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On New Year’s Eve I learned that a couple I was close to for years, parents of a friend I had from college until my early 40s, had voted for the Hate Monger. I knew they’d had a souring experience that had nudged them to the right, but I wouldn’t have guessed how far adrift they’d gone. They are a white couple and have many children, two of whom are married to POC. Yet they voted for a man who would happily deport one of those in-laws and would see the other as representing a country he accuses of cheating and mistreating the US. They have daughters. Yet they voted for a man who actively harms women and can’t be trusted to respect or strengthen women’s rights. One of their sons is a small business owner whose insurance likely comes from the ACA. Yet they voted for a man who vowed to get rid of that legislation on his first day in office.

The souring experience? Their youngest son missed out on an opportunity years ago … and they decided that what should rightfully have been his had been denied him because of Affirmative Action.

Yes.

Their youngest son is smart and capable. I’m sure he’d have taken complete and successful advantage of that opportunity. Do I automatically assume he was more deserving of that opportunity than any of the people who actually received it? No, but he’s not my son. Still, it’s a significant leap of faith.

Anger over Affirmative Action doesn’t puzzle me. It’s coming from a very clear and basic place. What should suprise me about that anger is how blatantly racist it is. Think about it: One hundred people are accepted into a program, and maybe five of them are POC. How are you — the angry, left-out soul — certain it’s one of those five POC who “stole” your spot? Why aren’t you assuming it’s one of the 95 white folks?

What was that?

I couldn’t hear you.

You aren’t looking at the white folks because … why?

Oh. You assume they deserve the same gifts and accolades you think you deserve?

Yeah. Thought so.

It’s the thing that always gets caught in my teeth with Affirmative Action haters — that instant assumption that they’d be riding high if it weren’t for some POC bogarting their position. And you know, maybe those five POC did take a white person’s place. But who said it was your place? Can we just acknowledge that there could have been dozens — nay, hundreds — of more qualified white folks ahead of you in line? Don’t forget the glistening, high-court-confirmed mediocrity of Abigail Fisher.

And while that youngest son moved on — is still moving on — his parents set their hair on fire and have let it burn to this day. Hearing about the end result of their anger and resentment made me wonder. Their bitterness drove them to embrace the same presidential candidate as the Ku Klux Klan, as the Neo Nazis. Could this loss for their child really have turned them from staunch Democrats to hardline Republicans? They’ve been on this path a while, voted for both McCain and Romney. Could their son’s disappointment really have been the initial push?

Were they sliding to the right all those years when they smiled in my face and welcomed me into their home? Did they question whether I had earned any of my successes? Did they see those as gifts, handed to me because I was Black?

I was close to their daughter for more than 20 years. She and I went to college together, studied abroad together. We moved to New York at about the same time, went to grad school around the same time. She stayed in academia, and I became a teacher, but we were still in each other’s lives. I was in her wedding and attended her sister’s.

When I think now about my interactions with her parents, they all become suspect. If their daughter hadn’t gotten into the college where we met, I would be exactly the kind of person they would have blamed for her failure, the kind of person they would have accused of stealing her seat. If I had gone to Paris junior year and she hadn’t been accepted into the program, would their anger have bubbled up then? Would they have assumed I’d taken her place?

Fortunately for their ability to maintain a relationship with me all those years, they always found me lacking. I am a collection of things they wouldn’t want to see in their kids. I’m not their style of clever. I’m fat. I’m not ambitious. I didn’t get a Ph.D. I didn’t get married. I’m childless. Did they treat me well because I posed no kind of competitive threat to any of their children? How quickly would they have turned on me had any of the facts of our lives put me ahead of my friend on the path to their idea of success?

I guess what I want to know is: how long? For how long was this belief in the inferiority of POC finding a warm, safe home in their hearts? How long was racial prejudice alive and well in these people I thought of as second parents?

Prejudice doesn’t just appear from nowhere. One of the scripts I’m working on for Adventures in Racism is about how children learn prejudice and how — or if — they can unlearn it. It’s been a challenging script for me because I keep waiting for the light-bulb moment, the bright flash of realization that will show me how to “unteach” those kids … but it doesn’t come because there’s no handy movie magic to solve this problem.

I was in kindergarten the first time I met people who disliked me because of my color. We were five, but my classmates had already learned their lessons well. I have since had the same experience with children even younger. Kids learn early. So, did my friend’s parents have seeds planted in childhood?

But prejudice isn’t only learned in childhood. It’s just as easy to internalize, over time, the steady drumbeat of inferiority that is the narrative surrounding Black people, particularly in this country.

Still. Something existed in both of these people before The Great Disappointment. Something strong. Something that made blaming people of color their first response to misfortune, something that instinctively spat up the assumption that an undeserving Black or brown person was being lifted up in their son’s stead.

This isn’t the first time I’ve seen or learned of someone I know fully blossoming into their racial hatred. But in those other instances, those people showed early signs — I can’t really be surprised to find a friend from high school posting racist memes about Mr. My President when, in 8th grade, she explained that she found Mick Jagger so sexy … except for his “nasty nigger lips.” Those early warning signs were helpful. I knew exactly who I was dealing with, how far to trust them, just how much not to let down my guard. This change in my friend’s parents — despite taking effect over many years — feels like an ambush.

I don’t know if I’ll see anyone from that family again. It’s been 12 or 13 years now since those friendships ended. I have a hard enough time thinking of what I’d say to my former friend, to her siblings — people with whom I still, presumably, have things in common. I can’t imagine having anything to say to her parents.

Maya Angelou’s quote keeps running through my head: “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” But these people never showed me who they really were. And that’s the thing that’s poking me. That “how long?” really has its foot on my neck.

In the end, it can’t matter. People I felt deep affection for harbored ugly, racist beliefs. Maybe the whole time I knew them, maybe only toward the end of that time. It can’t matter … still, I feel cheated. I feel as if they’ve stolen something from me, my memories of them, all the ways they made me smile — their jokes, their chaotic family meals, their insistence on having large pets in a house full of expensive artwork and delicate antiques — all of that is made grimy by the truth of who they are.

I see them now. And no repetition is required. I believe them this first time.


Two essays down in this 52-essay challenge!

And don’t forget to head over to Two Writing Teachers to see what other folks are posting for Slice of Life Tuesday!

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Last year my friend, the relentless writer and unfailingly generous, tough-loving writing instructor/mentor, Vanessa Mártir, was inspired to take on the challenge of writing and posting an essay a week. I watched her progress with awe and am joining the ranks of hundreds of writers who have taken up the challenge for 2017. (No, really. Hundreds. It’s amazing! It’s also not too late to join, and it would be fabulous to have you on this journey!)

And so, kicking things off with some writing about writing, here’s my first essay. Let the wild ride begin!


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Learning to Walk All Over Again

When I went to VONA in 2014, I was pretty clear about what I was doing and where I needed to be moving with my comic. I was overwhelmed by how the project had mushroomed into something enormous, even more overwhelmed by the amount of drawing that lay ahead of me. I was hoping Mat’s graphic novel workshop would help me understand comics better, that I’d leave with a clearer idea of how the graphic memoir I’d begun could be shaped, that I’d leave ready to dive deeper and get the work done.

As it happened (big surprise), I knew just about nothing. The memoir I thought I was writing turned out to be not a memoir but, instead, a whole other thing. I left VONA with one bright, glittering idea: I was going to write and draw a series of essays about racism. The idea was new and shiny … and I had not the first idea what it meant or how I had any chance of making it happen.

The idea that I was writing essays that took my personal experiences as their jumping off points felt 100 percent right, made so much more sense than writing a memoir. When I’d created my memoir comics, I’d stumbled again and again over a) my insistence on keeping all the comics short¹ and b) my desire to branch out from my story, to write more than memoir. I’d had to reel myself in with each successive revision. Thinking about essays wouldn’t answer the first point, but would resolve the second entirely.

I’d read some not-a-memoir graphic nonfiction – Brooke Gladstone and Josh Neufeld’s The Influencing Machine had been the most recent, and I thought I understood how to approach the writing. Of course, I’d thought that when I’d started making Adventures, back at the very beginning. I struggled. Hard. I thought that, since I’ve written so much fiction and memoir, the writing would be the easy part. I know how to tell a story about myself. It’s one of my favorite things to do! But even with the first comic, the 4-page, oh-you’re-so-articulate story, I ran into problems. I had to scrap and restart several times. But I started to figure it out.

When I began writing my first essay script, I thought I’d learned enough, all I needed to know, about the writing part of comics. Essays about race? Wasn’t that totally my wheelhouse? Wasn’t that what I’d been writing off and on since starting my blog?

Guess again. My first drafts were more picture books than comics, and disappointing ones at that. Pages of almost solid text dotted with the occasional unnecessary image – usually just a drawing of me talking. I just know you’d be running to Midtown Comics for that one!

I looked at those early drafts, then thought about some of the things I’d learned in Mat’s workshop – about the work the images need to do, about being greedy with space, spreading text out over a series of panels. I started again.

It’s interesting how quickly I fell back into my original mindset about how to write for comics. I realized as I worked through the next draft that I was, once again, trying to write the essay first and then fit some images in with what I’d written. It really – REALLY – doesn’t work that way. But I’m so stubborn, I just turn right back to my old way, and it took me three lousy drafts to recognize it.

The size of this project overwhelmed me when it was a memoir. It has, at the very least, doubled in size now that it’s a collection of essays. And that’s daunting. I’m a slow artist, and some of the images I envision are well beyond my fledgling skills. But I’m excited for the work. It feels more right with every script draft, more like exactly what I should be doing.

This is still a new form for me – comics in general and these essays in particular. I feel as if I am having to learn the basics every single day. There are beautiful, powerful role models to learn from everywhere – most recently my fascination/obsession/minimal-text-envy love for Marjorie Liu and Sana Takeda’s stunning Monstress

I have so very much to learn. But I’m here for it. So much so that I’m even considering sending myself to a town I have no desire to visit to take what looks like an excellent comics course. And yesterday I submitted an application for a late-summer residency: two weeks of nothing to do but write (and maybe draw) Adventures. Yes, that feels exactly right.


I’ve decided that I’ll try to post my essays on Tuesdays, that way, I can get back to consistent participation in the Slice of Life story challenge!

Head over to Two Writing Teachers to see what everyone else is writing!

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__________

¹ Why was I so adamant about that? I am nothing if not long-winded!
² If you haven’t read this yet, get on that. Pronto!

Nine years ago today, I woke up surrounded by boxes, the sound of my kittens chasing each other up and down the length of my new apartment.

I’d moved in on December 30th, surely one of the worst times of year to move. I got lucky, though: no snow, no ice, a brilliantly sunny day. And the move went super smoothly. I’d hired a real company for the first time, not 1) a man-with-a-van (though that nice Russian van-man who’d helped me three moves prior had been great), or 2) a fly-by-night mover who uses 20 rolls of tape to “secure” your already taped boxes and charges you double the normal price for each one … and still manages to break stuff getting your boxes into your new space. No. I’d hired a for-real mover. And the difference was absolute. I’d never had such a stress-free move.

Still, when they left, I just sat on my bed staring. So many boxes. And only two days before I had to be back at work. And where were my clothes?

But then I woke up on New Year’s Eve. Yes, surrounded by boxes, but so relieved. I was in a space so much bigger than my old apartment, so much more like a home than my old apartment. I was in a place with all of my things — unlike having most of my furniture in storage for the whole time I’d lived in my old apartment. Yes, it was a mess, and I had a lot of box-living to do until I sorted it all out, but it felt good. I woke up smiling.

Nine years is a long time for me to live somewhere. A LONG time. When I first moved to New York, I was moving pretty much every year. Really. I lived in one apartment only six months … and that was 5½ months too long — it was a terrible place! That year-after-year pulling up of stakes meant that I never really unpacked because I knew I was probably going to move again in a short while, so what would be the point? That’s a way to make your whole life feel impermanent. And, while there’s probably something spiritual and meaningful about that, it’s also a lousy way to live. For me, anyway.

Today, my kittens, are 9½-year-old cats. I have added new furniture to the beloved pieces I took out of storage. I’ve added more bookshelves. I’ve set up my sewing table. I’ve framed (some) pictures and put them on (some of) the walls. I’ve gotten to know neighbors. I’ve settled in. I live here. And there aren’t a lot of things that could make me happier.


I’m saying goodbye to 2016 remembering my arrival in my cozy abode and looking forward to a deep dive into my writing and other creativities in 2017. Get ready for #52essays2017! I hope you’ll all join me!

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Clearing my throat.

And so I’ve suddenly found my way back to this space. My posts haven’t been particularly interesting or special, but it’s felt good to be here. I’ve been wondering what’s pushing me to post — because it has felt as if I’ve been compelled to be here, compelled to hit that “publish” button. So what’s that about?

It’s not really that complicated, is it? I mean, look what’s happened in the last several weeks. If you know me, you can easily imagine that I have many thoughts and feelings about the results of the election, about what the next four years are going to bring, about the long-term devastating effects of whatever is coming in these four years. I did some writing on FB right after November 8th, my initial howls of rage. And then I went a bit silent, re-posting plenty but not saying much of my own.

Now Vanessa‘s essay-writing challenge has called my name. As a result, I’ll be spending a LOT of time here. I don’t know if any of us — you, me, WordPress — is ready for all that!

When V took on this essay-a-week challenge last year, she called the project “The Relentless Files.” I love that name, and love the idea of naming this work. I spent some time yesterday trying to think of a name to use for my take on this challenge. I realize that for me #52essays2017 is about committing to the work, to showing up on the page every day, getting the words down, pushing myself further. I have so much to say and am regularly frustrated by how little time I spend writing. The only way to change that is to change it. And that’s what this challenge represents for me. Thinking about Formation and Bey singing, “I dream it, I work hard, I grind ’til I own it,” and my love of alliteration created the name for this challenge: GriotGrind. Because this challenge is about nothing if it isn’t about getting on my grind and doing the work. And yes, I made myself a little banner/logo/name-thing to post with each essay:

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(It’s everything: a picture from Jamaica, a fountain pen, a notebook, a griot name, a red herring … )

Yeah. You’re not wrong. I’m spending a lot of these last days before 2017 just playing around with this challenge idea. I’m trying to make it seem less scary, so that when the clock strikes midnight Sunday, I pick up my pen instead of putting my head in the sand for a year. So the more I create silly logos and brainstorm ways to get through the next 52 weeks, the more likely I am to keep trying to make it through.

 

Girding my loins …

Only a few days until the Writing Our Lives #52essays2017 challenge begins! Time to prepare! First a little background. The “Writing Our Lives” part? That’s the name of the personal essay/memoir/creative nonfiction workshop created and taught by the incomparable, relentless Vanessa Mártir. I’ve never actually taken V’s class, but I’ve watched it longingly from afar, following its growth and the growth of its writers. I’ve been writing essays for a long time at this point, but I still flirt with the idea of signing up for WOL. I know V would push me to get out of my way … more quickly and more than I push myself. She would see the scrims I put up between my words and the deepest truth and call me on that nonsense. If you’re in NYC, I would definitely recommend checking out WOL.

I’ve never taken on a year-long writing challenge. I’ve done numerous month-long challenges, and I’ve successfully completed several NaNoWriMo novels. And I always learn the same thing from each challenge: when I push myself to write more and to write regularly, my writing improves. In each case, I feel as if my brain became more attuned to writing. Ideas flowed more easily because my brain settled into its “writer” space — and I didn’t give it time to slip out.

This shouldn’t be a surprise. After all, it’s what I told my students every year that I was a writing teacher. I believed it then. I knew it then. It’s interesting to find how easily — and repeatedly — I have let myself forget it when it comes to my own work.

I imagine this essay challenge having a similar effect. While the essays themselves may not be spectacular, what they will do to my writing muscles will be. So, as my title proclaims, I’m getting ready, prepping for battle. I’ve started brainstorming a list of possible essays topics. The list is all over the place … which will certainly keep things varied. Some of the items on that brainstorm list are already scaring the crap out of me … I think that means one of them needs to be the first essay I take on. Something about diving into fear seems like the right way to get started.

Certainly it’s possible that I’ll manage to get one essay posted in Week One … and then fall by the wayside for the rest of the year. But that seems unlikely — if only because I have called myself out loudly and proudly with my announcement graphic!

I’m afraid of this challenge, but I’m excited for it, too!

#52essays2017

Yes, my title is an homage. And the challenge is an Everest-sized mountain I’ll attempt to scale this coming year. Wish me luck, folks, wish me luck!

Would you like to take on this challenge, too? I’ve been inspired this past year by the powerful work of my friend Vanessa. Just as I was thinking, “Oh, maybe I’ll take a cue from V and write an essay a month in 2017,” she posted a challenge invite, and I couldn’t resist joining. Check out the details.

And I made this announcement image on canva.com!


So, it’s a Tuesday. That means it’s a Slice of Life day! Click over to Two Writing Teachers to see what’s up with the other slicers!

In honor of 2017 being the 10th year of the Slice of Life Story Challenge, and in honor of the fact that I’ve participated since the first year of the challenge, Stacey (one of the creators of the challenge) made me my very own Slicer badge!

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In which my title really doesn’t make any sense but is, instead, a lame attempt at a pun.

I was in a waiting room today. A doctor’s office waiting room. With lots of magazines, but also lots of books. There’s a shelf full of a rotating collection of random reading material. Today, I saw a book called Ageism and picked it up, not because I had any intention of reading about ageism, but because I thought it would make a good text for me to try another erasure poem. That’s right. I haven’t let this go yet. Wanted to give it a try using the directions for a change. So, while I waited to be called for my appointment, I poked through a couple of pages and picked out some words and phrases. Here’s the result:

Undiminished 

Implicit stereotypes are probably
Not diminished
If anything
The process of bias seems reasonable
Automatic assumptions strengthen
Following unpleasant words
Suggested in context
Regardless of evidence.

Attitudes
Not fully addressed
Join visible markers
Common discourse
Discriminatory language, comments, judgement
All context
Regardless of evidence.

Okay. I can see the value of following the instructions for how to “find” one of these poems. This one actually makes sense, unlike the ones I wrote when I was only getting a piece of the instructions right. (Somewhere, my sister Fox is shaking her head in despair, wondering when her family will ever learn to read directions before starting.)

And now that I’ve followed the rules … I may be done. We’ll see. This did give me some things to think about, however. The words, “the process of bias” practically leapt off the page at me. The process of bias. Yeah. I want to sit with that a while. Last weekend, my writers’ group critiqued the new script I’m working on for Adventures in Racism, and I’ve been thinking about the question I’m grappling with in that comic — how children learn prejudice and whether or how they can unlearn it. The process of bias. Yes. So much to think about here. Maybe this is the path I’ve been dumbly and divinely stumbling along through this whole erasure poem process … keep futzing around until I get back to Adventures, until my mind refocuses on my work.