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…)
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…)