Tuesday, November 30, 2004
Gazing with my third eye into my blue crystal ball, I saw you on the second day of Fall at your apartment complex approaching your mailbox. Your heart skipped as you fumbled for the key to open it: junk mail, a bill, more junk mail, another pesky bill. You double-checked the stack: no letter from me. After reaching your hand in and feeling around the walls of the box one last time, you looked behind your back, locked the box up, and pursed your lips wondering—with empty hands—what to make of me now…
Was I close? Or is my crystal ball cracked, too? Whether I saw you accurately or not, it leads me to this business of expectation.
Though Fall officially started on Monday, there was no perceptible change in the air. The temperature didn’t drop abruptly, nor did the leaves blaze and suddenly brown overnight. We all know these changes in Nature are coming inevitably; yet we cannot force them to come; they will only come within their own time. So, my question is, after one week of separation, if we mightn’t already be setting ourselves up for disappointment by putting an expectation, or a timeline, on things which may be beyond our control.
For instance: On Sunday, I called you fully expecting that you’d received the Top 25 letter, and that we’d have a long, constructive conversation discussing it. But, you didn’t receive it. As a result, I was disappointed.
On Tuesday, I suspect that you expected you’d receive another letter from me. I know you didn’t because it was returned, and I know that you were—even if only slightly—disappointed. These are only small instances. What I’d like to ensure is that we are both allowing ourselves to be open to the universe and open to whatever lessons we are to learn from this period of transition.
It is my hope that we will see each other again and revert to 1999’s winter bliss. But, we must both also realize that we are not the same people now as we were then; and, our feelings are more complex than they were then. So, each night I center my spirit—hopefully in a way that I will be ready to accept whatever may come.
After I reread the Top 25 letter (which actually was only 17), I realized there were a number of pivotal moments which I left off of the list. I’ve always been one to tie up loose ends; so, normally this would bother me. But, in this case, I’m actually glad I wasn’t able to finish the list because it will give us plenty to talk about this Sunday.
Today’s letter is quick because my day is nearly done. But, I’m afraid I’ve come across somber. I don’t mean to be so. I’ll try to sing a lighter tune tomorrow.
P.S. Yesterday, I passed a church with open doors & thought
Monday, November 29, 2004
And so, right after I mailed the first letter and got into my car to go home, the first thought I had is, I wonder what it would be like if _____a and I had a house together?
Pulling onto Piedmont, this introduced all sorts of thoughts: First, what would we have for dinner tonight? Order in? Eat out? Pick vegetables from the garden? Forage for nuts and berries in a tree?
Then, I was faced with a stark reality. At some point, I’d be forced to cook. Then, I’d no longer be able to scrutinize and criticize you. Then, you’d be able to make fun of my tough chicken and rubbery rice. You’d be serving me the truth about my tragic salad and my soggy stir fry.
These thoughts were new and strange to me because previously I’d never seriously considered living with you. I mean, I’d given it a passing thought before, but I’d given myself a zillion reasons why it wouldn’t work out: your religious commitments, my need for personal space, blahblahblah. But suddenly, on this, our second consecutive day of no talk, these things became unimportant.
What does that say?
So, I decided to not go to the gym because I had to work on a bio for me and the fellas to perform in Huntsville next month. As usual, D_niel was the only one who’d given me his updated bio information and I was waiting on S__d’s and A_’s. As is usual, I’d probably end up making something up. Thinking about how tired I was made me all the more tired as I pondered my 3-hour drive to Knoxville coming up on Friday.
So, after an hour of traffic, I finally made it home, logged on to my computer, and, as expected, there was not a peep from S__d or A_.
On Sunday, the kid organizing the gig in Huntsville asked for bio information, audio files, video files, etc. etc. etc. which I’d promised to him for Wednesday. And, as usual, I was left to pull it all together. I ordered a pizza, passed some time reading books, took a bath, and sighed.
Finally at 9:30, under the weight of an impending next-day deadline with too much work and not enough time, I did what I always do: I went to sleep.
I’m on a huge lake—so big I can’t see to the other side. Why is it a lake and not a sea? Because I said it’s a lake, of course!
So I’m on this big, dark body of water on a boat by myself. The water is bordering on violent and I can feel it’s strength gathering, but I’m not worried—even though I can’t see to the other side.
The sky is blackening, the wind is picking up, and I don’t even have a sail! Lord, oh Lord, which way will the wind blow me now?
The rain must have been whispering something peaceful to me as I slept because I awakened two hours later and all of the pressure was gone.
The next morning, I woke up (as God apparently intended), went to work and did what I usually do: I spent 3 hours finishing the group bio at my desk. I felt so exhilarated after it was done! I showed it to a co-worker whom I usually can’t stand. He thought it was well done.
My day passed pretty rapidly after that at work. And hark!, I realized I hadn’t even started my daily letter. So, here I am now, thirty minutes past my time to leave work. Will I be able to keep this up? I’m sure I can. Today I have so much energy! But, only time will tell.
P.S. Do you know that, after all of that screaming, I still haven’t regained my voice?
P.P.S. What would I plan for dinner for us tonight?
Thursday, November 18, 2004
Monday, November 15, 2004
The artist statement is a standard document often required for grant and fellowship applications in the arts. Essentially, it expresses an artist's vision and philosophy. Click the links for some examples of statements from other artists in different disciplines. Here's my most recent:
I AM A BLACK WRITER.
This is a simple declarative statement, yet it is the nucleus of my literary universe.
As a youth, my diet of Black literature was anemic—a Maya Angleou poem here, a Langston Hughes short story there – and the appalling consequence of this was that it formed a Black child who did not believe his own trivial life - nor the lives of anyone else who shared his brown eyes, his dark skin, and his coarse hair - was worthy of literature. It saddens me now, angers me, makes me tremble in my bones to think that I ever felt this way. What is perhaps more tragic is that no one ever sat me down and specifically instructed, “You can’t write about X, or no one wants to read Y.” It was a very understated yet systematic process that led to my thinking, a slow drip of arsenic in my skull.
The sole purpose of my artistic existence is to stop other young readers – Black and especially those who are not – from ever feeling this way about Black people – in America and the world over.
I am not militant. If my telling a story or composing a poem requires people of various ethnic backgrounds, then I will write what the story demands. But my motivation stems from that dreadful moment when I believed that my life—and I mean that in the sense of the whole Black race – was something subhuman. Further, if I as a Black writer don’t pen Black literature, then who will?
All over the world, people tell their own stories. No one would dare say to F. Scott Fitzgerald, “This novel is lovely, but why such a focus on White characters?” Or to Ha Jin, “This is a beautiful story, but do all of your characters have to be Chinese?” The fact is, people write what they know. Even in most far-fetched science fiction, once you strip away all of the circuitry and the gadgets, a writer's own experience is his basis.
Of American literary classics, how many books of fiction by White authors even include a single Black character? How many plays? And when Black characters are included, how well-rounded are they?
I choose not to blame this on a conspiracy by “The Man” or some racist regime. I am self-determined. I choose to do something about it because it is my duty as a Black artist with a pen - to write my history, to report my present, to transform my future - no one else’s.
Now if others want to write about the Black experience, then more power to them. But an old Nigerian proverb says: Do you know why, in the stories of the lion and the hunter, the hunter always wins? It is because it is always the hunter who tells the tales.
I do realize that some may view my commital to writing Black literature as restrictive, but it is only restrictive to the closed-minded. “The reason why Blacks are invisible," novelist Ralph Ellison wrote, "is because they refuse to exercise the full range of their humanity.” And so, when I say Black, I mean not in the terms which others have defined, but in the sense of the blackness of outer space, of the infinite possibilities of both what Black has been, but, more importantly, what Black can be.
Consider: a Black astronaut, a Black serial killer, a Black Chief Justice, a Black news anchor, a Black golf star, a Black Academy award winner. At some point, some garbage collector, some sharecropper, some slave looked up from his dusty work and dreamed. And oh what a dream we are! At some point, these notions were all far-fetched, all outside of the realm of 'Black'. But, my point is that there is no “outside the realm of Black.” The definition of Black is constantly expanding, just like the universe. It has no limits, for better or for worse. So my art aspires toward that Black which is limitless, the Black of the imagination, a Black which has never been seen: a Blackness which is humanity.
In that sense, I make this statement, proudly as an artist:
I am a Black writer.
Friday, November 12, 2004
HE THOUGHT HE’D NEVER REACH the house in Redwine, Georgia. After two interstates, a state highway, some paved streets, and a dirt road, he finally pulled up to the “white shotgun house with the pine tree in the yard, which you’ll know it when you see it coz it was struck by lightning so it leans. Plus it ain’t got no bark.”
But even before he saw the pine tree, Leon knew the house because it was a parking lot of thirty or forty cars - Cadillacs and Cutlasses; Thunderbirds and Trans Ams - mostly old, but all waxed and immaculate.
As he put his car in Park, Leon saw a curtain move in the front window. It appeared to be a stout White man in a dark suit. When the man caught Leon’s eye, he pushed the curtain back.
My God, Leon thought to himself, feeling suddenly underdressed, All these cars? Suits? Did Tammy die last night? Is this her… wake?
He climbed the front steps. It sounded eerily quiet inside. His stomach was a pit of guilt as he rapped on the tattered screen door.
“Come in,” a voice said, perhaps a little too quickly.
Leon opened the door and stepped inside. There was a roomful of White men and women - not all in black dresses and suits - but in polka dots, plaids, and more floral prints. Some badly bleached blonde, but mostly that unforgettable red shade of hair, much like his own.
Suddenly he began feeling hot. Perhaps it was from all the plastic slip covers on the furniture. Or perhaps?
Before he could knew what hit him, Leon was tackled from behind by two shanks of ham, which were trying to pass themselves off as arms.
“Surprise!” she yelled.
Leon spun around. No broken hip, not even a crutch, just a few bruises - it was Tammy.
“Surprise!” she yelled again, blowing a kazoo, leading the entire room of fifty or so men, women, and children as they converged to embrace him.
“What are you doing?” Leon screamed, struggling to free himself from her, from them. But it was no use. They were all around him. It was something akin to love, and Leon couldn’t stop them.
“Listen here, y’all this here’s my son. He’s a actor! He was actin downtown. He was in the newspaper. He‘s gonna be the next Denzel Washington!”
Leon hated Denzel Washington.
“Ooh, can I get your autograph?” asked a little red-headed boy, who was probably his cousin.
“Can I, can I please?”
Tammy was still holding him, holding this stolen memory, but she could not hold back nearly thirty years of tears. Grinning so hard her cheeks might break, she hugged him like a tree. She refused to let go.
“Why won‘t you leave me alone!” he screamed, “You’re ruining my life! You tricked me…. You said that you were dying!“
“But I am,” Tammy said, turning Leon around to see her own reflection in her son’s smoky eyes, as if from a dream, “one day…. at a time!”
It was the most beautiful thing she ever saw.
Wednesday, November 10, 2004
After a sunrise in quiet, Leon reconnected the phone and blocked the woman’s number. But the ringing resumed before he could even finish breakfast. The answering machine read: 39 MESSAGES. He had no desire to talk to the woman. Besides, as long as she was calling, it was a reminder that she wasn’t dead.
Though they had an estranged relationship, it was one which suited Leon perfectly fine. Tammy (which is how Leon referred to her) gave birth to him when she was only twelve; Zeke, the father, was eleven.
Holding the red-headed newborn as close as she could to her heart, Tammy returned from Grady Hospital on the bus next to her own mother, who was now a not-yet-thirty-year-old grandmother herself.
But before she would let the girl step foot back in their one-bedroom apartment, she, between drags on her cigarette, delivered an ultimatum:
“I’m raising one of ya,“ exhaling smoke into the infant’s face, “or none of ya. Now which is it gonna be?” And so it came that Leon was raised by Zeke Lattimore’s family.
But being rid of Leon wasn’t enough for Tammy’s mother. She was determined to white-out this dark blot in their family history altogether. So, she packed up all of their belongings in a rusted red Ford pick-up - which they borrowed - and moved as far away from Zeke and baby Leon as her money would take them - to an apartment complex in the next school district.
But Tammy’s mother, who could not see the future for all her hours flouring biscuits at Mrs. Winners, could not predict the stick of dynamite she would light in Tammy by forbidding her to ever see that niggerchild as long as Tammy lived under her roof; could not see that despite the Lattimore’s family fortress of concerted efforts, Tammy would continue to dream the most extreme means to see her baby - no matter how far she had to walk, no matter how many years she had to wait; could not know that, though Tammy failed every math class she ever took, she would accurately predict the day Leon would start kindergarten, when he would finally be free of the Lattimore family’s 24-hour hawklike watch and that she, even as a pimply 7th grader, would have already plotted their reunion, years into her future:
How the cloudless September sky would be a boundless sea of possibility that day she would play hooky from school; what MARTA buses she would take, what transfer point; what grown-up dress she would wear to subvert the undercover truancy officers; what wooded paths she would traverse after getting off the bus - Oh, just to be able breathe the same air as him.How she would hide out in the bushes, among the branches and the briars - just outside of the fence surrounding the graveled P.E. field, just to get one glimpse of the auburn-afroed boy, who she had not seen for five years, but whose blood was her blood, yet whose skin was not quite her skin, but oh, who undeniably was him because why else would her heart leapt like that the moment she saw him. He, of her own fiery red hair and her own smoke-gray eyes, who even, oh god, had her freckles; as she watched him skip rope and laugh and trip and fall and get up and, oh god, cry at recess under the open sky without even the threat of a cloud in sight.
Tammy’s mother could not foretell that this day would all be too much for a sixteen year-old heart which would burst from all that weight, sending Tammy bounding out of the branches and struggling over the fence, out, out, looking like a full-figured madwoman, but really being just a little girl, in a grown-up dress with grown-up shoes, running into the open field, out-of-breath, the wind in her hair, mascara streaming, racing, to touch him just once, to hold him just once, no matter what the cost, but instead to be denied, detained, and turned in by Mr. Lawton, who was, not very long ago, her own P.E. teacher.
But what the Lattimores and Tammy’s own mother’s restrictions could not stop, the law could. And after this episode on the elementary school P.E. field, the Lattimores put out a restraining order on her. And so, Tammy’s outraged mother moved again, to the edge of the known world - the end of the MARTA line - to start a new life - a life in which Tammy would fatten herself on sorrow and drown herself in spirits so that she might extinguish what she would find to be an inextinguishable desire - to hold Leon in her arms again.
To say that Leon and Tammy were from different backgrounds would be an understatement. Leon, raised in a house by a bank executive and a math teacher, was a Howard University graduate. Tammy grew up in apartment complexes, was raised by a single mother, and, well, didn’t exactly graduate from a university (or a high school, for that matter.) This difference, though the Lattimores were not terribly excited about the prospect of their eleven-year old son being a father, put the Lattimores in the privileged position of not needing Tammy or Tammy’s family - for anything. In fact, they prided themselves on it. As the papersack-brown Mrs. Lattimore so tactfully put it:
“God works in mysterious ways, and, naw, He ain’t always fair. But this time we lucked out,” she said, “with a light-skinned baby… with good hair!”
The day she turned 40, Tammy looked in the mirror and God revealed to her a short path to the grave ahead, and a fiery path beyond, if she didn’t right what had been made so wrong between her and Leon. That she was drunk when she had the vision, besides the fact that she had not opened a Bible in over a decade, should have been an indication that it perhaps was not God - nor a higher deity - Who was speaking. Which is how - despite her unanswered letters and cards, her photographs, and her phone calls, which all entered a bottomless pit called Leon - she wound up crashing opening night of the world premiere production of “Confessions of a Cornbread Queen,” just to show her support because that is, after all, what mothers do, and what families do and wasn’t that what she was, after all? Family, too?
“Don‘t call me that. My name is Leon.”
“I know. I’s the one gave it to you,” she cleared her throat. “This is Tammy, your Mother.”
“Are you alright, son?” He hated when she called him that.
“What do you think?”
“Well, I’m not alright, son. This is why I‘m calling.”
“Really? What’s wrong?” he asked, not even attempting to hide his enthusiasm.
“Well, I don’t know if you know this, but I came to see your play.”
“Really? I hadn’t noticed.”
“Yeah, I had a little fall.”
“Son, my fall was pretty bad. I broke my ankle, my hip, bones in my back - I even broke bones I ain’t know I had. They took me to Grady and once they got me stable,” she paused, trying to hold back tears, “they released me. They said there was nothing they could do for me. I’m doin so bad,” she began to whimper, “they sent me home… to die.”
“Oh, that’s terrible.” He held the phone, allowed her to bawl.
“I was wondering if you could do two things for me, son.”
”Sure.” For the first time in his life, Tammy was actually saying something that had Leon excited.
“I want you to come by and see me, son. Tomorrow, if you can. I want to just shake your hand, one time,” she said, “before I pass.”
“Sure, Tammy,” he said, this time a little more sincerely, “and what’s the other thing?”
“Just one time, can you call me,” she asked, “Mom?”
“Sure,” Leon said. “I’ll be there tomorrow. Then he added, reluctantly, “Mom.”
Next: Part 3 of 3 in my entry to the Creative Loafing Annual Fiction Contest.
Monday, November 08, 2004
SHE WAS A LOT OF WOMAN to be falling that far.
A split second before, the woman had downed two mouthfuls of peach martini to lessen the likelihood of its spillage in the whir back to her seats. The curtain already risen for Act II, she was late from Intermission. There were five perilous steps between Row K and the front of the stage.
Sold out for months, it was the world premiere of Ashby’s scandalous "Confessions of a Cornbread Queen." Emily Ashby (originally from Alabama, now residing in England) would only be the greatest Southern playwright since Tennessee Williams! Earlier in the day, Jamaal, the male lead had suffered an allergic reaction to some gumbo - which fellow cast member, Leon, had been kind enough to bring back for him during the final run-through, which ran well-through lunch.
"It‘s chicken gumbo," Leon assured the starving actor, handing him the Cajun poison. "I even asked the cook for a list of ingredients. I explicitly stated, No shellfish! He’ll swell up, turn colors… die, even."
Jamaal didn’t die from the gumbo, but the actor, in spite of his naturally tar-like complexion, did turn lots of colors. And guess who just happened to be his understudy…
When Leon first held the holy script nearly two years ago, he saw the Light (even if it was a stoplight.) And when he learned that the Appliance Theatre was staging the world premiere production in Atlanta?
He took a university course on Homiletics; he set up an altar to the playwright by his bed; he even shaved his beloved auburn dreads. He put on thirty extra pounds; nothing was going to stop him - not even the Casting Director casting Jamaal in the role instead.
All of the city’s major theatre critics were there: Dolores Stein from City Papers, that blue-haired ice queen from The Journal, the pearl-clutching Oscar Martinez from Black Box. Even the famed playwright crossed the Atlantic to be in attendance. But then again, who wasn’t at the world premiere of Ashby’s latest masterpiece, starring – not Jamaal, but – Leon Lattimore as the charismatic Pentacostal preacher, Reverend Brown?
Act II, Scene One
Leon poised to launch into his monologue—the monologue. The one where Reverend Brown defies all pastoral decorum and, eight feet tall in the pulpit, unveils his undying love to the lowly Cornbread Queen, a lost congregation of one.
Two years Leon had waited for Atlanta’s adoring eyes, their eager ears, their applause. His jaw trembling with the nuanced tenor of a Pentacostal preacher, he began, "When Gawwwwwwwwwd made Woman-"
Leon sent chills even down his own spine. As he summoned his next breath, the audience murmured with anticipation.
He continued:"He took the riiiiiiiib-"
The heel broke.
Then, an eardrum-bursting, "Whoop!!!!! Whooooooooop!!!" echoing from wall to wall as the woman with the peach martini collapsed like a house of one hundred thousand Tarot cards.
That’s how long it took. A hundred thousand cards.
She rolled. Her rolls rolled. Her rolls’ rolls rolled. Eventually, all 350 pounds of Leon’s Mother tumbled down the aisle. (Imagine some large planet, like Saturn, hurtling out of orbit.)
Blinded by the spotlight, Leon recoiled at the sound. Though disoriented, he would not be denied.
"But God said,” Leon stammered in character, “God said," as if a heavenly commandment might avert this hellish disaster, "God said, The show must go on!"
But rather more like Godzilla than God, the show went. What Leon heard: A chain reaction of gasps and screams warning unsuspecting patrons seated in his Mother’s wake. One considered leaning in to her rescue while the rest scrambled on hands and knees for dear life. (Imagine Saturn, hurtling out of orbit and dragging its dozen moons with it.)
What Leon saw: At the periphery of the blaring light, a ripple through the audience. And on the very front row, the playwright, Emily Ashby, as astonished as if she had just witnessed the Rapture – and been left behind.
Leon was a deer in headlights when his mother finally crashed on the interior of Row B - seats 4, 6, and 8. An unsuspecting Black boy, seated at ground zero, wound up traumatized to such an extent that this first theatre experience of his life would be his last. (Decades later, it would take a group of expert Emory psychotherapists to finally diagnose the man’s condition – Caucasiamammariaphobia: fear of the White titty.)
Emily Ashby did manage to stand - just before fainting. Oscar Martinez, the critic, snapped his imaginary strand of pearls. The house lights went up. The curtain crashed down. And behind its red fabric, Leon remained paralyzed, his mind emblazoned with this final image: The woman, who called herself his mother, in tacky floral print and loud red curls – arms out, legs up - lowly moaning like a beached whale.
Oh, how the paramedics rushed in; oh, how they heaved-and-hoed to carry her out; and oh, how the 700-plus hysterical patrons scattered from the theatre.
The Appliance refunded everyone’s money, but who would refund Leon’s pride? And despite Leon’s most imaginative efforts, naturally, Jamaal, the male lead, wouldn’t miss another show.
Next: Part 2 of 3 from my entry to this year's Creative Loafing Annual Fiction Contest
Thursday, November 04, 2004
I'm hoping that by posting this blog entry - by putting it out there, that is - it'll force me to finish. Last year, when I came in 2nd, I actually didn't finish the story until 2 hours before the 5 p.m. deadline. I hand delivered to Creative Loafing in rush hour traffic.
Anyway, it helps that the Falcons don't play this Sunday, so I can actually get some work done. Wish me luck!