Wendell Pierce's new memoir 'Wind in the Reeds' explores his New Orleans roots

Actor Wendell Pierce shared excerpts from his new memoir, Wind in the Reeds, with an enraptured audience this past weekend in Brooklyn, New York.

Radio host Terrance McKnight hosted the intimate brunch, which filled Central Brooklyn’s Skylight Gallery. Pierce used his booming baritone to impart stories that were sometimes hopeful, funny, sad or all three.

The book offers a kaleidoscopic look into Pierce’s family tree and a variety of warm and raw anecdotes about growing up in New Orleans’ Pontchartrain Park (aka “Black Mayberry”). It also examines the history of New Orleans and what it’s really like to live there as an artist.

Pierce was equal parts eloquent and animated when he spoke of Congo Square in New Orleans and how enslaved Africans took their “free time” to express themselves with music there.

“They created what we now know as the social justice movement,” Pierce said. “People said ‘I’m gonna find within my art, a way to free my soul and literally free my physical bondage.’ Art is not just a piece of entertainment. In the great tradition of New Orleans, art was always an act of insurrection, an act of rebellion, a social justice movement of social aide and pleasure club. We understand the pleasure part and we can not forget about the social justice part.”

Speaking of art, Pierce took time to explain its importance by sharing an excerpt from the book:

In American culture, we have turned away from an awareness of the prophetic power of art and its role as a means of revealing the hidden order beneath everydayness and its power to transform us and the world. Art tells us who we are and who we must become…Art is how we humans, if only for a moment, experience immortality.

When a teenager asked what advice he would give to a young, black actress interested in film and television roles, Pierce (who has conquered film, television and stage in Waiting to ExhaleThe WireTreme and Waiting for Godot among others) offered her sage words.

“The greatest relationship you will ever have in your life is the relationship you have with your work,” Pierce said.  “Employment doesn’t define you as an artist. You also have to be able to separate the business from the art. Be a great artist and an even greater business woman.”

The memoir is sprinkled with similar encouragement and insight about art and life. One portion reads:

Conquering fear of the unknown gives meaning to the artist’s journey. The creative artist gives form to chaos; part of that process is to bind and subdue the anxiety, even the terror, you have in the face of new challenges to your artistic growth — and then, through your art, show others how to face their fears of the unknown and overcome them.

Pierce had to take some of his own advice when his beloved mother passed away in 2012 while he was in New Orleans filming the HBO show Treme. In an interview with theGrio, Pierce explained how he managed to continue working on the show while grieving his mother’s death.

“I remembered what my mother would always say,” Pierce said. “She said ‘When I die, grieve me for a day and then live your life.’ I knew that continuing to work was the best way to honor her wishes. My mother wouldn’t even visit her own son’s grave at the cemetery. She said ‘We’ll be there soon enough, so now we live. Give me my flowers while I’m alive.’ That’s what helped me get through Treme […]”

Pierce describes his grieving process in loving detail in Wind in the Reeds as well as many other interesting and vulnerable parts of his life. He said that writing his memoir made him acquire a new level of respect for writers, and he intends to definitely write more books.

The book brunch with Pierce is part of the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation’s special fall programming called Project Protest: The Art of Revolution. Upcoming programming includes a bevy of artists of various disciplines such as Sonia Sanchez, Danny Simmons and Rakim. The Project Protest: The Art of Revolution events continue through October 30.

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