Remembering bell hooks

One of things I’ve been doing lately is thinking about my legacy as a writer, as a person. It feels a little abstract to think about what your influence will be when you’re gone. And then someone you love dies. And it doesn’t feel so abstract.

My heart is still heavy thinking about bell hooks’ transition. I was honored, as someone who was profoundly shaped by her passion, her courage, her clear-sighted articulation of the things that keep Black women from soaring — and how to overcome them — were balm for me. She was really an iconic trailblazer. I tried to do her work and life and impact some justice for Oprah Daily. An excerpt is below. You can read it here, or here. I hope she is resting well.

Mourning bell hooks—who died on December 15, 2021, at age 69 after giving us four decades of trailblazing feminist scholarship—means celebrating everything she taught us about what it means to be a Black woman in love with herself and the world, and with the life of the mind. With her passing, there will be one fewer pair of hands holding up Black women—all women—as inherently valuable. For decades she has helped me in my journey to become myself; her legacy will live in my bones, and in the minds and hearts of all she awakened and inspired.

Born Gloria Jean Watkins in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, in 1952, hooks honored her matrilineal line by taking her maternal great-grandmother’s name as her nom de plume in a lowercase version to emphasize “the substance of books, not who I am.” She influenced several well-known luminaries and writers to adopt the same practice. Let us defer to the work of our hands and pay tribute to our elders instead of bowing to tradition and capitalizing ourselves.

Maybe honoring her elders and ancestors played a role in enabling her to speak and write her fame into existence, to hear her family tell it. Like most Southern towns, Hopkinsville, Kentucky, was stratified by race and class; hooks’s father was a janitor, and her mother a maid. “Gloria learned to read and write at an early age and even proclaimed she would be famous one day,” her family said in a statement. “Growing up, the girls shared an upstairs bedroom, and she would always keep the light on well into the night. Every night we would try to sleep, but the sounds of her writing or page turning caused us to yell down to Mom to make her turn the light off.”

Her family went on to say that Gloria always had at least 10 serious books she was reading simultaneously, whether Shakespeare, Little Women, or other classics, which quenched her “great thirst for knowledge, which she incorporated into her life’s work.” Against the backdrop of the great civil rights struggles, she graduated from a newly integrated high school. Her intellectual acumen and writer’s gifts were apparent early, and she majored in English literature at Stanford University, then earned her MA from the University of Wisconsin and her PhD from the University of California at Santa Cruz, where she wrote her dissertation on Toni Morrison.

bell hooks
Karjean Levine, Getty Images

She thrived in the classroom, and her criticism and charisma quickly acquired a following both in and beyond academic circles. I first encountered her during one of my many trips to my local New York library at age 13 and was instantly in awe. Hooks wrote with confident wisdom and ease about topics I had never read from a Black woman’s perspective; she seemed so like me, even if she was from a different part of the country and a different generation. We were kindred spirits.

My dog-eared copy of Sisters of the Yam: Black Women and Self-Recovery was the gateway to reprogramming myself. The microaggressions, the confusing pauses and rudeness that came my way because of my dark skin and natural hair—bell hooks helped me understand that these were the manifestations of social constructs she interrogated, not figments of my imagination. Her writing about writing, the way she mined the role of self-love and self-care: All these things and more marked her as a visionary. Radical, yes, for her positions on racism and patriarchy and capitalism. Radical, too, for attending to the hearts of Black women. For saying that we were not just our work, but we deserved, as much as anyone, our own affection and tenderness. The world would not give it to us, not without a fight.

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Notes on Failure

I’m wondering these days if everything about writing and publishing is about failure. If you’re any good, anyway. This is why it has both surprised me, and not, to pick up a non-book related hobby — sewing — in recent weeks. I wanted to build something with my hands that required a different use of my brain. And it helped me view my writing life a little differently in the process, which is always cool.

A common misconception non-writers and aspiring writers have about writing is that when you write a first draft, you are done. I don’t know where this concept comes from. It might be that we live in a society that metabolizes everything very fast, from news cycles to video clips, so it makes sense that we share a common expectation that even things that should be slow can happen more quickly (says the lady who has all but abandoned my Crockpot in favor of my Instant Pot). 

But actually, the longer and more complex your writing, the more revision it probably requires of you. And that’s as it should be. A solid draft isn’t really excellent or even good until it’s gone through a few rounds of revision, probably many rounds. 

One way that writing weeds people out of the profession or vocation (can you get discouraged out of a calling?) comes down to whether you have the capacity for the rigor of revision. Some of it is ego. Some of it is pure determination. You have to outlast the many versions of the thing. 

A marathon, not a sprint. Only a cliche because it’s true.

When I was starting out, I wish someone would have told me to listen a little less to the people who fed my ego and maybe had decent points about my talent as a writer and my attentiveness to the craft and a little more to the physically and spiritually demanding aspects of writing. That I would sit alone with myself and my memories and thoughts for long periods of time, waiting for what I imagined would be on the page to be fully realized as the story, essay or poem that is actually on the page. 

Another cliche is appropriate here: You can’t really push the river. There is something that the work is teaching you when it is janky and uneven and not working. All that you learn on your way to the draft that is as good as you can make it (not perfect, maybe not ever) is part of the writing, too. 

So it is with learning a new craft. The story about me and sewing begins with my grandmother, Edna, who showed up in an 1940 Census report as someone who cooked and sewed as a profession for something called the National Youth Administration down in Orangeburg, South Carolina. This is the most information I have about my mother’s mother and it made me feel closer to her to know that cooking is one of my great joys, but I have also always been fascinated by fashion design — specifically fashion illustration. An old dream of mine was to be a fashion designer one day, mainly because I grew up without the luxury of clothes that were made to fit me. They were always from someone else’s closet, their old things, re-sold at discount in thrift stores. One day, I would make my own things, just for me. 

I gifted myself a sewing machine and some virtual classes at a local sewing center. The center sent a toolkit with all the things — a tomato-shaped pin cushion, a tape measure, fabric, shears (just very sharp, large scissors) and more. The machine was/is deeply intimidating, with little compartments for bobbins and other knickknacks. I watched a YouTube video on how to thread the thing maybe three or four times, and still, when it was time for the first three-hour class, I did it wrong, and my beautiful, intimidating machine made this constipated noise. The instructor tried to see through my less than sharp computer camera where things had gone wrong (I figured out later that I had done something strange with the thread and the presser foot, and it would not be the first time) and ultimately said, “Hmm, this seems like a mechanical thing.” 

I wonder what I was thinking about when I was stitching — but not really stitching — the top…

Not that helpful, but we are not meant to learn everything on Zoom. Probably especially not something tactile like sewing. I had a very acute understanding of what my students had experienced throughout my Zoom teaching experiences over the past year and some months. Noted.

And when it came to sewing, I was frustrated and blissfully happy to be failing at it. Failing meant that I was trying something totally new. I fudged the measurements, and ruined the stitches. The thread kept coming out of the machine.

I couldn’t really figure myself out except to say that I must enjoy being humbled. This is what is at the core of the writing life. You cannot know the perfect way for you until you have written a lot of bad shit. Corny, underdeveloped, obsessed dreck. Maybe there are some salvageable lines in there. But maybe not.

One way to look at rejections of your work — for contests, for fellowships, for whatever — is to say, “They’re wrong.” But another way to look at them, especially as they begin to get sweeter and more concrete about what doesn’t work is to say, “Hmm, I wonder if they have a point.” 

The relief of making a lopsided tote bag, to which I affixed straps that hang oddly, like banana peels over the top of the unfinished lips of this bag that I can never take outside, is that I tried. And for my first try, it wasn’t bad, even though it didn’t yield the beautiful bragging rights that I had hoped for. Who likes somebody who is always winning at everything all the time anyway? Not me. Probably not you. 

I won’t lie: It was a relief to go back to my works in progress after botching not just the bag, but also a skirt, which I imagined would look one way but turned out to be the wrong size pattern for my body, or really, the body of anyone I know. So. That sucked. It’s a lot of fabric. I suppose I will use it now for something else, something different. Or maybe I’ll start again with another piece of fabric. There’s some kind of metaphor in there about writing, I think.

From the Dodo: Me and Bendito on the podcast An Animal Saved My Life

Yes, he is *this* cute every single day.

I wrote about Bendito arriving in my life around the time that it seemed a number of people discovered a 2014 Bark article I wrote about Cleo and the fraught relationship some Black folks have with dogs. The folks at the podcast An Animal Saved My Life over at The Dodo were kind enough to interview me about my sweet Bendito, who very soon will be 1 year old. I hope you enjoy it, especially if podcasts are your jam.

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?

My Poets & Writers Cover on Natasha Trethewey

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I’m so excited about this cover story I wrote about Natasha Trethewey for the July/August 2020 issue of Poets & Writers, which is only available in print but you can order your copy here (better yet subscribe!)

I feel like I have been wanting to post about it since I got the assignment months ago, so now I’m bursting with joy and excitement. I wanted to just share some more about the wonder of Black creatives, the lessons we have across timelines & movements.

I thought when I read Memorial Drive that what magnetized me to Natasha Trethewey’s work was our common mother loss, but no, it was so much deeper than that. I loved and still do her resilience, her strength, her vulnerability and her focused ability to transmute pain into real, lasting beauty and triumph.

In our interview, I was honored that she trusted me so much to hold space for so much of her journey. She talked about going up to read her work and people introducing the life-shaping story of her mother’s death “with the word murder hanging in the air,” so her memoir was an opportunity to re-contextualize the life of her mother, the social worker and self-advocate who did not live because we have no way of really protecting victims of intimate partner violence and what a failure that is.

There’s so much more and I hope you will read the print issue. Here is more, another part that stays with me: “They have a saying in South Korea that you don’t bury a mother in the ground; you bury her in the chest, or you carry her corpse on your back…As much as I carry her corpse around, I have also planted my living mother in my chest, and she grows there continuously. I have both, two mothers.” May that offer some kind of comfort and/or recognition to all of us as we mourn not just our mothers, but Black daughters like Breonna Taylor & the many others whose names we can’t forget to keep saying.

How We Show Up: A Q&A with Mia Birdsong

My friend and radical visionary Mia Birdsong has written the new necessary and inspiring new book, How We Show Up: Reclaiming Family, Friendship, and Community (Hachette Go, June 2, 2020) I contacted Mia about her book a few weeks ago, hoping to share her words in a broader forum. My humble blog is as broad a forum as I have, so I hope you find her words about alternative forms of care, especially community care, as  therapeutic as I did. I was struck by examples of how Mia, who is partnered and has children, shows up for her single friends like Mariah, which is what frames the first question.

I love the attentiveness and care you mention in the book related to Mariah and her managing diabetes as a single person. The model of attending to her needs outside of coupledom feels like one we need to adopt, especially now. What did you learn about attending to your friend in this way that might be helpful for others as we try to connect virtually now?

Being in Mariah’s life in this way meant that both of us had to push back against some deep American socialization. For me, it was claiming the truth that my loved ones are my business. That means I can butt in if I see a need, gap, place that needs tending to. I was definitely worried about being intrusive, sticking my nose in where it didn’t belong, overstepping, but I also knew that if I pissed her off with unwelcome meddling, we could talk about it. I also thought about how hard it is for people to ask for help, especially when, in this case, the support I was thinking of wasn’t about addressing an immediate need or a crisis, but establishing a long-term, committed kind of support. Ultimately I decided that all the worse-case scenarios of me not butting in were worse than the possibility of pissing her off.

On her end, she had to wrestle with the way we, especially as Black women, are taught to handle shit ourselves, to be super women, and, frankly, to not be dependent on anyone because they might fail you. When you’ve lived your whole life being extraordinarily competent, independent, and excelling at everything you do the way Mariah has—all while managing a condition that could totally kill you and the racism and sexism of America—it’s super hard to allow yourself to lean on someone in such an intimate way.

It’s not like she couldn’t survive without me or the other folks who have become part of her care circle—she has been for her whole life– but she shouldn’t have to. I think that is a critical realization that a lot of us need to come to terms with—just because we can, doesn’t mean we should.

Our practice opened a new way for us to think about care and she’s built more around that that I’m learning from. Having a handful of people instead of one is really powerful. One night when her blood sugar not adjusting, two of us were in touch with her and then in touch with each other. We get to build relationships with each other too.

Now that Covid Times are here, she has actively reached out to the circle of folks that she’s gathered up around her to talk about how to get food, to vent about people not physically distancing properly, to share the latest info, to freak out, to laugh. It’s been a gift to all of us.

Having this practice with Mariah meant that when Covid Times hit us, I was more comfortable with the idea of inserting myself into the lives of my people who live alone, especially if they are high risk. I have a handful of folks that I check in on a few times a week, I bring them food or whatever. And I check in with our friends in common about them to see if I’m missing anything and to encourage others to insert themselves as well. I have a friend with whom I talk about what he wants to happen if he dies, what of his stuff he wants various people to have, where his documents are, etc. That’s a totally new conversation for us.

I guess all of that is to say, I think we need to be brave right now about thoughtfully pushing ourselves into the lives of our loved ones and asking for our loved ones to tend to our wellbeing in ways that might be uncomfortable. We ought not assume that our folks who have lots of friends, or our folks who present as strong and having all their shit together, or our folks who seem ok on their own don’t need our presence and support.

It feels more evident to more people that our racialized capitalistic society and healthcare system has failed us and COVID-19 response (or in some cases, lack thereof) underscores this. What practices, processes or alternative frameworks inspired by and/or explored in How We Show Up: Reclaiming Family, Friendship and Community do you think can help us to respond to this disappointment and collective trauma — individually and collectively? 

I’ve been so heartened by the way folks have shown up for each other as soon as it became clear that we are all we have when our systems (which function as they were designed) are failing to care for us in the ways they should. And I worry about our ability to sustain our mutual aid networks and also hold our government accountable for not doing the work we are now doing. Right now we are trying to fill in for failed systems and we can’t just be cool with that.

One of the things government can’t and shouldn’t do that I see folks doing for each other is creating space to process, to grieve, to connect, and to celebrate. My women’s circles—Tough & Jolly and Black Women’s Freedom Circle—are meeting twice as often now to hold space for ourselves. Having those opportunities to be in our feelings and hear from each other has been life giving. My friend Mac started what is essentially Sunday church. We check in, and every week a different person leads us in song or reflection or meditation.

The other thing I’m loving is the dance parties. I interviewed my therapist a couple of weeks ago because I wanted to understand trauma more. It was clear to me that everyone of us is experiencing trauma. It may hit differently, but it’s universal. She explained fear cycles and what happens when they get interrupted and where people are getting stuck. She also talked about how we can hack our system to make sure we reset it regularly. One of the things she’s recommending to her clients is that they dance every evening. Celebration lets our system know that we are OK—if we’re dancing, we aren’t in immediate danger. So all those DJs on Instagram are helping us reset our system so we release some of the trauma.

How do you imagine reclamation of our communities, family and friendship in the after times – what some call the new normal – will shift in light of the global pandemic, if at all?

This is such a hard question. I’ve been sitting with the fact that while the arc of the moral universe may bend toward justice, the arc of the material universe doesn’t care about whose fault it is that we have a global pandemic or that our systems were designed to disadvantage Black and Indigenous people, people with disabilities, queer folks, unhoused people, etc. The virus is not out here trying to eliminate the polluters and oppressors. It is going to kill the people with the least power, the weaker immune systems, the least money and access to health care.

So I’m horrified by the thought of what that means for who is getting care now, who will get access to a vaccine when we finally have one and who will be left in a few years when this comes to some kind of conclusion. It feels inadequate to say “we’ve got us,” or “build community” when the forces in power conspire to exploit this moment for profit and continue to leverage their power for their own gain.

This is all on top of the fact that even after they “open up the country,” we are still not going to be able to hug each other, to hold hands, to share meals in each other’s homes, to gather to worship, celebrate, plan, protest, and just be together for a painfully long time. It’s demoralizing and heartbreaking. And at the same time, it’s still absolutely true that we’ve got us. We are already figuring out how to be with each other, support each other, celebrate with each other, feed and nurture each other. And I imagine we will figure out ways to be together that are safe and support our emotional wellbeing—like maybe we’ll have to plan dates, dinner parties, and small gatherings far enough in advance that everyone can quarantine for a few weeks before getting together. (That is not a recommendation.) Maybe we will have to really do the work of dealing with our own wounds and damage and building grown-ass relationships with excellent boundaries and explicit communication and expressed desires and needs so we can cultivate the kind of trust that would be necessary to gather like that.

Get your copy of How We Show Up here. You can book Mia Birdsong to speak by way of my amazing friends at FRESH Speakers

A Black Girl Joy Poem: Rhythm

As published in Kweli Journal’s Black Girlhood Issue – My gratitude to Laura & crew for selecting it.

Sunup to sundown, a hundred shades of Black girl beauty. Caramel & pecan-colored, rays springing from our lips, mouths full as golden balloons, sweet as Jolly Ranchers. Sugar bubble gum breath, tongues grape purple, hair deep brown or bright pink or braided royal blue, slicked with shea butter & coconut oil, edges smooth & dry elbows oiled like our thirsty shins.

We stay ready – we don’t need to get ready.

We spring after winter, a breeze of competition. Eyes prying youth open to look inside at our becoming, hips spreading womanhood wide east & west.

Bass flying through rattling windows, energy lodged in earth thrumming, shoulders curved in, protecting our hearts & the fly chains at our necks from the chill as our bodies learn to be the sounds of the city.

Our souls sway to drums that never stop pulsing.

Our feet never stop moving.

If we can’t move, we don’t exist.

We are some bodies, so: we rock, we roll, we slay with Janet Jackson levels of control.

Spring, a short bridge to summer, means time to show these people we mean business.

We pound out hood morse code on cafeteria tables, rocking steady, swaying up against the wall with our loves, legs scissored, hair turning back from the humidity we make as we become songs.

We grown in every moment we steal, singing to our own soundtrack.

Tamika & Amecca & Ayana & Monique make another party with us, names like songs, like prayers rising from the Atlantic floor so we would always be music.

A drumbeat, a declaration, a love song.

A step, a cheer, a chant with our mouths, the beat vibrating from hands on flesh.

We make celebration between the long hours of what else is there? Passing notes or sending texts or watching the timelines & scrolling & scrolling. Sweat reminds us we are alive & we are here & we are planted.

The rest is here.

 

Lessons from Self-Isolation in 2012

One of the abiding lessons from my newsroom days as a reporter was to follow trends. I’ve been surprised that sometimes these trends emerge still in conversations, even during times like these. In recent days, new friends that I’ve made as part of my extended work family have invited me to be in conversation with their students. My friend Jen who is a poet and English professor, read my memoir during the early part of our self-isolation and quarantine. She emailed to say that it was helpful to read in these times, and that she was curious about what I learned when I spent all that time inside years ago.

I tucked it away — I feel reluctant and hesitant about going back to that time, emotionally, even though it was so many years ago, now. I feel more tender and vulnerable now, even though I am stronger than I was then in many ways.

But then yesterday, I was in my friend Vani’s class talking about the memoir, to emerging Bronx writers and students. And one of them wrote in the Zoom chat, “FWIW, I think there is a seed of writing there where  you talk about self-isolating now that all of us are inside all the time.”

So, while I like the rule of threes and I probably abide by it too much, it felt important to share what I think I know about self-isolation from that period from roughly 2011 through 2013 when I stayed mostly in my Austin home with my dog, Cleo. I published it on Medium since I have a broader following there, and this is a friend link for those you who are not Members so you don’t have to worry about any kind of paywall or anything.

The very first thing I learned was that there was something that could always keep me connected to myself if I let it: Writing. I blogged almost everyday. I gave myself the goal of self-publishing my first book, an eBook, based on that blog. It was, surprisingly, not a novel I had always dreamed of writing, but an extension of my journalistic work, which felt less daunting and more fun: The world had said that single Black women were the reason for the fall of the Black family, but I knew differently, so I wrote it out.

I had always known how to be apart from others. I told myself I knew how to do it best because on a very basic level, poverty is the experience of never going out; always finding a way to believe in survival, even if everything you need is outside and requires things you do not have.

But I was wounded and broken. Outside felt like the last thing I needed. I just wanted to be left alone.

I slept at all hours or not at all. I ate as much as I wanted, which turned out to be not that much. I was living off of my savings in a house that I could only barely afford. I had a master’s degree I wasn’t sure I could use, but I still had to pay for. I just needed to rest but I rarely got comfortable enough to do so.

It was time of deep learning, mostly accidental.

Meditations on Staying Safe in the Bronx

Probably like everyone else, I have my decent days under self-isolation and I have my difficult ones. Increasingly, they are complex, especially as the parental holidays approach…but every day now has some kind of asterisk, doesn’t it? Here’s my latest on Medium, (here’s a friend link!) which, like everything I seem to write, is about the Bronx but also about trying to navigate grief and humanity and showing up for ourselves in the midst of all of it.

Before the pandemic, my hometown had been changing dramatically, while also remaining very much anchored in what it has always been. The Bronx is always treated like a predominately Latinx and Black outpost of New York City. But it is actually the city, too. At last Census count, there were roughly 1.4 million people here.

Like Queens, the Bronx has been highlighted as an epicenter within an epicenter of the coronavirus because of the high rates of infection and death among people of color here. The deaths of people of color from coronavirus have been at rates 50 percent and higher here in the Bronx compared to Manhattan, with some of the wealthiest zip codes in the city.

Many stories have documented the health disparities that have been laid bare — showing that many black people at higher risk of being infected because of long-standing problems accessing affordable health care, distrust of healthcare providers and our likelihood of being among the ranks of essential workers.

I share in the collective anticipatory grief — grieving those you know will die — that now hangs over the city. It also feels hauntingly familiar. My father died by suicide a decade ago this month. As shocked and confused and angry as I was then, as long as it has taken for me to try to peel apart all of the emotions that still feel fresh in that grief, I know that to lose him now, when the way that we mourn is even shifting, would come with an additional stain and stigma.

I felt the most anticipatory grief for my mother, who died almost two years after my father in 2012. I watched her skin shrivel around her eyes and cheeks as Stage IV cervical cancer ate away at the fleshy, coy expressions she always made that taught me the finer ways to flirt, to help joy shine from one’s face.

In those months and days before she died, I felt a lot like I do now: I kept a daily vigil at the edge of the world I used to know with her at the center, whether I wanted her there or not. Mourning itself felt like a virus I needed to save others from.