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I saw a woman harassed and frightened by a man. I was too far away to do anything about it. I wasn’t sure what I was seeing until it was almost over. It was a crowded A train during morning rush hour. I had only just managed to squeeze myself onto the car. I wasn’t looking at people around me, was mostly thinking ahead to the meeting I was headed for. As we pulled into Hoyt-Schermerhorn, I focused. I’d been kind of staring off ahead, not really looking at anything.

At that moment I focused and saw a man, maybe close to my height (5’10”), stocky, doing some kind of bob-and-weave movement. He was about a third of the length of the train car away from where I was sandwiched in, but I could clearly see his weird bob and weave. I looked closer. He was bobbing and weaving into and away from the face of a woman. She was small, maybe five-foot-two or three. She was slight, not waif-slight, but very slender.

I stared at them for a few seconds, trying to tell if they were together. Had I seen the man’s face, I would have known they were definitely not together because when he turned around as the train pulled out of the station, the man’s face gave him away — he looked unstable, looked unkempt … not like a homeless person but like a madman who didn’t waste time pulling his look together.

But I hadn’t seen his face yet. I just saw him diving in and out of the woman’s face. I watched him for several seconds that felt a lot longer. By the time I registered that something was deeply wrong with what was happening, the woman had removed herself from the space, had ducked under the arm of the person on her other side and moved down the car. She was so small, I lost sight of her immediately in the crowded space. That was when her harasser turned around, when I saw that, whatever he’d been doing, it couldn’t have been pleasant for that woman. I would never want that man’s face anywhere near mine.

He turned and started talking to the people around him. Not like excusing his actions, but like bragging. He looked quite proud and pleased with himself, as if scaring that woman was a kind of triumph for him, and I guess it was. I couldn’t hear anything he said. It was loud on the train, and he was quiet, talking for the people directly near him, not for all of us. The train pulled into Jay Street, he took a seat and that was that.

But that wasn’t that. Couldn’t possibly ever really be that.

I was so angry. Angry at him, sure. Of course. More, I was angry at all of the people in that section of the train. I’ll grant that the man’s appearance was unsettling. I wouldn’t have considered it a small thing to confront him. But he was menacing someone. He was all up in that woman’s face, up in the face of a person who was small both in height and size. He was taking pleasure in frightening her — because that was the first thing I saw when he turned around, his big, I’m-the-man smile. He was having a great time ruining that woman’s commute, and maybe her whole day, maybe her week — who knows what that incident may have triggered for her? He was having a great time … and not one person thought of a way to do anything to stop him, to shield her, to defuse the situation.

Everyone stayed in their books and newspapers, stayed on their phones. Everyone chose to ignore what was happening right beside them. When the woman saw her chance to squeeze through the crowd to get free, she moved past the man standing beside her. He was tall and had one arm stretched out to hold the overhead rail. She ducked under his arm, and he bowed his body to make a little more room for her to pass … and then he held that position a moment longer, as if giving the harasser a chance to pass, too. He was prepared to facilitate the woman’s continued abuse by making way for her abuser. WTF? True, he hadn’t tried to help the woman at all, but simply straightening his body, putting a barrier between the woman and the man, would have at least been a protective gesture. Nope. No protection there.

I don’t know what I want from people, what I expect. I’ve had my own experiences with people on the street or the train not coming to my aid. I know it’s easier and certainly feels safer to stay out of a charged and troubling situation. But seeing this moment on the train really upset me. How can you stand next to someone who is being terrorized and do nothing? I was too far away and too tightly packed against other riders to do more than witness. I have no idea what I would have done if I’d been standing closer, but I would have done something. Some thing.

That’s easy to say, of course. But I have receipts. I’ve intervened between abusive men and their partners in the past. I’ve called out harassers on the train, even used some low-grade violence once, though I don’t recommend that. Confrontation isn’t a thing I make a habit of, but it has happened. There seemed to be something wrong with that man, but that doesn’t mean he couldn’t have been stopped, couldn’t have been made to back off.

Full disclosure: a big part of my surprise is because the woman was white, and the man harassing her was Black. Our raison d’etre as a country is to stand up for the safety and honot of white women … especially in the face of a threat from a Black man. And yet no one stepped up for this woman.

But just on the level of basic human decency, I don’t understand what I saw on that train. Do not understand.

This morning I was at a conference and heard NYC Public Advocate Letitia James reframe Michelle Obama’s line, saying: “When they go low, we need to get loud.” She was talking about the opposition (the Resistance) being big enough, forceful enough to “drown out the noise” of harmful policies and ill-conceived decisions (hey, I’m trying to be generous).

I get what she’s saying. It makes perfect sense. But how does that happen, exactly? Where is this solidarity and readiness for the fight supposed to come from when we don’t care enough about one another as individuals to step up when the person next to us is in danger?

People knitted pink hats and came out in the hundreds of thousands for the Women’s March. They felt like, and were, a giant mass of “No!” directed at THOTUS¹. And yet, for all that sisterhood and comradery, there was also silencing, erasure, and exclusion.

Am I wrong to see a connection here? Empathy is going to be central to the success of whatever fightback is strong enough to carry us forward. If we can’t care enough for the woman standing beside us, how are we supposed to be standard-bearers for refugees we’ll never see, Palestinians losing their land in a place we’ll never visit, women denied reproductive care in nations we erase when we think of their continent as a country, Black bodies left in the street for hours?

But then I think about the people who came out for Muslims travelers over the weekend. They put out calls for lawyers, brought supplies, came out and stayed out. They stepped up. They gave me some hope.

I still don’t understand what I saw on the train. It’s just not okay to ignore someone in distress. Not okay.

And I can’t help but believe it’s these small acts of brave kindness and compassion that will help us feel strong enough, able enough to step up in bigger ways. Because we’re going to need to do that. We’re going to have to take risks, put ourselves in harm’s way. We’re going to have to stop pretending not to see what’s right in front of us.

We have to do that for strangers on the train, and we have to do it for this nation of strangers that has never needed us more than it does now.

griotgrind_logo

In 2017, I’ve committed to writing an essay a week.

It’s not too late to join if you’re feeling ambitious! Check out Vanessa Mártir’s blog to find out how!

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¹ Titular Head oThese United States


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Some clarification after yesterday’s half-angry, half-tired post. I do appreciate the compliment that arrived in my comments and the spirit in which it was given. But let me speak plainly: I know I’m beautiful. Yes, it’s taken some years for me to see / acknowledge / accept that truth. But I have. The foolish man who needed to tell me how unacceptable I am probably can’t imagine that such comfort with myself is possible, but that’s about him, not me.

And maybe it sounds vain for me to take my friend’s compliment and just say, “I know.” That’s because it is vain. I don’t have any problem with some healthy, based-in-reality vanity. I am vain about my looks, my hair, my voice. I am extremely vain. Let’s not get me started on all the other ways I’m vain, all the other things I love about myself.

But for the most part, that man on the street and his comment had nothing to do with what I look like and whether I am attractive. People who say things to me on the street — whether they know it or not — are always talking about themselves and just using me as a convenient outlet for whatever pain or frustration they are feeling. In the case of men, there is also the fact that many men believe that every woman only exists in public for a) his viewing pleasure, b) his assessment and comment, c) his control.

That guy Monday couldn’t see me, didn’t even try. He saw a female body and decided he had power over it. He isn’t attracted to big-legged women (after all, everyone knows we ain’t got no souls). His lack of attraction didnt keep him from looking, mind you. It did, however, give him license to say whatever nonsense seemed “right” in the moment.

Maybe he was having a crap day, someone making him feel as if he was getting too big for his britches, taking up too much space. So telling me that I am too big, that no one wants to see me was how he felt about himself just then.

But see, all that mess? That’s him. That’s all about him. I may have been the one to be splashed with the garbage juice as his truck rolled by, but he’s the one full up with the stuff.

So I appreciate the reassurance that I am fabulous, but in this instance I don’t so much need it. There are plenty of other areas in which I am the poster child for low self esteem, and in those areas I welcome all the ego-boosting I can get. What I need right now is continued strength to not dole out dope slaps on the regular.


It’s the annual Slice of Life Story Challenge, hosted by the wonderful people over at Two Writing Teachers! Every day this month, hundreds of writers will be posting their stories. Head on over and check out the other slices!

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Yesterday I wore a dress. It’s not a big deal, or shouldn’t be. I was still beat to my socks after Saturday’s adventure, and I had to sit on a panel mid-day, and I wanted to perk myself up. So I wore a new dress, a dress that hits just about at my knees. For me, this is as out of character as wearing a micro-mini. Folks who know me: when have you ever seen my legs? Seriously. But I’ve been wearing “short” dresses for a few months now, so it’s weird but becoming not weird for me.

So I wore a dress. With tights and boots. I went to work, I went uptown to sit on the panel. I left the place where the event was held and walked to the subway.

“Nobody wants to see that.”

I heard this semi-surly voice say that as I headed down Park Avenue. I kept walking because it seemed to be one of the random snippets of someone else’s conversation that filter into your consciousness.

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

This time, the speaker — a small, maybe-40-year-old Black man in a leather stadium coat over a suit — got right up on me to say what he had to say.

People often tell me they’re surprised by the things folks have no problem saying to me. I’m not surprised. Certainly not about this. Being rude and insulting to fat people is the last truly safe bullying, discriminatory behavior people have. Yes, you can be a jerk about all kinds of things, but there will almost always be someone ready to speak up for the person you’re insulting, someone ready to call you out on your racism, homophobia, sexism, anti-semitism, ableism. With fat people, that’s pretty much never going to be the case. Fat people, because we have the audacity to be fat, are assumed to deserve whatever bile you choose to spit on us.

But you know what? Not really. And not me.

I stopped and looked at him. I made a dramatic “shocked” face, complete with one hand on my cheek and my mouth in a stunned “O.”

“Really?!” I asked.

He looked pleased, ready to tell me all about how disgusted he felt at the sight of me.

I dropped my hand and smiled. “Good thing what I wear has absolutely nothing to do with anyone but me.” I looked down, gave myself a once-over. “You’re only seeing my legs because you’re looking at them.” I started walking again. “You don’t like what you see? Look at something else.”

Yes, it hurts my feelings to have some jackass say no one wants to see a woman who looks like me. But you know? I’m not here for anyone’s fat-shaming. I’m not here for men thinking I can or should be ruled by their gaze. I’m not here for strangers on the street who think they have anything to say about what I choose to wear, how I wear it, or how I look wearing it. You can miss me with all of that.


It’s the annual Slice of Life Story Challenge, hosted by the wonderful people over at Two Writing Teachers! Every day this month, hundreds of writers will be posting their stories. Head on over and check out the other slices!

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… and yet folks wonder why I’m angry.

There are so many things I would rather be writing about today.  There are so many sad things I could be writing about today.  Instead of those things, I am writing this.

_____

Yesterday I was walking in lower Manhattan.  I was nearing Houston Street, thinking about ducking into the subway station at the corner and getting back to my book once I was on the train, thinking about the volunteer work I was scheduled to do later in the day, thinking about the residency applications I’m working on, thinking.

“Smile, big lady!”

Yes, because any moment of my life can only be made better by some random man demanding that I smile.  Because — obviously — I only exist to window-dress your day with my smiles.  Yes.

I could write an entire post about how annoying it is to have men ask women to smile.  That’s not this post.  I didn’t smile.

I didn’t smile and I kept walking up the block.

And then he grabbed my arm and spun me around to face him.  I was so taken by surprise, I almost fell into his chest.  Before I had a chance to rebalance and focus, he got in my face yelling about what made me think I was too good for him and how sick he is of angry black women, and how — fat and ugly as I am — I should be glad any man was talking to me.

Generally speaking, men don’t accost me.  They make any number of comments, give all kinds of looks, but they don’t put their hands on me.  I’m not saying it never happens, but it doesn’t happen often.  The last time I can remember it happening is five years ago.  Because it happens so infrequently, my first reactions are a little slow-motion.  First reaction: surprise that some stranger is grabbing me.  Second: look at the stranger and gauge how strong he seems to be and if I think I can fight my way away from him.

So I looked at this man yesterday.  He was taller than I am, maybe 6′ 2″.  He was slender, but he had spun me around.  Aside from the fact that he caught me off guard and so off balance, I am a big person, it’s no easy thing to spin me around.  That told me he was probably stronger than I am.  Third reaction: use my words.  I’m pretty good at talking my way out of trouble.  And I’m pretty good at shaming street harassers into backing off.

But this man was bigger and stronger than I am, and was already worked up, shaking me roughly, yelling crazy crap about fat black women and how entitled we act and how we should be more respectful when a man shows us some attention.  And I froze for a minute.

But then I unfroze.  And I started yelling for him to let go of me, started trying to break out of his hold.

And then I realized I was on a pretty populated street, and there were people around me.  I started asking people for help, asking people to call 911.  Most people ignored me, acted as if they could neither see nor hear me, didn’t even flinch away or glance in my direction.  I didn’t exist.  One man laughed at me.  Two men said they didn’t get involved in couples’ problems.  Couples’ problems.  As if anything about that scene looked like a couple having a disagreement.

I understand why the women who passed didn’t step in.  That man had already devolved to violent behavior.  I don’t think I would have stepped in, either.  But I would have stayed there.  I would have engaged the woman and called 911 as she’d asked me to do.  I would have let that man know that he had a witness to his harassment and that it wasn’t cool.  And I’m willing to bet that, one person stopping might have emboldened other people to stop, and that an audience might (might) have pushed that man to let go of me.

But no one stopped.  No one stopped.

I wish I didn’t have to stop here and say this, but I have to stop here and say this: every single person who walked by me yesterday was white or looked white.  The man in my face was white or looked white.  And that was when I my fear of the man shifted over to fear of what could happen to me if the police did come.  I wasn’t as tall as that man, but I am definitely bigger.  I could imagine police officers seeing me and seeing Eric Garner, seeing Eleanor Bumpurs, seeing a big black person who needed to be subdued, not bothering to see that I was the person being assaulted.

I shouldn’t have to fear men messing with me in the street.  And I shouldn’t have to fear the people who are supposed to protect me from men messing with me in the street.  Shouldn’t.  Do.

This whole scene didn’t take very long, from the moment he grabbed me up to this point was maybe only 20 or 30 seconds.  It felt much, much longer.

A group of black teenagers walked up and one asked if I knew the man.  I said I didn’t, and they immediately stepped between us got him off me and away from me, formed a shield between him and me.  They tended me — was I okay, had he hurt me, what did I want to do, did I want them to travel with me.  The man ran and two of the boys were going to go after him, but I stopped them.  I wasn’t going to be the reason for someone misinterpreting the sight of two young black men chasing a white man down the street.  More things I shouldn’t have to worry about.  But do.

The boys — because really, they were babies, maybe 15-17 years old — walked me to the subway and were ready to throw off whatever their plans for the afternoon had been to see me safely wherever I was going, but I said no.  Those boys were beautiful and fine and exactly the kind of men you want every man to be.  And I thank all of the people who raised and shaped them. And I didn’t mind at all that they called me “ma’am.”  I don’t know what would have happened if they hadn’t been coming up the block.

I was badly frightened by that man.  And I was angry.  Angry at him for not seeing me, for seeing only a female body that he felt he had control over.  Angry at him for putting his hands on me.  Angry at the people who wouldn’t help me.  Angry at every one of them who pretended not to see or hear me.  More than a dozen people passed me.  More than a dozen people ignored (or mocked) my call for help.  And I understand fear of putting yourself in danger.  But practically every one of those people had their phones in their hands (for all I know, someone put my street assault on Instagram).  It would have been an easy thing to call 911.  Just hearing someone make a 911 call would surely have sent that man packing.

I want to believe I was mistaken in my fear of the police, but how can I be?  There are too many stories that back up my fear.  There is Marlene Pinnock as just the latest example of black women not being any safer from police violence than black men.

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I want this post to be more articulate (yes, I used that word).  I think I am still too close to yesterday.  Retelling the story gives me a stomach ache and I lose sight of the points I want to be making.  I keep coming back to this: I shouldn’t have to fear men messing with me in the street.  And I shouldn’t have to fear the people who are supposed to protect me from men messing with me in the street.  And I shouldn’t have to fear that expressing my absolutely valid and appropriate anger sets me up to look like an aggressor, to fit someone’s stereotype of a loud, angry black woman, to make me someone to be ignored.  All the things I shouldn’t fear.  Shouldn’t.  Do.

Something that doesn’t give me a stomach ache?  Those boys.  Those boys who have probably been stopped and frisked all kinds of times.  Those boys who saw a bad situation and knew they could do something about it.  Seven children — all loose limbs and baggy pants and over-long muscle shirts and ball caps and big hair (one of the boys had a gorgeous afro!) — seven children stepped up.

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I’ve been away for a LONG time, but today is a Slice-of-Life Tuesday, and the slicers are going strong over at Two Writing Teachers!

Click over and see what everyone else is up to!

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Still thinking about Chibok, still thinking about those girls.  Today, I tried again to articulate my thoughts.

This isn’t an article about what we can do — or what someone should do — to bring those girls back home.  This is an article about education, about the fear of educated women, about the risks all of us take every time we dare to learn something new, to use education to change our situations.  The girls of Chibok were kidnapped because they went to school.

When I first became an adult literacy teacher, I had a student who was a confident, funny, intelligent member of the class.  She was an absolute beginning reader and was making gradual progress.

One night I met her partner and saw my student become small and withdrawn in his presence.  Her greeting and hesitant smile were nothing like the bright, wide smile we saw in class each night.

Instead of a greeting, he tossed her The New York Times, asked her to read to him.  When she told him she couldn’t, he asked why she bothered with school if she couldn’t read, told her she was lucky she had him to take care of her, that she’d be helpless otherwise.

I’ve thought about her so many times since that night, and thought of her as my initial horror and sadness over the abductions in Nigeria churned into anger.  What was that man so afraid of?  How could it have been so terrifying to him that his girlfriend was learning to read?  I know an answer to this question.  He imagined that an education would help her see just how much she didn’t need him.  But while he had every right to be afraid, he had no right to use his fear as a weapon to smash her curiosity, her cleverness, her smile.

In the years after that class, I saw many women for whom attending school was a dangerous decision.  A student in one program withdrew from classes when her boyfriend reported her for child neglect because she left her daughters with their grandmother to attend classes three nights a week.  A GED student missed every test she was scheduled for because as each test date approached, her husband would beat her so severely she couldn’t leave the house.  Another student’s partner destroyed her birth control each time she enrolled in school so that she would get pregnant and need to leave school before taking the test.

We aren’t the missing girls of Chibok.  We aren’t.  We have experienced trauma and abuse, but we aren’t those girls … except that we are, too.  I think about past students as my heart aches for those girls and their families because people around me keep saying they can’t imagine a culture in which girls would be punished, would be terrorized for wanting an education.

No?  Look outside.  Look in the mirror.  We are that culture.  And we, as women learners, teachers, researchers, advocates, and allies are fighting back against that culture.

And so are the girls in Chibok, and Warabe, and other Nigerian villages under the shadow of Boko Haram.  They are going to school.  Now.  Still.  They are asserting their right to learn, their right to determine who they’ll be in the world.

 

I use the “BringBackOurGirls” hashtag.  It’s one painfully small way to remind people that those girls are still missing, that many may already have been sold into slavery.  I can’t go to Nigeria and rescue them, but I can work here at home to change attitudes and dismantle systems that harm women.  I can continue to support WE LEARN and education for women as vehicles for equity and change, for putting power in women’s hands.

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Slice of Life Tuesdays are hosted by Two Writing Teachers.

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I am still sad and silent.  But Raivenne is writing.  She is also using poetry to find a voice for the horror of Chibok and Warabe: Bring Her Home.

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Too many things I don’t have the ability to write about.  Really just two.  Really just one.  How long will black women have to live in the world before we are seen as valuable, before we are no longer reviled, ridiculed, devalued, dehumanized, dismissed?

I can’t write about Chibok’s kidnapped daughters because my impotence chokes me.  I can’t find any way to talk through my horror and sadness, my spitting, explosive anger, my inability to do anything.  Anything.

Which you’ve heard from me before.  When Sean Bell’s killers were acquitted.*  When Trayvon Martin’s killer was acquitted.  When Abeer Qassim al-Janabi’s killer got life instead of a death sentence.  Because that is always the problem for me.  These horror stories so demoralize and enrage me with their ability to show me a) just how little room there is for me in this world and b) just how little I am able to do about it.  And so I rail and cry and then, eventually, I shut up.  Because I still don’t know what is the thing I can do that can actually make a difference.  Because my pain floods with so much rage that I can’t form coherent thoughts.

Chibok and all those missing girls are resting on my heart, weighing me down, filtering into everything.  How could it not?  Hundreds of children taken, a government barely rousing itself to acknowledge there might be a problem.  I thought of those girls this weekend, as I spent time with my 15-year-old niece.  Every time I looked at her beautiful, half-baby, half-grown-girl face.  And again, my pain is flooded with rage.  Because I noticed.  I noticed that, although the girls were abducted on April 14th, reporters — when they finally started talking about it — kept saying April 22nd because that’s when they first bothered to make note of it.  I noticed that, even though the number of girls taken was closer to 300, the number immediately became “more than 200” and “some 200” … as if that was somehow less terrible, less something we should be paying attention to.  I noticed that, the minute the stories began about selling the girls to Boko Haram members, reporters started referring to them as “young women” … as if calling them “women” instead of “girls” would make it okay that they were being sold into sexual slavery.  I noticed that it wasn’t until lots of people in this country held rallies and made #BringBackOurGirls trend that mainstream media finally decided there was something to talk about.  And I noticed that those stories all started by talking about the surprise of the trending hashtag and the number of rallies and not about the girls, not about their families, not with enough of the accurate details such as how long ago those children were stolen.

And I noticed that today 8 more girls were kidnapped from another Nigerian village.

We’re close enough to April, that I’m still connecting my thoughts to writing poems. And, too, I’m remembering Sonia Sanchez talking about using form poems when your emotions are running you and you need some way to harness the chaos.

Stolen

Girls.
Their lives
used as pawns.
This is a game
played too many times.
These
girls. Ours —
our hearts, our
lives, our last hopes.
Thrown to the fire,
Who
will come
for them now?
Who understands —
to us they are all.

And I also can’t write about Leslie Jones. Tressie McMillan’s piece about Jones gets it so right (despite her title), right in a way that I still can’t get it. Kimberly Foster gets it equally right. Yes, yes, Jones is supposed to be a comedian.  Yes, comedians make jokes about uncomfortable things, or uncomfortable jokes about difficult things … or difficult jokes about ugly things …  Yes, I understand.  But even through all of those lenses there was something wrong with Jones’ Weekend Update sketch.  Deeply wrong.  And her response to the criticism is almost more disturbing than the SNL piece itself.

And I can’t write about any of it.  Can’t. Because what is there to say, what can I say that will lead to any kind of desired result?

Years ago, I went to a Marx Brothers film festival.  In Paris.  There weren’t many people in the theater.  I was there with a friend, and we laughed and laughed.  One or two other people laughed along with us, and I realized that they must be English speakers.  Fluent English speakers.  Because the film was subtitled, and how can you subtitle the Marx Brothers?  You would have to keep freezing the frame and inserting long explanations: 1) this is what he said, 2) this is what it meant, 3) this is why it’s funny.  Who has time for all that explication?  How can anything be funny at the end of all those annotations?

That’s how I feel about Leslie Jones’ SNL skit.  If it needs this much context-setting, this much explaining, the joke isn’t working and I don’t see how anyone can find the funny in it.  And Jones’ inability to acknowledge that there could be a possibility that she took a wrong turn, that she was playing for the wrong audience in the wrong moment is maddening.

For now, I’m still in Arun mode.  It surprised me when I was thinking about these stories today and poems kept composing themselves in my head.  But I’m going with it, letting them loose:

My
body.
No temple
this. Not in your
eyes. You only see brown
skin,
kinky
hair, full lips.
You think you know
something about me.
You’ve
watched your
tarted up
master-slave tales,
had your Saartjie dreams.

My
body.
My temple.
Full of wisdom,
heat, contempt for
all
you think
you know. I
once listened, let
you tell me what to
see.
No more.
That’s over. I
don’t need your leave
to see my fine self.

And I keep trying to work on my comic, and I keep trying to find a way to sustain real conversation about race.  And I keep getting slapped in the face with … well, the reasons that I need to keep doing my work.  Nearly 300 black girls can be swept away in one moment and the world barely blinks.  The FBI’s list of missing persons is 40% black women — 65,000 wives, mothers, daughters, aunts, sisters, friends, cousins — and yet we almost never hear about any of them.  My heart is heavy tonight, and I don’t have the space for any of this.

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Slice of Life Tuesdays is hosted by Two Writing Teachers.

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* That first time, I kept thinking that if I tried to speak, I’d find my way.  I tried again and again to process, to find a path. Eventually, I retreated to silence.

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