Labor (Union) Day

I have been working “official” jobs — the kind that give you a check with all your taxes siphoned off — since I was 17: first as a camp counselor in the Adirondacks the summer before college, and then during freshman year in my first work-study job in the library at my school. In nine days I’ll be 57, so that’s 40 years of sometimes-gainful employment. I worked other jobs before college — babysitting kids in the neighborhood, collecting for my brother’s paper route — but Treetops and the Esther Raushenbush Library were the first formal paid gigs of my life.

Forty years of cobbling together enough money to live on, to pay back my student loans, to take myself on vacation, to indulge my fountain pen habit.

No one ever taught me anything about working when I was in high school. I wasn’t on a vocational track, so I didn’t learn any saleable skills, and it never seemed to occur to anyone that I might have to find a job one day. I wasn’t on a vocational track, but my guidance counselor was still taken by surprise when I walked into her office saying I was ready to apply to college. I have no idea what people thought I was going to do with myself if I had no skills and wasn’t going to go to school. Crazypants.

Working was important to my family, buy my parents were too busy actually working to impart much wisdom about working. When I left for college, my mom asked that I study something that could help me get a job after graduation. I … had no idea what that meant. My answer to that request was to take a chemistry class, of all things. A class I dropped in the first month and back-filled with a class on Renaissance and Reformation England … because that was sure to lead me to some kind of quality employment. That ill-fated chem section was the only course in four years of college that I chose with the idea that I would one day need to get a job. It’s a wonder I’ve survived at all. Seriously.

In 40 years I’ve had any number of jobs, some good, some solidly crappy. I’ve learned that there are things I can make myself do and things I absolutely won’t make myself do. I’ve learned that I can put up with bullshit and take advantage of others’ stupidity. I’ve learned that sometimes I’ll have the good fortune to meet some of the best people of my life on the job and that when the job goes away I’ll be lucky enough to hold onto some of those gems. I’ve learned that I could be someone’s boss and be sexually harassed by them but not trust myself enough to believe what was happening. I’ve learned that the 90-day wait for health insurance to kick in on a new job can be the longest three months of my life.

 

In July I started a new job, a job I sincerely hope will be the last job I ever have. There’s so much to do in this job and so many ways I can imagine being productive, being challenged, being pleased at this job that it’s easy to see myself staying until I’m ready to not be working anymore.

At orientation, a representative from the union came to talk about membership and why we might want to join. The other new hires looked at the union cards and asked if they could think about it before signing up. I handed my completed card to the rep.

“You’ve already decided.”

“Absolutely. I’ve always wanted to be in a union. I feel like I can check something off my bucket list.”

Everyone laughed. The other new hires looked at me as if I was the weirdest, silliest, most careless person they’d ever seen. I just smiled, felt something settle inside me, like a giant, iron slide-lock slamming home.

It was true what I’d said to the rep. I have always wanted to be in a union. I just hadn’t ever said that out loud to myself before, hadn’t ever articulated the truth of it. There had been a few moments in the past when I’d talked a lot about my support for unions. I’d had a couple of jobs that had seemed on the cusp of becoming unionized, but in each case, it hadn’t happened. I was secretly jealous of my union-member friends. So, naturally, when presented the option of joining, I jumped right in.

The same was true with the choice of retirement benefits: sign up for a pension or choose the not-quite-a-401K option? Choosing the pension seemed so obvious, I almost didn’t do it. Surely I must be missing something because why wouldn’t I choose the pension? Why was there a need to consider other options? What wasn’t I getting about the equation? Of course I chose the pension. (It is actually true that I get to do both with this job, have a pension and sign up for retirement savings, so I really don’t get why anyone would choose not to have a pension.)

 

My parents were union members early in their work lives, but not for long enough to have long-term benefits from those memberships. Signing up for the pension plan and joining the union felt momentous to me, felt like things I should have been able to do 40 years ago when I started working. Somehow the idea of “work” for me, the idea of what a worker should expect from a job, included unionization and retirement income. And that feels super old-fashioned, and I guess it is, but it’s also real. And I didn’t know just how real it was until I got to sign those forms earlier this summer. No one “taught” me any of that, so where did it come from?

Driving in rural Louisiana about 15 years ago, I saw a billboard that showed a white hand clasping a black hand across a brilliant yellow background. The test read: Black and White Together — To Crush the Unions. What in the actual, mind-numbingly-against-your-best-interests fuck was that? I stared hard at that sign as we drove by, totally unable to fathom the logic of any worker anywhere wanting to break the unions.

Workers, unionized and not, owd so much to unions: the 40-hour work week, weekends,  unemployment benefits, FMLA, the 8-hour work day, workplace safety standards and the creation of OSHA, Worker’s comp, sick leave, paid holidays, collective bargaining rights. And so. much. more. Unions are the fucking bomb.

And they also have a super-problematic history. My feelings about unions aren’t really based on all the great things workers enjoy because of union organizing. When I think of union membership and why it’s important to me, I think of my father. He and I certainly never once had a conversation about unions. But somehow — in that way that children understand things about the adults in their lives — I got the sense that his no longer being in a union was a sore point, that he thought his life and our life as a family would have been made better if he’d been in a union.

The more I learned about union history and the concerted effort to exclude Black people from organized labor, the more I understood the barriers between my father and a union job. And, while I have still grown up thinking unions are fabulous, I’ve also grown up with anger at their codified racism. In this context. joining a union as a Black woman becomes all that more meaningful. I join because I want and deserve the benefits of my union membership. But I also join for my ancestors who weren’t allowed to, who were systematically cut off from the benefits of membership. And I do it for the Washing Society and the Sleeping Car Porters, and for the members of every other Black labor union in this country’s ugly history.

I can’t explain why the other new hires at orientation with me didn’t jump to join the union. They were all people of color, but they were all a) non-Black POC and b) non-native to the US. So my history isn’t theirs, and the weight of union membership didn’t reverberate out from that blue membership form for them the way it did for me. Maybe. I won’t speak for them. I just know I am THRILLED to finally, after my whole life of working, be a member of a labor union. Achievement Unlocked!


(And yes the ILGWU song was embedded in my psyche. So, as much as my father and my history as a Black person explain my feelings about unions, this ad with its so-memorable song is another reason I was such a pro-union kid.)


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.

Ugh.

I was out and about today, casual little jaunt uptown for my post-operative screenings. The hospital is nowhere near my house, so getting there is a long subway ride and then a several-blocks walk. All that traveling for the to-ing and the fro-ing reminded me of something I haven’t thought about in a while — how much people don’t like dealing with other people’s disabilities.

I remember being on the subway once years ago — maybe this was back when I first damaged my knee — and having a man shove me out of the way to get to an open seat I was trying to reach. When he’d settled in his seat, he looked up at me and said, “Well, I didn’t break your leg.” As if that somehow explained or justified anything that had just happened.

I understand that people don’t like to be inconvenienced, and a disabled person is an inconvenience. A disabled person on the street means other people have to maybe make extra room or slow their own pace until they can get past the slower-moving person. A disabled person on the bus or train means that polite and courteous people should offer up a seat, and no one likes to give up a seat on the train or bus.

And you, like everyone, want to keep your seat. So you don’t offer me your seat … and that’s when the guilt starts. You castigate yourself for not offering your seat … and you argue back about how tired you are and how you had the seat first … and how that woman doesn’t even look all that disabled or old or whatever … but there are billboards all around you talking about giving your seat to disabled people … and, and, and … and you start to get annoyed about having that conversation in your head … and there I am still standing there without a seat.

I get that. I do. We’re all tired. We all hate the train. We all want to just get where we’re going. I really, truly get it.

What I don’t get is open hostility. If you don’t want to give up your seat, don’t. Everyone’s life will go on. Yes, I might think less of you, but probably only for a few seconds. It’s more likely that I will forget about you immediately. Let your guilt boil up inside you and bubble out in the form of treating me horribly, saying something disparaging and ugly? That I’ll remember. And probably you will, too. Because it’s entirely possible that you’re not actually a horrible person. But then you felt guilty about sitting and not giving up your seat, so you snarled at a cripple … and that made you feel more guilty, and you can’t stop thinking about the whole mess for the rest of the day. Well, that’s on you, friend. All you had to do was not do that. All you had to do was sit there and not give up your seat and you could have had a perfectly unbothered day.

Today I had five different moments of someone feeling the need to be rude to me because of my cane. What the hell? Is it the moon? Is it the Mueller report? Is it allergies? That’s really a lot more than I should be expected to expect.

Do better, neighbors. Do better.


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!

Twenty-four Short Hours

I’ve been thinking about the 2019 edition of the 24 Hour Project — about whether I’ll feel healed enough and pain-free enough to participate … and then I realized that I never got around to posting my slide show from the 2018 project! Must fix that post haste!

For the unfamiliar, the 24 Hour Project is a street photography extravaganza. For a 24-hour period each spring, people go out and document the city they’re in. From midnight Saturday morning to 11:59 Saturday night, participants are charged with taking photos and sharing on Instagram, at least one photo an hour. When the project started in 2012, there were 65 participants. When I joined the madness in 2015, there were 2,030 participants! Last year, there were 4,280 people in 850 cities across 104 countries! All of us out and about, capturing the world for a day.

Went over to the website to copy the URL for the link above, and discovered that this year’s project will be at the end of May, rather than early April. That makes it much more likely that I’ll be healed and strong enough for the challenge. It also (I hope!) means I won’t half freeze as I walk the city in the middle of the night! My dear friend, Raivenne, has been my 24-hour companion twice, and I hope she’ll join me again this year! Raivenne is the perfect partner for a project like this. She’s brave, she’s silly, she loves the city with all its curiosities and messiness, she has a great sense of humor, and she doesn’t suffer fools.

I modify the project to suit my interests. I post at least one photo an hour, but I also up the ante by adding a writing element, a tiny story created for each photo. As much as I enjoy capturing interesting images and random city moments, it’s the story-making I love — imagining the right bit of narrative to give a photo a different kind of life.

Can’t wait to get out and start snapping. But for now, without further rambling, here are the photos I posted for last year’s challenge. I hope you like them!

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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!

Magical Negresses, Robocalls, Ballot Boxes and American Greatness

A white supremacist group created a robocall for Georgia’s white voters. The call script is fascinating. Someone, doing what I’m sure they thought was an excellent and excellently funny impression of Oprah, talks about the plot to elect Stacey Abrams. Not-Oprah introduces herself as “the magical negress Oprah Winfrey” and talks about her own rise to fame being created by simple-minded white women and how that same constituency of simple-minded white women — “especially the fat ones” — will allow themselves to be duped into voting for Not-Oprah’s sister in struggle, the magical negress Stacey Abrams.

Well, this magical negress found herself full-on surprised by this ugly audio postcard … and surprised by her surprise. The campaign against Stacey Abrams as she runs for governor of Georgia has been nothing but bald-face lies, ugly snark, unscrupulous behavior, and disenfranchisement from the start. This call is nothing new and certainly shouldn’t be in any way surprising.

I don’t live in Georgia. I live in a racist northern state instead of a racist southern one. I don’t live in Georgia, but I’ve spent time and a tiny bit of money supporting Stacey Abrams. I would be thrilled to see her win today. She is one of what is — thrillingly — much more than a handful of Black, non-Black POC, and LGBTQIA Democratic candidates I’m pulling for this election. Their rise to the offices they seek wouldn’t be magical, wouldn’t mean the end of racism (see above, re: not magical). But their elections would each be important steps in a better direction than the one we’ve been headed the past 21 months.

I think my surprise with this robocall is in how comfortable the racists who created it feel. They are so comfortable, they don’t worry about alienating a large voting block of the Republican base. The call script is racist, sure, but that’s too basic a description. One that doesn’t do justice to the layers of hate and ignores the other ugliness on display.

First, the voice recording the call seems to be a man’s. Because of course. Because any Black woman who wields power and is proud and confident and talented is depicted as a man.

The script takes an old story and gives it an updated twist: as has ever been the white supremacist plot line, white women are held up as needing to be protected. The 2018 twist is that, in these modern times, rather than needing protection from the sexual rampaging of brutish Black men, white women need protecting from the cleverness of magical negresses (bearing gifts of free cars). Sweet.

The protection of white women in this call to action isn’t the protection of purity as we’ve grown accustomed to seeing. This script calls out the need to protect white women from their own stupidity. White women, apparently, are so addlepated they can be seduced away from the fight for White Supremacy by Black women and their magical negritude.

White women are weak … and the fat ones are weakest of all. The excess adipose tissue must put too much pressure on their wee little brains. Because, even if it has nothing to do with the subject at hand, if there’s an opportunity to throw in a little fat hate, why on earth would you let it pass?

It was the insult to white women that surprised me. White women have shown themselves to be pretty solid supporters of White Supremacy, gender inequality, and misogyny. Did the writer of this call script not see the results of the 2016 election, or the white women supporting Roy Moore or Brett Kavanaugh or any number of other candidates and ballot issues that were entirely against their own best interest as women? Given that voting history, why come for white women?

But, of course, white women are a safe target, a safe tool to use against Black women … precisely because white women have been solid supporters of White Supremacy and violent patriarchy. White women have chosen to support white men over and over again. No matter how much evidence can be shown of a white man’s guilt, vileness, basic unfitness for a job, white women will stand up in support of him. So I really shouldn’t be surprised that the creator of this call felt entirely comfortable painting his womenfolk so insultingly.

 

I don’t know what Georgia (or Florida, or Minnesota, or Michigan, or New York …) voters will do today. I hope they will send a flood of Democrats to local, state and national offices. I hope everyone who cares about human rights, human decency, equity, and the values we like to think this country was founded on understands the threat we’re facing and has stepped into this fight with both feet, stepped in fully-armed and prepared for the long slog. Because despite the legendary magic of negresses, this fight needs more than our votes alone.

We are people for whom and to whom America has never been particularly great, but who choose to believe that it could be great if enough people stood with us to hold the line, to force back the noxious sludge flowing in the streets. We will show up, because we do. We will cast votes aimed at protecting our families and communities and keeping this country from tumbling further into hell.

Who’s with us?


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.

Taking from My Father

Daddy

This is my father. I knew him a lot less well than I’d have liked. It’s hard to realize that he passed more than half my life ago, a few days after my 26th birthday. There are so many things I wish I could ask him, talk to him about, tell him, so many ways we never figured out how to be related to one another.

Were he still alive, today would be his 88th birthday. He and I were the end of summer/start of fall babies: my birthday opened the month, and his ended it. For a long time – most of my life, really – I thought our birthday month might be the only clear thing we had in common. That’s not true, but we struggled our whole lives to see one another, to figure one another out. We just seemed so randomly assembled that it made sense that September would be all we had as a connection.

 

My father was a great talker. When I was in high school, he had a radio talk show. And his show was extremely popular, complete with regular callers and a solid fan base. My father didn’t finish high school, but he read voraciously and knew so much about so many things that many of his listeners thought he was a professor. His facility with talking must have been something he always had. He ran for state office when I was a little girl, and his ability to talk to anyone about anything surely served him well then.

I should have seen this connection a mile away. I don’t have a talk show, but I sure can talk. I am the longest of the long-winded! I’m one of those people who has an anecdote for every possible situation … and, if you’re not careful, I will tell it to you – garnished with at least five others that are halfway-related. I’m only realizing now that my chatty-Cathy-ness comes from my father.

He loved sports, took me to meet Bill Russell when I was 9 (seeding my love of basketball), took my brother to see Jesse Owens (I am jealous to this day). He announced our high school basketball games, our football games, our track meets. He took a valiant pass at designing HBCU-style marching band routines for our really-not-in-any-way-up-to-that-standard marching band. (I have a strong memory of some winds almost being taken out by an errant bass drum when a critical pivot went awry!)

He was an avid gamer: Monopoly, Scrabble, Clue, Careers … games I still love today. I wonder what video games he’d have taken to. Sim City would likely have captivated him. And maybe games like World of Warcraft and Civilization. He loved jigsaw puzzles, would spread them out carefully, piece by piece on my mom’s sewing table. We were all allowed to help, but he was, without question, chief puzzler.

He had a deep, deep, resonant voice, and though I didn’t inherit that from him, I did inherit my height. And my face and hands are copies of his mother’s.

We had a long period of estrangement, a period marked by occasional epistolary flashes of temper from me and silence from him. When we finally started writing letters that didn’t involve me yelling at him, he would sign his letters, “Your dad, Doug,” which annoyed and confused me, and also kind of amused me. We had begun to touch the edge of talking honestly to each other about each other when his cancer was diagnosed. And then all the slow, painstaking moves toward one another were both hurried up and pushed aside. And then his progressing illness silenced me. There was no room for asking him questions about how we had and hadn’t had a real relationship when he was actively engaged in dying.

 

Our birth month is not all we have in common, of course, and it’s pretty safe to say that I’ve inherited more than height from him. And more than my talk-your-head-off talents, too. He was an avid reader. I am lucky in that I get that from both parents. We are a seriously bookish family to this day. My love of tennis comes from him, too. He and my mother played in a league when I was a kid. They were serious enough for tennis puns to work their way into birthday cards and stories (dad jokes didn’t just become a thing last year, after all). I share some of his musical tastes, and I think he would have liked some of mine. Esperanza Spaulding’s 77-hour live compose-and-record session last September would have fascinated him, and I think her music would have pleased him.

He had a big temper. Everyone in my immediate family has a big temper. I was always the one who didn’t, the one who was calm and quiet while other people vented or raged. I thought this was something that made me different from them, but instead, I was just swallowing my feelings. I don’t think my anger is terribly much like my father’s, to be honest, but I’m definitely not swallowing it the way I used to.

He had the bad habit I share of not going to the doctor when he needed to. Before his cancer was diagnosed, it was clear there was something seriously wrong. It was visible in his face, in the changed sound of his voice, the changed shape of his head. I totally understand his not doing anything about it, however. Like him, I wait and wait and wait far too long before making medical appointments. I don’t want bad news, so I avoid. (I’m actively in avoidance as I write this. Yeah. I need to stop this nonsense and make an appointment.)

And we share the same politics. I read his campaign literature a couple of years ago, and I was struck both by how current it sounded (and how sad it was that the same issues are current almost half a century later!), and how like the laundry list of issues that set my hair on fire. I wouldn’t wish him the pain of experiencing our current political climate … but at the same time, it would be so interesting to hear what he would have to say about everything. He would have been all over the Movement for Black Lives, would have used his radio show to amplify so many people and ideas, would have come out for Colin Kaepernick within seconds of the start of Kaep’s protest. I wouldn’t wish this time on him, but oh, he would have been so alive for all of this. Maybe we would have worked together – him guesting on this blog, me recording podcasts with him.

 

Whoa. I had to stop writing. That actually made me tear up. That was not in any way the relationship I had with my father. It really wasn’t. But it still feels right. If he hadn’t gotten sick, we might have been able to get there. We were starting to get real with each other. We had potential. I’ve never before thought about what our lives would be today if he had lived. Writing that last paragraph threw me. Is still throwing me. (I am, maybe for the first time, truly “shewk.”)

His 88th birthday. I can’t imagine him as an old man. I see him the way he appeared in the last dream I had of him: in his 40s, paunchy, but he could still get out there, hit some balls over the net, he has his scratchy beard and his sunglasses, a pack of cigarettes in the pocket of his polo shirt. This is my father, ambitious, but so often plagued by being his own worst enemy, something I see in my battles against La Impostora. He is my father, 88 today. I wish I’d found a way to see him more clearly when I had the chance, wish he had been able to do the same for me.


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.

Wild Animals, Redux

I often write about the sleepy little upstate New York town where I grew up and my experiences with racial prejudice when I lived there. I focus particularly on two incidents, moments when I used violence in response to the hate that was spit in my face. I’ve been thinking a lot about those incidents lately, thinking about my choice to use violence, about the fact that – as satisfying and effective as my violence was in both cases – I have not become a person who regularly reaches for violence.

I’m not shocked that I haven’t grown up to be a violent person. I’ve never been particularly physical, and I’ve most definitely never been a fighter. More like the opposite of a fighter. I have always been the first to flee, shut down, or capitulate in the face of confrontation. I was mouse-quiet, mouse-meek. I was go-along-to-get-along obedient, kind even to people who weren’t kind to me. That was the “right” way to act, the way I was “supposed to” be.

Except for those two, seemingly aberrant moments. Those two acts of physical violence when I was 12 nudged aside the scrim, gave me brief glimpses at another version of myself. Both came in response to race-based verbal abuse. Clearly racial prejudice was the line silent, docile me wasn’t willing to let others cross with impunity.

The first person to trigger my violence was John. He was older than me by a year or two, and for months he had waited for me outside the door of my history class. Every day, he cycled through a banal but still unacceptable set of insults: ugly black bitch, stupid black bitch, lazy black bitch, nasty black bitch …

At first, I behaved as he must have expected me to: ignored him, reasoned with him, pleaded with him. He found my efforts amusing, and I succeeded only in encouraging him to continue.

Then I changed the script. I approached history class, John’s mouth opened for his daily spew … and I slammed my textbook into his face. It made a deeply satisfying flesh-to-hardcover “SPLAT!!” and John never spoke to me or came near me again. He would, in fact, move to the other side of the hallway when he saw me coming, which was also deeply satisfying and made that smack in the face a gift that kept on giving.

The second recipient of my physical wrath was Michael, a boy in my grade. In science class, I accidentally caught his finger between a desk and chair as we rearranged our seating one day. The surprise of that pain turned Michael into the first person to ever call me a nigger. He spit it at me so fast, had the word handy, so close to the surface, I have no doubt that was how he thought about me all the time.

I had never been called a nigger before, and the surprise of that pain made me grab Michael by the throat and squeeze tight, made me get in his face and invite him to say it again. And I kept inviting him to say it again as my fingers were pried from his bleeding neck.

Choking Michael was almost as satisfying as the book-slap I’d dealt John. And it had the same effect, in that Michael never spoke to me again. (I spoke to him once after that, five years later. I was walking past him and a group of his friends who were hanging out on the Vischer Avenue steps – where my high school’s version of the cool kids hung out – and one of the other boys had something snarky to say about me that made everyone laugh. I paused, then walked up to Michael and ran my finger over the scars I’d dug into his neck. “I see they’re still there,” I said, then turned and kept on walking.)

These were isolated moments – split-second reveals of the me who wasn’t interested in going along to get along, the me who was more than happy to take fools down and keep moving. My actions were so far outside anything that could be considered “normal” for me as to be horrifying … but I wasn’t horrified. Other people were horrified, particularly in the case of my choking Michael, but both moments felt entirely comfortable, necessary, correct. Nothing could have been more natural than introducing John’s face to my history book, than the feel of Michael’s neck in my fist. I have never regretted either action. I don’t regret them today.

As I write this, however, I realize I’m lying. Those two instances of violence weren’t the first. They were the first of that specific, retaliatory type of violence, but not the first signs of my willingness to use physical force. The year before, sixth grade, I tried out a different kind of aggression. In sixth grade, we still had recess, almost entirely unsupervised time on the playground. And there was a brief period during that year when a group of boys faced off against a group of us girls. There was a boy named Guy who was the largest boy – not overly tall, but heavy. I was always lined up to face him because I was the largest girl – tallest and biggest. We’d form opposing lines, armed linked, and we’d advance on each other, chanting: “We don’t stop for noooo-body!” And then we’d smash into each other as hard as we could, trying to break the enemy line.

Why did we do this? Who knows. I can’t imagine why we would have started, what we got out of it, how we chose to stop. Was this the only way we could think of to release the tensions that built up between us?

Those violent clashes – how did none of us get seriously hurt? – were different from what happened the following year, but maybe it was the experience of not stopping for “noooo-body” that made me know I had the strength to lash out when faced with John, with Michael. I may have chosen to slip behind the scrim of meek docility, but maybe that retreat was a tactical choice because slamming into Guy over and over again had given me an idea of what I could take, what I could dish out. Maybe I understood that part of the power of my violence was in doling it out sparingly.

My violent outbursts produced zero consequences for me. In the case of me planting my textbook in John’s face, no teacher or other school authority figure saw me do that, and John, apparently, never reported me. Perhaps he didn’t want to risk me explaining why I bashed him with my book. I was in class for the second incident, however. It was my teacher who pried my hand from Michael’s throat. There should have been some effort at a formal response, some kind of reckoning. But … no. The dramatic fact of my choking Michael blew over almost immediately. I appreciate that this surely wouldn’t be true for a seventh-grade girl today – and specifically not for a Black girl. And I appreciate that it really shouldn’t have been true back then. I physically attacked another student, broke skin and drew blood. As much as I don’t regret my actions, more should have been done than sending me to the nurse’s office.

No one spoke to Michael, no one suggested that he might want or need to apologize to me, or at least remember not to call Black folks niggers (although, I suppose my actions might have gotten that point across). The school nurse, Mrs. Workman, did talk to me, but only so far as to wonder what was wrong with me and if I thought I was a wild animal. She never thought to talk to me about better ways to deal with my anger, and it certainly didn’t occur to her to wonder how I was feeling.

The incidents receded. Other students might have talked about them, but I released them and moved on. None of my friends said a word. No one came to John or Michael’s defense. I’d like to think I put the fear of God in them, that they didn’t want to upset me further, didn’t want to risk getting these hands! I love the idea of that, but I doubt this was the case. The less pleasant truth was likely more along the lines that all of us lived with violence on a regular enough basis that it was just the norm to let flare-ups fade away.

I focus on the incidents with John and Michael because of the racism at the heart of each. And because it’s so interesting to me that it was race-based abuse that drove me to a volatility no one would have dreamed possible from me. But I was a kid raised on “Negro American History” comics, flashcards of famous Black folks, the Afro-American History Calendar, The Negro Almanac. I had strong and clear feelings and opinions about race and prejudice. Had either John or Michael mocked or attacked me because of my gender, my body, my looks, I don’t imagine I would have stood up for myself, and I would definitely not have turned violent. But attack me because I’m Black? Not today, Satan. I knew exactly how I felt about that and exactly what crap I was not going to take. Come at me with racist bullshit, and it’s on.

In the many years since seventh grade, I’ve chosen non-physical ways to fight back, which is 100 percent more my style. Unsurprisingly, the weapon I’ve wielded most often has been my voice. Who could be shocked to know this? Words were the tool I used in my earliest responses to bullies. When faced with racist nonsense in kindergarten, I wrote my way out. When faced with a bully in the fourth grade, I talked my way out. My words, my voice, have always been my friend, have always come to my aid.

I say that the incidents with John and Michel pulled back the scrim, gave me a glimpse of another version of myself. And that’s true. That stand-and-fight version of me disappeared after I attacked Michael. It resurfaced briefly years later in Europe when a man tried to rape me. I fought him briefly, but then immediately began to use my words – once again, I talked my way out. It surfaced again on the 4 train one morning when I delivered a vicious kick to the shin of a man who had followed me through a crowded train car, defiantly positioning himself behind me and putting his hand between my legs. Clearly, what was true in high school – that I wouldn’t have defended myself if John or Michael had attacked my body – has stopped being true. That sounds like progress.

I think about how completely I put myself behind that scrim of docility after choking Michael. As much as I didn’t regret my actions, perhaps my violence seemed extreme to me, felt out of control or unmanageable. I didn’t know that part of myself, didn’t know what to do with a me who was a fighter.

Did I frighten myself? Perhaps just a little? Did I make myself wonder what else was hiding beneath my surface, what else I was capable of? Could that be where I learned to fear my anger, to swallow it rather than express it? Maybe. If this is the case, I’m sad to know it, sad to think that seeing myself express my anger so purely and effectively might be the thing that cut me off from my anger for so many years.

But perhaps, then, it makes perfect, full-circle sense that it was race-based violence – the murders of unarmed Black people by police and vigilantes and white domestic terrorists – that has drawn my anger to the surface once and for all? Racism remains the sure-fire trigger, the line I cannot allow others to cross.


I wrote about John and Michael early in the life of this blog. The title of that post was, “Only wild animals act like that.” And I chose to echo that title for this post.


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.

Deaths and Entrances

Yesterday, I went to the funeral of a friend’s dad. One of the things that struck me was how “at home” at felt, as if I was surrounded by my own family. I need to mention that I don’t know my friend’s family. I’ve met his mother, I know his partner, but that’s all. And, too, I have an unconscionably small family, so what I was feeling wasn’t in any way related to how I’ve ever felt when surrounded by my actual family because I’ve never been around that many people who are related to me. Usually, when I attend services like this one and I only know one or two people in the room, I start off feeling awkward and uncomfortable, but there was none of that at this morning’s funeral.

What I felt was about being surrounded by Black folks, specifically Black folks who are close to my age. My friend’s dad was nine years older than I am, so the cousins and friends in the room were all within 10 or 15 years of my age –both older and younger. All those beautiful Black faces, all the nods of acknowledgement, all the warmly grasped hands. Family.

Faces of Black folks always feel familiar. And they can make me feel comforted.* I’ve written in the past about how seeing African American faces made me long for home when I was in France. My response to seeing Black people gathered, seeing all the different and lovely features that make up their faces, has only increased since that moment of recognition in France. There was a moment after the service, when we were all outside waiting for the family to depart for the interment, when a crowd of men – cousins and nephews, a brother, maybe a friend or two – all came together for a photo. They were the most beautiful thing. I wanted to hug every one of them, my heart was so full.

Funerals are such strange things. They can be beautiful, sad, celebratory, painful, life-affirming, cold. All these things at once, even. And even if we plan them ourselves — as my dad scripted the run of show for his funeral — we can’t truly orchestrate them, won’t have control over what they will be.

Today, September 30th, would have been my father’s 88th birthday. The fact of it being 30 years since his death is shocking and unfathomable to me. I have to do the math, see it plainly on paper, on a calculator screen, have to make myself see the number in order to believe so many years have passed.

My father planned his funeral. Once he stopped talking about surviving his cancer, when he had accepted that survival wasn’t going to be a thing for him, he moved immediately into writing out his wishes for his homegoing. At first, I thought it was strange, morbid. Then I saw how it made so much sense. True, he wouldn’t exactly be there to enjoy it, but a) he would surely be watching and would want to see things that pleased him, and b) what better way to guarantee the inclusion of people he wanted in the proceedings? (People like me. If plans had been left only with the people who were responsible for arranging his funeral, it’s pretty likely that I would not have been asked to speak. My father clearly understood that and made a point of assigning me a specific reading.)

Planning the ceremony pleased him, so how could it be wrong? The way he got into it reminded me of the intensity with which he had once planned elaborate halftime routines for my high school marching band. He was careful, thinking through options, order, all the possible configurations. And he thought about music, what songs he wanted sung, what lyrics he wanted read out.

As I walked into the funeral parlor yesterday, Earth Wind and Fire was playing. I was instantly lifted. “That’s the Way of the World” is one of my favorite songs, and to have that playing as I stepped inside from Amsterdam Avenue was so right. I’d walked up from the subway thinking about when I used to live in that neighborhood, thinking about how long ago I’d been priced out of that neighborhood, thinking about how not like home some things I’d seen on my walk felt. And then to walk in and be welcomed by those familiar voices and those excellent lyrics. It was perfect.

In 2003 when I was convinced I wouldn’t survive the fibroid surgery I was about to have, I took my father’s example and began to write out what I wanted for my service. I started with the music, with the very simple desire to have “Oh, Freedom,” played or performed. I sat with that idea for a while and then built from there.

When I’ve thought about that final playlist in the years since, other songs have risen up as obvious additions. First is “City Called Heaven,” particularly the way it is sung by Jubilant Sykes in his glorious voice (and once I get started with Sykes, I have to add “Fix Me, Jesus” and “Blessed Assurance” because … well … of course). But my set list isn’t all church-approved. Jimi’s “Voodoo Chile (Slight Return)” has to be there. And Amos Lee and Willie Nelson singing Lee’s “El Camino.” These songs will always make the list. And so will Earth Wind and Fire. The first musical selection during the funeral service yesterday was “Fantasy,” and that made me so happy. It’s my all-time favorite EWF song, and it’s on my funeral program, too. Hearing it in the funeral parlor was beautiful. Seeing people sing along was that much more beautiful. Adding my voice with theirs made me smile and cry at the same time.

As much as my heart breaks for my friend, I was so glad he had the chance to honor his dad the way he did. I saw and felt so much love in that room, so much beautiful Blackness. May we all be so embraced, today and as we are ushered home.

__________
* I’ve also written about times when seeing the faces of other Black folks have made me feel sad, feel vulnerable and threatened – not by the people I’m seeing but by the truth of living in a world where the simple fact of our Blackness can put us in danger.


(My title is borrowed from Dylan Thomas. I’ve always loved that title … and the “incendiary eves” that occur and reoccur in this poem.)


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.