Fashion needs more powerful black voices. Ethan Miller is on a mission to help.
What both the left and the right get wrong about my neighborhood in Baltimore
The announcement of the release of her debut novel was equivalent to the literary second coming, at least to those of us who knew, and the level of excitement was infectious. What made her so special, I wouldn’t know for a few months, but I too found myself getting caught up in the hype: a maniacal frenzy based solely on what I read and the pics I saw.
During interviews, she was humble — quiet and serene among the maelstrom and fanfare. While reading an online article about her I noted her pictures, how she posed for the camera, timidly, like a child taking their first solo photo at the JC Penney studio. Despite this, her pictures glowed, beaming so bright it was as if looking into the sun. She was magnificent, a star deserving of the flurry of accolades and whatever fame was netted from this moment. The media adored her, as she strolled through their affairs with reserved assurance.
“So your much anticipate debut novel will be released in a few days– how does that feel?” a commentator asked.
“Feels great. A little surreal. Definitely unnerving. I’m excited.”
“As you very well should be. Congratulations and much success.”
I pre-ordered her novel upon its announcement. I wanted to be one of the first. I waited. In less than 48 hours I will possess her debut, concentrating on her telling, anticipating her first few words, opening the literary journey, wondering how she’d present her characters, settings, and storyline. I was fortunate to have found some of her work in several literary journals, stories about her life in New York, first college love and the relatable essay on body transformation wishes. Her stories were personal, inviting the readers into a room without a door and a screen that permitted only small glimpses into her world. I devoured them like a famished beast. There was something in the voice of those few read clips that captivated me, the way she twisted thought in time, how she invited me and others into a world she seemed to hold close to her soul.
On the day of her book’s release, I rushed to my Kindle with the excitement of a four-year-old. I opened my Kindle’s sleeper case. The screen glowed a faint blue, releasing Alladin from the lamp. I tapped in my password. The Kindle’s screen blinked, instantly revealing my books which I quickly fanned through, looking for the colorful familiar cover of her novel. Back and forth, my finger became a wand… passing over a dozen unread books and a few periodicals. Her book was missing. Impossible.
I checked the cloud, retraced my steps, reviewed the date of release, the bill of sale, and whether or not I requested that the book load into a particular Kindle. But, there was nothing. The book didn’t appear in the cloud. The date (which I cross-checked twice) was correct, and my order status was confirmed. I stared at the screen trying to figure out what went wrong. I Googled what I should do to retrieve the missing book, returning to my Kindle, staring and wondering. Finally, frustrated, and since nothing else worked, I restarted the device. ‘Kindle’ blazed across the screen and after a brief pause, the book miraculously appeared.
Immediately I opened the book, flipped past the preliminary banter and dove into the first chapter, consuming her words, getting magnificently lost within her story. I became one with the book, the characters, the underdeveloped flat personalities, the asides, looking into the window of her soul. She moved me, made me dance and laugh and cry. I hated and loved her equally. Wanted to lay at her feet and she developed the complex layers that evolved into brief but unabridged animation.
In moments when I paused from reading, I imagined her in her apartment, writing her next book at a dark lacquered antique desk pushed against a window facing the street, losing herself in a psychosis that had no remedy. Perhaps, romantically, lost in the local cafe, laboring, painstakingly, at her laptop, sipping cup after cup of coffee, taking brief breaks, talking to herself; animated. And as I flipped to the final page, I exhaled. She had written a journey, long, beautiful, and merciless. My budding love for her many voices was solidified. She was bound to become a literary legend; admired, lauded, and international. I would be waiting.
Two days after I completed her book, the story played over and over in my head. I recommended that friends and family read her tale. Her novel absorbed me and I hoped they, too, would be absorbed. I needed them to feel what I felt. I needed her to know, as well. She had to know. I had to tell her.
I nervously sent her a message, thanking and praising her. I felt stupid, desperate, but justified. I surmised that writers needed to be told that people appreciated their craft, admired the thought and effort it took to create a world with blood, flesh, emotion, and mischief — to be both omnipotent, and omnipresent. I wanted her to know, so I told her in a post that probably made me seem more stalker than an admirer. A day later she responded with the eight words every reader wants to receive:
Thank you. I really appreciate your support.
I swam through that brief, surreal, moment; backstroked in blue Caribbean water parallel to white sand and randomly placed palm and coconut trees. I followed her as her career rocketed to unimaginable heights and rose to levels she said she’d dreamed of since childhood. I congratulated her for her many achievements, virtual partied with her at star-studded soirees, following her from the East Coast to the shores of places trapped in time. Soon the author and I became virtual friends, sharing pics, words, and worlds with little meaning to anyone else but us. And then our communication ceased. The communication with everyone ended — without reason. There were no posts. There were no DMs. Everything froze. There, suddenly, was nothing but silence.
She was working on another book, I assumed. That’s what I told myself.
She… was… ABSOLUTELY… working… on… another… book.
Two years had passed since the release of the amazing global ride created by her last 137,000-word project, after all, and although never making the top five of the NYT best-seller list, it was popular, but the road was coming to an end. Still, that wasn’t it; there was something else; something more, bigger than the book and far greater than explanation. Finally, after a several month hiatus, she did post. Pictures of her smiling at a table of unfamiliar faces. Another was a selfie with other authors. And one of her in an embrace with a very fashionable woman, their gaze hazy and seductive. But the pictures of her alone were different; sad and undeniably sullen. They were [slightly] melancholy; nothing remotely like those posted when her book was initially released. She, in those forty-eight months of absence, had transformed. She had changed. She was different. Her once soft regal image hardened. The metamorphosis was extreme and absolute.
I studied the pictures, seeing something different with each view, then sent the following message:
Hey Author X,
It’s been a while. You aren’t posting much, so I guess you’re working on your next masterpiece. I hope all is well.
Initially, I checked her posts daily, hoping there would be something there, not necessarily a response to me, but something that would let me know where she, as a complete entity, was. Days turned to weeks; weeks into months; and the months faded into the distant orbs of mysterious darkness that birthed then concealed concern and renewal. I returned to her novel, scanning through the pages, searching for some clue that would make sense of the moment. There was nothing.
Then as autumn gave way to winter she posted…
… I’m tired of people claiming to love me… tired of the judgment, the childhood memories… of being locked in dark spaces… of being told it was for my own good. That stayed with me; the loneliness, the quiet emptiness, even when I step into the light. I tried to hold it together, laying in that asylum’s bed, strapped down; the demons picking — stabbing — at my soul. I just want to disappear; preserve my sanity. I want to lose this insanity and not apologize for taking my life back. I want to slay Goliath…
She ranted for three pages, a rhapsody revealing the many secrets she kept locked away. Those who knew her from afar, as I did, would never have known. Those who knew her intimately were equally clueless. Her words (in her post) that roared across the page, perhaps made little sense, but they were her words, her feelings, and they poured out for the social media world to see and, of course, judge.
And I, at a loss for words, whisper-sang the following tune:
*Is this the real life, is this just fantasy?
Caught in a landslide no escape from reality
Open your eyes look up to the skies and see
I’m just a poor boy, I need no sympathy
Because I’m easy come, easy go
A little high, little low
Anyway the wind blows
Doesn’t really matter to me, to me…
Mama, life had just begun
But now I’ve gone and thrown it all away
Didn’t mean to make you cry
If I’m not back again this time tomorrow
Carry on, carry on as if nothing really matters
Too late, my time has come
Sends shivers down my spine
Body’s aching all the time
Goodbye, everybody, I’ve got to go
Gotta leave you all behind and face the truth
Mama, ooh (anyway the wind blows) I don’t want to die
I sometimes wish I’d never been born at all…
I messaged her words of encouragement, hope, and support. I wished her happy Thanksgiving, a Merry Christmas, and a Happy Birthday. The messages piled like sand on a dune. Then as 2018 transitioned to 2019 her social media pages were gone, and with that, so was she.
If I’m not back again this time tomorrow … Carry on, carry on.
I think about her every so often. I wonder where she is and how she’s doing. I still imagine her at the dark antique lacquered desk, maybe trading coffee for bourbon, breathing life into inanimate apparitions. I periodically checked her page, hoping, I suppose, that she’d be there in words or pics. But she remains hidden. I check for any clues that she is on the cusp of releasing a new book. I wait. We wait.
I hope she realizes that no matter the depth of darkness, the quiet or the storm, she is never alone. She has moved mountains with her words and left impressions on our hearts. And when she opens her eyes and look up to the skies she’ll see that we were always there… waiting.
*From: Bohemian Rhapsody — Queen
Bill Cosby, once lauded as America’s dad, and revered as the pristine embodiment of purity (“I will not curse in my routines”) was given a sentence of 3 to 10 years for the sexual assault of a college administrator. She and dozens of others told, tearfully, of being “drugged” with a substance that left them virtually unconscious, unable to defend themselves against Cosby’s advances. There were traditional and social media formats spilling the story. By way of six degrees of separation, someone knew the details; hopefully the truth. Although he adamantly denied the many allegations leveled against him and, with the exception of one, contends that he did nothing wrong, the pressure-packed voices and ravenous want for justice loomed large and effective. Any persons who found the matters of Cosby’s impropriety questionable did so, it seems, out of an effort to hang on to the 50 plus year image of the man they really, for the most part, never knew. He became the first; he would not be the last.
According to testimony and reports, the incident occurred several years ago. The allegations erupted into an immediate divide, cuffing the country in a gender and, in many unfortunate ways, racial headlock. Regardless of the seething universal familiarity of men taking sexual advantage of women, the color of Bill’s skin played a role, if subtly. Historic lore painted the Black man as a sexual pariah, insatiable, sexually ravenous, especially for white women (Bill’s accusers and victims were of all races). It was a stigma that has existed for several hundred years as an attempt to further denigrate and dehumanize the Black male, building fears of a virulent caricature. It worked, to a degree. Even to this day, the presence of unfamiliar Black men encourages white women to clutch purses, speed walk to their destinations, or engage them in meaningless conversation to keep their minds off of a certain, as they see it, genetically programmed assault. Although this is applicable across the racial divide, Black men are the principal wearers of this disparaging veil. Because of the social stigma, whether admitted or not, Bill Cosby was no longer Bill Cosby when the accusations flourished. He became the stereotype.
Bill Cosby was accused of drugging his victims and sexually assaulting them, usually in his home. There came an almost immediate outcry. African Americans huddled together reminiscing about what this man, this icon, meant to them, appalled by the act and then by the dragging of Cosby. We felt, at that moment, sorry for him, his wife, and their children. We were a part of them, invited into their quiet public lives, breaking bread when they did. We were certain that there must have been some mistake. But reality has a way of awakening even the deepest of truths. After a while, there was no more denying. William H. Cosby, America’s Dad, was found guilty. He was a sexual villain.
Looking back to the early years, listening to his squeaky clean routines, Cosby gave the image that America needed. Alas, there was a Black man who was lauded by a racially diverse public and did so with minimal buffoonery. His characters, even those that were over the top (see Uptown Saturday Night), bought us comfort. We knew that in the end we would laugh and quote his lines as if we had written them ourselves. He sold us Coca-Cola, Jell-O Pudding and Pudding Pops. He epitomized style and the unique jazz infused coolness so large it couldn’t be duplicated. We loved him, and we believed, he loved us back. But, as the Spinners sang, “Love Don’t Love Nobody.”
The end result of this decades-long egregious infraction was already known. Beyond public shame, beyond the portrait of an old man with an unreliable gait and fading eyesight was, in the antiquated shell, Bill Cosby. What was happening to him began as a downward spiral long before the flurry of accusations, as his crown began to tarnish with African Americans. He crowned himself, perhaps with the best of intentions, the self-appointed spokesman for Black correctness; focusing on a community whose circumstances were dire, criticized and generational. His book, “Come on, People!” written with noted psychiatrist Alvin Poussaint, met mixed reviews and an outcry from those portrayed in the book and those learned enough to understand the underlying reveals. We understood what he was trying to do, but the adage of airing dirty laundry was gospel, still, the dirty laundry was aired from every bookstore in the country. Sadly, Cosby was right. The Black community was viewed through a cameraman’s lens, only able to capture the mired images, broken dreams, poor schooling, emotional indifference, impoverished conditions, and despair. He and Poussaint felt that the existing circumstances could be altered or altogether changed. They had the theories but they didn’t provide the foundational methods.
The MeToo movement, founded by Tarana Burke, herself a victim of sexual assault, brought women out of their unspoken place and into the spotlight, unified for justice against men who violated them. The movement was founded to empower women at a time (and decade) when empowerment shouldn’t have been a necessary issue. A barrage of men, mostly white, were accused, shamed and judged. From immature politicians to actors, musicians, law enforcement, and corporate executives. There were no surprises. Some of the accused and accusers were believable and others were questionable. Were women seeking revenge against men who had done them wrong? Were the actions of these men simply a case of the ridiculous but acceptable ideology of ‘boys will be boys?’ Was Bill Cosby the sacrificial lamb in a cause célèbre? The answer to each question is a resounding ‘no!’ He became the first; he would not be the last.
Women have fought for decades to be heard, to be recognized. Finally, by way of the MeToo movement, their stories became a fortified web, boldly told and universally heard. Bill was ensnared in this web for reasons that only he and others accused of this heinous violation would know; entangled so completely that his fans and admirers hoped that the punishment he would inevitably receive would be merciful. Mercy was not in the cards, and at 81, a frail William H. Cosby became the first for lacking control of his, let’s say, pudding pop.
Callers to “For the Culture, ” Morgan State University’s (WEAA) radio program had varying views. One caller referred to the incident as “cannibalistic racism,” a term he coined to describe how rich Black professional (athletes and others) prefer white women because they have the financial means to “chose.” The caller attempted to parallel the issues of the many white women accusing Cosby of inappropriate physical behavior (remember, the accusers were of all races). It was obvious what he was trying to project but in his attempted verbal acrobatic feat, the point was lost, although the potential to make a pivotal and provocative abstract was looming. Few callers defended Cosby, expressing disappointment in the man who was a familiar voice on their early lives. There was a Cosby who was ineluctable. Ultimately, the only escape necessary was from himself.
“How well do you really know anyone; really?”
Disappointment became the running theme with mortality a close second.
Disappointment was met with anger. Cosby became a hypocrite. “What would Cosby say,” became the buzz.
THEORETICAL COSBY: “Are you STUPID? What in the hell were you thinking? I don’t think you were thinking, at least not with your big head. This is the dumbest and most ridiculous thing you have ever done. Haven’t you learned that NO means NO?!”
These were words he couldn’t hear and actions he couldn’t control. His warm smile, sure stroll, and inviting demeanor were reduced to a pale facsimile; a man with a cane timidly stop-stepping as if the world was moving unsteadily beneath his feet. It was.
Bill Cosby was iconic, and for several generations will always be viewed sans the accusations and consequential sentencing. He was for decades, an “asexual” demigod, a fatherly figure, a moral protector, if only in our memories. He was our childhood, growing with us, embracing our dreams and coaching us through our difficult decisions. He has suffered a plethora of personal blows, certain to be overlooked because of the waltz of his personal demons. We cried at his loses, reached out trembling hands to grasp at his aging fingertips and heard him whisper, “I’m so sorry.” We will miss that Bill. I think we already do. But we cannot dismiss what we didn’t know or the man behind the curtain.
So, now the years will pass slowly. Those three to ten years will feel like another eighty-one. It pains us to silence, but years of silence was what kept Cosby safe. We pray to the God of our understanding that he will one day be forgiven. We pray that the Bill we knew can one day forgive the Bill he really was.