A version of this essay was adapted for my podcast, Hope Chest. You can listen to the audio version here.
On occasion, as an artist, you are called away, into a space where creatives make covenant to triage the wounds that the wider world inflicts and, by God, on each occasion, we bend a wormhole of communion, often in the whitest of spaces. We wake on idyllic farms, walk through refurbished armories, attend informal creative courses on the terraces of Moroccan hotels in Montparnasse.
We call out across the evening orientations, the communal lunches and dinners, the divining day’s-ends at the fire pits, and we find the face that could be our face: brown, framed in curls or faded, full-nosed, cleft-chinned, big-lipped, tight-fro’d, familiar.
Sometimes, as was the case this weekend, at the Black Artists Retreat on the upper east side of Manhattan, every face might as well be our own, every body may as well be our familiar. When we are this together, we are cocooning ourselves in each other’s silk, regenerating limbs we’ve lost, performing allegorical angioplasties on all of our ailing hearts.
The work, though no less rigorous, is easier then. We are moving with, rather than against, the convening’s current.
But then, other times, there may only be two of us. (Lord, please let there be at least two of us, striking our tuning forks till they find the reverberation of culture we have in common. Lord please let there be at least two of us, steadfast in our determination to ignore whatever aggressions may intrude.
(Aggressions almost always intrude.)
In those moments, when the convening is not designed to accommodate the full spectrum of our spectacular blackness, when the white husband of our writing instructor tells the four black participants in our five-person cohort, gathered along the Seine for a group photo, that we look too dark through the viewfinder, when he then later stage-whispers as we wait on line at the Musée D’Orsay that the Black woman. approaching us, fluent in French, is panhandling, rather than inquiring about the black models exhibit only we are excited to see…
When we look at each other and mutter under-breath: he got one more time and I ain’t gon’ be too many more ‘too darks…’
We understand that we are away from wherever we feel safest. We are swimming upstream, to the other shore, together, before it is time to return to the rude realities from which we sought this respite.
Either way, at the all-Black retreat or the historically, predominantly white one, we are supposed to be healing, or at least to be refreshing the dressings on each other wounds. And, either way, for a while, it is working — it has to be working, if only for the sacrifice, effort, and considerable endowment, involved in knitting us one to another over a number of transcendent days.
We are forgetting what sent us running here, the particulars of our stress, receding with each mindful breath and deep listening exercise. A day or so in, and our anxieties are finally beginning to quiet.
But then the knell.
That unmistakable clang that calls for us to mourn.
It sunders the silk we’ve wrapped ‘round one another. It lets fresh loss flow through.
Rarely has there been a retreat or residency where I have not heard it.
Kalief Browder died by suicide during the weekend I spent at Yale.
Just weeks before the week I when I drove my family down to Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies, Diamond Reynolds produced a living document of her lover Philando Castile’s killing.
A week before the Black Artists Retreat, I wrote of Joshua Brown, shot in the mouth and chest, after testifying on behalf of his neighbor Botham Jean, who died less than two months after our family residency on Ryder Farm.
I had not even begun to replenish what writing about Joshua wrung out of me, when I woke on the last morning I spent in Manhattan and read of another black neighbor, in a valiant attempt at communal care, called a non-emergency number, asking Dallas police to check on the young woman whose house, at 2 a.m., had peculiarly still-open doors. He cared, but the cop who shot her through her window in the third watch of night did not.
On Sunday morning, I carry Atatiana Jefferson’s name into the high halls of our Park Avenue Armory retreat and wonder who-all had heard it, who was healed enough from being here, to help me carry its weight.
Crying is an act of creation. Wailing in ways we never have before is an improvisational practice.
It is the work we can make by rote, the work none of us want to make but all of us have had to.
Every day someone new rephrased an old question: what could we, as Black artists, create if we never felt bound?
What would we make if we always felt free?
What would be possible if our creative process were never rooted in pain?
I willed my thoughts away, sent them forward toward a future too remote for me to access where I stood, even in this space that so readily offered that sort of portal.
I’ve a wayfaring imagination. But it kept quite close to home.
It took me toward the sound of 16-bits, echoing through a warm Black house, where a young Black auntie went to turn her own key and to set aside her worries, an eight-year-old’s sort of sanctuary where a young Black nephew could bend bedtime toward his whim, where, in a radical show of trust, a daring subconscious sense of safety, the locks were momentarily forgotten, the double doors left open as auntie and nephew noshed snacks and laughed hard and trash-talked, till they couldn’t tell whose win or loss would come.
Till they couldn’t sense how near an end they were.
Till their sound was more powerful than a policeman’s.