Stolen Youth

Me as a little girl, sometime in the 1980s

June 25th should be Tamir Rice’s birthday, but he was killed in 2014 by police officers who thought he was grown, they said. I have read accounts that say the call to 911 was from someone who said she thought she saw an adult. He was 12.

Tamir’s mother held a Sweet Sixteen party for what would have been the beginning of his rite of passage into his becoming a young man. Black mothers, especially, have had to learn how to transform the dehumanizing separation of us from our children — permanently or temporarily —  into something less tragic for a long time.

Had Tamir survived, like Antwon Rose, like so many other of our children whose youth is taken from them, he would have had to battle for the rest of his life to overcome what health experts call Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES) or the kind of trauma that some children survive that shows up in mental and physical health problems that can last for the rest of their lives.

This heartbreaking story about a father separated from his 6-year-old daughter evoked in me the memory of being taken from my mother in the same way that Tamir’s death and the death of young black people often has. In my case, it was foster care, and probably necessary, because of neglect.

I was 5 when I was sent on a year-long journey through the homes of strangers in the Philly area. Around 6 years old when I was returned to her and we arrived in New York. I don’t remember much of that year, in part because I was young. I know that there are formative things that children learn from their parents that I did not — how to ride a bike, brushing my teeth twice a day, eating the right kind of foods in the right amounts — that year. I remember feeling as if the entire world was unsafe from the moment I was taken from my mother’s home and placed in a strange environment without any understanding of when — or if —  I could return.

I don’t think it’s the kind of thing you ever really recover from. It took me many years of therapy and incredible friends and faith to get even close to healing and I’m not all the way there.

No matter what happens now, the hundreds of children who were stolen from their parents have had their lives irreparably changed to prove one man’s political point.


But just like it’s a privilege to grow old and to grow up, it’s also a privilege to have the humanity extended to you to be allowed to be a child. When the humanity of children is recognized, we protect them. We show them that the world is safe for them to grow in, that we will give them room to be and flourish, that they will not have to live in spite of their wounds, they will not have to begin their lives by overcoming the traumas of their beginnings.

The hardest stretch of time, after all, is between when we are young and when we find out who we are supposed to become, if we ever get a chance to get to the latter or if we ever get to be the former.



My 2004 interview with Octavia Butler

“I’m black. I’m solitary. I’ve always been an outsider.”

This is how Octavia Butler described herself, the first self-possessed Black woman writer introvert, I had the honor of writing about for publication. Actually interviewing her was one of the great honors of my life, two years before her death in 2006. I wonder what she would have made of this beautiful Google Doodle, which I was delightfully surprised to see this morning before I went to sleep.


I was 26 when I interviewed her and Octavia Butler was the first person of consequence who was meaningful to the culture that I would interview. That year, I would also meet my mentor, and interview other influential Black women writers and scholars who inspired me to keep writing, even if they may not have been aware that’s what they were doing in the moment.

What I found most delightful about Octavia Butler was how unimpressed she was with herself and her habits. She had so many gifts that she shared with us, and so much wisdom. Our elders can see ahead on the path, can keep us from making mistakes we don’t need to.

I’ll always be so grateful for how generously kind she was with me, even though I was so clearly new at interviewing writers. I greatly respected how she wove stories even when she was talking about the most mundane things – we were discussing her first visit to New York, for instance, when she described the stamina you need to do something physical as akin to the writing life: “I think climbing mountains or buildings or whatever has been a really good metaphor for finishing my work. Because no matter how tired you get, no matter how you feel like you can’t possibly do this, somehow you do.”

Even if our culture only values what we can see at this moment, what they offer us is information about coping with the hard things in life – in the past, in what they imagined the future to be – that can tell us much more than any anxiety might be able to.

Here’s the whole interview, as republished by In Motion Magazine from

Interview with Octavia Butler

“… one of the few African American women writing
in the male-dominated science fiction genre”

by Joshunda Sanders
Oakland, California

Octavia Butler is one of the few African American women writing in the male-dominated science fiction genre. The worlds she creates with her pen are groundbreaking, powerful multicultural revisions of history; sometimes frightening and complex visions of the future. The author of twelve books and an award-winning collection of short stories, Butler was also the recipient of an esteemed MacArthur Fellowship grant in 1995 — the only science fiction writer on a list of more than 600 names in the last 20 years. She’s also won the most esteemed awards in the genre: the Hugo and Nebula wards for her books and short stories.

While she has referred to herself simply by saying, “I’m black. I’m solitary. I’ve always been an outsider,” Butler, 56, manages to render the emotional lives of her characters like an insider. It is a talent that she attributes to her life’s journey — she challenges her readers to confront themselves in spite of their circumstances and often, because of them.

The only living child of a shoeshine man and a maid who grew up a bookworm and loner in Pasadena, California has crafted the universe according to Octavia Estelle Butler since she was four; though she didn’t start making a living at it until she was older. Before she embarked on a professional writing career, she took writing classes, did odd jobs — from telemarketing to sorting potato chips — before she sold her first novel, Patternmaster, in 1976. Currently, she is on tour, celebrating the 25th Anniversary of the publication of Kindred — the story of a modern day woman who is transported back to the antebellum South to save her white ancestor. Her most recent works, two short stories entitled “The Book of Martha” and “Amnesty,” are online at

Joshunda Sanders: You grew up in Pasadena, California? What made you want to move to Seattle?

Octavia Butler: I went to Seattle for the first time in 1976. My first novel was published then, and that meant that I could take my first vacation. I got on a Greyhound bus and took a Greyhound Ameripass tour, which means that for a month I could go wherever I wanted to on Greyhound. There were a lot more buses then, so it was nice. Now I’m not sure it would be, because they get into so many places in the middle of the night and they leave in the middle of the night. So, it’s kind of inconvenient. But anyway, I went to Seattle, among other places. I went first to New York, because I’d never been there and I wanted to go.

Joshunda Sanders: What’d you think of New York?

Octavia Butler: I had a great time there. I met this West Indian woman, we were both going to the Statue of Liberty. She was wearing these thick-soled sandals, really uncomfortable shoes. We were both going to go to the top of the Empire State Building. Now, with me, my only excuse is that I’m not in shape, and wasn’t then. And with her, it was her feet. We’d encourage each other back and forth going to the top. And finally made it.

I think climbing mountains or buildings or whatever has been a really good metaphor for finishing my work. Because no matter how tired you get, no matter how you feel like you can’t possibly do this, somehow you do.

I hiked down not quite to the bottom of the Grand Canyon because I only had that one day, it was part of the same trip. I discovered that I didn’t really like going to cities, so I went to National Parks. And I hiked almost to the bottom and I realized that the bus was going to leave me if I didn’t get myself back up. Now it’s easy going down, but coming back up…and I did it c ompletely unprepared. So, I didn’t have any water… this is not sensible and I don’t think anyone should do it. I didn’t have anything except maybe some candies like this [she holds up a peppermint candy] because they tend to live at the bottom of my bag. And I kept thinking, “How embarrassing, and how humiliating it would be if somebody had to come get me.” I mean, it really hurts to walk that much if you’re out of shape and not used to it.

Joshunda Sanders: Why did you think you could do it?

Octavia Butler: It never occurred to me. I didn’t know what I was doing. I mean, it was a totally silly thing to do. And I kept trying and I would push myself. Part way down and part way back the only water was when it began to rain. And then it began to rain sideways and it plastered mud all down the front of my body. But I got back up on my on two feet, which really hurt by the time I got back up. And it’s sort of like writing.

When I went to Peru, I climbed Huayna Picchu, the taller of the two peaks you see when you see Machu Picchu. It’s an easy climb for anyone who is okay, you know. I mean, even if you’re not in very good shape. But I managed to hurt my knee hiking. I kept saying, this is high enough, this is high enough, why don’t I go back down? I got all the way to the top, crawled through the little cave and got to the top of the mountain and came back down. That’s what I mean. It’s a good metaphor for writing, because there will always come a time in writing a novel for instance, a long undertaking like that, when you don’t think you can do it. Or, you think it’s so bad you want to throw it away. I tell the students that there comes a time when you want to either burn it or flush it. But if you keep going, you know, that’s what makes you a writer instead of an “I wish I was a writer.”

I had a dentist when I was down in Pasadena and he knew I wrote and I had given him a couple of my books. And his attitude then was, “Well, writing is so easy even she can do it, so I’ll do some writing.” And he wrote the most appalling piece of…well. Truly bad. And he gave it to me to read. And I should have said, well, for legal reasons I don’t want to read your work, but I did him a favor and read his work. But what I had to say about it, as gently as I could say it, was, “Let this be an exercise, go take a class, here are some of the problems you might want to work on.” Very gently. But I never really wanted to let him at me with a drill again after that. So it cost me a dentist. But that was his attitude, you know, if I was doing it, it must be easy and anybody could do it.

Joshunda Sanders: A lot of people have that attitude about writing, but one of the things that strikes me about your work in particular is that it’s so complex that I don’t understand how people could come to you with that sort of cavalier attitude.

Octavia Butler: I don’t think they see it that way. I think their attitude has more to do with me than with the work. Just me, as a black, as a woman, or as a woman who doesn’t look as though she could do anything terribly complex.

Joshunda Sanders: That doesn’t frustrate you?

Octavia Butler: Oh, I’m doing okay.

Joshunda Sanders: What is it that fascinates you about books?

Octavia Butler: My big problem is my mother gave me this gene — there must be a gene for it, or several perhaps. It’s the pack rat gene, you know, where you just don’t throw things out. I haven’t thrown books out since I was a kid. I gave some books away when I was a little girl. My mother said I could give some to the Salvation Army. I gave some to a friend, and her brothers and sisters tore them bits. That was the last time I gave books away in large amounts. I just keep stuff. I still have books from childhood.

Joshunda Sanders: That’s a blessing.

Octavia Butler: It comforts me. I imagine when I’m dead someone will have a huge yard sale or estate sale and I don’t care! Some of them are worth something. Even my comic books — I have first editions of this and that, the first issue of the Fantastic Four. I used to collect them, not in the way that people collect things now. I didn’t put them in plastic bags and never touch them. I read them and they looked pretty bad, some of them. But they’re still worth something just because they are what they are.

Joshunda Sanders: How has your childhood affected your work?

Octavia Butler: I think writers use absolutely everything that happens to us, and surely if I had had a different sort of childhood and still come out a writer, I’d be a different kind of writer. It’s on a par with, but different from, the fact that I had four brothers who were born and died before I was born. Some of them didn’t come to term, some of them did come to term and then died. But my mother couldn’t carry a child to term, for the most part something went wrong. If they had lived, I would be a very different person. So, anything that happens in your life that is important, if it didn’t happen you would be someone different.

Joshunda Sanders: People attach a lot of titles to you –

Octavia Butler: Please don’t call me the grand dame. Someone said it in Essence and it stuck.

Joshunda Sanders: You’re annoyed by it?

Octavia Butler: Well, it’s another word for grandmother! I’m certainly old enough to be someone’s grandmother, but I’m not.

Joshunda Sanders: What about the science fiction or speculative fiction titles attached to your work?

Octavia Butler: Really, it doesn’t matter. A good story is a good story. If what I’m writing reaches you, then it reaches you no matter what title is stuck on it. The titles are mainly so that you’ll know where to look in the library, or as a marketing title, know where to put it in the bookstore so booksellers know how to sell it. It has very little to do with actual writing.

Joshunda Sanders: Have you found that it intimidates African Americans, in particular?

Octavia Butler: No. I think people have made up their minds that they don’t like science fiction because they’ve made up their minds that they know what science fiction is. And they have a very limited notion of what it is. I used to say science fiction and black people are judged by their worst elements. And it’s sadly enough still true. People think, “Oh, science fiction, Star Wars. I don’t like that.” And they don’t want to read what I’ve written because they don’t like Star Wars. Then again, you get the other kind who do want to read what I’ve written because they like Star Wars and they think that must be what I’m doing. In both cases they’re going to be disappointed. That’s the worst thing about verbal shorthand. All too often, it’s an excuse not to do something, more often than it’s a reason for doing something.

There isn’t any subject you can’t tackle by way of science fiction. And probably there isn’t any subject that somebody hasn’t tackled at one time or another. You don’t have the formulas that you might have for a mystery, or even a romance. It’s completely wide open. If you’re going to write science fiction, that means you’re using science and you’ll need to use it accurately. At least speculate in ways that make sense, you know. If you’re not using science, what you’re probably writing is fantasy, I mean if it’s still odd. Some species of fantasy…people tend to think fantasy, oh Tolkien, but Kindred is fantasy because there’s no science. With fantasy, all you have to do is follow the rules that you’ve created.

Joshunda Sanders: There are so many parts of the Parables, for instance, that seem to echo what’s happening in the world right now.

Octavia Butler: Keep in mind that when I wrote them, Bush wasn’t president. Clinton had yet to be reelected. When I wrote them the time was very different. I was trying not to prophesize. Matter of fact, I was trying to give warning.

One of the kinds of research I did was to read a lot of stuff about World War II. Not the war itself, but I wanted to know in particular how a country goes fascist. So, I have this country, in Parable of the Sower, and especially Parable of the Talents, sliding in that direction. And I really was not trying to prophesize that somehow we would do that but…

Joshunda Sanders: Is it jarring to you, with the new mission to Mars and such?

Octavia Butler: Oh, no, I don’t see any reason to pay attention to that. I don’t think Bush is any more serious about Mars than he was about getting rid of some of our emissions in the atmosphere. It’s just something he said and probably forgot it a moment later. Or will eventually. Because, after all, it’s not something that’s supposed to happen while he’s still in office. It can’t. So I don’t think we need to really pay any attention to that.

Joshunda Sanders: You came of age when there was an actual space race, but my generation is a little removed from that.

Octavia Butler: I think of the space race as a way of having a nuclear war without having one. I mean that literally. We had a competition with the USSR and from that competition came a lot of good technical fallout. We learned a lot of things we hadn’t know before, even things that apply to weapons systems and yet we didn’t wipe each other out. I mean, there were people who thought a nuclear war would be a cool idea. During the early part of the Reagan era, there were people who thought we could win a nuclear war and rid ourselves of the Soviet Empire. I thought they were nuts, but they were there. And Reagan got into office in spite of the fact that he thought a nuclear war was winnable.

Joshunda Sanders: That’s heavy stuff.

Octavia Butler: I got my idea for the Xenogenesis books (Dawn, Adulthood Rites and Imago) from Ronald Reagan because he was advocating this kind of thing. I thought there must be something basic, something really genetically wrong with us if we’re falling for this stuff. And I came up with these characteristics. The aliens arrive after the war and they tell us that we have these two characteristics that don’t work and play well together. They are intelligent, and they tell us we’re the most intelligent species they’ve come across. But we’re also hierarchical. And I put this after the big war because it’s kind of an example. We’ve one-upped ourselves to death, just our tendency to one-up each other as individuals and groups, large and small.

It has a greater consequence if you combine it with intelligence. If what you have is two elk fighting over who’s going to make the food, I mean, the consequences to them…but if you’re going to have somebody sending people off to war for egotistical or economic reasons, both hierarchal sorts of reasons, you end up with a lot more dead people. When you’re throwing nuclear weapons in the pie, which is what we were doing back then, you end up with more dead people than any war before. It could have been very bad.

Joshunda Sanders: Do some of your ideas disturb you or keep you up at night?

Octavia Butler: A lot of the ones in the Parables, of course, did. Like I said, they weren’t things that I wanted to happen. Kindred was a difficult book to write because of the research I had to do. The slave narratives, the histories in general — I read books written by the wives of plantation owners, at the LA Public Library. Unfortunately, a few years after that, somebody torched it. Some of the books I used to write Wild Seed and Kindred, they would have been one copy in the library and now they’re gone.

Joshunda Sanders: Why do you think Kindred has been one of your more popular works?

Octavia Butler: Because it’s accessible to a number of audience: black studies, oh, I guess I have to modify my vocabulary here — African American studies, women’s studies and science fiction. It sometimes reaches people who might not otherwise read that kind of book, who might not read a history, a historical novel even about that period unless it was a Gone With the Wind type.

[With Kindred] I chose the time I was living in. I thought it was interesting to start at the bicentennial and the country’s 200 years old and the country’s still dealing with racial problems, and here’s my character having to deal with slavery all of a sudden. If I had written the book now, it probably wouldn’t be very different. What I was trying to do is make the time real, I wanted to take them back into it. The idea was always to make that time emotionally real to people. And that’s still what it’s about. The nice thing is that it is read in schools. Every now and then I hear about younger kids reading it and I wonder how they relate to it. All too often, especially young men, will feel, “Oh, if it was me, I would just…” and they have some simple solution that wouldn’t work at all and would probably get them killed. Because they don’t really understand how serious it is when the whole society is literally arrayed against you and arrayed to really keep you in your place. If you get seriously out of line, they will kill you because they fear you.

Kindred was kind of draining and depressing, especially the research for writing it. I now have a talk that begins with the question, “How long does it take to write a novel?” and the answer is, as long as you’ve lived up to the time you sit down to write the novel and then some. I got the idea for it in college. But a lot of my reason for writing it came when I was in preschool, when my mother used to take me to work with her.

I got to see her not hearing insults and going in back doors, and even though I was a little kid, I realized it was humiliating. I knew something was wrong, it was unpleasant, it was bad. I remember saying to her a little later, at seven or eight, “I’ll never do what you do, what you do is terrible.” And she just got this sad look on her face and didn’t say anything. I think it was the look and the memory of the indignities she endured. I just remembered that and wanted to convey that people who underwent all this were not cowards, were not people who were just too pathetic to protect themselves, but were heroes because they were using what they had to help their kids get a little further. She knew what it was to be hungry, she was a young woman during the Depression; she was taken out of school when she was ten. There were times when there was no food, there were times when they were scrambling to put a roof over their heads. I never had to worry about any of that. We never went hungry, we never went homeless. I got to go to college and she didn’t even get to finish elementary school. All that because she was willing to put up with this nonsense and try to help me. I wanted to convey some of that and not have it look as though these people were deficient because they weren’t fighting. They were fighting, they just weren’t fighting with fists, which is sometimes easy and pointless. The quick and dirty solution is often the one that’s most admired until you have to live with the results.

Joshunda Sanders: So I hear you’re working on a book about a vampire?

Octavia Butler: It’s sort of like my Wild Seed for this time in my life. I wrote Wild Seed as my reward for having written Kindred. I wrote the two Parable books and I was trying to write a third, and I wasn’t getting anything worthwhile done. To me, writer’s block doesn’t mean that I can’t write — it just means that what I’m writing is not worth anything and that writing it is difficult and unpleasant. And then, for some reason I got hold of a Vampire story and it was a lot of fun, I really enjoyed it. And after awhile, I found myself writing one. It’s a novel, I’m enjoying it and I hope other people will, too.

Joshunda Sanders: Where do you get your ideas?

Octavia Butler: When I got the idea for Patternmaster, I was twelve, but I had no idea how to write a novel. I tried, but it was quite a few years before I was able to write it. When I got the idea for Mind of My Mind, I was 15. When I got the idea for Survivor, I was 19. Finally, when I got the idea forKindred, I was in college. My ideas generally come from what’s going on around me. But sometimes they come from other novels. For instance, when I wrote Patternmaster, I included these people called the Clay Arks and they were just kind of throwaway people, but I didn’t like them as throwaway people and I wanted to know more about them. So I wrote Clay’s Ark. And learned about them as I went along. Sometimes a book will seem like one book and turn into two or three, which happened with the Xenogenesis books.

Sometimes I hear from people who want to write and [they ask] what should they do? The first thing I want to know from them is, are they writing? Are they writing every day? And a remarkable number of them are not. Do they read omnivorously, because that’s not only a source of ideas, but a way to learn to write, to see what other people have been up to. I recommend that they take classes because it’s a great way to rent an audience and make sure you’re communicating what you think you’re communicating, which is not always the case, and I recommend that they forget a couple of things. Forget about talent. I recommend that they go to the bestselling lists and see who else doesn’t have talent and it hasn’t stopped them, so don’t worry. Forget about inspiration, because it’s more likely to be a reason not to write, as in, “I can’t write today because I’m not inspired.” I tell them I used to live next to my landlady and I told everybody she inspired me. And the most valuable characteristic any would-be writer can possibly have is persistence. Just keep at it, keep learning your craft and keep trying.

Published in In Motion Magazine March 14, 2004

First published in ( February 24, 2004. Africana content © Copyright 1999-2003 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved to media owners. Re-published with permission.

If they come for you in the morning

Some of us, white and black, know how great a price has already been paid to bring into existence a new consciousness, a new people, an unprecedented nation. If we know, and do nothing, we are worse than the murderers hired in our name.

If we know, then we must fight for your life as though it were our own—which it is—and render impassable with our bodies the corridor to the gas chamber. For, if they take you in the morning, they will be coming for us that night. — An Open Letter to My Sister, Miss Angela Davis, November 19, 1970

There are a couple of great lies about history that we tell ourselves as Americans these days.

One of them is that when something horrific happens — like the imprisonment of infants at our borders, the separation of children from their families, the cruel and barbaric implementation of white supremacist policy without proper process — that it’s the horrific manifestation of the work of a singular evil person’s vision.

But what we know is that history repeats itself. On American shores.

Black and brown children have been caged in this country for many years, have been separated from their families and sold. Native American children, too. These things are often called something different, the process and systems sometimes less extreme and more subtle. These things happen over time — through mass incarceration systems and through broken foster care systems. But they happen here. Disproportionately to black, brown and poor children. Every day.

They have happened, before. After Pearl Harbor.

Last night, I was thinking about this — I’ve been so busy and also trying to protect myself from the trauma that I didn’t read Laura Bush’s take that included the mention of Japanese internment camps — but even before that, I thought about writing in Seattle, after Sept. 11th, and talking to people there about the possibilities of internment camps returning to the U.S. again — this time for Muslim Americans.

In Foreign Policy, (where the image and caption first appeared) George Takei writes an astounding passage about his family’s experience in internment camps:

At least during the internment, when I was just 5 years old, I was not taken from my parents. My family was sent to a racetrack for several weeks to live in a horse stall, but at least we had each other. At least during the internment, my parents were able to place themselves between the horror of what we were facing and my own childish understanding of our circumstances. They told us we were “going on a vacation to live with the horsies.” And when we got to Rohwer camp, they again put themselves between us and the horror, so that we would never fully appreciate the grim reality of the mosquito-infested swamp into which we had been thrown.

Left: A Japanese-American woman holds her sleeping daughter as they prepare to leave their home for an internment camp in 1942. 
Right: Japanese-Americans interned at the Santa Anita Assembly Center at the Santa Anita racetrack near Los Angeles in 1942. (Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images/Foreign Policy illustration)

Left: A Japanese-American woman holds her sleeping daughter as they prepare to leave their home for an internment camp in 1942. Right: Japanese-Americans interned at the Santa Anita Assembly Center at the Santa Anita racetrack near Los Angeles in 1942. (Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG via Getty Images/Foreign Policy illustration)

What is different now is that we can hear the cries of anguished children, and as our country becomes more authoritarian, see only a few images. So most of us can only imagine what journalists are describing, really. I feel a similar despair and rage that I witnessed Rachel Maddow displaying on my timeline last night. It’s hard to know what to do when there’s already so much that it feels like needs to be corrected and done.

Thankfully, there are a lot of committed people who are sharing resources for how to help if you are able to donate, spread the word via social media or more. Today also happens to be World Refugee Day, and there are a record number of people around the world who are displaced. I hope we remember that what happens to others happens to us, and if they take others in the morning, they’ll be coming for us later on.

The truest thing about American history is that it repeats itself.

Below is a list of suggested actions from one of the list-servs I’m on from when I served in the Obama Administration. Help if you can.


Urge Members of Congress to use Congress’ oversight authority to stop separating families and to VOTE DOWN the two anti-immigrant bills moving through the House this week.

The House is expected to vote on two anti-immigrant bills on Thursday, June 21st: one proposed by Rep. Goodlatte and another proposed by Speaker Ryan. Neither bill addresses the administration’s policy of separating families, and neither bill fixes the administration’s decision to end DACA.

On the two anti-immigrant bills:

Please speak out publicly against the Ryan bill and Goodlatte bill in advance of the vote. Statements are particularly needed on Tuesday, June 19th.

United We Dream’s call tool opposing both the Goodlatte bill and Ryan bill: 844-505-3769 directs calls to target House moderates; when folks call the line, they will hear a recording directing them on asks.

Sample script:

  • Oppose Speaker Ryan’s bill, the Border Security and Immigration Reform Act of 2018. The bill hurts immigrant families and communities more than it helps them and damages the moral credibility of the United States by worsening the family separation crisis occurring on the border
  • This Bill Will Worsen the Family Separation Crisis at the Border. Nothing in the bill prevents the Trump administration from taking children away from their parents, despite claims to the contrary. The current mass separations are a matter of policy – not law – and this bill does not compel the administration to change its policy. Not only does it not solve this abhorrent, manufactured crisis, it actually puts children in more danger by stripping away decades of bipartisan protections. The current crisis began with the Trump administration and can only end with action from the Trump administration itself.
  • Sample Vote Recommendation on the Ryan Bill


Additional resources from the Immigration Hub:

Analysis/Summary of the Ryan Bill

Fact Sheet: Ryan’s “Compromise” Bill Does NOT End Family Separation


On family separation:

  • Ask Members to urge the administration to end the policy of forcibly separating families, particularly by weighing in on social media.
  • Ask Members to also push for President Trump, DHS Secretary Nielsen, and Attorney General Sessions to end the practice of separating and jailing families via letters, appropriations requirements, and Congressional hearings.
  • The ACLU has a call tool specifically for Senators; the American Immigration Lawyers Association (AILA) has a call tool that directs calls, tweets, facebook posts, and emails to all Members of Congress.

In addition, this is a summary of draft bills in the Senate to protect immigrant families that need Republican support:

(S. 2468) The Fair Day In Court for Kids Act.

A bill to provide access to counsel for unaccompanied alien children. You can find the full text here. This is important because every day the U.S. government brings children into immigration court where they are forced to defend themselves without counsel. As a result, thousands of children, some as young as 3-and 4-years-old, are ordered deported without legal representation. Here is the fact sheet from the ACLU.

Please make sure your senators are supporting it here.

(S.2937) The HELP Separated Children Act (Humane Enforcement and Legal Protections for Separated Children Act)

  • This is sponsored by Senator Smith in the Senate and Representative Roybal-Allard in the House. Full text here and list of supporters here.
  • Make sure your Senators AND house members support it.

(S.3036) The Keep Families Together Act

Sponsored by Senator Feinstein. This would define when children can be separated from their parents. Full text here and list of supporters here.

Please make sure both your senators support it.


They are some of the best story-tellers of the border region and they are also taking donations for families sleeping outside of ports of entry in extreme heat. They need Diapers, Underwear, Bras, Baby wipes, etc.…/take-action-help-asylum-seekers-at-t…/

One of the most powerful & inspirational organizations is ‪@LUPE_rgv. If you want to help people power grow in this region donate here:…/contribute/transact…

We can create more accountability if immigrant-supporting civil rights impact litigators have the resources they need to try to intervene in this process in as many ways as possible. One TX based organization doing amazing work is TXCivilRights. They need help to cover more proceedings in more courthouses so that litigators trying to stop this have a better sense as to what is happening as this process lacks transparency across the board. You can donate here:

Once parents are separated and prosecuted some move back over into DHS custody and get moved around to other detention centers. This is where having more lawyers who work inside detention centers to help figure out how to get these parents back w/ their kids is important. RAICES has a bond fund to help reunited families and fight their cases from the outside. You can support that bond fund here:…&

You can clean your closet & supply cabinets and clothing donations to Catholic Charities RGV’s shelter for refugees. People arrive with nothing and this place helps clean, feed and clothe them.
Here is a list of items needed:
• Toiletries for men and women (deodorant, toothpaste, toothbrushes, combs, etc.)
• Shoes (sandals, tennis shoes, loafers, etc.) for men, women, children and infants of all sizes
• Clothes (pants, t-shirts, blouses, underclothing, etc.) for children and adults of all sizes
• Baby supplies for toddlers (Pampers, baby wipes, baby bottles, etc.)
• Sealed snack food (granola bars, chips, peanut butter & cheese crackers, etc.)
• Gift cards to purchase food items
• Phone cards
• Plastic bags for families to pack sandwiches, snacks, and water for their trip
And a link to their Amazon wish list:…/ref=cm_sw_r_sms_awwl_xs_RAajBbYZT9…


The Florence Project legal and social services for immigrant families

Kids in Need of Defense (KIND) provides legal assistance to minors

National Immigrant Justice Center, the NIJC is asking for donations to provide legal representation to parents in IL.
Everything said about Texas is needed everywhere else right now, so check out ‪ plug in your zip code find out what organizations are near you and help by volunteering there!
For those interested in helping the children and families separated by the recent raid in Sandusky Ohio, advocates for Basic Legal Equality (ABLE) has multiple opportunities to help:…/advocates-for-basic-legal-equa…/


If you are a lawyer, you can sign up to provide pro-bono services here:

You can also volunteer at Sacred Heart Church, NETA, ProBAR, and the Texas Civil Rights Project listed above if you are in TX or willing to travel there.

You can also refer to the Families Belong Together Guide on How to Help for details about different actions around the country, including the June 30 demonstration outside the White House.

Continue speaking out on social media to raise awareness about the administration’s cruel policy.

Sample tweets can be found here.


Coping with Father’s Day as a Suicide Survivor in 2018

I self-published my memoir The Beautiful Darkness: A Handbook for Orphans in October 2016 after spending more than 20 years working on one version of the story or another. The book’s name comes from two sources.

The concept of being an orphan, particular in the Black community, may seem jarring. We are, after all, known for taking care of one another even when we’re messy.

But even before my parents died – my father by suicide in 2010, my mother from cervical cancer in 2012 – I had been orphaned by them in many ways, largely because of untreated mental illness.

In Mira Bartok’s The Memory Palace, she wrote:

The Sami call the period from mid-November to mid-January the Dark Time, or Skabma Dalvi — the Beautiful Darkness. Most of the day, the sky is a deep indigo blue, even in the morning. It is so hard to know when to wake up, when to work, when to eat a meal.

The phrase the Beautiful Darkness stayed with me for a number of reasons: I’m a winter baby; I prefer cold weather to warm; I last saw my mother alive and forgave her for our hard times together during this time and it was the season in which she also made her transition.

The Beautiful Darkness, for me, is also a way of thinking about grief that has been helpful. It’s a time that can be disorienting in the way that Bartok describes, so that you feel lost. This can also be a gift, a way of learning new way.

These days, this season reminds me that we learn these things in order to share them.

Continue reading “Coping with Father’s Day as a Suicide Survivor in 2018”

The alarming inclusion gap between film critics & audiences

In case you wondered if we were making any progress on media diversity in entertainment criticism as storytellers, directors and actors of color in Hollywood start investing in a wider range of stories, the answer is no, according to a new USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative report.

White critics authored 82% of reviews whereas critics from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups authored 18%. This point statistic is substantially below (-20.7 percentage points) U.S. Census, where individuals from underrepresented groups clock in at 38.7% of the population.

Looking at reviews through an intersectional lens, White male critics wrote substantially more reviews (63.9%) than their White female (18.1%) or underrepresented male (13.8%) peers. Underrepresented female critics only wrote 4.1% of the sample. The ratio of White women’s reviews to those of their underrepresented female counterparts was 4.4 to 1.

I wrote about this in my book in 2015, but it bears repeating: Diversity is a business imperative, not a moral imperative. It’s not just “nice to have,” it’s important to keep your business profitable.

I seek out the work of Wesley Morris and Hilton Als and Doreen St. Felix because they are talented writers and reporters and because I know they understand my worldview as well as the aesthetics and aspirations of the world builders who are working to center Black narratives. Bless Anthony Lane’s heart, I love to read his thoughts on anything else, but I give a damn what he thinks about Black Panther or Girls Trip or even Get Out.

The companies that hire and retain a diverse cadre of writers are the ones that will be around for the long haul. If most of the world doesn’t look like the critics who are supposed to be the experts on cultural products they don’t really get, how long do you think you’ll keep your audience?

Notes From the Reading Life: Thelma Golden & Kaitlyn Greenidge

One of Thelma Golden’s favorite novels.

Last Friday evening, I was first in line at the Harry Belafonte Library in Harlem to listen to the first in a series of talks co-presented by the National Book Foundation and the New York Public Library called Notes from the Reading Life featuring two Black women I admire: Thelma Golden and Kaitlyn Greenidge.

Golden has been at the helm of The Studio Museum in Harlem for 17 years, and she is currently serving as Director and Chief Curator. Greenidge is the author of We Love You, Charlie Freeman (and, it must be said, has one of the best Twitter TLs in the game.)

It’s rare that I get to hear two Black women engage in a loving and wide-ranging conversation that centers a Black woman’s engagement with books and reading merely for fun. So of course, I took notes.

The value of attending talks like this is to remember how rejuvenating it is when Black women frame conversation and also how we view story versus how story is framed for us — and frankly, against us. Often, when others are charged with framing aesthetic conversation, in particular, they center themselves and put us at the margins.

For an artist, this makes it hard to invoke the imagination because you never spend any time in a rich, creative or fertile environment. But being in the audience for Golden and Greenidge was one such experience for me.

Golden started by saying she was excited about the renaming of the NYPL branch on 115th street where the talk was held on behalf of Harry Belafonte, and, “to walk in and see the photo of Langston Hughes, to be here in the Alvin Ailey community room — all cultural giants.” And then she underscored that it’s the work of the Studio Museum of Harlem to elevate such giants in ways that often aren’t.

Greenidge started by asking Golden who made her a reader. And Golden mentioned her father, who was born in Harlem, and worked in the building, actually, where the Studio Museum, now is, when it was a bank.

“Arthur Golden was a reader who loved literature. My mother was from Brooklyn. New Yorkers will understand this; when they got married, they compromised and moved to Queens,” she said, to my delight. (It’s hard enough trying to date someone from a different borough I can’t even imagine trying to marry one. Different blog for a different day.)

She described growing up in Queens in a house with what was then known as a den full of books from her father’s library, but no television. He was deeply interested in literature and encouraged her to read.

Her theory is that because she was born in 1965, when he was 40 —  considered old for a parent in those days — he let her read anything. Or as she puts it, “We had a relationship to books that was very wide.”

She read both A Tree Grows in Brooklyn and Paule Marshall’s Brown Girl, Brownstones when she was as young as 11, noting with laughter that her mother was very early trying to recruit her to view Brooklyn as the best borough. She read the latter again when she was 16 and again when she was older.

Her mother was from Barbados and grew up in Brooklyn with her siblings in a house purchased by her family in 1926 where some of her relatives still live.

“It wasn’t until I re-read Brown Girl, Brownstones that I really understood my mother and her journey and her quirks,” Golden said. You can think you know about the life of your mother, that it may resemble something that you read in a work of fiction that feels real.

But by reading Marshall’s work, Golden said, “They were all of a sudden actual facts. I asked her later in life, ‘Why did you give me that book?’ She said, ‘I wanted you to understand me better.'”

I don’t imagine I’ll have children of my own, but if that ends up being the path, I imagine this would be such a profound experience…to learn more about the inner life of your mother this way, both in person but also via a book that she loves and gifts to you.

Greenidge said, “I think what you’re describing is the magic of reading for kids. Children can be kind of narcissistic. We think the first time we feel something is the first time its happened.” Golden agreed and expounded on the idea of thinking her experiences were singular and the power of learning they were connected to history.

Which brought us to James Baldwin’s Another Country. (At this point, I admittedly got distracted from the bane of my existence and my lifeline to the world, my smartphone, but I believe I heard Golden said she took a seminar at Smith with James Baldwin when she was student) and he asked her who her favorite character in the novel was. And she said Ida, Rufus’ sister.

Another Country
Baldwin’s 1962 novel explores the complex life and sexuality of Rufus Scott.

I came to quickly enough to hear this gem, “My father went to the same middle school as James Baldwin, and Countee Cullen was their teacher.” (!!)

I was so enamored of this because I have such generational envy for what Harlem was like during the time when Baldwin lived. I know I’m romanticizing it and it was probably as problematic and complex for Black women to navigate emotionally and artistically as every other space is today. But the richness, the products of the period, suggest that the magic had a power that provided at least some possibilities for transcendence. And that’s the part I love and very selfishly wish was still present/actively cultivated for Black writers, at least.

But as Alice Walker has said, We Are The Ones We Have Been Waiting For.

Walker is an example of what it means to be an exceptional living Black woman writer, much like Toni Morrison, the author of another Golden favorite, Sula.

Of all the luscious Morrison books I’ve had the privilege of savoring, Sula falls, for me, just slightly below the Scriptural supremacy and spiritual force in Song of Solomon. But Golden described Sula so poetically, noting that she loved reading it because it was “layered with all the things I know about the world.”

“I don’t want to make somebody else. I want to make myself.” Amen, Sula.

Golden said she never read The Bluest Eye, which is a statement I actually love. Although I did read it, and found that Pecola Breedlove’s envy of blond hair and blue eyes was actually quite resonant for me, I love a contrarian and this assertion (among others) gave me a sense of that streak in Golden. The spectacle of little black girls who hate themselves because they are not white is actually also not the healthiest or most edifying experience for young black girls, so I was happy for Golden, and envious, too, wanting to experience this vicarious liberation from thinking of my beauty in relationship to whiteness and having that praised even from the very beginning — of a life or of a career.

Still, Morrison is not only America’s greatest living novelist, but she is the originator of our current Black literary renaissance, insofar as writers like myself, readers like Golden and almost every Black woman writer I’ve ever known or met who perseveres through self-doubt and the other perils of the writing life have uttered and taken to heart Morrison’s words, “If there’s a book you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”

“That informs my work as a curator, to provide room for so many artists of African descent, to make art to allow us into space,” Golden said. “Toni Morrison is, to me, a rigorous example of Black genius.”

The last of Golden’s favorite books she discussed with Greenidge were The Collected Autobiographies by Maya Angelou and Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

It was nice to be reminded of Maya’s habit of keeping a hotel room in any city in which she visited, so that she could write without interruption, accompanied only with “two books, a bottle of sloe gin and a deck of cards,” Greenidge informed us.

Angelou’s work in memoir was the first instance of showing Golden, she said, “the stories we create of ourselves…the importance of the creation of our artistic selves. We get to make for ourselves a world that doesn’t make space for us.”

As for Americanah, Golden’s husband is Nigerian and lives in London. Along with the work that she leads and is invested in, she’s tied to Africa, then, “not just in the past, but also art, culture and ideas in the present.”

As a result, she said that she “felt profoundly seen,” by Americanah, in the same way she did by Zadie Smith’s On Beauty. “It’s what happens when outsiders look at your culture.”

Other notable aspects of the talk included the following:

  • When Greenidge asked Golden which book she would give to a small child if she had to, she mentioned Whistle for Willie by Ezra Jack Keats.
  • She recalled someone giving her a copy of Invisible Man and finding it formative. She mentioned that someone should write a biography of Ralph Ellison’s wife, Fannie Ellison — do your thing, Internet!
  • Since we were in Harlem, and Golden had made note of the pictures of Langston Hughes and other cultural giants of the neighborhood earlier, Greenidge mentioned the I, Too Arts Collective the literary nonprofit helmed by author Renee Watson that has continued to do God’s work preserving Langston Hughes’ brownstone and has transformed it into a site of community for writers of color. “I wish it had not been so hard. I wish it had been a natural act. So much of history is not in buildings. It’s in the neighborhood. I hope that while we continue to move toward our future, that we can continue to honor our past. This is a community with a deep and rich history. This wasn’t just a setting for great work. This neighborhood created opportunity for artists. I hope we can preserve that in ways that people will be able to touch and feel in the future.”

You should go to some of the future Notes from the Reading Life events if you’re in New York or if you’ll be in town for one that’s upcoming. Tonight, it’s a conversation between Tim Gunn & Min Lee. I’m so sad to say I’ll miss the conversation (in the Bronx!) between Desus Nice & Rebecca Carroll at the Bronx Library Center on June 15th — but you shouldn’t.






A full week into Pride Month, but nevertheless…

Transitioning back into writing full-time has also meant getting used to learning how to manage my time — or, I guess, reclaiming it (thank you, Auntie Maxine) — but it also means that as my friend Jennifer has remarked, you realize that “Linear time is a trip.”

h_14472295.jpgAnyway, I worked on this piece for the Village Voice on how erasing black LGBTQ women from Pride almost 50 years after Stonewall defeats the point of what Pride is supposed to mean. I hope you dig it.

While I was working on it, I thought about the piece I reference toward the end, the Questioning Continuum, which I wrote for Bitch back in July 2014. This week, I met someone who said that someone told her that coming out is not really a one time process but something you’re always doing. That, to me, feels kind of exhausting, so I’m not entirely sure about that — and back then, I wasn’t even convinced that I needed to come out at all.

But there are a lot of people who feel, like I do, that they’re not quite heterosexual and they’re not in another category either. And maybe queer doesn’t fit them. But they know that they could fall in love with another kindred spirit and that’s the thing that matters. This blog is for them, or if it’s you, it’s for you. Happy Pride.

Notes from the Bronx Book Festival

I wrote about the Bronx Book Festival for the Village Voice and how the Bronx is having a resurgence of the book scene with the work and leadership of Saraceia J. Fennell and Noelle Santos, but there were a couple of quotes from one of the panels that I wanted to add in the spirit of Throwback Thursday that didn’t fit in the context of the story that I wanted to put here.

  • “In this nation, the women’s movement was started by Black women. If we’re going to create a movement in this country that’s inclusive, we have to acknowledge indigenous women who get erased, and Black women specifically. That’s still not understood, which is why we struggle with solidarity. If your movement doesn’t lift all boats, we’re not going to win.”  — Sofia Quintero


  • “A large part of resistance is rejecting rejection…Part of the feminist project, especially in the arts, is a more liberating masculinity. It’s not that they don’t have privilege. Our feminism has to be one that heals and liberates everyone. We have to inform the brothers, but the brothers gotta do their own labor.” — Roya Marsh is one of the poets in the beautiful Black Girl Magic anthology, which you can buy here.
I went a little overboard, but it was the first Bronx Book Festival, so what can I say? These are all Bronx authors, some books I bought from The Lit. Bar tent and a few that were given to attendees, plus my press pass which I will cherish for life.