Backsliding toward Bethlehem

I grew up quiet. I was docile, compliant, held my tongue when I should have spoken. This isn’t a thing to be proud of, and I’m not proud of it. I should have spoken the first time a man flashed me. I was eight. I should have spoken the first time a boy tried to pressure me into letting him touch me. I was nine. But I was a “good girl,” a seen-but-not-heard girl. So I stayed quiet.

Eventually—though not for many too many years—I realized that staying quiet is a form of self harm, that silence can equal death.

Writing ended my silence. When I started blogging ten years ago, I started posting things I didn’t say out loud, started telling stories I hadn’t told: the first time I was called a nigger, the night I was raped, the acceptance of my inability to have children. And when I wrote, people read. And I found I had more things to say. And more people read … and more and more, reading and reading and reading. Silence stopped being my default position. It became, instead, an occasional choice, a choice made to serve my needs, not anyone else’s.

In recent years, I have been anything but silent. My pain and rage have been loud and sustained. The steady drumbeat of devaluation and death that has been the storyline of Black and Brown communities calls up my voice again and again and again, has spilled across pages and pages, come to mic-ed spaces like this one to spill over audiences like you.


When I looked up “backslide,” I was surprised to have page after page of religious websites come up in the search results. At first I ignored them because nothing I think about when I think about backsliding has anything to do with religion.

I searched again. I was looking for something that might steer me away from the negative definition of the word that was dominating my writing. All my searches came up religious. Finally, I gave in and clicked the first site, “Ask a Minister” (seriously). And what to my wondering eyes should appear but definitions of backsliding that resonated more powerfully than the standard, “relapsing into bad ways or error.” Ask a Minister gave me:

Refuse to harken
Pull away

Suddenly backsliding looked like a badge of honor, something to which I could and should aspire. Biblically, of course, it’s all bad—backsliders were folks who “refused to harken” to religious rules, to the word of God. Okay, fine. But is that always necessarily a bad thing? Questioning authority—speaking up instead of keeping silent—can be exactly right, exactly the thing that saves your life.

And there it was—the memory of quiet, go-along-to-get-along me, and the memory of all the ways the stress and damage of my silence manifested in my health, in my bad relationships, in my fear of embracing my anger.

But no more. I have become a proud backslider. I have—to paraphrase my favorite of the “Ask a Minister” bits—refused to harken and turned a backsliding shoulder and made my ears heavy that they should not hear.

One. Hundred. Percent.


I was born on a Tuesday, and I used to like thinking about that old poem: Monday’s child is fair of face, Tuesday’s child is full of grace …  I liked thinking that I might ever be seen as even the least bit graceful. And somehow my silence was part of that.

When I mentioned this to a friend, she sent me the biblical definition of grace: the free and unmerited favor of God, as manifested in the salvation of sinners and the bestowal of blessings. I do tend to think of myself as the recipient of the free (and generally unmerited) favor of God, so perhaps I’ve achieved gracefulness after all. This graceful backsliding is such a relief. Freedom, finally, to just be my own authentic, un-quiet, angry, rebellious, refusing-to-harken self.

This piece was written for the July 24th Big Words, Etc. reading, the theme for which was “Backslide.”

The plan for 2017 was to be on my #GriotGrind, to write an essay a week … except I’m MONTHS behind! I’m determined to, somehow, catch up, to write 52 essays by year’s end.
I’m following Vanessa Mártir‘s lead, she launched #52essays2017 after writing an essay a week in 2016 … and then deciding to keep going.

Roadblocks — SOLSC 2

Yesterday I posted my homework assignment from the comics class I’m taking. I mentioned that a) I haven’t drawn any comics in over a year and b) that I want to use Adobe Illustrator for my comics because it can make them look about 450,000 times better. Here’s a comic I drew with Illustrator:

bridge image

I drew this to include in a presentation I gave for work. (What, you didn’t know I was sufficiently vain to draw pictures of myself and include them in a presentation? Oh. Well, yeah, I am definitely that vain.) I love how not hand-drawn that image is, even though it’s created from a drawing. Once I started playing with Illustrator, I realized that I could make my comics look “real.”


Yeah, what’s that when it’s home?

I surprised myself yesterday when I wrote that I hadn’t been drawing anything in over a year. Before saying it in my post, I had somehow not noticed that I’d stopped drawing. And at first I thought the setting aside of my pencil coincided exactly with the start of my discovery of Illustrator.

What Illustrator can do is great. I love the polish of that image. Clearly drawn by a human, not a robot, but it’s … well … real. I guess what I mean when I say “real” is more like “professional.”

Hmm … Okay. I’ll come back to that in a minute.

My discovery of Illustrator will give my comics a much broader range. One of the new scripts I’ve written is about the song “Dixie.” My ideas for the images in that story are, in many places, well beyond my capacity as an artist. If I didn’t know anything about Illustrator, I never would have imagined those panels. But because I’ve had a taste of what that tool can do, I can dream up things I couldn’t in the past.

And that can only be a good thing. That can only be a thing that will make my comics better, help me express all the things I’m trying to put out in the world.

And let’s be clear: using Illustrator doesn’t mean I don’t need to draw. I’m sure there are plenty of folks who can draw freehand in Illustrator. Not me. Not even close. I will still need to draw my panels and then trace, enhance, and polish them with Illustrator.

Let’s go back to that “professional” comment. When I saw what I could do with the help of Adobe I saw my drawings as less, as not good enough. That “professional” image made me see all the flaws in my line drawings, as did creating that image from my drawing. Seeing my skills as so lacking could definitely have shut me down, at least for a bit.

But then I would have had to remember that I need my drawings as the first step to get to the polished piece. So I should have gotten out of my way and started drawing again. Should, in fact, be drawing like crazy, given the size and scope of the scripts I’m writing now. So clearly learning Illustrator isn’t really the reason I stopped drawing.

No. And, when I started to think about it, I realized that I stopped drawing more like two years ago. How did that happen?

There’s the aforementioned size and scope of these new scripts. When I went to VONA in 2014, I arrived thinking I was working on a graphic memoir, a collection of anecdotes about ways racism has reared its head in my life. Yes, there were a lot of anecdotes — in my first outline of the project, I think there were a couple dozen — but all were relatively brief in the telling (shocking for me, I know). The longest one was six pages.

Then I got to Berkeley, walked into Mat’s  workshop and had my mind blown.

The brevity of my comics? Due in large part to my insistence on cramming several panels worth of story into one panel. I was going to need to expand. Dramatically.

And then the casual-sounding pronouncement from Mat that my comic wasn’t a memoir at all, but a set of graphic essays about race.


Well that certainly explained my growing frustration with the constraints of my anecdotes. There were so many places where I wanted to step out of the anecdote and talk about a larger question raised or answered by the story, but there didn’t seem to be a way to do that and still be writing memoir.

I came home from VONA and took the usual few months to process the enormity of the experience … and then a few more months … and then a few more. Yes, wrapped up in there was looking for work, getting a new job, and finding my way in it, but there was mostly the yawning maw of uncertainty: how, exactly, did one write a graphic essay? How, exactly, was I supposed to do it?

And then I finally started to figure it out, started writing scripts, started thinking I had a handle on how I could make the form work with me. That felt great … and that was the moment when I learned Illustrator and turned away from my pencil for another year.


How annoying I am. I discover this thing that I am able to do, that I really like doing … and then I poke and prod myself into believing that I can’t do it, that what I can do just doesn’t measure up.

Enough! So grateful that this class has poked and prodded me back in the other direction, has forced me to take out my pencil and get back to work. The class runs as long as the slicing challenge, so don’t be surprised if a bunch of my slices have to do with that work.

Do you throw up obstacles between yourself and things you want to be doing, things you enjoy doing? What helps you see that you’re the one blocking your path, and how do you get past those barriers?


It’s Slice of Life time! Head over to Two Writing Teachers to see what the rest of the slicers are up to … and to post the link to your own slice!

SOL image 2014

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.

* 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.

Gratitude and Grievances

Thanksgiving isn’t usually a struggle for me. Even at my lowest, I always feel gratitude for certain things. And I am grateful for them now. Grateful that I can have a delicious meal with my family, to celebrate the day and each other.

I give thanks for my born-into family, who love me all the time, even though I am so different from them, even though I’m strange, even though I cry a lot and keep a messy house, and sometimes forget to pay my bills on time. I give thanks for my family’s love of books and learning, for all of our houses full of books, for all of our trips to the library, for the understanding that worlds can be put into words and are meant to be discovered and savored.

I give thanks for my friends, who have stood up for me, stood up with me, stood beside me, and who also love me all the time. I give particular thanks to my writer friends, my musician and artist friends, who get that part of me and encourage and push me with their confidence in my work and the example they give me of their own work. I am grateful for having discovered VONA, having found a warm, comfortable home for my big, sappy heart, for finding the power to call myself a writer, for the way VONA gives me life.

There’s more. Of course. I am lucky enough that there are always things in my life to be grateful for. But this is 2014, and gratitude can’t be the magic elixir that gets me through. Not today.

I could say that I’m grateful I’ve never been stopped and frisked. I’m certainly grateful my brother and nephew are alive and safe. But what is also true is that I am sick in my heart, that I can’t set aside my pain and anger simply to enjoy my sister-in-law’s amazing mashed potatoes.

And so here I am. With all my Black, all my fat, all my nappy hair, all my being so articulate, all my speaking before I’m spoken to. I said I was going to be the truth of the Angry Black Woman, so I’m starting a list of things that are pissing me off.

1. I am angry that the system in power in this country works on a daily basis to hold me back, hold me down, devalue, dehumanize and disappear me. Every time a black life is cut short, my life is cut short. Every time a black girl or woman goes missing, a piece of me goes missing. Every time one of these outrages happens and there is no broad-based energy behind solving the crime or prosecuting the culprits, some of my teeth are kicked in, some of me is erased. The decision to dismiss manslaughter charges against Detroit cop Joseph Weekley for shooting 7-year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones to death as she slept is a letter-bomb from this country saying, “We don’t care about your babies. We don’t care if you are innocent or guilty. We don’t care if we’ve broken into the wrong house. We don’t care if you pose a threat or if you are sleeping on the couch. We only care about adding to the tally. One more of you out of our way.”

It’s the truth I’ve pointed to before, the truth of Rage Against the Machine’s lyric:

Three million gone
Come on
Cause you know they’re counting backward to zero.

2. I am angry that when I talk about my anger, my grief, my frustration, there is always and always someone ready to slap me down:

“But terrible things happen to everyone. You can’t make everything about race.”

“How can you say there’s still racism? We have a Black president.”

“When you talk about race, you’re the one perpetuating the racial divide.”

“Not everything is racist. We need to stand together and not apart.”

I’ll just take that last one as an example. When you tell me we need to stand together, I agree. I want you to come stand over here next to me, to be an ally. But that isn’t what you mean. You want me to put away my little racism nonsense and go stand by you. Why does standing together have to mean forgetting everything I know, everything that’s been done to me, everything I’ve seen and take your position? If I am talking about something that is true for me as a Black person, about something I have seen to be true for many, many other Black people, why are you so comfortable telling me I’m mistaken, telling me I need to ignore my evidence and embrace your fairy tale?

If you really believe #AllLivesMatter, prove that to me by caring about mine and the lives of people who look like me. I can’t pretend any interest in your, “We’re all one, kumbaya” claptrap if you can’t shut up long enough to listen to my experience, to acknowledge and accept that my life may have played out differently than yours, that what I feel when I see a police officer walking toward me may be completely different from what you feel even though my life has been as crime-free and upright-citizen-y as yours.

3. I am angry that when I talk about race, there is always someone ready to share a video or quote from some random Black person (or not so random … I see you Bill Cosby, Allen West) talking about how we need to pull our pants up and get over this business because it’s 150 years since slavery, and weren’t none of us slaves, so STFU.

Right. Right.

First, let’s be clear. It’s not even 50 years since the last public lynching. And only three months since a man in Mississippi was shot after calling in a burning cross in his yard. Talk to me about how it’s all in the past. Talk. I’m listening. I’m listening as I compile my personal catalog of experiences with racism, as I compile the Library of Congress-sized catalog of other black folks’ experiences from the last decade alone. Talk to me. Then STFU.

Yes, there will always be Black people ready to sing the song you want to hear (I see you, too, Don Lemon … and still seeing you, Messrs. Cosby and West). Always. They need to sing that song. Need to. It helps them validate themselves, gives them the false comfort and security of believing that the more closely they align themselves with you, the more they will be you, be able to claim the privileges you are afforded. So yes, there will always be Black people who will sing that song. But there will always be more of us who won’t, who will deconstruct that song chord by treble clef by measure by grace note.

4. I am angry because I’m not allowed to be angry. Ever. If I raise my voice, if I ask a clarifying question, if I make a sternly-worded request after you’ve been ignoring me at the deli counter … I’m told to calm down, and told fearfully as if I’m out of control and half a second from combustion.

Well, guess what? I am half a second from combustion. Maybe only a nanosecond. And sometimes I may come to you after I’ve already hit critical mass. You know what you have to do then? Deal with it. Deal with me. Get over yourself and out of your (or my) way. Yes, I may be angry, and maybe I’m angry at you. The world won’t implode. Anger isn’t a crime.

Anger is natural. It’s healthy. And — to look once again to Rage Against the Machine — it’s a gift. A gift that is fueling this change in my stance, my choice of how I will position myself in this world, my willingness to accept or not the ways people decide to come to me. I am not walking around spitting in anyone’s face or slapping random strangers (this is still me we’re talking about, and can you imagine?). And I’m not actively at my boiling point every moment of every day. But neither am I shying away from or forcing down my anger, smoothing my edges to be accommodating, biting my tongue when folks need to be told to take a seat. When I get angry, I will be angry, and I will let it inspire me to move forward, to keep pushing. When I get angry with you, I will tell you. I will also be open for conversation about whatever has angered me. But when I say I’m open for conversation, I will not mean that I’m open to you taking on any of the troll roles that are filling up my soon-to-be-blocked FB feed. Taking that option will just make things worse.


This is just the current, knife-blade edge of my anger iceberg. I have so much to be angry about. You have no idea. None.

Open letter to folks who knew me when.

It’s 2014. The last tired days of 2014. I am no longer that soft, biddable girl you knew. I am no longer willing to go along to get along. I will no longer laugh if, when I’m at the water fountain, you tell me I can’t drink there because it’s whites only. I will no longer bite my tongue when you tell me Mick Jagger would be better looking without his nasty nigger lips. I will no longer bow my head at your command as if I owe you the freedom to touch my hair. I will no longer waste my breath educating you when you ask me why, if I wash regularly, my skin is still so dark.

It’s 2014. It’s 2014, and we are all grown up now. And I have grown into a woman who speaks when she has words, who believes in the value of that speech and refuses to clog her throat choking down all the things she’d like to say. I have grown into a woman who won’t let her voice be taken. I will say what is in my mind, what is in my heart, what is burning through the lining of my stomach after so many years of holding my tongue to make nice.

It’s 2014, and I am tired. More tired than 52 years warrants, tired like almost 400 years of rape and murder, like 400 years of holding my tongue, swallowing my truth, waiting my turn, waiting for the society I live in to finally-and-for-all accept that I am here, that I am who this history has made me and who I have made myself, that I am worthy, that I can think, that I have a heart full of love, that I am beautiful, that I’m not going anywhere.

It’s 2014, and I am not going anywhere. I won’t be put down, I won’t be made small. I will take up every inch of the space that I need. And then I will take the inches and feet and miles of space that I want.

Michael Brown is dead, and I can’t change that. Darren Wilson will never have to pay for killing Michael Brown, and I can’t change that. But I can honor Michael Brown, I can honor Tarika Wilson, Eric Garner, Eleanor Bumpurs, Ramarley Graham, John Crawford III, Tamir Rice, Kimani Gray, Oscar Grant, Yvette Smith, Sean Bell, Amadou Diallo. I can honor all of those lost by being here, by opening my mouth, by saying their names, by remembering, by taking up space, by being the truth of the Angry Black Woman. Because I am angry, angrier than I am tired, angrier than I am sad. I am angry, and you don’t know me angry. You only know my smile, my shyness, my willingness to let you be right, to let you go first.

It’s 2014, and that girl doesn’t live here anymore.