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.

My Body Politic

I sat next to Tanya during math on Wednesday.  She’s had very spotty attendance and I wanted to give her a mini area and perimeter tutorial so she could work with her table group.

We were talking our way through the concept of square mesaures when I noticed that she was looking at me and not at the 1-foot square floor tiles I was using to illustrate the idea.  When she saw I’d caught her staring, she smiled and shook her head.

“Miss Stacie, doesn’t your back hurt?”

“What?  No.  My back is fine.” My brain stuttered for a second, pulling itself out of geometry and trying to make sense of her question.  “What are you talking about?”

Miss.”  She looked at me ‘with meaning’ as the novels say.  She looked hard into my eyes then pointedly down at my chest and back into my eyes.  “Your back doesn’t hurt?”

“Thanks for your concern, but my back is just fine.  So look at this diagram and tell me how we can figure out …”

That wasn’t the first time a student had called attention to the size of my breasts.  Valerie called me out several times when she was my student (quite loudly, using words instead of meaningful glances, I might add).  The focus on my body used to surprise me until I remembered how closely my high school classmates and I scrutinized every aspect of our teachers’ bodies.  What surprises me is the talking.  My classmates and I would NEVER have said anything to a teacher about his or her body.  My current students have absolutely no qualms, no filter that signals what is and isn’t an out-loud comment.

What’s the fascination, really?  I might understand it if my body was more extreme.  If I looked like Dolly Parton or Morganna the Kissing Bandit,  the need for exclamations would be clearer.

But the exclamations are silly, aren’t they?  Can anyone imagine that I have yet to notice my own breasts?  While it’s entirely possible that I might be self-conscious about them, there is no way I couldn’t be aware of them.  I’m not self-conscious, however.  I have a happy, congenial relationship with my breasts.  They’re half of my hourglass, and we get along wonderfully well.

So what to do with these outbursts?  I think it’s important for the girls to see how “non” a reaction their comments get.  When these girls exclaim over my breasts (and it is always the girls … I think the boys would rather cut out their own tongues than say something about my body), there’s something more being noted than my bra size.  These girls are used to being objectified, have been taught to accept that people will make unwanted, too-intimate comments about their bodies, that men will see them as bodies rather than as people.  They’ve learned to be ashamed of their appearance and to hide themselves, or they’ve learned that their appearance is their only value and they display themselves almost to the point of nudity.  How I react when Valerie or Tanya or any of the girls point out my body is a message they need to hear, another kind of lesson for them to learn.

If they want to know if I’m self-conscious or ashamed, I hope my casual responses tell them I’m not (and that they shouldn’t be, either).  Maybe part of the calling attention is about the fact that I look so different from the teachers they are used to seeing.  I know I look not even one small bit like any single teacher from my elementary and high school days.  I had fat teachers.  I even had one black teacher.  But I never had fat teachers who looked at ease with their bodies, who dressed in clothes that were supposed to do more than hide them.  And that one black teacher actually called nappy hair ‘nasty’ the one time she mentioned it at all.   I don’t fit the stereotypes they’ve come to see as truths.  In which case, I hope my casual response says that it’s totally normal to have a big black woman with kinky hair as the instructor and that women like me can do all kinds of jobs (and they can, too).

Maybe it’s just as simple as my students lacking impulse control.  Or wanting to see if they can get a rise out of me.  In either of those cases, my refusal to be unsettled by the questions and comments keeps that conversation from going any further and gets us back to work on the work we’re actually in the room to do.

I have surely not heard the last from Tanya or the other young women I’ll teach in the future.  I don’t love the idea of using my body as a teaching tool, but I don’t hate it, either.  My body isn’t an open topic for conversation, but it is right there for all to see.  Everything about me — where I live, how I live, where I went to school, the music I listen to, the people I have as friends, the way I talk — is part of what I have to teach my students, and that includes what I look like.  I can deny that or pretend not to know it, or I can use it and work with it.  If my calm response helps even one woman feel more at ease with her own body, more accepting of women’s bodies in general, I can accept all the out-of-left-field comments.

_____

Check out the rest of the slices of life over at Stacey and Ruth’s.

(adi)POSE

fat

Last week I had the pleasure of hanging out with several of the ladies who have posed for the adipositivity project. Someone pointed me toward this page a year or so ago, and I was intrigued.  Never would have thought I’d be having pizza with the models, however.

The photographer, who calls herself “Substantia Jones,”  does some really wonderful work.  And the ladies I had dinner with are quite a lot of fun, in addition to being big and beautiful.  They aren’t glamourous (well, ok, one of them was pretty glamourous …), they are ‘regular’ people.  They made me start to think about my own adipositivity … and about whether I could ever pose for Substantia, whether I would ever be able to do that.  Not that I would have to pose nude.  In most photos on the site, the women are clothed.  And not that, if I did pose, you would ever know it was me.  In almost all of the photos, the women’s faces are hidden or out-of-frame.  Posing for Substantia would be entirely about my own experience, about stepping out of my shell, re-embracing the side of me that used to appear in the Mermaid Parade.  I realized, as I looked through the images on the site, that I’ve let mer-Stacie disappear a little.  She hasn’t entirely slipped beneath the surface, but she’s not as front and center as she used to be, either.  Inviting Ms. Jones and her cameras into my cozy little home would definitely serve as a wake-up call …

Missing the Point?

Two of the three men police have been after for the hate-crime murder of José Sucuzhañay have been arrested.¹  No mention is being made of the third man.  Maybe he’s not being sought any longer?

The story of this killing is horrible and terrifying, and every bit of reporting I’ve read about it has reflected that horror and terror.  In some ways I appreciate that, appreciate that news outlets across the board (no, I have no idea what the Post had to say about it) seem to have been completely outraged by the killing of this young man.

But on the other hand … there’s another piece of the reporting that troubles me.  The Sucuzhañay brothers were attacked because their attackers thought they were gay.  Yes, there was anti-Latino anger involved, too, but it’s less likely that the men would have been attacked ‘just’ for being Latino.  It was perceived homosexuality that pulled Hakim Scott, Keith Phoenix and their friend out of that car.  And I’m glad that the killing was reported as a hate crime, that Scott and Phoenix are being charged with murder as a hate crime.  What I’m not loving is the slightly troubling way the words are being put together.

Report after report says the Sucuzhañay brothers were attacked after they were seen walking arm in arm, after their attackers made the assumption that the men were gay … and every report is quick to point out that the brothers aren’t gay.  And in some cases there’s the implication that the reporter is saying, “See?  This is why it was wrong for them to be attacked: they. weren’t. even. gay.”  Which sounds to me like a way of saying it would be ok to beat a man to death if you knew for sure that he was gay.

I don’t really think any of the reporters I’ve been listening to mean to be saying that.  Really I don’t.  But there’s something ugly about the way the detail of  José Sucuzhañay’s straightness is held up to increase our outrage, held up like a banner letting us know that we really should be upset about his death because he “wasn’t even gay.”  As if we shouldn’t be upset that gay people get beaten, raped and murdered because they are gay.  As if there wouldn’t be as much reason to be outraged over the murder of this lovely-seeming young man if, on top of all his other skills, qualities, and successes, he happened to be gay.  As if this whole story isn’t about homophobia.  Rabid, murderous homophobia that continues to go unchecked in our society.

I know that telling us José Sucuzhañay wasn’t gay is part of giving us the facts, part of the objective reporting I keep saying I wish we’d get more of.  But there’s something in the delivery of that fact nine times out of ten that holds the tacit acceptance of gay-bashing.  “Yes, yes, we’d all be upset if a gay man had been beaten to death,” it seems to say, “but come on, you could understand why those guys got out of the car, right?”

I’m wrong on this, I know.  I know.  But I can’t help that this is what I hear in the emphasis on this one point in the story.

Erika at Be Gay About It posted a videoabout the Christian right’s appropriation of the term ‘bashing’ and how their definition of bashing compares to what happens to gays. It’s definitely worth checking out. Near the end of the video, José Sucuzhañay’s story is presented and the host ends by saying, “Now you don’t even have to be gay to be killed for being gay.”

Exactly.  Because whether you’re gay, whether I’m gay, whether anyone you or I know is gay … it doesn’t matter.  There are people out there ready to beat us to death because their irrational fear of homosexuality has been allowed to fester into a killing rage.  And there are a lot of other people out there who either aren’t aware of that fact or don’t have that much of a problem with it.  And how can any of us be ok with that?  How many more Lawrence Kings and Moses Cannons and Steven Parrishes and Ryan Skippers and David Morleys and Michael Causers and José Sucuzhañays do there need to be?

__________

¹  Of the two, Hakim Scott has expressed remorse.  And I can believe that he feels remorse.  If I ever killed a person, no matter how righteous I felt about the killing in the moment, I’d surely feel plenty of remorse later.  But the angry cynic in the back of my head wonders: is he sorry because he killed a man or because the man he killed turned out not to be gay?  Keith Phoenix, however, seems not at all concerned that he killed a man.  Reports of comments he made at his arrest are chilling.

A Girl Like Me

My sister and I had plenty of dolls when we were kids. I think, over time, Fox probably had more than I did, but that could be my bad memory skewing things. I had a lot more stuffed animals, as I recall. We had reasonably aware parents who were interested in our perception of ourselves as black kids … One way I know this is that they bought us socially-conscious toys like “Tamu,” a dashiki-wearing baby doll with an afro who had one of those little pull strings that made her say all sorts of hip things. No, I can’t remember any of the hip things. All I remember is that I deconstructed my Tamu’s voice box to see how it worked … and Fox’s Tamu went wonky, and the only thing she could say after a while was a mash-up of things she had said before, the most fabulous of which was a firmly-declared, “I like Ike!”

We also had a set of hippie dolls. They weren’t marketed that way, exactly, but that’s definitely what they were: Peace, Love, Harmony and Soul in their mini, pucci-print dresses and knee-high boots. “Soul,” of course, was the black doll. She was like ‘Valerie’ from Josie and the Pussycats. And in our games, we definitely assigned her that role: the smart one, the ‘Velma‘ of the gang. Fox had both the Sunshine and Happy Family doll sets. And we both had those giant Barbie heads that you could do hairstyles on, with the hair that would grow out of and be sucked back into a whole in the top of the head. We had the “Chrissy” version — the black girl. One of my first dolls was Holly. She was about two feet tall with blinking eyes and could walk with you if you held her hand … and she was black.

It was clearly very important for our parents to give us dolls who looked at least a little bit like us. We had other dolls, of course, but it wasn’t unusual for us to have black dolls, and we liked them as much as the others, and sometimes more than the others. (I kept Holly until about ten years ago.)

I know Fox and my casual acceptance of black dolls isn’t true for all black girls. Take a look at A Girl Like Me, Kiri Davis’ excellent film short:

It made me smile, made me sad, made me angry. In some ways, I have been all the girls in the film. It’s so fitting that the end credits run over images of girls getting their hair ‘relaxed,’ ‘ironed,’ braided. Hair is so loaded for black women. It’s really only since I cut off my perm and started wearing my hair natural that I began to get past the identity/image issues that the young women talk about on camera. And I was a girl who would have ‘passed’ the doll test, and the issues were still there, dominant-culture bias still infected and affected me.  I wonder how all of this is affecting T.  She has any number of dolls that do and don’t look like her.  She has an unfathomably powerful level of self-esteem, and I want to think that’s enough to help her sail past this garbage.  I hope I’m right.