Today I was on the train reading The Wonder, Diana Evans’ latest novel, when I suddenly had a memory of my father. When I first came to visit him in Brooklyn in 1993, he got a bit salty whenever I wanted him to take me someplace. I found out that Maya Angelou was giving a talk in Manhattan and decided to go; I put on my best dress, which had been a gift from friends, but didn’t have any shoes to wear with it. I asked my stepmother to show me how to pin up my hair the way she did hers, and she did it but muttered under her breath the whole time. Finally I slipped on some crappy second hand shoes that my older sister would’ve thrown away if I hadn’t rescued them from the trash. I headed for the front door and told my father I’d be home by midnight. My stepmother glared at him, he started muttering too, but finally got up off the couch and drove me downtown.
I don’t actually remember what Maya Angelou said that night; I just remember being embarrassed about my shoes and feeling woefully underdressed. I remember a white mother and her two biracial daughters smiling at me, and how my eyes immediately went to the floor because I just knew they felt sorry for me with my hand-me-downs and hastily done hair. Then all of a sudden my father perked up—“That’s Cicely Tyson!” he exclaimed, and next thing I knew he was dragging me down the aisle. “She’s from Nevis,” he whispered, and I remember thinking, “Yeah, right.” But I let myself be led over to Cicely Tyson, who was elegantly dressed in a black dress and oversized hat. And then the crowd around her thinned a bit and my father stepped forward—and bowed. He actually bowed. And he said something about being from Nevis as well, and then he reached back his hand but I was just out of reach, and so he had to turn back and beckon me forward. “May I present my daughter,” he said in this ridiculously formal voice, and he probably expected me to curtsy or something, but I just smiled and looked at my bad shoes. Ms. Tyson was very gracious, she called me “lovely,” and then my father bowed a couple more times before I managed to pull him away.
I guess I thought about that experience because The Wonder is about a young Jamaican boy who decides he wants to be a kite—then his father takes him to see Katherine Dunham’s dance company, and he decides to become a dancer instead. He gets to meet Ms. Dunham and the encounter changes his life. Tonight I went up to Harlem for the Thurgood Marshall Academy Lower School’s Art and Authors Night. As soon as I arrived, I saw Faith Ringgold seated at a table signing books. There was gorgeous artwork everywhere, and uniformed students would come up and offer to tell you all about the author they had studied. It was like a science fair but for books! And eventually I found the students in Ms. McDowell’s 5th grade class who had interviewed me last month, and their display was amazing–two posterboards, a powerpoint slideshow, a list of *all* my publications, letters, stories with alternate endings (Mehkai changes his name to “Eric,” becomes an alcoholic, but ultimately goes to rehab and becomes a doctor), innovative book covers, and tissue paper birds they had made to represent the characters in Bird—a penguin for Marcus “because he can’t fly.” Then the scheduled performance began, the student emcees welcomed the guests, and after Ms. Ringgold got up to say a few words, I was asked to do the same. Suddenly I was aware of my shoes—shabby old suede sandals that I wore because they’re comfortable and I didn’t want to try to look cute when it’s a hundred degrees outside and the event was several blocks from the subway. Ms. Ringgold was glittery and dazzling and very bohemian—a real artiste—and I looked like a school marm b/c I try to dress safe when I know there will be parents around. Anyway, I got up there and made a few remarks that I’d already prepared…and then decided to wing it and share how I came to know about Faith Ringgold’s art by studying her daughter’s important scholarship in graduate school. I wrapped up, headed back to my place in the crowd, and a woman reached out to grab my hand. “You know Michele Wallace is over there, right?” And she pointed out Michele Wallace, sitting across the room. “Oh crap,” I said, “I wouldn’t have said that if I’d known she was here.” And then the woman pulled me a bit closer and said, “And I’m her sister, Barbara.”
The event continued, I signed a few books, and then slipped away in my shabby sandals. I did force myself to say a few words to Faith Ringgold; she told me about finishing her memoir in 1980 and having it rejected by publishers. “They think you’ll stop—that’s how it works. They say no, and you’re supposed to give up. But I wouldn’t.” She later admitted that the ’80s and ’90s were better times for picture books, but still—I got the point. Keep writing. Don’t let anyone silence you. Then a high-energy kid bopped up and asked for my autograph and Ms. Ringgold moved on. No one will ever remember me for being stylish—maybe a few will remember my ugly shoes. But it’s the work you leave behind that matters. This week I’ve been working on a memory book for my niece, Maya. She just had her first trip to NYC and I’ve spent hours cutting and pasting and gluing and printing out pictures. But this morning I had to put the book out on the fire escape—it’s toxic! It literally gave me a headache. I don’t know WHY noxious fumes rise from the pages, but I hope I can solve this problem b/c it’s a really cute book!