Crazy, Black, and Dancing

Technically speaking, each step we take is a fall, and I have relished falling and catching myself, just in time. And it scares me to death.
“The Art of the Fall,” December 15, 1989

The word “crazy” carries heavy baggage, but it only really means drifting outside the orbit of society’s expectations.

Being Black and crazy complicates this. They label the conditions I live with depression and anxiety; I call them by their true name: Despair. I used to refuse to admit its sources. Some, like family trauma, were obvious. Some, like the tension of carrying my Blackness in this culture, I tried not to think about. Some, like the reality of loss and change and alienation, were part of the baggage of living.

But I battled hardest against the way despair impinged on the act I love most: writing. I spun through cycles of productivity and stone cold empty unmarked pages. Repeatedly, I faced this question: How do I create with a mind at times warring with itself and the world?

Warring because being Black and crazy is a fight on two fronts. In the depths of my despair, my mind has sung this refrain: You aren’t crazy; you’re just lazy. Just scared. Real Artists aren’t afraid. You don’t want to work, just want it all handed to you. You don’t have the discipline. Maybe because you don’t have the talent and you know it. These missing traits are absent from your blood, from your people. You can see it in your history and in your culture.

Whenever I failed, I felt the common shame of the mentally ill, but I cringed additionally at the thought my failure confirmed every stereotype about Black people: unreliable, unable to handle the pressure, unwilling to work. When you’re brown and your life disintegrates, the world happily offers an explanation: This what you people do. In a way, you can’t help it: There’s something fundamentally wrong with you. And how do you answer that charge?

I composed the quote that opens this essay decades ago, in a class on teaching writing. Even before that, I loved dance in all its forms, and I loved to dance every chance I got. But in that class, for the first time, I brought life, dance, and writing together.

Writing is a dance, a rhythm, a rhumba, a samba, a line dance in a country and western bar, the hustle on the disco floor, the Charleston, the jive, the shimmy and shake, the freestyle violence of flinging yourself around to as punk rock band screams on the stage.

Dancing and writing are embodied, specific responses to this embodied, specific existence. The pen that moves across the paper, the fingers flying over keys, answer the sensations flowing within and around me. I respond to what I feel and see, to the limits of this body and moment while I dance within this whirl of a world. And all dance, all writing expresses the necessary tension between convention and invention.

Fitzgerald wrote, “All good writing is holding your breath and swimming underwater.” I used to believe him, but that’s not for me. My writing is release; it’s responding to a song. When I pursue my writing as a form of control, to create power over others, despair rushes in. The task overwhelms me and raises again questions about what I lack, what I can’t control, how I’m not enough.

But when my writing dances, answering the world with all its possibilities and limitations, and with all of my possibilities and limitations, then I only need show up, ruthlessly honest and present.

Writing is a tango, strictly ballroom or beyond, music that tells you what is sayable but doesn’t tell you what to say. A ballet, a tap explosion, the electric slide, modern, jazz, African, salsa, and hip hop. Writing is making your way across the floor to the other side, or standing right where you are, like flamenco where so much of the energy gets directed down, percussive, like a toddler in a tantrum. Yet also restrained.

The act of answering as my crazy, Black self, as me, transforms despair into joy. My road to sanity runs through this transformation. Sanity lies in the ability to feel: grief, pain. In the ability to acknowledge the reality of all kinds of experience, the inevitable reality of loss. And then to reach into the depths of yourself and out to others and everything you can find. The antidote to despair isn’t happiness; happiness is far too fragile.

No, sanity lies in the trance the dance of writing creates, in the transformation of pain it allows, and in the return to joy that comes when I romance again life’s music and myself.