If this were a slasher film, one of the teenage protagonists, most likely a young girl running from a masked assailant who knew what she did last summer, would slip in the buffed and shiny halls of Main Street High, the camera zooming in on her screaming face as we brace for the inevitability of what will happen to her.
Before I met Sierra Mannie, I met one of her sentences: “What I do know is that I don’t care how well you can quote Madea, who told you that your booty was getting bigger than hers, how cute you think it is to call yourself a strong black woman, who taught you to twerk, how funny you think it is to call yourself Quita or Keisha or for which black male you’ve been bottoming—you are not a black woman, and you do not get to claim either blackness or womanhood.”
“There are a few things that people don’t know about my brother Samuel Harrell. He wasn’t just an inmate,” Cerissa Harrell tells a group of nearly 50 prepared to blockade the Dutchess County District Attorney’s office on Poughkeepsie’s very public Main Street. Cerissa stands with Diane Harrell, Samuel’s widow. Hands intertwined, Cerissa continues, “Sam’s life was stolen from him. He was only 30 years old. He had so much more life to live.”
The following correspondence between Brian Alsup and Kiese Laymon took place during the week of August 31, 2015. As John Callahan once wrote of the decades-long exchange between Albert Murray and Ralph Ellison in Trading Twelves: The Selected Letters, it is “the bounty of a rare and spontaneous friendship in which each taps into the deepest experience of each other.” Together, Alsup and Laymon reckon with black love, liberation, and shouldering the weight of white terror in America.
Without dwelling on the progressive policies of decades past, and how they sometimes failed the communities they were designed to safeguard, I’d like to discuss an editorial written by my colleague, Hamilton Nolan (“Don’t Piss on Your Best Friend”), which argues against the recent protest of Bernie Sanders by individuals associated with the Black Lives Matter movement and suggests black protestors don’t know what’s really in their best interest.
It’s late July. There is a helicopter circling. A “ghetto bird” on this clear, dark blue night. I’m in my bed, staring at the ceiling fan, trying to sleep. It’s 1:30 a.m. It’s 2:00 a.m. I’m struggling. I’m tired. It’s hot. Someone’s dog is barking. I am now on Facebook, seeing post after post about rumors, or fact, of two black bodies being found in a car at a Taco Bell about 10 minutes away from where I rest my head. I think about how many pillows are being soaked by hot, angry tears of black families asking the questions that come along with this sort of thing.
Ta-Nehisi Coates is running late. As a national correspondent for The Atlantic and author of the new book, Between the World and Me, everyone, it seems, wants a word with the 39-year-old Baltimore native these days. His book—which Toni Morrison christened “required reading” and which the New York Times hailed a “profoundly moving account”—is a deeply personal examination of the ways in which American violence and racism have wreaked havoc on its black citizenry. “[T]he question of how one should live within a black body, within a country lost in the Dream,” Coates writes in the beginning portion of the book, “is the question of my life.”
Living black in a world formed from the crucible of anti-black slavery imposes many moments of visceral absurdity, leaving you in a vast fissure between hysterical laughter, unstoppable streams of tears, and rage hot enough to burn a body. But what body should burn? The end of April imposed a moment on me that made this question easy to answer.
Aaron Rushing was a freshman then. He had dark skin and cottony dreads that mostly covered his eyes, and sometimes his mouth—although not enough to conceal his gentle and knowing smile. His eyes were puppy-doggish, steady. Later I would learn he was a virtuoso on the guitar and a rockstar on stage, but that afternoon I was waiting for him in the stairwell, collecting my thoughts, trying to figure out what to say to him about this poem, this worrisome poem, he had turned in.
"Art has to be a kind of confession," James Baldwin said, fifty-four years ago. "If you can examine and face your life, you can discover the terms with which you are connected to other lives, and they can discover them, too." Baldwin, more than any other American writer, showed us how every sentence contained the possibility of discovery for both writer and reader. Over the course of the ensuing months, I'm going to ask some of the country's most incredible creators to let readers into the crevices of how they do the work of facing and discovering life. Every creator will be asked the same six questions.
At a September townhall meeting in Harlem, Carl Dix, a longtime Uptown fixture and mouthpiece, stood before the microphone in the auditorium of the Schomburg Center and called for mass rebellion. "It's going to take a revolution," he said, "nothing less, to end this and the horrors of the system once and for all."