The Story of Our Talent for Survival

I remember exactly when I learned that reading in the hood is a revolutionary act.

It was at the heavy hands of Michelle, the largest sixth grader I’d ever seen, who was one of the Bronx girls around the way who liked to chase me to deliver a beat down as punishment for not letting her cheat off of my spelling test.

Reading was dangerous because it sent a signal to hood residents that you did not intend to stay, even if they were not considering a way out. Books seemed to suggest that even if your body was stuck in tenements or housing projects or welfare hotels, your mind was on the path to freedom.

That’s why I became a professional reader long before I was a writer. Books gave me hope when I was living in homeless shelters, subsidized housing, and welfare hotels with my mother in New York City. They helped me shape a future for myself that was beyond the limits of poverty, neglect and my mother’s mental illness.

Most of the middle class and affluent black folks I would come to know in the future would wince and give me a look I couldn’t read when I would tell the story that I outline in my new memoir, The Beautiful Darkness: A Handbook for Orphans. Even the presence of the elegant, poised, brilliant President and First Family does not negate the long shadow of prevalent biases about all black people as subject to abject poverty and dysfunction. But that was the real life that I led, even if it wasn’t particularly attractive.

I read to cope. I found solace at the library. Especially from Michelle, because you couldn’t get in the West Farms public library branch without a library card and she definitely didn’t have one.

I inhaled whatever was in the new book section. Self-help books, like How to Have Better Self-Esteem, because I hated myself. Because as a third or fourth grader in and out of public schools in each of the five boroughs because my bipolar mother was not medicated and couldn’t keep a job, I felt like a burden. In Search of Our Mothers Gardens and Zami: A New Spelling of My Name and for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf fed my spirit. Resting my mind in black girl poetry and prose gave me hope when my mother’s manic episodes or neglect threatened to erase the slight will to live that I hung on to.

I had not grown up in a big family, it was just me and mom. And my mom had been broken by life long before me. Her own mother had died when she was a teenager in a mental institution. She went on to have five children but I was born only came after Jose was killed by a city bus when he was 12 years old — a turning point in her life that I believe triggered the worst parts of her bipolar and borderline personality illnesses.

Reading was my main connection to the world, the only thing that I believed and felt connected me to an invisible community of other homeless children, other aspiring writers, dreamers, black girls, the poor who wanted to be anything but. So I got beat at home for no reason other than my mother’s mania, and I was bullied at school for trying to find safe haven in the pages of books. While I grew up with my mother and she did her best to care for me, I was an orphan in the sense that I mothered myself and sometimes tried as a kid to mother my mother. That is obviously not the work of a child, but I did try. The main plague of my childhood in all of its adversities was loneliness, isolation.

I wrote The Beautiful Darkness to save others from their loneliness. To offer empathy and community to those who know what it is like to live with anything like a broken black family and are resilient in the face of it regardless. We have often heard the stories of black women struggling with poverty and adversities with their children through journalists and sociologists who do outstanding work. Rarely do we hear directly from survivors.

Maybe like me, they feel the weight of stereotypes and stigma pressing them away from the page. Maybe they think no one will want to hear their story or will buy their book, or it will not resonate because they have already read something similar — all variations of what I have heard. But here is the dream I hope becomes real. Maybe, just maybe, a little black girl who is between homes with her mom who struggles with depression will be searching for a roadmap for herself way from despair on a library bookshelf somewhere.

This book is for her.

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Running Through Madness

On Sunday, I ran what must have been my seventh or eighth half marathon. I did it for a lot of reasons, including the fact that the last year has been more intense than I anticipated it would be and I wanted to process what that means for me now, what it means for the future. Whenever I come to a point of pivotal change like this, there’s nothing like running more miles than most people consider normal to help me sort things out and come back to myself.

Whenever I run a race, I think about why I started running in the first place. I always come back to the fact that my mother’s insanity made me run for my life until I discovered that what I really needed to do was chase down my own sanity. We always need more than that, of course, but this was the core of what I felt I needed when I became a runner.

Marguerite had both bipolar and borderline personality disorders. She was officially diagnosed when I was in my twenties. She tried medication briefly when I was in my thirties, just a few years before she died from cervical cancer, but said it interfered with her relationship with God, so that was that.

I was an adult when I was told for the first time that my mother was bipolar, but I always knew, the way you can tell from the sound in someone’s voice when they are hurt or in love or enamored. Marguerite was a meteor hitched to emotion, bright candor and love exploding and ascending, her voice high, arms spread, warmth around me, a million words effusively scribbled beautifully with a deep ballpoint press on reams and reams of notebook paper from her oft-abandoned community college endeavors. She lit up darkness and she made the foundation of a thing rock with ease and joy, however temporary, however artificial. This is how I learned how to move in the world. Riding the crest of her waves of emotion, trying not to worry about the crashing to earth, the unfurling of furious waves.

You are brilliant.

Everything you touch turns to gold.

You are a miracle.

The words of a mother who loves her daughter with language are gifts that last forever. They are the royal blue film over the lens of life, making lovely everything that was before just mediocre. To believe you are cherished and special by the one who gave birth to you is believe in your ability to be immortal, to be a superhero. To fly even when you are pinned to earth.

When she was down life was hell, a pit of seething anger, sad tears in her voice but not on her face because she said her tear ducts had stopped working. My mother’s sadness clipped my wings, made me a girl-Icarus who flew too close to the heat to ever soar for long with comfort or confidence.

I was the subject of all her shame as I had been for all her glory.

She hated me, she told me so, she repeated it to me and as a girl it played with the kind of steady repetition of a march. Left, left, left right left. I hate you I hate you I wish I never had you I hate you. This was the undoing of my belief in myself for quite a long time. My survival became more about rugged stubborn tendencies and less about reinforcing the belief of my delightful mother when she was up. I was never sure which version of me I wanted to save but I was more terrified of dying most of the time so the only other option was to try to make my life into something as dreamy as my mother’s mania.

I wanted to always get her back to loving me with her words, instead of hating me with them.

So from the beginning of my life until the end of hers, I grappled with how to cope with the invisible ghost that was her unique brand of crazy. I tried wrapping my arms around it, then avoiding it before I realized there was no way to deal with it but trudging through.

Along the way, I learned that the folks we call crazy have been broken in places where most of us are confident we are capable of bending. They embody the potential of pain and heartbreak to warp a soul and murder the spirit. To encounter them intimately is to be singed by a fire that cannot be extinguished.

Running would be my salvation, a mechanism for avoiding the flames, in the end, even when I thought it was too late to start, even before I knew what my heart was leaning toward for me by doing it.

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