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

The Racial Prism.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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