One for the Road

Up at 11:30 the night before our cross-country road trip. Was it only April of this year that I planned my own Escape from Beckyville, that I made the decision to walk away from the cubicle I occupied for the past eight years to pursue my passion of being a full-time writer? Even now, it seems surreal that my mother, Lola, and I (and our dainty purple chariot) will hit the highway at 5:30 in the a.m. and drive 6,000-plus miles to spread the word about my book. Fear and doubt have been constant companions ever since I said deuces to my job, but I won’t allow them to travel this road with me. Even recently, folks have wondered what I’ll do for money and when I’ll get “a real job,” but I refuse to let others project their fears onto me. You can’t stumble, fall and regain your balance if you’re standing still.

This won’t be a long post since I need to get some sleep so I’ll be refreshed in the a.m. My mother and I just finished packing this morning (CP Time on steroids, I know!) and now we’re enjoying a half glass of Riesling and watching The Wire before bed. Maybe it’s the wine, but I feel peaceful, confident and assured of my future. Ever since I tried to assemble a time machine out of a baby carriage and nuts and bolts when I was eight or nine, I’ve never been satisfied with the mediocre. My soul has longed to go on a journey. Although I won’t be time traveling, I’m looking forward to life in this new dimension – life as my own boss, as my own pilot, as the keeper of my dreams.

I recently attended an advance screening of the film The Help, and it made me think about the ways in which the world views black women – as noble, sassy, ugly, angry, unintelligent, loveless, strong. Zora Neale Hurston rightly observed that we are the “mule[s] of the world,” and little has changed since she wrote those words 74 years ago in her seminal novel Their Eyes Were Watching God.  Even though I feel hurt and encumbered by those labels, even though I feel angry and frustrated at our lack of complex representation in literature and film, I refuse to let the world tether those stereotypes to my back. I’m creating the images I want to see, I’m writing the stories I want to read, I’m being the voice I want to hear.

When I was a little girl, I sat at my great-grandmother’s feet as she dipped Red Man snuff and recited “speeches” by heart. The daughter of sharecroppers, she once protected her property in Georgia with a nine-shooter pistol she nicknamed Ole Betsy. “She ain’t stopped smokin’ yet,” she would cackle as she cradled an imaginary gun. By the time I was born, Gramm Sallie was blind, her beloved pistol lost or sold. But her words had more power than any pearl-handled weapon. As an eight-year-old girl, I was fascinated by the sight of a blind old lady spitting snuff in a tin can and sing-talking, but my great-grandmother’s storytelling remained with me, sifted down onto my skin like the tobacco leaves she loved to pack in her jaw. I dedicated my book Escape from Beckyville to Gramm Sallie, who could never read my words. She was nobody’s mammy, and as they say, she didn’t take tea for the fever. I think she’d be proud of my stories.

As I drive from state to state, reading at indie bookstores and libraries and community centers and the homes of friends, I’ll be drawing courage from the memory of that gravelly voiced matriarch, who first taught me that I had the power to create worlds beyond my Pennsylvania rowhouse. Thank you for coming on this journey with me.

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