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The Beautiful Darkness: A Handbook for Orphans


I became a professional reader long before I was a writer when I was living in homeless shelters, subsidized housing, and welfare hotels with my mother in New York City. Most of the middle class and affluent black folks I would come to know in the future would wince and give me a look I couldn’t read when I would tell the story that I outline in my new memoir, The Beautiful Darkness: A Handbook for Orphans. All some intolerant, ignorant bigots need is to continue to hear about the dysfunction of black families or the lie that we are all poor (living in inner cities) and broken and hopeless. But unfortunately, in my case, the dysfunction was just part of what I lived through as a kid.

I read to escape, mostly books borrowed from the library. Whatever was in the new book section. So, self-help, like How to Have Better Self-Esteem, because I hated myself. As a third and fourth grader in and out of public schools in the five boroughs of the city because my bipolar mother was not medicated and couldn’t keep a job, I felt like a burden; In Search of Our Mothers Gardens and Zami : A New Spelling of My Name and for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf  were just some of the books that gave my spirit rest. In black girl poetry and prose, I could find serenity when my mother’s manic episodes or neglect threatened to erase the slight will to live that I hung on to.

I had not grown up in a big family, it was just me and mom. And my mom had been broken by life long before me. Her own mother had died when she was a teenager in a mental institution. She went on to have five children but I was born after Jose was killed by a city bus when he was 12 years old -- a turning point in her life that I believe triggered the worst parts of her bipolar and borderline personality illnesses.

Reading was my main connection to the world, the only thing that I believed and felt connected me to an invisible community of other homeless children, other aspiring writers, dreamers, black girls, the poor who wanted to be anything but. Reading in the hood is a revolutionary act. It sends a signal to hood residents that you are not going to stay, that even if your body is stuck in tenements or housing projects or welfare hotels, your mind is on the path to freedom.

So I got beat at home for no reason other than my mother’s mania, and I was bullied at school for trying to find safe haven in the pages of books. While I grew up with my mother and she did her best to care for me, I was an orphan in the sense that I mothered myself and sometimes tried as a kid to mother my mother. That is obviously not the work of a child, but I did try. The main plague of my childhood in all of its adversities was loneliness, isolation. I wrote The Beautiful Darkness to save others from their loneliness. To offer solace to those who know what it is like to live the stereotype of a broken black family and are resilient in the face of it regardless.

We have often heard the stories of black women struggling with poverty and adversities with their children through journalists and sociologists who do outstanding work. Rarely do we hear directly from survivors. Maybe like me, they feel the weight of stereotypes and stigma pressing them away from the page. Maybe they think no one will want to hear their story or will buy their book, or it will not resonate because they have already read something similar -- all variations of what I have heard.

But here is the dream I hope becomes real. Maybe, just maybe, a little black girl who is between homes with her mom who struggles with depression will be searching for a roadmap for herself way from despair on a library bookshelf somewhere. This book is for her.

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This itself shows that only the person who have suffered in the past, can understand the pain of the people suffering in the present and the problems they are facing. This is to provide insight into the state of the relationship that has developed between humanitarian organizations, read on this page, to help people who are in need of it.

This could apply to any one of any color, the story I hear way too often about parents that choose drugs over their children, how children were mistreated by parents, friends, and anyone else who desired to  make them suffer. 

I praise you for your stamina, It takes a very special person to survive and thrive as you have.  God Bless You for all your courage and sharing.


Dear Joshunda:

I can't WAIT to read this book. I got teary eyed reading your post. 

You brought back so many memories and though I'm white, and don't share all of your experiences, I remember the day I read Ntozake Shange's book "For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf." I was the first in my family to go to college and it was not a fun experience. I was homesick as hell and couldn't relate at all to my quite wealthy peers. My father was homeless and alcoholic and absent. I felt like I had a split, "pass for normal or like everyone else" life and a real, more complex and secret life.

I felt like I could breathe and feel my heart beat when I read Shange and Zami and also Dorothy Allison and Adrienne Rich. I didn't share all parts of all of the authors lives (race, class, gender, sexuality) but I shared core pieces and parts that I'd not heard described before at all. It made me feel like I was not so strange or alone or freaky in what was a chaotic childhood.

And that too, made me want to be a writer and someone who sees writing and truth-telling as a form of activism for saying clearly, "this is how it is or was or sometimes is or was at least for me" and how life-saving and beautiful and important that can be. 

SO I CAN'T WAIT TO READ YOUR BOOK because I am already touched by the way you write. Thank you for sharing here. 

Also, I am eager to learn more about your experiences and feelings, those I share and those I have not experienced. I can't wait to learn more about your story and to let others know as well.

Would you mind sharing this post in the Parenting with ACEs group as you wrote about growing up with ACEs in this post? I think it would speak to many in the Parenting with ACEs group.

Thanks for your words and work and reminding me of this:

"I sat up one nite walkin a boardin house
screamin/cryin/the ghost of another woman
who waz missin what i waz missin
i wanted to jump up outta my bones
& be done wit myself
leave me alone
& go on in the wind
it waz too much
i fell into a numbness
til the only tree i cd see
took me up in her branches
held me in the breeze
made me dawn dew."

Ntozake Shange


Thank you for sharing your story,  Joshunda.  I have posted your post into our "Books" group.  In the Books group we include both books for professionals in the movement but also books meant to raise awareness and create appreciation and love for those of us that live with our ACEs.

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