Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

The Trove: Lynda Johnson
August 11, 2011

Living lovely in Harlem.

Lynda Johnson was born and raised in Syracuse, New York but her family’s roots are in Montgomery, Alabama and it shows in her Southern hospitality and colorful storytelling. Her people were part of the epic, 20th century migration of blacks from below the Mason-Dixon line in optimistic search of opportunity up North. Lynda grew up with relatives called “Chicken” and “Joe Boy” and if you asked about her father Jimmie by name she’d say “Who’s that?” As far as she knew, “My father’s name is Honey.” Everyone called him that, not just her mama.

Her parents first daughter and the fourth of their six children, she displays the leadership traits of a firstborn and assumes the mediator role of a middle child. Marie Johnson was seven months pregnant with Lynda when she traveled down home to lay little Billy, felled by leukemia to rest in Montgomery. “I was carrying one and burying another,” she said. “I don’t know how she did it,” Lynda marvels at her mother’s strength and stoicism, an inherited strength she too would have to draw from.

Little Lynnie flanked by her Auntie Dot and her mommy Marie.

Too young to legally wed, Jimmie Johnson fudged his numbers to marry Marie, seven years his senior. The factory foreman worked the graveyard shift but he’d “get up, make my mother lunch and take it to her job. She always had a hot meal,” Lynda smiles. Neighborhood kids lined up at the back door for a taste of his homemade ice cream. “He could throw down!” Though she made a great pound cake and could fry some corn, Marie was a distracted cook who told her kids “burnt food makes you pretty.”

Diminutive size be damned, Marie, like her daughter was not easily cowed. “She was tiny but feisty.” Lynda recalls a classic example, “Some man was outside our house fussing about something and waving a gun. My mother went out there, took the gun from him, said ‘Nigga don’t you be standing outside my house carrying on!’ and started hitting him with his own gun. She was tough.”

Jimmie and Marie Johnson.

She was also sharp. “My mother loved to shop. I have some of her sweater sets and pencil skirts from the 50’s,” Lynda says.” Their jaunts to Ebony Fashion Fair shows empowered Lynda. “I always knew that we as a people had an amazing sense of style and that’s what drew me to fashion.”

Besides playing volleyball and acing track, she took fashion classes in high school, and planned a future in the Big Apple. “At the breakfast table, where we always had family discussions, I told my parents I wanted to go to New York to study fashion,” Lynda says. “They looked up from their plates and Mom said They stole the hubcaps off our car in New York City, you are not going to school there, so you better find someplace else to go. Dad was always the quiet one, but I knew he agreed.”

She found someplace else in a magazine ad for Atlanta’s Bauder School of Fashion. It was exciting to be sixteen, on her own and zipping around the Peach in her “sky blue VW bug,” but it just wasn’t Seventh Avenue. She informed her folks that Atlanta was a wrap. Their response, “if you want to go to school in New York, you have to pay for it yourself.” She called their bluff, got a job at the factory where her father worked, and saved enough for the in-state tuition at FIT, a SUNY school. She went on the parental condition that she stay with family in Long Island. However, the tedious 2-hour commute became a bit taxing and she moved with roommates to a “teeny-tiny” affordable apartment on 24th Street, walking distance from campus.

“I set my five-year plan for what I wanted to be and do once I graduated and it all eventually came true,” she says. “I didn’t want to be a designer nor a buyer, I wanted to write about fashion.” An FIT mentoring program paired Lynda with advertising maven Yvonne Durant, a friend to this day. When an upset Lynda came crying over some slight, Yvonne listened then said “Now that you’re done, never do that again. There are no tears in this industry, that will be seen as a sign of weakness.” Whenever work situations threatened her equanimity, Lynda remembered Yvonne Durant said you cannot cry. And she didn’t.

Yvonne secured her an internship at Essence Magazine with then-fashion editor, Susan L. Taylor. “That was when Essence really had a voice for Black women. I loved Marcia Ann Gillespie’s editor’s pages, I read them religiously. Look at these black women, they are doing it! I thought. I was enamored with them, I stayed until I graduated in 1976.”

In 1978 she began a lengthy career with industry big Fairchild Publications. “I started as Assistant Fashion Editor of SportStyle magazine. My boss covered tennis, golf, ski– all the hoity-toity. I covered what she thought inconsequential,” categories which flourished: “bodywear exploded, everyone was running and the whole surf lifestyle took off,” she says. “I LOVED covering this market, I was in jock heaven. I interviewed and went to a baseball game with Dave Winfield.” She covered trade shows in  California, Germany, Spain, Italy and France. “I ran the Corporate Challenge race in Central Park and played volleyball on Fairchild’s corporate team.” Of her favorite sport, the petite dynamo says “I could get under the ball. Didn’t do much spiking but I had a mean serve.”

Fun at Fairchild.

Responding to the 1980’s baby boomlet and subsequent wave of products targeted to parents, Fairchild created Children’s Business magazine in 1985 with Atrium award-winning Lynda helming fashion. “I love that the children’s industry is real mom-and-pop and down-to-earth, not so garmento.”

She balanced this fulfilling career with a charmed personal life. Artist Earl Garrett, Jr. knew she was a “keeper” when she agreed to have dinner with him, no judgment, after he said, “I want to have dinner with you but we gotta go Dutch, I don’t make that much money.”

“I’m not one of those 26-point women with their lists who miss out on really good guys,” she says. Dinner and a Betty Boop film festival “was so much fun. We had the best time.” Though he didn’t cop a kiss, he went home and called her straightaway. “We talked on the phone for hours– about everything. Garrett was special, really special. “He was very creative.” (In photography, art direction, drawing and painting) He ignited her interest in art and introduced her to the Venice Biennale. It was in Venezia that he proposed marriage. They wed in 1986 on his birthday.

Her collection of works by African-American artists includes her beloved Garrett (left) and celebrated Alabama folk artist, Mose Tolliver.

Lynda ended the 1980’s with unexpected loss. One of the two most important men in her life, her father, suffered a sudden stroke, drove himself to the hospital and went into cardiac arrest.

With the nineties came a barrage of highs and lows. Both bibliophiles, Lynda and colleague Tracy Mitchell collectively read,”were riveted” by and discussed Steven Corbin’s No Easy Place to Be.” Soon, editor-in-chief Monique Greenwood joined their conversations. Tracy speculated that there were other kindred spirits who read and celebrate black literature. The three women founded Go On Girl! book club. Twenty years later, GOG! has grown to over thirty chapters in 13 states and holds an annual awards gala to honor established authors and encourage new talent. Lynda is National Chair.

Garrett created the GOG! logo.

Realizing a girlhood dream of living in Harlem, Lynda and Garrett bought a century-old Hamilton Heights townhouse at a great price during the 1992 buyer’s market.

Architect Clarence True’s rendering.

In August 1995, Lynda and her mom drove from Syracuse to Montgomery for a family reunion, talking all the way. “She revealed herself to me. All the things she’d longed to do (like becoming an actress) and what she’d wished for us kids. I had so much fun with her that trip.” It would be their last.

“My mother was no joke when it came to her cards. She always had a game going in the house: Poker, Black Jack, Tonk…just for fun with family” Lynda recalls. “The next thing I knew it was a full-fledged business. She served dinners (a guy named Teardrop worked the kitchen) she had somebody doing the bar and she took a cut on the table. She was not playing.”

Unfortunately some young men, “looking to rob somebody and get high,” knew there would be cash at the Johnson house.  Around the corner, a neighbor watched them park in her driveway, don masks and quickly run off. She noted their faces, the make of the car and license plate number then phoned the police.

Recognizing the voices of the masked men demanding money, Marie called them by name. She’d fed at least one of them before. Panicked, one shot her. Word spread quickly of the slaying and the four perpetrators, caught by police within a half hour, were “beaten mercilessly” in jail.

Lynda, her mother’s “Rock of Gibraltar” arrived in Syracuse braced to handle things, but her childhood home-as-crime scene was surreal. Where am I going to go? she thought, her “beacon” police-taped. Once allowed in, “the phone rang off-the-hook” for the venerated Mrs. Johnson. “I had no idea of the things my mother had done for people. We got calls from guys in prison. It blew me away.”

At the funeral many spoke of Marie Johnson’s legendary generosity. One woman shared that Mrs. Johnson gave her money to open a hair salon. A troubled young man disowned by his family said “Mrs. Johnson took me in like I was her own child. She fed and clothed me.” Lynda too remembered her mother’s compassion. A man once knocked on their door asking for food. Lynda’s sister shooed him away but their mother said sternly you never turn anybody away who’s hungry, if there’s something in this house to eat, you give them something to eat. “My mother fed that man.”

The neighbor/witness came forward and identified the accused men. “That was the saving grace for me. I knew who did it and it gave me closure,” says Lynda, who read a statement at the trials.” Addressing the defendants the judge said, “If you guys had her mother you wouldn’t be sitting on that side of the table.” The actual triggerman died in jail. “Talk about karma,” Lynda says.

Garrett was balm for grief. “He was there for me in October when my mother was murdered, then in February he was gone. Just like that.” He was beset by a viral infection that baffled doctors and shut down all his organs. “Having lost my mom and then Garrett, my cornerstones, so suddenly, I thought God I don’t know what it is you want me to learn but I’m not getting it. Will you please just tell me and not take anymore people from me?” she says.

“I threw myself into work, I went back to school, I had to stay busy. I thought that if I stopped I was gonna die. It took a long time to get past the sadness.” But as her therapist promised, she now thinks and speaks of them with a smile.

A memorial crazy quilt lovingly crafted from Garrett’s clothing by the women in his life reproduces the cartoon image from his business card and holds his brushes and paint.

After his passing, Lynda wasn’t thinking about romance. I had my soul mate, I’ve done that, she thought until she met Alonzo Wright in July 1997. Short in stature, he was long on personality. “I think Garrett sent him,” she laughs, “I’d always been attracted to taller men.”

They clicked at an Onaje Allan Gumbs performance at Sweet Basil. Alonzo phoned her the next day and invited her to view the sunset with him. With his saxophone in tow, they headed to Riverbank State Park, where he serenaded her, the sun setting gorgeously on the Hudson. Hungry, they went to her nearby home, made “a big ol’ pot of pasta” and talked themselves into slumber on the sofa. “I woke up, realized it was really late and said ‘you can’t stay here overnight.’ Realizing his journey would be more than an hour, though, she put him up in her guest room, retreated to her bedroom and locked herself in.

She later sent him flowers at work with a note that read “Thanks for the beautiful sunset and for being a gentleman,” amazing him. “We started hanging out a lot and next thing you know, he moved in,” she says. “He is not a replacement for Garrett, he is an addition” she asserts. She feels truly blessed to have had them both in her life.

Lyn and ‘Zo.

When layoffs left Alonzo without a job, Lynda’s response was “oh good, now you can focus on your music.” With her belief in him, he thought keeper. “I knew music was what he really wanted to do and he did it. Here we are, three CDs later.”

Alonzo wrangled music peers Will Downing and Ron Blake and their daughters for Lynda’s magazine shoot. Photos: Deborah Feingold

After thirteen years together they married last summer. “On my birthday, we applied for the marriage license and on his birthday it arrived.” She and her mother, both Taurean, married Gemini men seven years junior and fabulous cooks. She chuckles at the coincidence.

After 20 years, Fairchild shuttered Children’s Business in 2005, rocking her professional world. Her considerable experience and respect from the industry garnered her a successful freelance run; then the recession hit, budgets cut and her clients dwindled to two. Her adjunct professorship at FIT helped fill in the financial gaps.

KidStyleSource

Rebounding admirably, she and Tracy Mitchell were in the throes of their business plan when they shared with a vendor at a trade show their intention to launch another childrenswear publication. “We don’t need a magazine, we need news in real-time, online. Manufacturers also need a place where we can advertise to the consumer without paying a lot of money,” he said. Lynda and Tracy reconsidered their venture and created a dual website, KidStyleSource.com “for the retailer planning the season ahead and for the parent buying for the season at hand,” she explains. They are enjoying advertising growth and increased traffic with great vendor giveaways. She never aspired to be an entrepreneur, but Marie bequeathed her the gift for cultivating a passion into a business.

As we talked into the night, it was heartening to see and hear how healing has trumped heartache for this truly beautiful soul. Here she shares the things enlivening to her mind, body and spirit.

1. Living in Harlem. The rich history of the cultural mecca was magnetic. Fiercely protective, she’s rallying neighbors to save the once majestic PS 186 building from razing.

Her stately Hamilton Heights haven; historic subway signage; and the beneficiary of her advocacy, PS 186.

2. VW Beetle. “My first was a ’63 now we have a ’73.”

Their trusty Jazz Blue bug.

3. Books by African-American Authors. “My sixth grade teacher, Mr. Steinberg opened a whole new world to me with the writers of the Harlem Renaissance. ‘It’s so important for you to know about your culture through your writers,’ he said.”

Her ” favorite of all time.”

4. Smoothies. “Interested in the correlation between food and healing,” she enjoys making the dense, nutrient-rich drinks.

A yummy, efficacious blend of organic fruits with rice yogurt, green tea and flaxseed oil.

5. Staying Fit. “I love yoga and I do cardio and weight training at the gym…my husband IS younger than me,” she chuckles.

Bikram Yoga Harlem is her go-to spot.

6. Art Deco Furnishings. Though her mom offered, “You don’t have to buy that old used furniture. I can give you some money to buy some nice new furniture,” the era’s streamlined forms appeal to Lynda.

The dining room buffet.

7. Freesias. “They’re pretty, dainty and I love the fragrance.”

Photo: Gypsie2

8. Miraval Spa. “Love that place! Alonzo and I have gone twice.”

The famed resort is nestled in the foothills of Tucson’s Santa Clarita mountains.

9. Champa Incense. She burns both the classic and golden fragrances from Blue Pearl.

Wafting essences of frangipani and sandalwood.

10. Entertaining. She loves to host guests in her elegant home. Lynda and I hadn’t seen in each other in ages, so we had a girls’ night whilst Alonzo was on the road in Italy.

She graciously made a delicious, vegan meal for dinner and served homemade banana bread and smoothies in the morning.

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The Trove: Ludlow Beckett
July 10, 2011

The distinguished proprietor.

Back in 1999 one handsome, stylish LB, Lloyd Boston, hipped me to another, Ludlow Beckett. Ludlow had just opened his Fort Greene shop, Yú Interiors and Lloyd was spreading the word about his friend’s new venture. Given Lloyd’s clean, modern tastes I knew it would be good. Since then the emporium of “home accessories for modern living” has become my go-to spot for everything from scented candles to vases, lamps, art books and my mid-century glass-topped Danish coffee table.  It’s always a pleasure to browse the inventory for something new and chat with the mellow-voiced Ludlow. We spoke recently of the challenges and rewards of caregiving, how he’s survived in a faltering economy and as the somber anniversary looms, reminisced about the island lift we got when just weeks after the horrors of September 11, 2001 we were both in Kingston, Jamaica for the inaugural Caribbean Fashion Week.

Kingston born and raised, Ludlow “grew up with parents that were very conscious of style,” he says. “My mom started coming to the states in the sixties and would bring back American stuff.  When I look back at the furniture, I think Wow, that was pretty cool!”  Though the seed was planted then, it would germinate for quite a while.

“I never thought of it as a career. I came to the US at twenty and went to college, two years at City College for accounting then Pace University for finance,” he says. He spent 27 years on Wall Street but ultimately left banking when his mother became ill. “I didn’t want to travel as much, so I took time off.” While caregiving, he pondered what business he could open in Brooklyn.  Given the onslaught of gentrification in Fort Greene, he thought home goods would be a viable local option to big box stores.  In keeping with his modernist aesthetic, “It was about providing the things I would like in my own home. I operated under the premise that if I liked it, someone else would like it too whether it’s a Votivo candle or a vintage serving tray.”

About the store name he says “It’s everything YOU need,” and with a considerable Asian influence on much of the merchandise, he spelled it Yú. He incorporates new with vintage pieces, mostly mid-century modern. He loves that era for its “gorgeous woods” like walnut and rosewood; simplicity,”great design without being ornate” and functionality “mass produced for modern living, but still beautiful.”

Yú’s interior.

He’s kept his doors open through the economic downturn armored by his banking experience. “Having managed people (a group of eighty) having run a call center for Chase where you understand customer service, how to recruit, how to train, how to run reports to check progress…all the pieces that come together to run a business. I learned that if you can’t increase your revenue you can still be profitable if you keep your expenses down.”

And most importantly he acknowledges his life partner of 24 years, tax accountant, Allen Harvey, “I couldn’t have done it without him.”

George Mulhauser for Plycraft chair; gold leafed Sea Urchin bowl; spider clock; Quistgaard ice buckets; Tozal ceramic boxes and trays; Zwelethu Mthethwa book; Ridley’s classic games and mid-century Danish teak mirror.

Lean or flush he absolutely enjoys his entrepreneurial endeavor. “When you do something you love, the rewards can come in ways that are unexpected,” he says. An elderly Latina woman, a resident of the local senior center has supported him from the beginning. Though his modern sensibility differed from hers, she wanted to patronize his business and made a concerted effort to seek out items she related to like scented candles. They have become friends. Another customer “came to check on me during the blackout with a flashlight and a beer. So it’s not just about making a dollar, its about making relationships far beyond a transaction.”

Similarly, a look at his Trove reveals a quest for the simple pleasures; his favorites experiential, the stuff that creates quality of life.

1. Entertaining. “I love cooking and love being with my friends over a home-cooked meal.”

2. Great Espresso. “Made in the morning, with my own espresso beans.”

Bialetti stove top espresso maker.

3. Negroni.  “I love cocktails but a good Negroni is the best!”

The classic Campari aperitif via SeriousEats.com.

4. A Bath. He enjoys a good ole tub soak with aromatic botanicals like eucalyptus, lavender and sage. “I’m a product person when it comes to baths.

A Yuma bathtub from BluBleu.

5. Farmer’s Markets. “Brooklyn’s are great, but the one at Union Square can’t be beat, especially in the Springtime.”

Photo via: The Untrepreneur

6. Sag Harbor.  The Hamptons village is home to several historically black enclaves including Chatfield Hills, where Ludlow and Allen purchased a home in 1998.

The pool at their home.

7. Kobo Candles. Clean burning soy wax and unusual fragrance combinations make the scented candles a fave in the shop and his home.

In-store, he carries a full complement of fragrances, but at home he burns the green yet spicy Jalapeño.

8. My Shop. “Gives me the opportunity to meet some great, really interesting people.

Keeping shop: Ludlow and his wares.

9. Vintage Wittnauer Watch.  He loves the 1940’s timepiece inherited from his father.

Launched in 1872, The Wittnauer brand graced fine Swiss watches until it was bought by the Bulova company in 2001.

10. Complexions Contemporary Ballet.  Ludlow truly enjoys the performances of Dwight Rhoden and Desmond Richardson’s dance company.

Complexions Co-Founder Desmond Richardson.

The Trove: Eisa Ulen Richardson & Ralph Richardson
July 2, 2011

On the Fundy Trail. On each other: “He is my rock…She is wonderful, loving, giving.”

Capricorn hip-hop heads Eisa Nefertari Ulen and Ralph Richardson, Jr. lived parallel lives near to, yet unaware of each other. Born in the city of Brotherly Love, each eventually moved with their families to idyllic Columbia, Maryland in the 1970s. As young adults, they both lived in the Nation’s Capital. For years, their worlds hovered close, threatening to collide–their cousins were good friends; they attended some of the same memorable events; they both considered law careers until the Muse called and each followed her to Brooklyn. In 1999 at the junction of Fulton and Flatbush, defying the laws of physics, their parallel lines converged.

“He saw me walking ahead of him and he liked my posture,” Eisa says. They did a bit of a dance — he walking alongside her then dropping back in the cut when she failed to notice. Undeterred, he finally strode forward offering a bright smile and a hello. “We started talking and he told me he was a filmmaker,” she says. “I was like yeah and everybody else in this neighborhood.

“No, no, really I am,” he said and dashed into his nearby apartment emerging with a VHS tape of his first film, a black and white short called Kharja which they promptly viewed in the local video store.

“Absolutely, stunningly beautiful,” Eisa says. “Very well-done. So we talked about that and I told him I was a writer and he walked me home.” Since she’d just met him on the street, she was initially hesitant to give up the digits when he asked for her phone number.  “He said, ‘You know you’re going to give it to me’ and actually I did know. Though I couldn’t articulate it at the time, when I looked at him, he felt really familiar. I gave it to him and about 10 minutes later he called and read me a poem he’d composed about our meeting.”

“Off the top…I only make fresh-baked bread,” Ralph laughs. From that day on, every day they were in the same town, they saw each other. There was no singular moment when it crystallized for either of them, “other than just meeting,” he says, the infinity line touched in Fort Greene. “Things evolved organically,” Ralph says and they married July 5, 2004.

“We are committed to each other as loving partners but both having divorced parents we’re even more committed to the institution of marriage,” Eisa says. And now since the 2009 birth of their son, Ralph Everett Hooper Richardson III, their entangled roots grow deeper.

“Ralph is the one I knew was out there. I had opened up a space in my life for my husband to walk in and that’s when he came…and gave me a son.”

When I visited the Richardsons in their Fort Greene home last week, Ralph talked time theory while Eisa readied herself in the bedroom. “Time drags for the young. The older you are it seems that time quickens. I think it’s because you’re denied things when you’re young: I can’t wait to be this, I can’t wait to do that.  Anticipation elongates time and I think adults need to incorporate that anticipation to extend time.”  Two-and-a-half-year-old Ralphie popped out to give me status updates on Mommy. Astrology buff Ralph explained that their son is an Aquarius, the water bearer, “he pours the water into the river, conducting the flow.” When Eisa emerged she thanked her baby boy for keeping the communication fluid.

As I sat down with the writer and filmmaker to chat life, books and movies, the ridiculously cute Ralphie (a.k.a. Hoop) shared his artwork: mixed media on paper and a Cheerios butterfly which I awkwardly broke “Ooh Miss Sharon destroyed the butterfly,” Eisa laughed and quickly reassembled the pipe cleaner-clothespin-breakfast cereal creation.

Eisa holds dear the sense of place, lineage, history, being. She is fiercely proud of her stunningly elegant “Grandmom,” Carmelita, “the Philly fashionista,” and first black woman to become a nurse-anesthetist at the University of Pennsylvania. There are traces of her in Eisa’s graceful comportment. She is grateful for her bright, beautiful mother’s staunch support. She knows she stands on the strong shoulders of remarkable women (and men) and revels in “who I am as a woman right now.  The identity of being a mom, a wife, a writer… that’s really special to me.”

Ralph is a take-it-as-it-comes guy moving through life’s triumphs and challenges in good humor with an open mind, hearty laugh and belief in the power of dreams and embracing the fortuitous moment.

Not surprisingly, womanist Eisa’s favorite films are black woman-centered and directed, Daughters of the Dust and Eve’s Bayou. Ralph’s top three are The Godfather, 1 and 2, (“bar none, together they are my number one,”) Blade Runner and Scarface.

“I used to think of The Godfather as a gangster movie and what my husband taught me is that it’s a narrative about immigration,” Eisa chimes in. “And so it got me thinking Scarface and Godfather are really rich immigrant tales. Scarface had a lot of exploitative elements but it was riveting; that opening montage with the Mariel boatlift anchors the film in a powerful way. Ralph helped me differentiate between these immigrant tales and narratives of containment like Boyz in the Hood or Menace II Society. My favorite in that category would be City of God.” 

“Yes, awesome film, awesome,” Ralph agrees. “Probably my fifth favorite, with Alfred Hitchock’s Notorious at number four. I’m all into the conspiratorial, claustrophobic, paranoia-type thing. I’m a big fan of noir and it has those elements. My favorite books are Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, the basis for Blade Runner. Ellison has those elements of claustrophobia and being oppressed …gravity, tremendous amounts of gravity.” Of his two favorite authors he says, “I’m gonna make a movie combining those two sensibilities and smashing them together.”

Eisa’s favorite books are all seminal works written by black authors: Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God,  Jean Toomer’s Cane and South African writer, Bessie Head’s Maru. Her own first story–written at about age four–on tipis and tulips, remains in her mother’s library.

 The gorgeous Ulen family in 1970s ubiquity: the Olan Mills portrait.

Eisa’s activist parents, Tony and Cheryl Ulen met as students of historically black Lincoln and Cheyney Universities.  They raised their infant daughter in his hometown of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. By the time of the Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown, they’d divorced and Eisa’s grandfather admonished, “get my granddaughter the hell out of there.”  Her mom, ready for a fresh start, took her ten-year-old to the relatively new planned community of Columbia, Maryland.

A proud alumna of Baltimore’s all-girl Western High School, Eisa “always did well in English class, contributed to the literary magazine and even wrote for the city youth newspaper.” Though black literature was prominent in her own home and her granddad was a journalist, she planned to become a lawyer. When a friend explained that she wanted to attend Oberlin College because they had a great writing program, she “opened a door of possibility for me,” Eisa says. “It was like ding ding ding ding…you can make a career of being a writer.”

A presentation at Western on Sarah Lawrence College (which also has a stellar writing program) sold her. “I was in love. The recruiter talked about the philosophy of the school, the culture and the school community.” The location,”right outside New York was ideal because I knew I didn’t want to be in the city, but I wanted to be close. I got the best of both possible worlds.” She wrote throughout college, contributing to school publications. She spent her junior year at Howard, “when DC was the murder capital. We lived at 111 Bates and I was sitting on the stoop when these two girls walked by who were about my age. I overheard them talking: ‘I’m gonna just go on and have this baby before he gets shot up or locked up’ and that stayed with me. It’s not like I went inside and started writing but I held onto the line,” she recalls.

During her senior year, she wrote her first nationally published story, “a remix of ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ for Urban Profile magazine.” She went home for a couple of years and taught school until she returned to New York to pursue a graduate degree in philosophy and education at Columbia.

Upon examining the lives of Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston she realized that she didn’t have to be pigeonholed into one genre of writing. “I knew Langston as a poet and Zora as a novelist,” she says. “But there was so much more, especially Zora. She did the Bohemian Fire Dance; she studied anthropology, so she created scholarly work; she was writing essays; she did some freelance journalism; she taught; she worked on the play, Mule Bone; and her fiction, so many short stories and novels. It became very clear to me that I didn’t have to limit myself. Instead of saying I’m a fiction writer or I’m a poet or I’m a journalist I could just say I am a writer. I could be free to do all that.” And so she has, contributing to everyone from The Washington Post to Ms. to The Source to TheRoot.com while keeping her eye on the fiction prize. As a former fellow of the Frederick Douglass Creative Arts Center’s Young African American Fiction Writers, she will be “eternally grateful to Fred Hudson, may he rest in peace for establishing a place for black writers in New York to really nurture creativity in black literary art.”

Her beautiful debut novel, Crystelle Mourning is not autobiographical yet it is imbued with the sensitivity of collective generational experience. “Even though I grew up pretty much middle class and had normal teenage stuff in my life, Baltimore had the highest assault rate then. It was the eighties and I’d go to parties and somebody would get shot and killed; I’d go to the Inner Harbor and somebody would start shooting in the air and everybody would be running.  I’ve had those physical experiences with what was going on statistically all around me. Our generation is not so different from generations before in that we had to learn to process terror.”

The response of the Afrocentric movement was, she explains “very male-centered, there was a gender-specific way of looking at what was going on, which makes a lot of sense because it was boys and men who were killing each other.  Girls weren’t out shooting each other, so I get that, but what became an interesting question for me as a feminist and black woman, a womanist was Well what about the girls and women left behind? How does their pain get expressed?

When she started writing Crystelle Mourning, Eisa thought it was a short story collection. She’d won the fellowship and joined a writers’ group with Brooklyn writer Grace Edwards. “Grace was the one who told me that what I was writing was a novel,” she says. “What became clear is that I was writing about the experiences of my generation and I thank that woman whose name I’ll never know from Bates Street that night because her voice guided me to this work. It’s really about these women: Crystelle, the title character, her mother and the mother of the boy she grew up with who lived across the street. It’s about what happens to these women after he is shot and killed their senior year in high school.”  

The story resonates deeply: “I’ve had women cry and come up and hug me after readings.”

In anticipation of Ralphie’s birth, Eisa quit her collegiate gig teaching English at Hunter. She’s now focused on raising him and throwing herself headlong into writing. Keep abreast of her insightful, incisive work at EisaUlen.com.

Boys to men: the Brothers Richardson, Ralph and Anthony with mom Diane and dad Ralph, Sr.

Unbeknownst to her at the time, Diane Richardson sowed the seeds for life-long passion in her first-born. “My mom used to take my brother and me to the movies every weekend.” His first memory of seeing a film is from age three: George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead. “That was the time of double-features for a buck. So I’ve seen all the blaxploitation movies in the theater, when I was like three, four, five-years-old– Shaft, Blacula, Rosey Grier in The Thing with Two Heads, Mandingo,” he says.I saw Jaws at seven.”

“I saw Bad News Bears,” Eisa interjects. She recalls loving the wholesome ET, Ralph has a different take: “Spielberg’s a great filmmaker. It’s cute, but I was like there’s no black dudes in the cul-de-sac and yet everybody loves this strange creature, I don’t see Julio from down in the schoolyard in there. About his adult-themed viewing he says, “it didn’t blanket my innocence, but it made me astute. I had an acute sensibility about what I did like.”

Although he and Eisa aren’t likely to allow their child to watch movies with mature themes, Ralph “wouldn’t change a thing” about his childhood. He was in no way traumatized, in fact he is ever grateful to his mother for the weekly cinema ritual. “It had to have inspired me,” the Widener University grad says. “I didn’t realize until I was 25 and had decided to go to Georgetown Law School that I wanted to be a filmmaker. I asked myself if I knew I couldn’t fail, what would I do? And this voiceless voice inside said film. Then all this stuff started pouring out. It was a very latent talent I hadn’t realized I had. I never hesitated, I packed up and rolled to New York.” Learning by doing, the self-taught filmmaker began his quest.

His roommates were all Philly transplants: stylist Debra Ginyard, model Belinda Sawyer and actress Yvette Ganier. “I was like Jack Tripper up in that piece,” he laughs. Debra suggested he get a headshot for acting opportunities while trying to establish himself.  On the day Tupac Shakur died the hip-hop fan co-directed his first film with a cast of friends, roommates and himself in the male lead from a script he’d written in 20 minutes (“it flew right out.”) His partner, a film school grad backed out of the project in post production, leaving Ralph to his own devices. Serendipity would have it that he found an editing bay made available for free during certain hours. By immersion, the novice learned to cut film the old-fashioned way, on a flatbed Steenbeck. The film won a New York Short Film award and ran for six months on Starz. “So I knew I could do this,” he asserts.

Shortly after moving to New York he had a vivid dream. “It was so visceral. I was in China. I was really there and had the greatest time.”  Two weeks later he heard from a casting director, We have your headshot. We want you to audition for this part shooting in China. “I don’t even know how they got the headshot,” he says.  He went in of course, to audition and when he blurted out about his dream he got the part. “The Chinese are very into fortuitous luck, so if you dream something like that, it means something.” Off he went to China, shooting for four months. “It was one of the best times of my life, it was incredible, I loved every moment of it,” he remembers.  “By six weeks I didn’t need an interpreter because I love people and being able to communicate with them.”

“Then I worked with RZA on this film I wrote, When Tyson met Tyra. It was my first feature, an urban Bonnie & Clyde.”  He has since directed and/or edited numerous filmed projects and additionally he covers film, television, and popular culture as a freelance writer for TheGrio.com, TheDefendersOnline.com and Time, Inc.

Posted today on theRoot.com is Ralph’s article on Video on Demand (VOD), the game-changing approach to film distribution he’s utilizing for his latest film now available via Amazon as well as VOD.  Sex, Drugs and Comedy, “is a wonderful trip on the road with some of the most brilliant comedians in the country.”

He runs down the first day of production: “I’m shooting on the bridges getting b-roll stuff for the road and this cop at the toll booth wants to confiscate the camera… on the path of the hero there’s always an immediate obstacle to overcome. Then we run out of gas and literally push the car to the gas station.  Then the car breaks down completely. We borrow a car, get lost and finally make it to the place with 15 minutes to get set up. We put the key card in the door to our hotel room, it opens, but it’s bolted. The promoter is having sex with a groupie. You can’t write this stuff…and that was the very first day.”

It’s a rough journey to the A-list. “The crux, the core of being a comedian is the hustle,” he says. “They’re like truck drivers, it’s a hard road.”

“They are the funniest comedians you never heard of,” says Eisa of the comics-on-the-cusp in the film.”Sex Drugs and Comedy is funny, but it also has a real heart and soul that’s poignant and makes it special,” she says proudly of her husband’s work. “Comedy is a brutal art.”

Before I left them to settle Ralphie into naptime, they shared a few favorite things: for Eisa, the stuff of memory, reflection and nostalgia and Ralph’s all kinetic energy: moving pictures, moving sound, moving the body.

Eisa’s Fave Five:

1.Old Family Photos. Represent, represent. Ralphie will know from whence he came surrounded by the faces of  family adorning the walls.  Years ago Eisa discovered a cache of photographs — from snapshots to formal portraits in a bag at her grandmother’s house which she painstakingly mounted for her in a leather-bound archival album. Now that Carmelita has passed on, she treasures the collection.

A few of the many priceless photos: Ralph’s mom Diane in her confirmation portrait; Eisa’s grandmother Carmelita in 8th grade; Eisa’s Bermudan kin evoke Daughters of the Dust; Ralph’s paternal grandparents, Doris and Gene Richardson; Ralph’s maternal grandparents, Cat and Sonny Jones and the treasured album.

2. Their Eyes Were Watching God. She cherishes her dog-eared copy of fellow Capricorn Zora Neale Hurston’s classic.

Notes scribbled in the margins are clues to the person she was when she first read the seminal text.

3. The Blue Chair. A touchstone from her mother’s childhood home, it is one of many pieces of heirloom furniture which now grace her Brooklyn apartment.


It’s a Ralphie fave as well, a place to sit with his mom and drum on the djembe.

4. My Paternal Grandmother’s Portrait. Millicent Hooper Ulen was a cellist and pianist and like her father before her she was for many years the proprietor of Hooper Memorial Funeral Home. Her husband, Eisa’s “Pop Pop,” was a writer, the Capital Hill correspondent for the Pittsburgh Courier with an office at the Capital dome in Harrisburg. “I used to like to visit there with my dad, it was very exciting to me.


Millicent’s son, Lance now runs the family business and created this painting.

5. Composition Books. The classic ruled notebooks with their black and white mottled covers have housed her words from childhood on.

When writing non-fiction, Eisa types directly into the computer, but for her prose, it’s pen to paper.

Ralph’s Fave Five:

1. Great Underground Movies. Two that he likes are Shanghai Triad.  “Awesome, awesome movie, like The Godfather but set in 1930’s Shanghai. Beautiful!”  And Layer Cake, the British film with a pre-Casino Royale Daniel Craig. “It wasn’t as popular, but just as good as Snatch.”

2. Snowboarding. “I love it because it makes me feel like the Silver Surfer.”

Via Lindsay Fincher.

3. Hiking. The self-described “transcendental mountain man” enjoys a good hike.

“The mountains are calling and I must go.” – John Muir

4. Music.  Specifically, “this mixtape I’m still bumpin’ from last year called Radical by OFWGKTA , Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All…The essence of the music stems from an anarchists’ upheaval, Odd Future embodies that.”

“They’re like The Clash-meets-Wu Tang-meetsOnyx. Incredible. They’ve got gnomes as part of their staging. Gnomes! and a lot of smoke and zombies…totally cool.

5. Adventures with Ralphie. We just walk around and observe things. We don’t go to the playground, we don’t have any stress.  So he can not be on the same path all the time, we mix it up, find new things and explore ’cause kids love to explore. I’ll carry a ball, a basketball or a soccer ball and we’ll run the whole time, kicking it along the street.  But then we’ll stop at a sculpture garden…Look at flowers, identify them and I’ll put caterpillars in his hands… He’ll watch people play tennis at the park.

He enjoys the vicarious thrill of the excitement of being two. “You get to relive what you don’t remember.”

The Trove: Anu Prestonia
June 16, 2011

Advancing the acceptance of natural beauty, the radiant hair care icon.

So certain that their first-born child would be a boy, Barbra Jean and Preston Newsome awaited son Preston, Jr. When their Aries daughter arrived, they named her Prestonia and called her “Toni.” She would one day become “a new” Prestonia when spirit would dictate that she assume a name to “help manifest the qualities needed” to reach her “incarnation objective,” or purpose in life. As a new member of the spiritual community, Ausar Auset, she was dubbed Anu Kemmerå, one who sees beauty in serving and having correct behavior. Nearly thirty years later, “I’m still working on the behavior part,” she chuckles. She indeed sees the beauty of serving and has crafted an impressive career in the service of healthy beauty – one that has its genesis in her childhood. At ten-years-old, a too-strong perm left her with badly damaged hair that was then cut into a tiny Afro. “At the time, the only people with Afros were in Ebony or Jet. They were celebrities.” Heartily embraced, the reaction to her natural hairstyle surprised her, as she became a celeb among her peers for wearing the “new Afro hairdo.” She’d always “played in other people’s hair,” so by the time she entered her teens she was the go-to girl for all the basketball-playing boys who wanted their hair cornrowed. Her love of beauty is deeply ingrained, from her hairstylist grandmother to her own mother who affirmed Toni’s beauty at every turn. She entered her daughter in several beauty contests, including the famed Hal Jackson’s Miss Teenage Black America Pageant. “We rehearsed at Harlem Hospital’s auditorium: walking and charm taught by the popular models of the day and our talent routines. I chose poetry because spoken word was popular then.” She walked the stage to the strains of Aretha Franklin’s “Daydreaming.”

The music-loving contestant asked for a pic with the Queen of Soul backstage at the 1972 pageant.

Reciting Nikki Giovanni’s “Nikki-Rosa,” she intoned, “…Black love is Black wealth and they’ll probably talk about my hard childhood and never understand that all the while I was quite happy.” It was a fitting poem for a girl whose bucolic beach existence in Norfolk where her dad was a naval photographer was interrupted by a parental split and relocation with her mom and siblings, Linda and Butch to gritty 1970’s New York City. “In Virginia we could go outside whenever we wanted to. I could just get on my bike, go exploring, get lost, try to catch June bugs and butterflies…or walk, long distances. My mother allowed me the freedom to walk wherever I wanted to. My grandmother’s house was about a mile and a half away and my great–grandmother’s was three miles!”

“When we moved to Brooklyn, everything was on the shutdown, we became prisoners in the apartment. We couldn’t go outside unless an adult was home. It just really changed things.” However she loved their apartment in a huge Pre-war building in Brownsville. “It was really big, had French doors and a sink in our bedroom, which I thought was just the grooviest thing.” The art deco bathroom had a floor-to-ceiling tiled shower stall in addition to a bathtub. “I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. In Virginia we’d only had a tub. So once we got to New York, I thought every day should be a shower day.”

Because of her frequent indoor confinement she “really got into WPIX’s Million Dollar Movie on TV” and remains a film buff to this day. Watching television also introduced her to pioneering African-American news anchor Melba Tolliver and when she traveled to DC to visit an uncle, the numerous black broadcasters there encouraged her as well. “I thought, I can be a broadcast journalist.

Enrolling in the communications program at SUNY Brockport, she “couldn’t even believe how far away it was.” The eight-hour, intra-state trek to the quaint college town was longer than the drive from NYC to Norfolk. It was another world to the brown girl from Brownsville, a one-cinema town with no place to “get hair grease.” She was, however, struck by its beauty, its dramatic seasonal changes and its night sky. “It would be so full of stars and seem so close like you could just reach up and touch them. But when I came home for Christmas, I realized how much I missed being around my people.”

She transferred to historically black Howard University, “a more nurturing environment.” Those days truly shaped the woman and entrepreneur she would become. “Many pivotal changes happened in my life while I was there. I stopped straightening my hair, I became a vegetarian, I discovered yoga, and I learned how to put in an extension, so my career started at Howard.” The summer before her senior year, she started braiding hair at the popular salon, Shelton’s Hair Gallery, took a semester off and never went back, eventually returning to New York. An impetuous move to Jamaica West Indies without enough money to live on yielded “a few weeks of starving” and a need to relocate. She joined her sister, a University of Miami student in South Florida. Doing business as “Have Comb, Will Travel,” Prestonia made house calls to local clients as well as those in DC, New York and eventually the Bahamas. Disenchanted with both Miami’s monotonous climate and Floridians who didn’t “get” the Afrocentric yogi, she moved back to New York and found a sense of community with the Ausar Auset Society. “It felt like home,” she says. They offered yoga, meditation, breathing and African culture based in the sacrifice of the lower parts of your spirit, as opposed to the sacrifice of animals” found in some other African practices. They embraced vegetarianism. “They had all the components I was seeking at that time.”

Tying her mother’s gele in 1987. The yoga devotee in 1979.

After having been raised as a Christian, she embraced the precepts of Kemetic religion and dreamt the name her thriving business would take, Khamit Kinks. Although she left that practice 21 years ago, she remains in loving community with many former members. “My practice now is to be in truth with myself and others,” she says. Part of that truth is to awaken the “hoodwinked, bamboozled“ masses to the myths of popular culture. “I am a crusader for women to help them move from destroying their hair to accepting their own beauty, their own culture, their own aesthetic. What you were born with has value, all you have to do is love it, appreciate it and learn how to work with it or know where to go to have it treated with respect.”

She worked at legendary Kinapps African Groomers for several months until the entrepreneurial impulse resurfaced and she returned to working out of her home. When her friend Maitefa Angaza included pictures of Anu’s work in a pitch on African hairstyles to Essence, the magazine hired them both. Anu created looks for the professional shoot, her styles illustrating Maitefa’s text. Once the double-page spread ran “the phone started ringing off the hook.” Her business grew and she established a longstanding relationship with the magazine styling/braiding models as well as celebrities for editorial shoots. (Khamit Kinks is featured in “Super Naturals,” a beauty story in the July 2011 issue) From Angelas Bassett and Davis to Terry McMillan, Alfre Woodard, Queen Latifah and Oprah Winfrey she’s covered a broad swath. In 1992 her client, radio deejay Imhotep Gary Byrd referred Stevie Wonder –in need of a quick shampoo– to her. She excitedly accepted but on a three-way call a few weeks later with Stevie on the line to schedule another shampoo appointment Anu replied in mock indignation, “What does he think this is, a laundromat? We don’t shampoo other people’s work!” Stevie remains a client nearly twenty years later, “Yeah Stevie is very relaxed, he thought that was pretty funny.”

Braids on Oprah, locs on Stevie and a head-wrapped Anu flanked by Nigerian thread-wrapped Angie and Alfre.

Her business has grown from girl-on-the-go to a single chair in a basement apartment to many years in her own Tribeca salon and back to her home borough. She and her team of natural hair care specialists/stylists move from her massive Downtown Brooklyn Gold Street space to a very well situated new space in the bustling Atlantic Avenue corridor later this summer. Among her most sought after services are consultations on damaged hair, a task she takes very seriously. “Having had the experience of losing my hair as a girl left an indelible impression.” She wishes for everyone pristine health from their follicles to their toes. “I’ve always had an interest in health having come from a very sickly family—my grandmother died when I was eight from diabetes and stroke, she was only forty-seven. My mother was in and out of hospitals all my life. The things that we do affect our health.” She highlights Diabetes as an example, “people used to just think its inherited, but no–what’s inherited is the diet that leads to it.” She is very mindful of how she moves through the world, from the energies she surrounds herself with to the foods she eats to creating “me’ time to the aromas in the air she breathes. She shares her knowledge through her services, her carefully developed product line, events she holds in-shop (like Zumba class) her blogs Ask Anu and Anu Essentials and the documentary she produced in 2009, In Our Heads About Our Hair.

From her lovely sister Linda in the early 1980’s to Nikita today, Anu features everyday beauties, not supermodels in her promotions.

Is no surprise that her innate love of and “nose” for fragrance would find its way into her business. She first used botanicals in her hair oils and years later introduced fragrant body butters and natural soaps. Upon reading master perfumer Mandy Aftel’s book, “Essence and Alchemy,” she was turned on to and turned out by natural perfumery. “It was so enchanting, it took me to another planet,” she says fervently. “It’s sacred art, really. Just the other day, I thought Wow! I wonder what God was thinking about when he made this smell this way.” The fragrances of nature have intrigued her since childhood: cut grass, soil after a rain, pine. For young Toni a fresh pack of unburned cigarettes was a nosegay as pleasing as any cluster of small flowers. She’d bury her nose in it and inhale deeply. Though she abhors cigarette smoke, as an adult Anu finds tobacco essence “hypnotically beautiful.”

This summer she launches her first perfume, the herbaceous, floral-kissed Meadowlark, a “green” blend of oak moss, clary sage and her beloved rose. “I am new to this industry, there’s quite a learning curve,” but she is very excited by her foray. As she expands her hair care line to include shampoo, conditioner, styling crème and a gel she incorporates her growing knowledge of the vast repository of botanical essences.

Rosemary-infused medicinal hair oil, glycerin-rich, hand crafted soap, and my favorite body butter, Sultry.

A long ago Essence photo shoot initially crossed our paths, but Anu and I have over the years come to discover several shared delights, quirky to sublime from the wafting aromas of laundromat exhaust to the wistful vocals of Madeleine Peyroux to the evocative treatises on fragrance by Mandy Aftel. Server and sybarite, Anu is a woman in balance. She works hard, plays hard and truly enjoys being in her own luminous, sweetly scented skin.

Before the Kemetic, yogic, Reiki certified, fragrance-loving, would-be pool shark headed to her billiards league, she shared some of the things besides lush, healthy heads of natural hair that stoke her Arian fire:

1. Natural perfumery. I love the botanical essences: how they smell, look, and feel–from very thin and light to thick and viscous.” Though Mandy Aftel is her primary mentor, she’s also been inspired by Amanda Walker of “A Perfume Organic,” master perfumer Sarah Horowitz, bloggers like Monica Miller and reading Chandler Burr’s books.  “And I have a guardian angel in Marian Williams who has generously offered contacts to exclusive suppliers.”

A detail from her perfume organ, the natural perfumer’ organization system of raw materials, sorted by note.

2. Jewelry. “I love the gamut. I have a collection of pearls. I purchase them from a sister in the jewelry district on the Bowery. I fell in love with black jet beads a couple of years ago and bought some most precious finds on EBay.

A unique EBay offering: a Victorian Whitby jet watch fob.

3. Billiards. “This is my third season on a league at Amsterdam Billiards in NYC.”

Her “sweetheart,” entrepreneur (and billiards aficionado) Henry Rock, gifted her with one of her two cue sticks.

4. Spa Services. “My first spa experience was in 1993 at the Burke Williams Spa in Santa Monica. My favorites are Dr. Hauschka facials, salt exfoliation in a wet room with Vichy showers that hang above the table, deep tissue massage and all the ayurvedic spa services–especially at Kripalu Yoga Institute.”

Vichy shower: “a nearly orgasmic experience,” she says.

5. Gardening/Flowers. “I love all flowers, my faves are peonies, poppies, all lilies, bearded irises, hydrangea, hollyhocks, gardenias, roses of course, clematis, lantana. I could go on and on with this one…”

The fruits of her gardening labors.

6. Yoga.  “Though I’m not teaching right now, I am a certified Yoga instructor trained at Integral Yoga Institute.”  Its founder, Swami Satchadananda was “my first inspiration on my road to seeking my spiritual path.”

She has practiced Hatha Yoga for thirty years.

7. My Home. “I purchased my 1897 Brooklyn brownstone exactly one hundred years after it was built.”

“It took me about 5 years to get it where I was truly comfortable.”

8. Foreign and Independent Films. From Jules Dassin (Rififi, 1955) to Julie Dash (Daughters of the Dust, 1991) she enjoys bold, visionary cinema from around the globe.

Set in South Korea, Ki-duk Kim’s elegiac 2003 film “Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring” is a favorite.

9. Fine Dining. “I love to eat! I really enjoy fresh, quality and organic food.” She has unforgettable memories of a small Italian restaurant on the beach in Tulum, Mexico. “They bought out cheeses on a chunk of tree trunk, an array of olives and delicious bread to start the meal. There’s no menu, just absolutely great food.” She fondly recalls “the simply exquisite pleasure of dining at the illustrious Babbo Ristorante, and Dirt Candy, love their food.” Son Cubanois another haunt.

The humble vegetable as delicacy at Dirt Candy, and two all-time restaurant faves.

10. Birkenstocks. From shoes to sandals, her tootsies are happy in the famed Birkenstock cork foot bed.

Of her large collection of Birkis, many are Gizeh thong sandals.

For more on Anu, her services and products, check her websites: Khamit Kinks and Anu Essentials.

The Trove: Reed Morano Walker
June 7, 2011

Shooting the Oscar-nominated, Sundance hit, “Frozen River.”

The year 2008 was a busy one for cinematographer Reed Morano. In January the exquisitely shot Frozen River (starring Melissa Leo who scored an Oscar nom for her performance) premiered to critical acclaim at Sundance (Reed’s first festival entry.) In June she gave birth to her remarkably beautiful first son, Casey. In September she married her “true love,” fellow cinematographer and gaffer Matt Walker.


Reed and her “lighting soulmate,” Matt.

Just days after their Fire Island beach wedding, Reed and Matt reported to set for the first day of shooting on Closet Cases. As wardrobe supervisor of the Lloyd Boston makeover show, I was excited to learn that a woman headed the camera department. Over the course of several weeks I saw first-hand the focused yet easy-going Reed balance the demands of work and new parenthood with aplomb.  The beloved baby–welcome amid a tight-knit crew that included not only his dad but his Uncle Justin—was a frequent set visitor allowing mommy the opportunity to nurse on breaks.

Since we wrapped in late 2008, Reed has continued at a frenetic pace, shooting steady TV work between feature films. Yelling to the Sky (Victoria Mahoney, dir.) was her first feature post-Casey. She shot the films For Ellen (So Yong Kim, dir.) and Little Birds (Elgin James, dir.) during her next pregnancy and shot Free Samples, starring Jesse Eisenberg and “Hitchcock Blonde,” Tippi Hedren, a few months after the August arrival of second son Fletcher–another cutie–last year.

I caught up with the busy Bed-Stuy resident to talk about her influences and her trajectory. We share a love of the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and the grit of Charles Bukowski. Marquez’ “writing is so visual and really immerses you in another world. And I love Didion and Bukowski for how authentic/honest a picture they both paint,” she says. With the naturalist lighting and hand-held camera work she often employs, she brings an authenticity and honesty to her work.  Cinematographers Conrad Hall, Ellen Kuras, Roger Deakins, Emmanuel Lubeszki, Wally Pfister and Rodrigo Prieto are on her shortlist of influential Directors of Photography.

She looks forward to tonight’s New York première of Yelling to the Sky, a film she’s quite proud of. Of star Zoë Kravitz she says “Zoë is not only an amazing actress, she is an amazing person.” Reed calls director Victoria Mahoney “an absolutely brilliant writer/director with an infectious enthusiasm for film…Zoë, Victoria and I really bonded on this film.” The trio got tattooed with tiny hearts crossed by a line, a nod to the heart-shaped doorknocker earrings bisected by the name “Sweetness” and worn by Zoë’s character in the film.

Reed has been lovingly inked before. On her right wrist are the initials of her beloved dad, Casey, for whom her first-born is named; on her left elbow is “Lyn” scripted in her mom’s signature and commemorating one year of marriage to Matt is a how-to diagram for tying the only nautical knot named for a man (a sailor)—the Matthew Walker Knot.

The body as homage: dad’s initials, on “tying the knot,” a sorority of three, mom’s signature.

Reed was born in Omaha, Nebraska, the first of two children (she has a brother, Justin) to Lyn and Winslow Mankin and the family soon moved to Minnesota. When Reed was three-years old, Lyn divorced Winslow and moved the children back to her family in Long Island where she’d meet, marry and have three more children (Jordan, Morgan and Ali) with Casey Morano of Fire Island (who had 2 older children, Lana and Cos.) When it was suggested to the entrepreneurial Casey that Albuquerque might be a good place to live, he packed up the wife, kids and extended family and caravaned to a new life in New Mexico.  They spent a few years there before returning to Long Island, then off to New Hampshire and Vermont.  Of her nomadic upbringing Reed says, “It was great because it taught me about all kinds of people and taught me to be adaptable as well as open to new things. If I had grown up in the same house all my life, I wouldn’t have nearly as much material in my brain for storytelling.”

The Moranos.

She clearly admires her parents.  Her mother, “a perpetual scholar” studied anthropology and archaeology variously at the University of New Mexico, Columbia, Dartmouth and Harvard as she raised her children. She now heads the history department at Kimball Union Academy in New Hampshire. “When I was young, I watched my mom study and get her PhD all while raising 5 kids!  I remember her writing 20-page papers while breastfeeding my youngest sister and all of us other kids running around wreaking havoc on the house,” she recalls. Though her father’s entrepreneurial endeavors yielded mixed financial reward, she is impressed by his bold pursuit. “My dad was involved in every kind of business you can imagine. He opened restaurants, he had a landscaping company at one point. He even opened Long Island’s first head shop back when he was in his hippie years. He had an international mergers and acquisitions company before he passed away and he was also developing a TV pilot for a travel/reality show.  He definitely dabbled in a little bit of everything. When I was in high school, he turned our barn and property into a horse farm with a horseback riding school.  He always had a new idea and always dreamt big.”

“I was a nerd.  I read a lot.”

As a child, “I was always making books, even before I wrote I drew pictures and would staple them together,” she says. “When I finally learned to write, I wrote every day until I entered high school. Everyone thought I’d be a writer.”  Her father took note of her leanings and presented her with an early video camera (with VHS tape) upon his return from a business trip to Japan, remarking that she should be the family documentarian. And so it began, she shot footage of her siblings, made small films and commercials and when the time came for college, Dad again intervened to suggest film school since she’d embraced a visual form of storytelling.  Off to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts where she’d eventually receive department awards for cinematography and later serve for two years as an adjunct professor.

Though she doesn’t consider herself a spiritual person, she believes there was a mystical connection with her father surrounding her career choice. On the very first shoot she worked on, she took note of the DP.  She “became fascinated with what he was doing and I knew that was the job I wanted to do. I wanted to look through the viewfinder and create the world the audience sees. I consciously decided to pursue cinematography.”

Post-shoot she returned to her dorm and to several phone messages from family. “My dad had had a heart attack. I rushed up to New Hampshire to be with him in the hospital where he was in coma and the next morning, he passed away.  He had been so obsessed with what I would do and what path I would take in life and I still find it interesting that right before he passed was the moment I knew what I wanted to do with my life,” she reflects.

“I never considered myself a technical person, in fact I used to joke that I couldn’t set the time on a VCR! But once I put my mind to this craft, it seemed I actually had a knack for it. I do approach shooting in a very creative way that revolves a lot less around technical information and more around the feeling I get in a particular moment.  Everything I do, I usually take a cue from my gut. As a DP, you’re an artist, but you do have technical information you need to know in order to achieve whatever look you’re going for. So I absorb the technical stuff I need and then I just kind of go with the flow and rely on the emotion in the story to inspire my shots and lighting.”

Reed on the sets of “Megafauna,”  “Frozen River” and ” Little Birds.”

When the Coen Brothers’ (now a Reed fave) released Raising Arizona the pre-teen Reed took note. “It was the first film I can remember really noticing the cinematography on. That was when I realized the power of the camera as a tool for storytelling.  Everything about it, the camera moves, the lenses that were used all served the story and enhanced the tone of the movie.  It’s a huge part of what makes the film so memorable.  It was the first time I became aware –in a good way– how much a lens choice or a camera position could affect the way the audience reacts to the story.”

From the 2007 documentary, Off the Grid: Life on the Mesa to today, she is garnering major recognition for her work. Earlier this year she was selected as one of Variety’s 10 Cinematographers to Watch. Next week she’ll head to Los Angeles for the Women In Film Crystal + Lucy Awards (other honorees include Annette Benning and Katie Holmes) to receive the Kodak Vision Award for Cinematography.  “All the women who have previously won the Vision Award have really paved the way for female DPs like myself. It’s pretty amazing to be in the company of my idols. The thing I am most proud of, though, is the fact that I am able to make a living doing a job I absolutely love at the same time as being a mom.  I never knew how I was going to pull that off!  Like everything else, I just jumped into motherhood headfirst (right when I was getting really busy at work) and I was forced to make it all happen.  It’s not easy, but it can be done!  Between my mom and my dad, I guess I had some really good training from a young age on how to multitask and how to follow your dreams. Being with Matt was really the key to making it possible–he keeps me going and is so supportive of my working.”

A gorgeous mom, a handsome hubby and two beautiful boys: one stunning family.

In meeting Matt, a gaffer and DP years ago, she found her “lighting soulmate.” He knew what lighting she wanted in each scenario before she spoke a word, they “shared the same aesthetic and his style of working was exactly what I’d been looking for,” she remembers.  So she began working with him exclusively.  Professional admiration eventually became personal. “We both realized we wanted to be together in every way, not just at work.  I never thought I’d find someone who matched me so well and that’s who Matt is.  He definitely exceeded my expectations for who I would spend my life with.  He is the smartest person I know. He is brilliant, creatively and otherwise and he takes such care in every task he does, big or small.”  Her Aries impulsiveness is balanced by his Aquarian intellectual approach. “He continues to amaze me every day and there’s nothing he can’t do. I have never met someone so devoted to the ones he loves. I can’t believe that he chose me.”

She is feeling a tremendous sense of good fortune these days from marriage and motherhood to a recent reconnection with her biological father and “discovering a whole new side to my family” to a career in full blossom. She’s currently in pre-production on her biggest project to date, the Rob Reiner-helmed Summer at Dog Dave’s starring Morgan Freeman and Virginia Madsen and shooting in Rockland County next month.

Before heading upstate for pre-pro, the gifted and grateful visionary shared some of the things that bring her joy:

1. Kisses from Casey & Fletcher. “They are a constant source of joy and amazement. every day, at least once I stop and think, in awe, how did I get so lucky?”

Bussing baby Fletch and big boy Casey.

2. Dancing.  “All night long in a flowy dress in Fire Island with my girlfriends.”

“It’s the feeling of freedom.

3. Steel Pulse. “Especially the albums Tribute to the Martyrs or True Democracy. It’s one of the bands I have listened to since I was in elementary school. It’s great music to have echoing through your house with the windows open on a warm day.”

Live in Germany, “Babylon Makes the Rules,” from “Tribute to the Martyrs.”

4. Reading a new script. “When I work I get to go on a new adventure each time and all these new visuals and ideas fill my head. I get super excited whenever I see an attachment in my email…”

From the Frozen River script.

5. Estee Lauder Tom Ford The Body Oil.  “All my life I was looking for my favorite smell, the smell of your skin after a day on the beach. Finally, I found it in 2006 and it is now discontinued! However, I still have several bottles.”

The coveted fragrance.

6. My Uncle Matthew’s Lobster Bisque. From the family-owned Matthew’s Seafood House in Fire Island,  “it tastes like my childhood and it’s still my favorite soup.”

Tucked away on Ocean Beach, the restaurant feels like home.

7. My Light Meter. “When I’m using it, that means I’m shooting film and when I’m shooting on film, especially 35mm, I’m happiest.”

Photo: CAGATOTA

8. My Sister’s Morgan’s Gelato. “Her stracciatella gelato mixed with her strawberry sorbet is incredible. She has her own shop in Hanover, New Hampshire, Morano Gelato.”

Gelati in raspberry and egg cream flavors.

9. Scuba Diving. “It’s as close as I’ll probably get to walking on the moon.”

“It’s another world!”

10. Cocktails with my Husband. “Preferably a Bloody Mary or a Cava on a beach somewhere far away.

Salut!

The Trove: Renaldo Barnette
January 13, 2011

The impeccable Professor Barnette, photographed by fashion peer, Michael McCollom.

Renaldo Barnette loves models.  In fact, he was one — a muse to esteemed fashion illustrator Antonio Lopez as he created the brooding genie in the lushly illustrated 1985 re-telling of the Scheherazade classic Tales of the Thousand and One Nights.  Friendships with runway legends eased his transition to life in late-eighties Paris: Coco Mitchell (“She’s still my heart”) welcomed him as a roommate during his jaunts to the City of Lights and Lu Sierra introduced the awed young designer/illustrator to Monsieur Hubert de Givenchy. Millie the Model, a paper doll dream glimpsed in the pages of his older sister’s comic books started it all.

A page from a 1960 “Millie the Model” book available on eBay.

 

Renaldo’s oh-s0-chic 2010 season’s greetings brightened my holiday.

The youngest of the “humorous and fabulous” Eddie and Lillian Barnette’s four children, Renaldo was born in Fort Devens, Massachusetts.  An Army brood, the family moved every 2 or 3 years, living in places as far-flung as Okinawa, Japan and Augsburg, Germany to several states in the U.S.  “My real discovery of drawing was when we lived in Hawaii, between about eight and ten-years-old,” he says. He’d duplicate the super heroes from his comics, Spiderman and Superman, but it was big sis Phyllis’ Millie the Model and Katy Keene books that captured his burgeoning fashion imagination.  His mom, who called to mind Diahann Carroll’s TV character, Julia, was a “nice, stylish, suburban lady” who had her clothes made.  Baby of the family Renaldo would accompany her to fittings with dressmakers in whatever town they found themselves in.  Fascinated, he took it all in, learning about patterns and fit, fingering the fabric samples and quietly taking the available scraps. With these scavenged textiles or even bits of his own cut-up socks, “I learned how to trace a bodice and sleeve.” He saved his lunch money and secretly bought a Barbie doll, sharing this only with his brother Corinzo, now a hairstylist in Florida. “Corinzo would style Barbie’s hair and I’d make her clothes.”

During a family stint in Fort Knox, Kentucky, “Mom sent me to the store to pick up something and I spent her change to buy a copy of Vogue. It was big, the September issue. I think it was 1971 or ’72.”  Though he was concerned she’d be angry about the expenditure,  it opened a dialogue.  “Oh, you’re interested in fashion?” she asked, then shared that she’d gone to New York years before to pursue a modeling career. She didn’t continue that path, but she kept up with the styles of the times.  As fashion “got young in the seventies,” people mistook Ms. Barnette in her “Cleopatra Jones cropped fur jacket, double-knit pants and curly “Freedom” wig for her children’s sister. (With Corinzo’s help she had “an entire wig wardrobe with wiglets and falls.”)

Though his father was oft in uniform, Renaldo was taken by a photo of his father in the era just after the Zoot Suit: the strong shoulder was still there, but the silhouette was slimmer.  His dad looked sharp.  And he taught his sons the essentials of proper grooming.

When Fort Bragg beckoned, the family lived in Fayetteville, NC where Renaldo excelled in art class, so much so that his teacher taught him private painting lessons.  “But I was bored,” Renaldo says, “and kept on drawing girls.”  Noticing the fashion illustrations advertising local store, Miss Vogue Junior Shop, his instructor noted that Renaldo’s illustrations were as good the advertisements in the paper and convinced the shop to hire the eighth grader for a Saturday job drawing velvet blazers, Faded Glory jeans and Huk-a-Poo dresses. It was, of course, a big deal for him. “I thought I was the cat’s meow.  I became a local celebrity.”  When his beloved brother, Eddie Jr. passed away last year, Renaldo was deeply moved by the discovery that his proud big bro had saved all his Miss Vogue sketches (as well as his favorite Hot Wheels cars.)

After high school, he headed to Los Angeles to attend FIDM (Fashion Institute of Design & Merchandising,) where he was eventually advised to head to New York, for a better match of sensibilities.  He did visit the Apple and was offered a job by a fairly new company that he loved, Carolina Herrera, but a boyfriend in LA convinced him to stay on the West Coast.  He would finally make the move, take classes at the Parsons School of Design and reconnect with Antonio Lopez, whom he’d met at the L.A. launch of the book, Antonio’s Girls.  Upon reviewing his portfolio, Antonio told Renaldo that it “looked out-of-townish,” and that he should “always carry a sketch book,” a practice he embraces to this day. They’d hit legendary club Paradise Garage and whilst Antonio & Co. burned up the dance floor, he’d find a corner, take in the uniquely New York scene, and sketch away. Although he was accustomed to immersion in different worlds, Antonio and his famous friends—Mick Jagger, Jerry Hall, Iman – were a new universe.

Posing for Antonio and freelancing at Polo Ralph Lauren, “sketching in various departments,” Renaldo met American-born Paris phenom Patrick Kelly who liked his sketches and invited him to work in his atelier.  He loved the Paris years, working not only with Patrick but with the “very French” houses, Sonia Rykiel, Chantal Thomass and Jean Charles de Castelbajac.

Upon his return to the states, he embarked on a career designing and/or sketching for a variety of American sportswear lines including Anne Klein, Nicole Miller, Christian Francis Roth, Yansi Fugel and good friend Michael McCollom; teaching at the college level; creating day dresses for Badgley Mischka as Design Director for daytime dresses and Lauren dresses as Creative Consultant; and launching his well-reviewed (WWD) eponymous line, Renaldo, Ltd. in 2003.

When pulling looks for Lloyd Boston’s The Style Checklist, I thought Renaldo’s matte jersey stunner was the perfect piece to illustrate “The Jaw-Dropping Dress.”  Photo by Robert Tardio.

  

Recent sketches.

Now an adjunct professor at F.I.T., Renaldo has taught there for 19 years. Though he is highly rated by students, he says “it took years to develop” his teaching style and level of comfort. 

 Amazing artist, amazing professor. He does not only teach you how to draw, but how to think and act like a designer. He treats you with respect and has a lot of expectation. He very often stays late for us after class. Very accessible and helpful as long as you are seeking for help. Love him! and I wish to have him again as my professor. – Student review of Renaldo from Rate My Professors

Though classroom instruction was not in his plan, “I interviewed on a lark,” he says. Painter, illustrator and art instructor Harvey Boyd exclaimed upon seeing his sketches “Wow! Have you ever thought of teaching?”  Renaldo responded in the negative, but decided to go for it “to make extra cash.”  He had no idea how much he’d enjoy it.  “I find it so rewarding, giving back” and helping students to perfect their craft. So beloved is he and so strong his talent that he was hired by fashion darling and former student Bryan Bradley to work on his line Tuleh.

Renaldo delineates between the wonderful fashion illustration, which is “solely for setting the mood,” with little regard for technical detail and the effective fashion design drawing which serves as the blueprint for translation into an actual garment: from buttons and buttonholes, seams and topstitching to accurately rendered fabric texture and weight.

From sketch pad to runway: Renaldo’s design drawing fully articulates the look created for Mrs. Stevie Wonder’s fashion line, Kai Milla.  View more of his  work at RenaldoBarnette.com

Though the self-funded venture Renaldo, Ltd. was critically ac- claimed and able to fulfill all orders it became financially prohibitive to support.  He would like to helm a line again, however his dream is “to do what Marc Jacobs has done, to not only relaunch but to renew a brand.  I’d love to do Pappagallo.”  As for the Renaldo line he has an eye toward a made-to-measure business.  He would include the requisite red carpet looks, however the crux of the business would be daywear— “great pants, that perfect dress for day that fits! It’s all about the customer.” And his customer “appreciates simplicity, she’s someone who wants to see herself before she sees clothes,” elegant and aware that proper fit is everything.

Renaldo’s Trove reflects his love of beautiful presentation with a luxe, yet relaxed ease.

1. Meisel & McGrath.  When Steven the photographer and Pat the makeup artist come together, the results are always magical and Renaldo loves the synergy of the two. “I give props to Meisel for being a model maniac like I am. Love him.”  And Pat McGrath? “That woman’s work is genius, genius, genius!”

From Vogue Italia, Meisel and McGrath’s collaboration with Stylist Karl Templer and Hairstylist Guido.

2. Cashmere.  Especially sweaters and jackets. The tactile experience has him sold.  “It feels good against your skin and it feels good to other people.”

He often shops Barney’s for his cashmere pieces.
 

3. Chelsea Boots. “When I was a kid they were called Beatle boots and I thought they were the coolest thing–still do.”

Renaldo ushered in the new year rocking a tuxedo and Gucci patent Chelsea boots.

4. White Shirts.  He likes clean, crisp lines and “the way white looks against my skin.”

 

From the Spring 2011 collection of Los Angeles cardiologist-turned-haberdasher, Roderick Tung.

5. Black Jeans.  He enjoys the contrast of black and white and the lengthening properties of dark pants.  “I’m tall and black jeans make me appear even taller.”

Raleigh Denim creates jeans in varying washes and silhouettes.

6. Great Driving Shoes.  “Even though I can’t drive!” Prada, Hugo Boss, Bally and the Daddy of them all, Tod’s–he loves the yin and yang of softness and structure.

From Tod’s Pre-Collection Spring/Summer 2011, the Gommino Loafer.

7. Creativity.  He is grateful for his–“I don’t take it for granted”– and embraces and encourages it in others.

A project Renaldo worked on to revamp the Laura Ashley image was an all-encompassing vision for the brand from apparel to accessories and shoes.

8. Elmo Restaurant. In How to Be a Gentleman, John Bridges suggests that every gentleman should identify a restaurant he enjoys where he is known and respected.  Elmo in Chelsea is that spot for Renaldo.   

The stylish interior, great food and proximity to the garment district make Elmo a favorite haunt of the fashion crowd.

9. Bongo. With its mid-century modern furnishings, fun vibe, and great owners (his friends Andrea Cohen and Jeffrey Bell), the West Village seafood lounge is a frequent hang.

“If you like club–good house, the music will keep you coming back,” Renaldo gushes, “It’s great!”

10. Metamorphosis in Movies. The fashion-oriented films Mahogany and Funny Face tie for favorite film in his book with their shared themes of transformation. Diana Ross’ “Tracy” and Audrey Hepburn’s “Jo” both emerge from humble beginnings into beautiful swans.

One of his favorite scenes from Mahogany.

The original theatrical trailer for Funny Face.

The Trove: Abby Dobson
December 19, 2010

 

Mama’s Girl: “I am ever aware that I am standing on her shoulders and those of all the women in the house I was raised.”

I was sitting in my mama’s living room in post-Thanksgiving satiety flipping through the Washington Post when I came across a listing about Abby Dobson’s performance at the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage the very next day. Since we’d met through her college chum, writer Nicole Moore, time had never permitted me to check her live (including her release party at the Blue Note in November.) Bet. Another chance.

Abby’s got some pipes;  her resounding voice a compass directing me to the venue as I arrived just after she, bathed in purple light, began her set. Including songs from her independently released Sleeping Beauty: you are the one you have been waiting on, as well as a couple of covers (her rendition of Prince’s How Come You Don’t Call Me Anymore scorched) she both glided on gossamer wings and plunged deep into a place of earthy excavation.   At set’s end I went to say hello and the floodgates opened to a stream of grateful listeners, stupefied by her vocal prowess, who queued up to commend her.  Abby and I quickly agreed to meet for coffee while we were both in town and I left as she greeted her fans.

View the performance on the Kennedy Center website.

We met up the next day at her hotel, the quirky Hotel Helix (count on Kimpton Hotels for modern rooms with personality) “My mom loves it, she feels like a rock star,”  Abby laughed as she gathered her things. We strolled to nearby Mid City Caffè  for delicious coffee, tea and pastries and settled in for a chat about her gumption-finding journey from childhood timidity (hiding behind the refrigerator to sing) to securing some of the best musicians in the business to record her music and belting it out before large audiences.

Born in Kingston, Jamaica,  Abby’s first inkling of her gift was at  “5 or 6 years old, singing to the radio in the living room, when my aunt shushed the adults at the dining table to listen to me.”  When she was seven, her family emigrated to the US, landing in Brooklyn. “Migration is an interesting thing,” she says. “I think it can change your personality.  I became quiet, shy and very observant.” Growing up amid a mix of Jewish, Italian and African-American residents she learned to not to speak Patois.  Her folks “knew how to turn the accent on and off,” where necessary. She has become one not easily “placed” by how she speaks. “I feel very Jamaican, but I’ve never really spoken Patois– maybe when I’m angry or with just family.” 

She attended Plymouth Congregational and “the voices I heard in that church really influenced me. The Jamaican churches preferred classical singing,” a by-product of “Anglican colonization, which was very different from the bluesy Baptist singing” of African American churches.  Another influence was her “visionary” elder cousin Colin who introduced her to Sarah Vaughan, Sweet Honey in the Rock, Leontyne Price, Jessye Norman.  Though she listened to “a lot of  Bob Marley,” she became indoctrinated in the music of Black America and developed a love for Anita Baker, Tracy Chapman, Whitney Houston and Prince.

Her mother, Theda was “an incredible influence.  She has always supported my brother’s and my creative pursuits…She was a closet artist,” providing her daughter with voice and piano lessons early on.  In high school Abby received private voice lessons from her Chorus teacher who invited her to sing in the Salon Series he held in his home in Bayside, Queens. All nerves and “scared shitless,”   Abby traveled with her mom to perform, the only child amid a gathering of adults.  “It was cool, I was in the tenth grade.”

She went on to study History and Political Science at Williams College, singing all the while. “I directed a gospel choir there.” Though she knew she wanted to sing, she was “afraid of failing and being unable to sustain myself. When you come to America from an immigrant family, you are expected to succeed in a profession.”  So she entered Georgetown Law School intending to establish a career in law or public policy, whilst performing cover tunes at every “open mic” she could.  She graduated but declined to take the bar exam knowing that she really did not want to become an attorney. She would commit to building a music career while sustaining herself as a paralegal. Realizing that the best route to landing a record deal is not in performing covers, she began writing her own songs, which was a revelation, opening her to all she had to say. “I grew up in a very female centered household with my mother, grandmother, aunt, my aunt’s kids and my brother. I was an avid reader of feminist and womanist literature which really shaped my point of view.”  

Her debut as a singer/songwriter at Nuyorican Poets Café led to appearances at S.O.B’s, The Knitting Factory, The Cutting Room, Joe’s Pub and the Blue Note.  Her song, Deeply, a finalist in the John Lennon Songwriting Competition, was featured on TV shows, “The Shield,” “Jack & Jill” and “Any Day Now.” She has provided backing vocals for artists from John Legend to Talib Kweli; opened concerts for Rahsaan Patterson, Ledisi, Dwele, Chrisette Michele, Floetry, Kindred, Leela James and Robin Thicke and performs with Burnt Sugar: The Arkestra Chamber, the interdisciplinary, improvisatory ensemble led by Greg Tate. 

The genesis of her current release was in a realization that she’d been trying for a long time to get notice from a major label.  That she’d been waiting to be “spotted across the room by Clive Davis and signed as his pet project.”  This notion of a sleeping beauty awaiting awakening by an external source resonated with her. She’d fallen “asleep” in her romantic life, waiting for fulfillment. “As much as it is about not expecting someone else to make me who I’m supposed to be in my personal life,” she explains, “it’s also about not waiting on a record company or music producer to deem me worthy of making music I was ready to share.”

There was a long planning process before she actually began to record in early 2007. She continued her paralegal work.  “My 9-5 was part of my story, I needed it. I made good money,” which allowed her to self-fund her record. “If I could afford to do something, I did it. No compromises.”  Like recording and mixing in analog. “People thought I was crazy,” but she wanted her release to have the old-school authenticity of her musical influences. When she got to the mixing stage, she cashed out on a sou-sou, calling on that ‘financial touchstone’ of her Caribbean heritage.

The release is available for download on Amazon & iTunes, but if you enjoy the tactile experience of poring over liner notes, order the disc from CDBaby.  Abby put her heart into the packaging and you can peep Greg Tate’s glowing review. Photo by Piper Carter.

Drawing on her literary shero Alice Walker’s “We Are the One’s We Have Been Waiting For: Inner Light in a Time of Darkness,” she weaves the musical tale of Sleeping Beauty’s awakening, not to the kiss of a Prince but to her own inner light.  With heralding horns that call to mind the Adagio from Concierto de Aranjuez, the disc begins with Cool Rain giving way to a heritage nod, the reggae-tinged I’m Drownin (witten with her percussion-playing, ethnomusicologist brother, Robert.)  Sleeping Beauty continues her 13-track journey on the strains of Robert Glasper’s piano, Lonnie Plaxico’s bass, Marvin Sewell’s guitar and Teo Avery’s sax among others. Rounding out the mélange of genres, Abby completes the song cycle with bluegrass-inflected anthem of reclamation and affirmation, Sleeping Beauty: go make the world you dream.

And she is doing just that.  She’s now interested in a distribution deal, not signing to a label.  “People are coming back to entrepreneurship.  Motown, A&M, that’s how they started.” She shares the story of her moving visit to Detroit’s Motown Museum. “I was in tears. The beauty that was created from a small loan from family is nothing short of miraculous–that they were able to do that in those times.” She admires the forward-thinking vision to protect the brand. “No matter where they were licensed in the world– Japan, for instance– it remained ‘Motown’ not the native language translation.”  She plans to uphold her musical integrity through her company, LadyBraveBird Music. 

The songbird shares her ten favorites with The Trove

1. The Color Purple.  “Although I love Alice Walker’s book of the same, one of my favorite things is the color purple. It is regal and warm at the same time.  It lifts my spirits. It puts a smile on my face.  My luggage is purple.  My winter and spring scarves are purple.  I just adore the color purple. And, wearing purple makes me feel special.” 

 

The color associated with royalty, mysticism, creativity and feminism.

 

2. Herbal Teas.  “I love drinking it because it’s soothing.  There is nothing like hot herbal tea, the aroma, the steam on my face as I sip, the taste…it immediately relaxes me.”  

She particularly enjoys African Redbush tea from TAZO (as well as their chamomile blend, Calm.) Photo by xlungex.

 

3. Books and Reading.  “I love the experience of browsing a bookstore…libraries too,” she gushes. Books, newspapers (New York Times,) magazines (O and Success), love them…I just love reading!”   

            

Her all-time favorites, The Third Life of Grange Copeland and Beloved.

 

 

4. Spices. “I enjoy savoring food with alot of flavor.  My favorites are thyme, cinnamon and nutmeg.” 

Botanical print via the wonderful blog Honest Fare.

 

5. Sexy boots.  “I have a thing for boots. Whether thigh high or booties, I enjoy wearing them with everything.   What more can a girl ask for?”

Abby’s got winter covered, so she can look forward to the sizzling boots coming as the weather warms. Here, Sessilee Lopez’s great gams and open-toe booties in BG Magazine’s selects for Resort. Photo by Will Davidson.

 
6. Massages.   “I love giving and receiving massages. I give them to my family and friends all the time.  I enjoy making people I care about feel better. If I’m stressed and need to relax, I’ll get a 20 minute at a nail salon to relax, relate and release.”

“Touch is very powerful. It soothes and comforts,” she says.
 
 

7.  Great Music and Musicians.  Natch. Though inspired by all forms of art she loves great music and artists who create for the love of their craft and passion as opposed to money. Sarah Vaughan, Leonard Bernstein, Barbara Streisand, Rachelle Ferrell to name a few.”

Leonard Bernstein’s Overture for West Side Story (Presented by the Sederbergh School)
 
 

8. Good Wine.   “I enjoy German Rieslings and Argentinian Malbecs.”

         

Scharzhofberger Spätlese Riesling and Renacer’s Punto Final Classico Malbec.
 
 

9.  Family and Friend Gatherings.  “I love getting together with my family and friends for gatherings to celebrate each other and special events and holidays… the experience of breaking bread, our conversations, and our laughter.”

And laugh she does.

 

10.  Solitude.  Although she enjoys the communal experience, she also enjoys her “own company” and is “often inspired by moments of solitude…thinking, walking, dreaming.” 

“Solitude – La Dame des Sables.” Photo by Tiquetonne.

The Global Africa Project
November 19, 2010

An absolute must-see exhibition, The Global Africa Project is on view at the Museum of Art and Design at Columbus Circle through May 2011.  I have anticipated this show for a while, as the works of my friends Xenobia Bailey and Cheryl R. Riley are included, but I was unprepared for the magnitude of the unprecedented installation of the design, art and craft of Africa and its diaspora.  As I entered the opening celebration, I was immediately struck by the opportunity to view up close, the Ndebele BMW painted by South African artist Esther Mahlangu which I’d only seen heretofore online.

Esther Mahlangu and her BMW 525i Art Car.

The very well-attended fête bustled with artists and patrons exploring the expansive three-floor installation of work  from over fifty artists including Chakaia Booker, Stephen Burks, Nick Cave, Meshac Gaba, Lyle Ashton Harris, Odili Donald Odita, Duro Olowu, Mickalene Thomas, Hank Willis Thomas, Ike Ude, Kehinde Wiley and MacArthur Fellow, Fred Wilson. Read the complete list of participating artists.

Kudos to co-curators Lowery Stokes Sims, Charles Bronfman, MAD’s International Curator, and Leslie King-Hammond, Founding Director of the Center for Race and Culture at MICA (Maryland Institute College of Art)  Definitely pick up a copy of the catalogue for this show and support this revitalized institution by becoming a member.

Satch Hoyt, “Rimology,” 2009. Chrome wheel rims with soundscape.  Satch.

Black Coffee: Jacques van der Watt and Danica Lepen, “Mercedes Benz South Africa Award Installation,” 2009.  Polyspandex robe, wood on elongated mannequins.

iona rozeal brown, “my e.a.s.y. – for Octavia” (after Kitagawa UtaMaro’s ‘The Young Daughter of a Townsman and Her Lover with Shamisen Beside’ and ‘The Lovers’ from Utamukura’s ‘The Poem of the Pillow) 2009. Acrylic, pen on wood panel.

Xenobia Bailey and her “Zulu Queen Harvest Coat,” 1991, Acrylic, cotton 4-ply yarn, glass beads, mirrors, buttons; single-stitch crocheted.

Sheila Bridges, “Harlem Toile de Jouy,” 2010, Wallpaper, glassware, plates.

Left, Algernon Miller in collaboration with Sanaa Gateja and the Kwetu Afrika Womens Association Angels – KAWAA,  detail from “Change 2010,” Beads fabricated from recycled Barack Obama presidential campaign literature. Right, Victor Harris, Big Chief of the Fi Yi Yi Mardi Gras Indian tribe, “Spirit of Fi Yi Yi,” 2010, Cardboard, cloth, feathers, beads, sequins.

Artist/curator Derrick Adams before a Lyle Ashton Harris piece.

Clockwise: Cheryl R. Riley, “Dogon Chair 1,” 1997, Poplar, amber, beads, brass tacks, copper pipes, powder, pennies, wire; Former 6-year member of the board, Cheryl was instrumental in planning the relocation of the former American Craft Museum from their Lincoln Center digs to the modern space on Columbus Circle and renaming it The Museum of Art and Design; Detail from Cheryl’s remarkable “Elevation Mirror I: Arizona/New Mexico, “2000, Honduran mahogany, beveled mirror, brass tacks, found and made objects.

The Trove: Nicole Blades
November 4, 2010

NB: Smart, savvy, quick-witted “and, to top it off nicely, Canadian.”

In 1967 during a mass “Brain Drain” from his native Barbados, Telecom engineer Tony Blades headed to Montreal to create a new life for his growing family. Wife Maureen, daughter Yvette and son Sean joined him in 1970.  A couple of years later, Nicole arrived, the first of their children born on Canadian soil. It would be a decade before Baby Nailah rounded out the Blades brood.

Long the baby-of-the-family, Nicole sings the parenting praises of her sweet mom: “she’s such a fantastic mother.” But she’s definitely a Daddy’s girl. She recalls awakening him, complaining of an aching tummy. He grabbed a pillow and blanket and whisked his baby girl into the bathroom, lest she need to be there. “He was so invested. Like, we’re gonna do this.” In her reserved husband she has found someone as deeply caring as her gregarious father. She beams when she speaks of her favorite fellas: her dad, her hubby Scott, and their toddler son.

I visited her light-filled Montclair home on Sunday to catch up and glimpse little Quinn’s Halloween turn in engineer’s stripes. While the marathon-contemplating Nicole showered after a run, I was charmed by a 20-month old clearly delighted to be on the planet and reminisced with Scott about their wedding (a lovely, tender ceremony officiated by his aunt followed by a lively, super fun reception.) There wasn’t a dry eye in the chapel when Scott read the letter he’d written Nicole just days after their first date, proclaiming his love for her.

Scott’s favorite cuties: kindergartner Nikki and little QB.

Donning a driving cap and aviators, Nicole bounded out, bussed the boys and headed with me to local favorite, Market for a baby-free brunch, a little dishing (we are former Essence colleagues after all) and venting about our social media phrasal pet peeves: for me, it’s the overused “-ista” suffix. For her it’s the prevailing “bornday” birthday greeting and the hashtag “fail” especially when preceded by the word “epic.”   But ultimately she shared her journey from Montreal to matrimony, motherhood and now, Ms. Mary Mack.

An interest in writing piqued in childhood by her storytelling father and 3rd grade teacher Mr. Polka, Nicole contributed to her college newspaper while studying Mass Communications and Psychology at Toronto’s York University.  She completed a four-year program in three years and upon graduation in 1994, she decided to go where the writers go, New York.  She didn’t quite “have the courage to say I want to write,” to be a journalist, so she took on a couple of PR internships, the first at TV’s Sally Jessy Raphael, then at The Terrie Williams Agency. Essence Magazine was a client of the agency and she eventually caught wind of an entry-level opening there. She assumed she blew the interview with a resume typo,”a direct route to exit,” but she prevailed and joined us in the fashion and beauty department. “It was a huge, huge thing for me,” she says. It shaped how I view my work. It was a great intro to magazines.”

In the days after an Essence exodus, she was pulled into working on an independent movie, doing makeup and securing wardrobe from Sal’s Army as she regrouped for the next career move. Then a quick stint with America’s Most Wanted,” dressing Criminals One and Four,” was actually fun, but she had to get back on track to writing.

She soon did a lot of it, meeting a daily deadline at Open Air PM, a New York afternoon daily. She “sharpened her reporting skills and wore lots of hats covering everything from Men’s Fashion Week to spa reviews.” It didn’t hurt that the start-up “paid a lot,” but she eventually was burned out and retreated to her parents home country for a two-week vacation that ultimately became a journalist stint lasting just shy of two years. “I thought, maybe. Maybe has been my lucky word.” She landed a position with the Nation, a top paper in Barbados. The slowed pace was good for her, “the antidote to the crazy, harried New York pace that wore me down,” she says. Again she covered a variety of subjects from reporting on parliament to reviewing concerts of “anyone who blew through town.” She eventually came to terms with the fact that “one of the biggest drawbacks to living on an island is living on an island,” and returned to Toronto.

A fortuitous meeting with a talented graphic designer led to the two late-twenties kindred spirits creating   SheNetworks, an internet portal filling the void left by mainstream women’s mags. In writing their business plan, they did what she calls a “crash course MBA.” The young women secured a half million dollars from venture capitalists and launched in San Francisco in Summer 2000. “The ramp up on our sophistication was priceless.”

By November “we were covered in Wired!

“When I look back at what we did, it could hold up today,” she says proudly.

The pair became “handsomely paid” consultants to companies looking to reach their demographic “you understand the 20-something market, do this for us,” they’d say. But as the bubble neared its burst, they couldn’t afford it anymore. “What can we cut, what can we cut?” Until there was “nothing left to cut.” They pulled the plug in 2001 and Nicole headed south to her parents’ Santa Clarita home grateful for the opportunity to begin the novel swimming in her head. She went about it like a job, writing from 10am to 5pm. Her plan to return to New York that October was dramatically altered on September 11.

It wasn’t until “folks at the NABJ” hipped her to a possible ESPN gig that she returned in December 2002. “I’d never considered sports journalism, but I realized they just want good stories. You don’t have to be a stats head.”  So maybe. She wowed her interviewer with the story of her dotcom days, “You’re making me sit up here. You’re like a fresh cup of coffee,” he said. She figured she’d nailed it, but she didn’t hear from them right away, “it was nerve-racking.”  Finally they called. She was hired as an editor and was instrumental in launching the website’s lifestyle section.
“Every job I’ve had, I’ve been able to see the other rooms of the house.” It was no different at the network: games, All Star Weekend, and bars–“ESPN is all about the after-work bar hang.”  And so it was at a bar gathering of colleagues that the near teetotaler finally exchanged words with Scott Burton, an editor who hadn’t acknowledged her existence in the year she’d worked there. When it was mentioned that he was somewhat shy Nicole responded, “so that’s why you haven’t spoken to me?”  “Yeah, she busted my balls for not speaking,” he smiles. Though he thought collegial dating was a bad idea, they gradually “became chummy,” exchanging “charming letters via email,” he says. “A courtship really,” that they kept under wraps and in the written word.  When they finally had their first date, just days before each would travel to their respective families for Christmas, magic happened. As they baked holiday sugar cookies together, he knew was done, he’d fallen. Hard. And she was intrigued by a man who, “deathly afraid of spiders” had a large tarantula tattooed on his shoulder. “There’s something more there,” she thought.  He was willing to confront his fear head-on.  When the cab taking her to the airport pulled away, “the literal moment, I felt this thing inside tell me You don’t want to be apart from that man ever again.

September 2, 2006.

She left ESPN in 2005 to make revisions to her tale of young Harriette Leacock slowly drowning in a island paradise, and in 2007 Earth’s Waters was published. When freelance client, Women’s Health, a “magazine she really liked,” offered her an editorship, she accepted the post, learning  “the back end, closing and fine-tuning my editing skills.” She remained there until early 2009, two weeks before the February 12th birth of Quinn Toumani Burton.

Calling on her “maybe mantra” the new mother thought, “I can do something here. I can merge my interest in others’ lives and storytelling.” She began researching Mom blogs and realized “I can do an anthropological look at motherhood.” Thus Ms. Mary Mack, “born” in late March of this year. The savvy blogger hit the motherlode, literally and figuratively when she made mention of New York Times mom blogger Lisa Belkin, inviting her to comment on Ms. Mary Mack. Belkin did and further invited Nicole to submit a guest post to her widely-read Motherlode, broadening her audience exponentially with the touch of a publish button. Keep your eye on MMM, Nicole has major plans for it.

Motherhood has reflected her love for her husband and broadened her sense of possibility. It’s left her “in awe about life, the world, us, our place in all of it. Just awed. It’s beyond amazing to see Quinn learning new things, grasping concepts and context.”  She can come up with a list of favorites just about her son, “I love his little hands on my face or his nose nestled into my neck. His voice. His smile. His laughter. The chubbiness of his elbow. His round tummy. All of it.”

So we know that Quinn is the ultimate, but here are some of the things that get Ms. Mary Mack, Mack, Mack’s hands a-clapping…

1. Scott’s Scrambled Eggs. I love that Scott loves to cook. I love that he’s really good at it even more There’s something about his balance of salt, pepper and heavy cream that renders these fluffy, butter-yellow clouds. And they are just plain delicious. He knows my toast taste–one slice whole wheat bread, browned and crisped to perfection. And the key, the signature move, the slice must be buttered with REAL butter fresh out the toaster oven so it melts in and blends with the bread. I’d be happy with that once slice of perfection and a cup of peppermint tea for any meal.

“Many of Scott’s dishes warm my tummy, but the one that warms my heart is his scrambled eggs.”

2. Chaise Lounge.
The chaise section of their modular sofa became her “go-to spot” during her pregnancy.  “Now that my son is a full-on toddler (and we’ve moved) it’s become our little Mama-and-Me space to cuddle up and read or just be. And now that fall is finally here, we’re taking our cuddle game next level thanks to thick, comfy throws.”

Snuggle Zone. © Ms. Mary Mack

3. CBS Sunday Morning. Motherhood and the busyness of life keeps her from watching much television, “but one show that I’ve always enjoyed, for years I mean, is CBS Sunday Morning. Maybe it’s Charles Osgood’s calming voice and matching bow-tie that drew me in, but the content keeps me coming back. There’s always something edifying and entertaining on this show. It’s like the best sections of a well-written newspaper brought to life. I’ve long said that if I ever found my way into working for TV, I would hope it was on this show.”

YouTube “Play” at the Guggenheim Museum.  

4. A Good Notebook and Pen. “I’m rarely without this duo. I’m a writer. A writer, writes. This sounds wise and all, but I started to notice that as my life got busier and more layered, I would forget that sentence, that note, that thing. And it would frustrate me to no end. So, the notebook. I also like seeing things on a To Do list literally crossed off on a page. Makes it real to me.  There’s something about a warm orange notebook with smooth pages welcoming your dreams and thoughts and stories that really works for me.” 

“This particular notebook-pen combo has served me well over the last couple of years.” © Ms. Mary Mack

5. Photography. “I grew up around cameras. My dad took lots of photos with his trusty Canons. He definitely sparked and encouraged my interest in photography. Being able to capture a moment, a story, a feeling with a one click of your camera, it’s storytelling at its best and most simple, I guess. I used to dabble and in school I took a course.” In March, Scott gifted her with a Canon digital SLR “and the roof has been blown off. I plan to keep shooting and learning and improving.”  Her secret dream is to have a gallery show,  publish a photo book and “have some of my shots be wonderful postcards that folks actually dig and buy!”

Same Day, Different Table  © Ms. Mary Mack

6. Short Stories. Now that she’s a mom, “leisure is pretty much gone for a while. No longer having the time to read novels as I would like, I’ve gotten back into shorts. Alice Munro has always been a favorite. She’s Canadian, after all. I’ve starting reading my old copies of Best American Short Stories. I also like Jhumpa Lahiri and pulled out my F. Scott Fitzgerald shorts collection. It’s a thick book, but there’s some good stuff on so many of those pages.”

Penguin Classics has reissued Fitzgerald’s Flappers and Philosophers with a fab Deco cover.

7. Good Sheets. “How much do I love soft, fresh, plain (no flowers, etc.) linen? MUCH! It can turn a virtual straw cot into a five-star bed. And sliding into bed with freshly-changed sheets, tucked in taut and right at the end a long day? Luxurious.”

Affordable bed linens from Crate and Barrel.

8. Pineapple Mint Iced Tea. Not a “bibber” (Bajan euphemism for big drinker) Nicole enjoys most beverages sans alcool. An anniversary trip with Scott to Savannah’s “lovely, historic” Mansion on Forsyth Park introduced her to her favorite libation. They took the “fun and fab” class Low Country Cooking.”This drink was on the menu, and it’s become my signature do. It’s the most refreshing thing, even in winter.” To the imbibing crowd she says “I’m sure a splash of vodka would take this drink to the next level.

Evening Edge features a recipe for her fave tea.

9. Boots. She’s a boot girl from way back.

The stylish silhouette and cushioned comfort of the Air Georgina from ColeHaan. “Oh how I wish for this handsome pair!” She exclaims.

10. Hoop Earrings. Sade has the right idea.

Hand-hammered gold hoops by JC.

The Trove: Fanon Che Wilkins
October 20, 2010

The polymathic professor.

Since meeting the powerfully named Fanon Che Wilkins over a year ago while dancing Michael Jackson’s memory to the skies in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, I have seen him only twice: ringing in the new year at the Harlem home of mutual friend, theHotness Grrrl and just last month as we enjoyed pristine September weather in the Prospect Heights garden of Le Gamin. Though I’ve kept up with the Kyoto-based scholar/lecturer/photographer/curator/DJ/hip-hop head/hardcore Lakers fan and his travel exploits via Facebook (snowboarding in Aspen, visiting his Pops in Belize, surfing in Costa Rica and Second Lining in NOLA) it was good to have an unhurried sit-down to catch up as the old folks say, “proper-like,” Over salmon crêpes and merguez omelets, we covered the gamut — the wisdom of our sages from August Wilson to the RZA, the merits of non-conformity and beauty of serendipity.

In fact, our having met in 2009 had a delightfully serendipitous consequence. Fanon, strapped with a long-lensed Canon shot the MJ park celebration and posted the pics to Facebook where his mom, Akiba Kiiesmira saw them and recognized me. She, an incredible textile artist and designer whose work I’d used in the pages of Essence, and I had been friends in the nineties but we’d lost touch.

During the final year of the sixties, twenty-year-old Akiba (then MaryAnn) gave birth to her first child in Los Angeles.  She and her partner, Ron Wilkins, poised for revolution, named their manchild after revolutionaries Frantz Fanon and Che Guevara. A member of the Slauson Village gang in the 1950’s, Ron was at the center of the 1965 Watts Rebellion, “a politicizing moment for him.”  Akiba was reading voraciously: “dialectical historical materialism and Marxist theory.” Both were members of SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee.) Organizing was the young family’s lifeblood.  When Fanon was six-months-old, Akiba ventured to Cuba for a month to join the Venceremos Brigade, cutting sugar cane and showing solidarity with the Cuban Revolution while “Pops held it down” in Cali.

By the time he was two-years-old, Fanon’s folks amicably parted ways, sharing custody. He bounced between parents and cities. His mom relocated to Atlanta to work in a shirt collar factory with the goal of  “organizing the workers at the point of production.” They lived in a collective house and Fanon attended the independent liberation school, Learning House, where the children pledged before each meal, fists proudly raised, “I will eat all my food to grow big and strong to work in the struggle for African people.” At some point during the early years a decision was made that Fanon would alternate years with each parent.

He returned to Los Angeles and a father who was serious about working outside “the system.” For a kid, “no Disneyland, no Christmas, no frivolity,” was a drag, but his grandmother and aunt “brought balance. They made sure I had a rib,” he smiles. “That was their resistance.  In a lay-down-the-law move, G-ma had him photographed with St. Nick and hung it on the wall. “He was a big, pink-white Santa…the penultimate, and I’m sitting on his lap.” He speaks lovingly of her clear-headedness, “she wouldn’t fly,” her refusal not from fear but rather practicality; she’d witnessed many pilots tippling the cocktails. “I see the world from the ground up. I ain’t no fool,” she’d say.

The journey from South Central to the halls of academia has been an interesting one. Six-year-old Fanon was stymied by stage fright when his Dad took him to audition for the Jackson Five Variety Show in 1975. As they exited the studio set, teen idol Michael consoled him by getting down on one knee, wiping the tears from his eyes and offering some words of encouragement.  “A beautiful brother,” he fondly recalls.

In esteemed company: with the future “King of Pop” and the good doctor “Brother West.”

Amid “radicals, pimps, drug dealers and scholars,” he had an “irreverent, sacred and secular upbringing.” He was “partially raised by Richard Pryor,” he says. This resonates in his endeavors now, from his academic pursuits to his lush photographs.  “To do what Romare Bearden did, what August Wilson did. In an unalloyed way, to see the beauty of the real. Its tragic, sacred and profane beauty.”

Though he’d been introduced to photography through his dad, he didn’t realize that “you could go to school to get a BFA.”  The cerebral high school athlete (basketball and football) became a Morehouse man, returning to Atlanta to embark upon what would become an accomplished career in the study of history (with a concentration in African American Studies.) The summers of his early twenties were spent hosting and bonding with his younger (by ten years) brother Kamari. Graduate school would take him to the eponymous university in Syracuse, NY, where he would live for nine years–the longest he’s ever lived in one place. He did, however, take a year off to travel to Cuba and Southern Africa, spending much of it in Zimbabwe. In one of the many providential experiences of his life, he met author/scholar Robin D.G. Kelley and set his sights on a doctorate, exploring (at NYU with Kelley as his adviser) the global liberation struggles of oppressed and marginalized people –particularly in African nations– and their profound impact on the Black Power and Civil Rights Movements in the US.

Fit and fabulous: the gorgeous, ageless Akiba and her sons, Fanon and fitness trainer Kamari.

Upon his return from the continent, he committed to being “a real black man…settle down, raise a family.”  He married fellow academician, Assata and in 1997 they became the parents of a daughter, the creative, oboe-playing Coltrane.  In 1999, joyful, “extremely laid-back” son Irie followed. Though the couple divorced, just as his own parents were “totally cool, not together, but fully functional,” Fanon and his former wife lived near each other, peaceably co-parenting in Champaign where they both were graduate professors at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.  Fanon met Lashanda, who has since relocated to Japan with him where he was offered an Associate Professorship in African American History and Culture at the Graduate School of American Studies at Doshisha University in Kyoto.

Used to a very hands-on relationship with his children, Fanon has felt anxiety over his newly peripatetic fatherhood, but given his own childhood, he realizes too what a broadening experience it can be for the children to spend the school year in Champaign and summers in Kyoto. He of course, visits the children stateside a few times a year and maximizes every moment.  Though he definitely gets his travel on, when in Kyoto he lives “a simple life. No frills. I don’t have a car. I ride my bike or take public transportation.”

Fanon invites us to “see what eye see” on his photo blog— the beautiful Lashanda, his kids in flight and glimpses of life in Japan.

He recently co-edited From Toussaint to Tupac: The Black International Since the Age of Revolution, a 2009 collection of scholarly essays on black internationalism and contributed the fifth chapter, “A Line of Steel: The Organization of the Sixth Pan-African Congress and the Struggle for International Black Power, 1969-1974,” to the just released The Hidden 1970s: Histories of Radicalism edited by Dan Berger.

Recent publications.

In spite of the rarefied worlds he’s found himself in, Fanon remains incredibly grounded and grateful. His Mama, Daddy, village raised him up right. He’s an intellectual who’ll drop the knowledge without pedantry, a cat you can kick back and have a brew with. Of academia, he says, “I’m with people who posture all the time. I’m trying to live as authentically as possible. Life happens in the blur, the grey areas. I can’t front.” So from this authentic life enthusiast, a few things he enjoys in the blur…

1. Fragrance Oils. He hasn’t worn cologne since high school. “It’s all oils.” He got hooked after he was given and advised to sell a “hefty supply of Somali Rose and Arabian Sandalwood to make some money for books and supplies.”  The “terrible businessman,”  got a little too hooked, breaking one of the “Ten Crack Commandments and ‘got high on my own supply’ by keeping it all to myself and wearing it on a daily. I have come to fashion myself a connoisseur of fine oils.”

“Uncut and as pure as they come,” a quartet in his fragrance cache. “Gold Dust is sick and I can generally rock any Musk, especially when it’s hot and my skin is moist.”

2. Deejaying. “I live for music and have been deejaying for a while out of necessity. I’ve lived in more than my share of backwater towns and have had to resurrect the good old house party just to keep my sanity. I have done a few clubs in my day, but I mostly get down for fun and push my friends to throw parties and hire me.”

“My music equipment and untouched clutter. I figured I had to be a real DJ and keep it all the way real.”

3. Shirley the Surly. “I ride every single day. Big Shirley takes me all over the streets of Kyoto. She’s a simple fixed-gear Surly Steamroller that has never failed me — aside from a flat or two or three.  Everybody should own a bike and ride it.  Bike lanes need to be mandatory.”

Big Shirley keeps him fit, saves money and is eco-friendly.

4. 35-pound Kettlebell. “It’s the most important piece of exercise equipment I own. I love to go hard and keep it simple and safe.”

“Join the revolution and buy one,” Fanon enthuses.

5. Sneakers. “Like the great philosopher Nasir Jones, ‘I’ma addict for sneakers.’ I truly believe that Hip-Hop’s greatest contribution to civilized behavior was making sneakers high fashion because I prefer a nice pair of tennis (a nod to the Left Coast vernacular) over just about anything that goes on my feet.”

 

“I copped these [Puma] joints in Kyoto about a year ago, but recently pulled them out and I think they look better than when I bought them.”

6. Leica Digi-Lux 2. “I am a camera gear fanatic. I love photography. I lust and salivate for the tools of the trade. This Digi-Lux is my first ever purchase on Ebay and I am having a blast with it. One day I will own an M9, but for now I am getting my Leica on with this trusty little throwback that was made way back in 2004.  In digital camera years that’s like 20 years ago.”

“You just can’t front on the seamlessness of Leica design — sleek, simple and uncluttered.”

7. Blendtec Blender. “I pretty much make a smoothie of some sort every single day. When I was in search of a trusty blender, it was between the Blendtec and VitaMix.” The Blendtec won him over. Three years in, he hasn’t been disappointed.

Even though he ordered the black model but received the white, “he got over it and made a smoothie.”

8. Skype. “People often ask me how difficult it is to live abroad. ‘Don’t you miss your family and friends?’ they always ask. Yes and no, thanks to a wonderful invention called Skype. I got put up on it when I was in Brazil in 2006 and it has made my life abroad a cinch.”

Modern technology: Coltrane and Irie can pick up their home phone, dial their Dad’s “Skype in” number and it rings on his computer 6000+ miles away.

9. Eyeglasses. He’s worn them since his sophomore year of college. “I jokingly tried my buddy Arshad’s on and damn near lost my mind because I discovered that blurred chalkboards were not actually blurry at all. I used the first credit card I ever got — a Sears jammy — and bought my first pair of eyeglasses.”

“Simple, elegant, timeless and nerdy as f***, but in a hip way, he says of his artisanal frames from French eyewear company, Vue dc.”

10. Snowboarding. He’s been surfing the slopes for about eight years (Nagano, Aspen, Whistler, Tahoe.) “When it comes to something I live for I don’t think anything tops the list more these days than snowboarding. Ride a snowboard, you will live longer,” he opines.

“When the mountains are steep and the snow gets deep,” he uses his (left) Tanker 200 by Rad-Air—a long board only built for Cuban Linx.  His “go-to board for all-around conditions” is the Prior All Mountain Freestyle with hybrid rocker. “I had the pleasure and honor of visiting the Prior plant and taking a tour of the factory in Whistler, BC.” The gear geek admits the tour got a “rise” out of him.

*Excepting Blendtec and Skype, all photos of Trove items courtesy of Fanon Che Photography.