Posted in Current Events, Nonfiction, Race

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.

Posted in Appearances and Publications, Baltimore The Rise of Charm City, Current Events, Nonfiction, Pop Culture

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.

Posted in Current Events, Music Appreciation, Nonfiction, Pop Culture

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.

Posted in Appearances and Publications, Current Events, Nonfiction

I Don’t Know What the Weather Will Be.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m hopeful.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo credit: Christopher Myers
Photo credit: Christopher Myers

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


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

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

Posted in Appearances and Publications, Current Events, Nonfiction, Race

Stacia at BinderCon NYC 2015: Journalism and Social Justice.


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

Here are links to some of the pieces discussed:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted in Current Events, Nonfiction, Parenting, Race

#EveryBlackGirlMatters and We All Need Our One.

This post is in support of Black Lives Matter’s #EveryBlackGirlMatters open letter to Spring Valley High School students Niya Kenny and Shakara. You can add your signature as a show of support for both girls, as they deal with legal, medical, academic, and emotional fallout from last month’s assault.

When I pick you up from school now, you are either crouching teary-eyed with your back to the other coat-bundled, backpack-saddled children or you are standing next to your favorite teacher’s aide — the one who looks like the all the other women in your life: brown, full-grown, fierce when need be — your tiny hand gift-wrapped in her long fingers and protective palm. You aren’t looking at the door for me anymore, distraught when I don’t arrive before you do when your class is dismissed. But the process still seems to rattle you. All the people, all the noise, the hectic urgency of teachers pulling single-file links of handholding kids toward all the buses that await them outside. The buses have curious names: Lemon, Tangerine, Pineapple. You hear them shouted by teachers. You hear them crackling through intercom speakers. You have never ridden the school bus; all the names mean to you is that children you just played with in your Pre-K classroom are being pulled off in all different directions, taken to places unknown.

I wonder what that’s like for you, as an only child. You’re only with children two hours a day and at the end of those hours, you watch them wrested away. Is learning alongside them the warmest, most thrilling part of your day? Is it lonely to leave? Or are you relieved to be coming home, where you know that, no matter how you express yourself, you will be understood?

When I ask you about your friends, calling each of their names and hoping for something specific and anecdotal, you disclose very little. You were placed in this class with the expectation that you would become a student leader. You’re older than the others and have taken a year of pre-k before. For you, the material and the routines have long been rote. But I wonder if you do lead there. I wonder how often you assert yourself and what you do when you feel disoriented or teased or rushed (if these things happen at all).

There’s so little I can guess about this sliver of life you already live away from me. I have a conference with your teacher this week and I’ll visit your classroom next Wednesday. But I know from our two previous years of experience that those are just wisps of observation, that your interior life and your impressions of your surroundings are largely unknowable.

Right now, it’s just the language. You’re five and everyday, you’re articulating more, but your communication skills are still slow-emerging. Later, in adolescent, the parts of your life you wall off will be intentionally decided. Language won’t be the barrier; your great teenage need for privacy will.

Then, as now, I will need for us to find a way to be an impenetrable team. Too many forces seek to erode black girls’ confidence and school is breeding ground for many of them.

I was sullen and silent and an only child, too. Bright but not necessarily in ways that a public school assessment system could adequately measure. I didn’t exude enough coolness to be emulated or enough confidence to be insulated from bullying or enough aggression to be feared. I relied most on low visibility. If I could blend into a crowd of brown students, I could observe or immerse without being targeted. I could survive.

But nothing is ever failsafe. Back then, student resource officers were just being placed in middle and high schools. Now, they are a mainstay. Back then, I assumed they were there to protect us from outside intrusion. Now, it’s apparent, they’re policing children who look like you, whose parents earn too little to send them elsewhere (like me). Now, black girls are suspended six times more often than white girls. Now, black girls in public schools report experiencing disproportionately high instances of interpersonal violence. And every single day, national news confirms that abuse committed against black women, injustices committed against black women, and assault committed against black women are of little public interest — constant reminders that after you are raised, you are not being released into a world where kindness will be offered easily.

But womanhood is still a star in the middle distance. I have years to prepare you for it, years to deliver you to it. They are years for which we should be prepared. You will need to tell me when something’s wrong. You will need to speak up in class. You will need to defend yourself. You will need me to defend you when that fails. I will need someone more powerful to join us. We will need women. We will need black women. We will need lots of black women.

But in the moment when I am not beside you and you will like war is rushing toward you and no cavalry is coming, you may only need one.

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In South Carolina at Spring Valley High, Shakara had Niya. Not her black male teacher. Not any of the other tremulous scared-silent students. When Officer Ben Fields attacked her, one girl cried out on her behalf, a voice raised when Shakara’s own wind had been knocked from her.

When we are fortunate, there is one. May you always have a Niya. May you always have access to a single empathetic staff member. When I can’t be near, may another black woman be my emissary. Look up into the faces of onlookers and find someone willing to flip a table for you. She will probably be black. She will want to keep you safe and see you win.

But for her brave defense of you, she will also face a battle. Niya was manhandled, arrested, and charged with disturbing schools alongside Shakara. We take great risks when we stand between our sisters and the terrors that stalk them. We take those risks, even as we face terrors of our own. Solidarity may be the right choice, but it is never a simple one.

Every black girl deserves to have someone make it. Every black girl who makes it deserves a hedge of support and defense when she does.

You are still so young, but in your own class, you have met your first one. A little girl a bit smaller than yourself with a big, clear voice. She calls out to you from beside her dad, when they’re walking behind us toward the school in the morning. She waits patiently for your timid wave in response. When you are crouching with your back to everyone, she tells you when I’ve come to get you. Yo mommy here! When you’ve had a hard day, she walks up, cranes her neck up the full four feet from her own height to my face. She looks into my eyes to make sure I’m paying attention. Story was sleepy today, she reports. 

I thank her. And that night, I tuck you in an hour earlier.

Posted in Current Events, Nonfiction, Pop Culture, Race

Emmys and Cosmo.

I feel like I’m still very new to winning. I would imagine there are many people who’d disagree with me, but that’s because they’re observing from the other side of the glass. “Winning” is relative; everything is. And, of course, only we can determine the units by which we measure it.

I rarely feel like I’m winning when I’m expecting to reap a material benefit as a result. The rate of pay is never high enough, the terms of a contract never secure enough. And it rarely feels like a legitimate win just to accomplish a new feat. Sure, I was published somewhere. But how prestigious is the publication? Is it digital or print? How difficult is it to be published there? Am I proud of the work that made to print? Did I take pains with the wording or rush it through? Would the publication have taken an essay from anyone who could turn one around, just because they needed quick copy? It’s still not a book. It’s still not The New Yorker. It’s still not a full-time job.

It’s not whatever smoke or mirror I’ve convinced myself I should be chasing.

It’s hard for me to maintain a healthy perspective, is what I’m saying. While I was watching the Emmys Sunday night, I saw a few shining examples of health, examples of women — black women — clearly embracing their wins. And I had no idea how desperately I needed to see that until I was bearing witness to it.

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I’ve been watching Regina King on screens since 1985, when I was six and she first appeared on 227. Exactly 30 years later, she’s nominated for and winning her very first Emmy, despite having put in masterful performance after masterful performance for decades. It was never about an Emmy for Regina King. She just worked. From age 14 until now, in her mid-forties, she’s just worked. She’s acted, directed, raised a son post-divorce, kept a pristine reputation among her peers. She’s been winning. So when she accepted the Emmy, it was with pleasant surprise, deep gratitude, and admirable groundedness. She leaned right into that mic and told us all that it was particularly special because her homegirl and colleague, Taraji, presented it to her. She told us it meant more because her son, who escorted her to the awards, was present to witness it. And it was easy to believe her, easy to understand that the Emmy itself was mere icing. She’d long held all the ingredients she’d needed for personal fulfillment.

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And then I saw Uzo Aduba hear her name called as a winner. It wasn’t her first time, but she was as shocked and thrilled as if it were. She did not rush to the podium; she didn’t need to. She understood what it meant for her to win. For her, it meant leaning over to her sister, talking to her for a moment, ignoring the audience and the camera and the expectation that she hurry. That bond, that moment of privacy in the one of the most public possible venues in all of Hollywood: that was winning. “I love you mostly because you let me be me,” she said to her professional team during her speech. Maintaining your core identity in a profession where everyone’s job is to change you — role to role, set to set, carpet to carpet — is the truest success of all.

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Of course there was Viola, whose relationship with winning has always been public and candid and complex. Viola, who wears her insecurities on her sleeve, who gives voice to every ancient feeling of inadequacy she’s managed to silence, who trusts us all enough somehow to confide that there are still uncertainties she has yet to vanquish. Viola is always winning, because, with every Hollywood validation, she deepens her advocacy for the women who’ve been cast aside, passed over, and ignored. Viola is always winning because a lifetime of feeling loss has taught her to consume accomplishment without an aftertaste of bitterness.

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But it was Taraji who exemplified winning best of all last night, Taraji who took home nothing but her joy (and a lead role of one of the hottest series on television these days). It’s one thing to know how to remain fully present in the midst of a win, to understand its magnitude before the moment passes, rather than growing to appreciate it in retrospect. It’s quite another not to win, in the conventional sense, and to fully commit to celebrate everyone else who does, anyway. I’ve been there. And each time, I like to believe I’ve been genuine in my celebration of others. But I don’t think I’ve ever managed to fete someone quite as unabashedly for receiving something I really wanted as Taraji managed to do last night.

This moment was everything: crowd applause died down long before Regina made it to the microphone. Taraji yelled out a "Yay!" and hyped them back up, literally from the shadows of the a spotlight.
This moment was everything: crowd applause died down long before Regina made it to the microphone. Taraji yelled out a “Yay!” and hyped them back up, literally from the shadows of a spotlight.

There was no shortage of inspiration during these awards, and days later, I’m still thinking of how long it can take to experience a moment, how many years of dues-paying could be necessary before you get your due. I’m still thinking of everyone’s tenderness, of how intrinsic that is to the experience of winning. Kindness, uncomplicated delight for someone else, groundedness,  pride in oneself, gratitude, an ability to feel happiness unsurpassed for someone other than yourself: those are the surest gauges of success and contentment.

To win is to understand when to silence your questions and simply  accept every good thing that you attract. If we are only in competition with ourselves and not with our peers, if our goal is only to top our last highest peak, we still need to know when to rest and to bask and to cherish. Every good thing must be good enough, even as we look ahead and work toward something more. It could all end here and we would find ourselves the opposite of empty-handed: heavy-laden with moments, relationships, accomplishments, and triumphs over our more despondent, disappointed natures. Each in our own way, we are constantly winning.

I got my first byline at Cosmopolitan.com yesterday. My mission is simply to be pleased with that today.

Posted in Appearances and Publications, Current Events, Nonfiction

Life with a Five-Year-Old Coworker.

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In the past ten days, I’ve started three different potential blog posts, but I’ve been overcome with ennui somewhere between the opening paragraph and the halfway point of each. If I’m bored with the work, I know that you’ll be twice as bored. So I’m not going to publish any of that.

Since my last entry here, I’ve been published at RollingStone.com twice, once about Bill Cosby and more recently about Black Twitter (I spoke about the latter — among other things — on L.A.’s KCRW Press Play on Friday).

I’ve also written more weekly contributions for The Washington Post’s Act Four, about my friend Daniel’s fantastic young adult novel, Shadowshaper (and about the state of YA lit for black and brown kids generally), about “The Astronaut Wives Club” and its dogged insistence on Disneyesque racial commentary, despite being set in the early 1960s; and most recently on the news that the Obamas’ first date is being made into a Before Sunrise/Medicine for Melancholy-type romantic dramedy.

Last weekend, I spent two days in D.C. at Women’s Media Center, where I was part of Progressive Women’s Voices Class of 2015.

When I couldn’t find anyone to watch my daughter for 10 hours per day (eight in training and two in round-trip Baltimore-DC driving commute), the Center kindly provided two amazing caregivers for my daughter. The first day, she timidly crept up to me as I sat in U formation at a table, trying to focus on the work ahead. I scooped her into my lap and rested my chin in the downy crown of her head. I felt so empowered in that moment, so supported. It was one of few moments in my parenting life when I felt like Having It All might not be the myth we’re convinced it is, that if work and life can never be quite balanced, they might at least have sweet, small clearings like this one at some of their intersections.

I breathed in the scent of my daughter’s hair, an admixture of cremes and jojoba, proud of myself for my tentative strides toward caring for it myself, ever since my mother — who’d lived with us since I gave birth and who, aside from being my first-string childcare back-up, was also my kid’s only hope for fashionable, healthy hairstyles — had moved away a month before.

My first-ever attempt at a milkmaid braid (or twist, as it were). I was so proud that I took pictures! Next up: learning to cornrow. ... Maybe.
My first-ever attempt at a milkmaid braid (or twist, as it were). I was so proud that I took pictures! Next up: learning to cornrow. … Maybe.

I was starting to get the hang of this, I thought. Finally. A full five years in. I’d worried that, with one less person to fall back on, the plates I’d already been struggling to spin would definitely topple. But here I was, managing a rigorous training program, surrounded by wildly accomplished women — chiefs of staff, directors of government agencies, nonprofit founders, news analysts, people who’d confidently testified before Congress, all of them the kinds of change agents I hope my own child will grow up to become. And here she was in my lap, being so serene and well-behaved. Here we were — miraculously — making it.

Then she lifted her head from my chest, and for a second, her face clouded. So did mine. “Are you o—?” I started and she answered by vomiting. Oatmeal, an orange wedge, a single bite of a chocolate muffin. There it all was in my lap.

So much for uncomplicated triumphs. Motherhood is a sustained effort at maintaining professional competence while struggling to mask the faint waft of toddler vomit lingering in the fabric of your smart little rayon-blend, business-professional romper. It’s practicing how to sound like an “expert” in an interview while rushing into the lobby between takes to rub your kid’s belly, make empathetic cooing noises, and apologize in advance to the sitter for any repeat-hurling performances (Mercifully, there were none). Because my attention was so divided, I didn’t entirely understand the assignment we were supposed to complete toward the end of Saturday’s session.

I ended the day flustered and deeply unsure of what I was even doing there. Had I experienced something like that at a training session before becoming a mother, I certainly would’ve excused myself from the table to cry. I was close this time.

But the thing that forced the tears back into their ducts was that I knew how hard I’d fought even to get to the building that morning. To load my child up and drive her here, to find our way out of a poorly designed underground parking garage without freaking out, to recover my calmness after getting lost in D.C. as I so often do, to keep telling myself that my acceptance to this program wasn’t a fluke and that someone more deserving without so many self-perceived obstacles should not, in fact, be here instead of me. Those things were as difficult as managing the heartstring-tugs of a nauseous child and the eight hours of new material that needed to be synthesized and practiced immediately. But I’d done them. Here we were. I’d do this, too.

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Binder full of women(‘s media training material).

By Sunday, I knew that no matter how I performed in the day’s exercises, the training had already given me invaluable experience in managing my life. It helped me refocus on Beyond Baby Mamas, an undertaking I’d ironically convinced myself I was too busy simply trying to survive as a mom to devote the necessary attention to. It taught me not to be afraid to articulate my needs as a parent entering a professional space and, more importantly, to seek out spaces that are welcoming of and accommodating to me as a parent. Those spaces do exist and, when possible, I am entitled to enter them. Where they don’t yet exist, I now have a precedent for what such spaces should look and feel like. And above all, attending PWV media training boosted my confidence in my ability to juggle the unexpected with the anticipated, with my daughter in tow.

I’ve had few greater moments as a mother than the one I felt last weekend, when it became clear that my daughter understood what I was doing at Women’s Media Center as work — that even at almost-five-years-old, she is capable of comprehending that our world’s responsibilities are broader than the work we do at her school and in our apartment. As a (mostly) work-from-home mom, that felt momentous.

She was thrilled to return to the offices on Sunday. “Are we going back to work?” she asked and I knew then that she’d approached the weekend with her own sense of duty and viewed it with her own sort of seriousness.

Her voice and, often, her laughter filled the corridor outside the conference room, and some of the deeply gracious women there were calling her “Dr. Story” because she was wearing and wielding her Melissa and Doug lab coat and check-up tools. It should be said that, no fewer than ten times over the course of those two days, trainers and trainees asked after her recovery from the upset-tummy episode, and/or offered their own commiserating, encouraging anecdotes about their own kids’ projectile vomit.

I’m happy to report, our second day onsite was completely bile-free.

Posted in Appearances and Publications, Current Events, Nonfiction, Parenting, Race

Children, Church, and Charleston-Writing at Vox and WaPo.

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Last week, I spent four evenings at a local United Methodist Church where my daughter was attending Vacation Bible School. My grandmother suggested I sign her up. She’ll be five on the first day of August and she’s reached a tipping point as it relates to social interaction.

When I moved back to Baltimore from Grand Rapids when she was one, I did it in part because my mother, my grandmother and her father’s parents were here. (The other major factor in moving had to do with the a greater breadth of career opportunity on the East Coast, as opposed to the Midwest.) But I didn’t take into account that by moving here, she wouldn’t have access to a single cousin. I’m an only child. My mom was raised as an only child. Her dad’s closest brother lives four hours away (and all three of his daughters are just about grown). She has zero extended family, beside grandparents, here.

I’d forgotten how big a deal that is. I wasn’t raised near cousins, either. And without siblings, I spent a lot of time alone as a kid. Most of my social interaction occurred at church. I still keep in touch with my church friends because of that; they kept me from complete childhood and adolescent isolation in ways they’ll never be able to imagine.

Most of the kids at VBS knew each other; they were a part of that church’s family. Many of them also had siblings and were attending with them. Only two girls were around my daughter’s age and they weren’t really playing with her because they had big sisters to shadow. Instead, my kid found herself surrounded by protective, older boys. They took her hand to lead her to the next station or small group activity. They gave her bear hugs. They looked down at her to make sure she was mouthing the right words and making the right gestures during song time.

It wasn’t lost on me that we were gathering in a church at night, that we were mostly black congregants, that predominantly black church gatherings at night have become sites where we have to worry over our safety in ways we haven’t had to in over 40 years.

I was introducing my daughter to church not just as a place for Sunday worship but a space where one’s sense of family is expanded. I’ve never seen as much joy on her face as I did on those nights.

Eliana Pinckney (left) and Malana Pickney (right) with mother, Jennifer (center) walking to the South Carolina statehouse
Eliana Pinckney (left) and Malana Pickney (right) with mother, Jennifer (center) walking to the South Carolina statehouse

I watched her beam and I thought of those girls, Eliana and Malana. I thought of how one of them was there that night, at bible study, waiting on her Daddy to be done for the night. I thought about the trauma etched onto their faces as they were photographed following his casket to the statehouse (under the shadow of a scornful flag). I thought about the bright white bows in their hair as they sat on either side of their mother in the front pew at his funeral.

The Pinckney girls and their mother at Rev. Clementa Pinckney's funeral
The Pinckney girls and their mother at Rev. Clementa Pinckney’s funeral

Church is family to them, too. I hope the other children there help them smile again, deeply smile, even if it may take years for them to see the edifice itself as a site of pure and guileless joy.

I wrote about the enduring importance of the black church now, in my first piece for Vox. You can read it here. (Many thanks to Dylan Matthews and Lauren Williams for the opportunity and editing, respectively!)

I also wrote about Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s new novel, Balm, at the Washington Post and how eerily resonant it is right now, set as it is on the cusp of the Civil War’s end.

It took me about a week after the massacre to submit anything to a publication about it. I blogged here first, as I often do when I’m trying to process something horrible, unsettling or difficult. I don’t have to be as coherent, precise, or formal in this space. And I feel more confident that the people who read me here are patient, nurturing, and supportive, as I try to work through tough emotions within a safe online community context. That’s important for people like me, who don’t have as many people to touch, soothe, or talk to in person as others.

Community matters. To the extent that any of us have a public voice, we owe its credibility and impact to the people who allow us to vet our first instincts and initial thoughts without condemnation.

Thanks to you all.

Posted in Constants for the Wanderer, Current Events, Faith, Nonfiction, Parenting, Prayer, Race

Black Faith in a Time of White Supremacy.

1.

When the mothers of the church got to casting out demons, they’d set their massive weathered bibles in our tiny laps and tell us, “Whatever you do, don’t let go of the Word.” And we wouldn’t. We’d clutch those King Jameses in our trembling hands and we’d wait out the after-service exorcisms.

We were children of parents who spoke in other tongues, danced themselves to ecstasy, prayed themselves apoplectic. The adults addressed the devil directly sometimes, told him he couldn’t steal their joy, demanded back the years he had stolen, the relationships he’d severed, the health he’d destroyed.

They told us we were waging a war unseen. We’d best be prayed up and gird ourselves against principalities and powers, spiritual wickedness in high places, miscellaneous, but terrifying minions from hell.

We believed them.

2.

I talked to a friend from that childhood church a few years ago, one whose parents, like mine, were on leadership staff there. That one of mutual friends had died suddenly, young and wed and parenting, still zealous about his own faith, was the reason we’d gotten in touch at all. We were trying to make sense of it.

I was thinking of how late we would stay after service as kids, waiting for our parents in the semi-darkened sanctuary, security volunteers posted, yawning, at the entrance and exit doors, all but the most fervent among them, longing to head on home.

“Do you ever think about how we were raised, how different it was?”

I was asking as if gazing back at something we’d survived. I was asking as a woman who considers herself logical and rational now, but who also still hopes for heaven and shivers at the thought of hell.

I wondered if he remembered the bibles in our laps, the prayer warriors and their wrinkled hands, all those conversations about demons conspiring to lure us away from our Lord.

He was calm when he answered. “All I know is that without being raised that way, I’d be dead or crazy now.”

My grip on the phone loosened. He didn’t say any more. But the weight of a dozen secret, sidestepped disasters walled themselves high behind his words. I couldn’t push back, even if part of me wanted to.

I believed him.

3.

We welcomed the white folks in. And over the years, they came. Some poor and some polished, they came. We broke bread with them. We prayed for them. Aware of what we guessed might be their discomfort with our traditions, our language, our liturgy, we sometimes went out of our way to assuage their unease. We laughed alongside them. Thought nothing of it.

They rarely stayed.

4.

I needed time away from church because it began to feel too much like a house of superstition than a respite reserved for communal worship. I did not want the strength of my faith to be predicated on the material blessings I stood to gain by believing. I just wanted to believe. Even when babies were killed by those closest to them. Even if those professing to share the same faith as mine committed unspeakable acts of violence. Even if I never earned more than I did at my poorest. I didn’t want to think that by tithing or praying I was somehow more insulated from harm than my neighbor, that my church attendance or my own unfocused stabs at righteousness would protect me from worst of life’s fates.

John the Baptist was beheaded. Four girls burned. As have countless crosses. Myles Munroe and his wife died unexpectedly in a plane crash, on their way to work for their ministry. Our Christian friends and relatives contract diseases from which they die as often as they are healed. We are not all spared. And what good is our belief if it can be shaken when God doesn’t step in to prevent the calamities we don’t think we deserve? What good is our faith if we base it on the dollar value of the bills we place in an offering bucket or on uttering a certain combination of words during prayer? What makes any of us think we will never have to stare down unimaginable despair, simply because we’re devout?

I needed a God who felt all the more real when the world was at its worst. And to test that He was the one I had vowed all these years to serve, I thought I had to get away from all the other Christians who sought to define Him for me. I had to interrogate what I questioned, what I doubted, what rang false, even after a series of itinerant preachers echoed it during revival.

There comes a time when faith can no longer be absorbed secondhand. Wheat — what you alone are certain you believe — and tare — what you’ve been taught but have never bothered to question — must finally part ways. And the voice that exits your body in prayer must be clearly recognizable as your own. It cannot mimic your mother’s or be tinged with the sweetness of Grandma’s clichés.

This is your life. You alone will answer for it. And the only voice you’ll be able to access then will be your own.

I wandered a while on a long stretch of road, the light on its path possibly dim at turns. It took entire years. I left markers along the dirt, not entirely sure I wouldn’t find myself returning to them.

5.

My meandering days were numbered when I had a child. It was clear to me as she ripped her way out and the nurse rested her in my arms: this girl was not the work of her father and I alone. She had not gotten here by sheer force of my bodily effort. She was not a result of mere biological function and, because of this, part of her would always be unknowable to me. I’d need help then, to reach that part of her. I’d need a mediator whose presence among us was also not the mere work of mortal hands.

The church friends I made as a child are still, by and large, still fervent about church and faith. Even the ones I wouldn’t have guessed would be. Most of them are parents. They are raising their children the way we were raised. They are doing this because it works. If they, having ventured away from our sacred, if cloistered, community, and having seen and survived the darkest days they’d known, and having found themselves right back in the house of God , alive and there to tell, then so would their children. Most of them.

This is reason enough to return. This, and days like this one, when the words to explain how this happened, where and when it happened, could not possibly come without divine intervention.

6.

7.

Before the massacre at “Mother” Emanuel in Charleston, SC, I had been inching ever closer to God. He came at church on Sunday, when the pastor told us, “You have to cope before you can conquer,” and later asked us to turn to our neighbors and declare, “I am raising my faith to the level of my fight.” He came though a long conversation with a friend that night. We prayed for one another. No. More accurately, he prayed for me and I stammered a few well-intentioned words in return. But he told me that God did not feel the same way about my faith as I did. He didn’t see it as feeble, flagging, inadequate. He didn’t consider it something I was “struggling with.” I am not a case study in what it means to falter. My faith has been sufficient, even when it’s seemed small, even when I’ve had a hard time voicing it. It’s been sufficient because I wouldn’t let it go. It’s a seed and, as such, it retains its ability to grow.

When we doubt, the friends who believe alongside us are often the light that keep us drawing nigh, lest we float away. We hold onto them when horror rushes in. We remind them, “Whatever you do, don’t let go of the Word.” In that moment, they are the Word in motion. And if we must die, for welcoming the troubled white supremacist 21-year-old whose boyish face looks as innocent as the brain behind it is wicked, if we must die for praying alongside him, if we must continue waging a war as unfathomable as it is unseen, there is no one better to be with in the end, than the people who kept us feeling closest to God when we felt farthest away.

There is no greater lesson to be gained for believers than to keep believing, right next to those with whom and for whom you would not mind dying. We are what we need most, now and ever.

8.

Yesterday, I sang a worship song. I haven’t done that, unprompted, in a while and I’ve never recorded myself singing one. I am glad to have that moment now, when freedom feels like such an improbable farce.

I echoed the words of a popular tune, one that the congregation had crooned in church on Sunday. I sang that I’d withhold nothing. I meant it and cried as I often do when I sing a prayerful song and every fetter falls and I feel — however fleetingly — free.

I sang it twice.

Hours later, nine other people who likely knew and sang that song and whose hearts promised the same, lay dead just feet from their church’s altar.

Here, Lord, is my desperation.

Here, Lord, lay my anger.

Here is the love I hope won’t not kill me.

Here, my longing for retribution.

Here, the depth of my unforgiveness.

Here, my hopes for their souls’ safe passage.

Here, my desire to see them again, in a life beyond this often terrifying one.

Here, every doubt I have about what was and what is, and what’s still to come.

I deny You nothing.