By Your Leave

Louis CK wants your permission. He wants you to make it okay that he whips out his penis in front of women who have expressed no desire to see it. He wants you to read his apology and decide that you can still like him, still stan for him, still want to see his comedy routines and his shows and his movies.

I mean, of course that’s what he wants. That’s his livelihood. So yes. That’s what he wants.

But he also wants your permission … to pretty much continue being exactly the same. He wants you to understand that his relationship with his penis is about using it to exert his privileged power over those he sees as his to dominate. He likes showing it to women, likes playing with it to their sometimes hysterical horror.

Some of us recoiled in anger and disgust when we heard Donald Trump say that, when you’re a famous man, you can do whatever you want to women. We may have recoiled, but that is exactly what Louis CK and Harvey Weinstein and every other man who’s being called out right now has banked on. They have been allowed to believe that, because of their fame or power or wealth or combination of the three, they can do whatever they want to women and to men they deem less famous, less powerful, less wealthy. Our allegiance to rape culture has allowed these men to believe in their right to behave as they wish. Our refusal to accept women’s autonomy has allowed these men to believe in their right to behave as they wish. Our refusal to believe women, our adherence to a strict code of victim-blaming, our knee-jerk slut shaming … all of these things have allowed these men to believe they can do whatever they want to women.

But Louis CK still wants your permission, still wants you to like him, to like his insistence on talking about his penis and the wacky hi-jinks he gets up to with it. He wants you to hear all the right words he has carefully crafted into his so-called apology … and ignore–or, better still, smirk at–the wrong ones he’s added for effect. And he wants you to see that he admits to the things his accusers claim: “These stories are true,” he says. And by saying that, he is expecting your instant forgiveness. He has admitted his guilt … even though he qualifies that admission, qualifies it so hard, the admission almost disappears. But he does own up to what he did. Now let’s welcome him and his penis back into the parlor with the polite company.

I will admit that it’s interesting to watch the different ways these famous men are choosing to respond when they are called out for what they’ve done. Louis CK is the first who response has so generously plumped itself up with both angry defiance and a begrudging, blame-y admission of guilt. It’s not a mix that’s completely unexpected, but it’s still unusual.

You can read his statement over at the NYTimes.

My first reaction when I read the statement was annoyance. That he had to talk about how he “never showed a woman my dick without asking first,” read like a slap in the face to every woman he abused. Here you are, performing apologetic remorse, and you need to talk about whipping it out … and you need to make the point that you only did that after asking permission first? Are you fucking kidding me?

The words in his apology statement–the ones after the repeated mention of his penis–fall into line in a way that seems right, that seems like saying sorry. They don’t totally get the job done, however. There’s far too much calling out of the fact that people admire and look up to him, of his fame and popularity.

There are other issues, too, but it’s that, “Hey! People like me!” shit that has my attention. This is why I said CK wants your permission. He wants to be able to start an “apology” for sexual aggression by talking in a sexually aggressive way, and then he wants you to nod with him when he tells you how important and well-liked he is–even by the women who are coming forward to accuse him. he can’t be truly bad if even his accusers look up to him and think he’s swell. Right? Right?

Obviously, his statement tells us, he’s not like these other men we’ve been hearing about. He asked first before assaulting anyone. Asked first! If these women could give him permission, surely you can, too.

The statement is almost a great apology. Almost. Almost. It mostly reads right, but it still goes wrong. Louis CK wants you to remember what you’ve come to know about him. You’ve loved his jokes about his desperate need to masturbate anywhere, any time. So how can you not feel for him now when you realize all of that was true?

For me, forgiveness–if there will be any offered–comes when there’s remorse, where full responsibility is taken, when the offending party apologizes to the person or people they offended. I don’t see that between the lines of Louis CK’s angry, petulant statement. And I most certainly have no desire to grant him an inch of permission.

None of the stories we’re hearing are surprising, are they? Men in positions of power have abused their power for the whole of recorded history, and surely for all the time before that as well. This isn’t news. Victims of abuse have tried to speak up … and have been slapped down, penalized, black-balled, criminalized. Silenced. By any means necessary. All in service of protecting powerful men. (Mostly we’re talking about powerful white men, yes, but let’s not kid ourselves that the buck stops with them. Despite the realities of racism–and because of the realities of racism–the system spends some of its energy protecting powerful Black men, too. Not as much, and usually not with the same level of dedication or success, but yes.)

The moment we are living in is interesting, this sea tide of accusations swamping our news feeds, this rush to believe the accusers. Not in every case, but that it’s true at all is new and different. I won’t pretend this signals the end of powerful men being given a pass no matter their crimes. I mean, hello, this country elected the poster child for white male privilege a year ago. We ain’t changed that fast, friends.

No. But something’s happening. Yes, part of this is about numbers. So many women–mostly women–have come forward that a) they are hard(er) to ignore and brush off and b) they are creating a space in which more people can come forward. Suddenly, we don’t have one woman we can call hysterical and dismiss by saying she made a mistake and is trying to make someone else pay for it.

But is it only about numbers? It feels like something else, something more. We are still fighting back against men who abuse power, but this is different, and I wonder where it will go–how far, how deep. I want to see it wend its scorched-earth way through the careers and reputations of every man who has thought his rights extended to another person’s body, safety, autonomy.

We have had hundreds of victims step forward and name their abusers. We have millions of victims share their #MeToo stories. What we’re seeing cannot be compared to anything that’s happened before. It feels like … well … like an actual opportunity for change.

I’m not as naive as that sounds, but I do think something different is happening now. We’ve had accusations in the past, but we’ve never had such a welling up of powerful, angry energy. There are too many people caught in this storm for this to be but a moment, something to casually quash and wave on its way as the accused move on to abuse again.

I assume there will be some hideous backlash. There always is. We already see men lamenting their inability to know how to interact with women, their apparently abject terror at being called out. There are already people (women!) comforting those men, telling them not to worry about their behavior, because they are so not the kind of men who would … Feh. We already have cable news talking heads fretting over innocent ment being swept up in the rush to accuse, to judge. There are already jokes about men we “know” won’t be accused, could never be accused.

So, slowly and inevitably, the status quo of our male-dominant society has begun pushing back. I still believe what’s happening now is and will continue to be stronger than that.

 

Do I feel for Louis CK and his fraternity of abusers, particularly for those who are or will suffer real consequences (finally) for their choices? No. Really not at all. Not at all. Not because I don’t believe people can change. I absolutely believe in our ability to transform ourselves.

These men, however. Yeah, not so much. They’ve hurt people, emotionally, physically, professionally. They’ve done it repeatedly. They’ve been made aware that what they did was problematic, was upsetting, was frightening, was damaging … and they didn’t opt to change their behavior, to make better, more decent, humane choices. No, they knew they were safe, knew they could deny successfully, knew they would be protected, so they continued to do exactly what they wanted to do. Louis CK even turned his abusive behavior into jokes, making his audiences complicit in his crimes.

No, I don’t feel even a tiny bit sorry for any of these men. I am full-on disgusted with each and every one of them. I am thrilled to see them called out and, at long last, held responsible for themselves.

Maybe they can change. Maybe–if they can get past their angry, I’m-the-real-victim-here bullshit–they will find ways to change. And I’ll be happy for them then … and happier still for all the women and men who will be safe in their presence.

 

Louis CK wants your permission. Refuse him. He wants your forgiveness and acceptance. Make him–make all of them–earn it.


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!

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Yes, yes, of course … me, too.

Women are all over FB right now posting “Me, too.” Some are posting with the tagline: “If all the women who have been sexually harassed or assaulted wrote “Me, too” as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.” Some are posting their actual stories. And it’s powerful … and triggering. And enraging. And starkly hideous.

I posted my “Me, too” and thought I’d leave it at that. I did just write about being sexually abused, after all. And I’ve written in the past about experiences with sexual harassment, about assault. Did I really need to say anything more?

But the tidal wave of “Me, too” posts flooding my timeline began to overwhelm me. I’m not surprised by them. Hardly. I am more surprised by women who can’t say “Me, too.” It just seems likely that nearly every woman everywhere has experienced some form of sexual harassment or abuse, some manifestation of the complete social normalization of rape culture. Still, the posts felt so heavy, so painful.

So, too, the number of women posting about how they never told anyone, how they felt responsible, how they put themselves in harm’s way against their own discomfort or awareness of danger because of concern about how the man would feel or be impacted if they didn’t acquiesce.

And I am impressed that so many people feel comfortable enough, safe enough to be able to post. And I’m feeling for all the people who don’t feel safe to post and are holding their silences. And I’m grateful to my non-binary and male friends who’ve posted their “Me, too” stories, driving home the full range of this issue.

But at the end of this day, I find myself wondering what all these posts add up to. Where do they leave us?

As I said, its’ not surprising to see how many women are posting. But what do any of us hope the result of this will be? Those of us who have had to deal with harassment and survive assaults will see how completely not alone we are, will maybe release some of the shame we have carried when we see that what has been done to us wasn’t our faults, doesn’t say anything about who we are as people.

And that’s a good outcome. I guess what I’m really wondering is: will any man who has ever harassed or assaulted a woman look at those posts and see himself?

Why is it so hard for me to believe that’s possible?

*

A couple of years ago, something similar happened on Twitter. Someone called on women to post about the first time they were sexually harassed. Again, the volume of responses was overwhelming. For me, the truly overwhelming aspect was how young we all were the first time we were sexualized and made to feel uncomfortable or frightened because of the way a man or boy behaved with us. The tweet I posted was about a man who masturbated at me … when I was eight. And so many of the tweets were stories about experiences in third, fourth, fifth grade. Very young girls.

At the time, I was frozen in my efforts to make sense of it. It was too ugly. Yes, in some small way, I felt better knowing I wasn’t the only one, but not really. Knowing that third grade girls everywhere were having awful experiences was cold comfort at best.

I had a longish tweet convo about this question of how young so many of us were at that first experience. One of the things that kept coming up was the fact that we as girls had just begun to have awareness of our bodies as pleasure centers, of the idea and experience of sensual pleasure. And then whatever awful thing would be done to us, and we would blame ourselves. Because, if we hadn’t discovered that strange, surprising world of physical pleasure, then surely that man or boy wouldn’t have said or done whatever he said or did.

And the worst part of that realization was that, in a twisted way, it’s likely one hundred percent true … Not that we as children were to blame for our assaults, no. Absolutely not. But that, as the women in that Twitter conversation and I eventually concluded, those men and boys who harassed or molested us must have sensed the change we were living through. They detected whatever that new physical awareness was … and they came for us. They decided we were fair game.

*

And from that moment forward, those men and boys saw us as available to them, as “ready.” And we grew up encountering those men and boys again and again and still again.

How does now saying, “Me, too” affect any of that? Those men and boys didn’t hear us when we were children. Why on earth would they hear us now? Can we really believe they will suddenly (snap of fingers) have the epiphany that enables them to see themselves as predators, as the ones who need to address their attitudes toward and behavior with women?

*

Years ago, I took an amazing class at the American Place Theater. The class was for teachers, showing us ways to incorporate theater exercises into our teaching of literature and history. In one exercise, I was sitting around a coffee table with three women. We were tasked with creating a scene about an adolescent girl getting her first period. We started by acting out our mothers’ responses to that milestone moment. The first woman showed her  mother’s careful demonstration of using those awful belts we had wear before adhesive strips were a viable thing. The next woman turned and pretended to slap the woman next to her, saying, “You’re dirty now. You’re a woman. Don’t look at men.”

All of us at the table were mortified (and I felt grateful for the first time ever about my own mother’s exuberantly joyful response that, at the time, I’d found completely embarrassing).

This idea that the simple fact of our bodies, our completely as-they-should-be female bodies, is not only wrong but is our fault is unutterably disturbing.

*

As so we are seeing women reclaiming themselves with that “Me, too.” It’s all of us saying, “I, too, have been acted upon, have been made to feel less than, to feel guilty, to feel wrong simply for being alive in my body, simply for having a body that men have grown up to feel ownership of. And it wasn’t my fault, and there was nothing I did wrong, and you need to see how many of us there are telling this story.”

And it’s powerful, and enraging, and sad.

*

But I would rather see men posting, “Me, too.” I want them to post “If all the men who have sexually harassed or assaulted a woman wrote “Me, too” as a status, we might give people a sense of the magnitude of the problem.

All meaning every man who has catcalled a woman, hissed or whistled at a woman, looked at a woman as if imagining her naked, walked down the street beside or behind a woman trying to get her number, brushed against a woman to feel her breasts or butt or have her feel his erection, called out to a passing woman what “rating” he’d give her or whether or not he’d be willing to “smash that.”

All meaning every man who has grabbed a woman by the arm or shoulder when trying to “holler at” her, come on to a child or teenaged girl, gotten angry and up in the face of a girl or woman who hasn’t welcomed his advances, followed a woman, leered at a woman as she breastfed her baby, bought a woman dinner and assumed she would “repay” him with sex.

All meaning every man who has watched his friends treat women in any of these ways and has said noting, has laughed, has looked the other way, has gaslit his sisters, girlfriends, and female coworkers who have complained about another man’s behavior, telling them, “Oh, he’s harmless,” “He doesn’t mean that,” “You’re too sensitive.”

All meaning all. Maybe then. Maybe then, we would not only get a sense of the magnitude of the problem but actually see men take responsibility for their misogyny and start to dismantle it, start to change their behavior and respect women as human beings who have the right to exist, to live their lives free of molestation, as beings who owe men not one damn thing.



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.

Testing My Faith

I saw a woman harassed and frightened by a man. I was too far away to do anything about it. I wasn’t sure what I was seeing until it was almost over. It was a crowded A train during morning rush hour. I had only just managed to squeeze myself onto the car. I wasn’t looking at people around me, was mostly thinking ahead to the meeting I was headed for. As we pulled into Hoyt-Schermerhorn, I focused. I’d been kind of staring off ahead, not really looking at anything.

At that moment I focused and saw a man, maybe close to my height (5’10”), stocky, doing some kind of bob-and-weave movement. He was about a third of the length of the train car away from where I was sandwiched in, but I could clearly see his weird bob and weave. I looked closer. He was bobbing and weaving into and away from the face of a woman. She was small, maybe five-foot-two or three. She was slight, not waif-slight, but very slender.

I stared at them for a few seconds, trying to tell if they were together. Had I seen the man’s face, I would have known they were definitely not together because when he turned around as the train pulled out of the station, the man’s face gave him away — he looked unstable, looked unkempt … not like a homeless person but like a madman who didn’t waste time pulling his look together.

But I hadn’t seen his face yet. I just saw him diving in and out of the woman’s face. I watched him for several seconds that felt a lot longer. By the time I registered that something was deeply wrong with what was happening, the woman had removed herself from the space, had ducked under the arm of the person on her other side and moved down the car. She was so small, I lost sight of her immediately in the crowded space. That was when her harasser turned around, when I saw that, whatever he’d been doing, it couldn’t have been pleasant for that woman. I would never want that man’s face anywhere near mine.

He turned and started talking to the people around him. Not like excusing his actions, but like bragging. He looked quite proud and pleased with himself, as if scaring that woman was a kind of triumph for him, and I guess it was. I couldn’t hear anything he said. It was loud on the train, and he was quiet, talking for the people directly near him, not for all of us. The train pulled into Jay Street, he took a seat and that was that.

But that wasn’t that. Couldn’t possibly ever really be that.

I was so angry. Angry at him, sure. Of course. More, I was angry at all of the people in that section of the train. I’ll grant that the man’s appearance was unsettling. I wouldn’t have considered it a small thing to confront him. But he was menacing someone. He was all up in that woman’s face, up in the face of a person who was small both in height and size. He was taking pleasure in frightening her — because that was the first thing I saw when he turned around, his big, I’m-the-man smile. He was having a great time ruining that woman’s commute, and maybe her whole day, maybe her week — who knows what that incident may have triggered for her? He was having a great time … and not one person thought of a way to do anything to stop him, to shield her, to defuse the situation.

Everyone stayed in their books and newspapers, stayed on their phones. Everyone chose to ignore what was happening right beside them. When the woman saw her chance to squeeze through the crowd to get free, she moved past the man standing beside her. He was tall and had one arm stretched out to hold the overhead rail. She ducked under his arm, and he bowed his body to make a little more room for her to pass … and then he held that position a moment longer, as if giving the harasser a chance to pass, too. He was prepared to facilitate the woman’s continued abuse by making way for her abuser. WTF? True, he hadn’t tried to help the woman at all, but simply straightening his body, putting a barrier between the woman and the man, would have at least been a protective gesture. Nope. No protection there.

I don’t know what I want from people, what I expect. I’ve had my own experiences with people on the street or the train not coming to my aid. I know it’s easier and certainly feels safer to stay out of a charged and troubling situation. But seeing this moment on the train really upset me. How can you stand next to someone who is being terrorized and do nothing? I was too far away and too tightly packed against other riders to do more than witness. I have no idea what I would have done if I’d been standing closer, but I would have done something. Some thing.

That’s easy to say, of course. But I have receipts. I’ve intervened between abusive men and their partners in the past. I’ve called out harassers on the train, even used some low-grade violence once, though I don’t recommend that. Confrontation isn’t a thing I make a habit of, but it has happened. There seemed to be something wrong with that man, but that doesn’t mean he couldn’t have been stopped, couldn’t have been made to back off.

Full disclosure: a big part of my surprise is because the woman was white, and the man harassing her was Black. Our raison d’etre as a country is to stand up for the safety and honot of white women … especially in the face of a threat from a Black man. And yet no one stepped up for this woman.

But just on the level of basic human decency, I don’t understand what I saw on that train. Do not understand.

This morning I was at a conference and heard NYC Public Advocate Letitia James reframe Michelle Obama’s line, saying: “When they go low, we need to get loud.” She was talking about the opposition (the Resistance) being big enough, forceful enough to “drown out the noise” of harmful policies and ill-conceived decisions (hey, I’m trying to be generous).

I get what she’s saying. It makes perfect sense. But how does that happen, exactly? Where is this solidarity and readiness for the fight supposed to come from when we don’t care enough about one another as individuals to step up when the person next to us is in danger?

People knitted pink hats and came out in the hundreds of thousands for the Women’s March. They felt like, and were, a giant mass of “No!” directed at THOTUS¹. And yet, for all that sisterhood and comradery, there was also silencing, erasure, and exclusion.

Am I wrong to see a connection here? Empathy is going to be central to the success of whatever fightback is strong enough to carry us forward. If we can’t care enough for the woman standing beside us, how are we supposed to be standard-bearers for refugees we’ll never see, Palestinians losing their land in a place we’ll never visit, women denied reproductive care in nations we erase when we think of their continent as a country, Black bodies left in the street for hours?

But then I think about the people who came out for Muslims travelers over the weekend. They put out calls for lawyers, brought supplies, came out and stayed out. They stepped up. They gave me some hope.

I still don’t understand what I saw on the train. It’s just not okay to ignore someone in distress. Not okay.

And I can’t help but believe it’s these small acts of brave kindness and compassion that will help us feel strong enough, able enough to step up in bigger ways. Because we’re going to need to do that. We’re going to have to take risks, put ourselves in harm’s way. We’re going to have to stop pretending not to see what’s right in front of us.

We have to do that for strangers on the train, and we have to do it for this nation of strangers that has never needed us more than it does now.

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In 2017, I’ve committed to writing an essay a week.

It’s not too late to join if you’re feeling ambitious! Check out Vanessa Mártir’s blog to find out how!

__________
¹ Titular Head oThese United States


original-slicer-girlgriot
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Thank you. I know.

Some clarification after yesterday’s half-angry, half-tired post. I do appreciate the compliment that arrived in my comments and the spirit in which it was given. But let me speak plainly: I know I’m beautiful. Yes, it’s taken some years for me to see / acknowledge / accept that truth. But I have. The foolish man who needed to tell me how unacceptable I am probably can’t imagine that such comfort with myself is possible, but that’s about him, not me.

And maybe it sounds vain for me to take my friend’s compliment and just say, “I know.” That’s because it is vain. I don’t have any problem with some healthy, based-in-reality vanity. I am vain about my looks, my hair, my voice. I am extremely vain. Let’s not get me started on all the other ways I’m vain, all the other things I love about myself.

But for the most part, that man on the street and his comment had nothing to do with what I look like and whether I am attractive. People who say things to me on the street — whether they know it or not — are always talking about themselves and just using me as a convenient outlet for whatever pain or frustration they are feeling. In the case of men, there is also the fact that many men believe that every woman only exists in public for a) his viewing pleasure, b) his assessment and comment, c) his control.

That guy Monday couldn’t see me, didn’t even try. He saw a female body and decided he had power over it. He isn’t attracted to big-legged women (after all, everyone knows we ain’t got no souls). His lack of attraction didnt keep him from looking, mind you. It did, however, give him license to say whatever nonsense seemed “right” in the moment.

Maybe he was having a crap day, someone making him feel as if he was getting too big for his britches, taking up too much space. So telling me that I am too big, that no one wants to see me was how he felt about himself just then.

But see, all that mess? That’s him. That’s all about him. I may have been the one to be splashed with the garbage juice as his truck rolled by, but he’s the one full up with the stuff.

So I appreciate the reassurance that I am fabulous, but in this instance I don’t so much need it. There are plenty of other areas in which I am the poster child for low self esteem, and in those areas I welcome all the ego-boosting I can get. What I need right now is continued strength to not dole out dope slaps on the regular.


It’s the annual Slice of Life Story Challenge, hosted by the wonderful people over at Two Writing Teachers! Every day this month, hundreds of writers will be posting their stories. Head on over and check out the other slices!

SOL image 2014

Miss me.

Yesterday I wore a dress. It’s not a big deal, or shouldn’t be. I was still beat to my socks after Saturday’s adventure, and I had to sit on a panel mid-day, and I wanted to perk myself up. So I wore a new dress, a dress that hits just about at my knees. For me, this is as out of character as wearing a micro-mini. Folks who know me: when have you ever seen my legs? Seriously. But I’ve been wearing “short” dresses for a few months now, so it’s weird but becoming not weird for me.

So I wore a dress. With tights and boots. I went to work, I went uptown to sit on the panel. I left the place where the event was held and walked to the subway.

“Nobody wants to see that.”

I heard this semi-surly voice say that as I headed down Park Avenue. I kept walking because it seemed to be one of the random snippets of someone else’s conversation that filter into your consciousness.

“Big-legged women in short dresses. You’re too big. Believe me, no one wants to see that.”

This time, the speaker — a small, maybe-40-year-old Black man in a leather stadium coat over a suit — got right up on me to say what he had to say.

People often tell me they’re surprised by the things folks have no problem saying to me. I’m not surprised. Certainly not about this. Being rude and insulting to fat people is the last truly safe bullying, discriminatory behavior people have. Yes, you can be a jerk about all kinds of things, but there will almost always be someone ready to speak up for the person you’re insulting, someone ready to call you out on your racism, homophobia, sexism, anti-semitism, ableism. With fat people, that’s pretty much never going to be the case. Fat people, because we have the audacity to be fat, are assumed to deserve whatever bile you choose to spit on us.

But you know what? Not really. And not me.

I stopped and looked at him. I made a dramatic “shocked” face, complete with one hand on my cheek and my mouth in a stunned “O.”

“Really?!” I asked.

He looked pleased, ready to tell me all about how disgusted he felt at the sight of me.

I dropped my hand and smiled. “Good thing what I wear has absolutely nothing to do with anyone but me.” I looked down, gave myself a once-over. “You’re only seeing my legs because you’re looking at them.” I started walking again. “You don’t like what you see? Look at something else.”

Yes, it hurts my feelings to have some jackass say no one wants to see a woman who looks like me. But you know? I’m not here for anyone’s fat-shaming. I’m not here for men thinking I can or should be ruled by their gaze. I’m not here for strangers on the street who think they have anything to say about what I choose to wear, how I wear it, or how I look wearing it. You can miss me with all of that.


It’s the annual Slice of Life Story Challenge, hosted by the wonderful people over at Two Writing Teachers! Every day this month, hundreds of writers will be posting their stories. Head on over and check out the other slices!

SOL image 2014

Unseen, Unheard, Unvalued, Unimportant …

… and yet folks wonder why I’m angry.

There are so many things I would rather be writing about today.  There are so many sad things I could be writing about today.  Instead of those things, I am writing this.

_____

Yesterday I was walking in lower Manhattan.  I was nearing Houston Street, thinking about ducking into the subway station at the corner and getting back to my book once I was on the train, thinking about the volunteer work I was scheduled to do later in the day, thinking about the residency applications I’m working on, thinking.

“Smile, big lady!”

Yes, because any moment of my life can only be made better by some random man demanding that I smile.  Because — obviously — I only exist to window-dress your day with my smiles.  Yes.

I could write an entire post about how annoying it is to have men ask women to smile.  That’s not this post.  I didn’t smile.

I didn’t smile and I kept walking up the block.

And then he grabbed my arm and spun me around to face him.  I was so taken by surprise, I almost fell into his chest.  Before I had a chance to rebalance and focus, he got in my face yelling about what made me think I was too good for him and how sick he is of angry black women, and how — fat and ugly as I am — I should be glad any man was talking to me.

Generally speaking, men don’t accost me.  They make any number of comments, give all kinds of looks, but they don’t put their hands on me.  I’m not saying it never happens, but it doesn’t happen often.  The last time I can remember it happening is five years ago.  Because it happens so infrequently, my first reactions are a little slow-motion.  First reaction: surprise that some stranger is grabbing me.  Second: look at the stranger and gauge how strong he seems to be and if I think I can fight my way away from him.

So I looked at this man yesterday.  He was taller than I am, maybe 6′ 2″.  He was slender, but he had spun me around.  Aside from the fact that he caught me off guard and so off balance, I am a big person, it’s no easy thing to spin me around.  That told me he was probably stronger than I am.  Third reaction: use my words.  I’m pretty good at talking my way out of trouble.  And I’m pretty good at shaming street harassers into backing off.

But this man was bigger and stronger than I am, and was already worked up, shaking me roughly, yelling crazy crap about fat black women and how entitled we act and how we should be more respectful when a man shows us some attention.  And I froze for a minute.

But then I unfroze.  And I started yelling for him to let go of me, started trying to break out of his hold.

And then I realized I was on a pretty populated street, and there were people around me.  I started asking people for help, asking people to call 911.  Most people ignored me, acted as if they could neither see nor hear me, didn’t even flinch away or glance in my direction.  I didn’t exist.  One man laughed at me.  Two men said they didn’t get involved in couples’ problems.  Couples’ problems.  As if anything about that scene looked like a couple having a disagreement.

I understand why the women who passed didn’t step in.  That man had already devolved to violent behavior.  I don’t think I would have stepped in, either.  But I would have stayed there.  I would have engaged the woman and called 911 as she’d asked me to do.  I would have let that man know that he had a witness to his harassment and that it wasn’t cool.  And I’m willing to bet that, one person stopping might have emboldened other people to stop, and that an audience might (might) have pushed that man to let go of me.

But no one stopped.  No one stopped.

I wish I didn’t have to stop here and say this, but I have to stop here and say this: every single person who walked by me yesterday was white or looked white.  The man in my face was white or looked white.  And that was when I my fear of the man shifted over to fear of what could happen to me if the police did come.  I wasn’t as tall as that man, but I am definitely bigger.  I could imagine police officers seeing me and seeing Eric Garner, seeing Eleanor Bumpurs, seeing a big black person who needed to be subdued, not bothering to see that I was the person being assaulted.

I shouldn’t have to fear men messing with me in the street.  And I shouldn’t have to fear the people who are supposed to protect me from men messing with me in the street.  Shouldn’t.  Do.

This whole scene didn’t take very long, from the moment he grabbed me up to this point was maybe only 20 or 30 seconds.  It felt much, much longer.

A group of black teenagers walked up and one asked if I knew the man.  I said I didn’t, and they immediately stepped between us got him off me and away from me, formed a shield between him and me.  They tended me — was I okay, had he hurt me, what did I want to do, did I want them to travel with me.  The man ran and two of the boys were going to go after him, but I stopped them.  I wasn’t going to be the reason for someone misinterpreting the sight of two young black men chasing a white man down the street.  More things I shouldn’t have to worry about.  But do.

The boys — because really, they were babies, maybe 15-17 years old — walked me to the subway and were ready to throw off whatever their plans for the afternoon had been to see me safely wherever I was going, but I said no.  Those boys were beautiful and fine and exactly the kind of men you want every man to be.  And I thank all of the people who raised and shaped them. And I didn’t mind at all that they called me “ma’am.”  I don’t know what would have happened if they hadn’t been coming up the block.

I was badly frightened by that man.  And I was angry.  Angry at him for not seeing me, for seeing only a female body that he felt he had control over.  Angry at him for putting his hands on me.  Angry at the people who wouldn’t help me.  Angry at every one of them who pretended not to see or hear me.  More than a dozen people passed me.  More than a dozen people ignored (or mocked) my call for help.  And I understand fear of putting yourself in danger.  But practically every one of those people had their phones in their hands (for all I know, someone put my street assault on Instagram).  It would have been an easy thing to call 911.  Just hearing someone make a 911 call would surely have sent that man packing.

I want to believe I was mistaken in my fear of the police, but how can I be?  There are too many stories that back up my fear.  There is Marlene Pinnock as just the latest example of black women not being any safer from police violence than black men.

_____

I want this post to be more articulate (yes, I used that word).  I think I am still too close to yesterday.  Retelling the story gives me a stomach ache and I lose sight of the points I want to be making.  I keep coming back to this: I shouldn’t have to fear men messing with me in the street.  And I shouldn’t have to fear the people who are supposed to protect me from men messing with me in the street.  And I shouldn’t have to fear that expressing my absolutely valid and appropriate anger sets me up to look like an aggressor, to fit someone’s stereotype of a loud, angry black woman, to make me someone to be ignored.  All the things I shouldn’t fear.  Shouldn’t.  Do.

Something that doesn’t give me a stomach ache?  Those boys.  Those boys who have probably been stopped and frisked all kinds of times.  Those boys who saw a bad situation and knew they could do something about it.  Seven children — all loose limbs and baggy pants and over-long muscle shirts and ball caps and big hair (one of the boys had a gorgeous afro!) — seven children stepped up.

__________

I’ve been away for a LONG time, but today is a Slice-of-Life Tuesday, and the slicers are going strong over at Two Writing Teachers!

Click over and see what everyone else is up to!

SOL image 2014

Speak the Word

Speak the Word (excerpt)

These weakened knees
Have not touched ground or pew in ages
I haven’t bowed my head
To offer thanks to any god or to ask for favors
But watch me now
I’m falling down
Praying
To speak the word that precedes bliss
To speak the word
To speak the word

— Tracy Chapman

The poem I wanted to share tonight is less gentle.  Today Staceyann Chin responded to some of the hateful, misogynistic filth that was flung at her.  She posted an amazing poem that blew back my hair, blew my mind, blew the haters out of the water.  Rather than post it here with a content warning, I’ve linked to it and will encourage you to read every amazing word.  Just as I couldn’t believe the racist tweets I wrote about last week, I can’t believe the disgusting things people (okay, men) say to Chin.  What I can believe is how she doesn’t take their crap sitting down, how she won’t sit down, sit back, hold back.  She goes hard, with a fire and eloquence I can only dream about.  How grateful am I that her voice is in the world?

__________

So it’s poetry month.  Poetry month and I’ve saddled myself with another challenge, not just the write-a-poem-every-day challenge, which would be a big enough mountain to climb.  I seem wed to the idea of writing one of these Zeno poems every day (or until I collapse under the strain of it).  To recap, here are the syllable and rhyme patterns of the Zeno:

8/4/2/1/4/2/1/4/2/1
a/b/c/d/e/f/d/g/h/d

Got it?  Yeah.  Like Othello: a minute to learn, a lifetime to master and all that.  As almost always happens with these challenges, I did okay in my first attempt.  I like the poem I wrote after making the mandala at the WE LEARN conference.  But then it all went down hill.  So very far down.

But I am nothing if not dogged in my pursuit of impossible goals.  I had already done a month of tankas when I borrowed this idea from Sonia Sanchez two years ago.  I liked the idea because writing the same form over and over again every day for a month seemed like a kind of meditation, a window into a lot more than how to write that particular form.  The last three years have shown me that there can be breakthrough moments in this month for me.  The tanka month in 2009 was full of surprises, but even the painfully difficult Rhyme Royale month in 2010 and last year’s excruciating Nove Otto month gave me a few cloud-parting flashes of inspiration.  Surely the Zeno has some hidden gifts just waiting to shower themselves over me.

But not tonight.

fine gauge

my stitches follow one, one more —
knit, yarn-over,
knit two
purl.
patterns taught, learned
as a
girl
each stitch a piece,
story,
world.

Oh, it’s early days.  Still a lot of work to do.  Never mind me.  Go read Staceyann’s amazing piece.  Let her show you how it’s done.