Here’s the back story!
It all started as a writing game called “Storied Stories” in one of my Covid Zoom writer’s groups, To Live and Write in Alameda (which became To Live And Write…Wherever You Are in the great Reconfiguration of 2020). Writing coach and teacher Bronwyn Emery imagined a Craftsman house in Alameda, built in the year 1900. Assuming a new family moved into the house every decade, each writer was assigned a decade, and was given 5 minutes to read their story at our culminating event. Each story required the mention of an entryway bench and jasmine but there were no other guidelines. The stories were wonderful, and as diverse as life in any California neighborhood could be. During the depression, a family of migrant workers lived there. In the sixties, a marriage fell apart. A depressed alcoholic teenager burned it down in 2020.
Lucky me, I was assigned the 1920s! My favorite! For years, I’ve steeped myself in this era of invention and imagination. As a longtime historybounder with the Art Deco Society, I wanted to pack in historical details that have been forgotten over the years, as the 20s have been packaged and repackaged, santized and costumized.
And I wanted to write about something that has really been inspiring me:
The Harlem Renaissance.
How did the cultural explosion of Black self-discovery, the big bang of the American Renaissance (as of yet uncelebrated as such) get to the sleepy little island of Alameda? Where wealthy San Franciscans bought second homes after the 1906 earthquake, and needed servants until the middle class was born? How could I capture the spark of that moment, where the idea of a joyous, integrated future ignited in a white girl’s mind?
This story was inspired by:
- F. Scott Fitzgerald, of course! The title plays, of course, with his “Bernice Bobs Her Hair,” an iconic story about a teenager’s turning point, and the double meaning of the word “bob.” I re-read the story and lifted a few colloquialisms that have not survived, such as “dopeless” and “Frigidaire.” And I gave my Bernice a growth curve that wasn’t bitter and dark. (So it can’t be “great literature,” lol.)
A dance class I took with the splendiforous Traci Barlow called “A Celebration of African American Social Dances,” in which I learned the names of many of the moves I pull in my Bandaloop! (Zumba) classes. In the story, I tried to credit the origins of these movements (which I practice with religious regularity, and teach on a weekly basis). The joy they carry is inherent in the tens of thousands of years of celebration and survival that stress can’t suppress; they are the dandelion seeds of Black Joy, which energizes all joy. The people at the center of Harlem’s exuberant expansion deserve to have their names kept alive.
- A black friend living in Alameda who saw things that were hidden from me, and all blue eyes. Wondering how black pioneers must have gotten a foothold in the first place, I uncovered stories by Rasheed Shabazz about how difficult it was for them to buy homes. I wanted to capture the moment of excitement before the great disappointment. I was sorrowful to learn how black land ownership declined drastically after the 1920s. I’m white as can be, but still a secret Afrofuturist, Afrosurrealist, abolitionist, and antiracist who not-so-secretly puts black people (or, as I call them, people) back into history, the future, and the collective imagination.
- And finally, Mills College, a safe place for women to “learn how to fly” —until now. (Although we’re fighting for it!) In the story I imagine white Bernice, who comes of age as the family ally of a black boarding house, turns her passion into a dance career and becomes an activist in civil rights.
A short version of this story was published in the 2021 California Literary Review.