Commencement

A year ago I had the honor of  returning to my alma mater to deliver the commencement speech to the graduating class of Catawba College, Class of 2013. Since then, parts of that speech have been shared in various forms over the Internet , so I am officially posting it here in it’s entirety on my website.

 

It has been exactly 10 years since I sat in the very seats you are sitting in now, and I remember everything about this day, from what I wore, to where my family sat, to who I hung out with at the parties I went to later that evening. What stands out for me most about my graduation day however was not a sense of accomplishment, as I had anticipated, but rather a sense of disconnectedness. I felt like I was outside of my body, watching everything that was happening to me, but not really taking part in any of it. I had been prepared to feel overwhelmed with happiness and excitement on this special day, and I did feel those things, to a certain extent, but I also felt disengaged. I never examined why until I was asked to be here today to give this commencement speech.

 

This day, the one you are living now and the one I lived a decade ago, marks a very extraordinary time in a person’s life, in ways that I wasn’t able to articulate until now. We spend our entire childhoods waiting to graduate to the next level. We start off in diapers and then we graduate to big boy or big girl underwear. We start off eating mushy foods and then we move on to solids. We all know what is supposed to come next- it’s taught to us, like a story. Once we master one thing, we get to graduate to another thing that is a little more challenging, and so on and so on. We start off looking at books with pictures and then we move on to reading books with words. We graduate middle school and then we graduate high school and then we graduate college. But see, that’s where my story stopped. Ten years ago I was graduating. I was sitting on this very campus with some of these very same professors who supported me and cared for me for 4 years, and I realized that my college graduation was as far as I had been taught to go. I didn’t know what came next, and my parents and professors couldn’t tell me, either. Everything felt bizarre to me on my graduation day because I no longer had any guidelines to follow, and I felt really lost.

 

Some of you will be able to relate to this and others will not. Your plans might be set already to go to grad school right after Catawba, or to look for a job, or to plan an engagement and start a family. But to all of you that think you have your stories figured out, I want to assure you that you do not. Your story cannot be figured out yet, and you don’t want it to be. At my own graduation I was frozen with fear and unable to fully take part in what was happening because of it; the end of my 4 years at Catawba had suddenly brought me more freedom than I knew what to do with, because it was now MY turn to map out how I wanted my story to go. It was my turn to write it. I got to decide what I was graduating to next. It’s one thing to tell everyone that your story is about moving to New York City to be on Broadway, but it is quite another thing to make that story a reality, to believe in it with all your heart and to make it come true.

 

For a while after I graduated, my story was to work at Chili’s selling baby back ribs to newly married, pregnant girls that I had gone to high school with. My dad is a postal worker and my mom is a property manager. They both have strong work ethics and weak bank accounts, so though they always supported my dreams of becoming a professional actor, I knew that it was going to be all MY responsibility to make it happen. Which meant moving back to Birmingham and working three jobs to save as much money in as short a time as I could. I was miserable having to live back home in a city I no longer felt comfortable in, working at jobs that I hated, but I knew that writing my own story would not come without its’ sacrifices. Eventually I saved up enough money for two month’s rent and a UHaul, and, along with fellow Catawba grad Amy Stran, we both graduated from living at home to living on our own in Manhattan.

 

I continued to write my story, to lay out all the things I wanted to do so that, one by one, I could conquer them and move on to the next level. Everything went smoothly for a while- it was a miracle that we found an affordable place to live that didn’t have a bathtub sitting in the middle of the living room, but we did. Within our first month in the city, Amy met her future husband and I got cast as a lead in an unimpressive (but paying) Off Broadway musical. The next chapters I planned to put in my story were to get an agent, to join the actor’s unions, to become a Broadway star, and then, I guess be happy forever and ever. But it did not happen that way. Here, my story started writing itself without my help at all. After 6 months, the Off Broadway show I was in closed unexpectedly, and just like that, I was jobless and having to scrounge in our desk drawers for change so that I could have enough money to eat. I survived on peanut butter and Wendy’s Dollar menus for weeks.

 

I was auditioning all the time but not getting cast in anything, and eventually I knew I had to either get a “regular” job or move back home to Birmingham, which I could not bear to do. So. I started temping as a receptionist at a high end fashion house that makes VERY expensive gowns for celebrities to wear at red carpet events. Every once in a while I would get to the studio early to walk into the show room before the designers had come into work, and I would run my fingers over the silks and sequins on the dresses, imagining myself wearing them as I received one Tony award after another. If I stayed at this place, I knew I would have job security and benefits and a steady paycheck for the first time in my young life, but I also knew that working there would ensure that I’d never write the story I originally wanted for myself. It was a tough decision, some might even say a stupid one, but I trusted my gut, and within a week of quitting my receptionist job, I was hired as a waitress and cast in the chorus of a tiny production called “Believe In Me, A BigFoot Musical” in which I had two lines. I had no idea at the time, but Bigfoot was going to change everything I knew about where my story was going.

 

I spent my first few years in NYC trying to manage everything that I wanted to happen to me, mapping out exactly how I wanted to succeed. Some of it happened and some of it got derailed, but at one point I realized that the trick was not to get so caught up in the writing of my story, but to get caught up in the living of it. To recognize that there was power not only in changing the things I was unhappy with, but also in relinquishing control and letting myself get swept up in this beautiful life I was making for myself, the good AND the bad parts. Any normal person probably would have said no to accepting such a small role in a show like Bigfoot the Musical, but I had just spent several months behind a desk answering phones all day, so there was comfort for me in returning to what I had spent so much time nurturing at Catawba; a passion for storytelling onstage, sharing a rehearsal space and harmonizing with beautiful voices. On our final night of performance, there was a man in the audience named Frank who for some reason was riveted by the delivery of my two lines I had in the show, (more proof for all you theatre majors out there that there really are no small parts!). Frank was friends with a producer who was looking to recast the title role in a musical he was working on, and within a week I had auditioned and been cast.

 

I graduated from chorus member of Bigfoot the Musical to my very first starring role at a prestigious theatre in Philadelphia, and over the course of the next several years I joined the actors unions, got an agent and a manager, and started working regularly in commercials, film, and television. This is how my story has gone. I never anticipated that film or tv was something that I would be a part of, was something that I would even enjoy, but it is, and I do. I graduated from steady employment in the entertainment industry to falling in love with Claire, my partner, who has supported and loved me courageously, and who has become an even bigger part of my story than I ever imagined another individual would. I graduated from falling in love to feeling brave enough to take my art seriously, starting my own web comic and freelancing as an illustrator. As of last week, I am officially a published author and artist, having contributed a comic I wrote and drew to an anthology called “The Letter Q”, which is a book about queer writers penning letters to themselves as young adults. Of all that I have accomplished in the 10 years since I have graduated from Catawba, this is the thing of which I am most proud, sharing my story with the LGBTQ community in support, in love, and in solidarity. It turns out that my story isn’t about one trajectory at all. My story bounces around; it has highs and lows, it veers off in one direction and then reverses and revisits areas it passed by in other years. So far, I still have not made it to Broadway; instead I have found immense joy in crafting my own story-telling technique, connecting with other people who may not have a voice of their own, and I cherish this more than anything my 22 year old self could have ever conjured.

 

My hope for you, class of 2012, is that you embrace the responsibility of drafting your own stories with gratitude and grace, that you allow yourselves to get swept up in the beautiful, unexpected moments of your life without losing sight of what makes you feel both happy and whole. I urge you to write your stories with vigor and commitment. To allow yourself to make mistakes. To relish in the journey of your story, and to remember to always write in pencil.

 

Thank you.

 

An Idea.

I wont lie to you; this did not start out innocently.

This, like many successful things that exist in our society at present, started out as a joke-slash-dare-slash-get-rich-quick scheme.

I was noticing a real trend in the popular media that I was consuming (or rather, being forced to consume). First there was Julie, the lady who started a blog detailing the remarkable act of cooking all of Julia Child’s grueling recipes. She documented the experience for a growing number of devout readers and got a book deal, which eventually became a movie (a movie telling a story that I was not particularly interested in, but who can resist Meryl Streep?)

There is also Gertie, the sewing enthusiast and vintage clothing lover who blogged her way through the tedious effort of making most of the garments from the 1952 “Vogue’s New Book for Better Sewing”. Her blog also procured a substantial number of avid readers, which eventually led to her publishing not one but two books (the second to be published next year), both instructional texts with gorgeous patterns for Gertie’s take on some of Vogue’s most iconoclastic ensembles. There’s the guy who started a tumblr blog chronicling the misadventures of his toddler son who, regardless of the circumstances (or perhaps in spite  of them), is always, always crying. I assume that his new book, “Reasons My Son is Crying”, will be stocked on all the shelves of Urban Outfitters just in time for Christmas, right next to “Sh*it My Dad Says”, another project which began as a twitter feed and was magically transformed into a book deal even before the twitter account gained over 3 million followers.

The list of blog turned books goes on and on: “Stuff White People Like”, which is pretty self explanatory (and which consequently serves as more race-inspired fodder for me to agonize over (“Am I too white? Not white enough?! WHAT DOES IT MEAN THAT MY MOM DOESN’T LIKE ANY OF THESE THINGS!?!!”), “I Can Has A Cheezburger?”, a collection of internet memes starring barely literate cats, “This Is Why You’re Fat”, a blog-turned-book of pictures showing ridiculously unhealthy edible concoctions (all of which I would have eaten ate in college), and “The Joys of Engrish”, an astoundingly racist publication that makes fun of English translations from mostly Asian languages (for the record, I get the general joke, and I can see the humor in cultural misunderstandings based on dialect and language, but devoting an entire book to this subject matter is just another example of elitism; it seems unfair to poke fun of a specific group of people without turning the finger around on ourselves, in which case it just turns into bullying for profit. Which I suppose is the American way. But I digress).

As a consumer, experiencing the initial shift in the publishing market was notable, but it also seemed understandable when compared with the state of other media outlets, specifically TV. A small handful of reality shows that were originally groundbreaking and inventive had been saturated by networks wanting to create more revenue, in turn casting participants willing to do any and everything to have their 15 minutes (sometimes, sadly, an hour) of fame. So the first few brilliant seasons of MTV’s The Real World begot Big Brother, which begot Survivor, and then a bunch of weird, unintelligible stuff happened behind closed doors, and we ended up with Long Island Medium and that show about the Amish gang members. The same thing, on a smaller scale, seems to be happening with books. You don’t really have to write about anything NEW now; you only have to take an idea that someone else came up with it and do it again, or talk about it, or mimic it, or do it wrong, or gather a collection of things that someone else has done that you have witnessed, and package it up nice and neatly. Outside of fiction books, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of original content being generated.

I actually don’t think this is all bad.

I am a proud lover of DIY, and any book, website, blog or tutorial that can lay out, in easy, understandable terms, how to do something that I didn’t know how to do before is right up my alley. I have purchased (and benefited greatly from) a few of these books that began as blogs; “Gertie’s New Book for Better Sewing” has added several gorgeous items of handmade clothing to my closet and taught me all kinds of fascinating haute couture and alteration techniques that I never used in my previous sewing projects. Obviously Gertie didn’t create the techniques used in the original Vogue publication, but she translated the language into something comprehensible, giving readers like me a brand new appreciation for vintage design. And Ana White’s book “The Handbuilt Home” which began as a blog to detail her journey in teaching herself the art of woodworking, inspired me to start building my own furniture. Ana White of course didn’t invent the hammer or the nail, but she provided an example of a capable woman using power tools and lumber to construct functional and beautiful furniture for her home, and reading her book made me want to be just as accomplished. And now I am.

Several years ago my online comic “High Yella Magic” received the attention of some reputable publishers and literary agents. Although I had never seriously thought of turning my comic into a book because I was still figuring out my style and learning how to draw and write stories proficiently, the idea appealed to me, and I took a couple of meetings to discuss the comic’s potential. I was pretty astonished to find out how sleazy the publishing field could be. The agent I met with told me in no uncertain terms that my stories, which were all honest retellings of my own experiences, needed to focus either on the fact that I was a biracial woman of color, or that I was queer. She told me I couldn’t write about both, because those two demographics were incompatible, too exclusive, impractical. Maybe she was referring more to money, rationalizing that the group of readers my stories would attract was not big enough to capitalize on.

But that’s not what I heard from her.

What I heard from her was “You can’t exist.”

I don’t exist.

I am not here. My stories don’t matter, therefore I didn’t matter.

I sat before her with several sheets of expensive card-stock paper onto which I had meticulously penciled, drawn, erased, sketched, penned and lettered over many, many hours the details of some of the most memorable events of my life. And with a quick toss of her hair, this agent told me that I needed to pick a side of who I was, and try and sell that, but not both sides. Not the actual truth. Just a thin version of the truth.

I walked out of the agency feeling a little numb and a little relieved. I felt like I had dodged a bullet. Because I don’t want to pick and choose the aspects of myself that seem profitable in order to get a book deal. Because my skin is brown and because my partner is a woman and because both of those things define me, neither of them completely, but neither without the other. Because being brown and being queer to me are valuable. Because who cares about a book deal when you have websites and blogs where you can essentially “publish” anything you want to anyone who cares to read it?

So like I said, this did not start out innocently.

I had some history. What would it take, I wondered, if not a decently written documentation of an interesting life lived, to get a book published?

Well, a blog of course!

At first my partner and I just brainstormed to come up with the most ridiculous ideas that what would attract the biggest audience.

“I want to start a blog about __________ so that I can get a book deal and a movie deal starring the most prolific actors of our time”.

Scrapped Ideas:

  • Adopting a bunch of cats despite my intense allergies, journaling about the daily doses of Claritin and furballs and pondering the deeper implications of loving something that causes me so much pain. (Starring Glenn Close)
  • Gardening with a black thumb; one woman’s attempt to defy her murderous hands. (cast: the brilliant actor who plays Michonne from Walking Dead as the protagonist AND the plant).
  • How To Renovate An Old Home With Absolutely And Unequivocably No Understanding Of How To Renovate An Old Home (Viola Davis, maybe?).

Our joke got old, and was mostly forgotten, until one day we were with some friends outside in the backyard looking at the night sky and talking about our childhoods. The major theme of my youth was the fact that I grew up poor and biracial in a mostly white, mostly wealthy southern town. The things that my partner and so many of my friends took for granted as kids, things like taking dance classes and going to camp and bringing their own lunch to school and learning piano, were things that I coveted, things that I STILL covet. I wanted nothing more than to spend my time after school learning ballet techniques in front of a mirror, making new friends from new places, not having to announce to the cashier that I qualified for a reduced-price lunch in the cafeteria every single day (she either had short term memory loss or took some sick pleasure in making me say those dreaded words out loud day after day). Instead I came home from school alone every afternoon and watched “Square One” on PBS, waiting for my Mom to get home from the hair salon where she worked. I supplemented my boredom by writing commercial jingles accompanied by my electric ORGAN, which I did not know how to play. I wanted to learn how to play a keyboard and instead I got an instructional pamphlet with a heavy 16-key organ that sounded like the longest, softest fart when you played a note. That’s all my Mom could afford, and I didn’t complain.

That night in the backyard, the subject of Girl Scouts came up. Unlike most adults, I don’t equate Girl Scouts with cookies at all; I sometimes forget that cookies are even a part of the organization. All I think about when I hear the words Girl Scout is how much I wanted to be a Scout when I was a kid. I always imagined that I would have excelled in it. I was a painfully polite little girl, eager to listen and eager to learn, enthused by the idea of community and leadership and thirsty for a chance to show off my talents to anyone who would appreciate them, even though I did not know the extent of my talents because I didn’t have many opportunities to explore them, at least not with the guidance of others. But my Mom couldn’t afford those things and I, of course, never complained. I remember going to day camp in the park during the summer when school was out, an expense my Mom struggled to pay for only because I was too young to stay home by myself. The Girl Scouts had come to the park to see if any of the day camp kids wanted to sign up to become a part of the organization, and they handed us a sheet of paper with contact information that mapped out everything the Girl Scouts would learn and achieve as members of the group. My heart beat fast as I imagined all the fun things I would get to do because of my involvement with the organization, all the badges I would get to wear and show off, which I only knew about because I saw it in a movie once. But then I read the included price breakdown for uniforms, badges, materials and activities required of all the Scouts. I squashed my hope down real quick.

That evening I handed my mom the sheet of paper with my eyes downcast and no hint of expectation in my face. I knew we couldn’t afford it. My Mom read over the information and commented on how it was so ridiculous that something like this should cost so much money (to be fair, anything that didn’t have a layaway option was considered expensive to my single parent mother), and eventually the paper found a home amidst others on our dining room table, covered in coffee rings and crumbs.

“I think I would make a fantastic Girl Scout” I joked to my friends, and they all nodded in agreement. Who else did they know who exhibited so much enthusiasm for learning new things, whose instagram page was overflowing with images of homemade marshmallows and handmade quilts?

I asked, “What else do Girl Scouts do, besides make things? What do those badges mean?”, but no one knew the answer. They, unlike myself, had not wanted to be Girl Scouts when they were younger. Maybe they had schedules too jam-packed with soccer practices and guitar lessons to have room for Girl Scouts. Maybe the good deeds and volunteer work required by the Scouts was uninteresting to them. Maybe they weren’t Girl Scout material, not like me. But then again, I had no idea what the Girl Scouts actually did, so I wasn’t quite sure if I really WAS Girl Scout material or if I just wanted to BE Girl Scout material.

“This,” I said to Claire, “is exactly the blog-to-book idea I am looking for.”

I laughed, but only for a moment, as I slowly realized that, unlike “Gardening with a Black Thumb”, I was actually kind of serious about this idea. The book part of the concept was the silly part, the part meant to illicit laughter and an eye-roll, but the blog part, the part where I really do learn and then write about what it means to be a Girl Scout and examine, publicly, how to navigate the gap between being a little girl who wants things she cannot have and a woman who has things she doesn’t need? That part was for real. Would I make a good Girl Scout now, as an adult? Would I have made a good Girl Scout way back then, as a kid? Will it be easy now with all I have learned and experienced as a grown woman, or will it be more difficult? Where will I fit in as a queer woman of color emulating the ideals of an organization that has always poised itself in my mind to be mostly white and almost always straight? Are Girl Scouts even still relevant today, given our current environment which seems to prize individuality and uniqueness rather than community-driven work and citizenry?

These are all absolutely genuine questions that I want to know the answers to, and since I don’t have a daughter that I can force to join on my behalf, I think I am just going to have to figure it out for myself. Of course, I could figure all of this out for myself BY myself. If this is all about personal growth, about relearning and revising the ideas I have about who I am vs who I was under the guise of “becoming” a Girl Scout, why not just do it on my own? Why blog about it? Why share it with anyone on the internet at all? I think I have to do it this way because my story does matter. Because there are not enough voices like mine in the world that are ever heard, and I can’t complain about the lack of representation that exists in the world if I am not willing to add perspective to the mix. I exist, and other people just like me exist, and it doesn’t matter how we share our stories, whether they are on TV or in books or in comics or in stories told by friends outside at night in the backyard. It just matters that they are heard.

Despite the (embarrassing) breadth of this blog post, I am not actually committing myself to “becoming” a Girl Scout just yet. I still have a bit to learn about being a Girl Scout, and I have to see if it’s even something that is doable for me as a 33 year old woman operating rogue, since I am unsure of how big a role the Scout leader plays in moving up the ranks. My fantasy of being a Girl Scout simply requires me to make some brownies and be nice to people for a few of months, and then I imagine that I will move up the ladder from Daisy Scout to…well, whatever type of Scout is next (Brownie, I think? Oh, how fitting!), and then I will get a bunch of badges, and then I will have learned a bunch of life lessons! Or not. I don’t really know what I am expecting to happen. But I want it to be genuine. If it isn’t serving me, if it ceases to be fun or interesting, then I won’t move forward with it. I have better things to do with my time than work on something that has lost it’s luster. But right now, I am intrigued.

At it’s best, this is an opportunity for a grown woman to make one of her childhood wishes come true. One major difference between Grown Jasika and Girl Jasika is that I went to the Girl Scouts of America webpage last night to see what materials were required to begin the process of becoming a Daisy Scout, and upon discovering that “The Daisy Girl’s Guide to Girl Scouting” handbook, a requirement for all girls interested in becoming a Scout, cost $22.50, I didn’t lower my eyes and feel ashamed.

I bought the damn book. Because I can afford it.

The Daisy Girl Guide To Girl Scouting

Facelift!

For those of you revisiting my site, you will see that much has changed!
I loved my old site so much, but because it was in Flash and I am not so adept at utilizing the html code that was required for me to operate the site myself, I thought it best to move forward and join the tried and true wordpress community. So far, fixing this site up to my specifications and updating all the information has been a breeze compared to working my other site, and I am so grateful for Kate McMillan at Outbox Online for revamping this site and teaching me the ins and outs of wordpressing.

Like my old website, this space will be a place for me to post up new artwork, share comics that I am working on, and news about events and upcoming tv/film appearances. I am also going to incorporate a few new things into this updated site, like posting blogs and pictures of some of my DIY/crafting projects, and creating a space to sell quality prints of my artwork that people can purchase directly from this site. Initially I was invited to comic cons to sign pictures and participate in panels on behalf of Fringe, but on a whim a few years ago my team and I decided to bring a few pieces of my artwork to try and sell to convention attendees, and they have sold like hotcakes ever since. I am so grateful to Fringe fans not only for their appreciation of my role on the show, but also for their ability to embrace all the other facets of my artistic endeavoring!

Thanks so much for following my progress, both on and off screen, and I hope to keep this site updated so that there is always something new for you to see here!