Of Serena Williams, Barbara Ehrenreich And Evolution

Imagine what you want then get out of the way
Remember energy follows thought so be careful what you say
So be careful what you ask for
Make sure it’s really what you want
Because your mind is made for thinking
And energy follows thought

Willie Nelson, “Energy Follows Thought” 

***

“You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.”
–Ray Bradbury
Zen in the Art of Writing

While watching Serena struggle through her last (?) second set last night, I got the news update on my phone: Barbara Ehrenreich had died. That nonfiction champion of working people was 81, 41 years older than the history-breaking wonder woman I was watching on ESPN.

I immediately went back to Williams because it’s consistently amazing to watch her form and spirit, even when she loses. And I confess I had been watching the U.S. Open all week to see how she would lose, how she would leave the field and then go to—what’s her word?—oh, yeah, “evolve.”

It’s a very reflective time for me because it’s the silver anniversary of someone who once yearned to be smart yet did a real dumb thing: leave a fulltime job to go to graduate school. Thirty years ago, give or take a week, when I was much less foolish than reckless than I am now, I decided to leave home and become a writer. I am so grateful for my life of failure that resulted from that decision.

When I decided to ditch covering Newark, N.J. mayors for mastering decimal numbers at Maryland and D.C. libraries, Bill Clinton hadn’t yet been elected and The Dark Knight and the X-Men had just made the jump into serious FOX Kids network animation. Will Smith was still the Fresh Prince and Serena and Venus were white Roman goddesses found in mythology books.  

Here’s what I didn’t know back then:

  • You can’t enter a penthouse from the outside, because there are neither outdoor stairs nor a side door.
  • Writing is like golf; like Smith says in my favorite movie of his, you can’t win, you can only play. It’s not a career because there’s no future with it; it’s something that belongs only to the present–you do it full-time until it’s no longer feasible and viable.
  • Writing’s friend is also its enemy: stealing calm and stillness, even sacrificing it.

This was the period where Williams was professionally born and Ehrenreich came of nia age. Off to work. Never give up, never surrender, as the Captain Kirk-ish lead of Galaxy Quest made famous at the end of a decade devoted to Star Trek.

Is giving up or staying the course nature or nurture? Ta-Nehisi Coates, a man whose father told me once drove a cab, said on some Facebook video I once saw that people don’t fulfill their writing ambitions because they give up. Because that was Winner Advice, which is by its nature dishonest, he didn’t say why they give up. In a famous 2009 graduation address to the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, Ehrenreich was more forthcoming: “You are going to be trying to carve out a career in the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. You are furthermore going to be trying to do so within what appears to be a dying industry. You have abundant skills and talents – it’s just not clear that anyone wants to pay you for them.”

Every single time I force myself twice monthly to pay a very nice woman to clean my apartment, I remember the line Ehrenreich dropped that scared me the most (and still does): “You won’t get rich, unless of course you develop a sideline in blackmail or bank robbery. You’ll be living some of the problems you report on – the struggle for health insurance, for child care, for affordable housing. You might never have a cleaning lady. In fact, you might be one. I can’t tell you how many writers I know who have moonlighted as cleaning ladies or waitresses. And you know what? They were good writers. And good cleaning ladies too, which is no small thing.”

By the time the famous author said this, Williams was still grand-slamming on the way to GOAT status and I was a lifer, still searching for literary immortality in a post-literate culture, armed with nothing but graduate degrees, the memorized arcs of a 1989 James Baldwin documentary and the Alex Haley episodes of Roots: The Next Generations, and a six-figure student loan debt. I had not yet accepted that writing doesn’t exist in the real world where people pay serious dues every day to ensure their survival. Unless you are in the Talented Tenth it’s an invisible, irrelevant profession. Don’t believe me? On May 23rd of this year, I went online and got my Wu-Tang clan-generated name: PHANTOM ARTIST. Yeah! Um, wait…. On August 22nd, I went back to try a second time, wary as 55 approaches next year. Wu-Tang renamed me LUCKLESS HOODOO. I accept my fate.

The destinies of other scribes happily cross over into the academy. All the living writers I followed as a 20-something are journalism professors now—most at Howard University, Hampton University and the place I got let go from 10 years ago next spring, Morgan State University. I learned during my six MSU years that being a professor is not a writing job. I was taught in the 20th century that if you want to go write, write; If you want to make writing your fun nights-weekends-and-summer hobby, the analog mantra went, go be a professor. Twenty-two years into somewhere else, reality can be quite a witch when compared to memory. Other than my mentor Herb Boyd (himself a part-time professor for decades) and my friend Richard Prince, the only full-time writer I follow in 2022 has been in prison for 40 years.

For some there is only one path. Williams never gave up, never surrendered. Neither did Ehrenreich. But on the other hand, if you are not like them–either not the very best or not in that opportunity zone–that survival move and mode, I now know, slowly turns into professional evolution and eventual advancement in the real world outside your window. Thirty years later, pretty much everybody I know evolved well: they either/and: a) know what it’s like to get a promotion; b) make six figures or near it, c) have a house paid off and/or d) are fantastic and proud parents.

Ehrenreich and Williams have shared that accomplishment story, and on their own terms. They have inspired many who, like myself, will never get higher than fifth place in life’s Olympics—who will remain invisible to history but fulfilled in the private spaces. That in itself is a GOAT-level accomplishment.

“You Know Because You Read The AFRO!” To Gayle King And Others Like You: It’s Really Okay If You Just Lie Next Time :)

Writing this while reading Richard Prince’s Journal-isms column that has people reacting to the idea that CBS’ Gayle King, one of the nation’s top Black journalists, did not know about the lives and work of Ethel Payne and Alice Dunnigan.

Admittedly, I’m not an average person when it comes to the Black press, so I can’t relate. As a ’80s teenager, I read Ethel Payne in real-time in the newspaper I started my career at, The New Jersey Afro-American! (“You know because you read THE AFRO” was the newspaper chain’s motto 🙂 ) My Afro’s Op-Ed page was “national,” not local, and so that meant it was added on to local editions like ours by the Baltimore headquarters. Payne had an Op-Ed column there, “Behind The Scenes.” And because the Black press is so self-referential, whenever she was honored, they’d tell her history. At 22, I had also read the 2nd edition of Roland Wolseley’s The Black Press, USA, a flawed-but-important book that shaped my decision three decades ago to become a Black media historian. Of course it mentions her, as does later a much better general-history book written by historian Clint C. Wilson II.

Yeah, I wish prominent Black people in public would stop being so honest about their ignorance. 🙂 Not knowing something and being rich and famous means you don’t have to know it, right? This means that Gayle King has never regularly read historic/legacy (20th century) Black newspapers!

It’s one thing when David McCullough admitted in 1989, as he did in his PBS’ American Experience intro on William Greaves’ Ida B. Wells film, that he didn’t know who she was, but another when one of us does it!

Don’t think our young Black journalism students are not peeping that because I’ve taught them at HBCUs and I know. (And this is part of a larger, systemic dumping of all media history classes because of J-schools’ well-funded digital focus. When I last checked, Maryland, my grad alma mater, stopped teaching journalism history as separate classes years ago.) Sadly, this public omission proves Gen Z’s irrelevancy point from its perspective.

P.S. Prince reminded me of this, so they’re really little room for excuses.

Black Press Legends Ethel Payne and Alice Dunnigan Get New Posthumous Honor

Asante Sana, Askia Muhammad

I was so happy to try to give him his journalistic flowers while he was here.

FEBRUARY 27th UPDATE: The Final Call’s tribute can be found here and here.

MARCH 5th UPDATE:

APRIL 2nd UPDATE: Coverage of the above event can be found here and here.

TV Review: Muhammad Ali, PBS’ and Ken Burns’ White Rock Star

The show, the after-party, the hotel: metaphorically busting up American hotel rooms in his youth, before he “grew up”

Muhammad Ali always made this reviewer laugh out loud, but this may be the first time that open cackle is the result of a very serious Ali documentary. Ken Burns, in filmmaking combo Blackface and cross-dress, takes the role of Black church grandmother with the big hat, waiting for her grandson Cassius to give up that Panther mess and return to their neighborhood AME.

To Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon, Muhammad Ali is a Buddy Holly figure who got to live and grow old. He’s an Elvis-type who didn’t die suddenly on his toilet, a living, breathing hula hoop and frisbee, the dark fifth Beatle. Making a Third World activist who was a borderline revolutionary–someone who even Burns said was encouraging Afghan guerillas to overthrow the Soviet Union in his later years–into Jack Armstrong, The All-American Boy took some skillful, involved work. The trio accomplishes this by using every rock-star convention, trope and cliche–the innocence, the power, the excess, the decline, the fall. There’s Ken Burns’ and Co.’s forced narration–aptly provided by Keith David–and then there’s Ali’s actual narration, so the socio-political-cultural tension is always there: Burns keeps trying to win the bout, the most prominent examples being that the Nation of Islam is treated like some sort of annoying cult-fad that Burns patiently waits to burn out, and Ali’s calls for Black/African/non-white solidarity just a phase of his–a step toward human consciousness (which only comes through illness and the subsequent white, matured sympathetic gaze, according to this tale), not the call for self-determining power.

Proving once again that PBS can put a pale frame on anything, this future award-winner can start with this writer’s mental tropies for chronological detail, where to put the episode cliffhanger, effective use of Digable Planets 🙂 and the proper poignancy, particularly at the close. If this presentation is the “white” Ali and The Trials of Muhammad Ali and When We Were Kings are respectively the political and Pan-African Ali, that means the only Ali story left to tell is one about his relationship to religion. At his best, Burns at least comes close to that–chronicling how the sinner who, now humbled, learned to ask for forgiveness. Ali had a lot to atone for–he was cruel to his opponents, the doc repeatedly says; the Black interviewees keep reminding the viewer that he took public umbrage to those Blacks who proudly represented America during the time of a worldwide Movement. That story is not emphasized here enough (although Burns would vehemently disagree), and the rationale for that lack of emphasis is that, for the purpose of this narrative, this Ali first peaks and, later, begins his denouncement at the Olympics, symbolically draped in Burns’ Love, Americana Style.