On Zadie Smith & The Missing Black American Woman Expert

Zadie Smith, New York City, June 2016

It is easy to be smitten with Zadie Smith, as I think I am. She has freckles and I love freckles. She can sing. She has a lovely accent. She is witty. She writes well.

Actually, she’s brilliant. I’m a fan of her nonfiction, and I was smitten more with Changing My Mind, her book of essays, than with On Beauty, which was fine but not my fave. Same with Swing Time, which I just finished before I happened upon this complicated essay, “Who Owns Black Pain?” in Harper’s Magazine.

It starts with a very interesting look and assessment of “Get Out”, which I have seen three times. I have yet to read (not saying it doesn’t exist but I’m busy and read a lot but also miss things) the take from a black woman that I want to read which is: That is exactly what black men who dismiss black women and our beauty GET. What is? Get Out is. Rose is.

Erika Alexander brought me all of the joy in the world in that movie. All of it. (The only other movie I have seen three times, by the way, is the Ten Commandments, but that’s because my mother had both tapes when I was a kid and I couldn’t help myself. [Charlton Heston was kind of fine as Moses.])

I’m burying the lede, here. My point is not to catch up on the critiques I didn’t share the first three times I watched “Get Out” but to elaborate on something I’ve said before. Something I deeply believe and am troubled by: We live in a culture that prefers to hear about the lived experience of black women from everyone but black American women.

I will not name check them all. But I will say from personal experience and observation that there seems to be a vested interest in hearing from well-known British, African and other “Exotic” women of the African Diaspora about the pain experienced by Black American women. The only thing our culture loves more is to hear from Black men about the ways in which we are undeserving of their love, affection, desire or attention.

The problem is that none of these people are experts in the black American experience because they cannot clearly, definitively or expertly explain the purview or perspective of Black American women. Let’s look at some data.

Years of Census data show that black women are a little over half of the black population in the U.S. and have been for a long time. A recent report released by the National Domestic Workers Alliance explains that 80 percent of us are the breadwinners in our families. We are the majority perspective in our communities, even though people would prefer that it was otherwise. We are the bellwether for what is experienced by our sisters — yes, especially our white sisters — even when folks would rather not hear it.

So it is understandable that some of us — and for the purposes of this blog, I mean me — had a visceral reaction to reading these words from Zadie Smith (italics mine):

“To be clear, the life of the black citizen in America is no more envied or desired today than it was back in 1963. Her schools are still avoided and her housing still substandard and her neighborhood still feared and her personal and professional outcomes disproportionately linked to her zip code. But her physical self is no longer reviled. If she is a child and comes up for adoption, many a white family will be delighted to have her, and if she is in your social class and social circle, she is very welcome to come to the party; indeed, it’s not really a party unless she does come. No one will call her the n-word on national television, least of all a black intellectual. (The Baldwin quote is from a television interview.) For liberals the word is interdicted and unsayable.”

To me, this paragraph simply means that Zadie has not been paying attention.

Yes to the lack of progress for the most part since 1963.

No to the fact that the physical bodies of black woman citizens are not reviled.

Hello, Serena Williams — apparently a naked black pregnant body means that the celebrity pregnancy photo shoot has jumped the shark. Hey, Kodak Black: This dark skinned black woman doesn’t want you, either. I could go on and on for days and days: Black women are most likely to be victimized by Intimate Partner Violence. In Seattle, a mentally ill black mother was shot by police in front of her children. Twitter has been ablaze with the justification of infidelity because Jay Z and Beyonce have wisely monetized the challenges of black love.

In any event, this is not what love looks like.

Also, a college professor who defended Black Lives Matter on Fox News was fired from her job simply because she expressed her personal opinion during her free time. This is not the same as someone calling her a nigger on air. But it is today’s equivalent. Let us not forget the government employees who called First Lady Michelle Obama an ape before she and Barack were even out of the White House yet.

So I thought these things, or I felt them and let them sit with me. Then I read some more of Zadie’s piece:

(On Dana Schutz’ painting of Emmett Till): “Neither of us is American, but the author appears to speak confidently in defense of the African-American experience, so I, like her, will assume a transnational unity. I will assume that Emmett Till, if I could paint, could be my subject too….Now I want to inch a step further. I turn from the painting to my children. Their beloved father is white, I am biracial, so, by the old racial classifications of America, they are “quadroons.” Could they take black suffering as a subject of their art, should they ever make any? Their grandmother is as black as the ace of spades, as the British used to say; their mother is what the French still call café au lait. They themselves are sort of yellowy. When exactly does black suffering cease to be their concern?”

Listen. The definition of blackness in America is like everything else: It persists from slavery times. The persistence of hypodescent, better known as the “one drop rule”, means that actually whatever you are in America, whether you are pledging transnational unity to us or anything else, if you have a drop of black blood in you you are considered black. I don’t have kids. I don’t give parents parenting advice because who am I do to that? However, honey, blackness is not about complexion, it is about blood. Black suffering will always be the concern of your kids, at least on this side of the Atlantic. If you think this is a philosophical question, I invite you to actually talk to some Black American mothers about that.

Speaking of Black mothers:

“I stood in front of the painting and thought how cathartic it would be if this picture filled me with rage. But it never got that deep into me, as either representation or appropriation.”

It must be very nice to gaze upon an artistic representation of Emmett Till without experiencing rage or connection, especially in these times. Here is some data and anecdotal evidence compiled by African American women and scholars on the very real experience of Black women who exhibit symptoms associated with PTSD as a result of their exposure to the violence that has been waged against black children since before and after Emmett Till’s lynching. What is missing here, in this passage and in this piece overall, is a confrontation with the privilege that comes with viewing black pain from a cultural remove informed by geographical framing if not racial difference.

They might as well be the same.

“…I found I resented the implication that black pain is so raw and unprocessed—and black art practice so vulnerable and invisible—that a single painting by a white woman can radically influence it one way or another. Nor did I need to convince myself of my own authenticity by drawing a line between somebody else’s supposed fraudulence and the fears I have concerning my own (thus evincing an unfortunate tendency toward overcompensation that, it must be admitted, is not unknown among us biracial folks). No. The viewer is not a fraud. Neither is the painter. The truth is that this painting and I are simply not in profound communication.”

Again, this is a privilege that Zadie does not recognize in herself. The issue of Dana Schutz’ painting was covered with far more nuance in the New Yorker perhaps because Calvin Tompkins did not have the same penchant for overcompensation. Zadie is allowed to resent whatever she wants about black pain, but if she’s not in communication with a painting about a seminal Black American moment — politically, psychologically and emotionally — that is because it is not a moment that has any meaning for her. That moment or cultural reference point does not require her to feel authentically black. But it also doesn’t mean that she has expertise in how black pain should or should not be processed or how to define it.

Finally, let us discuss this:

“But in this moment of resurgent black consciousness, God knows it feels good—therapeutic!—to mark a clear separation from white America, the better to speak in a collective voice. We will not be moved. We can’t breathe. We will not be executed for traffic violations or for the wearing of hoodies. We will no longer tolerate substandard schools, housing, health care. Get Out—as evidenced by its huge box office—is the right movie for this moment. It is the opposite of post-black or postracial. It reveals race as the fundamental American lens through which everything is seen.”

Which collective voice is this, exactly? From where does it speak? Who agreed? Is this meant to be satirical, or is it real?

We have been moved. We are being moved. We are being suffocated. Not only are we being executed, but the police who are doing so are being acquitted. They walk and we continue to mourn, our black pain exposed and unprocessed. Over and over and over again.

I agree with Zadie on one thing: “Get Out” was cathartic, but not because it is the opposite of post-black or post-racial. Both terms were always fictive. It was cathartic because without its alternate ending, it provides relief from the reality in which we live. Its horrors were amusing to me because they are totally plausible and not at all inconceivable. I was reminded that black bodies, even black women’s bodies, are wanted for what they can offer in terms of plots or potential solutions, but they are never considered the meat of the story. In “Get Out,” as in Dana Shutz’ Emmett Till painting, as in Zadie’s assessment of black pain, there is a distance from the reality of black American women who are the beating heart of what it is to be a black American. That means that an entire core of expertise and authority go missing. Their absence is the real horror.

The answer to who owns black pain is always black women. It lives in us. We sing from it. We die from it. Our identities, our bodies are shaped by it. No one ever asks us what it feels like to never be free of this historical torment and heartbreak, but it might just be that that’s part of being an authority in your own agony.

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Rejection as a Blessing

Until recently, my relationship to rejection has always been extreme. The first time I received a long, thoughtful rejection letter from an agent, I stopped writing anything creative for years. I have always been good at giving over the power of affirmation to other people, which is certainly not the kind of thing you want to be good at.

Some time in 2007, my friend and mentor Evelyn C. White mentioned Hedgebrook to me. She called it the  gold standard of writing residencies. My heart yearned for a place where I could be with my writing that was a gold standard by Evelyn’s description — she is not prone to hyperbole.

So I went after the residency the way I go after everything: With my whole heart. I applied more than five times. I applied so much that when I first applied back in 2008, it was before Hedgebrook went to an online application system. I vividly remember printing and copying multiple double-sided copies, sending the thick envelope along with my hopes and dreams tucked inside.

I should mention that every time I applied, I was in the middle of doing all the things that make up a life: I was working full-time at a local newspaper, writing/editing/revising/printing/sending queries to agents for my memoir, A Beautiful Darkness: A Handbook for Orphans, enrolled in library school, freelancing, not sleeping, falling in love, falling out of love, running marathons, planting gardens, adopting a rescue dog.

The first note I received from Hedgebrook was a letter that arrived by snail mail, informing me that I wasn’t selected this time. In the immediate, I remember grunting and thinking, “There won’t be a next time, but oh, well.”

I was disappointed, but ready to move on and never apply again. Thankfully, Evelyn had other plans.

“I can’t think of one woman I know who was accepted the first time,” Evelyn wrote to me when I bemoaned facing rejection again. I soak up the wisdom of others like a sponge, and Evelyn is excellent and generous at sharing it. “The sooner you understand any and all ‘rejections’ as blessings, the better off you’ll be.”

She went on to share with me that when you ask for something, you have to be ready to receive it. And for all the reasons I mentioned above – from my insecurities as a writer to the chaotic overwork that I used to love to be at the center of – I was not ready for a good long while to receive what it would mean to be at a place like Hedgebrook. Which is why each time I applied and the rejection came, as the years passed, a sense of inevitability began to sink in until I forgot about what I thought I should feel and truly began to feel like I wanted a place to just be with my work for a good stretch of time to find out what I could make if I could only focus.

Almost nine years after my first application to Hedgebrook, when I got news I had been accepted — one of 40 women writers out of an applicant pool of more than 1700 — I was unable to contain my joy. Of course, I told Evelyn, who was thrilled that I had not given up. I also shared the news with stacia l. brown, who had encouraged me to try one last time.

If not for their encouragement, for their reminders of rejection as a blessing, I would have missed out on what greeted me at Hedgebrook. The women who organize, manage and nurture both the farm itself and the women writers who visit have every reason to pride themselves on what they call their radical hospitality. The goal of our Hedgebrook residency was centered around doing what we needed to do for ourselves for the time we were there.

Not surprisingly, for me, that meant sleeping in. Resetting my relationship with my phone, because I didn’t have reliable service in my cottage or elsewhere on the island, really. And writing — longhand, in notebooks that I’ve hoarded during back-to-school sales and on my laptop when I just didn’t have the patience, or my characters didn’t, to take my time.

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Deer Lagoon.

I learned to get a wood fire going. I realized that I didn’t need to check my email every 10 minutes or watch my Twitter timeline relentlessly – that, in fact, not doing these things could lead to a lot of productivity that I may have previously been afraid of. After all, if you don’t write something, you don’t have to worry about what happens to it next.

Maybe because producing was the only goal, I wrote more than I could have imagined. I almost finished the sequel to my novella, All City. I wrote a handful of essays about the dismissal of black American women writers, reflections on being an Obama appointee, thoughts on writing. I finished the draft of a multigenerational story of Bronx girls and women who each try to live out the dreams of their foremothers, with varying degrees of success. And then, out of nowhere, a novel that I started back in 2011, popped up with a notion of what it wanted to become, so I wrote that.

Every other day, in the afternoon, I walked or jogged to Deer Lagoon. To marvel at the trees. To admire the beautiful birds. To see if Mount Rainier was visible that day. To watch the water: still or rippling in brutal waves, the ducks just riding with all of it.

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Useless Bay.

I’d sit on a gray plastic bench and look out at what I called the ocean. Technically, it’s a bay. But it was exquisite. I thought of Isak Dinesen’s quote: “The cure for anything is salt water: tears, sweat or the sea.”

Not only did I write dispatches to Evelyn from Hedgebrook, I also got to meet and share work with other amazing women writers who I came to love and respect. We had incredibly affirming discussions about how to keep ourselves and our work safe in a world that remains hostile to us and does not seem to be getting more loving. We read each others’ work, astounded and appreciative of the talent in the room.

We played Scrabble. We ate our fill of delicious, lovingly prepared meals. We walked in the dark night, glancing at the stars in wonder, our flashlights lighting a path for us back to our temporary homes.

Nine years, five, even two years ago, I would not have known how to settle into a place like Hedgebrook. It was true: Rejection had been a blessing; it had delayed my trip there until I was ready for it. I won’t go so far as to say that I’m looking forward to hearing “no” more often, but now when I do, I am aware that it doesn’t mean no forever. It just means not yet, not now.

 

 

On Gloria Naylor and The Beautiful Darkness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another Season

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Self-care in a time of racial terror

A friend and I were discussing the heroics of Bree Newsome this weekend when I ran out of things to say. Driving in the rain, attending to the life chores that are demanded of us, I was at a loss for how to describe the light that filled me when I saw the video of her climbing that flag pole, descending with Scripture on her lips, calmly informing the irritated men on the ground that she was prepared to be arrested.

The image of her holding on to that flag like a New Age Lady Liberty gave me chills. But it was something else. It felt like permission to breathe after a series of stories in the news that have left me breathless. It was not unlike President Obama’s eulogy for Rep. Clementa Pinckney in Charleston, which was not only one of the most beautiful speeches I’ve ever heard, but also a pointed affirmation of the power of black love to restore back to us our humanity.

In a world where black women are too often invisible, Bree Newsome was and is a symbol of renewal. She gave me life with her act of rebellion, a symbol of how the resilience of black womanhood sometimes eclipses detrimental symbols of hatred. The echo, was “She did it herself.” #WeHelpOurselves, indeed.

Has it been a year, or several months, or an eternity that these headlines have been assaulting us? In the aftermath of Charleston, Dylann Roof, Rachel Dolezal, McKinney, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Marissa Alexander, Rekia Boyd, and the other names of the dead, dying, racially infused, racially polarized or racially symbolic, I have found myself more weary from the news than ever.

There was a time when I felt adrenaline coursing through my veins logging on to social media, to see what news the day or night had brought. Now, I feel a sense of dread and mourning on first glance and it only takes a few minutes for me to feel like I should crawl right back into bed and forget the day.

I have, for all of my adult life, been tethered to the news as a journalist and a writer. Newsrooms were my first sense of community, after the context of classrooms and schools. Even before I became a journalist officially fifteen years ago, I inhaled newspapers and sometimes local TV news in the Bronx. When I was just a consumer, I had the leisure of controlling my consumption. I could put down the paper or magazine; I could turn the TV off. I could create some distance.

I still have that choice but the game has changed. Writing is not just who I am and what I do but it is how I survive in the world. To be a writer, now, is to also be considered a journalist, especially if you are a black writer. These are not problems in and of themselves, but they present special challenges.

When I was researching my new book, I read a line from a journalist of color who said that she was expected to be both a witness to the struggles in her community and an interpreter for her white editors. Though I no longer work in a newsroom, I experience this same conundrum, along racial and political lines. Reaction is considered reporting.

My friend told me what she had read about the Confederate flag, about Dylann Roof, too, and she started to share. I appreciated getting the filtered version from her, I said, but I told her that I had stopped reading the glut of information that came in. Because it was painful. It was too much. I needed time to process and to feel and to see my own emotions, to grieve. To regain some sense of power. To breathe.

Research affirms that black women react differently to witnessing traumatic events than other groups and that includes experiencing the news. There is something about our double jeopardy, our doubly oppressed status that triggers a response in us that is similar to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. We lose our appetites. Our sleep is disrupted. We feel anger, fear, despair.

I thought about this again when I watched What Happened, Miss Simone? which chronicles the life and demise of Nina Simone, the high priestess of soul who was not only undone by manic depression but also her political expressions of rage against racism and racial terrorism. In the film, you can see how systemic racism squelched not only her voice but her spirit.

What black women know, what we feel, at all times, is that there are multiple prices to pay for acknowledging our truth and speaking it. We have seen it over the decades. Strange fruit, swinging from the trees. Literally, figuratively.

As a black woman writer, I pay two tolls when news of racial terrorism breaks: the first is the impact it has on my body and spirit; the second is the weight of expectation that I perform my reaction, that at the very least, I publicly process the act of witness, making that more of a priority than reconciling a deluge of images, commentary and reporting over my internal, personal processing.

To be black in America is to know that few people care about your health or safety or well-being.

It is to live daily with the reality of a horrific, skyrocketing suicide rate among little black children who do not have the luxury of believing we care about a future that affirms their lives.

It is to be told outright or by silence that even when you have nothing to say, even when you are too tired to react or respond, you stand in the gap. But for grace, you might be dead now, so speak, in spite of weariness or fear or dread.

There is truth in that. It is also true that self-care is a political act. An assertion of worth. An assertion of the belief that you deserve silence and time. You deserve your love and attention as much as anything or anyone else.

Sometimes, when I am silent, it is not because of apathy, but an abundance of feeling. An acknowledgment that I need to step back before lashing out. To rediscover joy. To heal. To witness. To hold symbols of hate in my hands and work to dismantle them while praying the consequences that unfold will not destroy my life.

Learning to be Big

I left work completely devastated and in a lot of emotional pain.

I was in a season of severe self-doubt, mired in worry. This was about business, about a professional transition, but it was more than that. I was feeling like I was doing something and I had done something that is all too familiar and damaging to my writing life.

I was in so much pain because I was trying to be small.

As it usually does, it took my best friend’s observation to get me to stop with the ugly crying and chest heaving.

“You are always trying to be small and I don’t understand it,” she said. “But literally nothing about you is small.”

Nothing about me is small.

I have a big laugh, a big smile. I have big feet, a big heart, and a big gift.

This is obvious to so many people, but until now, it has not been at all obvious to me. I don’t take these things for granted as much as I have been so busy thinking of other things that I haven’t allowed myself space to think about this.

My first thought was of Marianne Williamson, because this quote has been a part of my life since I was a teenager. It was my dear friend Portia, when we were pen pals (remember those?) 20 years ago who transcribed it in her remarkably beautiful penmanship in purple ink:

Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We are all meant to shine, as children do. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It’s not just in some of us; it’s in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.

These are nice words and I like them and I loved to read them. I read them many times over the years. Each time, I felt the recognition of their truth but I didn’t  own being a child of God. Not really. I talked about it. I wanted desperately to believe it. But I also wanted to hide my lamp under a bushel, even if Scripture is pretty plain about why that’s not a good Standard Operating Procedure.

It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. When I was a kid, I was literally smaller. Well, thinner. But I longed to have girth and heft, to be seen, to be a force like my mother, who was physically solid, strong.

The thing about visibility for women, for black women and girls, is that when you are seen, you are also a target. My bookish nerd brain decided, once in the Bronx, where most of us are invisible by default, and again when I entered the workforce, that the best way to keep from being a target of anything was to shrink.

This is where being mildly introverted comes in handy. It allowed me to fold myself and my personality up and tuck it quietly between the pages of a book. This presents to others as a feminine virtue, I think, as modesty and humility. Perhaps I also have some of that, but primarily, this was about survival.

Because God has a sense of humor, my height was always the main inconvenience on this front. Except for the random times when they were lining us up in reverse size order during elementary school — once a year! — I was the last or second to last person in a size order line.

Always visible from the front.

Always subject to someone’s question about my nonexistent basketball-playing ability.

Never ready for the attention.

I think some of this comes from not being used to having things. I wonder if that’s why it has taken so long to accept and to grow into the power of presence that my height has given me or the gift of writing. After all, the natural reaction to being unaccustomed to having things is to give them away.

I gave my power and gifts away in so many ways as a girl and a younger woman that it is impossible to recount them all, and merciless to try. The main reason I wanted to shrink is because of a feeling of deep guilt about succeeding in my life where my mother had failed. She wanted so much for her dreams to come to fruition she repeated them daily until she got sick. She chased them until she decided she was ready to move on to the ultimate dream.

I carried, while Mom was alive, this feeling of both wanting her to have everything that I earned and knowing that I needed to keep what was mine. She had raised me, she had given me this wellspring of compassion and empathy — for all of the difficulty that had come with it. Someone should compensate her for the hard life she had lived, I thought, even though I realized that some of the hard living was her choice.

She said she was jealous and that she wanted me to soar. What I took from those two statements was a rejection of anything I did because she couldn’t have the things she wanted most.

So to believe in my own expansion or expansiveness felt like a betrayal of her. Our mother is the beacon whose every word and action sets our moral and emotional compass. I found myself longing to move out from under my discomfort by undermining and sabotaging myself. Becoming flat. Quiet. Discreet. It seemed there could be only one big woman between us.

I let her be the sun and the sky. I was content to be a shadow, even a few years after her death.

The weird thing about grief is that it can set off in you a series of unconscious reactions. When you lose your footing, when you lose ground, the first thing God sends you is a reminder of what is familiar. You can chose to cling to the blanket or toss it aside for more discomfort in order to grow.

I clung to the blanket. I met people who reminded me so much of my mother; they displayed her ambivalence about how I should be in the world more than anything else. It happened in friendships, new and old, that had run their course for too long. It happened at work and in love, when I was least aware of how my playing small was at the core of so much suffering.

They assured me in one breath that they could nurture me and help me shine. In another, they helped me sabotage myself with manipulation and envy. Even when I was trying so desperately to be small, I was still, apparently, a threat.

It took falling apart in my best friend’s kitchen for me remember myself, to begin to see myself as others see me.

It has always been unfortunately comfortable for me to feel as though my success as a writer has come at the expense and inconvenience of others; That by becoming bigger, becoming my full self, unfolding the fullness of God’s gift to me, I would somehow be stepping on someone else, taking more than I am worthy to have. Being what the world often tells black women we are: Too big for my own britches.

It turns out that I have, in this way, been my own worst enemy. I’m forgiving myself for that, for the fact that I have never really loved myself enough to believe that it is enough to believe in my own expansion.

It is enough to give yourself permission to divest yourself of the opinions and reactions and feelings of others. You can feel and be as limitless as the horizon if you are willing to allow yourself to have all that you are capable of having and become all you are capable of becoming.

I am stepping into the big shoes that have always been mine to fill, at least I am working toward that. Life is too short to settle for a corner, for a side part, a dark shadow. At least, that’s what I’ve been told and it’s what I’ve seen. It is scary but beautiful and necessary to stand in the light or — even better — to become a brighter sun.

Coming Soon — All About Skin: Short Fiction by Women of Color

My life is now complete with the possibility that Junot Diaz actually may have possibly read my work to come up with this blurb. But even if not, I’m thrilled to have my short story, Sirens, included in this amazing anthology. (You can hear an excerpt at my friend Stacia’s great Bellow series link.)

Here’s more info about the collection, and the amazing company I get to be in:

All about Skin features twenty-seven stories by women writers of color whose short fiction has earned them a range of honors, including John Simon Guggenheim Fellowships, the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award, the Flannery O’Connor Award, and inclusion in the Best American Short Stories and O. Henry anthologies. The prose in this multicultural anthology addresses such themes as racial prejudice, media portrayal of beauty, and family relationships and spans genres from the comic and the surreal to startling realism. It demonstrates the power and range of some of the most exciting women writing short fiction today.

The stories are by American writers Aracelis González Asendorf, Jacqueline Bishop, Glendaliz Camacho, Learkana Chong, Jennine Capó Crucet, Ramola D., Patricia Engel, Amina Gautier, Manjula Menon, ZZ Packer, Princess Joy L. Perry, Toni Margarita Plummer, Emily Raboteau, Ivelisse Rodriguez, Metta Sáma, Joshunda Sanders, Renee Simms, Mecca Jamilah Sullivan, Hope Wabuke, and Ashley Young; Nigerian writers Unoma Azuah and Chinelo Okparanta; and Chinese writer Xu Xi.

My Writing Process: Forget what you hear about writing

Nicole D. Collier, one of my favorite members of my virtual writing tribe, asked me to participate in the blog tour. Since I love to read and write about writing (in lieu, sometimes, of actually writing) and I’ve noted that some other writers I admire and respect, including Tananarive Due, Tayari Jones and Daniel Jose Older have all participated, I thought I’d add my humble thoughts and impressions to the mix.

1) What are you working on?

I am working on a book about how racism and sexism have contributed to the demise of traditional journalism and how people of color (and organizations, websites and companies that recognize their value) are changing the media landscape in important but often unacknowledged ways. I have also written a memoir in progress (excerpts have appeared in Huizache, Gawker and TED, among other publications) and every now and then, the poetry that I love comes back. I have worked for years on a short story that turned into a novella about the daughter of a train conductor and the graffiti artist she loves in the Bronx that I know will be published in some form someday.
2) How does your work differ from others’ work in the same genre?

This is an interesting question and frankly, not one that I think too much about. I am willing to admit that not thinking much about it might work to my detriment. Because there are so few people of color who are published and promoted well for work that is for people of color, in that we are the main audience and about people of color that also includes class diversity and is concentrated on the African-American experience, my creative writing and poetry are different from others’ in the sense that I am tacitly aware of internal and external geographies, their impact on how and when and where we tell our stories and how those stories are positioned or excluded from mainstream and popular cultural narratives about people of color — specifically black women. I hope that my reverence, appreciation and empathy for the intersections of my experience are reflected in the work.

The same is true for nonfiction. The main difference in my nonfiction writing is that I am fully aware of the power of the truth, or a truth, to change a life because it is how I was shaped as a young reader who dreamed of being a writer. I love that saying that the creative adult is the child who survived — that is the internal location or spiritual location I write from.

It helps that I have a wealth of traditional newspaper reporting experience, which gives me the power of knowing how to completely own a deadline and the discipline of structure while also giving me the confidence that comes with having failed and made mistakes and learned that failure, or whatever is subjectively considered failure is not the end of the world. There is always something more to write. I think my nonfiction is different from others’ who write memoir, essays and other nonfiction in that I seek to offer information for others to investigate or parse through instead of as a definitive statement or argument.I try to be authoritative without being obstinate and lyrical without trying too hard. I also try not to be too hard on myself when I fail at either of those.
3) Why do you write what you do?

One of the things that brought me a lot of comfort and joy as a young woman and a budding writer was reading elegant, beautiful and clear work about people of color who are traditionally not given models of ourselves in literature that have these elements. I write about women, women of color, the poor and working class and other people of color so that I can be a part of creating the beauty in the world that is otherwise missing when it comes to these groups. Perhaps because of postracial and postfeminist rhetoric, to some people it seems to be redundant and outdated to state and restate how important it is to be committed to writing about black women, especially those who are the least visible in classical or predominantly white canons, but I know how significant it was for me to read Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens, for instance, while I was self-parenting and supporting my mother in ways that were beyond my young years or to read bell hooks and Cornel West in seventh grade before I understood what they were even talking about in Breaking Bread. The same can be said of the multi-volume memoirs of Maya Angelou who showed me that while it took courage, confidence and grace to be a Renaissance woman (she was a tall black woman, too, like me — and Octavia Butler!) it was possible to overcome a lot of internal and external resistance to do so.
4) How does your writing process work?

I have multiple processes and I think all creatives do. I write all the time. I write on my phone. I write little notes in a notebook that I usually carry around with me. I prefer to write longhand, which is slower than typing, and to transcribe. I love to write longhand when something is particularly meaningful to me or requires the kind of granular detail that I need to retain. (The most recent example of one piece I did this with is this blog about leaving Austin.)

I don’t necessarily write everyday anymore but I used to, faithfully, for many years. I think you build writing time into your life in a way that is completely natural for you. Do it in a way that doesn’t make it feel like so much work. I actually love work and am addicted to work, so for me, working doesn’t carry a negative connotation in the same way that say, relaxation does (No pun intended, I am working on that. I realize that I ain’t like everybody that way.) But the main problem new and/or young writers seem to face related to process is that they associate writing with work. I say do whatever you need to do to get rid of that mentality and get out of your own way in whatever way you need to to go from being a person who has always wanted to write to being a writer…because writers write. I value my work and the luxury and privilege I have to do it so much that I approach the page as a way to share the gifts that were bestowed upon me and to honor the many different people I’ve known who wished that they had the luxury of sitting down at a page to write.

Writers write but they should also read. I read everything, which is a significant part of my writing process. I believe heartily in taking notes. For nonfiction, I take copious notes. Everywhere — in the book, in a separate notebook, on Post-Its.

I write at all hours, but my best writing gets done when I have the least distractions which is either early in the morning or in the middle of the night. I try mightily to get every last bit of doubt or concern about anything else out of my head while I’m writing a draft and then go back to it when I have some sense and some energy and I can revise. Revision is the heart of my work and the most enjoyable and the most irritating part of being a writer. I revise most things I write a half-dozen times — even blogs — before I am satisfied with word choice and structure and order. Outlines can be really helpful for big projects, but I am not wedded to them.

On June 9th, two of my favorite writers and favorite women are going to post on their blogs about their writing process. Both of these ladies are two of the sweetest people I’ve ever met and their support has helped to keep me writing during some of my lowest points. I hope you’ll read and share their work widely.

Jo Scott-Coe is a fantastic nonfiction author, fellow tall woman and excellent teacher.

Juanita Mantz and I met at VONA in 2012 and her work has been published at xoJane and elsewhere.

 

 

Poem: For writers

Do not wait for validation

the language at war with currency.

Feast instead on self possession

& poems:

The stories of the ones before us,

The dreams of our descendants.

Narratives that remind our hearts how to soar.

 

No one is coming to proclaim your talent rough or refined.

You are your only true nemesis,

a house divided against its productivity.

 

Do not wait to write.

Not for love, nor money;

Not for attention nor glory.

 

Do it to heal &

because you are compulsive &

because the story claws at your attention &

because those words weigh down the gut,

& wring them from your core

until you can’t do anything but devour experience

or starve for want of stories

to give your language life.

 

Live deeply in moments that give to you

the broadest horizons

& make for yourself worlds that

delicately remind us

how powerful it is to reach beyond the limits we

dream for ourselves while we are yet

never sleeping.

 

Finally,

Forget this advice

& anyone else’s.

You are the best author of your destiny,

after all.

This, too,

is noise you’ve read

to keep from writing.

 

Genuflect only at the altar of creation.

 

Not a single thing

will ever match the importance of

your devotion.

4.29.14

 

Breaking Up With Your City – Next City

When I became a journalist, I realized that I was in love with wandering as much as the thrill of the chase. I craved monogamy — in love and in a city — but I was greedy, too. I wanted all of the sprawling urban wild of Houston and the quiet hospitality of East Texas and the seafood with a view of Mount Rainier from Seattle. I wanted San Francisco to be as black and beautiful as Oakland and for the whole Bay Area to offer housing as affordable as the South. For minutes at a time, I could stand tracing the lines of the New York subway system on a map like they were veins in a lover’s forearm.

My Valentine’s Day piece about breaking up with Austin, which I’ll always have a special fondness for. You can read the rest here: http://bit.ly/1mg0i3h