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A Race-Based Look at the Fall TV Lineup

I can’t watch TV without noticing race. I know when the first black extra gets a speaking role on a certain show. I’m aware of whether a white character is dating an Asian, an Asian character is dating a black person, an Indian is dating a Russian… well, you get the picture. So when I checked out some of the new shows in this season’s lineup, I definitely had my subconscious antennae up and wondered if they would satisfy my mixed race reality. I was pleasantly surprised, for the most part.

Timeless

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Photo courtesy of post-gazette.com

I’ve never been that interested in time travel shows, or at least those that go back in time instead of forward. Let’s be honest, if you’re a person of color in the United States, it’s best to stay in the present. Even if I get into a classic movie like Mansfield Park, I’m suddenly separated from the protagonist at the first mention of slaves.

The creators of Timeless either naturally wanted to appeal to my demographic, or they did so in order to boost ratings. Whatever their motives, it seems to have worked. Rufus Carlin, played by Malcolm Barrett, is a genius coder who flies the time machine, as he and his companions try to thwart a possible villain at crucial moments in history. Carlin gets to tell off racists of past centuries while, of course, hoping not to get shot dead in the process. Since he’s a central character and not another Rue, I’m guessing he gets to live.

Notorious

PIPER PERABO, DANIEL SUNJATA
Photo courtesy of thetvaddict.com

There’s nothing extra special about Notorious race wise, but it does co-star one of my celebrity crushes, mixed race actor Daniel Sunjata. He plays opposite Piper Perabo’s Julia George, and the two have a professional yet flirty relationship as a news producer and a criminal defense attorney, respectively. While the race representation in this show is fairly standard, I’m enjoying seeing a mixed race lead.

One thing that does leave me wanting, though, is the portrayal of Sunjata’s brother Bradley Gregorian, played by J. August Richards. It’s not apparent what Richard’s role is yet, given he only gets about five lines an episode, if that, and mostly to give Sunjata’s character Jake Gregorian an emotional compass. It’s also slightly annoying that Richards and Sunjata look nothing alike, and not just color wise. It’s as if the casting director thought, “Here’s another black actor. He’ll do for the brother,” without considering that not all black people look alike.

The Good Place

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Photo courtesy of indiewire.com

I couldn’t get past the first episode of The Good Place, and even that was a bit excruciating. It’s not so much the race representation in this show that leaves me wanting; rather, the storyline just seems a bit (very) bland. However, it does irk me that the central conflict seems a cheap knockoff of Selfie, which was tragically cut short after one season. Both shows center around a white female protagonist who tries to be good through the influence of a male protagonist of color.

In Selfie, Karen Gillan and John Cho’s characters had sexual tension that put the storyline into the well-known “will they or won’t they” category, which worked for this couple. However, in The Good Place (at least through the first episode), Kristen Bell’s Eleanor Shellstrop has no redeeming qualities and no interest in her “assigned soulmate” Chidi Anagonye, played by William Jackson Harper. Instead his whole purpose is to teach Eleanor how to be good in the afterlife. Jackson, from Texas, also loses his “Nigerian/Senagalese accent” before the first episode is over, and no one seems to mind.

This Is Us

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Photo courtesy of tvgoodness.com

By far my favorite new show of the season, This Is Us is a sentimental drama about a nontraditional family. The narrative takes place in two different timelines–the present day and the 1970s, and it centers around two white twins and an adopted black baby who was born on the same day and raised with them. The narrative doesn’t gloss over the racial implications of an ethnically blended family, which includes K. Sterling Brown as the adopted son. Nor does it shy away from displaying race-based tension within the family structure itself.

Brown’s character Randall was raised lovingly by his white family, but still desperately seeks to know his troubled black father who’s dying of cancer. It’s a storyline all to familiar to me: it’s one I’ve lived. This Is Us‘s blending of Shonda Rhimes-like racial exploration with Parenthood-like sentimentality makes for the perfect fall favorite.

I look forward to the next episodes of each of these shows (well, except The Good Place), and I’m enjoying seeing plotlines that include relatable roles.

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A Night with Jason George from Grey’s Anatomy

Ten years ago, I was suffering from undiagnosed sleep apnea, and I “slept” about 16 hours a day in my aunt and uncle’s basement in Carnation, Washington–a little town just outside of Seattle. Each night before bed, I’d watch a bit of Grey’s Anatomy, which, while filmed in California, is set in a fictional Seattle hospital.

Fast forward a decade, and I just spent an evening with Jason George, aka Dr. Ben Warren, at a private event put on by Multiracial Americans of Southern California. Jason approached MASC about raising money for the organization by hosting a fundraiser with himself as the prize.

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Jason is married to Indian poet Vandana Khanna, and together they have three children. His family represents the growing multiracial demographic of the United States, which is accurately reflected in the makeup of Southern California. Jason’s mission is to embrace and celebrate this cultural shift and views it as a way to bring people together. He certainly did that tonight, by checking any “celebrity-ness” at the door and mingling warmly with us everyday folk.

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L to R: Elessia, past president Farzana Nayani, and Caitlin

Caitlin S. of Tennessee was the lucky winner of the fundraiser, though she says it took her a while to believe it wasn’t a scam. She hesitantly called to confirm her prize, and then sat speechless at work. She brought along her good friend Elessia whom she’s known since college at Southern Adventist University. Caitlin and Elessia say their friendship was almost instantaneous, and they text each other multiple times a day.

Even on the plane ride over, Caitlin and Elessia weren’t sure they hadn’t fallen prey to some elaborate scheme, but their luck wasn’t too good to be true. MASC put them up in a hotel for an extended weekend, and they spent a busy day chatting up Grey’s Anatomy cast members on set, sitting in on ON with Mario Lopez, and then chilling at a private screening of the Grey’s season premiere with Jason and some of the MASC crew.

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Live tweeting the Grey’s premiere

As we watched the episode, Jason treated us to tidbits of behind-the-scenes information. Having stopped watching Grey’s at the end of season five when it seemed like one catastrophe too many, I was pretty out of the loop; though now that I’ve met a cast member, I may find myself picking up where I left off. Regardless, it was a quintessential Hollywood experience to watch an intimate taping, and I felt like my life had come full circle from those dire, sleep deprived days.

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With MASC public relations director Delia Douglas

Conversation was lively and continued even after the scheduled event. Jason, Caitlin, Elessia and many MASC members reconvened in the main part of the cafe, and I and two friends of mine, one Colombian and Indian and the other Black and White, stood talking in the warm Santa Ana winds about our experiences with race, the current political system, and our beliefs about how to improve the world we live in. Tonight we got a taste of what that world could look like, as races came together in unity and understanding.

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From left: President Thomas Lopez, past president Farzana Nayani, Elessia, Caitlin, Jason George, administrative director Athena Mari Asklipiadis, public relations director Delia Douglas

 

 

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From Watching Blossom to Writing for Mayim Bialik

Today something incredible came full circle. I was an avid fan of Blossom back in the day, and I wanted to be just like the spunky protagonist played by Mayim Bialik. I wasn’t as obsessed with her as I had been with Punky Brewster in middle school, but she was still a really cool chick. I especially wanted to be able to do her dance moves in the opening credits!

For the past few months, I’ve been contributing to a column called Feminism 101. It’s been fun getting the questions in my inbox and answering them when I have something to say. The column started off on SheKnows, and later switched to a new site, GrokNation, which just happens to be that of Mayim Bialik! Or, as some know her, Amy Farrah Fowler from The Big Bang Theory.

For me, Bialik will always be the girl in this picture, which I’d cut out from a magazine in my teens and has remained in my cedar box ever since.

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These past two years in Los Angeles have been a hard road. Sometimes I’m not sure how I’m going to eat the next day. Sometimes I get lonely and miss the friends who have known me for over a decade. But then, like clockwork, something amazing happens that reminds me why I’m here. Today that amazing thing was realizing I’ve been writing for Mayim Bialik.

Click here to discover my first act of feminism, complete with a photo of preschool me.

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Feminism 101: “What Was Your First Feminist Thought?”
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Celebrating the 1st Annual Mixed Heritage Day at Dodger Stadium

What happens when a young, mixed race boy asks his mother what ethnic day is meant for him? The Los Angeles Dodgers have special days for certain ethnicities, but none celebrating mixed race heritage… until now.

 

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Nice day at the Dodgers vs. Cubs game.

Sonia Smith-Kang and her business partner Delia Douglas approached the Dodgers about creating a Mixed Heritage Day. The Dodgers obliged, and yesterday about 200 people came to celebrate at a game against the Chicago Cubs. I arrived with my friend Jennifer, and at first I had trouble trying to find Delia and Sonia in the bleachers. I scanned the faces of the children and adults, trying to spot a large grouping of people set apart by varying skin tone and racial admixture. Funnily enough, I had difficulty finding them in the crowd, because the bleachers were filled with fans of all different hues. There wasn’t much that set this group apart, and that was the point. Los Angeles is becoming increasingly diverse and increasingly mixed, and having a day to celebrate a mixed race heritage is thus tremendously important for children who grow up in interracial families.

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Sonia and her family at the game. Photo courtesy of Sonia.

The Dodgers displayed “Mixed Heritage Day” on the jumbotron in between innings, just as they do for other cultural days at the stadium. This day was a bit different from most, however, because Sonia and Delia were presented a certificate by the Los Angeles mayor, who himself identifies as mixed race. Adults, children and families gathered together in celebration and community as they cheered their team to victory. It was a victory not just for the players, but also for the families who saw their love recognized and validated just like any other.

Sonia and Delia plan to make Mixed Heritage Day a yearly tradition. Follow them on Facebook and Twitter to see what went down in 2016!

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See you next year!
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Is Culture Innate, or Is It Learned?

I often write about growing up folk dancing with my family in the Santa Cruz mountains. We mostly participate in Israeli and Balkan folk dancing, even though no one in my family is Israeli or of Balkan ancestry. Regardless of race, I’ve been doing this type of dancing since I was in the womb.

Just before I was born, my aunt (white) and my uncle (white and Japanese) met at folk dancing classes at UCSC. Another class member owned land in the Santa Cruz mountains, and he invited my aunt and uncle, as well as a few other people, I believe, down to his property to practice. This was about 40 years ago. It quickly grew into a biannual event, with weekend-long dances over the Labor Day and Memorial Day weekends. This type of music is not in my blood, and I didn’t even grow up in this culture. However, I spent countless long weekends dancing with people from a variety of ethnic backgrounds, including those who have immigrated from the Balkan region.

About 15 years ago, I surprised a Macedonian coworker by jumping right into a folk-dancing event at the nearby Seattle Center. She never saw it coming but was pleasantly surprised. Amazed that her black friend knew this aspect of her culture so intimately.

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At my sister’s wedding in 2013, with my mom second from right.

Whenever I dance in a circle with my left hand attached to one person and my right hand attached to another, I feel a sense of connection that I’ve never feel anywhere else. It’s not just the hand holding, and it’s not just the movement in and of itself. It’s this particular tradition that I’ve grown up with since birth. Whenever I attend weekends at what we refer to as “The Land,” I feel like I’m reconnecting with my roots.

I’m black on my dad’s side, and German, English, Irish and Scottish on my mothers. If anything, ancestry says I should love African dancing. I should love square dancing or English country dancing. But I don’t. For me, it’s Balkan and Israeli all the way.

This connection brings up many questions regarding ethnic identity. For example, if a black child is raised by white parents, is he culturally–in his bones–white? Can Rachel Dolezal claim blackness? Perhaps the simple difference is that I don’t see myself as Israeli or of Balkan origin. I don’t pretend to know much about the cultures or even the histories, besides what I’ve learned in school and picked up orally.

But when the music plays, whether it’s in the car or at The Land, my very bones feel that connection. My feet move as if they’ve always been meant to folk dance. I grab the belts of those next to me as if I were meant to perform this very act. Even when years go by between my visits –even when the landscape of who is attending is almost completely foreign to me–once I get on the dance floor, I’m connected to the wood, to the earth beneath, and to the rhythm that pervades my very core. I am a black folk dancer.

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On Reconciliation With an Alcoholic Parent

Dear Readers,

I’ve gotten behind in posting my latest articles to my blog! Without further ado, here is a researched piece from last month. I interviewed four women about their experiences with an alcoholic parent, if the parent was able to get sober, and if they were able to reconcile with their parent. This article was inspired by feedback I got from a father in recovery who wanted to know how he could reconcile with his daughter the way my father and I weren’t able to.

On Reconciliation With an Alcoholic Parent

For many parents who struggle with addiction, getting sober is only half the battle. Children often become “young soldiers” in an effort to protect themselves and those they love, including the parent. As the child gets older, forgiveness and reconciliation can become more difficult, even long after the parent has stopped using. My father never stopped using. My mother read an article recently in which I discussed the “demons” my dad saw as he was dying of lung cancer. “He was probably going through withdrawals,” she said. In the fifteen years since his death, I had never made that connection.

Read the rest here.

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Here’s #MyLovingDay Story. What’s Yours?

LA Times writer Michelle Maltais has created a public celebration of Loving Day stories on the LA Times Medium page. Several of the stories may be chosen for publication in the paper or on LATimes.com. Click below for mine, and contribute your own! If you do, let me know and I’ll be sure to check it out!

My Loving Day Story.

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Mom, Dad and me in 1977.

 

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OH, AND I ALSO HAPPEN TO BE PHYSICALLY HANDICAPPED: A MOTHER’S DAY TRIBUTE

First published in Guerrilla Feminism.

Haley Arcuri is in many ways just an average 31 year old. She’s married, has held a steady job for almost five years, and she loves her family. But Haley has had to overcome obstacles throughout life that most of us will never face. Born with brittle bone disease, or osteogenesis imperfecta, Haley refers to herself as a “little person.” Brittle bone disease is often characterized by short stature, permanent deformities, weak bones and frequent fractures, and respiratory issues. About one in 20,000 people have this congenital disorder, and some die from it, but Haley’s mother Deborah wouldn’t let it stop her daughter from leading a full life.

I first met Haley in 2004 when we were both attending Southern Oregon University in Ashland, Oregon. My mom, who was born with a cleft lip and palate, always taught me not to stare at people with disabilities, and like many, I took that advice a little too far. I was so afraid of not staring that I would often go out of my way not to make any eye contact with people who were different, unless I was speaking with them directly.

Haley broke me of that habit by saying hello whenever we passed each other on campus, even though it would be a few more months before we’d officially meet. “My friendliness on campus came from my personality and maybe subconsciously a desire to break away from a stereotype about people in wheelchairs and even disabled people as a whole,” Haley says. “It also could be that I’ve only really been surrounded by people of average height and no apparent physical disability. I tend to forget a lot of times that I’m ‘different.’ This body, this life is all I know.”

Haley’s mother Deborah has been in her corner since day one. A yoga instructor who lives back in Haley’s hometown of Tahoe City, California, Deborah has been active in supporting her daughter as much as she can. “I don’t know what I would do without her,” Haley says. “It’s kind of scary to think about, because there are so many things that I rely on her for. But she also has taught me to learn how to take care of things on my own, and teaches me about asserting myself and saying my needs.”

During her senior year of college, Haley sustained fractures to both her legs and had to be intubated due to developing respiratory acidosis from medication. Despite this major health setback, Haley finished her degree on time, with a major in communications and a media studies focus. Her initial goal was to become an event planner, and she organized bringing motivational speaker Sean Stephenson, who also has brittle bone disease, to campus for a series of talks in fulfillment of her senior capstone. However, after this successful but stressful experience, she decided event planning wasn’t something she wanted to pursue as a career. After graduation she got a job as a telephone services representative, renewing memberships for nonprofits such as public TV, public radio, zoos and museums. Haley worked that position for five years, took some time off, and then was promoted to quality assurance monitor.

For Haley, going to college and working was all part of the plan. She says of her mom and dad, “They’re my backbone. Without them I wouldn’t be here and I wouldn’t maybe have the courage to try to live on my own. They really pushed that for me. When I was in high school, they kept saying, ‘You need to get ready for graduating and thinking about where you want to go after this. You don’t want to live at home with your mom and dad for the rest of your life, do you?’ And I didn’t want that, but I was afraid too, to take that step and do something I’ve never done. I’m glad that I did it, but it is challenging.”

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In addition to the injury she sustained her senior year, the next year Haley fell off her toilet seat while visiting her girlfriend, now wife, Angie Arcuri. After sustaining a concussion and breaking both her legs and one of her arms, Haley began to get a bit jaded about traveling. “I think it changed me a little bit. I’m more cautious now, and I don’t want to say that I’m more closed off, but it changed me, not in a good way. I’m happy to be alive and I’m happy, but I have more fear now.”

Haley hardly lets that fear stop her from pursuing her goals, however. She and Angie, who is currently a communications and film major at Southern Oregon University, plan to create a docu-series to share their lives with others. Haley, inspired by her friend Briana Rene’e on Little Women: L.A., sees a docu-series as a way to have an impact on others while still being able to honor her body. “It’s kind of like being a motivational speaker, but in a different way. Because I don’t want to travel to different places. That’s not for me. I like to travel, I do, but it’s risky for me. I’d rather just try to stay put.” Haley’s life with brittle bone disease and a 24-hour caretaker, Angie’s life with high functioning autism, and their life together as a lesbian couple are things that both would like to share with the world in order to increase understanding.

Haley knows that being in the public eye won’t be all positive. Recently, she and Angie were trolled on Facebook by a stranger, Haley thinks through her connection to Little Women: L.A.: “I know why you two are together. It’s because you couldn’t find anyone else, because of the way you both look.” Haley says indignantly about the comments, “Not only cutting me down but also my wife. My wife is a really beautiful person.”

Haley and Angie met in 2009 on Match.com. Though each was recovering from a breakup, they formed a quick bond that has remained strong. “We’ve definitely had our ups and downs, that’s for sure,” Haley says. “But mostly ups. We’re pretty tight. I’m very blessed to have her in my life.” Deborah was supportive of Haley’s relationship with Angie from the very beginning, and the couple had an intimate wedding in 2011 with friends and family in attendance.

Growing up, Deborah was proactive about supporting her daughter and helping her connect with others. She had Haley’s friends over for tea parties and home cooked meals, and frequently took them out to dinner and the movies. Deborah likes to treat Haley to facials, and most recently came to Ashland to be with Haley while Angie was in New Orleans with her family. Due to her difficulties with traveling, Haley had decided to sit that trip out, but she is able to take things as they come, largely due to her mother.

Haley recounts the frequency that her mother would have to miss out on things because of needing to take care of her growing up. “I think that’s something she had to overcome, just living in the moment. That’s why she’s taught me not to plan so much, because she’s had to learn that things change, they come up.” Haley is ever aware of the sacrifice Deborah made for her, though it’s doubtful that Deborah would have had it any other way. Both women possess a warm spirit that is infectious to those around them. Deborah and Haley have forged a life both together and apart that is built on kindness and thankfulness for each day. Haley says, “You don’t have tomorrow. You only have today.”

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BEYONCÉ’S LEMONADE: AN ODE TO BLACK FORMATION IN ANY SHADE

First published in Guerrilla Feminism.

When I first watched Beyoncé’s “Formation” video, I felt like I could breathe again, after the almost daily deluges of police brutality. In one fell swoop, Beyoncé had turned the narrative to a place of power, as she reminded America that a slow and steady slay leads to a voice that cannot be silenced.

My euphoria lasted only about a day.

Soon after the video went live, women began to bicker about Beyoncé’s rights to personal agency. Some argued that a light-skinned woman with a self-proclaimed admixture of “Negro and creole” couldn’t accurately speak for black women. Others felt her lyrics flaunted a mixed race identity while denigrating blackness. I expected the backlash she received from some of the white community, which largely focused on her “militant” leanings, but I didn’t expect backlash from inside our own ranks.

As I watched Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade, which dropped just two days ago, I felt myself questioning everything. I replayed comments in my head about whether Beyoncé was trying to appropriate whiteness with her blonde extensions. I feared black viewers would see her Victorian dress as proof of the same. When I noticed her similarities to Sarah Jessica Parker à la Carrie Bradshaw, I felt ashamed by my white frame of reference. I worried her use of black men in the visual album would lead people to believe that she considered the men’s blackness to be the problem.

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At the 42-minute mark, actress Amandla Stenberg’s face filled the screen, and my internal dialogue stopped. In 2014, I met Amandla at the Mixed Remixed Festival in Los Angeles. Born of a white father and black mother, Amandla speaks unapologetically about black issues without stifling her mixed race identity. Beyoncé chose other black women for cameo roles who have also been criticized for their identity, including America’s Next Top Model actress Winnie Harlow, who has vitiligo, and tennis pro Serena Williams whose body was considered by many as too muscular to be beautiful. Through those she chose for the cameo appearances, Beyoncé clearly doesn’t care how others think she should identify. Instead, she celebrates a connection between black women that goes beyond skin tone.

Of course, Lemonade isn’t just about race or about black girl magic. It’s also a tragic and heart wrenching love story between Beyoncé and long time husband Jay Z. Beyoncé sings of comparisons between Jay Z’s infidelity and her father’s, trying to reconcile her conflicting emotions for both male figures. That black women have experienced high rates of abuse from partners of any race is fairly common knowledge, due to the history of slavery and the beliefs about the black female body. For this reason, intertwined within Beyoncé’s love story is an ode to black women that transcends heartbreak, or perhaps is made stronger because of it.

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During the album’s climax, appropriately named “Freedom,” Beyoncé and her cameo clan form the epitome of girl power. Beyoncé sings, “I break chains all by myself /

Won’t let my freedom rot in hell / Hey! I’ma keep running / Cause a winner don’t quit on themselves.” The climax mirrors the rising conflict at the beginning of the album, with mesmerizing stills of the young women as they inhabit what appears to be an old plantation. Back to the climax, the women again play homage to the South, this time through conversation, communion, song and dance, and a sense of resolution. It’s no coincidence that the women around the table are of varying hues. Beyoncé knows who she is, and she appears to understand the petty divisiveness that can infiltrate black power when we fail to look at the bigger picture of generational oppression.

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Black women experience different levels of discrimination, largely based on skin color and physical features. But when we limit our discussions to how a dark-skinned or light-skinned person should identify, we’re missing the monumental connections that should bring us together, as well as failing to acknowledge the discrimination that all black women face. Beyoncé’s album is at once a lamentation and an ode to female solidarity. “Formation” is largely about solidarity against police brutality, while Lemonade as a whole explores gender conflicts and limitations unique to women, including the real women who have lost their sons at the hands of the police. In both cases, we are made strongest when we lean on one another, and Beyoncé’s hour-long visual masterpiece brings us that much closer to social and political empowerment.

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The Day I Became a Writer With a Capital “W.”

Even though I’ve been making steady progress with my writing for a number of years, it wasn’t until April 19th that I felt like I writer with a capital “W.” That’s the day I landed my first article on Essence.com.

Gabrielle Gorman was easy to write about… with the only difficulty being how to summarize this amazing young woman in just 300 words. Her film Dear America has won awards over the past few months, and I had the privilege of sitting down with her for an interview. What makes Gabrielle so special is her desire to be vulnerable, and to use that vulnerability to bring people together. I hope you like the article as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Feature image courtesy of Jill Valle, iamawomanwho.com.