Audio, Current Events, hope chest, Nonfiction, Race

Hope Chest: Ep. 9

A version of this essay was adapted for my podcast, Hope Chest. You can listen to the audio version here.

Esperanza Spalding with Aaron Burnett at the Park Avenue Armory

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.

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Current Events, Nonfiction, Race

For Alton. For Philando. For All.

1.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.

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

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

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

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

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

3.

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

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There is no city in this country any safer or objectively “better” for a black family than another. This is true for many reasons and racial bias in police forces is just one. But we delude ourselves, don’t we, searching for someplace seemingly more progressive, some place where our breadwinners can find legitimate work — even with a criminal conviction, some home in a community where crime is rare but not so rare that we’ll be mistaken for breaking into our own front doors, should we ever misplace our keys. Some place where we can pull calmly over to receive a broken taillight citation and feel somewhat assured that, if we comply, we will not die.

We have always longed to live, and this country has long been ambivalent about that yearning. But we owe to Alton and Philando, we owe to ourselves and our children, what we have ever been owed: some semblance of life, the inordinate idea that, as long as we draw breath, that life can still improve. Against odds, in spite of history, alongside the omnipresent ache of injustice. We have always longed to live and we only can do so by reaching for one another, through melee and misty eyes, reach though our arms tremble with fear, adrenaline and rage, reach and fill the empty arcs of our own arms.

As in the bowels of ships, as in the segregated front-line trenches, as in the backs of paddywagons, the corners of one-room schoolhouses, along the chain gangs, outside governor’s mansions, on the curb where someone deeply loved was reminded of that love one last time, while bleeding out, reach for what will always find you. Us. All we will ever have for certain in this American life is us.

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