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Danielle is a Memphis-born writer living and working in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in Lapham's Quarterly, Pitchfork, The Paris Review Daily and more.

‘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

Illustration 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?

* * *

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.

* * *

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.


The Resplendent Photography of Carrie Mae Weems

Carrie Mae Weems, Woman playing solitaire, 1990. © Carrie Mae Weems. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

For T, The New York Times Styles Magazine issue “The Greats,” Megan O’Grady profiles MacArthur fellow Carrie Mae Weems, “perhaps our greatest living photographer” as the artist prepares for a trio of shows in Boston, Ithaca, and New York City.

O’Grady takes a look back at the works that made Weems’s reputation and gives a pulse on today’s art world amidst the culture shifts that Weems helped to usher in.

In one of the indelible images from “The Kitchen Table Series” — possibly the most famous picture Weems has ever taken — a young girl and her mother are looking in matching mirrors while applying lipstick. It’s the kind of effortless-seeming image that complexly plays with ideas of feminine subjectivity, recalling the Impressionist painter Berthe Morisot’s 1875 painting “Woman at Her Toilette” in the way in which it shows a private act that anticipates public exposure. In Weems’s version, a young girl is also learning, perhaps unwittingly, what it means to be a woman, and what it means to be looked at by men. “What do women give to one another? What do they pass on to one another?” says Weems, recalling the girl who modeled for the picture, whom she spotted in her neighborhood in Northampton, Mass., where she was living and teaching at the time. “I just thought she was the perfect echo of me as a young person. The same intensity and the same kind of hair.”

After her parents’ divorce, Weems moved with her mother and siblings into a large house owned by her grandfather. She would pirouette down the long wood-floored hallway and look out the attic windows, wearing her mother’s work smock, imagining she was a dancer or an actress. “I was simply becoming interested in this idea of being an artist in the world in some sort of way, not knowing really what the arts were,” she says. “I had these great, grand visions that I would move to New York City and that I would always arrive fabulously dressed, and I would always arrive late, and I would always leave early and everybody would want to know who I was. ‘Who is she?’ That was my fantasy.” After a visit from her drama teacher, her mother agreed to send her to a summer program in Shakespearean theater, freeing her from having to earn money by picking strawberries with the other kids in her neighborhood — giving her permission, essentially, to create. The program led her to other opportunities in theater and street performance, “dancing at the crossroads at night to bring up the gods,” she tells me.

We still live in a world in which the highest price ever paid for a work of art by a woman (in 2014) was Georgia O’Keeffe’s “Jimson Weed/White Flower No. 1,” for $44.4 million, while dozens of male artists sell in the hundreds of millions. Of her own work, Weems tells me, “It is not embraced in the marketplace. And this is a sustained problem across the board, in the ways in which the work of women is valued and the work of men is valued. This is a real problem. And it’s worse for women of color, for sure. And I make a fine living.” Recently, her work was up for auction around the same time as the artist Kerry James Marshall’s. “And it was fascinating. My work sold for $67,000 and his sold for $21 million. Kerry Marshall and I became artists together, we were friends together, we were lovers together, we participated in this field together. On the social value scale, we’re equal. But not in the marketplace,” she says. The numbers are stark and shocking, but Weems’s real value is reflected in the vast scope of her influence, visible in the intimate photographs of Deana Lawson, the transhistorical portraits of Henry Taylor and the subdued longing of Kara Walker’s silhouetted paintings.

Elena Ferrante and the “My Brilliant Friend” Adaptation for HBO

BEVERLY HILLS, CA - JULY 25: Gaia Girace and Margherita Mazzucco of 'My Brilliant Friend' speak onstage during the HBO portion of the Summer 2018 TCA Press Tour at The Beverly Hilton Hotelon July 25, 2018 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

For the New York Times Magazine, Merve Emre writes about the pseudonymous Italian novelist Elena Ferrante in advance of an eight-episode HBO adaptation of the first novel of the Neopolitan series, My Brilliant Friend. 

Emre discusses the creation of the series with director Saverio Constanzo, who relied on Ferrante’s copious notes throughout production to bring the story of Lila and Lenù to the screen. To dive deeper into the ethos of the world the two collaborators created, Emre also interviewed the elusive Ferrante, with mixed results:

I tried again with a question, only this time my tone was less sentimental, more acerbic. I observed that contemporary writing on motherhood has an irritating tendency to treat children as psychological impediments to creativity — as if a child must steal not only time and energy from his mother but also language and thought. But her novels are different: They entertain the possibility that motherhood might be an experience conducive to creativity, even when it is tiring or onerous. For a short time, Lila transforms motherhood into an act of grace, and though she finds her children burdensome, Lenù’s greatest professional success comes after she becomes a mother. What did she take to be the relationship between time spent taking care of words and time spent taking care of children?

She was more receptive, if a little scolding. “I very much like the way you’ve formulated the question,” she wrote. “But I want to say that it’s not right to speak of motherhood in general. The troubles of the poor mother are different from those of the well-off mother, who can pay another woman to help her. But whether the mother is rich or poor, if there is a real, powerful creative urge, the care of children, however much it absorbs and at times even consumes us, doesn’t win out over the care of words: One finds the time for both. Or at least that was my experience: I found the time when I was a terrified mother, without any support, and also when I was a well-off mother. So I will take the liberty of asserting that women should in no case give up the power of reproduction in the name of production.”

There was something different about the style of this answer. The “I” she wielded seemed more present, the defenseless voice of the writer behind the author. I asked her to say more about being a terrified mother. What, I asked, was the nature of that terror for her?

She retreated, adopting the impersonal tone of the commentator once again. “I’m afraid of mothers who sacrifice their lives to their children,” she wrote. “I’m afraid of mothers who surrender themselves completely and live for their children, who hide the difficulties of motherhood and pretend even to themselves to be perfect mothers.” It is tempting to rewrite these statements to reclaim the immediacy of her “I”: “I was afraid of sacrificing my life to my children; I was afraid of surrendering myself completely.” But nothing authorizes it. It may not even be the right interpretation; she may really be talking about her fear of other mothers. Why do I want to make it about her? To do so would be to traffic in fiction. But the traffic in fiction is pleasurable. It prompts me to study her language carefully, to appreciate anew the words she has chosen, the phrases she repeats, how easily she moves between sentences. It prompts me to rewrite her words to project fears I may or may not have onto the figure of the author — the character she and I are sustaining. It lets me speak without speaking for myself.

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Remembering Ntozake Shange

Ntozake Shange (right) in a scene from her play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf, a seven woman ensemble that was nominated for a Tony Award in 1977.

Ntozake Shange, whose choreopoem for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf ran on Broadway for 742 shows between 1976 and 1978, making her the second Black woman to have her work performed on Broadway, died on October 27 at age 70. (The first was Lorraine Hansberry with “A Raisin in the Sun,” in 1959.) Besides her canonical play for colored girls, Shange was the author of more than a dozen other plays, four novels, five children’s books, and several collections of poetry. She’d suffered a long illness, but released a new collection of poems  just last fall, and had been working on another new book and performing spoken word around the United States in recent months.

Shange was raised in an upper middle class household in New Jersey and St. Louis where luminaries like W.E.B. DuBois and Miles Davis encircled the family. She took degrees from Barnard and USC. In a 2010 piece for The New Yorker about the feature film adaptation of for colored girls produced by Tyler Perry, Hilton Als said seeing the show  in 1977 was an introduction to a familiar yet dazzling “world of unimpeachable cool.” It showed seven different Black women on a stage dancing, singing, and speaking a language that was determinedly itself and not at all stilted by pressure to be polite or respectable. In Shange’s words, it made, “drama of our lives,” and showed future artists who were queer, female, and / or people of color that the stuff of their specific worlds was good enough material to create from.

Shange’s death produced an outpouring on the internet, and it’s a loss that marks a shift. The access and visibility of queer and female people of color in mainstream media is something we can very well nearly take for granted, and the reckonings around sexual misconduct in the public sphere owe much to the space Black women like Shange, who in for colored girls and other works “explor[ed] the various trials that black women often confronted, from rape and abortion to domestic violence and child abuse,” opened up in the ’70s.

we are compelled to examine these giants in order to give ourselves what we think they gave the worlds they lived in

Ntozake Shange, from the forward to three pieces (spell #7, a photograph: lovers in motion, and boogie woogie landscapes) 

More on Shange:


On Blackface, Bert Williams, and Excellence

Publicity still portrait of American stage actor and Vaudeville comedian Bert Williams, 1915. (Photo by John D. Kisch/Separate Cinema Archive/Getty Images)

“Who doesn’t wanna look like Diana Ross?” journalist Megyn Kelly asked panelists Tuesday morning on her news show, during a segment about Halloween costumes. She was defending former Housewife Luanne de Lesseps, who dressed up last year in a crude costume that looked nothing like the glamorous Ross, with a white jumpsuit, a tower of a curly wig, and darkened skin. “She wants to look like Diana Ross for the day — I don’t know how that got racist on Halloween,” Kelly said. Her claim to the harmlessness of blackface betrayed an empathy problem, but also an ignorance that was too much to ignore; NBC’s top brass reacted swiftly. It seems for that and, (likely, mostly), the show’s lackluster ratings, the commentator’s morning show was canceled. At least publicly, blackface is universally condemned now, and understood to be borne of racist intentions. But Kelly’s comments reveal several truths about a complicated anxiety at the heart of American entertainment and the tradition of minstrelsy upon which it all resides.

* * *

I caught a screening of the silent film Lime Kiln Club Field Day earlier this fall, at an independent theater in Brooklyn. Possibly the oldest surviving set of moving images with a cast of Black actors, Lime Kiln has made rounds on the independent circuit since 2014, when it first released to the public. It was made a century earlier, in 1913, and restored from a trove of negatives found in MoMA’s film department. Legendary vaudevillian Bert Williams, born in Nassau, Bahamas in 1874, stars. He plays a lovable, almost clever oaf who competes with three other gentlemen for a local woman’s favor.

The actors in Lime Kiln filmed scenes of leisure: sitting in a local club and at tables in their homes, walking on sidewalks, and, at a raucous field day, dancing a cakewalk. Bert Williams is excellent in the role. His impressive comic timing, flexible, open face, long-limbed stature and commanding posture make it impossible to look anywhere else. He plays the role in blackface — a mask of burnt cork, a kinky wig, long black gloves. The rest of the cast does not. MoMA’s associate curator Ron Magliozzi called this “a sop to the white audience,” and noted “the fact that the lead wore blackface allowed the rest of the cast not to wear blackface before white audiences.” Camille Forbes, author of Introducing Bert Williams: Burnt Cork, Broadway, and the Story of America’s First Star told me in an email that the mask for Black performers of that era “might be considered the price of admission to the entertainment world,” and that fair skinned Blacks, especially, were under pressure to cork up.

It is because minstrelsy, the theatrical practice that began in the urban North in the 1830’s, in which white men ridiculed southern Blacks, “established the representation of blackness, in the society at-large and entertainment in particular,” said Forbes. Its singular popularity fueled its influence. According to the scholar Eric Lott:

Minstrel troupes entertained presidents (including Lincoln), and disdainful high-minded quarterlies and rakish sporting journals alike followed its course. Figures such as Mark Twain, Walt Whitman, and Bayard Taylor were as attracted to blackface performance as Frederick Douglass and Martin Delany were repelled by it. From “Oh! Susanna” to Elvis Presley, from circus clowns to Saturday morning cartoons, blackface acts and words have figured significantly in the white Imaginary of the United States.

When Williams filmed Lime Kiln Club Field Day, America’s motion picture industry was not yet two decades old. Production on D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation began the same year. When it released in 1915, it became the first blockbuster, and its direct nods to minstrelsy (white actors blacking up to play one-note, not-quite-human black characters and blatant Confederate nostalgia) reinvigorated the Klan. Lime Kiln Field Day lingered in post-production and, despite its shortcomings, forms a contrast, an alternate history —one of  Black excellence in American performance. It showed Black characters struggling toward their own goals, with back stories.  Lime Kiln’s cast of 50-100 actors haven’t yet been all identified, but we know some performers had previously worked in the Harlem-based musical revue, “Darktown Follies,” which drew white audiences uptown. “Darktown Follies” anticipated the all Black Broadway musical Shuffle Along, which played a part in Harlem’s artistic flowering of the 1920s and 1930s and helped launch the careers of Josephine Baker and Paul Robeson.

Williams had been a working actor since starting out in 1893 in minstrels. He was a featured performer at Zeigfield’s Follies for nearly a decade starting in 1909. He also became a legitimate star of the record industry, composing and recording songs for Columbia Records. Once he started, he never abandoned blacking up, and he played several variations of the long-suffering “Jonah Man” throughout his career.

At my Brooklyn screening of Lime Kiln, a piano accompanist followed the drama in a jaunty ragtime. The reconstructed film lays out alternative takes of many scenes, arranged with an estimated chronology of the storyline, based on the feedback of lip readers MoMA hired to study the actors’ encounters. There’s also footage of the cast and crew between scenes. It is dizzying to watch some of the scenes in public space — there’s the blackface, as well as other humiliations like a wrestling match for discarded shoes and a watermelon eating contest. The audience was mostly white, with a smattering of Blacks, and sometimes, during close ups of Williams’ facial contortions, I felt a simmering discomfort at the laughter of my white neighbors. Still, Williams was known to have performed in only two other films, both shorts — A Natural Born Gambler and Fish — both released in 1916. The multiple takes in the Lime Kiln restoration reminded me how rare it is to see these particular actors in this particular way, how invaluable is every frame.

* * *

Williams stated in an interview that blacking up allowed him to find his actual humor, to conceive of himself, finally as a character. It explains the unsettling mix of feelings I had watching him being excellent, yet, still, to my eyes, debasing himself. By most accounts, he was an apolitical artist in a politicized age. During his professional life, the U.S. formalized rollbacks to Reconstruction and institutionalized Jim Crow; concerned citizens created institutions in response. W.E.B. Dubois’s Niagara Movement, the NAACP, Black Greek Letter Organizations, the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs all arose during this era. What the scholar Imani Perry calls Black formalism — ritual practices “internal to the black community,” concretized. Some of the new Black organizations and associations that employed these rituals were purely social, with no explicit connection to politics, yet had an implied, vested interest in the sustenance and uplift of Black people in an apocalyptically difficult time.

Williams made no formal statement of protest, expressed no pro-Black sentiments on the record. He did chafe at the racist treatment he could not avoid, and claimed concern for racial uplift. He and ten other Black men in entertainment started the Frogs, a social club for Black artists based in Harlem. Williams led the art committee. Their aims were philanthropic, and also, to create an archive collection for a theatrical library. They held a popular annual social event, “The Frolic,” with a ball and vaudevillian revue. Many Black people held Williams’s accomplishments in esteem. The Black press assiduously and soberly covered his performances and business dealings. When he died in 1922 at age 47, after working through illness and collapsing near a stage after performing in Detroit, Forbes says Black critics “assess[ed] his role as a black man as well as his influence as a performer.” (Emphasis mine).

Eric Lott described the pull of minstrelsy as a combination of “love and theft,” which suppressed “the real interest in black cultural practices they nonetheless betrayed.” It was an attempt, in the anxious antebellum period, to enforce a social order, and in various eras of rampant social confusion, its tropes and formulations, which never really disappear, become lightning rods again. Kelly’s comments about walking in the skin of Diana Ross mirror this “love and theft,” and our current era is one where we may be approaching another nadir, another near-apocalyptic, broad loss of hard-won rights and access to the privileges of citizenship, similar to the cascading losses of Bert Williams’s time. It’s probably why our discourse is so contentious, even among friends and comrades. It helps explain our interest in relics like Lime Kiln. 

In a piece from the New York Times Magazine’s culture issue, Wesley Morris laments, “Everything means too much now.” He bemoans how “we’re talking less about whether a work is good art but simply whether it’s good — good for us, good for the culture, good for the world.” It annoyed Morris that he couldn’t pan Insecure the way he wanted, without blowback, because it feels so “necessary” to see a Black woman beautifully shot, performing irreverent messiness and coming into her own. He’s right — we’re all entitled to art for its own sake. But everything has always meant a lot, and excellence has always been a factor, and the threads of politics and aesthetics rub up against each other all the time. Probably, we need to imagine even more lenses through which to think and talk about art and culture, and demanding the best, from everyone, on all fronts, may be the way we get through the difficulty that could be coming.



Reading with Kiese Laymon’s “Heavy”

10th October 1957: American author Richard Wright sits at a desk with a pen in his hand shortly before the publication of his book, 'White Man, Listen!,' Paris. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Eighth grade, age 13. I was skinny, flat-chested, and wore round Dwayne Wayne glasses with red wire frames. My mother and I lived together in a small brick house on a wide, busy road, near the Memphis International Airport. We had a rotting oak tree in our front yard. I went to the public middle school across town where students were mostly white and middle class. That year has many beginnings. It was when I began to notice my math homework was harder for me than anything else, and that I felt serious about English class.  Ms. Erskine, my English teacher, was a short plump woman of Scottish ancestry who lived in the suburbs out east and had a son in my grade. Her hair was curly, brown, and chin length. She spoke rapidly, with her hands.

In our unit on Black American literature, I first encountered the poetry of Langston Hughes.  We talked about, “I, Too,” (They send me to eat in the kitchen / When company comes, But I laugh, And eat well), and Ms. Erskine told us, dropping her voice as if letting us in on a juicy piece of gossip, “he isn’t talking about eating food.” She read “Mother to Son,” aloud (“Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair”) and made her voice strangely accented in a way I wished she wouldn’t.

At some point that semester we read Richard Wright’s Black Boy. I found it gorgeous and also scary. It trembled with a fiery propulsion and it was the first time I’d read a book that talked about a Black person being there, where I was, in Memphis. Wright had lived in the city for a portion of his early childhood, from sometime in 1913 to 1916. In an early scene, he beats the neighborhood boys who try to rob him of his grocery money with a stick. Ms. Erskine mostly lectured to us about the hunger Wright and his family suffered, and for this reason, Wright’s mother’s advice to, “Jump up and catch a kungry,” sticks with me. I remember Black Boy as a story of a stark, bleak childhood and the violence of a racist South. “This was the culture from which I sprang. This was the terror from which I fled,” Wright tells us.

I had been a reader for a long time. A born reader, it seemed; I read poetry and Bible verses in church pageants and had an active private reading life that sometimes got me in trouble when I’d stay up past my bedtime with a novel by Judy Blume or the Sweet Valley High series, a nightlight, and bleary eyes. It had been my mother who stoked a desire for reading in me and drilled into me a certain kind of speech that made me sound older than my age, as if I wasn’t the poorest kid in my classes, which I almost certainly always was. She’d had her own active reading life. I remember new books coming to our house, from the library, by the handful, and when every Toni Morrison novel from the 80s and 90s debuted. My reading life kept growing — the work of Sylvia Plath and Jane Austen became high school obsessions I shared with my closest girlfriends; in college, Chinua Achebe, Ben Okri, Wole Soyinka, and Tsitsi Dangarembga taught me about the global costs of poverty, racism, and misogyny.

* * *

What I’m saying is I was always going to read Kiese Laymon’s Heavy. I was made for it by birth and acquired disposition. With its author, I share a region of origin, a generation, a difficult relationship with a mother who taught me to read. There are artists I love and admire for how well they execute ideas and Laymon is one of those and has always been. But I also relate to his work ancestrally, at its marrow.

I read Heavy first in one sitting, up late into the early hours of the next morning despite having to work the next day. I was silent for a while — for a few days actually — and just let my feelings be. I’d been in the middle of a rough spot with my own family, due to our denials and delusions about sexual assault and physical abuse. I’ve loved reading white readers and critics engage with Heavy as a reckoning with America’s sick affairs with racism and familial violence. I loved reading about Laymon’s generosity as a teacher in Bim Adewunmi’s stellar profile of the artist, and other Black women writers have mined layers of the story in impressive ways. What interests me right now (and many things about the book interest me, for there are numerous portals through which to enter it), is how Heavy spoke to me as a Black woman reader. It sent me back to Black Boy; it honestly gave me a sense, a nudging that I should revisit it that preceded my recognition of the two works’ unquestionably shared literary genealogy:

That night, I started rereading Black Boy. Reading the book at Millsaps felt like a call to arms. Reading the book in my bed, a few feet from your room, in our house, felt like a whisper wet with warm saliva. Wright wrote about disasters and he let the reader know that there wasn’t one disaster in America that started the day everything fell apart. I wanted to write like Wright far more than I wanted to write like Faulkner, but I didn’t really want to write like Wright at all. I wanted to fight like Wright. I wanted to craft sentences that styled on white folk, and dared them to do anything about the styling they’d just witnessed. I understood why Wright left Jackson, left Mississippi, left the Deep South, and ultimately left the nation. But I kept thinking about how Grandmama didn’t leave when she could. I thought about how you left and chose to come back. I thought about how I chose to stay. I wondered if the world would have ever read Wright had he not left Mississippi. I wondered if black children born in Mississippi after Wight would have laughed, or smiled more at his sentences if he imagined Mississippi as home. I wondered if he though he’d come back home soon the day he left for Chicago.

Because I hadn’t read it in over 20 years, I’d forgotten that Black Boy is also an account of how a Black boy became a Black writer and reader. When he has his first story published as a teenager in a Black newspaper, Wright tells us, “From no quarter, with the exception of the Negro newspaper editor, had there come a single encouraging word…Had I been conscious of the full extent to which I was pushing against the current of my environment, I would have been frightened altogether out of my attempts at writing.” On what reading novels opened up for him:

It was not a matter of believing or disbelieving what I read, but of feeling something new, of being affected by something that made the look of the world different.

* * *

Heavy is about a family and a state and a nation and trauma, but it also directly confronts generations of Black art (by men and women) and the redemptive possibility inherent in the making of it. It is a direct response to Richard Wright’s seething, possibly unrelenting anger at his condition, a dance with Toni Cade Bambara’s humor and her love of Black speech. It chronicles a conversation with Margaret Walker Alexander, where she gives Laymon a poetry collection by Nikki Giovanni and tells him to “own your name.” It is a dare to Black artists to make work for us, about us, and without shame:

I read The Fire Next Time over and over again. I wondered how it would read differently had the entire book, and not just the first section, been written to and for, Baldwin’s nephew. I wondered what, and how, Baldwin would have written to his niece. I wondered about the purpose of warning white folk about the coming fire. Mostly, I wondered about what black writers weren’t writing about when we spent so such creative energy begging white folk to change.

In doing this, Heavy shakes off many burdens.

Throughout, Laymon shares his wildly vivid reading life with us, how he reads and thinks about his reading. He admits when something in a text confuses him; he tells us a book must be re-read to be truly read. He is, essentially, teaching us, reminding us, how to read. And reading may not save us from despair, or pull us from the edge of where we’re at with our families, or reverse the damage we have done to this planet. But I’ll always believe storytelling can clarify, fortify, nourish, and help us move things along.

More great Black writers on writers, readers, and reading:


Filmmaker Barry Jenkins’ Adaptation of James Baldwin’s “If Beale Street Could Talk”

TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 09: (L-R) Teyonah Parris, Colman Domingo, director Barry Jenkins, KiKi Layne, Regina King and Stephan James of "If Beale Street Could Talk" attends The IMDb Studio presented By Land Rover At The 2018 Toronto International Film Festival at Bisha Hotel & Residences on September 9, 2018 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Rich Polk/Getty Images for IMDb)

For the New York Times Magazine’s culture issue, Angela Flournoy speaks to Barry Jenkins, director of the Academy Award winning Moonlight, about his newest film, an adaptation of James Baldwin’s 1974 novel If Beale Street Could Talk. 

In addition to this new film’s being the much-anticipated follow-up to “Moonlight,” it is also the first big-screen English-language film adaptation of a novel by [James] Baldwin, a writer whose works are closely guarded by his estate. Much of the country, owing to our current political reality and Raoul Peck’s 2016 documentary, “I Am Not Your Negro,” has recently become better acquainted with a truth black readers grasped long ago: James Baldwin was right about everything. Jenkins began his adaptation of Baldwin’s fifth novel back in 2013, writing a faithful screen version of the 1974 book, in which a pregnant 19-year-old woman named Tish works, alongside her family, to prove the innocence of her child’s jailed father, a young sculptor. This being Baldwin, of course, there’s more to it: a meditation on the radical implications of declaring yourself an artist while black, on what it means to be poor in New York, on the power and limitations of romantic and filial love.

Flournoy considers how Jenkins grew up, what is indelible about his body of work, and why his films’ quietest moments are so arresting:

I’ve spent my life loving black men, and I understand black masculinity to be malleable, its fabled rigidity overblown. After work, in the dark, I’ve heard whispered secrets, the wanderings of restless minds. And yet all of my moviegoing life I’d never seen this quotidian vulnerability so accurately rendered in film — not without a wink, a glance away, some posturing that distances — until I saw Jenkins’s “Moonlight.” An adult son tries to keep emotional distance from his mother, a recovering crack-cocaine addict, and cannot; tears stream down his face instead. A drug dealer confirms his profession to a boy (the same son, but younger), thereby admitting to playing a part in what holds the mother captive; the boy leaves, and the drug dealer (a father figure, not a monster) stares straight ahead, defeated. In “Beale Street,” we watch the main character, Fonny, listen to his friend Daniel describe the psychological horror of prison. Daniel begins the conversation nonchalant, swigging a beer, and ends it with his shoulders stooped forward, the light drained from his eyes. His honesty and helpless frustration is so familiar from my actual life that it is nearly too much to bear — a perfect moment of cinema.

Jenkins enjoys moments when his actors make direct eye contact with the camera. He and Laxton are in agreement on the power of this sustained looking, how holding the camera on an actor can bring out a host of emotions in the viewer. “If you’re in a dark theater with 300 people sitting next to you,” Laxton said, “and you have someone looking at you from a big screen, I think it does something to you as an audience member.” Alfred Hitchcock employed these sorts of shots, as did Jonathan Demme (who can forget Hannibal Lecter’s stare?), but unlike those filmmakers, Jenkins and Laxton rarely shoot theirs during moments of great emotional agitation. Instead they catch their characters at ease, quiet. “Barry captures silence in a way that we don’t see much, and we especially don’t see that much in the African-American film experience,” Mahershala Ali, who won a best-supporting-actor Oscar for playing the drug-dealer-cum-father-figure in “Moonlight,” told me. “You usually don’t see black people holding peace and occupying silence, having to fill those voids in that way.”

Jenkins shoots these moments intuitively, waiting until he feels something. “I’m not directing them,” he says. “They are just giving me this thing. And sometimes you can look at an actor and see, Oh, there’s the soul.” And if they’re comfortable enough, he says, they can look directly into the camera without losing that soul. “Instead they’re going to give it to the audience.” KiKi Layne, whose starring role as Tish in “Beale Street” marks her first foray into film from theater, described it as looking into a black hole: “I think at one point I told him that ‘Man, this feels so strange’ and he was like, ‘I know, but I need it, I need it.’ ” The actors don’t know where these shots will wind up in the film, and neither, necessarily, does Jenkins, at the time. Later, though, the emotions viewers read on the actors’ faces — a close-up of Fonny near the end of the film goes from anxious and unsure to settled — feel made for the precise moment when they appear on screen.

These looks don’t quite break the fourth wall, because the actors are not regarding the audience. In “Beale Street,” they’re most often gazing at someone they love. For nonblack audience members, it might be the first time they’ve had a black person direct such a gaze their way; Jenkins offers a glimpse at a world previously hidden to them. For a black viewer, there’s more likely a kind of recognition: I know that face, although I have never seen this actor before. Or, if the actor is one you’re familiar with, it can go the opposite direction, letting you see the person anew. Regina King, who plays Tish’s mother in the film, has played a mother or wife as many times as I have fingers, over decades. But who was this woman on the screen, staring at her reflection in a mirror, summoning her courage, while also staring at me? Typecasting actors isn’t simply about having them play a role they have played before; it’s about locking them into the same aesthetic representation of that role. “He knows that it’s not just his film,” King told me. “He can’t do this without the talent of other people, and he allows those talents to shine.”

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