Done. Undone. Redone.

I was in a reading last week. I haven’t read in a while, but I always love reading for Big Words, Etc. The lineup of readers is always interesting, Stacey and Jess are such warm and lovely hosts, and the folks who come out are always so supportive of every reader.

Wednesday’s theme was “redo” and I struggled with it for a while, didn’t find my idea until the day before the reading, and didn’t finish pulling this piece together until about 10 minutes before the reading. Some of this will sound familiar, and that’s because the story within the story is one I’ve told many, many times. Working on this piece for Big Words is the first time I’ve thought about that moment in this way. The magic of the redo, right? If “redo” can also mean “rethink,” or “re-remember.” My piece didn’t have a title when I read it last week. It does now.

Done. Undone. Redone.

Redo is the dream, right? The fantasy of erasing failure, acknowledging a screw-up and fixing it. I need them all the time. One redo wish pokes at me, a moment when the universe offered me magic and possibility and I squandered it. And that squandering drives me crazy, even more today than when it happened.

* * *

I was in Paris for my junior year abroad, and working on a project on the Civil Rights Movement.  I was days and days in the American Library, my table piled with books. (My favorite find was Julius Lester’s Look Out, Whitey!  Black Power’s Gon’ Get Your Mama! I kept it on my table to scare people away.)

One afternoon, a guy handed me a flyer.  “From the books you’re reading,” he said, “you’d be interested in this.”  James Baldwin was going to be speaking somewhere nearby. I thanked him and was like: “Yeah, ok, whatever.”

(And that would be because I was a pure fool. I was young and dumb and had no idea who and how important Baldwin was. )

My mother and sister came to visit, and I was wrapped up in seeing them and set other things aside.  We were standing on a train platform one afternoon, and suddenly there was that guy. “Don’t forget,” he said, “Baldwin will be here in a couple of days.”

My mother said it would be great if I could go … and I said something like, “Sure, but you guys are here, so I don’t know, we’ll see.”  (Still young and dumb.)

A couple of days later, I was walking down the street and there was the guy, walking up to me and saying, “I’m on my way to meet Baldwin now, why don’t you come?”  So I went, and in the hotel bar there was this funny looking little man and the guy introduced us and I sat next to him and ….

… started talking and talking and talking about myself!  Because, obviously, my ridiculous, 20-year-old life was intensely interesting and important, and was surely exactly what James Baldwin wanted to be talking about.  On and on I went. In the bar, on the metro, walking to the lecture hall.

He was unbelievably nice, asking questions, offering advice, basically putting up with my unfathomable stupidity in the gentlest, more generous way.

And then he gave his talk.  And, with every passing moment, I realized just how brilliant this “funny-looking little man” was, just how uncommonly stupid I was.  I wanted to sink through the floor.

* * *

The most obvious “redo” here is to be less stupid, to have read Baldwin before that moment so I’d know who he was and appreciate the gift I was given to meet and talk with him. I would of course have wanted a redo on our conversation, to talk about something other than myself

My deeper dream is a redo knowing what I know today, a time-travel redo that lets me talk to him from the future, get some “I am not your Negro” insight into this world I’ve grown up into. 

There was a point in our metro ride when we could have gone there, when our conversation strayed from my nonsense. I told him about my study project and my frustration after all the reading I’d been doing, the obviousness of an ongoing problem and no organized action taking it on. I asked him why he thought the Civil Rights Movement’s push for equality had stopped.

He told me I was mistaken, that there was a movement, and it was active, even if I wasn’t aware of it, that the work had gone underground and would resurface in its own time.

I always forget about that exchange. When I think of this story, I focus entirely on my ignorance and idiocy, not on this flicker of light.

I still want my redo because, my god, can you imagine all James Baldwin  would have to say in 2019?

But I have what he did say, and  wasn’t it totally about today, isn’t it the Movement for Black Lives, isn’t this the resurfacing Baldwin was so certain would come? I want my redo so I can expand that conversation, talk about what my work in this resurfacing could be. That conversation might have kept me from floundering as I struggled against despair, struggled to find my way to work for change.

Remembering what Baldwin said on that train brought Naima Penniman to mind. She wrote:

“When Hurricane Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast, almost everything lost its footing. Houses were detached from their foundations, trees and shrubbery were uprooted, sign posts and vehicles floated down the rivers that became of the streets. But amidst the whipping winds and surging water, the oak tree held its ground. How? Instead of digging its roots deep and solitary into the earth, the oak tree grows its roots wide, and interlocks with other oak trees in the surrounding area. And you can’t bring down a hundred oak trees bound beneath the soil. How do we survive the unnatural disasters of climate change, environmental justice, over-policing, mass-imprisonment, economic inequality, corporate globalization, and displacement? We must connect in the underground, my people! In this way, we shall survive.”

Reading that was both a strong embrace and a body slam. I have spent so much time in the last five years castigating myself over the ways I do and don’t step up in this fight.

Then I saw the Toni Morrison movie. She spoke about her choices during the Civil Rights Movement, and it shook me, made me recommit to writing about racism, about misogynoir, about the vast sea of white folks needing to do the work, all the ways they could and don’t do it. Morrison’s reminder nudge, coupled now with this memory of Baldwin’s assertion about the work underground are breathing me back into being, back to what I know is true.

This redo isn’t erasing failure, isn’t about failure. It’s about remembering and starting again, about resetting my course, about picking up my tools and moving forward. Redo. Redo. Redo.


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

If at first you don’t succeed …

I am a writing mentor with Girls Write Now, and I get the pleasure of working with Sophia, who is an entirely fabulous young woman. She’s a senior, and we’re in our third year together. I adore her, and still can’t guess how GWN was able to make such a perfect pairing.

We had our pair session today. We meet in a coffee shop near my office. I arrived a little ahead of Sophia and snagged a booth, our favorite spaces in this cafe. I fished in my bag for notebook and pen and looked up and there was Sophia, not looking her usual self. She gave me a half smile and slid in across from me.

“Oh, I’m fine,” she said.

“Mmmhmm. Why don’t I believe you?”

She smiled a more real smile. “I hate saying ‘I’m in a funk,’ but I think that’s the only thing to say. I’m in a funk.”

“Why do you hate to say it?”

“It’s so dramatic. Sounds like I’m talking in a book.”

Ha. I like that. “Talking in a book.”

After some conversation, Sophia put the source of her funk on the table, announcing a bit flippantly that she is suffering through a mid-life crisis. She is feeling that she should have accomplished more by this time in her life. She is seventeen.

But I totally understand how she’s feeling. I told her she was a little early, that I hadn’t had my first midlife crisis until I was 18. We talked about where these feelings come from and how to deal with them. Sophia said she figured she’d have her next crisis at 25 (as I did), and that each time she had one, she’d move the goal posts down a few years, maybe to 30, maybe to 35.

As our conversations pretty much always do, we moved on to talk about a thousand other things. We talk all over the place, as if we have a shared stream of consciousness. At one point, we were talking about the ocean, about snorkeling, about how alien we feel about being in the ocean, about swimming, about rainbow fish and stingrays and manta rays and jelly fish …

And I suddenly thought of Diana Nyad and watching footage of one of her attempts to swim from Cuba to Florida and her being stung by box jellyfish. Both of us reached for our phones and looked her up. And we marveled at her decades-long push toward the goal of being the first person to complete that swim, and the fact that she accomplished it at 64.

Sophia put her phone down and looked at me. “She’s like us,” she said. I will admit, that took me totally by surprise because, as much as I might like it to be true, I don’t see a lot of similarities between me and Diana Nyad.

“No, she is,” Sophia insisted. “She tried to do this thing in her 20s and she didn’t make it. So she pushed the goal ahead a few years and a few years and a few years. And then she did it!”

I love that she drew this connection, and that it seemed to make her feel less of that funk she’d been carrying when she walked into the cafe. We said our goodbyes with Sophia looking more upbeat, more herself, than when she’d arrived. We’d only written for about 15 minutes, but we covered some good ground today.

I also love thinking about Nyad’s accomplishment. Thirty-six years working toward a single, precious goal. And, to my mind, being all the more impressive for achieving that goal at 64 than she would have been had she succeeded at 28. I think I’ve left mid-life crises behind me at this point, but I am holding onto this idea of Diana Nyad, this idea of staying true to my dreams and continuing to push for them even if I have tried and failed again and again.


It’s the annual Slice of Life Story Challenge over at Two Writing Teachers! With hundreds of folks participating, there’s more than a little something for everyone … and plenty of room for you to join in!

Charles

My uncle Charles was hospitalized Saturday. Today might be his last day in the world. I’m sad and angry about that, sad for myself, angry with myself. Not angry because I’m in any way responsible for Charles’ condition. Angry because of all the time I’ve had him in my life and haven’t visited more, haven’t called, haven’t turned away from own selfish pursuits long enough to include him in my life. Angry because his older sister died last month, and that should have been a wake-up call for me to reach out, and yet I did nothing to change my behavior.

In April I published an essay on Every Family’s Got One. I introduced my paternal grandmother in her decades-long role of foster parent, writing how I learned acceptance by spending so much time at her house, growing up surrounded by all the children she took care of and how some of those kids became family.

Charles was one of those kids. He and his sisters came to my grandmother’s house before I was born. We have an adorable photo of his youngest sister at four years old, smiling as she struggles to hold my toddler brother who’s almost as big as she is. Charles and his sisters were one of two core sibling groups of foster kids who stayed in our family, who became part of our family, who I call my aunts and uncles.

Yesterday tests confirmed our fears, told us that Charles, after the embolism he suffered on Saturday, no longer had “meaningful brain activity.”

No meaningful brain activity. Charles is gone. Our Charles. Our Chip, as we called him when we were kids. This kind, sweet-hearted man with the funny laugh. It doesn’t seem possible that it can be true. And now his youngest sister, no longer the mite of a girl in that long-ago photo but grown and a mother and grandmother, has to make the decision about whether to turn off the machines that are keeping Charles here.

My heart is with her. My heart is heavy with sadness. And my heart is lightened by the joy of thinking him reunited with his brother and sister, with my grandmother, of that big Charles smile shining bright.

Taking from My Father

Daddy

This is my father. I knew him a lot less well than I’d have liked. It’s hard to realize that he passed more than half my life ago, a few days after my 26th birthday. There are so many things I wish I could ask him, talk to him about, tell him, so many ways we never figured out how to be related to one another.

Were he still alive, today would be his 88th birthday. He and I were the end of summer/start of fall babies: my birthday opened the month, and his ended it. For a long time – most of my life, really – I thought our birthday month might be the only clear thing we had in common. That’s not true, but we struggled our whole lives to see one another, to figure one another out. We just seemed so randomly assembled that it made sense that September would be all we had as a connection.

 

My father was a great talker. When I was in high school, he had a radio talk show. And his show was extremely popular, complete with regular callers and a solid fan base. My father didn’t finish high school, but he read voraciously and knew so much about so many things that many of his listeners thought he was a professor. His facility with talking must have been something he always had. He ran for state office when I was a little girl, and his ability to talk to anyone about anything surely served him well then.

I should have seen this connection a mile away. I don’t have a talk show, but I sure can talk. I am the longest of the long-winded! I’m one of those people who has an anecdote for every possible situation … and, if you’re not careful, I will tell it to you – garnished with at least five others that are halfway-related. I’m only realizing now that my chatty-Cathy-ness comes from my father.

He loved sports, took me to meet Bill Russell when I was 9 (seeding my love of basketball), took my brother to see Jesse Owens (I am jealous to this day). He announced our high school basketball games, our football games, our track meets. He took a valiant pass at designing HBCU-style marching band routines for our really-not-in-any-way-up-to-that-standard marching band. (I have a strong memory of some winds almost being taken out by an errant bass drum when a critical pivot went awry!)

He was an avid gamer: Monopoly, Scrabble, Clue, Careers … games I still love today. I wonder what video games he’d have taken to. Sim City would likely have captivated him. And maybe games like World of Warcraft and Civilization. He loved jigsaw puzzles, would spread them out carefully, piece by piece on my mom’s sewing table. We were all allowed to help, but he was, without question, chief puzzler.

He had a deep, deep, resonant voice, and though I didn’t inherit that from him, I did inherit my height. And my face and hands are copies of his mother’s.

We had a long period of estrangement, a period marked by occasional epistolary flashes of temper from me and silence from him. When we finally started writing letters that didn’t involve me yelling at him, he would sign his letters, “Your dad, Doug,” which annoyed and confused me, and also kind of amused me. We had begun to touch the edge of talking honestly to each other about each other when his cancer was diagnosed. And then all the slow, painstaking moves toward one another were both hurried up and pushed aside. And then his progressing illness silenced me. There was no room for asking him questions about how we had and hadn’t had a real relationship when he was actively engaged in dying.

 

Our birth month is not all we have in common, of course, and it’s pretty safe to say that I’ve inherited more than height from him. And more than my talk-your-head-off talents, too. He was an avid reader. I am lucky in that I get that from both parents. We are a seriously bookish family to this day. My love of tennis comes from him, too. He and my mother played in a league when I was a kid. They were serious enough for tennis puns to work their way into birthday cards and stories (dad jokes didn’t just become a thing last year, after all). I share some of his musical tastes, and I think he would have liked some of mine. Esperanza Spaulding’s 77-hour live compose-and-record session last September would have fascinated him, and I think her music would have pleased him.

He had a big temper. Everyone in my immediate family has a big temper. I was always the one who didn’t, the one who was calm and quiet while other people vented or raged. I thought this was something that made me different from them, but instead, I was just swallowing my feelings. I don’t think my anger is terribly much like my father’s, to be honest, but I’m definitely not swallowing it the way I used to.

He had the bad habit I share of not going to the doctor when he needed to. Before his cancer was diagnosed, it was clear there was something seriously wrong. It was visible in his face, in the changed sound of his voice, the changed shape of his head. I totally understand his not doing anything about it, however. Like him, I wait and wait and wait far too long before making medical appointments. I don’t want bad news, so I avoid. (I’m actively in avoidance as I write this. Yeah. I need to stop this nonsense and make an appointment.)

And we share the same politics. I read his campaign literature a couple of years ago, and I was struck both by how current it sounded (and how sad it was that the same issues are current almost half a century later!), and how like the laundry list of issues that set my hair on fire. I wouldn’t wish him the pain of experiencing our current political climate … but at the same time, it would be so interesting to hear what he would have to say about everything. He would have been all over the Movement for Black Lives, would have used his radio show to amplify so many people and ideas, would have come out for Colin Kaepernick within seconds of the start of Kaep’s protest. I wouldn’t wish this time on him, but oh, he would have been so alive for all of this. Maybe we would have worked together – him guesting on this blog, me recording podcasts with him.

 

Whoa. I had to stop writing. That actually made me tear up. That was not in any way the relationship I had with my father. It really wasn’t. But it still feels right. If he hadn’t gotten sick, we might have been able to get there. We were starting to get real with each other. We had potential. I’ve never before thought about what our lives would be today if he had lived. Writing that last paragraph threw me. Is still throwing me. (I am, maybe for the first time, truly “shewk.”)

His 88th birthday. I can’t imagine him as an old man. I see him the way he appeared in the last dream I had of him: in his 40s, paunchy, but he could still get out there, hit some balls over the net, he has his scratchy beard and his sunglasses, a pack of cigarettes in the pocket of his polo shirt. This is my father, ambitious, but so often plagued by being his own worst enemy, something I see in my battles against La Impostora. He is my father, 88 today. I wish I’d found a way to see him more clearly when I had the chance, wish he had been able to do the same for me.


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

Think of the Children

Last night, I had the great good fortune to read at Big Words, one of my favorite reading series. I really love the two young women who created the series and host the readings. Stacey and Jess are smart, funny, kind, caring, and beautifully supportive of writers. Big Words is always a great experience.

The theme for last night’s reading was “Side Effects.” As always, I struggled to find something to read or to write something new that related to the topic. In the end, I wrote something during my work day yesterday, typed it up fast, and headed to 61 Local, the bar Big Words calls home. Here’s what I read:

Think of the Children

My mother was told to reconsider marrying my father because, with him as a husband, she risked having dark, ugly children. (The fact that I know this points to a lot of issues in my upbringing, to be sure. Why tell me that my father was considered ugly? Why tell me that the prospect of being dark-skinned was undesirable? Why tell me any of this as if it constituted a funny story? So many issues.)

Despite the well-meaning advice thrown her way, my mother went ahead and married my father. She rolled the dice and wound up with three dark-skinned children, none of whom look like her, none of whom look like my dad, all of whom – yes, I’m going to say it – are pretty in the face.

Whew! Thank God for that, right? Imagine if we’d all been hideous and she’d found herself saddled with raising a passel of homely, dark-skinned pickaninnies. Clearly dodged a bullet there. I do understand thinking about what your baby will look like. Who doesn’t want a cute baby? But the toxic run-off that is Internalized Racial Inferiority shouldn’t dictate what you consider “cute.”

*

Yesterday was my birthday, so of course I’m thinking about my storyline – how I came to be here, what about me is anything like my mother, my father, all the family before me on both sides. I’ve just hit 56 years, which means I’ve lived plenty long enough to have been influenced by where and how I’ve lived and can’t honestly attribute all the truths about myself to nature over nurture, but it’s also true that I’ve inherited plenty from my family, from that risky mixing of my mother’s and father’s gene pools.

One result of my mother’s gamble is that I get to be tall. My brother, sister, and I, we’re none of us as tall as my father’s side, but having that height in our blood pulled us up from the tininess of my mother’s people. My mother (who I will generously describe as not-quite five-seven) is a giant in her family, while my father’s family had true giants like his Uncle Ambrose who was nearly seven feet tall.

Here I’ll digress and say that I have lived my life obsessed with being tall. I coveted the regal height of my father’s cousin Pam, who was six-two. Both my sister and I dreamed of reaching her stature. I still dream about it, I won’t lie. I mean, can you imagine if I were six-two? I would, quite simply, have achieved godhood, would already have taken over the world, legions of minions and cabana boys behind me. (You know this is true, but let’s get back on track.)

*

I am the daughter of southern parents who met after choosing to make their lives in the north. Is that why I grew up a northern snob, wanting to turn my back on the worlds they’d chosen to leave behind … but also the reason I crave southern dishes when I need the reassurance of comfort food?

I used to look for connections most particularly with my mother’s family. As if my father’s didn’t exist somehow, as if everything I was I took from only one branch of the tree. This is foolish because … biology … but also because I just have to look at myself to see my father’s family. My large, long-fingered hands are entirely my grandmother’s hands. My face is entirely her face. This funny little bridgeless nose that no one in my immediate family has is from my grandmother’s mother’s side of the family.

When my mother was warned about the dangers of marrying my father, the folks issuing the warning were caught up on surface things – what would the children look like? And maybe the fact that so much of my physical appearance comes from my father shows they were right to be worried. But did they give any thought to the beneath-the-surface bits?

What you get when you mix two families together is a crap shoot, of course. Some things, like my Pipkin nose, are visible from the start. Others, like my facility for learning languages, reveal themselves over time. Many of these beneath-the-surface bits that are true about me seem common in both of my families, while some very clearly come from one side or the other. There is lots of good that’s come down to me: the language learning thing, my ability to be charming and diplomatic, my voice, my creativity, my silver-instead-of-grey hair.

But it’s not all cute noses and French vocabulary. There’s the list of good, but an equally long list of less-pleasing things, too: crushing self-doubt, heart disease, a history of cancer. And there’s the list that waits in the wings, always ready to take the stage and become part of who I am – alcoholism, mental illness, vengeful grudge-holding. These are things to hope I haven’t inherited, but which I know could be lying dormant, landmines buried at conception.

*

I got a birthday text from my niece, who is my god-daughter, my role model, and one of my favorite people in the world. She thanked me for being a guiding presence in her life, for inspiring her to stay true and be proud of who she is (and yes, I promptly melted). My father’s detractors would have been pleased with my niece. She is a beautiful young woman who would ace their paper bag test. I am more impressed by the smart, strong, thoughtful woman she is growing up to be. And I am thrilled that some of that is because of what makes me me, because of what my brother passed down from our parents, our grandparents, from everyone who came before, because my mother threw caution to the wind and married my tall, dark-skinned, ambitious, intellectually curious, deeply flawed father.


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

Washing and Folding

My grandmother, for the whole of my childhood, worked as a laundress. She picked up, washed, ironed, and delivered laundry for wealthy residents of the towns around where she lived: Larchmont, Scarsdale, Pound Ridge, Bronxville. I have so many memories of her sitting at her low ironing board turning basket after basket of heaped sheets into crisply pressed and folded linens. She may have washed clothes for her clients, too, but it’s the sheets that have stayed with me, that are ever present in my memory.

Before she and my grandfather and their sons left the south, she had been a teacher. They had both been teachers. But they didn’t work as teachers in New York – because they couldn’t find work as teachers? Because Black teachers didn’t get paid well and New York was more expense than Fayetteville so they had to find other work? I have no idea. I do know they lived in Harlem, in the projects, and that they opened a small grocery store. (That was how my dad wound up going to the old Music and Art high school with Reri Grist.) After Harlem, they moved to Westchester. And that was where my grandmother’s laundry work began.

I recently saw Lizzie Olesker and Lynne Sachs’ documentary short, The Washing Society. It focuses on the women and men who work at wash-and-fold laundries, the places where you drop off your clothes and staff wash them for you. It focuses on the present, but also on the original Washing Society, the union of Black laundresses in Georgia who went on strike for better pay and work conditions. The documentary shook me a little. I was interested in seeing it because I’m always interested in documentaries and always interested in hearing ordinary, everyday people talk about their lives and work. I went into that theater without any idea that the movie had anything to do with me.

My first indication that I would have a connection to the film came right away: the memory of my life when I first moved to New York from my mother’s house. I didn’t do my laundry, I brought it to a tiny wash-and-fold storefront two blocks from my apartment. It wasn’t a laundromat. I couldn’t have washed my clothes there even if I’d been so inclined. It was only for dropping off.

I wasn’t inclined to do my own washing, however. Watching The Washing Society, I thought about that. What was my story? I certainly wasn’t imagining myself somehow above washing my own clothes. Hardly. My family never had much money, so I wasn’t accustomed to sending the laundry out. The sad truth of me, I’ll admit, is that I didn’t really know how to do my laundry. I know I must have washed more than a load or two in my mother’s house, but I just followed my mother’s instructions, never absorbed the knowledge of the process, the steps.

(Add this to a long list of things I left home having no idea how to do: boil eggs (!!), make tuna salad, balance my checkbook, make and keep a budget, plan meals and shop for food … How did I survive those first years on my own?!)

Never once in that year of dropping off my clothes down the street did I make a connection with my grandmother. Not then and at no point since then … until seeing The Washing Society. I hope I was a good customer. I’ve never been a full-on jackass, so I want to believe I was respectful to the women who worked at that shop, as I am to staff anywhere.

But then I thought about my grandmother, my strong, calm, giving, tough, no-nonsense Eva Nora. I didn’t know about her career as a teacher in North Carolina until I was an adult. And I didn’t learn about it from her. It wasn’t something she talked about. Same with the store.

I wish I could ask her about those transitions, from teacher to shop owner to laundress to caregiver for a world of foster children and then to two large group homes of adults who needed supportive housing. I witnessed a few of those transitions, and I don’t remember being fazed, or thinking how hard it must have been, or thinking it was at all unusual for her to make such sweeping changes in her work, in her household.

And I thought about the laundry. My grandmother grew up in the Carolinas. She was born in the early 1900s (1902 or 1904, depending on which documentation you believe). She lived through the hideousness of the Black Codes and the birth and entrenchment of Jim Crow. Still, she and William were able to become teachers, were able to find a way to help young people access learning, something that was withheld from them by white society. They came north and found that things weren’t exactly better, that things may, in fact, have been worse because they could no longer work in their chosen field.

But that roadblock didn’t stop them. They made a way and made it work. I don’t know that I could have done what they did. I think about the powerful roles vanity and shame play in my life. Would I have been able to accept what I would absolutely have seen as a serious demotion from school teacher to laundress? Not that Eva and William had much choice. They had two sons to raise. They had a mortgage to pay. Money needed to be coming in, period. There is no room for vanity or shame in that equation.

And I think about all that laundry. There was so much of it. And my grandmother was already my grandmother in the period I’m thinking about, of course. She was in her 70s when I was a little kid hanging out in the TV room watching Creature Feature while she was ironing and folding sheet after sheet after sheet. So much work. And such heavy and hot work. How did she have the energy for all of that?

Did she think about her past? Did she miss teaching? Is that why she never spoke about it? When I became a teacher, did it make her wistful or nostalgic? How did she still not say anything to me about her own life as a teacher?

The women of the original Washing Society – which began as a couple dozen Black laundresses in 1881 Atlanta – were a force. They were in what should have been an incredibly precarious position – Black women, not quite 20 years into emancipation, Black Codes being enacted right and left, living on the lowest level of anyone’s hierarchy. They were the most disrespected, the least protected. But the Washing Society women knew their worth. They knew the strength their numbers gave them. And they used it.

The fact of their strike is impressive to me. Then as now, we don’t offer much in the way of respect to laundry workers. A second ago I admitted that I saw the move from teaching to laundry as a demotion. And the women in the film talk about having to deal with rude, crappy treatment. Which all serves to make the story of the Washing Society women more powerful. Those women refused to accept their treatment, insisted on better. And there were so many of them. What started as a group of 20 swelled to three thousand. Three thousand.

The Washing Society amassed real power. These women were supposed to be nobodies, were supposed to count for nothing. And yet they saw their clients clearly, saw just how distasteful their customers would find doing their own washing. That awareness gave them power, and that power forced positive changes in their work lives. They faced down a government that tried to intimidate them. Eva had that kind of clear-minded certainty and strength.

I’ve known for so long that I inherited my face, my hands, my outward calm, my slow-rising temper from Eva. I would love to think that I inherited her strength, her ability to adapt so dramatically, to take the sour, rotting apples she was so often handed and still make do, still create. Still build a life even after William passed and she had to make her world alone.

I don’t have her strength. And no, that’s not La Impostora talking, that’s acknowledgment of my privilege, of how soft I’ve been allowed to be, of how taken care I’ve been, shielded from the harshest things my life could have been. I have been strong at times, strong for myself alone – fighting back against doctors who have wanted to treat me badly, for example. That’s strength of a different kind, but maybe from Eva, born of her understanding that no cavalry was coming, that she would have to rescue herself.

A year after moving out of my mother’s house I moved to my second apartment, from Chinatown, which had an abundance of wash-and-fold laundries, to Washington Heights, which didn’t seem to have any … whether that was the reason I finally began to do my own washing, or whether I had finally come to my senses and realized I couldn’t afford that luxury, I don’t recall. Either way, I started washing my own clothes with that move and have never turned back. The idea of giving my clothes to someone else to wash feels strange to me now, almost unfathomable.

If I ever take my clothes to a wash-and-fold place again, all of this will echo back to the surface. Even as I do my own laundry, these reverberations are there. History flies in, enveloping everything. This remembering Eva differently, calling back another piece of her, is an unexpected gift.


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

 

Celebrating the Journey

Tuesday was Juneteenth, a day that doesn’t and doesn’t mean something. I grew up with the conflicting assumptions that everyone knew about Juneteenth and that Juneteenth was just for Texans … and for me because my mother is from Texas. I was surprised when I learned there were folks in the north celebrating Juneteenth, but figured they must all be Texas transplants (because sometimes my imagination is just really fussily narrow).

Juneteenth, if you don’t know, is the celebration of the day in 1865 when troops arrived in Galveston and told Texas’ enslaved Africans that they were free. It has morphed into a general celebration of the finally-and-for-real declaration of freedom.

I knew about Juneteenth as a child — I feel, in fact, as if I’ve always known about it, though that cannot be true. We didn’t have a party or picnic or acknowledge it in any way, but I knew about it. Juneteenth was the one solid piece of historical information I had about my great grandfather, Samuel. My beloved Samuel. The one thing I knew about him was that he’d been born in slavery and remembered emancipation. My memory gives me a picture of a white man on horseback speaking the news down to a group of Black people. I don’t think this is something anyone ever told me. Rather, I think it is my writer’s mind making a visual for me to attach my history to.

I saw a lot of posts Tuesday from people who were a little snarky about all the “Happy Juneteenth!” posts, saying we have nothing to celebrate because we aren’t yet free, telling people to sit down and cancel the picnics because nobody’s got a reason for partying. I am willing to grant those people their disquiet. People can feel what they feel and express it how they need to.

But … I also don’t understand those people. Why do they need crush someone else’s joy? Why can’t they allow other people to feel what they feel? Why can’t they acknowledge that we can focus on multiple things at one time, that we can know how much work we still to do and need to see done while celebrating our existence in this world? Why is it so hard to just let people live?

It’s certainly true that Black folks aren’t yet free. In Donald Trump’s America, some of us may be feeling it more acutely, but I imagine that even the least awake Black folks have long been aware of this painful fact — even if they’ve never articulated it in quite that way.

That truth notwithstanding, the importance of Juneteenth remains. I think about Samuel. I think about what it must have felt like in his body and brain to hear the news that his enslavement was ended. It must have blown his mind wide open. Wide open. He was young, sixteen years old on that day. A boy but also a man. Was he frightened by the yawning unknown that was opening in front of him? Did the news of freedom flood excitement through his body, make him drop whatever he was holding and immediately turn to pack his few things and walk off the land to embrace his life as a freedman? Did he have family on that plantation, or was he alone there? Did freedom mean the start of a search to find the family he’d been sold away from or who had been sold away from him? Did the news make him want to laugh, to shout, to punch the air, to cry, to fall to his knees in disbelieving prayer?

I think about all of the people who got the news on that first Juneteenth. Did it also come with the acknowledgment that folks could have been free two and a half years earlier when the Emancipation Proclamation was signed but that, instead, their bondage had to go on for 30 months longer? I saw several folks on FB call out that detail, call out Juneteenth as a celebration of white privilege. Sure, that is some true bullshit right there, keeping folks enslaved for two and a half years after they’d been proclaimed free. But in truth, Lincoln’s Proclamation didn’t do the trick. The Union had to win the war first, and politicians had to get a law on the books. So American slavery didn’t fully and finally end until December of 1865 with the passage of the 13th Amendment.

The importance of Juneteenth remains. I’m thinking about Samuel, my Samuel. Sixteen years old and set loose into his life … with what resources, what aspirations? How did he find his way, how did he determine the shape of his world? Did he know how to read and write? What were his dreams, what possibilities did he see ahead?

I know that five years later he was a cook for a large white family. Did he know how to cook when he walked away from enslavement, or did he learn along the way as he moved toward that job?

Everything about him is obscured in shadow, illuminated only by my imagination. He lived in the brief, cautious hope of Reconstruction, survived the bloody horror of Redemption, and avoided the penal slavery sanctioned by the Black Codes. Did he thrive? Did his life mirror the dreams he had for himself? I can’t know, but I believe Juneteenth had immediate, powerful, tangible value for him. And it is most assuredly neither my place nor my desire to second guess that. Honoring the day is honoring Samuel and every other man, woman, and child who had to survive enslavement so that I could sit here navel-gazing about Juneteenth and its significance in 2018 Trump-World.

I understand the need to keep our eyes on the as-yet-unachieved prize: freedom, full citizenship, equal opportunity, and reparations in this could-be-great-if-it-ever-got-its-shit-together-and-made-this-happen country we built from the ground up. Yeah, I get that. I also understand and embrace the need to mark milestones, celebrate wins along the way. We’d be a lot farther behind the finish line if we hadn’t ever reached Juneteeth.

If our families, our friends, our neighbors, our elders, want to get a little happy on Juneteenth, we have a couple of options: join them or step back and let them have their moment of joy.


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.