Settling into My Rage

This post contains spoilers about the first Avengers movie. If you haven’t seen that movie, and you hate spoilers, don’t read the section bracketed by bold red text.

(Of course, if you haven’t see the first Avengers movie, I honestly don’t understand your life, and I don’t know what to say to you. Really. Get on that.)

__________

To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.

— James Baldwin

I used to teach teens and young adults. I loved teaching, and I loved my students, and both of those loves were fairly obvious. Nevertheless, with every new class, we would reach a moment when someone would comment loudly to the group that they hoped they’d never see me angry. And everyone would enthusiastically agree. This in the face of my daily showering of love and affection on their silly heads. When I asked the reason for this dread of my anger, I got the same answer: if I could be as nice as I was, if I could be in such a good mood every day, my anger must have the force and destructive power of a hundred-year storm.

I laughed at that assessment, but the laughter was for show. I knew they were right, that they had seen me much more clearly than I might have liked them to. My anger was so powerful, I actively worked to keep her straight-jacketed, chained, and locked in a sound-proof cell.

Most days, this plan succeeded. Anger might have been burning through my insides, but outwardly I appeared calm. So calm, in fact, that I developed a reputation for my ability to remain unruffled in response to bullshit.

The swallowing of my anger didn’t work all the time. She found ways to slip her chains and rampage freely – wreaking havoc as casually as breathing. Relationships, job opportunities, civil discourse in the check-out line at Key Food … all went down in flames. As my exes what my anger looks like. (Seriously.)

I was terrified of what I saw in myself at those times, of what I couldn’t see. After keeping my anger on lockdown for so many years, I’d lost touch with her. I didn’t know how deep she ran, didn’t know just how much devastation she was capable of. I was terrified of her, of the damage she could do, but also of how she made me look, of what other people would think of me if they saw her.

Because we know where this path leads. Me being labeled an Angry Black Woman.

And that would be the worst. As a Black woman, I’m not allowed my anger. Not if I want to be heard, to be respected, to be believed. The moment a Black woman shows her anger – unless it is directed at other Black folks, particularly Black men and boys – she is dismissed or violently subdued.

So I worked hard to swallow my anger. But I live as a Black woman in this world at this time, and there’s only so much swallowing a person can do. I found myself choking down rage again and then again and then some more.

I started opening the cell door and letting my anger out here and there. Using what I hoped were controlled bursts like a release valve in an attempt to equalize the pressure of being a Black woman in this world at this time.

It was a risk, being unashamedly, publicly angry. For so many years, I’d believed giving my anger free rein was a danger I couldn’t manage.

And I really couldn’t manage it. Not at first. I did a pretty poor job of balancing the level of anger against the given situation. But, even when I was getting it wrong, I started to feel a lot better. The pressure release worked. I no longer felt as if I was choking all the time.

Equally surprising: the world did not implode. While surely unpleasant for anyone on the receiving end, the expression of my anger did not burn all things to the ground.

I thought about the past, my rep for being preternaturally happy, and I wondered how I had become so angry. And I wondered why, if I was releasing my anger, I was still so angry.

Which was when I had my Avengers epiphany. [SPOILER] Just before the big final battle, the crew is gathered. Black Widow, Hawkeye, Thor, and Bruce Banner – as Bruce Banner, not the Hulk. They’re about to take on a host of Big Bads and one ginormous alien monster thing is coming right for them. Cap looks at Banner and says, “Now might be a really good time for you to get angry.” Banner says, “That’s my secret. I’m always angry,” and instantly morphs into the Hulk. [END SPOILER]

That moment shook me. I looked at Bruce Banner and saw the truth of myself, the thing I’d been swallowing year after year. I am an angry Black woman. One hundred percent. I am angry all the time. All. The. Damn. Time. Rather than being mortified whenever my anger slipped her bonds, I should have been impressed that I hadn’t spent my life smacking people upside the head every five minutes.

Anyone who’s met me or read my work in the last four years will not recognize rage-swallowing Stacie. They know Angry Stacie, they’ve seen what my fury looks and sounds like. I hope they also see how it has moved me closer toward my real self, my true self. I am angry. Angrier than I am tired, angrier than I am sad. I no longer apologize for showing my dark side. I embrace and relish it. And let’s be very clear: when I say my “dark side,” I’m not assigning a negative descriptor to my rage. I mean my authentic self, the one I kept hidden for far too long. Dark, rich, powerful … as the song says, anger is a gift. And I am here for unwrapping it every single day.

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.

Mississippi Goddamn

So the lynch-mob cheerleader won her Senate race in Mississippi. 83% of white people in Mississippi voted for white supremacy. And all over Facebook and Twitter, white people are wringing their hands and saying, “America! This isn’t Who We Are!”

And I have to wonder, as I always wonder, what exactly these people think America has always been. Maybe what they mean to say is, “America! This isn’t who I have allowed myself to pretend we are!” That sounds  more accurate.

A few years ago, I recorded a comment for The Race Card Project, a project started by NPR reporter Michelle Norris. We were asked to record six words that summed up what we were feeling about race on that cold, January, almost-MLK Day. I found my six words quite easily. I stepped up to the mic and said, “White Supremacy is America’s middle name.” I meant it then, I mean it now, I imagine the I will mean it for the rest of my life.

The fact that there are still white people in this country who act as if they don’t understand that this entire nation was built on racism isn’t shocking to me. It doesn’t surprise me, but it does disgust me. It does depress me. It does make me lose faith.

It also makes me think a lot of those hand-wringing people are flat-out liars. They have allowed themselves the entirely white luxury of pretending they live in a post-racial world. I imagine they have told themselves that so they don’t have to do any work. If we’re post racial — whatever the fuck that would even mean if it were really a thing — then there would be no need to dismantle the structures of racism, no need to do any of the back-breaking work of rioting out racism at the root and eradicating it once and for all. No. If we are post racial, their fantasy of racism being a thing of the past is real, and they wouldn’t even need to speak foolishness such as claiming to be colorblind or that talking about racism is the real problem with race. So they have lived in their lie, skillfully ignoring or deflecting all evidence that threatened them with reality. And now here they are faced with the impossibility of living behind that lie, and suddenly they’re outraged and shocked.

This all sounds like a lot of bullshit. Plain and simple. These people know where they live. They may have done a good job of hiding from history, but they most definitely know where they live. So to see America’s true face on display over and over and over and over and over again can’t actually be surprising. And yet there they are, wringing their poor, sore hands, lamenting over the discovery of reality.

Yes, Mississippi elected Cindy Hyde-Smith. Yes. Elected her thanks to a landslide of white votes that pushed her comfortably past Mike Espy, her Black, Democratic opponent. Yes, of course, Mississippi is a red state. Of course. It was red before Hyde-Smith said how tickled she’d be to attend a lynching. Sure. Yes.

My request is that white people (and – please God – any non-white people who have jumped on this crazy train) stop the nonsense. Stop playacting amazement at things that aren’t in any way amazing. Stop pretending surprise when the exact thing that could be expected actually happens. Cindy Hyde-Smith said something hateful and threateningly racist. And then she was elected to the US Senate yesterday. And? Rather than wringing your hands and exclaiming your shock that this country has suddenly become some horrifyingly racist place.

White Supremacy Is America’s Middle Name.

The white electorate in Mississippi has offered up a bright, shiny affirmation of this commonplace fact, so guess what time it is. Time to stop wringing your damned, chapped hands and get. the. fuck. to. work.


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.

White Women’s Work

So, we had those midterms. The results are both good and troubling. There are a lot more women, POC, and LGBTQIA electeds today. People all across the country stepped up and made some excellent choices. They voted a raft of women into office, including Muslim women, Native American women, trans women, and young women. All of those votes for all of those women are heartening. Truly.

You know that isn’t all I’ll say, though, right? I am thrilled by many of the results, but I can’t miss the rest, or pretend that what happened on Election Day is enough. I can’t ignore the significance of the many Republican efforts at suppressing the Black vote and the poor vote — or the clear success of those efforts. I can’t ignore how comfortably many candidates and their supporters slid into straight-up, full-frontal racism in their push to the polls. No need to have a talk about dog whistles and coded language. People just said everything they were thinking about the uppity Black and brown folks who had the audacity to challenge a white person for office.

“Don’t monkey this up.”
“So cotton-pickin’ important.”
“Someone in the mansion who can take care of it.”
“His family participated in 9/11.”
“She’s encouraging people to break the law.”
“I’m a white racialist.”
“Send her back to the reservation.”

None of this is surprising. It’s not surprising because we as a country have always used prejudice and racism to keep people of color out of office. We as a country have always been racist, always been xenophobic, always been ready to fight for White Supremacy and the holding of power in white, male hands. And it’s certainly not surprising given the current administration and the fact that the country is led by a man who speaks in slurs, who built his political brand on racism.

There was one thing from Election Day that did surprise me … well, surprised me a little. Some woman tweeted out a plea, called on Black women to step up and save the country at the polls that day. (Don’t worry, she was quickly and roundly dragged.)

The idea that a white person would call on Black women — Black people, period — to save this country is amazing to me. First, it’s a numerically stupid plea. African Americans make up about 13% of the US population. Even if all of those people were adults of voting age and every single one of them went out to vote and didn’t have their vote thrown out, Black votes really can’t be an overall strategy for electoral success.

The bigger issue here, however, is the fact that how Black folks are going to vote is, for the most part, not a question. We — especially Black women — do an excellent job of voting in our best interests. We step up and vote to protect our children, our parents, our ability to find and keep decent jobs, our ability to exercise sovereignty and autonomy over our own bodies. We do this again and again and again. We do it because our lives depend on it and we know that. We do it because we don’t have a vested interest in supporting white male patriarchy. That has never been a place of safety for us, and we know that all too well.

The numbers from the 2016 election made the truth of Black women’s votes starkly clear for people. Nearly 100 percent of Black women voted for the Democratic candidate. Nearly 100 percent. Those numbers — and the numbers in Roy Moore’s race — make Black women look like a solid voting block for the left. These numbers are what prompted that white woman to call on Black women to save the day.

But what’s also clear from those powerful numbers is that Black women can’t, alone, win elections. Nearly every Black woman who voted in 2016 voted the same way, and yet the election went the other way. If Black women alone controlled election results, we’d be living in a very different world. We’d have a white house, a congress, and state and local officials who actually represented our interests as opposed to electeds put in place specifically to work against our best interests.

No one should be calling on Black women when the polls open. Ever. No. The people who need to be called in — obviously — are white women. Punto.

White women consistently vote in the majority for while male power, for White Supremacy, for a world in which their rights are erased and their voices silenced. They so strongly align with men and believe their proximity to white male power will translate into their own power, that they come out again and again and again for the upholding of White Supremacy. (Well, that and the fact that many of them are straight-up racists.)

That woman’s tweet on Election Day surprised me because of its willful blindness. This woman was looking over at Black women and hoping some Mammy-savior would come to the rescue, ignoring the reality that she needed to look in the mirror and then at her ya-ya sisterhood of white women.

Because of course this comes back to the truth that white people need to get their people. The work that needs to be done needs to be done by white people with white people. White people have to get down in the dirt and make that happen. Black women aren’t the answers to the questions white people have been refusing to ask for far too long. Black women are out here trying to stay alive, trying to get our kids home safe and our sisters and brothers and husbands and mothers. We can’t also be cleaning up white people’s messes.

The hard task of reaching out to the white women who stand behind Trump lies at the feet of white women. Not another soul can get that shit done.

Get. the. fuck. to. work.


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.

Magical Negresses, Robocalls, Ballot Boxes and American Greatness

A white supremacist group created a robocall for Georgia’s white voters. The call script is fascinating. Someone, doing what I’m sure they thought was an excellent and excellently funny impression of Oprah, talks about the plot to elect Stacey Abrams. Not-Oprah introduces herself as “the magical negress Oprah Winfrey” and talks about her own rise to fame being created by simple-minded white women and how that same constituency of simple-minded white women — “especially the fat ones” — will allow themselves to be duped into voting for Not-Oprah’s sister in struggle, the magical negress Stacey Abrams.

Well, this magical negress found herself full-on surprised by this ugly audio postcard … and surprised by her surprise. The campaign against Stacey Abrams as she runs for governor of Georgia has been nothing but bald-face lies, ugly snark, unscrupulous behavior, and disenfranchisement from the start. This call is nothing new and certainly shouldn’t be in any way surprising.

I don’t live in Georgia. I live in a racist northern state instead of a racist southern one. I don’t live in Georgia, but I’ve spent time and a tiny bit of money supporting Stacey Abrams. I would be thrilled to see her win today. She is one of what is — thrillingly — much more than a handful of Black, non-Black POC, and LGBTQIA Democratic candidates I’m pulling for this election. Their rise to the offices they seek wouldn’t be magical, wouldn’t mean the end of racism (see above, re: not magical). But their elections would each be important steps in a better direction than the one we’ve been headed the past 21 months.

I think my surprise with this robocall is in how comfortable the racists who created it feel. They are so comfortable, they don’t worry about alienating a large voting block of the Republican base. The call script is racist, sure, but that’s too basic a description. One that doesn’t do justice to the layers of hate and ignores the other ugliness on display.

First, the voice recording the call seems to be a man’s. Because of course. Because any Black woman who wields power and is proud and confident and talented is depicted as a man.

The script takes an old story and gives it an updated twist: as has ever been the white supremacist plot line, white women are held up as needing to be protected. The 2018 twist is that, in these modern times, rather than needing protection from the sexual rampaging of brutish Black men, white women need protecting from the cleverness of magical negresses (bearing gifts of free cars). Sweet.

The protection of white women in this call to action isn’t the protection of purity as we’ve grown accustomed to seeing. This script calls out the need to protect white women from their own stupidity. White women, apparently, are so addlepated they can be seduced away from the fight for White Supremacy by Black women and their magical negritude.

White women are weak … and the fat ones are weakest of all. The excess adipose tissue must put too much pressure on their wee little brains. Because, even if it has nothing to do with the subject at hand, if there’s an opportunity to throw in a little fat hate, why on earth would you let it pass?

It was the insult to white women that surprised me. White women have shown themselves to be pretty solid supporters of White Supremacy, gender inequality, and misogyny. Did the writer of this call script not see the results of the 2016 election, or the white women supporting Roy Moore or Brett Kavanaugh or any number of other candidates and ballot issues that were entirely against their own best interest as women? Given that voting history, why come for white women?

But, of course, white women are a safe target, a safe tool to use against Black women … precisely because white women have been solid supporters of White Supremacy and violent patriarchy. White women have chosen to support white men over and over again. No matter how much evidence can be shown of a white man’s guilt, vileness, basic unfitness for a job, white women will stand up in support of him. So I really shouldn’t be surprised that the creator of this call felt entirely comfortable painting his womenfolk so insultingly.

 

I don’t know what Georgia (or Florida, or Minnesota, or Michigan, or New York …) voters will do today. I hope they will send a flood of Democrats to local, state and national offices. I hope everyone who cares about human rights, human decency, equity, and the values we like to think this country was founded on understands the threat we’re facing and has stepped into this fight with both feet, stepped in fully-armed and prepared for the long slog. Because despite the legendary magic of negresses, this fight needs more than our votes alone.

We are people for whom and to whom America has never been particularly great, but who choose to believe that it could be great if enough people stood with us to hold the line, to force back the noxious sludge flowing in the streets. We will show up, because we do. We will cast votes aimed at protecting our families and communities and keeping this country from tumbling further into hell.

Who’s with us?


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.

Wild Animals, Redux

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.

Close to Home

Last week I gave a workshop for young women in a close-to-home program. I thought I understood every part of what I just wrote, but it turned out that my understanding was way off the mark.

Because of the work I do, I’ve gotten used to the definition of “young adult” being 16 – 24 years old. That’s the age range used for the kinds of programs that are funded to support “out-of-school youth” and “disconnected youth” and “opportunity youth” … and whatever other names we choose to give young people whose circumstances have made the transition to adulthood more difficult. These are the young people I taught in my basic education and high school equivalency classes years ago. All of the students I wrote about in those days fell into this 16-24 category. The range is fairly well cemented in my head.

“Close to Home” is the name of a juvenile justice initiative that focuses on keeping young people close to their families and communities rather than sending them to detention facilities that are too far away for their families to visit them easily. I don’t know if these programs exist in other states – though I hope they do – but we’ve had them in New York since 2012. Before leaving my last job, I attended an info session/focus group discussion about close to home programs. One of the community organizations we worked with was about to open a residence in the neighborhood and wanted other providers to know about the residence, understand what the program would look like, and offer possibilities for partnership in providing services to the young people who would live in that home.

As it happens, the definition of “youth” in the Close to Home model is very different from the one in my head and at my office. In New York City, Close to Home has enabled the City to completely eliminate prison for kids under 16 by placing them in group residences near their home neighborhoods.

Right. Young people isn’t the same as young adults. Not by a long shot. I wasn’t at all prepared for such young girls. The girls in my group were 14 and 15, and that was definitely not who I was expecting to meet. The workshop I prepared was, luckily, adaptable enough, but adjusting my brain wasn’t so . You just don’t talk to 14 year olds the way you do to 24 years olds.

The bigger misconception for me was what it meant for these young people to be living at this Close to Home group residence. I kept being surprised by my surroundings. Surprised by the level of security, surprised by how monitored the young women’s time was. I wasn’t sure what I’d been expecting, but clearly it wasn’t the same as what I was seeing.

I kept bumping up against how regulated the girls’ actions were. I’m sure this sounds silly because the definition of the program is that this program offers an alternative detention placement, doesn’t eliminate detention all together. The young people in these programs have greater or lesser degrees of freedom depending on the type of program they’ve been assigned to, but they are still serving out the time they’ve been given, they are still detained.

As I thought more about the cognitive dissonance I was experiencing, I realized that I’d been thinking of the group home as a halfway house, a middle step between incarceration and re-entry. In some ways, I suppose that is a function of the Close to Home group residence – the girls aren’t going to have to transition from a prison or from being cut off from their families – bu t there are constant reminders of the fact that the girls lives aren’t their own.

Realizing my halfway-house confusion highlighted that I have a lot to learn about this program. For example, what is the relationship between local police and these residences? When I arrived to give my workshop, there were police on-site, called because there was some disturbance with one of the young people. In the end, they took that young person away with them, which was incredibly disconcerting to me … and even more disconcerting once I fully understood the reality of the homes as a form of detention. If you are already detained, what does it mean to have the police called to further police you?

Certainly I think it’s better to have young people – and ones who are so young – detained near their families. The girls in my group all talked at one point or another about family visits that had happened since they’d been placed in the group home. That is better than their families having to miss work days to travel upstate or not be able to take that off time and wind up not visiting as a result. And the group home is better than local incarceration, too. The memory of my one visit to a prison tells me that. The horrifying vibe I got from the male guards at that facility makes me happy the too-young people I met – those children – clearly don’t belong in a prison environment.

So yes, better than regular incarceration … but still distressing. Doesn’t there always have to be a better option for children than jail? And yes, I’m asking that seriously, even as I watch this country imprison thousands of children, watch this country force infants and toddlers to represent themselves in court. And yes, I know all the reasons that its it’s easy to consign these children – these brown and Black children specifically – to prisons and detainment facilities. I know. I still have to ask the question. Have to.

Two hours. That was the entirety of my experience with that residence and those girls. It was enough to leave me with all this to puzzle over. I stay having so very much to learn. Sigh.


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.