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It’s more than race

It was a June Sunday morning in Flint, Michigan. I had stopped by a major bookseller to look for two specific kinds of books, one of which was about the Montgomery Bus Boycott. 

I recently was inspired and compelled to create a curriculum for middle and high schoolers on the topic. And like any good researcher, I wanted to gather some books to assist me in my efforts. 

I walked down the carpeted floors and approached a tall, female employee. She wore a black and white polka blouse, and her face mask donned images of Disney World and bore the words: “It’s Magic!”

As I drew closer to her, she made an awkward turn like the ones I used to make when I turned a corner when I was in the marching band. Perhaps, I was nearing less than six feet in front her. 

Nevertheless, I made my inquiry and ask her where I could find a non-fiction book on the Montgomery Bus Boycott. I had searched the history section and found nothing. 

As she grabbed the tablet stretched across her chest, she gestured to her right: “Most of the books about race are over there.”

I pulled my neck back just a bit, unsure of how to take her comment. Thankful that my face mask covered one of my infamous Chasity Gunn faces. By now, she was searching her tablet and her personal cell phone to assist me. Unfortunately, she could only find one title, of which she would have had to order because the store was out of stock. 

I stopped myself from making a snotty comment about ordering from Amazon. Instead, I thanked her for efforts and walked over to the ‘race table.’ Covered with books, mostly by black authors and mostly many about race, the employee’s description was not entirely inaccurate. 

I was infuriated to see how scantily stocked the table was. The words of my retail days echoed in my mind: ‘stack ‘em high and watch ‘em fly.’ Seeing stacks of books only two or three deep did not constitute a fully stocked display. And, this table was toward the front of the store. Prime real estate for shoppers. 

I calmed my emotions by thinking to myself that perhaps this was a table that had been created in the past couple of days, it was not a scheduled display in which the company would have ensured ample copies to stock the table. Or perhaps, the table was such was a hit that the retailer couldn’t keep the books on the shelves. Or maybe, the bookseller carried low quantities of books by black authors. 

I was disappointed to see a bookstore that covered so many square feet, have so few books related to race, that they could fit onto a single table. 

“Most of the books about race are over there.”

Her words replayed in my mind, and I was angry and disappointed. Not so much at her words as an individual, but I believe her words capture a common mindset in America. When I said: “Montgomery Bus Boycott,” she thought race. When we, as a society, hear “slavery,” we think race. When we hear “Black”, we think race. And there’s where our thinking stops.

Like so many other issues and historical events, the Montgomery Bus Boycott is more than a story about race. It’s a story about a group of Americans who were tired of being harassed and pushed to the back. They using their constitutional rights to fight unjust mistreatment.  It’s a story about a community of people of various ages and backgrounds collaborating for a common goal. It’s about sacrifice. It’s about courage. It’s about long suffering. It’s about justice. 

Dec. 20, 1956: Montgomery Bus Boycott Prevails - Zinn Education ...

Yes, race is also a theme woven throughout this story. And it’s an important one. 

However, if we continue to diminish such events and stories as purely and solely racial, we are going to miss powerful moments that can help us heal as a nation. 

I’m currently taking Yale University’s free course on African American history. Jonathan Holloway describes the course as being about citizenship and asking the question: “What does it mean to be an American?” African American history is about dualisms like God and man, freedom and slavery. 

In other words, it’s more than race. 

Many of us are learning more about race and its historical context in our nation. In our studies, I hope that we see beyond race. I hope we can identify universal themes embedded in these encounters. I hope we will stop reducing all Black people and our stories to just blackness. We are more than the social construction of race. 

We are thinkers, healers, parents, students and human beings like the rest of the world. The Black Experience in America is the American experience. I think we can see the experience of Black folks as a human experience, the barrier that dehumanization creates can be torn down. And we need it to be gone if we are going to move forward and build together as a nation. 

So, the next time you are reading and talking about race, ask yourself: what else is there?

I think you’ll be surprised by what you find. 

(To be clear, this post is not meant to berate the employee I encountered. I believe she was doing the best she could with the limitations she had to assist me. There were factors outside of her control. I am using my personal encounter with her to illustrate a larger principle.) 

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A Poet in Quarantine

Surviving COVID-19

Like many of you, I am adjusting to a life in quarantine. I consider myself an introvert’s introvert meaning, I can spend extended time in silence and solitude. Being in groups and talking can be emotionally and mentally draining. However, I do feed off of human interaction and touch (just not as much as others).

I have seen numerous posts on social media admonishing us on how we should spend this time. Personally, I think most of it is ill advised. What each individual is experiencing during this pandemic varies from person to person, state to state, situation to situation. Like many cases in life, a one-size fits all approach does not work.

Rather than grinding or hustling, I been spending my time watering my creative well. This is a principle I learned while listening to a live interview with Elizabeth Acevedo. Some of what I had considered writer’s block was my creativity crying out: “I’m in a drought. Pour water on me please.”

Watering my creative well has meant reading more poetry. If I am reading poetry, I typically am writing poetry. I also try to take walks or ride my bike. As a Southerner used to lots of sunshine year round, it’s challenging for me to spend most of my day indoors. However, I work at my kitchen table, which is positioned in front of two windows, so I can feel the sun.

Rather than ignoring what is happening in our world, I using it to water my well. I’m writing a chapbook, Wash Your Hands. I given myself a constraint: start every poem with the words: wash your hands. Write 30-40 poems around this line. So far, the poems are exploring colorism, relationships, identity, and home. Stay tuned for some recordings of those poems.

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Planning Poetry Projects

In an earlier post, I shared with you my method of organizing projects by using binders. Another tool that has helped me start organized is a collection of Project Planner worksheets. I did some searching online and found Printable Pineapple. The owner, Shannon, has been featured on BuzzFeed. What I love about these worksheets is:

  1. They are affordable. It costs under $5.
  2. Since they are printable worksheets, I don’t have to have a separate planner for projects. The worksheets were automatically downloaded after my purchase. I print the appropriate worksheets and put them in my binder. This was a major win for me.
  3. I can break my projects down by week, by month etc. I highly recommend them. You can find other useful planning tools on her website.

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Staying Organized

Knowing where to start was a major barrier I faced when I sat down to write. I lost precious time searching for poems, gathering research or trying to be inspired. Much of the time I had allotted to write was wasted. A fellow poet mentioned that she created binders for her poetry projects and renowned dancer, Twayla Tharp uses boxes to store materials. (View a sketch note video on her book here.)

Putting all of my materials in one place has made writing less stressful and my writing time more productive. I’ll walk you through my process so you can try it out to see if helps you. 

First, get a binder. I opted for a quality binder so I didn’t want time and money replacing binders. I also purchased a binder that was pretty because visually appealing items inspire me. I got scrapbook binders from Hobby Lobby during a half off sale and a regular  binder from Target. 

Second, create sections. These vary based on the project. For example, I’m working on an audiobook of lynching poems. My sections include research, poems other poets have written about lynching, my old poems and new poems I am writing. I also have paper in the binder for writing new poems.  

I recently added a section of photocopied poems. Whenever I feel stuck, I look to these poems for inspiration on form, style, etc.  I may add a section of images since many of my poems are inspired by visuals. 

Create sections that are helpful to you. Add as you go and take away what doesn’t work. Consider writing an artist’s statement about why you are doing the project and include in your binder. It can serve as a motivator or a compass during low times. 

What if you are not working on a specific writing project, can the binder still work? I think so. You can create sections of different types of inspiration.This can be quotes, other poems, images, sketches, etc. The possibilities are endless.

Third, label your binder. Seeing the name of the project on my binder helps me be more connected to the project. I don’t fall into the out of sight out of my mind  phenomenon. 

Fourth, get to writing. 

What I love about my binder is that I can take it with me anywhere I go, and I don’t need technology. I don’t have to spend time looking for materials. I have everything I need in one more place. Now, I spend more time creating, and I feel less overwhelmed. 

If you prefer an electronic version, you could create folders on your laptop or use Padlet or similar programs. Here is a video a fiction writer made about her binder and one made by a writer turned business coach.

I think this system can work regardless of what genre you write in. If you give it a try, let me know how it works for you. 

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Dear Writer, please get out

Writers can be like hermits. We stay in dark shells and never come out. Sometimes we lie to ourselves and say that we must be secluded all the time to write. We believe we are following in the steps of Emily Dickinson. We are self-proclaimed introverts, and we are proud about it.

But, there are downsides to constant seclusion. We can be socially awkward, which is not a plus when you interact with those who love your work at a reading or a book signing. We can have terrible stage presence because we are not used to speaking in front of others. So writers, I am urging you to get out! Leave your couch or your table and get into the world.

Most of us write about humans so our writing can be improve by being around people. Dialogue and portraits can be richer by having more social interactions. Now, before you jump off this blog post because you think I am bananas. Let me express empathy. I consider myself an introverts’ introvert. I can spend days in solitude. I am pretty phenomenal at entertaining myself and keeping myself occupied.

I don’t like large social gatherings, and interacting with an audience after a reading is still strange to me at times. However, I know that my writing has improved, and my social interactions have improved through pushing myself to be around others. One easy you can do the same is by regularly attending writing workshops.

Writing workshops have been a much needed motivator and accountability partner in being consistent in writing. They have given me insightful tips to improve my writing, and the feedback I received from other participants has refined my work. I have not been a fan of every writing workshop I attended. That’s a part of the journey. However, I have found a few that I like, and I try to commit to going to two a month.

This doesn’t always work out due to my day job. However, I have experienced shorter writing hiatuses as a result of going to writing workshops. I want to encourage you to find a writing workshop or community in your area and get out there. I’m sure you can find on online, but push yourself to interact with other humans in person. It will make you a better writer. Dear writer, get out there!