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Definition of Success

In my interactions with writers and authors over time, one fact is clear: we have different definitions of what success looks like. For some, it’s having your work included on the New York Times or Amazon bestseller list. For others, it’s a multi-book deal with a traditional publishing house, plus a huge advance. For others, it’s having a ginormous social media following to generate book sales and become an influencer. For others, having your work adapted for the silver screen is the ticket. For me, as an African-American independent author, my personal definition of success is somewhat different.

As with many, writing is my passion. I write because I can’t not write. As I have mentioned in previous blogs, I also love to read, and I was encouraged to do so by my father. As such, the public library was my second home. Unlimited stories were stacked on the shelves, waiting to be checked out with my library card. As a kid, it was typical for me to walk home with books up to my chin–and then proceed to read them all in my favorite “reading chair.”

As I grew older, I asked more questions, one in particular: where are the stories with characters who look like me? As a man of a certain age, these words from Toni Morrison come to mind: “If there is a story you want to read, and it hasn’t been written yet, then you must be the one to write it.” The late Black gay novelist E. Lynn Harris, whom I had the honor of meeting at his first book signing, said something similar in his appearances. This quote also resonates with the motivation for many BIPOC writers to become independent authors.

That being said, as one who loves the public library, seeing my body of work gracing its shelves is a mark of success. To date, six public library systems have my Christopher Family Novel series included in their collections, as well as the library of my alma mater. Success is having the people who were there for me at the beginning to share it with. Success is having a reader tell me, after reading my work, “I know someone like that,” be it a friend/relative/coworker, or “That happened to me.” Success is making a positive difference for somebody else, in supporting other authors. Success involves paying it forward. Success is both gratifying and humbling. And above all, I give God credit for my success, since He gave me this gift.

30+ years ago, the success I enjoy today was a dream. To the writers/authors out there, whatever your definition of success is, I wish you the best in achieving it.

Believe in dreams and never give up.

Never Give Up is live!

IMG_1322There are two key moments common to every published author/poet/playwright. The first is when you completed your work, edited it, and sent it off for a professional edit. The second is the moment you hold the first copy of your work, the fruit of your labor, in your hands. I had that second moment today, and it never gets old.

Today, Never Give Up: A Christopher Family Novel is officially launched. Now that I’m involved in the marketing and promotional side of being an independent author, it’s exciting. The work involved is all part of learning new skills and ideas, discovering what’s a good fit, and connecting with people. It involves putting myself out there. If I don’t speak up, if I don’t stand by my work, who will?

Never Give Up CoverFor those who are wondering where my idea for the title came from, it is a basic lesson I learned as an independent author: never give up. Given the dynamics of the Berry family in my novel, it became one of the family mottos (the other one is, “Never sacrifice your family on the altar of your career”). Today, I think back to when I started writing my first novel over 20 years ago, and the progress I’ve made to where I am today; back then, I never dreamed that I would have five published novels, much less novels that are also part of library collections.

Part of that success involves paying it forward, by supporting other African-American authors. Due to the racism in the traditional publishing industry, it is no surprise that I’ve found more African-American authors who are independent, or they have built their own publishing companies. Here’s to Kujichagulia (self-determination).

No one said the road would be easy. I’ve certainly experienced my share of challenges, both internal and external. Despite that, I love what I do, and I recognize the importance of keeping my “eyes on the prize.” Success has different definitions for everyone; I’m thankful that there’s no “one size fits all.” It’s important to recognize every small success as well as the big ones; those small successes often get a writer through the rough patches. I’ve been in contact with many writers who are dealing with self-doubt, the “imposter syndrome,” etc. We never know where inspiration will come from to deal with these issues; for me, it came from a quote by Aretha Franklin: “Be your own artist, and always be confident in what you’re doing.”

For those who supported me during this journey–especially those who have been there from the beginning–know that you are appreciated. For those like myself who have launched a new novel–hey, it’s all worth it.

IMG_1149So yes, my “new baby” whodunit is out there, available at your friendly neighborhood Amazon and Barnes & Noble libraries. Meanwhile, I’m doing the happy dance to some Old School funk (and yes, that photo was me back in the day, when I was dreaming)! Until the next installment, I’m out!

 

At the end of the day, it’s all about the love. Believe in dreams and never give up.

 

Crunch time with Never Give Up and Nhojj

Never Give Up CoverWhether one is traditionally published or an independent author like me, the production phase is one of deadlines and “crunch time.” Those of you published authors and poets out there, you know the drill: you’ve written with your hearts. Your characters have taken on lives of their own. You’ve gone through first, second, third drafts. You’ve edited your work, and sent it out for a professional edit to polish and tweak it the right ways (and if you’re a writer of color, you’ve vetted your editor for cultural sensitivity). Now, comes the production: putting the physical book together.

Being an African-American independent author has given me benefits I wouldn’t have had otherwise. One of them is creative control, not only in the prose but in the area of cover design. The ability to design my own covers is a new skill this Old School brotha highly values. Hey, at the end of the day, it’s my work. To my brothas and sistahs who are publishing their first novel/collection: when you hear white editors and publishers say that Black images on a cover won’t sell, don’t buy into it. It’s a form of racism. Under the Law of Attraction, your audience is already out there waiting to see such covers and read/purchase your work.

The most time-consuming portion of production, of course, is reviewing the galley proofs, line by line by line, doing my best to spot the areas for revision and then forcing myself to tear my eyes away from my laptop to take breaks. I just finished the first round of review, and I’m grateful that the turnaround time is quick. From there comes the process of securing Library of Congress copyrights and ISBN numbers. Still, after going through this stage in the process, I have to step away for a minute, taking time to relax and do some self-care. In the meantime, I have those moments when I visualize holding the first copy of my new novel, my labor of love, in my hands. For those of you writers out there who have yet to experience this, there’s nothing like it; hence, the previous process has to happen if we want our work to represent well.

Soon, Judge Earl James Berry’s life, and a mystery, will be available for inquiring minds who want to know: who wants him dead, and why?

 

While I have a break, I’d like to take this time to give a shout-out to an amazing poet and vocalist, Nhojj. I recently read his collection Cherish Yourself: Journal of a Caribbean Man Who Loves Men. I appreciate the artistry and honesty in his journey, which ultimately leads to loving and cherishing himself. I loved his invocation of James Baldwin, as well as the letters Nhojj writes to himself at different stages of his life from the perspective of wisdom and experience. Given that the cultural background of the Caribbean has often not been supportive–and at the worst, repressive–when it comes to its LGBT members, it is imperative that stories such as his be told.

Thank you, Nhojj, for bringing the gifts of your voice and your words to the table. Readers, his work is waiting for you at your local Amazon/Barnes & Noble library.

 

Believe in dreams and never give up. Stay safe and well.

Never Give Up: When Earl Met Juanita

Never Give Up CoverThe time is fast approaching. Indeed, Never Give Up: A Christopher Family Novel, my historical novel/family saga/whodunit, will be released by August 15. It’s exciting during these final weeks, knowing that soon I will hold the fruit of my labor in my hands.

Those of you out there who are published authors and poets know what it’s like when your book hits the production phase. If you’ve gone the traditional route, you’re reviewing the cover design; if you’re independent, you’ve either designed the cover yourself or had someone design it for you. And then there is the process of reviewing the galleys and the back cover copy, not to mention the details such as the print format and the physical size of the book. It’s painstaking work, but at the end of the day, it’s our novel, and we want it to represent well.

Never Give Up may be a whodunit, but I’m still all about Black Love. Because the novel has romance elements for each of the characters/family members, readers who are familiar with my series may wonder how Judge Earl James Berry met his future wife and soulmate, Juanita Sue Langston. In order to do that, let me take you back to the Minneapolis of 1946 in this excerpt, when Juanita was an 18-year-old woman:

 

I was working late on a Thursday evening in December (December 12, if memory serves), making plans to do a little Christmas shopping before I went home and hoping my parents wouldn’t be there yet. I was dressed more for a brisk fall day, since that December was mild and still “green” at that point. I locked the office door and headed down to the end of the hall. Normally I was out the door at five, but that night I saw a young man leaving an office with a mop, bucket, and cleaning supplies. He didn’t see me at first as I stood there waiting for the elevator, but when he turned around our eyes met.

“Hi,” I heard him say.

“Hi,” I replied just as the elevator door opened and I got on. As the door closed, I saw him look at me again and give me a smile. I don’t even remember if I returned his smile, but on the trip down I found myself hoping that I had.

As I shopped for presents at Dayton’s, then while I waited for the trolley, and during the ride home, he piqued my curiosity. During dinner with my parents, I found myself distracted. While I listened to the Hit Parade on the radio, I couldn’t get his image out of my mind. I wracked my brain in an effort to place him. I wasn’t sure if he was familiar, but his image was a delight to the senses. I had estimated him to be 6’0”, in contrast to my 5’6”. Even in a custodian’s work clothes, he was one well-built man—I had no doubt he must have been an athlete in high school, and probably kept that way in the military. His deep brown complexion was rich, and his raven black hair a curious mixture of curly and wavy. Could he possibly have Native American blood in him somewhere? As for his smoky gold eyes, I saw intelligence and pure animal magnetism in them, a sense of knowing exactly what he wanted.

My dear—if a woman wasn’t careful, she could lose herself in that man, but the trip would be filled with nonstop enjoyment.

As the Ink Spots serenaded me with “To Each His Own,” I got up from my bed and stood in front of the floor-length mirror in my bedroom for an appraisal. From Mama I had inherited a healthy hourglass figure and a thick head of shoulder-length, dark brown hair which was currently hot-pressed into submission. Papa had given me smooth, medium brown skin, his engaging smile, and his passionate but wise eyes. People who see me today would consider me an older and darker-complexioned version of the Fifth Dimension’s Marilyn McCoo. I’ve laughed about that, since she’s young enough to be one of my daughters. When the group hit the charts in the late ‘60s some people would ask me, “Are you sure she’s not your niece?” Nobody I ever dated had given me an argument about my looks, and Papa was always there to guard my virtue—with deadly weapons if necessary. In my self-appraisal, I already visualized my “mystery man” standing next to me in the mirror.

No, there was more to that brief exchange of greetings than met the eye, as far as I was concerned. I was full of questions, questions I hoped to have answers for soon. Of course, at 18 a girl wants those questions answered yesterday. Had I seen him before? Where did he live? What was a man like that doing in a custodian’s job when he was clearly capable of so much more, if his eyes were any indication? And how would I fit into the picture? Better yet, how did I want to fit into the picture, if there was one?

Back in those days a woman who considered herself a lady would never do the unthinkable and throw herself at a man, not like today when so many girls line up to audition for the role of slut. As I thought about him over the next couple of days, the thing to do was find out who he worked for and his hours, unless divine intervention brought him to me. I had so little to go on that I didn’t even consider talking to Mama and Papa. Cassandra, however, was another story.

“He sounds luscious,” Cassandra said as we talked on the phone the next evening. “So, have you done anything to find out more about him?”

“Well, not yet. I thought about staying late today, but that would have been too obvious. Monday might be a better time. How are things going with Vince?”

“Smooth as silk. We’re going to the movies tomorrow night. But back to this dreamboat of yours. How does this affect your plans as a professional secretary?”

“It doesn’t. I want both, at least for a while. What movie are you going to see?”

The Postman Always Rings Twice is playing at the Orpheum. It’s supposed to be good.”

We continued to discuss film noir movies we’d seen in the past. For us, seeing women in power in such movies—down to the knives in their nylons and guns in their minks—was utterly fascinating, not to mention the way they led their male victims down the road to destruction. Not that we would even consider that as a surefire way to get a man, but we loved the sheer entertainment value.

Sunday, of course, had the Langston family in St. Matthew’s African Methodist Episcopal Church for worship. I always made sure I looked good for church. On that day I wore my best grey wool suit with matching pumps, having pressed and curled my hair into a chignon with victory rolls, something similar to Ingrid Bergman’s hairstyle in the cocktail party scene of Notorious. We were always there before services started because Papa was one of the trustees and Mama taught Sunday school. I hadn’t really decided what I wanted to do at church since I graduated, but I knew that at some point I had to do something.

Service attendance had been increasing since Thanksgiving and the start of Advent, so the church was nearly full when it was time for service to start. Because I tried to stay as focused as much as possible on the service itself, I usually didn’t look around at people who came in late. Today was no different. I took out my Bible to follow along with the Scripture lessons and soaked in the sounds of the choir, looking forward to the Christmas program that afternoon.

Rev. Walker gave an inspiring message about the “reason for the season” that day, and after the benediction we stopped for a few minutes to chat with other members. I happened to look over at one of the exits for a moment and caught a glimpse of someone leaving. My mouth dropped slightly. What’s he doing here? Is my mind playing tricks on me? I decided that was it; I’d been thinking about that man for the past few days, and now I was imagining him showing up everywhere. Still, when we returned later on for the program, I found myself wondering if he would show up.

The church was packed for the Christmas program, and it was wonderful. Our choir and a guest choir from St. Andrew’s concluded the program with the “Hallelujah Chorus,” and afterwards we gathered in the dining hall for fellowship. I felt a little disappointed that Mystery Man hadn’t made an appearance, but the time for praise and worship had been well spent.

As I waited in line to get a plate, I saw Lillian and Melvin Edwards holding court with their friends. They were a “power couple” long before the phrase was coined. Mama and Papa exchanged pleasantries with our pastor, while I wished that Cassandra would have been there as she’d promised to be. I was pleasant and polite to the women who were serving, and I talked to the people nearby about the program. I filled my plate and found a seat when I realized I had forgotten to get some punch. When I got up to do so, I stopped in my tracks. My heart fluttered in my chest. When did it suddenly become more difficult to breathe?

“Aren’t you…”

“Yeah,” Mystery Man said, and that brilliant smile of his came out in full wattage. “You’re the woman from the hallway.”

“But…I feel like I know you from somewhere.”

“Well, if it helps, I’m Earl James Berry. I’ve been away at college. And you are…?”

“Juanita Langston.”

“Langston…Langston. You know, I think my father knows your father. Probably from the NAACP and the Urban League. Didn’t you go to Central?”

“No, Vocational. I just graduated this past June.”

“It figures. If you had gone to Central, I would definitely have remembered someone like you.” I must have been smiling, because there was an extra twinkle in his eye. “Would you like some punch?”

Remembering my initial mission, I answered, “Yes, thank you.”

“Coming right up. And if it’s all right with you, I’d like to join you.”

“I’d like that.” I was downplaying my response to his flirting as much as possible, even though I wanted to scream “Yes!!!!!” from the rooftops.

 

Believe in dreams and never give up.

Mark My Words, You Never Know, Never Give Up

Mark My Words Book I CoverBesides the COVID-19 pandemic (which, paradoxically, has given our planet a chance to breathe), there is another pandemic that is front and center at this time, though it has been around far longer: systemic racism. Indeed, George Floyd’s murder has sparked a revolution around the world. However, it strikes far closer to home for me, because it took place in my hometown, in the neighborhood where I grew up.

Baby Boomer that I am, I can remember my own experiences with racism as a young Black gay man:

I remember riding my bike through certain neighborhoods in town and being called the N-word.

I remember being passed over for certain positions in the workplace because of my Blackness.

I remember the civil unrest on Plymouth Avenue in north Minneapolis in 1967.

I remember experiencing racism and ignorance at my alma mater in the ’70s.

I remember times, when I used to go to clubs as an adult, being carded and asked for several forms of ID while white gay men just walked on in without being stopped.

I remember what it was like to spend a night in jail for something I never did, because a white woman I’d never met accused me of aggravated robbery. Later, I found out from my father that she had actually given the kiosk money I had allegedly robbed her of to her boyfriend, and chose to lie about it; who knows what would have happened had I not had a lawyer, friends who could vouch for my whereabouts, and a father who wouldn’t take any crap off the police officer who tried to get him to get me to confess.

Today, I know what’s it like to have to tell my son, now a young Black male, to watch his back and stay off the police radar.

When these events unfolded over the past weeks, I found something fascinating. When I wrote the first draft of my Mark My Words trilogy over two decades ago, the very issues included in it–racism, police brutality, sexism, homophobia–are now the current events on people’s minds. My character of Allen Beckley Christopher may have become a multimillionaire, but he and his family weren’t free of the aforementioned issues in our country, internalized or externalized. Yet, when I wrote it, I had hope.

You Never Know Book Cover IIIn You Never Know, I spoke of these issues less. However, the practice of redlining was a part of the history of Minneapolis, and as such it is included in my historical fiction. As an author, I’m inspired by the words of Toni Morrison: “If there is a story you want to read, and it hasn’t been written, then you must be the one to write it.” Yes, the books I want to read include success, making a difference, and hope. I have a voice, and my voice is in the pen. That being said, I want to take a moment to give thanks to the Black press (such as Insight News and the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder) for reporting the successes, strengths, and the inspiring people/events in the community as well as the challenges.

Never Give Up, as my upcoming historical novel in my series, takes place in 2012. In light of current events, I see this novel now, with the way I wrote the police investigation of my main character Judge Earl James Berry’s shooting, as something that could have been, or might have been, had things been different. In the midst of the storm of this particular pandemic, I still have hope. There is no quick, easy fix to 401 years of institutionalized racism, but there’s hope for substantive change, and I’ve witnessed it in the young people who are leading this revolution for justice.

Never Give Up CoverMy works-in-progress include two male/male romance novels (yes, romance is my favorite recreational reading). Because it is still underrepresented in the genre, I’ve made it a point to add my voice to Black Love, specifically between two Black men. My brothas and sistahs, if you have a story inside you that’s aching to be written, don’t wait. Allow nothing to stop you. Do it. Publish it yourself. You’d be amazed at the support that is out there waiting for you. And you can pay it forward by your support of other Black authors/authors of color.

This past Saturday, I tuned in to a Virtual Town Hall meeting on Facebook. The topic was, “Race in Minneapolis,” and what we can do to create substantive change in our culture of “business as usual” when it comes to dismantling racism. One of the words of wisdom was for us as African-Americans to tell our stories. If we don’t, who will?

At the end of the day, it’s all about the love. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was also a “Drum Major for Justice,” and he loved this country too much to let it alone.

 

Believe in dreams and never give up. There is hope.