On Gloria Naylor and The Beautiful Darkness

When I was 16 or 17, I sometimes had the great privilege of riding with some of my high school classmates to author lectures at SUNY Albany. One of my favorite hobbies back then was attending readings, book signings and lectures. It was one thing to be obsessed with reading and writing, to escape in a world of words so frequently that the world sometimes startled me when I came back to earth. It was another to listen to writers, especially black women writers, share their experience in real life. Where I could see them and share with them my admiration.

So it was with Gloria Naylor, who I learned this week died recently at the age of 66. She was the brilliant author of The Women of Brewster Place, Mama Day and Bailey’s Cafe. It was the former two that gave shape to the dream I had to humanize black women and render their lives in a way that was as beautiful as what I experienced in daily life.

But when I met her, she did not tell me what other writers always did. Keep writing your heart out. Send your work everywhere. Write everyday. Instead she looked at me in her poised, regal way and said, “Wait until your thirties to publish.”

“Well, I decided when I was 12 that I wanted to be a writer,” I said in response. I am nothing if not stubborn.

“You will not know your voice until you are older,” she said. She wished me well, then got back to signing books for the crowd that had gathered around us.

The Beautiful Darkness: A Handbook for Orphans took me all of my twenties to get right, and still, I struggled with it as I entered my thirties. It was a memoir with a lot of different themes: running, stray cats. It was a memoir without a theme told from beginning to end, with no arc.

It was a memoir that many agents thought had potential and was beautifully written but ultimately they said they could not sell, or that I needed to fix and change to be more like name-the-hot-title. 

But there is nothing like watching the ones you love and admire most die while you try to find the best words to describe what their lives have meant to you. I no longer resent my resilience, but that doesn’t make it easier to live. 

I decided when my mother was diagnosed with Stage IV cervical cancer in 2011 that I would write one last version of our story. My sister and my friends, thankfully, reminded me that I was depriving people who needed to read it of something significant that could help them.

I was reading a memoir that described winter elsewhere in the world as the beautiful darkness. And I thought immediately that surviving what happens to us in life is just like that. It is hard to see the beauty in what threatens to destroy us, but those things are still beautiful.

I have, in the past 15 years, written much about being self-parented, caring for my mother through our challenges with homelessness, her mental illness and poverty. I learned more about compassion and forgiveness for myself and my mother — both orphans in some ways — than I ever expected to working on this book.

As it happens, Gloria Naylor turned out to be right. It is a book that I could not have fully written or told in my twenties the way that I can now. The Beautiful Darkness paperback will be released later this month. You can pre-order the Kindle Edition here.

All City: A Novella

All City Kindle Ready Front Cover

Little Ray knows the Bronx better than anyone. He has been a proud train operator for many years. But while the Bronx has always held memories of his mother, Gloria, and his daughter, Lorraine, it also reminds him of the pain of losing the love of his life.

Jasmine Castro was the woman of Little Ray’s dreams. Beautiful and brilliant, she wouldn’t let anyone define or control her. But Jasmine does end up being controlled by something: her addiction. Now the vibrant woman Little Ray fell in love with is hardly more than a ghost. Little Ray is determined to raise their daughter on his own.

When Lorraine meets the impulsive street artist Jason, who’s determined to go “all city” with his work, she has to make her own decisions about life and love.

In this ode to the romantics and artists of the world, Joshunda Sanders has crafted a beautiful testament to the power of family. You can buy it here.

On Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City


As unreliable as memory can be, some things never leave you. When my mother and I were locked out of apartments and houses when I was a little girl, I do not remember the times or the dates, but I remember loss. I remember my favorite pink bunny sweater, the one with miniature white bunnies with green sunglasses printed on the inside of the sleeves – trashed – along with the only picture of my brother Jose my mother had in her possession, my namesake, who died a year or so before I was born.

The blue house in Chester where I spent the first 6 years of my life with my mother and the street and the giant tree in the front yard have all stayed with me. I only remember that the water was shut off and we had to use the bathroom and kitchen sink at our neighbor Kim’s house, nothing more. The bank probably took that house, but I don’t know the details, then we moved to New York, to live with relatives.

Our first eviction was not the locked door on our own apartment, but a loving push into the winter by older relatives who could not care for a kid and her mentally ill mother in a building for old folks. So, we went to a shelter that would later be condemned, Roberto Clemente, an open gymnasium floor with cots side by side like the site of natural disaster. One morning, as I ate breakfast, a roach in my cereal made it impossible to keep eating.

We were evicted by strangers a year or so after that. It became such a regular occurrence that I remember feeling that God was ignoring our prayers, punishing us for something I couldn’t name. I also remember feeling that I had inherited what Matthew Desmond describes in his powerfully affecting book, Evicted, a “traumatic rejection” of myself and human dignity.

My things were inside of the apartments we were evicted from,  but they were no longer mine. If I could not belong to this place, this home, and I could not have my things, as few of them as there were, who was I? Why did I matter?

I have carried these questions around with me for more than three decades, trying to make sense of how difficult it is for me to be settled, to relax. To be able to put any kind of rejection in perspective instead of feeling the familiar overwhelming sadness that can overtake my spirit.

I remember the locations – Burnside Avenue, the lower East Side of Manhattan, Tiebout Avenue, Daly. There are a couple of displacements that I can’t recall. Over time, they have all accumulated into a single wound that has scabbed over. It is a wound that I sometimes look at, acknowledge and write about. I have picked at it over the years so it has not fully healed.

Reading this book was a way for me to bandage it, to give it the attention it has needed to stop haunting me. 

I read a lot about poverty, because I try to understand it from an intellectual distance. The feelings that it invokes in me make me nauseous, uncomfortable, drained. This is because extreme poverty is psychological assault. It is emotionally gutting and transformative is the worst ways. What Desmond captures in this seminal book explains perfectly that if we believe in fairness and extending human dignity to the poor where we have to start is looking at the importance and availability and affordability of housing.

He writes about families that are mostly black and poor though he does include whites. He writes about landlords in roach-infested apartments and houses where sinks are broken and conditions are filthy and sometimes dangerous; trailer park owners and managers who are largely apathetic about the ways in which they exploit the poor to make money. Desmond writes: 

Families have watched their incomes stagnate, or even fall, while their housing costs have soared. Today, the majority of poor renting families in America spend over half of their income on housing, and at least one in four dedicates over 70 percent to paying the rent and keeping the lights on. Millions of Americans are evicted every year because they can’t make rent.

Millions of Americans, though we don’t know how many millions because no one really ever studies or writes about eviction, was an astounding phrase to read at this age. That means that millions of Americans experience the shame that comes with not having enough for even a basic, fundamental need.

For decades, we’ve focused mainly on jobs, public assistance, parenting and mass incarceration. No one can deny the importance of these issues, but something fundamental is missing. We have failed to fully appreciate how deeply housing is implicated in the creation of poverty.

The thing about shame is that it is isolating. It feels like you are part of a targeted, afflicted minority. The shame invoked by poverty in particular does not feel widespread when you are experiencing it. So to read that millions are affected every year was a revelation. It helped me put the old pain of internalizing the trauma of eviction in perspective. To let that part of me die.

There were sections of the book that deepened my understanding of other things, too. Here’s another passage:

Larraine threw money away because she was poor…People like Larraine lived with so many compounded limitations that it was difficult to imagine the amount of good behavior or self-control that would allow them to lift themselves out of poverty. The distance between grinding poverty and even stable poverty could be so vast that those at the bottom had little hope of climbing out even if they pinched every penny. So they chose not to. Instead, they tried to survive in color, to season the suffering with pleasure. They would get a little high or have a drink or do a bit of gambling or acquire a television. They might buy lobster on food stamps. If Larraine spent her money unwisely, it was not because her benefits left her with so much but because they left her with so little.

It is one thing to understand our parents and to give them grace as we grow older for things that we previously did not understand the fullness of — slights, or things we were deprived of, or ways that they were short and stern with us when we needed them to be different. It’s another to see, through the lives of others, the full view of everything that they had to endure.

Reading the phrase “compounded limitations” made me pause and reflect on the limited evidence I used to judge my mother for the challenges she faced when I was growing up. That’s probably true for all kids, but I think I also failed to implicate poverty instead of or in addition to her bipolar and borderline personality disorders. I just didn’t understand the full spectrum of everything that she faced and had to cope with without medication and without a support system. I did not know about everything that we survived together.

Desmond’s book is an authentic achievement in several ways. He illuminates the face of deep, traumatic poverty with the deft ability of a gifted writer and a skilled ethnographer and sociologist. He does not try to ignore or apologize for white privilege and ways that it impacted his reporting, writing and research. He does not write with pity, but with respect. He is abundantly clear and honest and unequivocal about the importance of the problem over his own personal inconveniences or narratives or notions.

It is an approach that, to me, as an adult survivor of extreme poverty and eviction in childhood is deeply affirming, healing and moving. There are few accounts of poverty that I have read that explain the far reaching psychological effects of eviction and extreme poverty on one’s person. Here is how Desmond puts it:

Then there is the toll eviction takes on a person’s spirit. The violence of displacement can drive people to depression and, in extreme cases, even suicide. One in two recently evicted mothers reports multiple symptoms of clinical depression, double the rate of similar mothers who were not forced from their homes. Even after years pass, evicted mothers are less happy, energetic, and optimistic than their peers. When several patients committed suicide in the days leading up to their eviction, a group of psychiatrists published a letter in Psychiatric Services, identifying eviction as a ‘significant precursor of suicide.’ The letter emphasized that none of the patients were facing homelessness, leading the psychiatrists to attribute the suicides to eviction itself. ‘Eviction must be considered a traumatic rejection,’ they wrote, ‘a denial of one’s most basic human needs and an exquisitely shameful experience.’ Suicides attributed to evictions and foreclosures doubled between 2005 and 2010, years when housing costs soared.

And then this:

Eviction does not simply drop poor families into a dark valley, a trying yet relatively brief detour on life’s journey. It fundamentally redirects their way, casting them onto a different, and much more difficult, path. Eviction is a cause, not just a condition of poverty…Eviction affects the old and the young, the sick and able-bodied. But for poor women of color and their children, it has become ordinary. Walk into just about any urban housing court in America, and you can see them waiting on hard benches for their cases to be called. Among Milwaukee renters, over 1 in 5 black women report having been evicted in their adult life, compared with 1 in 12 Hispanic women and 1 in 15 white women.

That he acknowledges the importance of home in the construction of the self, in how we are in the world and connects the brokenness of our American housing system as a way that continues to keep black women and their children shut out of the personal edification that is essential to participation in public life is what moves me most.

I was heartbroken to see Martin Luther King Jr. quoted here, saying “Every condition exists simply because someone profits by its existence. This economic exploitation is crystallized in the slum.” Desmond expounds on this by reminding us that exploitation is a word “that has been scrubbed out of poverty debate.”

For the poor, he goes on to explain, grossly overpriced items like, say, Payday loans, are not for luxury but for the basics we need. Also, housing vouchers are currently overpriced simply because landlords are allowed to overcharge voucher holders. The nationwide Housing Choice Voucher Program likely costs “not millions but billions of dollars more than it should, resulting in the unnecessary denial of help to hundreds of thousands of families.”

What made me so nauseous reading the book was how easy it is to recognize that there are many ways to avoid the suffering of the poor and the deep psychological and economic despair that poverty inflicts on the poor. But we live in a society that is skilled at looking away and ignoring the problem. Because poverty does not affect the powerful. It is not a sexy cause. It does not impact every one of us equally so we choose not to care.

I was obsessed with this book as soon as I read the New York Times excerpt, although I didn’t know why. When I saw that Desmond was coming to Politics and Prose to give a reading, I took a Lyft from U Street to his standing room only reading on a Friday night. I was surprised that so many other people were in the room — it was a largely white audience. I am not a person who is given to participating in Q&A portions of public events, but I was compelled by the statistics that he laid out about the overwhelming majority of black women with children who he saw evicted in Milwaukee, the deep humanity of them that he witnessed over the course of writing the book and so much more that I had to thank him.

I said something like, “I wanted to thank you for writing this book. My mother and I were evicted a few times in the 1980s and 1990s in New York and it is very meaningful to hear you talk about what that experience is like in this way.” I had some questions about any information he may have had or read about the impact of eviction on children, and also what he thought the future of the research would be on homelessness in other cities.

Before he answered my questions, he thanked me for my strength and courage for mentioning my history in the room. A few people applauded, which also surprised me.

What I think I know now is that the process of eviction makes you feel worthless. It makes you feel like all attention is equal — the attention you get when all of your things are in garbage bags on the curb is just as uncomfortable as being applauded for enduring it without breaking down in the street. Then you realize that there are people like Desmond who see you. They acknowledge that you are not just a statistic, or a failure, or defined by your inability to afford to live like most people want to. That acknowledgment is a powerful affirmation that changing our broken American housing system is possible, even if change might be slow. 

Seeing the way to a solution sometimes takes as long as it does to really look at and heal an old wound.

Opening Gifts

There is almost nothing now that I want or need that I do not have. The gratitude I have for that is deepened and underscored by your absence.

During seasons like this I wonder what you would have made of abundance. I like to imagine that where you are you know what it is to revel, to be of good cheer, to adorn yourself with fine raiment and tinsel and reindeer antlers. I am hoping that there is some good Donny Hathaway playing, followed by Stevie Wonder since I know you favor sharp shifts in emotional altitude, for your spirit to slink then soar.  I know you are drinking egg nog, but I wonder what you’re spiking it with.

Three years to the day, I said goodbye to you and, for the last time, you corrected me. You wanted me to say See you later because you hated that word goodbye so much. I’m not much of a fan of it myself.

You are the person who knew me best in the world and that may never change. This is the year I let myself rest in the reality of that and surrendered the need to change for the sake of anyone else. You were such a good model, just like my sister, of self-possession and strength. I have no idea what took me so long.

It feels like so much time has passed since you left and, at the same time, like time only kept picking up speed. Since then, I discovered how hiding from myself and others prevents real love and joy from finding me. I learned that sometimes missing the chaotic parts of us makes me seek out insanity that I only tolerate as a placeholder for the memories we survived. Gradually and then, all at once, I remembered that my life goes on — or it can — if I let it. I realized that I do not have to suffer or tolerate because I know I can handle it. Strength is neither shield nor sponge. It is a pose and a position and mostly, a choice.

You know that saying about time healing all wounds? I don’t know if I believe it. I think time gives you space from what maimed your heart so that if you can’t keep yourself from being wounded again, at least you have perspective on how to grieve with honor, while loving and living. Love and loss are not mutually exclusive.

This was the year that all of the cheerleading you offered me reached a fever pitch in the back of my mind and played like an anthem in the background of my daily life. This was the year I heard all the things you tried to tell me. This was the year that I believed that I was worthy of the big, broad blanket of love for me you unfurled and let hang from your shoulders like a superhero as long as I tried to know you. This was the year that I understood that it is ok to just miss the reality of you and the tangible motherly things you shared: that laugh, that smile, the long unfiltered list of impossible dreams that you were always ready to recite like the rosary you cherished.

This is the year that I can finally wrap gifts again for the ones I love and listen to Christmas songs and sing along. The tears are willful and come when they want, but I don’t fight like I did before. I let the sadness in for tea and whatever comfort food I can find so that it can have some space to be. I learned, too, this year, that after awhile, sadness politely will excuse itself and leave me to my efforts to celebrate the season, whatever season it is or whatever the season wants to be. This, too, is a gift.

Another Season

I love the hibernation of winter and the renewal of spring. The only thing I really enjoy about summer is that fall is what follows – a season of harvest and brilliant color. So it seems fitting to consider that I’m moving into another season in my life that seems parallel to the promises of fall.

“The First-Person Industrial Complex” was the first essay I read that confirmed a shift in the nature of personal writing online that got me thinking about the frequency with which I used to write and publish more or less since the late 1990s:

First-person writing has long been the Internet’s native voice. As long as there have been bloggers, there have been young people scraping their interior lives in order to convert the rawest bits into copy. But we are currently in the midst of an unprecedented moment in the online first-person boom. The rise of the unreported hot take, that much-maligned instant spin on the news of the day, has meant that editors are constantly searching for writers with any claim to expertise on a topic to elevate their pieces above the swarm. First-person essays have become the easiest way for editors to stake out some small corner of a news story and assert an on-the-ground primacy without paying for reporting.

Laura Bennett goes on to write about the absence of self-awareness in the latest crop of personal essays and the marketing/commodification of sensational stories without regard for the impact such self-exposure has on mainly white women writers. It was once true, at least, that there was potential for an interesting, well-written story to become visible, find its audience and perhaps secure the interest of an agent. At the very least, writers and editors once said that the other side of one’s brand — the beloved platform — could expand with persistence, high quality work and consistency. But as my friend Stacia wrote in her excellent essay, “The Personal Essay Economy Offers Fewer Rewards for Black Women” at The New Republic:

Easy, daily access to writers’ most devastating experiences is decreasing the demand for full-length memoirs from the online personal essayist. But even when the stakes are lower and a writer is simply looking to raise her professional profile or earn extra money, personal essays aren’t always an advisable route. After a few days, discussion about those pieces wanes and after one bill payment, the money is a memory.

Taken together, these pieces were a codification of a season of transition for me that has stretched out over months and if I’m honest with myself, probably for more than a year. I love connecting with my audience, but I don’t want to do so in a way that feels compartmentalized or wedged into a news cycle.

There was a time when I needed to write about being a happy single woman in the face of an onslaught of media portrayals that made it seem like successful Black women would be #foreveralone, or to exclusively, daily, write and tell the stories of other people on deadline in order to inure myself to the discipline of getting to the page no matter what. And there was a time when I needed to dive deep into looking at the conversation or lack thereof of a diversity conversation  in the most important organ of democracy we have — the media — in order to place a coda on the profession that I so adored and loved. I have been incredibly blessed to make a living as a writer and to complete and publish two books on my own terms, without selling myself or anyone else out in the process.

After the media book was published, I found myself in desperate need of time to do anything but write. I had only experienced that a couple of times before, after a loss that wounded me so deeply I was afraid to write about it. Writing has been the main organizing principle in my universe for my entire life.

But I slipped into a different season partially from fatigue and partly out of choice. I wanted to catch up with my friends and attend to the parts of my life that I had long left in limbo. I wanted to read everything in sight that I had zero to do with journalism.

As a writer in these times, I feel often as though I am the awkward sixth grader I was in the Bronx when the girls got out the double dutch rope and I could hear the skipping of the hard plastic against the concrete ticking on a rhythm like a clock. I would make motions with my arm like I was about to jump in at any moment, but I was always out of sync with the rhythm. It was too fast for me, or it was too slow. Ultimately, the pace didn’t matter so much as the reality that I never found an easy way to glide between the ropes.

For as long as I can remember, I have followed James Baldwin’s advice about writing what I knew. It began with an essay to A Better Chance when I was in high school. I won an award for that essay which offered me affirmation to keep writing and aspiring to publication that I didn’t even know I needed. For more than 20 years, I have mined my personal experiences in order to bring more resonance to universal truths. Now it’s time for me to do a different kind of work.

This is not a goodbye post so much as it is my way of explaining the stretches of silence ahead. I will never stop being a writer or thinking like a writer, even though I no longer write for public consumption every day. Blogging and writing have been anchors for me as I continue to grieve my parents and heal from life’s adversities. I have benefited so much from knowing that my experiences are not as unusual or uncommon as I first thought and it has been my privilege to help make life a little easier for those who said they were inspired by my example.

I know I’ll be back to blog and write more at some point. During this season of my life, though, my intention is to read more, to devote myself to completely to my new job and to rediscover the joy of writing and connection that brought me to the page in the first place. I intend to speak at college campuses through my partnership with Bitch Media and offer writing/communications workshops, so you can connect with my work with Bitch on Campus here.

I’ve been told if you don’t have a Facebook Author Page, you don’t really exist, so please like my page. I’m also on Instagram. &  Pinterest. &, of course, Twitter.

Thank you for reading and responding to my work, to my presence, and for knowing my heart and sharing so much of this rich journey with me already. There will be more to come eventually. Until then, take good care of your heart. Enjoy all the seasons life offers you.

Book Update and DC Author Festival, October 24th

DC Author Festival GraphicSince How Racism and Sexism Killed Traditional Media: Why the Future of Journalism Depends on Women and People of Color was published at the end of August, life has been a bit hectic, but in the best way. After three years of working, moving, working, writing and researching the book, working, moving again, editing the book, I was too tired to plan a book party.

If this seems convenient, well, it was sort of. I decided to do something I haven’t done in 12 years. I took a vacation. It was glorious.

Thankfully, my colleagues with the Journalism and Women Symposium (JAWS) group in DC was kind enough to let me talk about the book and what I discovered while writing it at the National Press Club a few weeks ago. It was an honor to meet such an esteemed and lovely group of women and to match names with faces.

That said, while responses to my book have been overwhelmingly positive, there have been a few folks who 1. Question the premise of the title despite overwhelming evidence of the fact that media diversity has not been a priority and has led to a significant decline in relevant audiences caring about traditional news or paying for news consumption and 2. Are not hesitant about disagreeing with the sentiment, research or facts behind my argument. The defensiveness surprises me, given what we know about the sexism and racism that unfolds throughout our social media networks on a regular basis. But the fact that there is still resistance is all the more reason to continue to have discussions about how women and people of color can leverage social media to their advantage and how the few media conglomerates that are doing a better job with diverse coverage (The New York Times, for example) can set a good example for the digital and legacy outlets that still think it’s OK to remain predominantly white and male.

I was overjoyed that for a little while my book was one of the top new releases on Amazon within the first month that it was published. I’m sure my friends and family did that. I’ll be selling copies on Saturday, October 24th at the DC Author Festival at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library at 901 G Street NW from 10 until 5. There’s a great lineup of speakers and workshops – you can download the program booklet here.  Please come by, buy a copy and I’ll sign it for you. Or if you have a copy and you’d like me to sign it for you, that’ll work too.

My book, How Racism and Sexism Killed Traditional Media: Why the Future of Journalism Depends on Women and People of Color

BooksThis is a stack of my contributor copies for my new book, How Racism and Sexism Killed Traditional Media: Why the Future of Journalism Depends on Women and and People of Color. It’s scheduled to be published August 31.

I owe so much of the existence of this book to my mentors and colleagues in journalism, especially Dori Maynard, who I wish was alive to see the publication of a work that is built on the foundation of work that she and her father pioneered regarding media diversity.

Beyond that, I started writing this book in earnest the same year that my mother died. I needed to pour my heart into something that I cared passionately about, and in spite of myself, journalism and the journalism industry, with all of its potential and flaws, became part of that.

So now it is in physical form, after I have carried it around in my head and heart all this time, which I can’t imagine ever getting old for a writer, especially someone who has loved books and wanted to publish one for most of my life. I hope you’ll pick up a copy.

It’s at Amazon and ABC-CLIO.