Term

Spring 5-2018

Upload Type

Thesis

Primary Advisor/Thesis Chair

Katrina Vandenberg

Secondary Advisor/Outside Reader

Deborah Keenan

Degree Name

MFA

Abstract

What We Say: Exploring Well-Versed Messaging in the Music, Literary and Cloth Traditions of Black Americana—serves as an exhibition of coded cypher without disclosing the inherent secret to deciphering the code. It is the script for the enigma, sans the full disclosure of meaning. It is the novel, without the cliff notes; the song without the mind-blowing lilt; the telling of the secret, without the whisper. I am giving you the truth, out loud, to provide relief through kinship connection to long-time sufferers who wandered for a long time wondering “what is wrong with me?” and seldom got an answer, if at all.

Comments

ARTIST STATEMENT

Candidate: Brenda Bell Brown

Primary Advisor: Katrina Vandenberg

Outside Reader: Deborah Keenan

9 April 2018

I Dared Defy Them by Not Dying

—The driving force behind “LOL”—

Allow Me My Prologue . . .

The reality of living a conscious life is predominantly based on a firm belief in things unseen, matters you cannot control, spirit and faith and the like. Truth in point: no one was more conscious than I was to the fact that I had zero days to finish my thesis and get it to my readers on time. Heretofore, throughout this MFA in Creative Writing program I had pushed to be timely with my assignments. Despite the challenges of long public transportation commutes, no computer, slow computer, lack-of-inspiration, lack of funds for books and copies, skipped lunch and dinner, missed calls from my children, no calls from my siblings, lack of focus, lack of creative vision, lack . . . lack. Yet, throughout the years—through winter, spring, summer and fall—I got mine in. I got it done. I have now arrived at the finish line.

I did not let lack ruin a damn thing for me. Yet, my fingers going numb was an unforeseen situation . . . and it was painful and frustrating as heck. It was a routine flu shot. Or, so I thought. Something told me to not even take time out from the productive roll that I was on to get my thesis draft done in record time—at least seventy-two hours before its due date. To have the luxury of time to ruminate over it way before it was due. To be able to spellcheck and tweak a writing assignment at leisure is any writer-on-a-deadline’s dream. Oh, I was so looking forward to it. I had time to run and get my flu shot, first thing in the morning, and return posthaste to my work. No problem.

Yes, problem. The stick was nothing out of the norm. At this point in my life (I turned fifty-nine this year, whoo hoo), I have been seen the inside of a doctor’s office waaaayyyyy too many times for this and that due to an aging body. Maintaining this old body of mine. I went in, got my flu shot, and I was done in less than thirty minutes. I did not immediately feel anything out-of-the-norm. On the drive home, though, . . . I started to get a tingling sensation. It started at my left forearm, the tingling did, and it progressed straightaway to my left hand. Both my left pinky and the finger next to it were going progressively numb. By the time I got home, they were both stiff and lifeless, numbed without the freezing pain.

Remember. I had bought myself at least seventy-two hours’ worth of time. So, I cashed in on a few of those hours and took a nap. I slept longer than I wanted, much harder than I wanted. I must’ve been truly tired. I slept so hard that most of my body was numb when I rolled it out of bed to a standing position on the floor. As I shook the awakening into my body, I noticed that everything was coming to life save for my left forearm and those two significant digits on my left hand. What was I going to do? I had no control over those digits!

I could not type. Trying to do so was like trying to work an errant tongue stuttering through its first Easter speech. No amount of practice was going to make that body part work right. My fingers would only hover over the keys, curved like the talons on a hawk, useless without prey to make their points meaningful. And that was not all that was holding up my progress.

Maybe I had been in denial all this time: nobody acted like they were truly affected by this but me, so I stopped giving it so much significance in my life. However, my numb fingers were effectively halting production on the singular most important cog in the wheel that was fully turning my life at present, my writing. Hell, yes. Depression was mine. I was not in the mood for the on-going battle with the annoyance from up above.

From up above, somewhere in my apartment building, came reality bites. I never, truly wanted to have a close enough encounter with folk upstairs somewhere in my apartment building to find out what the specific problem existed. All I know is that somewhere up there existed a source for hazardous smells and vapors that seeped from their place down to mine through open cracks near the heating pipes in my bedroom and living room ceilings, the vents in my kitchen and bathroom, and the ceiling fan over my table in the kitchen. I was particularly annoyed about the latter. I am particularly fond of the fan.

It circulates soothing air throughout my apartment with a soothing hum. It turns for hours while I work at my kitchen table, working on my computer, sewing on my machines or by hand, making paper, painting and making masks, binging on Netflix or watching the news or the Jason Show. I do quite a bit, situated at that table underneath that fan. Besides me and an occasional black ant at work pushing microscopic crumbs cross the kitchen floor, it is the only other thing moving in my apartment. You would think that since it takes up space in my place, it would work in concert with me. Yet, like so much insidious, non-descript vapor that has moved in on me lately, it has become a fatal instrument aimed to vex me.

Through some flaw in design that allows air to flow between the this first-floor apartment of mine that’s located on the basement level, this built-in vent of my kitchen ceiling fan facilitates the funky air flow into my apartment from apartment building regions above— like its doing right now. Given my hurt paw and this steady stream of insidious fumes, frustration mounts. I am in tears.

I manage to plow on. I do not tell my thesis advisor about the challenges impeding the timely submission of my work. My decision to stay mute on the subject, to just keep working, is emboldened by her timely emails informing all her advisees that a heavy work and reading load has her lagging in her advisory duties, most especially the reading part. She begs our forgiveness. I thank my lucky stars. I high five the goofing G-d in my apartment stank air and write on.

The etymological nature of the word “goofing” in relationship to the Almighty’s name will be explained in a later piece of writing. Just know that a surviving Marine of the Vietnam War and former classmate from my undergrad days at Brown University coined the name for the Omnipotent, Omnipresent, Omnipotent One, explaining through irreverent notion that G-d does fuck up sometimes (for good reason). I believe the goofing G-d is at play here. I promise more on fellow Brunonian, writer Cleveland Kurtz, and his “goofing G-d” notion in a future work.

For now, suffice it to write that a G-d who would allow these series of unfortunate, unrelated events to beset me now had to be poking fun at my confidence in serenity. He had to be deliberately undermining the fluid ease that I had been heretofore operating under, up to the point of His major decision to make my life a living hell. It got to the point where every waking moment was spent trying to whittle away at the refinement of what I had already written and deemed worthy of submission. After reading what I had written under such a stressful situation, I ended up discarding huge chunks of my work, rewriting huge portions, reshaping my intents and self-doubting my abilities. I became the major defeat of my purpose.

Then, epiphany.

G-d was not goofing with my irreverent ass. He was trying to tell me something. He was trying to get my attention, to shake me up, to wake me up. Right on time, there came that moment when a sunbeam breaks through the clouds and directs a beam of light on my kitchen table, where I type, just so. At a moment’s coordination in time, I tune on the music from Pandora to stream for the white noise background I write to and Tupac starts spitting “pimp slap you up”, “my momma didn’t raise no fool” and “thass the way id iz.” As I do during times like these, I began to praise God. After a satisfying moment dedicated to doing a sanctified and holy happy dance with much laughter and a teary face attached to a broke-down body shouting “Thank ya’!” to the ceiling, I got back to writing. With a passion, and gracious allowance for a lot of teary pauses, I wrote “LOL” which I deem the cornerstone work for this body of thesis work. Once completed, it made all the other work make sense. I will tell you why, in a minute.

In the Meantime, It Affirms My Belief . . .

There had to be a reason for my living. For, if not, why was I still alive?

I was the most accident-prone child. Yet, nothing ever proved fatal. I always walked away from the incident, body intact. Alive. Like the time I tried to be as gymnastic as my brother who was always flipping about. It happened one summer day, when Momma left her children home to play while she worked all day: Momma was a working mother of four who held down an office job as an insurance agent adjusting monetary safety nets for folk’s life, home and automobiles all day long. She was always being complimented as the “smart, Black woman.” Surely some of her smart genes petered down to us young ‘uns . . . uhhhh, . . . no.

Daddy worked for the United States Postal Service, in the train division. So, he was often on the rails, whipping through a Southern Corridor to deliver mail to mostly rural areas for days at-at-time. Though a formable presence—the immaculately groomed, strong, silent type— we rarely saw him. He imposed no discipline on us. Daddy only exacted giggles and smiles from us. Our caretaking was left up to Aunt Mary.

Aunt Mary, an elder Black woman who was no-kin to us, came home with Mom one day to live with us and help take care of the house and us children (only if she wanted to). She was a devote of the soap opera and watched the full lineup every weekday, every single weekday. Left to our own devices during this long stretch of time—from twelve thirty when “Search for Tomorrow” flicked on to the fading light of the macabre “Dark Shadows” at 5pm when dinner had to be put on and made ready for when Mary “my Mom” walked through the door after working hard all-day long.

For a great portion of the day, Aunt Mary was the only adult to be found at home in the day time in our entire neighborhood (save for one or two sick-and-shut-in elders around the way). To her credit, she often did double-duty while watching her soaps—folding laundry, ironing laundry, shelling peas, prepping greens, combing hair, sewing, braiding, chopping, mending—but she stayed pre-occupied by them, nonetheless.

That gave us children a lot of time to amuse our unsupervised selves. Many-a-day, we would engage in some outrageous activity that would often make our mother scream and make us promise her that we would “not, never, no, not do that again.” Of course, we always tried it again. How could we resist? After she explained, in a very knowledgeable way, everything that we had done to make the venture that we had tried so dangerous in the first place, how could we resist not doing it again? Especially after receiving from our really, smart Mother the best blueprint for doing it right and super-safe the next time around?!

One day, we opened the back door real wide so that we had a good running start before we barreled no-hand, backflips off our back porch. Likening ourselves to gymnasts that we had seen on TV, we figured that it wouldn’t be too hard. My older, athletic brother was our coach. He was known throughout our neighborhood for his gymnastic prowess—he was a natural! I, on the other hand, was not. I always followed his lead when trying out stuff like no-hand, backward flips off the back porch. Unlike his perfection, I always sucked at it.

When I did it, I flipped and landed with my head tucked under my shoulder. I fainted.

They told me that my brother wasted no time flipping the porch after me and landing at my side. They say he took my head in palms of his hands and twisted my torso back into place. All I remember, when I came to, are the flashes of sunlight that were caught by my fluttering eyelids and the smell of green onions from the freshly cut lawn that my Father loved to maintain.

My brother was my hero. Using only his Boy Scout pen knife and a lick and a prayer, he also . . .

. . . precision-drilled through and drained my swelling big toe of the blood that collected under its nail when I dropped an empty tin bucket on it; found me and brought me home when I got lost in the woods looking for our dog CoCo; taught me how to weld a huge butcher knife in the way of Harriet Tubman when I was asked to portray her during the Bicentennial run of the Underground Railroad down Beale Street; and . . .

. . . was the one who got mad at his two baby sisters but still kicked much ass for us whenever the neighborhood boys talked about us in lewd or lascivious ways in the boys’ locker room.

Although he figures quite prominently in the lore of my personal family life, my brother is not my only family hero. Whenever I have found myself at a loss for admirable and adverse archetypes and archetypical characteristics, I mine my familial memories. I mine my genome to sleuth answers when problems of a socio-historical nature arise in my writing. It is an awesome repository of information that has given scientists mind-blowing remedy to our ailments of a physical nature, with undeniable spiritual overtones.

So, whenever I get anxious about why my life is being spared after so many close encounters, I quiet myself, search myself and enlightenment washes over me. This Statement is not the vehicle for full disclosure and testimony on the meaning of my life. However, the chrysalis of one vital portion of it is at the crux of it all. It is toward that disclosure upon which I have built this Statement thus far. Now is the time for the big reveal.

I Have Good Reason to Live Out Loud

Life is not always a laughing matter. Sometimes “LOL” stands for literally “living out loud.” Shouting out praises to a Higher Power on a regular basis is a strong, soulful influence of my upbringing in the Southern Black church tradition. There is no shame in my COGIC (Church of God in Christ) game. I have lived through so many “close encounters of a fatal kind” that, in all actuality, I should be in constant praise 24/7.

By the same token, it is my ability to “laugh out loud” in a Black humanist tradition that I also practice with much pride and glee. I often quote one of my late, great poetic influences— Langston Hughes—when I find myself caught up in a creative epiphany, realizing the true purpose for my artistic creation/venture/revelation. It is usually a laugh torn out of conflict, borne out of Langston’s poetic note “laughing to keep from crying” as an explanation for Black peoples’ indomitable spirit; a resilient spirit that I claim for my own.

That laughing spirit went with me, this Black girl who managed to keep life and limb intact in the face of so many childhood near-misses, as I left the South to make my way in academia towards a deeper realization of how my art manifests in this life. In search of deep meaning, I chided my spirit to dig deeper into the value and worth of my thesis as a creative sounding board for a personal health malady that had tried, on so many occasions, to derail my life goals and effectively silence my laughter and my purpose for living.

When I wrote “LOL” for my thesis, I was literally living the life of the woman in the story. As noted earlier in this Artist Statement, “LOL” became a little bit of “art imitating life” with an intent for use as a health literacy expose’. Far from being totally autobiographical, it is more of a speculative fiction piece that conjectured the role that real estate, politics, race, and wealth play in maintaining (while simultaneously derailing) a healthy population. With a focus on populaces of colors, “LOL” brings awareness to the triggers of G6pd enzyme deficiency, a genetic predisposition that make sulfa and its derivatives fatal to thousands of people of African, Asiatic and Middle Eastern descent the world over. Note that the antagonists of the story mercilessly manipulate these triggers to maintain control for themselves and others in all the arenas mentioned above.

TO EPILOGUE AND BEYOND

My driving force behind this thesis work started years before I even thought of putting this aspect of my life to paper. It started with the realization that my family, my birth community, all those who had gently pushed me out of my familial nest to fly beyond any boundaries towards my life purpose; that they, who had seen me face off with circumstances that surely should have placed me six-fee-under; that they who had nursed me from birth to speak to purpose without a tinge of fear; that they could pass on to the next life laughing at my lot in life with fear for what faced off with me broiling in their blood; that they would be and are proud of how much I have managed to transmit what they had to say but never spoke out loud, as found in a great majority of my arting.

My thesis—What We Say: Exploring Well-Versed Messaging in the Music, Literary and Cloth Traditions of Black Americana—serves as an exhibition of coded cypher without disclosing the inherent secret to deciphering the code. It is the script for the enigma, sans the full disclosure of meaning. It is the novel, without the cliff notes; the song without the mind-blowing lilt; the telling of the secret, without the whisper. I am giving you the truth, out loud, to provide relief through kinship connection to long-time sufferers who wandered for a long time wondering “what is wrong with me?” and seldom got an answer, if at all. I’ll say.

__________________

I went down to the river,
I set down on the bank.
I tried to think but couldn't,
So I jumped in and sank.

I came up once and hollered!
I came up twice and cried!
If that water hadn't a-been so cold
I might've sunk and died.

But it was Cold in that water! It was cold!

I took the elevator
Sixteen floors above the ground.
I thought about my baby
And thought I would jump down.

I stood there and I hollered!
I stood there and I cried!
If it hadn't a-been so high
I might've jumped and died.

But it was High up there! It was high!

So since I'm still here livin',
I guess I will live on.
I could've died for love--
But for livin' I was born

Though you may hear me holler,
And you may see me cry--
I'll be dogged, sweet baby,
If you gonna see me die.

Life is fine! Fine as wine! Life is fine!

-From The Collection Poems of Langston Hughes, "Life Is Fine" published by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. Copyright © the Estate of Langston Hughes.

Subgenre

Hybrid / multi-genre

Creative Commons License

Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License.

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