Current Events, Nonfiction, Parenting, Race

#EveryBlackGirlMatters and We All Need Our One.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Current Events, Nonfiction, Pop Culture, Race

Emmys and Cosmo.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks to you all.

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

Black Faith in a Time of White Supremacy.

1.

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

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

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

We believed them.

2.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I believed him.

3.

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

They rarely stayed.

4.

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

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

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

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

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

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

5.

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

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

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

6.

7.

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

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

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

8.

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

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

I sang it twice.

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

Here, Lord, is my desperation.

Here, Lord, lay my anger.

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

Here, my longing for retribution.

Here, the depth of my unforgiveness.

Here, my hopes for their souls’ safe passage.

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

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

I deny You nothing.

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Current Events, Nonfiction, Race

The Racial Prism.

It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. — W.E.B. DuBois

An American, a Negro… two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. — W.E.B. DuBois

I made it (Thanks to so many of you. I’m incredibly grateful).:

IMG_8674But last night, when I got here — to this previously inaccessible institution for this improbably-accessed opportunity — I made the mistake of catching up on the news. In my dorm suite, I read about the police assault on a young black girl and her black friends at a pool party. I was lying down on the spare, thin mattress when the news hit social media that Kalief Browder died, following years of trauma at the hands of of the NYC judicial and correctional systems broadly, and at the feet and fists of Rikers Island guards and inmates, specifically.

I have been elated since I arrived. There’s a frequency of bliss, a thrilling current of excitement buzzing through me every single minute I spend here. 

But in the midst of my euphoria at having barely scraped my way into this respite, hours away from the rigors of my daily life back home — the just-getting-by of it all, the constant, intimate, semi-secret worries I tend to share a bit too much of online — I’ve also felt an intense and all-too-familiar need to grieve. 

The private joy must make room for quiet mourning, the mourning for performing public joy. 

To vent the grief, I tweeted these things. Early.  Before even leaving the dorm:

This is hard, this divided attention. But it isn’t just an emotional and intellectual focus divided by half. This is no mere doubled consciousness. Race in this country, with each successive generation, with every historical echo, and for all our technological advancement, has become a prism. This new racial prism — this 24-hour access to every horrible, three-dimensional detail of black trauma, requires constant, multiplicitous division. I can anticipate occasional euphoria, but I will always do so with the understanding that injustice will disrupt my joy. That is its own kind of violence, a forced splintering of identity, intellect, and emotion.

Here, in New Haven, where I want to enjoy an undisturbed experience of enrichment and networking, I find my thoughts drifting to the black folks I’ve seen on the streets and in service jobs. It’s hard not to devote concern and curiosity to what seems an obvious and stark class distinction between Yalies (white, black, and brown) and black New Haven residents (or transients or commuting workers).

And once that rope of care has lassoed us, once we have gathered into each other, huddling against our shared and separate sorrows, it’s hard not to cast our rope further, out to Kalief Browder’s mother, who discovered him hanging outside the window of their home, out to the teenage girl in McKinney, Texas, kneed in the back, left all the more vulnerable to police-manhandling, while still wearing nothing but her sunny orange and yellow bikini, out to her friends who will feel the terror of that memory rippling through them at unexpected moments for the rest of their lives.

I almost felt weightless here. At times, I still do. To the outsider, the briefly affiliated, only partially initiated outsider, Yale seems a space devoid of regular burdens. Come here, and forget the cost. Come here, and mere proximity to those for whom money is either no object or an object that capitulates to their will, will make you feel temporarily unfettered. Even as your financial worries gather just outside the card-access gates of your dormitory, even as your awareness that your three-day visit is sifting quickly through your fingers and the pressure to make each minute, each meeting meaningful mounts as if the trajectory of your entire future depends on it, even as you know for sure that your future is not as secure as some of the baby-faced summer session undergrads strolling jauntily by, Yale beguiles you like a tropical resort surrounded by hovels might. It does not resemble the lives of those just outside its gates. It is no vacation for those who cannot leave. Yale is not your real life, either, until, for a triad of incredible days, it is.

Even here, in the space of the briefest of days, here, where praise and promise are plentiful, ironies cannot be sloughed. Grief cannot be shed. I can’t escape the maladies in McKinney. I can’t pass Yale School of Law without wondering if Kalief Browder’s name will ever be uttered in a classroom there. And I know that I wouldn’t want to.

I’ve wondered. Could this ever be a place where all my splintered pieces, all these race-bent beams of light and looming shadows, could ever be fully known?

It’s possible. But perhaps only for the middle-aged woman with the teeny weeny afro, I’ve seen sitting outside powerwashed storefronts displaying wares she and I can’t afford. Perhaps only to the security guard at Walgreens who told us when we asked for directions yesterday, “I’m not from New Haven.” Perhaps for the black student-worker who bussed our tables tonight, inside a storied old boys club on campus. 

And even for them, it may only be possible when they are looking full-on at one another, each catching the refracting light in the eyes of the other. 

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Nonfiction, Pop Culture, Race

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.

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Appearances and Publications, Current Events, Nonfiction, Pop Culture, Race

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.

 

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