Surviving the Game. 


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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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.

County-City Chasms (or The Gaps Between In and Of).

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Tyriece “Lor Scoota” Watson

Of course it is possible to be raised in Baltimore, black and lower-middle class, black and occasionally beset by situational poverty, and to never know the agony of losing the people we love to guns or to drugs. I imagine it may be rare — rarer, possibly, than I’d like to admit. But I know for certain the possibility because I am its evidence. I imagine the others relatively unscathed are like me: County-dwellers, suburbanites — or else quite unlike me: affluent city mainstays whose income or inheritance have extended them insulation.

For these seeming exceptions, there exists a tacit divide between those who find themselves managing grief every day and those of us who would scarcely know how, if it were suddenly required.  Ease widens that divide — and how easy it can be to remain willfully ignorant of such grief in the cul de sacs, side streets, and enclaves of Randallstown, Owings Mills, or Pikesville. If one wants it to, the “harrowing” reports of Baltimore’s violence and despair that make their way to national media can feel a ten-hour drive away rather than a twenty-minute one. It does not take much turning away when no sidewalk in a six-mile radius has a makeshift teddy-bear shrine to a murdered child and no corner holds ominous congregants dapping crack or lean into the hands of fiending clients. 

I am a person who braces for what I consider to be “the worst,” though nothing truly awful has ever happened to me and — right alongside my petitions for the continued strength of those to whom it has  — I pray, albeit idly, that nothing awful ever will.

It seems a selfish supplication, though I have every reason to hope for it. I’ve a daughter yet to raise, in a world that has always been unsafe for women, in a country that has always been unkind to its black citizens. But it’s a prayer that leans hard on privilege, too; life in low-crime communities has bettered my odds. And I am no more deserving of this lot than my neighbors eight miles south are deserving of their poorer ones. 

I pray for personal mercies just the same, and I hope the people I love, who’ve fared far worse in this life than I, won’t think ill of me for it.

It is this conflicted self I carry into the city, the self that is rarely onsite when the harassment and standoffs, protests and arrests begin, because their inciting incidents are rarely at my own back door. If I am present at all, it is to breathe lives in and to write them out.  If I am there at all, it is to admire the wisdom to be found on their blocks — wisdom I do not and cannot possess, understanding as I do that the wisest residents smong them would trade some of that prudence which circumstance bestows, in exchange for a less treacherous lot.

I know, at heart, there is no interpreting, no distilling, no genuine deference to their experience that I can succeed at offering from the outside. I know that even the writing is seen as a kind of charity, and that charity is more often perceived as pity than as a gift.

And yet I am unsure what other alms I can offer. I find it disingenuous to march in the streets against neighborhood-specific atrocities I cannot begin to fathom. I find it empty to picket there, knowing well that I can go home and that home is a place apart, a community of picket fences. There, under the warmth of that hearth, I am no less an ally, no more a peer.

I knew nothing of Lor Scoota before he died. I doubt this is true of many young black folks who’ve lived within city limits over the past three years. Last week, as I watched the sorrow of hundreds spill into the streets to mourn him, I was reminded yet again of how surreal it can be to live in the County, mere miles from the triumph of any city resident’s sense of industry, mere miles from any day’s anguish when the hope he offered is extinguished. I was reminded of how often in Baltimore the dialect of loss that most often emerges at the intersection of resistance and grief is dance.

When I am most honest with myself, I admit this is not a dialect I long to learn and were I to try, this is not a dance I could master. But even as my distance may be cause for some secret relief, I don’t not presume it enviable. In this city, where grief abounds, ingenuity swells up to meet it. Hardship may encroach for what seems an eternity but so will laughter, so will rebellion, so will romance and filial love and glee. Someone will actually recover in an overcrowded, under-resourced clinic. Some parolees will remain free upon release. Some homeowner will dote on a yard in a block that’s avoided boarding-up. Some community will always follow up a vigil disrupted by riot-gear-clad police with a truly peaceful one. Against odds, more bodies will make their way back home than those that will fall by the forces of bloodlust and bullets.

That hardiness, though admirable, is not enviable, either. It is simply life being borne out as best it can be, given where it is conceived and delivered, given where it has no choice but to be raised.

And if the gaps between a sense of relative safety and one of imminent peril can be narrowed by comprehension, I will ever work toward making sense of what some claim is senseless and identifying roots where some claim there is mostly rot.

Did you hear Baltimore: The Rise of Charm City today?

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Last month, I wrote a post about my new job as an independent radio producer on “Baltimore: The Rise of Charm City,” a new half-hour audio documentary funded by AIR with additional support from the Corporation for Public Broadcast as part of Localore: Finding America, a 15-city hyper-local storytelling project.

Today, our first episode premiered on WEAA 88.9 FM. You can hear it here: http://weaa.org/post/episode-one-keep-shaking-and-baking.

I’m relieved to have gotten one episode done (there will be 12 total), excited by the stories we can tell in the radio medium — and how creative we can be about telling them — and I’m also just really exhausted. lol

I want to share some of the anecdotes about the show, audio clips that didn’t make it to air, and stories about learning how to read narration and writing/editing it on the fly. But I really feel like I’m about to doze off writing this. So all I’m going to say here is: when I went to New Have for Thread at Yale last summer (thank you again to everyone who helped me fund that through Indiegogo), Glynn Washington of Snap Judgment advised us that if we wanted to break into podcasting, having never done it before and with no tech experience, the best advice was: “Surround yourself with geniuses.”

I’ve definitely done that. I’ve got Ali Post, a field producer who’s a quick thinker, a troubleshooter, a fire extinguisher, an astute story collaborator, and a sounding board. I’ve got Mawish Raza, who exudes calm under ridiculous deadlines, makes magic out of photographs and video footage, and has already lost sleep ensuring that we had our show packaged for today’s 11:30am start time. And I have Marsha Jews, who knows Baltimore’s black history and exactly who we need to talk to about it, who is a voice of reason when I’m quietly freaking out, and who gets things done. Period. Fast.

And of course, it must be said: none of us would be able to do any of this important work without our grant from AIR. Funding makes all the difference in the scope of the narrative work you can do. So many people are already telling Baltimore’s important stories in various media on next to no budget. We’re honored to join their ranks — and very fortunate to be doing it with some financial backing.

Strong team, strong show. Well, wait. We’ll let you be the judge of its strength, listeners. Let me know what you think after you’ve heard it!

In the meantime, here’s our video trailer for Episode 1, which I didn’t get to share here in advance of the show, because: mile-long to-do list.

Seeking Inner Harmony.

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1.

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

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

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

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

2.

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

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

3.

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

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

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

Edited to add a fourth Acapella with zero context:


 

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

Anatomy of a Failed Piece of Writing (Mine).

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I didn’t have plans to talk about the Oscars this year — especially not in print. This year, they are not ours to lose. There is, of course, no nomination for the luminous, near-floating Lupita. There is no woeful deflation weighing on Chiwetel’s face as he watches his lifelong dream waft further away from him and closer to the white man who made films like Fool’s Gold and Ghosts of Girlfriends Past for a full fifteen years before Getting Serious About His Craft. This year, I’d planned to regard the awards far more impassively, not with the rigor or attentiveness of someone with anything particular at stake. I intended only to ogle the dresses and to smile at Neil Patrick Harris and to sip wine like a socialite, wanly yawning at 11 p.m.

But I was asked if I wanted to write. And the outlet that asked has been one of my dream publications since long before seeing my byline there felt even remotely attainable. So I tried to develop an argument that began with Jessica Chastain and Benedict Cumberbatch, both of whom had spoken out about lack of diversity and dearth of opportunity for actors of color, in the U.S. and the U.K. I wanted to assert that, perhaps if a critical mass of white actors used their social capital to advocate for diversity, we might see more of it at a quicker rate than we have in decades past.

I am also working on a new fiction project*, and it involves old Hollywood’s lesser-known black actresses. I thought it might be powerful to weave in the story of one of them, whose life I’d just started to research, into the essay I planned to write. When you are writing for your dream publication, you want to create something gorgeous and sprawling and epic but also spare and elegant and searing. A tall order, but one I thought I might achieve by opening the piece with the story of Nina Mae McKinney and her first film, 1929’s Hallelujah.

Historians Donald Bogle and Avery Clayton’s 2013 Criterion Collection DVD commentary for Hallelujah is available on YouTube. Below, I’ve cued up to Nina’s first scene. Listen for about three minutes, as Bogle describes her, and watch her work, to get a sense of how captivating she was:

Hallelujah was one of the first two films that “integrated” Hollywood: a film that took black characters seriously (until this point black folks were played by whites in blackface, almost always as villains and/or buffoons). The filmmaker, King Vidor, was white and already in the prime of his career. Still, the chance he took on employing black actors for a major Hollywood production was a big one. He mined already thriving black entertainment sectors, finding actors who’d worked in “race films“** and musicians playing segregated, all-black clubs in New York and LA to populate the cast. But none of these spots were where he found Nina Mae. Nina was plucked from Broadway. Just 16 years old, she’d shimmied her way into the chorus line of a black Broadway musical review, Blackbirds of 1928. Vidor was transfixed and knew he needed her to play the sweet, seductive con-woman Chick in Hallelujah.

For his efforts in finding just the right star in Nina Mae and telling a story that gave black characters their own passions and predicaments, outside of white households and white communities, King Vidor was nominated for an Oscar in 1930. Nina Mae, of course, was not. It would be another nine years before a black actress was first nominated for an Oscar — for a playing a maid whose story was told solely through her interactions with whites. (Fun fact: Pioneering Academy Award winner Hattie McDaniel had an older brother, Sam McDaniel, who was also a Hollyood actor. He starred with Nina Mae McKinney in Hallelujah.)

Vidor’s confidence in Nina Mae McKinney’s star power wasn’t misplaced. MGM took notice, too, and did something unprecedented as a result: the studio offered McKinney a multi-picture deal. She was the first black actress ever to receive one.

What follows will be a familiar story. Because films with all-black casts were still rare and novel occurrences in Hollywood, McKinney didn’t find much work there that showcased her talents as generously as Hallelujah did. In fact, much of the work on at least one of her contractual film roles was edited out of the final cut. Other roles were simply brief and underwritten. Impatient with the slow march of progress, McKinney left Hollywood for Europe, where she became the first black actress to appear on European television. But even there, super-stardom eluded her. McKinney died relatively young, one month before her 55th birthday. At the time of her passing, she was rumored both to have been struggling with addiction and to have been working, in the last years of her life, as a domestic in New York City.

Somehow, I wanted to weave McKinney’s life story into my essay. But I also wanted to talk about what it’s meant, historically, for the benefits white directors have received for black performances to have far outweighed the benefits, if any, that black artists themselves have enjoyed. I wanted to talk about the Academy’s caprice, how one year it can fete black actors for reliving the atrocities visited on our ancestors, then shut out other black artists, just one year later, for embodying different forebears — ones whose voices held slightly more sway over their generation’s oppressive white regime.

Then, of course, I would need to tie in today’s oppressive white regime (the 94 percent white contingent of Oscar voters). I would need to make an adequate case for white actors appealing to their own — directors, producers, writers, other white actors — that their storytelling and their performances could only be improved by the nuance and challenge racial and cultural diversity provides.

But in the end, whether it was a failure of time or of my arrangement and rearrangement of the words or of the strength of my argument (and I suspect it was some amalgam of the three), my final essay — a patchwork of paragraphs culled from three separate drafts — didn’t make it into my dream publication.

That final essay did find an open, welcoming and generous home. You can read it there.

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The Oscars, however, are tomorrow. And even after the publication of my (decent) post about them, I still felt fairly restless. I hadn’t called Nina Mae McKinney’s career back into our collective consciousness. I hadn’t taken white Hollywood to task and hadn’t had a chance to go on record as commending Chastain and Cumberbatch for speaking out (even if the latter called us “colored” when he did).

I am running out of space here, as well, so I won’t talk about how writers agonize over their rejections and how mine are becoming more frequent, the closer I get to a new rung on the ladder of whatever career I’m cobbling together here. I won’t talk about faith or having it shaken — or about how patient my loved ones are when my insecurities make me really uncomfortable to be near. I won’t describe my daughter’s crestfallen face when she twice found me crying last week. Not yet. Those are stories for other days. Indeed, they are stories I’ve already told you. Let’s not belabor them.

Instead, we can focus our attention elsewhere. I am just one black woman, weathering dashed hopes and reconfiguring herself after what feels like a failed enterprise. I’ve learned, in the past week especially, just how common it is to miss the mark and to gather yourself and go forward, just to miss it again. It’s a story much older than Hollywood, much older than most of our ancestors. But it will always be a story worth revisiting. Somehow, circling back to it always reinforces our foundation.

* Don’t put too, too much stock in mentions I make of fiction projects. Until I get some quiet, dedicate time to flesh them out, they haven’t gained much traction. Right now, I’m hopeful about this one. But get at me in a year and we’ll see where we are with it.

** More on race film history appears in the Bitch magazine piece that was eventually published.

More at Buzzfeed, on Beauty and Sorrow.


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It’s been a really rough week and I’ve written three hard pieces. One is hosted here, about Tamir Rice and his far too untimely, unjust death). Before that, I wrote about how the role of makeup has changed for me after becoming a mother.  That was published last Sunday at Buzzfeed Ideas, but I don’t think many people had time to read about that between all the national tragedy we’ve been managing in the days since.

Then the night of the announcement that the St. Louis grand jury would not be indicting Darren Wilson, despite his testimony about why he murdered Michael Brown sounding like something straight out of D.W. Griffiths’ Birth of Nation, I started writing this piece about how the women in my household were processing the news. It went up the next afternoon. (As an aside: I really like writing for Buzzfeed Ideas, and that’s largely because of Doree Shafrir, who edits my work there. Pitch to her, writers.)

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I think I was so busy trying to write something about the announcement that I didn’t immediately process it. I also think that because I was so deeply invested in the outcome of the George Zimmerman trial and I’m still not entirely over his acquittal, I couldn’t put much stock in the outcome of this grand jury consideration of an indictment. It’s been clearer with Ferguson. Every agency of authority in the state of Missouri has conspired to protect the shooting officer here. And that’s been terrifying for every day since August 9.

Anyway, it’s the day before Thanksgiving and I’m trying to hold love and hope and gratitude in the same crowded heart that’s already so swollen with anger and defeat. So I’ll let what I’ve already written speak to what I’m currently feeling. I wrote about Michael Brown and Ferguson six times this summer. Not much has changed there.

On a cooler note, a Twitter friend told me that my very first Buzzfeed Ideas piece, on parenting and empathy, is now available as an audio-read at Umano.

Blackgirl Songs for Summer Writing.

Me, when someone asks when I'm gonna write a novel.

Me, when someone asks when I’m gonna write a novel.

Summer is always when I sacrifice words to the genre-volcano of fiction. If you check the fiction tag here, you’ll find that two-thirds of the entries were posted during the summer months. One summer I even blogged half a novel draft. The only reason I can figure for that pattern is that during the traditional academic school year, I’m not often in “fiction headspace.” I typically spend those months talking about current events, creative nonfiction/personal essays, or field-specific research and citation.

I alluded to this recently here when I wrote about my writing process, but fiction is very difficult for me to write. I find it incredibly daunting. This was part of the reason I chose it as a concentration for graduate study. I wanted to get a firmer grasp on how to write it. But what I found was that my peers tended to be more structurally advanced than I was (many of them had either majored in creative writing in undergrad or participated in other formal writing instruction before attempting our degree). Because I’d never studied creative writing, aside from one poetry class in my first year of grad school. I found a lot of classroom discussion overwhelming. I remember actually crying in one craft class during my first year because I felt so underwater. Everyone sounded like they were speaking a language I not only hadn’t ever heard but didn’t know existed. I spent all of grad school being drawn out by instructors, hardly ever offering feedback without being prompted. And I always felt like I was guessing.

Wow. That entire last paragraph was a tangent I hadn’t intended to draw. But the point was: I find fiction elusive — and there always seem to be new impediments for me as I try to grasp it. The most recent has been motherhood. It requires me to be more practical in thought and economical with time and resources. For me, fiction requires a great deal of time for contemplation and invention. You may be drawing on personal truths and lived experience but you’re constructing it on untilled terrain, drawing on blood memory and pure imagination.

It is hard for me to do that. I always feel like I should be doing something else: working, trying to find work, actively parenting.

But recently, I found out that, as is the case with many of my summers, one of my work contracts is ending and it won’t be renewed, which means that, while I search for other work, I’m affording that long stretch of summer-waiting time I knew so well as an adjunct. And I’ve opted not to return to adjuncting this fall, so the world feels just terrifying and wide-open enough for me to be daring again. Truly daring. And right now, to be “truly daring” is to fit fiction into the current structure of my life the way I’ve managed to fit in blogging and essay-writing.

The groove I hope to get into while writing this summer.

The groove I hope to get into while writing this summer.

At this point, you’re probably looking for the playlist the title of this post promises. The wait’s over; I’m totally shutting up now, except to say: these are the songs I’m listening to and performances I’m watching as I try to be truly daring as a writer-of-fiction this summer. They aren’t new, and if you follow me on social media, you’ve probably already seen some of them. But enjoy:

1. Lianne La Havas – “Twice”

La Havas’ voice is without flaw on this cover, but I’m just as entranced by the barnyard motif. Generally, I love how intentional she is about creating synergy between her performance space and her performances.

2. Liv Warfield – “Why Do You Lie?”

Warfield is the definition of “truly daring” as a stage performer. She sings with her entire body the way I aspire to write with the whole of mine.

3. Emily King – “Distance”

I’ve a thing for rooftops. I always have. I’ve romanticized them, written them into stories as a girl, all that. But when I’ve actually been on them, it’s almost always been overwhelming. Watching King perform this gorgeous track on one reasserts the rooftop as a place of romance and creativity and possibility.

4.  Valerie June – “Workin’ Woman Blues”/”Rain Dance”/”Somebody To Love”

This NPR Tiny Desk Concert was my first introduction to Valerie June. She’ll be a summer staple, sounding as she does of wraparound porches with swings, stallions circling, swekerchiefs and sun tea.

5. Georgia Anne Muldrow – “More and More” (featuring Bilal)

So, so much love in this song, in all Georgia’s songs. Black love, black pride, black togetherness. “We, we are a tribe. Don’t go on thinkin’ no one’s on your side.” Word.

6. Lianne La Havas – “No Room for Doubt”

Another example of gorgeous scene and lovely singing.

7. Alice Smith – “So Bad”

Full disclosure: I’m only including Alice Smith here because of some very dear friends. It’s a highly coincidental, uncanny story.  On February 20, my girl @dopegirlfresh tweeted that she’d decided the day before that Alice Smith sings like I write. On February 19, my friend Alisa sent me a Facebook message with a link to this magazine spread and wrote, “Somewhat random, but Alice Smith did a spread for InStyle for her new album and she reminded me so much of you.” Those were completely unrelated musings. Then, my dear friend Joshunda saw Alice Smith perform at the Howard Theatre last weekend and when I asked her how it went, she said she loved it and Smith reminded her of me. So clearly, Alice Smith and I are soul sisters or something. I’m not in the regular practice of listening to her work, but I loved the performance above and this one at Grand Street Bakery is moving, too. There’s a lot of aching in her face when she sings. She can conjure the feeling of being lovelorn fairly easily. I can, too, whether I’m actually feeling it or not. That’s something I’ve recently learned and I suspect it’ll serve me well writing fiction.

That’s it for now, but I’ll check back in later this summer with a progress report. Hopefully, this project will stick and whatever words I offer to the volcano this year will finally appease it. For a while.🙂

Feel free to add your own summer writing playlist below. I’m always interested in what artists serve as writers’ muses or background noise.

 

Levels to This: One Week at WaPo.

The dream is work.

The dream is work.

In the moment that a dream is being realized, reckoning is not immediate. You will not necessarily feel capsized by awe and appreciation. You may barely be moved. More people should tell us this. Success isn’t often cinematic. It does not rain down like Publishers Clearinghouse confetti, does not announce itself with an oversized check. Success is merely more work. You may feel distinctly alone in it, may pretend to be surprised by it, for in truth, it is a bit surprising to find yourself, after year upon year of head-down toil, interrupted by recognition and requests. And it’s genuinely exciting, isn’t it, to be a person working among the people whose work — and comportment, post-success — you’ve been studying the whole time?

But you aren’t bowled over by dreams made manifest. Not all hard work is rewarded in the same ways. Some hard work isn’t rewarded at all. No one knows this better than those of us who have waited — and are still waiting — for their Moment. Still, it’s the law of averages. When you’re consistent long enough, it stands to reason someone will remember having glimpsed you in the eaves and crannies. You were always here. You just weren’t where they’ve asked you to stand now.

My week writing at Alyssa Rosenberg’s Act Four at The Washington Post wrapped Friday and I’m still on cloud nine about the opportunity. It taught me things about myself and stretched me pretty far beyond any realm where I’m comfortable. But I was also struck by how calm it all felt — even the panicky moments when, at 11pm on the night before a post was due, I still hadn’t settled on a topic.

I thought I’d be more afraid or soaked in euphoria or unable to function at anything other than writing for a property branded by one of the country’s foremost papers.

And then I remembered: I’ve been vetted for this.

I had my first heart palpitations, shortness of breath and crying jags six years ago when I started teaching college composition. Anxiety intensified two semesters later when I found myself teaching six college courses on three campuses. And it did not go away when I learned to scale back, learned that “drive” at the expense of physical or mental health is empty at best and perilous at worst.

There is nothing wrong with the slow rise, the circuitous, meandering exploration of many paths. We are not all meant to be meteors. Some of us are satellites: we hover, capture, study. We wait. There is no shame in it.

In waiting and working, you learn what you’ll need for the next level. Writing well on next to no time is a necessary skill, but so is turning offers down or skipping the pitch when you’re feeling that familiar chest-tightening angst that will prevent you from executing the full article well or with timeliness. And you should exercise, which I don’t. And you should eat, which I do too infrequently. And you should sleep in ways that are unbroken, and I fail at this as well. But all of it is work. Keep at it and the pebbles and boulders and weeds get familiar. You will know where you’re going.

I am telling you all this because nobody told me. This is not a lament; some things are better discovered alone — and I’ve been fortunate to have the benefit of company more successful than I for most of my adult life. But maybe something I’ve said here will help you. Enjoy yourself when you win; just don’t look to the heavens for fireworks when what you should be hoping to find there is greater revelation.

Here are links to what I wrote last week. I’m not too humble to admit I liked all of it and not too proud to concede I could’ve written some pieces better.

Fun fact: when you write for an online component of a daily paper, people don’t just leave comments on the post; some write to your personal email account. That freaked me out at first. It renders null any “don’t read the comments” policy you have. Mercifully, everyone who took time to write me last week was kind.

Monday: http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/act-four/wp/2014/05/05/where-are-the-black-ballerinas/

Tuesday: http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/act-four/wp/2014/05/06/can-we-avoid-mistakes-in-responding-to-the-nigeria-kidnappings/

Wednesday: http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/act-four/wp/2014/05/07/why-we-should-worry-about-a-resurrected-shes-gotta-have-it/

Thursday: http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/act-four/wp/2014/05/08/will-the-remake-of-private-benjamin-miss-the-originals-point/

Friday: http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/act-four/wp/2014/05/09/kim-kardashian-admits-she-is-only-now-aware-that-racism-exists/?tid=pm_opinions_pop

I’m Guest-Blogging at The Washington Post This Week!

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I’ll be here all week!

I didn’t want to say anything here until I had an official first link to share. Now that I have one, here’s this week’s big news: I’m filling in for the incomparable Alyssa Rosenberg this week at her WaPo blog, Act Four. If you’re not already reading Act Four, you totally should be; it’s incredible. There’s no one like Alyssa. I’ve been following her for years, beginning with her work at ThinkProgress, and I’ve never ceased to be impressed by how much insight she can infuse into TV, film, and culture. I was first astounded then honored that she invited me to do this. It’s not every day that someone you admire is gracious enough to share such an illustrious platform with you. When it happens, there’s little else to be but awestruck and deeply grateful.

I’m pretty sure I’ll be pinching myself all week long. I even went big and showed my first byline there to my nana (who is kind of hard to impress). This did the trick; she gave me the eyebrow-raise and head-nod of approval. Woot! Hopefully some of this week’s readers will do the same.🙂

Oh! Also: if you have any topic suggestions for me to cover — related to pop culture or politics (I’m great at the former, not nearly as well-versed at the latter) — leave them in the comments section here. I’m writing one post a day till Friday. I can’t guarantee I’ll get to any topic you may suggest, but it’d be really nice to hear from you.

In the meantime, watch the breathtaking Michaela DePrince perform this spot on impression of the way my heart feels right now:

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