The Trouble with Columbus

Still playing catch-up, posting things I’ve written over the last few weeks but couldn’t post because of my internet-less home. I’m mobile hotspotting it tonight, so I’m taking advantage and trying to catch up with my essay count for the year. This essay is one I wrote after a trip back to Crown Heights near the end of January. I went to see my old landlords and collect the last of my things from the old apartment.


I know a fair amount of white people. And I like and even love a sizable subset of those people. They are coworkers, friends, made family. They are people I would trust — have trusted — with my health, my safety. They are people I’ve turned to for emotional and financial support. When I say, “some of my best friends are white,” it makes me laugh, but it’s also true.

But white people — the monolithic grindstone that is white people — break my heart daily, enrage me daily. white people force me, daily, to wonder how it is I am able to maintain relationships with any of their number.

I spent my Saturday in Crown Heights, my old neighborhood, the community I left a few weeks ago. The particular part of Crown Heights where I lived is one of the places in the city that has gentrified at breakneck speed. In the ten years I was there, the rapid-fire turnover of residents from mostly Black to more and more and more white was shocking and distressing to watch. When my landlords told me in the fall that I’d have to move, I knew that staying in the area would be a near impossibility.

Because, of course, with white people come higher and higher rents. And in my ten years of tenancy, rents had raced to dizzying highs well beyond what I was paying for my gorgeous, large, storage-rich apartment with washer and dryer and back garden.

And when I looked at apartments in the neighborhood in my price range they were a) half the size of my place (or smaller), b) badly kept up and clearly not as livable as my place, c) devoid of closets or cooking space or both, d) cut into strange shapes to carve as many apartments out of a formerly single-family home as possible, or e) all or a combination of the above. So it’s no surprise that my new apartment is not in Crown Heights.

Walking around the neighborhood on Saturday, I passed the new Nagle’s Bagels on Nostrand and Dean, saw an even newer Tribeca Pediatrics office on Nostrand and Bergen. There’s a lot of new on and around Nostrand — cute bars, over-priced sandwich shops, gourmet markets.

There are still plenty of Black businesses in the neighborhood, still plenty of Black folks in the neighborhood, but for how long? How many of those businesses will be able to meet the rent demands of landlords who want to cash in on the neighborhood’s new, white popularity? How many of those Black residents, like me, will be pushed out when the need to move arises and the rents around them are so much higher than they’ve been paying that they can’t afford to stay?

There are a lot of reasons why neighborhoods gentrify. Crown Heights was surely an easy target because it has amazing housing stock and it’s beautiful: well-kept brownstones, ornate apartment buildings with courtyards and gardens, small pretty parks, close to major subway lines. And the bonuses: a good number of older homeowners looking to leave the city who don’t have family to come and take on a large home in Brooklyn, and a lot of lower-middle income and low-income renters who could be swapped out for folks able to pay more.

I’m not surprised that white people started moving to Crown Heights. I just question why white people have to live everywhere. Yes, a neighborhood may be nice. Does that mean it needs to be overtaken by white folks? There are plenty of nice neighborhoods that are already full of white folks. Yes, they’re more costly than the majority brown and Black communities, but that makes sense as Black and brown folks, on average, earn far less and therefore have less money than white folks.

Can we just live? Can we just have nice neighborhoods in which we can continue to live and thrive? Why do white people have to live every-damn-where? Why do brown and Black folks have to be pushed out of every place we’ve called home?

My old neighborhood is beautiful … because the Black folks who’ve lived there for decades made it beautiful, kept it beautiful, valued living in a beautiful community. No one was feeling house-proud with the hope that one day white people would move in and make the neighborhood “worth” something. The neighborhood was already worth something. It was home. And it was lovely.

Yes, I sound bitter. I am bitter. Gentrification has driven me out of nearly every neighborhood I’ve lived in since moving to New York 30 years ago.

I am lucky. I know that. I am lucky because a) I make a decent salary and b) I have only myself to take care of. Yes, I have my mountain of baby-making debt, but even with that, I am able to have some options when it comes to choosing where I live. But even though I am lucky, my options were still too slim to enable me to stay in Crown Heights or any of the neighborhoods that came before Crown Heights: Cobble Hill, Park Slope, Prospect Heights, Clinton Hill, Fort Greene. I am lucky, and still the white tide has once again swept me out of my home. How much worse is this situation for people with children, for people with lower salaries than mine?

I am still lucky. I was able to move into a majority-brown neighborhood. My rent is higher than what I was paying, but I will be able to make it work (please God!). I am further away from some of the comforts I’d grown accustomed to — a good grocery store, for one. But I have a beautiful apartment that already makes me happy and into which I am (slowly) unpacking and settling. I am lucky.

But for how long? Gentrification has already begun here — which is why my rent is so high. There are already plenty of white folks living here, and it’s surely only a matter of time before a Connecticut Muffin opens somewhere nearby, ringing the death knell for my tenure here.

And I just have to ask why, white people, why? Why can’t you leave some parts of the city alone, leave them for the folks you’ve already priced out of the rest of the city? Why do you have to live everywhere?

 

As I do for so many things, I blame Columbus, the first gentrifier, the man I hold responsible for planting the idea that white folks get to claim whatever land they see if they like it. Never mind that someone else is living there. Never mind that someone else has cultivated that land and made it a desirable spot. If white folks see something they covet, they simply claim it. And to hell with anyone else and their pre-existing claim.

The trouble with Columbus is that white folks have never stopped being Columbus. And the structures at the foundation of this society, the structures that continue to be strengthened every day, ensure that there will always be white folks with the means to Columbus whatever they covet, ensure that it will always be difficult if not impossible for someone like me to hold her ground. I have no ground, nothing to hold. I live wherever I live at the pleasure of white people. The moment they begin to covet what I have, I’ll have to be looking for the next place because I don’t have any ability to compete.

There was a moment in the late 90s when I was maybe in a position to buy an apartment. I didn’t know enough about money, credit, or real estate to recognize that moment, however, and it passed. Without my fertility debt, I’d be in a position to buy something now, but that’s not where I am, and this could be the last moment or one of the last. And realizing that makes me feel even more strongly the fetid, Columbusing breath of gentrification on the back of my neck. Makes Arrested Development’s lyrics play that much more loudly in the back of my head.

Got land to stand on, then you can stand up
stand up for your rights — as a woman, as a man.
Man, oh man, my choices expand
ain’t got me no money, but I got me some land.

Got some land to stand on
no more achin’ for the acres
no beggin’ for leftovers
got some space of my own.
Got some grounds to raise on
no more achin’ for the acres
no givin’ to the takers
got some land to leave on.


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.

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Happy, Nappy, Proud

Today’s feature on Wendy Angulo Productions’ Lifting the Burden of Shame series is my essay, “Happy, Nappy, Proud.” And I’m super proud of that!

I learned some things about myself in writing this essay. Thinking about shame pushing open a door in my thinking, and I’ve continued to explore what’s been locked away in that room. Will be interesting to see what new understanding comes from that exploration/excavation.

Losing Ground

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Right. On whose dime?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

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

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

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

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

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

*

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

 

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

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

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


For 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I fell months behind on my #GriotGrind, and it seemed highly unlikely that I’d write 52 essays by year’s end. But then I dedicated my NaNoWriMo to writing essays, and did a pretty good job of catching up! I’ve got to move house before the end of December, so I’m unlikely to reach 52 essays. Still, I’ve written more this year than in the last two combined, and that adds up to a solid WIN in my book! Get ready for #52essays2018!

Cultural Awareness as Deflector Shield

I adored my auntie. I am, as it happens, an auntie my own self, a role I absolutely adore filling. Yet still, there is my absolute distaste at hearing white folks use this term in relation to Representative Maxine Waters.

Since my essay about Maxine Waters was published last month, I’ve been thinking about the most popular, annoying reactions I’ve seen. A lot of people on a lot of different threads had a response similar to one of these:

“Oh, in my family, we call all older women and men “aunt” or “uncle” as a sign of respect, even if they aren’t related to us.”

“Oh, in the [fill in your not continental American cultural background here] culture, the term is used to show respect.”

“Oh, that seems like an American thing. In my country it’s totally different.”

“Oh, my students from [name any other country in the world] call me “auntie” all the time, and they mean it respectfully. I like it.”

“Oh, you can’t assume everyone has the same understanding of that term as you do.”

“Oh, if you tell people not to say “auntie” you could be hurting their feelings because it means something else in their culture.”

Did you notice a pattern? I saw the same thing happen over and over. The moment one person posted one of these “what about this other culture” comments, there are suddenly a bunch of replies from other people talking about the traditions of other countries and cultures and how interesting the similarities or differences are … and suddenly we’re having a whole other conversation that has nothing to do with what I was writing about.

Feh.

On almost all these threads, someone eventually stepped in–and then stepped in when it happened again and then again … because of course–and pointed out that these discussions were missing the point. And some of the Cultural Awareness people were able to hear and understand that. Others really struggled with it. Hard.

And I’m feeling the need to shine my light on why seeing that “other culture” conversation kept springing up drove me nuts.

People seemed to want to be sure everyone understood that “auntie” doesn’t have a negative connotation round their way. Fine. But you know what? The word doesn’t have a negative connotation right here, in the States. It is a term of love and respect, a term used for elders we care about, whether they’re in our families or not. Same meaning and use as in whatever other culture you heard about or studied or lived in during your gap year or whatever. Same.

That’s the point.

The term has always been familial, has always been used to show love and respect. Subverting that meaning and use of the term was surely one of the reasons the term was chosen for this distinctly American, disrespectful use. My essay draws that line, specifically states that using “Auntie” was a way for polite-seeming white people to speak impolitely to Black women, it allowed them to sugar-coat their disdain, their insult, their race prejudice with a kind-seeming honorific. They subverted “Auntie,” made it ugly.

So, if you read the essay, it should have been easy to see that there was no need to call out the traditions in other countries. None at all. And yet there were all those comments, again and again and again.

Here, I’ll insert the other, somewhat-related comment I also saw quite a bit:

“Oh, I’ve never heard this use before so when I say it I am, obviously, not using it that way, so there’s no problem.”

It’s easy for me to believe people wouldn’t have been aware that they were hearing “auntie” used in a demeaning way, but they’ve surely heard the term used for Black women–because, hello, they must absolutely have heard of Aunt Jemima. But even if you never knew there was some nasty history attached to “Auntie,” I’m telling you that there is, I’m telling you exactly what that nasty history is. So yes, you could have called Rep. Waters “Auntie” before you learned the backstory, but now that you know the backstory, why would you still want to use the word? If I’m saying I feel a way hearing that word in your mouth, why would you still want to use that word?

To get back to everyone else, making the case for using the term today because it’s used respectfully in another culture is just as insulting. In some ways, it’s actually more insulting. If I tell you there is a very specific use of the term that is particular a) to this country and b) to white people and Black women, and if I tell you that hearing white people in 2017 refer to a Black woman using this term makes me feel a way … one thing I’m not asking is for a cultural awareness lesson so that I can learn how other peoples use that word and why I shouldn’t only associate it with negative ideas. And by telling me all of that, you are letting me know either that you missed the point of my essay entirely, or you are intentionally harping on this side point to move the conversation away from racism.

Guess which one I think you’re doing.

I’m sure it’s uncomfortable to hear about the tools of racism and to learn that you’ve been using one of them when you didn’t realize it. And I imagine it’s much easier and far more comfortable to deflect, to resist the focus on something ugly and wax poetic about an alternative story that makes you feel better.

I get all of that. I’m not here for it.

I’m always talking about how white folks need to step up and do their work. Feeling uncomfortable? That’s part of the work. White people need to “suffer” through the few moments of feeling Ill at ease and hear what’s being said. My essay wasn’t an attack or an accusation. It was me letting people know how I hear the word “Auntie” when white folks use it in reference to Rep. Waters. It was a request that white folks stop using the term. It was an opportunity for folks (maybe primarily white folks) to learn something about this country’s history–because I decided to trust that people really mightn’t know about that bit of ugliness in our national past. And it was an opportunity for white people–once they learned about the derogatory use of “auntie”–to make the decision not to continue saying something that could be hurtful.

I’m going to extend my benefit of the doubt a little further and say it’s likely that most of the people talking about the ways other cultures around the world use “Auntie” aren’t fully aware that they are trying to change the subject and turn the conversation away from the sticky discomfort of talking about racism. I’m being this generous because I know that many of the ways white folks deflect to insulate themselves from having to deal with racism are unconscious.

Let’s forget racism for a minute. Suppose you were in a meeting that included a person who smacked you really hard across the head every time you saw them. You decide to say something about this awful smacking crap, and you hope that saying it in the group will finally get this person to stop because the group will rally around you and condemn that violent behavior.

You say, “You know, I have to tell you that it’s really painful and enraging when you smack me in the head.” And that person nods and says, “Oh my God, have you ever noticed how 2-year-olds can be slap-fighting one minute and then kissing like crazy the next?”

And, before you can point out that this has.not one thing to do with your point, someone else says, “Oh, my partner always gives me a little slap on the shoulder when she walks up to me. We call them ‘love taps,’ and I really like it.”

“Oh, my partner and I have love taps, too!” another group member says. “I thought that was just our little thing. How funny that you have that, too!”

And suddenly everyone is talking about love taps and the boy who pulled their hair on the playground in kindergarten who proposed after college … and the issue of you being assaulted by your colleague has been disappeared.

Frustrating as hell, isn’t it? Frustrating as hell.

To be most clear: the sidelining of my point about white people and “Auntie” is like this disappearing of calling out your colleague’s violence.

Does it seem like a lot to ask white folks to change their behavior, to sit down and listen when someone tells them something they’re doing is hurtful, silencing, derailing? It shouldn’t be, but clearly, it is a lot to ask … and the truth of that is maddening.

Yes, this is another one of those moments when I say a whole lot of stuff and then just say, “I’m tired. Beat to my fucking socks.” Because … yeah.

I’m glad a lot of people read my essay–more people than have ever read anything else I’ve ever written. That’s a wonderful thing. I just wish more of them had allowed themselves to actually hear what I had to say.


For 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I fell months behind on my #GriotGrind, and it seemed highly unlikely that I’d write 52 essays by year’s end. But then I dedicated my NaNoWriMo to writing essays, and did a pretty good job of catching up! I’ve got to move house before the end of December, so I’m unlikely to reach 52 essays. Still, I’ve written more this year than in the last two combined, and that adds up to a solid WIN in my book! Get ready for #52essays2018!

The Well-Meaning White Chick

I’ve gotten a lot of responses to the piece I wrote about Maxine Waters. Most have been positive and thought-provoking. And then there have been others …

“Well but it’s very confusing. Because I read this piece and understood it but then today received a fundraising email from the Great Woman herself calling herself Auntie Maxine. Personally I don’t call her that, but it creates confusion in the well-meaning white chick.”

Does anyone remember SodaHead? (No? You can check out Urban Dictionary’s description of the site. It’s exaggerated, but that’s not to say it’s inaccurate …) There was a minute years and years ago when several of my coworkers were obsessed with SodaHead. They talked about the fires they’d start with the mildest bits of push-back on someone’s statement. They talked about how ridiculous and rabid the people on their threads were. I joined for a heartbeat to see for myself. What I saw was exactly as my coworkers had described. I was still surprised—by the level of vitriol, by how quickly and with how little provocation people went on the attack. The most common goals for members seemed to be a) piss off any and everyone who disagreed or just seemed as if they might possibly be disagreeing with your position, b) use circular reasoning and non-sequiturs because you have no real arguments or don’t feel like bothering to do the work to come up with a real argument. After reading for a few days, I dove in. I had this idea that I would mess with everyone’s minds by refusing to fight, by insisting on fostering calm, rational, sane discussion no matter who said what idiotic business to me. It was an interesting exercise, but I tired of it quickly. I don’t think I lasted a full month. There was far too much willingness on the part of other users to say idiotic business. It was exhausting.

That SodaHead exercise turned out to be great practice for the moment we’re in as a country (as a world?) and the way I find myself talking on FB these days. Yes, I can be counted on for a fair amount of snark and some basic, awkwardly-self-conscious clapbacks, but mostly I try to engage, even when people are saying outrageously stupid or triggering things.

When I read that “white chick” comment, I froze for a second. I mean, I’ve been answering all kinds of comments for years now. I’m pretty good at maintaining my calm, trying to leave room for some benefit of the doubt, whatever. But that comment … That comment, with its “well-meaning white chick,” really stopped me, and when I started picking apart what bugged me about it, I remembered the exchanges on SodaHead that I found most troubling.

My most heated SodaHead conversations were about race—which I’m sure is entirely surprising to you, dear reader. There would always be someone who’d insist on shouldering their way into a conversation with a pissy rant about how none of this racism/white supremacy/white privilege stuff had anything to do with them because their people came over from Poland after the second World War and were treated like shit and never owned slaves and pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and why were we still talking about this ancient history because really Black people needed to just get over our mess already.

Whoosah!

Yeah, those comments were always the best tests of my ability to keep my calm-response experiment going. It doesn’t matter how many times some jackass throws that crap into a conversation, my temper immediately reaches critical mass and it’s all I can do to hold back the thermonuclear meltdown. But I started to get good at it during the couple of weeks I spent on SodaHead. I think SodaHead—coupled with many years of teaching—was exactly the preparation I needed to be ready for the kinds of volatile discussions I find myself in these days.

In the end with this woman’s comment, I chose to respond to the “it’s very confusing” part and ignore the “white chick” part. That allowed me to keep my blood pressure in check.

Yes, I could have called on the SodaHead practice I got all those years ago, but my experiment of playing the calm, rational conversationalist was over. Who I am in discussions on race has changed considerably since those days. Since the beginning of the Movement for Black Lives, I’ve granted less emotional and intellectual time and space to people who can’t meet me halfway. Between the killing of Michael Brown on August 9th, 2014 and the refusal, on December 3rd, 2014, to charge Officer Daniel Pantaleo with murder for choking Eric Garner to death, I began to embrace my rage, to stop stuffing it down and hiding it from polite company. That fall, I declared that I would no longer entertain foolishness (see my lists of grievances and demands for some clarification—they’re incomplete, but they’ll give you an idea). There just isn’t time, and I don’t have the energy. What had seemed amusing on SodaHead had become soul-sucking. So I responded to the part of that comment I felt like addressing, and left the rest. Someone else on the thread stepped in and had what to say about the “white chick” part, and that was perfectly fine with me.

So what was my problem, anyway? Was it really all that problematic for to say “the well-meaning white chick”? Isn’t that pretty innocuous, all things considered? Ugh. Guess again. That was a huge red flag for me. Reading that, I felt as if she was trying to shut me down, put me in my place, cut off my response before I had a chance to open my mouth. That sweet little signifier read like an aggressively-loud proclamation. She may as well have said: “Just so you know, I’m one of the good white people, so you’ll look like a bitch—and maybe like an Angry Black Woman—if you come for me. Also? I’m just a little white girl. I’m always innocent, so you know I mean no harm!” (As if white girls haven’t been the cause of so MUCH harm in the lives of Black folks. As if I owe her some special courtesy simply because she claims to be a good white person. Feh.)

Perhaps my being triggered by this woman’s nonsense says a whole lot more about me than it does about her, but I definitely felt a way. That kind of cutesy, dog-whistle-rich disclaimer pisses me right off. The same way “not to be racist, but …” lets you know the speaker is about to say something 100% racist, calling yourself “the well-meaning white chick” tells me you’re about to say something racially problematic, but you want your tender, white-girl feelings to be respected even as you flounce all over my coarse Black-girl feelings.

Other women on the thread came and collected that well-meaning white chick—and I’m just now realizing that it was all women, despite there being plenty of men in that group, and that makes me wonder where the men have been hiding. To be more exact, other women in the group tried to collect that woman. She really wasn’t interested in listening to anyone. Here’s the hissy fit she spit back at folks just before disappearing herself from the group:

“This isn’t about me and my fragility – I can take all you have to dish out and more.  And your misplaced anger will not deter me from doing what I do every single day to try to make this world better for everyone of every race.  Really the only point I was trying to make was this: it’s hard.  Many of us are trying.  I understand that intent isn’t enough, but maybe good intent earns a reaction a step down from utter contempt and nastiness.  I get that POC are angry and that they have every right to be and more.  But when people are really trying, perhaps it’s best not to shame.  Now go ahead and have at me, because I’ll be spending my time today trying to get Virginians and North Carolinans to vote people of color into office.”

That last line couldn’t be more spectacular. It’s so fabulous. Just in case we didn’t believe she was as well-meaning a white chick as she already told us she was, she lets us know that she doesn’t have time for our ugliness because she’ll be out in the world helping the misbegotten souls of Virginia and North Carolina elect some poor, downtrodden Black folk into office. Now who’s a jerk, huh? I mean, she’s trying. She’s trying so hard, and all we have for her is contempt and some hard lessons she doesn’t want to hear? It’s as if we can’t see how hard she’s trying.

In truth, I’m not surprised by this foolishness. Really not. I pretty much assumed this would be the most common response to my essay. I’d had the audacity to tell white people there was something they couldn’t do, some word they couldn’t have, something that Black folks could do but I didn’t think white folks should be allowed to do. That’s pretty much an invitation for indignant white folks to stand up and wrap their arms around the thing I’ve told them to step away from. Of course. The fact that this kind of response has turned out to be the exception rather than the rule pleases me enormously.

That “well-meaning white chick” comment caught me so off guard. Not because I think I’ve heard everything and therefore nonsense like that shouldn’t anger me. If only. I continue to be human. I hear new foolishness every day, and bullshit still irks the crap out of me. No, my surprise was at the complete whiteness of that comment, the utter, unabashed, controlling whiteness, tossed in so casually to set the parameters in which that woman was willing to engage with me. And that’s what shocked me, that assumption of power, that assumption of having the right to tell me that I had to give in to her demands—for room, for grace, for the benefit of the doubt—if I wanted her to stay in the conversation. This way of performing whiteness is hardly well-meaning, and it’s completely exhausting.

SodaHead taught me how to poke at the trolls of an earlier era, how to keep calm and come with receipts. But it didn’t prepare me for sneak attacks of toxic whiteness. That woman’s comment woke me up. I think I’m ready for whatever ugliness folks want to throw my way, but I need to stay vigilant. This right here is not the time for complacency. White Supremacy always has its eyes wide open, always has its ears to the ground. And I have to put the same time and attention into being equally on top of my game.


I’m following Vanessa Mártir’s lead, she launched #52essays2017 after writing an essay a week in 2016 … and then deciding to keep going.
I’m months behind on my #GriotGrind, and it’s unlikely that I’ll write 52 essays by year’s end. But I’ve written more this year than in the last two combined, and that adds up to a solid WIN in my book! Get ready for #52essays2018!

Barrels, Empty and Full

The thing is, I never spent any time imagining John Kelly as America’s most upright man, the man who could be counted on for the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. But I also never thought of him as a person who would stand up in front of the world and tell a bold-faced lie. Certainly not when clear, video-taped evidence existed to make his lies plain. I know Kelly works for a man who lies as a matter of course, who lies so quickly and unnecessarily it must be a form of illness. I know Kelly agreed to work for this man. I know Kelly is surrounded by people who lie as easily as blink, as naturally as breathing. Still. I am stunned by the lies he told about Representative Frederica Wilson. I feel foolish and naïve to be as stunned as I am. I should know so much better than to have allowed myself to have any faith in John Kelly.

Let’s pretend Kelly told the truth. Let’s pretend Rep. Wilson really had gotten up at that dedication and talked about how she’d gotten funding so that building could be built. Let’s say that really did happen. Why would it be a problem? What would be so wrong with saying you’d secured necessary funding to see a project through to completion? I’ve heard other politicians talk about funding they’ve procured for various projects, and no one has come for them, has called them “empty barrels.” Part of the work we as constituents expect our elected to do is fund the projects we deem important. Of course. Is it a little self-serving to point to yourself as the person responsible for getting shit done? Maybe, but that’s hardly unusual, especially for politicians. So what would have been so wrong if Rep. Wilson had said what Kelly claimed she had said?

Yes, you guessed it: Rep. Wilson is a Black woman. That, in Kelly’s eyes, clearly makes anything she does—other than sit down and shut up—instantly problematic. Black women, of course, are notorious for being money-grubbers. We’re gold-diggers, all about that paper. This is conventional misogynoir wisdom. Add to that the fact that Wilson is a politician—when we “know” Black pols are on the take and can’t be trusted.

John Kelly wanted to call out Rep. Wilson in relationship to money so that he could trigger all of the nasty little thoughts in the backs of racist folks’ minds about Black women and money and Black politicians and money, trigger the idea that anything Rep. Wilson did she did for money.

And all the while, the one working hard for the money, standing up to sell a barrel-full of lies to the media was none other than Kelly himself.

 

None of this is surprising or should be surprising. This is part and parcel of a history of not believing women, of very specifically not believing Black women, of being able to get away with calling Black women out of their names, of being able to put your words in a Black woman’s mouth and have yours be the words that are given credence no matter the documented proof of your words being lies.

Because it doesn’t matter that, within hours of his press conference, Kelly was shown to be a lying-ass liar. It doesn’t matter. The truth never spreads as fast or as effectively as the lie. The damage to Rep. Wilson is done. The people who will condemn her based on Kelly’s disdain will never hear what she actually said. And won’t believe or care if they do hear. The people who are now making death threats against her won’t back down from that level of hate simply because there is video proof of Rep. Wilson saying something entirely different from what Kelly claimed she said. The damage is done. Done.

Rep. Wilson, of course, is a Black woman. She’s had to be strong, she’s had to fight all the fights to build a fabulous career despite a country that had no interest in making room for her. She’s a Black woman, and she’s standing strong in the face of Kelly’s attack. She’s fine (and has the hat to match). But the fact that she has to endure this treatment is not fine. It is hateful and unacceptable.

Hateful and unacceptable, but again: not the least bit surprising. Donald Trump is a racist, our nation’s most visible and powerful racist. And he has opened the door and given his blessing to all the other racists. And he has surrounded himself with a staff of people who may have somehow managed to get this far in life without ever being caught on camera speaking a single racist word … but who are completely comfortable in their race prejudice, in their belief that Black people are wrong, are less than, need to be reminded of their place when they dare to get uppity. THOTUS’s masters and minions are entirely comfortable slipping on the warm, silk-lined mantle of racism and using every bit of blatant and subtle racist language they can in support of their white-supremacist-in-chief.

Because they can. Because the racists are hood free and marching down Main Street. They are dug in and are armed with the permission they’ve been given to say and do whatever they please.

* * *

And now Kelly has defiantly stood his ground. He has not only refused to apologize to Rep. Wilson and made it clear that he doesn’t see himself as having anything for which to apologize, he has used his spotlight moment to rewrite some history, to tell more sweeping lies.

I don’t need to point out the falsehoods in his comments on Laura Ingraham’s show. The brilliant Ta-Nehisi Coates took care of that history lesson beautifully, scathingly, thoroughly.

I’m more interested in Kelly’s decision to keep lying. At first I wondered how he might imagine he is helping himself with this choice. I didn’t think too much of him before now, but plenty of people–on the storied “both sides”–did. How did he think he was well-served by completely tarnishing whatever good name he had, by coming out as a straight up liar? It seemed such a curious choice.

In his press conference, he used his defense of his boss as an excuse to denigrate Rep. Wilson. On Ingraham’s “Angle” he used his standing-my-ground refusal to apologize to Rep. Wilson as an excuse to trot out a cavalcade of white pride lies about the Civil War and to defend Columbus. What the fuck?

Instead of an empty barrel, Kelly has chosen to show himself to be a barrel full of worm-infested horse shit, a barrel full of smallpox-poisoned molasses. Seems a long way to go for the privilege of insulting one powerful Black woman.

Oh. Right. And there is where I found my answer. The privilege. Yes. Because that’s it, of course. Kelly’s privilege allows him to go on national television and lie like a rug about a Black woman, about American history, about anything he pleases … as long as it serves whiteness. Sure, Black folks might lose all respect for him, and maybe some nigger-loving liberals will pull away, too. But those few white folks are statistically insignificant, and he’s never cared about the good opinion of Black folks because he’s never considered us people.

Kelly loses nothing with his decision to dig in his heels and tell a new set of lies–despite those lies being even more easily refuted than the lie about Rep. Wilson that got this nonsense started in the first place. There is, ultimately, no steep price to be paid for smearing the integrity of a Black woman. Republicans will stand behind him, and white feminists have gone eerily silent and chosen not to defend Wilson. There is, ultimately, no steep price to be paid for ignoring or erasing the existence of chattel enslavement and its lasting impact on this country. Republicans and states’ rights knee-jerkers will stand behind him.

Kelly risks nothing. His lies have no consequences for him. All of the impact falls on Black folks in general and Black women in particular.

Our barrels are empty. Our barrels that should be full of accolades and official apologies, full of rights, respect, reparations. Our barrels’ hollow clacking deafens us. All the while, Kelly’s barrel, full to the lid with the toxic sludge of white supremacy, rolls downhill, picking up speed, faster and faster still, gunning for us, its hate snowballing,  steamrolling all of us in its path.

* * *

It’s 2017. The year two thousand and seventeen. As aware as I am that white supremacy is this country’s middle name, I can still be caught off guard, can still be slapped in the face by the way Black women are demeaned and reviled, help up as examples of what is the worst. Our bodies and spirits are under attack every day. It doesn’t surprise me, but it still lands like a physical blow, challenges my ability to continue living with hope.


I’m following Vanessa Mártir‘s lead, she launched #52essays2017 after writing an essay a week in 2016 … and then deciding to keep going.
I’m months behind on my #GriotGrind, and it’s unlikely that I’ll write 52 essays by year’s end. But I’ve written more this year than in in the last two combined, so that looks like a solid WIN in my book! Get ready for #52essays2018!

Three Years On

Three years ago, a boy was killed. For no good reason, but for a lot of bad ones. He was murdered and left to bake in the August sun. And after his murder, a lot of people worked hard — and are still working hard — to convince anyone who’d listen that his death was his own fault. After all, they said, he wasn’t a good person anyway. And, they said, the man who murdered him — despite that man’s training, despite his holding all the power in that encounter — should be both lauded and pitied for making it through the ordeal of killing the boy. We should, they said, understand how afraid he must have been as he stood armed with a deadly weapon facing a child.

Three years ago, that boy’s murder was the next in a long line of murders, a long line of dead folks we were instructed to blame for their deaths at the hands of more powerful, deadly people. Dead folks like the seven-year-old girl who had the audacity to be sound asleep when she was shot to death. Dead folks like the the 22-year-old man who thought he had the right to shop for toys in a department store. Dead folks like the 22-year-old woman who seemed unaware that hanging out with friends in a local park was a capital offense. The boy murdered three years ago today was one more in a long, long line. Just one more.

But not just one more. A tipping point. Somehow that boy, that murder, that moment. Changed everything.

Changed everything. Not just for me, but definitely for me. I had spent years being sad and sadder and sadder still. Years waiting for an end to the killing of Black folks by police and their surrogates. Years waiting for killers to be held accountable, to be punished. Years, being sad and sadder and sadder still. Years feasting on disgust, disappointment, despair.

And then Michael Brown was murdered. And my despair turn to rage. And I embraced that rage, and gorged on that rage, and nurtured and listened to and learned from that rage. And I have never been the same.

And I am not alone. Brown’s murder didn’t only spark me. It birthed the Movement for Black Lives, our new Civil Rights Movement. A movement that has grown and continues to grow. A movement that has forced and sustained a focus on this country’s forever-inability to honestly face, acknowledge and dismantle racism.

***

Michael Brown should be prepping for his senior year in college. Should be finishing up the last days or weeks of that summer internship or study-abroad program he was so happy to get into. Should be texting with his mom about whether she’ll have time to run him by the back-to-school sale at Target so he can stock up on notebooks and his favorite Pilot gel pens. Should be thinking about the fact that his favorite professor will be back on campus after a year’s sabbatical. Should be hoping his course load and schedule will leave room for him to work part time at the campus library.

Instead, he is dead.

Instead, he is dead.

Instead, he is dead.

***

But we are not dead. Not yet.

We are still here, and we are still angry, and we are still committed to this fight. These three years have not been kind to us. But we are still here. And we aren’t going anywhere. We aren’t sitting down. We aren’t shutting up.

Today is a sad anniversary, but it is also a thank you. To one boy whose loss helped so many of us find our voices, find our way, find one another.

Rest in Power, Michael. We carry on.



I’m following Vanessa Mártir‘s lead, she launched #52essays2017 after writing an essay a week in 2016 … and then deciding to keep going.
I’m months behind on my #GriotGrind, but I’m determined to catch up, to write 52 essays by year’s end.