Vol. 40, How Old Are You?

Posted on 6 February 2004

Brooklyn, NY

Recently, I was reading over a statement I wrote for admission into graduate school and I noticed a mistake that revealed a larger issue of faulty artist self-definition. The first three lines of the statement read:

“My writer self is 12 years old. I emerged as a writer in 1991 when I wrote my first short story. Since that adolescent stage, I have explored the vast and pliable genre of creative writing to publish a body of work that includes…”

Now, if I wrote my FIRST short story in 1991, it’s impossible that I was in an adolescent stage. I was actually in a stage of birth and infancy. Now, 12 years later, I am finally an adolescent. This would appear to be a benign slip up, but it’s not. Very few of us artists take real stock of where we are in our careers, how long we’ve been practicing our craft, and what that really means in terms of our growth and development.

This truth was brought home to me again when I visited my sister’s home. After years and years of being an artist, she finally set up a studio. While her home is a well organized, supremely accented and well arranged harmonious living space, her studio was as chaotic as a child’s play space. Materials were everywhere. Paper, scissors, rulers, and other tools were spilling off the shelves. “Wow,” I said, “you’re in a baby stage. Stuff is everywhere.” “Oh, give me toddler status, at least,” she replied.

But why? Why should we as artists give ourselves more seniority than we’ve actually earned? Why do we feel pressured to pretend to have more wisdom than we’ve actually gained? How can we presume to possess the level of seasoning of artists 5, 10, 15 years our senior?

The more I turn the concept over in my head, the more power I think the idea of “aging” your artist self has. When you calculate your age as an artist, you put yourself in the position to realistically assess your progress in your craft. How long have you been practicing your craft? Not how long have you wanted to write. Not how long has it been since you first put pen to paper. But how long have you actually been engaging with the craft, wrestling with concepts and materials, and examining the intimate crevices of your mind?

Don’t quote me on this, but I believe it was Harold Bloom, who noted in his book Genius that artists really reach their stride at middle age—around 40 or 50 years old is when many artists make works of genius. Of course there are those who don’t need so long to build up the power and potency of their work. There are prodigies and blessed ones and lucky stars (Mr. Lito, I won’t call you out by name). But I’m talking about a “normal” range of artist development. I assume at 40 or 50 years old, most artists have been at their crafts for anywhere from 20 to 30 years. By that time their artist self and their thinking selves have had the opportunity to grow up.

Think about how long it took you to understand life. Think about how long it took you to learn how not to bounce checks at the end of the month. Or keep your heart protected when you met someone who wanted to suck your spirit from you. Think about all the complex things you learn on the path to becoming a full-fledged adult. Then think about how long you’ve been practicing your craft. Five years? Ten years? Twenty?

Once, when my sister wanted proclaim that she was going to be a fulltime artist, she did a visualization exercise. She imagined her artist self talking to her graphic design self. Her artist self, said “Look, I’m taking over, I’m going to be running our life now.” And the graphic design self laughed. “You’re a child,” she said to the artist self. “How are you going to support us?”

In response to last month’s posting, writer Ta’Shia Asanti ( wrote to say that in the same year she became a grandmother, she enjoyed the privilege of working a 9-to-5 job for only one month. “This was major for me,” she writes. “I basically supported myself solely from my writing and speaking. A major shift in creative consciousness.” (She also organized an international conference on African traditional spirituality and got cast on a national TV show—The Mad, Mad House.) To me, Iya Ta’Shia Asante’s year represents the fruits of an artist’s maturation.

My artist self is 12 years old. As a 12-year-old, I’m in that awkward puberty stage. I know myself pretty well, but I haven’t had to take on the world in full yet. I’m still sheltered by my parents, but I have my own likes and dislikes. I pick my own friends, I decide what I want to eat and which extracurricular activities I participate in, but I can’t drive a car, I don’t pay the bills, and I can’t decide my curfew. There are still lots and lots of things I don’t know. No matter how much I think I know about the world, I’m wrong a lot of the time. And most importantly, I have no idea who I’m going to be in the future.

I can relate all of that to myself as a writer. I’ve spent the past 12 years trying so many things on. Writing in different genres, seeking income in different ways, but I remain sheltered by the workaday world. I have some say in getting published now, but I still don’t have real pull. And I’m still learning how wrong I was (and still am) about so many assumptions about writing, a writing career, and what it means to be an artist. And I have dreams and ideas about my writing career, but I have no idea who I’m going to be as an artist in the future.

And it’s o.k.

It’s o.k. for me to be 12. No point in putting on lipstick and high heels and using fake I.D. I might miss some important lessons and some crucial foundations while I’m trying to appear sophisticated and accomplished, or while I’m pouting about why so-and-so published her book at age 26 and I still haven’t finished my novel. I’m getting more graceful about taking critiques and more objective about other’s opinions about what needs work in my pieces. I’m gaining power, wisdom, confidence, reason, and experience. I’m growing up.

The fact is, it’s difficult to consistently create great work. It takes commitment, talent, experience, growth, honesty, vulnerability. In a recent Sun magazine, editor Sy Syfransky writes:

“I don’t need to take personally the fact that creating something truthful and beautiful is a challenge. It isn’t a challenge because I’m not smart enough. It’s a challenge because it’s a challenge.”

It is a challenge to create truthful and beautiful work. It is a challenge to demonstrate artistic promise, as well as artistic genius. And it is an immense human challenge to be with who you are as an artist and how much or how little you’ve accomplished. My cousin recently confronted the challenge of being simply who she is when she had to present her work at an artist talk. All her slides were old, so she decided she needed to create three new pieces by the time the talk came around. She was in the throes of conceiving and planning the pieces, when she thought, “What am I doing? Who am I pretending for? If the work is old, it’s old. That’s where I am right now.”

So I encourage all of you to assess where you are right now. If your artist self is 3, 6, 12, or 60. If you’re a child prodigy, an average achiever, a sparkling starter, or a late bloomer. What are your expectations of yourself as an artist? Contrary to human compulsion, the goal of life is not to win… it is not to be the best. It is to grow, to thrive, and to make some contribution to the world around you.

The concept of average growth makes a lot of sense to us when measuring the development of a child. Sure, we’d like our kids to be geniuses, but we’re proud just to have them keeping up with what’s expected of kids their age. We gleefully encourage attempts, accomplishments, mistakes, confusion—and we see it all as steps on a continuum of growth and development. Why can’t we take a similar approach to our artist selves?

As Lynn Pitts writes in my sister Asante Salaam’s promotional material for her life coaching business—Juicy Living:

“When you were learning your first words and your first steps, everything you did was cheered and encouraged. One day you mumbled ‘da-da’ and the room went wild. You took your first steps, maybe eight, nine inches across the living room carpet, and your mother was on the phone sharing the good news with the world.”

We, as artists, have to champion ourselves through our growth. It’s all about approach, effort, consistency, and—most of all—growth/development. As Pitts goes on to write:

“It [doesn’t] matter that you [fall] down frequently or that you [can’t] master more than two syllables at a time, what matter[s is] this: you [are] moving toward something big.”

And let’s not get confused, it’s not the “something big” that matters—it is the movement. Sure, it’s the something big that will earn money and gain notoriety and hang around for future posterity. I don’t deny the importance of all that. But what’s relevant to the artist self is that we as artists are constantly growing and reaching and stretching.

Each of our “something big” varies by talent, commitment, and age. If we stop after we finish a piece or win a prize or have national recognition, then our artist selves have stopped growing. The goddess of art doesn’t require particular achievements for us to wear the label artist—she only requires that we do and we keep doing so that we continue growing with the passing of time.

Be well. Be love(d).

Kiini Ibura Salaam


Janet Jackson: A Bitter, Uninformed Rant

I am not a media watcher. I don’t watch much TV. I don’t listen to the radio and I don’t read the papers, so I don’t know what everybody is saying about Janet Jackson exposing her breast during the Superbowl, but every conversation I have heard thus far focused on “decency” and “morality.” People were either “offended” or “not offended.” I myself was angered.

The anger is still welling up in my chest as I type this. I’m not one who usually goes on and on about the plight of the black race. But I do have a personal problem with the co-opting of black music. In a just and balanced world, this complaint would not be worth breath. But with black people facing so many statistical issues—many of them economic—ownership of music is a sore subject. I’m not going to argue that I am rational or right. I just get a gut sense of disgust when I’m faced with white groups who make millions by packaging black music with a squeaky clean all-American persona. That disgust is misguided, certainly, I could probably throw up thinking of the record company owners and music moguls who gleefully rake in the dollars based on music borne of our plight and pathologies. But this is America where race and class is inextricably intertwined, and I don’t see those fat cats when the videos play and I don’t hear them when the radio’s on. I see the Backstreet Boys. I hear N’Sync. The latest one I see and hear is Justin Timberlake.

Now, again, I don’t listen to the radio, so I’m not informed about Justin Timberlake as an artist. I just know all my bitter issues about race relations fall out when I hear music like his and I just can’t stomach it. So this is the context for my anger. Imagine how delighted I was to see Janet Jackson legitimizing, supporting and spurring on Justin Timberlake’s rising pimp-star by grinding against his crotch as he sang his hit song, and letting him slap her on the ass.

I haven’t heard any racial critiques of the whole event, but I can’t imagine the racial dynamics could have escaped that many people’s consciousnesses—not in this country.

I was already irritated before Justin pulled off one of Janet’s bra cups. I was irritated because I don’t like the whole video ho movement. It pains me that women are constantly and consistently paid to humiliate themselves, but hey, as a member of the “second sex,” prostitution-tinged record promotions are something I have to live with. I guess if you’re in the game, you’re a slave to the game, and Janet Jackson is in the game. Not that I imagine she has such high standards, but I like to imagine that every woman has her pride. And once you have money in the bank and a successful career in front of you, why pimp yourself any further than necessary? I guess necessary is subjective. As I watched the halftime show, I found myself asking: Why? Why would Ms. Jackson, a woman who is senior to Justin Timberlake in every way imaginable—she’s been recording way longer than him, she’s older than him, and she’s got more power in the industry (hypothetically) and more money in the bank as a solo artist (though I’m sure he’s gaining on her fast)—why would a person of her “stature” feel comfortable being slapped up, flipped, and rubbed down by him? Why was it interesting to her to be Justin’s personal video ho? Why was it considered titillating, exciting, and acceptable by MTV, the producers of the halftime show?

There are so many reasons. One of my friends has this complaint that while black music has a lot of currency in the world, somehow that currency does not translate into privilege, respect or currency for the people themselves. The result: a woman who has sold millions of records and millions of dollars for MTV, a woman who is in “control” of her career, willingly agrees to be exposed for titillation and scandal.

Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t have an issue with Janet exposing her flesh. She’s an exhibitionist, egocentric, and looking to generate excitement. Whatever. She could have exposed both her breasts for all I care. I mean, I might have taken issue, but I wouldn’t be so riled up right now. What has gotten me so extraordinarily pissed off is that Janet Jackson decided to expose herself by giving up her sexuality. She put her body in a man’s hands to expose to the world (a man who will be allowed to attend the Grammy’s, I’m told, while she dirty dirty bad Ms. Janet will not). She put her black breast in a white man’s hands, rather than handling it herself.

Black people get to groan—my people, my people—when they see other black people do something self defeating, self hating, and embarrassing, what do I get to yell out when a woman does such a thing?

My gender, my gender!

My office mate astutely points out that the particular racial and gender combination that Janet and Justin create is the only one that made such a stunt acceptable. It didn’t escape my notice that Janet did not share the stage with Puffy and Nelly, two black men who were also performing during the Superbowl. Janet would never ALLOW Nelly to slap her on the ass. Why not? He’s a hot young star making money, too. And if a black man had ripped Janet’s bra cup off, that would have been criminal. There would be questions concerning whether or not some entity should press charges. [MTV kicked a black man off the REAL WORLD for pulling a sheet off a woman (I don’t know if she was naked or in her underwear). From all reports, she was laughing at the time, and she and the black man were playing around. One big difference is that the woman did not previously consent to the stunt, as Janet obviously did. Later in the house, during group discussion about the black man’s behavior the word “rape” was bandied around and it was decided he wasn’t safe to be in the house.] Why is it cool for Justin Timberlake to rip off a piece of a black woman’s clothing and expose her breast? Why is she considered immoral to the point that she can not attend a major music award show, but the man who pulled off her top and exposed her breast is still welcome? Because he’s white. (As my dad jokes: “You right. You white.”) He’s squeaky clean. Anything he does might be a mistake, but not an expression of malicious intent. But had a black man participated in that choreography, it would have been seen as an expression of his deviancy rising to the surface.

It has been taken as a sign of Janet’s deviancy. Because we all know about black women and their rampant sexuality, don’t we. Let’s not even talk about if Janet were a white woman. Aggression against black women is normal. “Middle class,” as my office mate would say. Everyone is talking about the exposure, why is no one talking about the violence of it?

All I can think about is the violence.

The morning after the Superbowl, I was greeting on MSN by a photograph taken seconds after the stunt. Janet Jackson is standing with her arms hugged against her body in a protective stance, one hand covering her exposed breast. Her shoulders are hunched. Her hair is covering her face and she is looking around as if trying to discern 1. where the attack came from, and 2. if another attack was forthcoming. Justin Timberlake is towering over her, her bra cup clutched firmly in his hand.

This is not the picture of a triumphant woman, in control of her sexuality, flashing the folks across the nation. She didn’t expose her breast with the glee one would expect of a woman in power of her body and in control of her sexual expression. She looks, in fact, like a victim. She looks like one of the women at the Puerto Rican day parade a few years ago when a mob of young men started pulling off women’s tops, and the women held their hands against their bodies, holding up their shirts, while running away to protect themselves from assault.

This is the violence and the danger inherent in Janet and Justin’s stupid stunt. Take Justin’s bra-ripping act onto the street and it could not be defined as anything else but assault. Yet MTV described the skit as playful and flirtatious. It’s not enough that they sell aggressive images of male dominance and female submission to us through their videos, now they want to bring it to the halftime show too. Thanks, a lot MTV.

In an essay I wrote on date rape, entitled Navigating to No, I talk about the fact that many women and men have different definitions of seduction. I think about the definition of seduction when I reflect on the chorus of Justin Timberlake’s song. He asserts that the woman he’s singing to would “probably be naked by the end of this song.” And I certainly hope he’s talking about seduction. The most innocuous interpretation of that lyric suggests that a woman would be so overcome with lust for him that she would tear off her clothes and present herself—nude and willing—for whatever purposes he’d require. It would, I assume, be her choice.

So why then, in this skit, would it be necessary for him to rip off a woman’s bra top. She should be melting before him. It’s double talk, two-faced bullshit. Seduction and aggression defined by male desire, rather than mutual consent. What’s fun about sex, sexual titillation, or exposure of people’s bodies if the exposed party demonstrates no choice in the matter? Is anyone disturbed by the lack of choice Janet demonstrated in the culmination of this skit. I don’t suggest she’s an actual victim in this case. She clearly chose to participate in the skit, she may have even conceived the stunt. But why would a woman her age chose to present herself as a victim of sexual aggression? Why didn’t she tear off her own bra cup and writhe, enjoying her sexual power?

Clearly she has motivation to put herself in the spotlight. There’s been reports about her waning star and her need to sell records in an industry dominated by teenagers—naked teenagers, often dressed as hoochies and prostitutes, often performing the function of star and video ho all at the same time in one nice neat package—and I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who noticed Janet’s desperate attempts to cover her thighs and butt (Black women’s butts will never be celebrated like white-skinned J. Lo’s. And even J. Lo had to go to the gym and work hers down when her Hollywood star came in, otherwise how would she ever be able to pass for white?). So she did it. She took attention off her posterior and thighs—funny how Ruben Studdard can be a star, no woman as large as Ruben Studdard would ever be accepted as a contestant on a national TV show, let alone win the contest… unless of course they are a comedian a la Monique, Mimi on Drew Carey’s show, or Roseanne Barr—and, she got her name in everyone’s mouths right when her album was about to drop, but at what cost?

At the cost of treating America to the visual image of what it may have been like to see a white slave trader who is hawking his wares, reach over and rip off the top of one of the negresses he was selling, you know, to show off the goods.

At the cost of equating flirtation and play with aggression, validating every date rapist who doesn’t need choice to get hard and fuck an unwilling woman.

At the cost of advertising corrupt, powerless sexual expression to teenage girls everywhere.

At the cost of burning into my retina, the image of a black woman being violated and assaulted by a white man, and then having the nation swallow the contradiction of her scripting her own humiliation.

At the cost of learning she’s not one of the boys and she won’t be allowed to fuck up the old boys’ (television) network. I wonder if she’ll be bitter as she watches Justin grin and escape unscathed.

All I know is that Janet’s “Control” has done nothing my sexual safety, and she sure didn’t do anything for my peace of mind.

Oh, my gender.


: : : September 2002 – present : : :

Publications: 4
Grants/fellowships: 0
Residencies/workshops: 2

Publications: 4
Grants/fellowships: 1
Residencies/workshops: 1


An essay I wrote about the tensions surrounding paternity issues—otherwise known as baby-daddy drama—has just come out in the anthology “Sometimes Rhythm, Sometimes Blues: Young African-Americans on Love, Sex, Relationships, and the Search for Mr. Right.” The anthology is available on and in bookstores around the country.

Sometimes Rhythm, Sometimes Blues contains 25 first-person essays about African-American love and relationships with the Black community. 20 of the essays are written by women and there are 5 essays by brothers in a section entitled, “Talking Back.” The list of contributors includes: Kevin Powell * Asha Bandele * Cheo Tyehimba * Thembisa Mshaka * Kiini Ibura Salaam * Lawrence C. Ross, Jr. * Kristal Brent Zook * Taigi Smith * Keisha Gaye-Anderson * Shawn E. Rhea * Shrona Sheppard * Victor LaValle.

The essays in this book are hardhitting, witty, well-thought, groundbreaking, honest, and real. Issues addressed include DNA testing and denial of paternity, materialism, infidelity, marriage, interracial marriage and dating, incarceration, death (of a lover), homosexuality, childbirth, economic (in)equality within marriage, racism, motherhood, fatherhood, single-parenting, stay-at-home dads, step-parenting, the effect of multiple sclerosis on marriage, alcoholism, navigating the first year of marriage, etc….Every essay is unique and complex in its own special way. I hope each of you will take a moment to read and embrace this very special book. Most importantly, please remember that this is the first compilation of REAL, first-person essays that critically dissects the state modern-day African-American relationships. The book is published by Seal Press.

No acceptances or rejections this month

Kiini’s Rate of Acceptance/Rejection
August 2001 – August 2002
Publications: Acceptances = 6; Rejections = 6
Grants/Fellowships: Acceptances = 0; Rejections = 1
Residencies/Workshops: Acceptances = 0; Rejections = 4