Category Archives: writing

Fade to Black: Double Consciousness/Double Grace

Aristotle and I have a…difficult relationship.

On my second day of class, after being assigned to read Aristotle’s Poetics, I was asked my opinion on the work. My response: F**k this white man. If you know me, I know what you’re thinking, “Did Micah just cuss!? Micah neverrrr cusses!” I was just as shook as you are and actually cried later because I felt like I didn’t rep Christ well in that moment. In reading that text, I felt like so much of the work that I love was erased, dismissed, and undervalued. Poetics is regarded as one of, if not the most, important texts for dramatic writers. Something scared me and angered me that this was the only measure by which my work might be judged. But if the tongue is a reflection of the heart, then that moment scared me even more.

So let’s call this my heart check.

Truth is, I don’t actually hate Aristotle. I hate the idea that writers are expected to worship this white man who presents only a limited perspective on storytelling. But if I’m being honest, he has a lot of valuable things to say. I also don’t hate rules—I just hate the systems of supremacy that create them. I mean, who am I kidding? Is there a film that follows three act structure more closely than Love & Basketball? Is A Raisin in the Sun not a Well-Made-Play? Does every episode of A Different World not have two turns and a comic block?

I think that I’m neither the artist that Aristotle nor Amiri Baraka would have hoped for. Horizontally, I’m somewhere in the middle, and vertically, I’m climbing deeper into my soul with every piece of art I make.

My verbalized disdain for Aristotelian ideas is rooted more in a desire to be seen, to be understood. If you can’t see my melanin infused middle ground, then surely you can see the polar opposite of something you’re already familiar with. Like in my middle school days, there are moments when I coon myself into visibility. And it’s a really bad classroom survival tactic. It crushes my intelligence and light under the foot of the white gaze.

It’s a tactic born of insecurity and also very real frustration. Let me be clear, I may have moments of being combative, but I am always substantive (at least I try to be). In his seminal work, The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. DuBois coined the term “Double Consciousness.”

“It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness, an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. The history of the American Negro is the history of this strife- this longing to attain self-conscious manhood, to merge his double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he wishes neither of the older selves to be lost. He does not wish to Africanize America, for America has too much to teach the world and Africa. He wouldn’t bleach his Negro blood in a flood of white Americanism, for he knows that Negro blood has a message for the world. He simply wishes to make it possible for a man to be both a Negro and an American without being cursed and spit upon by his fellows, without having the doors of opportunity closed roughly in his face.”

Growing up in middle America, then attending a PWI for undergrad, Double Consciousness has always been a part of my life (as it is for most Black people everywhere. Thx yte sprmcy). But this idea has never felt so poignant as it does in my first year of grad school. Let me share some scenarios:

When you say that your film is Black Film A crossed with Black Film B and hear crickets in the room, but somehow everyone has seen that obscure Czech film from the 70’s; When you spend more time discussing a white woman’s view of Black womanhood than a literal play by a literal Black woman about Black womanhood; When your professor tells you that your play is, in fact, not a play, because they’ve read none of the seven+ plays that you’re drawing inspiration from.

And here’s the catch, you are expected to know the works of white artists, established or emerging, like the back of your hand. Double Consciousness means double the work. Black artists, there are [at least] two canons that you have to know. The Black one that gives you life, speaks to your history and your soul, and the white one that gets you audiences and a degree. And let me add these massive caveats, you are no less Black if you are inspired by white artists and this is much more complicated than this binary. But for me, it’s a matter of creating within two worlds. It’s something that I’m going to have to reconcile as long as I’m in grad school, if not for the rest of my artistic life. What does that look like in the classroom? Being silent or invisible or being loud and hyper visible? Often it feels like a deadly combination.

I went for hyper-visibility again.

Recently, I had an assignment to bring in a produced scene (something that you’d be able to see in theaters or on tv), along with a script of that scene, so that we could compare the two as a class. After almost a semester of doing this exercise, I got tired of being one of the only people that’s never seen a given white-people-famous clip. I wanted to bring something that excited me, that I was familiar with, was helpful to my process, and reflects the kind of work that I want to make. So, I brought in Kahlil Joseph’s good kid m.A.A.d city film—which was originally a dual channel projection piece—and the lyrics to Kendrick Lamar’s “Sing About Me, I’m Dying of Thirst,” from the good kid album—which Lamar calls a short film.

It’s one of my favorite films and Kahlil Joseph is certainly my favorite director. But if I’m being honest, the very real creative and academic benefits of unpacking a piece like that were accompanied by some tongue in cheek. (And if it wasn’t already clear, I wore my Toni Cade Bambara t-shirt). But I was scared. Like actually so nervous my hands were shaking and I was talking faster than I already do. I over-explained myself because I wanted it to be clear that I had receipts. Black Girls ALWAYS need receipts. Sometimes it feels like that’s the only way that anyone will listen, let alone take us seriously. Then we read and watched the clip.

And it was okay; I was okay.

People shared thoughts, asked questions, offered alternative interpretations. One kid even challenged my interpretation of Kendrick’s album. It felt like most of my fellow artists were there with me. Like even those who may not have understood at least cared and valued my right as a fellow learner to discuss the things that matter to me. I didn’t have all of the answers, but I also felt less naked and alone in the classroom than I have in a while. (Is this my Randall Pearson moment?)

So @God, thank you.

For the courage to bring in something that felt like a piece of myself and who I want to be. For the conviction that Black art does and has always mattered. For confidence in You that reminds me that I deserve to be seen. Jesus, You’re the light at the end of the tunnel.

To all my Stage-D-Cadets, thank you for engaging in a real way. Know that for your Black (and other POC…but we’re talking about Black Girls here) classmates, that’s a real gift. It was the first time that my voice felt fully present in the room. It felt like I wedged a little path for myself and my work in this program.

And for my Black Girls pursuing or thinking about pursuing an MFA, a few proverbs for your edification:

  1. Be your bold/beautiful/Black/brilliant self. As artists, we come to institutions in search of instruction, refinement, and mentorship. But what they can’t teach you is your soul, your imagination. It’s easy to feel like making something “good” means adopting their structures and losing your spark. That’s just not true. I’m of the opinion that an MFA program shouldn’t be a factory of cookie cutter artists. Be humble and eager to learn, but also be the master of your own art.
  2. Protect your spirit, your work, and your seeds. Some folks like to call this “guarding your heart.” I’ve come to find that that’s about more than not leaving yourself vulnerable to damaging relationships. That thing that makes you excited? Maybe that’s not the thing to get in a heated debate about. Maybe your idea is so dope that they can’t understand it yet. Maybe that seed of your next masterpiece needs time to grow before it’s pruned. I know I’ve walked away from many a writing class feeling physically ill and disoriented because the experience of having something so dear to me be ripped apart was lowkey traumatizing. My ideas are my babies. That’s not to say that you don’t need the criticism (trust me, girl, you do. You’re incredible, but not perfect, so you better get your money’s worth), but you need to know the proper time for it. Give yourself time to love what God dropped in your imagination. Because if you don’t, who will?
  3. Do the work. I know you’re mad that Susan in your film class has never heard of Julie Dash in her life, but looks at you sideways when you haven’t seen the 17th Rocky movie. But, to paraphrase Ravynn, we have to be the artists to get these degrees so that a Black Girl ten years from now doesn’t have to fight for professors to value her sources of inspiration. You are going to be tired, you are going to be frustrated, but these trials come to make you stronger. This is really a note to self to double down on my commitment to doing double the work, so keep me in check, y’all. Capital F freedom is too important for me not to be the best artist that I can be. I like to think that someone down the line will be happy that I did.

For any of this to work, my heart’s gotta be in the right place. I pray that God’s Kingdom come, that reconciliation would be real, but sometimes wonder how much I mean it. Is my armor more valuable than my healing? Well, sometimes I make it that way. How can I defend my voice and the tradition from which I come without sacrificing my mandate and desire to show love to literally everyone? That’s a struggle every single time I walk into the classroom or share my work. But if my journey is hard and my consciousness is double, is it also not true that Christ reconciled this conundrum on the cross? (spoiler: that one is in fact true). I don’t have all of the answers, I’m finding pieces of them everyday. As for me and Aristotle’s relationship status: it’s complicated. But, in the last weeks of my first semester of grad school, I’m finding enough hope to know that the journey of making this art is worth figuring out this whole Black Girl thing.

Week 6: Meeting Nell Scovell and the Power of Words

This past week, author of Just the Funny Parts: …And a Few Hard Truths About Sneaking into Hollywood’s Boy’s Club, and creator of one of my favorite shows, Sabrina the Teenage Witch Nell Scovell, visited William & Mary, spending an hour chatting with a group of students, faculty and community members, answering questions, giving advice, and leaving me with much to think about. In that hour, I learned that Scovell’s favorite thing she has ever written was a script that was never produced; which answered the question: What if people were judged by who they were and not what they looked like? I learned that people like Sheryl Sandberg, Anita Hill and other people who display courage in the face of pushback inspire her. And I learned that common threads in her work are her curiosity and the thrill of the challenge of writing something new.

While all of that was great, and I enjoyed her candor and humor in answering those questions, I was most moved by the conversations we had around her writing: her process, her motivations, and her advice. “If you’re a writer,” she said, “you can move into different worlds.” Scovell got her start writing sports articles for the Harvard Crimson. She spent time writing first person columns for Cosmopolitan, and even articles about leasing cars. I was so entranced by the allure of her writing for shows like Sabrina and The Simpsons, that it never occurred to me that she had a writing career before she “made it” in television.

Her adventures in writing were so diverse. They were expansive. Though she never said it explicitly, all she wanted to do was write, and she’d write about anything; just as long as she had an opportunity to put pen to paper or fingers on a keyboard. She was hungry for challenges. Nothing was impossible, there were only obstacles to conquer. Her stories were like a new age Odyssey but with a female lead. Writing, it became clear, can take you places. It can take you anywhere.

Scovell gave some great advice on writing. She told us that when you’re just starting out, just say yes, you never know where it will lead. She told us that you can’t just write, you have got to write a lot. And she told us that you must put yourself into the world to be judged. As someone who is still feeling the sting of her latest rejections, I had to ask her, “If you’re putting yourself out into the world to get judged and getting rejected, how do you deal?” She smiled and told me to keep those who support me close, and ultimately, take the feedback you want and screw the rest.

During the talk, she said one thing that really stood out to me, “I don’t understand people who are scared to try something new. If you do it well, it’s great, but if you fail, you have the best excuse in the world: ‘I’d never done this before!’” Instantly, I thought about the time Micah encouraged me to write a script. I gave her all the excuses: I’d never written one so I didn’t know how, I didn’t have an idea, I didn’t have software, and so on and so forth. Then I thought about the time I sat in a dimly lit room on the second floor of Clemons Library with a group of other Black UVA students and wrote monologues. I’d never written a monologue before. I’d also never written something that would be used for performance before, but I had a story that I needed someone, anyone, to hear and so I wrote.

I still have that hunger. I still have stories I need to tell. I still need to write.

I don’t know if there will ever come a day when I won’t need to put words on paper.

So I met Nell Scovell, and after Professor Losh generously plugged my blog during the talk, Scovell asked me to write down my site for her. I’m always still amazed when anyone wants to read my words. I wrote the link on the back of one of my new business cards and chatted with her for a while after the formal talk was over. She asked me if I wanted to write for TV and “yes” flew out of my mouth before my brain had a chance to catch up. Looking back, even if I’d had a second to think before I spoke, I still would have said yes. Anyone that knows me knows that I would love a crack at writing for a superhero TV show, particularly a spin off about a certain superhero girlfriend with the initials LL.

Nell Scovell cracked my world wide open with one simple question. One day, if I keep writing, writing a lot, and getting feedback, my writing is going to exist in a lot more places than this site and amongst the piles of other essays on my professors’ desks. My words do not have to know bounds. They can exist in academic journals, literary reviews, blogs, magazines, newspapers, TV, film, novels, screenplays. So long as I continue to believe in my words and put them out into the world, they can take me anywhere. I just have to believe it.

And I do. I really, really do.

(Oh, and Nell? If you’re reading this, thanks.)

Fade to Black: A Black Girl’s Guide to Walking on Water

by Micah Watson

In my Best-Man-esq group text, I’m definitely the most likely to be Harper. Of us classmates-turned-lifelong-friends, I’m the dark skinned writer with glasses and a swagger that transcends decades (okay, maybe that last part is Taye-specific). The important and illusive part in that is “writer” (even if I don’t plan on writing a tell-all novel). It’s an identity that I’m learning to claim but has always marked my journey as an artist. My dear friend posed a question to the group, “What do you think you’ll be doing at 35?” Some responded with jokes. Almost all responded with plans of children, jobs, and places they would call home. But for me, in the first days of attending the grad school of my prayers, my attempt to hold back guttural tears while watching this conversation was almost comical.

You see, all I know is that I’m supposed to be a writer. I have desires of being married with kids, repping a city that lets me flourish with my people, and rocking an afro the size of Wakanda. And I know that if I actively love the Lord, he wants to give me the desires of my heart. But the only promise that I’m certain of is that I’m going to tell stories. So far, being an artist is the only thing my heart wants that also seems to align with God’s will. All I want to do is let His promise be enough.

But sometimes I’m really bad at it.

Now that I’m here at NYU, the task of actually writing feels daunting. The pass/fail structure of this magically rigorous course load means that I don’t get praised for being the smartest or the Blackest; my work will have to stand on its own. That’s like learning to love your naked body. Now that I’m here in Manhattan, the task of walking home from my favorite soy chai spot before sunset is frustrating. Singleness is an annoying gift, particularly when I haven’t found a new community to walk and laugh with me through it all. Now that I’m becoming a real adult, I don’t have the external surety that my friends have.

Suffice it to say, I did not succeed in holding back the water works. But somewhere on the floor of my studio, God met me once again in the form of a Kings Kaleidoscope track and a recollection of Truth and reminded me that He’s all the surety I need.

With wavy faith, peppered with facetiousness, I responded that at 35 “I will be somewhere writing and making things, holding on to God’s promise and a dream. Probably somewhere in the US. Learning to walk at Christ’s pace and better at it than I was 12 years ago.”

And yet, I still walk on water like fat-legged toddler.

With my new mantra, courtesy of Transformation Church’s Michael Todd, I’m learning how to “stride” instead of “strive,” meaning that I’ve got to walk at the steady pace that Christ has planned out for my life, instead of strenuously running to make my own moves. The thing about striding, though, is that I have to walk. Like actually keep moving. For someone whose default settings are hyperactive-creative-energizer-bunny and in-my-feelings-debilitated-procrastinator, walking at a steady pace is easier said than done. It takes a particular trust that just because I’m not exerting concerning amounts of energy, doesn’t mean that God ever stopped working on my behalf, stopped loving me, or stopped being the noun good himself. I’m learning how to move within His grace with diligence and even more trust. I spend my days plotting and perfecting scripts—stories of people’s lives and actions towards a greater goal—so sometimes it’s hard not to look at God sideways when he tells me that I don’t get to plot my own. While I’d like to know every turn of my life, the only direction He’s given is “follow me.” He says, “come.” That’s my cue to respond, “yes.” I’m not really an actor anymore, but before these two years are over, I’ll be off book.

And I’m on my way.

Years, maybe even months ago, a text like that, this blow of uncertainty and lie of inadequacy would have kept me down for a few days, if not in my room, at least in my head. The blessing here is that I got up, started my homework (which may or may not have included watching Insecure), woke up the next day, analyzed another TV show, caught up with a college friend (who’s been the blessing that I didn’t know I even needed), wrote a couple of movie pitches, and took a meeting. And not once did I feel like I was out of breath. I didn’t drown.

I finished the day in Sabbath, by taking some time to read from my first Intellectual Lover, Ta-Nehisi Coates. Even in the midst of very real uncertainty, God not only gifted me with a moment of restful floating, but also with cerebral rejuvenation. What I learned from Coates is that writers write, and they read and they stumble. And being the writer that honors my ancestors is going to take curiosity, discipline, and a daily commitment to facing the fears that cause me to question my purpose. I will have to work at articulating my inspiration; that is the joy of the craft. I’m learning that this piece of my journey is about learning how to listen to God, and I mean really listen.

So many times I’ve made fun of Hillsong’s “Oceans” as a white nondenominational cliché. But when they sang “spirit lead me where my trust is without borders, let me walk upon the waters, wherever you may call me” at the church around the corner, I felt that thang. As a young Black woman, the fear of new waters is as real as it was for my ancestors who were crushed by them. Being “twice as good” is and will be a part of my new challenge, but it can’t be the heart of it. Somewhere in the lies of systemic racism, we were told that our value is contingent upon our external success and that our worth comes from proving that we’re not the women that stereotypes say that we are. The weight of that makes it feel like constantly running to shore is the only way that we’ll keep from drowning in a world that doesn’t see us for the complicated gems that we really are. But running is tiring and sea salt was never good for our edges. Walking on water is much more efficient, and peaceful, and scary, and Instagram-worthy, and new. The core of who I am becoming—as a writer, as an artist, as a Black Girl—must be about working towards something that I cannot quantify and cannot see. Walking (not running, sometimes grinding) towards Freedom is mad abstract, but it rests in my soul like an unsettling spiritual. And if it’s true that I wade the same waters as generations of ancestors, then enduring those waters is just as vital. I am committing to letting the Lord shape me into something new, something smelted, something faithful, something fearless, something whole, something ready, through this Atlantic I’m calling New York City.

I’m out of the boat now. Assignments aren’t always easy, because I’m doing things that I’ve never done (literally the whole point), but I know, I mean really know, that I’m meant to do it. In just four weeks, I see my work growing and I feel like I’m closer to hitting my stride. I’m working on a project that feels like a promise and praying for continued sparks of inspiration. I’m approaching my calling as “artist” with specificity, learning how to don my purpose as “writer” with the same internal fierceness as my braided bob.

Now this being a writer thing isn’t just a Dream. It’s the promise that I hold onto as I workshop scripts and eat takeout curry alone. Besides my necessary commitment to paying off these student loans I’m accruing, the real commitment is going to be staying out here in these waters, knowing God wouldn’t put me here without purpose and provision. I’m looking upward and forward, not inward—for His strength is made perfect in my weakness (flex one time God!) I don’t know where the heck I’ll be at 35, but I know that I will have an MFA from NYU and be inside of God’s will and the dreams of my ancestors.

So, how do you walk on water? Girl, I don’t even know. But I’m learning how to trust the One who does.