Washing and Folding

My grandmother, for the whole of my childhood, worked as a laundress. She picked up, washed, ironed, and delivered laundry for wealthy residents of the towns around where she lived: Larchmont, Scarsdale, Pound Ridge, Bronxville. I have so many memories of her sitting at her low ironing board turning basket after basket of heaped sheets into crisply pressed and folded linens. She may have washed clothes for her clients, too, but it’s the sheets that have stayed with me, that are ever present in my memory.

Before she and my grandfather and their sons left the south, she had been a teacher. They had both been teachers. But they didn’t work as teachers in New York – because they couldn’t find work as teachers? Because Black teachers didn’t get paid well and New York was more expense than Fayetteville so they had to find other work? I have no idea. I do know they lived in Harlem, in the projects, and that they opened a small grocery store. (That was how my dad wound up going to the old Music and Art high school with Reri Grist.) After Harlem, they moved to Westchester. And that was where my grandmother’s laundry work began.

I recently saw Lizzie Olesker and Lynne Sachs’ documentary short, The Washing Society. It focuses on the women and men who work at wash-and-fold laundries, the places where you drop off your clothes and staff wash them for you. It focuses on the present, but also on the original Washing Society, the union of Black laundresses in Georgia who went on strike for better pay and work conditions. The documentary shook me a little. I was interested in seeing it because I’m always interested in documentaries and always interested in hearing ordinary, everyday people talk about their lives and work. I went into that theater without any idea that the movie had anything to do with me.

My first indication that I would have a connection to the film came right away: the memory of my life when I first moved to New York from my mother’s house. I didn’t do my laundry, I brought it to a tiny wash-and-fold storefront two blocks from my apartment. It wasn’t a laundromat. I couldn’t have washed my clothes there even if I’d been so inclined. It was only for dropping off.

I wasn’t inclined to do my own washing, however. Watching The Washing Society, I thought about that. What was my story? I certainly wasn’t imagining myself somehow above washing my own clothes. Hardly. My family never had much money, so I wasn’t accustomed to sending the laundry out. The sad truth of me, I’ll admit, is that I didn’t really know how to do my laundry. I know I must have washed more than a load or two in my mother’s house, but I just followed my mother’s instructions, never absorbed the knowledge of the process, the steps.

(Add this to a long list of things I left home having no idea how to do: boil eggs (!!), make tuna salad, balance my checkbook, make and keep a budget, plan meals and shop for food … How did I survive those first years on my own?!)

Never once in that year of dropping off my clothes down the street did I make a connection with my grandmother. Not then and at no point since then … until seeing The Washing Society. I hope I was a good customer. I’ve never been a full-on jackass, so I want to believe I was respectful to the women who worked at that shop, as I am to staff anywhere.

But then I thought about my grandmother, my strong, calm, giving, tough, no-nonsense Eva Nora. I didn’t know about her career as a teacher in North Carolina until I was an adult. And I didn’t learn about it from her. It wasn’t something she talked about. Same with the store.

I wish I could ask her about those transitions, from teacher to shop owner to laundress to caregiver for a world of foster children and then to two large group homes of adults who needed supportive housing. I witnessed a few of those transitions, and I don’t remember being fazed, or thinking how hard it must have been, or thinking it was at all unusual for her to make such sweeping changes in her work, in her household.

And I thought about the laundry. My grandmother grew up in the Carolinas. She was born in the early 1900s (1902 or 1904, depending on which documentation you believe). She lived through the hideousness of the Black Codes and the birth and entrenchment of Jim Crow. Still, she and William were able to become teachers, were able to find a way to help young people access learning, something that was withheld from them by white society. They came north and found that things weren’t exactly better, that things may, in fact, have been worse because they could no longer work in their chosen field.

But that roadblock didn’t stop them. They made a way and made it work. I don’t know that I could have done what they did. I think about the powerful roles vanity and shame play in my life. Would I have been able to accept what I would absolutely have seen as a serious demotion from school teacher to laundress? Not that Eva and William had much choice. They had two sons to raise. They had a mortgage to pay. Money needed to be coming in, period. There is no room for vanity or shame in that equation.

And I think about all that laundry. There was so much of it. And my grandmother was already my grandmother in the period I’m thinking about, of course. She was in her 70s when I was a little kid hanging out in the TV room watching Creature Feature while she was ironing and folding sheet after sheet after sheet. So much work. And such heavy and hot work. How did she have the energy for all of that?

Did she think about her past? Did she miss teaching? Is that why she never spoke about it? When I became a teacher, did it make her wistful or nostalgic? How did she still not say anything to me about her own life as a teacher?

The women of the original Washing Society – which began as a couple dozen Black laundresses in 1881 Atlanta – were a force. They were in what should have been an incredibly precarious position – Black women, not quite 20 years into emancipation, Black Codes being enacted right and left, living on the lowest level of anyone’s hierarchy. They were the most disrespected, the least protected. But the Washing Society women knew their worth. They knew the strength their numbers gave them. And they used it.

The fact of their strike is impressive to me. Then as now, we don’t offer much in the way of respect to laundry workers. A second ago I admitted that I saw the move from teaching to laundry as a demotion. And the women in the film talk about having to deal with rude, crappy treatment. Which all serves to make the story of the Washing Society women more powerful. Those women refused to accept their treatment, insisted on better. And there were so many of them. What started as a group of 20 swelled to three thousand. Three thousand.

The Washing Society amassed real power. These women were supposed to be nobodies, were supposed to count for nothing. And yet they saw their clients clearly, saw just how distasteful their customers would find doing their own washing. That awareness gave them power, and that power forced positive changes in their work lives. They faced down a government that tried to intimidate them. Eva had that kind of clear-minded certainty and strength.

I’ve known for so long that I inherited my face, my hands, my outward calm, my slow-rising temper from Eva. I would love to think that I inherited her strength, her ability to adapt so dramatically, to take the sour, rotting apples she was so often handed and still make do, still create. Still build a life even after William passed and she had to make her world alone.

I don’t have her strength. And no, that’s not La Impostora talking, that’s acknowledgment of my privilege, of how soft I’ve been allowed to be, of how taken care I’ve been, shielded from the harshest things my life could have been. I have been strong at times, strong for myself alone – fighting back against doctors who have wanted to treat me badly, for example. That’s strength of a different kind, but maybe from Eva, born of her understanding that no cavalry was coming, that she would have to rescue herself.

A year after moving out of my mother’s house I moved to my second apartment, from Chinatown, which had an abundance of wash-and-fold laundries, to Washington Heights, which didn’t seem to have any … whether that was the reason I finally began to do my own washing, or whether I had finally come to my senses and realized I couldn’t afford that luxury, I don’t recall. Either way, I started washing my own clothes with that move and have never turned back. The idea of giving my clothes to someone else to wash feels strange to me now, almost unfathomable.

If I ever take my clothes to a wash-and-fold place again, all of this will echo back to the surface. Even as I do my own laundry, these reverberations are there. History flies in, enveloping everything. This remembering Eva differently, calling back another piece of her, is an unexpected gift.


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.

La Petite Histoire de mon Rendu Compte*

I am away at a conference. Mid day yesterday I stood outside the hotel waiting for my lunch companions. A patrol car pulled up, and two women jumped out along with the officer. The women were conference goers, too. I knew from their bright, new conference totes. They posed in front of the cruiser, and the officer took their picture. The hotel’s shuttle driver came out, saw them, and asked, all smiles and laughter, if they’d been arrested. More smiles and laughter as they explained how they’d gotten lost and the officer had found them on some who-knows-where road and brought them back safe and sound. He was, apparently, “just so nice, sweet as he could be.” Everyone laughed some more. The officer posed for a selfie with the ladies and left. The driver waved and left. The ladies went into the hotel.

It was a cute scene. A funny scene. But I felt some kind of way watching it. Yes, here is where I say that everyone in that scene was white. Here is where I say that where I am for this conference is pretty white. And all of that is fine. So entirely fine.

But here is also where I say that, when I imagined myself lost on some who-knows-where road in this town, when I imagined a police car pulling up to me as I tried to find my way back to my hotel, I could only imagine Marlene Pinnock, could only imagine a scary, violent plot line for my story. No smiles and laughter, no poses in front of the cruiser, no selfies with the hero officer.

I’m willing to believe I would have had the exact same experience with that officer that I witnessed. I’m willing to believe I would have walked back into the hotel with a funny story to tell my friends. I’m willing to believe that because why not think the best of people. I’m willing to believe it because … oh my God how much do I want to believe that.

But how many times, just in 2015 alone, has a should-have-been-harmless encounter between a police officer and a Black person ended with that Black person’s death?

And that’s what I thought about as I watched that scene play out. I thought it when the officer stepped out of the car and gave me a careful once-over before turning to smile at his smiling passengers. I thought it as the women passed me to enter the hotel and didn’t respond to my smile and nod but shifted away slightly and took themselves inside. I thought it as the officer drove off, giving me another long look as he passed.

I was once rescued from a broken elevator by two police officers. This was back in the 80s, back in the bad old days of my life in an apartment building that attracted a lot of police attention. Those officers were surely in the building because of the crack factory in 1F and just happened to hear my cries from down the shaft. I was so happy to hear their voices as they talked crazy-claustrophobic me back to calm, so happy to see them when they finally got me free. There were smiles and even some laughter.

There are a lot of things I think of when I think of white privilege. A LOT of things. Yesterday it just slapped me hard, the freedom those women have to feel safe and at ease with that officer because they know he’s going to serve and protect them, and it would never occur to them that he wouldn’t because they are good people, nice people, law-abiding people, and of course he would drive them back to their hotel.

And I am a good person, a nice person, a law-abiding person. And that officer might have driven me back to my hotel, too, even without my shiny conference tote bag marking me as a sanctioned stranger to his town. He might have. But I no longer have the privilege of believing that without a second thought, of being able to take my safety with him for granted.

_____

It’s probably a given that I would return to this blog on a Slice of Life Tuesday.
Please check out the slices other folks are serving up over at Two Writing Teachers!

SOL image 2014

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* I know it should be be “réalisation,” but I’ve always just liked “rendu compte” better. And, too, there’s no excuse for making the title French. But that’s how it came into my head when I finished writing and needed a title. Which is random and strange, but I generally like random and strange, so I went with it. (Désole de ne pas désole.)

May 13, 1985/2015*

My mind and heart are struggling with this 30-year anniversary. With the fact of the 11 lives lost on May 13th, with the fact of what happened to the people of the 6200 block of Osage Avenue in Philadelphia, but also with the clear connection to the ways we see police departments interact with — and act on — communities of color today. And Black communities in particular.

When the Philadelphia police bombed the MOVE house on May 13th 1985, I was more than 3,600 miles away, at the start of a months-long hitch through Europe. I had just left Paris, after a couple of weeks of reconnecting with teachers and friends I’d met during my junior year abroad. I’d had a good day of hitching and was settling into Bordeaux. With no radio or television, I didn’t know about the bombing until the next day when I grabbed a copy of the International Herald Tribune and an Orangina and went to find a sunny spot to enjoy both.

Sitting in a pretty park under cool springtime sun, a photo and news story tilted my entire world.

I don’t remember how many times I read that article. I don’t know how long I sat staring blankly trying and failing to process what I’d read. I sat there long enough and looked lost and distraught enough that a man approached to ask if I was okay, to ask if I was injured in some way. Eventually I clipped the article from the paper and kept it in my journal. A place marker: this is your country, this is the state of things in 1985 in your country, this is a way a local police force in your country chooses to deal with a group of Black people it doesn’t like.

Because that was the horror, that was the reason I read the article over and over. How could it be happening in 1985 in my country? I remember repeating again and again, “But it’s 1985. It’s 1985.”

And now it’s 2015. It’s 30 years later, and we see municipal police departments describing the citizens they are sworn to protect and serve as “enemies,” we see police departments armed with military equipment and perfectly comfortable using those weapons and tools on civilians, we see more and more and more Black bodies, and we see the ones we’ve lost accused of orchestrating their own deaths. Every piece of this echoes what we saw in 1985 at 6221 Osage Avenue.

In 1985, firefighters were told to “let the fire burn,” to allow the fire caused by the police bombing to burn until it spread and destroyed almost two city blocks. Today, we see police officers shoot unarmed Black people and leave them where they fall while they call their union reps or alter crime scene evidence, or just walk away. In 1985, a residential neighborhood was bombed by the police. In 2015 — perhaps in an effort to protect property and serve landlords — police gun us down in the street.

_____

White Supremacy, always the hardest worker in any room, has been busy — up from slavery, out through Reconstruction and Jim Crow, five steps ahead of the Civil Rights Movement, exploding over 6221 Osage, down through to today. White Supremacy doesn’t sleep, keeps its eyes wide open at all times. We get angry, White Supremacy takes three steps forward. We get comfortable, White Supremacy takes five. Bombing the MOVE house was horrific, but it wasn’t enough. White Supremacy needed those snipers firing on folks trying to escape the inferno, needed to let the fire rage and take down 59 other houses to prove a point, make an example,  needed to leave that neighborhood in limbo and decay for 30 years to be sure we got the message.

I’m not saying this fight isn’t winnable. No. I’m saying we can’t get comfortable, we have to be as vigilant as White Supremacy, keep our eyes wide open, keep watch on all the doors and windows.

White Supremacy wanted the Philadelphia Bombing to teach us a lesson. Thirty years later, we are making clear that we’ve learned a lesson. Not the one implicit bias, internalized racial hatred, and White Supremacy would have had us learn, however. Thirty years later, we are calling bullshit on the lies and the violence. We are creating  a Movement for Black Lives, and we aren’t sitting down and shutting up when white people get their feelings hurt or are forced to examine their motives, their privilege, their dismissal of our deaths.

In 1985, I didn’t know what to do with the pain of the Philadelphia Bombing other than grieve in silence. In 2015, my pen is firmly in my hand. I grieve, but I am no longer silent.

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* I suppose it is too much to expect Google’s doodle for this day to be #BlackLivesMatter. But perhaps it’s fitting that the doodle honors the woman who discovered the earth’s core. The issue of state violence against Black bodies is definitely at the core of who we are as a nation.

No Talking

Try

There is no talking to me when I’m like this, when my jaw is set, when I know I’m right. Even when I’m wrong. I stand firm behind the wall of everything I know, everything you haven’t done your homework to find out. I tell myself I know exactly who you are, that I know how you’ll come for me, that I’ll be ready. All my words ammunition-belted across my chest. Ready. There is no talking to me when I’m like this, when my body aches from the tension I hold, when my shoulders are tight with the anger I swallow. Yours. Mine. I need to listen — just listen, not only to you — need to open at least one door. I need to listen, uncurl my fist, remember the feel of my open hands. There is no talking to me when I’m like this, when I’m so tired of the death and denial, when there has been too much silence for too long. Your silence. Mine. There is no talking to me, but you’ll have to break first. Cast your rusty voice, find the fissure, your words in your hand — sharp as pickaxes. Keep talking.


As I did last year, I’ll be following along with the Poem-A-Day challenge at Robert Lee Brewer’s Poetic Asides Blog. Today’s prompt is to write a historic poem. You can post your daily poems on Brewer’s page. The top poem from each day will be included in an anthology later this year!

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Are you writing poems this month? Where can I see them?
Let’s share this craziness!

I know a place.

Today’s Poetic Asides prompt is to write a “place” poem.  I decided to be literal about it an choose a physical place, but I also decided to choose a place that would push me to start thinking again about a writing project I set aside last summer and haven’t made time to go back to.  I have this annoying habit of setting limiting and strict rules for myself for no good reason.  I mean, it’s a pretty good bet that, no matter what idea I come up with, there will be some external voice telling me I can’t do it or it’s a bad idea or that someone else has already done it and I can’t do it as well as that person so I may as well quit.  Or some such.  So if those naysayers are already out there, and are all ready to take me down a few notches, why do I use up my valuable energy doing their work for them?  Feh.

Last summer, a propos of nothing, I began writing a memoir.  Not Adventures. That was already under way.  No, this was a more traditional, prose-only memoir.  And I had a LOT to say … but then I stopped myself because, as my internal censor pointed out, “You can’t write two memoirs at once, and you’re already working on the comic.”  Who says?!  Right, but I listened to myself last year and put the memoir aside.  Tonight’s poem, though it is hardly a return to the writing of the memoir, it is at the very least a shot across my internal censor’s bow, a warning to let her know she needs to pipe down and let me do my work.

I Know a Place

Troy.
A weight,
hidden, dense.
All my secrets
kept.               Long afternoons,
long
bike rides.
Books read, hills
climbed. My bully / 
my friend at my side.
Jean —
taller,
stronger, hard —
she knew things I
avoided knowing.

Her
story
twists around
mine. But it’s time
to let myself go, leave
her
alone.
Walk away
from her story
learn  to tell my own.

Jean,
is your
memory
shaded purple
and grey, same as mine?

natpoetrymonth1

Please consider donating to my indiegogo campaign to support my participation in the VONA Voices graphic novel workshop this summer.  “Support” can be as simple and cost-free as sending the Indiegogo link out to your friends and telling them why they might want to help me get to VONA.  Any and all help is appreciated.  In the first week, I’ve received almost 40% of my goal amount! I am encouraged and humbled by everyone’s generosity.  Thank you all!

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An Arun is a 15-line poem with the syllable count 1/2/3/4/5 — 3x.  It may be a new thing in the world, made up by me last year.  “Arun” means “five” in Yoruba.

Re-imagining

Today’s Poetic Asides prompt is to write a “back to basics” poem — resetting, relearning, restarting …

Find
a new
meaning, a 
definition
of family. One
tree,
many
limbs. Searching
lost histories,
re-imagining.
See
us now.
Family.
Each has a name,
all living on, here.

Starting to wonder if I’m holding myself back, forcing each of these poems to be only a single stanza when they could be much longer.  Waiting until the lat minute to start writing and pushing myself to post before midnight is constricting.  Yes, of course that’s true, but these last poems have seems the worse for it, stunted out of necessity.  May have to revisit and revise …

And still thinking about yesterday’s realization that I haven’t been the poster child for self-deprecation this month with all my poems.  I think this change is, in large part, due to all the mental space that’s been taken up by the family history I’ve been uncovering.  I’ve been so focused on searching out connections, on finding pieces here and there, deciphering the handwriting on 150-year-old census documents … there just hasn’t been room to remember to put myself down!

As much as I’ve enjoyed this year’s poem-a-day challenge, I’m also happy enough that April’s coming to a close.  I want to release the daily pressure and setting into some of my more “normal” writing. (Who knows what I mean by that, but we’ll see come May.)

natpoetrymonth1

Please consider donating to my indiegogo campaign to support my participation in the VONA Voices graphic novel workshop this summer. Thank you!

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An Arun is a 15-line poem with the syllable count 1/2/3/4/5 — 3x.  It may be a new thing in the world, made up by me last year.  “Arun” means “five” in Yoruba.