______ while Black, Pt. 2

In a video he posted this morning, Kevin Fredericks (Kev on Stage) talked about the Starbucks “incident.”* He does a great job saying so many of the things I’ve been thinking. But his description of the calculus he has to do as a Black man isn’t only the way Black men have to be in the world. This is a necessary thought process for Black people — how do I make sure these random white folks around me don’t think I’m a threat? I have this conversation with myself all the time.

In 2015, the first year I did the 24 Hour Project, part of my worry about being out all night was that someone would see me walking around and think I was trouble. To fight against that, to make myself look more harmless, I actually dressed up — wore. a. dress. and tried to look more “girlie” — in the hope that looking cute would keep me from being perceived as a criminal. I made myself look more like a possible target for an actual criminal in an effort to protect myself from racial profiling.

People told me I was silly to do that, that I was spoiling my own good time. They don’t see the looks I see on people’s faces when they see me approaching, don’t see the way white women pull into themselves when I step into the elevator with them, don’t see the way store clerks watch me when I’m trying to shop, don’t see all the ways I am told over and over that I don’t belong in a space, that I look like danger, that I am feared for simply existing in my skin.

Do Black men have this worse that women? Yes, I believe that. I believe it because I see the constant encouragement provided in the news, the encouragement to see Black men and boys as beasts, as super-powered monsters driven by bloodlust. I believe it because I have seen that some of the people who respond to me with fear and suspicion adjust their racism once they see me and realize that I’m a woman — my height and size often confuse people, keep them from seeing the obvious ways in which I don’t present as a man.

Yes, Black men and boys have to find ways to navigate these situations just so, and have to do it on a many-times-a-day basis. But Black women — including those who are perceived as women from the first moment — are targeted and killed for being Black in numbers as horrifying as the numbers for our brothers, fathers, sons, uncles, etc.

Kevin talks about the things he does to help white people see that he is “safe” — meaning, not a danger to them. This is a inner monologue all people of color have to have in relationship to white people … and, sadly, one that Black folks need to have in relationship to anyone who isn’t Black.  Because our racist society has conditioned non-Black POC to align themselves with racism, to look at me and see someone who plans to shoplift or be loud and angry or make trouble for them in some way.

As I wrote last night and have written many times, I am tired. Not just tired of these incidents, of seeing police menacing Black folks who aren’t doing anything other than trying to live their lives. I’m tired of the ease with which white folks call the police when they know full well what calling the police can mean. The Starbucks statement said the store manager never wanted those men to be arrested. I call absolute bullshit. You don’t call the police in that situation because you are looking to de-escalate something, because you want to make sure everything stays calm and quiet. You call the police because you are afraid of Black people and you want the cops to come and take care of them for you. If that means an arrest, you’re fine with that. If that means a beating, you’re fine with that, too. If that means one or both of those Black men gets shot, gets killed, well, so be it.

I am so. damn. tired. Why can’t we just live? Why is it so hard to just let us live?

There is so much work to do in this country, so far we still have to go. But this right here — this comfort white folks feel unleashing law enforcement on Black and brown folks — this has to stop now. Today.

__________

* I put that in quotes because Starbucks released it’s lame apology, the horror show in their Rittenhouse Square store was referred to as an “incident.” I want to be crystal clear: there was no incident until Starbucks staff created one. Nothing at all was happening in that coffee shop. A racist employee made the decision to turn a nothing day into one that had the potential for violence and death.


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.

“You should just say thank you.”

That’s what my neighbor said.  One of my we-always-chat-at-the-bus-stop neighbors complimented my hair.  You don’t know this because I haven’t gotten around to posting about it, but I’ve been spending a fairly shameful amount of time playing with my hair these last few months.  That day, my hair was cuter than cute (if I do say so myself): curly-curly, shiny, bouncy.  Just generally fun.

My neighbor complimented me and I thanked her.  She asked where I’d gotten my hair done, and I said I did it myself (she asks this question every time she comments on my hair, gets the same answer every time, but always asks again, clearly she is unconvinced that I have the skill to manage my own hair).

“Sure,” she said.  “You got that nice, good hair.”

Let me just state plainly: I don’t have good hair, I have fabulous hair. Outrageously fabulous, in fact.  I know it and have known it for many years.  I do not, however, by any stretch of anyone’s imagination, have what my neighbor thinks of when she says “good hair.”  When she says that, she means I have hair that isn’t kinky, hair that is more like “white people’s hair” than the stereotype of black hair.  What I actually have is super, ultra, beyond-the-beyond kinky hair.  I am queen of the nappiness and proud of it.  If my hair weren’t so delightfully kinky, it wouldn’t let me do half the things I do with it, and in particular it wouldn’t let me rock my ginormous Cleopatra Jones afro when the mood hits me.  And that would be a sin and a shame.

But no, I don’t have “good” hair, and I said as much to my neighbor.  She just shook her head.  “Yes you do,” she insisted.  “That nice coolie hair.”

?!?!

I’d never heard that term before.  Never heard it, but was certain that it couldn’t mean anything good, that it was surely a back-handed compliment grown out of pejorative slang.  Pretty sure I never wanted to be described as having coolie hair.

“I don’t know what that means,” I said.

“Oh, you must not be from the Caribbean.”  She gave my hair another once-over.  “That’s what you got, that nice coolie hair.”

“I really don’t know what that means, but my hair is as kinky as it could possibly be.”

“Don’t worry about understanding. You should just say thank you.  If someone tells you you got that coolie hair, you should just say thank you.”

Happily, the bus came then, and she and I never sit together on the bus, so I could stop having this conversation.  It left a bad taste in my mouth.  My only association for the word “coolie” was a negative one, a racial slur for people of Asian descent, and I knew that, whatever my neighbor meant (clearly she thought she was saying something nice), I wasn’t going to like it.  When I got to work, I went online and looked it up: 

“In the formerly British Caribbean countries, coolie hair is a slightly looser curl that’s usually really shiny.”

“Coolie hair is a mixture between Indian & black.  The reason for the name came from the coolie man which is Indian.”

Yeah.  Just as I feared.

And I should just say thank you?  Really?  I know.  I know.  She didn’t mean anything bad by any of the things she said about my hair.  She was complimenting me.  I know that.  And I know that two minutes at the bus stop is hardly the place for a cultural history teachable moment.  I know.  I know.  Still.  I should just say thank you?  Doesn’t the answer have to be yes?  If  I’m not going to explain to my neighbor why “coolie hair” is offensive to me, if  I’m not going to go into a long rant about the history and hate of “good hair,” don’t I need to just shut up and accept her comment in the spirit it was offered?  Yeah, I don’ t know.  That still leaves the bad taste in my mouth.

I won’t date, don’t ask me …*

I met Tarik back in May when I was out dancing with some friends.  We danced, we tried to talk but the music was too loud, we exchanged numbers, I went home.

And then he called.  And then he called again.  And then he texted.  And then he asked me out.  And instead of my first thought being, “Oh, isn’t that nice? Tarik wants to get together,” my first thought was, “Oh Lord, a date?”

You’re right: that reaction didn’t bode well for Tarik.  I seem to have gotten to a place where I’m not all that interested in dating.  I’ll slog through a relationship, but I’ve lost the patience for the pre-game show.  I’ve done a fair amount of dating, but I don’t think I ever really learned how to do it.  I think you’re supposed to learn about it in high school, and I missed that class.

I’ve said goodbye to Tarik, but I’ve decided to “get back out there” in something that might vaguely resemble an active way … and this is going to mean going on dates.

What’s the problem with dating?  I like going out for coffee, out for dinner, out to the movies.  I like visiting museums and walking in the park.  I even like going to ball games … you know, sort of.  So what is it that I don’t like?  I think it’s the part where I have some guy there with me who I don’t know well and who expects me to make charming, sparkling conversation and show some level of interest in and attraction to him.

Yeah, that would be it.

I’m not really this anti-social.  Really not.  And while it may be true that I’m solidly on the way to becoming a crotchety old lady, it’s also true that there’s something annoying about dating.  It’s not the you-have-to-kiss-a-lot-of-frogs-to-find-your-prince part (though that’s annoying, too: there are some hella bad kissers out there!).  It’s the feeling that you’re being taken for a test drive; it’s the displeasure of having to be civil with some man who has just revealed his racism or sexism or something-ism that turns me off totally; it’s having him lean his puckered lips across the table as you’re putting on your chapstick and ask for some; it’s having men assume that, simply because I said yes to dinner and a movie, I want to bring them home with me.  Feh.

But it’s a necessary evil, right?  Even though AC basically fell into my lap and no dating was required for us to suddenly be in the middle of a messy entanglement, it just doesn’t happen that way all the time.  So I need to get over my distaste and get out of the house.

And so, I have a date tonight — try not to fall off your chairs.  Thanks to my friend Marilyn, I’ve got a date with her friend Dan.  Dan seems nice enough, but he’s already got a strike against him.  As soon as our first phone conversation started, he was going on about how articulate I am.  I’m trying to keep an open mind …

__________
* (And how much do I love Blossom Dearie?)

Putting some flowers in my hair …

Because, you know, the song says I’ll need them … if I’m going to San Francisco and all.

So my email inbox has been the source of wicked good tidings lately.¹  ²  First the news that I won the villa raffle.  And then Tuesday I got the wonderful, soul-affirming news that Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation has accepted me into one of this summer’s writing workshops!

(Let’s pause a moment while I do a dramatic re-enactment of opening my email on Tuesday.  I call this piece Shock, Disbelief, Amazement, Scream of Joy, Tears of Happiness, and the Crazy Little You’ve-Gotta-Be-Kidding-me Dance …)

I’m still a bit disbelieving that this wonderful good fortune is mine.  Please  believe me when I say that I really never win anything.  Anything.  Ever.  And now I have the villa win and a week of fiction writing with the gloriously talented Tananarive Due!

Now I just have to work out my budget so I can pay for it all and finish the story I’m working on so I can submit it for the workshop.  Not small tasks, but definitely do-able.  (So, Linda, Sarah, Audrey … this means I’ll be hanging out in your neck of the woods for a week.  Can’t wait to see you!)

__________

And of course:

(Did anyone — ever — know that Scott McKenzie was the singer of this song?  You know, other than Scott himself and his friends and family?  Certainly not me.  Just another reason to love YouTube!)

_____

¹   Ok, I pretty much never use “wicked” as a positive descriptor, but it seems to fit right now, given the degree of uncommonly good news that’s been flowing my way via the internet.

²   Uh, yeah … until yesterday when my work email sent me the news that the Mayor has zeroed out funding for all adult literacy programming for the new fiscal year … which begins on July 1st.  July 1st.

Eduardo

I pulled out my notebook and pen while my class was writing essays today.  I sat with two of the younger men in the group, hoping my very close presence would help them get a little focused on the work.  The two students, Joseph and Eduardo, have a hard time staying focused on any task, but yesterday I noticed that Joseph worked quite well and easily when I sat right next to him talking with him about the math.  So I wanted to see if that was some wacky fluke or if one-on-one might be a key that would work more than once.  I sat beside Joseph, but it was Eduardo who perked up when he saw I was writing.   As soon as he saw my pen and paper, he wanted to know what I was going to write.

“I don’t know.  I haven’t decided yet.”

“You should write about me.” This is Eduardo, a shy, shy young man who reveals so much of himself even as he works so hard to stay hidden.

“What should I write about you?”

“About why I haven’t been coming to school.” Which is true: he hasn’t been in class much lately, hasn’t responded to my phone calls to check in on him.

“But I don’t know why you haven’t been in school.”

“Oh, right.  Yeah, I need to talk to you about that.”

Yes, exactly. 

The thing with Eduardo is that he seems very sad.  When he writes in class, it always breaks my heart.  He has written things like, “When I’m in a crowd, I wish I was invisible so no one would have to see me,” “I’m one of those people who never had support from his family, and that’s hard on a person.”  So I shouldn’t be surprised when he comes to talk with me after class and tells me his attendance is so bad because he has started to feel stupid, to wonder why he bothers when he’s never going to learn anything anyway.

The two-second conversation about why he’d been out of school turned into a 30-minute talk about all the reasons he should come to school, about all the ways he’s already shown me that he isn’t stupid, about talking with the support counselor when he’s feeling so down on himself (or whenever).

So I’ve done what Eduardo asked and written about him, but I’m frustrated that today was our last class for the week and I won’t see him until Tuesday.   

_____

Check out the rest of the slices of life over at Stacey and Ruth’s.

WE LEARN 2010

It’s time for the WE LEARN conference!  I left for Providence after my class this morning and here I am, happily curled up in my fab king-sized hotel bed, ready to get going tomorrow.

This year the conference is even more special to me than usual.  For the first time, we have a group of students presenting a workshop!  I’m really excited for the ladies who are presenting and can’t wait for them to get here tomorrow.  It’ll be so great to share the conference with them.

Friday night there will be an informal hang out/perform/dance/open mic/whatever here at the hotel.  The women who are coming up from Belize (how excellent that we have a group of learners coming up from Belize!) will be dancing, and one of the students from my program is going to do a dance — with costumes — from her state in Mexico in honor of La Virgen de Guadalupe.  I don’t have anything like that to share, but I’m thinking I’ll read some of Lucille Clifton’s poetry.  I’d love to say I could do a sassy rendition of “Homage to My Hips,” but I don’t think I’m quite that bold, even among friends as I am here! We’ll see how that shakes plays out.

So, so, so glad to be here.  As I got out of the cab at the hotel tonight, the first people I saw were two wonderful ladies from NYC who are GED grads who’ve become real leaders in the adult ed community.  So I left home and felt right at home at the same time.  Excellent.

_____

Check out the rest of the slices of life over at Stacey and Ruth’s.

My year rolls around at last!

In addition to not celebrating Valentine’s Day, today I’m excited because today is Chinese New Year.  And it’s the year of the Tiger.

Yes, it’s true.  I’m a tiger.  I’ve alwasy been happy to be Tiger.  It pleased me that meek-and-mild me could be associated with something fierce and powerful.  I don’t love all the things that are supposed to be true of tigers, and really hope those things don’t describe me.  At the same time, there are parts of the description that I don’t embody but which I aspire to.

As always, a little internet searching yields a whole lot of info:

THE YEAR  OF THE TIGER02/14/2010 – 02/02/2011

2010 is the Year of a Golden Tiger.  The Tiger is the third sign in the cycle of  Chinese Zodiac.  It is a sign of courage. This fearless and fiery fighter is revered by the ancient Chinese as the sign that wards off the three main disasters of a household: fire, thieves and ghosts.  On New Year’s day itself, it is beneficial to celebrate, to be happy, to have smiling faces, and to refrain from scowling, quarreling, or criticizing anyone.

The TigerThe Tiger is one of the most beautiful creatures on the planet, and is feared and revered in equal measure.  It features in many Asian cultures as a manifestation of courage, power, passion and royalty.  In Feng Shui, it is one of the four celestial animals where it takes its place as the White Tiger.  The Tiger symbolizes the female Yin energy as opposed to the Yang male energy of the dragon.  Ancient Chinese believe that the markings on the forehead of tigers resemble the Chinese character for “Wang“, or King.  In Imperial China, where the dragon is the insignia of the emperors, the tiger is the military emblem of the highest supreme commanders of the army symbolizing fearlessness and victory.¹  The Tiger also represents earth, while the dragon represents Heaven.  The powerful and stealth prowess of the Tiger inspire the martial art movements of many Kung-Fu masters.

The Sign of the TigerCourageous, active, and self-assured.  Optimistic, passionate and independent. Rebellious, dynamic, and unpredictable. Quick tempered but considerate.  Affectionate but careless.  The Tiger is a natural born leader and symbolizes power, passion and daring.

People born in the Year of the Tiger are generally well liked because of their charming personalities.  Often, failing at a given task or being unproductive in his personal or professional life can cause a Tiger to experience a deep depression.  Criticism from loved ones can also generate this type of Tiger reaction.

Tigers are fond of competitions. They simply cannot pass up a challenge.  They may appear cool and are unpredictable, and it would be unwise to underestimate their reactions.  Natural  leaders, they have a strong sense of their own dignity.  They are intelligent, alert, and farsighted.  Good strategists and tacticians, they often have a hidden agenda.²  As long as they do not risk their luck too often, and keep their restless nature under control, they will enjoy success and happiness.

People born in the Year of the Tiger are straightforward and uninhibited in nature. They will never give up no matter how frustrated they may become.  But, they are also full of suspicion and  sometimes will take hasty action. 

They must be aware of how they react to and are affected by the consequences of their tempers.  They should take it a little easier and learn to pace themselves to keep active longer and to prevent early burnout.  They are blessed with flexibility and often recover quickly from illness or pain. 

Some people born in the Year of the Tiger are gentle and full of sympathy.  They are kind, love babies and anything that arouses their imagination.  Others can be stubborn and selfish.  Generally speaking, people born in the Year of the Tiger are fond of playing, and full of enthusiasm and sentiment.  Some are  mercurial.  They can laugh happily one moment, and cry the next.  They will be optimistic, but at the next they will lose their heart totally.

People born in the Year of the Tiger take pride in being different than others, and generally illustrate their originality best in their homes.  Their homes are usually filled with exotic treasures.  They are fast learners, need challenge and often work alone.  Some tend to change careers more often because they get bored easily.  They are natural born leaders and perform best if working towards positions of power and influence.  They like to spend money, and also to share it.  They can be quite impulsive spenders because they know they can always make more. 

It is interesting that their two main features are rashness and hesitation, a pair of contradictions. If they know how to relax and do things according to the situation, they can become quite successful.³

* * *

At work, someone from the hospital’s PR office gave us a bunch of Chinese wall calendars because she noticed a 2009 calendar still up in one of the classrooms.  I immediately checked to see what excellent things were in store for me during this tiger year.

Yeah, not so much.  This calendar was clearly written by a gloom-and-doom, recessionist-minded, pessimistic astrologer.  According to the calendar, I’m a bit of a shady character.  My horoscope repeats in four or five different ways that I need to obey the law!  What’s that about?  But not all the news is bad.  I’ve checked other sources and found that a) I should be ready for a year of change, b) I’m going to be particularly dynamic this year, and c) I’ll be really healthy this year as long as I’m careful.  I’m also repeatedly informed that I am the master of my own destiny and shouldn’t take any of these predictions too seriously!  Excellent.  That I can live with!

Happy Year of the Golden Tiger, everyone!

__________

¹ Hmm … think this might explain why the aptitude tests I took in high school said I was sure to become a high-ranking military official?

² Oh dear.  If the Morphine Man is reading this, he’s feeling a little frisson of vindication right now.

³ (Taken with some editing from “Online Shop“)