My book, How Racism and Sexism Killed Traditional Media: Why the Future of Journalism Depends on Women and People of Color

BooksThis is a stack of my contributor copies for my new book, How Racism and Sexism Killed Traditional Media: Why the Future of Journalism Depends on Women and and People of Color. It’s scheduled to be published August 31.

I owe so much of the existence of this book to my mentors and colleagues in journalism, especially Dori Maynard, who I wish was alive to see the publication of a work that is built on the foundation of work that she and her father pioneered regarding media diversity.

Beyond that, I started writing this book in earnest the same year that my mother died. I needed to pour my heart into something that I cared passionately about, and in spite of myself, journalism and the journalism industry, with all of its potential and flaws, became part of that.

So now it is in physical form, after I have carried it around in my head and heart all this time, which I can’t imagine ever getting old for a writer, especially someone who has loved books and wanted to publish one for most of my life. I hope you’ll pick up a copy.

It’s at Amazon and ABC-CLIO.

Self-care in a time of racial terror

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shelter in a time of storm

More than any other thing on earth or beyond, faith and hope have been my anchors in a shifting universe of heartbreak and sorrow. I believed this to be a cliché, to be too easy an answer for a long time. It was a comfort I rejected for so long that I believed my version of the truth — that I could be a quirky black woman outside of her context and continue to do just fine. That my survival was not dependent on faith or hope. I could talk to Jesus just fine out in the world, running through God’s beautiful creation, independent and alone.

But there is strength in numbers.  There is recognition in community. Mirrors. Wellsprings of compassion, of truth-telling, of witnessing. The enduring strength of the black community relies on these truths. It always has, it always will.

I found in my church community the truth of this. But it was an awkward fit at first. I never seemed to wear the right clothes. I had forgotten the right words to the Apostle’s Creed. I did not know the old Gospel hymns.

But when I read about Emanuel AME this morning and prayed for that church, for that community, and for those of us who keep witnessing this terrorism and death and continue to carry this grief and loss from headline and breaking news alert, city to city, day to day, the song was written on my heart already:

Jesus is a Rock in a weary land/ A shelter in a time of storm.

The church is supposed to be our safe space, the only place where we can relax, lay down our burdens, put aside our masks, and be fed by the hope and fuel that will sustain us from week to week, day to day. Church for me is a reminder that God has not forgotten us, that there is strength in numbers, that we are covered by a cloak of divinity and anointing much greater than we can ever imagine.

It is as hard for me to reconcile the truth of this as it is to be a sinner who feels moment by moment unworthy of God’s grace. Because there are so many reminders of black bodies under siege, that true justice only comes from God.

There is the reminder that terrorism is classified as separate and unequal, perpetuated by the notion that black lives are unimportant and that black American citizenry is a paradox.

There is a reminder that it is simpler to pretend that shooting down black citizens anywhere, at any time, for any reason, is more of an isolated “hate crime” (in quotes, because somehow naming it before it is officially designated by the proper authorities is treacherous territory) than it is to contextualize the reality of right-wing terrorism as one of the many legacies of white supremacist tyranny in the black community that has ranged from lynching to bombing black churches, killing black women, little girls and men.

On days like today, my faith is shaken. My heart is heavy. I’ve been told this is the most important time to lean on God, to find shelter in a weary land. I’m praying for Charleston, for the families of the victims, for the man who was filled with such hatred that he would claim them as they sought peace. And I’m praying for us, that we might find an answer to whether there are any shelters in a time of storm left for us.

What’s killing our national parks? Apathy.

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Originally posted on Fusion:

“Our mountains and rivers are a part of who we are and they are the birthright of all our people.” On May 29th, President Barack Obama opened the 30-day celebration of Great Outdoors Month honoring our national heritage with a Presidential Proclamation. America is known for its “purple mountain majesties” and its glorious wilderness, from deserts to temperate rain forests – but for how much longer?

This is because the law that created the federal program that operates as a primary source of revenue for national parks, the Land and Conservation Fund, is set to expire in September if Congress cannot agree on a renewal, putting the maintenance and accessibility of our most treasured outdoor spaces in jeopardy.

National Parks already suffer from an annual operations shortfall of more than a half-billion dollars, even though they generate nearly $27 billion in economic activity each year. And chronic underfunding of National Parks has led to an $11.5…

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Learning to be Big

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

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

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

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

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

Nothing about me is small.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Always visible from the front.

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

Never ready for the attention.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Running Through Madness

On Sunday, I ran what must have been my seventh or eighth half marathon. I did it for a lot of reasons, including the fact that the last year has been more intense than I anticipated it would be and I wanted to process what that means for me now, what it means for the future. Whenever I come to a point of pivotal change like this, there’s nothing like running more miles than most people consider normal to help me sort things out and come back to myself.

Whenever I run a race, I think about why I started running in the first place. I always come back to the fact that my mother’s insanity made me run for my life until I discovered that what I really needed to do was chase down my own sanity. We always need more than that, of course, but this was the core of what I felt I needed when I became a runner.

Marguerite had both bipolar and borderline personality disorders. She was officially diagnosed when I was in my twenties. She tried medication briefly when I was in my thirties, just a few years before she died from cervical cancer, but said it interfered with her relationship with God, so that was that.

I was an adult when I was told for the first time that my mother was bipolar, but I always knew, the way you can tell from the sound in someone’s voice when they are hurt or in love or enamored. Marguerite was a meteor hitched to emotion, bright candor and love exploding and ascending, her voice high, arms spread, warmth around me, a million words effusively scribbled beautifully with a deep ballpoint press on reams and reams of notebook paper from her oft-abandoned community college endeavors. She lit up darkness and she made the foundation of a thing rock with ease and joy, however temporary, however artificial. This is how I learned how to move in the world. Riding the crest of her waves of emotion, trying not to worry about the crashing to earth, the unfurling of furious waves.

You are brilliant.

Everything you touch turns to gold.

You are a miracle.

The words of a mother who loves her daughter with language are gifts that last forever. They are the royal blue film over the lens of life, making lovely everything that was before just mediocre. To believe you are cherished and special by the one who gave birth to you is believe in your ability to be immortal, to be a superhero. To fly even when you are pinned to earth.

When she was down life was hell, a pit of seething anger, sad tears in her voice but not on her face because she said her tear ducts had stopped working. My mother’s sadness clipped my wings, made me a girl-Icarus who flew too close to the heat to ever soar for long with comfort or confidence.

I was the subject of all her shame as I had been for all her glory.

She hated me, she told me so, she repeated it to me and as a girl it played with the kind of steady repetition of a march. Left, left, left right left. I hate you I hate you I wish I never had you I hate you. This was the undoing of my belief in myself for quite a long time. My survival became more about rugged stubborn tendencies and less about reinforcing the belief of my delightful mother when she was up. I was never sure which version of me I wanted to save but I was more terrified of dying most of the time so the only other option was to try to make my life into something as dreamy as my mother’s mania.

I wanted to always get her back to loving me with her words, instead of hating me with them.

So from the beginning of my life until the end of hers, I grappled with how to cope with the invisible ghost that was her unique brand of crazy. I tried wrapping my arms around it, then avoiding it before I realized there was no way to deal with it but trudging through.

Along the way, I learned that the folks we call crazy have been broken in places where most of us are confident we are capable of bending. They embody the potential of pain and heartbreak to warp a soul and murder the spirit. To encounter them intimately is to be singed by a fire that cannot be extinguished.

Running would be my salvation, a mechanism for avoiding the flames, in the end, even when I thought it was too late to start, even before I knew what my heart was leaning toward for me by doing it.

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In memoriam: Dori J. Maynard

The last time I saw Dori, she was in D.C. for a UNITY meeting, looking flawless as ever, dishing with me about her Scandal addiction. I remember that she insisted on having dinner and glass of wine with me before she hopped on a train to New York City. She was always in between places, on her way back from some business, on her way toward some business.

“OK, what have you been doing?” She asked.

I was still freelancing. I was looking for work. She nodded. We had been having this conversation for a couple of years at that point.

The only thing that put a wrinkle in our conversation was the fact that my cell phone rang unexpectedly. Someone was calling about a position I had applied for.

Dori was my journalism guru, a lighthouse of wisdom. Before I considered newspapers as a viable, real choice for me after graduating from Vassar, Dori was part of a committee that read my clips and selected me for the Hearst Newspapers Fellowship. I did not know very much about her until I met her while I was working at the San Francisco Chronicle. This is how she operated. She had power and influence, but she wielded those the way a queen does: Measured. Self-assured. You didn’t have to know about it. She knew. The people who mattered knew.

Anyway, the Chronicle was doing a diversity audit. That was around 2004. It can’t have been the first time I met her, but the thing about Dori is that she made you feel like you had been friends forever the moment you met her, so I don’t remember the first time, exactly. All I knew is that when I decided to leave the Bay Area, Dori gently suggested that I consider not leaving newspapers to become a librarian. “You’re a good writer. Maybe go to another Hearst paper.”

She surprised me by taking me to visit a psychic in Oakland. She was very nonchalant about it, and I thought it was the funniest, most memorable thing that anyone has ever done for me. (The psychic turned out to be right about my next step, by the way.)

I next encountered Dori when I was in Austin. She had the aura of a fairy godmother or an angel. When she appeared in my life, I knew something amazing was about to happen. This time, I was working as an education reporter at the Statesman. Dori wanted to me to take a day-long trip for business to New York City. She put me up in the Algonguin hotel. I was there for 24 hours. I did not feel like I belonged there, but I said some things around some influential people about what it is like to be poor and attend public schools in New York City. It was what Dori wanted, so I delivered, because she had done so for me.

She cared for the work so deeply, and she cared for others so deeply, that when I left the industry, I could tell I had disappointed her but it was what I needed to do. Instead of pushing back and saying I had made a wrong decision, she put me to work, writing pieces for the Maynard Institute. It kept my lights on. It allowed me to feed myself and my dog. It gave me an anchor when an ocean of grief threatened to sweep me away from myself forever.

We presented at South by Southwest together. She was poised and practiced and on point. I was in awe, sputtering a little, being too hammy. I was nervous. She was a pro. It was an amazing education, like so much of our friendship.

When I began working on the book that will be published later this year, on racism and sexism in traditional media, I asked Dori what books she would recommend that I read, people I should reach out to. She, of course, had a very long list. Was there a book about the Maynard Institute, I wondered, that codified its pioneering and incredible work? “Well, when your book comes out, we’ll have that,” she said.

Talk about pressure. That was straight up Dori-style. Lightly applied, delivered with a feline smile.

I did not know she was sick. I only had an inkling something was amiss when I emailed her to follow up about the book in recent weeks and didn’t hear back.

The thing about Dori is that she touched so many lives, so you will hear and read many stories just like this one. We only realize in retrospect just how profoundly moved and changed we are by people like her. I learned so much that I can’t possibly explain it all or say it nearly as well as she would.

What resonates now is that I learned that being a great leader requires great service.

I learned that what makes a woman unique, what makes her stand out, is an incredible gift to others, whether she recognizes it or talks about it, or not.

I also learned from Dori, just today, just in these moments as I process her death, that we just never know when this great journey of ours will be over.

I already miss her deeply. It is the sign of a life well-lived and a woman well-loved.