A searing exploration of femininity and womanhood, Every Black Girl Dances is for women of color who shrink to be heard and sacrifice to be seen. For fans of Jayne Allen’s Black Girls Must Die Exhausted and Candice Carty-Williams’ Queenie.
JC Burke catapulted straight from film school to Hollywood darling churning out “Black trauma” films that have made her a household name¾but at what price? When she abandons the set of her latest production to flee to her hometown Parable, Texas, JC is forced to reconsider the career that made her a superstar, as well as reexamine her deteriorating relationship with her producing partner, Hudson Pyke. A romantic connection with high school Media Technology teacher Luke Favors (dubbed The Hottie Professor in a viral social media post) alleviates a bit of the sting from her disappointments, but is Luke enough to keep JC away from Hollywood forever, or will she return to the privilege she turned her back on?
Release date: December 26, 2023
Publisher: Black Odyssey Media
Print pages: 288
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Every Black Girl Dances
Candice Y. Johnson
“Girl, you are black as hell.”
That’s not exactly what the woman perched in the aisle seat says to me, but it’s what I hear as our plane hits a second round of turbulence in half an hour. Even heaven seems annoyed by her incessant yapping about all things relevant to only her. Thank God, this flight only has a little more than two hours to go.
My row-mate is too cheery for six in the morning. I should be taking my first pee, not listening to a complete stranger with zero sense of boundaries or discretion, chattering about social media and current events while casually tossing in how pretty I am for a dark-skinned girl. Make that extra dark, as if I’m not already aware. Her thin lips latch onto the rim of her Styrofoam coffee cup as she flips her bright red curls, utterly oblivious of how insulting her backhanded compliment really is. Somehow, my blatant snub and wide-eyed silence isn’t the effective deterrent I’d hoped it would be. Now, she’s circling from waxing about visiting her elderly grandfather for a spell in Frisco, Texas, back to her fascination with my skin.
God, I don’t have the strength to speak laymen’s right now.
“I hope you don’t find this rude, but your skin is simply luminous to be so . . .”
“Dark?” There. I finish for her. She knows it’s rude before she alludes to it. My submissive face takes over as I lean against the window, observing her green eyes grow into saucers and soak up all this darkness in awe. “Makes you want a Snickers, huh?”
Her paltry giggle in response to my direct jab is a staunch reminder of the harsh scrutiny my particular shade of black forces me to deal with every day: she just doesn’t get it. She chirps her name as if I care enough to register the pointless syllables in my memory bank. Sandy. Penny. Chrysanthemum. Hell, who knows what she just rattled off? For the rest of this flight from Los Angeles to Dallas, all I want to hear is my playlist while I catch a few zzz’s.
What’s-her-name blinks, taking a brief respite from her irrelevant musings to breathe. Facing me, she rests an elbow on the armrest and perches her head on top of her hand, curiosity etched across her heart-shaped face. Seriously, if she doesn’t stop staring, I will invoice her for a counseling session. Sis acts like my skin’s giving her third-world healing.
“Your braids are so . . . unique,” she sings loud enough to provoke the passengers occupying the rows in front of and behind us to indiscreetly investigate for themselves as if I can’t see them squirming in their seats just enough to judge whether her assessment’s on point.
“So different,” she mutters, intent on eliciting the response she didn’t squeeze out of me the first time. One of her wiry hands gestures as if to reach across the empty middle seat between us to fondle my tailbone-length braids, regarding them with the wonder of a mythical creature she’s discovered is actually real. A scowl replacing the excruciating smile I’ve managed to maintain this long prompts her to draw it back quickly. She darts an index finger toward them instead. “The colors weaved across the middle—I’ve never seen that before.”
“Jamaica,” I eek out as pleasantly as I can on the strength of the sigh which carries it.
“Your name’s Jamaica?”
I giggle. Not because there’s humor in the situation, but because I’m tired. These types of cultural interrogations are seemingly barren but never easy to birth. I’m a realist: no response I give this woman will make her see anything other than my skin. Her creepy gaze almost makes it impossible for me to restrain my snarky attitude, which is two seconds from reaching: I wish you would.
“No, ma’am, my name’s not Jamaica. The color in my hair represents the Jamaican flag. Where my dead father’s from.”
She’s uncomfortable now. One, because the bitter taste of ignorance isn’t so tasty on her tongue. And two, I have yet to give up any useful intel on myself. Not even my name, which sis has been patiently waiting for since we strapped in for takeoff. But as long as I’ve mastered the resting “B” face—which I’m about to switch on effective immediately—silence shall ever be her portion.
“What did you say your name is? What is it that you do?” See how intrusive she is? When I saw our flight wasn’t crowded, I expected to snooze all the way home to Texas. But instead, I got stuck with . . . her.
Maybe if I respond, she’ll back down and stop leering at me like a puppy begging for a treat. Keeping my cool, I flash the smile the dental hygienist I hired to fix my teeth with my first Hollywood check and blurt, “I write and direct films.”
“Oh yeah?” She perks up under the false impression that a bond is forming between us. “What kind of movies do you make? Anything I’ve seen?”
“Probably not,” I hark a laugh as insipid as our wordy transaction. Obviously, there’s no way this suburban duchess, who’s probably never tasted a swear word, has been exposed to my gritty dramas. If she had, this conversation would’ve already detoured to mute.
“I make films exploiting Black trauma,” I go on to explain. “You know, pimps, domestic violence, drug trafficking, crack babies. Real entertainment.” I pull my denim jacket closed and lean closer to her, mimicking her pose on the other side of the armrest. “I write the real rough stuff. Families killing each other, men who can’t keep their junk in their pants, silly, trifling baby mamas, and female doormats. Hood stuff like that. But I’m flying to escape the set of my latest film, Crack Dreams, because I’m sick of profiting off my brothers’ and sisters’ pain for the appeasement of people like you.”
And just like that, sis turns away with a ’tude, reclines her seat, and pushes out a fake yawn. When she squeezes her eyes shut, I jam my earbuds in and press play on the first song in my playlist. Guess our meet and greet is over.
You’ve only got one reason not to love me,
But I can give you a thousand more
It’s amazing how you hate me
Because my future’s far from yours . . .
The jazzy tune by my best friend, Tati Ko, blares through the earpieces, and I recline my seat. Tati’s being positioned to be the next queen of R&B music, but I’m flying back home to Parable to help celebrate her million-dollar win on Battle Exes, a wilderness-style reality competition show pairing ex-lovers and pitting them against their rivals from past seasons. Even though her ex helped secure Tati the win, she kept the entire bounty for herself. The Twitter crowd and I couldn’t be happier that she got her revenge against the narcissist who’s still threatening her and her family with violence over her selfish decision.
I peer out the window. The skies seem friendlier than the universe has been to me lately. Not that I’m anything close to a singer, but I can hum a mean tune, so I do it along with “Redeemed by Me,” the song Tati wrote for my debut film, Flogged. Flogged chronicles the life of 16-year-old Nas, who was sold by her mother into the sex trade for drugs, and later convicted of murdering both her kidnapper and her mama. Like I told sis earlier, warm fuzzies.
Hard to believe, but a week ago, the same tune I’m jamming to now almost got me killed. Okay, maybe I’m being dramatic. But the incident was enough to make me come close to soiling the yellow sundress I planned on returning after sporting it at my girl Olivia’s bachelorette party. Just because I have a few dollars tucked away in savings doesn’t mean I’m not cheap.
Olivia’s party was so lit, I stayed way longer than I originally intended. In my defense, pole dance karaoke far exceeded my expectations, killing my self-imposed curfew. But when the bride’s mother slides from the top of the pole to the bottom in slow motion while killing the best of Whitney Houston in mezzo-soprano, you don’t move. If nothing else, it helped me forget the crap day I had in preproduction for my next movie.
Anyway, I was zooming down the side streets on the way back to my loft, belching the remnants of the mini-mountain of mimosas I drank, feeling too good to notice I was pushing my red convertible Lexus well over the speed limit by 20 miles an hour. Didn’t even see the police car waiting to catch an unsuspecting lawbreaker like me slipping until I flew by him, and the lights started chasing me.
“Great, just great. Hudson, I’ll have to call you back,” I told my boyfriend, who’d been on speaker the entire hour-long ride, to help keep me awake.
“What’s wrong? Everything okay?” The slight panic in his voice did nothing to ease the fear swirling in the pit of my stomach as I eyed the wailing lights behind me. The way the flashes of blue and red intermingled with each other felt like a threat and made my stomach sink. Immediately, I wished I hadn’t guzzled so many drinks.
“I’m not okay. I just got pulled over,” I explained as I pulled to the side of the road and put the car in park. My trembling hands outshook my quaking voice. Minutes ago, the air was so cool; now, a trail of sweat immediately formed around my edges.
“Is that all?” Hudson chuckled. “Just comply with whatever they say, and you’ll be fine.” The amusement in my man’s voice shook off any buzz threatening to keep me from walking a straight line if I was issued a sobriety test. Not to mention the one word that would ban my ovaries to him for the rest of our tenure together: comply.
What the entire hell?
“I have to go. I’ll call you back.” Ignoring Hudson’s unsolicited advice, I reached to the dash where the phone was mounted and hung up. Then I started my video recorder and rested my hands on the steering wheel like my father taught me.
Breathe, girl, breathe. You’re going to be fine.
Spying the officer creeping toward my car in the rearview, I was suddenly aware that my braids were secured in a bun at the nape of my neck. What if he mistook me for a man? Would it make a difference? Was there just a matter of minutes before I became a hashtag swimming in a pool of my own blood? Would there be protests in my name, or would I be quickly forgotten by the next day’s news?
Would I be awarded a posthumous Oscar?
I won’t lie. The officer’s brown skin was a relief when he appeared at my window. After chronicling some pretty damning scenarios involving the boys in blue in my films, at least I was being stopped by a cop who looked like me . . . right?
“Good evening, ma’am. Do you know why I pulled you over?” His baritone thundered through my spirit. His broad chest heaved, and his badge issued a silent dare. Try me.
“I guess I was speeding,” I said, not that my misdemeanor needed confirming.
“You were.” His head tilted to the side, then quickly upright. “Hey, aren’t you Hudson Pyke’s girlfriend?”
No, I’m JC Burke, the dummy who let my blue-eyed lover get famous off my scripts while I literally became his shadow. But yeah, I’m her.
Eyes ahead, hands on the wheel. “Yes, Officer. That’s me: JC Burke.”
I hesitantly allowed my head to inch left, scanning for the officer’s name in case I needed receipts later. In the meantime, Officer Riggins’s eyes darted past my face to the phone mounted on the dash.
Smile . . . You’re this close to becoming viral.
“That last movie of yours - the cop was acquitted of attempted murder for shooting the kid in the back, right?”
I knew it. “Yes, he was, sir. I mean, the girl was running away after being suspected of shoplifting a T-shirt. And there was no excuse for swinging at the boutique owner when he tackled her, even though no stolen goods or weapons were found on her. At least she was only paralyzed, right?” I pressed my lips closed, bottling the rest of my opinion inside.
“Right. What was the name of it again? The movie?”
His brows pinched together, broad shoulders hunched. “Yeah. The wife didn’t care for that one too much.” His low voice dodged my cell’s audio as his fingers tapped against his ticket pad, which I preferred instead of on his holster. “She said the plot was unrealistic.”
. . . in spite of the real Wisconsin news story I based it on?
“Look, it’s hard to see out here. We don’t want you having an accident, do we?”
You mean by car or bullet?
Without relaxing my tightened jaws, I peeled my stoic glare away from the badge, staring ahead. “No, sir, we don’t.”
“Good. Slow down,” he warned. Taking a quick second to assess my threat level, he must’ve determined my 135-pound frame wasn’t too menacing because he jammed the pad back into his pocket and exhaled the tension from his body. “Be safe out here.”
The lump obstructing my throat didn’t dislodge until Officer Riggins hopped back into his patrol car and left me reeling on the side of the road. How long had I held my breath? I slumped over the steering wheel in tears, trying to coerce my spirit to climb back into my mortified flesh, all while Hudson’s instructions burned my chest.
I slammed my hands against the dash until I swore I’d drawn blood. Without a shred of empathy, the rearview mirror gave me a glimpse of my runny mascara and snotty nose. Comply rang in my ears, breaking me down worse than the actual traffic stop.
After a few minutes, I turned the key in the ignition and pulled back onto the main road at a much-slower pace. Without bothering to call Hudson to give him an update, I powered off the phone. Let him worry whether I had complied for the rest of the night while I tried getting some sleep.
Once I got home and climbed in bed, I slept better than during the six weeks we’d been working on Crack Dreams. The next day, I powered through Olivia’s wedding, then hit the reception with Hudson at my side. It was a grand affair of excesses and sparkle, so I didn’t need to bring up his prior night’s infraction until after the bride and groom’s first dance. I think I did a pretty good job presenting the thousand other ways Hudson could’ve handled things better when I told him I got stopped; however, he made a conscious effort to misunderstand while white-splaining me instead.
“What’s the big deal, JC? The drinks are flowing, and everybody’s happy. There’s no reason to walk around here with your face all twisted up.” Hudson spun me as the other couples slow danced around us. His eyes were hidden behind his signature red frames. Tousled brown hair mussed from yanking it every two seconds while I patiently walked him through the source of our latest fight.
Hudson dipped me, but I locked my back to protect my breasts from spilling out of the strapless eggplant bridesmaid dress barely containing them. When he pulled me up, I pushed into his chest, hoping to feel the same security in his arms that I felt on our first date.
“At least you didn’t get a ticket.” Hudson’s nonchalant assertion harbored dangerously close to amusement.
I backed away, dishing a death glare. “Have you heard anything I’ve said? I could’ve had my head blown off last night.”
“Sure, in an imaginary scenario, which has absolutely no bearing on here and now.” He smoothed a hand over my braids. “All I’m saying is don’t waste your energy on something that didn’t even happen. You’ve had 26 years to understand how traffic stops work. All you have to do is—”
“Don’t you dare say, ‘comply’!”
That word transported me back to the playground in elementary school when my bullies forced me to eat dirt pies. Know what my teachers said when they gave me a spit cup to rinse the dirt out of my mouth in the bathroom? “No one likes a tattler. Next time, walk away.”
What kind of a gutless waste of skin says that to a child who soiled her panties because she got jumped? Code: comply. Same disrespect, different recipe. And every time the man who rarely says he loves me outside of the bed brushes off my concerns with the standard refrain that I’m “just being emotional,” it tastes like one of those disgusting dirt pies.
Hudson gently tugged me by the rhinestone belt cinched around my waist, pulling me closer. “Can we have one day without you swiping your black card?” As soon as the question dropped, his pale skin turned crimson when he noticed my lips pulled in a tight line. “I’m sorry.”
“I am too.”
Two minutes later, it wasn’t hard convincing Olivia I wasn’t feeling well and had to exit the celebration early. Hudson didn’t call my name when I walked away from him. Didn’t reach for my arm to hold me back or match my steps so I couldn’t lose him on the way out of the gargantuan hall. By my estimation, he had at least 20 steps from where we were dancing to the parking lot to right his wrong.
But he didn’t.
“Oh my, I didn’t realize I’d fallen asleep.” Sis is awake now, blowing stale air up my nostrils, which I quickly cover with a hand. Judging by her restored cheery demeanor despite our earlier exchange, she’s still not woke, though.
“Just in time for landing.” I grant her a smile, my fleeting apology for getting fly when she’s only trying to make this trip pleasant for us. That’s one thing I’ve hated about myself since I was a little girl. Being bold enough to buck, then too quick to nurse the wound when ‘ish gets uncomfortable. I’m brazen on film, but I’m scared of being muted if I hit the wrong note.
Once we’ve landed and been given the go-ahead to exit the plane, sis stretches, then peels herself from the seat to retrieve her bag from the overhead. She grins and maneuvers into the aisle, pushing her way through the other passengers, all trying to get off the plane at once. “Enjoy your trip.”
“You too.” I don’t follow behind her.
My backpack seems heavier when I hoist it over my shoulder, waiting for row after row of passengers to empty the plane. When there is finally nothing but empty seats in front of me, a kind gentleman allows me to squeeze into the aisle ahead of him. I’m praying the nice gesture will be indicative of my week at home.
People scurry past me as I slowly make my way to the baggage claim. By the time I get there, sis has already grabbed her stuff and is heading off. We lock eyes for a moment, and she waves like we’ll see each other again in this lifetime. I wave back, thinking how at some point in our lives, every Black girl dances to someone else’s expectations. It’s about time I choreograph for myself.
“I can’t believe I have the JC Burke in my car! When my kids find out, mind blown—just like mine. And my wife, she’s never going to believe I had you in the back of my sedan!”
As long as I don’t end up in the trunk.
The remnants of scraggly strands of hair form a crescent moon on the back of his sunburned head as the middle-aged driver transports me from the airport to the skating rink where Tati’s hosting her party. Probably from miming his brain exploding every time something surprises him. The unforgiving August sun has baked his round head until it resembles one of those old-school Red Hot Links my mother used to feed me when she wasn’t on the road because she was too busy touring to learn how to cook. If I were cruel, I’d snap a picture of it and post it to see if anyone agrees with my assessment. But he’s so cute the way he’s gushing over me. What’s not to love about the man who skidded in front of the passenger pickup, jumped out of the car, and announced to the general public he was there to scoop up the female Spike Lee? His gold star for the day.
So while my biggest fan alternates between heaping praise and trying to pry exclusive information he promises will stay “between us” (did the actresses who played mother and daughter in Flogged really get into a fistfight on set?), I’m exhausted. The 20-minute ride can’t be over fast enough. Please, Lord—don’t let that gas hand keep inching toward “E.” I’ll die if he runs out.
“We’re just a couple of minutes away,” he informs me.
I owe You one, God.
I shove empty fast-food paper bags and balled-up burger and taco wrappings aside to get more comfortable. Judging by the family of Barbie dolls and toy guns getting squished under my classic yellow Converse, his tribe can’t be old enough to be fans of mine.
“So, your kids have seen my movies?”
“Every darn one of ’em,” he proudly announces in a stiff Southern twang. “My 10-year-old has seen Flogged a hundred times. Quotes every line with the best of ’em.” His eyes glint in the rearview.
Bet she cusses with the best of them too. This is getting gooder and gooder, as I’m sure he’d declare if I give him time.
“So, what do they like best about my movies?”
“Huh?” he asks.
“Your kids—w. . .
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