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.

Take your olive branch and go.

As early as November 9, 2016, there were people saying folks who hadn’t voted from Donald Trump should calm down and give the man a chance before we set our hair on fire. So many think pieces telling us that we needed to understand Trump supporters better, that we had ignored these racist assholes people at our peril. Suddenly, all of us who had voted for sanity, American dignity, and a world persona not built on insults, bullying, and hate were being told we were responsible for the outcome of the election because we hadn’t spent enough time cozying up to people who had no trouble voting for a man whose agenda rested atop a mountain of virulent prejudices, ignorance, and lies.

As if.

This week, Roseanne Barr felt comfortable tweeting some racist hate, and a lot of people got very upset about it. There were people contorting themselves to excuse the tweet and people expressing shock and outrage. Both of these response piss me the fuck off.

As a general rule, the moment you flap your lips to defend racism, you’re waving your own “I’m a racist!” flag. There’s no defense for racism that isn’t based in racism. Punto. Anyone dismissing Barr’s tweet as a joke — up to and including Barr herself, of course — proclaimed themselves a racist. Racism is never a joke. It is never meant to be a joke. It is always meant to tear down, to demean, to dehumanize, to harm.

But I was just as angered by the shocked and outraged crowd, the people who were incapable of believing Barr could have said anything so awful, that she could really have meant what she said. First of all, shut up. Who, exactly, do you think believes you? Barr has been a raging fireball of crassly-expressed hate for a LONG time. Her tweet about Valerie Jarrett was fully in keeping with who she has shown herself to be over and over again. To say that you are shocked by that tweet says that you are either a) one of those non-Black people who has been comfortable not noticing or acknowledging anti-Black racism because it didn’t affect you directly and Black folks are so sensitive and need to stop seeing racism in every little thing, or b) one of those non-Black people who has been shocked and outraged every time … and believes that’s the extent of your necessary response, that claiming shock and outrage brands you as not-a-racist and so your work is done and you can go back to your regularly-scheduled programming.

The reboot of Roseanne’s show — a show I loved in its original run — was heralded as an olive branch, a way to reach out to those angry, hate-mongering, butt-hurt white folks who had voted for Trump … and a way to make those same people sympathetic to the rest of us. Putting the ugliness of voting for a man who is bent on destroying this country into the warm and lovable characters we all laughed along with decades ago was supposed to bring us together, bridge the growing divide that makes holiday dinners prickly.

And now Roseanne Barr has brought all that olive-branch-y beauty crashing down in a burning pile of rubble.

Damn racism. It’ll do that every time.

*

I didn’t watch the reboot. People tell me it was funny, and I’m willing to believe that. Why wouldn’t it be funny … you know, if you could ignore the fact of Barr being a racist troll playing a racist troll. I wasn’t interested. (In truth, none of the recent reboots have interested me. The only one I’d buy popcorn for would be the return of Living Single. I’m ready for that, ABC. You’ve got room in your schedule … ijs)

But let’s be clear: the return of Roseanne was never going to bridge any divides. It wasn’t an olive branch, it was a ratings sponge, a money-maker for ABC. Full stop.

In an era of reboots, ABC saw a chance to cash in and did. Big time. They knew what they were getting with Roseanne Barr. They either didn’t care or decided to take a chance that she would be more interested in the warm glow of fan love than the harsh glare of criticism. But Roseanne Barr is a racist white woman, and lord knows, racist white women have a pretty solid track record for spewing hate, and the warm glow of fan love couldn’t hold that back.

And, as ABC knew what it was getting with Barr, Barr knew what she was doing with that tweet. She was banking not only on her celebrity and her history of getting away with shit, but on her white womanhood. Once the shock and outrage started, she could call up some white fragility, say she was only making a joke for Pete’s sake and wait for the storm clouds to clear.

While I can’t say I’m surprised that Barr felt safe — she’s gotten away with this in the past, so why wouldn’t she feel safe? — I also can’t quite believe her stupidity. After all, ABC’s president is a Black woman, and it should surely have been a given that Channing Dungey wasn’t going to laugh off that tweet. (Dungey might, however, have had a good laugh at the Sanofi US tweet after Barr blamed Ambien for her racism. I know I laughed loud and long. Sanofi’s tweet was world class, A-level shade, a firm “not today, Satan” clapback. (And I like to think she’d have been amused by my response: that I hoped Barr was fired in time to run over to Starbucks to get in on that anti-bias training.))

I don’t much care about Roseanne Barr. She’ll be fine, and she certainly neither needs nor wants my care or gives a single shit about what I think. I do have questions for her cast members, however. For Sara Gilbert and her “we’ve created a show that we believe in” nonsense. For John Goodman and his silence followed by his ridiculous “I don’t know nothing ’bout no Twitter,” craptasticness.

Gilbert’s tweet reminded me of Carl Reiner’s priceless tweet after the 2016 election. He told us so much with his:

I, a Jew, was willing to give Trump a chance til I heard his cheif [sic]of staff say he’d not allow his kids to go to a school if Jews attended.

As Myles E. Johnson said so brilliantly in response:

translation: I was willing to empower whiteness/white supremacy until I learned that I may not be considered white in the white imagination.

Reiner’s tweet really was priceless, the encapsulation of the many liberal white folks who felt the need to tell me and mine to shut up and give the agent of destruction a chance. These were the people who reconciled themselves to my annihilation because they assumed their whiteness would shield them. Reiner’s tweet was the 2016 version of the Martin Niemöller “First they came for” quote.

Gilbert’s tweet called attention to the behind the scenes people who were impacted by the cancellation. Maybe that was a way to show us her compassion, her broader world view, her concern for the “family” of the production team. Mostly what her tweet said to me was that the Blacks should just shake it off, sit down, shut up and let her keep getting paid reprising the only role she’s ever played.

As for John Goodman, his statement that he’d “rather say nothing than to cause more trouble”  is pretty bizarre. What does it mean? The way I see it, there are a two possibilities:

  1. He’d rather say nothing than say something that would defend Barr and indicate that he’s a racist, too.
  2. He’d rather say nothing than say something condemning Barr’s tweet and risk pissing off a woman who has been and could again in the future be a source of income for him.

Or maybe there’s a third option: He’s rather say nothing that double down and make a series of equally if not more racist “jokes” to show us that Barr’s tweet wasn’t that bad.

And then his strange, undefined-antecedent comment:

“I don’t know anything about it. I don’t read it.”

I’ll just say that I am on Twitter about once every 43 years, and I knew about this story within an hour or two of all this mess jumping off. Goodman didn’t want to get involved and thought pretending he didn’t know anything about what was happening would be the appropriate shield. The trouble with that — other than making him sound like both a liar and a fool — is that he’s been involved. There’s no way he couldn’t be involved. He agreed to be in this show, agreed to go back to work with this woman, and she has been exactly who she is for many years. His signing onto the reboot was his agreeing to look the other way. There’s no pretending that you’re outside the mess. You cosigned the mess.

And Laurie Metcalf? No idea what that story is. Maybe she, like Goodman, didn’t want to get involved and, unlike him, managed to actually keep quiet during all the drama. Apparently, however, she’s joining Gilbert and Goodman in the push to get paid for the Season 2 that will never be. Really. Asking ABC for that cash. But shouldn’t it be your homegirl who ponies up? She’s the one who cost you your paycheck.

*

The entire dumpster fire of this story. But really, the dumpster fire isn’t Roseanne or Gilbert, Goodman, and Metcalf. It’s all of us. It’s how comfortable Roseanne felt posting that dehumanizing tweet about Jarrett. It’s how quick folks were to jump up and shout their support for her first amendment rights barely a week after applauding the NFL’s decision to silence Black men’s freedom of expression. It’s the everyday-ness of anti-Black racism and the unsurprising surprise of non-Black folks (but primarily white folks) when they are called on their shit.

ABC canceled a show. I applaud the decision, but there is still all the work to be done, all the everything to be done. The needle on dismantling structural racism doesn’t move because one racist gets slapped down. The slap is satisfying, but nothing has changed.


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.

Summarizing Deadly Distraction

 

I struggled to find a source text tonight. I tried to avoid politics, and specifically Trump’s Friday the 13th actions. No such luck. In the end I had to find my way back here. It’s hard culling text from his words. I have worked so hard to avoid hearing him speak, to avoid reading his transcripts. I had quite the gag reaction reading this speech.

Precision Strikes
(An erasure of Donald Trump’s address to the nation, 4/13/18.)

I ordered forces to launch
weapons combined
now under way.
Innocent people responded,
again.
Weapons, innocent civilians,
escalation.
A pattern of weapons.
Thrashing and gasping,
actions, crimes, horrors.
Suffering (even small amounts)
can establish production and interest.
The response,
all instruments of power,
stops the most responsible.
I will say what is necessary.
Friendships take greater resources,
indefinite presence, contributions,
no illusions.
We purge everywhere there is
peace and security,
a troubled place,
fate.
The darkest places,
the anguish, the evil.
Righteous power and brutality.

Say a prayer
for dignity and peace.


It’s National Poetry Month! Every year, I choose a specific form and try to write a poem a day in that form. This year, I am trying erasure poems and I want to use news articles as my source texts. I’ve practiced a few times, and it’s already feeling difficult! We’ll see how it goes.

Here’s an edited version of the Wiki definition of this form:
Erasure Poetry: a form of found poetry created by erasing words from an existing text in prose or verse and framing the result on the page as a poem. Erasure is a way to give an existing piece of writing a new set of meanings, questions, or suggestions. It lessens the trace of authorship but requires purposeful decision making. What does one want done to the original text? Does a gesture celebrate, denigrate, subvert, or efface the source completely? One can erase intuitively by focusing on musical and thematic elements or systematically by following a specific process regardless of the outcome.
Also, Robert Lee Brewer at Writer’s Digest has some good points to add about ethics and plagiarism:
Quick note on ethics: There is a line to be drawn between erasure poems and plagiarism. If you’re not erasing more than 50% of the text, then I’d argue you’re not making enough critical decisions to create a new piece of art. Further, it’s always good form to credit the original source for your erasures.

Image result for national poetry month
Washington International School

Under the Influence

Despite napping through most of the day, I’m still exhausted from my street photog exploits and needed source text that would practically turn itself into an erasure poem and still express how I feel. So, yes, I went right back to Charles M. Blow.

Governed by ‘Fox & Friends’
(An erasure of Charles M. Blow’s Op-Ed.)

Predictably shallow,
tilted, exploitative.
Idiotic with chipper venom.
Simpering maleficence.
Fox, the disinformation machine,
the carnival propaganda tool
parroting conservative policies.
Whispering in the ear of the king,
fluffing his feathers.
For Trump, a high-definition ego fix.
The impact is undeniable.
Trump is tweeting what he sees,
Even using their exact language.
The president of the United States, taking cues.
America, governed by the dimmest,
most unscrupulous.
The thought is horror-inducing.

I’ll have photos to share — and with any luck, a better poem — tomorrow. I appreciate Charles M. Blow for having my back tonight, sharing and opinion piece that seemed to come directly from my own feelings.


It’s National Poetry Month! Every year, I choose a specific form and try to write a poem a day in that form. This year, I am trying erasure poems and I want to use news articles as my source texts. I’ve practiced a few times, and it’s already feeling difficult! We’ll see how it goes.

Here’s an edited version of the Wiki definition of this form:
Erasure Poetry: a form of found poetry created by erasing words from an existing text in prose or verse and framing the result on the page as a poem. Erasure is a way to give an existing piece of writing a new set of meanings, questions, or suggestions. It lessens the trace of authorship but requires purposeful decision making. What does one want done to the original text? Does a gesture celebrate, denigrate, subvert, or efface the source completely? One can erase intuitively by focusing on musical and thematic elements or systematically by following a specific process regardless of the outcome.
Also, Robert Lee Brewer at Writer’s Digest has some good points to add about ethics and plagiarism:
Quick note on ethics: There is a line to be drawn between erasure poems and plagiarism. If you’re not erasing more than 50% of the text, then I’d argue you’re not making enough critical decisions to create a new piece of art. Further, it’s always good form to credit the original source for your erasures.

Image result for national poetry month
Washington International School

Losing Ground

In high school, I had a grand plan. Despite my understanding that college was my post-high-school future, I had an alternative fantasy, a between-high-school-and-college fantasy. I’d step out my front door and not step back in until I had walked across, through, around, over the whole of the country. Yes. The full-on adventure of hiking the United States—at least the 48 contiguous ones.

I started mapping a route when I was a sophomore. I can’t remember now when I first had the idea for the trip. I certainly didn’t know anyone who’d done it. None of my friends were talking about doing something similar. Maybe I read something somewhere that inspired me.

I knew better than to mention this grand plan to my parents. There was no such thing as a gap year back then. Not heading to college immediately after high school, would just be seen as slacking, and neither of my parents would have thought it was a good idea. There were people who took time off between high school and college, but that was usually so they could save money, or because they were having a child. It definitely wasn’t a thing that was seen as the normal course of events. I probably could have told my aunt, Mildred, but I didn’t know that then. I was only 15. I hadn’t yet recognized Mildred for the big-brained family eccentric she was.

I lived in a family with a surprising number of road atlases, so plotting my path was easy enough in the beginning. I studied the maps, at first thinking there was a way to trace a path that wouldn’t require any back tracking, then plotting a course that looked like painting broad horizontal stripes across the country with me trekking west then east then back west again until I’d covered the country. In the end, I decided north-south stripes would be best, moving steadily west then flying home from California or Washington State depending on the direction of the final stripe.

I loved making this plan. Truly. It filled me with so much excitement. One thing that became clear early in the mapping was how long a trip I was talking about. The United States is enormous, and I wasn’t planning on race-walking my way across the continent. (No race-walking, despite the fact that I lettered in race-walking–seriously. The things you don’t know about me! 😉 )

When I’d originally started planning, I’d foolishly imagined I’d need to approach my mother with the idea of a one-year pause between high school and college. Sitting with the road atlas made it clear that the one-year idea was a ridiculous notion. One year? As if! No, I was going to need two, maybe three years. At the least. And, even if there might have been a way to convince my mother to say yes to a year-long hiatus in my education, there was no kind of possibility of getting her to go along with me stepping outside my life for some unknown number of years. Not a chance.

I soon realized I had problems that were bigger than time. First, I realized that leisurely cross-country treks that take years to complete also take lots of cash. My family had lots of lots of things–pets, board games, puzzles, musical instruments, books–but cash we did not have a lot of. I was rich in fantasies about doing things only rich people could do easily, however, and my full-country trek was clearly going to fall into that category.

The only jobs I’d ever had were babysitting–which I was singularly bad at–and collecting payments for my brother’s paper route. Neither of these things a) paid well enough for me to have saved a tidy bundle of travel funds or b) taught me much of anything about the world of work that might have made me a good candidate for picking up short-term jobs along the way to pay for my trip. How was I going to eat? Where was I planning to sleep? I wasn’t mapping out a cross-country camping trip. There was no chance I’d be bedding down in parks and campgrounds across the nation. It was going to be a “hotel, motel, Holiday Inn” kind of situation.

Right. On whose dime?

So, yes, money was my first stumbling block. But it started to look like an easy problem when the real problem revealed itself.

The real program was that the country I was planning to explore alone, on foot … was my country, the good ol’ US of A.

When I started mapping routes, I was planning with an eye to full coverage, to making sure I spent a little time in every state. I traced my finger along path after path, drawing a winding ribbon around the atlas maps.

And then one day I stopped and really looked at the map. Looked at the map … and saw the path I was making through Mississippi.

You may not know this about me, but Mississippi is no-go territory for me. I’m pretty certain I’d never articulated that truth for myself at the time I was planning my adventure, but I for-sure felt it when I looked at the map that day. How had I managed to spend so much time planning my grand tour without taking history, reality, and my Blackness into account?

Because of course Mississippi wasn’t a singularity. Once I viewed the map through my Black lens, suddenly I was carving pieces out of the map all over the place. My meandering stroll across my country began to look like a crazy game of leapfrog, with my feet touching down in a scatter-shot polka-dotted array.

It wasn’t the trip I had in mind. Not even close. I regrouped and spent most of junior year trying to map a course that would work. Instead, I found myself becoming more and more discouraged as my “possibly safe” zones got smaller and smaller still.

Something I didn’t consider until well into this process was the built-in danger of planning to do even the shortest leg of that trek alone, as a teen-aged girl. Really. What was I thinking? I already knew quite well that boys and men were capable of doing me harm, knew I needed to maintain vigilance and full wariness … and yet I was going to decouple myself from everything familiar, from my home and family, and send my 17-year-old self out on the road alone?

Clearly, my ability to fantasize wasn’t just strong enough to make me forget I wasn’t a trust-fund baby. It was powerful enough for me to ignore the truth of predatory men and racism. The rest of my body might have been soft and out-sized, but my fantasizing muscle was toned, Olympics-ready, practically bionic.

I kept fantasizing about the trip, but I set the actual planning aside. There was no way I was going to imagine myself past all the obstacles I’d finally recognized. My cross-country adventure became a pretty dream I’d call up every once in a while to sigh over with regret.

*

Eventually, I had the opportunity to trust my life to the kindness of strangers. I went to Europe for my junior year of college and did some traveling, including a summer of hitchhiking. And after graduating, I went back and hitched around some more. And here I am writing about it, so obviously I survived. (Thank you all the strangers who didn’t turn out to be killers.)

I saw my European travel as dramatically different from my US-trek idea. And, while I thought about that Euro-hitch in terms of race, race was the only filter I used when thinking about my trip. It’s interesting to me how entirely I was able to erase the issue of being a young woman on my own. I was surely in as much danger of rape in Europe as I was in the States, but I didn’t think about it once during trip prep.

That obliviousness to my gender and my body was surely part and parcel of my belief that, as a fat woman, I had made myself undesirable to men and therefore invisible. And my imagined invisibility allowed me to do crazy things like plan solo cross-country trips without ever thinking of my personal safety as a woman.

My safety as a Black person, however, was paramount in my thoughts, and it seemed to go without saying that Europe was safer for me at that time–the early 80s–than my own country.

There was plenty of anti-Black racism in Europe in the 80s, of course. It wasn’t so much directed at me, though. It was also different from the racism I saw, experienced, and expected at home. And somehow those differences gave me a feeling of security.

Those European tours lasted a few months each. And both, but especially the second trip, included extended stretches of me traveling alone, me standing alone on the shoulder of a highway with my thumb out and my face hopeful. There were some dicey moments along the way, yes, but even during those moments, I would still have said I was safer on those French or Spanish or Austrian or Belgian or Czech or German streets than I would have been anywhere at home.

*

I hadn’t thought about my high school trek planning in many, many years … and then suddenly there it was a few months ago, in the front of my brain, called up by who knows what.

It started me thinking about what that trip would look like today. I still don’t have much money, but I certainly have more than I had as a teenager. And I have marketable skills and work experience that could enable me to support myself in random towns across the map. I also have credit cards. I would still be a woman alone, and now I’d have sometime-y knees and a cane, making me look that much more like an easy victim. And, importantly, I am still most definitely Black.

I think about all the places I removed from my tour plan in the late 70s … and I realize that there are far more places I’d need to cross off the trip list today.

If I marked out the road atlas now, it would be the visual aid of the conversation I’ve been having with myself and online for the last three years: the fact that my country, my home, has become that much less welcoming, less mine.

Today, in 2017, the NAACP has issued not one but two different travel advisories for Black folks—one for St. Louis, the other for American Airlines. In 2017.

Had I attempted my trek after graduation, it’s a pretty good bet I’d have come to a bad end—an accident, a rapist, a serial killer, a bear—something. Sure. But I might have had a great time before running headlong into whichever life-ending force would have had my name on it. I’d have covered some ground, maybe seen a handful of states at least, gotten a good look at some of this crazy-huge country I call home. Today, I can’t convince myself that I’d make it out of New York State.

*

I’m not the only Black person who has intentionally narrowed her range of motion. The need for organizations such as Outdoor Afro and Journey Outdoors is real. As is the fact of terrible encounters with whiteness in the wild—I can’t stop thinking about the Black family whose reunion at Rollins Lake, Nevada was cut short when an armed white man threatened their lives. And the number of people creating lists of places that aren’t safe for Black folks to travel. I don’t know how to reconcile these clashing truths. I don’t like feeling that I’m losing my country, but I can’t pretend that very real dangers don’t exist.

 

I don’t have any answers here. I see the tiny pockets of places–both in the US and elsewhere–in which I can imagine being safe. The Europe I hitched 35 years ago is, sadly, dramatically different today, and I’d have little to no chance of a safe, months-long hitch now.

And I don’t see a way to reverse any of this. In high school, the US was a place in which I could imagine being safe exploring on my own … almost. Today I can’t imagine that at all. There are so many consequences of the intolerance and hate that is rolling rampantly across this country and others. The extreme shrinking of my universe is clearly one of them, but I didn’t see it happening because my lens wasn’t trained on that. These last few years, I’ve been focused more acutely, focused on feeling safe right in my own city. And while I was nearsightedly pre-occupied, I managed to miss the larger shift in my landscape.

I have no intention of swearing off travel. I’m currently planning for a big writing trip for next year that will land me in entirely unfamiliar territory, and I can’t wait for that. Still, revisiting my long-ago plan of hiking my country and seeing how much less viable an idea it is today frustrates and saddens me. This is my home and has been my family’s home for generations. And while it is true that this country has never wanted to accept my family or others like mine, we are still here. This additional reminder of the fact that my country sees me as alien is sitting hard with me. It’s not news, but it still hurts.


For 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I fell months behind on my #GriotGrind, and it seemed highly unlikely that I’d write 52 essays by year’s end. But then I dedicated my NaNoWriMo to writing essays, and did a pretty good job of catching up! I’ve got to move house before the end of December, so I’m unlikely to reach 52 essays. Still, 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!

Your Fave Would Never

I wrote this essay a few weeks ago. I sent it around to a handful of outlets, but it didn’t get picked up, so I’m posting it here. Sadly–though entirely unsurprisingly–the subject remains current.

__________

In response to the calling out of predators in entertainment, media, politics, sports, and all over the damn where, a Yashar Ali tweet linked to a satirical news story saying Tom Hanks had been revealed … as being extremely kind. The actress’ claims refer to her time working with Hanks on The DaVinci Code. She states: “The entire time I was on set he repeatedly exposed himself to me as a thoroughly decent human being.”

It’s funny—or almost funny—but also annoying and problematic. I understand the urge to call attention to (put on a pedestal) the men you think are above this fray, men who would never, ever be implicated in anything like any of the accusations we’ve heard. I do get it. But it’s troubling, too.

Because you have no idea. None.

Yes, there were apparently a raft of open secrets about many of these scumbag men. But there are also accusations being made against men who don’t come with open secrets. And those accusations shock us in large part because we’ve been loving on these men for years, long enough to believe we knew them.

And that was our mistake. We never knew those men.

We so want there to be men who aren’t horrible—if only to affirm our belief in our ability to assess character, to choose friends, to read people. And, of course, there are men who aren’t horrible … but we don’t get to decide who falls into that category. We don’t get to designate who the “good” men are based simply on whether or not we like them. Do I want to believe Tom Hanks isn’t an abusive lout? Of course. Do I know he isn’t an abusive lout? Nope.

That “news” piece is meant to be a joke, but it annoys me because, while it’s giving Hanks a nod to let him know he is loved and trusted … at least by the person who wrote it, it is also telling a woman who might have something to say that she won’t be believed because we all “know” Hanks would never.

One of the things this moment is making clear is how many women have been silenced and how effectively. The story about Hanks plays into the silencing—surely not intentionally, but intention has to take a backseat to impact.

The other thing I’ve been seeing in the last week is women starting to name men they are holding their breath over, men they hope against hope aren’t going to get pulled into this particular spotlight. I could make one of these lists, too—Bill Withers, Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Mackie, Goran Višnjić, Viggo Mortensen, Danny Glover, Denzel …

There is no point to this list-making. Of course we don’t want to learn that the actors or musicians or socially-conscious businessmen we love as assholes. But what is true is that we don’t know. We don’t know at all.

George Takei was accused. When I read that, I had to consciously fight my urge to dismiss the accuser. I surprised myself each time I had to do that. How could I so readily believe the women who’d come forward but dismiss this man and give Takei a pass? The voice in my head just kept saying: “But Takei would never …”

Yeah. But I don’t know that, do I?

Don’t forget: these famous, celebrity men we want to believe the best of are beloved because of the characters we’ve seen them play or the public personas we’ve seen them project.

Don’t forget: we don’t even know the men we think we actually know. Take Bob, a young man who was a favorite counselor at the summer camp I attended for years. I certainly thought I knew Bob, but he turned out to be a man who would sidle up to 13-year-old me and ask if I sold sex and for how much.

And of course there’s also Alain, a man I was friends with who raped me after a night of running around the city laughing and dancing and—I thought—enjoying our city and our friendship.

My point is that we want to believe our faves would never, but we can’t know that. A man can only prove he’s not a predator by not being one, so we can never know. We can never know. Alain never seemed like a rapist any of the times we went to dinner and hung out talking about our plans for our lives and where we imagined traveling and what work we thought we’d do. He just seemed like any guy I enjoyed being friends with. He was just any guy.

They are all just any guy. Until they’re not. If they looked like predators, we’d know to steer clear of them. They know that. And we have to know it, too.

I don’t fault the women who are posting names of the celebrities they hope no one steps up to accuse. My own list can go on and on. It can, actually, include every man who hasn’t yet been accused because I don’t want there to be any more predators.

But I know better. I know—as much as I hate knowing—that my fave … might. And yours might, too.


For 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I fell months behind on my #GriotGrind, and it seemed highly unlikely that I’d write 52 essays by year’s end. But then I dedicated my NaNoWriMo to writing essays, and did a pretty good job of catching up! I’ve got to move house before the end of December, so I’m unlikely to reach 52 essays. Still, 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!