Dear Bristol: #SayHerName Cuz’ We are “Guilty, Always” Before The Law

Another week brings another video illuminating a moment of police use of force against a black body. This moment sheds light on a senior deputy in South Carolina violently removing a young black girl from her desk within a classroom at Spring Valley High School.

These videos add to our growing archive of truths that many U.S. communities of color have built through experience and collective memory. Many communities and individuals have learned to draw upon this archive when teaching ourselves (adults and kids) on the dynamics of police and authoritative power and the consequences (many devastating) when authority “feels” threatened and/or disrespected.

Unfortunately, I am not shocked that many have come to weigh in and defend the actions of police officers. After all, our culture demands obedience and compliance to authority figures ranging from parents, teachers, church officials, and police officers.

We must ask ourselves what is at stake when culture demands “compliance” without question, especially when culture demands obedience to powerful institutions that have historically engaged in the enforcement of inequality within our country. Police forces were designed to serve and protect, but in that decree, law enforcement served a particular body of people and protected them from certain “others” deemed undesirable and dangerous.  The logic plays out quite nicely in our historic, cultural tropes of “good guys” versus “bad guys”; Cowboys and Indians; Whites and Blacks; etc.

So, to those, such as Bristol Palin, a “redeemed” woman who quickly married to avoid bearing her child out-of-wedlock, that argue that parents are “failing” to teach kids obedience to the law, I write you this short, poetic meditation on race, history, and law for reflection. I title it: “Guilty, Always.”

Guilty Always

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.