In the absence of justice, a scent.

(for Robert Godwin, Sr.)

The scent of an old Black man is

aftershave
the dry flaking skin of an undergreased scalp
maybe, when the weather is warm,
the must of an armpit, slightly overripe
and sometimes liquor, hard candy, a poor
breath-mask of stale mints and sometimes
tobacco in the form of mentholated
cigarettes or flimsy cigars, those
slivers of soap left after the bar
is worn down and cracked, the thin crescents
of motor oil embedded in cuticles,
grim black grins under every nail

warm

so visceral it still wafts out to you
from the fond photographs his family
is forced to disseminate after
some younger man shoots him dead without
reason, remorse, or warning.

May that scent assail his assailant,
as he draws his last breath.
May he understand the breadth
of the life he’s stolen.
May an aged air swell in his nostrils
and rush through the walls of his mouth
so that he forgets the very taste
of his own tongue, forgets even
the odor guilt emits through the epithelia.
All that should be left is an aroma of absence.
Would that it would thicken till
it tends, at times, to block the throat.
Should he live to be an old man,
may it cling to him still, a inescapable cask
fermenting all the years between his last and yours.

(Don’t) Forget Paris.

(Listen to the audio version of this essay via my new podcast, https://soundcloud.com/hopechestpodcast/ep-3-dont-forget-paris. Subscribe at iTunes and please rate and review!)

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1.

I do not have many romantic stories to tell you. Even the yarn about how your father and I managed to spend four days traipsing the cobblestoned arrondissements of Paris is an unsentimental one. I do not suppose that you’ll swoon. But, because we did not remain a couple after you were born, because you will likely grow up knowing our relationship simply as an amicable one, this is, perhaps, a tale worth telling you.

For a certain kind of Black American, several generations U.S.-born, but without many relatives who have left this country of their own volition, rather than because of an obligatory military deployment, international travel can be a vague, lofty, often elusive, ideal. We want to go. These days, far more of us do. But leisure travel abroad can require an intentionality, a precision of thought and planning that can prove somewhat prohibitive.

For the barely middle-class among us, it is a desire close enough to fathom attaining. If corners are cut or we have sudden financial windfalls or we fashion ourselves into spendthrifts, seeing the world becomes quite possible. This does not, however, mean the attainment will be easy.

I have only left the country once. It took me 28 years. And even after such an interminable wait, I could only afford four days and nights abroad. I chose Paris, but given the circumstances, I could just as easily have chosen Milan or Accra or Dubai. I chose it because of a sudden flight deal that, as serendipity would have it, coincided with the delivery of my tax refund, which combined with my post-graduate, crashing-on-my-aunt-and-uncle’s couch as an adjunct savings, to create a bit of a travel budget. I also chose it because I had recently read about a series of walking tours that traced the Black American experience in the early- to mid-20th century through the streets of present-day Paris.

For reasons both obvious and ineffable, this seemed a trek worth taking.

Sometimes I feel pinned to the contiguous United States by forces far beyond my control, forces that far predate me. I have never felt alone in this. It is the kind of tethering one feels when she knows for certain that at some point in her not-so-distant lineage, members of her family were chained to this land and forbidden from leaving it, first by centuries of enslavement and then by generations of bureaucratic policies extensive and dense and obtuse enough to feel all but unnavigable for a people who have had to fight through reams of red tape and a bottomless pit of administrative fees just to be able to vote or uphold even a pretense of property ownership.

In truth, if you have the means and an unbesmirched public record, the passport process is relatively easy. Because I left the country in haste, the way one does when she isn’t sure how long she’ll still be able to afford to, I paid the expedited fee and was able to feel the gold embossed navy blue vinyl beneath my fingertips in just three weeks.

I did not initially plan to include your father. I thought instead that I might go with my aunt and, failing that, I might just go alone. I may have planned the journey hastily but it could not have been more important to me. It was a milestone so many of us Black U.S.-born descendants of slaves do not reach. It was an opportunity I may never have seen again. I knew just one year removed from graduate school that I had chosen a discipline and career that would never render me financially solvent, let alone flush enough for frequent globetrotting. And, in fact, 10 years later, that remains true.

Your father, then a fellow non-corporate artist (meaning: intermittently broke, like me), had always longed for Paris. It was not a whim for him and I will have to let him tell you why. I don’t remember. What I recall is that it seemed to pain him to hear about the trip without being included it in it.

So we went together. And it nearly broke us up.

With just four days to spend, I wanted to rush through everything: museums and tours and cafes and monuments, wanted to lay eyes on as much as my mind could store. He was, as he often is, unhurried. He wanted to meander, to spend literal hours looking for small-cut European clothing and shoes that would fit his 6’5” frame. He wanted to talk to people, many of whom pretended not to speak English, even though between the two of us, we knew only ten phrases of French. By the third day, our second-to-last full day, as I waited for him to exit several stores in a mall that looked exactly like one we could find in his city of residence — Los Angeles — or mine, Grand Rapids, MI, I began to wish I had come alone, wished I were wandering the Louvre (where we never did find time to go) or returning to that cafe in the 14th with the incredible pain de chocolat and the bitter but perfectly foamed cappuccino.

I was as I have often, unfairly, been with him: resentful. We had finally escaped the confines of our own country. But I still felt confined by him. This is, perhaps, the moral of the story: you do not arrive at freedom. It is not a travel destination. You do not find it in the companionship of fellow meanderers. Freedom, if you are ever able to feel it, must be worked out within. Freedom, when you believe you have found it, must be taken with you.

at the butte montmarte

2.

My devotion to the country is an uneasy one, and perhaps as dotted with scorn as any ill-fated love affair. Even as long as we’ve been together — America and I — I remain unconvinced that what matters to me matters to it or that my needs, regardless of how clearly or loudly I voice them, will ever be met.

I am never sure how much I owe for citizenship. My citizenship and the supposed range of benefits attendant to it have never felt full.

To wit, I told you that the process of obtaining a passport was an easy one. But when the time came for a Parisian official to stamp it, I felt just as nervous as I do at the entrances of stores in every American mall. I know full well that I haven’t stolen anything but I still worry that the theft alarm will sound as I cross the threshold. That is to say, the first and only time that I traveled abroad, I did not entirely trust my American passport to protect me. I did not trust your father’s to protect him, either. We are Black. We traveled from entirely different origin airports, he from LAX and I from Gerald R. Ford. We are Black. His connection was in Germany, while my flight was direct to Paris. We are Black.

At Charles de Gaulle, it took us hours to find each other. We did not know that we had landed in separate buildings. We did not know we would have had to make special arrangements with our cell phone carriers for our phones to have functioned overseas. We did not speak the language.

And in those intervening hours, I did wonder if he had been detained. I wondered what I would do if he were. Keep going? Wander out into the unfamiliar city without him? Turn back? Try to pin down his whereabouts, wait for his safe release from wherever he was being held, for whatever reason?

It’s been nearly ten years since that trip. It was as uncomplicated an excursion as it possibly could’ve been, for both of us. But it could just as easily have been a nightmare. Our skin makes all the world potentially transgressive terrain. We carry that awareness with us as surely as we do our shoulder bags.

We did not know it then, not with our walking tour stories about Black American expatriates who remained fond enough of Paris to live out their remaining days and be buried there, not with every gift shop’s J’adore Barack and Michelle souvenirs, but France is neither safer nor more welcoming of black and brown women and men than America is. White men proposition and assault Black women walking alone in metro terminals and on sidewalks. And, as in America, police in Paris disproportionately brutalize black men.

I remember, at the end of our four-day excursion, feeling ready to abandon my own country and to live in the clichéd France I’d fashioned in such a short time, one of baguettes and fromage, a river of wine. I was sure that I would miss America no more than it would miss me.

There is an expression for this: no love lost. And there may truly have been none. But I cannot imagine that French discrimination would’ve felt any finer for its foreignness. I do not believe that, over time, that country’s reception of me would have been very different than my own’s.

There are worse things to lose than love.

at a souvenir shop circa st. michel fountain

at a souvenir shop circa st. michel fountain

3.

Your father flew back into L.A. and I returned to Michigan. For days afterward, I felt the phantom taste of clementines and Leffe Blonde, of tart cheeses and cheap red wine and the Newports he’d ducked into a half-dozen corner shops to find (and for which he had to pay an astounding 8 francs). I felt closer to him and infinitely farther. I felt a roof raised and lifted, adjusting my worldview.

I also felt relief. It was nice to be alone. I would never again be a woman who knew nothing of the land that lay beyond the borders of home. Neither would I travel so far from home again, unless I could be sure that I would feel free upon arrival.

These days, it is much harder to reassure myself of that possibility. Our home has chosen a new patriarch — and he is not a liberating type. In fewer than 50 days in office, he has tried to render VISAs as meaningless as freedom papers were in the woods and wilds of 19th-century slave states. He has alienated several of our international allies, stoked hostilities between nations that had barely been concealing their contempt for this one, and shown little respect for the processes that have, for generations, enabled us to cross into new countries and welcomed those desirous of entry into ours to make their way in, undeterred.

Paris may well be my only parable. I do not believe it will be yours. I am willing you a far more wayfaring life. I am instilling in you the belief that, in the end, you are your own nation. Your freedom will not be outwardly governed; your Blackness will not render you the same reticence as mine. When I am gone and I bequeath to you this home, I hope it will no longer be broken. I hope you will not be treated like a squatter, but that you will instead feel the full weight of its keys — and that, for as long as you are able, you will open its doors to whomever will come.

Hope Chest: A New Podcast by Stacia Brown.

Hope chest (n.) : a young woman’s accumulation of clothes and domestic furnishings (as silver and linen) kept in anticipation of her marriage; also : a chest for such an accumulation, Merriam-Webster.com

My mother first told me what a hope chest was when I was a teenager. She said women who wanted to marry sometimes stored things in a footlocker or some smaller treasure-chest like storage box. Lingerie and sachets, needlepoint embroidery, scrapes of lace that could later be fashioned into some accent meant to make a house homier, and for the more romantic among the future wives, love letters sealed and bound together for future presentation to an as-yet-unknown spouse.

I’ve never much wanted to marry — or perhaps more accurately, I’ve never been confident that it was a possibility for me. But I’ve always liked the idea of storing up dreams, visions, goals, and love to be shared with a trusted someone, when the time has come. It’s something I’ve been doing for my daughter since I was expecting her and I’ll probably continue that trend until she’s old enough to start reading the work and to tell me whether or not she wants to continue receiving more of it.

When I fell in love with audio production last year, I knew about halfway through the first season of The Rise of Charm City that I’d also want to start an indie podcast that adapted blog posts here. The sort of prose-poetry style of writing I do here lends itself fairly well to audio adaptation, and I wanted to challenge myself to produce a project all on my own. I’ve been learning audio editing in Audition since Summer 2016; it’s what WEAA, where The Rise of Charm City airs, uses. But it wasn’t until spending nearly a week at The Center for Documentary Studies in Durham, NC last August, that I ever produced a draft all on my own, start-to-finish). That piece, “Prince, Philando, and Futures Untold,” which later aired as part of John Biewen and CDC’s gorgeous podcast, “Scene on Radio ” (some John did some additional mixing and polishing in Hindenburg), was the first audio adapted from one of my blog posts. As soon as I finished it, I knew I’d want to make more pieces like it.

Hope Chest is the podcast I’ve created for that purpose. It’s a place for me to store scraps of music and interviews and found sound and singing, woven together with lovingly-penned prose, to be shared with whomever wants to listen. If I were more business-minded and/or marketing-savvy, I would’ve had a more strategic roll-out. But here it is. I’d love it if you subscribed and/or gave the first two episodes a listen. I’m aiming for at least one new episode per month, so be on the lookout. Please rate and review it, if you’re subscribing via iTunes, and if you enjoy it, let me know either here or via some social media space where we follow each other. Thanks!

Episode 1, adapted from this, is here:

Episode 2, adapted from this, is here:

You can subscribe at SoundCloud or iTunes (although, for reasons I have yet to figure out, the iTunes feed doesn’t currently include Episode 1).

Private Black Motherhood and Public White Protest.

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1.

Mother: What is a woman?
Child: A woman is… um… hmm…

It is a trick question. The definition will always differ, depending on the person being asked to provide it. You will define womanhood differently than I, for instance. It will mean something else by the time you become one than it meant almost 20 years ago, when I did. But I will still ask you this question often anyway. I will ask it, in part, because we are Black and this means that even though you are six, there are many adults — even some in positions of authority — who will begin insisting on your womanhood in just a few fleeting years. Depending on your height and when your curves come in to assert themselves, pressing upon all the previously flat and straight plains of your body, those adults may ogle you. They may reach for you on the street and curse at you as you run away. (While you are still a girl, always run away.) They may accuse you of something, then try convincing the judicial system to see adulthood in your still soft cheeks, your brace-bedecked teeth, the hair you’re still only allowed to straighten on special occasions. They did this to Catherine Jones in 1999. They tried to do it with Bresha Meadows just last year. You should know that some adults begin to treat at black girls like women as early as age 10 or 12 or 14. It has happened to other little black girls as early as 7 and 8. Countless ones, whose names we may never know, but whose disappearances Black mothers quite feel acutely as we look down into the faces of our own daughters and implore them, admonish them: Don’t be in no hurry. Take your time getting grown.

You must figure out for yourself what a woman is. You must never lose sight of yourself as the girl that you are and be certain that you are ready to molt girlhood when the time comes. It cannot come late enough for me. If I could, I would certainly postpone it. But it is not for me to decide. My prayer is that you will be the only person who will have a say in deciding it.

You did not speak a language I could clearly understand until the middle of your fourth year. Before that, when you spoke at all, you added -en suffixes to words where I would not have guessed they could belong. On your tongue, water became wah-den. Granny became Go-den. And for a while, without any reason I could decipher, you called Nana, your great-grandmother, Morning.

When you were two-and-a-half, I had you assessed. You weren’t talking much at all then. The women who came into our home with their folders and tote bags, jotting across their clipboard pages when you could complete a puzzle, scribbling furiously along their carbon triplicate forms when you could not, suggested that I take you to an audiologist. Within six months you were being fitted for hearing aids, with an estimated mild to moderate loss in both ears.

I believe that, the way that you hear greatly informs the way you interact with the world. It’s what led you to the language you developed. It’s what keeps you locked in to your vivid imagination, with its cast of unseen characters and its action that only plays inside your mind. And sometimes, I’ve felt that it’s kept me locked out. You have been attending school for nearly four years now but this is the first year when asking you what happened there is an action I can expect to be met with a descriptive, decipherable answer.

I have had to learn that you are on your own time. We have always been on a road where I have had to trust you to indicate when you are ready for us to pull over and ready for us to move on.

I think I am a better parent for it, at least I hope that I am. You are not a child who would benefit most from having my will imposed upon you. You are not a child whose ideas I want to mold so that they mimic mine. I am not even sure that, with you, such a task would be possible.

3.

You did not have much time here before the core of American civilization found itself deeply compromised. You did not point to television screens and cry out, “There’s Obama!” until his very last year in office. Nana told you who he was. She made you practice saying his name. O. Bah. Ma. You seemed to like repeating it, seemed to relish the ease with which the vowels swept through your throat. Like speaking out was easy.

I know you will ask me when you are older and finally see photos of other children, hoisted upon their parents shoulders or tucked safely between chest and arm: Why didn’t we carry signs? Why didn’t we go picket injustice? Cry loud, spare not, wear pink. Cuss without blushing. Why didn’t we find ourselves in the company of all those other women? Washington is so close, after all. We could’ve.

It is impossible to know if you will ever be satisfied with my answer. I am still quite unsure of decisions like these, concerning you, myself.

In truth, it may have been better for you to go. Perhaps you would have understood, on a visceral or emotional level if not yet an intellectual one, that something is amiss with all the world, and now, what has long been so is finally affecting our centuries-insulated country in ways White people no longer feel safe ignoring. Women have volunteered to lead the charge of dissent because women have far more to immediately lose than men, now that this man and his cronies have assumed the national seat of power.

Maybe, at six, that would have been useful for you to intuit, if not yet truly know.

But if I may be entirely honest — and with you, this is ever my aim —  I do not much feel like being a warrior. I want to remain the mother I’ve already fought so hard to become. And she is soft-edged, yielding, and kind. She spends her weekends wrapped in a hot pink Snuggie with her child, staving off her constant financial woes, silently keeping her existential inner conflict — about housing or untimely death or co-parenting or politics or the romance she sometimes pines for but has not yet found — in check. She frequently dissolves into giggles. She hugs hard and delivers smatterings of kisses to every inch of exposed skin. She is not carefree, neither is she careless. But she is about the business of preserving the sanctity of her domestic life. And for her, this is its own resistance. She remembers the Black women who fought in generations before her, who were forced to have children they did not want or plan, who were unknowingly sterilized or implanted with unregulated birth control without consent, or denied clean, safe, affordable housing for children they were shamed into delivering but could not afford to raise. I think of what they must have been fighting for — and it was the hope and the freedom my generation thought it had finally achieved in the eight years that the First Family was black and the Black mother in the White House declared herself a mother first and a freedom-fighting advocate second.

I am not yet finished pretending I can afford myself the same luxury. I, too, want to be the mother I have fashioned myself to be, first. I want to fold my activism into this existing model. For me, this means figuring out how best to support the other mothers who feel so far removed from the idea that a poster and a chant will reunite airport detainees or close the miles between them and their stranded, visa-less children. It means thinking of and praying for them in a somber and meditative space. It means writing and writing and writing, because for me, writing is more effective than marching at making my efforts feel less futile. I would rather teach you what’s at stake by explaining that your school, with its large percentage of students from immigrant families, is filled with classmates who are facing a far different set of challenges and odds than you.

But so far, I haven’t told you anything. Nana no longer beckons you to the television when the president begins to speak. She has not taught you to recognize him, has never encouraged you to utter his name. For now, I wish to keep it this way.

My wish for you is that you will stay right where you are, so often locked in, by your unique way of hearing, the vestiges of that language you invented when you were a toddler, the lingering barriers of communication only those who love and protect you can currently breach. At present, I believe you are safest there. And as in all things, I will look to you for my cues. You will tell me when you need to know more.

You will have so, so long to be a woman. And, for as long as men like this president and his mostly male team hold political sway, fighting for your basic rights — human, racial, gendered, reproductive — will be as disheartening as it is essential. If you are like me, you will grow weary of demanding what should have been yours by right of birth.

I am more than happy to do this for you. I will defend you, myself, and others in the ways I hope I can be most effective. As a woman, I know how important it is for a woman to lift her own voice. As your mother, I know how vital it is for your to find yours. I can imagine how much time it will take and how distinct it will sound. This is not a process I intend to rush. I suspect that there will be plenty left for you to fight, when your time has come; and I believe we will find ourselves in highly capable hands, however you choose to do so.

Sackcloth Farewell, Inauguration of Ashes.

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It is just that wistfulness is no longer a luxury I can afford. It isn’t personal. The man, his wife, her mother, their daughters: in my life, there has been no Black family who has been more beautiful more consistently, under an eight-year glare of a chronically dissatisfied public. In my lifetime, I’ve not seen a president more cerebral or more trusting of the average American’s ability to keep apace with his intellectual rigor. I’ve not seen a First Lady whose look and whose life I’d want my own daughter to emulate more.

I will not soon forget the sense of ease I felt under their governance. What I expect most from a president is a quiet confidence that the democracy will not collapse during his employ. And until now, I have always been able to rely at least on that. During most presidencies, that bottom line — that finish line — was my point of clearest focus.

But through its steadiness, growth, openness, and stability, the Obama Administration drew me in, encouraged me to invest in ideals that had never been more than abstractions. The closer attention I paid, the more I relieved I felt. Dissent was encouraged. It could be handled. Even if blood flowed in classrooms and airports, in malls and churches and streets, the bow of the country would not break. The president would work with us and weep with us, even when Congress would not do the same, and somehow, we would remain a functional republic.

I will not soon forget how accessible the inside halls of the White House felt while the Obamas were its hosts, when I could watch Esperanza Spalding visit at least once a year to finger-pick her bass while her finger-picked afro swayed along at its 9-inch circumference or when De La Soul came through to sing “Me Myself and I” at a BET-hosted ‘House party or when new administrative appointments were announced and an unprecedented number were Black, brown, Native, disabled, LGBTQ+, a two-term litany of first-evers, a two-term reassurance that the richness of the country’s differences would be recognized, respected, trusted, celebrated.

I won’t forget how the White House became a destination scores of Black folk I knew longed to reach — and how many I’ve known personally who actually did reach it, either to attend a ball, take their children Easter egg-hunting on the South Lawn, conduct a news interview, or work for the administration.

So, no, that numbness I felt watching the Farewell Address last night, that slow-blinking sedation that crawled through me… it wasn’t personal.

I do not know what the Obamas will become to me — to us — as civilians. But I am certain, whatever their role, it will be just as deeply felt. I know they’ll still be with us and, because I know, I don’t lament their leaving.

All I could hear last night, as Obama remained ever the optimist, ever the imparter of bipartisan rhetoric and calls to personal achievement as much as political action, were the sounding brass and cymbal that tinnily echo in a room where love will no longer dwell. I could not stop thinking of his successor, how much it still must confound and annoy Obama to hand over, along with the keys and lease, that hard-earned quiet confidence that the country will not collapse under its new management.

Before, what it had always meant to be Black here was that no presidential administration would be thinking precisely of us when proposing policy that would make the nation economically, academically, or culturally richer. It meant that if policy would be enacted to acknowledge, defend, or protect our civil rights, it would be in response to centuries of outcry, pressure, and petition. It would not likely be passed from a place of true compassion or justice but rather as part of some broader strategy intended to protect our white male founders’ interests.

Knowing that, voting with it ever in mind (once we were finally allowed to), always made previous white presidencies bearable. You can only brace for what is well-known.

This incoming administration, however, seems decidedly unbearable. It appears that it is my generation’s turn to experience firsthand what it is like to live under the governance of a white man who doesn’t understand or respect American governance, who is, in fact, quite eager to unravel it, despite never in his life having had to thread a needle, let along restitch the very fabric of a democracy. Gone is the quiet confidence in the country’s ability to survive its leader. This is a leader disinterested in the concept of a free country, agnostic to its better angels, appealing instead to its crudest evils.

And he’s 70. And he’s aggressively anti-intellectual. And he’s already confirmed that a critical mass of Americans will support him, even with a vocal, easily searchable record of institutional and personal racism and sexism.

This is not a reality for which I can brace. This is terrifying. It’s terrifying in ways that would permeate indifference, apathy, and ambivalence, if those were options still available to us. They are not.

All of this has absolutely impeded my ability to fete the first black president’s hard-won farewell. It’s impeded my ability to function “normally” at all. I cannot rely on even my most apolitical patriotism, that ever-present white noise that has always whispered: America is America is America.

And without that, I do not want to hear anything else.

This is the eeriest irony: I had never felt more hopeful in America than when Obama campaigned for the presidency the first time and, remarkably, spectacularly, miraculously won it. And I have never felt more hopeless as an American than in these weeks he’s spent preparing to transfer his presidential power.

Never in my 37 years have I felt so exposed, vulnerable, targeted. Never have I felt as aware of all the other marginalized Americans who must be experiencing their own acute and distinct iteration of this susceptibility.

It is the quickly cracking limb on which an idealist never wants to find herself. But on this perch I can still recite a mantra: Progress has come before. Progress can come again. Resplendent pride in the office of the presidency was so strongly felt before. I will protect its memory now. The mettle of a democracy is most accurately assessed under the threat of dictatorship. So we must rest well. Study hard. Use the past and present as primary texts. And for the love of all that is salvageable, even if no longer holy: pass.

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.

* * *

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.

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.