In late summer of 2017 I was at an artists’ colony in rural Virginia. A hot topic of conversation among the artists there was how we were reading the news, and how often. Some of the artists at the colony were reading the news obsessively every morning, either because they were addicted to it or because they felt it was their social responsibility to stay informed about the invariably breathtaking choices of our current president and those who surround and respond to him. Some artists were ignoring the news altogether—every headline, every scandal, every tweet—choosing to entirely suppress the outside world during the span of the residency. The rest of the artists stayed lightly informed, but consciously attempted to prevent the news of the world from gaining much purchase on their inner lives.
This third camp is the one into which I usually fall, whether I’m at an artists’ colony or not. I don’t want to be ignorant, but I also don’t want to emerge from this administration with a spirit so battered, so fractured, that I’m helpless to participate in the rebuilding that I hope will follow. At the colony, I read the news in what has become my habitual way: a glance at the New York Times website every two or three days. At breakfast one morning in early September, I was the only one who knew that John Ashbery had died the day before.
But every night, as I tried to fall asleep in the unfamiliar bed, in order to compartmentalize my anxieties about global warming, about white supremacists, about nuclear war, about Donald Trump, and about the probable futility of my nearly finished manuscript of poems, here is what I did: I clicked around on YouTube and watched short videos produced by people who have achieved major and minor fame in the online beauty community. In uploads with titles like “$90 LIPSTICK?? WTF?” and “Chit Chat Get Ready With Me – Fall Vibes,” I watched makeup artists, lifestyle bloggers, and “beauty gurus” review new beauty products, talk about their favorite beauty products, demonstrate various ways to apply those products, and mull over which products they should buy next. Sequestered in the blessedly quiet countryside, surrounded by singing cicadas and views of the Blue Ridge Mountains, I watched it all.
If something happened in the beauty community, not only did I know it right away, but I knew everything about it. I knew more about Kat Von D’s new release (Everlasting Glimmer Veil Liquid Lipsticks) than I did about Hurricane Harvey. Which is to say, I knew that Hurricane Harvey was flooding Texas, I knew that it was serious, and I knew that Melania Trump had been photographed wearing five-inch stiletto heels as she boarded the plane to Corpus Christi; but I knew that the Everlasting Glimmer Veil was a long-wearing liquid lipstick infused with glitter, that it had been released in nine colors, and that the colors were named Wizard, Rocker, Dazzle, Razzle, Shockful, Televator, Thunderstruck, Reverb, and Satellite. I knew what each color looked like (Televator, for example, was grape-purple with purple glitter, and Dazzle was a cool red with pink and gold glitter). I knew that the formula was sheer but buildable, that it could be layered or worn on its own, and that early assessments, just coming in, reported that the darker colors would leave a stain. I knew that the first review on Sephora.com called the formula “tenacious” (a wonderful word for a cosmetic, in my opinion), and that the second review was memorably titled “Dazzle is the lipstick of the year.” I knew that it was already available online, and that it would be in stores on September 8.
Each night, when I finally began to doze and my mind’s eye drifted inevitably to the spectacle of Melania teetering, runway-ready, on the wet tarmac; or to the phrase “fire and fury”—which is what Trump had said he would rain on North Korea—I kept my agitated mind from jolting itself awake and forfeiting even a half-chance of a good night’s rest by visualizing myself walking into a Sephora store and approaching the Kat Von D counter with its display of Everlasting Glimmer Veils. Which color would I choose? Rocker was copper with gold glitter, very flattering to my ultra-pale but warm-toned complexion. I thought I would definitely be purchasing Rocker. I liked Thunderstruck, too, but they were $22 each. I was into the idea of a glitter lip, but would I be reaching for it frequently enough to spend $50 (with tax) on two of these? Maybe I should start with Rocker, then go back for Thunderstruck if the finish and the formula both turned out to be amazing. And what about Dazzle, the lipstick of the year?
Lulled by visions of color and glitter and entrancingly inconsequential questions, I slept.
An artists’ colony is a rarefied environment in which to work. The colonies I’ve attended have all been funded, so applying to them is like applying for a fellowship or a grant: competitive, and somewhat of a crapshoot. In addition to the requisite hard work, getting to an artists’ colony entails an extraordinary amount of privilege and luck. To have so much uninterrupted writing time feels otherworldly lucky. But it’s also a lucky thing to be surrounded by other people who obsess as much as I do about art-making and its importance, or lack thereof.
To be able to ignore the news of the world and worry about polishing a handful of poems until they shimmer and ping and grow roots and photosynthesize and drink their own condensation, each like a contained, self-sustaining terrarium that will continue to live long after I’ve died—is it a mark of sickening privilege, or is it an extraordinary feat? Am I a complicit, yellow-bellied escapist, or am I a warrior, fighting tooth and claw to scrape my way past earthly distraction and generate a soul-saving elixir? In my daily life, I carry these questions alone, sometimes spinning them into my own private madness, which at its best makes me bitchy, and at its worst makes me stop writing for weeks on end. Arriving in a place of beauty and finding a group of other people who are all carrying the same questions doesn’t quite provide answers, but it lightens the load.
Toward the end of my first week at the colony, a scandal rocked the online beauty community. The precipitating event was that two of the most famous and widely followed YouTube beauty gurus got together for a collaboration.
Jaclyn Hill (5.1 million subscribers) is a dynamic, dramatic, glamour-loving makeup artist, with aquamarine eyes, artificially engorged lips, and shoulder-length hair that is dyed so black it almost appears blue. When she isn’t self-tanned, her skin is porcelain, but she routinely tints and paints herself as bronze as a Kardashian. A quintessential Jaclyn Hill video finds her chatting easily about being “horny for blush” and confessing that she’s going through $48 bottles of Lilah B. setting spray “like boxes of tampons…one a month.” Watching her, it frequently occurs to me that Jaclyn is like every girl I wished I could be friends with in high school, all squashed together into one spectacular, sparkling, preternaturally magnetic über-personality.
Jaclyn’s social media posts often include conspicuous exhibitions of the wealth she has accrued as a result of her YouTube fame. Part of her narrative is that she used to be poor, and then because of her faith in God and her hard work, God rewarded her (with money, and she’s not afraid to show it). She is brilliant at making her viewers feel like she is confiding in us, and she appears on YouTube and Snapchat with a kind of bubbly, unpremeditated earnestness that has garnered her a posse of fierce supporters who believe that they know “the true Jaclyn”; that they know, as she herself is very fond of saying, her heart.
“My true die-hard fans out there, you know me, you get me, you know my heart, you know the kind of person I really am.” I feel like I’ve seen Jaclyn gushing these words, or something like them, a thousand times on YouTube and Snapchat. This kind of performance—in addition to the hard fact of her spectacular economic success—has spawned a counter-group of beauty-community members who believe that Jaclyn Hill is a compulsive liar, or, in common online parlance, “a snake.” The thing I’ve found fascinating about Jaclyn since I discovered her channel in the weeks following the 2016 presidential election, and one of the reasons I keep watching her, is that I can never tell—none of us can ever tell—how much of her compelling character is real and how much of it is an act. I suspect her of crafting her online persona carefully, but as a woman who crafts my real-life persona rather carefully on a daily basis, I find this relatable, and phenomenally articulate about the reality of many women’s lives. In addition to teaching us how to put on foundation and powder and lipstick, Jaclyn is teaching us how to put on the entire fucking show—well-timed self-deprecation, goofy-but-cute faces, off-the-cuff references to her struggles with anxiety and to her former poverty, and humble awe in the face of her own fame. For a social media goddess, the trick is in the messiness—in striking the perfect balance between flawed and flawless. It’s not all fake, but it’s definitely a show.
Kathleen Fuentes, known as Kathleen Lights (3.7 million subscribers), has been, until recently, a much less controversial presence in the online beauty community. She has a sweet silliness and an easy way of talking, wide-set green eyes, a heart-shaped face, and long, glossy, honey-brown hair. Kathleen is of Cuban descent, and even though she is white-passing, she speaks with a slight accent that contributes ineffably to her already high level of charisma. Where Jaclyn is boisterous and suspiciously prone to oversharing, Kathleen is calm and straightforward, and the comments sections of her videos are always flooded with appreciative subscribers praising her honesty and her down-to-earth manner. And even though she is married and nearing thirty, Kathleen Lights could easily be mistaken for a high-school student, especially given that she’s frequently seen discussing Wet n’ Wild lip gloss and Body Shop lotion. I assume that she’s nearly as well-off as Jaclyn, considering her subscriber count and the number of collaborations she’s had with brands—Kathleen even started her own line of nail polish called “KL Polish.” But unlike Jaclyn—whose Instagram account glimmers with Cartier bracelets, Gucci bags, and a memorable picture of her and her husband in front of a Mercedes-Benz G-wagon—Kathleen keeps every sign of her wealth under careful wraps.
Until the fall of 2017, there had been no public connection between Jaclyn and Kathleen—only similarities. They both had wildly successful YouTube channels and they both lived in Florida. They both professed to struggle with clinical anxiety. They were both devotees of the TV show Friends; both indicated that they watched a constant stream of reruns, even though it’s been over a decade since the final episode aired. It was assumed that they moved in the same professional circles—perhaps that they ran into each other at events—but there was no actual friendship of which any of us, here on the other side of the screen, were aware.
Then, when I was in Virginia with the pages of my manuscript tacked up across my studio wall in long, desperate lines, Jaclyn invited Kathleen over to her mansion, and they filmed two videos together, one for each of their channels. Afterward, the two of them, along with their husbands, got drunk and played video games. Jaclyn started “snapping” their revels, meaning that she was taking short, unedited videos on her phone and posting them to Snapchat, where they were being watched by the viewers who follow her.
It was a Friday night. Kathleen was perched against a sequined cushion in the center of Jaclyn’s big couch, her dainty head fully encased in a giant, glowing virtual-reality headset complete with puffy headphones. Her feathery waist-length hair flowed out from beneath it. She was playing a virtual-reality game that involved fighting off attacks from evil clowns. Jaclyn and her husband, Jon, were both cackling as Kathleen muttered and swiveled her weighted head around, fighting off specters that only she could see. Here is what proceeded to happen, in order, as well as I can piece it together:
Kathleen, absorbed in the game, said, “Nigga don’t fuck with me.”
Jaclyn and Jon were overwhelmed with laughter.
Kathleen said, “Oh, I said the N-word,” and gestured as if to remove the headset.
Danny (Kathleen’s husband) said, “Don’t post that, you can’t post that.”
Jaclyn posted the snap.
It wasn’t until twenty minutes later that Kathleen and Danny discovered that the snap was live. By that time, thousands of Jaclyn’s and Kathleen’s subscribers had watched it. Jaclyn deleted it, but there had been plenty of time for canny Snapchat users to permanently save the short video; it’s now easily searchable online. If you look it up, you can see the entire scenario play out (Kathleen’s words are difficult to hear, and impossible to make out without headphones due to the surrounding laughter and other noise; Danny’s plea, “Don’t post that, you can’t post that,” is blurry but audible). The following morning, Jaclyn took to Snapchat for a long explanation, in which she said that she had been so drunk, and laughing so loudly, that she didn’t hear Danny and Kathleen saying, “Don’t post that.” She swore that it was a mistake and apologized profusely for posting the video. But all over Kathleen’s and Jaclyn’s social media accounts, subscribers swarmed, posting the snake emoji. It was strings and strings of snake emojis slithering through all of their comments sections for days.
In addition to the question of news, another hot topic at the artists’ colony was the question of whether or not it is possible to make art that’s not political. “Everything is political,” some of us were prone to declaring over after-dinner drinks, waving our arms about in the dim light of the common room. “If it’s not political, it’s political by omission!” At breakfast one morning, I wondered aloud about this: If neo-Nazis are marching just an hour’s drive away, can one sit all day in one’s studio and make paintings of other things—figures, flowers, abstractions—concerning oneself only with the world of beauty? “Of course one can,” a painter sitting next to me replied.
Three weeks previously—when a car had mowed into counterprotesters at the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, killing a woman named Heather Heyer—I had still been at home in Los Angeles. But some of the artists I met at the colony had already been in residence at that time. Two of them had gone to Charlottesville and participated in the counterprotests, and the rest had stayed back and worked. At the same breakfast table where I sat with the painter, I witnessed a relatively heated exchange between two writers. One, a tall thin blonde who lived in Charlottesville, mentioned casually that when the rallies had been happening, she had warned her teenage daughter that if it got violent, she should stay away. “There were peaceful protests happening in other places,” she said. “I told her—you can choose to go to one of the safe, peaceful spaces where people are gathering, not the front lines.”
“But people have to show up!” the other writer said. She sat straight-backed in her chair and spread her arms as she spoke. “Look what’s happening in our country! These are Nazis! People are going to have to stand up and put our physical bodies in front of this evil!” Her own body and her cascading piles of fire-colored curls suddenly seemed to take up half the table as her portent boomed through the room.
I don’t know what Trump tweeted that weekend, but I know what Kathleen Lights posted on Instagram. It was an apology, and I read it over several times. Here’s the full text:
To all of my disappointed followers. Last night while I was drunk, unfortunately I accidentally said the N word while playing a video game on Jaclyn’s Snapchat. I want everyone to know it was truly a mistake and I NEVER EVER speak like that. Although it didn’t come from a place of hate or racism I know I have no right to say N***a – Absolutely NO RIGHT. I wasn’t speaking to anyone or anything when I said this. I quickly said “oh don’t post that” because I knew INSTANTLY how wrong it was and I’m truly shocked that I even said that. That isn’t who I am. I think my subscribers know that I am 100% AGAINST racism & I’m ASHAMED of myself because I know that word is hurtful. From the bottom of my heart, I’m deeply sorry & I hope you can forgive me.
I first learned about all of this on Saturday night, tucked up in bed in the residence hall of the artists’ colony after a long day of thinking about poetry. I poked around, watching YouTube “beauty drama channel” reports, trying to figure out who’d said what and when, who’d posted what, and who else was chiming in about it on Twitter and Snapchat. All weekend and into the week, in between revisions of poems and reading chapters of Robert Hass’s A Little Book on Form, I followed this beauty news like I had followed the election. I watched the drama channels. I checked Twitter and Instagram like a teenager. And most of all, I read the comments—comments on the drama videos, comments on Kathleen’s Instagram, comments on Jaclyn’s; opinions and spats and declarations spilling over onto every platform, onto past videos, onto other people’s videos.
One can’t ever confidently discern a commenter’s ethnicity by looking at the accompanying profile picture (and some profiles don’t have pictures), but as this scandal unfolded, most people started prefacing their comments with identifiers: “I’m white and I think…” or “I’m Latina and I’m from Chicago and.…” I was particularly eager to hear the voices of Kathleen’s Black subscribers, but as my reading went deeper I realized that I wanted to know what everyone, what absolutely everyone, had to say about this.
Almost every comment fell into one of several categories:
It was just a mistake, and people make mistakes. This comment was everywhere, often directed straight at Kathleen; as in, “Don’t worry about it, honey! We’re all human! We all make mistakes! It’ll blow over! I still love you!” Another version of this comment went along the lines of, “Who of us hasn’t gotten drunk and said something she regrets? We all slip up when we’re under the influence!” Many of these comments failed completely to address the nature of the “slipup.”
She didn’t use it in a mean way, what’s the big deal? Many commenters said that even though the N-word was historically a racial slur, Kathleen hadn’t used it as a racial slur, which, to them, made all the difference. Some people in this category made a distinction between “n***a” (which is what she’d said) and “n***er” (which she had not said), claiming that the first word was just slang for “homie,” whereas the second word was the racial slur. This opinion was not specific to white commenters—I saw a lot of Black, Latinix, and other nonwhite commenters in this category. A subgroup of this category was the “It’s ok because she’s from Miami” claim. Many threads discussed whether “n***a” was or was not normal slang in Miami (and in various other neighborhoods in other cities, such as New York and Chicago), with vigorous arguments on both sides.
The N-word is unforgivable. There were many people commenting that they were incredibly disappointed in Kathleen and had permanently unsubscribed from her on all platforms because she’d used this word. Some commenters in this category refuted those in the above category by sharing that they believed there was absolutely no difference between “n***a” and “n***er.”
The N-word has been normalized by rappers, so now you can’t blame anyone for using it. This comment came almost exclusively from white people. Often it had a rote and rather clueless air about it, but sometimes it took on a hateful, vitriolic form in which the commenter made it clear that he or she didn’t have the first clue about the realities of systemic racism (phrases like “Black people use it so why can’t we,” “race card,” and “reverse racism” abounded).
Black people can use this word, nonblack people can’t. This was one of the most repeated statements from commenters of every race. A widely held opinion. It was often used to refute the “normalized by rappers” claim (that is, if the rappers are Black, they can use it; if you are white, you can’t). I witnessed some fascinating back-and-forth, such as, “Well what am I supposed to do if I’m singing along to a song that uses it?” and the response, “Just skip it. It’s not hard.”
Kathleen is racist/Kathleen isn’t racist. There was discussion in the comments about whether the use of this word by a non-Black person made her a racist. Many comments started “I don’t think she’s a racist!” and then went on to explain why, which usually took one of the other forms outlined here. Some commenters (possibly trolls, but possibly not) went into Kathleen’s Instagram and YouTube history and left short comments (“Racist,” and “Look at the racist!”) scattered about. A subgroup of this category was the “She’s not actually racist, why don’t we focus on the real racists” group. (I saw many, many comments to the effect that there were other, more dangerous threats looming in the world which made it asinine to go after Kathleen for this. These comments were often included alongside or could even be considered a subgroup of the above “she didn’t use it in a mean way, what’s the big deal” category. I saw a number of counter-arguments stating that the deeply troubled world and political climate made it more important to call Kathleen out, not less important.)
No one of any race should use the N-word because of its painful history. A number of Black commenters left comments saying that they themselves never used the N-word, ever, in any context. There was a subcategory of this comment in which Black commenters shared that they believed it was hypocritical for Black people to use this word as a term of endearment and then turn around and criticize white people for using it in any context. I also saw comments from white people complaining about this double standard, but I consider this (white people saying “either no one can use it or everyone can”) to fall under the above “normalized by rappers” category.
We all use it in private, what’s the big deal? This type of comment was the one that came as the biggest surprise to me, because I’m white and I don’t use this word, nor had I ever heard another white person use it in my presence. In my own white naïveté—which never stops surprising me—I had not known that there were white people of any sort of significant number in America, other than white supremacists, who used this word casually among themselves. The comments indicated (and Kathleen’s actions indicated) that there was a percentage of non-Black Americans who secretly, privately, used the N-word, though not as a direct insult.
If it slipped out so easily, it must be part of her vocabulary. I saw many, many commenters taking issue with the part of Kathleen’s apology where she’d said “I never ever speak like that.” If there is a word you truly never say, how can it just roll off your tongue suddenly one day, even if you are drunk? Commenters in this category claimed that the N-word must have been a regular part of Kathleen’s vocabulary. If that was true, then part of her apology was a lie. Included in this category was the common refrain, “You’re not sorry you said the word, you’re just sorry you got caught.”
White people shouldn’t be forgiving Kathleen because they are not the ones hurt by this word. Both white and black commenters (and commenters of mixed and other races) were inserting this comment left and right. There were a number of social-justice warriors in the comments sections attempting to educate, and their comments usually took this form, along with a discussion of the painful history that the N-word recalled, and why it was important for white people to honor the black pain that surrounds it.
Why are so many white people on here giving their opinions? The comments sections were rife with Black bewilderment at white people’s belief that they knew what was right and what was wrong when it came to the N-word.
White people are not allowed to have any feeling or opinion about this. This is the vigilante version of the above two categories—it was less common, but I think it’s an important one to try to understand. There were a few commenters going through the comments sections seeking out white commenters and replying with messages like “Shut up” and “Go away” and “Your words don’t matter here,” no matter what the original comment was. Also in this category were a few comments saying that white people had no right even to be disappointed in Kathleen for using the N-word—that this disappointment was not for white people to feel. The gist of this category was the message that if one was not Black, one had no right to feel any way or comment at all on this topic.
I’m black and I forgive Kathleen. Black forgiveness toward Kathleen took a number of forms. Some people forgave her because they believed love and forgiveness were the only way forward. Some people forgave her because they thought using the N-word was no big deal. My impression was that the majority of people forgave her because she hadn’t directed the N-word at someone or used it with intent to harm, but rather just used it “as an expression,” and the hope was that she had learned her lesson. Many messages of forgiveness included the phrase “do better,” as in, “I can forgive you as long as you do better in the future,” and “It was a mistake, I forgive you, just do better.”
Jaclyn posted it on purpose. The anti-Jaclyn contingent was omnipresent, declaring that Jaclyn had posted the snap out of gleeful spite to “take Kathleen down” so that she, Jaclyn, could continue unchallenged as the reigning queen of YouTube; predictably, the comments sections were also thronged with her defenders. Interesting, but somewhat of a side issue. I was more affected by the fact that Jaclyn and Jon had apparently found Kathleen’s use of the N-word to be so hilarious that they’d laughed loud enough to not hear Kathleen and Danny saying “Don’t post that.” Almost no one commented about this.
Jaclyn posted it by accident. Again, questions of Jaclyn’s sincerity and awareness level are of enduring interest, but I was engrossed in the passionate and varied responses to Kathleen’s use of the word.
For the life of a YouTube channel, drama of any kind is always good. In spite of the commenters in droves who stated that they were unsubscribing from both Kathleen and Jaclyn, in the days after this event occurred, both of their subscriber counts climbed. I only saw two or three comments to this effect, but serious conspiracy theorists think that in the case of beauty gurus, everything that happens across all social media platforms is a publicity stunt.
There were, of course, other kinds of comments, a few of which were more original and subtle than my list can include, but days after the fact, these were the main reactions as far as I could tell. One must always account for trolls, but the above categories were repeated frequently enough and across so many different platforms and comments sections that I believe they represent the true spread of stances on the subject (at least the spread of stances among those beauty-community members who are active commenters).
The residency stretched on. By day I pored over individual words for hours, trimmed and lengthened my all-important lines, arranged and rearranged the pages of my manuscript in the languorous and drowsy light of the dying summer; and by night, as this faraway corner of the internet morphed and swelled, I continued my obsessive absorption of every facet of the fallout. The mountains were luminously blue. The lovesick cicadas drummed their abdomens. And that which had formerly rocked me to sleep was now keeping me awake. I’d doze restlessly in the sickly glare of my laptop screen, my psyche swirling not with my own poetry, but with visions of white girls teetering, top-heavy, senses submerged in the blinding apparatus of virtual reality.
One of the other artists was making paintings of the border between the United States and Mexico. One was making drawings about the nature of the line. One was making paintings about the battle between wildlife and civilization. One was making watercolors in which semi-formed animals melted together and emerged from abstract clouds of color. One was making collages about pipelines and mountain-top removal. One painted figures. One was cutting large plain shapes out of paper and pinning them precariously to the wall. Is the line political? Is the body political? Is a shape political? Are frogs political? Is nature political? Is beauty political? Is the border more political than the pipeline? Is a figure more political than a falling square of paper? Is makeup political? Is makeup art? Is it art because it’s political? Is it political because it’s art?
I’ve said the N-word (with the “a” ending) one time in my life. I was a teenager, alone in my room, singing along to “Damn it Feels Good to be a Gangsta,” which was one of my favorite songs at the time. Previous to this, I had always just skipped the N-word when it came up in the song (it comes up frequently, and skipping it every time made me feel like some sort of strange, singing, undone Mad Lib). The absurd effect of turning my voice off and on was what caused me to experiment with saying it. I felt silly skipping such an oft-used word, and the song made the word feel so accessible, so casual, and the song—which I loved, and listened to constantly—felt like such a part of my life, felt so mine, that I thought maybe there was a chance that with the song as its conduit, the word could have become mine, too. So, quietly and privately, I sang along with the line, “And everything’s cool in the mind of a gangsta, cause gansta-ass niggas think deep.” Nothing happened. But I never said it again. Even in solitude, even in the context of a song, that word in a white mouth—let alone my mouth—made me feel sick with history. In retrospect, I’m grateful to have known enough, at that age, to feel sick. I wish that knowledge and that sickness upon every young white American. But I was lucky—it had been handed to me on a platter by my educated parents, exuberant librarians and enterprising teachers. If I’ve learned anything from reading comments on YouTube, I’ve learned that a lot of white kids don’t even know it’s there to be had.
One night toward the end of my residency there was a bottle of good cognac and I stayed up late talking with a novelist, two essayists, and a playwright. One of the essayists told us story after story about being lambasted by her students for failing to issue trigger warnings with readings she assigned to her literature and women’s studies classes.
“I assigned a novel that has a rape scene in it,” she said. “A boy rapes another boy. The scene is about three pages. As soon as we got into class, a student raised her hand and announced, ‘I just need to say that I am completely disappointed in you as a teacher, as a feminist, and as a mentor for assigning this material without a trigger warning. You could have re-traumatized someone!’ Then she took the book to the chair of my department and read the scene aloud to the chair—the three-page scene. And the chair was like, ‘What’s going on? What is the problem?’”
The playwright jumped in, “And it’s not even kids who have been traumatized who are complaining! I’ve been raped,” he said. “I’ve been raped.” His cognac sloshed and glittered in the mellow light from the dusty lamps. “This is life! You have to live!”
I thought back to myself as a book-obsessed preteen under the covers in the middle of the night, reading by flashlight about rape in the Wild West, about death in WWII trenches, and about slavery in the American South—girls my age being whipped by white overseers, being forced to eat maggots in the cotton fields. As an adolescent, one of the reasons I learned to cherish literature was that in addition to its heights of beauty and exultation, reading exposed me to various kinds of pain and trauma—took me far into the darkness of human life, a place I felt it was necessary to go. I tried to articulate this to the group. “I guess I’ve always believed that artists create or re-create terrible events to allow people a window into things that they themselves haven’t experienced, so that they can go forth from the work knowing more about this world, and live their lives as more empathetic people,” I said. “That exposure is something I expect from literature.”
When the group dissolved, the writers went to bed, the playwright went to call his husband, and I went to my room, clicked through to the YouTube comments, and spent the next two hours reading, reading, reading.
What followed was another hurricane in the news. Irma, which had been birthed from a tropical wave off the western coast of Africa the week before, sucked up warm waters crossing the Straits of Florida from Cuba and hit the Florida Keys as a Category 4 storm with winds of 130 mph. The next time Kathleen Lights appeared on Snapchat, she was huddled in the corner of an undefined, dank-looking space (a van? A hotel room?) rubbing her eyes and reassuring her subscribers that she and her family, including their dogs, had all gotten out alive. Jaclyn Hill evacuated to Chicago, and rumor had it that weeks went by during which neither of them knew whether or not their beautiful houses were intact. They never posted the collaborative videos that they had filmed on that fateful Friday, and the gale-force winds of natural disaster proceeded to sweep the whole debacle precipitately into the past.
The hurricane moved up the coast in the direction of the Blue Ridge Mountains, and during the final days of my residency I found myself reading the weather report every couple of hours. My return flight was through Atlanta, and Irma was projected to arrive in Georgia during my layover. I called the airline and rescheduled my flight so that I could get myself out ahead of the storm. Better to lose a day of work than to be trapped in a hurricane’s eye.
Donald Trump is president, and the news from the world of beauty is political. Kathleen Lights was the clearest jewel in our crown, the sweetest apple on our tree, and she turned out to be one of those non-Black women who has not excised the N-word from her vocabulary. Meanwhile, the wall is going up on the border, the mountaintops are being removed, and Heather and Philando and Michael and Sandra and Eric and Alton are all dead. As for the line—the line, as ever, is a wild, wandering, potent thing: the line of poetry; the line of prose; the line of an old-school hip-hop song; the line of ink, of pencil, of paint; the line of protesters holding hands; the line of kohl I trace along my lashes.