Private Black Motherhood and Public White Protest.

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1.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sackcloth Farewell, Inauguration of Ashes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prince and Philando and Futures Untold.

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

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

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

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

He does.

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

If he never returns, the old wounds callus quicker.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For Alton. For Philando. For All.

1.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.

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

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

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

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

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

3.

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

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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.

Postcard from the Inside.

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

Dear Reader,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

P.S.

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

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?

#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.

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.

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.

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.