Black Book Stacks on Substack

Before I was a journalist, my favorite non-fiction writing and non-journaling activity was to attend readings or lectures featuring Black authors and take copious notes. So it is a kind of coming full circle that I’ve started a Substack newsletter focused on book reviews related to books for and by Black people, Black Book Stacks. (About a year ago, I started a YouTube channel of the same name, which you can view here and if I have a Bookshop store you can find here.)

I always had the innate sense that being a writer was not just about putting words to paper and hoping that others would read those words. I was always searching to put the words I wrote into a tradition. Writing was another way of trying to belong and to solidify a place for myself in a world that seemed bent on my erasure or destruction.

I have vivid memories of a small royal blue Mead notebook that was thick as a brick. I carried it with me to the old Barnes & Noble on Astor Place, through Washington Square Park, up to Emma Willard and Vassar. I had the privilege of listening and trying to absorb the wisdom of Jamaica Kincaid, Gloria Naylor, Janet McDonald, Elaine Brown and so many others. I was a careful collector of Black women writers’ quotes, usually because I couldn’t afford to purchase books of my own and I didn’t not want to vandalize library books. Quotes were the happy compromise; they were short enough for me to carry wherever I went. These were the breadcrumbs and manna they left for me in a trail to who-knew-where but I gobbled them up. Every nugget was a jewel in my crown.

As I made my way in journalism, it became harder and harder for me to give myself permission to keep up this witnessing practice in the same way. Mostly because of time, but also because I realized that such forums and opportunities to hear Black writers and share space with them were fewer in other states and cities. It just so happened that reading the work of Black women in particular was my self-paced MFA program. Sometimes, I had the opportunity to profile, interview and write about them, as was the case with Octavia Butler in 2004 and Alice Walker around the same time. But mostly, I was just glad to have their work to sit with and revel in.

Over the years, I’ve continued to focus my attention on the work of Black writers because, as more of the world knows now, we live in a world where white supremacist capitalism means that what is considered valuable is everything but Blackness or real intimate discussions of all its flourishing contours in spite of and beyond the gaze of the consumption of white people. What I mean to say, I think, is that Black literature has always been a miracle to behold. In part because it comes from a people who have a shorter lineage in the Americas of thriving in literature because of the legal restrictions that forbade them to read and write. Our resilience and perseverance and faith, all bound up in the Word, continued both in an oral tradition and on paper.

The overcorrection here, I’ve found, is that when it comes to fair critique or evaluation of the work of Black writers, is that our books are either ignored, as if they never happened, especially beyond the date or week of their publication, or they are elevated as neutral objects for sale without a real analysis of them and their context. That’s what my new newsletter is aiming to help create in the world. I hope that if that sounds of interest to you, that you’ll subscribe. Looking forward to seeing you on the list.

On Belonging

I appreciate being in a period of national relief. There is something so calming, even when the world is still in a shambles, about humane leadership. It allows my creative mind, anyway, room to react to events without trying to problem solve or anticipate the next horrific thing.

One result of that has been more space in my mind to reflect and create. One aspect of my life I’ve been thinking about a lot over the past year has been my connection to The Bronx and why I am so attached to it as a site of my fiction and creative nonfiction, why it is a place that, when I lived far from New York City, pulled me back to it. I think I understand better having written this piece on Medium, but I’m not sure. It may be constantly changing like everything else.

Here’s an excerpt:

It feels like the least a Black woman can expect in the way of belonging and safety in 2021 is to not stand out from the crowd in an era of white nationalist fervor and anger. I want that sentence to mean less in the wake of this historic week but I fear it means more.The safest option, even when the world is quarantining during a pandemic, is to not make oneself more of a target for surveillance or harassment.

In the before times, I found subtle ways of trying to take up less space knowing I would be in a situation, or traveling to a place, where I would be The Only One or One of The Onlies. The stress of living in a cauldron of constant chaos and upheaval is offset by the relief of not having to navigate multiple reactions to my Blackness and my womanhood and their intersection, which seems to be the most intimidating and off-putting fact of my existence of all.

Staying in my lane, or my neighborhood, has become my safety, my insurance. My safety is that I am surrounded by others who more or less expect me to be here. That expectation is reassuring, because when white people are surprised by Black people, the Black people end up dead or in prison. It probably helps that I don’t move that quickly, since there’s a lot of me to move around. Even if I were to be one of those sudden movement types, there is, after all, a police precinct up the street. That said, I am not often made to feel like a suspect in my neighborhood, though I wonder if the Black men in my neighborhood would say the same. I bet even the famous ones would tell a different story.

I wonder: Do you feel like you belong to the place where you live? Why or why not?

On Medium: White Supremacy is an Emergency

Like much of the nation, I am still processing and trying to be productive in the wake of last week’s domestic terrorism. Increasingly, it feels like when there is nothing new to add, there is no reason to post anything here. But I did have thoughts about the urgent threat of white supremacy — that it is, in fact, an emergency — in the same way that I have been pondering how traumatic racism is for all of us. My thoughts are up on Medium today:

Trauma is defined by Merriam-Webster as a disordered psychic or behavioral state resulting from mental or emotional stress or physical injury. It is possible that we cannot reorder the psyches or behaviors of angry, fearful white men who believe their inheritance has been stolen. This is one of the biggest reasons I worry that the rhetoric of hope is not a cure and it will never be. If anything, our insistence on hopefulness only deepens the wound and adds insult to injury. The hope for an equal world displaces white male privilege, which obviously is at the core of preserving white supremacy as a way of life. Hope for equity banishes white men from control and power; it upends the world, because it means imagining a world where white men are not at the center.