Bill Withers. He’s the reason I felt ok accepting a job as a DEI Director at a college in West Virginia just 6 months into the COVID-19 pandemic. A job I thought would send me to a place where I could finally make a difference. Whatever that means. Years at universities in the Pittsburgh area had been a series of runs around the same blocks. I wanted more. I thought I was getting to that but somewhere in May of 2021 I figured out that what I needed was actually to write. I needed written. So, I took and quit. Loudly. And I started writing. It turns out I have stuff to say. Some is quiet, some is loud. I have always written but I don’t know that I needed it this way before now. Scratch the “I started writing.” I started reading. I mean I always read, too. But this time I read differently. I started reading other people who seemed to need written like me. Brian Broome, Deesha Philyaw, Kiese Laymon, Yona Harvey, Caitlyn Hunter – I could go on. And then you. Sometimes I write letters to the writers. I just write and see what happens. I edit them later. I judge later. Sometimes I know exactly what I want to say. Not today.
Today I guess I am saying I’m with you. Today I’m writing a letter because in a few days you’ll graciously join my students who got the treat of being introduced to your work and I’ll share the space with them. I’ll fade, fall back and let the students have discursive power. That is a skill I don’t practice much. I am a Black woman. I have spent most of my life working on being small, silent and serene. That toil has not brought the things I was promised it would so I’m working on something different these days. Switching it up, switching hips, switching roles and switching present-life hair, too. But sharing power with students, many of whom are minoritized and will be dominated in this university space while they work on their degrees, is important to me. I get to give them reprieve. We get to do something different for them. Switch it up like you did in “Another Appalachia.”
I am a daughter of African Virginian ancestors who may well have been on the White Lion or a ship that docked even earlier. I have no way to know except that I can trace my family back to those census moments where people described as “working on farms” in one decade match the ages of those owned ten years earlier. And stories passed down through the hands of my grandmother’s people, Samuel and Catherine, are joined in finally allowed unions to the names my grandfather’s people, Master and True Love (really, my great great grandpeople named their children these names). I have tried to honor those African Virginians. Handed down sweet potato pie making, named my children with complexity and defiance, and claimed my own full Affrilachian spirit. I have tried. And as a child of The Great Migration, who after a childhood in New Jersey, college in New York and a series of years globetrotting, settled here in Pittsburgh, I feel like so many experiences you describe in “Another Appalachia” are ones my own ashes will remember.
Thank you for imbuing these future ashes with the bold truths of your experiences. They will fill this Triveni Sangam with new spice and deep grace. I hope mine will follow, slip free through the Ohio and then head over to the Mississippi where they can help do the memory work Toni Morrison told us about. I hope they are funny. Thank you for being better at basketball than this 5 foot 2er who only ever dreamed of a court and only ever had a star moment in the middle of Haiti when a random 3 point shot went in on angel wings. I did my hair like Allen Iverson for months. Whew.
I hope they are honest. Thank you for being willing to love Laura and fight past the shame-shame you may have worried about. My shame-shame is still knocking and twisting. The love you describe reminds me of one I once had. We didn’t make it and that’s ok. But I’m cloaked in the privilege of a man/woman marriage now and it’s haunting to know that friends I grew up with in mosques in Newark whose Black Christian families down south were already confused by their commitments to the faiths they loved now have queer relationships they hide or partners they introduce as roommates because they just can’t bear more scrutiny while I get this. This ease.
I hope they are clear. Is this the part where I tell you that someone may read that after an awkward Facebook dive or Googling and decide they don’t speak to me anymore? Not my fellow queer someones. The hating someones. I went to CMU, too but I didn’t get to put my business in those streets so I have to find other ways to do it. I like messy but this is pretty clear to me. The truth is that if they were gon hate on you, they were gon hate on you anyway. Please believe me. What they found on the internet to do it with is absolutely inconsequential. And the people who would love you will love you anyway. Love is an action. I learned this from my mom and aunties – nine forms of infinite love.
I hope my memories are full – including the ups and downs. Is this the part where I tell you I liked the book so much that I needed an audio version and I listened to Shame-Shame with one of my daughters in the car? Neema, you ATE that. “Did what needed to be done,” I said in my Law Roach voice. Since “Wine-Warmth” I had been gut wrenched by the knowing that we write our truths and there are deaths which may occur. Deaths of relationships. Deaths of places we visit. No amount of name changing will prevent that. Sometimes I think I won’t write non-fiction. I think I’ll do some sort of speculative work instead. No one will have to tell me how brave I am. Nothing will have to die. And I won’t want to drink. But then I think of people like you and think again. Maybe I will write my story. Maybe I am brave. And maybe either way I won’t drink. The not drinking – the recovery and sobriety – they are a journey.
I hope the memories and ashes are coconut. Thank you for seeing Sam. Thank you for seeing Johnny. Thank you for seeing Mrs. B. Thank you for writing that you saw them each in the roundness and complicated sense it takes to gather, understand and release coconuts. Thank you for telling us they were here. Thank you for seeing so many neighbors and so much of what neighboring is, could be, should be. Your book is a neighbor showing us how to be present, listen well, share our bounties and look for ways to help. Your book is home.