“The Beauty That Remains” Is a Raw and Liberating Meditation on Grief and Music

Grief that results from the loss of a loved one is something we all experience at some point. Experiencing death as a teenager or young adult is especially painful, however, because these are formative years when having your loved ones around is crucial. In Ashley Woodfolk’s 2018 book The Beauty That Remains, Autumn, Shay, and Logan gradually learn to cope with their grief and become connected by their mutual love for the band Unraveling Lovely.

Told through the viewpoints of the aforementioned characters, The Beauty That Remains provides a strong, intricate narrative about grief that is very notable. In the initial aftermath of their losses, each of the characters copes differently. Autumn tries to go about her daily life as it was before the death of her friend Tavia but soon finds herself sending emails to Tavia and pushing away Tavia’s brother, Dante. After her twin sister, Sasha, dies, Shay attempts to run away from her grief. Finally, Logan deals with the death of his ex-boyfriend Bram through self-destructive behaviors such as drinking.

In addition to the leads, their lost loved ones are fully fleshed out characters who have a presence in their lives even after their passing. Tavia, aka Octavia, is boisterous, loving, and inspirational; she is a nice foil to the quiet, introverted Korean artist Autumn. Sasha’s enthusiasm about music is both painful and comforting to Shay, a Black indie rock music blogger. Bram’s troubled and gregarious nature haunts gay red-headed musician Logan to the point where he can’t write songs, but he can watch his ex-boyfriend’s old YouTube videos.

Not only do the lead characters cope with their grief differently, they also get help for it in different ways. Logan is forced to see a psychiatrist by his parents after he gets caught with his father’s liquor. Following an emotional breakdown, Autumn slowly learns to open up to Dante, her older sister Willow, and Tavia’s ex-boyfriend Perry. Meanwhile, Shay gets an unexpected intervention that leads her and her mother to different support groups. It is moving to watch each character find solace in someone or something they didn’t think would help them process their grief.

All of the characters show how complicated and messy grief can be. Sometimes, grief will make you lash out at loved ones, avoid them, or self-destruct. These responses are neither healthy nor excusable, but they happen. Grief can also result in strong physical reactions, such as the panic attacks that Shay has. Autumn’s sister Willow sums up the situation well when she says that Dante and Autumn have suffered “a great trauma.” Given that some people think grief is a temporary mood, like anger or sadness, it is gratifying to see grief depicted as something that strongly impacts mental, physical, and emotional health.

As a result of coming to terms with their grief, each of the lead characters is able to see “the beauty that remains,” which can be understood as the good things they still have despite who they have lost. Not only do they have loving friends and family who are still alive, they also have small and big things in their lives that they can enjoy. For Autumn, it’s drawing and reading books. For Shay, it’s running track. And for Logan, it’s writing songs. Yet the common love they all share is music, especially the band Unraveling Lovely.

Most of us know that music can be a powerful way to soothe and convey feelings that are otherwise difficult to express. When seen through the lens of grief, music can be both painful and wonderful. This is demonstrated when Shay walks out on a live performance of an Unraveling Lovely song that was sung to Sasha before she died. Music is a coping mechanism for all the characters, but they engage with it in different ways. Shay is a music blogger for her and Sasha’s website BAMF (Badass Music Fanatics), Logan is the former vocalist and songwriter for the band Unraveling Lovely, and Autumn listens to music, watches music-inspired films, and has Unraveling Lovely’s former guitarist Dante as her love interest.

While there was much about The Beauty That Remains that I enjoyed, I would point out that the book’s huge cast is both a strength and a weakness. On the one hand, the characters are diverse in terms of ethnicity, gender, and orientation, and almost every character plays a role in the healing the lead characters undergo. On the other hand, there were times I mixed up the characters or forgot who certain ones were, especially those who were in different bands. However, this did not ruin my enjoyment of the book.

All in all, The Beauty That Remains is a raw and liberating meditation on grief and music. Grief is a traumatic experience that everyone deals with differently, but this book shows that with help, you can still have wonderful things in your life despite the loss you’ve experienced. With music as their common thread, the characters blog, sing, and listen to words that bring them solace and keep the memory of their lost loved ones alive.

Top photo by Stas Knop from Pexels

“How To Be Remy Cameron” Explores Identity with Complexity and Care

When other people define you based on labels, it can be hard for you to define yourself. This is the conflict at the center of Julian Winters’s second novel, How To Be Remy Cameron. After being assigned an essay about who he is, seventeen-year-old Remy Cameron must come to terms with the labels others have given him and how they fit into how he sees himself.

For Remy, the most suffocating labels are the gay kid, the Black one, and the adopted child. Each label is a reminder of his Otherness, and confronting them via an essay that’s worth half his grade and a chance at a prestigious college is overwhelming—as it would be for anyone who has attended public high school. In fact, Remy feels so overwhelmed that he refers to the essay as “The Essay of Doom.

When other people define you based on labels, it can be hard for you to define yourself. This is the conflict at the center of Julian Winters’s second novel, How To Be Remy Cameron.

While dealing with this essay and the labels placed upon him, he also experiences two life-changing events. The first is learning about a previously unknown member of his biological family. The second is crushing on Ian Park, a Korean young man who recently came to terms with his orientation and isn’t publicly out. These events are notable not only in terms of character development but also because they deliver refreshing storytelling.

As a reader, I really appreciated how Remy isn’t completely cut off from his biological family. Given that the book’s premise is about identity and his adopted family is white, it would have felt uncomfortable not to see him interact with any other Black people besides one of his friends. The biological family member who reaches out to Remy is wonderfully fleshed out, becoming a nice confidante while being her own character. Furthermore, the topic of adoption is explored in a sensitive and realistic manner through Remy’s adopted family and his biological family.

When it comes to Ian Park, Remy’s crush and their subsequent romance is both amusing and heartwarming. A particularly enjoyable aspect of their interactions is how they always ask each other permission to kiss and touch each other. Remy learns to do this from Ian, who in turn learned the importance of consent from his grandmother. It’s really nice to see Remy adapt to Ian’s needs this way, especially since Ian isn’t publicly out yet. Remy never tries to get Ian to do anything before he is ready to, and this allows Ian to explore his orientation at his own pace.

In addition to these events, other aspects of the storyline help Remy question his identity further. One enjoyable scene is a conversation about music tastes between Remy and Brook, another Black student. It moves from talking about their favorite music artists to how eclectic their tastes are and how music doesn’t define them. The dialogue shows how close the two are as friends while giving Remy a small nudge in his personal journey.

Speaking of friendship, Remy’s interactions with his circle of friends are fun to watch. Featuring the witty Lucy Reyes and the single-minded Rio, among others, their dialogue never sounds forced or too cheesy. Remy and Lucy’s scenes together are especially amusing, because Lucy teases Remy in a way that is friendly and supportive. At one point, Remy must learn not to keep his friends in the dark too much, and it’s touching to see friendship and romance given an equal amount of weight.

All in all, How To Be Remy Cameron is a thoughtful, poignant, and fun coming-of-age experience.

Other notable characters include Remy’s adoptive family and his English teacher, Ms. Amos. Remy’s adoptive family is quirky and loving, with the mom into 80s music and the father able to make wicked French toast recipes. As the book progresses, both realize that while they can listen to Remy and try their best to cheer him up, they aren’t always going to be able to help him through certain things. Meanwhile, Remy’s English teacher is wonderful and honest in a way that puts things in perspective for Remy and encourages him to find his own voice.

All in all, How To Be Remy Cameron is a thoughtful, poignant, and fun coming-of-age experience. While self discovery isn’t always easy, Remy’s willingness to question and learn about himself is inspiring. With a great cast of characters, memorable dialogue, and a entertaining setting inspired by Dunwoody, GA, this book is wonderful.

Top photo by alex bracken on Unsplash

“Who Put This Song On?” Is a Heartfelt Exploration of Identity and Mental Health

Due to my intensely personal experience with depression, I was really interested in Morgan Parker’s semiautobiographical debut young adult book, Who Put This Song On? Set in 2008 in a conservative Southern California town, the book follows the story of Morgan Parker, who is told depression is something that happens to people who lack faith, and that her Blackness shouldn’t be mentioned too much. Following a mental health crisis, Morgan decides to figure out who she is. Armed with an expansive soundtrack of mostly 2000s emo music, Morgan examines herself and everything she has been told in order to find out who she wants to be.

Armed with an expansive soundtrack of mostly 2000s emo music, Morgan examines herself and everything she has been told in order to find out who she wants to be.

One of the things I immediately liked about the book was the voice of Morgan Parker’s teen self. She sounds tired, but also curious and resilient. She has hit rock bottom, but she is willing to climb out of the hole depression caused her to fall into. Above all, Parker’s teen self has a voice filled with hard-won clarity that results in honest observations about her mental health, her identity, and the world around her.

Morgan’s teenage voice is enhanced with diary entries, emails, and a Yellow Notebook in which she and her friends write about their exploits in sex, romance, and crushes. One of my personal favorite lines is, “I have no idea if I have the hypothetical and figurative balls to be a Black Panther or actual Rosa Parks… sometimes I don’t even know if I want to keep being alive. But as long as I’m here, and I’m me, I will definitely be intense, ridiculous, passionate, and sometimes hilarious.”

In addition to Morgan herself, the secondary cast of characters is also worth mentioning. There’s her white best friends Meg and James, her Black love interests David Santos and Sean Santos-Orenstein, the racist history teacher Mr. K, and Morgan’s family. All of these characters affect Morgan both positively and negatively, and the nuanced way they are presented adds depth to the narrative. At one point, Meg has to be called out by Morgan when Meg says, “You’re not really Black,” even though Morgan considers Meg a friend.

It’s worth noting, too, that the way Morgan is treated by her small town and family is influenced by mental health stigma, her religiously conservative community, and the 2008 political climate. To her white peers and white adults, Morgan is expected to be excited at the possibility of a Black president as well as an authority on Black history, even as she is asked not to bring up her Blackness too much.

Moreover, Morgan’s family alternates between treating Morgan like a difficult, fragile person to be around and treating her as someone who is trying her best to live. They know Morgan is going through a difficult time, but they don’t quite understand it. They let Morgan see a therapist and help her get access to antidepressants, but they also try to avoid the issue and frequently blame Morgan herself until they realize their mistake.

“I have no idea if I have the hypothetical and figurative balls to be a Black Panther or actual Rosa Parks… sometimes I don’t even know if I want to keep being alive. But as long as I’m here, and I’m me, I will definitely be intense, ridiculous, passionate, and sometimes hilarious.”

Still, there are characters in the book who are more sensitive toward Morgan’s mental health issues and open-minded about her questioning of religion, Blackness, and her place in the world. Cousins David and Sean Santos fill this role as both love interests and new friends. When David first meets Morgan, he helps her through a panic attack, and they talk about their favorite movies. Both David and Sean are notable for being presented as added emotional support, rather than cure-alls for Morgan’s depression.

Finally, the music references are a fun bonus throughout the book. Although I was only familiar with one or two of the artists, it was nice to see a Black girl coping with her depression through emo music without anyone giving her a hard time about it. Seeing so many different 00’s emo music artists mentioned rang true to my own experiences of my teens and early twenties.

In the end, this book was a heartfelt exploration of identity and mental health. Who Put This Song On? shows that you don’t have to let your mental illness or other people determine who you can be, even if you’re tired of fighting. By questioning what you are taught and forming your own sense of self, you can change your personal potential for the better.

Top photo by insung yoon on Unsplash

Best Books to Give Black Readers This Holiday Season, 2020

Many of us have had our ability to read diminished by this stressful year, myself included. One thing that kept me reviewing books for this column was the hope that my review could either make the author happy or make a potential reader happy. Despite everything going on, I’ve still managed to read, review, and discuss some fun and powerful middle grade and YA books this year.

With the holiday season upon us, it is the perfect time to whittle down your To Be Read pile. Whether you want to read for yourself or get a book for someone else, I have plenty of suggestions for you. Here are the middle grade and young adult books that are perfect gifts for Black readers this holiday 2020.

Magnifique Noir Book 2: You Are Magical by Briana Lawrence

I’ve been a big fan of Briana Lawrence’s Magnifique Noir comic book novel series for a few reasons. One is that the artwork for the series oozes fun and quirky Black Girl Magic, with sparkles, glitter, and bright colors used to depict its Black queer college-aged heroines. Another reason is that these books tackle difficult topics that Black girls and women experience, such as misogynoir, the Strong Black Girl archetype, and respectability politics. If you’ve got an older teen or adult reader in your life who enjoys Sailor Moon or Black coming-of-age stories, this book (and the rest of the series) is perfect for them.

(Full Review)

The Black Flamingo by Dean Atta

Novels in verse and coming-of-age stories go together like peanut butter and jelly, especially when the main character is on a journey of self-discovery. This is the case with Michael Angeli, the Black gay UK lead of Dean Atta’s The Black Flamingo. Michael undergoes an artistic and personal transformation that is expressed in verse and told in a compelling story arc involving his discovery of drag culture. Poetry lovers will fall head over heels for this book.

(Full Review)

The Beauty That Remains by Ashley Woodfolk

There have been many losses this year, and the grief can be overwhelming to experience alone. While this book won’t completely alleviate it, seeing the way its characters experience and come to terms with their grief may provide some comfort. Shay, Logan, and Autumn’s stories are told from each character’s perspective in a way that demonstrates how differently grief affects people and how a medium such as music can help you remember a loved one.

(Full Review)

Tristan Strong Destroys The World by Kwame Mbalia

This memorable fantasy sequel shows that being a hero isn’t always easy, especially when your mind is still traumatized by your last adventure. Tristan Strong, the savior of Alke, knows this well, even as he knows he must return to the land of Alke, the now war-torn magical land of African and African American myths and folklore. Yet magic and life still remains within the land, even as a new force arises to destroy what is left of it. Through Tristan, readers embark on an epic adventure starring characters old and new.

(Full Review) | (Book 1 Review)

Felix Ever After by Kacen Callender

Although this coming of age book is set during Pride Month in NYC, the themes of family, friendship, self discovery, and self love are timeless. The story of Felix Love, an artistic Black trans demiboy, will resonate with anyone who has had to fight to define themselves on their own terms and needed the right words or medium to do so. After Felix’s pre-transition photos are revealed to the world, Felix must figure out who is responsible while asking himself and those around him some hard questions about his identity. Featuring the highs and the lows of Black queer coming of age experiences, this book demonstrates that your own personal happiness is worth believing in.

(Full Review)

Top photo by Any Lane via Pexels

Beats, Rhymes, and Spoken Word

In high school, I hated hip-hop. As a budding black poet, I felt like I was expected to like it by association, but I couldn’t. The songs I was exposed to only talked about sex or a new dance craze—they seemed empty, and I couldn’t connect with them.

I didn’t get into hip-hop until I was in college, when I discovered Angel Haze while browsing a site that featured independent hip-hop artists. Her raw, relatable song “Smile N Hearts” was the one that got me. My favorite part was the interlude: the beat stops, but Haze is still speaking. For a few moments, the hip-hop song turns into spoken word as Haze speaks beautiful verses filled with introspection and imagery.

Soon I was not only downloading Angel Haze’s hip-hop songs but also some of her spoken word. Hearing her recite poetry against a beautiful piano track was deeply moving. Together, her tracks showed me the value of the human voice and how it can be used to get people to listen to you. They also taught me that hip-hop isn’t as monolithic as the radio makes it seem, and that my experiences have a place in the genre as much as anyone else’s.

I started listening to her music as I wrote poetry. Gradually, it became easier to write introspective poems without censoring myself. I was also inspired to try spoken word by recording my voice with a mic and a voice recorder program on my laptop. I traded my spoken word recordings with a friend via email.

Angel Haze opened the door for more discoveries. In the summer of 2014, I was an editorial intern for the black women’s news site For Harriet. During the internship, I discovered an article written by a black indie female hip-hop artist named Sammus. Sammus turned out to be one of several MCs of color involved in nerdcore, a subgenre of hip-hop that features songs influenced by video games and other forms of pop culture.

Black nerdcore rappers such as Sammus, Mega Ran, and Skyblew showed me a side of hip-hop that was fun and creative, but also serious when it needed to be. I realized that if hip-hop didn’t always have to be serious and kept in a box, then maybe my poetry didn’t have to be either. Eventually, I decided to experiment and write “Song of The Black Nerd,” a pop-culture-filled poem about my experiences. The poem was later featured in an article I wrote for the pop culture site Black Girl Nerds.

Spoken word also became a stronger influence on my poetry. One day, I was searching for poetry-related films when I came across Slam, a 1998 independent film starring the now legendary spoken word hip-hop artist Saul Williams. After getting it for my birthday, I watched in awe as I saw how the worlds of hip-hop and spoken word could intersect and become tools for personal freedom.

One particular part of the film resonated with me. In this scene, Saul Williams’s character, Ray, is in a prison yard about to confront a group of guys who want to beat him up over beef between them and his cellmate, Hopha. When he does confront them, he recites a poem he wrote prior to entering the prison yard. No blows are struck by the guys who have it in for him, because they are enraptured by his words. When Ray is finished, he walks away without comment, with no harm done to him.

This scene, as well as the entire film, showed me how it is possible to reach someone through spoken word. It affirmed that the human voice can be a weapon as powerful as a gun.

Slam and spoken word artists like Jessica Care Moore inspired me to read one of my published poems to the public during my final semester of college. I used my voice in a way that was similar to the spoken word artists I had watched. I spoke with emotion, attitude, and varied inflections in order to get my poem to reach my audience. Afterward, I got a lot of positive feedback from other poets, the people who published my poem, and members of the audience. Some enjoyed my reading so much that they asked me to sign copies of the magazine where my poem was published.

Despite a bad first impression, hip-hop and its sibling, spoken word, have become amazing muses for my poetry. They have taught me to value my personal experiences and my voice. By literally giving a voice to the voiceless, they have helped me speak up and express myself.

BMP Celebrates National Poetry Month

If “love calls us to the things of this world,” then poetry too can call us to think about challenging questions, difficult situations, and social justice, implicating and engaging the reader with the world we live in, in the hope that this engagement is a step toward wrestling with our better selves.

The Turf Chick

Some said I was the female Pac, Some said I was the female Biggie, some said I was the female Rick, and some said rappers can’t mess with me

–The Turf Chick, Untitled

I get up every day with a new goal on my mind, the same frown and the same broken spirit from doors opening and shutting right before my eyes. It feels like I’m working overtime. Overtime with no pay.

Some days I just want to give up and live a regular life, you know? Go to work, pay rent, and enjoy the rest of my funds doing the things that excite me.

But no. I was given the gift of song, and no matter how much I try to be normal, my soul releases words that move the world!

Music is the only reason I am still alive. You get me? Being a homosexual and a woman and, I may sound cocky, but extremely talented — better than some who are very well established — it’s hard! It’s hard to prove a point. It’s easy to make you listen, but when men see me they realize I’m good for nothing because they can’t get anything out of me in exchange for a deal.

Sometimes I hate being a woman. You can tell, right? Sometimes I wish I wasn’t used as a sex symbol, used to get the things I work so hard for in life. Coming up in the music industry is tough, because you have to have the mind of shark and the heart of a beast! But the soul of pure woman. Give yourself away or work harder with the same amount a faith after every door has been slammed in your face for being a woman in the music industry.

Honestly at this point I don’t wonder when I’m going to make it or when I’m going to finally get through that door… All I want to know is, when are people actually going to listen. Before they look.

On 2229

When everything was all alright, and momma held my head when I cried on 2229, I watched my brother come in and out of jail thinking how he get that phone in his cell.

On 2229

–The Turf Chick, “2229“

The realest people crossed me and now they’re fake as ever so I’m ready for whatever

–The Turf Chick, “Whateva”

I never knew my day ones, wasn’t really there for me, they wanted my dream and everything that came with it, all us eating living life was the plan for me.

–The Turf Chick, “FearFull”

Local rising star Gabrielle Gilbert, who goes by the stage name of “The Turf Chick,” was born in East Palo Alto and raised in Sacramento since age eleven. In the beginning, Gabrielle Gilbert, with the childhood nickname “Gi-Gi” performed for her brothers, sisters, and cousins. When she was only thirteen years old, she made her first recording at a friend’s studio in South Sacramento, rapping “I GO.” From then, Gi-Gi became “The Turf Chick,” writing and rapping messages of hope, street life, and personal struggles. Inspired by music icons Lil Kim, Messy Marv, MC Lyte, Queen Latifah, and Eve, Gabriel says her fans best describe her music as “urban and underground hip-hop with a mix of hard-core bursting lyrics.” The Turf Chick was the only solo hip hop performer at the 2007 Hub Choice Awards in Sacramento, performing in front of nearly 1,200 people.

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BMP Celebrates National Poetry Month

If “love calls us to the things of this world,” then poetry too can call us to think about challenging questions, difficult situations, and social justice, implicating and engaging the reader with the world we live in, in the hope that this engagement is a step toward wrestling with our better selves.