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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.

‘I Feel Closer to My Faith Than I Did Before’: Holding On to Ramadan

PUTRAJAYA, MALAYSIA - JUNE 05: An officer of Malaysia's Islamic authority uses a telescope to perform "rukyah", the sighting of the new moon of Ramadan, in Putrajaya outside Kuala Lumpur on June 5, 2016. Muslims scan the sky at dusk in the beginning of the lunar calendar's ninth month in search of the new moon to proclaim the start of Ramadan, Islam's holiest month during which observant believers fast from dawn to dusk. Muslims celebrate the end of Ramadan with the Eid al-Fitr festival. (Photo by Mohd Samsul Mohd Said/Getty Images)

For BuzzFeed Reader, poet and essayist Hanif Abdurraqib considers how holding on to the observance of Ramadan, despite an adulthood spent veering from other aspects of his faith, has been a grounding force in a busy, thoroughly modern life.

I don’t know why Ramadan is the act of faith which has endured for me. I hardly refer to myself as a practicing Muslim these days, but I am still very invested in the rigor of Ramadan. And I suppose that might be it — the rigor is the act I still chase after. A part of this is routine — even when I stopped praying in my early twenties, I found myself still adhering to the commemoration of the holy month. But a part of it, I imagine, is like the home-run hitter who comes to the plate with the bases loaded and his team down by four, swinging for the fences and trying to get it all back at once.

I know the ways in which I fail in the face of my beliefs, and yet I wish to consider myself forgiven once each year, when I wake up early to pray and have a small meal with the sun breaking over the horizon. When I abstain from food and drink and still take a long run. I suppose it has never stopped being a performance, but when I engage in Ramadan now, I feel closer to my faith than I did before. I am performing it for no one but myself, in most instances. I am often traveling, or secluded during the month. My non-Muslim friends and peers rarely know I’m fasting, or often forget. To go about it in solitude is my preferred mode now, when nothing else matters but the monthlong journey back to some emotional center I’ve thought myself to be lacking. When the month ends, I don’t return to a dedicated spiritual practice, and my life resumes as it normally does all other 11 months of the year. But for as many days as it takes the crescent moon to unsheathe itself, I remember all of the old prayers I skipped. I remind myself how to talk to a holy entity. I don’t eat, sure, but the not eating has become the easy part, particularly as I’ve aged. To find the humility to imagine yourself as small in the face of something larger than you is the hard part, and for me, that has little to do with not eating, and more to do with the knowing that you could eat, at any time. That you have the ability and privilege to fill yourself, and you still choose not to. I do this in the name of a faith that I am uncertain of, and haven’t always felt at home in, and that makes the act both more complicated and more fulfilling.

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When Will Hip-Hop Have Its #MeToo Reckoning?

Kelis performs in Paris, 2014. (David Wolff-Patrick/Redferns via Getty Images)

In a recent interview with the celebrity news site Hollywood Unlocked, singer Kelis discussed her seven-year relationship with ex-husband, Nas, the legendary Queens rapper, with a level of detail she never had publicly. She described a mix of “intense highs and really intense lows,” including bruises from physical fights, alcoholic binges, cheating, and emotional abuse. Kelis also made claims that, since the divorce in 2010, Nas had been a difficult and unreliable co-parent to their 8-year-old son. At more than an hour long, the interview is a marvel of a testimony and rings with emotional honesty. Kelis seemed weary of keeping quiet about her past, saying she simply woke up and thought “not today.” Read more…

A Family’s Pear Pie Tradition Binds Them Together

Pears (Pyrus communis), Rosaceae. (Photo by DeAgostini/Getty Images)

In a personal essay for the Southern Foodways Alliance, journalist and writer Rosalind Bentley remembers how the women in her family made pies and cobblers out of Florida-grown sand-pears. Bentley beautifully describes harvesting, baking, and delighting in sand-pear pies as a tradition among them that marked the milestones of womanhood and knitted the family together through hardship.

Yet there were moments of light—and they often happened in our tiny kitchen. There’s the memory of Mama zesting lemons against the old aluminum grater for a lemon meringue pie, her lips pursed, humming as she worked. By the time the egg whites were whipped into peaks and spread atop the pie, she’d be three verses into her third hymn. There was old-style banana pudding, bread pudding studded with raisins, and I think once, when I was in Girl Scouts, there was an attempt at caramel apples. On rare occasions, there’d be a sand-pear pie.

I’d watch her work, as she mimicked her mother’s steps. I was too young to see how the rhythm of the rolling pin across the dough and the notes forming in my mother’s throat helped her bear a bone-deep sadness.

By seventh grade, I’d developed my first real crush on a boy. I imagined we’d get married, a union the very opposite of my parents’. It would be perfect in every way. My body was transforming, as were my appetites.

Two events stand out as markers of my budding: One is the day I told my mother we’d be better off without my father and that she should divorce him. At first her face registered shock. As I kept talking she began to relax. On some level, I knew he loved me and I wanted to believe he’d once loved her. But it was too late. She was tired and so was I. It was difficult after their divorce, but with the help of family and my mother’s penny-pinching, we made it.

The other is the day I decided to make a pear pie on my own. I think I was about thirteen, the same age my mom was when she left home. I’m pretty sure it was a Sunday after church. I followed her steps. Measure. Sift. Nutmeg. Plenty of sugar. Chips of butter. The kitchen was redolent as the pastry baked. When I pulled it from the oven, I was so proud. It hadn’t over-cooked, and I just knew it would dribble with honey-toned nectar when we lifted a slice from the pan.

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Why Beyoncé Placed HBCU’s at the Center of American Life

(Kevin Mazur/Getty Images for Coachella)

When Beyoncé strolled onto Coachella’s desert stage like a drum major on the night of April 16, no one was prepared for the spectacle that was to come. There was, of course, the sheer magnitude of it: She wore a cape and crown of painstaking detail, bedazzled by Olivier Rousteing of Balmain, referencing the ageless black regality of Nefertiti and Michael Jackson. Dozens of monochromatically clad dancers joined Bey, along with a drumline with sousaphone and trombone players. It was an ocean of sound and color against the backdrop of bleachers. “‘Let’s do a homecoming,” she reportedly told her choreographers in early rehearsals.

Perhaps we should’ve been ready. Beyoncé, known for rigorous stagecraft, always promises a spectacle. She’s a pop star who sings soul, although she hasn’t ever tried to be earthy or minimalist like Erykah Badu or Jill Scott, two artists whose work I can tell she pays attention to. I’m sure Beyoncé could pull off a full-length, stripped down, acoustic album if she wanted, but she’s always seemed willfully extra. Her sound is emotive, melismatic, acrobatic, and her visuals are similarly bombastic — a lot of hair, plenty of ass and sweat, and more than a few wardrobe changes.

Yet some of my favorite moments of her career are when she’s focused on fundamentals. Keeping the beat on her lap while performing “Halo” at a children’s hospital, ad-libbing on Frank Ocean’s “Pink and White,” harmonizing on the relaxed, minor-note groove of Destiny’s Child deep cuts like “Get on the Bus,” and “Confessions”. You notice her ear for complex harmonies, the strength of her lower register, the sense of rhythm that makes the delivery of her hooks sticky, and the staccato of her cadences — along with everything else she’s capable of, she’s also more than competent as a rapper.

What I loved most about Bey at Coachella was how her performance drew out elements that have been important in her art for the past 20 years and took them to their logical conclusion — or rather, to their true beginning. She’s long had a brassiness in her voice and she’s always mined black, Southern ways of being for her work. When her sister’s meditative album A Seat at the Table climbed the charts alongside Lemonade in 2016, both of which explicitly pulsed with a brazen black consciousness, Solange told the public not to be surprised. “I’m really proud of my sister and I’m really proud of her record and her work and I’ve always been,” she said to Fader. “As far as I’m concerned, she’s always been an activist from the beginning of her career and she’s always been very, very black.”

If you’re black and from the South, it feels like the culture of HBCUs (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) is in the ether. They are spaces you can’t ignore and wouldn’t want to. Beyoncé was born in Houston and her father graduated from Fisk University. When she was a child in the 1980s and 90s, Spike Lee joints came out almost every other year, and Lee never let us forget that he’d gone to Morehouse, the way Morehouse men are wont to do. The culture of HBCU’s and black Greek life was everywhere: Lee’s 1988 film School Daze and the 1987 TV series A Different World shared similar themes and a few principal cast members, including Jasmine Guy, who was head of the Gamma Ray sorority in the former and iconic B.A.P. Whitley Gilbert in the latter.

That Beyoncé chooses to highlight the specific culture of HBCUs and black Greek life shouldn’t really surprise us, either, and if it does, it feels to me as if we haven’t really been paying attention. A host of black artists have seen black college culture as ripe for the imaginary. At JSTOR Daily, Lavelle Porter reminds us that it was taken up by novelists Ralph Ellison and Nella Larsen at the beginning of the century, and later, by the creators of films and shows like Drumline, Stomp the Yard, and The Quad. To that list,we could add Janelle Monáe, who depicted HBCU life in her 2013 music video “Electric Lady,” as well as Kanye West, whose mother got degrees from Virginia Union and Atlanta University and was the head of the English department at Chicago State for six years.

Growing up, my older sister ran a small business selling Afrocentric gifts and black Greek paraphernalia at Classic ballgames and other events throughout the South. This was the early 90s, when Kenté cloth and Malcolm X fitted caps and medallions were everywhere. One of the T-shirts in our inventory read “The Blacker the College, the Sweeter the Knowledge,” a riff on an old saying about blackness and fecund soulfulness. At a well-attended event at Memphis’ Cook Convention Center, a customer looked me in the eyes and said she knew the future was secure since I’d been such an eloquent and competent salesperson for a fifth grader.

My sophomore year of high school, I visited a few Southern and East coast colleges, both HBCUs and PWIs, on a tour bus with a church group. Spelman felt like home in a way that I didn’t know a place of learning could. Missy Elliot videos played in a student center, women who looked and sounded like people I loved carried full backpacks, answered our questions. When we got to Howard, we were giddy. It was a Friday afternoon in the late spring, and we spent a long time out on the green, buzzing Yard.

Part of the reason I didn’t go to an HBCU was that I was so familiar with them. Now, I wonder what I could have been had I let myself bask in that kind of affirmation for a little bit longer. Nonetheless, I was pretty sure that who I was — a nerdy, bespectacled daughter of a poor-to-working class single mother, wouldn’t easily fit in at one those campuses.

My experiences with wealthier black families in Memphis — and watching Bill Cosby’s shows — made it clear that I needed to aspire to a pristine, black middle-class ideal. I think Cosby’s crimes have given us an opportunity to think about the limits of some of our sacred black spaces, how the pressure to be respectable can force you to abandon or question or edit yourself if you’re poor, or queer, or anything else. By associating herself with HBCUs, Beyoncé challenges those mores with her self-avowed feminist, queer-loving and blatantly sexual art. She helps expand the possibilities of what it looks like to be a black thinking person.

That she chose to share this at Coachella, with its largely wealthy, white audience, wasn’t exactly a disruption. I truly believe that her performance placed HBCUs and black Greek culture at the center of American life, and that’s where they belong. Today, there are 102 HBCUs, a mix of private and public institutions. Most have some relationship with federal or state funding, and none have endowments like those of the oldest, private universities in the northeast, many of which are uncovering their ties to slavery.  The share of black college students enrolled in HBCUs has declined in recent years, but the schools do more than their share of the work — enrolling about 9 percent of the nation’s black undergraduates and graduating about 15 percent of them.

They are also American institutions that have an important relationship with our nation’s long march towards democracy. According to W.E.B. Du Bois in his 1935 essay Black Reconstruction:

The first great mass movement for public education at the expense of the state, in the South, came from Negroes. Many leaders before the war had advocated general education, but few had been listened to. Schools for indigents and paupers were supported, here and there, and more or less spasmodically. Some states had elaborate plans, but they were not carried out. Public education for all at public expense, was, in the South, a Negro idea.

Before this mass movement, the South’s leadership did not believe in the “educability of the poor,” and much of the white laboring class in the region saw no need for it, mired as they were in the plantation system’s feudalism. State by state, Reconstruction governments set up tax-based schools that would be open to all. There was resistance to nearly all of this — to the idea of blacks becoming educated, to whites teaching blacks, to the black and white students sharing facilities. As a compromise, secondary schools and colleges were opened specifically to train black teachers. Fisk University opened in 1866, and Howard University was founded in 1867, partly funded by the Freedman’s Bureau. Du Bois said these institutions “became the centers of a training in leadership and ideals for the whole Negro race, and the only fine and natural field of contact between white and black culture.”

A few studies have shown that throughout the world, compulsory education increases voter participation, and increases in education predict social engagement in the sort of groups and organizations that do critical grassroots work. The push for education on the part of emancipated blacks, then, can be considered a driving force in the ever-widening democratization of American life.

Beyoncé’s Coachella sets were a correction to the erasure and historical amnesia that make us feel like she could possibly disrupt something that her forebears had such a heavy hand in creating.

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A Kendrick Lamar Syllabus

Kendrick Lamar performs at the Grammys on January 28, 2018. (Christopher Polk/Getty Images for NARAS)

Last month, Kendrick Lamar Duckworth won the Pulitzer Prize in music for his 2017 album DAMN. It’s the first work of hip-hop to be commended since the award for musical composition was created in 1943. Most winners have been classical musicians, and a few, like Wynton Marsalis and Ornette Coleman, composers of jazz.

The Pulitzer board noted that DAMN. “offers affecting vignettes capturing the complexity of modern African-American life.” The album’s selection updates and redefines conceptions of music and high culture — it is canon expanding and its reverberations and aftershocks should be significant.

DAMN. is Lamar’s third album, and while it is spectacular, I don’t think it’s his most thrilling. good kid m.A.A.d. city, from 2012, succeeds more on the plane of hip-hop aesthetics, with its structurally sound story arc. To Pimp a Butterfly, from 2015, was more melodically lush, and it magnetized a rising tide of political fervor: The single “Alright” became a protest anthem, and every major release by a popular black musician afterward seemed to form a politically-charged chorus.

Lamar has made a career of delivering prescient, complex work that is sometimes fiery and discordant, and other times deeply meditative or grief-stricken. But his work always feels honest, as writers have found when they dive deep into his literary influences. With the significance of his Pulitzer in sight, I offer a small selection of the insightful writing on Lamar that has published in the years since his debut.
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Listening to the Words of Puerto Rican Poet Julia de Burgos After Hurricane Maria

The flag of Puerto Rico. (Getty Images)

Artist and writer Molly Crabapple retraces the steps of twentieth century poet Julia de Burgos, who was born in 1914 in Carolina, Puerto Rico, and lived and worked throughout the island, Cuba, and the United States before an early death in 1953. De Burgos is largely unknown outside of Puerto Rico; Crabapple weaves a story of the poet’s literary accomplishment and the origins of her feminist, nationalistic ideals, with that of Puerto Rico’s resilience in the wake of Hurricane Maria.

What was truly to blame for her decline? Was it thwarted ambition? Government surveillance? Poverty? Her knack for stirring up jealous gossip? The racism and sexism any brown woman would have faced? In New York, she worked blue-collar jobs: power press operator, sales clerk, seamstress. She stormed out of a factory after fighting with fascists, quit a newspaper because the director was reactionary. Her marriage collapsed in stages. She drank. She had boyfriends. This kind of hard-living, fast-loving bohemianism might have been acceptable for a Hemingway; not so much for a Puerto Rican woman.

In 1948, cirrhosis forced her into the first of a series of long-term hospitalizations. Famously, she put “writer” as her profession on the intake form for Bellevue. Staff crossed it out and wrote in “suffers from delusions.” In the hospitals, her skull was measured. She was experimented on, injected with hormones, confined to a wheelchair, exhibited to medical students. The nurses exclaimed over her kinky hair.

She kept writing. Every time she was offered a ticket back to Puerto Rico, she declined.

In 1953, six weeks out of the hospital, Julia de Burgos collapsed on a Harlem street near Central Park, and died. She was thirty-nine years old. She carried no ID and, with no one able to identify her body, was buried in a potter’s field on Hunt’s Island. After a month of inquiries, her friends in Puerto Rico located her, had her body exhumed, and brought her home at last to Carolina.

During my visit, I could not see the memorial De Burgos’s hometown had built for its most famous daughter. It was closed because of damage caused by Hurricane Maria.

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Could Paulette Jordan of Idaho Become the Country’s First Native American Governor?

LAS VEGAS, NV - JANUARY 21: State Rep. Paulette Jordan (D-ID) speaks during the Women's March "Power to the Polls" voter registration tour launch at Sam Boyd Stadium on January 21, 2018, in Las Vegas, Nevada. Demonstrators across the nation gathered over the weekend, one year after the historic Women's March on Washington, D.C., to protest President Donald Trump's administration and to raise awareness for women's issues. (Photo by Sam Morris/Getty Images)

For BuzzFeedAnne Helen Petersen profiles Idaho gubernatorial candidate and former state representative Paulette Jordan, whose left-of-center views are an anomaly in a region that has been a Republican stronghold for decades. She’s a woman of color in a state that is 82% white, and at 38, nearly half the age of A.J. Balukoff, her opponent for the Democratic nomination. Jordan grew up in a ranching family on the Coeur d’Alene Reservation, began her political career on a tribal council, and developed a reputation in the state legislature for reaching across party lines. She’d become the U.S.’s first Native American governor if elected; Petersen describes how Jordan represents a new model of leadership.

When people meet [Paulette] Jordan, they often assume she’s younger than her 38 years. But she emphasizes that she has more than a decade of experience, on the local, state, and national levels — it’s just that much of that experience was tribal, and often ignored as a form of governance, leadership, or service. Words like “tribal” and “Indian” aren’t included within the (white, male-dominated) spheres of “experience,” especially when it comes to preparation for political office. (Natives aren’t the only ones who see their experience cut out of those definitions. As A’shanti Gholar, political director for Emerge America, told Newsweek, “When people think about a successful candidate, they still tend to imagine a straight white man as the person to get the job done.”)

“I have ten years of elected experience,” Jordan emphasizes. “For [opponent] [Balukoff] to try and suggest otherwise is dishonest. I think women — and men! — should be disgusted for him to say that a woman with leadership experience should step aside. That I should ‘wait my turn.’”

“I think we’re done with that,” Jordan said. “This is a generation that says, we’re not going to tolerate old white men telling us to step aside anymore. This is when it’s time for us to take action — and to lead.”

As much as her name, and her campaign, is preceded by “first Native American woman,” Jordan doesn’t see herself uniquely in those terms. “I never really bring it up,” she told me. “Other people do. Maybe they like the idea. Which is fine. I want people to see beyond my race and my color and know that I actually have had a strong career. I want them to understand that when I do make a decision, they might slightly disagree, but they’ll know why I made it.”

The chance to support a history-making candidate is an effective hook, and one that Jordan’s own campaign has embraced in its online rhetoric. Sometimes, however, it can elide, or displace, her greater policy ideas. When asked what they liked about Jordan, attendees at her Boise fundraiser responded with variations on, “Wouldn’t it be incredible for Idaho to have a female governor?” and “I like what she stands for.” Most also identified as progressives and early supporters of Bernie Sanders, who won the Idaho Democratic caucus with 78% of the votes.

While Jordan’s policy positions have been labeled progressive, she resists comparisons to Sanders. And it’s hard to evaluate the aptness of the comparison, as Jordan’s positions, like many candidates still in the primary, remain vague. She’s for increasing the minimum wage in the state, which is currently the lowest in the West, but is more focused on promoting educational training opportunities for highly skilled, more sustainable jobs. She wants to invest more in education, especially in rural areas, as a means of attracting businesses and sustaining the rural economy. She vows not to “shy away from the topic of discrimination” and to “promote legislation that ensures people feel safe and heard.”

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Memphis Celebrates King For #MLK50, But Still Struggles To Honor What He Worked For

(AFP / Getty Images)

For the anniversary of the 1968 strike of sanitation workers that brought Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to Memphis, Tennessee, civic leaders organized #MLK50, a series of events meant to commemorate the city’s legacy of civil rights activism and explore the nation’s progress on issues of racial and economic equity. Memphis writer Zandria F. Robinson tries to reconcile the pomp and circumstance of the festivities with the inequality that lingers, stagnant and unchanged over the past fifty years in a personal essay for Scalawag. 

Being 16 when King was killed, Mama spent her whole life knowing. I don’t know how many years of extra mourning she was born with. Nor do I know which cataclysmic rupture in the Memphis history that happened to her before she was born—the lynchings of Calvin McDowell, Thomas Moss, and William Stewart? The burning of Ida B. Wells’s newspaper offices?—was the source of that extra mourning. Growing up, Mama’s stories of her every day and emotional life after that Thursday, April 4, 1968, made me know that she was herself a museum, archiving all the things of her life and rotating what was on view. She was the docent of her life and of Black southern women’s lives and Black Memphis life, guiding us through her exhibits. Mama was an activist for being a museum and for just thinking she deserved freedom. She taught us the Black folk cogito: I think therefore I am free…

What is the mood like in Memphis 50 years after the assassination of King? What’s it like to be the poorest large Black city in the country and the city that killed a man leading a campaign advocating for poor people at the same time? What about that bankruptcy and environmental racism and foreclosure and infant mortality? How you—is it “y’all?—feel about all of this police surveillance? Where is the best barbecue/soul food? You say your little cousin was shot in the back by police before social media? Is the dream continuing here, where his blood was spilled? Is this ground zero for the civil rights movement? Is the dream now a nightmare? How can we keep King’s dreams alive? Do you know a sanitation worker? About this mountaintop: Are we there yet? Will we ever get there? Was his blood the magic?

Our mood is that low, salty, stank ass simmer of weariness of the same, that stale mid-summer mustiness, that heaviness of a viscous mourning we haven’t been able to put down because King and our cousins and friends are murdered and resurrected to be murdered again. We are tired of unfulfilled dreams, dreams deferred, cranes in the sky, and raisins in the sun.

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Unearthing the History of Lynching, One Story at a Time

MONTGOMERY, AL - APRIL 20: Names and dates of lynching victims are inscribed on corten steel monuments at The National Memorial for Peace and Justice on April 20, 2018 in Montgomery, Al. More than 800 corten steel monuments are on display representing each county in the United States where a lynching took place. More than four thousand victims are honored at the memorial. (Photo by Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

On April 26, 2018, the first national memorial to honor victims of lynchings opens in Montgomery, Alabama. The memorial’s main feature is an installation of more than 800 suspended columns made of steel, one for each U.S. county where the murders occurred. The names of victims are etched into the markers — in places, the engravings simply read, “unknown.” Bryan Stevenson, whose Montgomery-based Equal Justice Institute,  compiled an official tally of burnings, hangings, shootings, and drownings of black Americans by white mobs from 1877 – 1950 and created the memorial, said he wanted to capture the “scale” of the 20th century’s racial terrorism.

The story of lynchings in the U.S can also be told on a smaller scale. Mob violence against blacks was wrought on communities, families and individual bodies. Throughout the memorial, details of some of the killings are listed along a walkway. But documentation of many of the murders is scarce: newspaper accounts are missing or unreliable, and memories of many witnesses and bystanders has been lost to silence and grief.

For New York Times magazine, journalist Vanessa Gregory unearths one story as she follows the descendants of Elwood Higginbotham, to Oxford, Mississippi, where they learn the details of the events surrounding his 1935 murder by a white mob and visit his possible burial site in an attempt to come to terms with their family history.

Higginbottom was 4 when the mob came for his father. He is now 87, with eyes set in a perpetual glaucoma squint and the strong voice of a younger man. He is the last remaining family member to have seen his father alive, and the thought of returning to Oxford was gnawing at him. The anxiety began when his daughters first proposed the trip, and it intensified that morning when he woke. And now Washington, the youngest of his six children, was peppering him with questions.

“So, who is your daddy’s mama?”

“I don’t know my grandmother on my daddy’s side,” he said.

“When did granddaddy and grandmama get married?”

“I don’t know when my parents got married.”

Higginbottom knew little because his mother and extended family fled Mississippi after the lynching. They raised E.W., the eldest, and his siblings, Flora and Willie Wade, in Forrest City, Ark., and later in Memphis. Higginbottom’s mother told the children their father had been hanged but didn’t share many details. And she almost never spoke of her dead husband’s character, habits or looks — the stories of his life. Maybe grief kept her quiet. Or fear. Either way, Higginbottom knew better than to mention his daddy. Sometimes he asked his cousins Dorothy and Olivia about him, but they told him to leave it alone. Don’t mess around in that, they said. You might get hurt.

Higginbottom had occasionally returned to Oxford when he was younger, chaperoned by uncles who wanted to visit relatives or take in a service at the family’s former church. But it had been a long time. He stared at the fields consumed by kudzu, the gravel drives, the hardwoods lush with summer growth, and saw only a foreign country. “I was trying to see something I recognized around here, but I don’t,” he said. “It don’t look like I ever lived down here.” As they sped closer to Oxford, he kept gazing out the window, scanning the landscape for even a spark of memory.

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Janelle Monáe’s New Music Teases a Queer, Femme Sensibility

NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 28: Recording artist Janelle Monae speaks onstage during the 60th Annual GRAMMY Awards at Madison Square Garden on January 28, 2018 in New York City. (Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic)

New York Times Magazine staff writer Jenna Wortham profiles singer, songwriter, and actress Janelle Monáe before the launch of “Dirty Computer,” the artist’s first new full-length album in five years. The album has been much anticipated — Monáe has chosen to forego use of her alter-ego, android Cindi Mayweather, and sing as herself; Prince weighed in on tracks early on in the recording process; and supporting visuals hint at a new openness in celebrating a queer femme aesthetic and sexuality. Wortham’s piece considers whether the new music delivers, and the careful tightrope walk that black women in the public eye must perfect.

Most popular music is so determinedly centered on heterosexual dynamics that any hint of same-sex interactions can feel revelatory, even radical, upon the first encounter. That’s the way it felt to me when I first watched [Janelle] Monáe’s film. The queer sexual interactions are refreshingly explicit — miming digital and oral sex — and images throughout celebrate women. The video for the song “Pynk” is an extended appreciation of the female anatomy, with neon signs screaming, “[Expletive] Power,” and pink-frilled jumpsuits that wouldn’t look out of place in a Judy Chicago installation…

These days, the culture seems more accepting and welcoming of queerness: Young actors and pop stars like Amandla Stenberg and Lady Gaga are identifying publicly as bisexual. Lena Waithe and her fiancée were recently photographed by Annie Leibovitz for Vanity Fair. And yet, nonheteronormative sexuality remains the last taboo. Monáe is media-savvy enough to protect herself from becoming tabloid fodder for publications that want to turn her personal life into spectacle or reduce her art to her sexuality. She told me repeatedly that she worried what her early fans and very religious and very Southern family would think. There’s little precedent for a black female celebrity at her level living openly as a lesbian in a gay relationship.

Monáe has spent a lifetime perfecting the art of being a pop star who isn’t a sexual object. Discretion is a survival strategy, a coping mechanism especially useful for black women living in the public eye. But she has now made an explicit album about sexual expression and identity that is somehow still shrouded in ambiguity. In 2018, empowerment isn’t a color — it’s a call to action. It’s Cardi B talking about how much she loves her vagina, not holding a neon sign explaining that she has one. On “Dirty Computer,” it still feels as if Monáe is deciding which version of herself to show the world.

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