Words On a Train

I, too, like writing on a train.  Yesterday, in a 2-hour trip from Philadelphia to Washington, DC I outlined my next book.   That’s the kind of productivity I can’t usually find at my desk.

Up to now, the appeal of writing in DC’s cafes/coffee shops/bookstores has eluded me. Orders for lattes, cranberry scones, and milling hipsters does not inspire my prose.  I need a grittier approach.  Case in point, last week, to get myself writing, I yelled aloud (in my own house) Let’s Get Ready to Rumble!!Train yard

My current writing is a set of short stories (more on that later) and a crime series, with lesbian protagonist, P.I. Charlene “Charlie” Mack.  It’s set in Detroit, in the mid 2000s, when Detroit was caught between an era of chaotic and depressing government mismanagement, and its inevitable slide to insolvency.  Then, sliders were more prominent than scones; liquor more ubiquitous than lattes.

The stimulation I need to write this series, comes from watching people in the urgency of their lives.  So, there’s nothing like sitting in a train station for a half-hour  before your announced departure, and spying the microcosm of humanity that parades there.   I get great ideas for clothing descriptions, how people walk, body language, and what I’ve come to label the various train “types.”

My short stories are about the dynamics of relationships–among friends, within families, occurring in casual encounters, playing out in workplaces.  Many of these stories depict the lives of black people, in all their huge normalcy, innovation, dysfunction, hope and challenge.

Those stories are supported by my life and experiences, but also from the information that bombards me from television, Twitter, Tedtalks, telephone conversations, and train rides.

Train travels…short and long…are wonderful sources for dialogue, eavesdropped or overheard.  The window seat provides a panoramic view of the backsides of people’s lives where industry, poverty, and creativity abound.  Peering into the backyards of houses gives you a better sense of how folks live, then the facade of curb appeal.  The manufacturers of today and yesterday display their real enterprise at the rear of factories.  Graffitti–phat, bold, cursive and colorful, demonstrates the vitality of ideas that wish to be expressed.

For me, riding the rails sparks my imagination; and locomotion stirs my writing.



It says so much about America and its citizens, that we continue to allow mass murders via the easy access to assault weapons and high capacity ammunition.    Sensible gun control IS something we can act on.  We can advocate for it, actively and strongly, by writing letters and making phone calls to our legislators.   We can use the power of our vote to elect and maintain lawmakers who want to legislate common-sense gun purchase restrictions.  We can be vocal about our outrage and demonstrative of our sadness when innocent people are killed by individuals who kill civilians–whether for the purpose of terrorism or hate.

The parents of the Sandy Hook elementary school children who were victims of our lax gun/ammunition laws must be demoralized by our inaction.   I am demoralized and ashamed of my country on this issue.   Enough is enough.  This is simply a matter of the NRA’s influence over our legislators, cloaked in a false argument about the Second Amendment.    Gun manufacturers:  How much profit do you need?

The Confederate Flag is a Red Herring

The outrage about the flying of the confederate flag over the South Carolina statehouse has been refueled and re-furled after the horrific shooting and hate crime committed at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston.


I don’t care whether they take this flag down or not.  Because this symbol is not the reason for America’s racial issues.   America’s soul is the issue.    Whether we know or acknowledge it our nation is suffering from a wounded soul.   One that will never heal until we face, head on, our history with racial injustice.

It is difficult to have conversations that uncover discomfort, shame and guilt.    But putting a salve on our collective souls cannot begin until we engage in this sustained dialogue.   It will make us hurt.  It will test our hearts.  It will make some of us hunker down in our prejudices and fear.    Transformation is difficult and attitude change is a daunting task.  For 150 years we’ve changed laws, changed policies and enforced new behaviors.  I’m grateful for the changes.  But only confronting the core of our beliefs, self-reflection and an openness to understand how we benefit from change can truly set us free from bigotry and its residuals.

In the short term, taking down walls, fences, signs, and flags can make us feel good.  But the work of racial healing cannot be successful through surface acts.  In the long run we must go past the color of skin and flags.  Go deeper to view our soul’s hue.

I mourn the loss of nine souls.  And the irreparable damage to the lives of their loves ones.

February’s Shades of Gray.


February TreeFebruary also has its shades of gray.

A frosted leaf,

A stark sky,

The muted bark of trees,

Salt-stained pavements,

The shadowy forms of huddled pedestrians,

Darkened snow drifts,

Ashen skin,

Winter-coated squirrels,

Icy streams,

A somber heart.



An Imperfect Legacy…

Former Washington, DC Mayor Marion Barry was buried today.   The first thought that comes to most non-native Washingtonians (like me) is this is the man who was caught on video smoking crack.  But, there’s more to the story.

I arrived in DC from Detroit the year Mr. Barry was arrested on drug charges following an FBI sting at a downtown hotel.  I probably saw the infamous video of Barry’s arrest a hundred times and wondered to myself.  Where have I come?   marion barry for blog

Of course, Detroit had it’s own controversial black leader, Coleman Young who served as mayor from 1974-1994.  Young was irreverent and often profane but he was very smart as a man and a politician and as a black woman, I was proud of Young’s efforts and accomplishments.  [Note:  Coleman Young’s 1974 invective to muggers and drug pushers to “hit 8 Mile Road” (the northern border of Detroit’s city limits) has been widely misunderstood and misquoted as a message to those who were disappointed in his election, in particular the city’s white population, to leave the city.  That is not the case.]

Fast forward back to Washington, DC 1990.  I’d moved to the nation’s capital that year filled with awe at the opportunity to work in the world’s most powerful city.  The local and national media dumped on Marion Barry hard, never passing on the opportunity to broadcast the video of his undignified arrest and I was swept up in the uninformed reporting and conjecture.  I maintained my largely negative opinion of Barry for a half dozen years.  What changed my mind was a brief stint working as a communications specialist for a major non-profit organization then headquartered in Anacostia.    Anacostia is one of the neighborhoods east of the river for which it is named, in the city’s Ward 8 political district.  It is an area connected to nearby Capitol Hill by a bridge over troubled waters of poverty, neglect and political disenfranchisement.   At least it was, I learned, before Marion Barry came to town.

Marion Barry arrived in DC in 1965 as an activist after graduating from Fisk University with a Masters degree in chemistry.  As a student he gravitated to the civil rights movement and was a participant in the Nashville Student Movement and later became the first Chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).  His first organizing efforts in DC were focused on job training for the unemployed, economic development, poverty programs and public education. He became a member of the DC Board of Education and in 1975 was elected as an at-large member of the DC City Council.  He would return to the Council in 1993 and again in 2005 for a total of 15 years, most of those years representing Ward 8.  In 1979, when Barry began his first term as mayor, he tackled youth unemployment and focused on solidifying the city’s finances.  By most accounts, Barry’s first term was productive.  However, the second and third terms of the Barry administration were rife with cronyism, contract irregularities, chaotic financial oversight, crime, and a crack epidemic of which, the mayor became its most noted victim.

On a recent NPR program discussing Barry’s legacy, one reporter noted that we should take the full measure of the man.   So, in thinking about Barry today I take into account his work in the late 50’s as president of his college’s chapter of the NAACP; his work in the 60’s in the burgeoning civil rights movement; his focus in the late 60’s on job training, home rule and food equity issues for DC’s poorest populations and his first year’s in DC’s political structure in the 70’s and early 80’s where his strong leadership and organizing skills were in full display.

I also give credit to Marion Barry for something else.   As we all witness a week of outrage and demonstrations against what can only be called a trend of over extreme and unnecessarily lethal police responses during encounters with black citizens, I am reminded that for Marion Barry, black lives really did matter.  He made no apologies for his affinity to and unreserved support of the District of Columbia’s black residents.  The impoverished, the disconnected, the underprivileged, the young, the elderly, the geographically dislocated from the centers of Washington, DC’s power.  Those were his people.  He was a mastermind at galvanizing their affection and, on election days, at leveraging that affection into votes at the polls.

I never met Marion Barry.  But I’ve met many of the people who knew and loved him.  A few of those people were disappointed in his imperfections but they always knew they mattered to him.  Thank you, Mr. Barry, for all you were able to do on behalf of those who were underserved.  Rest in Peace.

Post Script:

I highly recommend the 2009 documentary “The Nine Lives of Marion Barry” produced by Dana Flor and Toby Oppenheimer.


A memory of a visit to Robben Island

Like so many others around the world, I respected Nelson Mandela.  And like so many, I mourn his passing and am thankful for his life and his contributions.

I thought about Mandela intensely one day each year, on his birth date: July 18.  It is also the date of my birth.   For dozens of years I’ve read about this man who had become icon, and watched the documentaries and film’s about his actions, sacrifices and triumphs and marveling at his grace and commitment.


So, when I visited Cape Town, South Africa in 2001 as part of a delegation of international public television professionals, I took time away from the conference I was attending to visit Robben Island.  There I stood in the prison courtyard and heard the guide’s description of Mandela’s days working in the lime quarry of this isolated locale.  Cape Town and Table Mountain were visible in the distance but separated by waters that were shark-infested and treacherous with currents.   And I stood at his cell.  A tiny space that ultimately could not confine the gigantic spirit of the intellectual and warrior that Mandela was.

Amandla! Madiba.  Rest in Peace.