Staff Picks: Professors, Paychecks, and Poetry


This Week’s Reading

Still of Kathleen Collins’s Losing Ground. Courtesy of Milestone Films.

Sara, the protagonist of Kathleen Collins’s film Losing Ground, cannot admit that she is a professor first and a wife second, and therein lies her problem. As her desire to break free from her steady, rational nature finds expression in academic fervor, it is held tighter by the bonds of domestic life—a heartbreaking portrayal of what is so often irreconcilable in womanhood. Losing Ground is streaming for free right now on the Criterion Channel, along with films by Julie Dash, Maya Angelou, Cheryl Dunye, and many others. —Lauren Kane 

With his roles in George Balanchine’s Agon (1957) and The Four Temperaments (1946), Arthur Mitchell shaped the aesthetic of twentieth-century ballet. He solidified his place as an iconic figure in dance history and post–Harlem Renaissance art when he founded the Dance Theatre of Harlem in 1969, the year after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. As he told the New York Times in an interview shortly before his death in 2018, “I actually bucked society, and an art form that was three, four hundred years old, and brought black people into it.” DTH, which continues to lead the movement for racial equity in classical and contemporary ballet, is halfway through a two-year celebration of its fiftieth anniversary. With tours cut short by the coronavirus, the company has moved its season online, opening with the seminal Creole Giselle. The work first premiered at the London Coliseum in 1984, choreographed by Mitchell and staged by Frederic Franklin after the 1841 original by Jules Perrot and Jean Coralli. Don’t forget to tune in later today for pre-premiere festivities: DTH member Stephanie Rae Williams will be teaching a variation from the first act on Instagram Live at three. Then, at eight, artistic director Virginia Johnson will lead a conversation titled “Becoming Giselle,” speaking with former DTH ballerina Kellye Saunders and current company dancers about preparing for the title role. Creole Giselle airs on the company’s YouTube and Facebook channels on Saturday night at eight. —Elinor Hitt


Nicole Dennis-Benn. Photo: Jason Berger.


The current issue of Kweli Journal centers on black girlhood, showcasing stories that focus on that particular chapter between “child” and “young woman,” when the characters and settings of life begin to expand and shift into new and difficult patterns. An island sixth-grader seems to know perfectly every road, lagoon, and tree of her world, until she discovers that her mother, a hotel maid, holds deeds to resort land thanks to a secret marriage with her white boss—snaky postcolonial tendrils mixing with her efforts to rise above it. A South Carolina fourteen-year-old slogs through a familiar summer mix of babysitting, helping out with the family business, and working a prized but stultifying internship, her initial excitement at the prospect of making “real money” shattered when she sees just how quickly a paycheck disappears with relatives and neighbors in the picture. A “nerdy round girl” in New York befriends another nerd whose comparatively wealthy immigrant parents keep strict watch over her social life. A girl from Detroit reads Anne of Green Gables, is sent to live with a Marilla-like grandfather in Lansing, and, just as Anne learns the workings of Prince Edward Island society, begins to learn family secrets that preceded her exile. A young Brooklynite ventures into a welfare hotel looking for her mother’s stolen purse, and recognizes her relative privilege. The oldest protagonist, a stoic high schooler used to the idea that things are sometimes good and sometimes bad, is finally left alone with the bad—a cold bath with parents arguing over the hot water and other bills in the background—when her brother moves out. This journal deserves to be read in its glorious entirety; as the guest editor of this issue, Nicole Dennis-Benn, puts it, “In these stories we see our vulnerabilities and complexities as black girls navigating a world that has already made up its mind about us.” —Jane Breakell

I would like this pick to read simply: Ja’Tovia Gary’s work speaks for itself. However, given that my favorite of her films so far isn’t readily available online, I suppose I should tell you that when I saw that favorite, The Giverny Document (Single Channel), at the True/False Film Festival this March in Columbia, Missouri, after a full day of shuffling from movie to meal to movie to movie like some horrible semi-sentient hummus-fueled slug, sitting finally in an overheated and underfilled theater in a side room of a hotel downtown, I suddenly felt like a firecracker was going off inside me. I speak poorly—it’s difficult to put into words the constellation of ideas and emotions Gary commits to those forty-one minutes of film—but trust me: Ja’Tovia Gary’s work speaks for itself. —Brian Ransom

Alondra Uribe is one of my favorite living poets. She’s eighteen, but she writes “Ode to High School” like she’s been to thirty-one and back and can see what it was and how it is over. Alondra would have celebrated her graduation this month. Instead, she wrote and performed that poem as part of a short video project for DreamYard, an organization with which she has been studying poetry since the age of twelve (full disclosure: my partner is an employee of DreamYard, and I owe him the honor of knowing Alondra and her work). “Ode to High School” starts: “What I would have written in my yearbook … ” and comprehends the loss of graduation rituals with an understanding that twirls disappointment like it’s a Styrofoam ball on a science-fair universe. “The devils of the Department of Education ask me what builds community / so they know what to steal,” she wrote when she was sixteen. The Department of Education closed her middle school, JHS145, in 2017, but that goes unmentioned beside other punishments of childhood; you believe her when she delivers the line, “when I say I hate school / I mean it.” I have been reading, watching, and listening to Alondra’s poems for years, but I have to remind myself that she was fifteen when she wrote and performed lines such as “how hard do I have to brush / and buff / my teeth / for the white light / to reach you? / He calls me Heaven.” How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Ask Alondra Uribe; she’s read there. Maybe by knowing her power, her talent, the incandescence of her defiance and her self-definition—and, sure, by practicing. At Carnegie Hall, she had the last word: “brown girls from The Bronx aren’t supposed to write poetry but I did it anyways.” —Julia Berick


Alondra Uribe. Photo: Shannon Finney.