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Danielle is a Memphis-born writer living and working in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in Literary Hub, Velamag, The Rumpus and Blackberry.

‘Give It Up For My Sister’: Beyonce, Solange, and The History of Sibling Acts in Pop

Frank Micelotta, Frank Leonhardt, Evan Agostini, Chris Pizzello, Jordan Strauss, Hubert Boesl / AP, Illustration by Homestead

Danielle A. Jackson | Longreads | May 2019 | 10 minutes (2,597 words)

Houston-born sisters Beyoncé and Solange Knowles couldn’t be more different. They emit different energies, seem to vibrate at different frequencies. Solange is the emo Cancerian who lunged at her brother-in-law in an elevator. Beyoncé, the preternaturally polished Virgo, clung to the corner and fixed her dress. Lately, I’ve been hung up on how they’re similar. I think it’s because, for people who’ve paid attention, it’s their differences that got drilled into us over the years. By the time Solange released her first record in December 2002, Beyoncé, with Destiny’s Child, had released four albums, earned three Grammy Awards, and was in the final recording sessions for her solo debut. Focusing on their differences was probably a strategic move dreamed up by their father, and, at the time, manager, Matthew Knowles, to maximize the commercial viability of the two artists. Yet, seventeen years later, in the spring of this year, both siblings released albums and accompanying films with musings on “home.”

The two projects are like fraternal twins—individually interesting, but fun and compelling to think about in relation. Both follow albums that were career highlights. Both build their foundations on rhythm, the voice, and vocal harmony. Both marry light and sound and knit their soundscapes into images. Both depend on the improvisational skill of a cohort of contributors. Beyoncé’s project, the live album companion to her Netflix documentary “Homecoming,” documented her two headlining sets at last year’s Coachella and layered the visuals and sonics of HBCU pageantry atop references to a specific, Southern emanation of blackness. Solange’s fifth studio album, When I Get Home, traveled the exact same terrain, but in a far-out, deconstructed way, with references to cosmic jazz and psychedelic R&B, black cowboys, undulating hips and mudras, and the skyscrapers and wide, green lawns of the sisters’ hometown.

It’s logical that if two people share a childhood home, they grow up to be into the same things. But it’s taken time — for us, as audiences, to widen our perspectives enough so that we can see, in the same frame, how they’re similar and how they’re not. It’s taken time for the two sisters to grow comfortable enough being themselves while publicly navigating the music industry as black women. To differentiate herself from her sister’s glamorous pop image, Solange initially emanated an alterna-vibe that resonated with those who may have liked Beyoncé, but felt hemmed in by her R&B fantasy, lead-girl-in-a-video perfection. While Bey rocked the trendy low-slung denim of the early aughts, went blonde, and mostly kept a huge mane of loose, blown out curls, Solange wore red box braids, and in her first video, a floor length patchwork skirt. She was the earthier sister, positioned in alignment with the diasporic neo soul scene of the late 90s. She had a baby, got married early, and lived with her young family, for a while, in Idaho. Then she sheared her long locks and quietly rented a brownstone in Carroll Gardens.


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We didn’t linger on or make much meaning from Solange’s time as a background dancer for her sister’s group, or how she’d replaced Kelly Rowland in the lineup for some tour dates when they opened for Christina Aguilera in 2000. But it did raise eyebrows when, during Solange’s Brooklyn years, Beyoncé began showing up at concerts of indie acts her sister put her on to.

Solange’s first album Solo Star covered a lot of musical ground, but didn’t make much of an impact commercially or otherwise. She was then 16. Between 2001 and early 2003, a number of female R&B vocalists made big Top 10 pop albums: Alicia Keys, Janet Jackson, Ameriie, Ashanti, Mya. Beyoncé’s 2003 debut (coupled with the rapid deterioration of the recording industry) seemed to flatten out the pop-R&B landscape like a grenade. Five years later, Solange released the Motown-influenced Sol-Angel and the Hadley Street Dreams, then left her label. She independently released the 2012 EP “True.” Its lead single “Losing You,” a buoyant breakup bop, was a breakthrough. A Seat at the Table, with spoken word interludes that include interviews with her parents about black history and family, came out in the fall of 2016. It was Solange’s first album to debut at number one on the Billboard 200. By then, Beyoncé was talking about her mama’s and daddy’s roots, too, most explicitly, on Lemonade, her sixth studio project as a solo artist, which, just five months before, earned the same chart placement.  

* * *

According to Billboard, besides the Knowles sisters, in the history of the chart there have been only two other pairs of sibling solo artists in which each sibling has earned a number one pop album: Master P and Silkk the Shocker during a run of releases in the late nineties, and Janet and Michael Jackson. The Jacksons’ older brother, Jermaine, The Braxton sisters, Toni and Tamar, and the Simpson sisters, Jessica and Ashlee, have all earned albums in the Top 10. But the only solo siblings to earn number ones during the same calendar year have been Janet and Michael, Solange and Beyoncé.

The two projects are like fraternal twins—individually interesting, but fun and compelling to think about in relation.

Michael famously got his start in a band of brothers, The Jackson Five. After signing to Motown in 1969, their first four singles — “I Want You Back”, “ABC”, “The Love You Save”, and “I’ll Be There” — all went to number one. Their father, Joseph Jackson, a former boxer and steelworker born in Arkansas, managed the band with reportedly horrid methods. Jackie, Tito, Jermaine, and Marlon all became capable musicians individually. But it was Janet, born eight years after Michael and too young to join her brothers’ band, who truly absorbed their ascent. She performed in the family’s variety show and TV sitcoms throughout the 70s, and beginning in the late 80s, released music that, arguably, approached Michael’s impact. Control, Rhythm Nation, Janet., and The Velvet Rope are gorgeous, singular statements that define pop-R&B and still sound alive.

Janet has earned more number one albums than Michael (seven to his six) and her singles have been in the Top 10 for more weeks than his (“That’s the Way Love Goes” was the longest running number one for either of them). For a while, the fiasco of Super Bowl 2004 derailed Janet’s career. She lost endorsement deals and had a long, marked decline in album sales. “Nipplegate” angered then CBS chairman Les Moonves so much that he’d reportedly ordered MTV and VH1 to stop playing her videos. Janet’s black fans always suspected something sinister at play. Last year, the New Yorker and New York Times published sexual assault allegations against Moonves, and his pattern of derailing women’s careers became public knowledge. Janet got inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame this past March, and while that’s somewhat palliative, it doesn’t give back the lost years, or acknowledge her sprawling, multi-medium contributions to entertainment. Still, her reputation hasn’t had the kind of epic blemishes Michael’s has, and our current ferment of empowered, black women singers owes everything to her.

Though they’re starting to, Solange and Beyoncé haven’t leaned all the way in to their shared origin in the way of Michael and Janet in the ”Scream” video, where their charisma and similar, long-limbed, open hip-jointed athleticism is foregrounded in nearly every frame. We got glimpses at Solange’s set at Coachella in 2014, when Bey joined in for a dance break, and its reprise in Bey’s sets, a highlight of the 2019 film. Solange has, like Janet, who sang backup on Thriller, been all over Beyoncé’s catalog. And while coverage of black pop has evolved from the 90s and early 2000s, when Janet got blackballed and Beyoncé and Solange seemed to represent poles on a restricted continuum of what a black woman in pop could be (the glamorous diva vs. the earthy bohemian), it still hasn’t gone far enough.

In Interview, Beyoncé asked her younger sister where she got her inspiration, and she answered,“For one, I got to have a lot of practice. Growing up in a household with a master class such as yourself definitely didn’t hurt.” She also namechecked Missy Elliot, who produced and provided vocals for some of Destiny’s Child’s finest tracks. In other words, she claimed her proximity to her older sister’s career, as nourishment, cultivation, as part of what undergirds her artistry. When Solange’s latest album launched, the NPR music critic Ann Powers made a playlist of its antecedents called the “mamas of Solange.” It included Alice Coltrane, Minnie Riperton, Tweet, Aaliyah, and TLC. It did not include Beyoncé or Destiny’s Child, contemporaries of some of the women who did make the list. Maybe it’s taken for granted? Stevie Wonder’s ambient album The Secret Life of Plants is brought up a lot in relation to When I Get Home, but The Writings on the Wall and Dangerously in Love are also important building blocks of the music Solange and most contemporary pop and R&B artists make. It feels incomplete to not say so. Similarly, when talking about Beyoncé, something’s missing when we don’t acknowledge how indebted she is to the cluster of women around her. Perhaps that’s leftover residue from the marketing machine of the late 90s and early aughts, too — an overemphasis on singularity.

* * *

When I Get Home’s interlude “S. MacGregor,” named after an avenue in Houston’s Third Ward, contains snippets of Phylicia Rashad and Debbie Allen performing a poem their mother, Vivian Ayers-Allen, wrote. Rashad and Allen make up another culturally significant sibling pair. There’s Fame!, The Cosby Show, and A Different World, but also the stage — Rashad is the first black woman to win a lead actress Tony, and Allen was nominated for Tony Awards for West Side Story and Sweet Charity.

Both sisters also had short-lived recording careers. Rashad released a tribute album to Josephine Baker in 1978 and an album of nursery rhymes in 1991. She memorably sang on multiple episodes of The Cosby Show. Allen released Special Look in 1989. It was a pop, dance-R&B concoction that sounds like a harder edged Paula Abdul, whose blockbuster Forever Your Girl had come out the year before. Today, Allen directs for TV and runs Los Angeles’ Debbie Allen Dance Academy, while Rashad directs for the stage.

Allen’s younger than Rashad by 2 years, and they have two older brothers: the jazz musician Andrew Arthur Allen, and Hugh Allen, a banker. Their parents’ nasty divorce in the mid-’80s got covered in Jet. I often wonder about the dynamics in high-intensity, high-achieving households like theirs. Some accounts say Solange felt neglected for parts of her childhood when her older sister’s group became the family business. The five-year age difference is too wide for straightforward competition, but not so for resentment. Some of my earliest memories are the legendary fights between my two older, high-achieving siblings. It still annoys me to think about how much time and energy their rivalry took up (and continues to take up) in our family. In an interview with Maria Shriver last year, Tina Knowles Lawson said she deliberately taught her daughters not to be intimidated by another woman’s shine and sent them to therapy early on to learn to protect and support each other. From the perspective of an outsider, it seems to have worked.

While coverage of black pop has evolved from the 90s and early 2000s, when Janet got blackballed and Beyoncé and Solange seemed to represent poles on a restricted continuum of what a black woman in pop could be, it still hasn’t gone far enough.

Family dynasties are neither new nor newly influential in pop. My mother adored the voice of Karen Carpenter, who’d gotten her start in a duo with her brother, Richard. The LPs of the Emotions, the Pointer Sisters, the Jones Girls, and Sister Sledge were in my  mother’s racks, too, — all vocal groups with at least one pair of siblings. The early years of rock and roll, the doo wop era, is full of crews of schoolmates, like the Chantels, the Marvelettes or the Supremes, or sibling groups like The Andrews Sisters, the Shangri-Las, and the Ronettes. Later, there’s DeBarge, the Emotions, The Sylvers, the Five Stairsteps, Wilson Phillips, the Winans, Ace of Base, Xscape, the Beach Boys, the Bee Gees, the Isley Brothers. Part of me wants to say it’s because of the genre’s origins in domestic spaces like the living room or the stoop, a refuge of creativity against the backdrop of chaotic 20th century urban life. Music education in schools provided training, as did the subtle rigor of the church, where troupes, quartets, and choirs led worship. When describing what’s special about “that sibling sound,” in 2014, Linda Ronstadt told the BBC: “The information of your DNA is carried in your voice, and you can get a sound [with family] that you never get with someone who’s not blood-related to you.” What a voice sounds like, in large part, depends on biology and anatomy—the shape of the head, chest, the construction of the sinus cavities. It makes sense that the sweetest, most seamless harmonizing could happen between people who share DNA. And as audiences, we like being witness to the chemistry of our performers. It can feel fun and somewhat uncanny to watch people who look a little bit alike sing and dance in formation.

None of this completely explains how much popular music has historically been “A Family Affair” (a number one in 1971 for Sly and the Family Stone, a group comprised of Sylvester Stewart and his siblings Freddie and Rose, with baby sister, Vaetta, in charge of the backing vocalists). Or how much, aside from the Jonas Brothers, the top 40 of the past few months is absent sibling groups, or, really, groups of any kind. Haim, the trio of sisters Este, Danielle, and Alana from the San Fernando Valley, had Top 10 albums in 2013 and 2017, and will co-headline this year’s Pitchfork’s festival with the Isley Brothers and Robyn. They sing in effortless three-part harmony, are aggressive on guitar, bass, and percussion, and write their own songs. A New York Times critic called them proudly “anachronistic,” because their sound is a throwback to earlier eras and bands like Fleetwood Mac and Destiny’s Child, whose Stevie Nicks-sampling “Bootylicious,” was the last pop number one from a girl group. In a 2011 piece for The Root, Akoto Ofori-Atta attributed the decline of vocal groups to, among other factors, reduced record label budgets and the “me-first” narcissism of social media. She also suggested the cyclical nature of music trends could mean that audiences will want to hear tight vocal harmonies again. I’d think that was impossible since digitization has meant that people don’t have to sing together anymore. But singing itself has gotten new life from young R&B artists like Ella Mai, Moses Sumney, and H.E.R., so who knows.

In 2015, Beyonce signed the sister duo Chloe+ Halle to her record label. She’d seen them on YouTube performing covers and accompanying themselves on keys in their living room.  The young women sing ethereal, soul-inflected harmonies, play multiple instruments and compose and produce their own music. They’re also actresses with recurring roles on “grown-ish.” Their first studio album The Kids are Alright released last year and earned the group two Grammy nominations. They performed at the ceremony, memorably, in the tribute to Donny Hathaway, and at the Grammy’s tribute to Motown, they performed the Marvelette’s “Please Mr. Postman,” Motown’s first number one. None of the singles from Chloe + Halle’s record have made much of a commercial impact or stuck with me yet, but, based on history, the incubation potential of the vocal group, the sibling group in particular, bodes well for longevity.

 

 

‘Play Another Slow Jam, This Time Make It Sweet’

Kerry Coppin / Chicago History Museum / Getty

Danielle A. Jackson | Longreads | March 2019 |7 minutes (1,794 words)

In a photo dated September 1983, my father stands alone, 30ish, and relaxed, with arms akimbo and a slight belly bulge on a porch outside Superior Baths in Hot Springs, Arkansas. In another image with the same timestamp, my mother reclines on a pink-framed bed and paints her nails. I’d call her posture dainty, how she holds her head at an angle, crosses one bare leg over the other. It is obviously shot by her lover. Before finding this memento of their getaway as an adult, in my mother’s apartment after my father died, I had only my own existence as proof they’d ever been romantic with each other.

I also had incomplete, fragmented memories that felt sharp, scattered about my mind like bits of glass. They are records of fact, but also, possibly, my imagination: a blue light of something lost yet unnamed and refracted back to me. In one, I stand near the front door of our first home as my parents, far away, on the other side of the room, embrace with hips and arms touching. I peek at them above the piece of newspaper I have found to hide my face. The heat of their embrace embarrasses me; their smiles seem private and new. In the other, they slow dance on our fluffy green shag carpet, but I cannot recall what music they dance to.

When I think of my father back then, the Luther Vandross album, Never Too Much comes to mind. Luther wears a leather jacket on the cover, opened to reveal a crisp white shirt and a grin that reaches his watery eyes and creases his forehead. It was his solo debut, after years composing, producing, arranging, and singing backup for, among many, David Bowie, Chic, and Roberta Flack. Luther’s weight fluctuated during those years. He battled hypertension and diabetes and tried to manage it by managing his waistline. Through his first decade of  solo success, when records like, “Any Love,” and “So Amazing,” and “Anyone Who Had a Heart” burned through car stereos on my street, his weight was the subject of loving jokes from his fans. Big Luther’s voice was better, sexier, more supple than little Luther’s, people would say.


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My father’s weight went up and down during those years, too. When we were closest, he was merely portly, but he smoked and drank cans of Pepsi in rapid succession. This worried me, so with my mother’s help, I made a case for him to quit cigarettes. “Maybe you could eat more oranges instead,” I told him. Time passed and he became so obese it wore down his femurs, and he had difficulty walking a long block without losing his breath.

My Uncle Frank was a glamorous gay man who lived in California and worked as a hairdresser and stylist to many people in show business. Before he died in the mid-80’s, he told us Luther was gay, too. It was a rumor we held as truth and made space for without using language we would today, like “coming out” or “in the closet.” We assumed Luther knew longing. We knew his performances were made of great skill, but recognized in them something so tender and familiar, we speculated the personal stories that must have lived underneath.

* * *

When I fell in love in my 20s, “Never Too Much,” the single, made me dance an ecstatic two step whenever a DJ played a set of R&B from my parents’ time. My college boyfriend J. was the pride of black upwardly mobile DC — the local paper profiled him when he won a hefty scholarship to university. J. was more like me than many of the friends I made — I, too, was paying for college with lots of prayers and an academic scholarship. We spent entirely too much time together; for a while, I liked living without boundaries. “Never Too Much,” an uptempo song of romantic abandon, was us. Marcus Miller’s bass is warm and ebullient, but mostly, it’s Luther’s phrasing that propels it. He sings every line into the next like it’s all one sentence, a single breathless enjambment. I remember joy in the moments we danced, but I now believe the source of my joy was the full experience of sensation dancing and falling in love gave me permission to have.

Luther’s cover of Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “A House is Not a Home,” is the most enduring single from his debut. Kanye built a number one hit out of it in 2003, and it remains a staple on The Quiet Storm with Lenny Green, a syndicated show that runs out of New York’s WBLS on weekdays from 7pm to midnight. The most recent night I listened, they played New Birth’s “Wildflower,” released in 1973, then Guy’s “Goodbye, Love,” from 1988, which led into the Jackson 5’s 1970 Motown single, “I’ll Be There.” Then came Xscape’s recording of “Who Can I Run To,” an R&B #1 in 1995, and Ella Mai’s “Trip,” released just last August.

Before finding this memento of their getaway as an adult, in my mother’s apartment after my father died, I had only my own existence as proof they’d ever been romantic with each other.

Green has been on WBLS since 1997, but Melvin Lindsey and Cathy Hughes at DC’s WHUR, the Howard University affiliated station, created the Quiet Storm format in 1976. Hughes was managing the station and needed a replacement DJ. Lindsey, then an intern and Howard student, filled in, bringing records his family owned. The segment proved immediately popular, and when he graduated, Lindsey came on full time. It was a striver’s music, created specifically to reach the growing Black middle class of DC and its suburbs. Hughes had taken the name for the format from Smokey Robinson’s 1975 album, A Quiet Storm, which opens with soft, howling wind, flutes, congas and a cooing vocal, suggesting, Pitchfork wrote, “a deeper metaphysical connection between two intimate lovers.” It was definitely for people like my parents, who’d become adults in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education and civil rights legislation that changed the kind of work they had access to, but didn’t go far enough to protect them from the vulnerability a society stratified by race guarantees. My father climbed up the ranks with the state of Arkansas, while my mother worked at a city-funded hospital. Both knew what it felt like to dutifully train the new, younger white man who would eventually become the boss. They were people who deserved to relax after a long day.

Between my early childhood and my first adult romance, something about the soft, lovelorn cuts gave me comfort, too. At some point, I found a tape my sister made of Keith Sweat and Jacci McGhee’s “Make It Last Forever” — just that sole track, playing on repeat on both sides. Sweat’s lead vocal is sweet, vulnerable — it’s the first piece of music I remember giving me a physical reaction, a warm feeling, a fluttering. Now, probably because it was my older sister who brought it to me, who’d made the tape in the throes of her own early college romance, it sounds like what I imagine adolescence to sound like: rough at its edges, yielding and tentative deep inside.

* * *

Late in 1994, Madonna’s album Bedtime Stories came out. It had smooth, moody pop-R&B songs like “Take a Bow” and “Secret,” and songwriters Babyface, Dallas Austin, and R. Kelly were at the helm. The next year, the Whitney Houston-led film adaptation of Terry McMillan’s novel Waiting to Exhale released, and Babyface wrote most of the soundtrack. It was a commercial success, and with slow grooves from Whitney, Toni Braxton, Faith, Chante Moore, and SWV, an homage to the slow jam. In some ways, so was the film. In its first few seconds, we hear the low, dulcet voice of an actor playing a Quiet Storm DJ. We hear him again at the film’s ending, framing events in the lead characters’ lives over the course of a single year. I was 14 when the film came out and didn’t share the heroines’ middle-aged love panic, but they were glamorous and aspirational, and the story’s main romance seemed to be the one between the characters, the friendships among the women. In turn, the strain of black pop on the album, one of many pivotal 90s film soundtracks that made an imprint and endure, created a mood, an ambiance that was soothing, a place from which to have conversations and communion with my own friends. In letters we circulated between classes, in bleary eyed late-night phone conversations about our fears, we lived with each other, we lived with the music.

The term “slow jam” became widely popular when a song performed by Midnight Star and written by a young Babyface came out in 1983. Midnight Star was a slick funk band heavy into synths, and “Slow Jam,” a cut from the album No Parking on the Dance Floor, was a duet. The male narrator “asks” a partner for “her hand” and for the party’s deejay to play another slow jam / this time make it sweet. Brenda Lipscomb, the woman narrator, consents. It’s a forthright demand for intimacy, for private time, in a public setting.

It was definitely for people like my parents, who’d become adults in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education and civil rights legislation that changed the kind of work they had access to, but did not go far enough to protect them from the vulnerability a society stratified by race guarantees.

Obviously, “slow jams,” the sentiment and request inherent in them, both precede and extend beyond Midnight Star. My mother remembers swoony slow dances to Sam Cooke’s “You Send Me” and “blue light” basement parties in Chicago during her adolescence in the 50s and 60s. She said the psychedelic lighting in tight spaces made the parties feel sexy. Smokey Robinson was one in a constellation of artists who made sensualist soul music in the 70s. The best singers know all about tone modulation, but Minnie Riperton, Syreeta, and Deniece Williams mastered a style of vocalizing that often settled into a soft hum or murmur. You can hear them in the colors and emotional frequencies Janet Jackson, Aaliyah, and Solange tap into in their recordings.

These soft, tender soundscapes are, for me, tightly woven with images of black intimacy. Of two black people tuning into themselves and each other. When my mother paints the picture with her memories, when Kerry James Marshall paints a dance in a lived-in room — they are images that demand humanity in a way we may not realize is a demand. They insist on the body, on its flesh and blood. They gather and soothe the nervous system. They allow for a tender masculinity. They are obsessed with survival, generations, and continuity.

We slow dance, or attempt any kind of social dance, less these days. I think that’s why Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s dance videos made us stir. The comfort and delight she took in her body were, for some, profane, the antitheses of how a leader should comport herself. And yet, I do not need to return to any era that came before this one. There is no idealized black past: women and queer people have suffered too much for too long at the hands of those we love. This isn’t even about romantic love; it is about the impulse. This is a reminder that our desires for sweetness and connection are and have always been a salve. The urge means we are not dead inside.

 

Faith and Reproductive Justice Are Not in Opposition

Illustration by Chloe Cushman

Danielle A. Jackson | Longreads | March 2019 | 7 minutes (1,853 words)

“The patriarchy begins at home,” acclaimed Atlanta-based novelist Tayari Jones told the Atlantic last year. “They call it ‘patriarchy’ because it’s about your father and your brothers and your family.” My brother became a conservative Republican in the late ’80s due in part to a strong moral opposition to abortion. He’s 16 years older than me, and one of few men in our family. We were raised in the same missionary Baptist church in North Memphis our family belonged to for three generations. I was baptized and went to Sunday School there; my grandmother had been a white glove-wearing, note-taking member of the Baptist Training Union 50 years before. They taught Baptist doctrine to congregants. I found pages of her meticulous notes in a closet in my auntie’s house decades after she died. Despite years of service and prominent roles in the church, women couldn’t sit in its pulpit, much less aspire to ultimate leadership. In all of my time there, I can’t even recall having a woman from another congregation speak to us as visiting pastor.

The seeds of whatever belief system my brother came to uphold must have been planted in that sanctuary. Later, when I was a teenager who’d developed her own thoughts on the matter, we spoke about the biblical underpinnings of his values. We didn’t talk about our grandmother, who may have had an abortion in the ’50s when she became pregnant for the ninth time. Or our mother, who, with me, had a troubled delivery, with preeclampsia, induction, and a caesarian section. I spent my first days in a neonatal ICU. My mother was 21 when my brother was born and 37 with me — an “advanced maternal age.” By the time my brother and I were talking about the “sanctity of life,” it was the ’90s; yet, even now, when male pundits and politicians speak about pregnancy, abortion, and God, I do not hear a concern for the lives and experiences of would-be mothers, for women, that is as strong as their concern for the unborn.

Attorney and scholar of race, gender, and the law, Dorothy Roberts, describes “maternal-fetal conflict,” as “policies that seek to protect the fetus while disregarding the humanity of the mother.” It’s a concept that helps explain how many of the same states with the most restricted access to abortion care have also refused to expand Medicaid, denying uninsured, low income people access to contraceptives and other healthcare services. It helps explain how rates of maternal mortality have increased while rates of infant mortality have fallen.

It’s likely, since Brett Kavanaugh replaced Anthony Kennedy and the Supreme Court’s ideological balance shifted, that federal protections guaranteed with Roe vs. Wade will disappear. Several cases that would prompt its annulment could make it onto the Court’s docket. Many people already effectively live in a post-Roe future. In states throughout the South and Midwest, including my home state of Tennessee, more than 90% of counties have no clinics that provide abortion services. Mississippi and six other states are down to a single one. The Hyde Amendment prohibits use of federal Medicaid funds for elective abortions; 11 states restrict abortion coverage in private insurance. Twenty-seven require waiting periods of 24 to 72 hours, meaning two visits to a provider that is possibly already a prohibitive distance away.

New York’s Reproductive Health Act passed on January 22, 2019, the 46th anniversary of Roe v. Wade. It codified the Supreme Court decision into state law, removed abortion from the criminal code, and relaxed some restrictions on abortions after 24 weeks. Last month, Virginia’s legislature considered a bill that would also expand abortion access at the state level. Since then, the phrase “late term” abortion, an imprecise, lightning rod of a term used to describe a set of complicated procedures that account for less than 2% of abortions, shot through the discourse to, it seems, reignite a moral conversation about abortion in general. New York and Virginia are part of a rash of states that rushed to pass bills clarifying their positions. On February 20, the governor of Arkansas signed the “Human Life Protection Act”; it will “abolish abortion” in the state, except in cases where the mother’s life is in danger. Tennessee’s legislature introduced a similar bill in February. Both would become effective should Roe v. Wade, or its supporting decisions, be nullified. Mississippi, Louisiana, North Dakota and South Dakota already have comparable “trigger laws” in place.


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* * *

“We lose people when we center and focus on abortion,” Jalessah Jackson told me on a phone call from Atlanta. She’s the Georgia Coordinator for SisterSong, a national, membership-based network of organizers focused on reproductive rights. Founded in 1997, one of SisterSong’s main aims is organizing in support of people all along the gender spectrum who are living in the South.

A major priority for SisterSong is “culture shift” campaigns, which develop partnerships with faith organizations and leaders. “We recognize the role of the church in people’s lives,” she said, so their organizers “meet with progressive church leaders to talk about their responsibility in making sure their congregation is living and thriving. They should attend to the part of their congregation that might want to have children as well as those that might not want to.”

Jackson and team hope to “change narratives,” because many people “think faith and reproductive justice are in opposition, and they’re not.” Indeed, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), started by a coalition of ministers after the successful Montgomery Bus Boycott and led, at one point, by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., wrote a policy document for the federal government’s family planning program in the mid-60s. Before that, in the ’30s, W.E.B. DuBois thought black churches should invite leaders of birth control organizations to speak to their congregations. DuBois had a progressive-era classism then, and believed in population control especially among the “least intelligent and fit.” But there’s something to his call for “a more liberal attitude” within the black church that remains salient. 

According to Loretta J. Ross, an activist and one of the pioneers of the concept, and historian Rickie Solinger, the core of reproductive justice is the right to have a child or not, and the right to parent children in safe and healthy environments. Using reproductive justice as a frame for thinking about women’s health exposes the limits of the pro-life / pro-choice binary. It makes room for concerns about mass incarceration, public education, affordable housing, air pollution, and the ability to earn a living wage — all of which influence what choices people actually have, and determine whether the children they carry to term are able to thrive.

Nearly 60% of women who terminate pregnancies are already mothers. About half of patients seeking abortion care live below the poverty level. Black women in the US are almost three times more likely than white women to have abortions; Latinas have them nearly twice as often as whites. Since a growing majority of US blacks reside in the South, and poverty rates for blacks, Latinx, and indigenous people double that of whites, abortion access is a “race issue,” and a Roe annulment would disproportionately affect brown and black people. Many black pro-life organizations and church congregations have co-opted the language of progressive movements to buttress their opposition to abortion, linking reproductive rights and family planning with genocide. It’s an old but powerful strain of thinking that acknowledges medical racism and the early associations of Margaret Sanger, a founder of Planned Parenthood, with leading eugenicists. But it fails to note Sanger’s reliance on W.E.B. DuBois’ research, and it does not account for the lived experiences or needs of actual women.

Nikia Grayson, certified nurse midwife and director of midwifery care at Choices, a reproductive health center in downtown Memphis, told me their providers like to “talk about all of a woman’s options,” to unearth and address what kind of care she needs. They aim to provide “high quality, non-judgmental” healthcare in which they remove the stigma from abortion and serve the needs of the city’s LGBTIA population. They are one of few clinics providing the HIV preventative medications PrEP and PEP in a city that is eighth in the country for rates of new HIV diagnoses.

Choices is a model of full spectrum reproductive care, offering prenatal and postpartum care, pap smears, pelvic exams, STI screening and advice, and (through coordination with a local rape crisis center) treatment specifically for sexual assault survivors, all under one roof. It’s the midwifery model, in which women are attended to “from menarche to menopause.” Abortions are also provided at the facility. One of only two back certified nurse midwives in Memphis, Grayson said the majority of Choices’ patients pay for their services at least partially with Medicaid, and the center often raises funds to cover what the state will not. If all goes according to plan, later this year they’ll open the city’s first standalone birthing center, where women who could not otherwise afford a home birth can have an alternative to hospital delivery. Advisers to the World Health Organization and the UN Population Fund recommend “integrated comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services” like this “for women and girls to enjoy their human rights.” It decreases the likelihood of unintended pregnancies, addressing concerns about abortion closer to the root.

I asked Grayson about church groups, and she said Choices receives support from social justice oriented congregations, like Christ Missionary Baptist Church. “They understand that the work Choices does saves lives.” Christ Missionary’s senior pastor, Dr. Gina Stewart, is one of the first women to lead a Baptist congregation in the city and its surrounding areas.

If Roe is dying, it is, so far, a slow burning death, with gasps for breath and short, hopeful bouts of recovery. Several weeks ago, Chief Justice John Roberts delivered the decisive vote in blocking a law in Louisiana that would have further restricted abortion access in the state; the week after, the Trump administration published a “family planning rule” that would block providers who provide or counsel on abortions (such as Planned Parenthood and Choices) from access to certain federal funds. It is is helpful to note how institutions like Planned Parenthood, Choices and SisterSong already do their work in a climate of opposition and disinformation. “I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding about abortion.” Jaleesah Jackson said. The disinformation comes from everywhere, nowhere, and the top — the president falsely claimed in his latest state of the union address that later term abortions “rip babies from the mother’s womb moments from birth.” As Jackson said, “SisterSong advocates for comprehensive sex education, and comprehensive sex education would cover abortion. All genders, all folks need access to this information because they’re all charged with the responsibility of making decisions about their reproductive lives.”

But abortion is, in many ways, beside the point. “We’re autonomous human beings.” Jackson told me. “And part of having bodily autonomy is being able to make whatever reproductive health decisions we deem fit for ourselves and our lives and for our families.”

What to Read After ‘Leaving Neverland’

Washington, DC. 5-14-1984 Michael Jackson with President Ronald Reagan and FIrst Lady Nancy Reagan at ceremony on the South Lawn of the White House where the President awarded "The King Of Pop" with the Presidential Public Safety Communication Award for allowing the song "Beat It" to be used in a public service campaign against teen drinking and driving. Credit: Mark Reinstein (Photo by Mark Reinstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

What struck me about Leaving Neverland, the harrowing, two-part, four-hour HBO documentary about Wade Robson and Jimmy Safechuck’s sexual abuse allegations against superstar performer Michael Jackson, is the mechanical similarity of the men’s stories. Almost play-by-play, their accounts of what happened, how they, along with their families, became dazzled and then ensnared in Jackson’s web, hauntingly mirror each other. I noticed the same thing while watching both Surviving R. Kelly and Kidnapped in Plain Sight — predatory techniques to woo most often follow a similarly uncreative, toxic formula. During Oprah’s follow-up interview special, Leaving Neverland director Dan Reed called the film a deep look into “what grooming child sexual abuse looks like.”

Unique to Robson’s and Safechuck’s dilemma is the sheer magnitude of their accused perpetrator’s fame. As Robson said to Oprah, “the grooming started long before we ever met him.” Michael Jackson entered the national spotlight as lead singer of the Jackson 5 in 1969. Thriller, from 1982, remains the second best selling album of all time in the US. After 50 years in entertainment, the reach and influence of Jackson’s music cannot be overstated: it is difficult to listen to any pop radio and not hear him in its melodies or harmonies, to watch any pop star dance and not see his movement in the shadows.

After a police investigation into allegations brought forth by then 13-year-old Jordan Chandler in 1993, Jackson wasn’t formally charged, and he was acquitted on multiple counts related to child sexual abuse in 2005. In both cases, he settled out of court with his accusers. Before his 2009 death, Jackson denied all allegations of misconduct. His estate and family have issued vehement denials in Leaving Neverland’s wake. Still, no one defending Jackson would go as far as to say he did not behave inappropriately with children: he admitted to some unconscionable behavior himself. Robson’s and Safechuck’s accounts are detailed, credible, and difficult to bear in one sitting. To make sense of the story, and to begin to make sense of how we, the public, fell short, a selection of readings follows, about Jackson, Leaving Neverland, geniusand the toxic cult of celebrity.

1. A Complete Timeline of the Michael Jackson Abuse Allegations. (Kyle McGovern, February 28, 2019, Vulture)

McGovern details every public allegation against Jackson dating back to 1993 — Robson and Safechuck appear and reappear multiple times among many other young men in Jackson’s orbit.

2. ‘Leaving Neverland’ Reveals the Monster We Didn’t Want to See in Michael Jackson. (Niela Orr, March 1, 2019, BuzzFeed)

Orr, a Jackson fan while growing up, says watching Leaving Neverland produced “the shock and pang of betrayal,” and was “a visceral reveal of insidious behavior.” She reckons with Jackson’s duality: the harmless childlike mythos versus his ability to shapeshift into monstrosity.

3. It’s Too Late to Cancel Michael Jackson. (Carl Wilson, February 27, 2019, Slate)

Wilson says Jackson, “was to modern popular music and dance what Dickens was to the Victorian novel” and ponders whether he is “too big to cancel.”

4. Michael Jackson Cast a Spell, ‘Leaving Neverland’ Breaks It. (Wesley Morris, February 27, 2019, New York Times)

I’ve stared at a lingering shot of a photograph of Jackson, who would have been around 30 and Safechuck who was about 9 or 10, and Jackson is beaming in sunglasses and a military jacket, flashing a peace sign, and James, in a too-big baseball cap, is turning to the camera, looking alarmingly ruminative for someone whose life should be rumination-free.

5. He’s Out of My Life: Letting Go of Michael Jackson. (Kierna Mayo, March 6, 2019, Afropunk)

Eye-spying racism should never be the reason we don’t call a predator by his name.

Mayo reckons with the denial and protectionism offered to Jackson and his memory by some in the black community.

6. ‘Leaving Neverland’ Asks an Uncomfortable Question: How Culpable Are the Parents? (EJ Dickson, March 4, 2019, Rolling Stone)

Some have interpreted Leaving Neverland and Abducted thusly, arguing that the parents of Jackson’s victims are just as culpable as Jackson in perpetuating the abuse. And to a degree, Robson and Safechuck seem to share that view: as Safechuck says, he has never fully forgiven his mother for allowing the abuse to continue. “Forgiveness is not a line you cross, it’s a road you take,” he said at the Sundance Festival earlier this year.

Yet Leaving Neverland and Abducted can be seen less indictments of bad parenting than as a condemnation of the cultural mechanisms that allow the individual power of personality to go unchecked. Even though Jackson was a pop superstar hailed as a musical genius, and Berchtold a small-town salesman and Mormon dad of five, both were, by all accounts, men who knew exactly how to wield their charisma as a weapon; both were highly skilled at disarming and seducing adults (in Berchtold’s case, literally) in order to gain access to their children.

Dickson teases out some of the similarities between Leaving Neverland and Netflix’s Abducted in Plain Sight.

7. She Wrote the Book on Michael Jackson. Now She Wishes it Said More. (Anna Silman, March 7, 2019, The Cut)

So if he is guilty — what do we do with the music? What do we do with Michael Jackson?
There are two aspects. One is what kind of restitution is needed. If it’s financial, that’s fine by me, but is that sufficient? I just don’t believe the art should be quote “banned” forever. But if banning, let’s say, R. Kelly’s work for a certain amount of time from the radio, is a way of getting money from his estate, to help give those girls and young women some kind of settlement, that’s absolutely fine with me. I feel the same way about the Jackson estate.

As for what we do with the music — that “we” splits into just millions of people, doesn’t it? There’s no one way to answer that. I got an email from an editor who just said in passing “My God, I’ve loved him all my life. I still do. Would I feel comfortable buying his videos or even his music around my 8 or 9-year-old child? Right now, no.” We’re all sifting through that.

The larger question with every one of these artists is how do we simultaneously keep in our heads and hearts this information and this material and at the same time continue to respond as we feel their art justifies. Those two processes aren’t mutually exclusive at all. And it’s going to keep happening so we need to start finding language and feelings as well as practical, legal ways of coping with it.

The Cut speaks to Margo Jefferson, author of On Michael Jackson, two days after she watched Leaving Neverland. 

8. No One Deserves as Much Power as Michael Jackson Had. (Craig Jenkins, March 1, 2019, Vulture)

It’s hard to explain the relationship between the superstars of the ’80s and their fans to people who weren’t alive or old enough to remember the decade. They were like demigods. They sang about love, peace, politics, and matters of planetary significance. Their art paused time and advanced culture. Their shows incited hysterics. It all seems religious in retrospect. Belief was the core of the bond, belief that these figures acted in the interest of bettering the world no matter the cost, belief that people who do good aregood. Their methods and their presentation were questioned, but the idea that pop stars were out to save the world was quite often taken at face value. This was not wise. We didn’t know any better.

More on the art and crimes of dangerous men:

The Precarity of Everything: On Millennial (Blacks and) Blues

Nina Subin / Bold Type Books

Danielle A. Jackson | Longreads | February 2019 | 14 minutes (3,747 words)

Kimya works in a cardiologist’s office in New Jersey, but at 34, with three kids and dreams of changing careers, she’s planning a move to Atlanta. Joelle, a 23-year-old UCLA graduate who runs a think tank’s youth program, helped her parents financially when she was in college. Jeremy, 25, supported his wife and kids in West Virginia’s coal mines until he got laid off. Simon, CTO of a startup in San Francisco and an alumnus of M.I.T., still worries interviewers may not “think he’s as good as them” because he’s Black.

Millennials, born somewhere between 1980 and 2000, make up more than a quarter of the U.S. population and are more than a third of its workforce. They’re the most diverse generation of adults, according to the Brookings Institute, in American history — 44% of them are non-white. Yet, as journalist Reniqua Allen writes in her new book It Was All a Dream: A New Generation Confronts the Broken Promise to Black America, “discussion about millennials and their ideas of ‘success’ are often deeply rooted in the experiences of privileged White men and women — think more Lena Dunham than Issa Rae.” It explains why I’ve always had difficulty identifying myself as a millennial, and why I hadn’t realized that the stories of some Black celebrities, like melancholic trap artist Future, who turns 36 this year, or glowy 34-year-old showrunner Lena Waithe, are more emblematic of the generation than anything I’ve read about avocado toast. Including Kimya, Joelle, Jeremy, and Simon, Allen conducted interviews with over 75 Black millennials for the book. She paints a complicated, often bleak picture of what it’s really like to achieve in America amid rising college costs, deunionization, two major recessions, and the election of President Trump.

Allen also includes snippets of her own story, writing poignantly about growing up a precocious middle class striver in suburban New Jersey with her devoted mother and aunts. In several sections, her interviewees speak about their dreams at length, in their own voices. She named the book after a lyric from Notorious BIG’s “Juicy,” a joyous hip hop gospel about overcoming great odds, and uses language that refuses to shame or moralize. Taken together, It Was All a Dream is an expansive, engaging tapestry of a generation’s hope and resilience and reads like a hip, sharp heir of The Warmth of Other Suns.

Allen and I went to undergrad together at American University in D.C. and graduated the same year. In our late 30s, we’re part of the oldest sub-group of millennials. I chatted with her about the core themes of her new book, what it means that a generation of “youth” are now heading toward middle age, the millennial burnout pieces in BuzzFeed by Anne Helen Petersen and Tiana Clark, and whether she feels optimistic, given the precarity of everything.

* * *

Danielle Jackson: Are you on your book tour right now?

Reniqua Allen: Yeah, and I’m exhausted, but the audiences have been really good. I’ve been to Atlanta and D.C. and I did some stuff in New York. We’re figuring out the West Coast and Midwest. People have been really engaged, in D.C. and Atlanta in particular.  They’re really trying to figure out what it means to be a millennial, how being a millennial of color, a Black millennial, is different from prior generations.

What topics have people wanted to engage with you about?

Mental health has come up a lot during the Q&As. People are really struggling, which I think is very pervasive in the stories I collected. I feel like mental health treatment has been taboo in the Black community, so it’s interesting that people are so willing to talk about it now.

Some of your interviewees offer solutions when they talk about ways they’ve managed their mental health. In the chapter “Breathe,” Jasmine talks about how breathwork and meditation had been helpful.

Yeah, for her. One very, very unexpected way I heard about managing mental health was with the dominatrix that I talked to, who is mentioned early in the book. She said that cracking the whip on her White clientele and talking to them about race and race relations was healing for her. That was really fascinating.

I’m sure you read the BuzzFeed stories about millennial burnout? I spoke to the author of the Black millennial burnout piece, Tiana Clark. She’s very lovely and nice, and I really enjoyed the piece. When I read the original piece by Anne Helen Petersen, I thought it was interesting yet very rooted in a White experience. My book hadn’t come out yet, and I wanted to respond. I was actually too tired and burnt out to respond to the burnout piece.

I read your book over the Christmas holiday, then the next month, the initial piece came out at BuzzFeed. I definitely thought it aligned with your critiques of how millennials are talked about, but I didn’t have time to address it. I do feel I miss opportunities to engage with people by being tired all the time.

Yeah, but it’s exhausting to have to write these kind of pieces over and over again. I keep trying to figure out what’s the best way to reach people. And I realized there was a period in time when I was writing think pieces in reaction to every police shooting. I’m sure tons of other writers would say the same thing. I was writing the same thing over and over and over again. It felt exhausting. I’ve been trying to figure out what to do with all of these emotions and energy and how best to tell important stories without feeling depleted.

Do you agree with Petersen that burnout is the defining millennial condition? Do you agree with that specifically when considering Black millennials?

Burnout is the definition of the Black experience in America in general. Is it unique to the millennial generation? I don’t think it’s unique to us. I think we feel the burnout even more because of systematic and historic oppression. Some of what she describes are “upper middle-class problems.” In her piece, she talks about how a lot of her friends were nannies or got babysitting jobs after college. I feel like my friends, particularly the friends who you would consider successful if you look at traditional monikers, didn’t have the ability to do that. They were getting internships and jobs basically since day one of college. The young Black people that we went to school with were so on it all the time.

That’s the thing that people don’t understand. Our experiences aren’t always equal, and even though we may end up in the same place, we’ve probably been tired since college or high school. I am so tired of saying it, because everyone says it, but we have to work twice as hard. So that burnout that everyone complains about? Double it up. And we’re not just talking about economic anxiety. We’re also talking about how we have to prove our humanity. That’s exhausting in a different type of way. We should be tired of telling people that Black people matter.

What was the genesis of It Was All a Dream?

I work in media as a producer and writer. I have a pretty middle class existence, despite all my complaints. I have privileges. I don’t want to act like I don’t because I do. Sometimes at work, I’d hear young White people saying they didn’t apply themselves in college, or they’d talk about how they “got drunk like every night.” One person said to me, “Well you know, we’re at the same place, Reniqua, so I don’t really see how you were that impacted by things [like racism].” At the same time, I noticed my Black peers working two or three jobs, with side hustles, trying to do online certificates or whatever it takes to get ahead. Yet, there’s a report from the Washington Post that says 31% of White millennials think that Black people are lazier than White people. It’s very frustrating.  

At one point, I was working on a documentary with an older Black man who grew up in similar circumstances to me. He was of my parents’ generation, probably on the older side of the Baby Boomers, born in the 40s. He had Caribbean parents and had grown up in suburban New Jersey. We had a lot of the same views on race but also a very different experience. I realized that it’s not just about race, but about generations too. While a lot of the same things come into play, growing up and being told that you can do whatever you want to do puts you in a different place. I think growing up with Barack Obama, who is an anomaly himself, puts you in a different place. Experiencing that pushed me to think beyond race and a little bit about class too, to be really more intersectional in my approach to race issues.

Also, I’m on my 10th year of a PhD program. When I entered graduate school I was interested in telling a success story of the Black middle class. And then the recession happened. The discourse got very ugly and racist: Barack and Michelle Obama were being called “monkey” and “baby mama.” By the time it really came to me to write the dissertation, it wasn’t a hopeful story anymore — Donald Trump was being elected president. It felt like it would need to be more about the broken promise of America, about shattered dreams.  

I was writing the same thing over and over and over again. It felt exhausting. I’ve been trying to figure out what to do with all of these emotions and energy and how best to tell important stories without feeling depleted.

What would you say are important markers and milestones for Black millennials that have shaped how we think about opportunity? You mentioned the recession of 2008, Barack Obama’s election to the presidency, various police shootings. What else has been important in defining the mood of our collective lifetimes?

Hurricane Katrina, which I didn’t realize initially. Kanye saying that George Bush doesn’t care about Black people. Rodney King’s video-taped beating and Anita Hill’s testimony before the Senate. I remember when Jesse Jackson was running for president. Some of these are older millennial experiences. For some of the people I spoke to, it was the Jena 6 who inspired them to activism and awareness of racial injustice. For me, it was Amadou Diallo’s shooting and the acquittal of the officers involved. There are also positives, like Beyonce and Oprah coming to dominate everything.

Did you notice major differences between older and younger millennials?

Younger millennials have the attitude that things may not be great but they can change them. For example, a young artist, Shamir, was annoyed about the way he was being treated by his record label. He’d had one successful electronic pop album, and he didn’t want to be boxed into that sound for his next album. It seemed the label was trying to force him into a category of “queer pop artist.” He wanted to make lo-fi music that was way less produced. So he recorded his album on his own in four days in his room and released it.

It was an acknowledgement of how shitty the systems were, but also a real desire to make change despite that. A lot of younger millennial understood that most American systems weren’t made for them to succeed, so they chose to redefine what their idea of success looked like. They weren’t defining success as getting a job at IBM and working there for 20 or 30 years like our parents’ generation would. Or even having a stable marriage. They wanted happiness and freedom, which the older generations probably also wanted. But sometimes the younger millennials in particular were very okay with taking different paths or acknowledging that to get to their happiness, it may look different than past generations.

What about you? Did you feel pressure to go a more traditional route professionally?

I think there was initially a lack of understanding of how hard it is. Older folks may think if you want to be a writer, you should simply get a job at a magazine or a newspaper or whatever it is and work. Or if you want to work in television, in documentary, you know, just do that. In some ways the industry I chose has always been more defined by a gig economy than others. There’s less stability, less money. So for me, I know my mom has always wanted me to be happy, but she didn’t really understand what I needed to be able to do what I wanted. I think she has more of an understanding than earlier in my career of the insecurity that this generation faces. She’s seen us working hard but how it’s paying off less. You go to school but you have so much debt that you can never get out of it. It’s starting to show.


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When you’re with your family, do you work a lot?

Yes, they see me working all the time. Sometimes they don’t get that you don’t take breaks in the same way. I think they’re very much used to working from 9 to 5. They see me at noon on a Wednesday and it’s like, “You’re just…at home?” It’s mystifying to them. But they don’t see how I stayed up all night the night before or what it is to have to fill out form after form for health care.  

Reports say that 44% percent of millennials are not White. A little while ago, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted about how CBS hired no Black campaign reporters for the 2020 election. Why did you decide to focus specifically on Black millennials? Do you agree with the congresswoman that there is something salient about the Black experience in America that is applicable for everybody?

Yes, of course, I think it is THE American experience. It’s really hard to separate the Black experience from the story of America. And the idea of the American dream is so pervasive in Black culture. Black people, believe it or not, actually believe in it more than any other group. An important aspect or recurring theme all across Black culture is the idea of hope and opportunity. Black people are deeply spiritual and forgiving, I guess, but there have been a lot of broken promises. Many different periods in history have promised great hope and progress for Black people, whether it’s Reconstruction, the Great Migration, or the passage of certain Civil Rights legislation. It keeps crashing down. The presidency of Barack Obama was another moment where there was great hope that completely crashed down.  

Older millennials like us are going into middle age. And that’s an interesting time and place to be when so much of what has been written about us has been about our youth and our youthful frivolousness and entitlement. It’s new territory, thinking about this generation going into their 40s. What do you hope for our cohort as we age? What does middle age look like for millennials?

I think middle age for many millennials is very uncertain. We’re not kids, and everybody talks about our youth, but we’re in our 20s and our 30s. We’ve had jobs for a substantial amount of time now. We have to look beyond these kinds of stereotypes, like calling us entitled or lazy. I’m sure that there is some entitlement; we grew up with our parents saying you can do whatever you want. But I would like for people to really think about systemic flaws. For example, you should not have to go to college to be “successful” in America. We should think about student debt. What’s happening culturally is related to these real systematic changes in our world. We can’t not go to college and get a job on a factory line anymore and have a solid middle class life. You could call us noncommittal—I think a lot of my friends are just starting to have kids, getting married now. I’m horrified by the fact that it would be a “geriatric pregnancy” now if I ever want to have kids.

Yeah, starting at 35.

At 35, I’m way past it, right? But by the same token it’s not just that people are noncommittal, it’s that they don’t feel stable. I still work as a freelancer, I still go job to job, and health care is still precarious. I can’t think of anyone besides my fiancé who has had their job for more than 10 years. He’s a public school teacher with a union and a pension. But that’s not the norm.

In addition to mapping the terrain with all we’re up against, you talk about some bright, joyful, and hopeful things. For example, ‘90s culture, like Living Single.

Yeah, I love Living Single. There are moments of joy in our experiences, and there are  things that help. Like Black Twitter. I’m glad I grew up with these wonderful, beautiful moments of Blackness and Black identity. Sometimes, when we see someone like Serena or Venus excelling in a particular sport or somewhere else where Black people have not been historically very visible, they think everything is all good for Black people everywhere. They don’t quite understand that those moments are not as frequent as they should be. They are way too few and far between. I think about Colin Kaepernick…

He didn’t vote in the [2016] presidential election. This is maybe an “old millennial” hang up, but I feel that while that doesn’t discredit him or his protest, it does make me feel like I have questions.

Oh yeah, I know. Because generally Black folks voted. We’re so highly engaged. But we still get asked for voter ID the most out of everybody.  

It’s really hard to separate the Black experience from the story of America.

In your book, you talk about mobility and consider leaving the northeast for the South — the opposite route of the Great Migration. The urban North hasn’t been all that great for Black people and maybe the New South — the urban, progressive South — is a better option. But for many of the people you speak to, the New South isn’t idyllic either. Where in America do you think is safe, hospitable, and abundant for Black people?

Oh, who knows! I wish I had answer for that. Maybe I could move there. This is one of the sections that I cut that I wanted to actually engage with — maybe the answer isn’t even America. I try to understand the South and I get the appeal of it in some ways, but it’s a painful place for me. My mother’s side of the family is from Manning, South Carolina. I like how warm the South is, in terms of the weather. I also love the people there. Even though I didn’t go to an HBCU (Historically Black College or University), I really enjoy that part of the culture. I don’t know whether you consider D.C. the South, but I really liked it. There is a [prominent, vocal, large] educated Black middle class there that I don’t find in New York in the same way. I miss that, but I also just don’t like how you can turn down a road and there’s an old plantation. Maybe that’s actually better because I do think that they deal with their pain more than we do up here. And I know that I can be followed in a store on the Upper East Side. So I don’t know where it is.

I do think about how my family came up from the South during the Great Migration for their dreams. I keep trying to figure out if that was a mistake or not. Because my relatives in the South are all doing quite well. And they have what seems like a connection to the land and a sense of hope that the part of my family that has moved away doesn’t seem to have.

In your chapter about Black Lives Matter activism, you reveal some of the costs of sustained political engagement and movement work. Do you feel like the movements created by this generation are generative spaces or spaces of hope? And do you think it’s worth the cost emotionally and otherwise to really pursue that kind of work?

I think it’s still being debated. I feel like I haven’t made sacrifices in the way that someone like Jasmine [from the chapter “Breathe”] has. Her whole life has profoundly changed due to her visibility in Black Lives Matter. Like she says, when she was in a gang, no one paid her any attention, but she gets a felony when she becomes an activist. I haven’t made sacrifices in that way. But is it worth it? I hope so. I think that people are feeling in some ways that they need to speak on the inequalities in our society and that’s great, because I worry about who has actual power. Beyond faces on camera or other kinds of representation, who is actually wielding power? That has not changed that much.  

Are you hopeful about the future?

That’s a good question, and obviously it’s one that I’ve wrestled with a lot.

You end the book on a hopeful note.

I think I was really depressed after collecting the stories. I was in the thick of it for two years, and it was just sad to see people living on the margins or hearing about how much we still have to fight for our humanity. Seeing really young Black men and women working hard and not getting as much as they need in return was really hard. However, people were also resilient and determined to find a way. They seemed to recognize that America has always been screwed up to us, but they wanted to find a way regardless. That is the story of Black America. That is who we are as a people. So it is a hopeful story. It’s frustrating, but I’m not really worried about us because we are doing what we need to do. We’re doing the hard work, and it reminds me just how amazing the story of Black America is. Because we actually survived this.  

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

‘Black Flight’ out of Chicago

CHICAGO - AUGUST 23: Alison Saar's "Monument to the Great Northern Migration", sits on South King Drive in Chicago, Illinois on AUGUST 23, 2012. (Photo By Raymond Boyd/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

In a cover story for the Chicago Reader, urban planner Pete Saunders writes about how Black residents are fleeing Chicago in large numbers for suburbs and metropolitan areas in other regions as the city’s white, Asian American, Latinx, and multiracial populations increase. This “Black flight” reverses demographic trends of last century, which saw an estimated 7 million African Americans pouring into cities in the Northeast, Midwest, and West Coast from the rural South during the Great Migration. The Encyclopedia of Chicago says that more than 500,000 of those who left settled in Chicago; according to Curbed, “At some points during the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s, more than 1,000 new arrivals a week came through booming areas such as Bronzeville, many of them hoping to work in the heavy industry and steel plants on the city’s southeast side.”

Saunders suggests a combination of factors have caused the current exodus, including slow declines in Chicago’s violent crime rate, school closures and a lack of investment in important local institutions. Shifts in the kinds of jobs available and, perhaps, a pull to the South of generations before have driven Black Chicagoans to Atlanta, Dallas, and Houston. Los Angeles, San Jose, and San Diego are also losing Black population, but the decline in Chicago, at “four to ten times the rate of the other three,” has been most dramatic. According to the Urban Institute, by 2030, it’s estimated that Chicago will have lost more than 500,000 Black residents in 50 years. Saunders believes that systematic racial discrimination, the biggest driver of Blacks to cities during  the Great Migration, is the key driver of the new pattern as well:

Segregation has created a lack of economic mobility. I’d argue that Chicago is economically stratified to the extent that upward mobility for blacks here is particularly difficult. The CMAP [Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning] report noted that the unemployment rate for blacks in Chicagoland stubbornly stays at more than twice the region’s rate, and that more than 60 percent of blacks who left the region were without a local job when they did so. Networks are hard to penetrate. The power structure is rigid. There’s also a lack of residential mobility. Chicago and its suburbs are more open to people of color than ever before, but blacks here are acutely aware that people still attach stigmas to places we move to. This has the impact of stagnating or lowering property values and rents where blacks move in large numbers, often wiping whole chunks of the region from the minds of many. The south side and south and southwest burbs don’t even occur to many whites seeking affordable options.

The hallmark of Chicago (and rust-belt) segregation has been black avoidance. Since the Great Migration the practice has been to explicitly or implicitly contain blacks within certain areas. But as metro areas got bigger, transportation more of a challenge, and city living more desirable, new attention was given to long-forgotten places. Here in Chicago that started with former white ethnic areas (Lincoln Park, Wicker Park, etc). Within the last ten to 20 years that expanded to include largely Latino areas (Logan Square, Humboldt Park, Pilsen). But for the most part the pattern of black avoidance remains.

In places with stronger economies, like New York and Washington, D.C., there’s been more direct engagement—even conflict—between white newcomers and longtime black residents in many communities. Spike Lee famously ranted about gentrification arriving in black neighborhoods in Brooklyn five years ago, and the area surrounding D.C.’s historically black Howard University has witnessed significant change in the last decade. But the rust-belt pattern is one of indirect conflict. Places collapse, then new groups come in.

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‘Salvini’s Decree’ Evicts Italian Migrants from Temporary Shelter

ROME, ITALY - JANUARY 23: A migrant waits the transfer to leave the migrants center of Castelnuovo di Porto, on January 23, 2019 in Rome, Italy. Following the last government's security law, by January 31, the second largest migrants reception centre (CARA) in Italy will be closed and about 350 migrants and refugees will be transferred. (Photo by Antonio Masiello/Getty Images)

For the New York Review of Books daily edition, Caitlin L. Chandler examines the fallout from Italy’s new law, the Security and Immigration Decree, known as “Salvini’s Decree,” after deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini. The measure, passed last November, eradicates a class of humanitarian protections for individuals who do not qualify for refugee status, but who needed to leave their countries due to “violence, famine, or human trafficking.” According to Chandler, before the Decree, 25% of Italy’s asylum seekers avoided deportation under this category of protections. The law’s implementation has meant a rash of evictions from squats, where it’s estimated that 10,000 migrants have taken up shelter.

Chandler notes how media portrayal and racist, anti-immigrant language from leaders of Italy’s far right manipulated public opinion and drove passage of the Decree:

Although immigrants comprise only 8 percent of Italy’s population, Salvini rails against “the invasion” and has blocked rescue ships from landing at Italian ports (“porti chiusi,” he likes to brag on Twitter and Instagram, meaning “harbors closed”). Despite the fact that, since 2014, the share of crimes committed by foreigners is decreasing within every single region in Italy, anti-immigrant sentiment, stoked by Salvini’s government, is at a dangerous, all-time high.

Salvini and his party stoke fears around migration by portraying migrants as criminals. Over the past ten years, overall crime has decreased in Italy by 8.3 percent, and crimes committed by foreigners have also fallen, with convictions at an all-time low. But each time a crime occurs in an immigrant neighborhood or when non-Italian citizens stand accused, Salvini exploits it. Such was the case with the brutal rape and murder of a sixteen-year-old girl, Desirée Mariottini, in a squat in San Lorenzo, an immigrant neighborhood in Rome. Two Senagalese men, one Nigerian man, and one Ghanaian man were arrested in connection with her assault and death. Salvini visited San Lorenzo and laid a rose at her memorial, then said he would come back with a bulldozer.

The Italian public grows ever more fearful. In a 2018 study, over half of Italians greatly overestimated how many migrants were in the country. Meanwhile, in the two months after Salvini became interior minister, Italian civil society groups recorded twelve shootings, two murders, and thirty-three physical assaults against immigrants.

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Carvell Wallace on ‘Moonlight’ Writer Tarell Alvin McCarney’s Next Acts

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 20: Playwright Tarell Alvin McCraney during the MTC Broadway Cast Call for "Choir Boy" at The MTC Rehearsal Studios on November 20, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Walter McBride/Getty Images)

For a New York Times Magazine profile story, Carvell Wallace interviews the playwright Tarell Alvin McCarney, visiting a rehearsal of “Choir Boy,”  a “queer coming of age tale” about members of a gospel choir at a prestigious all-Black boarding school:

In the scene I watched the cast work on, the character of David, played by Caleb Eberhardt, decides to open his heart to another character, which he does by starting off a song, “Motherless Child.” The lyrics — “sometimes I feel like a motherless child/a long way from home” — date back to slavery, and like the words of most spirituals, they have a clear and heavy range of meanings. You can interpret them as personal, spiritual and political, all at once.

All those meanings are at play in the scene. The boys of Drew are, literally, a long way from home. They share showers, sleep in dorm rooms and can call home only once a week. They are left to build themselves out of whatever is in the air: tough but fair headmasters, a dignified but burdensome “black excellence” tradition, a sky full of forceful and conflicting expectations of black masculinity. It is too much and boils over.

Tensions are high among the boys in the locker room, who are still buzzing over a recent near-fight. David, on the way to the shower, stops to sing the first stanza of the song alone, then to a classmate. Then the entire group joins in, sending their voices echoing off unforgiving tile. It is meant to be heart-rending.

The problem, this morning, was that it wasn’t working. The director, Trip Cullman — he most recently directed Kenneth Lonergan’s “Lobby Hero,” last year — was gamely trying different ways of transitioning into this fraught moment. What if Eberhardt did it from upstage? What if he went halfway off and came back? What if he started quietly and then built?

The playwright was present, wearing a cream-colored cardigan, crisp jeans and gleaming, off-white, all-leather Chuck Taylors, seated at a folding table crowded with script binders and room-temperature coffees. So far, I had heard him say little. But now he asked for the floor. The actors took seats. I noticed I was nervous for him. When the actors are struggling and the director can’t seem to find a solution, you’re forced to ask: Could the problem be the script?

But when McCraney talked, he didn’t talk about the play or the dialogue. Instead, he talked about grief. Casually, as though it were something that just came to his mind. He explained what it felt like to lose his mother at 22. He did not talk about how she died, and he hinted only a little at the complexity of their relationship; this address was not autobiographical. It was to do with emotions. McCraney described how grief lives in a person’s body, how it settles there. He explained its half-life, the unreliable nature of its decay. He talked about the phenomenon, when grieving a loved one, in which you begin to have memories of times after their death that you think they must have been present for. Remember when I won an Academy Award for my movie, and you were so proud? And then he talked about how things like that make you grieve their absence all over again, and how that grief catches you unawares, taking over your body when you least expect it. It sits in a small reservoir beneath your heart. It whispers to you at odd hours and yells at you in quiet ones.

I teared up just a little bit hearing it. My own mother died in my arms almost exactly 10 years earlier. My relationship with her was also complicated. My grief also weaves in and out of being with little explanation or predictability. McCraney was calling something into the room, I might even say invoking it. All that was happening was that he was explaining something about grief — something that he, at age 38, knew, and that the cast, talented black Broadway-level actors/dancers/singers ranging in age from maybe 20 to 25, may not yet have known but were capable of understanding.

McCarney’s deft direction and trust in the cast and his own vulnerability reshuffles the room; the men nail the scene. “Choir Boy” is McCarney’s first work produced on a Broadway stage. He’s most well-known for adapting the Oscar-winning screenplay for Moonlight, another tender coming of story, from the play, “In the Moonlight, Black Boys Look Blue,” which he wrote when he was 23.

Wallace and McCarney also talk about burnout and anxiety, Spike Lee’s filmmaking, and McCarney’s other upcoming projects, like Netflix drama High Flying Bird and the OWN show “David Makes Man.”

 

Theatre of Wokeness

Collage by Katie Kosma

Danielle A. Jackson | Longreads | January 2019 | 7 minutes (1,942 words)

There’s a certain kind of conversation everybody seems to be having right now. It takes place most often online, but sometimes in real life. Specifics vary, and its frequency and level of intensity ebbs and flows with the news cycle. An awards show, a White House firing, a video of police misconduct, a local ballot initiative on medical marijuana — anything tangentially related to race or gender can be fodder. It starts out engaging enough. Then tensions mount; participants morph into archetypes. Its substance diminishes into the reduced, neutered language of the “moment” before disintegrating altogether.

In a would-be map of this phenomenon, the first Women’s March, held the day after President Trump’s inauguration, is an inflection point. On November 9, 2016, Teresa Shook, a white former attorney living in Hawaii, created a Facebook event for “a women’s march” that quickly drew several thousand RSVPs. Shook quickly enlisted a small group of women to help with early planning. Organizers were frightened the incoming administration would “threaten access to women’s healthcare, erode protection against sexual violence and roll back aid to struggling mothers.” Shook felt “shock and disbelief that this type of sentiment could win,” she told Reuters. “We had to let people know that is not who we are.” Yet, Trump’s victory wouldn’t have happened without heavy support from white women in the electorate. Terms like “intersectionality” entered the mass media’s lexicon to help explain the difficulty inherent in assembling women into a voting bloc. Along with the election’s results, the terms proliferated in a major way via Instagram, hashtags, and memes.

The march’s founders and early organizers soon appointed a diverse cadre  of women to leadership, with assistance from activist and political connector Michael Skolnik. The organizers also made sure an anti-racism agenda was part of their framework. Pulled together in just a few short months, the March was a resounding success. The central protest, in Washington, drew an estimated half a million attendees (yielding more than a million rides on DC’s Metro, the second largest crowd in its history, after the first inauguration of Barack Obama). When counting the well-attended “sister marches” held around the country, “1 percent to 1.6 percent of the U.S. population” participated in a demonstration, reported the Washington Post.

It isn’t exaggerating to say people who weren’t before are now concerned about race and social justice. According to a CNN / Kaiser poll, 49% of Americans said racism is “a big problem” in 2015, up from just over a quarter who said so in 2011. Gender inequality, too, seems top of mind: A Pew Research Center survey from 2018 said about half of Americans think men getting away with sexual harassment or assault is “a major problem.”

Some say we’re living through “a moment,” that we’re “having a reckoning.” I have a hard time with those words — they’re soundbite-y, naïve, and incomplete, as if the “moment” is for people who hadn’t even had to think about inequality or dealt with it in any large or small way — being followed around a store, or subjected to different standards on a job, or denied an apartment for no obvious reason. And if that’s the case, how’s it different from any other moment? Does it hold up, withstand rigor, or is it a surface-level reckoning, concerned with optics and the appearance of social justice and equality?

The Women’s March’s leaders have had to answer such questions. Under charges of administrative mismanagement as well as anti-Semitism, due to its alleged negligence toward Jewish women and interactions with the Nation of Islam and Louis Farrakhan, some leaders and sister groups have split off from the central organizing body. Last August, Black Women’s Blueprint, a Brooklyn-based organization focused on policy advocacy and grassroots organizing, wrote Women’s March, Inc. an open letter: “Rather than rubbing elbows and entreating known misogynist leaders… we charge you to meet us in the trenches.” Hastily organized and orchestrated in pursuit of an of-the-moment illusion of inclusion, or what I’ll call a “theatre of wokeness,” the Women’s March may be in danger of imploding. In November, the founder, Shook, called for all four co-chairs to step down, and over the past few weeks (leading up to the third march, taking place January 19), several former sponsors and partners walked away from the March, including the Southern Poverty Law Center, EMILY’s List, and the Democratic National Committee.

Along with institutional and personal reckonings, our “moment” has also birthed a category of creations and products that support, mirror, and mine it. Sitcom episodes, satirical bits, comedy specials, films, and music, and other performance art across and in between genres and mediums have attempted to mimic and explore our confusion, our dinner table banter, the rhythm of our outrage cycle, our anxieties, awakenings, and incipient healing. It’s a prolific time. The results, for me, have been mixed; sometimes, in an attempt to titillate or provoke, characterization, interiority, or reflection gets lost or weighed down in favor of an appropriate level of wokeness. Other times, I’ve questioned the motives of the creators, wondering if staying current and in tune with the “moment” is what it’s all about after all. More than anything I wonder what the whole point is of the reckoning. In our creative responses, are we, in some cases, reinscribing the same disappointments we’re trying to reconcile? Further, what comes after the problems get addressed? What happens if, when, and after a collective consciousness has been awakened?


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I had these and other questions watching Slave Play, a three-act satire that ran until January 13 at the New York Theater Workshop (I also heard whispers that it could be headed for Broadway). Director Robert O’Hara and playwright Jeremy O. Harris — a student at Yale’s School of Drama, and one of New York Times Style Magazine’s Black male writers of our time — imagines a world that, once fully revealed, looks very much like our own. Yet, we don’t know that at first. We see, instead, three interracial couples engaged in “slave play,” or sexual acts meant to simulate the race, gender, and class dynamics of antebellum America. Disorienting details hint that something is askew. The slave woman twerking on the floor to Rihanna while cleaning; the mistress twitchily summoning a tall, light-skinned fiddler to her bedside; the Black overseer crying frustrated tears through pleasure as his white indentured partner licks his boots. It titillates, it makes us (some of us, mostly the white folks) laugh. It, thankfully, ends quickly, giving way to a modern-day scene that sends up a certain kind of east coast, academic, therapeutic language, the language of our “moment,” to hilarious effect. It turns out the three interracial couples are all in therapy because the Black partners can no longer feel sexual pleasure in their respective relationships. And true to real life, the white partners (or those with closest proximity to whiteness) are emotive, externalized, and sometimes vocally annoyed, while the Black partners, for much of the time, simmer, stunned and silent.

All the actors play to some level of humiliation, but the Black woman in the therapeutic experiment, Kaneisha, played with a convincing prickliness by Teyonah Parris, seems to get especially short shrift: face down, she eats a busted cantaloupe off the floor in the first act, and by the third act, exorcises some trauma when her formerly petulant partner agrees to call her a “nasty negress” while they’re having sex. “Thank you for listening,” she says after the word play turns into several minutes of vigorous fucking.

The ending is an unsettling, confusing affair. I wasn’t sure if a rape had taken place or if it was, instead, a “breakthrough” achieved through consent. At any rate the labor of Parris, on whose character arc the entire show builds its human core, stayed heavy on my mind for days.

“I don’t want people to be able to walk away from a play about slavery and say, ‘Oh, well, that’s not about 2018,’” Slave Play’s playwright told an audience of donors, according to a Times profile. But who, exactly, doesn’t notice that the reverberations of slavery are still with us? If we’re really trying to wake up white people, I wish folks would say that. Slave Play’s Black cast members likely had to do heavier lifting — physically and psychically —  than the white (or white-ish) cast members in reimagining scenes drawn from America’s slave past. Do these interventions even work? And if they do, at what cost— to the audiences who may be harmed? To the cast and crew?

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The politics of pleasure are as ripe as any place to dig, for creative play, for exploration and elucidation, mapped as it is into the subconscious, and there’s a legacy of its exploration in the work of Frantz Fanon and Adrienne Kennedy, both apparently influences on Slave Play’s playwright. The goal is to unsettle, to probe, and I can get with that, up to a point. What about context[1], interiority, reflection within the fictive universe of a piece? Maybe more of that would have been helpful in constructing Kaneisha as more than a spectacle. She speaks a lot, especially in the third act, but mostly, her character is seen through the eyes of her partner, as she talks about herself in relation to him and other white people from her past.

Even a journalistic endeavor could be improved with an ethics of care. In the six-part docuseries “Surviving R. Kelly,” which aired January 3-5 on Lifetime (and is still available on demand), the drama of Kelly’s victims’ pain is the main event, drawn out  for the benefit of the collective consciousness. I was well-acquainted with the story, yet still not entirely prepared for the grotesque details I saw and heard.

The series has already brought what feels like a shift: a lawyer for one of the families accusing Kelly confirmed that senior investigators from Fulton County, Georgia interviewed his client. The state’s attorney in Cook County, Illinois has asked for victims to reach out. There have also been costs: survivors featured in the documentary have been doxxed, discredited, and disparaged online. I saw it in my own feeds, from people in my own family. I’ve seen Black women, unaffiliated with Kelly, report they’re “not ok” and had difficulty sleeping after watching or talking about the series. In the series, some survivors were visibly traumatized during their interviews. (Watching Asante McGee revist a room she recalled being held captive in reminded me of a question from In the Wake: “Where is the breaking point, the breath, the pause…?”) How, really, should you manage when confronted with the truth of just how vulnerable you are?[2] More context could help. The music industry has a history of sexually exploiting underage girls—critics Ann Powers and Nelson George explain this powerfully in the series— but so does, specifically, the tradition of Black music upon which Kelly built everything. He’s a hip-hop generation misogynist who learned from his peers and from soul music forebears like Marvin Gaye and Al Green and James Brown, all of whom have allegations from harmed women tainting their legacies. Black Gen X-ers didn’t handle R. Kelly before because their forebears didn’t handle their own.

In Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History, Heather Love writes, “For groups constituted by historical injury, the challenge is to engage with the past without being destroyed by it.” Audiences and creators ask a great deal of people when they’re digging into the past, probing around the depths of ancient and not-so-ancient traumas. If the moment requires that the confusion of the present and the pain of the past get served up with realistic viscerality — if it’s about more than being current, and more than just theatre — special care should be taken with the subject matter as well as the casts, sources, and audiences most likely to be impacted.  

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[1] On January 14, 2019, Jonathan Square of the digital humanities project Fashioning the Self in Slavery and Freedom published a syllabus to help with processing Slave Play.

[2] Girls for Gender Equity and Black Women’s Blueprint produced and published reading guides and community toolkits for “Surviving R. Kelly.”

Memory and the Lost Cause

MEMPHIS - OCTOBER 04: Hernando De Soto bridge in Memphis, Tennessee on October 4, 2016. (Photo By Raymond Boyd/Getty Images)

Danielle A. Jackson | Longreads | December 2018 | 9 minutes (2,360 words)

 A few days after my father’s funeral, I rented an Airbnb on Memphis’s Second Street, two avenues over from the Mississippi Riverfront. From one window, in the mornings, I could see riverboats slowly slinking by. From the other, a view of the Hernando de Soto Bridge. Named after the conquistador who arrived from Florida in 1541 in search of gold, the bridge was constructed in 1982. It connects Tennessee to Arkansas and is in many ways a dividing line between America’s east and west coasts.

During their heady romance, my father drove the length of that bridge from West Memphis, Arkansas to court my mother. She once told me they’d ended their relationship in a teary conversation while driving across. The night of my first date, at 16, I parked and walked along Riverside Drive, just south of the Memphis entrance to the bridge. It was late in August, the dog days of summer, the start of my junior year in high school. The air was sticky and sweet, mosquitoes nipped at my shoulders. I had a feeling of expectation in my heart, an idea of a future that I could construct.

The Mississippi River is a marvel. It is filthy, contaminated, and mostly unsuitable for swimming, drinking, or fishing. It is also, for me, steadying and grounding. It is a site of many beginnings, and something told me it was where I could grieve my father privately after many days of public ceremony. About a year before he died, I’d started missing home and made plans to go back for an extended time, for longer than a visit. In my longing, the reasons I left nearly 20 years before seemed a nebulous mix of striving and progress and running from something, or some things, I was not yet ready to name.

Memphis is a place where, if you’re Black, and you can, you leave. It is a proud majority Black city, and Blacks have power, but it was and is a tenuous kind of power, slow-coming and distributed in a scattershot way among a selected few. We elected our first Black mayor during my lifetime, in 1991, nearly 20 years after Atlanta. And I remember when white students left my school by the dozens and how my mother labored to enroll me in another school, to follow the current of good teachers to a better place.

My mother grew up and raised all of her children in Memphis, but five years ago, she, too, left, to live out her retirement elsewhere. In the years since, I heard a lot about a “reverse migration” where young Blacks, disappointed and frustrated by the urban North, went back to the Southern states of their ancestors for better weather and lower costs of living. Last December, Memphis’s monument to Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general responsible for the brutal Fort Pillow Massacre and an early leader of the Ku Klux Klan, came down. This year, a new cadre of progressive leaders like Tami Sawyer, London Lamar, and Lee Harris became elected officials. My dread about home and my longing for it began to work on me anew.


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“Americans do not share a common memory of slavery,” Blain Roberts and Ethan Kytle write in Denmark Vesey’s Garden: Slavery and Memory in the Cradle of the Confederacy,  a powerful account that uses the history of Charleston, South Carolina, the “cradle of the Confederacy,” or “slavery’s capital,” to trace the origins of the nation’s competing visions of slavery. One view, of slavery as “benevolent and civilizing,” say Roberts and Kytle, supported by “former slaveholders and their descendants” is “a whitewashed memory,” ignoring or minimizing how brutal it was when human beings were chattel, and how central slavery is to our nation’s history. The other vision, maintained in memories and ritual by “former slaves, their progeny, and some white and black allies,” has a gorier truth.

Memphis, founded as it was, on the Mississippi River, situated at the borders of Arkansas and Mississippi, has long been a commercial port. Americans purchased the land from the Chickasaw Nation in 1818, and the city incorporated in 1826; soon after, it became a point to transport and sell Mississippi Delta cotton. It also became an important slave market, and trading in slaves was how Nathan Bedford Forrest made his name.  He was, according to scholar Court Carney, “one of the largest slave traders on the Mississippi River,” and a two-term city alderman before enlisting in the army. Tennessee was the eleventh and last state to secede from the Union. Its mountainous eastern end, far away from cotton country and less dependent upon slavery, retained pro-Union sentiments throughout the war.

According to Kytle and Roberts, the myth of the “Lost Cause,” a term coined in 1866, took root among former Confederates in the decades after their loss. It emphasized the valor of the Confederate army and how’d they’d been outmatched by better resourced Union soldiers, but fought anyway. Standing in moral defeat (and with federal troops still occupying the South initially), former Confederates and sympathizers “scrambled to distance the Confederacy from the peculiar institution.” They claimed that while slavery played a part, it was loftier goals like states’ autonomy that the secessionists had fought for.

Yet this revision of historical memory was not benign. It coincided with losses of recently acquired rights of citizenship for freed men and women. Reconstruction officially ended in 1877 when federal troops left the South; by the 1880s, state governments began erecting barriers to voting rights and mandating separate accommodations for Blacks and whites in public spaces. Lynchings, usually committed as punishment or warning against some breach of social order, spiked in the 1880s and 1890s. According to data compiled by the Southern Poverty Law Center,  the biggest increase in dedications of Confederate monuments and memorials was in the early years of the 1900s. Memphis’s Forrest monument was dedicated at a ceremony attended by nearly 30,000 in 1905. Throughout the years, proponents of the monument included prominent leaders in business and city government, and they celebrated the former general’s “rough-hewn, unschooled martial style,” and held him up as a “pinnacle of southern manhood,” writes Carney. At least, publicly, they mostly minimized or ignored his history of brutality, but sometimes, when Blacks were particularly vocal and assertive, like during the push for desegregation during the 1960s, Forrest enthusiasts resorted to threatening an unruly populace that the general would be somehow resurrected to avenge something lost.

Even in Memphis of the 1980s and 1990s, when I grew up, remnants and relics of the Lost Cause mythos were everywhere. My first job was as an actor in a city theater performance of Tom Sawyer, a musical adaptation of Mark Twain’s first novel, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. I played a friend of Amy Lawrence, essentially a chorus girl, and had two speaking lines. I was thrilled to have the job  — I was 12 and got to be out of school for more than half the day for rehearsals and performances. I earned a weekly stipend and adored learning from the veteran actors in the theatre’s resident company. The cast was a mix of company members and actors from outside, and we were a multicultural crew. A Black actor played Tom Sawyer, and I was the one Black girl in the chorus. Nigger Jim was played by another Black girl; we only called her character Jim. The actress had several speaking lines and performed a solo musical number to the song “Buffalo Gal,” a song I now know is from a minstrel written by early blackface performer John Hodges. Throughout his life, Mark Twain wrote about his love of minstrel performances, calling them “nigger shows.” He said in his autobiography, “If I could have the nigger-show back again, in its pristine purity and perfection, I should have but little further use for opera.”

Watching the actress’s adroit performance every afternoon and night, singing along with the rest of the chorus to songs about the glorious Mississippi and the whistle of steamboats, I don’t remember feeling anything I would call embarrassment. I sometimes got a vague feeling of discomfort, but, truth be told, I thought I was different from the other Black actress. I was, after all, playing a schoolgirl, not a slave on the run. Weren’t we simply celebrating the glory of Mississippi River towns? Our shared land and culture? I was a child and I was deluding myself.

It is only now, looking back, that I realize that none of the theatre’s resident company, the actors with guaranteed jobs and pay for the season, were Black. While researching this piece, I learned that is still the case.

A subterranean racism is intertwined with many Southern artifacts and practices. It is an incomplete nostalgia, a false memory, a longing for an old South stripped of the truth of what living then meant for many people. At Memphis’ Sunset Symphony, a seemingly benign, popular, old-fashioned outdoor picnic was held on the Mississippi River every May. “Ol’ Man River,” from the musical Showboat, with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, was performed for 21 years by local bass singer James Hyter as the crowd-stopping finale, with encore after encore. Hyter would change the lyrics many times throughout the years, removing words like “nigger” and “darkey.” Even without the hurtful words the song still describes a Black man’s life of impossible toil.

It is only now, looking back, that I realize that none of the theatre’s resident company, the actors with guaranteed jobs and pay for the season, were Black. While researching this piece, I, learned that is still the case.

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Late last month, the investigative journalist and author Nikole Hannah-Jones tweeted a long thread about the failed slave revolt allegedly planned by Denmark Vesey in Charleston in 1822. “This man was free and prosperous,” she wrote, “but never separated himself from the enslaved, recruited 9000 ENSLAVED PEOPLE — 9000! — to his plot to liberate enslaved in SC, overtake the armory, commandeer a boat and then sail to Haiti…” She said she learned “next to nothing” about Vesey, despite being  an African-American studies major in college, and that omitting or minimizing the truth of Black resistance is a form of “social control.” Indeed, the details of Vesey’s plot, its scale and depth, explained in a comprehensive biography by David Robertson, are remarkable.

In high school, what I learned about North American slave rebellions and resistance was cursory. I knew they happened; I learned them as facts — a laundry list of who, what, when, and how: Stono’s in South Carolina before the American Revolution; Nat Turner in Southampton, Virginia; John Brown at Harper’s Ferry.

I didn’t learn that they were more than isolated incidents — that those individual instances of resistance acted in concert with other global eruptions. They were also proof of how utterly unsustainable slavery was. Rebellions, small and large, were “frequent and were ferociously put down,” throughout the Americas, according to a website dedicated to information about Bristol, England’s role as a trading port in the transatlantic slave trade. This resistance is a missing link in the gap between the two strands of collective memory about slavery. It disrupts the Lost Cause narrative of slavery as benign, and its history has been deliberately suppressed. Robertson writes, “In order that his life and actions not be publicly commemorated, any black person, man or woman, seen wearing mourning in the streets of Charleston within a week of his [Vesey’s] execution was to be arrested and whipped.”

…the act of imagination is bound up with memory. You know, they straightened out the Mississippi River in places, to make room for houses and livable acreage. Occasionally the river floods these places. “Floods” is the word they use, but in fact it is not flooding; it is remembering. Remembering where it used to be. All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was.

From,”The Site of Memory,” Toni Morrison; Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir

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Identity is nothing if not a collection of memories, strung together over time, lunging forward to inform and create a future. Who and what we mourn, too, is bound up in what we love and value. According to Kytle and Roberts, newly freed people held countless public commemorations and a “yearlong wake,” to celebrate the end of slavery, including, in one instance, a procession with a “hearse carrying a coffin labeled ‘Slavery.'” The first Memorial Day, held May 1, 1865 was an occasion when Black volunteer associations in Charleston reburied the remains of Union soldiers in properly marked graves.

Walking in the new Memphis, twenty years after the last time I lived there, I was often lost. There was little pedestrian traffic, but many police cars in the tourist spots I visited. An old Black man, ostensibly homeless, asked for my carton of takeout food. In an old place I loved years ago, sitting at a piano bar alone, having a cocktail, I was the only Black person who was not obviously an employee. In the new places, a fancy coffee shop and a fancier restaurant, it was the same. Chicago’s South Side monument to Ida B. Wells-Barnett may be erected before the end of 2019. There is a marker for her in Memphis, on Beale and Hernando Streets, near the offices of the Free Speech, the newspaper for which she wrote columns, investigated lynchings, and urged Blacks to leave the city if they were not treated more humanely. Wells-Barnett took up that work after grieving the March 1892 lynching of her friend Thomas Moss, a postman and an owner of the People’s Grocery, as well as two of his employees. That May, the Evening Scimitar printed an editorial about Wells-Barnett threatening “to tie the wretch who utters these calumnies to a stake at the intersection of Main and Madison streets.” At Main and Madison, a few blocks from the bridge, the river, and where I’d gone to rest after burying my father, there is no marker.

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Danielle A. Jackson is a writer and associate editor at Longreads.