Dear First Lady and President,

I respect you. I wanted to be a rapper. I wanted to be a ball-player. Today, like most black men under 40, I am neither. Please complicate your analysis. You do the Dougie when convenient. You brush your shoulder off when convenient. You admonish black folks for not being you when convenient. You often talk to us like they’re watching. Because they are. In addition to all that “real talk” tough love stuff, black folks talk to black folks about white supremacy. Both of you y’all know this is true. We worry about your safety in spite of twisted real talk. We wish you would “real talk” to them about race and responsibility like we’re watching sometimes. Please complicate your analysis.

Today, I teach, write, and rap to myself. I am an above average writer and teacher. But when I’m on, I’m a problem, chile! I am working on being better at being human. I am not a father. Nor am I a husband. I am an American witness, an American writer. The most mediocre white man at my bougie job has 16x the wealth I have. You already know this. Please complicate your analysis. My grandmother has the beginnings of dementia, and she is still way smarter than me or you. She was only allowed to work the line at a chicken plant, work as a domestic and sell pound cake on the weekend. She has no wealth, but lots of love for both of you. She prays for your safety. She says that white folks have both of you niggas scared to tell the truth. She has witnessed a lot. She is not a liar. Please complicate your analysis.

Working class white security guards have entered my office 3x times asking to see my ID. Every time, I robotically tell them, “Fuck you. Show me yours.” I desperately cling to intellectual superiority over them; they desperately claim whiteness and relative wealth over me. This has nothing, and everything, to do with my wanting to be a rapper and baller. For better and worse, most rappers rhyme to us. Most ballers perform for us. You already know this. Why would you ever tell a throng of black men and black women to work twice as hard as white folks when there are so many examples of black brilliance and genius? Centering white mediocrity leads to black folks being just a little bit better than mediocre. I want to be better than my grandmother, the greatest American I know. She wants you to tell the truth. I respect you. We respect you. Please complicate your analysis.

Imani Perry writes books you should read. Please tell the truth.

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Impact: A Meditation on Shame and Honesty — by Niama Sandy

Years after the last time we set eyes on each other and just months away from his wedding to someone else, he said to me “I will never be able to purge my feelings for you.” I felt like a hypocrite, suffocated by layers and layers of shame.

Four years ago, I started regularly bumping into a guy we’ll call Jackson – by the way, that wasn’t a euphemism, at least not at this point of the story. I’d known Jackson for several years. If I had to estimate I would put the number at somewhere between 17 and 15 years; only the last five of which have been more than a cursory acquaintance. But as anyone might guess, that much time spent with someone on the periphery can lead to all manner of musings…

Tonight, I found a conversation from the summer of 2008, where Jackson very explicitly let me know he wanted to spend time with me. I was mildly intrigued, but rebuffed the advance because I had it on good authority that he had a girlfriend with whom he lived. And by good authority, I mean that I remember being introduced to her once several years before.

Me: “I doh really deal up in dem kinna ting.”

Him: “Most no nonsense females don’t”

Me: “So what? You figured you’d try anyway?”

Him: “That wasn’t a try.”

We barely spoke in the months after that conversation. Fast forward one year later and he wouldn’t necessarily have to try. In June of 2009, I saw him at a party. We hadn’t laid eyes on each other in years. We danced. There was something that passed between us. It is hard to put into any words but in short – weapons systems were locked. And so began my dance with death.

After that day, we started exchanging messages more often. Messages filled with plenty of profligate phrasings that would undoubtedly pose problems if his girlfriend ever knew about them. I thought I had all of these ideas about cheating and karma and so on, but onward I went.

One day in August of that year, I visited him. He was preparing to go somewhere and I had some folks to meet up with a few hours later. It was the first time we were ever alone. He was visibly blushing, and I very likely was too. There were some very charged moments but I managed to come away without having completely succumbed to temptation. I realized that I put my resolve in flux by even being there. At one point, Jackson brought his hands up to either side of my face, gently cupped it and kissed me. If Star Trek technology were real, I imagine that kiss was like what getting hit by a particle blast set to “stun.” My knees buckled, and to this day I have never again experienced anything like it. I knew immediately that it was going to be that much more difficult to stop.

Our communication ebbed a bit as a result of my last-ditch effort at self-preservation. I don’t know if it was sexual curiosity, budding feelings, a deep-seated sadomasochistic desire to upend my life but I couldn’t completely stop.

In November, there was more. It involved a couch, me standing over him on it, and more buckling knees.

One snowy December night, we met up for drinks. Interestingly, it took the entire night for things to escalate. I was on my way home and I realized that the five or six purple motherfuckers I had were about to cause my bladder to burst into smithereens. His house was closer to where we were on the train than mine was, so we got off. I went to the bathroom, but then things spiraled and the next thing I knew I was standing with my back pressed against a wall and one leg on his shoulder.

The following month, we spent a night together moving around New York from place to place. We danced, laughed and talked. The only time we touched each other that night was when he kissed me good bye before I left him to foolishly visit my ex. In hindsight, I may have been trying to pull myself out from his undertow. I was considerably less self-aware than I am now, so of course, that move backfired terribly.

Months later, he claimed my leaving that night “crushed” him.  In some ways, my silly subconscious ploy created a new healthier distance between us since he was in a relationship with someone else. I’ve never considered that before those words made it to this page. I apologized but I’m not sure that I ever totally bridged that gap again.

Even despite that, we became great friends. He was the first person with whom I wanted to share all my news. We would spend the occasional night together in DC, usually after whatever party I hosted. I stopped thinking about his girlfriend. I generally stopped seeing other people. Oddly, I didn’t think about him on the few occasions when I did – all of which crashed and burned relatively quickly for one reason or another. As I write this, I realize there was so much fragmentation and disunity to my thoughts and feelings at that time. I was compartmentalizing at a level I never even knew was possible. I’m still struggling to even understand how I rationalized it all then. Impact.

In June of that year, I found out that my father was very ill. Seven months earlier, my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. By the time I found out about my father,  my mother was in recovery and rehabilitation. Within a few weeks my father’s mysterious illness, he was diagnosed with stage-four lung cancer. The doctors thought he would have until the end of the year with palliative care measures in place.

I kept working 12-hour shifts, traveling for a contractor position I had on the weekends and doing it all over again the next week. Jackson knew about all of it, and supported me from afar. Unfortunately, the doctors’ estimation of how much time my father had left was wrong. There were masses everywhere in his body, many of which were visible to the naked eye as he became increasingly emaciated.

In early August, my father and I sat in a room at New York Methodist Hospital with our fingers interlinked. I felt my father’s his spirit leave his body.

Moments like those put your life in perspective. At that time, everything grinded to a halt in my mind; it became crystal clear that life was entirely too short to, firstly, not be satisfied with as much of life as possible and, secondly, to do so with as little stress as possible. My father’s death and the events that took place immediately afterward put my understanding of things on another level. Within a two-week span, so many of the other  relationships in my life were irrevocably changed. Jackson was nowhere near me, physically or spiritually. In fact, he was away with his girlfriend.

I didn’t see him until September a full month later. There were so many things that I needed to say while we never had the time or space to say them. I saw him again a few weeks later in DC. I still didn’t speak on the thoughts and feelings. I knew I didn’t have him but somehow not having him at the moment, when it felt like parts of my life were coming apart at the seams, made the conditions seem a whole lot less livable. For months I had been keeping the situation from friends. There was so much shame. I knew I couldn’t carry that weight around.

I kept asking for time to be made have a conversation. He kept saying that I had to wait. Eventually, I got tired of waiting. I didn’t think about how much weight this peculiar situation may have put on him and how it may or may not have been affecting him. I was mostly concerned that the pseudo-relationship no longer seemed to be fulfilling any purpose in my life. One day in November 2010 I walked away.

Or so I thought.

I never wanted to ask him to leave – I wanted him to do it on his own. In either scenario, in our popular understanding and constructions of the dynamics of relationships, the logic is “he did it with you, so he will do it to you” – even if there were all these feelings that mitigated that supposed truth.

I have hundreds of messages from the following two years where issues were talked around but never resolved. He made mention of seriously considering moving to DC (where I lived at that time). I made mention of the fact that I had no knowledge of any of that because he never speaks in plain English. He said there was bad timing. I said we are responsible for making good use of time. He said he felt like I had given up on him.

I had.

There were deflections upon deflections, declarations of feelings but nothing about the mechanics of the situation changed thus making all of what was said phantasmic. Some time last year, Jackson asked his girlfriend of many years to marry him.

She said yes.

For a split second, the ghost howled its way back into my heart but I banished it and I congratulated him.

A few months later, in our first time speaking to each other in more than a year, Jackson said “I loved you and I still do. I don’t know how this is going to play out.” When he said it, something in the pit of my stomach tightened. I told him how unfair all of it is to his now-fiancé (who I suspect can’t possibly be totally oblivious to all this but it seems she has chosen to pretend she is). In all of this, I have learned that honesty, the whole truth, is the single most important aspect of a strong partnership. It is the only antidote I know of to distrust, dysfunction and shame. I hope that one day he will trust himself and her enough to be that honest, but right now, I really have to worry about myself.

I am no longer ashamed of my complicated relationship with him. The relationship was/is, and I’m not sure there is anything I can do to change that.  Today, I am still struck by the level of selfishness and convenient ignorance that both of us displayed for such a long period of time. But still, I learned.

I learned to express love – whether for yourself or another – means sometimes, letting go. I understand that my loving Jackson isn’t contingent on being with him or feeling like I have to stake a claim on him. I understand that he, and our relationship, are not property.

I know that so many people have a very dichotomous view of most things in this world – things are constructed in our minds as either “it is” or “it isn’t” – regardless of what “it” is – love, sex, wealth and so many other supposedly objective concepts are included in that. The older I get, the more I realize there are so many grey areas in places where we insist they should be black and/or white. There is no space for plurality, for acceptance of both shame and honesty. We see there mingling as impractical, requiring a little more stretching of the mind and heart than most of us are willing to do. But I finally know that an acceptance of our plurality is really our only chance at health. Without it, there can really be no healthy love of ourselves or anyone else. Without it, there can be no meaningful impact. I learned this late, but I’m thankful I learned it all.

Niama Sandy is a London-based Brooklyn-transplant of Caribbean heritage. She is a force to be reckoned with in any creative arena she sets foot – whether writing, music, fashion or photography. A graduate of Howard University’s illustrious School of Communications and current Masters student at the School of Oriental & African Studies, Niama is lifelong creator, lover, patron of the art of life.

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To The Bravest Man I Never Met

To the Bravest Man I Never Met:

I know that you’re out there, tortured and silent on a field or court, in a weight room, or addressing the media in front of a locker. It must be painful in ways I can barely begin to imagine. Living as a shell amongst men you consider your rivals, your colleagues, and your brothers. Many of them share a dream with you, sacrifice and toil with you, celebrate and revel with you, yet openly shun and curse you without even knowing what they’re doing. You’ve found the will to accomplish all that they have, while carrying a terrible burden. You are strong and brave beyond words for achieving and maintaining your place in your league. You deserve the pay, the fame, and the opportunity to live your childhood fantasies. You deserve everything that you have, and we deserve to know you, all of you.

You’ve undoubtedly spent a large portion your life creating or perpetuating a lie to shroud your natural elegant truth. You’ve hidden both your lust and your love from the world. You’ve abandoned, stifled, or at the very least concealed your deepest connections to other human beings. You’ve been forced to question a huge portion of your identity, to be treated as an abomination, and for what? For the sake of crude locker-room humor? So the most masculine men on the planet can parade their sexuality? For road trip runs to strip clubs in a lonely effort to cast aside all doubt? So your willfully ignorant bigoted peers can spew hateful bile in the media, and face nothing more than a public scolding?
I know a part of you wants to show us that you’re not ashamed, that you aren’t weak. I know that deep down you want to expose us all to the beautiful complexity you present. I wonder what you tell yourself. That it wouldn’t be worth it? That you’d put yourself and your loved ones at risk? That your unaware friends, family, teammates and coaches would feel betrayed and never trust you again? That your congregation will turn its back on you? That you’d be throwing your career away? That you’d be defined by your decision to speak out? I don’t doubt for a second that any or all of these fears could easily manifest. Still, I know you’re out there, terrified of the enormity of your potential.

We need you.

As a nation, as a culture, as a species we need you. Our collective consciousness rests at the precipice between collectively embracing the full spectrum of our humanity, or retreating back to a polarized world of purity and sin. We need you to push us, drag us if you must. We need you to begin to reopen the wound so we can drain out the poison we’ve been ingesting for generations. We need to stop losing brother, sisters, cousins, sons, daughters, uncles, aunts, friends, classmates, teammates, and lovers to suicide, depression, and self-destruction. We need to stop accepting religion and pseudo-science as excuses for destructive hatred. We need you to do what Tiger and Michael wouldn’t. We need to stop trying to fix you. We need your truth. We need your voice. We need your image.

We need you out.

How can I ask you to risk so much? Who am I to demand that you give up your anonymity, risk your career, and face the collective hatred of every homophobic piece of shit in America? How can I possess the audacity to demand that you place yourself and all that you love in harm’s way? On what righteous ground do I stand? The truth is that I have no right to murmur these thoughts, let alone publish them in the public domain. Please know that if these words ever reach your eye or ears that like almost all acts of love, my request is as selfish as it is selfless, and for that and nothing else I am sorry.

Ultimately I am just a stranger, one of millions waiting to embrace you, and all that you could represent. I’m waiting to listen to your interviews, read your memoir, rock your bracelet, and chant your name. Waiting to tell our children about where we were when you came out to the world. Waiting to watch you run, jump, swing, throw, tackle, or shoot. Waiting to forget why we even needed you in the first place.

Whenever you’re ready, we’ll be waiting.

Humbly yours,
- Parker

Matt Parker was born and raised in the Hudson Valley in NY where he attended Vassar and Bard in preparation for a life in the classroom. Matt has taught in Japan, the South Bronx, and Washington DC. He currently teaches biology to ELL students at TC Williams High School in Virginia.

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Fossilized — by Daren Jackson

I stood behind the one-way mirror and watched Shannon sitting on the couch. With the dull hum of rain hitting the window behind her, she absentmindedly flipped through an issue of Business Week, no doubt making mental notes. It was 8:57 A.M., and she was scheduled for a 9 o’clock appointment. I’d invite her in at 9, and we’d end at 9:50, promptly.

After thirty minutes of her catching me up on her previous week, she dropped this gem on me. “I hate the Starbucks culture.” She picked up her coffee cup from the end table. “Look at me. I’m sitting here drinking a Starbucks coffee because it is popular and convenient. Sure, it tastes great, but it was overpriced. And that’s annoying.” She sat tall in the chair. “It almost makes me purchase a more inconvenient, poorer quality coffee just to avoid it. But what really gets me, you know, what really gets under my skin? It’s the casualness of everyone there. The lattes, the laptops, the flip-flops … I can’t stand it. Especially how everyone looks ‘too cool for school’, like ‘I know I could be using my time more productively, but I choose to sit here wallowing in the aroma of roasted beans just because I can.’” It took her a moment to catch her breath. “Mostly though, I’m jealous of their ignorance. It really is bliss, you know? Some people just live life on such a superficial level,” she said shaking her head with squinted eyes. “That luxury has not been afforded to me.”

She had a way of going on about nothing sometimes, but it was her dime. “Is that what you want to discuss today? What you have missed out on in life?”

She looked up and to the right to find her answer. “Here is my real issue. I’ve always been a person full of drive. I’ve accomplished everything I’ve set out to do. But I’m turning 25 next month, and I’m stuck. Frozen.”

“Okay, let’s explore that. What does being ‘frozen’ mean to you?”

“I’m not sure how to explain this … well, have you ever seen that movie Jurassic Park?” I looked up from my notepad and peered at her over my frameless glasses. I didn’t make any audible reply; I just sat, legs crossed, trying to suppress that quizzical look I make sometimes. “Well, that’s kinda what my life has been like. I mean, not the dinosaur amusement park thing, but how they made the dinosaurs in the first place.”

“Mmm hmm,” I hummed.

“Remember? It was all possible because of fossils. They found mosquitoes fossilized in amber and used the DNA they had in them, plus extraneous reptile DNA, to recreate dinosaurs.” Shannon always spoke as if she was 100% confident in what she had to say, even if she wasn’t. Most people probably couldn’t pick up on this, but then again, I am a professional.

“Yes, but how does this relate to your feelings about your life?”

She huffed as if I had interrupted her in the middle of a rehearsed speech. “I’m getting there,” she said. “I grew up in L.A. I loved life and I loved my family and friends. My mom and I were really close. I still remember how she would sometimes sit me down to cornrow my hair on weekends. I’d fidget while strategically positioned on a pillow between her legs, and we’d talk about a million different things.” As she reminisced, she slightly cocked her head to the left and leaned forward off of the hulking leather chair. There was a vulnerability that I hadn’t seen from her before.

Progress, I wrote.

“She never missed any of my basketball games and she’d let me help her make dinner as long as my homework was done. That kitchen was so small that our butts would rub up against each other if either of us moved.”

“Okay,” I said. It could get painful listening to her diatribes and waiting for the point.

“Anyways, everything changed my junior year of high school. She thought she had finally found love.” Shannon paused, waiting for a response that I didn’t have. “She thought she found love, and he didn’t want me.” Her voice trailed to a whisper. The warmth drained from her face. “She had what she wanted, and it was like I had just become an obstacle to that.”

“How did that make you feel?” I said, leaning forward a bit in my chair.

“I was just lost for awhile. The pain was just too much and I didn’t know how to manage it. Then I went numb.” The braids on the top of her head started to fall over her face and she quickly pulled them back. She wrestled them into a ponytail as she continued. “I mean, she told me that I had to go. That I could take care of myself now. That I was grown. But, I didn’t have anywhere to go. And you can’t really support yourself on wages from an after-school job.”

“So what did you do?” I asked, a little bit more excitedly than I liked.

“I left California. Bought a bus ticket and headed to my aunt’s house here in Seattle. I still had goals that I wanted to accomplish and they had to take precedence over everything else. So, I turned myself off, set my sights on college, and threw everything else out the window.”

“That’s an amazing testament to your strength. Not to mention maturity.”

“I affectionately refer to that time as my ‘wilderness years’. My aunt wasn’t ready or even in the position to raise a child. She was rarely there. But she did keep a roof over my head. And at the time, that was the only thing I couldn’t do for myself.”

“Fascinating. How do you cope carrying that around with you? I’d imagine you’re not over it yet. It’s still so fresh.”

“I’m a new person now though,” she said straightening her shirt. “None of that means anything to me anymore. And to tell you the truth, I don’t even remember most of it.”

“I might do the same if I were in your position, but what about the life that you had built and had to leave behind? Seems there was a lot there that you cared about.”

“I basically had to let that life go. It wasn’t mine to have anymore. And that’s where Jurassic Park comes in. I’m a recreated version of me, with a few improvements. As far as I’m concerned, I was born at age 18.”

Peering over her head, I noticed that the clock read 9:54. “I’m glad you brought that full circle. We’re out of time right now, but I want you to think about this for next week. Does what happened to you affect you at all anymore? As people, we can suppress or hide a lot of things from ourselves and not even know how much it still affects us. Spend at least an hour this week just thinking and writing about how you feel and why. I’d really like you to fully come to terms with what you have experienced.”

She stood from her seat and extended her right hand. “Thank you Doctor Simms. I think this was a productive session. I always feel a little bit better after we talk.”

As I drove home through the Seattle rain that evening, I replayed the clients I had in my office that day. Kenny was having a hard time socializing and being honest with his co-workers. Sheila was having some struggles within her marriage and was contemplating divorce. Jonathon was just scared of life as a retiree. All of these cases were the usual. I’d seen people just like them before. All they really needed was an impartial party to help them get to the root of their feelings. Deep down, they already had the answers they were seeking.

Once I thought about Shannon though, I felt a little bit of a rush. She was a challenge. She was the test that I had been craving over the past few years since my practice had fallen into monotony. To anyone that might interact with her on a daily basis, she would seem perfectly exceptional. A faultless high-powered business woman in the tech industry. But underneath it all, there was so much unresolved and uncharted. Even with her success, she still felt that she hadn’t done enough. She still felt stagnant and bored with life. She needed a challenge as badly as I did and I was determined to crack her façade.

I stewed in silence for most of dinner. “Do you like the stroganoff, honey?” my wife Alicia asked.

“Yes. It’s lovely.” Half of the meal was still on my plate, but I hadn’t raised my head to look at my wife since I sat down. And she didn’t question me on it. She was nurturing in that way.

Even after dinner, once I moved to my office, she made sure to keep our 3 year old Maurice on the other side of the house. I appreciated the calm. I turned on some Mozart to help sort out my thoughts. And the nagging thoughts that I kept going back to were of my own childhood in rural Virginia.

Where I grew up, all of the homes had large plots, and my family had its own little farm with rows and rows of cornstalks and an assortment of fruits and vegetables. I have the most vivid memories of sitting on our front porch and inhaling the sweet aroma of our blueberry and raspberry bushes. And at the back corner of our house there was a peach tree that hung in a fashion that formed the perfect enclave.

I spent a lot of lonely humid afternoons under those branches, reading books, eating freshly picked peaches, and wiping the corners of my mouth with the back of my hand after each bite. There, I could retreat from a world that had not accepted me.

I always wanted to stick my nose in a book and my classmates wanted to rip and roar down the dusty dirt roads. I missed the boat on Motown and funk music. I wasn’t into sports, and I would have shook my head at talk of sneaking into the city to see a Blaxploitation film. On top of all of that, my mother insisted that I wear my brother’s hand-me-downs.

Even still, I wanted to belong. There was this whole culture and set of customs that I didn’t feel a part of, yet there was a daily reminder in the mirror telling me that I was supposed to. I wanted to be black like everyone else.

But I wasn’t. I wasn’t accepted.

One evening my father came home late from work at the factory. I could smell the beer trail behind him as he walked by me. I continued washing dishes, careful not to look his way. He pulled a bottle of beer from the refrigerator and popped the cap off.

“Antoine, come with me out back,” he said walking through the screen door. My father wasn’t much of a drinker, and I knew that this would not end well.

He was leaning against a post on the back porch looking out into the distance.

“Do you know what people say about us?” he asked.

“What do you mean?”

“What people say. You know, the sounds that come out of people’s mouths. The talk around town.”

“I don’t really pay attention to what other people think.”

“Don’t lie to me boy. You know one thing I can’t stand is a liar. You know full well what everyone around here says. And I’m getting tired of hearing it.” I watched him speak into the evening air and kept my hands clasped behind my back. I wondered how many drinks he had before he came home. “I hear people laugh under their breath at work. I see the strange look in people’s eyes when I go to the store. You’re too damn smart to not notice those things too.”

“Yes, sir. I’ve noticed.”

“And you don’t do anything about it?” He turned and started pointing at me with the beer bottle. “You just march along like this is normal?”

“What should I do sir?”

“What should you do? The smartest kid in the county is asking me how to solve a problem?” I wanted to take pride in that statement, but all I could feel was disappointment. “I love you, son. But you don’t make no sense. I was the captain of the football team for God sakes. I don’t understand how something like you came out of me.”

“I could try to be different. Maybe I can try out for the track team next year. Or at least be an aide for the sports teams. Momma promised to take me clothes shopping this summer too.”

“Nevermind. It’s no use. You are what you are. No sense in making the situation worse by forcing it.” He walked back to his post. “Dear God! Why couldn’t we have a normal child? Out of all the men in the county, how in the world did I get the white kid?”

I swallowed his words down to my gut. “Sorry, Pop.”

That night, those words repeated over and over in my head while I tried to sleep. They hurt, but my father was right. No matter how badly I wanted to be like everyone else, I wasn’t. And I was stupid to think that anything else could ever be the case. There was nothing I could do that would change who I was.

So when I left for college, I shook my father’s hand firmly before I boarded the Greyhound bus. I looked him right in the eyes and studied his face so that I would always remember it in that moment. We both knew we would never see each other again.

I had decided to embrace my lot in life. I still didn’t know how “Blackness” figured into my framework, but if I couldn’t understand myself, I could at least try to understand everyone else. I turned to the study of the human brain and social behavior. I stopped trying to understand what it meant to be Black and accepted the fact that I might be something else. Just like Shannon, I let my old life go. Antoine became Tony, and I built a life and a name I could be proud of.

“What’s on your mind, honey?” Alicia asked. We sat in the bed together while the 11 o’clock news played. I had been reading a book while she was talking back to the screen. “I know something is rattling around in there.”

“I was just thinking about my childhood. I had a patient today that triggered some memories.”

“Is there anything that you can share with me?”

“You know the rules,” I scolded. “Confidentiality. I can’t discuss it. Let’s just go to bed. It’s really no big deal.” I turned off the TV and we settled under the sheets.

It was two weeks later when I saw Shannon again. For once, the perennial Seattle showers had dried up and made way for simple overcast. There I stood with my hands behind my back, staring through the one-way mirror. Shannon sat on the couch with her legs crossed, rocking her leg back and forth like a metronome.

In the two weeks since our last session, I had been wrestling with myself, trying to think of the correct manner for handling this session. I’d been completely preoccupied with Shannon’s story, to the point that I would call it an obsession. Frequent, compulsive, and unhealthy. I needed relief.

“Doc,” Shannon started, “we had a really good session last time, and I really listened to what you had to say.”

“Ok, so did you do the activities that I asked?”

“Yeah, you said that I should take an hour to think about things by myself and write about it. So I did.”

“And what came out of that?”

“Well, I figured that I could just read what I wrote. That’s probably the best way to do it.” Shannon was more sheepish than usual.

“Ok. I think I would like that very much.”

She leaned down and pulled a folded piece of paper out of her purse. She slowly unfolded it and started reading. “I’m coming to realize that my past does affect me. Since I turned 18, I’ve tried to turn my back on all of the negativity that I’d been through. But the more I think about it, the more I realize that there are so many good things about those years that I’m blocking out too. And at the same time, all of those bad times still affect how I act. I still have a tough time with trusting people and I don’t share myself with anyone. As long as I try to block it all out, I’ll never really be myself. I’m just half of myself. Just a shadow of the real thing.”

“So, to use your terms, not a real dinosaur but just a clone.”

She chuckled. “Yes, you could say that.”

“This is very good progress. Now you need to figure out how to achieve what you just laid out. Are you comfortable with exploring that?”

“It makes me nervous to unlock that part of myself, but I know that if I don’t, I’ll never get better.”

“You are very courageous to face your problems head on like this. You should be proud.”

“I just realized that if I’ve been strong enough to weather my life and still be so accomplished, I am strong enough to deal with this. I can move on now.”

“Okay,” I smiled. “Now let’s go about the job of digging up the DNA.”

That night in bed, Alicia and I sat next to each other reading. But I could hear the words Alicia was trying to hold in through the silence. She had been steadily rubbing her feet together for the last ten minutes.

“If you do that any longer you are going to spark a fire,” I said.

“Sorry.”

“So, out with it. Go ahead and say what you want to say.”

She took a moment to respond. “I just wish that you could share your day with me like a normal husband, you know? Tell me about what you did, who you talked to, how you felt, any interesting happenings … I feel like there is so much of you that I don’t have access to.”

“How many times do I have to tell you? I took an oath of confidentiality. My work is private.”

“That’s not what I meant.” Alicia turned away from me and huddled under the covers.

I stared at the back of her head for a moment, then closed my book and put it in the drawer of my nightstand. I switched off the light and slid into bed. “Some things are just hard to let go of, you know?”

“It’s because you’re not really supposed to let anything go. When it’s all said and done, all we are is what we’ve experienced. You just diminish who you are when you try to separate yourself from some parts of your life. You should know that better than anybody with your line of work.” I didn’t like her attitude and I didn’t like that answer. I wanted to do much more than separate myself from my past. I wanted to erase everything that has hurt me. But she was right about one thing: my training has taught me how unhealthy that would be. “My mother always told me not to let anything go. To accept everything. She’d say, ‘You can throw away as many of your old things as you like; you’ll still hold onto them in your heart’.”

We laid there in silence for a few minutes, and I watched the VCR display blink. “Have you ever seen Jurassic Park?”

“What?”

“Jurassic Park. The dino-amusement park movie.”

“No, I always thought that was a dumb idea for a movie. Why?”

“It’s just … fossils are really intriguing. Through all of the wear and erosion and years of turmoil that they go through, they still end up being a great snapshot of the past. They don’t change and become something new; they are just a frozen moment in time.”

“What does any of that have to do with you opening up to me? I just want a whole husband.”

“Give me a sec. It all makes sense once I lay it all out.”

“Nevermind. Let’s just talk about this tomorrow, Tony. I’m tired.”

But I knew tomorrow would be just like the days before. We wouldn’t talk about it because I wouldn’t want to. Alicia would concern herself with our son or the groceries. Life would move on. But I would be stagnant. My father’s words would still sting, that final image of him would still stare back at me in the mirror, and I still wouldn’t be able to identify with it.

“Sure, honey.”

That was when I could finally see myself clearly, just like I could see my patients. I was stuck because I refused to move. And I still hurt because I wouldn’t let my wounds heal. I’d always wanted acceptance, but didn’t know what it would mean. And I was petrified.

As I laid there caressing my wife’s ivory arm, I wished that I had Shannon’s courage. I wished that I had dealt with my issues sooner, before they had become so deeply entrenched. If I had been able to become a whole person, I wouldn’t be living in this perfect prison of complacency as Tony the psychologist. But this is the life that I built, constricted by and compensating for my complexes. I try to prove my worth and establish my superiority, but a major part of me is still about to board a bus, looking my father in the eye and yearning for his approval. I am still Antoine. And under the stiff, cool sheets, I feel just as I did then: hurt, lost, indignant, confused and fossilized.

Daren W. Jackson is a budding writer and an aspiring novelist. Hailing from the USC business school, he works in market research by day and cradles a laptop by night. A few years ago, he jumped ship to attend UCLA’s Writing Program which he completed in 2011. Now, he is working on several writing projects including a novel and a few short stories. His critical analyses of music, fiction, and movies are hallmarks of his complex character while his writing prowess rivals that of many a published author. You can find his work on his blog at Water Cooler Convos.

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When Mass Murder is Really Just Mass Murder: Fully Exposing the Most Deceptive Viral Video of 2013 — by Gina Estelle

Are you seriously sharing this manufactured hyperbole? That was my first response to the viral Sandy Hook Fully Exposed Video that’s been making the rounds. I was only 5 minutes in and found several false assumptions and inaccuracies.  There were 3 guns on Lanza (Bushmaster rifle, a Glock 10 mm and a Sig Sauer 9 mm) and a shot gun capable of holding 20 rounds still in the car. Even the gun graphic at 4:00 provides the incorrect guns used. He shot himself with the handgun. The Bushmaster rifle was used to kill the children. http://www.cnn.com/2012/12/18/us/connecticut-lanza-guns/index.html Read about a child named Noah Pozner who had 11 bullets in his body and was buried without one of his hands and his jaw missing. Read about the multiple eye witnesses who said a man came in with a big long gun. Yes, the Bushmaster did that damage to him.

This should’ve been everyone’s first warning sign that the Fully Exposed video was a fraud. At the very beginning at the 0:18 mark, the text reads, “a lone gunman enter the school around 8:40am.” Not true, he entered the building at about 9:30am. The doors would’ve still been unlocked at 8:40, meaning he wouldn’t have had to shoot the glass to get in and students would’ve still be arriving. The schedule for Sandy Hook elementary is 9:10 Pledge of Allegiance, 9:15 outside doors locked. That’s extremely poor investigative skills right off the bat.

The “other shooters” were never confirmed and were a part of the media chaos and precautions taken by police to assure people found in the area at the time of the shooting were not involved. No one was ever arrested. He was cleared by police. That is why “the other shooter” was seen in the front seat of a police vehicle, not back. His name is Chris Manfredonia and his 6-year-old daughter attends Sandy Hook. Multiple reports confirm that he was “heading there Friday morning to help make gingerbread houses with first-graders when he heard popping sounds and smelled sulfur. He ran around the school trying to reach his daughter and was briefly handcuffed by police. He later found his child, who had been locked in a small room with a teacher.” http://articles.latimes.com/2012/dec/14/nation/la-na-1215-newtown-school-shooting-20121215
From there, the video questions, “wouldn’t frantic kids be difficult for Lanza to hit?” Really- not at all, when they’re piled into corners, bathrooms and closets hitting a child isn’t hard. Their only exit was blocked. They were easy targets for the most part even though some did escape by running. But isn’t that one of the pro-gun talking points that gun-free zones create sitting ducks? There are your ducks. Police didn’t arrive on the scene for 20 whole minutes from the first 911 call. From the knowledge gathered from the 4:00 mark in this video and my own research, it appears the handguns can shoot 5 bullets per second and the Bushmaster has the capacity to fire 800 bullets per minute. 20 minutes, 150 rounds of ammo from guns aimed at kids huddled together mere feet away, not that hard at all to explain. Lanza also wore earplugs, probably a habit carried over from being at gun ranges with his doomsday prepper mom. It doesn’t take a skilled marksman when that many bullets are spraying that fast in such a small close range area.

The video refers to autistic people as psychos … real nice, implying they would have sub-par intellect, skill and violent tendencies. There is absolutely NO link to murder and this kind of violence to autism. Secondly, they assume that would make him a bad shot. Quite the contrary, if one knows anything about autism, they would know they can be highly intelligent and meticulous, some or pure geniuses. Especially, Asperger teens like Lanza who spent plenty of time at shooting ranges with his mother and playing video games, which have been proven to increase a child’s hand-eye coordination by scientist.

http://kotaku.com/5647176/how-video-games-reorganize-your-brain

Moving right along, onto Robbie Parker the father of a slain child. It’s a disgusting allegation that he was faking. Speak to grief counselors and tell me how they describe mourning parents. Everyone mourns differently and the process can exhibits different responses at different phases. Why anyone would take this video creator’s amateur psych commentary serious is beyond me. The video shows other parents, at the 14:50 mark with the McDonald family, who are talking about the good times with their child including special memories and their faces light up, no sound is provided I wonder why. Look up the real videos. Better yet, go here and read more words from a distraught heartbroken parent. https://www.facebook.com/RememberingAna?ref=ts&fref=ts These people lost their hearts that day, now you need video proof of their tears? Robbie Parker didn’t create the FB page as it CLEARLY states. Then there’s the hilarious claim that there can be only one Robert Parker living in Newtown and he’s 57 years old. There are nearly 5 MILLION people named ‘Robert Parker’ in the US! http://howmanyofme.com/search/

Also, around the 11:00 mark the picture that is supposedly Emilie Parker with the President, is her younger sister! Kids grow and their younger siblings get their clothes, especially the clothes of their dead big sisters. Her sister was barely a year younger than her and all 3 of the Parker girls look so much alike. They say the family photo was taken the same day when it obviously was not. All of the girls are bigger now than in that family photo. If you look at the hair length of her mother in the family picture you will see it is much longer in the Obama picture. The family photo in question is from last year. Here are tons of photos from the family, even ones from the family shoot where Emilie is wearing the dress that her little sister is now wearing in the photo with the president. Her outfit is not even completely the same. Her little sister is wearing her dress, but with different colored stockings and shoes. So, they made her change her stockings and shoes, but that’s all? That seems like a stretch. For all the disbelievers, please view these photos and stop with the nonsense. https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?v=4897287162081&set=vb.137842566368193&type=2&theater

The story from Gene Rosen checks out. Eugene Rosen is 69 years old, not 62 like some conspiracy links say when trying to defend the claim that he is a member of SAG. He is not. The man is a retired psychologist, who worked at the Fairfield Hills Hospital. Check into it yourself or provide solid evidence. Students were reported running past Lanza from Miss Soto’s class. 5 of the 16 kids in her class were slain, not all. The bus driver probably did drop them off at the Fire Dept. The loud man was likely a volunteer fire fighter. They were at the edge of his driveway which is connected to the fire & rescue station. He likely had a relationship with the Fire & Rescue station personal due to the proximity of his home. During the shooting, I’m sure all of them were already at the scene assisting rescue and you can see the fire trucks all at the scene in video footage. And obviously he did notify police since parents picked children up at his house. There are more interviews of him to verify the rest of his story besides this 2 minute interview. He took them in because he is a retired psychologist and likely felt comfortable and eager to do so.

The medical examiner video criticism is lame. He examines dead bodies for a living; he is not a professional speaker. They can’t all be Cyril Wecht. He doesn’t owe the media anything. Don’t you suppose working with dead bodies for years could make a person a little hardened?
The 20:00 mark shows slowed down video from the shooting that was taken much later in the day than the speaker is trying to make you believe. I believe hours later. There is earlier footage that conflicts his claim. There were no ambulances at the school at that time because of that reason, but there were ambulances at the fire & rescue station at the end of the school driveway. There is earlier footage available with ambulances present closer to the actual school building. Now, why would you need an ambulance for people who died hours ago? Adam Lanza tried to make sure each was riddled with enough lead to confirm their death upon immediate inspection by emergency personnel. Each victim had at least 3 bullets in them. The slain remained in the building into the evening. Hundreds of parents had already arrived in this shot. There was a sole survivor, the vice principal who was wounded and we will probably hear more from her.

As far as the dates being off for searches on Google, that’s been easily explained. If you use a date-restricted search of a subject it can pull up many stories being posted beforehand. The dates prepended to Google search result entries are imprecise and do not always accurately reflect the date on which the referenced material first appeared on the web. Try it with a story you are positive is true and enter a date range.

Now, do you honestly believe this is a hoax? No one is dead? An inside job? That’s ludicrous and easily defunct. Are we to believe that, in such a small town, all the victims and their families were plants from outside, actors who no one had ever seen before and had given up the children they love? If no one knew any of the victims, wouldn’t this have come out? Look up Hartford Courant, Waterbury Republican local CT newspapers for pictures of funerals and better footage. Look at the funeral masses that were covered in the news. So all that is fake & actors too?? Maybe this video creator won’t believe in mass shooting until he or a loved one is victim to one. Why should it take that? I think we should just start showing dead bodies of 6 and 7 year olds for this to really sink in. Let’s also show the 530 dead kids in Chicago from gun violence during the last 4 years too! Or any of the 5,740 dead American children from 2008-2009. For people to post this for the grieving parents to see is absolutely disgusting to me. Why is it easy for some people to believe that this was an inside job in a plot to repeal the 2nd amendment when that still hasn’t been proposed by our Commander in Chief? Didn’t he just have 4 years to do that?

Another theory I heard was that Sandy Hook was a plot by the NRA to instill fear and paranoia amongst gun owners in order to garner financial support. Some people find that more believable. 1 Timothy 6:10 (NIV), 10 – “For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.” This past week, the NRA reported to having 100,000 new members since the Newtown shooting. That’s between $3.5 to $100 million dollars in pure revenue in less than a month to them depending on the membership level (a year for $35/a lifetime for $1000). No one has financially benefited more than the $12-billion-a-year gun industry of manufacturers and retailers since this awful massacre. When will people realize the NRA is just a front for the manufactures/sellers to drive sales, even if it’s through insane fear-mongering? They stand behind guns makers and sellers, not gun owners. Research what these manufacturers gift to the NRA a year. The NRA spent $17.4 million lobbying last year’s election alone, mostly unsuccessfully. Just look at the drastic increase in sales and memberships after every single mass shooting. The industry has learned that the more controversy there is about guns, the more guns sell, whether it’s a legitimate controversy over a bill, or a trumped-up one like, ‘Obama’s been re-elected, they’re going to take away our guns.’

Personally, I find both theories completely atrocious. Ones emotions can play on ones ability to logically debate these theories. The Sandy Hook Fully Exposed video is the worst of the worst. I don’t believe the current administration was in on it at all, nor do I believe the NRA was. I think they’re both using the shock value of 20 dead innocent (mostly white) children to bring about the change they want. Final verdict – this is a bunch of malarkey. The media has helped produce and sustain our gross obsession with “breaking news” and some conspiracy theorists, like the ones behind the Sandy Hook Fully Exposed video, know how to manipulate that obsession and play us like fools.

Gina can reached at YouKnowImRight412@gmail.com

 

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Under the Gun: The Voices of Men in a Time of Violence — by Lisa Hiton

I was buried in finals at the library when a voicemail from my mother’s work phone arrived.  It is rare that she calls me from anything but her cell phone, so with slight panic in my gut, I listened carefully:

It’s just one of those days I just need to hear your voice even if it’s your voicemail…I can’t stop thinking about those families in Connecticut…I loved all of your childhood years and I love all of your current years…I can’t imagine being one of those parents…I just wanted to tell you how much I love you…

To me, the message was cryptic—I hadn’t heard anything yet, but I could tell from the voicemail that there had been another shooting and with the mention of my childhood, I became intensely anxious about what I would find getting online.  A shooting at Newtown Elementary School in Connecticut, son kills his own mother, her students, and then himself.  Paralyzed by shock and horror, I searched for more information, more voices on the situation.  I listened to Press Secretary Jay Carney address the press, how a man asked him about how the event would impact gun control laws going forward, to which Carney replied “I’m sure there will be a day for discussion of the usual Washington policy debates, but I don’t think today is that day”; I listened to President Barack Obama’s public statement—how he was responding first and foremost as a father, and most loudly, the pauses he took to compose himself and catch his voice; I listened to Lieutenant Paul Vance of the Connecticut State Police describe the tactics with which the police force entered the school building.  I wasn’t sure exactly what I hoped to find in researching the day’s events, but the impulse to hear the voices of others seemed human in the most basic sense, and all of the voices available belonged to men.

We are in the darkest days of the year, the solstice around the corner.  I left the library and walked to my apartment.  In the dark grey Cambridge light, the smell of leaves.  It has been too warm this December, I thought, too much like late fall in the Midwest.  I thought back to my first days of school in Deerfield, Illinois: excited by my new teachers and friends, by my new backpack and folders, by new games at recess.  And I remember feeling differently in middle school.  I remember Columbine and being afraid as I walked through the hallways in the following weeks.  I remember thinking that trench coats were for hiding guns.  I remember learning the word disenfranchised.

In all of the killing sprees that come to mind from Columbine until now, I am thinking of men with guns.  And adult men who belong to male-dominated institutions who respond to these killing sprees.  As a woman and teacher, I’m unsure of what to make of the pattern: what is it about men and this kind of violence?  This question leads to many other questions about gender, about the relationship between parents and their children, about cultures of violence, etc.  So what do I do with this information going forward?  Basic logic leads to the usual places in the instance of reflecting on a school shooting: consider what policies exist and how they might change to better insure the safety of people, think about the relationships I have with my colleagues and students and how they might facilitate peaceful citizenship, etc.  But those logical paths do not comfort me.  They do not ask others to engage in this complex dialogue about the relationship to this way of thinking and responding and what it might have to do with how we do or do not cultivate values and behaviors in a gendered way instead of an engendered one.  Because the larger question in all of this: why does extreme male depression manifest this way—in rage, in homicide?

I’m sure there are exceptions in each situation of these shootings: of mental illness, circumstances, cause of motives, etc.  But what of that commonality—that the behavior belongs to these disenfranchised boys?  Moments of loss challenge our identities as individuals and as collectives because we have to evaluate our own intellectual and emotional response to the alarming actions that befall us.  “These neighborhoods are our neighborhoods”, said Obama referring to our responsibility as a country to account for those lost in these events.  And so too, these boys are our boys.  And I would like to learn how to account for that truth also.

Though I find a relieving authenticity in Obama’s tears, or Carney’s desire to defer the conversation about gun laws in honor of the affected families, I worry about what’s embedded in those censored, silent matters beyond the moment—it encourages a prolonging of those “usual Washington policy debates”, a day many Americans have actually been waiting for since Columbine, or since the assault weapon ban expired, or since Aurora, Wisconsin, and Oregon.  What is absent in the public dialogue—the one being explicated by these male voices—is similar to what might be missing from the lives of these shooters: complexity, comfort, empathy.  In favor of male reticence so dangerously sentimentalized in our day-to-day lives (from our own dinner tables to the novels we teach in schools, to what we see in media), we have silenced the voices of empathy, have taken power away from their value.

So what will it take to change the dialogue?  The things that my school and country say—the things floating in the airwaves—are not going to greatly reduce such atrocities.  Remember to be vigilant; if anything looks suspicious… And sure, this is part of encouraging accountability, but these simple ideas of safety are no match for the potential violence our teachers, students, and citizens can and will be faced with in this climate.

There is more to be researched, written, and explicated—many books to write, many cases to study, many lives to save.  No one person can answer these questions alone—we need a multiplicity of voices.  As a teacher myself, I think very carefully of the works I include in my syllabus.  My students are unknowing consumers in the world.  If you are what you eat, and most of your consumption belongs to Call of Duty, hunting, or coping with unequal power in the streets of your neighborhood, then I would like to help you counter that, and so, my purpose in teaching is to help students consume beauty.  It might seem too small or too lofty that if people take their dose of poetry for the day, then violence will be abated or at least our relationship to it will change.  But I can cultivate a space in which we consider beauty and in which we learn to empathize with complex characters in our books and in each other.  And if I can get that right in my classroom with my students, then maybe when they leave, those values will make them more conscious, more awake in their homes, their neighborhoods, and then the world.   This is to say that I believe if you take your doses of poetry, it will be much harder to let your hands kill instead of create, hold, or love.  That if you’ve thought about your raisons d’être—be they your mother, making the world better, survival, graduating college, having your own family, being a better father than yours was, taking care of a sibling—it will be much more difficult to kill.  That if you give power and time to beauty and empathy, the world you occupy will beam with it.

The effort toward this way of spending my hours with my students is not just about beauty or intellect: it is about cultivating voice—those in the art and literature as well as my students’ voices in response to the content of those texts.  It isn’t enough to be a culture that values, say, Mozart, German poetry, and the like, for this is the kind of thinking that has led to trouble before, has led to the banality of evil.  The Nazis were famously literate, but intellect alone has never been the thing to save us as individuals or as a culture.  Becoming a culture of reflection, a culture of aware voices: that is the change to make.  Of all the things missing from the public dialogue and from the lives of young boys that I named before (complexity, comfort, empathy), it seems without them, voice cannot be enabled at the level of the individual, and therefore the collective is one of staunch reticence.  I responded most strongly to Obama’s very few, soft tears because we are in a culture of severe male reticence, and those tears, more than what Obama said, finally stood for Obama himself—Obama the parent, Obama the grieving man, not the politician.

And so the large question—the one I’ve raised about severe male depression in relation to rage, the one that will take many mental health professionals, psychologists, cognitive studies scholars, and cultural studies leaders to help us begin to answer—is one, more broadly, about making voice vital and relevant in a time of reticence.  For isn’t reticence a version of silence, of censorship?  And isn’t censorship one version of quiet violence?  I am thinking of the voices I heard today, and imagining what’s to come in the next few weeks, and it seems my impulse to write this is because as a teacher who will be a bit anxious walking the halls of school, just like I was as an eighth grader after Columbine, the composure of these men—in their way of speaking without allowing their own feelings and reflections to be visible—while quite diplomatic, does not feel deeply human, does not match the visceral sadness, anger, and fear that have entered the mind and body of us all.

Of all the voices, the one that I come back to is my mother’s: I just need to hear your voice.  It is that voice which makes me feel both comfort and urgency.  It is in that voice where I feel relevant.  It is in that voice I find a corrective to my lost hope.  It is in that voice—the one that wants to love, protect, and remember—where I return to feel safe.

Lisa Hiton received her MFA from Boston University.  She was a Robert Pinsky Teaching Fellow and co-curator of the reading series, Writers at the Black Box.  Her essays and poems have been published or are forthcoming in the Indiana Review, DMQ Review, elephantjournal, toridotgov.com, and Redivider among others. She is a current nominee for the Pushcart Prize. 

 

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Black Regions of the Imagination — by Eve Dunbar

– Excerpt from Black Regions of the Imagination –

After making the nearly eight-hour flight from New York’s Kennedy Airport to Paris’s Charles de Gaulle International Airport, I was plagued by the sneaking suspicion that everyone in Paris spoke English, but none of them would do so with me.  My suspicions were fueled by the myth that French people will speak English only once an American stumbles over a few French phrases: “Bon-jore. Como tah-lay vu? Par-lay vu inglays? I don’t speak French” (said with sheepish grin).  This myth casts the French as a perverse group of people who measure their national superiority by the yardstick of American linguistic ineptitude.

Walking through Charles de Gaulle, there were moments when I was convinced it was true. Every sign in the airport had subscript in English directing one toward various methods for travel away from Charles de Gaulle: they wanted to give me just enough English to hang myself because once I made it out of the airport, only God knew how I would navigate Paris proper.

Signs or no signs, for me, as I’m sure it is for many Americans of a particular class background, there was something entirely overwhelming and frightening about leaving the United States and finding myself in a country where I did not speak the language.  I know that admitting this is tantamount to admitting one is illiterate in a room full of literature teachers.  I suppose my identity as an American academic is supposed to lift me above the masses of provincial Americans and deliver me into the bosom of the cosmopolitan elite.  But for better or worse, I became generic American in France.  This is not a profound observation, I know.  But on this particular trip to Paris, the relationship between internationalism and nationalism was at the forefront of my thoughts.

I was in Paris to deliver a paper at the International Richard Wright Centennial Conference, which was hosted by the American University of Paris.  This conference was one of many centennial events held during 2008 to commemorate the fact that in 1908 Richard Wright had been born on a plantation near Natchez, Mississippi.  Richard Wright was born less than half a century after the Thirteenth Amendment’s ratification ended U.S. slavery, and in some ways his life stands as testament to the United States’ ability to reinvent itself.  In less than fifty years, the former prison house of black human chattel counted among its citizens one of the most prominent writers of the twentieth century.  This writer also happened to be the grandson of black American slaves.  American exceptionalism encourages us to look upon the facts of Wright’s life and stand astounded that it took only two generations to “turn” a slave into a great American writer.

Yet buying into the narrative of American exceptionalism requires that we blind ourselves to harsh realities of black life in the United States from post-emancipation and into the twentieth century: Jim Crow, urban poverty, racism, underemployment, high infant mortality, and so on. Richard Wright, unable to reconcile his sense of his own humanity with the historical reality of state-sanctioned inequality under which most blacks lived during the early twentieth century, spent his life critiquing the myth of American racial progress and arguing that it was the very notion of American exceptionalism that retarded such progress.

Wright honed an artistic vision of America as a nation imperiled by its refusal to admit black humanity.  His responsibility, he felt as an artist, was to represent the negative realities that were generated by such a national incapacity.  In his critically acclaimed novel Native Son (1940), Wright centralized his protagonist’s social retaliation upon the realization that Bigger Thomas’s human potential would be forever denied by white power structures.  Native Son is his graphically violent imagining of how black inhumanity is created by U.S. racism and racial inequity.  Bigger’s fear, flight, and fate are dictated by the destructive American racial landscape of which he is a product.  In responding to one critic’s negative review of the violence in Native Son, Wright retorted:

            If there had been one person in the Dalton household who viewed Bigger Thomas as a human being, the crime would have been solved in half an hour. Did not Bigger himself know that it was the denial of his personality that enabled him to escape detection so long? The one piece of incriminating evidence which would have solved the “murder mystery” was Bigger’s humanity, and the Daltons, Britten, and the newspaper men could not see or admit the living clue of Bigger’s humanity under their very eyes![i]

For Wright, more destructive than Bigger’s murders is the racist nation that makes such deeds inevitable.  Bigger murders because he is black and poor; and he nearly gets away with it because he is black, poor, and not human in the eyes of white people.

As James Baldwin would point out on numerous occasions, Wright’s literary rendering of black inhumanity was disingenuous due to Wright own unwillingness to accept the reality of black humanity. Trapped within the framework of protesting the beliefs and actions of the nation’s racial majority, Wright found little solace in representing the African American capacity to manage, live, and even flourish within the confines of a racist America.  And why would he?  From the Three-Fifths Compromise of 1787, which codified slaves into a human-property hybrid worth three-fifths of a human life, to the Jim Crow laws, America had historically neither fostered nor accepted black humanity.  As Wright stated in his posthumously published autobiographical novel, American Hunger, as the grandson of slaves, he was never able to be human in the United States: “What had I got of out living in the south,” he writes. “What had I got out of living in America? I paced the floor, knowing that all I possessed were words and dim knowledge that my country had shown me no examples of how to live a human life.”[ii]  It was this quest for humanity, to live a life in which he felt fully human, that drove Wright first from the American South, then from Chicago, and then from New York to Paris.

It is rather common knowledge that Paris was the space in which Wright felt most free to explore and embrace his humanity.  Still, he never fully learned French during the time he lived in France.  If language is tied to national belonging, as many of the American ideological Right would have us believe, then Wright’s failure to fully embrace the language of the country that “freed” him speaks to his deep failure to take root there.  From 1947 to his untimely death in 1960, Richard Wright lived outside the confines of the United States and wrote fiction, essays, travel narratives, and thousands of haiku.  His years of self-exile were years of experimentation in literary form and an opening up of the content of his literary production to the world.  Confined neither by the geography of the United States nor narratives of the American racial landscape, throughout the 1950s Wright produced texts with topics as far-ranging as the decolonization of the Third World, Spanish fascism, and middle-class black life in Mississippi and Chicago; he produced this array of writings in order to expand his world beyond the family plantation in Natchez.

And one hundred years after his birth, on a train heading into Paris to attend a conference meant to celebrate the international turn in his work, I was haunted by Wright’s birthplace: Mississippi, U.S.A.  And even though Wright wrote—screamed to the world—“I am a rootless man!,” it was always hard for him to shake the United States.

The United States, both the concept and the place, was hard for me to shake, as well.  Because even in France, especially in France, I kept sight of the self that was created when my grandmother gave me my family’s story, one of the few keepsakes that has been passed down over generations: I must always remember that I am the great-great-great granddaughter of a black woman who was owned, who toiled on a South Carolina farm for the man who fathered but never recognized her children.  The mundane trauma of that keepsake stays with me, and was reflected back at me through the windows of every Parisian storefront I passed.  That keepsake is partially what motivates me to read, analyze, and write about the works of other American descendants of slaves who walked, thought, and wrote abroad.

So while I was officially in Paris to consider the significance of America, Paris, and elsewhere in the writing of one America’s most important native sons and daughters, Wright’s writing is just one of many things that compels me to examine African Americans in the world.  These two concepts, “African American” and “the world,” are at odds sometimes, but examining how various writers have lived and written works of art that bridge this spatial and imaginative chasm prompt me to ask and attempt to answer a variety of questions in this book.  How have African Americans written about their travels around the world or their relationships with other blacks around the world, their nation, and, most important, themselves?  How do African American writers attempt to tell the stories of their travels in a way that fortifies their souls?  Is self-fortification possible in the face of a predominantly white readership that expects to “know” something about black people from reading black-authored texts?  These are some of the questions that motivate this study, questions that I imagine haunted the African American traveler-writers who populate this book.

[i] Richard Wright, “I Bite the Hand That Feeds Me,” Atlantic Monthly [vol.] (June 1940), 828.

[ii] Wright, American Hunger (New York: Harper Perennial, 1993), 452–453.

Buy Black Regions of the Imagination here.

Eve Dunbar is the author of Black Regions of the Imagination: African American Writers Between the Nation and the World (Temple University Press 2012), which explores the aesthetic and political ties that bind literary genre, American nationalism, and black cultural nationalism in the literary works of mid-20th century African American writers.

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Uncle Roscoe’s Quest For the $340.20 LeBron James Shoes (Cold Drank Version)

Less than an hour ago, I was in the middle of the Poughkeepsie Galleria Finish Line, determined to pay $340.20 for the new LeBron “Kang” James X sneakers. My decision to pay $50.20 more for a pair of sneakers than the minimum wage employee in Mississippi makes in a week wasn’t at all impulsive. Skip Bayless, the hating members of my family and hate-ish friends on Facebook made my decision to buy the Kang X’s less of a trek in excess and more of a quest fueled by the hate that hate produced.

 “These the LeBrons?” I asked the tiny saleswoman helping me at Finish Line and held up a $150.00, blood red size 13 with a black swoosh and a glowing green bottom.

I learned that the X’s hadn’t come out yet, that I was holding a special Liverpool edition IX. “The X’s won’t be nearly as expensive as people think,” the saleswoman told me. “The most expensive pair will probably be around $290.” She looked down at my ashy ankles and my dusty green suede Pumas. “You’re buying these IX’s for someone else, huh?”

“Yep,” I lied and paid $169.75 for the shoes and two pairs of green and black shoelaces. “My little cousin loves him some Bron-Bron.” I fake laughed and walked out of Finish Line having paid $170.45 less than I had hoped to.

By the time I made it to the parking lot of the Galleria, I was bubbling in guilt. I made the wrong decision. I figured that paying $169.75 for sneakers that probably cost less than $15.67 to make in China should be shameful. I also wondered what special outhouse in hell awaited those of us who made it possible for Nike to make more of its popular “Lazy But Talented” t-shirts. As I drove into the parking lot of my building, I actually pondered organizing a boycott of overpriced Nikes on Facebook called “Living Beyond the Swoosh.”

Organizing a boycott felt like the right thing to do, but how could I “live beyond the swoosh” and still rock these dope red, black and green customized Dunks I got a while ago?

The boycott ain’t happening.

***

I’m home now and the IX’s are so much more beautiful under the soft light of my apartment than they were at Finish Line. Plus, the soles literally smell like bleeding birch trees. When I put the shoes on my sockless feet, not only do I feel like a certified member of the Kangdom; but I feel, even just for a second, like I’m capable of occupying that space beyond greatness, too. Instead of organizing a boycott of Nike, I decide to take a picture or video of myself rocking the red Nike IX’s, baggy black shorts and a black hoodie from Wal-Mart. I’m determined to place the photo or video on Facebook with a caption that reads, “I’ma let all y’all hating-ass Kang-haters finish hating, but the LeBron ‘Kang’ James shoe, like LeBron ‘Kang’ James, has a chance to be the greatest of all time. All time!”

I’m rehearsing what else I’m going to write to the haters on Facebook. I convince myself that it doesn’t make any sense to pinpoint the ways that LeBron James or his Nikes might be complicit in urban decay when the net worth of black families in the U.S. is only $5000.00. If we really wanted to find ways to stop young brothers from hitting other young brothers upside the head for Jordans and LeBrons, we would find a way to increase black familial net worth to more than 15 pairs of LeBron X’s, wouldn’t we? Plus, when the best players in the world design and brand $100.00, $200.00 and $300.00 shoes, why wouldn’t a kid who comes from a similarly maligned place, who listens to similarly maligned music and speaks a similarly maligned language, want to literally walk to and from in those similarly maligned shoes? Hell, there’s very little maligned about the typical hipster’s life or style, and even they’ve made the $69.99 Nike Dunk a veritable part of their uniform.

“Don’t hate the player,” I say for the first time in my life, looking down at my blood red LeBron James Nikes. “Hate the game.”

I’m so 2002.

I walk in front of the long mirror next to the bathroom with clunky self-righteousness swinging from my neck like cubic zirconia. I’m bouncing in front of the mirror trying to do the dance LeBron did near the end of Game 5 against the Thunder.

We have a problem.

I want the slimming mirror to emphatically state that, “Fuck them haters! Fuck them h—!” Instead, it contorts and whispers, “Uncle Roscoe, you need to sit yo down somewhere.”

Somehow, some way, I have eaten and aged my way out of looking like a baller and now I resemble a baller’s overweight Uncle Roscoe. Uncle Roscoe does not bounce. Uncle Roscoe quakes. A quaking Uncle Roscoe in new blood red LeBron James IX’s is not a good look at all.

Now I have another problem. How does Uncle Roscoe responsibly get rid of a pair of brand new, blood red LeBron James sneakers in a city with mounds of violence and a bruising fascination with the color red?

I’m thinking about throwing my new shoes in the dumpster, but I respect the Kang and my $169.75 too much to do that. I could take the shoes back to Finish Line, but that would feel like a victory for Skip Bayless and the millions of Kang haters. I start to wonder for the first time if LeBron James feels any anxiety at all, not simply about branding shoes that could lead to even slightly more violence in American cities that resemble Akron, but also about not branding dope t-shirts and Armstrong-style bracelets that read “Our people over your profits” or “National Defense = Championships, but Public Education = Saved Lives.”

Seems like the right thing to do, the right decision to make, but would anything change?

I think about all the work LeBron has done with the Boys and Girls Club of America and how he’s made a number of his friends from Akron millionaires. I think about the way he rocked the hoodie after Trayvon Martin was murdered. Those decisions, like his decision to take a pay-cut while moving his talents to South Beach, seem like the right thing to do. It’s only a matter of time, I tell myself, before every LeBron Nike is less than $99.99 and comes with a note saying, “Thanks for wanting to walk in my shoes. Do something great to help people in them. Be imaginative. Be careful. Kang.”

***

After an hour of going through my phone, I narrow the possible recipients of my new red LeBron IX’s to Prescott Saunders, a 48 year-old He-Man who can still shoot 30 foot 3’s and catch 360’s with ease or my boy, “Air Dave,” a Baron Davis lookalike with audacious defense and equally audacious experiences in the penitentiary.

Before calling Prescott or Air, I write on Facebook, “Anybody in the Poughkeepsie area want a brand new pair of size 13 Lebron James sneakers? Not sure I can be held responsible if u get hit upside the head for them though.”

Six comments in, Kang-hater extraordinaire, Maurice “Mo” Elrod, my smooth, college teammate and creator of highschoolhopeful.com, writes, “Send them to a real hooper.” I’m reading Mo’s comment and thinking about how he spent the last two years refusing to admit that the Kang did more with less in Cleveland than even Jordan could have.

Three comments later, I write “… It would be poetic justice for me to offer you the Kang’s sneakers, given your hate … uh, I mean, potent criticism of his game.”

Seven comments later, Mo writes, “Never hate. Just the truth! I’ll send you my address. Good looking, homie!”

Mo and the rest of the Kang-haters haven’t said much about LeBron’s overpriced X’s this Summer and Fall, but I’m sure they’ll continue to critique LeBron James this season as a decidedly “talented” freak with a teeny clutch gene. And of course, they’ll create opportunities to tell the world that the Kang has no chance at catching Jordan, that KD is on his heels, that the Kang is the most mentally fragile superstar in history, and that rings are the only measure of greatness. And of course they’ll neglect the fact that no other player in the modern NBA era has led an undersized team with an injured third option, a gimpy second option and a 41 year-old coach to an NBA title.

But deep in the darkness of their homes, after Skip and them have tossed their powder in the air and hopped into their LBJ pajama sets, they’ll readily admit to their partners or the LBJ bobblehead under their pillow that LeBron James worked himself into becoming the only basketball player in the world for whom the word “greatness” is too small. They might even admit that Skip Bayless telling LeBron James that, “Now you can call yourself King,” is as loony as someone thirty cents away from a quarter telling Oprah Winfrey, “Now you can call yourself the queen of a media empire.”

Uncle Roscoe’s quest for the $340.20 LeBron James X reveals that we Americans will do any and everything with our money, our hate, our bodies and our adulation to form a relationship with that space beyond greatness. Shamefully, it also reveals that we have more in common with the few human beings occupying those spaces than I thought.

Far more extraordinaire than a 6’8, 260 pound point guard/small forward/power forward, defensive center, who eviscerated a healthy Thunder team while only making seven shots outside the paint, is the American who routinely puts a passionate concern for the future of young people over profit. I have met a few of those Americans, too, in Mississippi, Ohio and New York, and no one was asking for their autograph.

Right now, I am not one of those Americans. Are you? Seriously. If Nike offered you between $93,000,000 to sell shiny overpriced shoes to young black and brown kids, what would you do? How right would you make your decision?

It’s complicated, right? It always is.

The truth is that most of the young brothers who acquire the new LeBron X’s will get them the same way I acquired my red IX’s; some how, some way, they will buy them. This doesn’t stop me from neatly placing a scribbled note inside the Nike box I send to Maurice Elrod. “I’m glad you’re becoming a member of the Kangdom,” I write. “Seriously though, be careful, homie. Folks are doing anything to walk in these shoes. Be careful.”

It won’t make much of a difference at all, for reasons far bigger than the NBA or this essay, but it feels like the right thing to do.

 

 

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Not Everyone Can be Healed, But Everyone Can be Helped — by Maximo Granzotti

I am 29 years old, a visual artist, and this month I started medical school. Over the last few weeks I’ve felt alienated from many things about the process that I’ve studied my way into. The social ignorance of my classmates is hard at times. The political landscape change that comes with moving from a life in New York City to Atlanta is disorienting. Things that are obvious to me are not as clear here. Prisoners should be given organ transplants as though they were regular patients on waiting lists, not second-class citizens. Apparently there are those who disagree with this. I find that unbelievable, and it makes me want to go revolutionary on them.

An older doctor came to speak with us this week. He’s a short Jewish man from Virginia, wearing a seersucker blazer and walking on a cane. He was talking about the HIV epidemic, of which he was the first person in Atlanta to take seriously. He remembers seeing an unexplained case in the late 70’s in a medical student that he later realized was likely HIV. In the early years, as a new disease became apparent, he was one of the few if only people working on it in Atlanta. People were dying and they had no idea how to help. He said that his colleagues shunned him in the hallways because he worked with those patients; what if infection came from contact? Or the air? The local university told him to keep those patients outside of their hospital system, both because they were dangerous and at that time mostly gay white men. He said that if he had a gun there are a number of people he would shoot for what they did, for the human beings that they abandoned on his doorstep. He said that in retrospect he was ashamed that he wasn’t more of an activist, and even more ashamed that he didn’t realize at the time how the disease was quietly beginning to devastate the black community. This wasn’t false humility; he wore that shame like a raw wound.

We’re being taught to preserve our own health, to be careful of burnout, and to not give so much of ourselves that we get lost. He said he did none of those things, and each day he went in and gave his soul to his patients, and each day he left with less of it. For 7 years throughout the 80′s he worked 12-hour days, 7 days a week, trying to understand and apply new treatments to his people. He said that when he was a kid he called people sissies and queers, not thinking about them as sexual beings, but simply as people who were different in the wrong way. And when the disease exploded in that community he had to change himself and learn to care for them in ways that made him grow, but also made him realize how awful he had been.

He had a patient who had likely contracted HIV from her husband, her only sexual partner. She knew she was HIV positive, and they tried earlier AZT drugs on her that in retrospect likely made her worse, but it was all he knew to do. She wasted to 70 pounds, and was wearing a diaper toward the end because of her overwhelming diarrhea. He could barely bring himself to see her, but during his rounds he would always go, sometimes pushing her back to last patient just to avoid having to face her. She had never been angry; at her husband, at the world, or at him for failing. One day she asked him to sit down, and he thought to himself that this was it, she was going to let it out. He sat, and she said, You don’t look so good. My disease is killing you too. I’m not afraid, I know I’m dying. It’s okay.

He said he wasn’t a hero. That he made too many mistakes and missed too many opportunities. I went up to him after and said, All people carry fear, all people carry guilt. Heroes are the ones who continue anyway.

New York and San Francisco have been so successful at their public health efforts against HIV that Bellevue recently closed its AIDS ward where patients used to go to be treated and often die. It’s not necessary there anymore. Atlanta on the other hand qualifies as an epidemic region under WHO guidelines. The disease is spreading like wildfire here. 60% of gay black men will contract it before the age of 40. Over 200 people die every year in Grady Hospital alone from HIV/AIDS related complications even though a full drug treatment course is available because of unaddressed social and mental health problems. Even with drug availability, the profession has failed to reach out and effectively communicate with poor people and minorities. Gay white men, while still being infected, will be cared for. There’s work to be done with everyone else. Patients who don’t follow their drug regimens can’t be blamed; we are the professionals. It is our job to help them, not to dismiss them if they don’t meet us half way.

I’ve been questioning why I was here. Wondering why I upended my life to spend time with people who are not like me, who will never understand me and who I can’t open up to or be myself around. He reminded me. The world is a beautiful place, and it’s unbearable that there are those who’s suffering is so naked that they can no longer see it. Not everyone can be healed, but everyone can be helped. I am tired of being more ignorant than is necessary in the face of that pain.

“Maximo Granzotti”

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Obituary For a Shirt — By Madeline Zappala

I never thought I’d be so broken up about a shirt.

Single hot tears streaked reluctantly down my cheek as I shed my heavy bed sheets and found a more comfortable spot positioned with my neck propped on a towel on the white tiled bathroom floor. I’m almost certain I woke my dad as the incorrectly hung door scrapped against the floor, but the bed just wasn’t the place for me. The tile was cool against my lower back and arms, as I arched, staring up into the light, my legs up on the toilet. I wondered why this was somehow a more adequate mourning place.

I missed people most of all.

After five weeks into the seven-week road trip I was taking alone with my dad, of course I craved human contact with someone besides him.  Not to say we didn’t get along.  Obviously to be taking this trip, from Boston, straight across to Oregon, down the Californian coast to Los Angeles, back east until we hit the other coast, heading north to make a big rectangle, my dad and I had to have a pretty well-functioning relationship. But driving 9,000 miles alone together in an antique 1930 Ford Model A Woody Station Wagon began to wear on me.

As we approached Santa Fe, we sat in traffic just outside the city, where I watched people my age, or probably younger, boys and girls, engage in a game of soccer together. The delicate dribbling back and forth between one boy in silky red and one girl in silk white, her triumphant, teasing smile as she faked passed him and the way they laughed about the moment together…I yearned for this casual interaction with my peers.

In the absence of some familiarities, people tend to cling to others. For me, routine was a major part of this, as routine can normalize any unknown environment. I would yank my duffel bag from its cramped spot in the car, perfectly fitting in between the library (a milk crate filled with books, covered with a towel upholstered seat) and my dad’s guitar case, atop my dad’s wider, heavier bag.

Every day certain things would come right out of the bag. First, the phone charger from my backpack.  My phone would most always be dead from feverish texting or incessant roaming, searching for service in those niches of the country that just don’t seem to have it.  One of my two chargers would come out, then my computer second. My duffle bag didn’t usually get opened unless I needed to immediately change out of a sweat-soaked shirt or shorts, and if not, I waited until comfort called and it was time to get on some pajamas.  Those consisted of one pair of shorts or one of two pairs of yoga pants if the hotel was blasting the A/C too much, but not so much that it bothered my father (which would be reason enough to shut it off).

Any shirt would do.

The last time I remember seeing my shirt is clinging inside out to my sweatshirt, a perfect mold of my inside out body, sitting at the foot of the bed I was sharing begrudgingly with my brother when he visited us in the Grand Canyon. It was tangled up with bed sheets, just as I had taken it off.

Somehow, every single piece of clothing in my bag seems to make it out to meet the hotel room floor, every place we stopped. There is something impossible about finding one specific thing in a packed bag (which is exactly why I have emptied my bag twice since realizing the loss of my shirt, hoping that by some chance I missed it and was really still there, with me). So out everything goes, and in the morning it gets carefully (varying degrees of carefully) packed away again.  Never leave my gallon zip lock of shower products, those go in the side pocket, and my two pairs of shoes that I’m not currently wearing in a secret bottom pocket of the bag.  It’s easier to pack my shoes when the clothes aren’t in the bag, perhaps another reason why all of my clothes would end up inevitably on the floor.

Every piece of clothing had to be carefully picked out.  I could bring one pair of jeans, so I brought my favorite, most comfortable pair. Shirts had to be made for sitting in the hot, hot heat, (imagine eight hours a day on dark leather seats with no air-conditioning in the Southwest in July) so the chosen few were flowing, oversized shirts, including this grey-green worn-in soft Splendid brand shirt that is now gone.

I bought it back in December, and I can honestly say I think that I’ve worn it everyday.  Although I would wear it during the day, or even out at night on certain occasions, I slept in it almost every night.  It was easy to pull off and on. I could wear it with out a bra and walk down the hall to the bathroom before bed without feeling self-conscious. It was so soft, so thin that even tucked under my black down comforter, I would stay cool in it. It was perfect.

The feel of the fabric is so familiar to me now that nothing could possibly replace it, even a new shirt of the exact same brand would feel imposter. The feeling is so familiar that as I groped through my half-unpacked bag in the dark I was certain it was not there because I could not feel it. I knew any lamp-illuminated searches would be in vain, but for my sorry, broken heart I searched.

What a silly thing. I told myself, it’s just an object, a garment, this is nothing to be upset about. But, like I said, without the normalcy of waking up in your own bed, or the sounds of your roommate watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer through your closet wall, without these people in your life that you have come to think of as your own in someway, the objects, the piles of fabric hastily folded into my bag each morning became my comforts.

Taking these things out, and then putting them carefully back in place again became a very important part of my days.  These things and this routine were the part of that hotel room, and every hotel room, that was my life and it was my responsibility to carry them carefully with me.

As I lay awake in bed, I pictured myself talking about this situation with someone else. I am embarrassed for my tears, think they are stupid and superficial, but also know that they come from some place real.  Or maybe they are just a product of my heightened hormones, perpetually imbalanced by my birth control pills, another important and engrained part of my routine that I perform, always first thing upon waking up, half asleep as I stumble to the bathroom for some water to wash them down with.

I still feel sad upon remembering that the shirt is no longer mine.  I can vaguely remember the sensation of it lying on my skin, hanging across my shoulders. I feel like I let it down, feel incredible guilt for having failed my routine and I know that the loss is entirely in my hands.

But, it was just a shirt.

Madeline Zappala is a recent graduate of Vassar College, where she took away a degree in American Culture, a thesis on deconstructing road trip narratives, a slew of friends and shining memories, and a job. She grew up in the suburbs of Boston, a city which she plans to return to in pursuit of art school in the upcoming months. For more of her photography, writing and other creative endeavors check out madelinezappala.com.

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