Coming Out Fat, Black, and Queer: Reparative (Re)membering, No. 2

This piece is part of a series of meditations on race, gender, and sexuality called “Reparative (Re)membering.”  It encompasses personal and public memory at the intersection of prose and poetry. This piece is about process and a journey towards a more reparative sense of self and community. It may be disjointed here and there, but the words all connect. You’ll sense it.

 

“I knew I was fat before I was black. I was black before I knew I was queer. But one thing’s for certain—I have always been fat and not the one that fits.” ~Candice Merritt, journal excerpt, unknown date

“I tell myself stories—all the time, whether I want to or not, whether the body listens or sinks them—the self tells in some way or form. One story is old. It has fallen onto pages, material and imagined ones, in the past months. It’s the story of beauty, of feeling, of desire, of the wishes for it—the craving, the envy, the lack. This is a story of rejection—of self—but not by choice. It’s a story of stories—about the ones we get told, whether we want to hear them or not, rooted in the stories we think we forgot—but the scar remembers anyway. It’s a story about being told you are different, that your body is too hefty, too wide, too dark, too light, too fleshy, too big to fit—not right. It’s the story of being told you are cute, but only in the face or for your kind. It’s the story about expecting to not be chosen, to be let down, to be told nicely (hopefully). It’s the story of not being selected—desired.” ~Candice Merritt, scrap paper excerpt, 06/14/2016

I begin this piece with excerpts of writings that barely get penned and rarely get shared. These scraps of memory, of expression, often get stuffed and enveloped into an old journal, later to be boxed into the closet.

Sometimes I dream that these collected pages will be an archive material for public use. Perhaps, out of a sense of loneliness and desire to be known, I fantasize that I will become an important figure or voice and my papers will be cataloged, accessed, and read. For now, I utilize my memory as a resource and material for self.

These writings reflect some of my deepest insecurities, often shrouded in silence and buried in shame. I have not shared in a while. Thoughts and feelings have been so personal that I have opted to relocate them to a “figure out later” place inside myself, but the body calls—the heart begs to be heard. I must listen. I must tell.

Memory, Desire, and Selection: An Early Encounter

This evening I revisit older, maybe some of my oldest memories. These are memories around bodies—mine and others’—color and shape—but also something around desire and beauty, which applied to all children regardless of assumed genitalia.

Over the past few years, I have come to realize how young I was when a sense of who and what was desirable. By my first year of formal schooling, I could tell you now that I was not considered the pretty type or the attractive mold. I had a keen sense of what kind of a body and color could make the cut.

I remember my first crush. I was about six and his name was Jaron Leak.  He shared his first name with my oldest brother—the coolest person around in those days, I thought.

Jaron spelled his first name differently from my brother’s name, but I did not hold that against him. In fact, it fascinated me that his name sounded the same but consisted of different lettering. What made him even more unique was that he had two older brothers with names that began with the letter J.

The naming practice resembled my family’s in which my brothers’ and father’s first name also began with the letter J. I diverged. My J came in the middle.

Jaron and his brothers also resembled each other, and each were light skin like caramel—with tinges of milk and pink. He also had an earring. He was pretty.

I liked him so much. Jaron and I sat at the same table in Ms. Hill’s kindergarten class, and I wanted him to pay attention to me—badly so. I wanted his attention so much that I once deliberately disobeyed my teacher.

Instead of quietly placing my green mini-kangaroo pieces into the bucket after a counting lesson, I threw mine in while looking into Ms. Hill’s eyes after she requested again to not throw the pieces. It was exhilarating and scary to break the rules. I might have smirked at her while I threw.

That move for attention got me put in the corner, and I learned the order of the days of the week fairly quickly. The only visual stimulation on the wall was a colorful poster of the days in vertical order, beginning with Sunday on top. I still think of my days this way.

I quickly ended the get-in-trouble strategy for attention. The best way I could get closer to my crush was through helping him with school work, like practicing numbers, patterns, and spelling.

Helping him was not necessarily what I wanted to do nor did it really accomplish my goals. I do not exactly know what I really wanted to transpire between Jaron and I, but I do remember a strong sense of wanting to be liked in a way that confirmed me pretty and wantable.

Overall, I found the helping strategy kind of boring since I would basically give the answers to him after he did not understand my kindergarten-brilliant explanations. The circumstances I recall is what I would now label “settling.” It was not what I really wanted, but I engaged in the relationship anyway because it was the only way I could feel valuable to him and important enough to get spoken to. This route was also better that staring at the corner of the classroom—isolated, not engaged, and missing my lessons.

I thought the perfect opportunity came to actually get close to Jaron when it came time for the annual school play which told the story of the birth of Jesus and the Virgin Mary.

I remember wanting to be selected to be Mary since she was so important and seemed like a beautiful, perfect figure—all dressed in white, smooth, and soft. I also recall many teachers and students talking about Jaron playing the role of Jesus. It felt almost natural that he would be selected. The cutest boy getting the most popular role.

I coveted the role of Mary. The role had to go to a lucky girl, a special one. That girl would get to hold Jaron for all to watch. It would have been bliss in my six year-old mind.

My chances of getting the role were slim. Older kids in the school did not help my cause. Not that older kids were privy to my wishes, but their chatter over who was who and who should be with whom was quite loud in school.

I remember older kids pairing the younger ones in boy-girl couple fashion. Older kids played with us younger ones like dolls, taking us in as play-daughters and play-sons—socializing us early, so that we knew that boys and girls went together to later become husbands and wives and then daddies and mommies. And, of course, the pretty boys only went with the pretty girls. If you were lucky enough, you would have gotten paired with the “leftover” boys—maybe the ones that were too dark or too chubby themselves to get selected by the pretty girls.

My dream to be recognized became just that—a fantasy—an immaterial wish. The role of Mary ended up going to a girl named Michaela, the prettiest girl in the kindergarten class. She was pretty in my mind, and in others’.

She had a beautiful soprano voice all while having pigtails that were always on point. My plats were usually lopsided since I was too tinder-headed to let my mother even get a straight part. My mother would give in quickly to whipping my hair together before the school week began—a practice my aunt Georgia, her young sister, would consistently chastise my mother about—“Dee Dee, why don’t you comb from the roots?!,” she would argue.

In the end, Michaela was perfectly girl—skinny, light, and good hair. She was picked—chosen—while I coveted, wished—envied.

I learned a formative lesson then around bodies. I learned that some bodies do not belong and certainly do not pair with others. I also learned that some girls’ bodies may not physically attract, but what’s “inside”—intelligence, compassion, humor—may have their uses—but are still, certainly not wantable, desirable, nor what we now consider fuckable.

It is a painful lesson and body-story to recall, but the body tells anyway, whether you want to listen to or not.

Thinking Fatness, Race, and Beauty

Decades ago, black folks loudly proclaimed “Black is Beautiful.” But did we really mean fat, too?

I grew up in a household that valued Afrocentric beauty. My mother filled our home with black art and my father filled our ears with black funk and our halls with Parliament sound.

My young self would sometimes stare at the sculptures of women my mother kept around. I would notice the sculptures’ contours, the lines and length. Necks were long; heads were tall; torsos were small; waists were slim. Skin—dark, sometimes ebony.

Paintings of women were brown; faces were smooth; noses, at times, were wide; cheek bones—always well defined. They were Nefertitis—thin black queens.

The other images of desirable black women came from sneaking peaks at my father’s Parliament album covers which were stored in red milk crates. The album covers were “dirty,” and I was not allowed to look at them, but I did anyway until my parents would catch me.

I did not fully understand what I saw in some of those albums. There were aliens, tentacles, ships, feathers, and smoke. I did, however, notice naked bodies. In particular, naked women—black women with legs spread, with larges breasts and wide thighs that stretched beyond the waist line—it was hourglass thickness I saw.

Confronted with these images of black beauty—the respectable and not-so respectable ones—I rarely found me within them even as my body changed over the years.

My body diverged in skin tone, shape, and size. I was lighter than the Afrocentric pictures and my body did not conform to the lines I saw in paintings and sculptures. My arms and torso were wider and I felt that my butt and legs protruded a little too much than what black cultural imaginings desired. I was fat.

As I look back, I value both my mother and father’s choices to premise black beauty and culture in our household. I also understand the necessity of wider movements that call for the recognition of black beauty. Growing up in the United States, I respect attempts that challenge our culture of white racial normalcy. Yet, I, and many others, have still struggled to recognize the intersection of blackness, beauty, and fatness as a critical juncture to contest.

Honestly, I have not thought of fatness as a social category that regulates being as much as I have thought about blackness or queerness. And it has not been until the last few years or so that I have started calling myself fat as a matter of neutral description and/or positive affirmation. My late reclamation has its reasons, and those reasons are embedded in pain.

I grew up fat, and I grew up rejecting the label. Probably not until my freshman year in college, I was explicitly called fat, fatty, fatso, big, biggie, big girl, big mama, big boned, chub, chubby, elephant, hippo, whale, and for some reason—Bertha.

It was not until I dated a woman who considered herself fat, feminist, and versed in fat-activism, that I encountered a connection to my body that I had not before.

There we were, lying in bed, thinking of possibilities and discussing our insecurities in life. It was my first year out of college, and I had no direct sense of what I wanted to do next. I would often joke around about joining the military since I figured that the institution was desperate to take anyone who volunteered to serve during times of indefinite war.

My partner at the time, in an honest response that I considered rude then, but funny now, simply stated “Babe, you are fat.”

I think this would have crushed many of folk, and the word made me cringe, but it did not break me in the ways the word previously had.

Perhaps it was because her hands were holding me and our bodies—flesh, soft, and muscled by time—were touching. Perhaps because her voice was sweet and I knew she loved me.

I did not cry. I did not walk away bleeding and aching like before. I thought maybe she was right—I was fat and that was okay. And maybe, just maybe, my body could be amazing to inhabit and to share with others of my choosing.

Not all moments since then have been as liberating. Images of black beauty remain narrow. We still have thin black queen archetypes and the thick hourglass shapes to confront. Articulations of black beauty (both commercially and in art) have limits, and those limits are painful to confront on the regular.

Even with Dove’s Real Beauty Campaign, Ebony Magazine’s March 2016 body image issue, or Bey’s visual album, Lemonade, only certain colors, lines, shapes, sizes, and figures make the limelight and celebration.

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A fat, black girl struggles to find her color and/or size even when campaigns and artistic productions call for general body and self-acceptance. Corporations will either tokenize our color while only offering certain shapes (mostly white and hourglass style), and our popular black publications and black artists just won’t take beauty to certain places—to bodies deemed too large, excessive, unhealthy, and/or ugly. As such, we are still only rocking thin black queen imagery and/or thicker hourglasses.

Queering Beauty: “Yes, Eat the Cake and Go to the Fucking Beach, Fat Girl!”

 I want to end this piece with my struggle—to inject myself with the reality of my fat body and others’ fat bodies. And of all “off” bodies—or just not quite right bodies.

I want to end this piece thinking of bodies that have fleshy wrinkles at the cusps of arms, dimples in our thighs, in the back of our legs—bodies that have varying shades all on one canvas—mixed genitalia—hairy here and smooth there—bodies that have stretched skin near the navel, that have stomachs that rest on the pelvis—material bodies that may use metal to travel—bodies with three limbs, maybe two, or none. Scarred bodies—burned and/or cut. Bodies filled with blood.

We are all queer. Queer, in the sense that we diverge(d). All considered non-normative. Perhaps freakish. Or, in scientific terms—the statistical outlier, anomaly, pathology. Or perhaps the piecemeal ideal—a fetish.

We are all queer—the unimagined, the targeted—the unwanted.

Yet, in the face of a culture that wants to destroy us entirely or devour us for its own means, I struggle to love and inhabit my body. To visit my knees, my calves, my thighs. To make place in my breasts that fall to my sides. To touch and roll my neck and feel the sweat that slides. To love and to pride.

So I end, thinking of myself and others. So I end, thinking of you, Gaborey Sidibe—in your lingerie. I end thinking of you, Mzznaki Tetteh, full and jumping with glee with your partner. I end thinking of you,  #BeyondBeauty Campaign, with your visual multiplicity.

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I end with the struggle to connect to my own self and its physicality and to those bodies that push the boundaries and/or fuck them up entirely, whether they want to or not.

I end—fat, black, and queer.

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Nigger-rigging and Niggers in a Polite Culture

We verged prior to entering,

and we do more so

now

than we first encountered

each other.

We entered halls of a pristine nature

swept by dark hands, etched and cracked

by labor.

By legs that ached or arched higher

than the other.

We entered inequitably–

and we exited maybe more or less so.

Maybe luck or physical exertion may win

a struggle or two against History

and present Debts. But–

Chances are

unspeakable,

unthinkable

to Choice.

Despite Our

history

of encounter

and our exits.

~”Untitled”

Beginning Rumination on “Nigger Stories”

This past weekend, I attended a close college friend’s wedding. This marks my third straight-identified college friend’s marriage ceremony that I have attended, and I believe out of this group of friends, this was the fifth marriage overall.

It was a grand occasion, and I was happy I could attend with my partner. I do not deny the beauty and detail in flower arrangements, the feastings, and the social reunions that occur. Such weddings so far, however, are a complex mix of emotions for me.

My friends’ weddings display a reality of political and social difference for me. In a space that is emotionally coded as happy, loving, and celebratory, I cannot help but experience kept feelings quietly brewing under smiles and hugs—ones that I have politely siphoned off somewhere near the left of my cortex and at the base of my throat.

For me, weddings often display the products of accumulated wealth, earned and unearned. From the details of silverware choice, napkin arrangement, hors d’oeuvre, to the V-neck lines and wines, I sense a kind of pleasure in my momentary experience of the grand consumption; a kind of longing and desire for both a personal and collective access to the material culture of it all; and also a kind of anger at the silence around the inequities, either known or unknown to those present.

My straight-identified friends’ weddings also represent a ceremonial moment where traditions of past meets its reproduction into the future. Not saying that my friends have gone into the marriage institution lightly, but when my friends, who are now doctors and lawyers, enter into traditional partnerships with men of a certain status (white, heterosexual, and middle-class at least), I cannot help but think of the exclusive political structures and identifications that will most likely remain intact.

Admittedly, I write this piece with hesitation. It has taken me quite some time to sit down and write. But it is because of a social incident that occurred at the wedding, one that I have come to categorize as a personal “nigger story,” that I finally pen this piece.

“Nigger Stories” of Past

“Nigger stories” are a collection of pain for my family, and for a particular group of persons in our country. The stories not only encompass pain but also a kind of archive of social interactions, statements, moments in which a person or persons are effectively stripped of the category human although arguably, they began outside the category when named “black” centuries ago. Something internally happens to the one referred to as “nigger.” Some recognize a kind of misnaming—a kind of awareness of another’s perception of self. No matter what, a reduction occurs and it was/is dangerous.

For me “nigger stories” are part of a larger repertoire of stories my mother and father would share about the history of black folk in America. I feel that the general function of all the stories were either to instill a sense of pride of survival and perseverance through obstacles, but also to instill a sense of appreciation of what our family did have. Both my parents grew up in large families. My mother, the oldest of six, became a teacher. My father, the second oldest of eight, grew up to work a string of jobs. For the longest of time though he was in print work. I never exactly knew what printing meant as a profession, but I know that he worked as a printer for a number of years, often coming home with splotches of blue and black ink on his hands and clothes.

From my mother, I heard more stories about slavery and freed peoples post-Civil War. Maybe as a teacher, she wanted her black children, blood born and those she schooled, to know their history and the structural politics and disadvantages within black life. My mother was particularly keen on teaching the inventions of black people. For the longest of time, my child-mind believed George Washington Carver made the computer, the microwave, cement, and paper out of peanuts. I would sometimes wonder through the day how a peanut, something so tiny and edible, could become made into a machine. The wonderment was a joy, and I definitely wanted to do something creative with my energy and be a part of the wonder of the world.

From my father, I heard more personal stories of how race in America operated within his own life. I have known my father to have a series of personal narratives that he has readily available to tell, like a little story book in the back of his pocket. The stories he shared about race sometimes ignited a sense of indignation like my mother’s, but sometimes they also invoked a sense of disbelief because they sounded too cruel to be true. My father, a mixed-race man of black and Japanese descent, growing up in 1950s and 1960s America, often told his kids of how he had to endure the racial epithets of “jap” in black neighborhoods and “nigger” in white ones. I would often imagine my father as a little boy struggling to find a physical place where we would not be named at all when I was younger. I do not think my father ever did.

One of his stories stands out most to me now because of its linkage between my dad’s experience as a person of color and myself. When my dad worked at a printing company one of the machines at the time had stopped working. My dad in an exasperated tone recounted that a white woman, a co-worker, casually mentioned to my dad and others around at the time that “we should nigger-rig it.” My dad angered during this telling. My dad said that he went to their supervisor about the comment only to have the white woman later come back angry at him stating, “If you have a problem with what I say, you should just say it to my face.” I do not remember what my father did after that moment. He may have stayed silent. I do know that he left that company probably not too long after the incident.

Stories like this one—“nigger stories”—are ones told of white aggression, white hatred, and white violence (physical, verbal, and emotional). These stories I did not want to believe in. I wanted to believe in the fairy tales my dad would recount to me before bedtime as a little girl—ones of bears with porridge and pigs in brick houses—or imaginings of a peanut turning into a computer. I wanted to think of possibilities, not pain.

“Nigger stories” were the ones I wanted to reject because it painted the world as unfair and hostile. I did not want to believe my parents’ personal stories of racism unless it was told in the context of the past—meaning  any time prior the “successful completion” of the Civil Rights Movement. Thus, any story prior to say 1970, my young mind could make room for as truth since that was how schools taught racism—as a past truth—a truth that no longer existed because our people—black folk—struggled and our country finally granted freedom and equality for all.

Maybe to my child-mind, the white people near signs of “Whites only” in text books or on TV either died because they were old or somehow just turned nice. I did not understand the process of how feelings and spaces of exclusion suddenly turned open to all. Maybe that is how American myth-making works? That explanatory gap was never quite fleshed out to me. I had to make up my own vision of how “progress” and “change” occurred in the political and social fabrics of our society. As a little girl, I envisioned polite white people which I would later in high school call my color-blind approach to “all human beings.” Through this approach, I painted the world as an okay place, a fair place to enter and enjoy.

A “Nigger Story” of Present

I rarely hear the word nigger in its white utterance. Unlike my father and my mother, I did not have to hear the word that often. My mother disliked hearing the word so much, she did not want her kids even saying the re-appropriated and reimagined form—the familial and black use of the word “nigga.” Nigga was a different dirty word. Unlike the cuss words “fuck” and “shit” which my parents said around us more than they probably imagined, “nigga” was usually expressed in moments of anger. For instance, I would not hear my mother say “nigga” unless she was fed up with someone or something—like her saying the phrase “Nigga please” or “Nigga, get it together.” My brothers, however, would say “nigga” to friends in the amiable way when my mother was not around. I chose not to say any iteration because I found the root word imbued with a sense of power and pain I was too scared to touch.

I have only had one or two points in my life where I have heard the word referred to me personally. Once, my first girlfriend’s best friend referred to me as a “NIGGER” in all caps in a live journal post since her friend began to like me and not just her. My girlfriend at the time told me that I should not take the incident seriously since her friend was just spewing her family’s bigotry out of anger. At the time I did not care because I was too focused on being chosen and desired by a girl that I liked. The other moment occurred when I was walking from a public transit station to an internship. A homeless white man walked behind me uttering all kinds of obscenities. The word nigger left his lips a few times. I quickly sped up my pace because I did not know what the man was up to. I chalked up the experience to not a matter of race, but one of mental health access. Maybe I was being too polite with this reading of the event.

My most recent “nigger story” I am most hesitant to scribe about because it occurred in such an intimate and personal way—a kind of cutting pain way that shoots deep within your body. So deeply that the memory makes you question if bridges between friends are perhaps not as structurally intact as you would like. The experience I find shaking and I find myself feeling not just anger but also fear at the potential loss that can occur because of my social and political experience.

This “nigger” utterance was not hushed, quiet. It was not abbreviated to the “n-word” or stated in the transformed way of “nigga.” It was an old way of saying it where you hear the stress most at the end, in the “rrrrr” of the word’s sound. The sound somehow strikes at the political memorials my mother and father built within about black folk and struggle.

The word left multiple times from the lips of a white man–a smart, white man in the oil business in the south of the country–a straight white man who is a husband in our friend group. Maybe that is why I find it so intimate and personal because the man is now a part of the network and relationships we built within our college days.

The exchange happened at my close college friend’s wedding reception. After a dance, I returned to the dinner table with my partner, and I noticed the husbands minus the new groom talking about the republican presidential candidates. I found the moment a kind of social study for me, like an opportunity to peer into the window of conservative political thinking of white heterosexual middle-class men.

In the candlelight glow of the evening and by bouquet centerpieces, I felt their heated discussion of how to best handle the national debt. I wanted to interject not on how to best handle the national debt but attempt to center the discussion on marginalized communities and the Black Lives Matter movement. I felt my desire to interject would break a polite barrier between all parties present because I want people to think about inequality and privilege within our own lives.

Before I interjected, my friends returned and discouraged the husbands from talking about politics. One of my friends said it was not fun and they expressed concern if they were being nice to each other. I think my friends were afraid of the husbands not getting along with one another. For me, I saw it as an opportunity to engage political difference and a moment to offer another alternative to the political scheme of ordering the world—one that seeks equal outcomes and opportunities for all people.

Since my friends, the “wives,” returned, the men left. I headed outside the reception towards the restroom and noticed that the husbands banded together again to continue their political discussion uninhibited. I laughed to myself because I saw this as a way to get away from their wives and continue on discreetly. I became excited because I wanted to join them and talk with them as well. It is only so often that I get to hang out with straight white men with a kind of economic power I sometimes desire. I quickly joined them near the open bar and jokingly told them to go check-in with their wives since they were worried about them not knowing how to play nice together. They laughed and I told them that I differ from them because I think people should talk about politics, and that people can have heated debates and still be friends. Part of my engagement stems from my problematizing of “politeness” as a cultural mechanism to enforce silence around issues of power. Politeness as civility means certain topics do not get voiced. Certain mannerisms and tonalities such as increased voice or hand gestures gets termed “threatening” or “too angry.” And those that engage in this “impoliteness” do not get listened to; their messages gets lost in the fray of an “uncivil” style of discourse and engagement.

I entered the conversation amidst talks of Russian president Vladimir Putin and Syria. I told them I enjoyed the recent 60 Minutes interview with Putin because I heard a perspective on American culture from an outsider’s point of view and because he mentioned that Ferguson was representative of America’s imperfect democracy. My opinion led one husband to ask me if I were communist (implied here to mean terrible) and asked if I wanted Putin to run the world. Of course, I do not want one man running the world. One husband re-interpreted my comment to the perplexed one, rephrasing it for him to mean “she just liked hearing about America from a foreigner’s perspective” but then later added that “I mean don’t get me wrong. I think America is the best. I believe in American exceptionalism.”

For me American exceptionalism is not separated from histories of genocide, enslavement, and labor made cheap. It is a history that we would rather not teach to our children in the country if we are to instill patriotism to future generations. To disrupt the logic of “America the Great” I shared with each of them that I wanted to talk about politics because I think all of us have a unique view of the world and that politics cannot always be captured by the common split of democrats/republicans. I shared with them that I am sometimes off the traditional political scheme and advocate a more radical politics. One husband asked me how, and I said that I often think democrats and republicans both have very neoliberal and racist policies towards marginal communities. Before I could warrant my statement, the perplexed husband quickly interrupted and said “What if I said racism is bullshit?” I quietly thought, “Sure, ok.” He then recounted, “I heard the other day Obama said I couldn’t say the word “nigger.”

(::insert record screech:: Did he really just say that? Yes, yes he did.)

My heart beat quickened at the blatant statement. I experienced a sense of confusion, shock, and restrained anger. The other two husbands definitely took a noticeable step back. He noticed their discomfort and soon called them out saying, “Oh no, don’t run away. It’s okay. I just said the word ‘nigger’. There is nothing wrong with it.” He smiled and looked at me and brushed my arm and said “We ran them away.”

I told him that he could he say the word in certain contexts that could be justifiable–like maybe talking about historic events or maybe reading an old document. He quickly “corrected” me and said that he could say “nigger” because that is what “they call themselves.” He asked, “You mean to tell me, they can use that word, and not me?” I told him that he is white and that word has a historic and present day offense to it coming from him. He didn’t even say it in the familial, black way. I can’t think of any moment in my experience in which a black person has referred to another as “nigger” where the -er is emphasized and not dropped for the -a.

My partner, a white woman, entered the conversation and tried to explain to him. She shared that the word was said while black people were lynched. The perplexed one said that the word is only offensive because someone takes it to mean it that way. He added that he had plenty of black friends and that he knew black people well because he drove “them” to the city where “their mommas” have sat him down and cooked him “fried chicken.” He even tried to justify the use by noting that today we have progressed in the country. My partner rebutted that just because our country has a half-black/half-white president does not mean racism does not exist. Unfortunately, the perplexed husband may have listened to one too many conservative talk-radio shows and/or Fox News segments. He could only say to that point that Obama was “more Muslim than Christian.”

I knew that there was very little hope of trying to get him to understand. I even relayed to him that I think the word hurts personally. At that point, his wife returned and tried to take him away, but he rebuffed her attempts and wanted to keep talking. She encouraged him to listen to me about how the word is hurtful, but he could only retort that he did not call me one and that “black people all feel the same way about us–that we are all crackers.” I looked at him confusedly on purpose and pointed to myself and my partner and said that couldn’t be true since we have a close, intimate relationship with one another.

It did not click with him, and I told him that we are just going to have to agree to disagree. He did not want to accept my bowing out. I think he wanted to convince me of his feelings even though he demanded several times to explain to him why it was hurtful and that he was listening. I told him that he could say it, but in certain contexts it may get him in trouble. He then shared that he would shoot someone if they tried to hurt him for saying it.

I do not know why, but after telling him that we just disagreed, I gave him a light hug. Maybe to signify the finality of our exchange but maybe as a last effort to communicate to him that I meant well. By that time, he definitely had his share of alcohol and his wife was very embarrassed at trying to get him to leave with the others at the reception. After asking if I wanted to continue at the hotel, I told him that we had to return to go say goodbye to the bride and groom. I told him that he could read plenty of blogs and scholarly texts on why words get appropriated to mean something entirely different for a marginalized community. I mentioned queer to him as example. I doubt he soaked it in. My partner and I returned to the reception and I immediately had to breakdown and cry to her because I had withheld my pain that whole time. Maybe out of politeness. Maybe because the exchange was not worth showing my emotion for. Maybe I was just trying to maintain a cool logic through it all. Whatever the reason, withholding the pain definitely wrecked me.

Being an Ally By Overcoming Politeness

As I mentioned before, this piece has been hard to write. Fear of expression is real. In some ways I feel anger at my friends for not calling him out then and there, like I was left to defend myself. I have the memory of one of the husbands repeatedly saying the word nigger while the others silently watched, and I have the memory of my friends walking away from it all.

These situations are never easy to navigate, but I do wish my friends, especially my white ones, could call out a racist statement when it is uttered. Of course, it was a wedding reception and that space is already coded as a polite one–no ill remarks or scenes should be made. Yet remaining silent in the name of “politeness” seems to be a privilege in this instance. To be “polite” and silent meant letting racism, even blatant expressions of it, go unquestioned.

I wanted my friends to be my allies in that moment and in future instances. It means I want them to be able to call out a wrong, but in order to be able to, they must see it. I have always been of a radical politic within this group of friends ever since we forged our friendships in college. I know my friends and I are on different social and political trajectories in life, and we may never use the same language and knowledge base to talk about the world we live within.

I do, however, want my friends to step up and question each other and those that are most intimate with us. That may mean becoming uncomfortable and taking risks in reshaping how we see the world and the politics that shape our physical and social arrangements within our lives. It might mean that my friends push themselves and those closest to them to begin building an understanding of economic and social inequity historically and currently within our country. It may mean that that all of us must begin talking about and taking issues of difference and power seriously. It will definitely mean we forgo politeness to talk about hierarchy and power amongst one another despite our fear, despite the possibility of loss.

Black Matters, No. 1: Reparative (Re)membering

This piece is part of a series of meditations on race, gender, and sexuality. It encompasses personal and public memory at the intersection of prose and poetry. This piece is about process and a journey towards a more reparative sense of self and community. It may be disjointed here and there, but the words all connect. You’ll sense it.

 Black Matters: Reparative (Re)membering, No. 1

When I think of blackness, I see images—

historic ones shaped by

Memories

in History Books

Schools—

Field Trips.

We were ugly, I thought. I felt.

We had large lips. Odd heads. Wool-ed hair.

We were chained. We were bare.

We looked dirty.

We had no gloss. No airbrush.

We had no brightness. No illumination.

We were rough.

And our words always sounded funny or incomprehensible.

–we were animal.

In elementary school, there was a black history border around the classrooms and in hallways. It showcased our best, most notable—our brightest and most famed. The Named Ones.

There was King, Douglas, Carver, Robinson, and Marshall. Great men. I always, however, purposely searched for the women that sprinkled the timelines.

I only liked one or two images of the women. One was a real time photo of Mae Carol Jemison and the other, a painted face of Marian Anderson.

Mae’s picture I liked best because it was more “modern.” She looked lighter and more colorful like the pictures in other books. Anderson’s photo stuck out as well. She was not as light as I wanted her to be, but she shared my birthday—February 27.

I inspected these pictures daily. They etched in my mind and I dissected them meticulously. I looked at all of their noses (were they too wide or just right); their lips (were they full or narrow); their hair (was it straight or patchy); their teeth (were they clean or crooked), their color (too dark or light enough); and their skin (wrinkled or smooth).

This was a rigorous test of race, desire, and femininity. I did not have those words then. So, Truth, Tubman, Wells, and Bethune always landed on the bottom.

There was another test, however. One that did not rely on notions of desired body parts and bad ones. Perhaps this test wasn’t as painful to administer, but all the sense of immediacy and necessity still went into it.

This test ensued from a sense of magic and numbers.  Anderson shared my birthday. The twenty seventh day of the second month in the calendar year. Maybe people born on or around this day were special and important no matter how they looked. Maybe they had something that the others didn’t have and that’s how they got on the wall. For all I knew, Anderson had a photo, and if we shared a birthday, then perhaps I was special, too.

I focused in on this concrete detail. Twos and sevens became added, subtracted, and multiplied to make ones and threes. Letters in names became numbers, and digits began to have connections. Maybe my father’s commitment to the “numbers” played a role in this assessment since he engaged in predictive modeling of the daily lottery using pocket calendars and the backs of spiraled notebooks and legal pads. Whatever the influence, I could create a cosmic connection to the Named Ones.

I admit. It wasn’t a perfect connection, but it was something.

The cosmic connection did not tell me to embrace all black flesh. It did allow me to consider my birth and others a unique event that may warrant recognition on a historic timeline.

A part of myself would like to erase these memories of Little Black Girl Me. They come with a number of affect—among them shame, sadness, and numbness. Today, however, I make use of these memories. I choose not to lay them to waste. Today, I engage in reparative re-membering.

Reparative re-membering is about cataloging, experiencing, and analyzing memories. It is process-driven and may lead to unexpected connections and emotions. It can revive or revise historic narratives in service of a vision to create new narratives of self and place. Reparative re-membering is about making use of memory and making peace with them for self, and if deemed necessary (by you), for others as well.

In a time in which we cry out the value of black life, I think it no less essential that I begin to ruminate on blackness and its varied meanings for Little Black Girl Me and Black Grown Woman Me. Without re-membering, I will never truly be able to unhinge Truth, Tubman, Wells, and Bethune from the bottom, and historic images will continue their silent haunting.

As a starting point, I would like to re-member Little Black Girl Me as more than a point of pain. I would like to also re-member her as a source of creation and expansion of new meanings for blackness and black girlness.

As such, I re-member her and her cosmic connection to the past not as failure—but rather as the work of a creative mathematician. An astrological dabbler. Magic believer and cosmos dreamer.

She is joy.

This is the work of reparative re-membering and it is only the beginning.