Black Bluebird Respect

In third grade my friends started joining the Girl Scouts, and my mother wanted me to follow them. My brother was a Boy Scout, and it seemed those big, organized group activities appealed to her. I was an often solitary child, as happy to curl up with a book as play with my friends, and she may have worried about my reclusiveness. She talked up the Girl Scouts, but I wasn’t interested. Was I just a contrarian kid, was I opposed to child labor in the form of cookie sales, was I averse to sashes and badges? No. The turn-off of the Girl Scouts was simple: I didn’t want to be called a Brownie.

I hadn’t ever been called a Brownie, mind you – did anyone ever actually call Black people brownies? They did call us “darkies,” but I was too young to ever have been called that. I grew up in a time and place where no one was saying “darkie.” Folks said “colored,” but not darkie. And “colored” is the worst thing I can remember being called until I was older, so it’s curious that I had such a stiff reaction to Brownie.

It isn’t curious that I had some race consciousness so early. My parents were active in the Civil Rights Movement, and their politics rubbed off on my brother and me. And, while I was only eight, I’d had my first self-shaping experience of race prejudice a few years earlier, having been shunned by all but one of my kindergarten classmates simply because of my color.

But I was a meek kid, a go-along-to-get-along kid, so it’s still odd that I would have had strength enough of my convictions to refuse to follow everyone else’s lead, to reject my mother’s urging to become a Scout.

My mother didn’t pressure me, but she didn’t give up, either. When I reached fourth grade, she raised the question again. We had just moved to a new town, and maybe she thought Girl Scouts would be a way for me to build a group of friends quickly. I was still anti-Brownie, but she was determined. She did some homework and came back with the idea of starting a Camp Fire Girls troop. First level in Camp Fire world? I got to be a not-in-any-way-racially-problematic Bluebird. I signed right up. I still have my Bluebird pin today.

*

My mother didn’t often get me. I was a strange proposition for her then, and my strangeness in her eyes continued until well into my thirties. I was tall, awkward, unpopular with boys … a kind of photo negative of her. Our experiences of the world and the ways the world saw us were so different, I had to have seemed patently alien to her.

She didn’t always get it right with me – her obsession with my body shape and size was particularly difficult. As was her rampant fear of the quite completely impossible chance of my getting pregnant in high school.

But for all her off-key moves, her inability to figure out who I was because I was so unlike her, she trusted my mind, my capacity for seeing things. Even when she didn’t agree or fully understand my position, when it was clear that I’d thought a thing through and had reason behind my decision, she gave me room, respect.

She could have seen the Brownie situation as small, silly. Could probably have forced me to become a Scout. But she didn’t. This thing that happened between us – this way that she was able to see me and that I knew I was seen – it didn’t happen often. Charting our history, I realize that it happened most consistently when my focus was on race.

In seventh grade, I lashed out at a classmate who called me a nigger. It was the first time anyone had called me that. No one admonished him. Instead, I was seen as the problem. I was sent to the nurse’s office so she could figure out what could possibly be wrong with me to make me behave so aggressively. She called my mother to suggest some appropriate scolding and punishment. My mother wasn’t having any of it. She spoke to me to make sure I was alright, then had some words with the nurse, words that turned the nurse first red then white, words that shut down the scolding the nurse had been doling out.

My senior year of high school, my final presentation in speech class was about being one of only three Black kids in that school. My teacher said I’d have to present another one, said she couldn’t grade the speech because it didn’t fit the topic: “America, the Melting Pot.” She said that, because she’d liked the speech, she’d be generous and give me a chance to write something else, to do the assignment correctly rather than get a crap grade. My mother wasn’t having any of that, either. She had a conference with my teacher, which ended with the speech being graded as written.

(You’ll notice I don’t tell you what my mother actually says in these situations. That’s because I have no idea. That’s her MO. My mother is genteel. A lady and a trained actress. She goes into the fray with grace, has calm, mysterious, carefully-worded conversations … and on the other end … the world is righted.)

*

I don’t know how my mother found out about Camp Fire Girls. We were pre-internet, she had no friends in that town, and there were no existing Camp Fire groups in the area. But she found out what she needed to know. I didn’t care for the other members of my troop much, but I had fun all the same. I like learning stuff, and there was always some new thing. We went on nature walks, learned history, baked bread. We even met some Iroquois elders, for reasons that escape me today. We also learned to knit – a skill I use now to create delicate, lacy gifts, primarily for my mother.

Mostly, what I liked was spending time with her. I was fascinated by my mother. I found her just as alien as she found me. I couldn’t imagine being as poised, beautiful, or talented as she was, and I was already questioning whether I made logical sense as her daughter. But in Camp Fire Girls, all of that could be ignored, and we could just be ourselves with each other.

Which was maybe what she’d wanted. Maybe the Girl Scouts had never really been the point. Yes, she could have forced me into the Scouts, but she could understand my reason for not wanting to join, so she found another way, found a path I could walk, that we could walk together.



I wrote this piece for Listen to Your Mother. I auditioned with it on Wednesday and found out yesterday that I didn’t make the cast for this, the final year of the LYTM performances. I found out while on break during the Girls Write Now genre workshop. That’s a crappy time to get bad news. I’m in that room to learn, to hang out with Sophia, to see other mentors. I put my phone away, put my feelings about the rejection away with it, and got back to the workshop.

I didn’t think about it again until late in the afternoon when I was on the train headed to the hinterlands of Westchester to watch my niece’s school musical. I was still sad about it. I hadn’t realized just how much I’d been looking forward to being part of that show, part of that community. And rejection always hurts, so it’s not surprising that I was sad.

But that sadness was already fading by the time my train ride was underway. I’ve certainly dealt with writing rejection before. MANY times. The hard slap of disappointment has to pass or you don’t move on to the next thing. I decided on the train that I’d share this piece on my blog, and here we are. And now it’s time to move on to the next thing.

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It’s the 10th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!

Head over to Two Writing Teachers to see all of today’s slices!

Looking in the Mirror at the Missing Girls of Chibok

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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SOL image 2014

Slice of Life Tuesdays are hosted by Two Writing Teachers.

In the Wake

Tonight I read as part of the Big Words, Etc. series. It was my first time participating. The night’s theme was “expectations.” Here’s what I read:
In her Ramadan journal, my friend Serena blogged about the silence of my sadness in the wake of the acquittal of George Zimmerman. I am both: sad and silent. I haven’t cried, haven’t rallied, haven’t ranted. Haven’t done any of the things I usually do in these moments.
And that’s part of my silence, isn’t it? That I can say, “any of the things I usually do,” that I have ached through enough of these moments that I actually have an expected pattern of response.

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I can come here and do things I can maybe be expected to do — wear a hoodie, wear a picture of this fallen boy on my shirt. I can come here and say the thing I can maybe be expected to say — “I am Trayvon Martin.” — or I can say what is actually true: I am not Trayvon Martin. I am more likely to be Eleanor Bumpers, or Yvonne Smallwood, or Marissa Alexander. I’m more likely to be one of the almost 65,000 African American women none of us have ever heard of who currently make up 40% of the FBI’s National Center for Missing Persons list.
After the acquittal of Sean Bell’s murderers, I went online, [came to this blog] to pick and poke at my sorrow and anger. It helped and didn’t help. I needed the time and space to vent, to grieve, but shouting into the void is never more than a temporary salve. I wanted something to do — wanted to see that something I could do — would mean I wouldn’t have to go to another march for another unarmed black man. And here we are. Again.

I can maybe be expected to say I’m angry, hurt, disgusted terrified, disheartened, sickened, devastated, lost … And those things are all true, but what is more true is that I’m tired. To the marrow of my bones. Tired of this reality, tired of being expected to make change when I didn’t make the problem in the first damn place. Tired. Beat, as James Baldwin wrote, to my socks.

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I started writing four different pieces to get ready for tonight. One of them was, I hope, funny. One of them was a piece of the memoir I’m working on. One was a revision of a story I wrote last fall. One was about my hair and all the things I think and feel when people ask to touch it.
But then that verdict came down and all my words were gone.

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I spent this past weekend in Rhode Island with women who love me, who asked nothing of me, who hugged me, who made me laugh, who brought me back to myself … at least a little. But, as of 1:00 this morning, I still had nothing written, still had no idea how to pull any coherent thought from the swirling mass of defeated, painful anger that’s been choking me the last ten days.
Of course, the only thing to do about a writing block is to write. So I am standing here with these disjointed and rambling thoughts that cling only to the through lines of my pain and my increasing inability to comprehend how it is that I live here, in this place where every day I am reminded in large and small ways how little my life means to the wider society, how vehemently I am unwanted.

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Does that sound harsh? If so, I wonder what other message you think I should take from incident after incident after incident. From acquittal after acquittal after acquittal. In my head, there’s a voice saying that for every 5,000 Medgars, there’s only one Byron De La Beckwith … and it took three decades to bring him to justice. And that voice is followed by Zack de la Rocha’s reminding me: “Three million gone … ‘Cause you know they’re counting backward to zero.”

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It’s not just this case, of course. But it is just this case, too. This was the case that had to go the right way, that no jury could possibly see this case in a way different than the way I saw it. This was so clear, so obvious, so irrefutable. Until it wasn’t, and except that I’m not actually that naive … except that I obviously am.
It’s not just this case. Of course. Because it isn’t just the senseless killings. It’s the slow drumbeat of dread, distrust, and distaste, of dehumanization, disenfranchisement, and dismissal, that make it possible for there to be so many senseless killings answered by so little outrage. It’s living for seven years in the same apartment in Cobble Hill and having my neighbors walk a little faster and clutch their bags a little tighter as I followed them up the stairs to the front door of our building. It’s every cab that has never stopped for me. It’s the landlord who didn’t want to show me his apartment when he realized that the woman who’d “sounded white” on the phone was really me. It’s listening to the surgeon at Methodist Hospital in Park Slope talk down to my Harvard-educated aunt as he explained why sterilizing me was the best care option even though he had no idea what had brought me into his ER. It’s a million intentional denials and erasures, a million casual and unconscious cuts.
At almost 51, I was alive but much too young for many Civil Rights milestones. The marches, the police dogs, the freedom rides, the fire hoses, the lynchings, the assassinations. All were real in my childhood. My parents were quiet activists. The news came into our house over dinner every night. Not the worst bits, not the ugliest, the kids-are-too-young-to-hear-this bits. But enough awareness seeped in that I wouldn’t join the Girl Scouts because I refused to be called a Brownie.

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Nothing that is happening now is new or news to me. But my inability to breathe, to think, to access my response in a productive way — my impotence — frustrates me.

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Maybe I’m not ready, yet, to break my silence completely. Maybe I’m still too angry, still too sad. Maybe I’m just afraid to open the well of pain that I’m always and always plastering over, afraid of the thick sludge that will boil up and out. But then I hear de la Rocha’s voice on another lyric, “Anger is a gift.” And I believe that, want to harness it, still want something to do — still want to believe that something I can do — could mean there won’t be another march for another unarmed black man. And getting to that place seems to require the fully unpacked expression of my anger. And what happens when that door is opened?

Couldn’t Be Just Like Before (30 Stories — 12)

The wheel on her bike, the front one, was busted.  Her father had backed into it the night before backing into a parking space and overshooting the curb just a little, just enough.

Ruined.  Still the same pretty pink that had made her heart swell when she’d unwrapped it at Christmas.  Still perfect and beautiful.  Except for some invisible crimp in the frame that kept the front wheel from turning more than a quarter of its revolution.

He’d brought the bike into the kitchen, her father.  Carried it up from the street and set it on the floor in front of the stove.

“If I can’t fix it, we’ll get you a new one,” was all he’d said at first.

She and her mother, side by side snapping beans over the sink, had turned to stare at him.  She hadn’t wanted it to be true, but had felt her face shift — first crumpling in pain then hardening in anger.

“What happened?” Not really a question, but the clipped, disdainful tone of the woman at the checkout who would announce the grocery total and then look at her mother as if she assumed there wouldn’t be money enough to cover it.

She had cried and refused her dinner, refused to be consoled, had taken herself to bed, still in tears.

But by morning, she had softened.  She knew her father, knew it was likely he could fix whatever was wrong with the frame, knew that if he couldn’t, he would be true to his promise and find a way to buy her a new one.  And she would be happy either way.

That was all true, but she also felt the change.  The bike would never be the same, a new bike would never be the same.  Everything had changed: the magic of her glorious pink flying machine, the certainty that her father could never hurt her,  the safety of surrounding herself with objects.

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