Today, I rather uncharacteristically shoved a professor out of the way so that I could meet Zadie Smith, one of my favorite authors. I was just about as breathless as fans in Queen B’s presence. And of course, as I shook her hand and blathered on about how On Beauty is one of my favorite novels EVER, I wondered why, exactly, I wasn’t a bit cooler about the whole situation. After all, Smith, although brilliant, is still just another black woman (biracial, if we’re splitting hairs). She was rocking an Erykah Badu type turban that made her look gorgeous, but would have made me look like Harriet Tubman.
So I shouldn’t have been in awe, necessarily, but I was anyway. She disarmed me with a generous smile and genuine thanks, as though a million people hadn’t already told her that her work was amazing. And then she asked me about my hair, offering a compliment in exchange, as if we were friends on a playground. Of course, it was out of politeness, but still: Zadie Smith and I had a brief, but thorough conversation about my Marley twists. I stopped myself before I offered to do her hair for her. I mean, there are limits.
“How is it being a woman of color and a writer?” I finally asked.
“It’s lonely,” she said. “But hopefully that will change.” And she gave a wry smile and a half shrug.
This year, I have been blessed to meet Julia Alvarez, and Zadie Smith (two of my favorite authors). I listened to Junot Diaz, whose lecture I still refer to in my classes and at tea. Years ago, I met Sonia Sanchez and Paula Giddings (who my friend D. refers to as the Patti LaBelle of black feminist history and theory). Every time I am in the presence of great artists, or even artwork–whether it’s a novel, a poem, a well-produced song–I experience true joy. That work transforms what I think is possible. It feeds me and gives me the energy to return to my own work, even when it may consist of a series of boring tasks.
As D. and I walked away from the lecture, I settled into my joy.
“I just found out Nelson Mandela died,” D. told me.
I was shocked and saddened by the passing of a man who has accomplished so many great things (an utter understatement for his bravery, impact on South Africa and world history). Hearing about his passing immediately after Zadie Smith’s lecture made me realize that I, too, have a responsibility to do great things–to work diligently, and in a way that honors God and the calling He has given me.
And so, whatever your art form or calling is–writing, musicianship, acting, painting, teaching or the art of life itself–do it, and do it well, even if it doesn’t really pay the bills, and you have to take on 3 jobs, and you’re bleary eyed and working in the middle of the night. Do your art, even though your project will take years. Do whatever it is you were called to do, even when others think its useless, and unmarketable. Be great, even if you, God, and your mom are your only audience members.
Do your art.