Speaking with the author of How to Survive a Plague about the early days of the disease, the unpredictable nihilism of the Trump government, and the evolution of lasting gay love.
In order to find purpose and affirmation, Black artists rethink time and space as we know it to find a place for themselves.
Speaking with the author of How to Survive a Plague about the early days of the disease, the unpredictable nihilism of the Trump government, and the evolution of lasting gay love.
Twenty years ago, after more than a decade of bereavement, panic, hopelessness, scientific stagnation and institutional intransigence, antiretroviral combination therapy—that infamous “cocktail” of drugs—was made available on a wide scale to people living with AIDS in North America. For the first time since the advent of the epidemic, the number of deaths related to the disease dropped, plummeting twenty-three percent from the previous year’s tally.For those on the frontlines—the grassroots activists, the lovers and caregivers of patients debilitated by AIDS-related opportunistic infections, the gay men grappling with social stigma and bureaucratic contempt, the health-care workers tormented by their inability to save thousands—the new treatment seemed like a miracle. “How does a population psychologically braced to die suddenly get on with the business of living?” pondered Newsweek staff in an op-ed from that December titled “The End of AIDS?”The story wasn’t over, of course: there were still nearly 35,000 AIDS-related fatalities in the United States in that year alone. But that moment, the dawn of the Lazarus effect—the promise held by new drugs that would keep those with the disease alive, at least until another potentially effective therapy was discovered—marks the climax and conclusion of David France’s remarkable How to Survive a Plague. A harrowing and astonishingly vivid account, France’s book is both a complement to and an expansion on his Oscar-nominated documentary of the same name. It’s an extraordinary work of history, one that tells a (if not the only) story of the earliest years of the AIDS/HIV epidemic and the activism that coalesced in the face of tragedy.Hazlitt: Your original cut of the How to Survive a Plague documentary was thirteen hours long—did the book come out of necessity, out of the desire to include everything that was left out of the film?David France: Actually, I wanted to write the book first. I'd created a book proposal, as one does, and carried it around, as one does. It was 2008, 2009, and everybody told me there was no market for a story about AIDS, that AIDS was in the past, that there was a glut of AIDS material already. The story had been chronicled.The plague was over.That's right. So even if there were additional issues to be parsed, who would care? And my argument, which met with deaf ears, was that all the great work that had been done around the plague, had been done in the middle of it, from Paul Monette to Randy Shilts to Larry Kramer to Mary Fisher. The writing was powerful and terrifying—And unmediated.Yes. And a lot of it was very personal, and a lot of it was very rooted in time. Randy Shilts's And the Band Played On was the only one of those canonical AIDS books that reached for history. But there was no interest at all. It was also a bad time in publishing; the economy was about to tank, everyone in print got panicked. And as part of my process to build a book proposal, I'd gone back to that videotape pile….How much videotape was there?I eventually brought in 800 hours of mostly home movies. Some people have called it a found-footage documentary, which technically is a kind of category. But this wasn't footage that was inadvertently captured. It was all purposefully recorded in order to create records that were undeniable.You've been working in journalism for decades. How did the documentary process influence you as a writer and shaper of narrative?I'm a long-form journalist, so it wasn't a leap for me to work on a narrative storyline in a film with a three-act structure. I think I've always written in ways that are cinematic—or at least anticipate that cinematic feeling. A lot of my work has been made into films. But what I realized was that what I didn't have any experience with was working entirely with visual media, and that was problematic. It was a steep learning curve.Figuring out which frames to capture, you mean?Exactly. It wasn’t enough that I found somebody saying something; I had to find them in the context of this and looking like that, and then I had to explain why they were there, in that particular place. I was bound by the historical record more than I'd anticipated in going after this old video footage.When this footage was recorded in the '80s and early '90s, was there a sense of urgency within the community to be documenting things for history? I remember reading Paul Monette's Unbecoming, which is a kind of reportage—a firsthand account of how the disease caused the dissolution of self—and trying to make sense of who it was intended for.I think each of us felt an obligation to do something when it became clear that we were all endangered. If you did feel drafted, there were various things you could do. People were signing up for home health-care visitation; there were organizations formed to walk the dogs of people with AIDS and to write the wills of people with AIDS. You'd bring your expertise to it. In 1981, I was just out of college. I was in graduate school. I felt called to write news, to find the news—which was hard to find—and then to bring it back to the community. So I was writing for the queer presses and trying to create medical news and science news that would engender hope. I was looking for the answers. I never found them, but it's what caused me to become a journalist, instead of a philosophy professor or whatever else I was going to become. That was my motivation. I wasn't really trying to create a permanent record of historical crimes.But Michael Callen was. In 1982, he and Richard Berkowitz sat with their doctor, Joseph Sonnabend, and the doctor saw the tragedy in the future, and he felt a very specific need. He sat with his patients and said something to the effect of, "This is going sideways! Greed and lies are going to drive this. We have no power to correct their narrative, but we have power to gather the truth." And he charged both of his patients with making a record. That conversation is on audiotape.It's remarkable that these galvanizing moments in the history of this struggle are actually documented.The first half of the book is all based on audio recordings that people were making, knowing that they needed to capture the undeniable facts of what was happening. The first conversation between a person with AIDS and anybody in the federal government's research establishment was captured on tape. Michael Callen, after that conversation with his doctor, went out and bought his own Panasonic tape recorder for $39—he saved the receipt! Michael’s now long gone; he died in '93, but he took this idea very seriously. At one point he said that one day there would be a Nuremberg-type trial, to bring to justice the people responsible for having let an infection that originally impacted forty-one people develop into one of the deadliest global pandemics of all time. That's what he was leaving behind: the records for that trial.Institutionalized homophobia persists, regardless of political affiliation. But if AIDS had unspooled under an American government that was at least nominally friendlier to LGBTQ people, would there have been the same impulse to create an alternate history?So, we got a liberal government in the States in 1992, and it was really no better. When Clinton was elected, there was a lot of hope that it would be better. He said the word "AIDS." He was the "I feel your pain" politician, and that "I feel your pain" line was delivered to an AIDS activist who was heckling him at one of his campaign stops.You describe that scene so vividly in the book. I can hear his patronizing inflection.It's on videotape! It's all on videotape! I think there are only a handful of conversations that were recreated from people remembering what they said. There are, like, 80 pages of endnotes citing tape after tape after tape after tape, most of which had never been transcribed before.What was it like to pore over all those tapes? It's one thing to sift through a general archive; it's another to be revisiting your own history—these were people you knew, a period you lived through. Was it harrowing?Well, part of it was very heartwarming. To hear Michael Callen again! And to hear the part of Michael Callen I'd never listened to before—there's a New Year's Eve in 1984, ’85, where he's really despairing. He's lying in bed. He'd sent his lover off to the parties because he just wasn't well enough. And he's delirious. His mind is clouded; maybe by fever or infection. And to hear him struggling with that on this tape that he made and put aside, that was really stunning. I mean, he recovered from that night and remained a leading voice in the AIDS movement, even through 1987 with the formation of this grassroots activist initiative. He was a thought leader and philosophical leader till his death in 1993. But almost ten years before that, he was really despairing.Can you remember the moment when you transitioned from reporting on something that was happening to becoming part of the story?I never really felt like I was part of the story. I had coffee with Larry Kramer recently and when I gave him a copy of the book to read, I said, "You're going to hate this—initially, at least—but eventually I think you're going to like it." I explained to him that I'd written the book as an outsider. It's full of praise, but I wanted it to be a real historical commemoration of what went right and what went wrong, and how this deeply flawed group of people came together and created this deeply powerful movement.Now, I decided to include my own story in the book, because I wanted to create a witness account. I was a witness. I was there. I was as panicked as anyone else. I had AIDS in my relationship. My lover was sick. I was not an outsider to the plague, to the epidemic. But I always remained independent as a journalist.I started out in the queer press, and eventually, I was covering AIDS news for the New York Times. I decided that the role I was going to play was not as an advocate journalist, but a journalist using the recognized tools of independence and objectivity to tell these stories. I was at all those ACT UP meetings; I was at all those demonstrations—but always with a notepad in my hand. ACT UP had no formal membership roster; the rules were that if you went to two meetings, you could vote at your third meeting. And I never voted.Within such an action-oriented organization, was there a sense of appreciation for your approach? Did people see you as an emissary who was bringing the story to the outside world? Or did they think you should be more involved in the grassroots aspects of the fight?I never felt pulled in in that way. I worked closely with the journalists who were. There was a journalist who covered AIDS at the Village Voice, Robert Massa. As he was dying, he felt he needed to replace himself, and he began recruiting for people to come and do the kind of work he was doing, which was very aggressive, very critical, very advocacy-based. He didn't come to me. Because...that was not the work I was doing. He approached friends of mine who were, and ultimately, he did replace himself before he died, with Kiki Mason, who stayed alive until '96. After '96, they didn't fill that position again.So, was there appreciation among them for what I was doing? Maybe there was a little suspicion, even, about why I wasn't doing more internally, why I wasn't speaking in the voice of activism. I've always considered myself a person who covers activism—which I guess is a form of activism.Andrew Sullivan touched on this in his review of your book, but it's remarkable to have a story with so many bodies on the ground where you resist hagiography. (You're very candid about Larry Kramer, for instance—both his failings and his triumphs.) You were relying on subjects to share very vulnerable, often painful stories, so how did you negotiate that dynamic?People always spoke to me as a journalist. When I was at the Times, when I was at Newsweek, any of the places I've been able to shoehorn in AIDS stories, I've always been a journalist. I've never been friends with any of these folks. They've often been critical of my work. I've allowed them to be critical of my work; I've allowed that to not change my work if I thought I was right, and I've allowed that to inform future work if I thought I was wrong.I've been interviewing Larry since the '80s, and always as a journalist. I don't think I've ever sat across from him without a tape recorder or a notepad, except maybe when he was in the hospital. When I started working on this book, he said he would not participate. So I didn't talk to him and ask him to go back in time with me. But I did find that he'd dropped all his papers off at Yale, and I convinced Yale to give me early access to his datebooks, his drafts of speeches.... It was amazing. Three weeks; thousands of pages of stuff. I feel like I could understand him from then. A lot of the warts-and-all stuff about Larry is the stuff other people were angry with him about. I think I'm really clear in the book to acknowledge his seminal role in galvanizing the entire movement around AIDS, even in his imperfect way.You’re also very candid in writing about the death of your lover, Doug Gould. You describe sitting in the hospital after fruitlessly pleading with Doug’s doctor—any doctor—to help him, and thinking, "Someone needs to do something, and no one is going to do anything." He eventually died of an opportunistic infection that, even at the time, was diagnosable and treatable. After realizing that it was a death from wilful ignorance...Not ignorance. What's the word? Disregard.How do you acknowledge that disregard, come out of that experience and not go on a rampage? How do you maintain journalistic objectivity?Well, it took me a long time. This book is my first attempt to address what happened with Doug. I found that doctor. I sat with him, two summers ago, and asked him to account for what had happened. He was so damaged—and he’s not the only doctor who was damaged by AIDS—that he wasn’t able to make any sense of it. I feel he was another victim of the epidemic.Did he have any answers? Any excuses? Any explanations?No, no. He didn't remember. He's had trouble with his medical licence. He was very much a diminished man; he's working in a free clinic these days. He'd been one of the top researchers on the disease. That he's still practising medicine is a testament to his ability to recover, at least partially, from what he'd been through.Nah, I just think he's a human being. We've read the stories about the concentration camps, about how people in dire circumstances tried and failed to maintain high moral standards. I can't imagine what it would have been like to have been a doctor back then, especially a queer doctor, like he was. To lose so many hundreds of patients every year, and yet there's nothing you can do about it. There was nothing he could do about it—in the larger picture; there was certainly something he could've done for Doug.Right.And Doug would've died anyway, I believe. Even if he'd gotten through that infection, he would've died of the next one, or the next one. I don't have any reason to believe he was going to be one of the people to live through the miracle year in 1996 and enjoy the Lazarus effect and go on to have a long career in theatre or whatever else he would've stuck to afterward, realizing he had a life.As someone who was so immersed in the queer community in New York at that time, what are your thoughts about the generations that have followed—the generations that have a sense that the epidemic is ancient history?I think there are two different things at play. Yeah, people are still infected, and yeah, people are still dying. But there's great news—the great news is that we can stop transmission, and we have rolled transmission back to really low levels. And we now have even newer tools to help with that. We know that the same drugs that keep people with HIV infections healthy keep people who don't have HIV infections from getting HIV. That's amazing!So, you're pro-PrEP.Oh, yes. I'm happy that twenty-somethings don't have the feeling of a sword hanging over their heads. That's what we were fighting for. That's where we got. There are other problems—there's all the syphilis, all the gonorrhea, all the other crap going through the roof. And maybe what we need to do is solve those things medically, rather than behaviourally. Maybe people should be allowed to fuck all over the place, if that's what they want, and to have it be life-giving.Not long after you made your documentary, there was a real wave of AIDS/HIV nostalgia. Dallas Buyers Club came out; HBO released the telefilm adaptation of The Normal Heart....This was around 2012? I'm not one to take credit for stuff, typically, but I think that documentary opened up that conversation. It opened up whatever vault we'd put AIDS in. It was 15 years after the advent of those drugs. And there's something about a fifteen-year interval. If you look at literature looking back at the Holocaust, it came about fifteen years after the fact. There's something about the human mind—or soul—that needs some time to pretend tragedy didn't happen, in order to go back and make sense of things.The work ACT UP did back then really anticipated the way patient advocacy has evolved since then. I’m thinking particularly of how people with cancer have become fiercely engaged with seeking out and arguing for their inclusion in clinical trials. At the time, it was unprecedented to have regular people taking responsibility for interpreting science and agitating for experimental treatments.It was the advent of citizen science. All the buyers' clubs that started in the early '80s, where they were importing drugs from around the world and making them available to people with AIDS on an underground black market—by 1987, there was a realization that this was not going to do it. There was no way that patients, through criminal ingenuity, were going to solve the problem of AIDS. It had to be the scientists themselves, and they had no idea what they were doing, those scientists. And no one was helping them strategize. So that's what they took on. That was fascinating; that had never been done before. That's what we learned: not just ordinary people, but people on the furthest margins of society, which is where we were in the '80s, could make change. We were in a group that was disenfranchised with glee by everybody else. I've seen old videotapes where politicians were talking about funding AIDS-prevention initiatives and they said, "If we make this capitulation to the gay lobby, they'll come and ask us for marriage licenses." I don’t think anyone was thinking that at the time, but…the guy wasn’t wrong.A lot of people are worried that the Trump regime will have hugely detrimental implications for HIV/AIDS treatment initiatives, and for people living with the disease—particularly given Mike Pence's antipathy toward anything LGBTQ-focused. What's your sense?We're all guessing. I find myself going to sleep at night with dreams that the election didn't happen, or that it can be undone. We see a government being pulled together that's anti-science, that's fully anxious and engaged in the old culture wars from the '80s—but also not reasonable, not predictable. There's no single ideology. You can't even believe what they're saying, because they say it differently the next day. So I have no idea what's going to happen. But we all know it's not going to be good. But we don't know where or how or what the battlefronts are.A Missouri court of appeals just called for a new trial in the case of Michael Johnson, a.k.a. “Tiger Mandingo,” an HIV-positive college student who was convicted in 2014 of “recklessly infecting” a sexual partner. The criminalization of HIV is a hugely vital fight for Canadian activists right now. Is it the same down in the States?It's a state by state thing. I don't know how the Feds can work on that. But they can withhold monies here and monies there—prison systems, school support—as a way to engineer the adoption of certain policies by states. And there will be nobody discouraging those laws, which are anti-science laws. They're not about the transmission of HIV. They're about sexual behaviour.And pathologizing groups of people.There are scores and scores of young men and women in jail for very long sentences, some—or most —of whom didn't transmit HIV. They're there because they didn't say that they had HIV—or they said they had HIV, and their partner, after a bad breakup, got even. You don't know what those situations are. But the point is that HIV transmission is no longer a death sentence. And it doesn't happen in people who are effectively treated.Michael Callen and Richard Berkowitz and Joseph Sonnabend, their innovation was safe sex. Safe sex speaks to the people who are negative—that was the audience—and says you have to just assume that anyone you encounter is positive and you have to have the power to protect your life. It speaks to people who are positive, also—it says we have to show love for the people we're having sex with and make sure that we're not transmitting it. That power has fallen apart. Campaigns around it were never funded. It was never promoted as public health policy, as it should've been. So the person who goes and has unsafe sex who is negative and then discovers the person they had sex with wasn't...that's a person who doesn't love him- or herself to a degree where they want to make sure that they stay healthy. It's a complicated, consensual interaction.Men who’ve written about the generation that came of age in the time of Stonewall have talked about the lack of role models for loving gay relationships. Your book leaves the impression that that shifted during the ’80s. Given the way that AIDS exposed and added a different kind of urgency to intimate relationships, do you think the epidemic inadvertently provided that archetype—it showed that there could be loving relationships between two men?I wonder. It certainly really intensified our concept of community—but not just between gay men; between gay men, lesbians, transgender people.... Our world, the queer world came together in a way it never had before, especially across gender lines. But did it create the marrying mind? That’s what you’re asking?In a way. I’m wondering if it introduced the notion of lasting gay love on a much wider scale.Well, nothing was lasting then. But it launched an overt discussion about gay love and gay community and gay family. We had come together as a family. From '69 onward, we’d always called the community “family.” And in those years, it was because we'd been rejected by our own families and created new families. In the '80s and '90s, to watch how that family worked together and took care of one another and mourned one another was very moving.I think it did encourage people to look at coupling in a way that they hadn't before. We see that in Michael Callen's narrative in the book, that he'd never imagined himself in a relationship—and confronting AIDS and confronting death made him challenge the way he thought of his sexual activity, and what he got from sex and what he got from relationships and what he got from love. Maybe it opened up those new possibilities.How did it shape your concept of love?In my personal life? I think it made me into a caregiver, which I hadn't necessarily been before. But I was always a long-term relationship person. My last girlfriend was a four-year relationship, and I went from that into these long stretches, some of them stolen away by AIDS, and then after 1996, I've been in a twenty-two-year relationship now. But it's a queer relationship! And we're not emulating straight marriage! But we have our own sort of really profound relationship model that's developed in recent years—at least among men. Women were...I mean, the '70s brought us that joke about what a lesbian brings on a second date: a U-Haul. And then the boys became more like that in recent years than the girls. But we were outlaws for many, many years. And the change in the last decade, to being in-laws? It's a really startling one. Some of us chafe at it, but we're playing along.
How a race riot in New York state inspired a generation to reconsider America’s vulnerability to fascism.
1949 was the “last postwar year,” the year America came apart.The protesters gathered outside the concert grounds as evening fell. It had been a humid, hot day in Peekskill, New York, but as the afternoon waned, light breezes wafted in from the Hudson River. The crowd was waiting for Black folk singer and political activist Paul Robeson, who was scheduled to perform as the concert headliner at the picnic grounds that night. The protesters kept themselves occupied, waving American flags and singing patriotic songs. Some of them held signs that had been recently spotted around the neighborhood, reading “Wake up America, Peekskill did.”But the mood changed rapidly as the sun sank. As would-be audience members drove up the road and attempted to enter the grounds to attend the concert, they found their path blocked by several large trucks and piles of rocks. Soon the traffic jam stretched for two miles. Those in the back of the line couldn’t tell what was going on. Tensions rose. Concert organizers assembled their own guard, forming three lines stretching across the road. They crossed their arms, stared their antagonists in the face, and waited. At 7:30, the violence began. Protestors broke off pieces of a nearby fence and swung them at the men facing them, screaming, “Kill the Niggers, kill the kikes, kill the Communists.”“No one of you leaves here alive.”A young Black girl just arriving on the scene with her parents looked up to see plumes of smoke rising from the hillside. A twelve-foot wooden cross burned brightly against the darkening sky.Tommy Tomkins, a local white high schooler, only tagged along to the protest because his friend with a car wanted to go. He was seventeen, “the gung-ho age where John Wayne makes you feel happy.” He couldn’t see much when the violence broke out on the road. Men were standing around with bats and then suddenly, a voice yelled that somebody had been knifed. Everyone began pushing and punching. He watched his friends as they threw rocks into the crowd. He saw a group of men pull a nicely dressed woman from her car and punch her, over and over. He felt scared, excited, frightened, sick. The men surrounding him were in their thirties and forties, salesmen and clerks, men he saw every day. Some were college students home for the summer, and many were active in their local churches. The only way he could tell one group from another is that the guys he was with were the ones shouting, “Kikes! Go back to Russia!” Finally, he managed to slip away into the night, leaving his friends behind.By ten o’clock, state police broke up the melee. Protestors melted back into the woods. Only twelve arrests were made, including several of Tommy Tomkins’s friends, who were proud of their newfound fame. A judge let them off with a warning.*Ku Klux Klan activity in Peekskill, just an hour north of New York City, was nothing new—local groups protested Catholic presidential candidate Al Smith in 1928, and every few years they organized a march against an assortment of perceived foes. But in 1949, Russians tested their first hydrogen bomb and Communist forces gained the upper hand in China. Anti-Communism became a great panic, a fever-dream in which enemies suddenly appeared in the guise of friends and neighbors. It wasn’t hard to hate and fear Communists, if you had already grown up hating and fearing Catholics and Jews and Blacks. But none of the concert organizers had imagined the kind of violence they would face. “Why should anyone make trouble?” asked writer Howard Fast, chairman of the concert, in the days leading up to the event. It wasn’t a political meeting or demonstration, just a summer picnic.The concert’s main organizer, William Patterson, a prominent Black Communist and the executive secretary of the leftwing Civil Rights Congress, planned the event as a fundraiser and as a showcase for Robeson, his close colleague. But Robeson never made it to the concert grounds that day—stuck in the traffic jam caused by the roadblock, he returned to Manhattan amid rumors that he was being burned in effigy somewhere along the hillside.Robeson had performed in Peekskill at benefit concerts for the Civil Rights Congress for the previous three years without incident. But veterans in the northeast began protesting Robeson earlier that summer, after the Associated Press reported the singer as saying, “It is unthinkable that American Negros would go to war on behalf of those who have oppressed us for generations, against the Soviet Union, which in one generation has lifted our people to full human dignity.” Many chapters of the American Legion, and other veterans’ groups, immediately denounced Robeson as a Moscow-loving Communist, an un-American. Veterans of Foreign Wars picketed a Robeson concert in Newark, and the New Haven American Legion tried to ban his concerts there. The Peekskill Evening Star published Robeson’s comments days before the Peekskill concert, prompting several locals to pen letters to the editor, calling on concerned citizens to take action. “The time for tolerant silence that signifies approval is running out,” one writer declared.“It is clear that fascism can be introduced gradually and almost imperceptibly.” On August 30, thousands of people gathered in Harlem’s Golden Gate Ballroom to hear Robeson declare he would return to Peekskill to deliver his canceled concert. In response, veterans again announced that they would stop the event, pledging to bring 30,000 people to parade and demonstrate at the new concert venue, the Hollowbrook Country Club. At this, the local media and the District Attorney grew alarmed, and the DA pleaded with veterans’ groups to move their protest elsewhere. They refused.On the afternoon of September 4, over 20,000 people arrived at the country club and took their seats on the lawn. African-American soprano Hope Foye stepped onto the stage and delivered the first half of the program, singing the art song repertoire of Bach, Verdi, and Mozart. Then Robeson, a towering figure with a resoundingly deep bass-baritone voice, took the stage. He began to sing a traditional African American spiritual. When Israel was in Egypt's land … Let my people go … Oppress'd so hard they could not stand … Let my people go.Up and down the hillside, thousands of men, most of them white, stood together in a human chain, encircling and protecting the concert and the singer. One guard could see down to the entrance of the Hollowbrook grounds at the far end of the field. At 1:30 p.m., as Robeson began the second half of his program, the guard heard the protestors’ parade begin. Though the protestors had promised to bring thirty thousand, the guard counted fewer than a thousand people, walking in single file to make the group seem bigger. About half an hour later the parade marched back into view from the other direction, this time attempting to make even more noise. “Hitler started it, we’ll finish you!” the marchers yelled. “Hitler killed only half the Jews, we’ll kill all the rest!” “You got in, but you’ll never get out!” The guard saw a policeman laugh.As the concert ended, audience members trickled back to the parking lot to find that the bus drivers they had hired to drive them back to New York had disappeared. Men from the audience, many of them old-time labor activists from the Fur and Leather Workers Union and other radical unions, immediately climbed into the buses and offered to drive everyone home. As vehicles moved single-file down the narrow lane, police moved in and slowed the flow of traffic at the country club entrance. As cars inched past the police roadblock, drivers could see that the roads were lined with protestors, many wearing white World War I helmets. The police turned away from the protesters and stood facing the road, as baseball-sized rocks flew through the air, launched from protestors’ hands and aimed at car windows. Many hit their target. Men, women, and children were caught in a trap, huddling low in their cars as missiles hurtled through their windshields. One man sat in his battered car and picked shards of glass out of his young daughter’s hair.Protestors began hunting down any Black people they could find, pulling them from their cars. One Black man was dragged from his car and hit over the head by several men. As he attempted to crawl underneath the car for protection, four state troopers stepped in to join the melee. The man crawled back down the road towards the concert grounds as the troopers continued to beat him.The Westchester County Grand Jury ultimately indicted six people for their actions during the second riot. None faced serious consequences. In the meantime, Robeson launched a six-city concert tour, vowing he would not be silenced “until every Black man in America can walk with dignity in his own country.”*After that night on the road, Tommy Tomkins began to listen carefully to the things his mother said about Jews. She made it sound like Jews had taken something from them, and the riot was a way of trying to even the score. It made him uncomfortable, but he couldn’t find anyone to talk to about it. His house was full of lace doilies, but no books. The Peekskill riots turned him into a liberal, he said later. He decided, all of a sudden, to leave Peekskill, maybe go to college. He didn’t return home for class reunions.Following the riots, accusations flew in all directions, and many commentators tried to reconstruct the causes of the violence. Some veterans admitted that they had not anticipated the intense currents of hatred that had surged through the crowds of protestors like an electrical fire. The ACLU’s investigative report blamed anti-Semitism as the chief cause of the riots, but the Civil Rights Congress demurred, suggesting that “the pogrom was more against Negroes than against Jews.” A writer for the New York Age, a Black newspaper, blamed whites on both sides of the divide, arguing that Black bodies were on the line whenever whites instigated violence. Communism, with all its promised panaceas, the columnist wrote, could not solve this fundamental problem.Woody Guthrie remarked later that he’d seen a lot, but Peekskill was the worst.The Westchester Grand Jury, convened to examine the causes of the riot, placed blame on Communists, concluding that men like Robeson and Patterson hoped to inflame racial tensions for their own political gain. The anti-Communist, Jewish intellectual-led journal Commentary reached similar conclusions. “Peekskill is an ordinary American community which has undergone rather extraordinary social strains,” they wrote. The authors argued that the riots did not erupt solely from prejudice, but also from a necessary defense reaction against the “totalitarian regime waging an undeclared war” against America. They also placed the blame for the riots on social upheaval, racial integration, and the influx of left-wing summer residents who had a destabilizing effect on the community.Blaming Cold War fear-mongering on American elites, the socialist Monthly Review countered that the riots erupted because large swaths of the American public had been “worked up to a dangerous state of frenzy.” The Review’s editors declared that the real perpetrators of the violence in Peekskill were the federal government, the police, religious authorities, and the media. Ultimately, these authors believed, the violence at Peekskill demonstrated to those paying attention that the American ruling class need not trouble itself by assembling paramilitaries like the SS, because the instruments of power were already available for the taking. Institutions of social control, from the police, the media, veterans’ organizations, and local government, could be effectively harnessed as special instruments of violence and intimidation. “It is clear that fascism can be introduced gradually and almost imperceptibly,” they wrote. Fascism was imminently achievable in America, they believed, because the country lacked a strong labor movement and an outspoken liberal intellectual class that would strenuously defend the violation of civil liberties when they occurred against political and racial minorities.*The folksinger Woody Guthrie, who experienced the second riot from a smashed-up Jeep, remarked later that he’d seen a lot, but Peekskill was the worst. He holed up at home in the following weeks and churned out twenty-one songs about that night. Guthrie wrote obsessively, spanning musical genres from Carter Family country standards to Joe Hill protest ballads. Thematically, the songs all focused on the same material: burning crosses, stoning, and police violence. His moody, dark “Peekskill Blues” includes the lament, “P’liceman beatin’ down my buddy / I c’n see him in my dream / If you ev’r seen your buddy Kueklucked / You know just what I mean.” In his characteristically repetitive, circular style, Guthrie’s focus returned to rocks flying, and blood dripping on broken glass. In his telling, the bloodshed in Peekskill flowed into the Hudson River, so “New York waters gonna taste like Peekskill blood.” But Guthrie didn’t believe in passive resistance; he threatened to “grab you bloodyrock hoodlums, an’ I’ll sink you in that Hudson mud.” Throughout his Peekskill song cycle, Guthrie blasted the enthusiastic violence of small-town American men and women, the casual way they invoked Hitler, and the group mentality they cultivated that bred vicious hatred.Born a year after the brutal lynching of a mother and son in his Oklahoma hometown, Guthrie came of age in an atmosphere of casual, unreflective racism. As a young man in 1930s California, Guthrie sang minstrel songs on his radio show until he received a “politely incandescent” letter from a young Black listener. The effect of this letter upon Guthrie was profound: he read the letter on air, publicly apologized, and promised he would never use the word “nigger” again. From Guthrie’s subject position as a “Dust Bowl refugee,” he slowly developed an empathy for the underdog that would characterize his later lyrics and activism. He began to examine the stories of other marginal and disenfranchised people in songs such as “When the Curfew Blows,” which described police harassment of migrants. Fascism had always been creeping in around the edges of American politics, but now it had sprung up overnight in poisonous fluorescence, threatening the vitality of the entire landscape.After World War II began, Guthrie joined the merchant marines. He grew angry at American hypocrisy, at segregated troops, and at the arbitrary cruelness of Jim Crow. In reaction, Guthrie began honing his own theory of fascism: “Anybody that hates a whole race or color or a whole nation or a whole continent of people is a Nazi and a fascist,” he declared. He believed that the American people needed to be on constant guard against the fascists and Nazis in their own country, not just overseas. To his alarm, these forces did not recede after the war. Guthrie worried that World War II had been fought for nothing: America retained its status quo.In the late 1940s, Guthrie wrote a series of letters to his mother-in-law, the Yiddish poet Aliza Waitzman Greenblatt, in which he reflected on his sense of anguish that the forces of hate that brought the world into two massive wars could still endure. Guthrie worried that past generations made “sad and terrible mistakes” that the current generation could not undo. He wondered if his generation “did not do all in our earthly powers to set those wrong things right.” Borrowing from the language of the Jewish prayer Al Chet, the confession of sins recited eight times during Yom Kippur, the day of repentance, Guthrie composed his own pseudo-liturgical invocation. “We trusted wrong friends,” he wrote. “We followed wrong crowds. We read wrong words. We went lost ways and walked in the wrong winds. But we did fix up our rooms a little speck better than we found them. We found two faiths, two gospels, when we passed by this very spot, one gospel was the gospel of hate, and the other gospel was the gospel you call love … to the best of our mental ability, some of us in your generation and my own worked and labored to make the gospel of love sound out a little plainer.”*Peekskill didn’t change Guthrie’s vision, but it tinged it. For those on the left, men and women who had fought against fascism in Spain and then across all of Europe, homegrown fascism looked like a toxic bloom. It had always been creeping in around the edges of American politics, but now it had sprung up overnight in poisonous fluorescence, threatening the vitality of the entire landscape.By the late 1940s, it was sickeningly clear that Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, a rough coalition of labor unions, Jews, African Americans, Catholics, and Southern Democrats, was finished. In 1948, FDR’s former vice president Henry Wallace ran a third party presidential campaign under the Progressive Party, advocating government-funded universal health insurance, full voting rights for African Americans, and an end to the Cold War. He received zero electoral votes, and eked out a popular vote tally behind that of segregationist Strom Thurmond.1949 became symbolic of this vertiginous transition from the FDR years into a more fractured, chaotic era. Reflecting on 1949 from the relatively removed vantage point of 1974, playwright Arthur Miller wrote an essay for New York magazine entitled “The Year it Came Apart.” Miller applied a dramatist’s eye to the transformation of American society in the late 1940s. He called 1949 “the last postwar year,” arguing, “an era can be said to end when its basic illusions are exhausted.” In early 1949, Miller’s Death of a Salesman first appeared on Broadway. His audience that year came of age during the Depression, elected the same president four times, witnessed Pearl Harbor, and won a World War. They understood Willy Loman’s struggles intuitively. But Miller soon lost his sense of communion with the public—the “tender pity for the fallen man” that characterized initial responses to Death of a Salesman became “a new bellicosity” in the public sphere, characterized by the vicious takedown of the vulnerable for the sake of power harnessed to moral authority.Psychoanalysis overtook Marxism, and suddenly everyone was searching for hidden meanings, Miller believed. “We would be entering a period of what the Puritan theology called Spectral Evidence, the testimony of afflicted persons against their invisible, devil-sent persecutors,” he wrote. In 1952, veterans groups picketed the film version of Death of a Salesman, and pressured Miller to issue an anti-Communist declaration. In response, he wrote The Crucible, a story of the Salem witch trials.On December 15, 1951, William Patterson and Paul Robeson delivered a petition to the United Nations, accusing the United States government of genocide. The document, hundreds of pages in length, censured state-sponsored racism, from police slayings in the North to lynchings in the South, and blasted “lives deliberately warped and distorted by the willful creation of conditions making for premature death, poverty, and disease.” The petition included an appendix listing hundreds of cases of the killing or assault of Black people since 1945. The American paradox was stated boldly for all to see: the ostensible guardian of democracy and freedom could not bequeath basic human rights to a portion of its own citizens. Largely ignored by the press and ridiculed by politicians, the petition nonetheless served future generations of Black activists, from the Black Panthers to Black Lives Matter, as a record and a template for holding the state accountable for its crimes.A year before the Peekskill riots, Guthrie wrote in his diary, “Fascism is the gospel of hate that makes so much noise. You’d think that the gospel of hate was more in our mainstream than down in our undertow. The yells of hate are not as loud as the soft little echo of love and democracy. This fascist hate will wax your ears and spike your eyes, and love and love alone can heal the dead.” For Guthrie, this soft little echo of love and democracy was the only thing that could stand up to the Goliath of homegrown fascism. For many Americans now, it is the only tool they have left."We trusted wrong friends..." Woody Guthrie, May 26th, 1949. Copyright Woody Guthrie Publications, Inc."Anybody that hates a whole race..." Woody Guthrie, June 14, 1949. Copyright Woody Guthrie Publications, Inc."Fascism is the gospel of hate..." Woody Guthrie, July 1948. Copyright Woody Guthrie Publications, Inc.Excerpts from "Peekskill Blues," by Woody Guthrie, Copyright Woody Guthrie Publications, Inc.
In order to find purpose and affirmation, Black artists rethink time and space as we know it to find a place for themselves.
In September 2015, Kyle Lydell Canty of Rochester, New York, travelled to British Columbia. He hadn’t planned to stay for long, but after two days in Canada, Canty decided to apply for refugee status. He appeared before the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada in October of that year with the argument that Black Americans were “being exterminated at an alarming rate.” As proof, Canty alleged that he had been harassed by the police in six states in which he held offenses, such as jaywalking and disorderly conduct, that he claimed he never committed. Although the Board ultimately rejected his candidacy on the grounds that Canty would not be subjected to “cruel and unusual punishment” upon his return, Ron Yamauchi, an IRB member, did find that the actions of the American police “raise a question about [Canty’s] subjective fear,” a fear that, according to the United Nations, is rooted in historical and racially terroristic acts, such as police killings and “state violence.”In 1838, after a failed attempt that led to his incarceration, twenty-year-old Frederick Bailey used his nautical knowledge while working at a waterfront to disguise himself as a free Black sailor and boarded a train from Baltimore to New York where he then changed his last name to Douglass to avoid suspicion.James Baldwin could not reconcile himself with America. He travelled and lived in places such as Istanbul and Paris in the 1960s, where, according to a 2009 essay in The New Yorker by Claudia Roth Pierpont, he would not be shamed for the color of his skin or his sexuality. Nina Simone revealed in her autobiography I’ll Put A Spell On You why she left America for Liberia in the 1970s: “I had arrived in Liberia with no idea of how long I intended to stay; after a few hours I knew it was going to be for a long, long time—forever.” When she returned to the States for financial reasons, “I flinched at every noise, expecting terrible events that always hit me when I arrived in the country that disowned me ... I ... longed for Liberia …”The desire to escape endures within many Black Americans. It manifests in literal attempts at relocation, as in Canty’s case, but also through our art. “I think to be born Black in America,” said the video and performance artist Lex Brown, “is to be fully in touch with, one, the universal existential crisis of being human, two, the crisis of carrying on the body of an un-chosen evidence of the fundamental hypocrisy of America (i.e. home of the free, land of the slaves) and three, the impossibility of escaping or delaying crisis number one because of number two.” Our perpetual lack of belonging fuels our desire to flee, but where do you turn when there seems to be nowhere to seek refuge?*Sarah Yerima, a Rhodes Scholar studying sociology at the University of Oxford, has been moving between countries for five or six years, from the United States to Brazil to the United Kingdom. “I’ve been trying to find some peace and it’s all terrible. No matter where I am, the anti-Blackness is pervasive. However, the arts give a kind of comfort.” In 1977, The Isley Brothers released “Voyage to Atlantis,” in which lead singer Ron Isley croons to an unnamed woman about sailing to a “paradise out beyond the sea.” That same year, DC Comics released issue #452 of the Adventure Comics series, in which Black Manta, a Baltimore native turned supervillain whose nautical and birth origins are reminiscent of those of Frederick Douglass, seeks to take Atlantis from Aquaman, a blonde-haired, white superhero, by killing his son. In a standoff, Black Manta says to Aquaman, “This city ... shall ... be a new empire over which I alone shall rule! ... I had recruited enough of my own people to serve that purpose …”“Your people?” Aquaman responds. “You mean ... surface dwellers?”“No,” Black Manta says, “I mean exactly what I said, ‘My people.’ Or have you never wondered why I’m called Black Manta?” Black Manta wanted to create an underwater colony in which African-Americans could rid themselves of a white-dominated surface world.In the packaging for Outkast’s 1996 sophomore album ATLiens, the artwork features Big Boi and Andre 3000 as freedom fighters against censorship and population control; Atlanta is re-pictured as the lost city of Atlantis. These artistic renderings of a Black utopia present a hopeful future—places where we can live in all of our complexity and without oppression.“If you think about how American planning has worked, it has always pushed towards a utopia. New York, Chicago—all major American cities—as violent as they were, were utopic visions,” says Jess M., a student and researcher of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning. In designing cities deliberately to oppress people of colour, she says, “planners believed that if Black and brown people didn’t exist, then these utopias would.”This racism has led many Black artists to reimagine fictitious nations, such as Atlantis, or develop new mythologies altogether through Afrofuturism, a literary and cultural aesthetic that blends historical components, along with science fiction and fantasy, in order to center Black people.The musician, philosopher, and filmmaker Sun Ra was one of its pioneers, creating what Ytasha Womack, author of Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture calls, “sonar sounds for the space age in the ’50s.” In the 1970s, the Afrofuturistic sound began to expand. Combined with sci-fi elements in works such as “Spaceship Lullaby” and “Africa,” in his 1974 film Space is the Place, Sun Ra, playing the protagonist, seeks to transport African-Americans to occupy a new planet in outer space he discovers with his crew, The Arkestra.Sun Ra’s influence continues to be felt. George Clinton and the Funkadelics incorporated Afrofuturism into their works through electronic instruments, space costumes, new mythology, and mind-boggling wordplay. Janelle Monae’s android aesthetic is a direct descendent of Sun Ra’s innovation. Contemporary artists Amaryllis DeJesus Moleski and Sheena Rose depict black women as goddesses, mythical creatures, and arbiters of their universe. As Stephanie George, former curatorial fellow of New York’s Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Arts, puts it: “You have to disrupt temporality.” In order to find purpose and affirmation, a Black artist must undermine time and space as we know it to find a place for his or herself.*Since the 1800s, refuge and relief from racist violence and oppression has meant any number of things: escaping to the North, fleeing to a different country altogether, or staying put physically while moving forward in one’s imagination to create a world where Black people are uplifted and able to live as multidimensional human beings. Many of the greatest African-American works of art have been the products of times of oppression. Our art is a form of resistance.So now, days away from the inauguration of a president whose platform was praised by the Ku Klux Klan, what happens to that art? Will there be a new renaissance or simply a continuation of established genres? Geraldine Inoa, a playwright at New York’s Public Theater, says that disturbing events like the Trump inauguration often inspire people to “retreat” to other artistic movements. “But because this art exists in this reality under this president, it will be different. Trump is rather unique in that he has risen during new a technological world that has changed the way art is created and shared. We will see a new renaissance based on the current reality that combines the modern tools artists have their disposal.”Or, as the queer femme writer and editor Myles Johnson puts it, “there’s going to be a renaissance and we can’t help it. Black people have never not been creative.”
Before I read The View from Saturday, I saw anger as a luxury, a way to take up physical and emotional space that I didn’t think I deserved to occupy.
Anger has always mystified me. My natural inclination is to observe the world and myself from an objective distance rather than dive into a messy free-for-all of emotional expression. I don’t fight with people or punch walls, or do anything that might betray the equilibrium that I try to maintain out of habit. But a few years ago, I got into a fight with a college roommate. When she yelled at me, I yelled back. I was terrified, but also felt a foreign rush of power and relief. I tried to explain the gravity of my actions to my friends when I recounted the incident, and it was hard to keep the smile off my face. To this day, I remember how good it felt to be heard, something I’ve been striving for my whole life.When I was younger, I was fixated on the idea of being normal, a fantasy in which no one would ask me where I was from or what I was. When other people at school asked if my name was Eggo-waffle Schifellite, or commented on my food, “Burfi? More like BARF-I!” I never got angry out loud. Instead, I asked my parents why people were so mean—as if understanding their motivations might erase the feelings of rage and shame that come from feeling like you don’t belong. Even adults who asked me what languages I spoke at home were trying to label me before they knew me. Being a self-reliant and suspicious child, I didn’t trust that expressing my frustrations with the adults around me would change their behaviour. Instead, I decided to let people put their labels on me as if I were a blank canvas, to give up in the face of constant, implicit demands to justify my existence. I strived for neutrality and calmness on the outside, thinking I didn’t have the luxury of an emotional outburst; it was hard enough to get people to look past my face and see a person rather than a curiosity. This became a natural state for me, but when I wanted to express anger, I didn’t know how to do it. As a preteen, I looked to feisty heroines such as Ramona Quimby and Sammy Keyes in my search for guidance on how to feel out loud, but my role model for anger, then and now, was Nadia Diamondstein in E.L. Konigsburg’s The View from Saturday.Konigsburg’s 1996 Newberry Award-winning children’s novel tells the tale of a group of four sixth-grade nerds in the town of Epiphany, New York. It’s an oddball group and Nadia, the only girl, is a smart, cherubic redhead who has deep convictions and a fierce attachment to her dog, Ginger. I was initially drawn to her because, like me, Nadia is mixed (“Half-Jewish; half-Protestant,” she says, a combination I found exotic in its tameness). In the book, she’s spending her first summer back home in Florida with her father after her parents’ divorce. Her father has moved into a “swinging singles” apartment building and her Grandpa Izzy has gotten married to a woman named Margaret, whose primary pastime is working with the Department of Environmental Protection to help monitor the spawning sea turtle population in the Sargasso Sea. Despite her cool demeanour and tendency to intellectualize the world around her, Nadia is very, very angry. When she learns that Margaret was the person who helped her mother get a job in upstate New York after the divorce, she’s overcome with rage. “There is no worse feeling in this world than the feeling that someone knows something about you that he has kept to himself,” she narrates. “My heart was pumping gallons of blood up to my face. I could feel my neck throb.” But, she is careful to say, “I controlled by voice so that it would not quiver.”When I encountered Nadia on the beaches of Florida, I had had a lot of practice rationalizing my anger into submission, and I thought I was pretty good at it. But when I read The View from Saturday, I realized my well-honed coping strategies weren’t as effective as I had imagined. I was in awe of Nadia’s honesty with herself; she doesn’t self-censor, or talk herself out of things, or deny her anger when it becomes too big to ignore.Nadia erupts at her father as they sit trapped in his condo during a violent tropical storm, and the fight is a propellant—a new beginning. Instead of brushing her off after their argument, Nadia’s father finally hears her. And her anger also propels her into action: in expressing it, she realizes she can either exist alone in her fortress of solitude, or help to save hundreds of baby turtles from being swept out to sea. She chooses to help, and in doing so finds that she has also asked for help in a tough situation.Nadia analyzes her feelings of despair and pain, but ultimately it’s her anger that helps her speak up for herself, to articulate what she wants and to not apologize for her feelings even if they seem illogical. Nadia slowly realizes why she’s angry, reflecting on the helplessness she's felt since the divorce and her move across the country—“No one seemed to think that it would matter to me where I lived,” she says. Konigsburg never implies that Nadia’s anger is invalid; rather, Nadia’s anger is the momentum that drives her forward, that forces her to spring into action when the turtles, and her own family’s happiness, are in danger. Konigsburg also gives Nadia the room to reach the end of her journey on her own terms and in her own time, indulging in the character’s grappling for a methodical answer to a messy problem. Konigsburg is patient with Nadia, and from that I gathered that maybe the world would be patient with me, too.When I revisit The View from Saturday for a hit of nostalgia and cultural comfort, I’m reminded all over again about the simple, essential lessons I learned from Nadia. It seems obvious as an adult, but before encountering Nadia, I saw anger as a luxury, a way to take up physical and emotional space that I didn’t think I deserved to occupy. Afterwards, I saw it as a show of strength, in Konigsburg’s portrayal of a bookish kid trying valiantly to keep a leaking raft afloat. When Nadia finally realizes she can’t feel better all by herself, nor does she have to, something clicked for me too. I think of Nadia when I’m marching in a political rally or arguing with my boyfriend instead of pretending that I don’t care about what happens to me. She taught me that I deserve to have my voice heard. Through Nadia’s story, Konigsburg shows us that silence may be an effective weapon for shutting people out, but anger can help bring them in.
There are an approximate 239456789987565 flood myths in recorded history. Here’s another one.
The poet and MTV columnist on witnessing, mapping grief and joy, and The Wire.
Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib is a punk rock bard from Columbus, Ohio (the east side, he specifies), who writes full-lung prose poems, reduxes of the classical ode, and updates and riffs on Frank O’Hara and Virginia Woolf. The Crown Ain’t Worth Much is his confident, vulnerable, slim but feisty debut. A columnist for MTV News, his interest in pop culture knits the collection together, with epigraphs as wide-ranging as Josephine Baker, Whitney Houston, Pete Wentz, and a CNN transcript of an interview between Nancy Grace and the parents of Michael Brown. I thought the collection’s title was a nod to the James Baldwin’s line: “your crown has been bought and paid for. All you must do is put it on,” but I stood corrected.I spoke with Willis-Abdurraqib before the 2016 presidential election. In the dank fog of an America awaiting its next president-elect and parting with its first African American one, Willis-Abdurraqib’s collection has taken on a different insistence, and our conversation now feels tinged with something of the prophetic. In the hollow hours following the election results, he wrote “The Day After The Election I Did Not Go Outside.” The poem is peppered with ampersands—little swirling punctuation marks insisting on kinship, on affinity, on introspection when the world feels full of thoughtlessness. As an antidote to the murky times ahead, the poems of The Crown Ain’t Worth Much can be held in the palm of your hand like a string of prayer beads, taut in protest but with an unrelenting tenderness. Reading Willis-Abdurraqib is a balm, and, if ever the act of reading was in the service of self-care, I believe it is here and it is now.Julia Cooper: You write for MTV as a columnist. Do you find it hard to jump between registers? Poets have traditionally been working men and women, because poetry doesn’t necessarily pay the bills, but do you find it hard to switch between the two forms?Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib: Not really, I think a part of that is that MTV is so great at letting me write the way that I write, so they’re not trying to make me into a different writer than I am. In my prose and in my long form work I use poetic elements just because that’s the way I write, and they don’t try to strip that down.Some of the poems in this collection feel like they had been brewing in your mind for a while. Was that the case? What’s your process like?A lot of my writing process takes place in my head before it ever gets on paper. I think that I am someone who attempts to be thoughtful, but a lot of my thoughtfulness is driven by anxiety about my ideas and my ability to execute those ideas. If it feels like some of the poems had been brewing for a while, that’s the case entirely. I wait to commit things to paper. I know a lot of poets and writers are into running into the writing and then sorting it out later when everything is on the page, and I think that’s really admirable, but I don’t have the emotional capability or the confidence to do that outright. I need to take fully formed concepts, narratives, and ideas to the page, and that takes a lot of internal brewing.Is the title a reference to Baldwin?No, the title is a reference to The Wire, which is not Baldwin, but could be. I like The Wire a lot, and I was struggling for a book title really early on. The working title for the first draft of it was called The Greatest Generation, because I did not know there was a book already, like a huge book, like Tom Brokaw wrote it or something. I love the band The Wonder Years and they have an album called The Greatest Generation, and I thought this book spoke to that album a lot. And I was passing my book around and people would come back to me and say, “You can’t call your book this because there’s a really famous book called this,” and it came out in 2012 or something. And I was like, Well, shit.So in The Wire one of the characters says: “The crown ain’t worth much if the nigga wearing it always getting his shit took.” I thought about it, and thought about what themes the book had rattling around it, like themes about displacement and gentrification, and the claiming of space— people having things taken from them that they held close.I’m wondering, who else should I be reading? Who are some other young or lesser-known poets who you think deserve some due?Nate Marshall is a poet from Chicago who I don’t think I could have finished this book without. I think his work is stunning and important and talks about place and home in a way that’s really great. Ariana Brown is a poet from Boston who is gifted. And I think Morgan Parker is really important; she’s right at the edge in pop culture and race and what it means to be a black woman in America in a way that’s stunning and brilliant.I read that you look for poetry that deals in “the art of witnessing.” Do you think witnessing is always painful?No, I don’t think so. I think that a big thing I’m trying to do now, especially with The Crown Ain’t Worth Much, is dealing with something that is really rooted in joy. I think the things that are most accessible to us are pain and grief, or fear. Like we can watch—we’re in a time where we can watch someone be murdered on a social media feed. While that is witnessing, witnessing is also sitting on a rooftop after a really good, long hard day and watching the sun go down. Or witnessing someone you love excel at something. I want to invest in that a little more, because I think once I detach myself from the pain of what I have witnessed, I need to find something to replenish myself. And I think finding joy to both witness and write about is really important.I like this idea of investing in joy. I like that image. I was reading that you don’t have any formal training in poetry, which surprised me, but led me to wonder, is your love of music and therefore rhythm and cadence, is that what drew you to write poetry instead of prose?I think so, yeah. The thing is—whenever I talk about how a lot of my peers have MFAs and really intense formal training, that is—I always wrote. I think often times, the narrative around the book is, “Oh, he didn’t go to school for poetry, so he just like stumbled into this, that’s wild.” But I wrote, I was writing music journalism, and I wrote in a very intense way that drew me close to language and the way words moved. Though poetry wasn’t natural, it was a reachable, touchable thing for me that I knew I could access and play out into something greater.I was wondering if you found it hard to write publicly about some of your most intimate losses. Making yourself vulnerable—were you were worried about that? Was it cathartic? It was hard, but I think not nearly as hard as grief without an outlet, grief with no map out of it. For me, although the poets I love write about sadness, their own sadness, very bluntly, they find a way to reckon with it and come out on the other side a lot cleaner, and happier, and freer. I think grief is work, in the same way that I think speaking about joy and trying to find joy is work. Grief sits on our bodies and works on us. And we don’t have to seek it out, it’s just there. So for me, the work of whittling it down is worthwhile. The work of writing about it, chipping away at it, and putting it out into the world where people can read it, and it can hopefully help people chip away at their own—I think that’s vital and important.It was replenishing to read someone else’s grief so bluntly on the page. I don’t want to talk about death all the time, I don’t want to revel in death, but at the same time, I’ve witnessed and suffered through a lot of deaths at a young age. What that did for me was make it real. It made death something that I understand as an inevitability, and it makes this brief, bright collection of hours that I have while living something that I am so thrilled about. Which doesn’t mean that I’m never unhappy because I’m so happy to be alive, but I have an understanding of death that won’t allow me to waste my time. I have an understanding of death that won’t allow me to be complacent and not give all of myself to the people I love and care about while we’re all still present. And I think that’s a real gift, and I think part of my writing about that in the book is not necessarily to bum people out, though I’m sure it happens occasionally, but to kind of say: I lived through this, and through that living I found an incredible clarity. I found this joy about understanding that I have limited time here, and I’m lucky that I have people who would miss me if I were not here anymore. I think the book is partly about that, about how I am trying to be better at loving and living and fighting for the things I believe in while I’m still present.
Some women have trouble wanting, but my instincts were indistinguishable from my cravings. My wanting was the leash that pulled me through my life. Until one day the leash was off.
One of the many things adulthood hasn’t brought me is certainty. I’m the oldest I’ve ever been and I’ve never felt more opaque. “Age doesn’t necessarily bring anything with it, save itself,” Maggie Nelson writes in The Argonauts. Brutal; true.I wasn’t always rudderless. I grew up cognizant of the inexplicable luck that supplied me with direction even as a child. Through no effort of my own, I was coherent; I was consonant with the world, or at least as consonant with it as any of us can be in spite of its meanness and horror. I didn’t like activities I didn’t do well, so being bad at them didn’t matter to me. I liked doing what came naturally—reading, writing—which meant there was no need to establish a boundary between recreational endeavors and intentional work. (I still don’t really understand the idea of a hobby.) My parents were not overly affirming and I wasn’t often the best at anything, even in the small, exurban classrooms of my childhood. But I believed in myself. I believed I would excel and that there were a variety of fields I could excel within. And I did.Meanwhile, my brother never knew what he was good at. Whether for work or for fun, his enthusiasms seemed optimistic but arbitrary and consequently brief. For him, it was as if every pursuit came just as hard or as easy as the next. I couldn’t fathom it and I didn’t have to.I’m not saying life wasn’t hard or there wasn’t pain. I’m saying there was momentum. I like a challenge, but I at least want to be suited to the attempt. Some women have trouble wanting, but my instincts were indistinguishable from my cravings. My wanting was the leash that pulled me through my life. It kept leading me to the right things.Until one day the leash was off. I can’t identify what occasioned it, I don’t think it even works that way—with a single, switch-throwing moment—but at some point in the last year my urgency to sustain or possess something (an emotional state, a relationship, a milestone of financial success) evaporated, and my me-ness along with it. I can still put one foot in front of the other, but without conviction. I recall what goals used to be important to me—making a home in a city I love, establishing myself as a writer, arranging a life of regular adventure—but those lures aren’t baited anymore. I am radically disincentivized.Women are so stuffed full of bad prescriptions: what we should want, what we should do. Anything to do with selves, with The Self, leaves women doomed because her self cannot be the self, the universal, the correct.For me, motivational fogginess isn’t merely inconvenient or tedious, as prolonged indecisiveness always is. It is a crisis. The best metaphor I can use for describing the change that rendered me a cavity is that my pilot light went out. “Selfhood,” writes psychoanalyst Adam Phillips in Intimacies, is “constituted through prior and assured knowledge of what [the self] desires.” I like to think about my decision-making in an expanded context, within a network of explanations that give my actions a narrative frame, but I can’t approach the question of why I want when I don’t even know what I want.*“Know thyself” is one of the Western world’s most enduring aphorisms but women living by this maxim are usually dismissed as narcissistic navel-gazers, selfish neurotics who fail to engage meaningfully with society. Because women are still treated as the exception to men’s rule, our self-scrutiny is superfluous. The fruits of a man’s soul-searching are presumed to be insights into the whole of humanity but a woman’s self-insight is useless to the herd. It is banal, indulgent. It does not escape her boundaries. “Impossible to conceive a female life that might extend outside itself,” writes Chris Kraus in Aliens and Anorexia. “Impossible to accept the self-destruction of a woman as strategic.”Maybe self-insight is precluded by femaleness; maybe there is nothing of substance there to investigate. “Most women have no character,” wrote Alexander Pope and he could be right. We’re so stuffed full of bad prescriptions: what we should want, what we should do. Anything to do with selves, with The Self, leaves women doomed because her self cannot be the self, the universal, the correct. But nor can our originality be useful, or socially permitted because we don’t operate in integrity or wisdom. Our stumbling is the stumbling of the lower order, of beasts, of non-human animals.Is it too banal to admit that once my absence of desire registered as something long term, I started thinking about dying, as in dying on purpose?*Here was my primary concern about killing myself: what if I kept living, and the pilot flame came back, and I thought I’m so glad I’m still here? This is a tricky mental game to play because if you’re dead, you’re not bothered by what you would have missed if you hadn’t been. No one is more insulated from hypothetical futures than the dead.But I wanted to check, just in case. I kept trying to know myself—if I still had a self, if I’d ever had one, if I was more than a lump of matter hauled around by an invisible hand. Was there something behavioral, circumstantial, that I could adjust to revert to my factory settings? Was there something new in my situation that had upset my equilibrium, like when someone switches to a new detergent and finds they are beset with a rash? Perhaps choosing death now was akin to buying new glasses while the “lost” pair was perched on my head. Surely there must be something obvious I was missing.I started listing things I was grateful for at the end of every day, which felt like throwing a penny into the Grand Canyon. (A funny email from a friend, an editor’s encouragement, a town-building phone app I played with humiliating frequency, general freedom from physical pain, my pets.) I journaled, trying to propose meaningful changes, but instead I often only wrote clueless laments:I can’t see any way to improve or eliminate this sadness, nor do I have the energy to. What matters to me anymore? What do I care about?What do I want? What would make this better?The other concern(s): drugs have no appeal, not even music holds power.One entry reads, in its entirety:That your despair is inaccessible and unintelligible to othersThat the confusion you live inside cannot be alleviated or improved uponThat you are beyond making repairs to yourselfI am the “you”; my self is speaking to my self.In Repetition, Rebecca Reilly quotes a survivor of a jump from the Golden Gate Bridge: “As my hand left the rail I thought, I can fix everything in my life but this.” I was moved by this when I read it in 2015, when I still considered suicide as personally unnecessary and irrelevant as vaping. But when I thought of this line now, it simply didn’t apply. The greatest pleasure I’d known had been the pleasure of fruitful effort, rewarded focus, accretive success. It was the pleasure of purpose and it had deserted me.I didn’t need to fix everything, I just needed to fix the only thing. And not only was I ignorant of how to fix myself but I didn’t see the value in it. In other words, I didn’t want to.*Years ago, in my twenties, when I was deep in a yoga phase and earnestly studying or at least considering every piece of “Eastern” wisdom that trickled down to me from an almost inevitably white instructor, I wondered how to balance prioritization of self-familiarity with my sense that truly good and urgent application of the self should involve service: supplying direct empathy and care to others. The first limb of yoga concerns interpersonal conduct; it testifies to the importance of truthfulness, non-violence, and so on. But I didn’t find many teachers who were especially concerned with that, at least not enough to explicitly address it. I, along with many others, was told to stay present inside myself, to notice my reactions and impressions, to minimize engagement with the external. “Studying ourselves is pretty much all we do in here,” one teacher once said, offhanded and honest.Theoretically this internalized attention leads one to become more gentle and thoughtful in their actions, but I wondered about the possibility of falling down a rabbit hole of ever mounting self-preoccupation. At what point were we just a bunch of assholes fascinated by our own egos, giving ourselves permission to neglect responsible participation in the world? Wouldn’t part of self-knowledge be recognizing avoidant tendencies, the grand excuses made to stay self-absorbed? Shouldn’t part of self-honesty be saying “enough with myself already?”This dilemma is an old one: can we ever transcend the vehicle of the self? Anne Carson details a particular flavor of this question in Decreation with the examples of Marguerite Porete and Simone Weil, two women who each expressed “a need to render back to God what God has given to her, that is, the self.” Carson quotes Porete: “I cannot go towards God ... without bringing myself along.” And then Weil: “We possess nothing in this world other than the power to say ‘I.’ This is what we must yield up to God.”This was the only question that remained: I said I wanted nothing, but did I want to die?To work with yourself to erase yourself, negate yourself—this is one interpretation, perhaps, of what asana addicts and dilettante Buddhists like myself hoped to do, even as we nodded our heads when told there was no goal, no vector, just the constancy of an imperfect, or always perfect, practice. It’s plausible to me that the best thing a person can do may be removing themselves from the world, folding themselves away into a cave where they create minimal disturbance, tax few resources, and risk little disruption. Remove yourself as one more chaotic element in the world that inflicts unintentional yet inevitable suffering on others. The ultimate commitment to that, surely, is a voluntary death.*Unlike Porete and Weil, I had no god to melt into. I remembered what it felt like to be wildly animated by my desire but to re-experience that seemed impossible. I did not even want enough to want to want again. It was like being stranded on an empty shore and watching everything I cared about on the deck of a departing boat as it receded to invisibility against the skyline—and feeling nothing. No, even better: imagine the shore is without waves, without lapping water. No ocean sound, no wind. Imagine it is a shore as still and empty as one frozen in a snow globe.I worried hysteria and insensibility would be assumed by anyone I confided in, like I needed to be restrained or soothed or dissuaded or worse, that I wanted to be. I didn’t want anything, that was the whole point. I hated the idea of someone trying to convince me not to do it—the inherent, unavoidable condescension in that. It was a response too insulting to risk. I might have lost my verve but I wasn’t suddenly incompetent. If I decided I should be dead, I would be.When I was a young adolescent reading soapy teen books, I delighted in the rhetorical power of suicide, suicide as punishment, as demonstration: this is how much you hurt me. What a remarkable weapon to have in one’s arsenal, the relational equivalent of a nuclear bomb. Those scenarios are all about what Jenny Zhang calls “reap[ing] the joys of being mourned.” But there was no reaction I hoped to provoke, no attention or apology for which I angled. This contemplation wasn’t about other people. It was a possible solution—practical, efficient—to a problem contained inside me. (“Impossible to conceive a female life that might extend outside itself... ”)I understood why a sort of maternal distress was the most likely reaction, though. What options do you give your friends or loved ones when you tell them, I think about being gone, on purpose; I think about it a lot? They’d take it to be evidence of an emotional extreme and yes, sometimes I was emotional. Once I ran thirty minutes late to meet a friend during her lunch break and then broke into tears the moment I arrived. But mostly I felt empty, the equivalent of the artfully bundled cloth stage actors must pretend is a baby. I couldn’t watch people I care about try to calm the empty fabric.The self requires desire, and I had none. I still functioned but I couldn’t find a reason to function anymore.So I didn’t talk about it.*Ever pragmatic, I sketched out strategies in my head of whom I’d leave in charge of this and that, how I’d time my requests of them so as to neutralize whatever preventative action they could take, what I could do in advance to mitigate the bureaucratic burdens of my existence. I should make it as painless for everyone connected to me as it could possibly be. (Could the discovery of my body by someone who loved my body, for instance, be circumvented? I thought yes, I could die at home and still figure out a way.) I imagined some people who were particularly close to me would be devastated, and I would have liked a way to convey to them that they shouldn’t be sad because I wouldn’t be sad, that against the background of a meaningless universe, my coming and going was deeply meaningless too. But I knew they wouldn’t understand.I was pretty thorough in my plans. It was an easy project to apply my imagination to. Let this be the last desire I execute cleanly, if it is the only desire left to me.This was the only question that remained: I said I wanted nothing, but did I want to die?*“If it doesn’t break today, it will break tomorrow,” writes the Thai monk Ajahn Chah. “If it doesn’t break tomorrow, it will break the day after tomorrow.” It doesn’t matter what the “it” is; the “it” is everything, anything. All the elements of life that we wish we could control or protect. For a long time I didn’t understand how we’re supposed to live with the impossibility of anticipating our most convincing whims. What if you don’t want to bear a baby until you’re too old to conceive? What if you sink all your money into a home in a town you immediately want to escape? What if you desire freedom and flings in your early years only to find yourself elderly and alone and wishing you’d coupled? I still don’t understand how we inoculate ourselves against regret, but at least now I recognize: what grace to have a whim at all. Regret is a luxury. The real fate to fear is being devoid of the urges that let regret whirl up.The problem with desire is that it predicts nothing, guarantees nothing, and it is necessary. For me anyway, it is necessary to live, to be alive. That’s what I know about my self.
The author of Uptown Thief on sex work myths, fetishizing cash and the new golden age of television.
Sex work is defined by isolation. American sex workers, particularly women of color who work as prostitutes, are criminalized, stigmatized, moralized, stereotyped, and misunderstood. It’s hard to find community, and it’s even harder to find complex representations of your life that aren’t played-out metaphors for victimization (first person shooter games like Grand Theft Auto or Red Dead Redemption), luxurious transgression (The Girlfriend Experience) or redemption (Pretty Woman).Genre fiction is like sex work in this way. Crime, romance, erotica, and thriller books are not seen as “real art” in much the same way that sex work is not seen as a “real job.”Aya de León’s novel Uptown Thief is a savvy marriage of this form and function; she uses socially denigrated genres to tell the story of a socially denigrated profession. De León directs the Poetry for the People program at UC Berkeley, and has been published widely in print and online. Uptown Thief’s protagonist is Marisol Rivera, who funds her Lower East Side women’s clinic with a series of tightly executed heists, stealing the wealth of corrupt businessmen. Her diverse team of women robbers also hustle an escort agency for rich clients, offering the option of making tax-deductible “donations” to the clinic. It’s a frothy page-turner that contains a topical subtext about wealth distribution, urban health services, and the ways disenfranchised women support one another. The patriarchal revenge allegory feels all the more satisfying for the book's tastier pleasures. I recognized parts of my life as a sex worker—such as the way women fight double standards of whorephobia with humor and care—that I never expected to find in a book that was also so much fun.Uptown Thief is about the power of sex worker solidarity, and it’s also a tool for the same thing. It’s not a book full of cheap thrills. Like its characters, it knows what it’s worth.Tina Horn: In advance of the release of Uptown Thief you wrote an essay for Bitch about feminist heists in popular culture. What inspired you to use genre fiction to explore those social and critical themes?Aya De León: The thing that many feminists get wrong about sex work is that they aren’t looking at the big picture. The problem isn’t sex workers or their clients. The problem is men’s financial domination of the world. Men have nearly all the resources and women need to find ways to access those resources. The only ways women can access them are to earn money as salaried or wage workers. A miniscule portion can inherit wealth, if their family has money and is willing to give it to a daughter. We can marry men who have money. Or we can exchange sexual services for money.Sexual labor for cash is stigmatized and criminalized. So part of the heist for me was starting with a group of women who are already criminalized. I wouldn’t say they had nothing to lose, but they haven’t had the luxury of operating inside the law. I could easily imagine them losing their patience of going the good girl route—begging foundations and submitting grant proposals—to just decide, “fuck it. We ‘bout to get this money.” Character-wise, it felt really true to me. Also having worked in many non-profits, there comes a time when you’re tired of begging for money to pay you to work too hard.One of the things about the heist genre is that it’s about individuals becoming wealthy. That was another thing that I wanted to interrupt and have a Robin Hood heist. So it wasn’t an individual or a group of people getting money, but about a group of people radically redistributing wealth to a community of women—so the heist becomes about getting justice. Hence the series name: Justice Hustlers. Money is moved from people who have acquired wealth by immoral and illegal means. So we see this group of women robbing wealthy corrupt men in New York City who have exploited other people. And it was also important for me that they not only use the money to support their own community in New York, but that they send some of the money to Mexico as direct reparations for the Mexican women they had exploited.Uptown Thief demonstrates a highly nuanced understanding of the emotional lives of sex workers in contemporary NYC. What were your resources in portraying a community that so many people get so wrong?Although I’m neither a current nor a former sex worker, there were sex workers in my family. They had different relationships to being out and proud about it. But what that meant is that, throughout my life when I would see depictions of sex work in media or meet sex workers, I never had the perspective that this is separate from me. So it sets up a really different filter for all the distortions I’ve seen about sex work over the years. I always had real people to compare it to. Plus I’ve had friends who were sex workers and spent many years working in the Harm Reduction community, and met lots of powerful sex worker activists.So when I went to write the book, I was aware of the movement for justice for sex workers and committed to honoring that community and movement. I wanted to do the work to get the sex worker politics right. And that meant consulting with sex worker activists. I couldn’t count on my family’s history in the sex industries from the 1960s to inform my sex worker characters in 2016. So I did my research. I read $pread magazine (RIP—but buy the book!), and researched online by reading the work of sex worker activists. I also had both paid and unpaid sex worker activists read my work and give me lots of critical feedback about what needed to be changed—from plotlines to prices to industry logistics—so it would ring true. I had a mostly West Coast network, but I got consultants from NYC as well. I was also very intentional about presenting a spectrum of attitudes toward sex work, from “this is a great job” to the brutality of trafficking and being pimped.Speaking of pimping…I think most non-sex workers who write about sex work are exploiting people’s fascination with sex work and women and sex without honoring the women who do the work. I was determined to do my homework and support the movement.Many literary institutions have, traditionally, such classist, sexist, racist notions of what constitutes high literature and what kinds of books are trash. How are perceptions of genre and pulp changing?I enthusiastically blame television. We are in a golden age of TV, where powerful complex and flawed women are increasingly taking center stage, with high-drama and pulpy shows that are also smart and politically nuanced. Before Scandal, Orange Is the New Black, and Empire, there wasn’t even a context to explain a book like Uptown Thief to an editor. Now they understand the brand. So there’s more room for this kind of story now that, through the magic of television, it’s proven that it can attract a large audience. And for me, this breaking down of class barriers in literature is also part of a strategy to dismantle classism.Often these kinds of thriller/romance/erotica/crime novels are treated more like products than literature. There's less critical focus on the author's craft and more of a commercial drive to crank 'em out as long as people are buying them. I'm thinking about my mom's endless mystery paperbacks checked out from the public library, or the much (probably unfairly) maligned "mommy porn" boom. Are there women besides yourself bringing depth to these genres (without sacrificing fun!) who people should know about?One writer I would shout-out here is Sofia Quintero, who also writes under the pen name Black Artemis. She's been in the game a long time, and always had an explicit political agenda.Uptown Thief has such a rich and dynamic ensemble of characters. Do you have any dream casting in mind for a movie adaptation?I would LOVE to see it hit the screen, although more likely the small screen as that's the place where complex female characters live these days. Andrea Navedo from Jane the Virgin would be great as Marisol. My current choice for Tyesha is Meagan Tandy. Maybe Song Hye-Kyo as Kim. Margot Robbie as Jody. Possibly Adam Rodriguez as Raul. Michael B. Jordan as Woof. Eva is really hard to cast because well-known Jewish actresses in her age group are all too thin...Sex workers struggle to tell their full stories, because when we include sometimes ugly truths of abusive backgrounds, cycles of violence, boyfriends who become pimps, the humiliations of stigma and so on, these dimension are instantly weaponized against us. Uptown Thief includes all of those violent elements and more, including classic john types like the billionaire who wants what’s “not on the menu,” and the rap star who’s so impressed with his own masculine myth that he gets drunk and passes out. Yet none of the negative things that have happened to these women are used as cautionary tales to redeem them or punish them. How careful were you about that? I was very careful to present a spectrum of relationships to sex work. And ultimately, how well sex work was going would be directly proportional to three things: The level of choice and agency the women had in entering the sex industries, the quality of the working conditions they encounter in the industries and the level of trauma they encounter before and during their work in the industries.Some stories offer characters a comeuppance for moral trespasses. But my value system sees men who exploit women as the ones who need to get the comeuppance, which is why I write heist.All of the protagonists are female, with male characters is supporting roles. Can you describe how you mapped out some of the male characters in terms of your political allegory?I wanted a spectrum of men, as well. Raul, the love interest, was originally too much of a boy scout, and my editor made me dirty him up a bit. So now he has a really shady moment that feels more authentic. On the other end are Jerry, a sociopathic misogynist pimp, and Marisol's uncle. It was also important to me that these were all Puerto Rican men. So if I showed Puerto Rican male monstrosity, I was also showing male heroism in the same community. There are several white male characters, and none of them are particularly heroic, but I do attempt to paint them as having redeeming moments. As someone who has written a lot about hip hop, I am particularly attached to my rapper character, Thug Woofer. Just a heads up, he appears in Book #2 of the series, The Boss, and we get to see his character develop a bit more. With both Raul and Thug Woofer, I am really interested in making men of color love interest characters who are more than yes-men to strong women of color. I try to strike a balance between letting them struggle in the ways men need to struggle when caught between their conditioning to always be in control and the joy of loving a strong woman. Part of the fun of writing these guys in the romance genre is knowing that their love for these strong women is gonna win.Marisol commits some acts of violence, some in self defense, some more on the premeditated side. And her relationship to sex is mercenary at times. How did you decide what kind of moral compass to give her?Marisol's character is forged by her need to protect her sister through a brutal childhood. She doesn't seek out violence, but will strike when cornered. Her original heist MO is not to use guns. In part because it's more of a legal risk but also because she doesn't want to hurt the burglary victims. She just wants to take their money. But as the economy pushes her closer to the edge, she gets more ruthless. Once she no longer needs to protect her little sister, she proceeds to use her powers to protect her community. She is a badass because she's the one who's willing to stand up to the schoolyard bully, in this case, these corrupt corporate CEOs and billionaires, and take back what's been stolen from her community.In bed, however, she's a bit less heroic. She has serious control issues in her sex life. In that arena, she's a bit of an unreliable narrator. Her PTSD is making her sexual choices in the earlier part of the book. And in that arena, Eva becomes her moral compass. In her sexual history, Marisol has been deeply wounded and disempowered. And I believe that when we are injured early on in life in ways that disempower us, we act that out until we heal. Marisol is acting it out here. I thought it was really important to give Marisol—a woman of color raised poor in the US—an arena in which she was able to identify a small instance of power and misuse it. It's funny because I don't see her thieving as dishonorable at all. I see it as noble. But I see some of her sexual choices as shady because of how she leverages power dynamics with immigrant men.You relish the finer details of business and financial theory. It’s not something you see in a pulp novel very often. Was this something you knew a lot about, or decided to research? Why are these details important?I am playing with the cliché of the "Puerto Rican hooker." What if she was really a financial genius? And how might that play out if she was pressured into sex work and later grew into the financial genius part? I liked the idea that early on, when she had a pimp, she would have ideas about how to improve the business, but he didn't respect her business potential. But later on, working in the non-profit sector, her hustling and business ideas could be put to work. I did have to do some research, because I don't have a strong business or economic background.A sex worker friend of mine was recently telling me how much cash, physical cash, turns her on. There are as many scenes of cash fetishism as actual sex in this book. What is so exciting about cash? As Bey says, is paper the best revenge for women of color?I think in this book, the cash that's fetishized is generally stolen, which makes it secret. Therefore, the moments where anyone is looking at that cash are really intimate. I went back and re-read the scene from the gala fundraiser where there's a bunch of cash. It doesn't have the same flavor, because there's no intimacy. They're just openly counting money at the end of an event.In capitalist imagery, cash is often featured alongside other luxury items like expensive cars, houses, yachts, alcohol, designer clothes, shoes, and jewelry. But in this book, the cash represents survival—for the characters and the clinic. So in that way it's different. This crew isn't going on a shopping spree. They're not interested in the lush life, they're down for their people. I think Marisol would say that her best revenge is the fact that gentrification can't move her from her home spot—the Lower East Side. Because as long as New York City continues to be an epicenter of capitalism, it will always attract people of color and need service workers. But very few of us can afford any of the real estate. Marisol has that one building and is fighting to keep it. It's her home, and the clinic makes it a home for the sex work community, as well. If she can get the cash, it can be home to another generation.
Growing up with the goddess figure as part of my South Asian tradition means I have a complicated relationship with repurposing the term as a symbol of female empowerment.
I grew up praying to the goddess daily. Every evening, around 7 PM, my father, a devout Hindu, would ring a tiny bell. It was the signal for the family prayer sing-a-long. Although I didn’t yet know I was an atheist, and disliked the daily drudgery of singing monotonous hymns in praise of the Hindu gods that decorated our home altar, it was an escape from the even more mundane math and writing exercises that my father assigned every evening.Of the two main prayers that we sang, Om Jai Jagdish Hare and Jai Ambe Gauri, I was definitely drawn towards the latter. The first one was in praise of the Lord of the Universe, Vishnu. The second was in praise of the goddess Gauri, another name for Durga.I was enthralled by the idea of singing the praise of a female deity. I didn’t understand all of the Hindi dialect used in the hymn, but I got the gist of the verses.The song speaks of a goddess with bright eyes and a golden-hued body decked out in red who wears earrings and a pearl nose-ring, and is radiant like many suns and moons. She rides a lion, holds a sword and skull in her hands, and is called upon by men and gods to get rid of their grief. Shiva, the lord of destruction himself, dances to her tune.The image of Durga, trident in hand, astride a lion, smiling serenely while killing the demon Mahishasur is commonly found in many Hindu households, as well as places of work and worship. It’s used to represent strength and capacities of a woman. Kali, also known as the Dark Mother, sprung from Durga’s brow is a little less ubiquitous but popular with feminists. She is depicted as dark-skinned, her tongue sticking out, long black hair loose, scimitar in one hand, a decapitated head in another, one foot on the chest of Shiva. Her iconic imagery is often used as shorthand by South Asians to suggest an awesome, in the true sense of the word, female power.To a young woman growing up in a relatively conservative household, chafing under the constant don’ts that accompany being a teenager, the hymn to Gauri sounded radical. Anytime I, or other women I knew, flew into a rage, it was said, somewhat jokingly, Usse Devi chad gayi hai/The Goddess has possessed her. The myths of goddesses such as Durga, and Kali, told stories of fierce women whose help is sought when men, and even the male gods, couldn’t do the job. I held on to those stories, full of vivid descriptions of impetuous and headstrong women, which seemed to mirror my own mini rebellions against what I had generally labelled the patriarchy.*A similar thought process was behind the Goddess movement that became popular in North America, parts of Europe, as well as Australia and New Zealand in the 1970s, and continues today in many manifestations, sharing rituals with neo-pagan traditions such as Wicca. The Goddess movement grew as a reaction to a patriarchal worldview, centring its practice instead on goddess worship. There’s no central belief system, and followers usually find their own preferred goddess and rituals to practice.Carol Christ came to the Goddess movement after spending much of her academic life studying the Hebrew Bible. Even while she was attending graduate school in theology at Yale in the late ‘60s, she was uncomfortable about how she was treated—as a young pretty thing in a mini-skirt, she says. Reading theologians such as Thomas Aquinas didn’t help either.“That whole man had a larger rational capacity, that a woman was of the body, it didn’t sit well with me,” says Christ, over the phone from Lesbos, Greece. An adjunct professor at the California Institute for Integral Studies, she’s also the director of Ariadne Institute, which offers annual goddess pilgrimages to Crete. “I was preparing my dissertation for my PhD and one night, it was late at night, I laid down and it just poured out of me. In my mind I was thinking, God, how could you? Why are women always secondary, why do we get raped and abused? Why didn’t you send us a prophet? Why didn’t you intervene?The goddess is, ultimately, an unattainable paradigm. She’s a source of strength, yes. But steeped in symbolism, she is revered as a myth, not sought out in reality. “And in my mind, I had the answer. That in God there is a woman like yourself. She shares your suffering. That history had been stolen from her.”Christ’s involvement in the civil rights and anti-Vietnam war movements also took her further away from the idea of God as an old white man in the sky, sitting on a throne, a warring figure who ruled over men, women and nature. Neither was she impressed by Hindu or Greek Goddesses, who were also warrior figures, “sword in hand, fighting against demons.” Instead, Christ gravitated towards the idea of the goddess as a nurturing figure, giving and sustaining life.The proponents of the Goddess movement borrow from the work of archaeologist Marija Gimbutas, famous for her research of prehistoric societies of Old Europe. In her book The Myth of Matriarchal Prehistory, Cynthia Eller, professor of religion at Claremont Graduate University, looks at the relationship between Gimbutas’s work and the spiritual feminist movement. Gimbutas directed several excavations in southeastern Europe, writes Eller: “Among the artifacts that these and other excavations uncovered were a wealth of female figurines which Gimbutas identified as goddesses.” Gimbutas’s theories are referenced by feminist matriarchalists as scientific proof that “prehistoric societies were woman-centred and goddess-worshipping, and destroyed only recently.” The many reinterpretations of this narrative also inform the writings of secular feminists such as Gloria Steinem, who have also made note of a “gynocratic age” that was eradicated by patriarchy.A similar resistance to patriarchy also drew Vivek Shraya, author of She of the Mountains, to the goddess figures in the Hindu tradition. Shraya, a trans woman, was raised as a boy in a Hindu household in Edmonton. She was first drawn to male Hindu deities such as Krishna, with his long hair and many female friends, because of their gender ambiguity.Over her career as an author and singer, Shraya has consistently tackled ideas around Hinduism. However, it wasn’t until writing She of the Mountains, which was conceptualized as a bisexual love story, that Shraya really engaged with goddess figures.“I wrote a section called Parvati’s Song. For some reason, that image came to my mind, of Parvati creating her son Ganesh from her own body....I started exploring it more, and then I started thinking of all these stories I had heard of goddesses as secondary characters. And I wondered if we can write about the goddess through a feminist lens; not as a mother or a consort. Can we write about Kali on her own?”Using the goddess figure to challenge societal norms is certainly an attractive idea. But it has its limitations. I have to admit, having grown up with the goddess figure as part of my South Asian tradition, I inwardly roll my eyes most times I hear casual references to goddesses as manifestations of female power in pop culture. The goddess is a powerful force in the Hindu tradition, but she is also seen as a maternal and sexual figure. She is Uma, the mother of Ganesha, wife of Shiva. She is Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, but more importantly, the consort of Vishnu. She is also Mohini, a female avatar of Vishnu, an enchantress who tricks the demons out of the nectar of immortality.She is, ultimately, an unattainable paradigm. She’s a source of strength, yes. But steeped in symbolism, she is revered as a myth, not sought out in reality.In her critique, Cynthia Eller points out that claims to a matriarchal prehistory, suggesting that ancient, peace-loving cultures that worshipped the goddess until they were wiped out by warring, god worshipping invaders, do not serve a feminist agenda. Even if one overlooked the historical inaccuracies around the research used as the basis for these interpretations, and acknowledged that myths have their own powers, this version of the matriarchal prehistorical societies primarily saw the role of women as maternal, nurturing caregivers, celebrated for their feminine qualities. Eller further notes that “the conditions that we can reasonably imagine having existed in prehistory—foraging economies and goddess worship—do not necessarily produce societies in which women are honored and respected.”That observation certainly hits home for me, as someone who has grown up in a culture that venerates the goddess. You’d think it would be easy to view the world through a feminist lens, given the many temples dedicated to Durga, Kali and Bhadrakali (another fierce manifestation of the Shakti, the female divine energy in Hinduism) that dot the Indian landscape, with devotees performing daily prayers that herald their divine powers to wipe out evil forces.And yet, as Tracy Pintchman, professor in the department of theology at the Loyola University of Chicago, and author of The Rise of the Goddess in the Hindu Tradition says, “Nobody names their daughter Bhadrakali … Even in [the Indian province West] Bengal, a primarily goddess worshipping society, women are not necessarily seen as being in charge.” While Indian feminists regularly make the point that women don’t want to be deified, and instead would like equal rights, in reality women are seen as distinct from goddesses, adds Pintchman. “[Goddesses] don’t menstruate, they are seen as childless. Human women cannot be real goddesses.”But I can also understand how Shraya sees reclaiming the goddess fits into her own feminist and brown agenda. She recently emailed me a New York Times photo essay on Mayana Kollai, an annual Indian festival in a fishing village in South India, where transgender women transform into the goddess for 10 days.“I was so immersed in the patriarchal narratives of Hinduism, that it felt important to undo some of that for my own self. It feels very basic, but also very important,” she says. “Maybe it’s naive. Despite its problematics, people celebrating their inner goddess feels infinitely better than the opposite. At least we are not keeling over god. Because that’s what the goddess has given me. In rethinking the goddess, I have been able to rethink myself.”As for me, I still sing the hymn to Gauri, whenever I get a chance. Recently, when my daughter Mallika discovered an image of Kali in my father’s altar and asked who she was, I told her the story of the fearsome goddess and her awesome power. My son Dax, too young to understand a story about warring demons and gods, wandered off. I am sure I will recount the stories of Lakshmi, Durga and Kali regularly to my kids for years to come, as we celebrate Indian festivals such as Diwali and Dussehra/Durga Puja that propitiate these goddesses.But I’ll also tell them about other women who are symbols of power in their own realms—Beyoncé, Serena Williams, Frida Kahlo, Malala Yousafzai and Indian activists such as Vrinda Grover, Nivedita Menon and Flavia Agnes. I hope the stories of these mortal women will be just as inspiring as the immortal ones.
As artists are pushed out by skyrocketing rent, the city’s drag culture is threatened.
In fall of 2014, Heklina, a drag performer and owner of the San Francisco club Oasis, visited Facebook’s headquarters in Menlo Park, California. Joined by local queens and politicians, Heklina sought to challenge the social-media giant’s “real-name” policy, which determined account authenticity based on the use of legal, rather than chosen, names.“One of the head cheeses of Facebook was on a video screen talking to us, and we had a tour around the campus,” Heklina says. “There was lots of talk about, ‘We’re going to change this,’ and then it didn’t change.” Soon after, she and the other queens found themselves lobbying against the policy at San Francisco City Hall. Facebook finally relented, issuing an apology to the frustrated LGBTQ community.This battle over recognition was hardly an isolated incident. Rather, it’s an emblem of the complex dynamic between the historic San Francisco drag scene and the behemoth tech industry that’s gripped the city's socioeconomic landscape.*In the early to mid-nineties, San Francisco was the centerpiece of the alternative Zeitgeist. Armistead Maupin’s novel series Tales of the City—fueled by tropes of pot, sexual fluidity, and faded hippyism—had been adapted into a television miniseries in the UK and US. The Real World: San Francisco, the third series of MTV’s reality-show franchise, presented the first televised same-sex wedding (between cast member Pedro Zamora and his partner, Sean Sasser), while chronicling Zamora’s battle with AIDS. Beloved for its identity as a queer- and sex-positive artistic breeding ground a generation before, the birthplace of performance-art collectives such as the Cockettes and the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence was in the midst of a pop-cultural renaissance.“When I was growing up, I wanted to know about gay culture,” says Heklina. “I read Tales of the City and all that stuff. I was very aware of the huge gay history of [San Francisco]. That’s why I moved here.” Originally from Minneapolis, Heklina found an apartment in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district in 1991 for $500 a month. Drag started as a hobby, and she worked side jobs to fund her performances. A few years later, Joshua Grannell, then a recent Penn State graduate, moved to the city at the urging of John Waters, whom Grannell had met while hosting a film event.“I had no money, a one-way plane ticket, no job, no place to live,” says Grannell. Shortly after, he began to perform as Peaches Christ in Heklina’s inchoate weekly drag show Trannyshack (which, with the more trans-sensitive moniker Mother, has persisted into the present day). Risk-taking was orthodoxy for Trannyshack in its mid-nineties infancy; then, San Francisco drag was a fringe phenomenon. In one show, the performer RunRig suffered third-degree burns after cooking Jiffy-Pop on a hotplate affixed to his head; in another, Metal Patricia channelled the Reverend Jim Jones, re-enacting the 1978 Jonestown Massacre with a mass-suicide simulation at gunpoint on stage.By the mid-to-late aughts, however, such stunts would become nearly foreign. A wave of burgeoning tech behemoths washed over the city, the likes of Facebook, Twitter, Airbnb, and Uber at its crest. In the wake of this pall of technocratic nouveau-riche prestige, the city's rents began an unprecedented climb. Soon, the modest but sustainable life to which Heklina, Peaches Christ, and their contemporaries had grown accustomed would become nearly obsolete.*Throughout 2015 and 2016, media outlets have ranked San Francisco the city with the highest rent in the nation—a title owed primarily to the influx of the aforementioned multi-billion-dollar tech darlings and the venture-capital firms and enterprising engineers seeking to birth the next unicorn.In the wake of these conditions, the drag community has been unsurprisingly vulnerable to displacement. “I’ve lost a lot of people to Los Angeles. I’ve even lost friends to Sacramento. One had to move back to Chicago to live with his parents. A lot of friends lost their living situation and couldn’t find anywhere. One of them answered a Craigslist ad, and the room was actually a kitchen pantry,” Heklina says. “A lot of it is about the white-blending of San Francisco. A lot of people of color have had to move away.”“Most of us that have remained—not just drag queens, but I’d say any bohemian creative type—probably have a rent-controlled apartment, because otherwise it’s just unsustainable. Thank God for rent control. Thank God those supervisors had the vision to realize that this was something that could happen,” Grannell says.Despite the tenuous housing situation, the precedents performers like Heklina and Peaches Christ have set have encouraged a new generation of queens to move in or near the city. At clubs such as Oasis and The Edge and historic theaters such as The Castro and The Victoria, younger performers foster their nascent careers—but not without the fortunes of a steady living arrangement and income. A considerable portion are Bay-Area or Pacific Northwest natives.Lavale-William Davis, who moonlights as Coco Buttah, hails from the small Bay-Area town of Pittsburg and now lives with roommates in the neighboring city of Oakland (whose rents have also soared with the migration of priced-out San Francisco denizens). To fund his three-year-old drag career, Davis works full-time in a medical office and forgoes the expense of a car in favor of public transit.Laundra Tyme and Scarlet Letters, two queens in their mid-twenties, began performing around the same time as Davis. Originally from the Bay-Area city of San Mateo, Tyme owns a wig business and evaluates companies annually for Fortune, while Letters, from Portland, works as a server and coat checker at Oasis. Tyme and Letters live with fellow queens in a rent-controlled apartment in the Sunset district. “I happen to have been struck by lightning,” Tyme says of securing the place. “If we got a notice from our landlord saying, ‘You have to move out in a month,’ there would be zero chance of staying in the city.”“Most of our friends leave the city because they can’t afford it. Every month, so-and-so moves away,” Letters, who’s from Portland, adds. “This is a conversation Laundra and I sat down to have. Do we stay here for the next five years and watch the city gentrify to the point where all of our friends move away? We agreed we’ll do the long-haul thing.”Adam Lash, who’s been performing as Terri Twatwaffle for a year and a half, has lived in San Francisco for four years. Lash, who started performing “later in life,” has an advantage few nascent queens enjoy: he owned a real-estate information company in Oregon prior to his move (which he now operates on a part-time basis), providing him with the funds to live and work in San Francisco.“Performing absolutely does not pay the bills. Most of us make enough money to pay for our eyelashes, and that’s about it,” Lash says. “Some of us are riding the Muni trains in drag from one venue to the next.”*San Francisco drag is venerated for its transgressive history. At one time, it was a realm in which performers ate worms, vomited fake blood, wore dresses made of seaweed and dead fish, and set Christmas trees ablaze. Now, as RuPaul’s Drag Race sparks interest among the uninitiated and the city ushers Twitter employees into the seats, many performers enjoy the surge in popularity but bemoan that audiences have grown more tepid and less aware of the city’s storied social fabric. Queens have no choice but to compromise.“There are a lot of different drag scenes depending on what neighborhood you’re in. [Scarlet and I] try to do all of them—between the SoMa’s art drag versus the Castro’s glamour drag versus a corporate event,” Tyme says. “In the divey leather bars in SoMa, they let us do whatever we want onstage and we won’t get pulled off or arrested. If I tried to do the same thing in the Castro, they would pull me offstage and kick me out of the bar.”To accommodate greener audiences, performers also neuter their pre-existing repertoires. “I take things that are popular and put the irreverent, outrageous spin on them. It’s kind of like luring a child in with a piece of candy or something,” Grannell says. “We’re going to put on a drag tribute to the Spice Girls, but this isn’t the drag tribute where a man dresses up as Liza Minnelli and does a flawless cabaret number. This is going to be the Peaches Christ treatment, where Baby Spice wears a diaper and shits in her pants.”Despite the pressure to self-censor, performers are still willing to protest the cultural shifts and economic disparity around them. Queens hold onstage funerals for the old San Francisco or destroy cities made of cardboard, lampooning tech-propelled gentrification. Tyme and Letters play Summer-of-Love-era folk singers, representing a previous incarnation of the city while suggesting a pall of disillusionment with an inexorable 2010s economy. The queen Persia’s songs “Google Google Apps Apps” and “Stop Being Poor” satirize the local powers that disenfranchise and drive out queer people of color, echoing chants like “I just want to be white!” and “My wealth is stupendous. You starve? What a bore.” Evoking the anti-industrial critiques of the British Arts and Crafts Movement, Lash laments the dreariness of the monolithic gray office buildings and work-centric culture that have come to define the New San Francisco. “Who’s going to entertain me when I’m old? What’s San Francisco going to be like in ten, twenty years?” asks Grannell. “I worry about it, but amazingly enough, where there’s a will, there’s a way.”“I see these people in these compartmentalized lives. [One of my goals] is to break them out of that just a little bit. Break out of that and be yourself for a second because what you’re doing in your job—being a robotic, monochromatic zombie—is you’re killing yourself,” says Lash. “Honestly, I feel bad for them. It’s such a bland and sad existence. I’m around them all the time.”Perhaps Lash's sentiment is best expressed in a scene from one of Terri's Oasis performances. Equipped with a computer and keyboard while donning a blouse, pencil skirt, and pearl necklace reminiscent of a '60s secretary, Terri channels a local white-collar employee. She examines her rapidly mounting email inbox, Bjork's robotic “Pluto” swelling in the background. As the tally reaches hyperbolic heights, Terri takes a hammer to her keyboard in a fit of rage. She wraps a coil of entwined computer cords around her neck, displaying a sign reading “8 BILLION New Messages.” Seconds after pulling the cords from above, she bows her head, standing inert as the song reaches its decayed conclusion.
I’d been walking around in a literal haze, but deep down I thought buying contacts might be the faint victory I’d been seeking.
What was important to us in 2016? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the year’s issues, big and small.If you’ve ever been inside a Lenscrafters, you know that it smells like a heady combination of toxic perfume and cosmic vacuum. The mirrors are shiny, the floors are shiny, the optometrist’s hairs are shiny, all working in concert to form a gossamer commercial enterprise promising you a life in high-definition.Two weeks ago, I walked into one for the first time. For the last ten years, I’d worn glasses intermittently—I wasn’t legally allowed to get behind the wheel of a car without a pair. But I hated how they looked on my face, so much that I chose instead to wander through the world in a blur. This has lead to some awkward encounters: walking by my longtime boyfriend on the street, ignoring a group of friends as they gathered in a bar to celebrate my birthday, taking a wrong turn on a hiking trail that led me four hours out of my way.That day at the optometrist, I thought for the first time about the extreme sensitivity of my eyeballs when I was blasted in the right eye with a puff of air from a machine resembling an early ‘90s Mac computer, by an equally shiny-haired optometrist’s assistant. “Keep your eye open as wide as possible, please,” she repeated over and over. It took a few tries. How did people do this? I wondered, as my eyelid fluttered spastically. Later, I sat on a shiny stool, balancing a tiny half moon made of plastic on the tip of my index finger. I looked at it, a pool of solution collecting in the bottom like a puddle. Life was about to begin anew.I don’t know if you’ve ever worn contacts but learning how is a laughably infantilizing experience. It took me an hour to slide those little suckers in. Struggling under the blazing white light, every clogged pore illuminated, I looked plaintively at the assistant, who sat on a stool opposite me and popped contacts in and out with nails so long they should have been illegal. Once I’d finally managed to clumsily put them in came the Herculean task of pushing them to one side and peeling them out, a concept my fingertips could not grasp. “One guy took six hours,” she told me as I grabbed my right eyelid for the seventeenth time. I did not believe her, and I still don’t.“I just can’t get a good grip on them,” I said, confused until I finally cheated and pinched one with my nails, threatening my cornea but getting my contact the fuck out of its liquid prison. Still, that day in December, I walked out of the Lenscrafters wearing my contacts feeling like a new woman. The world glowed brighter than it ever had. “I can see the outlines!” I wanted to scream at everyone on the streetcar. My eyes were open wider than they’d ever been, I knew it.*It had been a long couple of years of not knowing where to look. I’d moved back to Toronto, something I’d sworn to myself I’d never do, to take a job I'd wanted for years. In this city, my addiction, which burns softly under the surface most of the time, turns to full-on flame. So when the opportunity arose to move into a little apartment on an island a quick ferry ride away from Toronto, I said yes.I thought of it like I was quitting the city, an attempt to keep myself out of bars, keep myself in the trees. The last nightly ferry, which left at 11:30 p.m., provided a useful curfew. I’d always been attracted to unorthodox ways of life: I’d lived in a van in Yellowknife for a little while; I’d spent a few months camping alone in Patagonia. But I knew toying with isolation for too long could do more harm than good, so the island seemed perfect in that close-enough-but-far-away kind of way.My little apartment, the top floor of a house on a tree-lined street that looked like it had sprung from a Wes Anderson film, was on Algonquin Island, population 229. It’s one of a string of islands in the middle of Lake Ontario, an unlikely refuge that’s eschewed development through an extremely complicated land-lease system that protects the residents, descendants of a tent city that sprung up on Ward’s, another island, in the 1880s and that eventually morphed into the cottage-like creations that exist there today. On the island, whimsy is king. Orange doors look more orange, and the adventures of a cat named Six Toes dominates the not-infrequent email chain most residents belong to. Residents aren't allowed to keep cars—if you need to bring one over, it costs more than a hundred dollars, it has to happen during weekly business hours, and it has to be a licensed business vehicle, so I moved with only what my mom and I could carry over on the boat one day. And there are no stores—the only places to buy food in the fall, winter, and spring, are the Island Cafe, open intermittently once the summer tourism mania quiets, and the Rectory Cafe, a restaurant just over the bridge from my home that closed most days at 5 p.m. My workout regime adapted to include my daily sprint to the ferry and lugging my groceries on foot then on boat as I made my winding way home.For a while, it really did feel like little birds dressed me in the morning and carried me down the sunny garden path to the boat I took into the mainland every day, a breezy ten minutes on the Oniagara. I’d run my fingers along the keys of the piano in the little hut by the dock, and wave to the sailor who’d sweetly helped me carry all of my possessions over by boat one Saturday afternoon. On weekends, I padded along the sandy beach on Ward’s Island, or sat reading on the bench carved from a tree behind the Algonquin Island Association clubhouse. Just before last Christmas, I sang carols in a packed chapel. I thought to myself that I hadn’t felt connected to God in a long time, but that warmth in that church felt like something I could believe in. If it sounds perfect, that’s because for a while it was, a trick I played on myself to think I could slug it out in a city I’d left brokenhearted so many times before. But perfection is a fleeting abstraction. I couldn’t help but think, a few months later, as I walked down the icy path to the boat that by then was coated with treachery, that all I wanted to do was live in a place where I could order a pizza.*My year was filled with micro-failures. I blew every deadline I set for myself, and most that were set for me. I neglected my credit-card bill for nearly half a year. Interest piled up, and so did my dirty dishes. I stopped talking to my mother for several months, for no better reason than I couldn’t muster up the energy to weather the emotional strain that seemed to come with every conversation. I stopped being on time; I stopped making it. I felt like I’d run out of everything: money, chances, luck. My depression manifested in decreasingly cute ways as the year progressed. In January, I bought myself a waffle iron and ate waffles for dinner in the bathtub nearly every night. After three years of sobriety, I started drinking again. Drinking turned into dabbling with drugs. (Pro tip: A great second-date idea is doing ‘shrooms for the first time and crying on your prospective lover in front of a group of bikini’d beer-crushing teens—casting call for this Labatt ad from hell coming soon.) The job I moved for was slipping away and, with it, my sense of self and purpose. The feeling of falling behind grew more acute in the summertime when I turned 31 and my youngest sister got married. The autumn brought with it my middle sister’s engagement news. By late fall, I realized I had to quit my job, that I had come untethered. I wasn't keeping up with work or with life, and my health was shouldering the burden of stress. I needed some help and some time, I thought, as I handed in my resignation letter and broke up with my dream. I just needed to find a way to ask for it, to explain that I’d ended up hating everything I was supposed to love and I didn’t know how to adjust. I moved back to the mainland. After my boyfriend suggested multiple times that I go to the eye doctor so at least I’d be able to see what my life looked like as I tried to figure it out, I finally acquiesced. We joked about how long I’d been walking around in a literal haze, but deep down I thought this might be the faint victory I’d been seeking. Who says you can’t buy clarity?*My right eye was too sore to touch—I looked like I’d been stamped in the face with a red bingo marker and, by then, my eyeball had started to ooze. I sat in the corner of the emergency room at Toronto Western Hospital, in a row of green chairs that I assumed they reserved for kids who’d swallowed their Lego blocks to make a point, and me.The night had descended so quickly into catastrophe. When I’d walked home from the optometrist earlier I was proud and tall, feeling like even my posture had somehow improved since I’d placed tiny plastic lenses over my eyeballs. I was amazed—the world had literally never looked so good and I was sure this was the first step in the excellent new high-definition life that had begun the moment I slid on those imperceptible little eye coats. But no one told me that putting in contacts for the first time on three hours of sleep was inadvisable, until I called Telehealth after I’d spent two hours trying to peel off my right eyeball. I stood in front of my mirror, eyelids certain that my impending fingertip meant death and destruction and freaking out accordingly. And so it went, for hours, my body parts at war with one another.Finally, after a series of frantic texts to my best friend (who responded with the genius medical advice to “remember if they ask what number the pain is to say TEN, ALWAYS TEN”), I decided to go to the hospital. Four hours of contact retrieval had beaten me. I was quitting, and this time, resignation felt good.I arrived at Toronto Western and explained my plight. The intake nurse immediately went into mother-hen mode. The wait would be several hours, she said. Couldn’t I just do it myself? I looked wearily at her, and she grew quiet, kind enough to spare me the indignity of repeating that I’d rather wait long into the night to have someone else perform a simple action that ten million Canadians could do on their own.Half an hour later, I was lying on a gurney, a doctor with a smile too big for an emergency room after midnight standing over me, squirting mystery juice into my eye from a squishy green bottle. All in, the procedure took three seconds, one one-thousandth of the time I’d sat, miserable, in the waiting room. And as I walked out, putting the year to bed, I felt relief of a different kind. I had quit everything this year, all things I should have loved but didn’t. But that’s what beginnings are for, right?I know now that people get tired, that asking for help can feel good. That a little bit of water always feels better. That eyeballs heal pretty quickly, and so can your own expectations. I am more sure of this now than I’ve ever been.
Practicing self-care by telling white people about themselves, calling in Black to life, delighting in Black art? That was Black as shit.
What was important to us in 2016? Hazlitt’s writers reflect on the year’s issues, big and small. “If you don’t understand us and understand what we’ve been through, then you probably don’t understand what this moment is about.”– Master P, “This Moment” (from A Seat At the Table)I spend a lot of time thinking (and writing) about the ways in which we, Black people, have been fucked up and fucked over in this great United States of America, so much so that I’m actually haunted by a lot of my work. Most of my nights are filled with dark, unidentifiable figures lurking in the shadows. Days, waking nightmares of my brothers and father getting shot. I woke up in tears once because I dreamt some white dude was trying to kill me in a movie theater.Hazards of the job, I guess.In 2016, Black Lives Matter and Black Twitter continued to prove they have the power to move mountains. Solange invited us to sing along with her and tell white people not to touch our hair. Issa Rae helped us get over our insecurities, and Donald Glover let us be absurd in Atlanta. Barry Jenkins illuminated our Black skin in the moonlight. There’s a huge Kerry James Marshall retrospective on display at The Met. I got box braids for the first time since I was eight. I was really looking forward to stepping into the light and writing about the year in peak Blackness.And then election day came: Trump won, and all of a sudden I wasn’t sure how to write proudly about Blackness while living in a claimed white supremacy. I knew that Trump’s victory happened because scores of Americans buy into the idea that their path to liberation lies in whiteness. I knew those people wanted us to be sorry for having recently been, by their estimation, so very Black.That knowing really got me down—to the point where the only good thing white people could do on November 9 was leave me alone. I spent the day listening to Solange, writing long Facebook posts (“Dear white friends and fam…”) and using capital letters (“STAY AWAY FROM ME!”), making fun of white liberals more invested in their Marxism than my safety. The email I sent to cancel the interview I was supposed to conduct basically amounted to, ”Sorry, I got the nigga flu.”Despite not being a big drinker, I spent two virtual hours getting drunk in the middle of that day with my girlfriend Terri, one of the smartest people I know. Blackademic bae, she calls herself. It’s a fitting title.“I’m in this pantsuit, but I’m a fucking snake!”we laughed over FaceTime. After a little whiskey, mocking the fifty-three percent of white women voters who actively chose to put a known pussy-grabber in office made us feel a little better. Simply spending time with Terri was like salve to a generations-deep wound. We were having a conversation I couldn’t have with my white girlfriends, many of whom are lovely but, at this point, grandfather-claused into my life. They were sad, too, they said. Some were texting me, wanting to know just how this could happen. How could any woman vote for him?They clearly didn’t know their own history. Terri and I did.“Why you think we this color?” she asked. It was a rhetorical question. Terri and her people can’t point to a single white person in their family line, but they’ve got brighter skin than me, the mixed one. Light enough to maybe even pass. “Because on big house plantations, white women consistently turned a blind eye to the bad behavior of their no good, piece of shit, abusive men.” Plantation mistresses knew about all the rape slave women endured at the hands of their husbands, they just chose not to do anything about it. “They basically handed us over, choosing whiteness instead of human decency. And then, yesterday, they went into those voting booths, and did the same damn thing. They decided they hate people of color more than they love their woman-selves.” I couldn’t disagree.We weren’t surprised, just pissed off, and tired of being hurt. One of the most painful things about being despised in this country is being told you’re nobody, and the prevailing message on November 9 was “You ain’t shit.”Later, I thought about asking my editor if I could refocus the essay; I toyed with writing “The Year in White Tears” so I wouldn’t have to pretend to be proud when I felt so defeated and just wanted to, literarily, rage. But then it hit me: Practicing self-care by telling white people about themselves, calling in Black to life, delighting in Black art? That was Black as shit.*“All my niggas in the whole wide worldMade this song to make it all y'all's turnFor us, this shit is for us.”– Solange, “F.U.B.U.” (from A Seat At The Table)In the beginning of this year, before her sister Solange blessed us with A Seat At The Table, Beyoncé released “Formation,” and then performed the song live during the Super Bowl halftime show in Black Panther costuming. Racial tension in the States had already reached fever pitch, and although Bey doesn’t typically display real interest in Nina Simone-ing her platform, she has always been Black. “Formation” was her I may be an international superstar but let me remind y’all who I am song. The lyrics themselves are pretty mild, as politically charged music goes. She likes her baby hair with baby hair and afros, prefers her negro nose have Jackson 5 nostrils, but the music video? All Black dancers. Graffiti that reads “Stop killing us.” A little boy dancing in a hoodie before a line of cops in riot gear. It definitely sends a message, but that message isn’t new. The woman’s name rhymes with fiancé, for god’s sake. Her husband is Jay-Z.Still, Beyoncé publicly asserting her identity threatened the Beckys, who added #BoycottBeyoncé to their #AllLivesMatter tweets, apparently forgetting that they had already helped launch her fame far beyond the reach of their grubby, un-lotioned hands. The boycott tweets were pugnacious to a level of several hundred percent over the appropriate degree of response—you boycott buses because of Jim Crow, not Beyoncé for being Black—but clear indicators of how fragile whiteness is. Police in several cities refused to work security for her concerts.I myself was working for an online women’s site when “Formation” dropped, and would sit at my desk, blogging vigorously about Black death and Black Girl Magic, while listening to the song on repeat.“You listened to it seventeen times in a row,” my coworkers told me one day.“Oh,” I said, smiling. I had just spent a solid two hours trying to get Beyoncé tickets instead of writing.When I left that job to become an editor elsewhere, I was miffed to find that we mostly published stories accompanied by images of white women. I complained to my white boss about it immediately.“Here are some stock photo companies that feature people of color,” I wrote the editor-in-chief. She told me those companies “sucked.” I should have quit right then and there, but stuck it out in the interest of making real change from the inside. Rocking natural hair and Timbs, I focused on commissioning work from Black and brown women writers. When a white freelancer wanted to interview the only Black cast member from that cycle of The Bachelor about her experience of being, well, the only Black cast member, I sent an email to my superiors explaining why I wouldn’t publish that kind of work. I was getting in formation, but they didn’t get it. I started freelancing full-time soon after that.Earlier this year another nigga, Colin Kaepernick, publicly asserted his Blackness by way of the football field. If you’ve ever been to a sports game in this country, you know the singing of the national anthem is a part of all the pregame pomp and circumstance. Beginning in preseason, then continuing into full-fledged regular season, Kaepernick knelt every time the national anthem was played. He was supposed to stand and salute to show his solidarity and support for America, but didn’t, because he said the song didn’t inspire him to be patriotic. And why should it? It was written by some white guy back when it was cool for people to own us and the lyrics—whether or not they support that institution; arguments have been made on both sides—identify us as slaves.By kneeling, Kaepernick said, Look. I’m Black, and America don’t love me, so fuck this song. (What he actually said was, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses Black people and people of color.”) Today is December 23 and Kaepernick’s yet to stand for the anthem once this entire football season.His protest has inspired all of the expected conservative condemnation. But it also reignited a tired conversation about how we define Blackness and who, exactly, should claim it. “Kaepernick” lacks the plantation ring of a surname like “Johnson” or my own family’s “King,” but the biracial ball player was adopted. Still, there are plenty of people who have disregarded how he self-identifies. They see right past his African ancestry—recent enough to nap his hair and brown his skin—and look to the white couple who raised him as if to say, Didn’t you take his Black Card away? (In the next breath, he’s a nigger who should go back where he came from.)Clay Travis, a white sports journalist from the lovely state of Tennessee, tried to discredit both Kaepernick’s protest and his Blackness on the grounds that he was raised by two white parents after his own birth parents weren’t willing or able to raise him themselves. (Funnily enough, Tennessee was the first state in the nation to write the one-drop rule into law, in 1910.) But Kaepernick hasn’t let the likes of Clay Travis get to him. Now, he rocks cornrows and afros. He started a Black Panther-inspired youth camp in October.*To hear Donald Trump tell it, Blackness is defined by poverty, poor schools, no jobs, and a 58 percent youth unemployment rate.But Donald Trump can, metaphorically speaking, kiss my whole Black ass, because he’s wrong. Blackness isn’t defined by stereotypes or statistics (and our youth unemployment rate has been in the twenties for at least a year). It’s defined by the rich, shared worlds we’ve built for ourselves out of necessity. Back in the day these worlds were architected by early generations of enslaved people who, after being stolen from their homes and stripped of their identities, kept themselves alive by building new homes and crafting new identities. I wish I could tell you how they did it, but I don’t know myself. Donnell Alexander, dude who wrote that ubiquitous Might essay “Are Black People Cooler Than White People” in 1997, has identified the alchemy America’s first Black people practiced as the birth of cool—”when the first plantation nigga figured out how to make animal innards—massa's garbage, hog maws and chitlins—taste good enough to eat.” The whole point of Alexander’s essay is that Blackness begets cool because only constant oppression could give rise to such a phenomenon. Today, that same Black cool, our common ability to make something out of nothing, is codified in Black girl magic and Arthur memes. It’s all the same shit.Yesterday, I sent a text to my little brother asking what Blackness means to him.“Cool AF,” he replied.I was proud of the little nigga for giving such a Black-ass answer. 2016 must have had an effect on him, too.