When I’m stressed out and struggling to write, I research. I’ll unearth some obscure journal, writing tablet, or digital file and comb through it. In every instance, the point is to give myself a concrete goal, something that will buoy me as I slowly return to whatever major project I have temporarily abandoned.
Last summer, my deviation looked like days of digging up everything I could about a club entertainer from the 1970s. Using his stage name, I searched websites, streaming platforms, and newspaper and photo databases for whatever digital crumbs I could find. I lucked up when a photo caption referred to the new familiar face by his government name. Like any half decent researcher, or generally nosey person, I used his name to locate his phone number. I pick up my phone and dial.
I convince myself that I need to speak with him. I need to hear his voice.
And I’d heard his voice before, through a decades-old audio medium. He sounds like a bawdy, gregarious artist who comes alive at night. But this is him, then.
As the phone rings, questions bottleneck in my throat.
How are you? Where are you? How did you get into entertainment? Do you have children? Why did you stop? Where are your recordings? Can we have lunch? Do you still perform? If so, for who?
All the while I’m holding my breath and wondering what 50 years of living has done to the texture of his voice.
The ringing halts. I’m not ready. I listen for a geriatric voice picking up a landline and resting into a conversation from a stranger. I was met with an automated message from a robot about how the number I called does not have a recorded message set up. I clumsily leave a message, nerves bad and all. While introducing myself, I panic and say the wrong employer’s name. I feel pathetic. I end the message with my phone number and a final plea to return my call. I go about my day, having convinced myself that making the phone call and leaving the message is the best I’m going to get. I quickly make peace with it so I can move on to the other tasks I’ve been avoiding.
The next day, he returns my call. I’m in a Lyft this time and feeling self-conscious about talking with a stranger for the first time in front of another stranger (the driver) who doesn’t appear to be listening but likely is. I maintain a healthy paranoia about being Black in public.
I answer and pensively listen as a soft voice greets me. He says his name, and I confirm that he is the person I’ve been looking for. To me, the ask is small.
Can I interview you about your career?
I’d like to know more about your practice.
I’m not interested in discussing that. There’s plenty of material online. My Black southern manners kick in. I know not to push. The best I can do is thank him for his time and wish him well.
I’ve grown to appreciate moments like this. They are casual expressions of refusal. I particularly enjoy witnessing them in Black elders. A couple of years ago, I asked my mother’s mother if she would tell me stories from when she was growing up. Her reply? I’m still growing.
In both instances, refusal. Sufficient and expansive refusal. “No” in either situation feels too specific. As if getting them to speak was simply about asking the correct question. I hear these responses, a broad, gray, amorphous denial of access to their interior lives that feels perpetual. And in accepting and embracing it, I’m compelled to consider not what their stories can corroborate regarding my fascination with the decade. Better yet, I’m asked, implicitly, to write with that refusal, which for me, is partially about the ongoingness of Black life. We are more than moments and eras.
In both contexts, all there is for me to do is respect their privacy. In my writing, I embrace that, not by building “workarounds” like turning what I know about them into a roman à clef. In these moments, that behaviour __________.
Instead, I turn to personal correspondence of Black writers who already have material in research archives.
Both situations, and a few more that come to mind as I type these words, are about privacy. No matter what justification I create for wanting/needing to hear their perspectives, their obverse (wc) response to my invitation to tell their business for them, overrides my aim.
Mr. _______ has a life that extends beyond the era I wanted to ask him about. And his seeming comfort that what’s available online is sufficient for understanding this part of him prompts me to consider how to write with it. I don’t think it can simply be a matter of me producing an essay and quoting the artist as “not being interested in being interviewed.” Rather, how might I produce a form that moves with his opacity? His refusal is an expression of privacy. He owes us no explanation for it. And I will not make it my job to decipher it.
I do not want to circumvent him. I want to write with his insistence on privacy.
How does a writer enact privacy? In addition to anonymizing practices like name changing, location, changing, and redacting, what practices might we employ? And to what end? I am merely entertaining some glorified “work around”? Or is there another way to contextualize what I’m writing toward?
I don’t write many letters. Maybe it’s a combination of residual anxiety from my shy childhood, introversion, and a healthy paranoia about having my feelings documented.
I’ve been told I’m difficult to know.
And, sure, the close is “complimentary”; giving the writer a moment to conclude their letter with a considered farewell.
Spending time in the archival collections of Black writers, I attend more to personal correspondence than publications.
I can’t shake that middle school feeling that the personal letter is contraband. No matter what newly acquired origami skill you use to secure the thoughts you’ve pressed into wide-ruled notebook paper, the risk is in giving your thoughts a body outside of your own. In the moment, __________.
Years ago, I read Lawrence ___ Jackson’s __________. The book’s historicizing of Black writers and critics helped me understand that, sure, I was interested in Toni Morrison’s novels, but I was more curious about who she wrote letters to. And I wanted to know what others wrote to her.
 Providing further information about his skill would identify him. His list of known peers is short; he’d be too easy to recognize.