injustice

Black women loving and holding each other fiercely

The text was two sentences and in that moment those two sentences were everything.

 “Look, you’re not on this journey alone. I’ll be your person.”

Tears immediately sprang to my eyes. Recent experiences had rocked me to the core and lately it felt like my world was crumbling around me. I desperately needed support. I needed someone to talk to who wouldn’t judge me. And even though I had known her for less than two months, here she was offering me advice, compassion and unconditional friendship.

Though I wanted to be surprised, I was not. And I gratefully accepted and received the help.

This is what Black women do for each other-- especially in times of crisis. Somehow, even though we have a world of burden and hurt that we are carrying for ourselves, we rally and create loving community for each other and those around us.

 It is one of our greatest gifts.

 It can also be one of our biggest downfalls.

 In carrying the weight of the world, we often forget about taking care of ourselves. Self-care appears to be a luxury, not a necessity or a right. And because of it, we suffer. We have high rates of heart disease, obesity, mental, emotional and physical stress that goes unspoken and undiagnosed. Between racism, misogynoir, being superwomen who get shit done and holding space for everyone, we experience a combination of trauma and physical illness that is, quite literally, killing us.

 Of course, what I’m sharing is not a new phenomenon. Black women have been writing and talking about this topic for years, especially in the wake of some of the more recent incidents police and structural violence directed at Black people. However, it’s been on my mind a lot recently as I move through the world, talk with and read the words of other Black women. During a phone call this week, a sister-friend and colleague shared the following with me:

“A brother said to me ‘Black women don’t take care of themselves. White women are always in the gym taking care of themselves.’ My response to him: ‘We are busy taking care of you, your children and the community. We are raising the community. We are saving the community. We don’t have extra time to go to the gym, too.’” – DJ

 I reject this brother’s observation for a whole host of reasons. As someone who prides herself on nuanced, critical thinking and high level analysis, I have no desire to entertain intellectually lazy and simplified arguments.  Clearly, it goes without saying that not all White women take care of themselves and that all Black women don’t. I know plenty of White women who are also stressed out by the pressures of daily life and struggle with self-care. I also know a number of sisters who are making self-care a priority and are always in the gym, at the yoga studio, eating right etc. And I’m definitely not here for ANY kind of shaming of Black women, particularly with comparisons about how White women take care of themselves in a way that results in a more physically attractive appearance than Black women. To me that comment is reflective of nothing more than internalized racism and oppression, patriarchy and ignorance that I don’t have time or interest in refuting or expounding on.

What I do wonder about is why we are characterized so negatively and judged so harshly considering that we literally give our bodies in the service of caring for other people?

Black women’s bodies (just like our hair) have always been and continue to be political. We gave birth to the labor that built this country and also built this country through our own labor. We’ve never fully been in control of our own bodies since literally anyone and everyone has been able to tell us what to do with it since we arrived in this part of the world. We’ve been enslaved and given birth to enslaved peoples. We’ve been the mistresses of enslavers and victims of their sexual assault. We’ve clothed and fed White bodies. We’ve nursed White children from our own breasts. We’ve cared for the elderly and dying relatives of White people. If you add up that labor from 1619 to 2016, we’ve been doing that work for 397 years. 

Yet, outside of the conversations that we have with each other, there is no understanding of the physical, emotional and mental challenges that face Black women in this society and why it might be difficult to prioritize our self-care. It’s assumed that we are overweight and out of shape (and subsequently unhappy) because we are lazy. And if one of us is “in shape” (meaning a physique that is deemed acceptable by Western European standards), she is held up as a model to the rest of us to let us know that we are deficient in some way and need to do better.

 The above idea is demonstrated by Kanye West’s music video for the song “Fade” which premiered this past weekend at the MTV Video Music Awards. To be honest, I’m not a fan of Ye’s (I gave up on him sometime between My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and his relationship with Kim Kardashian) or the VMA’s. But the resulting conversations about the model in the video, Teyana Taylor, and Black women’s fitness have provoked much to reflect on. While I haven’t seen the whole video, I have been inundated daily with GIFs, memes and photos of Teyana’s physique. Generally, the impressions that I get from these images are that I am super lazy for not looking like Teyana.

 They scream: “Teyana has a newborn but she’s in great shape!” “Teyana is a Black woman just like you and she can do it all, why can’t you?” “Teyana proves that Black women actually do go to the gym and work out!”

 There is little to dispute. Teyana has a phenomenal body and has likely put a lot of time and effort into shaping it. I commend her, support her and cheer her on as she makes her way in the world as a Black woman who is fly as fuck.

I also know that I am not Teyana. The women I know are not Teyana. She is 25. We are in our late 20s, 30s and 40s. Without getting into a comparison of our lived experiences, I will say that at 25, I most certainly had a different set of experiences and priorities than I do at 38. I was not married, I wasn’t even working full time (I was still in grad school) and I hadn’t fully experienced all those racial and sexist microagressions that let me know that despite my best efforts, the world would often let me know that it does everything it can to make sure that Black women do not thrive.  At 25, I had much more time and energy to go to the gym and obsess over my figure than I do now- although I spent nearly every moment on my studies to make the $50,000 student debt worth it. And I certainly hadn’t made the connection to the fact that every ounce of mental and emotional energy I would put into fighting racism and sexism in my later years would leave me physically drained. But that aside, even if I had 8 hours a day to work out incessantly, my body type is different than hers. I will never look like Teyana. I’m ok with that. That’s actually the beauty of Black women; we come in all shapes, sizes, colors, textures and personalities. We do not have to look like Teyana to be worthy of love, attention and humanity.

While I know these things with absolute certainty, it would be nice for the rest of the world to understand that when we aren’t prioritizing our self-care, its not because we are lazy. In fact, very often its because we are prioritizing your health, happiness and well-being. We are also helping each other on our individual journey toward health, happiness and well-being.

 Stop judging us. Be thankful for all we do.

 While I know that my own self-care is not a luxury, I know need to pay better attention to it. Perhaps in some way my writing this down is my way of putting that intention out into the universe. However, I also know that, for me, self-care doesn’t necessarily mean going to the gym or eliminating carbs from my diet.  While those are certainly forms of self-care, I’m certain that the physical is empty without the spiritual and emotional work I need to do to lift myself up. When I reflect on my self-care, what’s really teaching me the most about loving myself is what I learn through with other Black women. Through their words, actions and deeds, Black women show me that, no matter how terrible things get, we can always give much needed attention, support and healing to each other. It encourages me to reach beyond myself and to give back to other women. My interaction with other Black women is my self-care. In community, we make space for each other to be heard. To be seen. To be human. To be each other’s “person.” If that’s not self-care, I don’t know what is.

 Recently, I was required to write a response to the question “Which woman inspires you and why?” This is how I responded:

 “How do you name an amalgamation of every Black woman you know? The sister at my favorite lunch spot who always gives me a knowing smile and hooks me up with extras; the professor at university who insisted I had a right to be there like everyone else and wouldn’t accept less from me; the yoga instructor who asserted that, despite thick thighs and back rolls, yoga was for me too; the new friend who barely knew me but sensed trouble and told me she’d be my “person.” Black women are always inspiring me by loving and living with fearlessness that only we possess. We make magic and claim our humanity in a world that doesn’t want us to survive."

We may not always do self-care the way others do. Maybe it’s by going to the gym or running 20 miles. Maybe it’s by nurturing the community. Maybe it’s by eating our favorite cupcake from Crumbs bakery. Maybe it’s by spending time together. Whatever it is, the way we hold and love each other fiercely is nothing less than God like.

 And for that, I am forever grateful.

 

 

 

Ode to the Unnamed Black Girl in the South Carolina Classroom

*This piece was inspired by the final courtroom monologue given by Matthew McConaughey's character from the movie "A Time to Kill."

I want to tell you a story.

I'm going to ask you to close your eyes while I tell you this story.

I want you to listen to me.

I want you to listen to yourselves.

This is a story about a teenage girl sitting in class one afternoon in the fall at Spring Valley High School in South Carolina. She is Black. I want you to picture this teenage girl. You don’t her name. You can't see her face. But you can imagine she’s like many teenage girls these days. Sitting in class, she may be daydreaming about hanging out with her friends. Maybe she's thinking about who she will message via Snapchat later that afternoon. She could be mentally reciting lyrics to her favorite song or thinking about what she wants to be when she grows up.

The School Resource Officer is called into her classroom. He begins to yell violently at her.

She’s sitting still when suddenly he races up to her chair. He grabs her. He wraps an arm around her neck then viciously pulls her from her leg violently causing her to jerk up out of her seat. The desk overturns. She lands on her back with the desk on top of her--body splayed out in the air, tangled in a mess of limbs and chair legs. He drags her several inches across the classroom floor, using both hands to pull her by an arm and a leg.  He makes his way, still dragging her like a wild animal attacking its prey, to the front of the classroom. He has turned her over onto her stomach and is leaning into her back and grabbing her arms to pull them behind her. He outweighs her by several tens of pounds.

Looking at it you cannot help but hot tears come to your eyes. The image is accompanied by very painful memories. This is the kind of position that some sexual assault victims know very well, many of whom have been attacked from behind.  In a single, swift instance their sense of agency and control is stolen from them by someone bigger and more powerful. Its a singular moment that changes their lives forever. 

It looks and feels like the girl is being violated. She is being violated.

Violated in front of her peers and teacher. Violated in front of an entire country who will later witness it on the news and through social media.

Stunned, no one can bring themselves to stop it.

He pulls hard on her arms and they look like they are going to come off. He handcuffs her. Her fellow classmates stare on in silence. Risking arrest, one brave classmate decides to record it. It is like a scene out of the TV show "Oz" or one out of "Lock Up Raw" or something out of a prison movie. But this is not fiction or a documentary. This is happening, on an ordinary day, to an ordinary Black girl in her high school classroom in the American South.

Can you see her?

Her scared, abused, beaten and damaged teenage body. Violated by a school police officer. Humiliated in front of her peers. By an adult sworn to protect students. Left to be arrested and deal with the media frenzy that is about to ensue. 

Who knows what kind of trauma this will cause? Who knows the impact it will have in the future? She will likely never feel safe in school again. If she hadn't already been, she most assuredly will fear the police from this moment on. She may even fear men for the rest of her life. In just under a minute, her teenage innocence and sense of safety have been stolen from her-forever.

Can you see her? 

I want you to picture that teenage girl. 

Now imagine she's white.

Confessions on Baltimore

Photo from "Are Baltimore's Protests the Prelude to a Revolution?" By: Carl Gibson 4/30/15   www.Occupy.com

Photo from "Are Baltimore's Protests the Prelude to a Revolution?" By: Carl Gibson 4/30/15   www.Occupy.com

I confess that I can’t quite remember what day the uprising began.

I feel like I should be able to remember. After all, it happened in the city I was born and raised in. But all that I can seem to remember from that time is that one day I looked up from my laptop and Baltimore was burning.

It hit me like a ton of bricks.

I had left home off and on over the years for different reasons. Undergraduate studies in New York. Graduate studies in Washington, DC. Doctoral studies in Florida. But I’d always chosen to come back.

Over time, like any native child, I developed a love-hate relationship with the city of my birth. I loved it for random reasons like the peach cake I used to eat from the Woodlea Bakery and steamed crabs in the summer. I loved it for the strange way that, no matter where in the world I was, I could always tell people from Baltimore by their accent and by the way they pronounced the word water as “wudder” and sink as “zinc.”

I loved it for its simplicity- that its people were overwhelmingly humble and low key. Having moved to Washington, DC for grad school and struggling with the intense networking and industry town culture that exists there, I came to appreciate that Baltimore is a city of neighborhoods. I loved that I always knew that when someone in Baltimore asks you where you went to school, they mean high school. With your one answer, they were likely to be able to sum up your whole life story-who you are, what neighborhood you are from and what tribe you belong to.

I loved it for giving me hot, August nights during which I cheered on the Orioles with my grandfather. One of my favorite childhood memories remains listening to baseball on the radio with him- sitting outside on the porch of my grandparents’ house and hearing the roar of the crowd at Memorial Stadium just a few blocks away.

Baltimore is etched in my DNA. It is a part of my cellular memory. My mind and body vividly remember every street I grew up on and where my family members lived. Green Meadow Parkway, Ashland Avenue, Westview Road. I loved Baltimore and it would always be home.

 

I must confess, too, that while I loved it immensely, I also hated it for its simplicity.

I hated how segregated the city was. While it could give you a sense of community, being from Baltimore also meant that often you lived among people who were exactly like you- never really venturing outside of your racial, ethnic, class or religious bubble.

I went to Catholic high school in Baltimore with other girls who had gone to Catholic school their whole lives and whose families all worshipped at the same churches for decades. They went to school with other Catholic girls whom they’d known since they were toddlers. Many of them didn’t know anyone who wasn’t Catholic. If they did, they certainly weren’t the norm. Coming from public school and starting a new school in 9th grade, trying to make friends with girls who’d been friends with each other forever and who all lived in the same neighborhood was not easy. I hated the feeling of being different, of coming from a non-traditional and non-Catholic family. A huge no-no in the Catholic Church (and one that I probably shouldn’t ever admit publicly), sometimes I used to take communion (never having actually received the sacrament in a First Holy Communion ceremony with a priest) with all the other girls just so I could fit in. Baltimore could be a lonely place if you didn’t have a community or a network to call your own. I spent many years as both a teenager and adult trying to find my community and the right “fit.”

Long after high school, when I’d come back to the city for the last time and had gotten married, I hated how everyone thought it was so strange that my husband and I were an intercultural couple- Black American and Colombian. I hated that every detail of our relationship was subject to scrutiny by those who’d never ventured outside of the bubble. That anywhere we went, people almost always asked what language we spoke at home and couldn’t believe that a Black woman could speak fluent Spanish or that a native Colombian could speak fluent English. I hated that we could go to New York on weekends and be anonymous but, in my own hometown, curiosity, ignorance and exoticism marked how others saw our relationship.

 

Most of all, I confess that I hated how dramatically I saw the city deteriorate before my eyes.

After finishing my undergraduate studies, I came back to Baltimore as a teacher through Teach for America. I confess that it was not a voluntary decision. I had marked Baltimore as number 10 out of a total of 13 choices for site placements. When the placement letter arrived, I cried and refused to go back home. I wanted to move to New York or LA. I wanted a new start in another city. A place with which I didn’t have such a tenuous relationship. I did not want to go back home. It was my mother who convinced me that it would be good for me to come home, to be closer to my family and to really learn about the inequality that existed in my own hometown.

After a year, I ended up teaching Spanish at Gilmor Elementary School in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood. The same neighborhood, where 15 years later, Freddie Gray would be killed. The same neighborhood that made worldwide news during the uprising for its disproportionately high level of boarded up homes. It was described in various ways by the media. Food desert. Crime ridden. Impoverished. This was the location where the HBO show The Wire was filmed. I worked day and night with other tireless educators to try to do everything we could to try to improve the life chances for students in that neighborhood. We endured neighborhood shootings, school lockdowns and played de facto therapists to kids with drug addicted parents. We taught Saturday school, bought books and supplies paid from our own paltry salaries, meals for children whose parents couldn’t raise them, kept deodorant and toothbrushes in our classrooms and taught kids how to use them. We did anything we could to try to save them from the streets and a system that was sure to abandon them. It did not work. But like the memories of the streets in Baltimore I was raised on, the names of those kids are etched in my heart and soul. Deja, Shakeisha, Albert, Demon, Anthony. I could never forget those kids and their faces as long as I live.

After three years in the classroom in Baltimore City Public Schools, I was tired. It was time to go. I loved the kids but the ridiculously hard work, the bumbling administrators that ran the school and the systemic inefficiencies pushed me to my breaking point. Upon coming home from school after a 12-hour day, I often slept on the living room couch; too tired to make my way to my bed. I had been given Xanax to calm my anxiety after my first year of teaching and I believed that I would have been headed for a nervous breakdown if I made a career out of teaching. I left Gilmor and moved to DC for graduate school and didn’t look back. While I would later come home to work in Baltimore in other jobs related to advocacy and social services for marginalized populations, I couldn’t give my heart and soul to them the way I did in those years at Gilmor. I was hardened and forever changed. My heart was irreparably broken. My city no longer looked the same to me.

 

I confess, prior to the uprising, I had often thought about the city burning down.

I wondered if burning it down to the ground was the only way to fix it. To raze it, tear up all of its pain and suffering from the root and rebuild anew on top of the cement and ashes. 

I moved away from Baltimore for the last time in 2013. My life and career had taken me in a different direction, to a new location and, I will confess, that I was glad for it. I didn’t think I could ever live there again.

In 2015, while living in my new city, I looked up from my laptop at the TV and I realized that Baltimore was burning.

I watched with tears as CNN showed my hometown erupt into flames, tears and pain with Freddie Gray serving as the spark. I watched people demand justice for the mysterious death of a young Black man in police custody. But I also knew that this uprising, this rebellion, was the result of decades of blight, corrupt government, the marginalization and disenfranchisement of the poor and gentrification come back to haunt us all. It turned Baltimore upside down. I worried myself sick about my grandparents, my mother-in-law and friends who were still living there and caught in the crosshairs.

I confess, that while I yearned to go home, I didn’t. I was paralyzed. It was too painful. I had a dissertation draft deadline to finish if I wanted to graduate on time. It served as a convenient reason not to go. Baltimore was stomping on my heart, yet again, and I just couldn’t bear it. I wasn’t nearly strong enough to endure this kind of heartbreak for a second time.

Instead, I posted about it on social media. I ranted. I raved. I talked about it in very intellectual terms with colleagues who were interested. I felt numb and ached all at once. I thought about my time in Sandtown-Winchester a lot and about the kids I’d taught all those many years ago. I wondered if any of them had been impacted by the violence.

I’ve been back to Baltimore a few times since then. Thanksgiving with my grandparents, dinner with my mother-in-law, a random trip passing through here and there. But it still feels near impossible for me to fully go home. It will never be the same. Remembering what the city once was and seeing what it now is reminds me of the crazy and painful push-pull relationship that I have always had with the city of my birth.

 

I confess that like so many of the complicated relationships we have as adults, I still simultaneously love Baltimore and hate it for the heartbreak it’s bestowed upon me.  No matter how hard I try, it is still inextricably linked to my DNA. And somehow, even though it aches to love it, because of all the pleasure (and the pain) it’s given me over the course of my lifetime, I just can’t seem to shake it loose.

Managing Anger

It’s actually good to be angry.

This is one of the most powerful life lessons I’ve learned, it’s also the one that is the most hard to accept and scariest to admit. For me, this has been a revelation years in the making.

As a naturally optimistic and deeply empathetic person, I still cringe when I think about how other people experience me when I’m angry. An only child, raised by a single mother until I was 13, I was often lonely and felt emotionally abandoned by both my parents. I viewed anger as giving people a reason to push me away. And growing up a Black girl in a world in which white people often surrounded me, I was taught by relatives that being nice, agreeable and “acceptable” was a way to set myself apart; with the hopes that defying stereotypes about sassy, attitudinal Black women would shield me from the racism and sexism that exists in the world.

At a critical point in my adult life, I realized that the expectation to not be angry had become stifling and I felt overwhelmed. Throughout painful and abusive personal relationships, work situations in which I was frustrated by lack of opportunities and not making enough money, and various kinds of loss and struggle, I felt extreme pressure to put on a façade for everyone. This resulted in deeply hidden emotions. The façade wore me out. It made me incredibly unhappy. But still, I refused to speak truth and give voice to my anger. Even when it was righteous and warranted.

The anger only increased as I started to develop a critical consciousness about the world around me. Racism, sexism, homophobia, social injustice… there was so much to be angry about! And when I finally did start to make sense of it, I became incredibly uncomfortable. Most people are generally uncomfortable with anger as an emotion. Anger is messy and pushes our boundaries. It can range from irritation to full blown rage. It does not fit into a pretty little package and can throw individuals, relationships and even society into upheaval.  In a world that emphasizes orderly, pleasant appearances and self-control, and because so many of us place our need for stability, security and order above all else, anger can feel chaotic, dangerous and unmanageable.

As humans, our instinct is to shy away (or even run) from our feelings of anger. Like I did, many of us deal with our anger by suppressing it, lying to ourselves or others about it, or trying to put a happy face on the outside despite feeling very differently on the inside.  Once I was finally able to name my anger, there were many times I shared my feelings with others only to have them respond with comments like “Look on the bright side,” “Don’t be a Debbie Downer,” or “Look at the glass as half full instead of half empty.” It was exhausting.  

The message internalized from this type of response is that there is something inherently wrong with me for being angry. But I found that it wasn’t just me. Society is full of subtle (and not so subtle) messages that reinforce the idea that anger is a negative emotion--something unpleasant, unnecessary, outrageous, better yet, immoral that we should not feel or express.  Feminists boldly proclaiming that women deserve equal pay for equal work—scary and angry. Young Black protestors asserting that Black lives matter—hateful and angry. Activists championing the rights of undocumented immigrants—entitled, unlawful and angry.  

And for women, being vocal about our anger comes at great risk to us both personally and professionally. Shame and shaming often accompany female expressions of anger. As a woman, I’ve been labeled “emotional” “unreasonable” “unprofessional” and “high-strung” when I have expressed my anger at being personally wronged or at injustice, whether it is in the workplace or in the world. And as a woman of color, when I’ve expressed my anger, the stakes have been even higher.  I’ve been called “aggressive” “negative” or “angry” as in the “angry Black woman” more times than I can count.  

The end result was that for years, as both a child and an adult, I tried desperately not to appear angry. Not because I wasn’t, but instead because I feared being judged and labeled. If I was angry, what did that say about me? Is something wrong with me when I feel anger? Am I a bad person because I am angry?   Is it better to pretend to feel pleasant, calm and content rather than to express displeasure, outrage or annoyance? What good could possibly come from being angry?

 With time and reflection, I have learned the answers to these questions and they are relatively simple. What does anger say about me as a person? Only that I’m human. Is something wrong with me when I feel angry? Not at all, anger is a natural emotion. Am I a bad person because I’m angry? No, everyone is entitled to feel their emotions- fully and without shame.  Is it better to pretend to feel pleasant, calm and content rather than to express displeasure, outrage or annoyance? With rare exception, little is achieved by lying to others or myself by pretending to feel something I don’t.

What good could possibly come from being angry?

Actually, a lot. Being in touch with anger is a fundamental part of self-awareness. Acknowledging the feeling of anger and understanding it, allows me to intentionally make choices to change my situation. I find that when I simply sit with the feeling of anger, it provides a bit of clarity and allows for good decision-making. For example, when I get that snarky email from a colleague or boss that evokes anger in me, when I sit for a few minutes and digest those feelings, I no longer have the need to respond in all capitals back. I am able to make the decision to wait and respond after I’ve had time to cool down. Anger can also be a powerful motivator and catalyst that leads to societal change.  Anger about injustice in society led to the Civil Rights Movement, to marriage equality and to equal pay laws. Anger is one of the foundational emotions that has caused humans to mobilize and organize for justice in ways that better humanity. Finally, anger can lead to personal growth and change. Recently on my favorite podcast, I heard someone say, “I demand to be my full self in any space that I am in.” I wholeheartedly agree with that mantra. After years of hiding and suppressing my feelings, I want to live an authentic life--embracing all of my emotions and bringing my full self everywhere. That includes my joy, my curiosity, my anxiety, my intelligence, my passion and, yes, my anger. Anger is a natural part of what I feel along with all the other emotions that humans are gifted with.

So, I embrace anger. I am alive. I am a full human being. I have complex emotions that I or others don’t need to judge- they are what they are. And sometimes it’s good to be angry.