The Trouble with Columbus

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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


In 2017, I took up Vanessa Mártir’s #52essays2017 challenge to write an essay a week. I didn’t complete 52 essays by year’s end, but I did write like crazy, more in 2017 than in 2015 and 2016 combined! I’ve decided to keep working on personal essays, keep at this #GriotGrind. If you’d care to join in, it’s never too late! You can find our group on FB: #52Essays Next Wave.

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Happy, Nappy, Proud

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

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

Your Fave Would Never

I wrote this essay a few weeks ago. I sent it around to a handful of outlets, but it didn’t get picked up, so I’m posting it here. Sadly–though entirely unsurprisingly–the subject remains current.

__________

In response to the calling out of predators in entertainment, media, politics, sports, and all over the damn where, a Yashar Ali tweet linked to a satirical news story saying Tom Hanks had been revealed … as being extremely kind. The actress’ claims refer to her time working with Hanks on The DaVinci Code. She states: “The entire time I was on set he repeatedly exposed himself to me as a thoroughly decent human being.”

It’s funny—or almost funny—but also annoying and problematic. I understand the urge to call attention to (put on a pedestal) the men you think are above this fray, men who would never, ever be implicated in anything like any of the accusations we’ve heard. I do get it. But it’s troubling, too.

Because you have no idea. None.

Yes, there were apparently a raft of open secrets about many of these scumbag men. But there are also accusations being made against men who don’t come with open secrets. And those accusations shock us in large part because we’ve been loving on these men for years, long enough to believe we knew them.

And that was our mistake. We never knew those men.

We so want there to be men who aren’t horrible—if only to affirm our belief in our ability to assess character, to choose friends, to read people. And, of course, there are men who aren’t horrible … but we don’t get to decide who falls into that category. We don’t get to designate who the “good” men are based simply on whether or not we like them. Do I want to believe Tom Hanks isn’t an abusive lout? Of course. Do I know he isn’t an abusive lout? Nope.

That “news” piece is meant to be a joke, but it annoys me because, while it’s giving Hanks a nod to let him know he is loved and trusted … at least by the person who wrote it, it is also telling a woman who might have something to say that she won’t be believed because we all “know” Hanks would never.

One of the things this moment is making clear is how many women have been silenced and how effectively. The story about Hanks plays into the silencing—surely not intentionally, but intention has to take a backseat to impact.

The other thing I’ve been seeing in the last week is women starting to name men they are holding their breath over, men they hope against hope aren’t going to get pulled into this particular spotlight. I could make one of these lists, too—Bill Withers, Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Mark Ruffalo, Anthony Mackie, Goran Višnjić, Viggo Mortensen, Danny Glover, Denzel …

There is no point to this list-making. Of course we don’t want to learn that the actors or musicians or socially-conscious businessmen we love as assholes. But what is true is that we don’t know. We don’t know at all.

George Takei was accused. When I read that, I had to consciously fight my urge to dismiss the accuser. I surprised myself each time I had to do that. How could I so readily believe the women who’d come forward but dismiss this man and give Takei a pass? The voice in my head just kept saying: “But Takei would never …”

Yeah. But I don’t know that, do I?

Don’t forget: these famous, celebrity men we want to believe the best of are beloved because of the characters we’ve seen them play or the public personas we’ve seen them project.

Don’t forget: we don’t even know the men we think we actually know. Take Bob, a young man who was a favorite counselor at the summer camp I attended for years. I certainly thought I knew Bob, but he turned out to be a man who would sidle up to 13-year-old me and ask if I sold sex and for how much.

And of course there’s also Alain, a man I was friends with who raped me after a night of running around the city laughing and dancing and—I thought—enjoying our city and our friendship.

My point is that we want to believe our faves would never, but we can’t know that. A man can only prove he’s not a predator by not being one, so we can never know. We can never know. Alain never seemed like a rapist any of the times we went to dinner and hung out talking about our plans for our lives and where we imagined traveling and what work we thought we’d do. He just seemed like any guy I enjoyed being friends with. He was just any guy.

They are all just any guy. Until they’re not. If they looked like predators, we’d know to steer clear of them. They know that. And we have to know it, too.

I don’t fault the women who are posting names of the celebrities they hope no one steps up to accuse. My own list can go on and on. It can, actually, include every man who hasn’t yet been accused because I don’t want there to be any more predators.

But I know better. I know—as much as I hate knowing—that my fave … might. And yours might, too.


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!

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!

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.

Bad Brain

In kindergarten, one of my classmates saw it as his special mission to teach me all the ways Black folks (“you coloreds,” in his words) were inferior to whites and just generally bad, wrong, non-human. Every day, he shared some new “fact” about Black people: we were talking monkeys, if God cared about us, we’d be white. And on and on.

Kindergarten. I was the only Black child in my class, one of maybe six Black kids in the whole school. It was a fun time.

One day, as he was telling me some racist, bullshit “fact” about what I was, I wrote his name on a piece of paper and showed it to him. I said something along the lines of, “And this is what we know you are.”

I don’t know why I did that, what I thought would happen, what I wanted to prove. These many years later I am convinced I was conducting a science experiment. That boy had been telling me, repeatedly, that I was dumb, that all Black people were dumb. But I could read and write, and I knew that he couldn’t. I was the only child in the class who could, which won me solo reading time while everyone else was being taught their letters.

I think I wrote out that boy’s name to prove—to both of us, like as not—that I was not the one who was dumb.

He looked at the paper, grabbed it from me and brought it to Mrs. Moore, our teacher, to tattle on me.

“Look what she did,” he said, presenting the damning evidence of my early literacy.

Mrs. Moore, conveniently (or willfully) oblivious to the racist drama that was my day to day, looked at the paper and said how nice it was that I had written his name.

That was the first time I used my education to make myself feel superior. I don’t know how I knew that was something that would make me feel better in that moment, but I knew it would. And it did.

That was the first time, but definitely not the last.

In fourth grade, I started a new school. On that first day, one nice, gentle boy went out of his way to welcome me and make me feel less like an outsider. It was a relief to have someone befriend me so quickly.

At lunch that day, a group of kids approached my new friend and me. They were fronted by a large, tough-looking Black girl. They stopped in front of us and the girl, pointing at my friend, asked me, “You like him?”

It was, of course, instantly clear that I shouldn’t like him, that he was not someone other kids liked or accepted. If I said I liked him, I might be saying goodbye to the chance of having any other friends. And it was only lunch on day one. But how could I say I didn’t like him? He was the only person who’d been friendly to me. The kids in front of us were unknown quantities—and also didn’t seem particularly nice or friendly. I could spurn my friend and still end up shunned by other kids.

I had already determined that kids in that new school weren’t smart. They didn’t know things I knew, didn’t seem interested in reading or school, didn’t pronounce basic words correctly. So I used my words. Did I like that boy? “In some circumstances yes,” I said. “And in some circumstances no.” My friend heard the “yes,” the bullies heard the “no.” As I’d hoped, no one knew what a “circumstance” was. They accepted the answers they’d chosen to hear, and I was safe.

And again, not the last time I would use what I saw as my being smarter than other kids to protect myself.

So what is that about, that immediate transformation into that snobby smart kid who lords her cleverness over others, looks down on them because she knows something they don’t?

That’s a pretty ugly thing to see and know about myself. Yes, I was a child in those instances I recounted. Sure, but there were other instances in my adolescence and teens. It’s also true that my ugliness surfaced when my back was up, when I felt attacked. Okay.

But … it’s still problematic.

*

I grew up and became a teacher, first of high school seniors then of adults learning to read, adults studying for their high school equivalency exam. I was fiercely supportive and protective of my students, particularly the adults, clapping back whenever some fool asked if my students hadn’t learned to read or finished high school because they were “lazy or just retarded,” the two options I was offered again and again.

I came down on those people like a vengeful harpy. How dare they make assumptions about the grit, intelligence, value, strength of the fabulous people I got to work with. I invited them to stop and tally up the raft of privileges that made it possible for them to learn in the school systems they had access to, the privileges that enabled them to complete high school and go on to college.

I got angry not only because I loved my students but because I had learned something child me hadn’t understood: literacy, a big vocabulary, success in school, love of reading … these things quite often have absolutely nothing to do with level of intelligence. Neither do knowledge of history, science, literature, or math. These things all have to do with education, and to look down on someone because they’re less educated is disgusting.

I wish someone had said a word or two to child me about any of this. I grew up poor but so privileged. I grew up in a family that prized reading. It’s not surprising that I was a reader before kindergarten because there were books everywhere in my home. My brother, sister, and I were read to and encouraged to read all the time. I grew up in a family where school was prioritized and any other responsibilities could be made secondary to getting that education. I never had to put my needs aside to help care for a crew of younger children, never had to worry about finding a quiet place to study in a too-full house or apartment. I was able to go to a summer camp that introduced me to worlds of new ideas to explore, that encouraged my creativity and taught me skills I couldn’t have learned at home. I grew up with both of my parents—at least in the beginning—and my mother very attentively at home for most of those years. I grew up with enough food on the table. I grew up without experiencing violence or witnessing violence in my home or neighborhood. I grew up in a community that had clean drinking water and access to healthy food.

I could go on. I was fortunate in the circumstances of my childhood. Incredibly fortunate. Was I a smart kid? Maybe. Most likely. But I wasn’t exceptional in that way. What I was was lucky to have the family I did in the places where I lived, to have been able to learn in the ways I was taught and to have access to schools and libraries.

Child me believed education equaled intelligence and put a lot of store in braininess. Being smart was one thing that couldn’t be taken from me and the one thing that—even if someone mocked me for it—I never felt ashamed of. I was made to question the value of my color, myself as a girl, my belonging each time we moved to a new town, my attractiveness to boys, my body, my hair. So many things about me weren’t “right” or acceptable, were outside the norm.

But my education, my smartness, that was mine. I could control it, I could grow it. Yes, of course there were folks who were smarter than I was. But that didn’t take anything from me, just inspired me to learn more things. No one could touch my smartness. I wrapped myself in it whenever anyone came for me. I might have been ugly, brown, nappy-headed, fat … but I was smart. And, nine times out of ten, I was smarter than whoever was working on bullying me, and my Big Bad Brain saved me again and again.

I’m not proud of assessing my long-ago classmates and deciding they were dumb. Grown me would not use that calculus. But child me used what she had, and I am grateful I had that. I was never truly bullied, not in the horrifying truth of bullying that we see today. And part of that is surely because the kids I grew up with weren’t that cruel. And part of it was because the act of bullying hadn’t been honed into a killing tool when I was a kid. But part of it was also because my brain, my own brand of Jedi mind tricks, allowed me to navigate potentially rough waters.

I’m not proud, but I can at least be glad that I kept most of my ugly thoughts to myself. I didn’t talk down to people or call them out for not being whatever “smart” meant at any given moment. I was a pretty shy, quiet kid. Calling people out didn’t become part of my repertoire until much later. My bad behavior was mostly happening in my head. That doesn’t excuse my incorrect assessment of other people’s intelligence, but at least it kept me civil and polite. I let my brain loose on occasion, but only when truly pressed.

I’m not proud of the intellectual snobbery in my past. I worked hard to change that behavior, and I keep a close eye on myself even now. I’m not proud, but I have to remain thankful for it. It served a necessary purpose.

I wrote recently about an experience in high school when two boys were mocking me because I was fat. I wrote that I listened to the way they spoke and concluded that they were dumb. It hurt to write that, to remember that way I had of being in the world. I almost changed what I’d written to make myself look less ugly. I didn’t change it. That was real. Just as those boys looked at my body and decided they knew something about my value, I listened to the way they spoke and decided I knew something about their intelligence.

Obviously, we were all wrong, those boys and I. I’ve spent a lot of time working to be more right in this way. The difficulty I had writing about my part in that incident tells me I still have work to do.

 



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 do my best to catch up, to write 52 essays by year’s end.

Three Years On

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

Instead, he is dead.

Instead, he is dead.

Instead, he is dead.

***

But we are not dead. Not yet.

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

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

Rest in Power, Michael. We carry on.



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