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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.

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Baltimore The Rise of Charm City, Nonfiction, Race

Postcard from the Inside.

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

Dear Reader,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

P.S.

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

Stacia the Radio Producer (or the Cumulative, Collaborative Nature of Success).

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I’ve been waiting awhile to be able to announce this, but today I get to let you all know that for the next nine months (and hopefully beyond!), I’m going to be producing a radio show/podcast with Morgan State University’s radio station, WEAA FM 88.9, as part of AIR/Localore’s Finding America project.

Here’s how that happened, long version:

This month marks one year since I left my last full-time contract job and began to work as a freelance writer. A year was my self-imposed deadline. I knew freelance writing life, and I didn’t want that work to be my primary source of income any longer than was necessary. So I spent the entire year applying to full-time work, fellowships, residencies — anything I felt capable of doing well, anything that might lead to job security (such as that still exists). I went on a lot of interviews — mostly for editing and writing positions — and I enjoyed a great deal of learning opportunity this year. But nothing had resulted in full-time work. As I frequently disclose in my writing, as a parent, having full-time income is paramount — but so is being present for my daughter. I was pressuring myself to get an office job, because I thought that was the only way to feel financially secure and less panicked about the future, but I was also wary about the prospect, as I knew I’d be away from home far more than I wanted to be. I’ve been writing a lot for some incredible publications. But over the course of this gap year, no full-time employment had materialized.

As an artist, as someone who excels at just one art form/medium, making a living can be complex. It’s a lifelong riddle, really. I’m an English major with an MFA in creative writing who has been an online newsletter editor, a freelance writer, a weekly columnist, an adjunct instructor at four colleges, a community engagement fellow, an online community founder, a writing coach, a test curriculum writer, and a few other odds-and-ends position-fillers I can’t quite recall at the moment. I’ve always thought that I was my best self as a writer — and I still think that’s true. For every job I’ve ever done, I’ve drawn on my ability, experience, and intuition as a writer. It’s the only thing that all my positions have in common. I remind myself of this when I feel like a bit of a flake, transitioning from career to career and never finding solid enough footing. The desire either to create narratives or help others create them permeates everything I pursue — and, as through-lines go, I believe that’s a good one.

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In June, I applied for AIR’s Localore/Finding America project with that in mind. I had just returned from Thread at Yale, where I’d learned a lot about how to approach precisely this kind of storytelling. One of our lecturers there was Glynn Washington of Snap Judgment. Another was Catherine Burns, Artistic Director of The Moth. And my roommate during the conference, by fate, serendipity, and/or unearthly grace, was Nicole Taylor, creator of her own long-running podcast, Hot Grease. At the time, I was awestruck by all the audio storytellers’ origin stories (this kind of work lends itself well to mid-career transition), and Nicole had encouraged me to consider getting into podcasting. But it felt sort of beyond me, even as my interest in it spiked.

About three weeks after Thread, when I got an email encouraging me to apply for Localore/Finding America, it felt fairly auspicious. 2015 has been a year of big leaps for me, so taking one more seemed like a no-brainer.

When I apply for lofty, dreamlike opportunities, I do so without expectation. I tell myself, “I probably won’t get this,” and if/when I do, I worry about how to make it happen afterward. It’s the only way I can bring myself to go after gargantuan things, things that make my heart rate quicken and my knees buckle.

This is one of those things.

I found out I was a finalist in August. I found out I was part of one of the 13 teams selected in September. And now I get to tell you all about it.

Our project is called “Baltimore: The Rise of Charm City,” and it’ll be a biweekly half-hour radio show/podcast, airing on WEAA and available for online download. It’s an intergenerational project: one elder and one young person, or one family with generations steeped in a single Baltimore City neighborhood. We’ll ask them about places they’ve been and things they’ve experienced in this city, in order to draw connections between life in Baltimore decades ago and life here now. Baltimore is a city with a history of rising from ashes. With this show, we want to explore what that looks like on a personal level. And it’s also a place with innumerable charms, often secreted away or lost amid media coverage of its harrowing challenges. The nickname “Charm City” was coined in 1975 by ad execs and creative directors, under the hire of then-mayor William Donald Schaefer, who wanted to rehab Baltimore’s public image. There have been other nicknames and campaigns, The City That Reads and Baltimore: Believe among them. But Charm City is due for a real revival — and the biggest charms Baltimore has to offer are in the stories and personal histories of and relationships between its people.

We hope to capture both concepts: the resilience and the charm.

Our first episode will air in January 2016, so I’ll be promoting it more here and via social media and an as-yet-launched website/blog before the end of the year. Localore/Finding America ends in July, and we should produce 12 episodes between January and then. But “Baltimore: The Rise of Charm City” isn’t just about producing a radio show. It’s also about building stronger relationships between the people of Baltimore and the institutions that exist because of them. WEAA’s slogan is, “The Voice of the Community,” and we want this project to reinforce that in as many creative way as possible. So we’ll be visiting community meeting spaces to tell people all about this program and to and to encourage them to interact with us by answering fun storytelling prompts, Vine/Instagram videoing themselves for our website and following us on social media. We’ll also have a few larger-scale live events during the project’s duration.

So that’s the project.

I’m very excited about it, for myriad personal reasons. Chief among them: I’m developing an entirely new skill set. By the end of this, I’ll be able to do something that requires much more of me than a lot of my previous work has, especially in terms of performing introversion and being present for others. But I’ve been building toward it. Brick by brick, but unbeknown, I’ve been becoming someone capable of this.

This project allows me to marry my desire to serve, my ability to write, and my passion for compelling people to give something of themselves to the world through their own stories. In order for it to thrive, I have to expand the borders I’ve set for myself — only so much of me goes out, and only for a set time, and only under specific conditions — and become something… more. I’ll need to believe I’m capable of doing that (and I cannot begin to explain how difficult that will be for me). And I’ll need to accept that this life — one where work isn’t always stable, but art is — is my life. It doesn’t look like other thirtysomethings’ lives. It’s a little (or very, depending on which one of my loved ones is assessing it) unconventional, but I’m so fortunate to be living it, just this way, with so much support from so many people.

There’s nothing that can replace people believing in you and your ability to excel at things you’ve never tried — things that genuinely terrify you. And when we announced this project at noon today, I received so, so many messages of excitement, affirmation and expectation that I feel both pressure to succeed and confidence that I can. I am a person who draws on a great cloud of witnesses for that kind of motivation. If you’ve tweeted, emailed, texted, or messaged me at any point during my professional life, you can claim part of this and my previous successes. You really can, and I cannot thank you all enough.

With great humility and gratitude, we proceed.

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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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Appearances and Publications, Current Events, Nonfiction, Race

I’ve been writing about my beloved city. 

The dining hall that doubled as an overflow room at Freddie Gray’s funeral on Monday, New Shiloh Baptist Church

I wanted this post to be longer but in order to keep it timely, here’s a micro-post with links to all the writing I’ve been doing this week. I hope to do a more in-depth recap of this wild week in writing later. Until then:

  • I attended Freddie Gray’s funeral at New Shiloh Baptist on Monday — and left about 90 minutes before the riots broke out within blocks of the church.
  • Baltimore has had black commissioners and black mayors, off and on, since the early ’80s. It hasn’t done much to improve relationships between government and poor black citizens.
  • I’ve been glued to local news since Monday. Here’s why I’ve favored their coverage over MSNBC’s and (obviously) CNN’s.
  •  All Freddie Gray did to set in motion the fateful events that led to his death was look an officer in the eye. One chilling thing I learned writing this: running from police “unprovoked” is grounds for “reasonable suspicion” and subsequent arrest  — but only in “high-crime” (read “poor, predominantly black”) areas. When the Supreme Court ruled in favor of this, Justice Antonin Scalia used the following scripture as rationale: “The wicked flee when no man pursueth.” — Proberbs 28:1a.
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