Take your olive branch and go.

As early as November 9, 2016, there were people saying folks who hadn’t voted from Donald Trump should calm down and give the man a chance before we set our hair on fire. So many think pieces telling us that we needed to understand Trump supporters better, that we had ignored these racist assholes people at our peril. Suddenly, all of us who had voted for sanity, American dignity, and a world persona not built on insults, bullying, and hate were being told we were responsible for the outcome of the election because we hadn’t spent enough time cozying up to people who had no trouble voting for a man whose agenda rested atop a mountain of virulent prejudices, ignorance, and lies.

As if.

This week, Roseanne Barr felt comfortable tweeting some racist hate, and a lot of people got very upset about it. There were people contorting themselves to excuse the tweet and people expressing shock and outrage. Both of these response piss me the fuck off.

As a general rule, the moment you flap your lips to defend racism, you’re waving your own “I’m a racist!” flag. There’s no defense for racism that isn’t based in racism. Punto. Anyone dismissing Barr’s tweet as a joke — up to and including Barr herself, of course — proclaimed themselves a racist. Racism is never a joke. It is never meant to be a joke. It is always meant to tear down, to demean, to dehumanize, to harm.

But I was just as angered by the shocked and outraged crowd, the people who were incapable of believing Barr could have said anything so awful, that she could really have meant what she said. First of all, shut up. Who, exactly, do you think believes you? Barr has been a raging fireball of crassly-expressed hate for a LONG time. Her tweet about Valerie Jarrett was fully in keeping with who she has shown herself to be over and over again. To say that you are shocked by that tweet says that you are either a) one of those non-Black people who has been comfortable not noticing or acknowledging anti-Black racism because it didn’t affect you directly and Black folks are so sensitive and need to stop seeing racism in every little thing, or b) one of those non-Black people who has been shocked and outraged every time … and believes that’s the extent of your necessary response, that claiming shock and outrage brands you as not-a-racist and so your work is done and you can go back to your regularly-scheduled programming.

The reboot of Roseanne’s show — a show I loved in its original run — was heralded as an olive branch, a way to reach out to those angry, hate-mongering, butt-hurt white folks who had voted for Trump … and a way to make those same people sympathetic to the rest of us. Putting the ugliness of voting for a man who is bent on destroying this country into the warm and lovable characters we all laughed along with decades ago was supposed to bring us together, bridge the growing divide that makes holiday dinners prickly.

And now Roseanne Barr has brought all that olive-branch-y beauty crashing down in a burning pile of rubble.

Damn racism. It’ll do that every time.

*

I didn’t watch the reboot. People tell me it was funny, and I’m willing to believe that. Why wouldn’t it be funny … you know, if you could ignore the fact of Barr being a racist troll playing a racist troll. I wasn’t interested. (In truth, none of the recent reboots have interested me. The only one I’d buy popcorn for would be the return of Living Single. I’m ready for that, ABC. You’ve got room in your schedule … ijs)

But let’s be clear: the return of Roseanne was never going to bridge any divides. It wasn’t an olive branch, it was a ratings sponge, a money-maker for ABC. Full stop.

In an era of reboots, ABC saw a chance to cash in and did. Big time. They knew what they were getting with Roseanne Barr. They either didn’t care or decided to take a chance that she would be more interested in the warm glow of fan love than the harsh glare of criticism. But Roseanne Barr is a racist white woman, and lord knows, racist white women have a pretty solid track record for spewing hate, and the warm glow of fan love couldn’t hold that back.

And, as ABC knew what it was getting with Barr, Barr knew what she was doing with that tweet. She was banking not only on her celebrity and her history of getting away with shit, but on her white womanhood. Once the shock and outrage started, she could call up some white fragility, say she was only making a joke for Pete’s sake and wait for the storm clouds to clear.

While I can’t say I’m surprised that Barr felt safe — she’s gotten away with this in the past, so why wouldn’t she feel safe? — I also can’t quite believe her stupidity. After all, ABC’s president is a Black woman, and it should surely have been a given that Channing Dungey wasn’t going to laugh off that tweet. (Dungey might, however, have had a good laugh at the Sanofi US tweet after Barr blamed Ambien for her racism. I know I laughed loud and long. Sanofi’s tweet was world class, A-level shade, a firm “not today, Satan” clapback. (And I like to think she’d have been amused by my response: that I hoped Barr was fired in time to run over to Starbucks to get in on that anti-bias training.))

I don’t much care about Roseanne Barr. She’ll be fine, and she certainly neither needs nor wants my care or gives a single shit about what I think. I do have questions for her cast members, however. For Sara Gilbert and her “we’ve created a show that we believe in” nonsense. For John Goodman and his silence followed by his ridiculous “I don’t know nothing ’bout no Twitter,” craptasticness.

Gilbert’s tweet reminded me of Carl Reiner’s priceless tweet after the 2016 election. He told us so much with his:

I, a Jew, was willing to give Trump a chance til I heard his cheif [sic]of staff say he’d not allow his kids to go to a school if Jews attended.

As Myles E. Johnson said so brilliantly in response:

translation: I was willing to empower whiteness/white supremacy until I learned that I may not be considered white in the white imagination.

Reiner’s tweet really was priceless, the encapsulation of the many liberal white folks who felt the need to tell me and mine to shut up and give the agent of destruction a chance. These were the people who reconciled themselves to my annihilation because they assumed their whiteness would shield them. Reiner’s tweet was the 2016 version of the Martin Niemöller “First they came for” quote.

Gilbert’s tweet called attention to the behind the scenes people who were impacted by the cancellation. Maybe that was a way to show us her compassion, her broader world view, her concern for the “family” of the production team. Mostly what her tweet said to me was that the Blacks should just shake it off, sit down, shut up and let her keep getting paid reprising the only role she’s ever played.

As for John Goodman, his statement that he’d “rather say nothing than to cause more trouble”  is pretty bizarre. What does it mean? The way I see it, there are a two possibilities:

  1. He’d rather say nothing than say something that would defend Barr and indicate that he’s a racist, too.
  2. He’d rather say nothing than say something condemning Barr’s tweet and risk pissing off a woman who has been and could again in the future be a source of income for him.

Or maybe there’s a third option: He’s rather say nothing that double down and make a series of equally if not more racist “jokes” to show us that Barr’s tweet wasn’t that bad.

And then his strange, undefined-antecedent comment:

“I don’t know anything about it. I don’t read it.”

I’ll just say that I am on Twitter about once every 43 years, and I knew about this story within an hour or two of all this mess jumping off. Goodman didn’t want to get involved and thought pretending he didn’t know anything about what was happening would be the appropriate shield. The trouble with that — other than making him sound like both a liar and a fool — is that he’s been involved. There’s no way he couldn’t be involved. He agreed to be in this show, agreed to go back to work with this woman, and she has been exactly who she is for many years. His signing onto the reboot was his agreeing to look the other way. There’s no pretending that you’re outside the mess. You cosigned the mess.

And Laurie Metcalf? No idea what that story is. Maybe she, like Goodman, didn’t want to get involved and, unlike him, managed to actually keep quiet during all the drama. Apparently, however, she’s joining Gilbert and Goodman in the push to get paid for the Season 2 that will never be. Really. Asking ABC for that cash. But shouldn’t it be your homegirl who ponies up? She’s the one who cost you your paycheck.

*

The entire dumpster fire of this story. But really, the dumpster fire isn’t Roseanne or Gilbert, Goodman, and Metcalf. It’s all of us. It’s how comfortable Roseanne felt posting that dehumanizing tweet about Jarrett. It’s how quick folks were to jump up and shout their support for her first amendment rights barely a week after applauding the NFL’s decision to silence Black men’s freedom of expression. It’s the everyday-ness of anti-Black racism and the unsurprising surprise of non-Black folks (but primarily white folks) when they are called on their shit.

ABC canceled a show. I applaud the decision, but there is still all the work to be done, all the everything to be done. The needle on dismantling structural racism doesn’t move because one racist gets slapped down. The slap is satisfying, but nothing has changed.


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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Summarizing Deadly Distraction

 

I struggled to find a source text tonight. I tried to avoid politics, and specifically Trump’s Friday the 13th actions. No such luck. In the end I had to find my way back here. It’s hard culling text from his words. I have worked so hard to avoid hearing him speak, to avoid reading his transcripts. I had quite the gag reaction reading this speech.

Precision Strikes
(An erasure of Donald Trump’s address to the nation, 4/13/18.)

I ordered forces to launch
weapons combined
now under way.
Innocent people responded,
again.
Weapons, innocent civilians,
escalation.
A pattern of weapons.
Thrashing and gasping,
actions, crimes, horrors.
Suffering (even small amounts)
can establish production and interest.
The response,
all instruments of power,
stops the most responsible.
I will say what is necessary.
Friendships take greater resources,
indefinite presence, contributions,
no illusions.
We purge everywhere there is
peace and security,
a troubled place,
fate.
The darkest places,
the anguish, the evil.
Righteous power and brutality.

Say a prayer
for dignity and peace.


It’s National Poetry Month! Every year, I choose a specific form and try to write a poem a day in that form. This year, I am trying erasure poems and I want to use news articles as my source texts. I’ve practiced a few times, and it’s already feeling difficult! We’ll see how it goes.

Here’s an edited version of the Wiki definition of this form:
Erasure Poetry: a form of found poetry created by erasing words from an existing text in prose or verse and framing the result on the page as a poem. Erasure is a way to give an existing piece of writing a new set of meanings, questions, or suggestions. It lessens the trace of authorship but requires purposeful decision making. What does one want done to the original text? Does a gesture celebrate, denigrate, subvert, or efface the source completely? One can erase intuitively by focusing on musical and thematic elements or systematically by following a specific process regardless of the outcome.
Also, Robert Lee Brewer at Writer’s Digest has some good points to add about ethics and plagiarism:
Quick note on ethics: There is a line to be drawn between erasure poems and plagiarism. If you’re not erasing more than 50% of the text, then I’d argue you’re not making enough critical decisions to create a new piece of art. Further, it’s always good form to credit the original source for your erasures.

Image result for national poetry month
Washington International School

Under the Influence

Despite napping through most of the day, I’m still exhausted from my street photog exploits and needed source text that would practically turn itself into an erasure poem and still express how I feel. So, yes, I went right back to Charles M. Blow.

Governed by ‘Fox & Friends’
(An erasure of Charles M. Blow’s Op-Ed.)

Predictably shallow,
tilted, exploitative.
Idiotic with chipper venom.
Simpering maleficence.
Fox, the disinformation machine,
the carnival propaganda tool
parroting conservative policies.
Whispering in the ear of the king,
fluffing his feathers.
For Trump, a high-definition ego fix.
The impact is undeniable.
Trump is tweeting what he sees,
Even using their exact language.
The president of the United States, taking cues.
America, governed by the dimmest,
most unscrupulous.
The thought is horror-inducing.

I’ll have photos to share — and with any luck, a better poem — tomorrow. I appreciate Charles M. Blow for having my back tonight, sharing and opinion piece that seemed to come directly from my own feelings.


It’s National Poetry Month! Every year, I choose a specific form and try to write a poem a day in that form. This year, I am trying erasure poems and I want to use news articles as my source texts. I’ve practiced a few times, and it’s already feeling difficult! We’ll see how it goes.

Here’s an edited version of the Wiki definition of this form:
Erasure Poetry: a form of found poetry created by erasing words from an existing text in prose or verse and framing the result on the page as a poem. Erasure is a way to give an existing piece of writing a new set of meanings, questions, or suggestions. It lessens the trace of authorship but requires purposeful decision making. What does one want done to the original text? Does a gesture celebrate, denigrate, subvert, or efface the source completely? One can erase intuitively by focusing on musical and thematic elements or systematically by following a specific process regardless of the outcome.
Also, Robert Lee Brewer at Writer’s Digest has some good points to add about ethics and plagiarism:
Quick note on ethics: There is a line to be drawn between erasure poems and plagiarism. If you’re not erasing more than 50% of the text, then I’d argue you’re not making enough critical decisions to create a new piece of art. Further, it’s always good form to credit the original source for your erasures.

Image result for national poetry month
Washington International School

Saturday Night Social

I spent today busy with the 24 Hour Project. I wasn’t sure I could handle the non-sleeping, body-punishing walking, photo- and story-finding work of that challenge and make a poem, but Jezebel saved me.

I worked my erasure differently today. I’m not sure the result does what it should, but I have a poem and I’m sticking to it!

Saturday Night Social
(An erasure of a Jezebel article about Sotheby’s auction of a codpiece.)

White House hoopla fades
into the drunken oblivion of evening.
(After intense bidding, I suppose.)
But when you turn it around,
maybe it’s just the kind of gag item
the wealthy pass around.
Shit has its way
of making you examine
things that are essential —
and things that are not.
Career stuff, stuff collected,
stuff in general.
Boxes in the spirit,
a collection of stuff.

 


 

It’s National Poetry Month! Every year, I choose a specific form and try to write a poem a day in that form. This year, I am trying erasure poems and I want to use news articles as my source texts. I’ve practiced a few times, and it’s already feeling difficult! We’ll see how it goes.

Here’s an edited version of the Wiki definition of this form:
Erasure Poetry: a form of found poetry created by erasing words from an existing text in prose or verse and framing the result on the page as a poem. Erasure is a way to give an existing piece of writing a new set of meanings, questions, or suggestions. It lessens the trace of authorship but requires purposeful decision making. What does one want done to the original text? Does a gesture celebrate, denigrate, subvert, or efface the source completely? One can erase intuitively by focusing on musical and thematic elements or systematically by following a specific process regardless of the outcome.
Also, Robert Lee Brewer at Writer’s Digest has some good points to add about ethics and plagiarism:
Quick note on ethics: There is a line to be drawn between erasure poems and plagiarism. If you’re not erasing more than 50% of the text, then I’d argue you’re not making enough critical decisions to create a new piece of art. Further, it’s always good form to credit the original source for your erasures.

Image result for national poetry month
Washington International School

Toby or Not Toby

Today, on this first day of spring, we’re gearing up for yet another winter storm, the fourth nor’easter this month! This one, Toby, apparently has more ugly potential than the last three. Fun times!

I may be the only person in the city who had no idea a storm was on the way. I didn’t know until one of my coworkers sent an email about it this morning, and didn’t see that email until I was halfway to work, so I didn’t have storm-starting-before-the-end-of-the-workday supplies with me. No umbrella, no super-warm scarf, no hood zipped onto my coat. Annoying.

Furthermore, unlike the happy and healthy state of my kitchen before Quinn (the first of these storms), I needed to do a little shopping on my way home. I didn’t get much, but I feel much more prepared: pie crusts so I can make quiche, ice cream and raw cashews because … whyever not, some pretty produce, and some hummus. I really have to learn what you’re supposed to buy when you stock up. That list doesn’t seem at all right, despite being exactly what I wanted. But let’s be honest: I really only have to be stocked to make it through Wednesday.

The real point here is how over all of this winter storm business I am. So totally over it. It’s the vernal equinox, for pity’s sake! We should already be making that sweet, smooth turn from like-a-lion to like-a-lamb.

It was sleeting by the time I came up from the subway and walked to the grocery store, those little ice pellets telling their own story about how fab this storm could be.

Feh. That is all I have to say in the face of Toby. Feh.


It’s the annual Slice of Life Story Challenge over at Two Writing Teachers! With hundreds of folks participating, there’s more than a little something for everyone … and plenty of room for you to join in!

Airing my dirty laundry …

At the end of December, I moved house. Goodbye to the many-splendored joys of living in Crown Heights, and hello to … Sunset Park! I’ve moved to south Brooklyn, to a neighborhood with which I already have a love relationship, having worked here happily for a dozen years. Sunset Park is a wonderful community. And my apartment is beautiful. And I have unobstructed views from my windows to let in sunlight and starshine and all of that.

BUT

My heart remains … if not fully broken, then still badly bruised. I realized just before Christmas that my response to having to leave my Crown Heights home was translated in my body to the response I have after a break up. I was grieving a lost love, licking my wounds, crying myself a river. Leaving Crown Heights was breaking my heart.

I wish I’d figured that out sooner. My move would have been far less difficult. All the while I was pining, I wasn’t doing any packing. So I didn’t start getting shit into boxes until three days before the move. Seriously. Three days. To pack a large apartment with a 10-year accumulation of mess.

Predictably, I failed. And failed on a luminously-technicolor scale. The movers arrived on the morning of the 30th, and maybe a hair more than half my house was ready to go. When that happens, what it means is that the movers pack your stuff. When that happens, what it means is that your things go into giant boxes any which way, and there’s no handy labeling of anything so you end up not knowing where things are.

It also means I let the truck head for the new place knowing that I hadn’t packed much of the kitchen or finished the closets in my bedroom or front hall. And that was stupid, but I just couldn’t bear to take any more time getting things in the truck, couldn’t bear to have strangers—men—pack my clothes, my underwear and bras. Couldn’t bear to have them handling my world of purses and scarves, my jewelry.

When that happens, it means you spend the better part of the next two days schlepping back to your old apartment to pack the things you left behind and cart those things in (expensive) cabs to your new apartment.

Sigh.

This was the worst move of my life. No question.

There’s one way this move could have gone more smoothly. Many friends offered to help me pack. They understood that I didn’t have much time between signing my lease and move-in day, and some of them knew I have a shoulder injury that would make packing difficult. So they stepped up.

I turned them all down.

I had so many reasons. I wanted to be able to sort through everything, do some enormous culling of my possessions so I could move with less stuff. I wanted to have the boxes organized and carefully labeled. Also, and most importantly, I totally underestimated the amount of stuff I own … which happens when you’re not paying full attention because you’re busy grieving your lost love. When everything’s put away, it doesn’t look like all that much. Start pulling things out of cabinets and cubbies … and you suddenly have ten fucking years’ worth of accumulate to somehow cram into far too few boxes.

But all of this—while also true—is just the story I told myself about why I couldn’t accept help. The real story is uglier, sadder.

*

I recently contributed an essay to Wendy Angulo’s “Lifting the Burden of Shame” project. Very specifically, I wrote about the shame I was taught to feel about being Black. So much of that essay seemed to fall out of my pen. But there was also the part that snuck up on me and smacked me upside the head … with a sledgehammer.

I thought I was aware of the ways and places shame manifested in my life. The ways and places it still manifests in my life. Writing that essay showed me how wrong I was, how sneaky and insidious shame is. That sounds obvious, but it surprised me all the same.

Writing that essay and then getting myself moved also made me think of Cisneros’ “A Smart Cookie” in The House on Mango Street, of Esperanza’s mother stirring oatmeal at the stove, angry, saying, “Shame is a bad thing, you know. It keeps you down.” So far down. So firmly down. So adeptly down that you don’t notice the damage until someone or something slaps you hard enough to wake you up, force you to see the hole you’ve allowed yourself to dig, the dirt and leaves you’re covering yourself with.

 

Yeah. What does this have to do with the hell of my moving? Everything. Every last thing. I couldn’t accept anyone’s offer of help because of shame, because I didn’t want any of those people—my friends—to see me.

People think they know me. I’m a middle-aged Black woman with a fair amount of education, a sense of humor, some creative skills. But I’m like Dorian Gray and his creepy-ass portrait, looking good on the outside … but behind the scenes I’m all chaos and disaster, oozing noxious slime. Behind the scenes is the real me, and the real me is a mess.

To let people come help me pack would have meant letting them see the slovenly way I keep house, letting them see that I am a borderline hoarder, letting them see how not at all together I actually am. It was easier to have the worst move of my life, to spend hundreds of dollars I couldn’t afford on cabs than to expose my shamefully disorganized, dirty, disgusting underbelly to people who like and respect me.

*

Was my shame-induced hiding successful? Of course not. Yes, the movers got to see me, but they were strangers I’d never see again, so I could manage the mortification their judgment caused. No. One of my friends came on moving day morning, and instead of helping oversee the move-in end of things, she wound up spending hours—HOURS—packing, seeing my mess, dealing with dirt and trash.

My heart ached the whole time. How was our friendship supposed to survive everything she had to see?

I tried talking to my mom about it the next day when she asked why I hadn’t invited help. She told me, unsurprisingly, that I was being overly hard on myself, that everyone has dirt and dust behind their bookcases, that no one’s house looks good when you start stripping away the decorative distractions. And I love her for that … but I don’t think she understood the true state of my apartment.

This terror of having anyone see my filthy house, it’s more than just shame. It feels connected to Impostor Syndrome. I present as someone who has her shit more or less together, and letting people see how badly I keep house lays bare that lie, makes plain just how much I don’t have together, opens the door to questions about what else in my life is in utter disarray, what else in my life I’m lying about.

 

Welp. My ugly secret is exposed. As he wheeled my bed down the hall to my new bedroom, the mover looked at me and nodded. “This is a nice apartment,” he said. I could imagine the rest of his thought: “And you’re going to fill it with crap and keep it as badly as you did the old one, aren’t you?”

*

So I’m in my new apartment, in my new neighborhood. I finally finished the move last weekend, bringing the final things from the old place, and I have begun to settle in—my kitchen is unpacked, I’ve broken down a bunch of boxes, my cats no longer spend hours in hiding. It’ll be a long time before I begin to feel settled. How long will it be before I begin to root out and deal with my shame? Unpacking is slow and exhausting. Eradicating shame is work. But it’s clearly time I got down to it.

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!