There’s nothing like a road trip. Not only would the 40 Day and 40 Night Escape from Beckyville tour allow me to spread the word about my new book, Escape from Beckyville: Tales of Race, Hair and Rage, it would give me a chance to see parts of the country I was only vaguely familiar with, and I’d have valuable bonding time with my mother, Lola, my road dog.
We rose Monday morning at 4:30 a.m. to get dressed and load up the Beckyville Bookmobile. My dainty purple chariot was already stocked with 34 cartons, each containing 44 books. You do the math. That’s a lot of reading. I worried that we wouldn’t have room to fit the one luggage a piece that we were taking, in addition to other incidentals, but Lola is an expert packer. Soon, everything was neatly stowed in its place, the engine was roaring to life and the automatic garage door was rising on a beautiful new dawn.
It was nearly 6:00 when we made our way down my block and north on La Brea, and the streets were already thick with cars. I have never known my city not to be clogged with traffic – except early Sunday morning. I wheeled the Beckyville Bookmobile through this labyrinth of chrome and brake lights as we headed to the 101 Freeway North, bound for Sacramento. I was afraid that the additional weight would make it hard to maneuver the van, and I felt like a novice trucker in shades and ballerina slippers. Worse, I worried that the tour would be unsuccessful, and I’d have to make the 3,000-mile trip home from the East Coast towing those 34 boxes.
Once the city limits were in our rearview, we reached for snacks, and I inserted a Richard Pryor CD. I’d bought the ten-disk compilation a few years ago as a birthday gift for my mother. Pryor is her favorite comedian, and no matter how often she listens to his jokes, the material still sounds new to her. As kids, my brother, Lamont, and I often huddled outside the closed basement door as the adults downstairs sipped Johnny Walker and hooted at Pryor’s jokes. I thought it was a good way to start the day, with a familiar voice and memories from my childhood, since everything about the road trip was so unfamiliar to me. I’d never driven cross country before, especially hauling 800 pounds of books like a renegade librarian. I was literally carrying my dreams on my back. Even though I ate organic cherries and chuckled along with my mother at Pryor’s “Mudbone” skit, anxiety nibbled at my stomach.
On the 5 Freeway, traffic was light, although some drivers slowed to get a gander at the Beckyville Bookmobile. In spite of the additional load, the van was easy to maneuver, and I could keep up with my fellow road lunatics, when I chose to. Three hundred and sixty two miles later, we arrived in Sacramento and the home of my cousin, Paulette. Paulette and my mother were best friends growing up, but living on opposite coasts, the women hadn’t seen each other in nearly a decade. They embraced tightly, then my cousin stepped back to check out my purple ride. I wondered what her neighbors on the quiet, tree-lined street would think to see a ghettomobile parked out front. But my cousin loved the van and posed for a picture. She knew purple was my signature color, and she’d been so kind as to outfit the bed in the guest room with dark purple sheets. After Lola and I unpacked our suitcases and washed up, we were back on the road, with Paulette in tow, heading to San Francisco.
I chose the state capital as the first stop on the Beckyville book tour for several reasons. One, my cousin lives here, and it was important for me to begin the trip in the bosom of all that is loving and familial. Also, the Bay Area is ninety minutes away, and I wanted to hit up the black bookstores in Oakland and San Francisco. As an indie author, I’ve had to call bookstores and sell myself over the phone, which is a difficult thing for an introvert like me. I’d been successful getting Escape from Beckyville placed at Esowon, Zahra’s, Diesel and other stores in Los Angeles, but now I’d be meeting business owners face to face.
As we made our way to San Francisco, the van was filled with the laughter of women. My mom and cousin told stories of the places they partied as rebellious teens, the miniskirts they wore, the men they dated. The Davises’, my grandfather’s side of the family, are legendary for their temper and their drama. I heard about a cousin who tried to murder his parents with a shotgun when he realized he’d been adopted. He didn’t succeed, but he led the police on a wild chase that ended in his front yard, and wound up killing a rookie on his first day of work. The outlaw was taken to the hospital, and an officer shot him as he lay on a gurney and then pulled a cover over his head. My cousin almost bled to death, had an orderly not noticed his blood pooling on the floor.
My crazy comes honestly.
I rode the wave of the women’s remembrances all the way across the bridge to San Francisco. As we drove up steep streets, folks did double takes at the van. One black woman, her hair pulled back in a sleek ponytail, yelled through our open window, “What’s your business?” I wish I’d had a chance to talk to her, but the light turned green. We headed to Marcus Book Stores in the Fillmore District, the “Harlem of the West.” Marcus Books is the oldest independent black bookstore in the country, and it would be an honor for me to have my book on the shelves along with literary role models Nikki Giovanni, bell hooks and Octavia Butler. My mother, my “momager,” had spoken to the owner, Karen, previously to see if she would be interested in carrying Escape from Beckyville in her store. Karen is a slim woman with a wry sense of humor. Her dog, Sunny, danced at our feet, often rearing up on his hind legs to get our attention. Karen took in the cover of my book and glanced at our matching Escape from Beckyville T-shirts. Then we took her outside for a look at my dainty purple chariot. The Beckyville Bookmobile seems to have a magical effect on folks, and she posed for a picture in front of the van. Back in the store, I sold my very first book in San Francisco to a head-wrapped young woman named September Rose. Karen urged her customer to go outside and get her picture taken in front of the Beckyville Bookmobile. We left Marcus Books an hour later, and Escape from Beckyville found her first home in the Bay Area.
The next day, we made the trip across the bridge again, this time hitting up Berkeley and Oakland. Although I had a cool reception at one black bookstore in Oakland, the response at other shops more than made up for that slight. A manager at one store, who told me she is usually hard on indie authors, said she liked the cover artwork and thought the book would do well. “I like your enthusiasm,” she said. “A lot of indie authors I meet don’t have the same excitement about their book.”
I told her that I was passionate about this project, so passionate that I walked away from an eight-year career at a top-rated talk show to be a full-time author and travel the country spreading the word about Escape from Beckyville. She wished me luck, and I left the Bay Area with two more stores carrying my book.
My very first reading on the book tour was at Underground Books in Sacramento. The lovely Georgia “Mother Rose” West is the owner and mother of Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson. When I spoke to Mother Rose earlier about doing a reading at her store, I oversold myself. I told her that my “many Twitter followers” (I had about 80 at the time) had been eagerly following my adventures and I was sure to have at least 25 to 30 people show up. She sounded unimpressed. “You want to do this on a Tuesday night?” she asked, skeptically. Then she said, “Okay.”
My mother, Paulette and I returned to Sacramento about an hour before I was scheduled to arrive at Underground to set up. I was nervous. The reading wasn’t widely publicized, and I was afraid that no one outside of my relatives would show up. I was afraid that Mother Rose would think I was some big-talking indie author with no audience. It was a sticky hot afternoon, but I convinced my mother and cousin to ride around with me to see if we could drum up attendees for the book signing. We flagged down folks on sidewalks, at bus stops and in the parking lot of Wal-Mart. I felt uncomfortable about begging them to come see me, but what other choice did I have? Most said they had other plans, or looked at the postcards we handed them in that polite but noncommittal way that people regard solicitors for charity. Feeling like a failure, I drove back to Paulette’s house to change clothes.
We arrived at Underground about 5:10, ten minutes later than the time I told Mother Rose I’d be there. But she was gracious, especially when she glanced out her plate glass window and saw a certain purple vehicle double parked at the curb. She’d been so kind to post a sign announcing the reading near the front door, and when I walked inside, I saw five or six people milling around the area she had designated as my author’s corner. A single purple orchid stood in a vase near a copy of Escape from Beckyville. I was home. It didn’t matter if a handful of people showed up. I would tell them about my journey.
As my mother and cousins helped set up, I walked to the bathroom to meditate. I wasn’t as nervous as I’d been when I read at Inspir8tion Studios a few days prior. But as I looked in the mirror, I didn’t see an author. I saw a fat, greasy, wrinkled woman with chipped fingernail polish. Why did I think I was qualified to be a voice for black women, when I often have trouble speaking up for myself? I stepped inside a stall, mumbled a quick prayer, and headed back to the book store.
More people had come in since my bathroom break, and the empty chairs that I thought would be my only audience began to fill up. Mother Rose had placed a copy of my book front and center on a table, between two best-selling novels. A bouquet and a glass of water was arranged on a table at the front of the room. It was time to begin.
I told the twenty or so people gathered about my journey from gainful employment to the world of being self-employed. I told them about my passion for speculative fiction. Most had not heard of the genre, and I was happy to explain that I, in my writing, explore future worlds where black women are penalized for having a temper, where a black woman can morph into a white one, where vampires hunt black women for their hair. I told them that I was creating the images I wanted to see in a literary canon where certain narratives – usually white and male – are privileged. I told them I had bought a van, tricked it out in the colors and graphics of the book, and was driving 6,000-plus miles to get the word out about Escape from Beckyville. I told them I saw myself as a vessel, hoping to inspire others by my story, that if I became a success, others would be encouraged to follow their dreams as well.
The audience was more than receptive to my story. They said that they too, were weary of narrow representations of black womanhood in literature and film. They said they too were tired of everyone else but black women speaking for black women. They applauded my journey and said they knew I would be successful. One woman inquired about having me back in Sacramento to speak to her book club. Another woman said she had family along my route, and if I needed a place to stay, I had one. People were lined up buying three and four copies of Escape from Beckyville for their families and friends. I wanted to cry at the solidarity and sisterhood that I felt in the room. I wanted to weep that they saw me as a leader. Me, a woman who struggles with her weight, who worries every day if she is a competent writer. In spite of my flaws, I’ll continue to get my dysfunctional diva on. I’ll continue to do readings and speak to anyone who will listen about the need to tell our stories, the need to be the change we want to see.
As I left the bookstore, triumphant, tired and a little worse for wear, I glanced at the four or five women encircling the Beckyville Bookmobile. Despite the 800 miles I’d racked up on her trip meter, my pretty purple chariot seemed to gleam. I knew I was the right pilot for this journey. Yes, an author, a leader. I knew I wasn’t just taking an extended vacation across America, but I was at the forefront of a movement.
We piled our equipment and posters back into the van, took pictures one last time and said our goodbyes. When I hopped inside the Beckyville Bookmobile, I noticed that it was one box lighter.