Another Season

I love the hibernation of winter and the renewal of spring. The only thing I really enjoy about summer is that fall is what follows – a season of harvest and brilliant color. So it seems fitting to consider that I’m moving into another season in my life that seems parallel to the promises of fall.

“The First-Person Industrial Complex” was the first essay I read that confirmed a shift in the nature of personal writing online that got me thinking about the frequency with which I used to write and publish more or less since the late 1990s:

First-person writing has long been the Internet’s native voice. As long as there have been bloggers, there have been young people scraping their interior lives in order to convert the rawest bits into copy. But we are currently in the midst of an unprecedented moment in the online first-person boom. The rise of the unreported hot take, that much-maligned instant spin on the news of the day, has meant that editors are constantly searching for writers with any claim to expertise on a topic to elevate their pieces above the swarm. First-person essays have become the easiest way for editors to stake out some small corner of a news story and assert an on-the-ground primacy without paying for reporting.

Laura Bennett goes on to write about the absence of self-awareness in the latest crop of personal essays and the marketing/commodification of sensational stories without regard for the impact such self-exposure has on mainly white women writers. It was once true, at least, that there was potential for an interesting, well-written story to become visible, find its audience and perhaps secure the interest of an agent. At the very least, writers and editors once said that the other side of one’s brand — the beloved platform — could expand with persistence, high quality work and consistency. But as my friend Stacia wrote in her excellent essay, “The Personal Essay Economy Offers Fewer Rewards for Black Women” at The New Republic:

Easy, daily access to writers’ most devastating experiences is decreasing the demand for full-length memoirs from the online personal essayist. But even when the stakes are lower and a writer is simply looking to raise her professional profile or earn extra money, personal essays aren’t always an advisable route. After a few days, discussion about those pieces wanes and after one bill payment, the money is a memory.

Taken together, these pieces were a codification of a season of transition for me that has stretched out over months and if I’m honest with myself, probably for more than a year. I love connecting with my audience, but I don’t want to do so in a way that feels compartmentalized or wedged into a news cycle.

There was a time when I needed to write about being a happy single woman in the face of an onslaught of media portrayals that made it seem like successful Black women would be #foreveralone, or to exclusively, daily, write and tell the stories of other people on deadline in order to inure myself to the discipline of getting to the page no matter what. And there was a time when I needed to dive deep into looking at the conversation or lack thereof of a diversity conversation  in the most important organ of democracy we have — the media — in order to place a coda on the profession that I so adored and loved. I have been incredibly blessed to make a living as a writer and to complete and publish two books on my own terms, without selling myself or anyone else out in the process.

After the media book was published, I found myself in desperate need of time to do anything but write. I had only experienced that a couple of times before, after a loss that wounded me so deeply I was afraid to write about it. Writing has been the main organizing principle in my universe for my entire life.

But I slipped into a different season partially from fatigue and partly out of choice. I wanted to catch up with my friends and attend to the parts of my life that I had long left in limbo. I wanted to read everything in sight that I had zero to do with journalism.

As a writer in these times, I feel often as though I am the awkward sixth grader I was in the Bronx when the girls got out the double dutch rope and I could hear the skipping of the hard plastic against the concrete ticking on a rhythm like a clock. I would make motions with my arm like I was about to jump in at any moment, but I was always out of sync with the rhythm. It was too fast for me, or it was too slow. Ultimately, the pace didn’t matter so much as the reality that I never found an easy way to glide between the ropes.

For as long as I can remember, I have followed James Baldwin’s advice about writing what I knew. It began with an essay to A Better Chance when I was in high school. I won an award for that essay which offered me affirmation to keep writing and aspiring to publication that I didn’t even know I needed. For more than 20 years, I have mined my personal experiences in order to bring more resonance to universal truths. Now it’s time for me to do a different kind of work.

This is not a goodbye post so much as it is my way of explaining the stretches of silence ahead. I will never stop being a writer or thinking like a writer, even though I no longer write for public consumption every day. Blogging and writing have been anchors for me as I continue to grieve my parents and heal from life’s adversities. I have benefited so much from knowing that my experiences are not as unusual or uncommon as I first thought and it has been my privilege to help make life a little easier for those who said they were inspired by my example.

I know I’ll be back to blog and write more at some point. During this season of my life, though, my intention is to read more, to devote myself to completely to my new job and to rediscover the joy of writing and connection that brought me to the page in the first place. I intend to speak at college campuses through my partnership with Bitch Media and offer writing/communications workshops, so you can connect with my work with Bitch on Campus here.

I’ve been told if you don’t have a Facebook Author Page, you don’t really exist, so please like my page. I’m also on Instagram. &  Pinterest. &, of course, Twitter.

Thank you for reading and responding to my work, to my presence, and for knowing my heart and sharing so much of this rich journey with me already. There will be more to come eventually. Until then, take good care of your heart. Enjoy all the seasons life offers you.

Book Update and DC Author Festival, October 24th

DC Author Festival GraphicSince How Racism and Sexism Killed Traditional Media: Why the Future of Journalism Depends on Women and People of Color was published at the end of August, life has been a bit hectic, but in the best way. After three years of working, moving, working, writing and researching the book, working, moving again, editing the book, I was too tired to plan a book party.

If this seems convenient, well, it was sort of. I decided to do something I haven’t done in 12 years. I took a vacation. It was glorious.

Thankfully, my colleagues with the Journalism and Women Symposium (JAWS) group in DC was kind enough to let me talk about the book and what I discovered while writing it at the National Press Club a few weeks ago. It was an honor to meet such an esteemed and lovely group of women and to match names with faces.

That said, while responses to my book have been overwhelmingly positive, there have been a few folks who 1. Question the premise of the title despite overwhelming evidence of the fact that media diversity has not been a priority and has led to a significant decline in relevant audiences caring about traditional news or paying for news consumption and 2. Are not hesitant about disagreeing with the sentiment, research or facts behind my argument. The defensiveness surprises me, given what we know about the sexism and racism that unfolds throughout our social media networks on a regular basis. But the fact that there is still resistance is all the more reason to continue to have discussions about how women and people of color can leverage social media to their advantage and how the few media conglomerates that are doing a better job with diverse coverage (The New York Times, for example) can set a good example for the digital and legacy outlets that still think it’s OK to remain predominantly white and male.

I was overjoyed that for a little while my book was one of the top new releases on Amazon within the first month that it was published. I’m sure my friends and family did that. I’ll be selling copies on Saturday, October 24th at the DC Author Festival at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library at 901 G Street NW from 10 until 5. There’s a great lineup of speakers and workshops – you can download the program booklet here.  Please come by, buy a copy and I’ll sign it for you. Or if you have a copy and you’d like me to sign it for you, that’ll work too.

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.

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.