Audio, Current Events, hope chest, Nonfiction, Race

Hope Chest: Ep. 9

A version of this essay was adapted for my podcast, Hope Chest. You can listen to the audio version here.

Esperanza Spalding with Aaron Burnett at the Park Avenue Armory

On occasion, as an artist, you are called away, into a space where creatives make covenant to triage the wounds that the wider world inflicts and, by God, on each occasion, we bend a wormhole of communion, often in the whitest of spaces. We wake on idyllic farms, walk through refurbished armories, attend informal creative courses on the terraces of Moroccan hotels in Montparnasse.

We call out across the evening orientations, the communal lunches and dinners, the divining day’s-ends at the fire pits, and we find the face that could be our face: brown, framed in curls or faded, full-nosed, cleft-chinned, big-lipped, tight-fro’d, familiar.

Sometimes, as was the case this weekend, at the Black Artists Retreat on the upper east side of Manhattan, every face might as well be our own, every body may as well be our familiar. When we are this together, we are cocooning ourselves in each other’s silk, regenerating limbs we’ve lost, performing allegorical angioplasties on all of our ailing hearts.

The work, though no less rigorous, is easier then. We are moving with, rather than against, the convening’s current.

But then, other times, there may only be two of us. (Lord, please let there be at least two of us, striking our tuning forks till they find the reverberation of culture we have in common. Lord please let there be at least two of us, steadfast in our determination to ignore whatever aggressions may intrude.
(Aggressions almost always intrude.)

In those moments, when the convening is not designed to accommodate the full spectrum of our spectacular blackness, when the white husband of our writing instructor tells the four black participants in our five-person cohort, gathered along the Seine for a group photo, that we look too dark through the viewfinder, when he then later stage-whispers as we wait on line at the Musée D’Orsay that the Black woman. approaching us, fluent in French, is panhandling, rather than inquiring about the black models exhibit only we are excited to see…

When we look at each other and mutter under-breath: he got one more time and I ain’t gon’ be too many more ‘too darks…’

We understand that we are away from wherever we feel safest. We are swimming upstream, to the other shore, together, before it is time to return to the rude realities from which we sought this respite.
Either way, at the all-Black retreat or the historically, predominantly white one, we are supposed to be healing, or at least to be refreshing the dressings on each other wounds. And, either way, for a while, it is working — it has to be working, if only for the sacrifice, effort, and considerable endowment, involved in knitting us one to another over a number of transcendent days.

We are forgetting what sent us running here, the particulars of our stress, receding with each mindful breath and deep listening exercise. A day or so in, and our anxieties are finally beginning to quiet.
But then the knell.

That unmistakable clang that calls for us to mourn.

It sunders the silk we’ve wrapped ‘round one another. It lets fresh loss flow through.

Rarely has there been a retreat or residency where I have not heard it.

Kalief Browder died by suicide during the weekend I spent at Yale.

Just weeks before the week I when I drove my family down to Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies, Diamond Reynolds produced a living document of her lover Philando Castile’s killing.

A week before the Black Artists Retreat, I wrote of Joshua Brown, shot in the mouth and chest, after testifying on behalf of his neighbor Botham Jean, who died less than two months after our family residency on Ryder Farm.

I had not even begun to replenish what writing about Joshua wrung out of me, when I woke on the last morning I spent in Manhattan and read of another black neighbor, in a valiant attempt at communal care, called a non-emergency number, asking Dallas police to check on the young woman whose house, at 2 a.m., had peculiarly still-open doors. He cared, but the cop who shot her through her window in the third watch of night did not.

On Sunday morning, I carry Atatiana Jefferson’s name into the high halls of our Park Avenue Armory retreat and wonder who-all had heard it, who was healed enough from being here, to help me carry its weight.

Crying is an act of creation. Wailing in ways we never have before is an improvisational practice.
It is the work we can make by rote, the work none of us want to make but all of us have had to.
Every day someone new rephrased an old question: what could we, as Black artists, create if we never felt bound?

What would we make if we always felt free?

What would be possible if our creative process were never rooted in pain?

I willed my thoughts away, sent them forward toward a future too remote for me to access where I stood, even in this space that so readily offered that sort of portal.

I’ve a wayfaring imagination. But it kept quite close to home.

It took me toward the sound of 16-bits, echoing through a warm Black house, where a young Black auntie went to turn her own key and to set aside her worries, an eight-year-old’s sort of sanctuary where a young Black nephew could bend bedtime toward his whim, where, in a radical show of trust, a daring subconscious sense of safety, the locks were momentarily forgotten, the double doors left open as auntie and nephew noshed snacks and laughed hard and trash-talked, till they couldn’t tell whose win or loss would come.

Till they couldn’t sense how near an end they were.

Till their sound was more powerful than a policeman’s.

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Current Events, Nonfiction, Race

Like a Good Neighbor.

 

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Joshua Brown served as a key witness in the trial for the murder of his neighbor, Botham Jean.

Apartment dwelling culture cannot be easily explained to the uninitiated. There is, after all, more than one reason we call apartment buildings and the units within them a complex.

A complex does not begin as a community; that must be cultivated by tenants who intend to stay awhile. Those who do not speak, who wait until their hallway sounds empty before opening their door cannot quite be considered your neighbors. Those who greet you in the common areas are closer to earning that distinction. They have acknowledged, at least, that you exist. But in apartments, there are other, higher levels one must reach to be called a neighbor.

Neighboring requires intention. It’s knocking to ask the person down the hall if they knew they’d left their keys dangling from the deadbolt. It’s letting them sit in your living room to wait for the super when they lock themselves out. It’s giving them a jump when their car battery stalls. Or keeping an eye and an ear out for their kids, whether they’re home alone or being followed home.

It means not only notifying the people next door of your upcoming party but accepting that they may overhear exactly what goes on in it, and trusting them not to breach the courtesy of advance notice by calling the police for one night’s excessive after-hours noise.

A single apartment building may house two families or twelve or twenty-four, each living beneath separate ceilings, but all living under the same roof. The more we interact with the people who move among us, the longer we live with only our thin walls and flimsy flooring between us, the more accountable we tend to feel to one another.

It should be no wonder, then, that people who share apartment buildings are hesitant to go all-in as neighbors. It could mean anything from experiencing the occasional inconvenience to discovering a week-old corpse.

I’ve been reminded of this in the past two weeks, as the murder of Botham Jean has made its way back into the news cycle. I was unnerved when it first happened, in the way that neighborhood murders always unnerve me. Like when Trayvon Martin was visiting his father and his father’s girlfriend in their townhome complex and found himself in a fatal scuffle with someone purporting himself to be neighborhood patrol. Or when Jonathan Ferrell stopped in an innocuous-looking neighborhood for help after a car accident and found himself bleeding out on the lawn of the home where he’d knocked for help. Or when Renisha McBride, another person asking for help in a nice neighborhood, was killed with a gunshot through a door the owner wouldn’t even open to her. Or when, not too far from where I live in Baltimore County, police killed Korryn Gaines, a young mother and injured her five-year-old son, when she refused to open her door to them, because they wouldn’t state the reason for their visit.

In every one of those cases, some small reported detail is often what moves me. The detail is what moves us all: the Skittles, the hole in the door, the presence of a baby.

With Botham Jean, the details come second to the setting. That it happened in his apartment, at the hands of a woman who called herself his neighbor, is what haunts me most this time.

I was born to an apartment, which is to say that my mother brought me home to the one where she was living with her mother. I was raised in a series of Baltimore apartment buildings. We didn’t live in a house until my senior year of high school when my mother and her husband bought a townhome. Even then, we were attached to the young white couple in the unit beside us. For the first time, I was living in a home had three floors, including a finished basement, but we could still hear that couple playing “Rapper’s Delight” at their housewarming, through the wall that adjoined us.

Homes so connected lend themselves to reluctant intimacy. In a neighborhood of standalone homes, for instance, you may know the husband next door quarreled with his wife. In an apartment, you know what they argued about, know it well enough, in fact, to take a side.

I have seen affairs carried on in apartments, have watched a lovestruck teen sneak a grown man in and out of her home before her parents were due back from work at 6 o’clock, have fielded accusations after she was caught and, in her panic, used me, the girl up on the third floor, as her alibi. I’ve overheard a mother beating her four-year-old, the accompanying lecture suggesting to me that the punishment was wildly disproportionate to the kindergarten crime.

I have spent years in apartments wondering what is and is not my business.

But I have never seen a woman enter the wrong apartment and shoot the rightful tenant eating ice cream in his living room. As identical as our front doors often look, I’ve rarely known a neighbor to mistake someone else’s for theirs. Whether drunk or high or delirious with third-shift exhaustion, no one has demanded entry to a home on the wrong floor. If they had, no one would’ve been granted it, either, And if we’ve lived together in a building for longer than a month, I have never mistaken anyone or been mistaken by them for an intruder.

Apartments are for those just starting off or starting over, those saving up for a house or recovering from a foreclosure. They’re for college students and retirees and people who may never own home but value the independence of living away from wherever they were raised. No matter the circumstance, in apartments, everyone’s eyes are on their own page. Everyone’s preoccupied with their own paths, their own bills, their own lease dates. It’s rare that anyone seeks out more trouble than they’re already fielding.

When Amber Guyger broke into Botham Jean’s apartment and stole what was left of his life, she imperiled everything we thought we knew about apartment living. Forced intimacies and polite detachment—all of it’s bullshit when the woman who lived in your building and shot you for no coherent reason is a cop. None of it matters anymore; all civility is undone. Because even after it takes months to charge her for murder, even after a year awaiting her testimony, even when a prosecutor proves that testimony to be full of half-truths and whole lies, even after she’s convicted of ten years and everyone seems eager to hug her, stroke her hair, and tell her she’s forgiven, days later, we will hear news of another neighbor. Another young black man, who heard too much and grew fond of the sounds, simply because they were familiar.

Joshua Brown lived next to Botham. In an extreme act of good neighboring, he testified for the prosecution in Amber Guyger’s trial. On the stand, he described hearing Botham sing every morning. He heard it, he told the judge and jury, as he was locking his own door on his way out to start his days.

He has probably heard it many days since, the phantom song of a next-door neighbor, suddenly, brutally departed.

Now Joshua is dead, as well, gunned down under mysterious circumstances, not even one week since Amber Guyger’s sentencing.

We are connected not only by how we live, but where, our fates entangled the tightest,
close to home. There is nothing much else to say when death connects neighbors the way adjoining walls do, when judgment falls on one hand and fresh injustice weighs on the other.

I can only pray that Joshua Brown had good neighbors, neighbors who believe that his death is their business. And that in honor of Joshua’s memory, and of Botham Jean’s, we all resolve to intervene on behalf of the people we hear beyond our walls.

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Audio, Current Events, hope chest, Nonfiction, Parenting, podcasting, Pop Culture, Race

Hope Chest: Ep. 8

Hope Chest is a collection of deeply personal audio-essays written mother-to-daughter. Listen to every episode at Apple Podcasts and SoundCloud.

Below is the text for Episode 8: As for Me and This House (And Senate). Listen along here.

Courtesy of the US National Archives

In nearly every election held since you were born, I’ve brought you into the voting booth with me. This election was the first in which you seemed even marginally engaged with where we were and what we might be doing there. 
Even a few months ago, when we walked into this same space to vote in the midterm primaries, you followed me wordlessly, more interested in the interior design of a real live middle school than in the political process playing out in its cafeteria.

I understand this wholeheartedly. My experience of 1980s childhood and ‘90s adolescence was working-class but suburban, insular and naive in ironic and dangerous ways. Though it was only true for a faction of us, there was a contingent of Black kids living in predominantly Black cities in this country, who believed our parents had weathered the worst of white supremacy, that we were approaching something akin to equity, a Huxtablication of our educational and professional ideals.

Because a few more of our peers had college-educated and advance-degree-holding parents than in generations past, it was easy for an inkling of entitlement to creep in. We were children being raised 20 years after desegregation, living in decent, if nondescript, neighborhoods that were clean, safe, affordable, and Black. We presumed that our dreams—even the wildest ones—were attainable at only moderate cost. We might’ve been well aware that other Black neighborhoods were suffering, neighborhoods to which we all had the close connections of cousins, co-parents, friends, or church affiliations. It was the height of the crack era, after all, followed by zero-tolerance legislation that kept robbing us of people we cared about. Still we toggled between the ignorance that our own families were fewer than four paychecks from similar fates and the idealistic belief that any success we attained as grownups would eventually be able to eradicate generational poverty.

I am not sure how I came to belong to this faction of dreamy-eyed Black kids. I was raised an apartment-dweller, born to a single-parent household. Little beyond my mom’s biweekly pay and her acquired adeptness at making payment arrangements on our bills stood between us and a series of shut-off notices or an eviction. In the event that I would grow up to graduate from a four-year college, I’d be the first in our immediate family to do so. I do not quite know where I got all my optimism. But I think it was because we did well enough without homeownership or college degrees for me not to realize them as the markers of generational stability they were.
For 30 years, my grandmother worked as a stenographer in Baltimore City Circuit Court. My mother worked in medical billing, sensible, if unfulfilling, jobs that kept situational poverty at bay. I took their holding that wall for granted, believing the rhetoric of the day about how endless opportunity had become for kids growing up Black and not-quite-broke in America. Neither of my nana nor my mom dissuaded me from becoming an artist. They might’ve believed, as I did, that the sacrifices of their pragmatism had given me the wiggle room of whimsy so many white kids accept as their birthright.

I also watched a lot of TV, during a time when depictions of suburban Black family life shared enough cultural similarity with my own home experience to convince me that no social harm could befall me that would be too great for me to overcome.

I fear that I am raising you with an inherited insularity. But I will not have you perpetuating all my childhood delusions.

I was taught that voting held particular import for Black Americans, because the right to do so had been withheld from us for so long. My mother, born in 1960, is five years older than the Voting Rights Act. My grandmother, who would not have been of legal voting age until my mother was one year old, could not cast a ballot when she turned 18.

In the 1980s, our rhetoric around voting was not only about honoring the bloody sacrifices of our long-departed ancestors. Voting was still new enough to us then that the novelty had yet to wear off.

Even during those Reagan years, optimism about our country’s collective racial future felt easier than it is nearly 40 years later. We had not elected a Black president then. We had not witnessed the depth to which the country could backslide after clearing what then seemed an improbable zenith. We had grown hesitant to believe, with so many newly-minted anti-discrimination laws in place, laws it had taken the country centuries to implement, that they could be ignored, rescinded and violated with such staggering impunity. 
Voting seemed less a matter of survival than ceremony. As a kid, the idea of it felt the same to me as observing Martin Luther King Day—probably because I failed to realize that I was older than Martin Luther King Day, that it existed because of a bill it taken many people years to bring to the ballot, a bill enough white Americans opposed that it could have been ousted with far more ease than it was passed.

I voted on ceremony for many years, straight-ticket Democratic for most, though I was registered as an independent. And I did so cynically, because the popular vote does not determine all. And it’s disheartening when, despite a larger share of layperson support, the electoral college appoints the candidate a majority of voters opposes. For a time, in my early 20s, it didn’t matter much to me who was in office. They were all white and thereby largely disinterested in my community’s specific interests.

I didn’t canvas for anyone until 2008, when I walked residential neighborhoods in Grand Rapids, Michigan, armed with clipboards and pamphlets, making sure people were registered and that they intended to support Obama. But even that was a detached engagement. I felt confident he would win, for one, and secondly, I was not yet your mother. We knew relative political peace for the first six years of your life. You were born in a midterm year, 2010. You were two when Obama was re-elected. You are 8 now that his legacy feels distant, 8 while our future as a republic feels indeterminate, 8 as new test for the first time in recent history the sturdiness of the most fundamental components of our constitution. I can tell you now what no one had a precedent for telling me when I was your age: if America elects someone who has no intention of being president and every intention of establishing a dictatorship, voting is less a coronation scepter than a prison shiv, the sticker we receive afterward less a corsage than a bandoleer. If America elects someone who intends to obstruct justice, the hard-won tool of justice that is the vote, this tool Black families like ours have only been able to hold for some 60+ years, provides us too little protection. But it is one of our only protections. So we must wield it as ferociously as we can.

In 2018, there is evidence of this everywhere. Despite broken ballot scanners, vote-switching, hours-long lines, stacks of unprocessed voter registration forms, races declared prematurely, and other forms of suppression too insidious to know, the Democratic Party reclaimed the House of Representatives, and the recklessness of this president’s first two years will at least be met with former opposition. Because he is an avowed racist and misogynist, a record number of women, particularly women of color, campaigned and won seats in that House, powered by the votes of women like me, interested in guarding the futures of girls like you.

I’ll be honest: I am still afraid. I do not believe this election has done enough to protect the country from collapse before the next one. I am not confident that we’ll gain enough momentum to oust our current president from his post in 2020. That wariness is warranted. When the time comes, I encourage you to wield a bit of it yourself at the ballot box. But there are braver women than I in office now. And you will be raised with the scores of them as pillars of reference. Though it remains to be seen what will come of their efforts, I will match their work with my own. I finally understand why I must.

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Current Events, Poetry

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.

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Audio, Current Events, Nonfiction, Parenting, podcasting, Pop Culture

(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.

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Audio, Current Events, Nonfiction, Parenting, podcasting

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).

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Current Events, Nonfiction, Parenting, Race, Resisting Motherhood

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.

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