Brooklyn-born Sandra Hamlin-Rivers resides in a quaint little house in Columbia, S.C. with her wife Lenore Rivers and their two-year-old labradoodle, Riley. She lives less than a half-hour drive from her daughter and only child, Asia, a U.S. army veteran of 21 years.
Sandra is a storyteller. Her gift of storytelling shows up in the form of short stories, plays and screenwriting. She’s a proud Brooklyn College dropout who majored in English and loves to cook. This Easter Sunday, she sits in a back room of her home she calls the art room, dressed in a Beatles T-shirt and navy-blue leggings.
The sound of Mahalia Jackson and Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace album can be heard in the background while the smell of lamb and spring roast chicken permeate the air. She’s preparing dinner for a friend, her daughter and her wife but still manages to find time to speak with qnotes to share tales of her ever-evolving life.
Who is Sandra Hamlin-Rivers?
Sandra Hamlin-Rivers, let’s see. She has a lot of facets. She is passionate, she is sensitive, humanitarian. She’s got a really big giving heart. Well, she’s an Aries. I don’t know if you know much about the zodiac signs, but it’s the first sign in the zodiac. They are said to be courageous, leaders and not having a lot of patience. And because they don’t have a lot of patience, they might be seen as having quick tempers. The thing that gets my temper up the easiest is people. People who are unkind, people are bigoted and people who exclude others who they think may be beneath them. In my perfect world, we’d all love each other, we’d all feed each other and embrace each other. In my perfect world.
If your partner had to describe you in one word, what word do you think she’d use?
She would say passionate. Brilliant. Pick a word. I don’t know, which is the better word? She says both of those words quite often.
That must make you feel good. Do you agree with her?
Well, I am passionate about everything I think and feel. I don’t really see myself as brilliant… umm… I see myself as an observer.
How long have you been married?
12 years. She’s a great supporter of me.
So, you’re originally from Brooklyn. As a northerner, what’s it like for you being a mature Black lesbian in the Carolinas?
Oh My God! That’s capital O, capital M, capital G and a lot of exclamation points [laughter]. It’s challenging to say the least.
Do you care to elaborate on that?
On which one? Being Black, being a lesbian? There are many Black lesbians here in the south, but a majority of them come off as though they’re in the closet and fearful. Unlike in the north where I always feel free. I’m gonna make it do what it do, wherever I live. But, it is much easier to go about your normal life in the north than it is here.
Since relocating to Columbia you wrote and directed “Pieces.” Can you talk a little bit about the inspiration for that short film?
Is inspire the right word? It started off as a one-act play that debuted for a Charlotte Black Gay Pride event in 2019. It was so well received, I decided to turn it into a short film and entered it in a few film festivals. It won Freedom Festival International’s Audience Choice award. But originally, there was an incident [I was moved by] when I first got to Columbia.
There was a young white woman. Her house was across the street from my house but on the corner. I came out to walk my dog one day. She came out of her house, saw me from down the street and ran back in. By the time my dog Mr. Twixx and I had gotten to the corner where her house is, she was on the corner with her back to me and wearing a t-shirt that had a giant Confederate flag on the back. She was pretending to check her mailbox. I thought to myself what if I — this big, Black, lesbian woman was somewhere, like on a plane or a bus, where there was nowhere to go. What if I were part of Black Lives Matter and wearing a Black Lives Matter t-shirt? Would she be so brazen? If there wasn’t anywhere to go, we’d be forced to sit together, then what? I thought maybe we should have a conversation. People would get a much better understanding [of each other] if they just sparked conversation with each other and communicated some things. I just really think a lot of the hate would dissipate once we communicated and realized how much we actually have in common. “Pieces” is based on those what ifs.
Are you working on any new plays or films?
I am. A film and a play. I am in pre-production, I guess you could say, for a short film called “Envy,” which actually has to do with a homeless woman. My other project is a play, and it’s called “The White Incident.” It’s about two families named White. One family is white and one family is Black and hilarity ensues. I like to write and have teachable moments in my writing, but I always try to infuse humor because these subjects about race and sexuality can be very tense. Infusing a lot of humor makes it easier to go down.
Are there other ways you channel your creativity outside of writing?
I paint, I sew and I love cooking. I love cooking and making people come over to eat. I don’t really have to make them, but I just love cooking for people. It’s therapeutic, and it makes people happy. Especially cake, cake is definitely happy food. They say the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, but the way to everyone’s heart is through the stomach. At least that’s how I see it.
When you look back on 30-year-old Sandra Hamlin-Rivers, what surprises you most about who you are today?
I think the writing and that people like my writing. In my 30s I was acting. I did a lot of theatre and some film in my 30s. So, every time someone says, “this is good,” I’m like, really? I’m very critical of myself. I am my biggest critic. In my 30s I was perhaps more arrogant. Most people in their 30s call them new people because they know everything; you can’t tell them anything, and you couldn’t tell me nothing when I was 30. But today, I’d second guess myself. I’m not as apt to just say, oh yeah, this is it! I think I have humbled myself and now I think, I hope this is it.
As a senior member of the LGBT community what would you want to share with the new people, the younger LGBT community?
Put your cell phone down and take a minute to stop and smell the roses.
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