Think of the Children

Last night, I had the great good fortune to read at Big Words, one of my favorite reading series. I really love the two young women who created the series and host the readings. Stacey and Jess are smart, funny, kind, caring, and beautifully supportive of writers. Big Words is always a great experience.

The theme for last night’s reading was “Side Effects.” As always, I struggled to find something to read or to write something new that related to the topic. In the end, I wrote something during my work day yesterday, typed it up fast, and headed to 61 Local, the bar Big Words calls home. Here’s what I read:

Think of the Children

My mother was told to reconsider marrying my father because, with him as a husband, she risked having dark, ugly children. (The fact that I know this points to a lot of issues in my upbringing, to be sure. Why tell me that my father was considered ugly? Why tell me that the prospect of being dark-skinned was undesirable? Why tell me any of this as if it constituted a funny story? So many issues.)

Despite the well-meaning advice thrown her way, my mother went ahead and married my father. She rolled the dice and wound up with three dark-skinned children, none of whom look like her, none of whom look like my dad, all of whom – yes, I’m going to say it – are pretty in the face.

Whew! Thank God for that, right? Imagine if we’d all been hideous and she’d found herself saddled with raising a passel of homely, dark-skinned pickaninnies. Clearly dodged a bullet there. I do understand thinking about what your baby will look like. Who doesn’t want a cute baby? But the toxic run-off that is Internalized Racial Inferiority shouldn’t dictate what you consider “cute.”

*

Yesterday was my birthday, so of course I’m thinking about my storyline – how I came to be here, what about me is anything like my mother, my father, all the family before me on both sides. I’ve just hit 56 years, which means I’ve lived plenty long enough to have been influenced by where and how I’ve lived and can’t honestly attribute all the truths about myself to nature over nurture, but it’s also true that I’ve inherited plenty from my family, from that risky mixing of my mother’s and father’s gene pools.

One result of my mother’s gamble is that I get to be tall. My brother, sister, and I, we’re none of us as tall as my father’s side, but having that height in our blood pulled us up from the tininess of my mother’s people. My mother (who I will generously describe as not-quite five-seven) is a giant in her family, while my father’s family had true giants like his Uncle Ambrose who was nearly seven feet tall.

Here I’ll digress and say that I have lived my life obsessed with being tall. I coveted the regal height of my father’s cousin Pam, who was six-two. Both my sister and I dreamed of reaching her stature. I still dream about it, I won’t lie. I mean, can you imagine if I were six-two? I would, quite simply, have achieved godhood, would already have taken over the world, legions of minions and cabana boys behind me. (You know this is true, but let’s get back on track.)

*

I am the daughter of southern parents who met after choosing to make their lives in the north. Is that why I grew up a northern snob, wanting to turn my back on the worlds they’d chosen to leave behind … but also the reason I crave southern dishes when I need the reassurance of comfort food?

I used to look for connections most particularly with my mother’s family. As if my father’s didn’t exist somehow, as if everything I was I took from only one branch of the tree. This is foolish because … biology … but also because I just have to look at myself to see my father’s family. My large, long-fingered hands are entirely my grandmother’s hands. My face is entirely her face. This funny little bridgeless nose that no one in my immediate family has is from my grandmother’s mother’s side of the family.

When my mother was warned about the dangers of marrying my father, the folks issuing the warning were caught up on surface things – what would the children look like? And maybe the fact that so much of my physical appearance comes from my father shows they were right to be worried. But did they give any thought to the beneath-the-surface bits?

What you get when you mix two families together is a crap shoot, of course. Some things, like my Pipkin nose, are visible from the start. Others, like my facility for learning languages, reveal themselves over time. Many of these beneath-the-surface bits that are true about me seem common in both of my families, while some very clearly come from one side or the other. There is lots of good that’s come down to me: the language learning thing, my ability to be charming and diplomatic, my voice, my creativity, my silver-instead-of-grey hair.

But it’s not all cute noses and French vocabulary. There’s the list of good, but an equally long list of less-pleasing things, too: crushing self-doubt, heart disease, a history of cancer. And there’s the list that waits in the wings, always ready to take the stage and become part of who I am – alcoholism, mental illness, vengeful grudge-holding. These are things to hope I haven’t inherited, but which I know could be lying dormant, landmines buried at conception.

*

I got a birthday text from my niece, who is my god-daughter, my role model, and one of my favorite people in the world. She thanked me for being a guiding presence in her life, for inspiring her to stay true and be proud of who she is (and yes, I promptly melted). My father’s detractors would have been pleased with my niece. She is a beautiful young woman who would ace their paper bag test. I am more impressed by the smart, strong, thoughtful woman she is growing up to be. And I am thrilled that some of that is because of what makes me me, because of what my brother passed down from our parents, our grandparents, from everyone who came before, because my mother threw caution to the wind and married my tall, dark-skinned, ambitious, intellectually curious, deeply flawed father.


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.

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.

No Wrong Time

“There are folks who don’t think it’s time for a black woman to be governor of any state, let alone a state in the Deep South. But there’s no wrong time for a black woman to be in charge.”

That’s a fab quote from Stacey Abrams, who I love enough to wish I lived in Georgia so I could vote for her. The article I pulled it from is my source text for today’s poem.

A Black Woman in Charge
(An erasure of the Mother Jones article about Stacey Abrams.

Nearly all had power,
Black women,
a who’s who of Black women.
Bedazzled, tall, warm.
Chosen.
A romantic quest,
a leap of faith,
a coalition for women.

Black women
have long been the backbone …
and taken for granted.
Because they’re women
and because they’re Black.

Bet on the future –
people of color, Black women.
Bet on the future –
traveling, talking,
certain.
Bet on a future that understands
wanting something for yourself.
Bet on the future.


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

The Exceptional

Today is my wonderful niece’s birthday. Because she’s an April baby, I’ve been writing birthday poems for her for several years now. I thought I might have trouble doing that this year — how would I find something in the news that would let me ramble on about how fab my delightful god-daughter is? Well, thanks to Jezebel and Cardi B, I was able to set my worry aside. This poem would need some beyond-the-source-text words to do the things I wanted it to do, but I’m still pleased that I was able to make it work, able to extend my streak of niece poems one more year.

The Exceptional
(An erasure of a review of Cardi B’s album.)

Love, passion,
barbed yet fine.
Highly self-aware,
her wildest, most rancorous emotions
as a means of ascension.
Swaggering persona,
powerful, celebratory, cocky, free.
A glorious, uninhibited style,
original, contentious, true,
galvanizing, hypnotic.
She was worth the wait.
Her aesthetic designed
for authentic finesse.
The balance is proof,
a testament to her currency.
She is fun, perfectly charming,
an evolved reality,
an ambitious woman.


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

Out like a … ram.

It’s the 31st of March, birthday of my wonderful Aries sister, Fox (Aries, the ram, hence this post’s title). She is my best-beloved, baby sister, my forever best friend, my voice-of-reason sounding board, and my cheering section. I have known her for her whole life and all but a short five and a half years of mine.

We don’t live close, which is still hard for me despite the fact that it’s been true for more than 20 years. She is always a call, email, or text away, but it’s not the same as having her in the next room. Not the same as meeting her early-early on Saturday mornings for a long walk in Prospect Park. Not the same as going with her to parties and concerts. Alas.

But we’re together for this weekend, and that’s all the way fantastic! We have laughed and shared stories and silliness, and we have a whole other day together tomorrow. So happy birthday to one of my most favorite people in the multiverse!!


It’s the final day of the 11th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge over at Two Writing Teachers! As the badge below proclaims, I am an original slicer. This challenge and my blog started the same year. My first blog post was January 28, 2008, and somehow I found Two Writing Teachers in time to sign on for Slice of Life only a few weeks later. And for all the time I don’t spend posting here during the year, I always come back for March. Always. Hope to see the slicing community grow even larger next year!

Sitting alone, writing together.

Last night I had a writing date — just me and a friend, a few minutes for checking in and catching up and then each of us working on her own stuff, just writing in company.

It’s a thing I like to do, a thing I need to do. I’ve written about it before, about how much I like writing in company. And I am lucky because I have a lot of friends with whom I can make writing dates. I don’t make that many, however, so I still need to work on that.

What was special about last night’s writing date? My writing companion … was in LA! We met on Google Hangouts and spent a few hours together. I’d never done a virtual writing meetup before, but when she suggested it, I was all for giving it a try.

And it worked really well. I stayed focused on my work instead of letting myself be distracted by FB and Netflix and my eternal desire to just go to sleep. I stayed focused on my work instead of swanning around the house moaning about how I’m too tired to get anything done, I just got stuff done. Funny how that can be possible.

 

Now that I’ve tried it, I’m definitely up for trying it again. It opens the door for me being able to write with friends who are … ANYWHERE! Who wants to get some work done with me?


It’s the annual Slice of Life Story Challenge over at Two Writing Teachers! With hundreds of folks participating, there’s more than a little something for everyone … and plenty of room for you to join in!