(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.

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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.

Surviving the Game. 


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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

What Women Hear.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Elegy for the Larger-than-Life. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seeking Inner Harmony.

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1.

I wonder what I'd choose, given the choice/between silence and noise, words or a voice. -- "Beyond the Sun," Aaron Espe and Claire Guerreso

I may have mentioned this here before — in fact, I’m almost certain I have — but I sing to keep calm. It’s one of the only things I do that pushes my overactive thoughts (and anxieties) to the periphery. Ironically, singing quiets me. Much like fiction-writing, it requires a good deal of my creative focus, especially if I’m harmonizing. I have to be able to hear myself, and in that way, I’m granted the fleeting luxury of ignoring everything else. Everyone should adopt a hobby that affords them that privilege, something that inwardly soothes but has the potential offer something distinct — and free — to the world outside. Historically, writing has satisfied those aims for me, but for the past three years or so, it’s been far more stressful than calming — in no small part because I’ve increasingly relied on it for income, and also because bigger reading audiences mean heightened self-consciousness. Sitting down to a blank screen meant approaching it with a sense of post-writing strategy: How (if at all) would I defend myself in the face of critique? How would I help the publication market the piece so that it had maximum reach within its first 48 hours? How much would I have to make myself available to converse about whatever I’d report or disclose? How fast could I finish it, so that I could quickly invoice it, and after the invoice, would the payment arrive before Bill X was due, if I really rushed the copy?

The lines between silence and noise seem to disappear for writers of certain types of new media content. And on my most cynical days, it becomes hard to determine whether I’ve just written a required number of words, inanimate, flat uninspired, or infused those dry bones of vocabulary with true voice and with life.

I’m hoping that my new professional direction will recalibrate my relationship to writing as something I simply want to do for myself and others, rather than something I have to do to feed my family and help my employees with their bottom line. Joyfulness during the practice of writing is rare. It’s important to protect and reclaim it if and when you can.

2.

I know you're down. When you gon' get up? -- "Get Up," Amel Larrieux

Amel Larrieux’s first solo album, Infinite Possibilities, dropped when I was a junior in college and since then, this song has always been able to straighten my spine and set my feet due north after a period of aimlessness. (This just occurred to me, but this song is simply a much more beautiful way of delivering the exact same message this guy does in that old, classic for-profit college ad. “Get Up” is just as urgent but absent the comical disgust.)

3.

You'd say this is all there is/and every time you blink you'd miss/another piece of this wondrous world. -- "Good Goodbye," Lianne de Havas

I hate letting go of people I love before I’ve made peace with it. I want every relationship that has to end to do so with mutual, bittersweet resignation and resolve. I want the fanfare of a poignant farewell. But how often are any of us granted that (and even when we are, it’s still emptier than we’d hoped, isn’t it?). Sometimes I just have to force myself forward, when I really want to be like Atreyu was with Artax in the Swamp of Sadness:

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I’m not sure what Lianne La Havas wants us to take from her gorgeous song, “Good Goodbye,” but what I get from it is validation of how hard it is to accept when people are truly gone, when what you’ve wanted most was for them not to be.

Edited to add a fourth Acapella with zero context:


 

(How dope is Acapella, though? Really. Even though it’s trendy and millennial and the clever teens and twentysomethings using it will move onto something else by the end of the year, this app, which I just found out about three days ago, is my Patronus and probably will be a long, long while.)

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.

Dispatch from Freelancia.

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I wasn’t supposed to be in town this week. I was supposed to be in New Mexico, about 30 minutes from Albuquerque, at a writing retreat. I’d been looking forward to it since April: the desert, the solitude, the productivity. Though I’ve been incredibly fortunate this summer, having traveled to Yale (three days) and to DC (two days, commuting) for training in digital storytelling and media appearances, respectively, neither of those opportunities — as useful as they’ve been — afforded me quiet, unmarked time to write. The writing retreat would’ve given me seven whole days, the longest stretch of time I would’ve spent away from home and away from my daughter not just this summer, but in the five years I’ve been a mother.

I was really ready for it.

I’d envisioned myself writing at least one (but ideal two) nonfiction book proposal(s) and finishing the rough draft of a YA novel, returning home with reams of handwritten notes for new projects, my brain swept clear of its dusty preoccupations. (In all my fantasies about free time, my reach exceeds my grasp.)

The trip didn’t pan out. I thought I’d have childcare for the entire week. I didn’t, and I couldn’t get an alternative solution together in time to attend.

The irony is that this was still the most productive writing week I’ve had in quite some time — distractions, kid in tow, and all.

I wrote two essays on Sunday, one that would run on Monday, the other on Tuesday. I spent the middle of Sunday night, between 1 am and 5 am, turning around edits on the Monday piece, and spent Monday afternoon turning around edits on the Tuesday piece. Then I turned my focus onto a piece that was due on Wednesday, one that required interviewing (and transcribing an interview) and watching a documentary. On Tuesday night, a reporter for the Baltimore Sun’s Insider blog called at 9 pm to interview me for a column called “The 410 in 140,” which focuses on Baltimoreans who use Twitter in noteworthy ways. I managed to file the essay with interviews late Wednesday (after staying up until 4 am Tuesday night/Wednesday morning to work on it); the piece ran Thursday. Thursday, I also pitched what I’ll be writing for Monday’s column with The New Republic and Thursday’s contribution to the Washington Post Act Four blog.

Today, I’ll be attempting to schedule and conduct interviews for the Monday column, as well as doing research for it.

You can find all this week’s essays and the Baltimore Sun Insider interview, in order of publication, here:

That level of productivity, when coupled with all the other demands on my time and resources, comes at a cost. And the anxiety I feel about generating ideas, meeting deadlines, and writing well — every time — is compounded by the freelance net 30 (or 40 or 60) payment terms. When I’m writing anywhere new, I’m never quite certain when I’ll be paid (and the onus is, of course, on me to invoice for payment in a timely manner, which I don’t always remember to do, because: other deadlines, responsibilities, invoices, obligations).

I love being this busy with the work of writing. I don’t love what the business of freelance writing does to my heart rate and stress levels. I hope it will always be okay for me to express that here, at my personal blog, without seeming ungrateful for the opportunities I’m being afforded. I wish I’d had access to this level of candor about the business of writing when I was, say, 18 and picking English as a college major, or even 26, when I borrowed thousands in loans for my creative writing MFA. I don’t believe in discouraging anyone who aspires to a career in new media writers, but I do believe they deserve to know what awaits them. I think more of us are being open about the rigors and challenges attendant to this life — and that can only benefit future generations of workers.

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I’ve been giving some thought to how much of my life is spent online. One of the questions I fielded for the “410 in 140” piece was about whether or not I feel a pressure to use Twitter constantly. The answer is tricky. The relationship between the freelance writer and social media is an essential one. In much the same way that syllabi and lecture prep, grading, and holding “office*” hours are necessary, unpaid labor for adjunct instructors at colleges, social media use is necessary and unpaid labor for new media writers. It’s a basis for research, a space to solicit interview subjects, a platform for carrying out the kind of intellectual debate I imagine goes on between colleagues in the brick-and-mortar newsrooms to which I don’t have access (only, on social media, that debate is more inclusive, occurring as it does across class lines, regardless of city, state, or country of residence, with far more diversity along race, gender and disability lines).

I can say for certain that, to whatever extent I’m on anyone’s radar as a writer about culture, race, motherhood, or anything else, it’s owed to my online presence. Everyone goes about growing a readership differently. My way has been slow, with an emphasis on quality over quantity (even now, though it’s thrilling to occasionally discover raw numbers of clicks or unique visitors, I try not to linger too long on the size of an essay’s reading audience. I care more about how memorable and affecting a piece is, what — if anything lasting — it contributes to the larger discourse on an issue, and what — if anything — it compels a reader to do). Interacting with people online, thanking them for reading and sharing my work, trying to emphasize to them that we’re in ongoing dialogue and that I’m trying not to write at them, so much as to them, and that I’m not interested in having the last word on any topic, simply because I’ve been fortunate enough to have my word published — these are the cornerstones of approach to writing for new media and for growing an audience in a grossly oversaturated market.

But I do crave a greater sense of balance. I envy my friends who nobly take “social media breaks,” a week here, 30 days there. I covet how refreshed they always seem when they return. I’ve never been good at cutting off any activity or person completely cold turkey. I don’t know if that’s due to a lack of discipline or simply that I’m better at making long-term changes when I do so gradually and moderately. But I probably won’t ever have a long lapse of online silence. A day here or there, where I’m on deadline or actually (gasp) out gallivanting through the tangible, analog world around me, perhaps. But I imagine even then, I’ll tweet once or twice.

This is especially true now that I’m up to two weekly columns — one at The New Republic and one at The Washington Post Act Four. I can assure you that there isn’t enough pre-existing knowledge or opinion or insight in my head for me not to be reading news stories or engaging with other thinkers about the news of the day. The most efficient way for me to engage in that work is via my Twitter feed.

In the last few month of the year, however, I do want to make more of an effort to step away. Quality over quantity is a principle that needs to operating in my personal life, too. I’m quite proud of how much work I put out this week, over a number of publications. But this week was also supposed to be about retreating, getting some physical and emotional distance, and recharging. I’m hoping to make my weekend about that (… while also working on my Monday column).

*Adjuncts don’t typically have brick and mortar offices — and certainly not ones that they don’t share with anywhere from one to 40 other people.

Tonight, they are young: An ode to dancing black boys.

The dancing boys are between the ages of 8 and 11. If this clip is any indication, they are dancing primarily for women, perhaps for their mama(s) and aunties, perhaps for company their matriarchs had over for dinner — the kind of friends who’ve become family, their bonds forged by action rather than blood.

Fittingly, they are dancing to a remix of a song called “We Are Young.”

The boys have practiced. Their steps are likely self-choreographed, perhaps in the space of a single hour. Children have that kind of undivided time, that singular dedication to looking coordinated and cool. The littler one leaves more room for spontaneity. He’s sillier; if you watch closely, you see his concentration break, his gameface mug crack into a gleeful grin. The older one is already showing signs of adolescent self-consciousness. He is more concerned with nailing the steps than granting himself joyous abandon.

The older one is wearing an “I Can’t Breathe Shirt.” I wonder if he requested it or if it was given as a kind of initiation.

This country will teach both boys counter-intuition. America will convince them that the galala and and suo that come naturally to them, whenever they are in the presence of drums, should be quelled to comfort the rhythmless. They’ll be taught that the borankana undulating in their bones should be controlled, tightened into the space of a subtle two-step. They will be instructed that only certain forms of filial touch are socially sanctioned, that any movement that jetes outside the lines will activate their peer circle’s latent or brazen homophobia. They will be taught that the funga alafia is no longer an acceptable form of welcome, that when a body is black and male, it is more weapon that welcome, that when a black male body enters adolescence, all of its every movement is unwelcome.

I am willing to wager they’ve already had several lessons.

But I find them riveting because they are so young, because this is still their favored social play. I’m impressed by their seriousness, by their commitment to lockstep, by that moment toward the end that transports me back to the land of schoolyard handgames every time I watch this clip (and I watch it a lot). I want them to understand that they are the embodiment of centuries of dance tradition. I need them to know how sacred that is and to defend it just a little while longer. I wish them college majors in dance and kinesiology. I wish them the social protection (and not the patriarchal gender politics) of black fraternities, for those remain among the few, rare spaces where the uninhibited range of a black male body for dance is still more revered than reviled.

Mostly, I wish them long lives, fewer reasons to rock police brutality tribute tees, the slowing of time so that they can seize these last un-self-conscious moments and commune with their dances of their ancestry — even if their exact origins remain unknown. I wish them a continuation of dance trends that favor their ability to behave like the euphoric children they deserve to be. I wish them an endless summer.

Say nice things about Baltimore (and Prince!).

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In a story I wrote two weeks ago, I briefly mentioned my old church on Park Heights Avenue, directly across from Pimlico racetrack. (I always mention our proximity to the track because I vividly recall when we’d walk out of church and see trainers beginning to run their horses for each new season. In retrospect, it underscores the gross inequity in that area, within the fence, hundreds of thousands of dollars in invested and gambled revenue are being spent for Triple Crown season, while just beyond the Pimlico gates lay one of the city’s roughest communities.)

I’ve written here about that church and my childhood friends before, but to recap: the friends you make in a church youth group are of a particular sort that you do not forget. They’re different than school friends because you see them at their most vulnerable, through interaction with and admonition from their parents and siblings; working in service of something beyond themselves; ushering or a joining youth choir or feeding snacks to smaller children in children’s church. When elementary, middle, and high school grade levels or choices to attend private, public, or magnet programs begin to separate school friends, church friends remain together, under the same roof, seeking the same sanctuary, sometimes their whole lives long. And when they worship, when they weep or dance or yell or collapse, when they wear suits and dresses on Sundays when no one else in their social lives has ever seen them in one, you learn to keep their secrets.

Nikia was one of my best church friends around the end of middle school, going into high school. She and her little brother Eugene (aka Junior)  came to the church with their aunt, Vernetta, around that time and I remember them as inseparable. If some brothers and sisters bug each other senseless, these two seemed to have an enviable understanding of one another and a love and respect that just radiated whenever they were together.

I still ride for my youth group friends, but when I when I left that church at 16, I fell out of touch with most of them (until the rise of social media reconnected us).

Three or four years after I left, Junior was killed by Baltimore City Police. The shooting’s officer’s story was published in The Baltimore Sun. Nikia’s account of the last moments of Junior’s life have never been given similar weight in print. Until now. One of the greatest honors I have as a writer these days is being trusted to amplify the stories the people I love have guarded and carried and wanted to share for years, with anyone who would care even a fraction as much as they do. I’m glad I finally got to honor Junior’s legacy in this piece about Marilyn Mosby’s decision to charge the cops who killed Freddie Gray and what a few Baltimoreans think may be next for the city in The New Republic.

In other news:

  • I was on a Chicago-based radio program called This is Hell last weekend, discussing unrest in Baltimore City. You can listen here. (Also check out the May 1 broadcast of The Bill Press Show, where I offered a few remarks.)
  • Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Tracy K. Smith wrote a memoir about life with her mother, who succumbed to cancer when Smith was in her early 20s. For Slate, I wrote about why the quiet, uneventful grace of the story is revolutionary in a publishing world that doesn’t often make room for healthy slice-of-life vignettes about black mothers and daughters.
  • Prince gave an incredible, moving show in Baltimore on Mother’s Day and I still can’t believe I not only got to attend but also to write about it for The Washington Post

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  • There’s still time to donate to my Thread at Yale fundraising campaign — but if you want to contribute at this point, please do so via the PayPal option. I explain why here (Scroll to the last few paragraphs.), but the short of it is that I won’t be able to access the funds I raised a month ago until well after the New Haven trip is over, and I have to use my own extremely limited resources upfront to finish making tuition payments and to travel there, then reimburse myself on the back end. If anyone’s ever been through that, you know how dicey a process self-reimbursement can be. I know you’ve all already been amazingly, staggeringly generous, and I thank you for it. If there’s anyone else who didn’t get to give and would like to, however, you can do it via the Indiegogo link by selecting PayPal (the only option that releases contributions immediately) or contribute directly through PayPal.com with my email address: stacialbrown at gmail dot com.

 

Bits and Bobs: WaPo Column Recaps and Rihanna-Inspired Writing.

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Yesterday marked the publication of my third column at WaPo’s Act Four (if you missed the news, I’m a weekly contributor there now. Seriously. Pinch me.). I wrote about Trevor Noah, who I knew nothing about until it was announced Monday that he’ll be the new host of The Daily Show. My second piece was about Mo’ne Davis. The first was about the transition of an amazing multicultural bookstore inside 14th and V’s Busboys and Poets location in DC to a Politics and Prose satellite store. I love Politics and Prose, but it’s pretty white by comparison. For context, 85% of the children’s books at the old store, Teaching for Change, were either by or about children of color, which is unprecedented. The rest of the stock was similarly targeted toward readers of color and it was a rush walking in there, every single time. It’ll be missed.

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I also wrote about Rihanna, ’90s black pop princesses, middle-school bullying, and my long learning curve for self-advocacy yesterday, over at Medium. If you read that one and dig it, please share it. It could use a bit of a push.

I’m considering starting a weekly newsletter for writing links and announcements like these and for letting y’all know what I’m reading on- and offline (right now, I’m knee-deep in James Hannaham’s Delicious Foods, Tracy K. Smith’s memoir Ordinary Light, a re-read of James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk, this interview with Kiese Laymon, and hopefully, Paul Beatty’s The Sellout, which I’ve borrowed as a non-renewable digital copy from my local library. It’s due back in about 11 days and I’m not sure I’ll get to it before they gank it back).

If that kind of Tinyletter deal is something that interests you, something you’d sign-up to have emailed to you on a weekly basis, leave me a comment letting me know. I’d like to gauge interest before I start anything else.

Also, apropos of nothing, two days ago on YouTube, I found this long lost unreleased Dilla beat I rocked for months after he passed away back in 2006. It still goes. Y’all should give it a spin today: