enslaved whenever white men grew desperate do not feign shock when white people unveil their retrograde racism and comfort themselves with “humor” and faux-ironic observation because they, individually, cannot detect any racial animus in their hearts. It would seem quite natural for those who have been threatened and intimidated to grow quiet and guarded as another would-be oppressor ratchets up his bluster. 
Outside of America, some of the world’s Black nations have come closer to an end-of-days than most. If only anyone here had paid close attention, when machetes and machine guns felled hundreds of thousands in Rwanda or when the earth cracked open, swallowing so many Haitians whole and survivors struggled for years to rebuild, only to find their progress washed away with the arrival of angry gusts and torrents. If only anyone here had learned something from the nations that successfully resisted white colonization then found themselves expelled from their homeland amid decades of civil war or from armed men razing villages and stealing over 200 girls from their school dormitories while their parents waited helplessly for whim or boredom or the dull blade of conscience to prick the murderous infidels who took them, compelling them to return a few haunted souls at a time.

We are quiet because all we have ever had is us — and even among us, there is considerable treachery.

This isn’t a lesson to be gleaned only from examples abroad. When the first waves of crack and heroin capsized once-stable black communities and Lady Justice supplied the scales, microcosmic apocalypse made its way these shores. We who have seen the gradual transformation of lives, once carried out with love and even temperament, into something closer to feral than civil, something at times barely recognizable as sentient, will have little trouble devising a plan for survival when the so-called zombies come. Those who know firsthand what happens when trained civil servants with the power to protect us increasingly make the decision to protect only themselves will recover quickest from any shock when we are truly on our own as a culture and years of debate over bearing arms will seem a distant memory.

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I came here to write about simple things: my byline made it into the New York Times (after a few failed attempts). I’ve adapted my last blog post, written back in July, into an audio essay and my friend John featured it on the Season 2 premiere of his amazing podcast, Scene on Radio. After angst and disappointment, I’ve landed my first-ever (and hopefully only) literary agent (though the circumstances sureounding that development are a story for a different time). My daughter is thriving in kindergarten, thereby affirming everyone’s decision to delay her entry by a year. I have finally escaped the clutches of an old, worn love (though that has only left me pining for love anew). The Rise of Charm City will likely live on for a second season, though it will take quite a bit more time and fundraising effort than I’d anticipated. I’ll have to find work that allows me to live decently in the meantime. And there is an election afoot I’d just as soon forget until November 8th. Easy things. But whenever I’d sit down to find some lovely way to write them out, I’d find myself frozen or indifferent or listless.

All of that would’ve been more than enough to fill an entry. I didn’t intend to begin with musings on apocalypse today. But aren’t we ever inching toward an end? Ours, singly, will likely come before the whole of society’s. But there is little difference in how we should respond. Contribute what you can to the world while you and it are still here. When it becomes unrecognizable, contribute still. It is meaningful now, no matter its impact later. Vote whenever the opportunity presents itself, even though you are aware that, no matter who ascends to power, the cards will be stacked against spades. Be stingy with your survival plan; it will be worthless to those who’ve refused to acknowledge your years of tactical practice. Share it only with those who’ve long understood why you have it, who trust the validity of your Black experience, who know full well how you’ve identified every remaining exit. 

Prince and Philando and Futures Untold.

1. “Don’t worry. I only want you to have some fun.”

It depends on the mother. But some begin to lose themselves in the fleshy, post-birth folds around their waists, in the feeling of excess blood, decreasing and slowly recalibrating its flow, in adjusting to the less taxing burden of one body again, instead of the heft of two.

It depends on the mother. But for some, childbirth is beset with instability, the worry attendant to a partner’s precarious presence. Now you see him, texting in the delivery room, now you don’t, at the 3 in the morning beside the changing table or hunched over the diaper pail.

He is at once flesh and apparition, at once as essential as the braided DNA inside the baby and as intangible as desert air. One too many complaints and he could slip away for good. One too many worries voiced and he will.

He does.

It depends on the mother. But at least one of us will will herself numb, regardless of whether the father ever returns to help her care for the child they both conceived. If he returns, she will betray nothing. They will transact — the child, the details, the money, if any — and he will become more business partner than best friend. He will become rook to her queen: merely two pieces on a board, trying not to take each other out.

If he never returns, the old wounds callus quicker.

In either case, soon — perhaps sooner than she’s ready — she’ll be able to imagine a life, a family, a more durable, enjoyable alliance with someone else. The thought will become a meditation, a light toward which she is determined to travel.

The things we do not know about Diamond Reynolds are manifold. But we know she has a 4-year-old daughter. And we know that she had a boyfriend.

We cannot confirm how she chose him. But I can imagine. Philando: a name that sounds like a dance and could, when pronounced with a certain inflection, make castanets of a tongue. Paired with the surname Castile, a word reminiscent of the gentlest, most versatile of soaps, Philando likely seemed able to cleanse any sorrow. Philando may have seemed able to scrub away the residue and see what lay at her core: calmness, strength, a desire for a far less complicated life.

As if the fortune of his name were not enough, there was his profession: school cafeteria worker, a position he’d managed to hold for most of his adult life. It was not just the job but the pride he took in it, not just the stability or the wage, but the care with which he fed the children who could not so easily afford it, the off-the-clock study it must’ve taken to differentiate which meals would aggravate which student’s hidden allergies. These suggestions must’ve compelled her to believe that he could earn the privilege of proximity to her daughter.

Castile. Cleansing. Simple. Soothing. Philando. Unusual — and alluring because of it.

It depends on the woman. But for some, simplicity is sexiest. It’s the hand reached across the armrest to squeeze hers on a ride to pick up groceries that doesn’t result in a “routine” traffic stop. The blanket tossed over a hill to watch the fireworks on the fourth of July. The intimate high of a joint sparked to mark an occasion, a buzz passed and pulled between them like a lingering kiss. Simple, like the look he’d sometimes get in his eyes. Don’t worry, it assured her. I only want you to have some fun.

2. “The sky was all purple; there were people running everywhere./Trying to run from my destruction, you know, I didn’t even care.”

A pall has been cast over our country, beyond the reach of even our savviest astronauts, a dark and ominous sheet has been fastened into place: a great gulf fixed between heaven and earth. We can still be heard when we pray but it’s hard not to believe that our voices are distorted and muffled.

We can no longer grieve in the ways to which we have grown accustomed. The deaths come too quickly for adequate contemplation.

The marchers need their vigils: congregation and comfort and candle. The rituals gird them. The rhythm of walking steadies their pulse and reassures the observer that someone is always fighting alongside us when we feel strong enough to join them and for us, on the occasions when we do not.

This is a discordant year, when disruption is disrupted by the rattle of even more bullets, when officers who should have protected and served civilians are endangering the officers who are protecting civilians. And all who are bearing arms are endangering all who dare take to the streets in hopes of regulating where and when arms can be borne.

We can no longer adequately enact the stations of loss. No one’s role can be performed as written anymore. We are all exhausted of acting. And even the writers cannot keep apace with their elegies. When I started this, it was to honor five Dallas officers. I am ending it two days after four more officers were slaughtered in Baton Rouge. And the civil rights lawyers on social media are warning activists to stay indoors, as the public square increasingly becomes a shooting gallery and the protections generally offered to the civilly disobedient can no longer be consistently ensured.

Perhaps we can outrun what’s coming. But running clears the mind. Do it long enough and we all forget distance, impetus, and destination. Do it long enough and running becomes the only goal.

3. “Life is just a party and parties weren’t meant to last.”/”I don’t wanna die. I’d rather dance my life away.”

I’ve wondered where Philando and Diamond were when they heard about Prince. Were they together? The news of his collapse alone in an elevator inside his own home, did it wind them? Did they hold onto one another till they caught their breath?

I can’t imagine that black Minnesotans took the Purple One’s passing the way the rest of the world did. He meant something different for them. Falcon Heights, after all, where Philando drew his final breaths and Diamond recorded it in hopes to avenge him, is a mere 40-minute drive from Paisley Park.

Prince, aloof and amusing and untouchable as he was to many, was quite literally accessible to the people in his state of birth. That he was both black and one of the most famous residents there had to have been a particular point of pride for the black Minnesotans who make up a mere five percent of the state population.

Had Philando and Diamond ever ridden past Paisley Park, marveled over what-all must’ve gone down inside?

I’ve wondered too about how Prince would’ve responded to the news of Philando’s death. Having seen him sing to Baltimore for hours, weeks after Freddie Gray lost consciousness and the use of his limbs alone in the back of a police van, I know Prince would’ve made his displeasure over Philando’s death in Falcon Heights known.

That this happened near his own hometown would’ve only heightened his response to it.

I think Prince would’ve reached out to Diamond, would’ve asked if there was anything her daughter needed, would’ve given to them in abundance and in silence.

Even a few months later, I do not like to think of how we lost Prince, privately self-medicating, pretending to the world that agony could be built into his aesthetic. No more pirouettes-into-squats on stilettos, rather Prince and a pared-down piano, rather The Myth and his trusty guitar. A painful limp and cane passed off as mere cat daddy swagger.

Perhaps Prince would’ve understood better than anyone Diamond’s instinct to pull out her cell phone and record Officer Jeromimo Yanez’s rehearsal of his post-shooting lines.

The show must go on, no matter who it hurts (and almost certainly, the person it will hurt most is you). And sometimes, the show is the truest and only real justice to be granted or received.

Prince, like Diamond, knew how and when to perform to expectations. Prince, like Diamond, knew that there will never be a ceiling on how high expectations of their performance can be set.

Consider how the world critiqued his exit: “He wasn’t supposed to go like that. I was expecting something more spectacular: extreme old age or a blaze of glory.”

Consider how the world critiqued Diamond’s instinct: “Why didn’t she call 911 with her phone instead of using it to livestream?”

Consider, in light of how brave they had to be, that neither of their choices deserved scrutiny.

There is no tour de force in the face of death, no right way to handle an untimely exit. We confront it the only way we can: without much choice.

4. “… My body says prepare to fight. So if I gotta die, I’m gonna listen to my body tonight.”

God bless the streets, where blood runs freer than the people to whom that blood belongs.

God bless everyone brave enough to keep record. Ramsey Orta of Eric Garner. Feidin Santana of Walter Scott. Tywanza Sanders of the Charleston Massacre assailant, just before he was killed by him. Abdullah Muflahi for Alton Sterling.

Where would we be without evidence, even when that evidence doesn’t formally, judicially indict?

There would be an Away left to look to. We wouldn’t realize that the truth had us so thoroughly surrounded. We wouldn’t know there is no other way forward but to fight.

5. “Mommy, why does everybody have a bomb?”

People who want children someday romanticize their unborn. They use them as rhetorical devices, as the captive, poetic audiences to whom we voice our worst fears, our most desperate optimism, our apologies for the history preceding them and for our own contributions to it. We all believe we need someone invisible to answer to, and it’s simply easier to imagine accountability to a child we created than to an all-knowing Creator. We want to believe we will live to see ourselves become someone’s ancestor, so we pre-write an account of the ancestry we hope she will never contest.

But when our children cease to be hypothetical, when they are rigid, sturdy limb, encrusted mucus, a firm, tiny foot pressed to your face in the night, there is nothing flowery about the fight to protect them, nothing romantic about the gauntlet we face every day in hopes to hold onto their innocence for just a few minutes more. There is no time and no reason left them to write to them. We are living out the only record they will remember as true.

And yet we write to them anyway, because we want answers as much as they will. We want proof that we sought them right up to the end. And so I will say this to my daughter now:

I am glad that, at nearly 6, your precocity confines itself to countless configurations of miniatures. I am relieved that you intuit how others are feeling but still have so little idea as to why. I’m grateful you have not begun to inquire after those complicated whys and that no one in your classes, having overheard and understood better their own parents’ compound angst, has encouraged you to.

I do not know what will be left for you. From where I stand I see a lot of what our own black forebears struggled to build crumbling under the weight of what this country has never repaired. Bigotry, poverty, and denial are an apocalyptic confluence. And all three seem to be racing toward their apex now.

I hope you find this. And in the event that you can’t, I hope it finds you. By the time you read it, I hope you already know who you are. I hope you’ll still know what this country is, that you’ll still recognize something of its promise. I hope that when you’ll read this, Prince’s “1999” is softly playing in the distance, and if it is, you’ll remember that the world did not end in the decades after he recorded it, that every generation struggles to truly comprehend the limits of its time, and that we owe it to whatever future remains to celebrate and repurpose what rises from its rubble.

For Alton. For Philando. For All.

1.

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He had a grin made of gold. Veneers once considered as hip as the compact discs he was selling. Remember the ’90s, when yellow gold was preferable to platinum and the cassette tape had yet to become entirely passé, but if you were still playing those when CDs were all the rage, you were clowned through the halls of your high school? In locker-lined hallway parlance, you were “an impossible herb.” Alton Sterling was in high school in the 90s. I know because we are nearly the same age. He was 37. I will be 37 in mere months.

I still play CDs in my car. It has a six-disc changer. The CDs I play are mostly burned, from the MP3s I listen to everywhere else. I do not purchase them, neither in stores or in the street.

For me, these are the details — the gilded teeth, the compact discs — that stand in starkest relief. They feel like relics: the former a trend I wish would fully fade, the latter a medium I thought already had.

Time tends to forget cities like Baton Rouge. Like Ferguson. Like Charleston. Cities adjacent to larger, more tourist-friendly ones, cities that, no matter how large or small, still seem to function as sleepy and insular towns, cities where blight may be easy to cover with natural beauty, by simply directing a driver three miles to the left or the right.

To those who live without, cities like these seem quaint, kitschy, preserved in the amber of time bygone. Until a massacre. Until the body of a teenage black boy is left dead in the street for four hours. Until someone videotapes one of the scores of police confrontations that happen to the town’s black residents every day — and until one of those videos happens to be of a brutal, unjustified murder.

We are jarred into recollection then. Time isn’t what forgets cities where trends seem to linger for decades past their prime, where hustle men still sell CDs in a largely disc-less society. It’s the rest of us who forget, the rest of us who rarely have occasion to consider the gross neglect of a slow-ambling city’s black schools or their lead testing or their water supply or their police force. Sufficient unto every hometown, after all, is the evil thereof. We are too busy reckoning with the corruption next door. We have not considered the mostly silent, daily terrors stalking other towns.

By the time the national press gets involved, by the time they see something salacious enough to remind us, we are awestruck, woebegone, looking for the logical ties between Baton Rouge and Baltimore, Baton Rouge and Los Angeles, Baton Rouge and the Bronx. They are not so unlike us, we say of the town’s time “forgets.” We should fight for their basic human rights as fiercely as we try to protect our own. And we do, as long as the news cycle lasts. We do, until the next tragedy of large scale takes precedence, until the little things — gold teeth, compact discs — are all we can still bear to remember.

2.

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He served tater tots and rectangles of spongy pizza to students at J.J. Hill Montessori Magnet School in St. Paul, Minnesota for over a decade. I imagine it was work that he enjoyed. The scent of school cafeterias is pungent. It is not an odor everyone can stomach. Cafeteria workers are not always respected as they should be. It is not a profession whose thanklessness everyone can stomach. Philando Castile was younger than Alton and I by five years. He was 32, and he was driving, a privilege only appreciated by those who have not always been able to feel its benefits. The ability to regularly transport one’s family in a car is no small accomplishment, no minor blessing.

We can assume that Philando knew well that privilege, his girlfriend in the passenger seat, her daughter in the back. We can also assume he knew his rights, owner as he was of a legally registered gun, the presence of which he reportedly notified the police, while reaching for his driver’s license and registration. The gun was in the glove compartment, where it could be retrieved in case of danger, where it was concealed from the children in his life, from the family he was chauffeuring through town.

There is no gradation of deservedness in situations like these. There was no more justification for Alton to be executed while already apprehended than for Philando to absorb several bullets in quick succession while reaching for the identification an officer asked for, reaching from within the former comfort of his own car.

They are both dead, regardless of the details, when they should both, by most accounts, still be alive. Alton’s 15-year-old son should not be sobbing for a father who can no longer reach out and envelope him. Philando’s girlfriend Diamond Reynolds’ four-year-old should not need to console her mother. Still so certain of her toddler-body’s invincibility, of her spirit’s ability to heal whatever hurts, she should have no cause to put either superpower to the test.

And the rest of us should not find ourselves debating the psychic, emotional, and ethical merits of viewing and disseminating the recorded details of victims’ murders. It’s a sad state of affairs that we so often bicker over whether or not we should watch the myriad ways that black folks can die.

3.

Minneapolis is not like Baton Rouge. It’s 8.4 percent black, where Baton Rouge is 58.5 percent black. And Minneapolis is like Baton Rouge: it does not do right by its black population. Its police force perceives immediate ill intent in the black residents they’re meant to serve.

There is no city in this country any safer or objectively “better” for a black family than another. This is true for many reasons and racial bias in police forces is just one. But we delude ourselves, don’t we, searching for someplace seemingly more progressive, some place where our breadwinners can find legitimate work — even with a criminal conviction, some home in a community where crime is rare but not so rare that we’ll be mistaken for breaking into our own front doors, should we ever misplace our keys. Some place where we can pull calmly over to receive a broken taillight citation and feel somewhat assured that, if we comply, we will not die.

We have always longed to live, and this country has long been ambivalent about that yearning. But we owe to Alton and Philando, we owe to ourselves and our children, what we have ever been owed: some semblance of life, the inordinate idea that, as long as we draw breath, that life can still improve. Against odds, in spite of history, alongside the omnipresent ache of injustice. We have always longed to live and we only can do so by reaching for one another, through melee and misty eyes, reach though our arms tremble with fear, adrenaline and rage, reach and fill the empty arcs of our own arms.

As in the bowels of ships, as in the segregated front-line trenches, as in the backs of paddywagons, the corners of one-room schoolhouses, along the chain gangs, outside governor’s mansions, on the curb where someone deeply loved was reminded of that love one last time, while bleeding out, reach for what will always find you. Us. All we will ever have for certain in this American life is us.

What Women Hear.

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Suppose she awakens at dawn beside a partner with whom she is still in passionate love. What might a woman hear? A subtle symphony of breaths, a nearly imperceptible whimper seeping from the gallows of her beloved’s subconscious. She would know by the pitch of that whimper the nature of her lover’s dream.

Her legs may scissor the rustling cotton sheets until she is out of bed and, in the shower, the towering bricks of her day’s to-dos crash down and drown the noise of pelting water on tile.

She hears herself: No way I can get through this. She hears herself: You can and you’d better.

On her commute, she hears men, erecting themselves and squaring their shoulders, hoping to appear formidable, psyching themselves up with trap tunes through earbuds, with menacing admonitions to anyone who bumps them or scuffs their shoe or dares to change lanes, despite their speeding up to prevent it. She can hear the menace in the blare of a horn.

The woman hears a man’s lewd stare, whether his mouth gives it voice or leaves the work to his bellowing eyes. And she hears herself, shouting it down, whether she uses words gritted aloud or leaves the Back. Up. to her glowering eyes. And at her job, praise sounds faint, or else as cacophonous as critique. Unequivocal praise is the only thing she cannot quite hear.

A no, when delivered to her, will often sound like a door sealing shut. A no, when delivered by her, is often the soft sweep of a door revolving.

She can hear her body, can hear what it longs to house, how it longs to heal. She hearkens to its shifts and its sloughs.

She can hear her uterus thicken and swell as it molds and gathers the cells that make a body. And she, perhaps remembering the ancient, infant sounds inside another woman’s womb, can recognize each knot and gurgle in her own.

It is fitting, then, for women who hear so keenly to congregate in summer and unscrew the lids of their jars, where they’ve collected of thin air all those flittering sounds. And it is powerful beyond measure for us to gather on a single porch, holding each other’s jars to our ears, sharing these secret frequencies that only we can hear.

Werk It! is one such porch, an annual two-day communion in June where women feel less sequestered in solo silos of sound, where we listen to each other distill our processes and confide our uncertainties, where we celebrate the wondrous outcomes of our ever-sharpening skill, the breathtaking innovation that comes of learning to trust our hearts and ideas and our ears.

There, in a room of 150 women, we are told that at least 600 more audio-makers could’ve joined us, that the applications submitted for attendance were endless, that ingenious women are embedded in this work all over the world. And it’s a comfort, not a competition, knowing how many of us are capable of creating works of aural brilliance. For we know acutely what women are forced to listen to as we try to translate for others all the sound only we can hear: the undermining criticism of men; the insidious doubts of bad colleagues; the ultimatums our families or bosses or lovers deliver; crude epithets passed off as sidewalk compliments.

It’s tiresome beyond the porch, and there is no place else where we feel so free to admit it. In that freedom, we replenish each other. With that freedom, we recommend to the women beside us what should be done when we depart. We do not abide tones of apology. We whisper what certainty should sound like. Our ears hustle so, so hard. We hear and we hear and we hear.

Quick Updates.

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Laura Mvula’s second studio album, The Dreaming Room, dropped yesterday, and you must have it. Go get it. Trust.

It’s been months. I know. And I can’t even spend too much time writing this right now. But I wanted to do a quick round-up of things I’ve been writing and doing lately, in advance of what I hope I’ll have time to write soon: a longer reflective piece.

Here goes:

1. I’ve still been writing. I guess the most notable recent pieces would be the one about the Lifetime series UnREAL at Cosmopolitan.com and the one about Chance the Rapper and co-parenting at The Washington Post (where I write every week still).

2. Black Girls Talking invited me to a Writer’s Roundtable episode of their show, to discuss the ups and downs of cultivating a career in writing.

3. I attended the National Federation of Community Broadcasters Conference in Denver last week, where I gave a two-hour presentation with my coworker Ali and also participated in a panel. Both gave me rich opportunities to share Baltimore: The Rise of Charm City‘s work and to figure out how to extend its life (something I was already contemplating). NFCB felt philosophical and sort of wonky while I was here. And I left grappling with a huge question: How can we contemporize, revolutionize, and financially sustain radio at the intersection of community service and activism?

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3. I was featured in Baltimore’s alt-weekly City Paper (but I waited too long to get a print copy, so if you live in town and happen to have one, do me a solid and screenshot it for me?). Props to the reporter, Lisa Snowden McCray, whose work you should definitely check out and whose voice you can hear in Episode 2 of Baltimore: The Rise of Charm City.

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4. I just got back late last night from Werk It! A Women’s Podcasting Festival, which was pretty glamorous — especially in comparison to the NFCB conference. I was on a panel there, too, (you can listen here, beginning around the 31:00 mark. I only spoke twice, I think, and one of those times was pre-empted by a fire alarm system drill, and I definitely dropped my notecards in the fray, so if you’re into that kind of thing — or into great, insightful discussions about women in radio and innovation, give it a whirl…). There are powerful women quietly producing incredible audio work everywhere, every day, and it’s astounding that that isn’t more widely known, reported, and celebrated. Props to Werk It! for fighting that fight and looking fly while doing it.

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Postcard from the Inside.

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“Why do you write like you’re running out of time?”

Dear Reader,

Day upon day I awaken both thrilled and exhausted, my nights all beset by the disquiet of ideas and anxiety. As it turns out, I am no better at sleeping soundly when I am fulfilled than when I am frustrated. This is the life I had conditioned myself to avoid, convinced as I was that I couldn’t handle being “busy” — at least not in the typical Western, capitalist tradition of busyness. And if that meant that I wouldn’t earn much — either in money or in accolades — I’d just have to learn to live with less.

To brace for this, I had spent years telling myself that I would be fine earning and living below my true ability because I was not particularly ambitious, nor was I roused each morning by an agitating pressure to impress others and outdo myself. I wanted contentment, not an interminable climb. I was working just enough, in positions that allowed for anonymity and flexibility. Any bouts of real striving were selective and intermittent.

But I suppose I’ve always known that was a lie. The Lie, really. The biggest self-betrayal is the one that persuades you to live unambitiously. I am neither minimalist nor mediocre. I have never been content with less than I’m capable of creating or earning or becoming; I am just averse to that creeping sense of mania I feel when I stretch forth my hand too far, grasping at things that will require unending restlessness and fierce self-competition if I ever hope to reach them.

I have only been producing radio for four and a half months, but it’s already quite clear that this was what I was avoiding. This job has confirmed both what I find terrifying and what I could be capable of. Just as writing — my lifelong calling (and I say that devoid of hyperbole or delusion of grandeur) — had become staid and dead-end for me, a Sisyphean cycle of essays and small checks sliding up and down an ever-mounting debt, I learned that I could do more. I learned that writing isn’t all I can do, that I’m not doomed to it. I learned that pursuing a life as a black woman who was raised lower-middle-class isn’t some sort of lifelong punishment. And I needn’t spend what’s left of my 30s wondering where I went wrong and what I should’ve studied that would’ve left to a less financially, creatively frustrated existence.

I just needed to allow myself full access to the expanse of my imagination. I needed to urge myself closer to its edges and dare to believe — as I had as a child — that invisible opportunities lay beyond it.

Right now I reside in one of those once-unseen provinces, one of those worlds I had yet to dream up a year ago. I go out every day and meet people and want things and make decisions that affect far more people than myself and my daughter. I manage a budget. I manage a project. I will myself to be a less timid, less ingratiating version of myself. I try to remain more kind and more generous than most jobs require us to be in this country where people are so often reduced to their bottomline. I try to be more responsible with long trail of paper, to treat the numbers on it as though they’re decipherable. I pretend until I don’t have to.

The effort is exhausting. But what I can tell you is that I have never been happier in my professional life. With the exception of last year, when I was a freelance essayist, I’ve never felt as creatively uncertain or emotionally depleted. And without exception, I’ve never been prouder of the work I’m doing.

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I never know how I sound when I’m describing a life transition so I hope you’ll forgive me any slips into melodrama. I’ve just always found it difficult and lonely to work temporary, contractual jobs and much of my professional life has been comprised of that work. The older I get, the more isolated I feel leading a life where benefits and retirement planning seem a distant fever-dream, and I know a growing demographic of people, especially creatives, are experiencing this. And to have that compounded by the physical isolation freelancing can foster is especially difficult. I write things like this to commiserate and encourage and to compel those in this position to reconsider the parameters of their skill set. Apply for new sorts of work. Learn an unfamiliar form of storytelling. Deepen your curiosity, if need be, and overcome the prison of your own quickest, reactionary thoughts on the issue of the day. Grant yourself the luxury of time and investigation.

For as long as you can, awaken thrilled and fall asleep depleted.

P.S.

  • As the opening gif may’ve suggested, I’m super-into the Hamilton cast album as of last weekend. Since then, I’ve tried to maintain a modicum of chill about it, but it’s been hard. I’ve been bitten; I am smitten.
  • We’re five episodes into Baltimore: The Rise of Charm City. You can listen to them all here. Please take a moment to rate and review us on iTunes; it really matters.
  • The show was featured and I was interviewed on WAMU’s The Big Listen, a broadcast about podcasts.
  • I’m recapping WGN’s Underground for Vulture.
  • I’m still a once-a-week contributor to The Washington Post’s Act Four blog.
  • That’s officially all I can handle. My plate is full to overflowing. My cup runneth over.

Elegy for the Larger-than-Life. 

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When you go, we are — often unexpectedly — gutted, having grossly underestimated how tightly the gold thread you spun was woven into the fabric of our own quotidian lives. We absorbed you, your work a pulsing undercurrent in so much we consume and enjoy. And we sensed you near, though for the vast majority of us, you were entirely unknowable. With stars, we expect to be kept locked outside. In fact, we prefer it, so pleased by the idea — and the perceived proof — that talent can change the density of lives; it can fill every day to bursting with elements so many of us rarely encounter: wealth, acclaim, a kind of fun and daring only wealth and acclaim would allow (or excuse), secrecy, a sort of omnipresence. You are never among us and yet, you are always among us.

So when you die — and so many of you are dying — there is always a disbelieving beat, a sharp breath of denial. It’s as though, quite without realizing it, we had assumed that you lived somewhere between mortality and eternity, never belonging entirely to neither plane.

This isn’t true of all stars. There are some we understand as fragile, teetering and barely hanging on to this world and wholly unprepared to face a next — the ones whose addictions are constantly threatening to wrest them away, the ones whose sadness is palpable, even when they’re pratfalling, their tongues lapping the pie from their beaming faces. Fans can be discerning. Though it saddens us, there are some we simply expect to mourn.

But you are the kind who fool us. You kick your coke habits. You stop just short of pickling yourself in booze. You fold into the love of a formidable partner. You disappear from public view so long we forget that you live in a body at all — until that body, with its fickle organs, its long memory of bygone abuse — betrays you.

Because you have survived what has destroyed others, we imagine you are hardier somehow than we who are certainly finite. Because we can hear you or watch you at whim — from any device, prompted by any of our tangential, deeply personal memories, because we danced to you at our weddings, or rang in holidays watching you viefor a good woman’s love, because you played in the background of other loved one’s repasts, we thought you’d outlast us all.

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For someone, you were always understood as mortal. Your skin slackened under their hand, their lips felt the slide of jowls over your angular cheekbones. They slowed the clip of their gait when it became hard for you to keep up. They lifted the ice chips to your tongue when food became too difficult to eat. The scent of your vomit lingers in their nostrils and on their hardest days without you, they will long to be able to wipe it from your chin, just once more. For them, your dying marks a permanent departure. It means accepting that millions of after-midnights, all the whispered laughter and all the hushed bickering they contained, will never be reenacted.

For us, you were never really here, not in the same way the rest of are: anchored to cubicles and school conferences and coffee shops, our footprints measurable in any loam we’ve tread. We cannot backtrack through our physical spaces and find you, cannot retrace our own steps for evidence that you existed. Where is our physical proof that you shimmied in glittered chinchilla across Madison Square Garden, that you grinned or winked at the few who made it backstage? The photos? Ephemera. The autograph? That could be anyone’s, couldn’t it? Our stories? We embellish them a bit more in every retelling. Before long, it is impossible to discern how much of what remains is true. It is impossible to know if it was you. And it wasn’t, was it? It was your avatar: persona, not person. As fans, if we encountered you at all, it was as icons, not intimates.

When you die we look for your footprints in the places we are sure we will find them, in the recollections that never fail us: the lyrics and lines that will not change, the melodies we know by rote, the very nanosecond you furrowed your brow in a film. We crank you up until you fill our cars or our living rooms. We sing and quote along, this time because we know you no longer can. Not here, anyway, in the realm where we still live, and where we still suspect you could always come and go as you pleased.

I Don’t Know What the Weather Will Be.

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This post is titled after a Laura Mvula song of the same name, because she’s my current musical obsession (I’ll get back to that in a minute). But it’s also apt because the year’s end is nigh and, though I am starting every day bursting with anticipation and ending each day, full — of anxiety or accomplishment or some amalgam of the two — I really don’t know what’s coming. That doesn’t scare me in the way it did for most of this year because, now, I am always certain that something is coming. As a freelance writer, things were typically more precarious and largely left to my sense of ambition on any given day. The weight and panic of trying to secure work left completely immobile some days.

Now, at least over the next seven months, I have a long-term project to execute. No day is fruitless. I’m never frozen. It’s refreshing, but shifting professional gears again is frightening, too.

Producing an audio program is different than the work I’ve done as a freelancer for print/written media. As a writer and a borderline agoraphobic, I’ve tended to write things that required the least amount of interaction with others. I didn’t leave home when I didn’t have to. And I was loath to consider myself a reporter of any kind. With Baltimore: The Rise of Charm City, the radio show/podcast I’m developing with AIR and WEAA, I have to go out — a lot — and when I’m not actually going out, I have to be making plans to go out. Not only do I have to talk to people, but I have to learn something I’ve spent years — decades, really — avoiding: leadership.

There’s no place to hide, especially not in towers of lofty ideas or behind hanging tapestries of language. As a radio producer, there are always directives to create and to give — and even when every instinct inside me signals that I should defer to someone else or to take instruction rather than to give it (I still do this whenever I can; you can ask my collaborators about that), I have to force myself to the fore (and then challenge myself to stay there).

I have help with that. We’ve built a small production team that includes two civic-minded young women I hired with audio and video documentary experience and one radio vet and organizer with a passion for the city of Baltimore. The general manager at the radio station has been supportive beyond anything I could’ve hoped for or imagined, despite how busy she is. And whenever I work in their offices, everyone seems excited about our project.

My production team is a mix of assertiveness, confidence, knowledge and emerging skills. Where I’m timid, someone else is not. When I have a firm idea/show concept, someone does whatever they can to help me execute (and improve upon) it. When I’m unsure about how to proceed, someone offers a ton of great leads.

It’s a good time to be starting at square one on something. I’ve been 36 for one month. It’s the first year I’m spending on the backside of my 30s; I’m officially closer to 40 now — and there are so many underdeveloped social and professional skills I still need to strengthen. This project will help. At its end, I hope to know how to record and edit my own segments, to be able to better gauge which direction an interview needs to take (in the moment I’m conducting it rather than in retrospect), and to develop a project management style that’s at once collaborative and confident. I also just want to overcome my anxieties about meeting new people, being around a lot of people at once, and asking any number of those people a lot of probing questions.

I’m hopeful.

Our ideas are only as good as our ability to execute them. Our execution is only as good as our ability to pivot, adapt, accept feedback, delegate, and recognize our own limitations and our collaborators’ strengths.

Last Thursday night, three members of our team went out on our first big night of recording for the show’s first episode (about the history and future of Shake and Bake Family Fun Center), slated to air in mid-January. I was scared going in and my heart raced the whole way home, but it was worth it to hear people talk about things they cherish: their faith, their childhood hobbies, their memories of Baltimore’s thriving black businesses and safe, open communities up until the late ’60s, their $400 skates, their ability to teach their children or grandchildren to skate, just as they learned to as kids. There’s something magical about good memories and how they animate a face, how recounting them makes the years that have etched themselves into forehead and cheek fall away. I get to watch that happen nearly every week for for the next seven months.

I’ll probably be as surprised as any listener will about how each episode turns out. That’s part of the thrill of it: the discovery, the surprise, the trial and the error, the vanquishing of fear. But I can’t wait to make it all come together. I can’t wait to remind myself that my abilities aren’t as narrow as I’ve defined them for myself and that my potential can still press beyond its long-set perimeter.

I’m also hoping to approach writing differently in the new year. It’s already nice not to have to rely on essay-writing as primary income. And it’s refreshing to be able to call myself something else for awhile. Being a “professional” writer is a realized dream and the goals I had for a career in writing and/or editing have needed adjusting for awhile now. I’m very fortunate to have an opportunity to make those adjustments now.

For those keeping track, I’m still a weekly contributor at Washington Post’s Act Four blog. I’m no longer a weekly contributor at New Republic (though I do still hope to write there from time to time in the future; it’s a very cool publication, both in print and online). And though I don’t anticipate pitching much in the first half of 2016, while the radio show is in production, I’m always open to it.

In the meantime, the upcoming launch of Baltimore: The Rise of Charm City was written up in Baltimore magazine. It was the first time I’d had a professional photo taken to run with an article.

Photo credit: Christopher Myers

Photo credit: Christopher Myers

Back to Laura Mvula: she’s incredible and I can’t believe I just found her albums two weeks ago. But I immediately started making up for lost time by learning and Acapella-ing her songs. This is probably the best of my efforts, taken from the chorus of “Diamonds“:


Runner-up, this from “Father, Father“:

For fun, here’s a longer attempt at that one, with a cameo from my daughter, who really doesn’t respect singing-with-bathroom-acoustics alone time.

Stacia at BinderCon NYC 2015: Journalism and Social Justice.


Last Sunday, November 8, I was on a panel at Out of the Binders’ second annual BinderCon, a two-day conference for women and gender noncomforming writers and media professionals. This is the video. I had a fantastic time, and I was so incredibly honored to be part of this group of speakers, in particular, which included journalists from The New York Times, The New Yorker, and ProPublica. They were gracious and brilliant and, close to a week later, I still can’t believe I was up there with them. Lots of important points were raised, as each of us discussed at least one piece we’d written that subsequently advanced a social justice cause (whether that was our express purpose for writing or not — and in most cases, it wasn’t).

Here are links to some of the pieces discussed:

Sarah Maslin Nir’s “The Price of Nice Nails.”

Jennifer Gonnerman’s “Before the Law (or “Three Years on Rikers Without Trial.”)

Ginger Thompson’s “Reaping What Was Sown on the Old Plantation.”

Mine: “Dispatch from Baltimore” and “The Luxury of Hope.”

Many thanks to our moderator, a brilliant, accomplished journalist in her own right, Alizah Salario. Shout-outs to people I follow on Twitter and had the great joy of meeting in person during the weekend, Eva KL Miller and Nyasha Junior (author of the new book, Introduction to Biblical Womanism). Big love to the perpetually fabulous, ethereal Melissa Febos, my friend from grad school, whose panel on personal writing with political themes was amazing (I’m not sure if it’ll be available online but if it ever is, I’ll update with a link). And a warm hug goes out to Aya de Leon, whose children’s book, Puffy: People Whose Hair Defies Gravity, I spotted on a bookstore table as I was rushing out to catch my bus back to Baltimore, then bumped into immediately after purchasing and got autographed for Story. She was beautiful and gracious and I’m so glad I got to meet her before I had to hustle out of there. Love out to my Saturday lunch buddies, Jenn Baker, whose Minorities in Publishing podcast you should definitely check out, Monica Odom who was so kind and encouraging about book-writing, and Ashley Lauren Rogers, who was warm and witty. So glad to have met and re-connected with so many wonderful people.

I also had a lot of time to myself, which helped me break some idea-ground for my new radio/podcast project. Overall, it was a great experience.

This is just one of Cooper Union’s buildings, but isn’t it impressive?