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Magical things happen when you keep a “yes” on standby for unexpected blessings. On Saturday, I accepted an invitation from my friend Eva at Soca Mom to attend a literary brunch at Salamander Resort in Middleburg, Virginia. Did I know what it was for or where it was going to be? No! All I heard was “books” and “brunch,” and that’s all I needed. The experience was more than I could have planned.
Morgan Stanley sponsors a diversity partnership with publisher Simon & Schuster to hold readings by multicultural authors around the country. Their Harlem-based brunch is a longstanding hit. The brunch they held on Saturday at Salamander Resort was the first at that location, and the only one within earshot of the DC area. The event is the brainchild of Morgan Stanley Managing Director (and children’s book author) Sandra L. Richards. I was delighted to be there.
Meeting my heroes and adding some new ones
Eva, our friend, Rae of Untitled 1975, and I walked into an elegant room filled with Morgan Stanley executives and their various guests. Salamander staff served us orange mimosas and pomegranate mimosas, along with our choices of tea or coffee. I chose a verbena mint tea from the cache offered in a stylish box. Impressed, I was. For brunch itself, we ate a winter fruit salad tossed in a light lime dressing, and berry-topped pancakes with a side of thick-cut bacon. But my favorite part? When we chose our table, a bag of books awaited us! They gave us copies of Ntozake Shange’s newest book, Wild Beauty: New and Selected Poems; National Book Award-nominated Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge, by Erica Armstrong Dunbar; and Jason Reynolds’ Long Way Down.
Anyone who knows me knows that I would’ve been happy just to get free books. But I got to meet Jason Reynolds, Erica Armstrong Dunbar, and Ntozake Shange after they each read from their new books! They graciously signed and personalized the books for everyone in the room. Jason Reynolds particularly moved me when he talked about how the privileged people in the room desperately needed to see misnamed “thugs” as humans. He came out and let the chopper spray! When I told him I was a writer, he gladly took my business card and wrote, “Don’t forget me when you blow up,” on my book.
At one point in the presentation, though, I almost got choked up. Let me tell you that my master’s thesis in African-American literature focused on Black Arts Movement poetry, and specifically the ways Black women poets infused African-centered spirituality into their works. One of my chapters led me to thoroughly immerse myself into Ntozake Shange’s famed choreopoem, for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf. I didn’t know Ms. Shange was going to be at the reading. When they introduced her, I almost fell out my chair. She’s a heroine of mine, for real. She has been in poor health, so she was unable to sign books, but I did get to take a photo with her. I had stars in my eyes, I think.
Salamander Resort: a Black woman’s vision
Salamander Resort is a 168-room luxury mansion hotel owned by Sheila Johnson. Ms. Johnson is the co-founder of BET. But throughout the brunch, she mingled with guests as if she wasn’t worth $700 million dollars. She casually stood next to me and my friends and asked us if we’d been to the stables yet. We just had to go see the culinary gardens because they were amazing, she said. What was really amazing was this butterscotch scone Salamander had slipped in our bags. Now, THAT was a $700-million-dollar cookie!
Later, in the resort-mansion’s “living room,” I saw Sheila Johnson flitting about, picking up guests’ empty glasses, and I marveled. Did these White folks know who she was?? That kind of lightness to your step while you’re serving people can only come from knowing you are worth more than them and their ancestors combined. A smile that says you don’t have to do this for your rent, and you don’t have to worry about anyone calling the manager on you for looking unserious. Because you are the owner.
It does unnerve me that I was so awestruck by a wealthy person. We had seen Ms. Johnson walking along the street in downtown Middleburg on our way to the resort. I joked to my mother that I was surprised she doesn’t levitate from place to place, buoyed by all her money. How does one even begin to fathom being “worth” millions in assets? What kind of capitalist system allows for this kind of insane richness and debasing poverty with the same “great” country? Surely, my/our enthrallment with wealth and wealthy people in this country maintains that gap. It is both aspirational and envious. Wealthy people are just like us, goes the saying… until they have the means to be different.
Studying bougie, rich, and wealthy people is fun AF
The guests at Salamander were mostly White, but this didn’t surprise me. We were in the kiss-your-cousins backwoods of Virginia. The townspeople reportedly fought for years to keep Ms. Johnson from opening the resort in their quaint little town. But she’s there now and so are they, at a lavish Black-owned resort where their children and dogs feel welcome. (Some of the dogs in there had haircuts more expensive than mine. Living their BEST canine lives!)
I saw an employee open the patio door, which led to an expansive grounds that stretched into the pinkening horizon. She returned with an adorable black and white shaggy pony who bore the mortifying name “Cupcake.” Cupcake was no taller than the back of the elegant sofa he stood behind. He moved not a single inch as children and adults flocked to take pictures and pet him. I expected no less.
I people watched in awe. Women and men milled about wearing riding habits, holding wine glasses, drinking Perrier water. It doesn’t quite embarrass me to say I’m new to the experience of people wearing leggings and riding boots to ride an actual horse and not an Uber. I was, on the other hand, rather self-conscious of my awe. Act like you’ve been somewhere before, I told myself. My eyes bugged at the floor-to-ceiling bookcases and cozy fireplace reading nooks. Everyone else in the room looked unaffected–by their own wealth or by the carefully curated beauty in every room. An insouciant Asian lady with a spectacular, black felt fedora cocked on her head kept stealing long glances at me and my friends. We amused ourselves by inventing all the reasons she could have for pressing her lips into so thin a line.
However, the children fascinated me the most.
I called them “free-range children,” because, unlike the dogs, they ran around freely without leashes while their parents chit-chatted. They treated the living room as though it was actually in their own homes. These kids were thoroughly unimpressed by the luxury spread around them. And that’s when I realized–it’s because luxury is their baseline. Anyone who can afford to bring children to a luxury horse, wine, and spa resort deems such a place “not too fancy” for kids. I would never bring my children there because I wouldn’t be able to enjoy it as much. I’d want to experience all that finery for myself and fully lean into it.
These free-range children literally chased each other around the 10-foot Christmas tree. They clambered up the expensive couch in their Burberry Mary Janes. And no adult tugged them down onto their bottoms, or yanked them close by to hotly whisper a speech about climbing on “these people’s good furniture.” Perhaps the parents have not always seen “the good furniture” as mere furniture, but their children certainly do.
Maybe you could argue that they were kids just being kids, and that’s certainly a possibility. But children from backgrounds like mine, wearing a particular skin color, do not just get to “be kids” in places like that. If we even get to be in the room at all.
My friends and I talked about those rooms on the way home. How do people find themselves in privileged spaces like the literary brunch, full of business executives and connections, without already being connected? We all felt lucky to be at Salamander, yet fully cognizant of the fact that we were no less worthy than the smallest child digging her heels into Sheila Johnson’s settee.
All in all, I had a really pixie-coated day. I drank in every detail I could. Not to blog it, but because I have no idea when I’ll ever be in a place like that around people like that again. Eva, Rae, and I fantasized about throwing writer-centered events at Salamander one day. Who knows if we ever will? Either way, we’ll always have brunch!