Here’s my one-minute memoir which appears at 28:44.
Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” is so adored because it captures the veiled, nearly imperceptible smile of its subject—the wife of a wealthy, silk merchant who lived in sixteenth century Florence. When I saw it at the Louvre two summers ago, I didn’t think much of it. Granted, I pivoted along the velvet ropes that separated the crowds from the masterpiece and took selfies, jockeying for position with everyone else, but after ten minutes, I carried on. And today, when I think of my time in Paris, rare is the moment when I find myself reflecting on this famous Florentine.
Yet at the funeral, when someone handed me a program, I saw “Mona Lisa” anew, this time as my late great-grandmother. On its cover, captured on what I suspect must have been Women’s Day, she is seated in all white, her torso slightly turned away from the camera. A white flower is pinned to her lace sheath and a string of pearls is draped around her neck. Her face was much fuller then and bore the regal air of a woman who had been made a grandmother many times over. What struck me most about it is her sly, suggestive expression, one that revealed the restraint of a secret, or an off-color joke, or an unsolicited critique that made us cringe. It was perfect, a masterful reflection of the whole of her complexities. At once surly and silly, reserved and open, she was truly a joy to be around except when she wasn’t. (more…)
March 14, 2017
Today has been a slushy one here in New York as we braced for a blizzard that never was. But thankfully schools were closed which gave me ample time to reflect. During this solitary day, I returned to my thoughts about our relationship, part of which I shared with my students last night. Before I asked them to write a letter to a family member or someone close to them, I shared the story of the letters we had exchanged over the years and how each had made me feel. I confessed to them that I planned to write you a letter today on what would have been your birthday, that it was annual tradition that I have come to embrace. So here I am.
There is so much to say, so much I want to share, but I’ll start with a passage that my students and I discussed last night. In it, the author, a philosophy professor, describes the challenges he faced with teaching a seminar on death, and quite naturally, your image emerged during the discussion. I had planned the syllabus in advance, of course, but in doing so, I hadn’t noticed that the reading would coincide with my annual meditation. Like most things, however, I considered it fortuitous.
In one of the more moving passages, the professor expounded on the fear the seems to grip us when we face death. Then he countered this fear with something I hadn’t considered: “We have nothing to fear in death because we need to exit our lives gracefully to leave room for the generations that follow us.” This statement served to assuage some of my sorrows, for you were keenly aware of our gifts and actively sought to nurture our talents. You lived so selflessly that I wonder if you chose to bow out in your sleep if only to offer a final example of your grace and encourage us not to mourn too severely. (more…)
I read a book a few weeks ago that reminded me of you. It’s called Negroland by Margo Jefferson and details the writer’s upbringing in the netherworld of the Black elite, where many of its inhabitants consider themselves better than most Blacks and long for white privilege. Their world is complicated in that it often maroons them on a no man’s land where a virulent psychosis ravages the community and inspires self-slaughter.
The author is of your generation, and when she described her admiration of Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge and Eartha Kitt, I remembered watching HBO’s biopic of Dandridge with you. I remembered the racism that she faced and the longing for white suitors and the despair visited upon her when her dreams were thwarted. I remembered not understanding all of the cultural references, but I mostly remembered the gleam of your focus. I remembered your exuberance. You delighted in her story.
I miss your train of thought in this state, when the passion thick in your voice would envelop me. You would have loved the book, I’m sure, and I would have loved to hear your thoughts about it. I would have loved to ask you why you sent your son away to a boarding school far from home, where the ultra-white sheen of his teachers and classmates must have been blinding. Were you seeking his entry into the white populace, hoping to secure his footing among the Black elite? (more…)
In Paul’s epistle to the Romans, he calls upon Jew and Gentile alike to embrace Jesus Christ as Lord. He challenges them further to embrace the teachings of the gospels and to disavow a strict adherence to the old laws proscribed by Moses and the Old Testament prophets. His tone does not chastise from the high-minded perch of the pulpit. Instead, he shows them his own human failings so that they understand his message as universal, one intended for all men. He too, is impaled by the sins of the flesh, and only through God’s forgiveness does he gain salvation. He writes, “O wretched man that I am! Who shall deliver me from the body of this death?”
As I reflect on the year that has passed since your death, I find myself in Rome reading Paul’s words and remembering you. It has been a trying year. A friend was buried yesterday, and the black body has continued to be marred by death and destruction. In your time, you witnessed your fair share of the white man’s wrath, and his racist predilections haven’t abated. Just days before your death, you saw Michael Brown lying prostrate in the street for hours after he was struck down by an unrepentant cop. And the slaughter has continued. Tamir Rice, a twelve year-old, was slain for playing with a toy gun in a playground. There was no warning, only shots. Eric Garner was strangled to death on a busy Staten Island street corner. Walter Scott was shot in the back by a police officer as he ran through an open field, treated like one of those target practice silhouettes. Freddie Gray had his back broken for running away from the police. Sandra Bland was found dead in her cell after refusing to extinguish a cigarette. Samuel Dubose was shot in the face during an unwarranted traffic stop. Nine parishioners were killed in an AME church, including Clementa Pickney, an elected official and man of unquestioned faith and considerable promise. Kalif Browder’s death shook me the most. He was a young man who was wrongfully jailed for three years and who upon release was showered with attention from celebrities and concerned citizens in the hope that he would be able rise above his trauma, but he killed himself because the pain was too much. He could have been one of my students, anyone of the young men and women who are ensnared in criminal justice system. This year confirmed that death is all around us. (more…)
I met you in an auditorium at Columbia University after witnessing Kiese Laymon and Philip Lopate debate the genius of Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son. A line had formed of friends and others like me who wanted to wish Kiese well and express our gratitude, and when my time came, Kiese and I began discussing a question that I had posed during the talk. Then you walked up and Kiese asked, “You know Brook?” in a way that meant that I needed to know you. We exchanged numbers and you told me about the Rhode Island Writer’s Colony, the colony you curated. Whenever I texted you after that initial meeting, you responded, and a month later I had submitted my manuscript and been accepted as a writer-in-residence.
In the two weeks we communed in Warren, Rhode Island, in a home with six other creatives, a few blocks away from your brother’s home, you shared your life story with me, with us. You and your brother John had been inspired to create a space for writers of color by your late father’s passion for the arts. Your father had been a visual artist and art teacher who had always encouraged you to create. I also came to know your mother who was there to spend evenings with us over dinner and drinks during that first week. In short time, it became clear that your kind, selfless personality sprang from her.
After dinner one evening, we agreed to share how we became writers, and you offered the story how you began writing for Rolling Out. You had secured an interview with the publisher under the pretense that you were a writer. At that time you hadn’t been published and had no idea what the publisher desired, but you were confident and unflappable and brought with you the first short story you had ever composed, one that you had written in preparation for the interview. The publisher was impressed, but he needed it to be shorter. And over a series of weeks, you began submitting story after another, until the publisher was convinced that your writing could sell magazines. Your persistence led to countless articles and columns you would write about music, art, and culture. Eventually it led you to New York, where you would network and meet scores of writers, photographers, playwrights, and other artists to form a community. (more…)