I have wanted to watch the film Master, starring Regina Hall, written and directed by Mariama Diallo, since it first came out last spring on Prime video. Something always came up–which is fine.

Everything in its time.

I finally got to watch it this evening and am really glad I did.

The film has not done well on the critics’ circuit, which is understandable. I suspect, as Don’t Look Up was accused of, the film is too on-the-nose for comfort.

Perhaps a spoiler alert: the film is about a black woman, Gail Bishop, who is installed as headmaster of a university student house while a young black woman, Jasmine Moore, is matriculating. The only other black person that we see in a position of relative authority at the university is a black female literature professor, Liv Beckman.

I will note here that all three of the female leads are relatively light skinned. The black people on campus who are in positions of what we commonly think of as servitude (lunch lady, cleaners) are all darker skinned.

The director seems to attempt a misdirect of the audience by introducing immediately the legend of a white woman who was accused of being a witch dying on campus in the 18th century and haunting campus. Jasmine is assigned the room where she lived. A few years before, a first-year student reportedly jumped to her death at 3:33 am when the “witch” is believed to have come for her, to take her to hell. Jasmine’s investigation into the university’s history reveals, however, that a black woman, the first to attend the university, was found hanged in the 1960s.

Admittedly, the film has a lot going on. Jasmine is assigned a white roommate, Amelia, who, though living in the same room as the “witch”, never seems to suffer from the nightmares that Jasmine does. There’s a strange scene in the forest when Gail comes across Amelia who has been “doing something with boys” that is never disclosed and then leaves campus for good. Amelia’s sometimes boyfriend, who threw out names from Beyonce to Nikki Minaj to Lizzo in response to his rhetorical question, “Who are you?” when he first meets Jasmine, calls her cute and kisses her at a party where the all-white revelers decide to put on a song that is as offensive as they come once they realize she’s there. He never shows up after that scene. The next morning “Leave” is carved, and a noose is left on her door.

Meanwhile, Gail is finding that she has a maggot infestation in her university-appointed house while her only friend, Liv, who is up for tenure, is embroiled in a grade dispute with Jasmine.

Okay, the director is trying to cram in a lot!!!


Jasmine, rather than getting the heck out of Dodge, decides to stay on campus over Thanksgiving break when a cross is burned on the lawn of her dormitory.

I guess the audience is supposed to believe that it’s the obviously little-racists-in-the-making who are terrorizing this young woman. But for anyone who’s been around the block or two, it’s clear as soon as we meet her that it’s Liv who is causing all the mischief.

We understand how pervasive internalized racism is; the way that it can sometimes do more damage than the obvious—like being called Beyonce or Nikki Minaj or, as I was when I was in my 20s and decided to wear a head wrap to my waitressing job in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida at a health food store/restaurant, run and patronized by an overwhelmingly white population, Aunt Jemima. 

When I learned towards the end of the film that Liv has been engaging in blackface when her mother, a white woman from what I can only assume is an Amish community nearby, unloads her heart to Gail, I couldn’t help but think about Jess Krug, the history professor from George Washington University who last year was exposed as performing blackness.

Jess and I attended grad school together. I was in the Department of African Languages and Literature, since changed to the Department of African Cultural Studies (which, I’ll say it, makes it more palatable to white folks) while she was in the History Department, one of the best in the country. We took a class together, partied a bit together, when she was claiming that she was of Algerian descent and thus deserving of the full fellowship that she received. Jess performed blackness in blackface. 

But I digress… 

Liv diverts attention away from the fact that she does not meet the standards for tenure at the prestigious university by turning the attention of the guilt-plagued, overwhelmingly white governing body (there is the token black in Gail and the token Asian in a man whose name I don’t even know) to the plight of Jasmine, a young black woman at an overwhelmingly white institution.

And she succeeds in getting tenure.

(I do not want to suggest here that the work that professors do outside the narrow parameters of tenure evaluation is not valuable. One of the reasons that I do not devote more time to this blog is because I am very clear about the narrowness of those parameters and am reminded of a former colleague, a member of an indigenous nation whose tenure was in jeopardy because her work in the community was not thought to be “scholarly” enough—which for the record, is bullshit. I am speaking here to the way that those of us who learn to “play the game” will throw others under the bus in a heartbeat to achieve the goal of “success”.)

The director throws a bit of a wrench into the audience’s disdain for Liv when we learn that her father is black. From the looks of her, he must be. But she’s driven a young black woman to suicide!!

For me, her actions are unforgivable.

I went to one of those schools in upstate New York where I was one of 25 students of color. My first year I did not have money to go home for the holidays and raided refrigerators in other suites for food because I was broke.


I will concede that the conclusion of Master left a lot of questions unsatisfactorily unanswered.

Gail resigns her position at the university. She is there for those women whom she imagines cleaning the floors. She worked her ass to get where she is. WTF???!!!

Why should she just relinquish the ivory tower to those who claim it as their own—to the descendants of those masters? 

What’s more, undoubtedly, if she’s anything like me and the majority of women of color who land tenure track positions (or don’t), she owes a bunch of money to the federal government. How is she gonna pay those bills?

What is her ass going to do? Become one of those salting the walkways or emptying the trash?

How is she honoring her ancestors’ sacrifices?

What’s the freaking plan?

The audience is left wondering as she saunters off into the night at the film’s end.

Where’s Jasmine’s mother whom we learn hasn’t heard from her in weeks?

Where’s Jasmine’ s community aside from the one other black woman whom she meets in the bathroom?

Let’s not even talk about the fact that there are no black men or black gender non-conforming people on campus? Or Let’s. 

So, yes, the film is unsatisfactory.

I hated seeing Jasmine in that fucked up weave with an orange tint layered onto her magnificent mahogany skin.

I hated that neither she nor Gail had someone with whom they could truly confide.

I hated that they were rendered in such monochrome fashion.

But I think that Diallo should be commended for even beginning to take on the huge topic of Black women in academia, even if they are thinly rendered. For much too long we have been invisible.

It was nice to see myself on screen.

Bravo, Diallo!!

My hope is that others will take up the torch that you’re passing on.

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I Broke Up with Netflix/Don’t Look Up

Don’t Look Up

As I hovered my finger over the “Cancel” button just a few days before I was scheduled to have yet another $14.99 deducted from my bank account, I remembered with fondness my many hours spent with Netflix. How it had gotten me through years of soul-crushing loneliness; the first time I heard the phrase, “Netflix and chill” and was informed of its meaning by my students, laughing for days afterward. I recalled my appreciation for the fact that it is the only streaming service that, if you don’t let it know that you’re still watching, will shut down—a very helpful feature if, like me, you watch the same shows over and over again and inevitably fall asleep. 

If you’re wondering why I canceled my subscription it’s because I had, of late, been feeling I was in an abusive relationship as what seemed like every few weeks I was being informed that the cost was increasing. When I considered my streaming habits—again, the same shows on repeat—I decided it wasn’t worth it. I will admit, though, that because I’d been with them since 2013 canceling my subscription was bitter-sweet—kind of like ending a toxic relationship. The bad had started to outweigh the good. I will not stay around to watch Stranger Things, which, in my opinion, should have called it quits last season. Nor will I stick around for Ozark, because, let’s face it, The Byrdes should be longtime dead. But I digress…

Before I canceled though, there was one film I wanted to see: Don’t Look Up. The film stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Jennifer Lawrence as well as a bunch of other great actors, including Rob Morgan, with cameos by Kid Cudi and Ariana Grande. The film is characterized as an “American apocalyptic political satire black comedy” on Wikipedia. I’m not sure about the need for so many qualifiers. Nor am I sure when dark comedies became “black,” but I digress…

The point is, I’d wanted to see the film for a long time and before my time with Netflix ended I made sure to watch it. I’m so glad I did.  I agree with those who thought the film deft and yes, it might be heavy-handed. But the time for light-handedness is long past. Plus, the film’s exploration of the US’s political polarization and certain individual’s obsession with money to the detriment of all life, including that of the planetary as we’re all distracted by the inconsequential, exposes urgent truths. 

Everyone in the film was brilliant and of course, being who I am, I spent a lot of time considering the role of Rob Morgan. He plays Dr. Teddy Oglethorpe, head of the US Planetary Defense Coordination Office, with the gravity and intensity that the role deserves. I loved watching him pop off the screen. This may seem odd, but I was wondering about the decision to have him wear a badly constructed wig, which I found distracting. 

I’ve been a fan of Kid Cudi for years. He’s so talented. So, it was really fun to see him on screen. Looking him up after the film I learned that one of the reasons he’s been so quiet recently is because he had a stroke a few years back. 

The film haunted me long after the credits finished rolling. I’m still haunted as I look at all the ways that we are hurtling towards our own destruction without any help from, and despite the best efforts of the universe to support our life on this one beautiful home of ours. 

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On the Road Again! Mahogany Bookstore and Drifting

A few years ago I visited Washington, DC expressly to visit the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture. 


At the time, there were still plenty of crowds, but I had waited until the initial rush had passed. 

So, over a three-day period, I had plenty of time and space to take pictures and linger with the exhibits. The exception was the base floor where the visitor was introduced to the different areas of Africa from which enslaved people were taken, the sheer number of people who were enslaved, some of the early rebellions, and some of the major actors.  

The docents, for the most part, seemed to still be pretty stoked about the work that they got to do, and each day I went I got a slightly different rendition of the tour. The whole experience was good, educational, inspiring, depressing, and overwhelming. 

Overwhelming for the massive volume of historical and cultural materials that the museum holds. 

I will say that, as a visual artist, I was disappointed that there wasn’t more visual art included in the permanent installations; quite a bit of music, though. 


I few weeks ago I returned to Washington, DC with my son. 

I was excited to share the experience of visiting the museum with him. 

But it wasn’t in the proverbial cards. 

The day we were to leave for DC we went to the website and learned that we needed a time stamped pass to get in. 

I secured two passes for 3 pm. 

Our plane landed at 2 pm. 

We dropped off our luggage at our hotel and grabbed a Lyft to take us to the museum.

Unfortunately, the Lyft driver dropped us off at the (closed) Museum of Air and Space instead of SMAAHC, which was several Washington blocks away.

Though we spent the next five days in the city we were never again able to secure passes. 

It was a bit of a bummer. 

Why do I tell you all this?

So that I can tell you that shortly before my earlier solo visit to DC I learned about a Black husband-and-wife-owned  bookstore called Mahogany. I had wanted to visit then, but it seemed quite far from where I was staying (I walked everywhere during that initial visit) and there were enough sites and activities in my immediate vicinity (The Loop) to occupy me. 


So I didn’t make it. 

Well, one thing I love about my kid is that he is incredibly independent. So when he announced one evening that the next day he would be visiting with some friends he knew in the city I decided to make the trek to Mahogany

First, I must say that I am immensely grateful that the bookstore survived the pandemic. Many Black-owned businesses did not. 

I had planned to walk to the bookstore. 

My plans quickly changed when, after several blocks on a pretty deserted street, I decided to ditch the man trailing me by a few feet and who sped up when I sped up and slowed down when I did. 

I grabbed a trusty Lyft and pretty quickly realized that I would’ve been walking for hours!

It took us at least 20 minutes of highway driving to get me to the bookstore. 

Thanks Google Maps. 

When I arrived I was really happy I’d made the trip. What I hadn’t realized from the photos is that Mahogany isn’t a storefront. It’s actually part of a collective of Black-owned businesses with the front being an art gallery featuring paintings and sculptures by local artists. Behind that, in a corridor with a health food market and a couple of clothing stores, is Mahogany

As soon as I walked in I felt my spirit lift a bit higher than it had been in the gallery.

Mahogany‘s space is pretty small, but it is warm and inviting—and well-stocked. 

I learned by eavesdropping on others’ conversations with the young woman who worked there, that the owners have recently opened up a larger space in National Harbor

I already own most of the titles that piqued my interest, but not one to leave a bookstore—especially a Black-owned one—without books I scored two novels by Katia D. Ulysse, Drifting (2014) and Mouths Don’t Speak (2017). 

For all of Amazon’s cheap prices, there is something to be said for talking with, receiving recommendations from, and smiling (even if from behind a mask) with someone who loves books as much as you do. 

And while I love my kindle, especially for travel and late night reading on my balcony, there is still something to be said for the smell and feel of paper in one’s hand, the turning of pages with anticipation, the ability to underline with pen, and to dog-ear pages. 

After visiting the other shops in the space (I bought a sea moss drink from the health food store (not as bad as I expected) and black soap as a gift for my son from one of the others) I made my way back to the tourist side of town. 

Following the rest of the day of excursions, that evening I settled into my comfy hotel bed and dove into Drifting—and a good time was had by all (that is, me). 

I wouldn’t say it was so much the interconnected stories that pulled me in, but rather the fluidity with which the vignettes were written. 

In fact, I read the book pretty quickly because I loved the writing style—it almost didn’t matter that a couple of the names are so unfamiliarly similar that I couldn’t remember whose storyline I was following. 

The upside of that is that I could just read without stressing about where I was picking up a storyline. The downside is I was never invested in any of the characters. 

There also seems to be an issue (note I do not say problem) of timeline compression/distortion. It felt like I was jumping back and forth in time, but there didn’t seem to be any signposts to help me navigate the shifts. 

It also seems like storylines are taken up, but then abandoned. For example, the first—let’s say—vignette is about a couple living in the US who miscarry and, to help heal, take a trip to Haiti to visit the wife’s sister. Shortly after they arrive the 2010 earthquake hits, burying the sister in the clinic where she takes care of orphans. We never see the husband and wife again. 

A haunting without closure, mirroring the experience of many following the quake. 

Drifting reminds of my own semi-permanently unfinished novel manuscript–unfinished mostly because I can’t settle on a period of time. 

But maybe what seems like objects of criticism are actually why the book is called Drifting. The reader drifts along with the characters, kind of like all those hundreds of thousands of souls who, seeking a life, climb into unseaworthy vessels in hopes of reaching some promised land, but end up lost somewhere between. 

Along those lines, here’re a few lines from an interview that Ulysse did with Edwidge Danticat:

Danticat: Indeed. I know titles are always tricky. Sometimes it takes me weeks after finishing a book to have a title arrive and claim it. Other times, the title comes and demands to have something written about it. How did you come to choose “Drifting” as your title? Many of your characters are kinds of drifters, but there seems to be a lot more to it than that.

Ulysse: The characters, the setting, conflicts: Every component of “Drifting” is constantly shifting. As it is with real life: We can make all the plans we want; however, when a storm comes and tosses our plans about like leaves in the storm, we drift. We drift and we wait. We make more plans, hoping that by the time the next storm comes, we would have drifted a little closer to our aspirations.

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We Demand Our Share of Life: Exploring Haiti’s Cinematic Truths

This past Saturday Haiti suffered yet another blow to what I consider its ongoing revolutionary war.

For independence.

For true and lasting freedom. 

This most recent blow was in the form of a 7.2 earthquake, bigger than the one that devastated the nation 11 years ago in January 2010, probably because the area where it was most felt is less populated than Port-au-Prince, the epicenter of the earlier goudougoudou.

The natural (simply as in “of nature”) disaster follows the recent assassination of Haiti’s president, Jovenal Moise, who, although problematic for a number of reasons, represented a kind of political stability. At this point Haiti’s fate seems to be in the hands of several characters who had been waiting (im)patiently in the shadows for their moment to pounce.

That word seems, is important here, because there has always been more than what the human five senses can perceive. And what we’ve been taught greatly impacts what we are able to perceive. 

We have witnessed this fact historically.

If we pay attention, we can witness its unfolding contemporarily. 

But for each person who felt Earth’s quaking this past weekend and their family members who felt it even if they were thousands of miles away, my heart is with you. 

There are no words.

So rather than try to find some I share an interview that I was privileged to conduct with several incredibly talented people of Haitian descent just a couple of months ago. 

Enjoy as you reflect!

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Now What?: Beyond Juneteenth

Saturday was Juneteenth, the 156th anniversary of Union soldiers making their way to Galveston, Texas and Major General Gordon Granger informing thousands of enslaved people that they were finally freed from their bondage. 

Two and a half years earlier, on January 1, 1863, Abraham Lincoln declared:

“I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States, and parts of States, are, and henceforward shall be free; and that the Executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons.” 

I was taught throughout my school years that Lincoln emancipated enslaved workers out of some sense of altruism/ brotherly love/ an understanding of right and wrong. In fact, his primary concern was with uniting the north and south in the midst of the Civil War.

Texas was the last state where African descended people learned that they were free and the first state to declare the day an official holiday. One June 15th, 2021 President Joseph Biden declared Juneteenth a national holiday.

If I sound less than enthusiastic about all of this it’s because I am painfully aware that many white people who had enslaved others for generations were financially compensated when they lost their “property.” And while a few African Americans did receive their promised 40 acres and a mule, the vast majority of them did not. I am also deeply pained by the knowledge that those enslaved workers who toiled away on plantations for an extra two + years were never given overtime. What does overtime mean when one is forced to give their labor away for free?

This fact means that although Black people were declared free they remained enslaved by their financial insolvency as well as laws that were enacted to keep them tied to their former enslavers’ land. 

To help us understand the implications of this history Rev. angel Kyodo williams points us in the direction of an article that breaks down for us the human toll of enslavement in dollars and cents—the language of capitalism. The short version: “compare the average of $400 for an enslaved person to the average per capita income of $110.  “The average real price of a slave was $23,000 (in 2016) Consequently, $400 in those days corresponds to nearly $195,000 in relative earnings today.” Upon investigation, the estimated $151,000 to $254,782 in various cases for reparations to every African American costs dollars  — as much as $13 trillion, and makes sense.”

But this is not just about money. 

It’s about recognizing Black humanity.

There has been and will continue to be backlash as there always is when truths that have been suppressed about the reality of America come to light. Consider, for example, current efforts to outlaw the teaching of Critical Race Theory at pubic institutions. And UNC’s Board of Regents declining to act on the tenure application of Pulitzer Prize winner, Nikole Hannah-Jones and developer of the 1619 Project.

Hannah-Jones was recruited by The University of North Carolina for her journalistic brilliance, but when the time came to provide her with the security that one seeks in academia it was suddenly determined that the absence of three letters at the end of her name made her candidacy suspect.  

The message: We want your labor, but we do not value your humanity. 

Tell me that the legacy of slavery is not alive and well.

The inevitability of backlash though, has me thinking about the zero-sum mentality and with it, the belief that someone’s gain is inevitably someone else’s loss. Many white people unfortunately, believe that the recognition and honoring of African American people’s countless contributions to this country’s evolution detracts from their right to claim their accomplishments. This is truly an unfortunate reality; one that ensures our demise as a country.  

I believe the antidote to such an orientation lies, at least in part, in the practice of mudita, empathetic joy; in other words, in the Buddhist practice of feeling happy for others’ happiness; sharing in others’ joy. The need for competition and comparison then falls away and we are able to recognize “others’” fundamental desire to realize their potential and be happy as our own. Discarding the dualisms that give rise to othering in the first place, we would be happy for them as ourselves. 

If you’re interested in learning more about mudita I would point you in the direction of Tuere Sala, lawyer turned mindfulness teacher, and someone who is committed to spreading the joy of rejoicing in others’ rejoicing as a liberatory practice. 

I am grateful for the federal government’s recognition of Juneteenth. But I am also aware that making holidays does not change the quotidian experience of people. History has taught us this time and again. 

At the same time I am aware that my liberation rests with me and my community, however I define it. 

The time is upon us, if we haven’t already embarked on the journey, to ask ourselves, “Now what?”

Here are some resources to help:

Monumental Reckoning

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Review of Angie Cruz’s Dominicana

Dominicana by Angie Cruz

Several months ago I received an email in my inbox from an organization called One Book, One Bronx.

Because, as you know, I am an avid lover of literature, I clicked on the link to be taken to the wonderful world of an online bookclub that centers authors of color.

I immediately signed up and was overjoyed to log on for several Wednesdays at 7 pm for an hour and half of lively discussion of Bernice McFadden’s Sugar (2000).

Led by the wonderful Barbara Dubison, it was a whirlwind experience, filled with laughs and insights and inspiration. 

While I was disappointed in McFadden’s ending to Sugar I was hooked on the club—the invitation to share my love of Black literature with other Black literature-loving adults who also live full lives and who “get” the many ways that a good story enriches and enlivens us, was a much needed clam in the midst of isolation. 

A book that I was recently turned on to vis-a-vis One Book, One Bronx and more specifically, Ron Kavanaugh who runs the book club, was Dominicana (2019) by Angie Cruz. The novel is an absolute masterpiece, told from the perspective of a 15-year-old girl named Ana who is married off to a man more than twice her age.

Most of the novel’s action takes place in 1965 after Ana immigrates to New York with her husband, Juan, also Dominican. Juan portrays himself as a “successful” immigrant who can save Ana and her family from the poverty of the Dominican countryside. In reality, he is a day worker with barely a pot to piss in, let a window to throw it out of (as my mom used to say).

Each of Cruz’s characters is well-developed and left me feeling wholly invested in their fates—this includes Juan’s. But, this is especially true for Ana, of course, with whom the reader can easily empathize. She is young and naive and we might say, sold off to Juan with the hope that the marriage will result in immigration for the rest of the family. 

This imperative to immigrate is a reality even today for many impoverished people from other countries. They are sold the American Dream only to be confronted by a waking nightmare once they arrive. 

In terms of form, something that I don’t remember ever seeing before, but which is incredibly effective in terms of narrative style, is the absence of quotation marks. It’s a brilliant choice because it allows the reader into Ana’s head and heart so that we, in a sense, become Ana. Because she is so young her experiences are largely unfiltered, pure. We can tap into her sense of isolation, disorientation, loneliness, and ambition. The seamless connection that Cruz makes between what is seen, felt, heard, spoken by Ana impels us to also experience her disillusionment and gradual, but inevitable awakening. 

One of the things that I loved about the novel is the author’s engagement with the complexities of race and racism in a Dominican/American context. Perhaps surprisingly, there’s no mention of Haiti in the narrative. If you know anything about the island that Christopher Columbus decided to name Hispaniola, then you know that 2/3 of the island was, for a time, colonized by the Spanish. The other 1/3 was colonized by the French (the history is long and complicated, but that’s a different post). 

In 1822, after the Dominican Republic had been “freed” from colonial rule by the Spanish, Haitians ruled the entire island. This was a problem for many reasons for the Dominicans. The imposition of language and religion was not well-received by the Dominicans, understandably. But at the base of Dominican resistance to Haitian rule—let’s face it—was race. These people who saw themselves as proximate to whiteness and in opposition to blackness as Haiti claimed it, were not interested in what Haitians were offering. It is why, to this day, Independence Day for Dominicans is a celebration of their independence from Haiti, not from Spain. 

Even though some of the action of the novel takes place in the DR, again, the author focuses on the Dominican experience of race in a U.S. context, and more specifically, in a Washington Heights, New York context. The Cancions live in a primarily Dominican neighborhood, but it is also where the Audubon Ballroom is—the site of Malcolm X’s murder. So, in the midst of Ana’s racist husband’s ranting about “the blacks” we have an outsider’s impression of what the murder of a great civil rights activist meant to the African American community and most, importantly, one particular woman (we never know if it is his wife) who returns to the site of the murder for several months after the scene of the crime has been cleared away.   

I mentioned at the outset of this review that I learned about Dominicana because I’m part of a wonderful bookclub, One Book, One Bronx. Well, one of the cool things about “a member” is that authors of the book being studied will often join the conversation. This past Wednesday, indeed, Cruz visited with us and answered some of our questions. It really was a treat!!

I learned, for example, that the narrative technique that enamored me—the absence of quotation marks around dialogue, is actually common in Spanish writing. Cruz also noted that another reason she used that technique was because people often skip to the dialogue when reading literature, but, for her (and I completely agree) the other parts of the narrative—facial expressions, movements, etc—are equally critical to the story. Without the demarcation the reader is forced to take everything in. 

I also learned that Dominicana took 10 full years for Cruz to get right. The effortlessness that comes through on the page took time and sacrifice; a valuable lesson for all aspiring writers. 

Cruz was pulled away from the conversation by family obligations so I didn’t get all of my burning questions answered. Nonetheless, we continued talking and as usual, afterwards, I couldn’t settle my brain enough to go straight to sleep. I can think of no better reason for insomnia. 

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Review of Lee Daniels’ The United States vs. Billie Holiday

The whole time I watched Lee Daniels’ The United States vs. Billie Holiday I thought, “Ignorance is bliss,” an adage to which I used to wholeheartedly subscribe. And now I know that after so many years of breathing (an accomplishment) in ignorance, there has been a high price to pay, 

The United States vs. Billie Holiday

I don’t remember how I came to Lady Day. I know that it was not through my family. Billie Holiday, like the incomparable Nina Simone, was NEVER played in my childhood home.

I learned about Simone through some bizarre movie I watched when I was in my twenties about young waywards who were recruited by some agency to work on “the right side of the law.” One of the characters, a young woman, early twenties, in her perpetually depressed, although genius state, listened to Nina all the time. I was intrigued and looked up the woman who inspired such brooding brilliance. Of course, once I heard her and knew who she was I was hooked. 

But then the question becomes for me, “Why did I have to wait until I was in my twenties and watching a crappy movie to find out about this amazing Black woman artist and activist?!

Nina Simone

Instead of, or perhaps, alongside Depeche Mode, Nina Simone’s music should’ve been rolling off my tongue. 

Later still, I learned about the high price that Nina paid for her activism. And I’m angry that the community she stood up for, risked her life for, abandoned her. I feel like I abandoned her. 

Ignorance is not bliss; not in a country that works overtime to silence truth and the tellers of truth. 

Knowing Ms. Simone’s music and her story would’ve done wonders for my sense of self as well as the possibilities that this body held while I grew like a wildflower in an open field of prickly weeds. 

The same is true for my relationship with Ms. Holiday. 

Somewhere along the way I heard “Strange Fruit,” but I was introduced to Billie through songs like “All of Me,” and “Ain’t Nobody’s Business.” 

Such songs are fun to sing along with, but ultimately they’re disempowering to young black girls who don’t know what a healthy romantic relationship looks like. 

Such songs seep into their subconscious and become their reality. 

Unrequited love was the most I could hope for. On the other end was physical, mental, and spiritual abuse. None of these is acceptable.  

It’s all of this unacceptability and the resulting destruction to one’s personhood are played out in Daniels’ film. 


The film has been widely criticized, with one person writing “the direction and storytelling are laborious, without the panache and incorrectness of earlier Daniels movies such as Precious (2009) and The Paperboy (2012). A cloud of solemnity and reverence hangs over it, briefly dispelled by the music itself.” 

WTF?? The woman was driven to drugs by the trauma of growing up a poor black girl in the United States. As a final f* you she is murdered in her hospital room as she lay dying—and there should be no “solemnity” or “reverence” for this woman who literally gave her life for the truth???!! Seriously??!!

Contrary to another critic who calls the film “forgettable” and “muddled” I was so haunted by the story that I barely slept the night I watched it. What some are reading is muddled is in fact, Daniels’ commitment to not letting the seemingly isolated story of someone who has been dismissed as a drug addict go uncontextualized. 

The failure of the Senate to pass an anti-lynching law in 1937 has everything to do with the bill that is currently before the Senate. The black and white stills of yesteryear have everything to do with the disenfranchisement and disregard for black life that today we witness on cell phone video. For me, such critiques speak to white America’s desire to retreat to “innocence” in the way that James Baldwin thought about it. They have no desire to face the destruction they have wrought. But as Baldwin also said, “Not everything that is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.”

Nina Simone and James Baldwin

The scene that reads much like a dream sequence speaks to the way that the violence to which black people are regularly subjected haunts not just our nightmares, but our waking lives. 

What don’t people get? It’s really quite simple. 

The United States vs. Billie Holiday should be seen and then as much about the woman’s life as possible should be researched. The same is true for Nina Simone (What Happened Miss Simone? And that new trash in which Zoe Saldana is cast should be avoided).

Check out Nina Simone’s tribute to Lorraine Hansberry:

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Review of George M. Johnson’s All Boys Aren’t Blue

For the past few months I’ve been reading George M. Johnson’s All Boys Aren’t Blue: A Memoir Manifesto (2020).

All Boys Aren’t Blue

You may be asking why it would take me several months to read a book that is a little under 300 pages, includes photos, and is in a rather large print.

The narrative is straightforward, the chapters short, and engaging. 

I would ask the same question. 

The answer is, I assigned the book to my students as one of three that they could choose from.  So, I’ve been reading along. 

I assigned the book because I love my students and I want them to know that they are seen, that they more than matter—all of them. But I also assigned the book for myself. 

Because I am also a student–sometimes a good one–and I want to learn. 

So that I can be a better teacher. 

All Boys Aren’t Blue is Johnson’s personal exploration of his coming of age as Black queer male. 

If you’ve grown up Black around the time that Johnson did (they’re in their 30s) you know that being Black and queer made for a difficult childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood. 

It could very well get you killed:  “Father Accused of Murdering 14-Year-Old Because He Didn’t Want a Gay Son’ Gets Reduced Bail, House Arrest”

All Boys is a hard read, not because of the language—the book is actually a young adult (YA) publication so the language is very accessible. Rather, it’s hard because I’m (ahem) a few years older than Johnson and I grew up in a Black community with two brothers. 

I remember that in school, one of the worst things you could be called was “faggot” or “gay.” 

And these were terms that were flung around high school hallways and locker rooms as easily and offhandedly as someone’s given first name. 

There were lots of other words that got thrown around, but that’s a conversation for another day. 

The thing is, the ability for someone to call someone else those names was predicated on the belief/sureness that the person being called those name was in fact, not gay. One of the things that Johnson manages to convey is how painful it was to grow up hiding this critical part of their identity. And I was reminded of my classmates who both used those terms and who were on the receiving end of them—how many of them hid themselves like Johnson? 

I was also reminded of a toxic work environment in which I worked in my early 20s. It was in an agency that was founded to serve the, at the time, largely black and brown community of Bed Stuy (gentrification is putting an end to that). It was a largely female space and one in which the  worst insults would jokingly be hurled across the office. And those insults would be received with a belly laugh before being hurled right back. 

It was not a good place for me so I left. 

But I had the option to leave.  

When you’re in grade school or middle school or high school or worse, in a household, you don’t have the option to leave. 

Fortunately, for Johnson, their family loved them enough to navigate a terrain that was filled with landmines in Black communities. 

I was reading Johnson’s book at the same time that I was reading Sonya Renee Taylor’s The Body is Not an Apology (2018), again, because I want my students to feel good in their bodies (I am often reminded of Baby Sugg’s forest sermon). 

The Body is Not an Apology

Reading the two together was quite the trip because, not only did they bring up memories of the—let’s face it—horrors of high school, but also that toxic work environment in which hurtful language was used as a bonding mechanism.

Because like “gay” and “faggot,” words like “ho” and “bitch” could work for or against the person who was at the receiving end of it.  

I don’t spend time in high school hallways anymore. And I have been blessed with the ability to extricate myself from toxic work environments (at least in the immediate). 

But Johnson’s memoir reminded me of those who are not here (alive) or who walk about deeply wounded, punished for the “crime” of expressing their fullest authentic selves. 

Taylor’s treatise reminded me of too many of us who are trapped in a poverty of the mind that uses hateful words to speak to and about our brothers and sisters, which is really to speak to and about ourselves. 

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The Little Things: Nope

I have immense respect for Denzel Washington and his acting chops. It doesn’t hurt that he is a particularly gorgeous black man. 

Denzel Washington

The last thing I saw him in was August Wilson’s Fences (2016) starring opposite Viola Davis. Then I learned that he had bought the rights to all of Wilson’s plays. So when I saw him speak about the film version of Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (2020), a masterpiece also starring Davis, my respect for the man and his work only grew. 

When I saw that he was starring in a new release, The Little Things (2021), I jumped at the chance to see him in action again. 

First, I’ll admit, I haven’t seen much of Washington’s more popular work. So, it’s quite possible that the atrocity that I saw unfold on screen in The Little Things is not an anomaly—perhaps someone can tell me. 

The Little Things is a kind of police thriller, centering Washington as the protagonist, Sheriff Joe Deacon, who is seemingly haunted by the unsolved serial murders of several women years before. The film takes place in 1990 when the murders have started again. Deacon joins forces with detective Jim Baxter to solve the crimes. 

The Little Things

The two set their sights on a local creep, Albert Sparma, who spends his free time following unsolved crimes, occasionally confessing to them. 

The pair are like dogs with a bone, so focused they are on Sparma as the culprit that they ignore any evidence to the contrary. 

I couldn’t agree more with Matt Goldberg who, in his review, places the film in a larger context, as it should be. Films are not made in isolation. There are reasons that certain years and places are chosen. Whether the director, John Lee Hancock, was conscious of his decisions or not, his choices are bold slaps in the face to those of us who are all too familiar with the way these kinds of things play out and at whose expense. 

As Goldberg observes about the plot, “The problem is that the film is too sympathetic towards Deke and Baxter. Ultimately, they are the film’s heroes, and when they cross that line of doing an evil thing, the film gives them a cop-out by showing that Deke’s shooting was accidental and Sparma basically had it coming by taunting a guy who was already primed to kill him.”

Again, the film is set in 1990. By doing so, perhaps Hancock hoped to avoid dealing with current events, but again, as Goldberg reminds us, “these events have sadly always been current. Rodney King was beaten by LAPD officers in March 1991, five months after the events of The Little Things, and it’s not like King was the first person ever assaulted by the police who then got away with their crimes. Creating a narrative about how cops commit crimes in the name of personal closure and then feel kind of guilty about it afterwards is letting powerful people off the hook. While it is possible to thread this needle of cops melting down in their search for answers…The Little Things comes off as kind of tone-deaf. It’s one thing to ponder the inner lives of your officers, but Hancock ultimately turns a blind eye towards what these cover ups do to a society.”

Monsters and Men

Reflecting on The Little Things, I was reminded of another cop film that I recently watched: Monsters and Men (2018) which, using the Eric Garner murder as inspiration, explores the fates of three men of color, Manny, Dennis, and Zyrick, who take different paths to resolution in the aftermath of the police murder of a local man, Darius Larsen. 

Monsters’ director, Reinaldo Marcus Green, tries to take a nuanced approach to the choices that people make when faced with an impossible situation. The thing that I left that film with, however, was the question of why it is always people of color who must bear the burden of “doing the right thing.” 

Manny’s life is pretty much ruined by the two white cops who are responsible for the murder of Darius, and who are free to continue with their “bad apple” behavior of harassing black men who are simply trying to live their lives. 

Zyrick is willing to sacrifice his chance at the baseball majors to stand up for justice. 

Dennis chooses to place himself squarely behind the blue wall because he has a lot to lose if he decides to do otherwise. 

Again, the film attempts some nuance. But again, my question remains. Larsen, who served in the military, is dead and blamed for his own murder, while the “bad apple” trope is trotted out as if the whole freaking bushel is not rotten to the core. 

Similarly, in The Little Things, Sparma had it coming. How dare he taunt a cop who has a wife and two girls and who “only wants to do the right thing:” find the depraved murderer of women?

But, it seems clear to me that the only things Sparma’s guilty of are being poor, alone, and morbidly fascinated with unsolved crimes. 

Conversely, both Deacon and Baxter are portrayed as good cops who accidentally did bad things. 

And since Sparma is white, then it can’t be about race, right? 

And since Deacon is black and gets his foible covered up by a white man and a black woman it really can’t be about race, right? 

Actually, what this casting does is again, point to the corruption of the whole system while playing into the hands of those who would argue that there is no problem of race in the (in)justice system. 

The danger in this kind of move is that, as we have seen again and again, if it is not checked, the truth gets rewritten in the American imagination, while the reality remains ignored. 

I’m surprised and really disappointed that Washington let himself be used in this way. 

So, nope. 

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Review of Joy Harjo’s Crazy Brave

Joy Harjo

For the longest time I had the United States poet laureate, Joy Harjo’s memoir, Crazy Brave (2013), in my Amazon wishlist. The book’s cover, which features the profile of a beautiful raven haired woman, made me want to know more about her. 

Crazy Brave

I have always felt a kinship with indigenous people and their struggles, which, as a person of African descent, clearly aligned with my own.

Then, of course, there is Julie Dash’s groundbreaking 1991 film Daughters of the Dust, which intrigues with the intimation of long-recognized kinship between indigenous people and people of African descent. 

And as a student of “Caribbean” cultures and histories I have learned about the maroon communities that were populated by both indigenous people and those who had been enslaved, but who together escaped to the mountains in search of refuge and respite from the barbarism of European colonialism. 

A long time ago friend gifted me with Jack A. Forbes’ Africans and Native Americans: The Language of Race and the Evolution of Red-Black Peoples (1993), but the book was dry and I was young, so it has sat on my shelves for decades. I do not plan to read it.

Last year as the work to honor and uphold Standing Rock took root while the capitalist Earth rapists forged on I came across Dina Gilio-Whitaker’s As Long As the Grass Grows: The Indigenous fight for Environmental Justice, from Colonization to Standing Rock (2019). Again, it seems daunting. But I plan to read it.

There is so much I don’t know, so much to know.

The need to learn more about indigenous struggles became even more urgent this past year as I read story after story about how, as it has done in African American communities, COVID 19 has decimated indigenous communities

Beyond the news I figured I’d work with the personal, but how?

The universe was ready with an answer when, during my brief stint as part of a women’s writing group I was sent a poem by Joy Harjo entitled “Remember

Here’s a video of Harjo reading “remember”:

I was brought to tears when I first read her words and have returned to the poem again and again—when I need to ground myself and remember what is truly important—which is often. 

So, I returned to my Wishlist and ordered Crazy Brave on my kindle. 

I immediately fell in love with the directness of the writing, intertwined with the poetry as Spirit worked through Harjo.

There are four sections introduced by orientations to the narrative via the four directions of the Earth, the Sun, the Winds, and the Waters: East, North, West, and South. 

The narrative chronicles Harjo’s life from childhood through to early adulthood when she steps into her power as a writer. 

Harjo’s story is a powerful one. She reveals a lot in a direct manner through her mastery of the word, but there are worlds in the silences.

Reading Crazy Brave is an experience that you have to have for yourself. 

I promise, you will be forever changed for having done so.  

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