The Well-Meaning White Chick

I’ve gotten a lot of responses to the piece I wrote about Maxine Waters. Most have been positive and thought-provoking. And then there have been others …

“Well but it’s very confusing. Because I read this piece and understood it but then today received a fundraising email from the Great Woman herself calling herself Auntie Maxine. Personally I don’t call her that, but it creates confusion in the well-meaning white chick.”

Does anyone remember SodaHead? (No? You can check out Urban Dictionary’s description of the site. It’s exaggerated, but that’s not to say it’s inaccurate …) There was a minute years and years ago when several of my coworkers were obsessed with SodaHead. They talked about the fires they’d start with the mildest bits of push-back on someone’s statement. They talked about how ridiculous and rabid the people on their threads were. I joined for a heartbeat to see for myself. What I saw was exactly as my coworkers had described. I was still surprised—by the level of vitriol, by how quickly and with how little provocation people went on the attack. The most common goals for members seemed to be a) piss off any and everyone who disagreed or just seemed as if they might possibly be disagreeing with your position, b) use circular reasoning and non-sequiturs because you have no real arguments or don’t feel like bothering to do the work to come up with a real argument. After reading for a few days, I dove in. I had this idea that I would mess with everyone’s minds by refusing to fight, by insisting on fostering calm, rational, sane discussion no matter who said what idiotic business to me. It was an interesting exercise, but I tired of it quickly. I don’t think I lasted a full month. There was far too much willingness on the part of other users to say idiotic business. It was exhausting.

That SodaHead exercise turned out to be great practice for the moment we’re in as a country (as a world?) and the way I find myself talking on FB these days. Yes, I can be counted on for a fair amount of snark and some basic, awkwardly-self-conscious clapbacks, but mostly I try to engage, even when people are saying outrageously stupid or triggering things.

When I read that “white chick” comment, I froze for a second. I mean, I’ve been answering all kinds of comments for years now. I’m pretty good at maintaining my calm, trying to leave room for some benefit of the doubt, whatever. But that comment … That comment, with its “well-meaning white chick,” really stopped me, and when I started picking apart what bugged me about it, I remembered the exchanges on SodaHead that I found most troubling.

My most heated SodaHead conversations were about race—which I’m sure is entirely surprising to you, dear reader. There would always be someone who’d insist on shouldering their way into a conversation with a pissy rant about how none of this racism/white supremacy/white privilege stuff had anything to do with them because their people came over from Poland after the second World War and were treated like shit and never owned slaves and pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and why were we still talking about this ancient history because really Black people needed to just get over our mess already.

Whoosah!

Yeah, those comments were always the best tests of my ability to keep my calm-response experiment going. It doesn’t matter how many times some jackass throws that crap into a conversation, my temper immediately reaches critical mass and it’s all I can do to hold back the thermonuclear meltdown. But I started to get good at it during the couple of weeks I spent on SodaHead. I think SodaHead—coupled with many years of teaching—was exactly the preparation I needed to be ready for the kinds of volatile discussions I find myself in these days.

In the end with this woman’s comment, I chose to respond to the “it’s very confusing” part and ignore the “white chick” part. That allowed me to keep my blood pressure in check.

Yes, I could have called on the SodaHead practice I got all those years ago, but my experiment of playing the calm, rational conversationalist was over. Who I am in discussions on race has changed considerably since those days. Since the beginning of the Movement for Black Lives, I’ve granted less emotional and intellectual time and space to people who can’t meet me halfway. Between the killing of Michael Brown on August 9th, 2014 and the refusal, on December 3rd, 2014, to charge Officer Daniel Pantaleo with murder for choking Eric Garner to death, I began to embrace my rage, to stop stuffing it down and hiding it from polite company. That fall, I declared that I would no longer entertain foolishness (see my lists of grievances and demands for some clarification—they’re incomplete, but they’ll give you an idea). There just isn’t time, and I don’t have the energy. What had seemed amusing on SodaHead had become soul-sucking. So I responded to the part of that comment I felt like addressing, and left the rest. Someone else on the thread stepped in and had what to say about the “white chick” part, and that was perfectly fine with me.

So what was my problem, anyway? Was it really all that problematic for to say “the well-meaning white chick”? Isn’t that pretty innocuous, all things considered? Ugh. Guess again. That was a huge red flag for me. Reading that, I felt as if she was trying to shut me down, put me in my place, cut off my response before I had a chance to open my mouth. That sweet little signifier read like an aggressively-loud proclamation. She may as well have said: “Just so you know, I’m one of the good white people, so you’ll look like a bitch—and maybe like an Angry Black Woman—if you come for me. Also? I’m just a little white girl. I’m always innocent, so you know I mean no harm!” (As if white girls haven’t been the cause of so MUCH harm in the lives of Black folks. As if I owe her some special courtesy simply because she claims to be a good white person. Feh.)

Perhaps my being triggered by this woman’s nonsense says a whole lot more about me than it does about her, but I definitely felt a way. That kind of cutesy, dog-whistle-rich disclaimer pisses me right off. The same way “not to be racist, but …” lets you know the speaker is about to say something 100% racist, calling yourself “the well-meaning white chick” tells me you’re about to say something racially problematic, but you want your tender, white-girl feelings to be respected even as you flounce all over my coarse Black-girl feelings.

Other women on the thread came and collected that well-meaning white chick—and I’m just now realizing that it was all women, despite there being plenty of men in that group, and that makes me wonder where the men have been hiding. To be more exact, other women in the group tried to collect that woman. She really wasn’t interested in listening to anyone. Here’s the hissy fit she spit back at folks just before disappearing herself from the group:

“This isn’t about me and my fragility – I can take all you have to dish out and more.  And your misplaced anger will not deter me from doing what I do every single day to try to make this world better for everyone of every race.  Really the only point I was trying to make was this: it’s hard.  Many of us are trying.  I understand that intent isn’t enough, but maybe good intent earns a reaction a step down from utter contempt and nastiness.  I get that POC are angry and that they have every right to be and more.  But when people are really trying, perhaps it’s best not to shame.  Now go ahead and have at me, because I’ll be spending my time today trying to get Virginians and North Carolinans to vote people of color into office.”

That last line couldn’t be more spectacular. It’s so fabulous. Just in case we didn’t believe she was as well-meaning a white chick as she already told us she was, she lets us know that she doesn’t have time for our ugliness because she’ll be out in the world helping the misbegotten souls of Virginia and North Carolina elect some poor, downtrodden Black folk into office. Now who’s a jerk, huh? I mean, she’s trying. She’s trying so hard, and all we have for her is contempt and some hard lessons she doesn’t want to hear? It’s as if we can’t see how hard she’s trying.

In truth, I’m not surprised by this foolishness. Really not. I pretty much assumed this would be the most common response to my essay. I’d had the audacity to tell white people there was something they couldn’t do, some word they couldn’t have, something that Black folks could do but I didn’t think white folks should be allowed to do. That’s pretty much an invitation for indignant white folks to stand up and wrap their arms around the thing I’ve told them to step away from. Of course. The fact that this kind of response has turned out to be the exception rather than the rule pleases me enormously.

That “well-meaning white chick” comment caught me so off guard. Not because I think I’ve heard everything and therefore nonsense like that shouldn’t anger me. If only. I continue to be human. I hear new foolishness every day, and bullshit still irks the crap out of me. No, my surprise was at the complete whiteness of that comment, the utter, unabashed, controlling whiteness, tossed in so casually to set the parameters in which that woman was willing to engage with me. And that’s what shocked me, that assumption of power, that assumption of having the right to tell me that I had to give in to her demands—for room, for grace, for the benefit of the doubt—if I wanted her to stay in the conversation. This way of performing whiteness is hardly well-meaning, and it’s completely exhausting.

SodaHead taught me how to poke at the trolls of an earlier era, how to keep calm and come with receipts. But it didn’t prepare me for sneak attacks of toxic whiteness. That woman’s comment woke me up. I think I’m ready for whatever ugliness folks want to throw my way, but I need to stay vigilant. This right here is not the time for complacency. White Supremacy always has its eyes wide open, always has its ears to the ground. And I have to put the same time and attention into being equally on top of my game.


I’m following Vanessa Mártir’s lead, she launched #52essays2017 after writing an essay a week in 2016 … and then deciding to keep going.
I’m months behind on my #GriotGrind, and it’s unlikely that I’ll write 52 essays by year’s end. But I’ve written more this year than in the last two combined, and that adds up to a solid WIN in my book! Get ready for #52essays2018!

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La Impostora Regresa

Wednesday was a great day. An essay I worked hard on and was proud of was published on The Rumpus. I was (and am) crazy-thrilled. I pretty much never send my work out. I either post it here or leave it gathering dust in the back folders of my cloud drive. So writing a pitch, sending my essay out … it was a huge deal for me. And then to have the piece accepted … ! Of course I was happy.

In the essay, I give white people some marching orders, elaborate on something I need them to do. And, shortly after I shared the essay, two different white women commented to say they would be changing their behavior post haste.

Their comments surprised me. I mean, yes, I was telling people to make a change … but was I expecting them to do what I’d asked? Was I expecting them to tell me they’d listened to what I’d said?

My first response to their comments was to start writing back, something along the lines of: “Oh, well, you don’t have to make that change! I mean, if you *want* to, sure, but don’t do it on my account!”

Happily, I stopped myself from typing or sending those messages. Because I was asking them to make a change. Quite clearly. asking.

So why was I so quick to back off my request the moment someone let me know they were considering it?

Oh yes, she’s back!! La Impostora and her twice-damned syndrome!

I know, of course, that this is still a beast I have to battle. I haven’t kidded myself that I had somehow magically vanquished Impostor Syndrome as I lay sleeping. I’ve simply been waiting for her to rear her ugly head again. But I wasn’t expecting that head-rearing to happen in response to publishing this essay. And that’s silly, of course. I had put my work out in the world and it was getting a good response … of COURSE I would suddenly find myself pushing back against Impostor Syndrome. What better, more obvious time would there be for me to be showered with gifts from this treasure trove of insecurity?

Who am I to think I can tell white folks what they should and shouldn’t be doing? Who am I to think my feelings about people’s behavior meant enough, mattered enough, carried enough weight that I could say, “stop doing this thing you’re doing that’s upsetting to me?”

I’ve wrestled with my Impostor in the past. So many times. There have been times when I haven’t noticed her creeping into my thoughts. Those times, she has been able to drive a wedge between me and whatever goal I’m pushing toward. Those times are the most frustrating because I don’t recognize the pattern of self-denigration and self-denial until it’s too late to stop the thoughts and move forward. Sometimes I am able to see what I’m doing early enough in the pattern to shoulder past my Impostor and get shit done. The hard truth is that the Impostor wins these head-to-heads far too often. I am hoping that one day I’ll have done enough work on myself that, even if I still have to fight La Impostora, those fights will all fall into the second category, the push her aside and get back to work category.

In the case of my essay on The Rumpus, there were many opportunities for La Impostora to shove me backwards over a cliff. I had originally sent that essay to another publication. It was accepted, and then I received a contract that had some troubling language in it. I balked at signing, but my Impostor slapped me back: who was I to question what An Important Well-Respected Magazine wanted from me? She instructed me to sign and shut up. But I couldn’t get past my hesitation. I reached out to the mag’s editor to suggest some revisions to the contract language. By the time I learned that the magazine wouldn’t budge on the demands, I’d received an acceptance from The Rumpus … which was when La Impostora smacked me again: How dare I consider pulling my submission from The Magazine and moving forward with The Rumpus? And, too, there was no way I was good enough to be published on The Rumpus, so I should just forget all about that.

Sigh.

And now she’s back again, telling me to back down from the entire premise of my essay simply because someone read and respected what I said.

Listen (speaking entirely to myself here, but sometimes these things need to be said aloud and in public): I am a person who has the right to like or dislike whatever I like or dislike. I have the right to tell people to stop doing something that displeases or disturbs me … and they—because they are sovereign, fully-autonomous beings—have as much right to decide to do what I’ve asked as they have to tell me to shove off because they’re under no obligation to listen to anything I have to say.

I have no problem with folks taking issue with the point of that essay. I was ready for that, steeling myself against how hurt or angry it would make me. I was ready to defend myself, to haul out receipts and invite folks to step back. The few negative comments I’ve seen haven’t troubled me at all.

And maybe that’s a sign of progress in my fight against La Impostora. In the past, if someone questioned my position, I’d have been inclined to turn around and question my position right along with them. I mean, if something I said raised their eyebrows, I must have made a mistake, right? I’m not saying that I don’t make mistakes. I’m saying I no longer instantly assume that anyone questioning me must have the right of it.

I tend to think I’ll be fighting La Impostora forever. I don’t want that to be true, but it feels true. Seeing ways that I’m getting stronger against her helps. And I know I’ve written about Impostor Syndrome more than once, but the more I “talk out loud” about it here, the better I seem to get at recognizing the pattern before it derails me. If it seems annoyingly repetitive, you’re welcome to scroll on by. Imma keep working through.


I’m following Vanessa Mártir’s lead, she launched #52essays2017 after writing an essay a week in 2016 … and then deciding to keep going.
I’m months behind on my #GriotGrind, and it’s unlikely that I’ll write 52 essays by year’s end. But I’ve written more this year than in the last two combined, and that adds up to a solid WIN in my book! Get ready for #52essays2018!

Barrels, Empty and Full

The thing is, I never spent any time imagining John Kelly as America’s most upright man, the man who could be counted on for the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. But I also never thought of him as a person who would stand up in front of the world and tell a bold-faced lie. Certainly not when clear, video-taped evidence existed to make his lies plain. I know Kelly works for a man who lies as a matter of course, who lies so quickly and unnecessarily it must be a form of illness. I know Kelly agreed to work for this man. I know Kelly is surrounded by people who lie as easily as blink, as naturally as breathing. Still. I am stunned by the lies he told about Representative Frederica Wilson. I feel foolish and naïve to be as stunned as I am. I should know so much better than to have allowed myself to have any faith in John Kelly.

Let’s pretend Kelly told the truth. Let’s pretend Rep. Wilson really had gotten up at that dedication and talked about how she’d gotten funding so that building could be built. Let’s say that really did happen. Why would it be a problem? What would be so wrong with saying you’d secured necessary funding to see a project through to completion? I’ve heard other politicians talk about funding they’ve procured for various projects, and no one has come for them, has called them “empty barrels.” Part of the work we as constituents expect our elected to do is fund the projects we deem important. Of course. Is it a little self-serving to point to yourself as the person responsible for getting shit done? Maybe, but that’s hardly unusual, especially for politicians. So what would have been so wrong if Rep. Wilson had said what Kelly claimed she had said?

Yes, you guessed it: Rep. Wilson is a Black woman. That, in Kelly’s eyes, clearly makes anything she does—other than sit down and shut up—instantly problematic. Black women, of course, are notorious for being money-grubbers. We’re gold-diggers, all about that paper. This is conventional misogynoir wisdom. Add to that the fact that Wilson is a politician—when we “know” Black pols are on the take and can’t be trusted.

John Kelly wanted to call out Rep. Wilson in relationship to money so that he could trigger all of the nasty little thoughts in the backs of racist folks’ minds about Black women and money and Black politicians and money, trigger the idea that anything Rep. Wilson did she did for money.

And all the while, the one working hard for the money, standing up to sell a barrel-full of lies to the media was none other than Kelly himself.

 

None of this is surprising or should be surprising. This is part and parcel of a history of not believing women, of very specifically not believing Black women, of being able to get away with calling Black women out of their names, of being able to put your words in a Black woman’s mouth and have yours be the words that are given credence no matter the documented proof of your words being lies.

Because it doesn’t matter that, within hours of his press conference, Kelly was shown to be a lying-ass liar. It doesn’t matter. The truth never spreads as fast or as effectively as the lie. The damage to Rep. Wilson is done. The people who will condemn her based on Kelly’s disdain will never hear what she actually said. And won’t believe or care if they do hear. The people who are now making death threats against her won’t back down from that level of hate simply because there is video proof of Rep. Wilson saying something entirely different from what Kelly claimed she said. The damage is done. Done.

Rep. Wilson, of course, is a Black woman. She’s had to be strong, she’s had to fight all the fights to build a fabulous career despite a country that had no interest in making room for her. She’s a Black woman, and she’s standing strong in the face of Kelly’s attack. She’s fine (and has the hat to match). But the fact that she has to endure this treatment is not fine. It is hateful and unacceptable.

Hateful and unacceptable, but again: not the least bit surprising. Donald Trump is a racist, our nation’s most visible and powerful racist. And he has opened the door and given his blessing to all the other racists. And he has surrounded himself with a staff of people who may have somehow managed to get this far in life without ever being caught on camera speaking a single racist word … but who are completely comfortable in their race prejudice, in their belief that Black people are wrong, are less than, need to be reminded of their place when they dare to get uppity. THOTUS’s masters and minions are entirely comfortable slipping on the warm, silk-lined mantle of racism and using every bit of blatant and subtle racist language they can in support of their white-supremacist-in-chief.

Because they can. Because the racists are hood free and marching down Main Street. They are dug in and are armed with the permission they’ve been given to say and do whatever they please.

* * *

And now Kelly has defiantly stood his ground. He has not only refused to apologize to Rep. Wilson and made it clear that he doesn’t see himself as having anything for which to apologize, he has used his spotlight moment to rewrite some history, to tell more sweeping lies.

I don’t need to point out the falsehoods in his comments on Laura Ingraham’s show. The brilliant Ta-Nehisi Coates took care of that history lesson beautifully, scathingly, thoroughly.

I’m more interested in Kelly’s decision to keep lying. At first I wondered how he might imagine he is helping himself with this choice. I didn’t think too much of him before now, but plenty of people–on the storied “both sides”–did. How did he think he was well-served by completely tarnishing whatever good name he had, by coming out as a straight up liar? It seemed such a curious choice.

In his press conference, he used his defense of his boss as an excuse to denigrate Rep. Wilson. On Ingraham’s “Angle” he used his standing-my-ground refusal to apologize to Rep. Wilson as an excuse to trot out a cavalcade of white pride lies about the Civil War and to defend Columbus. What the fuck?

Instead of an empty barrel, Kelly has chosen to show himself to be a barrel full of worm-infested horse shit, a barrel full of smallpox-poisoned molasses. Seems a long way to go for the privilege of insulting one powerful Black woman.

Oh. Right. And there is where I found my answer. The privilege. Yes. Because that’s it, of course. Kelly’s privilege allows him to go on national television and lie like a rug about a Black woman, about American history, about anything he pleases … as long as it serves whiteness. Sure, Black folks might lose all respect for him, and maybe some nigger-loving liberals will pull away, too. But those few white folks are statistically insignificant, and he’s never cared about the good opinion of Black folks because he’s never considered us people.

Kelly loses nothing with his decision to dig in his heels and tell a new set of lies–despite those lies being even more easily refuted than the lie about Rep. Wilson that got this nonsense started in the first place. There is, ultimately, no steep price to be paid for smearing the integrity of a Black woman. Republicans will stand behind him, and white feminists have gone eerily silent and chosen not to defend Wilson. There is, ultimately, no steep price to be paid for ignoring or erasing the existence of chattel enslavement and its lasting impact on this country. Republicans and states’ rights knee-jerkers will stand behind him.

Kelly risks nothing. His lies have no consequences for him. All of the impact falls on Black folks in general and Black women in particular.

Our barrels are empty. Our barrels that should be full of accolades and official apologies, full of rights, respect, reparations. Our barrels’ hollow clacking deafens us. All the while, Kelly’s barrel, full to the lid with the toxic sludge of white supremacy, rolls downhill, picking up speed, faster and faster still, gunning for us, its hate snowballing,  steamrolling all of us in its path.

* * *

It’s 2017. The year two thousand and seventeen. As aware as I am that white supremacy is this country’s middle name, I can still be caught off guard, can still be slapped in the face by the way Black women are demeaned and reviled, help up as examples of what is the worst. Our bodies and spirits are under attack every day. It doesn’t surprise me, but it still lands like a physical blow, challenges my ability to continue living with hope.


I’m following Vanessa Mártir‘s lead, she launched #52essays2017 after writing an essay a week in 2016 … and then deciding to keep going.
I’m months behind on my #GriotGrind, and it’s unlikely that I’ll write 52 essays by year’s end. But I’ve written more this year than in in the last two combined, so that looks like a solid WIN in my book! Get ready for #52essays2018!

Bad Brain

In kindergarten, one of my classmates saw it as his special mission to teach me all the ways Black folks (“you coloreds,” in his words) were inferior to whites and just generally bad, wrong, non-human. Every day, he shared some new “fact” about Black people: we were talking monkeys, if God cared about us, we’d be white. And on and on.

Kindergarten. I was the only Black child in my class, one of maybe six Black kids in the whole school. It was a fun time.

One day, as he was telling me some racist, bullshit “fact” about what I was, I wrote his name on a piece of paper and showed it to him. I said something along the lines of, “And this is what we know you are.”

I don’t know why I did that, what I thought would happen, what I wanted to prove. These many years later I am convinced I was conducting a science experiment. That boy had been telling me, repeatedly, that I was dumb, that all Black people were dumb. But I could read and write, and I knew that he couldn’t. I was the only child in the class who could, which won me solo reading time while everyone else was being taught their letters.

I think I wrote out that boy’s name to prove—to both of us, like as not—that I was not the one who was dumb.

He looked at the paper, grabbed it from me and brought it to Mrs. Moore, our teacher, to tattle on me.

“Look what she did,” he said, presenting the damning evidence of my early literacy.

Mrs. Moore, conveniently (or willfully) oblivious to the racist drama that was my day to day, looked at the paper and said how nice it was that I had written his name.

That was the first time I used my education to make myself feel superior. I don’t know how I knew that was something that would make me feel better in that moment, but I knew it would. And it did.

That was the first time, but definitely not the last.

In fourth grade, I started a new school. On that first day, one nice, gentle boy went out of his way to welcome me and make me feel less like an outsider. It was a relief to have someone befriend me so quickly.

At lunch that day, a group of kids approached my new friend and me. They were fronted by a large, tough-looking Black girl. They stopped in front of us and the girl, pointing at my friend, asked me, “You like him?”

It was, of course, instantly clear that I shouldn’t like him, that he was not someone other kids liked or accepted. If I said I liked him, I might be saying goodbye to the chance of having any other friends. And it was only lunch on day one. But how could I say I didn’t like him? He was the only person who’d been friendly to me. The kids in front of us were unknown quantities—and also didn’t seem particularly nice or friendly. I could spurn my friend and still end up shunned by other kids.

I had already determined that kids in that new school weren’t smart. They didn’t know things I knew, didn’t seem interested in reading or school, didn’t pronounce basic words correctly. So I used my words. Did I like that boy? “In some circumstances yes,” I said. “And in some circumstances no.” My friend heard the “yes,” the bullies heard the “no.” As I’d hoped, no one knew what a “circumstance” was. They accepted the answers they’d chosen to hear, and I was safe.

And again, not the last time I would use what I saw as my being smarter than other kids to protect myself.

So what is that about, that immediate transformation into that snobby smart kid who lords her cleverness over others, looks down on them because she knows something they don’t?

That’s a pretty ugly thing to see and know about myself. Yes, I was a child in those instances I recounted. Sure, but there were other instances in my adolescence and teens. It’s also true that my ugliness surfaced when my back was up, when I felt attacked. Okay.

But … it’s still problematic.

*

I grew up and became a teacher, first of high school seniors then of adults learning to read, adults studying for their high school equivalency exam. I was fiercely supportive and protective of my students, particularly the adults, clapping back whenever some fool asked if my students hadn’t learned to read or finished high school because they were “lazy or just retarded,” the two options I was offered again and again.

I came down on those people like a vengeful harpy. How dare they make assumptions about the grit, intelligence, value, strength of the fabulous people I got to work with. I invited them to stop and tally up the raft of privileges that made it possible for them to learn in the school systems they had access to, the privileges that enabled them to complete high school and go on to college.

I got angry not only because I loved my students but because I had learned something child me hadn’t understood: literacy, a big vocabulary, success in school, love of reading … these things quite often have absolutely nothing to do with level of intelligence. Neither do knowledge of history, science, literature, or math. These things all have to do with education, and to look down on someone because they’re less educated is disgusting.

I wish someone had said a word or two to child me about any of this. I grew up poor but so privileged. I grew up in a family that prized reading. It’s not surprising that I was a reader before kindergarten because there were books everywhere in my home. My brother, sister, and I were read to and encouraged to read all the time. I grew up in a family where school was prioritized and any other responsibilities could be made secondary to getting that education. I never had to put my needs aside to help care for a crew of younger children, never had to worry about finding a quiet place to study in a too-full house or apartment. I was able to go to a summer camp that introduced me to worlds of new ideas to explore, that encouraged my creativity and taught me skills I couldn’t have learned at home. I grew up with both of my parents—at least in the beginning—and my mother very attentively at home for most of those years. I grew up with enough food on the table. I grew up without experiencing violence or witnessing violence in my home or neighborhood. I grew up in a community that had clean drinking water and access to healthy food.

I could go on. I was fortunate in the circumstances of my childhood. Incredibly fortunate. Was I a smart kid? Maybe. Most likely. But I wasn’t exceptional in that way. What I was was lucky to have the family I did in the places where I lived, to have been able to learn in the ways I was taught and to have access to schools and libraries.

Child me believed education equaled intelligence and put a lot of store in braininess. Being smart was one thing that couldn’t be taken from me and the one thing that—even if someone mocked me for it—I never felt ashamed of. I was made to question the value of my color, myself as a girl, my belonging each time we moved to a new town, my attractiveness to boys, my body, my hair. So many things about me weren’t “right” or acceptable, were outside the norm.

But my education, my smartness, that was mine. I could control it, I could grow it. Yes, of course there were folks who were smarter than I was. But that didn’t take anything from me, just inspired me to learn more things. No one could touch my smartness. I wrapped myself in it whenever anyone came for me. I might have been ugly, brown, nappy-headed, fat … but I was smart. And, nine times out of ten, I was smarter than whoever was working on bullying me, and my Big Bad Brain saved me again and again.

I’m not proud of assessing my long-ago classmates and deciding they were dumb. Grown me would not use that calculus. But child me used what she had, and I am grateful I had that. I was never truly bullied, not in the horrifying truth of bullying that we see today. And part of that is surely because the kids I grew up with weren’t that cruel. And part of it was because the act of bullying hadn’t been honed into a killing tool when I was a kid. But part of it was also because my brain, my own brand of Jedi mind tricks, allowed me to navigate potentially rough waters.

I’m not proud, but I can at least be glad that I kept most of my ugly thoughts to myself. I didn’t talk down to people or call them out for not being whatever “smart” meant at any given moment. I was a pretty shy, quiet kid. Calling people out didn’t become part of my repertoire until much later. My bad behavior was mostly happening in my head. That doesn’t excuse my incorrect assessment of other people’s intelligence, but at least it kept me civil and polite. I let my brain loose on occasion, but only when truly pressed.

I’m not proud of the intellectual snobbery in my past. I worked hard to change that behavior, and I keep a close eye on myself even now. I’m not proud, but I have to remain thankful for it. It served a necessary purpose.

I wrote recently about an experience in high school when two boys were mocking me because I was fat. I wrote that I listened to the way they spoke and concluded that they were dumb. It hurt to write that, to remember that way I had of being in the world. I almost changed what I’d written to make myself look less ugly. I didn’t change it. That was real. Just as those boys looked at my body and decided they knew something about my value, I listened to the way they spoke and decided I knew something about their intelligence.

Obviously, we were all wrong, those boys and I. I’ve spent a lot of time working to be more right in this way. The difficulty I had writing about my part in that incident tells me I still have work to do.

 



I’m following Vanessa Mártir‘s lead, she launched #52essays2017 after writing an essay a week in 2016 … and then deciding to keep going.
I’m months behind on my #GriotGrind, but I’m determined to do my best to catch up, to write 52 essays by year’s end.

L is for: Six Degrees of LOATHING

Or, to be entirely accurate (and doubly literary), fear and loathing.

I am a big fan of the whole six degrees of separation idea. I’m always charting my connections to see how far afield I can go, what unexpected people I can get to. My aunt knew Barbara Jordan, so all kinds of connections there. My mom dated Freddy Cole, so a ton more there. A crazy teacher I once hired gave me a connection to Trotsky. You get the idea.

Generally speaking, I love this game. I love the Kevin Bacon version of this game. When Fox was first becoming a Lord of the Rings fangirl, I made her a Six Degrees of LOTR book, connecting all of the trilogy’s principal cast to Bacon. This was, of course, super easy to do. The man really does connect to everyone.

But the connections to be discovered aren’t always great. I just learned that I am only three short degrees from THOTUS¹.

To be honest, I already knew I could get to that sunken place in four degrees. Shortening that path to three … well, it hurts a bit, makes me wish that sometimes the world wouldn’t be so small.

But I can’t write a chōka for THOTUS. I mean, I can, but I refuse to.

_____

Love Lost

Did I really write
a poem about old lovers?
Why yes, yes I did.
I guess it’s true: anything
can turn into art.
Of course: love is poetic,
so that makes some sense.
Poems pick at the emotion —
feelings, not the men
not the flawed and fallible
simple, human men.
I’m sure it’s better this way.
The men that I’ve loved
and the others, the lovers
they can all be spared
my ink, my rancor, my scorn —
I’ll turn aside. Write elsewhere.

__________
¹ Titular Head oThese United States

_____

A chōka is a Japanese form poem with a specific syllable count per line. The shortest form of chōka  is: 5 / 7 / 5 / 7 / 5 / 7 / 5 / 7 / 7. The 5- and 7-syllable lines can repeat as many times as needed. The poem’s end is signaled by the extra 7-syllable line. The final five lines can be used to summarize the body of the poem.



H is for: Heft

As in lifting something heavy. As in the weight of something heavy. And H is for Heavy. As in something of great weight, difficult to lift, move, or carry. As in of great density, thick or substantial.

And what does all of this have to do with my decision to spend this Poetry Month writing chōka? Yes, that would be the rearing of my Little Hater’s ugly head. Let me explain.

Last week, I noticed that I was feeling comfortable with my poetry challenge. Anyone who has read my April writing for more than a minute knows that I have struggled mightily with poetry, with the idea that I can write poetry, with the idea that I would have the nerve to post those poems online, with the idea that I would have the unmitigated gall to call myself a poet. Just about every April since I started my blog, I come here and try to push back against all of that and write poems. I force myself to post them, even when I know they aren’t even good enough to be called mediocre. Because I have to. Because to not do that is giving in to that mean, awful voice that has been telling me since I was 18 years old that I can’t write poems.

Learning a new form sometimes pulls me out of that negative loop very nicely. I don’t know what or why that is. Maybe it takes so much focus for me to wrap my brain around the new patter there isn’t room for my Inner Critic to slip in.

So I was feeling that, feeling pulled away from that mean voice, content to just play with the words.

I’m sure you can guess where this is headed.

Yes. As soon as I noticed that I was feeling comfortable … all that comfort drained away and the tidal wave of doubt flooded in. Of course..

My doubt wasn’t about whether or not the poems were good. Or, rather, not much about that. It is generally a given for me that the poems aren’t particularly good. I am always surprised when I like a poem I’ve written. That is hardly the anticipated result. So I chided myself for not writing good poems — that one from Thursday night is still pretty unforgivable — but then I realized that quality wasn’t what had me thinking negative thoughts about my poems.

No, my Inner Mean Person was kicking my teeth in because my poems were boring. Plain and simple. My poems weren’t about anything substantive. When I did my last year of aruns in 2014, I was just getting into genealogical research, and my poems were about Samuel and finding family and history. When I did prose poems in 2015, my poems were little Black Lives Matter protest songs. In 2009 when I started this April business, I wrote about love, about Sean Bell, about Black death. From the beginning I’ve landed on serious subjects. My poems may not have been good, but they had weight. Heft.

Thursday I wrote a poem about having “Boogie, Oogie, Oogie” as an earworm. Such a piece of fluff as could be carried away by the softest exhalation.

Of course, there are plenty of heavy, serious, somber things to write about. Every. single. day. But I haven’t found my way into those stories, found the way to tell my piece of any of those stories. And so I — and you, dear reader — am stuck here, in this fluffy place. And maybe that’s as it should be. Maybe I need to be here, churning out banal chōka to give my brain a rest, a chance to sort through and process all the everything else. Maybe when that’s done, I’ll find my way back to writing poems with heft.

Spring

Smooth, shining spring day
here at last, reminding me
of April in France
Paris opening her arms
no longer stiff, cold
finally welcoming me.
Claude driving us fast
along the Champs Elysees
the air honeyed, light.
Spring reminds me of Ludlow
those days with Walter —
was it pollen in my eyes
blinding me to him?
A later spring, me and Ray
the back of his bike
cruising up the Palisades.

It is again spring
and this old woman’s fancy
turns to thoughts of love
(loves) in the dim long ago —
wringing verses from their bones.

_____

A chōka is a Japanese form poem with a specific syllable count per line. The shortest form of chōka  is: 5 / 7 / 5 / 7 / 5 / 7 / 5 / 7 / 7. The 5- and 7-syllable lines can repeat as many times as needed. The poem’s end is signaled by the extra 7-syllable line. The final five lines can be used to summarize the body of the poem.

(Is this an essay? I’m going to call it one. It needs more work, but it’s enough of a start to give my revision some direction, an idea of where I wanted to go.)



A Whale of a (Swedish) Fish Tale!

I had plans for this weekend, things I was so sure I was going to get done. Such good plans. And here it is, my long weekend on the wane, and I’ve done next to nothing. It’s shameful, actually, such complete shirking of my duties.

But at the same time, how can I be expected to get anything done from my mundane to-do list when I am so busy keeping a laser focus on Sweden. Sweden! Who would believe this? Sweden! I mean, when you think about what happened the other night, about how they’re having problems like they never thought possible … how can you really, truly focus on anything the fuck-all else?

So I’ve given myself a pass, forgiven myself for my inability to pull my thoughts away from Sweden.

When people listen to THOTUS¹, how do they decide to believe him? How do they turn on the news and hear him talking about “what happened last night in Sweden,” and know they haven’t heard anything about Sweden. And they go online and there’s nothing about Sweden except the thousand articles trying to suss out what the hell THOTUS was talking about. How do folks do all of that and still decide to believe him, still decide to listen attentively when he speaks? How do folks do all of that and not come out the other end convinced that he is a pathological liar, that he makes up stories just because, makes up stories when he doesn’t need a story. He could talk only about Paris and have enough material to sway you. He could talk about Brussels and have enough. He’d have more than enough if he talked about Turkey, but he wouldn’t do that because … well … Turkey.

My point is that he doesn’t need the story. There are enough real stories already. He doesn’t need to throw another country into the mix. And yet he went in with Sweden. And not as a casual throwaway, tacking it onto the end of a list. No, he goes on a bit: “Sweden. Who would believe this? Sweden! They took in large numbers, they’re having problems like they never thought possible.”

Really, just why in the all-encompassing fuck does he need to do this?

I taught basic composition classes at a community college for years. The course was prep for a very rigid test for which students would be expected to write a specific kind of essay. It was a test they had already failed at least once by the time they landed in my class. The essay prompts offered up two topics, students picked a side … and then had to have something to say about the random issue they chose.

Students would often ask me if they could just invent some “evidence,” tell a story that illustrated the point they wanted to make even if the story was constructed out of whole cloth on the spot. And I can see why making up a story feels like a good answer. You can craft the story to fit your point perfectly, and what better “proof” is there than the this-really-happened argument?

But I always warned students again storytelling. I would tell them that, if they really wanted to make up a story, they should first assess themselves: how well could they lie? Because good storytelling is about lying, as Mother Zora taught is in her folktale research. So I’d ask my students how often they told lies. Did people always believe their lies? Were they good at not caving in or getting confused and giving pieces of the story away? Were they able to lie and stay calm and focused or did the lying make them flushed and nervous or excited — not good for concentrating on getting an essay written.

I asked them a bunch of questions … and then told them that unless they were consummate liars, making up a story was a bad idea. I had a few receipts, stories of students I’d taught who had chosen not to listen to my warning, who decided that telling a story was the right option for them. And how dramatically they crashed and burned on their way to a lousy score on the exam.

Clearly, no one has told THOTUS that telling stories isn’t going to help him pass this exam. What’s more, it’s just too easy to turn the stories on their heads and fill the empty spaces with the truth. He tells lies — and his people tell lies — that would work if we didn’t live in 2017 in a country with stable internet access and a solid corps of investigative journalists. It’s so outrageous to me, it’s actually hard to fathom what he could be thinking.

Maybe THOTUS is all muddled by what happened the other night in Sweden. Perhaps he needs a nice sauna followed by a romp in the snow. Or perhaps he just needs to admit that this job isn’t the right fit for him, that he was wrong to believe all of Vladimir’s pep talks about how he could so be president.

I understand THOTUS’ issue, though. I told my students not to make up stories unless they were spectacularly good liars. And for the most part, they were able to see themselves clearly enough to know that they weren’t good enough liars. They could think back to times when their lying was detected and the results were distressing at best. But THOTUS doesn’t have this history to evaluate. He surrounds himself with genuflecting toadies. He distorts all facts until they say what he wants to hear. When he looks back at his past, he doesn’t see times when lying tripped him up. He’s already revised those stories into examples of “so much winning!” The end result? He may actually believe he’s a good liar. So he keeps diving in and telling his team to dive in alongside him.

It’s up to us — the people for whom he works — to call out his lies and call him out as a liar. This is all part of not normalizing what we’re seeing, not letting anyone convince us that any of this is okay.

As for me, I’m annoyed to know that I spent my whole weekend worried about the state of affairs in Sweden, where Sweden is doing quite well and not in need of my worry.

My students who lied on their essays failed the writing exam. It was sad for them, but not catastrophic. THOTUS failing in his job could be cataclysmic. Do I wish he didn’t have that Pennsylvania Avenue job? Sure, but he does, and I’d like him to not get us all killed before we have the chance to vote him back to civilian life. Getting him to stop lying every time he opens his mouth might be a step in the right direction.

__________

¹ Titular Head oThese United States



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In 2017, I’m on my #GriotGrind, committed to writing an essay a week.
It’s not too late to join! Check out Vanessa Mártir’s blog to find out how!

Also? It’s Slice of Life Tuesday!
Head over to Two Writing Teachers to see what the other slicers are up to!