Washing and Folding

My grandmother, for the whole of my childhood, worked as a laundress. She picked up, washed, ironed, and delivered laundry for wealthy residents of the towns around where she lived: Larchmont, Scarsdale, Pound Ridge, Bronxville. I have so many memories of her sitting at her low ironing board turning basket after basket of heaped sheets into crisply pressed and folded linens. She may have washed clothes for her clients, too, but it’s the sheets that have stayed with me, that are ever present in my memory.

Before she and my grandfather and their sons left the south, she had been a teacher. They had both been teachers. But they didn’t work as teachers in New York – because they couldn’t find work as teachers? Because Black teachers didn’t get paid well and New York was more expense than Fayetteville so they had to find other work? I have no idea. I do know they lived in Harlem, in the projects, and that they opened a small grocery store. (That was how my dad wound up going to the old Music and Art high school with Reri Grist.) After Harlem, they moved to Westchester. And that was where my grandmother’s laundry work began.

I recently saw Lizzie Olesker and Lynne Sachs’ documentary short, The Washing Society. It focuses on the women and men who work at wash-and-fold laundries, the places where you drop off your clothes and staff wash them for you. It focuses on the present, but also on the original Washing Society, the union of Black laundresses in Georgia who went on strike for better pay and work conditions. The documentary shook me a little. I was interested in seeing it because I’m always interested in documentaries and always interested in hearing ordinary, everyday people talk about their lives and work. I went into that theater without any idea that the movie had anything to do with me.

My first indication that I would have a connection to the film came right away: the memory of my life when I first moved to New York from my mother’s house. I didn’t do my laundry, I brought it to a tiny wash-and-fold storefront two blocks from my apartment. It wasn’t a laundromat. I couldn’t have washed my clothes there even if I’d been so inclined. It was only for dropping off.

I wasn’t inclined to do my own washing, however. Watching The Washing Society, I thought about that. What was my story? I certainly wasn’t imagining myself somehow above washing my own clothes. Hardly. My family never had much money, so I wasn’t accustomed to sending the laundry out. The sad truth of me, I’ll admit, is that I didn’t really know how to do my laundry. I know I must have washed more than a load or two in my mother’s house, but I just followed my mother’s instructions, never absorbed the knowledge of the process, the steps.

(Add this to a long list of things I left home having no idea how to do: boil eggs (!!), make tuna salad, balance my checkbook, make and keep a budget, plan meals and shop for food … How did I survive those first years on my own?!)

Never once in that year of dropping off my clothes down the street did I make a connection with my grandmother. Not then and at no point since then … until seeing The Washing Society. I hope I was a good customer. I’ve never been a full-on jackass, so I want to believe I was respectful to the women who worked at that shop, as I am to staff anywhere.

But then I thought about my grandmother, my strong, calm, giving, tough, no-nonsense Eva Nora. I didn’t know about her career as a teacher in North Carolina until I was an adult. And I didn’t learn about it from her. It wasn’t something she talked about. Same with the store.

I wish I could ask her about those transitions, from teacher to shop owner to laundress to caregiver for a world of foster children and then to two large group homes of adults who needed supportive housing. I witnessed a few of those transitions, and I don’t remember being fazed, or thinking how hard it must have been, or thinking it was at all unusual for her to make such sweeping changes in her work, in her household.

And I thought about the laundry. My grandmother grew up in the Carolinas. She was born in the early 1900s (1902 or 1904, depending on which documentation you believe). She lived through the hideousness of the Black Codes and the birth and entrenchment of Jim Crow. Still, she and William were able to become teachers, were able to find a way to help young people access learning, something that was withheld from them by white society. They came north and found that things weren’t exactly better, that things may, in fact, have been worse because they could no longer work in their chosen field.

But that roadblock didn’t stop them. They made a way and made it work. I don’t know that I could have done what they did. I think about the powerful roles vanity and shame play in my life. Would I have been able to accept what I would absolutely have seen as a serious demotion from school teacher to laundress? Not that Eva and William had much choice. They had two sons to raise. They had a mortgage to pay. Money needed to be coming in, period. There is no room for vanity or shame in that equation.

And I think about all that laundry. There was so much of it. And my grandmother was already my grandmother in the period I’m thinking about, of course. She was in her 70s when I was a little kid hanging out in the TV room watching Creature Feature while she was ironing and folding sheet after sheet after sheet. So much work. And such heavy and hot work. How did she have the energy for all of that?

Did she think about her past? Did she miss teaching? Is that why she never spoke about it? When I became a teacher, did it make her wistful or nostalgic? How did she still not say anything to me about her own life as a teacher?

The women of the original Washing Society – which began as a couple dozen Black laundresses in 1881 Atlanta – were a force. They were in what should have been an incredibly precarious position – Black women, not quite 20 years into emancipation, Black Codes being enacted right and left, living on the lowest level of anyone’s hierarchy. They were the most disrespected, the least protected. But the Washing Society women knew their worth. They knew the strength their numbers gave them. And they used it.

The fact of their strike is impressive to me. Then as now, we don’t offer much in the way of respect to laundry workers. A second ago I admitted that I saw the move from teaching to laundry as a demotion. And the women in the film talk about having to deal with rude, crappy treatment. Which all serves to make the story of the Washing Society women more powerful. Those women refused to accept their treatment, insisted on better. And there were so many of them. What started as a group of 20 swelled to three thousand. Three thousand.

The Washing Society amassed real power. These women were supposed to be nobodies, were supposed to count for nothing. And yet they saw their clients clearly, saw just how distasteful their customers would find doing their own washing. That awareness gave them power, and that power forced positive changes in their work lives. They faced down a government that tried to intimidate them. Eva had that kind of clear-minded certainty and strength.

I’ve known for so long that I inherited my face, my hands, my outward calm, my slow-rising temper from Eva. I would love to think that I inherited her strength, her ability to adapt so dramatically, to take the sour, rotting apples she was so often handed and still make do, still create. Still build a life even after William passed and she had to make her world alone.

I don’t have her strength. And no, that’s not La Impostora talking, that’s acknowledgment of my privilege, of how soft I’ve been allowed to be, of how taken care I’ve been, shielded from the harshest things my life could have been. I have been strong at times, strong for myself alone – fighting back against doctors who have wanted to treat me badly, for example. That’s strength of a different kind, but maybe from Eva, born of her understanding that no cavalry was coming, that she would have to rescue herself.

A year after moving out of my mother’s house I moved to my second apartment, from Chinatown, which had an abundance of wash-and-fold laundries, to Washington Heights, which didn’t seem to have any … whether that was the reason I finally began to do my own washing, or whether I had finally come to my senses and realized I couldn’t afford that luxury, I don’t recall. Either way, I started washing my own clothes with that move and have never turned back. The idea of giving my clothes to someone else to wash feels strange to me now, almost unfathomable.

If I ever take my clothes to a wash-and-fold place again, all of this will echo back to the surface. Even as I do my own laundry, these reverberations are there. History flies in, enveloping everything. This remembering Eva differently, calling back another piece of her, is an unexpected gift.


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.

 

Close to Home: La Impostora Edition

Part I – In which she tries it.

Last week I gave a workshop for young women in a close-to-home program. The assignment I was given for preparing the workshop was to spend some time talking about myself – what I do, what kinds of people and decisions shaped me, that kind of thing. And then I was supposed to lead the girls through an activity of my choosing. Easy? Ha!

First there is the trauma of having to spend time talking about myself to a bunch of young people who don’t know me and didn’t ask to know me. What on earth was I supposed to say to them? What was going to be interesting to them about some random old lady they’d never expressed an interest in? As I said: trauma.

Next, the is the question of the activity of my choosing. Gaaah! Just as troubling as talking about myself, and for the same reasons. Yes, I was a teacher for many years. Yes, I’ve facilitated many workshops. But … Yeah, it doesn’t really make sense, but it does, too. Because (OF COURSE) La Impostora was on the scene, looking the side of my head, making sure I was aware of just how good a mistake I’d made when I’d agreed to do this workshop. Sigh.

But then a thing happened: La Impostora’s noise helped me! I thought, why not have my workshop be about Impostor Syndrome?! I know it affects so many of us, and surely the young women I’d be meeting could benefit from hearing about it, from realizing that they aren’t alone, that lots of people have that inner mean voice that works triple-time to beat them down and hold them back.

This seemed like a stroke of genius, some much-needed divine intervention. I could still hear La Impostora, but I kept going, tuning her out as best I could.

In the end, I drafted a workshop plan with two themes: pushing back against La Impostora and practicing gratitude. They do and don’t go together, but I thought it would work, so I got my materials together – including ordering a 2-lb lb. bag of tumbled stones so the girls could reach choose a rock to help with their gratitude practice.

Part II – In which she demonstrates that she really knows all the buttons to press.

Workshop day came, and I was ready: stones, markers, multi-colored index cards … all the business. The workshop was scheduled for 6pm, so when I left for work that morning, I had a whole day ahead of me before I’d head to the group residence.

That was more than enough time for La Impostora to get in gear and back into my head. I should have known she wasn’t finished with me.

About midway through my morning, I realized my workshop was going to flop. And miserably. How had I imagined that I could teach anyone anything about Impostor Syndrome when I didn’t know how to deal with it myself? Those young women were going to expect me to know something, and I was going to stand there with not one bit of helpful anything to share with them. I was most definitely going to fail and fail spectacularly.

At one point in the midst of this steady repetition of oh-how-much-you’re-going-to-suck, I even said to myself, “This isn’t Impostor Syndrome. This is just what’s true.” Yes. Said that to myself. And was totally serious. That stopped me, made me pause and think maybe what was actually true was that I was caught up in some Impostora spin right at that exact moment.

I let her rattle me some more, and by the time I left for the group home, I was well and truly convinced that I would be splendiforously bad. How could it be otherwise?

Realizing what was happening didn’t make it stop. And that surprised me. Usually, calling out what was happening did the trick and set me on a different course. On my way to the house I tried to puzzle out why that tactic hadn’t worked. And I had an interesting thought: maybe I should have done exactly what I was about to suggest to the girls:

  1. Hear La Impostora’s mean comment.
  2. Shut her down and stop that thought.
  3. Apologize to myself for saying such mean things.
  4. Replace the mean thoughts with positive ones.

Oh, look: an actual process for redirecting my brain! Imagine that.

I didn’t make this up. I stole it from a book I read years ago. I’d forgotten about it. And then, as I was planning the workshop, there it was, bubbling up from the back of my brain.

So I got to the house and did my workshop, and it was fine. Was it the best workshop I ever gave? Hardly. We were all too thrown off by having our evening begin with some unplanned police activity at the house. So our start was rocky, and we took some time to work back to normal from there. But – La Impostora and law enforcement interruptions notwithstanding – the workshop went well!

Highlight of the evening? Letting the girls choose gratitude rocks. What’s this, you ask? Another thing stolen from … I don’t even remember where. You keep a stone in your pocket (I keep one in a pocket of my purse and another on my nightstand), and every time you reach into your pocket and touch it, it’s a reminder to think of something you’re grateful for. It’s a silly mnemonic, but I like it.

I used to carry a beautiful piece of aventurine in my pants pocket, but then I almost lost it, and that was too upsetting, since my Aunt Mildred had given me that stone. That’s the one I keep on my nightstand now. The stone in my purse is a beautiful piece of labradorite. I’d be sad if I lost it,  it it has no sentimental significance, so I’d get over it. I’m extra, with my semi-precious stones, but there’s no need for all that. Any smooth pebble will do. And it doesn’t have to be a gratitude stone. Someone gave me a river stone once with the suggestion that I use it as a reminder to say something nice to myself.

The girls loved the stones and took a long time talking through how they were making their choices: what colors they loved (quartz and rose quartz were big faves), what memories or thoughts the stones triggered, what aspects of their personalities the stones represented. It was fascinating and fabulous. And I was thrilled by how into it they were. I walked out of the house smiling – which is, of course, the equivalent of thumbing my nose at La Impostora.

Stone2
My lovely bit of labradorite
Stones2
The leftover stones after the girls made their selections.

Does this mean I’ve won this forever-war? I’m sure not. But I do think it means I’m closing in on that victory, on whatever victory would look like. Maybe I’ll always run up against her, but maybe I’ll get to a place where I’m always the victor, where she never accomplishes more than giving me a nanosecond of pause. Victory indeed.


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.

Close to Home

Last week I gave a workshop for young women in a close-to-home program. I thought I understood every part of what I just wrote, but it turned out that my understanding was way off the mark.

Because of the work I do, I’ve gotten used to the definition of “young adult” being 16 – 24 years old. That’s the age range used for the kinds of programs that are funded to support “out-of-school youth” and “disconnected youth” and “opportunity youth” … and whatever other names we choose to give young people whose circumstances have made the transition to adulthood more difficult. These are the young people I taught in my basic education and high school equivalency classes years ago. All of the students I wrote about in those days fell into this 16-24 category. The range is fairly well cemented in my head.

“Close to Home” is the name of a juvenile justice initiative that focuses on keeping young people close to their families and communities rather than sending them to detention facilities that are too far away for their families to visit them easily. I don’t know if these programs exist in other states – though I hope they do – but we’ve had them in New York since 2012. Before leaving my last job, I attended an info session/focus group discussion about close to home programs. One of the community organizations we worked with was about to open a residence in the neighborhood and wanted other providers to know about the residence, understand what the program would look like, and offer possibilities for partnership in providing services to the young people who would live in that home.

As it happens, the definition of “youth” in the Close to Home model is very different from the one in my head and at my office. In New York City, Close to Home has enabled the City to completely eliminate prison for kids under 16 by placing them in group residences near their home neighborhoods.

Right. Young people isn’t the same as young adults. Not by a long shot. I wasn’t at all prepared for such young girls. The girls in my group were 14 and 15, and that was definitely not who I was expecting to meet. The workshop I prepared was, luckily, adaptable enough, but adjusting my brain wasn’t so . You just don’t talk to 14 year olds the way you do to 24 years olds.

The bigger misconception for me was what it meant for these young people to be living at this Close to Home group residence. I kept being surprised by my surroundings. Surprised by the level of security, surprised by how monitored the young women’s time was. I wasn’t sure what I’d been expecting, but clearly it wasn’t the same as what I was seeing.

I kept bumping up against how regulated the girls’ actions were. I’m sure this sounds silly because the definition of the program is that this program offers an alternative detention placement, doesn’t eliminate detention all together. The young people in these programs have greater or lesser degrees of freedom depending on the type of program they’ve been assigned to, but they are still serving out the time they’ve been given, they are still detained.

As I thought more about the cognitive dissonance I was experiencing, I realized that I’d been thinking of the group home as a halfway house, a middle step between incarceration and re-entry. In some ways, I suppose that is a function of the Close to Home group residence – the girls aren’t going to have to transition from a prison or from being cut off from their families – bu t there are constant reminders of the fact that the girls lives aren’t their own.

Realizing my halfway-house confusion highlighted that I have a lot to learn about this program. For example, what is the relationship between local police and these residences? When I arrived to give my workshop, there were police on-site, called because there was some disturbance with one of the young people. In the end, they took that young person away with them, which was incredibly disconcerting to me … and even more disconcerting once I fully understood the reality of the homes as a form of detention. If you are already detained, what does it mean to have the police called to further police you?

Certainly I think it’s better to have young people – and ones who are so young – detained near their families. The girls in my group all talked at one point or another about family visits that had happened since they’d been placed in the group home. That is better than their families having to miss work days to travel upstate or not be able to take that off time and wind up not visiting as a result. And the group home is better than local incarceration, too. The memory of my one visit to a prison tells me that. The horrifying vibe I got from the male guards at that facility makes me happy the too-young people I met – those children – clearly don’t belong in a prison environment.

So yes, better than regular incarceration … but still distressing. Doesn’t there always have to be a better option for children than jail? And yes, I’m asking that seriously, even as I watch this country imprison thousands of children, watch this country force infants and toddlers to represent themselves in court. And yes, I know all the reasons that its it’s easy to consign these children – these brown and Black children specifically – to prisons and detainment facilities. I know. I still have to ask the question. Have to.

Two hours. That was the entirety of my experience with that residence and those girls. It was enough to leave me with all this to puzzle over. I stay having so very much to learn. Sigh.


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.

Celebrating the Journey

Tuesday was Juneteenth, a day that doesn’t and doesn’t mean something. I grew up with the conflicting assumptions that everyone knew about Juneteenth and that Juneteenth was just for Texans … and for me because my mother is from Texas. I was surprised when I learned there were folks in the north celebrating Juneteenth, but figured they must all be Texas transplants (because sometimes my imagination is just really fussily narrow).

Juneteenth, if you don’t know, is the celebration of the day in 1865 when troops arrived in Galveston and told Texas’ enslaved Africans that they were free. It has morphed into a general celebration of the finally-and-for-real declaration of freedom.

I knew about Juneteenth as a child — I feel, in fact, as if I’ve always known about it, though that cannot be true. We didn’t have a party or picnic or acknowledge it in any way, but I knew about it. Juneteenth was the one solid piece of historical information I had about my great grandfather, Samuel. My beloved Samuel. The one thing I knew about him was that he’d been born in slavery and remembered emancipation. My memory gives me a picture of a white man on horseback speaking the news down to a group of Black people. I don’t think this is something anyone ever told me. Rather, I think it is my writer’s mind making a visual for me to attach my history to.

I saw a lot of posts Tuesday from people who were a little snarky about all the “Happy Juneteenth!” posts, saying we have nothing to celebrate because we aren’t yet free, telling people to sit down and cancel the picnics because nobody’s got a reason for partying. I am willing to grant those people their disquiet. People can feel what they feel and express it how they need to.

But … I also don’t understand those people. Why do they need crush someone else’s joy? Why can’t they allow other people to feel what they feel? Why can’t they acknowledge that we can focus on multiple things at one time, that we can know how much work we still to do and need to see done while celebrating our existence in this world? Why is it so hard to just let people live?

It’s certainly true that Black folks aren’t yet free. In Donald Trump’s America, some of us may be feeling it more acutely, but I imagine that even the least awake Black folks have long been aware of this painful fact — even if they’ve never articulated it in quite that way.

That truth notwithstanding, the importance of Juneteenth remains. I think about Samuel. I think about what it must have felt like in his body and brain to hear the news that his enslavement was ended. It must have blown his mind wide open. Wide open. He was young, sixteen years old on that day. A boy but also a man. Was he frightened by the yawning unknown that was opening in front of him? Did the news of freedom flood excitement through his body, make him drop whatever he was holding and immediately turn to pack his few things and walk off the land to embrace his life as a freedman? Did he have family on that plantation, or was he alone there? Did freedom mean the start of a search to find the family he’d been sold away from or who had been sold away from him? Did the news make him want to laugh, to shout, to punch the air, to cry, to fall to his knees in disbelieving prayer?

I think about all of the people who got the news on that first Juneteenth. Did it also come with the acknowledgment that folks could have been free two and a half years earlier when the Emancipation Proclamation was signed but that, instead, their bondage had to go on for 30 months longer? I saw several folks on FB call out that detail, call out Juneteenth as a celebration of white privilege. Sure, that is some true bullshit right there, keeping folks enslaved for two and a half years after they’d been proclaimed free. But in truth, Lincoln’s Proclamation didn’t do the trick. The Union had to win the war first, and politicians had to get a law on the books. So American slavery didn’t fully and finally end until December of 1865 with the passage of the 13th Amendment.

The importance of Juneteenth remains. I’m thinking about Samuel, my Samuel. Sixteen years old and set loose into his life … with what resources, what aspirations? How did he find his way, how did he determine the shape of his world? Did he know how to read and write? What were his dreams, what possibilities did he see ahead?

I know that five years later he was a cook for a large white family. Did he know how to cook when he walked away from enslavement, or did he learn along the way as he moved toward that job?

Everything about him is obscured in shadow, illuminated only by my imagination. He lived in the brief, cautious hope of Reconstruction, survived the bloody horror of Redemption, and avoided the penal slavery sanctioned by the Black Codes. Did he thrive? Did his life mirror the dreams he had for himself? I can’t know, but I believe Juneteenth had immediate, powerful, tangible value for him. And it is most assuredly neither my place nor my desire to second guess that. Honoring the day is honoring Samuel and every other man, woman, and child who had to survive enslavement so that I could sit here navel-gazing about Juneteenth and its significance in 2018 Trump-World.

I understand the need to keep our eyes on the as-yet-unachieved prize: freedom, full citizenship, equal opportunity, and reparations in this could-be-great-if-it-ever-got-its-shit-together-and-made-this-happen country we built from the ground up. Yeah, I get that. I also understand and embrace the need to mark milestones, celebrate wins along the way. We’d be a lot farther behind the finish line if we hadn’t ever reached Juneteeth.

If our families, our friends, our neighbors, our elders, want to get a little happy on Juneteenth, we have a couple of options: join them or step back and let them have their moment of joy.


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.

Building Sanctuary

I have been following the progress of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice since the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) first announced plans to create it. America’s history with lynching is deep and ugly, rooted firmly and hidden from view, glossed over. We, as a country, turn our backs on this history … even as we nod and wink at the carnival spectacle of it.

I don’t know my family’s full history, have no idea if any one of my ancestors was lynched, but lynching is a power evil in my consciousness all the same. I learned about lynching when I was a child, was already aware of it by the time I made the mistake – at nine years old – of reading Uncle Tom’s Children. That collection of stories is a classic but  definitely not meant for fourth grade reading.

(Nine, of course, is years older than other children have had to learn about lynching. And they have learned through the experience of of dying because of it, of losing a family member to it, of being uprooted from their homes to flee it. I fully recognize the privilege in my own experience, in the fact that I didn’t grow up in a place where I needed, realistically, to worry about lynching. That didn’t eliminate the fear, but the fear never needed to be active, never needed to be daily. I am grateful for all of that.)

As a country, we act as though lynching wasn’t pervasive, wasn’t a tool used to punish, terrorize, and control communities of color. At the same time, we pretend not to see or understand the impact lynching had on communities and the ways that impact is still seen and felt today. And we pretend that we can’t see the way people use calling the police to “handle” Black people today as a proxy for rounding up a lynch mob.

In 2000, when James Allen’s photo exhibit, Without Sanctuary: Lynching Photography in America was touring, people expressed shock and horror at the images on display. That seemed, at best, pathetically disingenuous. Who did these people think they were kidding, acting as though they didn’t know about lynching, acting as though they hadn’t thought it was “that bad.” It continues to surprise me how surprised white people are when confronted with the facts of whiteness in this country.

The title of that exhibit and the book that followed referenced the painful truth that, even in death, lynching victims were mistreated – bodies mutilated or dressed, made up, and posed for photos. No sanctuary.

I thought about Allen’s work when I learned about EJI’s plans for the memorial. And part of what I thought – especially after I saw the artist’s rendering of the design last summer — was that finally there would be sanctuary. Finally, these murdered innocents would be held with dignity, with grace. Finally, they would be respected.

The design of the memorial is stunning and majestic. The concept of the double set of county markers is so bold and inspiring. I think about those duplicate markers, the ones that are meant to be taken away from the memorial and placed in the counties they document. The idea of having this way of bringing the monument home to the sites of the killings is so moving. But it will also be very telling. I will be surprised if more than a few of the more than 800 markers are claimed by their respective counties. Those few blank spaces at the memorial will tell a story, but the hundreds and hundreds of remaining markers will tell an even more significant one.

Of course, I want to be wrong. I want to be entirely wrong. I want each and every one of those localities to shock the mess out of me and collect their markers and put them on prominent display in the county seat. I want that more than I can say. It won’t actually mean we’ve turned a corner on race. There will still be decades and decades of work to do. But it will be meaningful all the same. I want that. But I’m not naïve enough to allow myself to expect it.

I was never able to see Allen’s photo exhibit. I waited in the block-long lines in the cold to get into the gallery on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Waited three different times. I wasn’t deterred by the cold but by the knowledge that I couldn’t bear the photos. I knew myself well enough to know that, but still tried to force myself into the gallery. Three times. It was an exhibit that needed to be witnessed – by every white and non-Black/non-native person of color, but also by me.

Every time was the same: I’d get within half a dozen people of the gallery entrance – only twelve people were able to be in the gallery at a time – and I’d pull myself out of the line and head back to work.

Several years later, I bought the book. I came on it by chance in a Brooklyn Barnes and Noble. There was just one copy. I didn’t want it. I knew I’d never be able to look at it. But I couldn’t leave it on the shelf, either. Couldn’t leave it to be picked over, to be ignored. It felt wrong to pay for it, wrong to have money change hands over it the way professional photos of lynchings were sold as souvenirs. But I bought it. To this day, I have barely handled it, have only turned a few of it’s pages.

This history is so painful inside of me.

The closer today’s date came, the more news articles appeared about the memorial. I avoided most of them, read part way through a few, chose other articles for erasure poem source text as I worked through my National Poetry Month writing challenge.

But here we are, today, and I have to say something, write something.

I don’t believe I will ever be able to visit the memorial. Just as I can’t look at the pictures Allen collected, my heart and head wouldn’t do well at the Montgomery site. I’m not ruling out a visit, but it seems highly unlikely.

I won’t rule out a visit because the power in that space is undeniable. The weight and pressure in that pavilion horrifies me and calls me, too. Maybe one day I’ll be strong enough to under that display.

For now, I am grateful for Bryan Stevenson, for the Equal Justice Initiative, for the design, realization, and opening of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. This is something every white person needs to see, every non-Black/non-native person of color needs to see, and however many Black folks choose to see. And, maybe one day, something for me to see.

The source text for today’s erasure poem is a Times editorial about the memorial.

Building Sanctuary
(An erasure of a Times editorial about the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.)

Before you know it,
Hundreds surrounding you,
watching.
Lynchings carried out with impunity.
more than 4,400 killings,
racial terror
lasting more than seven decades.
An accounting
of those lost to history.
Devastating,
unreadable and unreachable.
A growing pressure
to include the role of racism
in American history.
Anyone in this country
has inherited a narrative
of racial difference,
a slow accumulation of evidence
leading to an inevitable conclusion:
America’s “reign of silence”
around slavery, lynching,
racial subjugation.

Deliberativeness,
attention to detail —
only lynchings that could be verified
by two contemporaneous accounts.
Such a damning exhibit,
a kind of liberation,
a kind of redemption.

To face up
to America’s brutal, racist past
with open eyes,
to understand how it lives on today.


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

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.

Considered Chattel, Pt. 3

Considered Chattel, Pt. 3
(An erasure of a Times article about relocating the Sims statue.)

Richard J. Moylan,
president of Green-Wood Cemetery,
was outraged.
Women had complained
for decades
about the “Civic Virtue” statue,
but Mr. Moylan
gave it a home.
A muscular 11-foot tall man
crushing writing, feminized aquatic creatures.
Mr. Moylan 
gave it a home.

This week,
he took in another exiled sculpture,
the rendering of J. Marion Sims.

Sims performed experimental surgeries
on slave women
when Black women were considered chattel.
Sims should not be lionized.
A monument
to recognize a serial torturer
of enslaved Black women.

Mr. Moylan thought
this would give an opportunity
to tell the story, good and bad.
An opportunity.

There is a naive optimism
attached to the belief
that we risk forgetting
the darker aspects of our past,
when Black women were considered chattel.
Tell the story.
We risk forgetting,
stand at too safe a distance
from the ugliness.

Implicit in that
is the fantasia that we are living
at some point when terrible things
aren’t happening
to Black men who walk into Starbucks.
Have we overlooked the sins of our forbears?
Or held on to them,
all too closely?

__________

Still messing with the form, still not truly finding my feet.


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

Comrades in Arms

I once had an only date with a small, anxious man. He was nervous and … ferret-y: fidgety like the way ferrets move. He was a few years older than me, an inch or two taller, very slender, white. We went to dinner at a Burmese place in the East Village. Then we walked around for a bit then said our goodbyes at the subway.

I knew in the first five minutes that we weren’t a match, that we wouldn’t see each other again. I imagine that he knew it, too.

At one point after dinner, as we walked up First Avenue, several young men ran past us. There were maybe six or seven of them, and they ran on either side of us. They were fast but seemed aimless, as if they were running just to be running.

I found them beautiful to watch, like gazelles, so effortless and full of energy. But they spooked my date. And it’s understandable that someone would be alarmed by having a group of people run up on them at night. Sure. It’s more surprising that I wasn’t alarmed. But my date stayed freaked out long after the young men had flown past us. His state of alert was so high, it began to make me nervous.

Finally, he stopped walking and, when I turned to look at him, said: “If there’s any trouble, I can’t protect you or fight for you. I’ll just run.”

I remember being surprised, amused, and pitying. There’s so much wrapped up in a pronouncement like that. Over time I’ve come to realize how wrong and unfair my reaction to him was. At the time, all I could think was – welp, if there had been even the thinnest chance of a second date, or even a curiosity kiss to end this date, it just shriveled up and died on the vine.

I certainly don’t ever expect my dates to step up with sword and shield or dive in front of blows or bullets if something awful goes down when we’re together. And mostly that is because I don’t think about things going that kind of sour. That isn’t a way my life has ever played out. But even with men I’ve been in relationships with, I have never assumed that they would physically protect me. I mean, if something happened I’d be right there, so I’d expect that I’d defend myself. I’d expect us to fight together against whatever.

That said, for you to tell me you’d run away, that you’d flee to save yourself and abandon me? Um, no. Just no.

Of course, my response to his honesty was based on stereotypes about what it means to “be a man,” to behave in a “manly” way. The shriveling up and dying of any hint of desire I might have felt for this man was caused entirely by the fact that I was trained to expect the man by my side to play the role of knight in shining armor.

I barely knew the man I was on that date with. He could have had any number of past traumatic experiences that made the idea of a street fight so petrifying that he couldn’t keep walking without letting me know that he wouldn’t be putting himself in such a situation.

I told this story to my sister not long ago, and she burst out laughing. I mean, yes. That’s my response, too. Even now, I’m sad to admit. Because our conditioning means that it’s a funny story. Even today. Even with everything we know. Because who says that? But still. Our laughter also tells me how much work I still have to do, how far I haven’t come.

How stunting is it that we don’t allow men to feel things it is entirely natural and human to feel? What do we do to men – and to the women and children around them – when we don’t allow them to be vulnerable, to be afraid, to not want to be fighters? I think we see the answer to that question over and over again – Adam Lanza, Elliot Rodger, James Holmes. Sadly, that list is so very much longer.

I want, also, to be clear that I am not a fighter. I am not anything at all like a fighter. If someone had attacked my date and me on the street that night, I would surely have faced the attack with bewilderment. I would have said, “Hey!” because I’d have been surprised that something awful was happening to me, and “hey” is my go-to exclamation. And then I’d have said, “Hey!” again, I guess, as I saw my date take off. That date was years before the accident that messed up my knees, so it’s possible that I would have run, too. But it’s more likely that my surprise and shock would have stalled me long enough that my attacker would have gotten whatever they’d come for – my purse, my life, whatever.

I am not anything at all like a fighter. And I’m lucky because I’ve never had to be one – or, only just a couple of times – and, too, society doesn’t expect me to be one. Even with my height and size, I can “play the girl” and not have to know how to throw or block a punch.

I could learn how to fight, could learn how to defend myself. And society makes room for that. As a woman, I have the room for that. Men don’t get the same degree of space.

What do we think we’re gaining as a society by depriving men of the right to their feelings, of the ability to be comfortable with their fears? When will we see that whatever we gain is significantly outweighed by everything we lose?


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.