Donna - Class of '61 by Preston Thomas

Donna, Class of '61 | © PRESTON LEWIS THOMAS

Donna, Class of '61 | © PRESTON LEWIS THOMAS

This is Donna, sitting in front of her brand new computer. She found out that her alma mater, John Adams High School, had a website that would allow her to get in touch with her former classmates. That sounded like great fun, so off to the store she went, and now she owns it.

Donna has never really used a computer.

She takes a seat at the table directly across from me. She removes everything from her bag: laptop, power adapter, mouse, mouse pad, and quick start manual and places it all right in front of her. Donna takes one look at my laptop, her eyes light up and she says “Oh! You have a Sony, and I have a Sony. Do you think you could teach me how to use mine?”

I had work to finish, but I couldn’t say no. So for the next hour I did my best to help Donna reconnect to the John Adams High School Class of ’61. After a seriously abridged explanation of computers, internet and WiFi, and a couple of failed log in attempts, we were in!

From the John Adams website, the Beatles tune “When I’m Sixty-Four” began to play.
Donna says, “I always liked that song. I think it’s their best…”

I never liked that song, but, I kept that to myself.

A Spy in the House of Dance by Preston Thomas

Late night rehearsals at Chicago Multi-Cultural Dance Center. I would often hang out with the moms and the dancers and photograph whatever was going on. Every now and again, I would play around with a bit of video.

The school is very different now... I miss what once was.

One evening, I decided to gather my video snippets together and add my own soundtrack. The music is a piece I composed and performed titled Melody for the Rain and Fog.

The Staring Contest by Preston Thomas



I park next to him in the CVS lot, just across the street from Starbucks, my intended destination.
At a glance, I can see that he’s one of four kids and two adults. He looks directly at me and maintains his gaze as I walk past their vehicle. When I return, having aquired my brownie and triple espresso, he once again locks eyes on me. I decide to return the stare. Game on.

I hop in my car, close the door and instantly turn my head to face my opponent. I narrow my eyes and raise one brow, telegraphing my thoughts “you ain’t gonna win, son.”

Then, he cheats.
My adversary has no scruples.

He rests his chin on the window seal. His eyes soften and widen and he fires a laser beam – that innocent and disarming kid smile.
It’s a direct hit. He’s a sneaky little S.O.B.

I can feel the involuntary grin spreading across my face, and I instinctively reach for my camera. He sees the camera and leans forward just a bit. What a ham! I quickly make a couple of photographs. I want to show my “competitor turned new found friend” what I’ve captured, but most parents ain’t thrilled about the idea of strange men approaching them with pictures of their kids. I decide to stay put.

It then occurs to me that for the entirety of this interaction, not one other person in the car with him has paid either of us any attention.
I put a pin in this thought.

I throw him a smile.
He waves.
I wave back, and drive off.

During the short trip home, I’m visited by a tumult of thoughts. I find that I can’t shake the fact that it’s not the best time to be a young Black boy in the US of A.

A quote from the great James Baldwin comes to mind:
“It comes as a great shock… to discover that the flag to which you have pledged allegiance… has not pledged allegiance to you.”

I just want the kid to grow up.

Blessings and Light by Preston Thomas



We passed her sitting on a bench just inside the gates on the Cathedral grounds. Her hands outstretched, hoping to receive. A beggar on the threshold of the house of the Lord. I stared at her as we continued inside, unsure of the proper etiquette. 8:30am and already well into the 80s, fahrenheit, that is. It only took a few short minutes for my shirt to become soaking wet and paste itself to my skin.

I stood in back of the Cathedral, quietly making photographs as services began. When the word “Oramos” (Let us Pray) was spoken, she entered, her gait slightly unsteady, but without hesitation, and walked right down the middle aisle, stopping just about center.

She bowed her head and joined the others in prayer.

“Amen…” and in the same fashion she entered, she turned right around and marched back to the doorway, then paused. She placed her hands on the door frame and leaned slightly forward into the light. I captured this moment just before she stepped back out into the world.

Outside, she took her place on the bench, and all was as it was before. Hands outstretched to passers by, hoping to receive.

A beggar on the threshold of the house of the Lord…
With Blessings.


God Must Be A Boogie Man by Preston Thomas



This man, homeless and finding slumber in perhaps one of the few places that gave him comfort, the entrance to a church.

For me, this circumstance juxtaposed with the words carved in stone, God Is Love, seemed ironic and cruel,
and instantly brought these haunting lyrics about the great, and troubled Charles Mingus to mind:

He is three
One’s in the middle so unmoved
To show what he sees
To the other two
To the one attacking so afraid
And the one that keeps trying to love and trust
And getting himself betrayed
In the plan, oh…
The divine plan
God must be a Boogie Man ”
Joni Mitchell, God Must Be a Boogie Man

Livin' for the City by Preston Thomas



Street Drummers in Chicago.
We all find ways to pay the rent.

Sitting on the steps of the Art Institute along with people from every walk of life, listening to these Brothers play… enjoying the moments. I couldn’t help but think, “had these men been encountered anywhere else, what would be the response?”

A cursory glance beyond the plastic buckets reveals three serious examples of Black masculinity. The fear of a Black hat – reasons to enslave, to jail, to lynch, to castrate, or to hide the white women… which I guess you really don’t have to do if you do those other things.

These days, when it is so easy for us to find ourselves incarcerated or dead for “Living While Black”, I realized I was a bit worried about these cats whose beats and rhythms had me happily bobbing my head and stomping my feet.

All around me a multiplicity of local humans were unanimously hooked on this impromptu performance. This food, clothing, and shelter concert in 4/4, 6/8, and sweat.

Morning Light... 314 Aguila Street, Havana by Preston Thomas



The seventh floor flat we rented had an easterly view, perhaps a bit south of east. Each morning, the sun slowly snaked around the buildings and through the streets of this old city, bringing shadow and light. An appropriate paradox.

Our flat was in Central Havana, a simple neighborhood populated by local folks and scant few tourists. This was just fine. On the street, quiet mornings quickly gave way to the daily “get down” of life in La Habana. School kids, taxis, fruit mongers, construction workers, and shops filled with craftsmen that will repair any and everything… while you get a haircut.

We decided our neighborhood was “sketchy”, but safe. The sketchy part? There was some kind of hustle happening around every corner, folks with stuff to sell. People tryin’ to put a little extra paper in their pockets, or what one should expect in a country with an average monthly salary of $25. The most common offers were of bootleg cigars and weed, followed by cocaine, which I seriously doubt was actually cocaine, and women who promised to make your moments with them ever so memorable for the low, low price of…

I wasn’t mad at ‘em, though. How could I be? I’m from a country built on the kidnapping, blood, sweat, rape, and lynching of people who looked just like me. People who, after their so called emancipation, had nothing but a hustle to live on. Naw, I wasn’t mad at all.

Our guide and companion, our Alejandra, left us at the end of each long, beautiful, and exhausting day by hopping into some random 1950s taxi, already filled with strangers, often men, and riding off into the night. My friend and I never got used to this. It went against every lesson, every cautionary tale, and every survival instinct we’d absorbed during our lives as Black men living in the US. You do NOT send a woman home by herself. And you certainly do not allow her to get into a car full of strange men in the middle of the night… unless, of course, you’re in Havana.

Alejandra, all of 23 years old, a Theatre History professor, an actress who has been in her share of telenovelas, and has performed in a number of The Bard’s plays, and who recited Puck’s closing monologue from A Midsummer Night’s Dream to me one afternoon over coffee, would simply smile each time we protested her preferred mode of travel. She would say “Guys, this is normal. This is what we do. It will be fine. See you in the morning. Ciao!” Hugs kisses, and away she would go.

This place.

Samone for the People by Preston Thomas



I can see her from where I’m sitting, in Starbucks. I’d stopped in to make some notes on my upcoming exhibition, reply to a growing number of  emails, and “re-up” on my caffeine. Outside, she stops at the corner, removes her backpack, reaches in and produces a purple t-shirt. She slips this on over her yellow sundress. Before sliding the straps back over her shoulders, she reaches inside once more and retrieves a tablet. Ready.

For the next 15 or 20 minutes, I watch her attempt to engage passersby in conversation, about what, I don’t yet know. She smiles, or waves, or even spreads her arms wide to greet them as they cross the street in her direction. Some flash an uncomfortable grin and pause for a second or two, others politely avoid her, and a few are actually making u-turns. Thankless job. Finally, a guy stops and talks with her for a bit, before coming inside to sit down. I ask him what she’s up to, and he tells me that she’s advocating – trying to raise awareness for and about women’s health issues.

Interest piqued. I grab my camera, head outside and introduce myself. I find out more about what she’s doing, then tell her that I’m happy to make a donation, and ask if will she also allow me to make her photograph. This takes a little convincing, but she finally agrees to a few photos, as soon as she finishes her shift. About half an hour from the moment.

Her name is Samone Jordan. She is 19 years old. She is passionate about this stuff.

Back in Chicago after living in exile at a college in Connecticut, which she files under the category “big mistake”, Samone has found her groove. On the day she was heading down to apply for the job at the agency for which she now works, a woman was stabbed in broad open daylight on the 47th Street train stop. She tells me that when she’s talking about violence, microaggressions, and health challenges women must deal with on a daily basis, people respond as though she’s speaking about something that could happen in the future. A hypothetical…

“That’s why I’m out here. It only takes a minute. People are too occupied with their own lives…”
“My first job is to inform. To help them understand that this (grassroots efforts) can be applied to anything.”

Samone then shares with me some of the responses she gets from men when she tells them what she’d like to talk with them about:
“No thanks, sweetie…”
“Not at this time, honey…”

The expression on her face while she’s sharing this cracks me up.
But, I get it.

We wax on about her plans to return to school, and my photography, life. She then places two fingers against her face. One, just above the brow, the other, against her cheek bone. “Take this picture”, she says with a smile. I ask why and she tells me that she really doesn’t know… she just likes it. It’s funny.

Carry on, Samone.