Notes in Praise of April 17th, 2023
“I don’t know if I can do this.”
That is basically every other thought I have every day after the January day when I walk away from my awesome meeting with Stephanie Flom and Lisa Christopher of Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures about partnering with them to change up the format for Hanif Abdurraqib’s event at the Carnegie Music Hall in Oakland. I think of the December letter I wrote and wonder if they know that I was really just saying that when this event happens we should do something special. But ok. Here we go.
“Oh you’re dealing with some impostor syndrome.”
I hear this from a friend and correct it right away. Ummm. No. I am not. An impostor is a person who isn’t who they say they are. Look, have you met me? Spent more than five minutes with me? Ok. I probably told you way more about me than you wanted to know and I probably gave you so much tawlk and questions and whatchuthinkifs that you wished I would just (and you didn’t want to say this word but you thought maybe you had to) fucking stop. And I don’t code switch. Verb tense switch maybe. I speak several discernibly different languages. One or two of them sound different depending on who I’m talking to and where and why but it’s more like I pressure cook. Easy… and I’m breezy. I won’t confuse you. Start talking slick to me… greasy and I’m well, yes a little more difficult. I suppose. But no. I am not an impostor.
“Maybe I’m not the right person for this. I’m no one.”
How did this thought creep into my head? I am a forty seven year old Black woman raised in an upsouth Newark collaged family of people who listened to Freddie Mercury and Queen on Saturday mornings when we cleaned and Shalimar when the roller skates rounded edges of rinks or pools. And while it is true that Master Ace’s verse was the first Symphony I ever knew, Newark gave me Symphony Hall before Pittsburgh gave me this Carnegie and Newark gave me the most beautiful library next door to an art museum full of Black folks who praised Black performance when I was younger than this year’s dream of next year’s WNBA championship so no, I knew. I knew I was the who. Just didn’t know if Pittsburgh was the whom.
“Maybe it won’t matter.”
This is what I think when I think what I have heard isn’t real. Like medical diagnosis of Black women’s pain sometimes. This is how I know that a syndrome? A syndrome is a collection of symptoms. Hard to discern from all of them what’s really going on. And that. Yes, I may have that when I grip my steering wheel leaving the Cafe Carnegie clacking my acrylic nails against one another checking my hearing to make sure olfactory synapses are not misfiring. I shift my glasses up then down again. Yes cool cool cool with the help of the little darlings I can still read. I reach for hand sanitizer, slip and squish some over each hand like one was mother and the other child, feel the drawn drying and then produce cold lumps of shea butter from a stiffened container. My hands then squeeze my skin back to life. Honey and maple hues pouring out over the clumped ball rolling between my fingers reminding me that I feel all of this. That I am alive. That this conversation has happened. I look out at the statue chiseled with her head tucked to her knees at that entrance of the museum. She witnessed it.
“I get to moderate the Q/A.”
I repeat it out loud to myself as confirmation. So there. Beyond that statue and the mid-century modern nods in that cafe and all the columns in the adjoining library where none of the names etched in canonizing stone on the face building are the people in A Little Devil in America. You know, this book we are about to celebrate there? This organization has decided that I can slip into the kitchen of this event, make some suggestions, add some seasonings to the regular sauce, invite some special guests and then… and then. I can sit with one of my favorite writers and ask him our Pittsburgh questions. There is nothing wrong with my senses. No syndrome. January, February, March and half of April until I sit on stage with Hanif Abdurraqib. And I start by weaving the fear crown I know best. I fold its rings one over another as if they could pray for each other – jokes raising palms to countless hours of bended neck over books both wrapped around the rising drift I get approaching the anniversaries of my mother’s birth and unexpected death. I joke. I read. I remember. And these are all things she taught me. Mashallah. She would have said that or Alhamdulillah. People speak loudest to your present from your memory. Don’t they?
“So you gon get ya hair done, right?”
My aunt asks me and I repeat to people. I find it hilarious. My big announcement to her about the genius interview means nothing if I get up there looking like who shot John. And I seriously do not know who shot that man but I do know why a Black woman in her seventies is worried about what my hair will look like at an event where someone might take my photo and that photo might actually mean something to me. I know how we have to be everything and nothing. I know how hard it is to imagine that I might be able to be free from worrying about that or what I’d wear or how my make up will look or whether open toed shoes are appropriate. But that is exactly what I want for me and him and all the Black folks who come to that lecture that night. Because we have done that thing Abdurraqib discusses in the book where we show up to work and our ideas aren’t taken seriously. We have done it after we have earned so much more and deserved so much better. So that night, I decide, I want us to have 90 whole minutes of the closest thing it can feel like to sit there and feel free. I joke more, make fun of my many insecurities, read more and start texting people lines from the book and you know the one that brings them in the closest? “The excellence rests in the moments before the moment.”
“I got a dress covered in roses for Merry Clayton.”
I say to my friends and family and well wishers. Well. The striking red buds opening and unfurling across the black background swirling around my body may, in fact, be some other flowers but they are good and rosy enough for me. And the ones who check the fit are all smiling when they see the blooms falling around my body like the questions I have at the ready. I lost count around fifty index cards. Each of them some intensely hugged area of the text that I can’t imagine skipping but somehow am still work on ranking. Ellen Armstrong’s commitment to her father’s legacy? Hmmmm, flower #33 maybe. Black midwestern people returned from journeys in space? Does he think Sun Ra anticipated the arrival of Janelle Monae? Flower question #8…definitely. Don Shirley’s split? Yikes. I don’t know. That one may not make it. Ah in going over everything I have bookmarked, noted, placed on an index card and re-read, I remember that I have to leave room for the audience to bring themselves here as well. Make sure I get their questions in the mix. I have been warned that they won’t have any. Yikes. I don’t know. I’ll be ready if they do. I have never had trouble with the concept of waiting and seeing. Right now it’s April 16th and I’m working on smiling, praying, sleeping.
“Hanif is here!”
I see this text message on the morning of the day of as I’m jaw crushing the sadness out of an apple. Happy tears pour from it down my hand and I’m careful not to puncture it with my new set of acrylic nails. These almond shapes are my favorite and I am feeling very much ready for this day. They were the only things I really wanted to get done for the photos but I did have my wild hair that grows up and out and around any space it likes done for my aunt. So it was flat and calm. And perhaps that makes me seem so as well. I am standing in Woodland Hills High School where all three of my daughters have graduated. The most recent having decorated her cap just last spring. I think of how I asked to have this school be the writer’s morning host because Antwon Rose II went here and wrote how he was not what you think. And when I wanted more for my daughters than to cry in a crowded memorial at a middle school gym for a boy who should have been graduating, a stack of books understanding times when we force ourselves to dance and the faces on t-shirts and the hush of a room where there used to be laughter… a stack of books like that would have been just amazing. So, I’m grateful to be standing next to Kevin McGuire that morning even if I am an apple biting ball of nerves praying my mother and father forgive that I no longer fast during Ramadan dripping happiness from my fingertips rushing to finish. Santitizing and shea buttering hands, I perform the ritual faster this time rushing to mask face and muster courage. I walk over to finally shake this man’s hand. I fall back and watch him enjoy the way students at Woodland Hills savor a good reading. They do not disappoint. They are always so much more than what we think.
“This coat is going to swallow me whole one day.”
I have had this thought before but not like this moment where I truly feel quite strong. I walk into the lobby of the music hall and something sifts into my ears that they haven’t processed in that space on one of these evenings in a long time and it seems so very ridiculous to think it because it can’t be true but it absolutely is. Music. I hear music. And I’m even more amazed that it is sailing around the lobby from the dock of a video created to reflect an idea I had that we should highlight some of the talents of Black performers in Pittsburgh. There would never have been enough room in that video or that lobby to do enough of that praise but I stand there for several minutes allowing myself to feel warmed by the tribute and the fact that for this moment, it is cold and my coat isn’t the only thing wrapping and beating the air around me. I take that coat off, start enjoying the good company of good people like INEZ, D.S. Kinsel, Janita Kilgore, anu jain, and Clara Kent and eventually make my way backstage where I’ll listen, unswallowed by my coat yet already quite taken by the evening.
“Making a home for yourself in one place and not trying to fight your way out of it.”
Those words in his lecture are when the microphone apparatus attached to the belt of my dress hops off and swings for the floor. This is mildly painful because the headset has actually been taped to my face. At that point I am not sure whether it is a good thing that I decided not to wear any make up. Not much of a bold choice, really. Just that I didn’t have time to sit down and figure out what the best combination of brushing on powders and smoothing on creams would be that day so on the evening of April 17th, I entered the Carnegie Museum in my black dress covered in red roses for Merry Clayton and everyone else who deserves flowers right now. I wore my stompiest tallest shoes with toes open because I knew that if at any moment I needed to prove my worth by launching into a very much bout that life rendition of Board Up, those shoes would be the ones I’d need to make that work. Anyway, the shoes are probably what keep the transmitter from hitting the floor. That’s good but I miss the part where we hear that the new book isn’t truly about basketball. Later, I’ll hope the audience forgives the cringe of me asking about our guest transitioning to writing about basketball. I suppose they do because the hall feels electrified. And I ain’t never been nobody’s magical negro but this night I feel like the energy of being no one is working fine for me. Like I could bend space and pull time from beneath our feet to defy the odds of mortality. I feel like someone has tricked Pittsburgh into giving us Black folks a super sized helping of some of that, what do they call it? Livability. I hear in his words and in our conversation that Hanif Abdurraqib is going to gift us a glimpse at this next book, There’s Always This Year. And I’m obsessed with how he sounds like he’s writing about livability.
“You know that line…like the lifetime of the sun.”
Later at home when the night has ended and I have gone over every mistake I made or everything I wish I had done better, I ask my love about this. But I am also feeling that perhaps… just maybe… it was great. That Black folks who wanted to smile remembering No Scrubs were delighted. That gender-expansive, non-binary and queer siblings who joined me heard that we aren’t the only ones concerned about white dudes in band tees performing inclusivity. That sometimes it snows in April behind the scenes and it’s ok if instead of having person after person from dominant culture literary communities ask you about all the things, a nobody bookish Black woman who writes drafty poems on a blog asks you about hypothetical Soul Train lines and an audience’s obsession with your kicks and the power of Robert Hayden poetry. Because for me and the Black folks I hoped would love that 9th Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures evening on April 17th 2023, it was all about alternatives. It was about getting past all the days when we are asked about or that may just be about our dead mothers, times in jail, running from guns, hunger, or when we may just be dissatisfied. That evening was about a need to turn ourselves toward beauty. And recognizing – no – singing and praising and witnessing that beauty as us.
I have held this praise for that evening to myself so long. I was thinking perhaps spilling too many drops of it would make it disappear like that morning’s apple. And there it is. I can’t make it everlasting. It isn’t like the lifetime of the sun.
Stevie Wonder always has the libretto. Any moment is already written in the expanse of his work or something his mother, Lula Mae, inspired. I am reminded that I tried to end on that line thinking I was so clever and searching the poet’s face for a smile. I wanted to give him the proverbial soft place to land after his very busy day of speaking and greeting. I thought “well this has been magic, but it can’t be everlasting” was it. He smiled and then tricked me so that I was the one settling into a soft space he created after minutes more of adding to a chorus of love for the things and people that make up the world around us. I can still feel what it was like to hear Hanif Abdurraqib build that line from obsession to romantic to love to chorus along a family tree of Robert Hayden, Mary Oliver, Gwendolyn Brooks, Adrian Matejka, and Gabrielle Calvocoressi.
“Why that line?”
That line in If It’s Magic is the one that catches in my throat and spins up through my nose before it spills out of my eyes. Like the lifetime of the sun. It’s the line that doesn’t need me to say that my mom’s passing was a moment when the writing heartbeat restarted for me. It’s the line that doesn’t need me to say I wish I were more than I was on that stage. It’s the line that says we don’t get to know how many more days. How many more days until no more. But in the meantime, there’s always this evening. And I am right now alone deciding on the last words of this piece, thinking about how to edit it, worrying about how often I have shifted tense, sitting with the possibility that it is too long and should remain in draft form. But I will accept imperfections and love them up to a chorus because I am turning my face toward something more beautiful than that which dissatisfies me and because Blackness is also about pushing in hopes that something better is there ahead. I don’t know what that may be for me but I know I’ll have to find more sun beyond the bit we had that evening.