La Impostora Regresa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sigh.

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

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

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

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

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


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

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Barrels, Empty and Full

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

* * *

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


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

Not Your Auntie

That’s the title of my essay that went up on The Rumpus yesterday. I wrote it weeks and weeks ago, and I’m thrilled to be able to share it here.

The use of the title “Auntie” for Representative Maxine Waters both amuses and troubles me. I tried to write my way through it. From some of the feedback I’ve received, I’m seeing that I left some people struggling to figure out how they can support and praise the Congresswoman without taking an offending misstep.

I’ll be honest and say that I hadn’t given much thought to the idea that people would read my essay and instantly decide to change their behavior. I’ve received a few comments from people who are swearing to make different choices from this moment forward. That’s powerful … but also jarring. This is a good reminder for me of the power of words, of the impact writing can have on people.

Curious to hear your thoughts!

_______________

This piece on The Rumpus makes my 30th essay of this essay-writing year. I’m far behind the count–I think this is week 43? But I’m a lot closer than I thought I might be by this late in the year! It’s November, so I’m turning this year’s NaNoWriMo writing over to creative nonfiction: My NaNo work is going to be essays, I want to see how much I can catch up over the course of the month. I wrote an essay today that I’ll post tomorrow, and started a draft of another idea … so I’m off to a pretty good start!


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

Yes, yes, of course … me, too.

Women are all over FB right now posting “Me, too.” Some are posting with the tagline: “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote “Me, too” as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.” Some are posting their actual stories. And it’s powerful … and triggering. And enraging. And starkly hideous.

I posted my “Me, too” and thought I’d leave it at that. I did just write about being sexually abused, after all. And I’ve written in the past about experiences with sexual harassment, about assault. Did I really need to say anything more?

But the tidal wave of “Me, too” posts flooding my timeline began to overwhelm me. I’m not surprised by them. Hardly. I am more surprised by women who can’t say “Me, too.” It just seems likely that nearly every woman everywhere has experienced some form of sexual harassment or abuse, some manifestation of the complete social normalization of rape culture. Still, the posts felt so heavy, so painful.

So, too, the number of women posting about how they never told anyone, how they felt responsible, how they put themselves in harm’s way against their own discomfort or awareness of danger because of concern about how the man would feel or be impacted if they didn’t acquiesce.

And I am impressed that so many people feel comfortable enough, safe enough to be able to post. And I’m feeling for all the people who don’t feel safe to post and are holding their silences. And I’m grateful to my non-binary and male friends who’ve posted their “Me, too” stories, driving home the full range of this issue.

But at the end of this day, I find myself wondering what all these posts add up to. Where do they leave us?

As I said, its’ not surprising to see how many women are posting. But what do any of us hope the result of this will be? Those of us who have had to deal with harassment and survive assaults will see how completely not alone we are, will maybe release some of the shame we have carried when we see that what has been done to us wasn’t our faults, doesn’t say anything about who we are as people.

And that’s a good outcome. I guess what I’m really wondering is: will any man who has ever harassed or assaulted a woman look at those posts and see himself?

Why is it so hard for me to believe that’s possible?

*

A couple of years ago, something similar happened on Twitter. Someone called on women to post about the first time they were sexually harassed. Again, the volume of responses was overwhelming. For me, the truly overwhelming aspect was how young we all were the first time we were sexualized and made to feel uncomfortable or frightened because of the way a man or boy behaved with us. The tweet I posted was about a man who masturbated at me … when I was eight. And so many of the tweets were stories about experiences in third, fourth, fifth grade. Very young girls.

At the time, I was frozen in my efforts to make sense of it. It was too ugly. Yes, in some small way, I felt better knowing I wasn’t the only one, but not really. Knowing that third grade girls everywhere were having awful experiences was cold comfort at best.

I had a longish tweet convo about this question of how young so many of us were at that first experience. One of the things that kept coming up was the fact that we as girls had just begun to have awareness of our bodies as pleasure centers, of the idea and experience of sensual pleasure. And then whatever awful thing would be done to us, and we would blame ourselves. Because, if we hadn’t discovered that strange, surprising world of physical pleasure, then surely that man or boy wouldn’t have said or done whatever he said or did.

And the worst part of that realization was that, in a twisted way, it’s likely one hundred percent true … Not that we as children were to blame for our assaults, no. Absolutely not. But that, as the women in that Twitter conversation and I eventually concluded, those men and boys who harassed or molested us must have sensed the change we were living through. They detected whatever that new physical awareness was … and they came for us. They decided we were fair game.

*

And from that moment forward, those men and boys saw us as available to them, as “ready.” And we grew up encountering those men and boys again and again and still again.

How does now saying, “Me, too” affect any of that? Those men and boys didn’t hear us when we were children. Why on earth would they hear us now? Can we really believe they will suddenly (snap of fingers) have the epiphany that enables them to see themselves as predators, as the ones who need to address their attitudes toward and behavior with women?

*

Years ago, I took an amazing class at the American Place Theater. The class was for teachers, showing us ways to incorporate theater exercises into our teaching of literature and history. In one exercise, I was sitting around a coffee table with three women. We were tasked with creating a scene about an adolescent girl getting her first period. We started by acting out our mothers’ responses to that milestone moment. The first woman showed her  mother’s careful demonstration of using those awful belts we had wear before adhesive strips were a viable thing. The next woman turned and pretended to slap the woman next to her, saying, “You’re dirty now. You’re a woman. Don’t look at men.”

All of us at the table were mortified (and I felt grateful for the first time ever about my own mother’s exuberantly joyful response that, at the time, I’d found completely embarrassing).

This idea that the simple fact of our bodies, our completely as-they-should-be female bodies, is not only wrong but is our fault is unutterably disturbing.

*

As so we are seeing women reclaiming themselves with that “Me, too.” It’s all of us saying, “I, too, have been acted upon, have been made to feel less than, to feel guilty, to feel wrong simply for being alive in my body, simply for having a body that men have grown up to feel ownership of. And it wasn’t my fault, and there was nothing I did wrong, and you need to see how many of us there are telling this story.”

And it’s powerful, and enraging, and sad.

*

But I would rather see men posting, “Me, too.” I want them to post “If all the men who have sexually harassed or assaulted a woman wrote “Me, too” as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.

All meaning every man who has catcalled a woman, hissed or whistled at a woman, looked at a woman as if imagining her naked, walked down the street beside or behind a woman trying to get her number, brushed against a woman to feel her breasts or butt or have her feel his erection, called out to a passing woman what “rating” he’d give her or whether or not he’d be willing to “smash that.”

All meaning every man who has grabbed a woman by the arm or shoulder when trying to “holler at” her, come on to a child or teenaged girl, gotten angry and up in the face of a girl or woman who hasn’t welcomed his advances, followed a woman, leered at a woman as she breastfed her baby, bought a woman dinner and assumed she would “repay” him with sex.

All meaning every man who has watched his friends treat women in any of these ways and has said noting, has laughed, has looked the other way, has gaslit his sisters, girlfriends, and female coworkers who have complained about another man’s behavior, telling them, “Oh, he’s harmless,” “He doesn’t mean that,” “You’re too sensitive.”

All meaning all. Maybe then. Maybe then, we would not only get a sense of the magnitude of the problem but actually see men take responsibility for their misogyny and start to dismantle it, start to change their behavior and respect women as human beings who have the right to exist, to live their lives free of molestation, as beings who owe men not one damn thing.



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

Bad Brain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But … it’s still problematic.

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 



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

Fat Talk: Rubber, Glue, and Things that Can’t Be Unseen

My body, as should surprise no one, is visible. I walk in the street, people can see me.¹ I am visible. And visibly fat. And people struggle with that, with being forced to see me.

I encounter these people everywhere. Their faces usually give them away, but quite often I don’t need to see their faces because they are entirely comfortable saying all the things they are thinking. The woman in Macy’s who looked at me with horror and said, “I wouldn’t even leave my house if I were big as you.” The woman walking down 5th Avenue in Brooklyn who pointed at me and said, “She’s big as a house! So disgusting!” The man who violently drew himself away when I sat beside him on the subway and then flung himself out of his seat, calling out loudly–calling for agreement from an apathetic car of morning A-train commuters: “I shouldn’t have to sit next to that! Shouldn’t even have to see that.”

You get the idea.

Whenever I tell stories about the things strangers say to me, people respond with amazement that anyone would talk to me in whatever way I’m describing. I have stopped being surprised. People really just don’t hesitate to say whatever they want to say. That freedom comes from three specific places. 1) The popular view that fat bodies are public spaces and, therefore, fair game for commentary. 2) The understanding that it is always okay to shame fat people, that other people will condone it, maybe even join in. 3) Fear. Fatphobia is a powerful force. A fat body is abandon, lack of control, a turning away from order. And that’s scary. There’s safety in conformity. The fear is also about contagion. Fat bodies are so reviled, the sight of one spurs a vehement there-but-for-the-grace-of-God response and a recoiling, an irrational belief that the horror could spread and infect others. “What if I were that fat?” (Imagine Psycho shower-scene sound effects in the background.)

*

I signed my nerdy self up for summer school one year to retake a math course because I wanted a better score on my Regents exam. This was the summer before senior year. I was 16, decades too young to have developed and settled into being the Bad Fatty I am today. I was as horrified and ashamed of my fat body as society would wish me to be.

One afternoon as I left class, I was walking down a long hallway when I heard boys behind me mocking me. There were two of them, young, maybe 7th or 8th graders. They were chanting, almost singing at me: “Tubbalard, tubbalard, tubbalard …” The full length of that impossibly long hallway until the freedom of exiting the building and disappearing into my dad’s car.

It was a while before I realized that what they were trying to call me was a tub of lard, a bucket of pig fat. I honestly don’t think they knew they were saying tub of lard. They just knew fat people were called tubbalards, and I was nothing if not a fat person, and so.

That was the first times I can remember being called out because of my body. Summer school was on unfamiliar turf, a school that wasn’t mine, full of kids from three different districts. I wasn’t a person to anyone there, not a friend from homeroom or a favorite lab partner or a stand-mate from band. I was Fat Girl. And fat people were for mocking.

I wonder now if what I felt that day planted the seed that would eventually become my efforts to hide my body from public view, draping it in loose, dark fabric to make it disappear.

At the time, I did what I always did when I was attacked: I comforted myself with my intellectual superiority. I’m not kidding. Being educated and smart had been the protective mantle I’d wrapped around myself since kindergarten. I was that kid, that snobby, brainy kid. I didn’t show that side of myself often, but it had an active role in my thoughts. I listened to the way those boys talked, to the clear indication that they didn’t understand the insult they were hurling at me, and I dismissed them as dumb.

That didn’t keep the experience from being painful. Hardly. But it was a way of distancing myself, pulling myself out of the moment.

*

I’m not that girl anymore. When people say awful things to me about my body, I sometimes choose to ignore them because I haven’t the time or energy to be bothered. More often I slap them back because I have the time and energy, and they need to know.

A couple of years ago, I encountered a man who felt compelled to tell me I shouldn’t be wearing my knee-length dress because my legs were too big.

“Big-legged women in short dresses,” he said. “You’re too big. Believe me, no one wants to see that.”

I feigned surprised dismay for a second then smiled. “Good thing what I wear has absolutely nothing to do with anyone but me,” I said. “You’re only seeing my legs because you’re looking at them. You don’t like what you see? Look at something else.”

People who are horrified at the sight of me act as though I expand to fill their entire field of vision, as though I become the only thing it is possible to see once they’ve clapped eyes on me. And–while this would be a weird and potentially excellent super power–it isn’t reality.

These people know they can look elsewhere, know that I’m not spreading a dread obesity virus. They call me out because they can, because it is entirely safe to aim their darts at me. Fat hate hasn’t ever come close to going out of fashion, and now that THOTUS² has made many other hates acceptable again, fat hate will remain available to all.

I wonder if people realize how much of themselves they reveal when they give voice to their ugliness. When they come for me, their comments expose their fears and vulnerabilities. I’ve written about this before, about how the things people say to me are pretty much always about them, that I am just the convenient target at which they can aim their insecurity and self-loathing.

That woman who said I was disgusting and big as a house? Obviously feeling disgusted with herself because she has been made to feel that she’s taking up too much space or getting above herself, too big for her britches. The woman who said she wouldn’t leave the house if she was as big as I am? Clearly feeling over-exposed in some aspect of her life, wanting to hide herself from the spotlight. Those boys in the hall at summer school? Probably feeling crappy, feeling like sacks of shit because they were stuck trying to unfail classes while their friends were enjoying the summer–playing ball, going camping, lazing by someone’s backyard pool.

This isn’t me doing some “I’m rubber, you’re glue” back flip. I mean sure, it is … but it’s also real. We lash out at other folks when we’re upset about our own shit. Make that other person question themselves or feel bad about themselves in the hope that it will distract from the ways we’re questioning or feeling bad about ourselves.

*

My body is visible. I walk in the street, people can see me. And whatever anger or fear they’ve been wrestling with gets stirred up with their fat hate and fired at me.

Knowing that doesn’t make mean comments easier to hear, doesn’t excuse anyone’s rudeness or fat prejudice. Haters still need to be read, slapped right the fuck down. And I’m usually here for that. But let’s be clear: dealing out clapbacks is work. I’m pretty good at it, but only because I’ve had so many years of practice. So. many. years. Summer school me didn’t have any snappy retorts. She had to focus on not crying, not giving those boys additional ammunition.

My body is visible. I walk in the street, people can see me. But–as I’ve said before–my body is mine, my business, not anyone else’s. I am a fully unrepentant Bad Fatty: ready, willing, and able to get in folks’ faces and hold up a mirror to their bullshit.

Yes. All comers beware. The Fat is strong in this one. Folks need to watch out for how much of their tender underbellies they expose to me.

_______________
¹ The truth of my body’s visibility stands,  even in the face of the contradictory truth of my body’s invisibility. I walk in the street, and people walk right into me. They stutter back in shock, saying, “Oh! I didn’t see you!” their voices childlike in wonder and amazement.

How is it possible that I am so un-see-able when I am, most assuredly, corporeal? I have mass. I fill space. The folks who run into me certainly feel the solidity of me, even though they have managed not to see me.

I am the triple-whammy of invisibility: Black, fat, disabled. We are trained not to see such aberrations. And when they come lumped together in one person … instant invisibility.

But let’s turn aside from those can’t-see-me folks. They will need their own separate essay. My lens is trained on the see-me-but-wish-they-didn’t folks.

² THOTUS is that man, 45, the Titular Head oThese United States–I say his name only when there isn’t another option, and I never attach it to the title he has usurped. Punto.

 



One in a series of essays inspired by reading Roxane Gay’s memoir, Hunger.
If you haven’t read my ground rules, please take a look before commenting. Thank you.

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

Fat Talk: You Don’t Know Me

I’m a member of my local CSA. My farm share gets delivered to a church a couple of blocks from my house, which is perfect. What’s not perfect is the awkward, narrow, sharp-turning staircase down to the church basement. I’ve never liked those stairs. I like them even less right now because I’m having trouble with my knees, and those stairs try me.

Last week, I picked up my share and started back up the steps with my pretty Mexican shopping bags full of goodness.

“That’s what you need to do,” a woman said from the top of the steps. I wasn’t sure at first if she was talking to me because that comment felt like I’d entered the conversation mid-way through. I looked up at her, and she smiled.

“You need to work it,” she said. “You need to strengthen it. That’s the only way. And eat more of those vegetables.”

Oh, right.

Yes, because that’s the thing. She is giving me health and fitness advice because she looks at my body, sees me moving slowly up the stairs and decides that she knows all there is to know about me and that she is uniquely qualified to give me advice because—clearly—I don’t know jack about taking care of myself.

“Do I know you?” I was taking one step at a time because the shopping bags were awkward, and my left knee was steady cursing my name.

“I’m just telling you what to do,” she said, nodding. “Just being helpful.”

“Let me assure you that you are, in fact, not being helpful. At all.”

She looked surprised. And peeved. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means that you don’t know anything about me so you shouldn’t be giving me any advice.”

She scoffed theatrically, like something out of a book. “What do I need to know? I can see you, can’t I?”

I took the last two stairs more quickly than I should have so that I could look down into her face from my superior height. “Yes, you can see me, and you think that answers all your questions and somehow means you can tell me what I should be doing with my body. Since you aren’t my doctor, or my physical therapist, or any other medical professional I know and trust, I’ll ask you to keep  your suggestions to yourself. Last time I checked, eating more vegetables wasn’t the key to recovering from surgery.”

“How am I supposed to know you had surgery?” She stepped back from me … my size seemed to have her feeling a little afraid. Well, good for her.

“How, indeed?” I said, turning for the door. “All the more reason for you to keep your advice to yourself.”

This isn’t a way I normally talk to strangers. To anyone. I am usually much more accommodating. But when strangers think they have something to tell me about my body, I’ve set accommodation aside. I am not here for that. Not even a little.

Is it true that a lot of the work I’m doing with my physical therapist is strength training? Yes. Is it true that eating a lot of vegetables is generally a good thing? Yes … but I’m a vegetarian, so that’s pretty much core to the brief. Is it true that none of that matters because the point is no one should be telling strangers what’s true about their bodies or their health and what actions they should take? Yes, exactly.

I was leaving the gym one night before the first of the two surgeries I had last year. I was walking with my cane. As I came out of the locker room, a man on one of the weight machines nodded at me and said, “You keep coming here, you won’t need that anymore.”

“The only thing that will mean I don’t need this anymore,” I said, “is successful surgery. You have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“I’m being supportive,” he said, his voice petulant and angry.

“No,” I said. “You’re being a jerk.”

If you look at me, there are some things you can be pretty sure of:

  1. I am Black
  2. I am tall
  3. I am a woman
  4. I am fat
  5. I have a cane — I may or may not be walking with it
  6. I have natural hair
  7. I’m not wearing makeup

That’s pretty much it. Notice how I didn’t say you can immediately understand why I have a cane. Notice how I didn’t say you can immediately know what my cholesterol levels are or my A1C or whether I suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder … or anything at all other than my physical appearance. But people are always assuming they know all about my health simply because my body is large. This is annoying as fuck.

And yet, people are entirely comfortable telling me what I should be doing with my body, talking to me as if they are experts on my health. My fat body is a public possession, something that is eternally open for discussion.

Except … not. Not anymore.

I decided years ago that I was no longer willing to accept public discussion of my body. That doesn’t keep people from opening their mouths. They’ve always been allowed to talk to fat folks however they choose, so they step right up with whatever nonsense they have to say. What my decision means is that I shut them down with some quickness.

In Hunger Roxane Gay talks about people taking items out of her grocery cart and commenting on the food she’s buying or food she’s in the act of eating. This infuriated me. Who, exactly, do people think they are? I wish someone would try to take something out of my grocery cart. Are you kidding? Are you kidding?

In case there is any question, let me be clear: my fat body is no one’s fucking business but my own. If it troubles you to see someone so fat, just take silent comfort in the fact that my body isn’t your body. If you used to be fat and went on some diet that saved your life, that’s amazing and fab … for you. Keep all information about that miracle diet to yourself because you’ll notice that I haven’t asked to hear it. If you’re a medical professional who specializes in weight management, just remember that you’re not my medical professional, and remain silent.

You want to offer me advice, to share whatever thing it is you think you know that will be magical and life-changing for me, that bit of wisdom that will solve the problem of my fat.

Yeah, okay. That intense concern you’re feeling for me? Bite your tongue on it. Save it for someone who’s seeking it out, who will be made better by it, who will feel cared for because of it. That person isn’t here. I am not she.

The shorthand version of everything I’ve said here? You don’t know me … so shut the fuck up. Punto.



One in a series of essays inspired by reading Roxane Gay’s memoir, Hunger.
If you haven’t read my ground rules, please take a look before commenting. Thank you.

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