No, y’all, I have not started grad school yet. But I’m still a Black Girl and they gave me a column, so…read on!
I’ve come to realize that my artistic practice is HEAVILY dependent on reading. I like to think my writing style is similar to improvisational jazz or freestyle rap—words and images sort of just flow out of me with no rhyme or reason…until all of a sudden they do. If you know music, you know improv and freestyle take skill. You don’t just start off spitting ten minutes of off the dome lyrics like Black Thought. That takes mad skill. Yes, you’ve gotta practice. But you’ve also got to consume a lot of ideas and cadences in order to have enough “stuff” inside of you to regurgitate in an innovative way. Let’s call it artistic vomit (or maybe not…that was kinda gross). The same goes for me. I hit my dry spells and notice distinct differences in my work when I’m not reading or taking African-American Studies classes. When I feed myself intellectually, my art makes connections that my brain doesn’t realize until 2 weeks into editing or rehearsing. Since I figured that might be a good place to be before beginning my NYU journey; ladies and gentlemen, I present to you my [SPOILER FREE!] summer reading list:
Citizen // Claudia Rankine
I told myself that I was going to take a writing break this summer (to rest up before grad school/the rest of my life). If you know me, you know that I pretty much suck at resting because I can’t keep my brain still. This summer, you can thank Citizen for my accidental creative frenzy. I had this beautiful moment where I was sitting on the porch, looking at an orange Kansas sky, just reading because I finally had time. Suddenly, I was taking notes and pausing to imagine; and before I knew it, I was at my laptop typing up ideas for new projects. I felt free. That, my friends, is the mark of a good read in my book (Ha. Ha. see what I did there?). Citizen is essentially a long form poem. Its nonlinear structure uses lyricism, narrative, and imagery to create a collage about what personhood means for Black bodies in America. Because this is how my brain works, I can’t help but compare it to Kahlil Joseph’s short films or Kendrick Lamar’s albums. It’s a hyper-visceral, non-linear reading experience. Rankin’s poetic chops are un-freaking-deniable, but let us not forget how fine-tuned her critical analysis skills are, too. My favorite chapter was on the Queen of Everything Magical and Black, Her Royal Highness Serena “Slay Me With A Racket” Williams. It’s not a long book, but will absolutely go down as one of the most important contemporary texts I’ve read thus far.
Swing Time // Zadie Smith
This novel tells the story of two London dancers: an unnamed biracial Jamaican and her friend Tracey. While one of them reluctantly takes a transatlantic journey, the other follows her dreams of stardom. When I first read the back cover in the 57th Street Bookstore in Chicago, “Black,” “dance,” and “bodies” were enough to catch my attention. I’d heard really great things about Smith’s White Teeth, so I was pretty excited to start my summer reading with Swing Time. I’ve gotta say, though, I was kind of disappointed. It began with some very nostalgic moments that reminded me of my childhood as a little Black girl in ballet class, and tackled issues of celebrity and colonialism. While there were some really lovely, vivid moments in the text, I kept waiting for the whole story to come together, you know? I kept turning pages and reading sentences thinking “okay, THIS is why she chose to tell this story; THIS is going to make these 300 pages worth my time.” That moment never came. It’s not that the story was confusing—I think Smith did a great job of articulating the mundane in enlightening ways; I just never found the “why”. Why now, why these characters, why this structure? There was so much bubbling under the surface, I just needed a single sentence, or even a single word that would make this experience satisfying. I wanted this novel to dance in the same way that its characters do, and while there are sparks of that, I didn’t feel Zadie Smith’s soul.
Eloquent Rage // Brittney Cooper
Cooper begins by telling the story of her feminist awakening, and goes on to explain the ways in which this new lens has informed every crevice of her life. This book is smart. Cooper is smart. But this book isn’t academic in the traditional sense. Yes, she is absolutely making well researched and thorough arguments…but it feels like you’re hearing all of this from your “woke” auntie instead of your professor. It’s mad real. While I couldn’t agree with all of Cooper’s arguments, I understand why this book is important and enlightening. What I found really successful was her ability to expound upon the struggles that I feel every. single. day. as a Black girl, and validate them with academic prowess. Her analysis was broad and thorough—she cited everything from Beyonce, to scripture, to Michelle Obama, to DuBois. I vibe with this because she takes the many things that she’s been feeding her Black Girl Mind with and uses them to make sense of and condemn violence that I’ve come to see as normal—being at the bottom of the dating totem pole and being the token Black girl, for example. If nothing else, Eloquent Rage has given me new awareness of what it means to navigate the world with my Black Girl body. Chapters of this text, particularly the ones about police brutality, Michelle Obama, and Cooper’s relationship to white feminism, also informed my own work this summer. Oh, did I mention how I LOVE the way she capitalizes Black Girl every single time? Yeah, that’s about to be a thing in every script I write from here on out.
Long Division // Keise Laymon
During my last semester of undergrad I wanted—more than anything in this entire world—to take a class called The Black Voice, with UVA’s new hip-hop professor A.D. Carson. I signed up and went to the first class. Unfortunately for this artist, I had to drop the class because I was shooting two films and putting up a play. But I kept all of the books and am determined to get through the entire syllabus. Long Division was first up and I’ve gotta say… It’s wonderful. And I mean that literally—filled with wonder. Laymon is somehow able to lead us through a story that simultaneously feels deeply familiar and otherworldly. It’s one of those novels where I can’t say much without giving it away (yes, it’s one of those!). But what you should know is that it follows a teenager in Mississippi as he discovers the power of his own voice—the power of words. Maybe we can call this book science-fiction, but it feels too…real to be put in that category. Maybe afrofuturism? Or maybe just intensely imaginative. I think my favorite thing about this book is the descriptive language. Perhaps there are some TMI moments, but through the voice of our protagonist, City, Laymon lyrically articulates the mind of a really smart, but really suppressed, rural teenage boy. I found myself wanting to enter that world time and time again.
Telepathologies // Cortney Lamar Charleston
I picked up this book while I was in Chicago shooting my Emmett Till film; an eerie and beautifully appropriate scenario. Telepathologies is a collection of poetry that explores what it means to walk in fear and danger as a Black person in America. You know when you’ve been listening to a song and for the first time hear a lyric in a different way. You rewind and you say to yourself (or, in my case, very loudly) “BARZZZ.” That was pretty much my entire experience in reading these poems.
I read, watch, and write a lot of stuff about death (…maybe we should unpack that)—it’s been my way of mourning and trying to make sense of lost Black life. But these poems felt fresh. They felt raw. They felt delicate. They felt intentional. As I read, there were so many moments when I thought I’d figured out Charleston’s style and mode of thinking, but then he’d take me for a turn and I’d have to stop, breathe, and ponder. I’d come out of my trance with a billion questions, yet I’d still just want to sit and keep rereading the same line that made me stop in the first place. A new perspective on the familiar. That is what I need from a poet; that is what I desperately come to the art form searching for, and Charleston delivered. I recently found his twitter (after realizing that there’s no “u” in his first name)…so he can look forward to tweets about how badly I want to make his poems into films.
There you have it! I didn’t meet all of my reading goals this summer, but I have We Were Eight Years In Power// Coates and Meridian// Walker in my camera bag, and lots of train rides from theatre conferences to film festivals. I’ve got a stack of books ready to ship to my new place in New York, five more that I found at this delightful outdoor used bookstore in Connecticut (check out Book Barn, y’all!), and at least two years worth of subway rides in my future. Needless to say, I’ve got plenty of artistic fuel ready to take me through this next phase.
P.S. If I had to make a playlist with all of these books in mind:
Swing Time—Chameleon x Leah Smith
Citizen—Rollcall For Those Absent x Ambrose Akinmusire
Eloquent Rage—Blk Girl Soldier x Jamila Woods
Long Division—Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik x OutKast
Telepathologies—FEAR. x Kendrick Lamar