What is it? Which is it: Art? Commentary? Joke? Warning? Invitation?
I’m on the third floor of City Hall, checking out the topographical map of Old Cambridge (then called Newtowne.) A young, energetic photographer beside me, gazing on the faded gray and little bumps of green, the expanse of woods and winding Charles River, says, “Wow. Can you imagine living back then? So much green!” She sighs wistfully. I slant her a look.
“Mmm,” I respond. “I’m all set. In that Cambridge, I would have been a slave, and you’d probably be an indentured servant.”
My mother, my partner, and I are doing that ridiculous thing where we’re waiting outdoors in a line, in winter, to get tidbits of free chocolate. We’re at Harvard Square’s annual festival because it’s fun, and we apparently enjoy riding that edge of discomfort and delight. As we bob and wiggle to keep warm, a young woman makes her way down the line, handing out flyers. I want to avoid her but politeness makes me meet two bright eyes as she asserts her message: come to our rally to help end human trafficking!!
The irony slaps me and I want to laugh: how do you think I got here?
By my early twenties, I had settled on how it was going to be for me, life-long:
Nearly halfway through my life and so, so far from the front lines, why am I writing about this now?
I guess ’cause eight years ago, when Obama was first getting elected to our country’s most public/most maligned office, white strangers with tiny HOPE buttons suddenly started striking up conversations with me on public transit. Because kids-these-days are using crazy terms like intersectionality and finding ways to classify and re-see unseen gender identities (cis & trans & ???). Because in three out of three cities where I regularly spend time, residents have various and continued opportunities to engage in conversations about race and gender.
Norms that I’ve long wished weren’t the norm are getting Grizzly-smacked right out of the water while I watch.
As a kid learning about American Civil Rights, I assumed the effort was something with which everyone got involved, for better or ill. The whole country, struggling. Text books failed to get across the nuance of those decades where some joined, some didn’t, some hid, some fought, some died, and some weren’t even cognizant -absorbed in childcare or studying Latin or pulling lobster traps over the side of a boat.
Now, I understand as I watch young people define a new movement. It’s a strange, somewhat disembodying experience, walking past Black Lives Matter signs. Part of me says duh! and another part says wow. I can taste the desire to re-establish the platform of faith and ideals from which we’ve been slipping. In my imagination, today’s efforts reverberate back to the folks behind me – the original Sinclairs and Newbys, whose worth was written: sugar, cotton, blood. In a way, I understand those signs hanging over churches and in stores and dorm windows to be a whisper: We hear you. Thank you.
But did you notice that distinction, how I keep walking past –my multi-partial self who hasn’t yet found it in me to act as activist, to choose? I want a way to choose ALL the sides, without devaluing a single one. I want to devise a cyclone-of-uplift that gathers up Asian folk and Native folk and generationally-poor whites who see #blacklivesmatter and feel tightness in their chests. I want a way to look across my cities and see versions of me with my hair represented at all levels, for it to not be a surprise or special treat. I want an end to supposed firsts, a ladder leading back to variation upon variation. I want to discover a solution to forgetting.
I mean, why should my slave heritage be any less proud than a ship to some island where they changed your name? Both were taught to me in school; far as I’m concerned, both histories are mine.
I’m strolling through Harvard Yard. It’s early spring and the sun is warm, dappled, and accenting the beauty of two brown students as they stand beside a redbrick building, amicably arguing about ‘wokeness’. The young man claims depth and veracity. The young woman teasingly, amicably shakes her head: unconvinced.
Woke. The poet in me loves that term. The MTV Generation punk, the alt-view malcontent, who is learning and making mistakes, who feels equal parts curious and cautious . . . and hopeful.
Smiling to myself as I catch snatches of the students’ debate, I half applaud/half mock them, conjugating: She woke. He a-woke?
We re-woke to the reality.
It’s not just that spring has arrived in Boston . . .
It’s that it’s arrived for my favorite tree along the Muddy River Path.
Robins pull worms, Canada Geese graze their fuzzy goslings in the young grass, but my eyes are for this sparsely flowered specimen of spindly grace.
Dear Stranger Whose Business Suit-clad Rear I . . . Bumped:
Remember me? I’m the ‘little black girl’ who ‘smacked your butt’ on the Red Line headed towards Alewife. I swear it was an accident.
We must have been crossing the salt and pepper bridge because I remember the train car being well lit. I recall the echo of train wheels rolling up and over and across, Charles River glinting below. It wasn’t a packed car, but it also wasn’t empty, so probably other passengers witnessed my transgression.
Business Suit Dude: you had leaned over to fuss with the bag at your feet when the train swayed and my arm . . . swayed. There was contact: your tush, my hand. I remember thinking a muzzy uh-oh! when I realized I was too late to resist the motion.
You shot up, squeaking in surprise. Or maybe it was a gasp. (I assure you, the sound you produced
maybe wasn’t was very manly.) However it’s best described, your response contained an implicit ‘oh!’, which, if you were a 80’s-raised black woman like myself, may have been followed with an outraged ‘you didn’t just do that!’ But you were a white dude, probably late 30s, early 40s, and, judging by your shocked expression, this was not an interaction you’d ever envisioned.
You gaped. I shrugged one shoulder and, as an afterthought, added a disarming, half-sorry smile.
My bad. I probably should have been less amused?
In any event, dear Business Suit, you have my 78% sincere apology. I hope you don’t mind that I’ve re-told this story many dozens of times. Don’t worry, you’re always the victim.
Somewhere along the wandering lines of my life, I started thinking of New Jersey as the Mothership. Born and raised in the Township of Neptune, this description seems appropriate.
Though the sand and soil on which my baby toes trod has no true name beyond what we humans (temporarily) bestow, I too am named. Jersey girl. Tristate resident, East Coast style. Yankee. American.
I leave, yet I do not. The smells, the sights, the feel are stamped upon my brain. Every new place I visit I impulsively, helplessly compare. Haven’t lived on that crabgrass patch, that blond stretch of overheated beach, that collection of crab shacks and kitsch, that mass of shopping malls, for twenty years, but nor can I abandon it. Follows me -to the Ring of Kerry, to Paris, to Boston, everywhere. The Garden State can’t stop, won’t stop, refuses to let me go. And I find I don’t want it to.
Hey, Mama Jersey –beam me up!
Thank you for so many things.
For being the pop-culture bookend of my life, opposite Michael Jackson.
For displaying your flamboyant masculinity that operated in wild, electric opposition to the stoic, colorless, emotion-stripped version I was sold in school and social life.
For your lush, full-band sound and music gifts that were the soundtrack to my childhood: 1999, When You Were Mine, Little Red Corvette, Raspberry Beret, Purple Rain, Sign O’The Times, Diamonds & Pearls, Kiss, and Nothing Compares 2 You.
For not being too annoyed or embarrassed to show up to those award shows where the greater Black community claimed you so desperately, it must have chafed. Or, one might say, for your grace.
For showing us how to reclaim your Self when corporations tried to own you beyond what was appropriate or possible.
Finally, it was your image I recognized when I noticed a comic on the wooden, window-side shelf at Carla’s Book Shop in Neptune City, NJ. Strongbow, the character created by Wendy Pini, resembled Prince but behaved like Clint Eastwood, and he drew me into one of my great loves –Elfquest in particular, comic books in general.
Lastly, thank you for purple. I vote we, in the U.S., rename that color for you. ROY G BIP for evah.
Red orange yellow green blue indigo PRINCE
Interrupting this regularly scheduled WHL to re-post tweets. Yeah, I said it.
A Bit of Background
This past week, I participated in an event where I pitched two of my unpublished novel manuscripts on Twitter as part of an event called #DVpit. Essentially, it was a giant, Twitter Accelerated Slush Pile for would-be, hope-to-be, will-be authors, specifically writers of color and/or folks from marginalized or underrepresented communities, and works featuring the same. Why?
Because have you seen publishing? Because agents and editors and writers and readers and their familiars have long been feeling the lack and seek to address it with, among other perhaps more traditional methods, ❤‘s.
Something About Process
I have an affinity for hyper-summary. Usually I can’t get this function to work with my own writing, but thanks to #DVpit (Kudos Supreme to organizer, literary agent Beth Phelan) I was inspired to get down in it, chopping words LEFT and RIGHT! The situation looked a lot like this:
OK Fine, The Tweets
For the most part, these are posted in the order I wrote them, with the initial efforts taking themselves quite seriously and the latter . . . well. You’ll see.
Note: mg = middle grade; novelette = wee novel
Recently I trimmed my To Read list to around 100 books, down from 160. Why? Well, I’ve long been aware of the likeliness I won’t survive it, especially with how I cheat on my list. Prodigiously.
It can be disconcerting to stare your mortality in the mouth with each log-in to a website that is intended to provide hours of . . . you know, nerd-alicious, collect-em-all delight (as well as sell me things. Don’t play coy, social media. We know.)
I’d been telling myself for months, seasons, years, to aggressively trim my To Read list. Only the books I honestly want to read; that I’m likely to. Nothing I’ve already read and wish to read again (count those ‘done’). None of those coquettish frips that briefly turn my gaze during a bookstore browse or library-stack wander, web crawl.
Truly, the browse must be considered the enemy of all tidy, thoughtfully curated To Read lists. The browse will skillfully and blithely seduce your partner, steal your bosom buddies, and convince your parents that honestly?, it would have made a better child.
It’s a home wrecker, the browse. I love it. By which I mean I succumb to it. Often.
Exhibit A as to why my To Read list never got any shorter, no matter how I apply myself to ordering library books online, shortly delivered straight to my grubby paws. (Digital library catalogues are an amazing, boundless, fortuitous magic. If you haven’t yet availed yourself –don’t. There’s no room for you. It’s for ME.)
Borrowing from comedians, I’ve transformed my problem into a punch line: I’m not going to survive my reading list! (Hahah! Lets joke about our deaths.) I know for a fact that I cannot claim a speck of originality. Plenty of people pre-mourn their lives; some even produce clever, pictographic charts that terrify my friends.
The awful truth is, of course, that my Goodreads To Read list is by no means comprehensive. Why? Because I read nearly everything. Blame a life-long habit instilled by my parents. Blame curiosity. Heck, blame the printing press and desktop publishing! Everywhere I go, something to read . . .
Non-exhaustive list of reading
Thankfully, there are also things I don’t read:
What about you? Say you meet your reading list in an alley and, zimbo-bapo!, you magically gain martial arts skillz . . . WHO WILL WIN?!
Dear Youngish Dude on the B Train:
Remember, that time on the Green Line, when I dropped blueberry muffin crumbs on you? I wasn’t sure if I should reach down and sweep them from your shoulder and leg, because: a.) too obvious an admission of my transgression and b.) intimate. (Sidenote: isn’t it funny/curious/strange how, if I elbow a person or singe someone with angry eye beams for getting too close or fresh, that act is somehow less intimate, despite common elements touch and eye-contact?)
Dude: I didn’t know you. You didn’t know me, but there you were, dotted with fluffy crumbs. There I was, swaying from a nearby handhold, struggling against rising tides of mortification and laughter. I recall coming to a decision, taking the risk to casually brush a creamy-yellow muffin fluff from your nearest shoulder. (I wouldn’t dare get so forward as to brush your leg.)
Train jerked. Muffin jostled, and more crumbs joined their cousins on your person. You still didn’t seem to notice but, on my end, all hope for a graceful recovery was dashed.
Dude on the B Train: my bad. Wherever you are, I wish you well (and muffins).