"Fifteens" in Oxford American


On March 28th, in a month full of birthdays and anniversaries, I set out for Barnes and Noble in New Hope Commons (Durham, NC). But, this wasn't a regular trip to the bookstore. You see, just a few years back, I'd been living with my parents. They'd been worried I wasn't achieving at the highest level I could have and so conversations were had about it being mandatory for me to spend time out of the house. I didn't need this kind of motivation. I'd already been going to Barnes and Noble to work on writing projects on my own for a few months. But I suppose, maybe, my parents didn't want to see me fall back on old habits of becoming depressed and sleeping in later than I should have. I was frustrated, as any 25 year old would be, that my life had boiled down to being told what to do rather than living on my own terms. But I didn't let it distract me. Instead, I continued to sit at a chair in the cafe of the bookstore and focused on writing a work that would gain me acceptance into the NCSU MFA program, become my thesis which saw me through to graduation, and change my life in the progress.

That was five years ago. The 28th of March, this year, was a special day because it was the first time that something I wrote was carried in that same bookstore I grew up going to without my having to request it. Those of you that follow me on other social media platforms may have noticed a picture of me smiling in Barnes and Noble with a copy of the PEN America Dau Prize anthology. While it might appear that this was in my hometown bookstore, I actually had to make a short drive up the highway to find the book when it was released. A bookseller in my hometown store was nice enough to carry it when I asked him (and they've continued to carry it long after it has become a relic of yesteryear which I am eternally grateful for). But not this time. This time, I was going to be published in a magazine that was ubiquitous enough that, even in the era of bookstores cutting back on their magazine selections, was still carried by the southern and east coast locations of most booksellers.

The process of being published in this magazine was unique. I'd been in a relationship for about six months and was the happiest I'd ever been on that front (still am after just celebrating a year). My girlfriend suggested we go to the Contemporary Art Museum in Raleigh and see Clarence Heyward's paintings in preparation for a podcast recording at the 21C museum hotel in Durham that Oxford American was hosting. I didn't really understand why she wanted to do this. We barely made it to the museum before closing and quickly looked at the paintings, which showed black people with green skin. There was a lot to like about the exhibition, I just didn't necessarily understand my girlfriend, Elisha's, excitement. Then we went to the event soon afterward and I got it. Danielle, the new editor of Oxford American, was an intelligent outspoken Black woman who was running the magazine like a well oiled machine and setting an example for the kind of thing Elisha had her sights set on in the future. I didn't quite get where I fit in to all of it but, I'd liked the paintings so I went up to Clarence and introduced myself after the talk and music. Then I introduced myself to Danielle. When I mentioned I was a writer she kindly suggested I submit something. And then it dawned on me that I already had. I'd submitted to Oxford American a while before and just so happened to remember exactly which story it was. Danielle gave me an e-mail address to follow up with and I did so.

After working with a team of skilled editors including Danielle A. Jackson, Allie Mariano, Patrick McDermott, and Ali Welky, the piece was out in the world and on newsstands everywhere. The first time I saw it was in my mother's copies which arrived at my parents' house long before I even knew that the issue had been printed. Then Elisha told me that copies were at The Regulator in Durham. I made the trip to The Regulator's magazine rack, which I used to visit while I was a teenaged student at the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics. There I saw my name listed in a place that had been a refuge before; where people I'd idolized like Kehinde Wiley and Shepard Fairey had expressed themselves through the covers and pages of magazines like Juxtapoz and Bomb. Soon afterward, after an early trip made to New Hope Commons with my parents where we'd come up short, the official release day came. I went with Elisha and she cheered me on the whole way. When I'd been writing at that Barnes and Noble location before, I'd been down and out, truly unsure if there was anything to my writing. I'd seen just a sliver of light in moments when something I'd typed up in that cafe had made me laugh out loud or had made me forget about how dismal things had seemed. But seeing my name on the rack made me feel like I'd progressed because of what I was looking at and who I was looking at it with.

Progress is a funny thing. It's hard to measure. Do you know you've gotten somewhere because you feel like it? Or is it because you've accomplished things you've set out to accomplish? These were questions I had to ask myself the other day, after I'd gotten my copies of the story, and was in attendance at an event at Rofhiwa Books down the street from my new rented home. "What are your goals?" A woman in line for oysters and dumplings at the bookshop had asked me in response to my mentioning that I was writer. "I wanted to win an award from PEN America and I wanted to be a professor," I mentioned quickly in response "And I've already accomplished those." But that was just the way I knew how to tell her that I wasn't afraid. Truly, my goal with writing has always been connecting with audiences. Publishing this three year old piece was great for my career. But what has been the most meaningful part about it has been hearing people's reactions on social media, in person, and via text. Whenever I hear someone tell me how my words have moved them, it brings me back to when I first started taking writing seriously. 

I was living in New York, failing at it, and trying to scrape the bottom of the barrel before the money ran out. I started reading at places like Nuyorican Poet's Cafe and Theatre Under St. Marks. I remember bringing printed out chapters in my pockets and learning to bring more than one at a time in case I noticed a particular audience member who I thought might be moved by one scene versus another. In long nights that lasted well past three or four a.m. I learned what it meant to give and take as an artist, to listen and be listened to. There's a temptation to base the joy of publication in things like the rankings of literary magazines or the checks that come with publication. But rankings change, money is spent. The only thing we get to keep as artists, hell, as people, is the connection we make with others. As I anticipate, hope, and pray that the literary world opens its arms to me and allows me continue on this path I've started down of sharing my thoughts with others, I hope I never forget that I'm doing it so that I can have just one extra thing in common with my readers that might guide us toward a future where we see each other as more than strangers.