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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How To Exercise Intersectionality’s Punch? Make Segregation a Feminist Issue.

On September 19, 2015, Viola Davis invoked the words of Harriet Tubman as she accepted the prestigious Emmy award for best lead actress on a drama series. As the first African-American woman to receive the award, she recited:

“In my mind, I see a line. And over that line, I see green fields and lovely flowers and beautiful white women with their arms stretched out to me over that line. But I can’t seem to get there no how. I can’t seem to get over that line.”

The image is haunting.

In my mind I see a common black and white photograph of Tubman—stoic and upright—gazing outward. Then, I see a colorful pasture of yellow daisies with thin green stems. I then think of Tubman looking out at Scarlet O’Hara frolicking in Little House on the Prairie fields, questioning: “How could I ever be over there with that woman without having to change her chamber pot?”

It is the image of Tubman’s line and Viola Davis’ invocation that sticks with me. As a metaphor, Tubman’s line invokes overall divisions and separations between white and black women. Yet, the United States circa 1800s makes Tubman’s imagined line in this instance more than a metaphor. Unfortunately, I would argue that the United States circa 2015 makes Viola Davis’ line more than a metaphor, as well.

Intersectionality and Differences within Women

I write this piece in a time where many black feminists publicly continue to push movements for racial justice and gender justice to understand oppression as commonly intertwined, interlocked, or what many have termed “intersectional”—while other black feminists have denoted that the concept of “intersectionality” has lost its punch, and has now become a mere label for many to claim but not necessarily practice (see Racialicious editor, Latoya Peterson’s Washington Post’s opinion piece).

For those of us who are not familiar with the concept or word, “intersectionality” became a term in 1989 deployed by black feminist and legal scholar, Kimberlé Crenshaw in her article, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory, and Antiracist Politics.” In her legal analysis, Crenshaw details the failures of antidiscrimination law to protect black women. Crenshaw cites a history in which black women plaintiffs could not go before courts as representatives of the commonly recognized injured classes of “women” or “blacks.” In those instances, the experiences of the black women plaintiffs could not be articulated under the precedents of “sex discrimination” or “race discrimination” with the former being rooted in white women’s experience and the latter in black men’s. Since the black women plaintiffs’ experience of sex and race discrimination did not follow those of white women or black men, the courts could not recognize their claims and could not compensate the plaintiffs.  Crenshaw, thus, advocated for the law, antiracist politics, and white feminist politics to consider social injury occurring along lines of race and gender and not either/or.

Since Crenshaw’s seminal work, intersectionality has become known as the single most important contribution made by feminists and black feminists, in particular. The concept has travelled across various disciplines and fields within the academy ranging from sociology, psychology, history, political science, philosophy, etc. It has also been taken up in various activist circles such as the #SayHerName campaign—a campaign that calls for the attention of police violence against black women. The concept has also been taken up by public critics such as black feminist scholar, Dr. Britney Cooper, who recently wrote that “Black lives do matter–all of them.” In our current call to value black lives, Cooper calls our attention to black people’s experiences of transphobia and homophobia in activist spaces, and reminds us that we blacks are also trans and gender non-conforming, and that black politics as a whole must get on board with this reality. #thatsmysibDrCoop

At the end of the day, intersectionality at its base level teaches us that there are differences within large social categories and that “women’s oppression” goes beyond sexism. Long time General Hospital actress, Nancy Lee Grahn, needed to learn this primary lesson Sunday night when she blasted Viola Davis’ Emmy speech for bringing up race, but celebrated Patty Arquette’s speech for gender equality at the 2015 Oscars. #ReallyNancy

Intersectionality, however, goes beyond understanding individual and intragroup differences. I say however because I want us to consider how intersectionality can be critical to understanding the interplay between large scale stratification and systems of power, such that some groups of women have better material and life outcomes than others (i.e. better health, employment opportunities, education, and wealth.) Here, at the macro-level, intersectionality still packs more than a punch; it’s got a damn uppercut.

Intersectionality and the Residential Segregation of Women

So this leads me back to Tubman and Davis’s referenced line between white women and black women. Of course, Davis’ line is drawn within a context of television and the accessibility of acting roles or lack thereof for black women and other women of color. I am thinking more literal here. I am thinking of a more Tubman kind of line. I am thinking of residential segregation between white women and women of color.

Segregation consists of literal lines between women and residential segregation is still quite prominent today despite the Supreme Court’s overturning of “separate but equal.”  Thirty plus years after the Brown decision, I still grew up in a predominantly African-American neighborhood in St. Louis that suffered from de-industrialization and massive white flight. That means the crippled economy of my neighborhood led to the deterioration of businesses, abandoned houses, and low-funded public neighborhood schools. I did not have white friends (mostly girls) until I entered a public magnet high school. The magnet program was designed to attract white parents and resource-laden families who had abandoned the city and neighborhood schools in favor of “county” or suburban public schools and private ones.

None of my white girl friends in high school lived in my neighborhood. They either lived in the south portion of the city, in a gated community, or outside the city in the county-suburb. The segregated line between us was real, and that line was called Delmar Boulevard—the notorious dividing race and class line of St. Louis city.

On my way to Lucy and Becky’s house, my mother would drive south down Kingshighway, and once we crossed Delmar Boulevard, the physical landscape of the city transformed. On my end—the north side—fast food joints, check-cashing/money order places, and liquor stores suddenly ended. After we crossed Delmar to the south side, I would soon notice the large-barred opening entrances of gated housing enclaves that featured large dream homes, then hotels, a theater, and the multi-hospital complex next to vast green spaces which housed the great art and history museums of the city.

It felt like we lived in different worlds along the same road, and our parents knew that. Once I remember my white friend’s father yelling at her over the phone while she took me home at night. It was not past her curfew and he knew I was her friend. Her father, however, considered my side of town a dangerous ghetto, especially after dark. My parents knew of this perception, too, and they often were surprised that my white friends could and would come to our house.

As I look back upon my friendships with Becky and Lucy, my memories are filled with our fun times together. I recall how we enjoyed female punk artists and queer folk bands; how we went to weekly trivia night at the lesbian coffee house on the south side; and then ate at our favorite Vietnamese joint and diners nearby.

At the individual level, intersectionality has helped me think of how Becky, Lucy, and I came from different racial and class backgrounds. It has enabled me to think of how we differently expressed gender and our sexuality. As young women, we knew that we were different and it was important to understand and accept that between us.

Looking back at my friendships with intersectionality at the macro-level in mind, my thoughts go beyond matters of individual differences and questions of identity. At the macro-level, I have to think of the structural differences within our lives—the ones that physically separated my home and community from Becky and Lucy’s.

Why were our neighborhoods so different? The development of locales is far from incidental. Residential segregation is a tool of social engineering. Histories of redlining, housing discrimination, urban development policy, and the continued practices of these policies (although many are illegal) shape who can walk to the local farmer’s market and those who may have to drive more than a few miles for fresh fruit.

The macro-level questions of intersectionality would consider what histories and policies create the disparate landscapes women find themselves in. What history of racism, classicism, xenophobia, or prejudice caused one woman’s neighborhood to become severed into two, so that one now has a larger tax base and a separate public service system while the other’s infrastructure deteriorated? It would also ask how such occurrences constrict and/or erase opportunities for women.

Expanding Feminist Politics

It is important to note that the neighborhoods women and girls find themselves within are not stratified based on a gendered logic of masculine and feminine. Neighborhoods are not divided by women and men, but are often divided by race, ethnicity, and economics. As such, white women and women of color are often not going to the same schools, churches, associations, parks, and businesses.

Feminists must think of the implications of this physical separation of women. First it can explain why a more unified feminist movement remains difficult to achieve. We simply find ourselves in homogeneous intimate spaces and we do not know each other; we remain strangers to one another. To undo this, that requires the work of bridging our social distance which sometimes seems irreconcilable, threatening, or exhausting.

This separation also influences what gets deemed a “women’s issue.” Residential segregation often gets talked about as “race or class” matter only because “women’s issues” are viewed through a lens of sex/gender injury. If we are to envision a feminist movement that truly wants to enhance the life outcomes of all women then mainstream feminists must also politicize issues of segregation and think of various kinds of thought and practices that interlock and intersect to determine who gets a promotion or who continues to clean toilets for a low-wage.

We must utilize intersectionality at the macro-level of analysis when determining what to politicize because fighting for equality between the sexes will do nothing to guarantee that women of color living in impoverished enclaves have better access to health care, education, and employment (being equal to the poor men in these communities will still leave poverty intact). Fighting for equality between the sexes will also not guarantee that women of color will not face police brutality, mass incarceration, or other forms of state violence, such as reduced public safety nets that combat hunger, malnutrition, and job instability.

At the end of the day, feminist politics must expand, and that means that gender equality must also be a battle for racial and economic equity.  To put it simply, it means that feminists must work to do away with the physical lines drawn from Harriet Tubman and Viola Davis’ time.