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Determined to write more than two sentences tonight, I went back through the daily writing prompts that Lisa (aka Satsumaart) sent me a couple of years ago to see what would catch my eye. The first prompt I saw had me composing my post even before I clicked onto this page: Moving

I’ve moved a lot. I moved once a year for the first six years that I lived in New York. I once moved after only nine months.  I hate moving house, and yet nothing seemed strange about the fact that I was changing apartments so often.

The place a moved to from my mother’s house was an apartment on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, on the edge of Chinatown. An apartment I shared with a friend and a guy I didn’t know who was eventually swapped out for a woman I didn’t know. It was a great place — an almost 1600sf loft with lots of sunlight and a roof we could hang out on. I loved living down there, but I left so I could look for a place my sister, Fox, and I could share. I found a big, cheap, two-bedroom apartment in Washington Heights: $50 less rent than I’d been paying for my one room on Ludlow Street! That was when we started calling ourselves The Poverty Twins. We had so much nothing. One chair, futons on the floor, my old stereo, and the cast iron skillet we found in the apartment. We were a little pathetic, but we had a good time living there, a good time living together. We left when we learned that we were living above drug dealers who didn’t hesitate to murder one neighbor as an object lesson for the rest of us. That was a lesson we learned quickly. We moved to Brooklyn.

That first Brooklyn apartment remains, to this day, the biggest, most extraordinarily beautiful place I’ve lived.  It was the bottom 2/3 of a house. The house was bigger than a brownstone, maybe half again as wide, and Fox and I had the parlor floor, the ground floor, the basement and the back yard (complete with grape vines!). We had more room than our furniture-less selves knew what to do with: two bedrooms, living room, formal dining room, sun porch, and mud room. We had ceiling fans, built in book shelves and desks in the bedrooms, decorative and working fireplaces and a fabulously-appointed kitchen with an extra large fridge, tons of cabinet space, windows onto the back yard and counter space for miles (seriously, about fifteen feet of counter, plus an extra little 2-foot side counter and a counter top in the pass-through to the dining room that was bigger than the entire cook space in Jill Santopietro’s kitchen 4b cooking videos). We also had what a friend of mine called a “love-making tub” … a big, jacuzzi-like thing in a room with dark wood and slate-tiled walls and little sconces with soft-glowing bulbs that were great for ambiance (but crap for putting on make up).

I was hugely spoiled by living in that house.  I love where I live now, but I still think longingly of all the space I had there, of the craziness of our grapevines taking over the yard, of having our first Christmas tree (a tall, half-spindly thing that we made all the decorations for, including popcorn garlands), of how at home I felt immediately. Of how comfortable we were living there with all that space we didn’t need (we had two large rooms we never even used, that’s how much too much space we had).

We didn’t want to leave that place, but any thought of putting down roots were quashed almost immediately when our new landlords told us they wanted to sell. When we left, Fox moved to Eastern Parkway, and I moved across the street to my first on-my-own apartment. That apartment was a hot mess: fleas, collapsing walls, corroded plumbing, strangers with keys (a scary, early morning discovery!) and some creeping brown sludge that bubbled up from the baseboards and ruined my futon. That was the nine-months place … and only my complete lack of money made my occupancy last so long. I couldn’t afford to move.

When I finally left, I moved to a place on Lafayette that I really liked. That was the first apartment in which I had the thought of actually settling. I had good landlords — kind, considerate, attentive to problems — and the place got lots and lots of wonderful light. There wasn’t even half enough closet space for a near-hoarder like me, the floors slanted, and the bathroom was small and awkward and shower-only. Still. I loved it there. I had good neighbors, had both north and south-facing windows, including a room-wide picture window with a nice sitting ledge that the cats and I enjoyed equally. I probably could have lived there happily for years. It looked like this:

Two closets? And not even big closets? As if that would ever have worked for me. So that little room on the side, instead of being my bedroom, which would have made all the sense in the world, became my storage room. The room at the top was my giant I-could-cook-for-an-army-in-here kitchen, and the picture window room was my everything else room. I kept thinking of things I would do to make the place more like home: build an island for the kitchen, get bookshelves, paint, get carpeting, unpack the little room and set it up as my writing/craft space … so many plans that came to nothing. I unpacked hardly anything, and then it was time to move. A friend got me interested in the idea of sharing an apartment, and I liked the thought of paying less rent, so I left my pretty, sunny little place behind.

Next, it was on to Eastern Parkway (Fox had already left for Park Slope). My friend and I found a place right across from the Botanic Garden. I enlisted my brother and sister-in-law’s help, hired a man with a van (a funny Russian guy I got along with so well my brother thought he was a friend, not a hired hand) and schlepped my life over to a big duplex apartment with two bathrooms and a garden. The entrance was into the upper floor. My room mate took the bedroom on that level, a space she shared with the kitchen, bathroom and our living/dining room. Downstairs was a huge open space with a smaller, shower-only bathroom and the door leading to the garden. I took that space for my room. We had some wacky notion that we would eventually set things up so that we had a living room area downstairs, too, but in my heart I knew that was never going to happen. That would have meant I was living in public, and I wouldn’t have liked that. Basically we shared the upper floor, and I kept the downstairs to myself. A very uneven distribution of territory. I also got the garden, but that was mostly because I was the only one interested in working it.

After 18 months of swanky duplex living, an out of town friend came to visit and when I brought her down to my space, she gave me a funny look, asked how long I’d been living there. When I told her, she shook her head. This is kind of how our conversation went:

“Why haven’t you unpacked?”

“What are you talking about?  Of course I’ve unpacked.”

“Stacie.  Look around.  This space is full of boxes.”

“Oh that.  I just haven’t gotten to that yet.”

“In all the years I’ve known you, I’ve never seen you unpacked.  What do you think that’s about?”

In that moment, I thought it was about her being nuts. Of course I’d unpacked in every placed I’d lived … except then I thought about it and realized how very much that wasn’t true. Not only was I moving like I had the law on me, I was keeping my life in boxes so I’d be ready for the next move. So I freed my possessions. That was the first apartment into which I fully moved … and then I only stayed there another year and a half before moving to Park Slope. Fox had moved to DC, and I moved into her old apartment, with her old room mate.

I almost let myself believe that I’d learned my lesson about unpacking, that I should stay in boxes because obviously I was going to keep moving. Instead, I forced myself to unpack, to set up my bookshelves and find places on them for all my stuff. And I stayed there for about five years, so it was good to be unpacked, to walk into my rooms at night and see all my stuff.

After that it was a move downtown to a too-small apartment into which I should never have moved. I entered that place under a cloud: one of my cats had just been euthanized, my decision to move had put a strain on one of my best friendships, I’d just broken up with my crazy Russian boyfriend, my awful mover couldn’t get the job done until after midnight — which meant that, even before I was in the apartment, I’d had a fight with one of my new neighbors. I closed the door at the end of the move-in and sat down and cried.

I was never able to unpack in there. It was too small to hold all my things — I’d exiled almost all of my furniture to a storage unit in Vinegar Hill, and there wasn’t enough space to unpack the things I kept with me. I did the best I could, but still felt like I was living out of boxes. I hated that place, and yet I was there the longest I’d lived anywhere since leaving my family. Years of living in a place I hated simply because I couldn’t bear the thought of another move.

And now I’m here. While it’s true that I wouldn’t have found this  apartment if I’d left the last one any sooner, finding a place as nice as this one makes me that much more sad to have stayed in the last one as long as I did. But now I’ve lived here longer than any place since leaving home, and that feels just right.

Have I settled in here? Let’s see: I rescued all my furniture from storage (full disclosure: I opened that storage unit door and almost cried to see my things after seven years away from them!), I’ve bought book shelves, arm chairs and … a sleeper sofa! In my mind, that last is a real indicator of making the place you live into a home, having a sofa and having the ability to comfortably host sleepover guests must mean you have a real home, yes?



It’s the 10th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!
Head over to Two Writing Teachers to see all of today’s slices!

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This is Mr. My President and Mrs. My First Lady’s last night in the White House. I’m sure they’re doing it up, dancing and laughing through every room, singing old songs and clinking glasses. I’m betting there’s even a little cuddling under that last piece of mistletoe they saved just for this night. I’m sure they’re looking forward to having the tiniest bit of their real lives back — they won’t get too much of a return to normalcy, but that smidgen will surely feel like heaven.

Just about every day since Mr. My President was elected, I have said a prayer for him. (Does this surprise you? You couldn’t be more surprised than I’ve been.) Every clear night, I’ve given up my wish on the first star for him. I’ve prayed and wished for his life, for his health and safety, for the health and safety of his family, for him to have the love and support of his rockstar lady-wife and his fabulous daughters, for him to find the way to be the president we voted for.

Eight years of wishes. Eight years of dreams. And now I have to learn to say goodbye.

It hasn’t been an eight-year love fest. There have been those times … those times when Mr. My President has annoyed me, angered me, disappointed me, driven me crazy. He has backed things I’ve wished he wouldn’t, and turned his back on things I know he should have picked up and carried. But he’s always been my president, and I have always loved him, will keep on loving him. I love his poise, his sense of humor, his intelligence, his graciousness, his calm, his speechifying, his love of children, his measured contemplation of issues, his friendship with Uncle Joe, his love for his family … and most especially, his love for Michelle. For eight years he has stood center stage showing us what Black love can look like, showing us strength and grace, swagger and humility. And now, in his last act of modeling classy behavior, he will hand over this country to a man he would surely rather read for filth. And he will do it with dignity. Of course.

Thanks, Obama.

(Surprise me tomorrow morning and change your mind about Leonard. It’s really the one thing I’ve most wanted you to do these last eight years. There’s still time.)

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… all of the things, apparently.

I pulled a prompt out of my writing prompt envelope tonight, and it said: “What I never tell anyone is …” I started my freewrite and the first thing on the page was, “I never tell anyone how scared I am pretty much all the time. Of so many things.” That wasn’t what I was expecting to write, but that’s what came out.

I wrote for about 20 minutes … and uncovered a whole host of fears I wouldn’t have imagined myself to be carrying. Mostly I’m afraid of screwing things up … whatever those “things” might be — my job, my friendships, my health. I’m afraid of being too quiet, too loud, too clever, too dull, too serious, too frivolous. I’m afraid of the spotlight, but afraid of being ignored.

WTF?

This isn’t something I’m aware of 24/7, but then I’ll suddenly notice it, notice how tense my shoulders are, how tense my jaw is … and I’ll have to force myself to unclench.

What is that? Why am I so constantly afraid? And of such just-live-your-life things. And have I always been? I know we have a family joke about how fraught with tension I was, even as a small child, but is that real? Have I always been afraid?

People who’ve known me a while might point to things I’ve done that seem “brave,” whatever that means. I’ve traveled alone. I’ve done a lot of public speaking. I’ve read my work in front of audiences of people who aren’t just my family and friends. I stood up to a surgeon and his staff who wanted to sterilize me.

Okay, all of that is true. And more. But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t also afraid. I’m terrified every time I have to read. I’m often afraid when I’m traveling. I was entirely afraid during that hospital experience. I was so afraid during one of my surgeries this past summer that I cried through almost the whole pre- and post-op period. I may be able to do “brave” stuff, but that doesn’t erase the fear.

And I certainly don’t want to get rid of fear all together. There are plenty of real things for me to be afraid of.

Job security was a big one in the mass of fears that spilled out in my freewrite. That surprised me, but it’s real. It’s something I would have dismissed before the debacle at my last job. Seeing how quickly and easily I could be cast out was a real eye opener. Seeing how casually someone I’d worked with and thought I could trust could knowingly sacrifice me for her own gain was shocking. So this fear of about safety on the job is new. And rough. I hate worrying about whether I’m giving ammunition to the wrong person, not making myself useful enough to the right one. And yes, that’s in my head … but in my current job, it’s also real. I see that happening around me all the time. Feh.

So, fear. It’s hard to admit that I have so much of it, that I carry that stress with me regularly. And that it comes in many forms and from many directions. Yesterday, walking away from a friend’s house, the first handful of blocks of that walk had me tight with worry because people hadn’t cleaned their sidewalks, and I was so afraid of slipping and falling and messing up one or both of these bionic (but still breakable) knees of mine. I carry that fear — of slipping and falling — all the time. When I’m going up or down a flight of stairs or an incline, when I stand up on the subway or bus, walking down the street. Yes, I’ve had this particular fear for many years, since my knees were first damaged and a bad slip or fall would put me in bed for a few days, unable to do more than hobble slowly and painfully around my house. There was a brief, shining moment after my first knee surgery when I forgot about it, forgot to worry about falling. That was glorious. It was a revelation — Oh, this is what it feels like not to be disabled! But it didn’t last long. Less than a year later, I was in pain and moving toward my second surgery, back to worrying about uneven pavement, every flight of stairs, the slippery tiles on the subway platform.

Carrying fear all day every day has to be chipping away at me, shortening my life. Certainly making me curtail my movements, my plans. Fear is what makes me bite my tongue in conversations — and then feel frustrated when someone else says the thing I’ve been thinking all along. Fear is what has kept me from expressing my feelings again and again — God forbid I should tell someone how I feel and get slapped down with rejection. Of course, I’ve had plenty of rejection even when I haven’t put myself out on any limbs, so have I really protected myself by not being honest about my heart?

In The House on Mango Street, Esperanza’s mother talks to her about shame, about how it holds you back. And that’s real, of course. Shame has played a big part in my life, too. But I think fear has played a bigger role, a more dominant role. How sad is that?

So, what do I do with this realization? What’s the next move, the next step? How do I shut the fear down? Is that even the right goal? Should I be investigating it to see where it comes from? Is that the secret to releasing it? Do I acknowledge it and then crush it harder and harder until it’s compressed into diamonds or coal? And then what? Does it somehow become valuable to me?

I’ve been working on developing a better relationship with my anger, feeling it, living with it, embracing it, using it. Clearly there’s some equally serious work to be done with fear. Okay. Here we go.

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In 2017, I’ve committed to writing an essay a week. It’s only Week 3, and I’m beat!

It’s not too late to join if you’re feeling ambitious! Check out Vanessa Mártir’s blog to find out how!


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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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And so, Dylan Roof is guilty. On all 33 charges against him. Guilty.

And I’m glad of that. Of course I am.

When I shared the news, a friend commented that he wouldn’t be happy until Roof got the death penalty.

And I get that. Of course I do.

But …

Is it wrong that I want worse than death for him? I don’t know what that means, but that’s what my heart said when I saw the headline. He is clearly incapable of remorse, and I don’t believe in the death penalty … but in his case I want something visceral and inhumane and deep enough to reach whatever shred of humanity is still left in him.  And then I want it to go further.

That was my response to my friend’s comment. Is this who I’ve become? I think it is.

And I get that. Of course I do.

But …

Would there ever be a punishment that could fit Roof’s crime? I can’t imagine what it would be. Nothing anyone would or could do to him would ever erase what he has done, would ever make him understand that what he did was wrong, would ever bring anyone peace. So my wish for something “visceral and inhumane” doesn’t serve me or anyone else.

What, then?

Maybe a guilty verdict for Michael Slager. Maybe for Daniel Pantaleo. For Timothy Loehmann. For Joseph Weekley. For Stephen Stem. For Jeronimo Yanez. For Darren Wilson …

Maybe a country in which I wouldn’t need to write this.

Maybe.

I always wanted to believe we would grow up to be that country. Of course I did.

But …

At least today Dylan Roof is guilty. At least there is that.

It isn’t enough.

Of course it’s not.

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In my List of Demands, I said this was a special moment, a chance for some non-black people to have their first real conversations about race. I meant that. I mean that. But there’s more to the story, more in the picture than is visible at first glance. Because I also said I wouldn’t be doing anyone’s homework for them in order for them to join the conversation. And I meant that, too. But maybe I need to be clearer about what that means.

When I read Brit Bennett’s excellent essay, “I Don’t Know What to Do with Good White People,” I felt myself exhale. The essay had the warm, deep resonance of familiarity — my excellent, supportive supervisor … who assumed I’d been born out of wedlock, my generous, volunteered-in-Africa-every-winter doctor … who assumed I must have plenty of children — and her tone echoed one I hear in my own voice as I try to have conversations these days.

I don’t think my white friends are looking for any kind of kudos for being the nice, intelligent, funny, caring, supportive people they are. I don’t think they expect me to thank them for not being racists. I don’t think any of that. But I do find myself running aground in some conversations, and I’m struggling to figure out what to do about it, how to keep the conversations going while keeping my friendships going.

People have told me that reading my latest writing has pushed them to think about their responses to things in new ways, to think about issues of race in new ways. That seems good, like something I’d want to be an outcome. At the same time, my writing, and the articles I’ve chosen to post on FB, have been seen as challenging, have been met with responses that fall into the “But what about me?” category, that seem to want direct acknowledgement of individual goodness. I had a two-hour phone call last week that started as a discussion of structural racism and quickly got mired in “what about me?” talk.

So I’ll say again that I don’t think my white friends are looking for a cookie, or a medal, or any of the other patronizing prizes folks have mentioned in response to the “what about me?” conversation. I believe the pushback is coming from a sincerely honest place of “You can’t possibly see me that way!” … but that place bothers me in a way I have yet to fully articulate.

Several white friends — And can I say here how strange and unkind and false it feels to be identifying any of my friends in this way? Still. — have prefaced their comments to me in a way similar to my two-hour-phone-call friend: some version of “I don’t want to talk about black people and white people. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather just be referred to as a person, not as a white person.”

Yes. I hear you. I get that.

But I want you to see the luxury of that. The privilege. I’d like to be referred to as a person, too. Living in a society that is normed on white experience, however, robs me of that right. It means that 99 times out of 100, what I am is added as a modifier to whatever other way I am perceived. I am a black writer, a black shopper, a black tourist. And I am all of those things. Of course. But you, my white friend, are described as a writer, a shopper, a tourist. And the fact that you can’t see that, can’t think that, before you tell me you want to be referred to as “just” a person? That’s a problem.

It’s a problem that makes my conversations with you difficult. But let’s be clear: it’s your problem. I cannot fix it for you. And if I could fix it for you, I wouldn’t. Because this is what I meant when I said I wouldn’t do your homework for you. This is your problem to fix.

I want to have this conversation, but more and more I have been wondering if I can, if I am able to do this without convo-killing displays of my anger, without me telling some of my (white) friends to step off, that I cannot be the lantern that guides them through this forest.

Last night I had dinner with a dear friend, and we tried to talk about some of this. we did talk, and it felt good and real and honest, even if I couldn’t put words to all the things I was thinking, even with my tangential digressions.

That gives me hope.

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Yes, still reporting from the heart of my anger, the anger in my heart. This is a difficult challenge for me, allowing myself to stay present in my fury. Staying present in my sadness and bewilderment has been easy. I have far more experience with that.

I have a long and troubled history with accessing and accepting my anger. This is a legacy of solid, good-girl training, a set of lessons that were reinforced by nice-black-woman training. While both courses of study have surely been extremely helpful to people with whom I’ve had to interact, neither has been particularly useful to me. I have learned to keep my mouth shut and my head down. I’ve learned to smile when I’d rather be doling out dope slaps. I’ve learned how to keep conversations well-oiled so that we’re able to move smoothly (ish) from safe ground to politically incorrect racist/sexist/heteronormative gaffe to safe ground. I’ve learned how to get along. Often at the expense of my heart and soul.

“Getting along” seems like a worthy enough goal, doesn’t it? If everyone could just make nice, wouldn’t the world would be a better place? I’m actually not so sure. In my life, “getting along” often means breaking my own heart over casual ugliness that I let slide simply to avoid conflict. Casual ugliness, the kind born out of and supporting a system built on my othering, on the assumption of my lesser status. Alone at home after these moments, they bubble up, replaying again and again as if some irksome sportscaster in the back of my head keeps saying, “Let’s go to the video tape!”

Maybe you’re thinking this is my problem, that I just have to stop dwelling on these things. Okay. How good are you at that? Let’s try some role-playing. In this scenario, you’re Italian.

You’re having a discussion about developing programming for young people to help prepare them for college and work. The conversation has been interesting and productive. And then someone says, “All this sounds great, but we’ll have to do something different for the Italian kids. You know how they are. There’s no way we can get them ready for college!” And then that person looks at you and says, “You know I’m not talking about you, but you know I’m right.”

You might brush it off in the moment so as not to derail the working session. But would you forget it entirely? Would you put it out of your mind only to find yourself ambushed by it as you’re about to make an important presentation? Do people really think Italians are troublesome or unteachable? Do people think I’m difficult, I have trouble learning? Do they think I can’t do this job well, that I was hired as a token or to meet a quota? What does my supervisor really think of me, of my capabilities?

Let’s regroup. How did that feel? Were you surprised that someone would say something so foolish and cruel about Italians? Could you see how a comment like that might bother you beyond the instant of hearing it? Can you imagine finding yourself getting angry about it at odd moments of the day? And can you imagine getting angry with yourself when you caught yourself wondering if some aspect of it might be true even when you know perfectly well that it isn’t true?

Sometimes, it’s really challenging to swallow the casual ugliness, to set it aside and keep things moving. Sometimes the casual ugliness has amazing dig-in-and-stay power. And maybe that’s because the ugliness is particularly ugly. And maybe it’s because I’ve heard these things so many times that I’m full, don’t have room for one more, so they keep hovering around my brain, keep poking at me.

And all that poking makes me angry. Leaves me with a simmering-under-the-surface anger that is almost constant, always one microaggression away from tipping me into the hot zone.

So, how to deal with this anger. I’ve never known. There has been so much pressure not to deal with it, to stuff it down, to ignore it, that I’ve never learned what a healthy response might be. Early in this blog’s life, I wrote about two instances from middle school in which that angry-making ugliness pushed me to violence. But here’s the problem: neither at the time of those incidents nor now do I  think my response was inappropriate. Yes, I said that. Slamming John in the head with my book not only felt good in the moment, I was good forever after that moment — he never spoke to me again — and it still feels good now, almost 40 years later, to know that I shut him down so effectively. The same is true for my present-day feelings about Michael. Although I would probably respond differently today if the same situation were to arise (probably), I cannot find any fault in those long-ago responses.

But that kind of lashing out can’t be the all-the-time answer. Not just because I am a peaceful person at heart but also because a) eventually a violent response is going to get me into real trouble and b) violence doesn’t leave room for conversation, for change, and that’s what I want. Yes, hitting John meant that John stopped talking to me, and that was a change that worked just fine for seventh-grade me. But hitting John didn’t magically make him understand what was wrong with anything he was saying, didn’t make him change how he thought or felt about black people. More likely, it confirmed some other things he thought and felt about black people.

I don’t think it’s my job to change the minds of racists, but not all people who say racist things are racists, and lashing out closes the door on them looking honestly at their words and actions. My support for non-violent action isn’t as much about the fact that I’m a “nice” person as it is about my desire for real dialogue. So, violence. Not always the best answer.

And aside from being taught that my anger is “bad,” or “dangerous,” or “unladylike,” there is the fact that anger makes me a stereotype. Here I am, yet another Angry Black Woman. And my nice-black-woman training means I’ve tried to avoid seeming angry, being angry, precisely to avoid fitting and feeding that stereotype.

But there’s still my anger. I have a LOT of it. It’s here and it’s real. And avoidance doesn’t do anything for me. Except make me more angry.

The world is harder now. Cracking some wannabe bully in the face with my out-of-date history book worked in middle school, but there are no handy villains to slap around today.  New times call for new tactics. Using my words instead of my hands has sparked some conversations, has felt right even if it hasn’t felt like enough. Staying public with this anger has shown me that I can be furious, that I can give voice to this fury … and the world continues to turn, nothing bursts into flame, no one drops dead. And that’s good. It’s at least a start.

My anger and I are on a first name basis today — finally, after all these years — and this feels like the start of a long relationship. I’ll have to keep my eye on my anger. She’s far more beautiful than I am and is incredibly seductive. But as much as she needs watching, I have no interest just now in reining her in. I’m getting comfortable with Angry Stacie. I suggest you do the same.

__________

* Once again mining Rage Against the Machine lyrics for my titles. This one is from “Wake Up” … which is exactly what I’ve been doing these last weeks, rousing the sleeping giant of my fury.

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