I often write about the sleepy little upstate New York town where I grew up and my experiences with racial prejudice when I lived there. I focus particularly on two incidents, moments when I used violence in response to the hate that was spit in my face. I’ve been thinking a lot about those incidents lately, thinking about my choice to use violence, about the fact that – as satisfying and effective as my violence was in both cases – I have not become a person who regularly reaches for violence.
I’m not shocked that I haven’t grown up to be a violent person. I’ve never been particularly physical, and I’ve most definitely never been a fighter. More like the opposite of a fighter. I have always been the first to flee, shut down, or capitulate in the face of confrontation. I was mouse-quiet, mouse-meek. I was go-along-to-get-along obedient, kind even to people who weren’t kind to me. That was the “right” way to act, the way I was “supposed to” be.
Except for those two, seemingly aberrant moments. Those two acts of physical violence when I was 12 nudged aside the scrim, gave me brief glimpses at another version of myself. Both came in response to race-based verbal abuse. Clearly racial prejudice was the line silent, docile me wasn’t willing to let others cross with impunity.
The first person to trigger my violence was John. He was older than me by a year or two, and for months he had waited for me outside the door of my history class. Every day, he cycled through a banal but still unacceptable set of insults: ugly black bitch, stupid black bitch, lazy black bitch, nasty black bitch …
At first, I behaved as he must have expected me to: ignored him, reasoned with him, pleaded with him. He found my efforts amusing, and I succeeded only in encouraging him to continue.
Then I changed the script. I approached history class, John’s mouth opened for his daily spew … and I slammed my textbook into his face. It made a deeply satisfying flesh-to-hardcover “SPLAT!!” and John never spoke to me or came near me again. He would, in fact, move to the other side of the hallway when he saw me coming, which was also deeply satisfying and made that smack in the face a gift that kept on giving.
The second recipient of my physical wrath was Michael, a boy in my grade. In science class, I accidentally caught his finger between a desk and chair as we rearranged our seating one day. The surprise of that pain turned Michael into the first person to ever call me a nigger. He spit it at me so fast, had the word handy, so close to the surface, I have no doubt that was how he thought about me all the time.
I had never been called a nigger before, and the surprise of that pain made me grab Michael by the throat and squeeze tight, made me get in his face and invite him to say it again. And I kept inviting him to say it again as my fingers were pried from his bleeding neck.
Choking Michael was almost as satisfying as the book-slap I’d dealt John. And it had the same effect, in that Michael never spoke to me again. (I spoke to him once after that, five years later. I was walking past him and a group of his friends who were hanging out on the Vischer Avenue steps – where my high school’s version of the cool kids hung out – and one of the other boys had something snarky to say about me that made everyone laugh. I paused, then walked up to Michael and ran my finger over the scars I’d dug into his neck. “I see they’re still there,” I said, then turned and kept on walking.)
These were isolated moments – split-second reveals of the me who wasn’t interested in going along to get along, the me who was more than happy to take fools down and keep moving. My actions were so far outside anything that could be considered “normal” for me as to be horrifying … but I wasn’t horrified. Other people were horrified, particularly in the case of my choking Michael, but both moments felt entirely comfortable, necessary, correct. Nothing could have been more natural than introducing John’s face to my history book, than the feel of Michael’s neck in my fist. I have never regretted either action. I don’t regret them today.
As I write this, however, I realize I’m lying. Those two instances of violence weren’t the first. They were the first of that specific, retaliatory type of violence, but not the first signs of my willingness to use physical force. The year before, sixth grade, I tried out a different kind of aggression. In sixth grade, we still had recess, almost entirely unsupervised time on the playground. And there was a brief period during that year when a group of boys faced off against a group of us girls. There was a boy named Guy who was the largest boy – not overly tall, but heavy. I was always lined up to face him because I was the largest girl – tallest and biggest. We’d form opposing lines, armed linked, and we’d advance on each other, chanting: “We don’t stop for noooo-body!” And then we’d smash into each other as hard as we could, trying to break the enemy line.
Why did we do this? Who knows. I can’t imagine why we would have started, what we got out of it, how we chose to stop. Was this the only way we could think of to release the tensions that built up between us?
Those violent clashes – how did none of us get seriously hurt? – were different from what happened the following year, but maybe it was the experience of not stopping for “noooo-body” that made me know I had the strength to lash out when faced with John, with Michael. I may have chosen to slip behind the scrim of meek docility, but maybe that retreat was a tactical choice because slamming into Guy over and over again had given me an idea of what I could take, what I could dish out. Maybe I understood that part of the power of my violence was in doling it out sparingly.
My violent outbursts produced zero consequences for me. In the case of me planting my textbook in John’s face, no teacher or other school authority figure saw me do that, and John, apparently, never reported me. Perhaps he didn’t want to risk me explaining why I bashed him with my book. I was in class for the second incident, however. It was my teacher who pried my hand from Michael’s throat. There should have been some effort at a formal response, some kind of reckoning. But … no. The dramatic fact of my choking Michael blew over almost immediately. I appreciate that this surely wouldn’t be true for a seventh-grade girl today – and specifically not for a Black girl. And I appreciate that it really shouldn’t have been true back then. I physically attacked another student, broke skin and drew blood. As much as I don’t regret my actions, more should have been done than sending me to the nurse’s office.
No one spoke to Michael, no one suggested that he might want or need to apologize to me, or at least remember not to call Black folks niggers (although, I suppose my actions might have gotten that point across). The school nurse, Mrs. Workman, did talk to me, but only so far as to wonder what was wrong with me and if I thought I was a wild animal. She never thought to talk to me about better ways to deal with my anger, and it certainly didn’t occur to her to wonder how I was feeling.
The incidents receded. Other students might have talked about them, but I released them and moved on. None of my friends said a word. No one came to John or Michael’s defense. I’d like to think I put the fear of God in them, that they didn’t want to upset me further, didn’t want to risk getting these hands! I love the idea of that, but I doubt this was the case. The less pleasant truth was likely more along the lines that all of us lived with violence on a regular enough basis that it was just the norm to let flare-ups fade away.
I focus on the incidents with John and Michael because of the racism at the heart of each. And because it’s so interesting to me that it was race-based abuse that drove me to a volatility no one would have dreamed possible from me. But I was a kid raised on “Negro American History” comics, flashcards of famous Black folks, the Afro-American History Calendar, The Negro Almanac. I had strong and clear feelings and opinions about race and prejudice. Had either John or Michael mocked or attacked me because of my gender, my body, my looks, I don’t imagine I would have stood up for myself, and I would definitely not have turned violent. But attack me because I’m Black? Not today, Satan. I knew exactly how I felt about that and exactly what crap I was not going to take. Come at me with racist bullshit, and it’s on.
In the many years since seventh grade, I’ve chosen non-physical ways to fight back, which is 100 percent more my style. Unsurprisingly, the weapon I’ve wielded most often has been my voice. Who could be shocked to know this? Words were the tool I used in my earliest responses to bullies. When faced with racist nonsense in kindergarten, I wrote my way out. When faced with a bully in the fourth grade, I talked my way out. My words, my voice, have always been my friend, have always come to my aid.
I say that the incidents with John and Michel pulled back the scrim, gave me a glimpse of another version of myself. And that’s true. That stand-and-fight version of me disappeared after I attacked Michael. It resurfaced briefly years later in Europe when a man tried to rape me. I fought him briefly, but then immediately began to use my words – once again, I talked my way out. It surfaced again on the 4 train one morning when I delivered a vicious kick to the shin of a man who had followed me through a crowded train car, defiantly positioning himself behind me and putting his hand between my legs. Clearly, what was true in high school – that I wouldn’t have defended myself if John or Michael had attacked my body – has stopped being true. That sounds like progress.
I think about how completely I put myself behind that scrim of docility after choking Michael. As much as I didn’t regret my actions, perhaps my violence seemed extreme to me, felt out of control or unmanageable. I didn’t know that part of myself, didn’t know what to do with a me who was a fighter.
Did I frighten myself? Perhaps just a little? Did I make myself wonder what else was hiding beneath my surface, what else I was capable of? Could that be where I learned to fear my anger, to swallow it rather than express it? Maybe. If this is the case, I’m sad to know it, sad to think that seeing myself express my anger so purely and effectively might be the thing that cut me off from my anger for so many years.
But perhaps, then, it makes perfect, full-circle sense that it was race-based violence – the murders of unarmed Black people by police and vigilantes and white domestic terrorists – that has drawn my anger to the surface once and for all? Racism remains the sure-fire trigger, the line I cannot allow others to cross.
I wrote about John and Michael early in the life of this blog. The title of that post was, “Only wild animals act like that.” And I chose to echo that title for this post.
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.