Monthly Archives: January 2017

Open Letter to an Anonymous Evaluator or Girl, What You Gon Do Now? (Essay 3/52)

*This is my third essay in Vanessa Martír’s #52essays2017 challenge. I suggest reading this open letter once without following the footnotes and then once with the footnotes. You will see why I’ve chosen this form. This was fun.

Girl, Girl, Girl, Girl, Girl[1],

I just had to reach out because I’m worried about you, Sug[2]. What you gon’ do now that you have pushed me from sad to sickening? Just what will you do now that you got a bitch[3] on her toes with a plan to actually give you even more to hate?

See, it’s one thing to be hated for who you are. It isn’t pleasant, but it is life’s way of presenting you with opportunities to claim yourself, to affirm that you are your own best thing[4]. When someone hates the person that you have intentionally crafted to get you through this leg of the journey, you get to tell yourself all the reasons that they’re the fool for not seeing what you saw when you hand-selected each of your traits and put them together like a fresh Derby[5] fit. But when someone hates the shell of yourself, the persona you were accidentally occupying just trying to get through a rough time, it throws you off balance. You scream, “But you don’t even know me!” in your head and then ask yourself why not. Why didn’t you know me last semester? And if you didn’t know me, which persona did you attack?

I mean, who is this woman you hate? Nervous Nancy[6] with the shaky voice standing in front of a small group of girls typing text messages on their cell phones? Was she the absolute worst? Haven’t you ever seen somebody’s confidence shake for a minute before righting itself?

Who taught you to ride your bike? Really. I want to know who held on to the back of your seat and then let go, trusting you to find your own balance. I want to know who picked you up when you fell, told you that falling was a part of the process, dusted you off, then put you back on the road until you got it. Who was it? And then I want you to imagine learning to ride without that person. Imagine finding your balance when nobody is behind you yelling, “You got it! I’m here![7]

I don’t want to make assumptions. Perhaps you learned to ride alone. Perhaps you did everything on your own and I seem like a punk to you. Perhaps my fear reminds you of the feelings you repressed when you were teaching yourself to do hard things when you were too young to do them. Perhaps I remind you of the thing you had to kill to survive. I can understand that. I fucks with that feeling. I know how it feels to chastise someone else before you realize you are actually talking to your own mirror. It’s called parenting.

But anyway, girl, bike or no bike, I don’t think you can keep up with who you have pushed me to become. I can tell that you know all about that life on the other side of “You got me fucked up!” I can tell you know how to make a muthafucka sorry they[8] ever tried it. I could tell when you wore your good, good Remy hair the day after the class period you spent texting so fast and furiously that you had to be fighting with a boo.  Girl, I know you know how to throw some lip gloss on a rejection and keep it moving. And that’s just what I plan to do, but I’m so worried about you because I just don’t think you’ll be ready.

I swear you’re not ready for my “perfeshonal” drag. I was so content to be my Daddy’s daughter last semester, what with my scuff-toed sneakers and jeans that sagged in the butt[9]. But after your comments, I had a come-to-Jesus moment with my mentor who told me I needed to use style to put more space between me and you. See, you’d mentioned my age in your evaluation and surmised that I just wasn’t old enough to be teaching you[10]. And while I appreciate your compliment, girl, I am so worried about your teeth this semester. I mean, the winter months are probably the worst time to leave your mouth hanging open, what with the cold air and all. More than 57% of adults suffer from tooth sensitivity and I’m just saying that the frost we’re expecting will likely bother your exposed dentin. I noticed you were a tooth grinder, which can exacerbate the condition, but maybe that’s just when I’m talking. Anyway, take good care. I recommend a good scarf to protect your mouth from these tailored blazers and ankle pants, honey. You have no idea what Professional Gamine Pinterest and morning texts to my glamorous mother are about to do to your feelings.

I’m also worried about your emotional labor this semester. I’m just wondering how you will comfort your crushing friends, the ones who come crying to you because they weren’t born 20 years earlier and hence, aren’t on my radar as possible mates. I mean, you have pushed a bitch to the MAC counter and GIRL. A bitch found her cheek bones and got an eye-crease tutorial. I’m sickening, I tell you, and your friends will surely need your help this semester. If I’m lyin I’m flyin and I don’t do heights.

And sweetie, pray tell[11], just what do you plan to do about these legs? When I was busy being the worst professor ever, I took the lazy route through fashion and wore African print[12] maxi skirts like a uniform. I was subconsciously hiding my legs because y’all ain’t never had feminists organizing on this campus before and your young men are unschooled, honey. I can tell nobody has had an honest conversation with them about how it feels to be ogled or reduced to the body parts that titillate[13]. And without y’all’s help, I’ve had to have these conversations by my damn self and these boys are actually more understanding than y’all give them credit for. But I know where you’re coming from. My undergraduate experience was also full of gender wars that elders could have steered us clear of if they weren’t intentionally letting us do our own thing. Anyway, I have created the conditions in which it is safe to show these legs and I don’t think you’re ready for the ways I’ve been blessed by my Daddy’s genes. I mean, if you were jealous of my light in those dowdy print skirts then, girl, what will you do when I’m stomping the yard like my first name’s Dominique and last name’s Dawes? Girl, these calves have victims. I’m talking full on strokes and heart attacks and shit[14]. Three years ago these calves put a stud in a coma and her mama said she just came out. Another time, these calves made a man lose control of his car and hit the statue of Jefferson Davis and that’s how it got removed from University of Louisville’s campus. On my last campus, these calves stopped traffic for a whole two blocks which is unfortunate because somebody coulda gave me a ride to the library. It was hot that day. Most recently, these calves made a Jehovah’s witness stop ringing doorbells and come to Sunday School just to catch a glimpse of me in my Sunday dress.  If these legs ain’t gospel, I don’t know what else to call the light. So what you gon’ do when they make a believer out of you?

Let me stop playing now. After all, looks aren’t everything. I hope you won’t have to learn that lesson the way I did: by finding out on Facebook that the person who loved, then dumped you the hardest messed around and married a white girl who looks like she has a good heart[15]. But I digress.

So on to heart matters: from what I gather from your evaluation, it’s not what I did that pissed you off. It’s what I didn’t do. You wanted me to do more than pose discussion questions in class and center the knowledge of the people I was hired to teach. I’m being fully transparent when I tell you that I get that. For real. I understand wanting someone who looks like you to model this work. I get feeling that what you already know is not good enough to do anything remotely interesting with the text in front of you. I can empathize because the same feeling blocks me from completing my dissertation and saving myself, once and for all, from this shadow of myself people keep calling “Ms. French.” Ms. French is an undone project. Ms. French is ABD. She is defined by those letters and her career is stalled by them. There are not enough fashions in the world to dress up that “but,” the thing she cannot complete. Ms. French has been wearing those letters for 5 years now and she imagines a day when their weight will be behind her like Oprah’s 1988 wagon of animal fat.

But Hatin’ Hattie, you have dragged[16] me from “one day” into the spectacular now. You wanted what Ms. French had; you weren’t worried about what she’d failed to finish. You wanted her reading of “The Lesson,” her explanation of how she got there. You wanted her references, her jargon mixed in with everyday language. You wanted the mirror I thought you were denying me when I tried to see myself in your face and found a teeth-grinding girl who’d closed off her eyes. I wish I’d known how to do that. I wish I’d done it. Real talk.

But that was last semester. It’s behind the both of us and I think we are both better for it. You have your “A” and you’ve had your say. I have my bruised ego (the catalyst to any valuable change) and the determination that only girls who’ve been pushed to “You got me fucked up!” can muster. And I have lectures. I work on at least three every day and they don’t feel like the death of good pedagogy the way some schools of thought might have you believe. Instead, they feel like legacy.

I wish you could have seen the way I killed that lecture Thursday. I mean, I wish you could have felt Professor Roberts’ energy rushing through me. I wish you could have seen me feeling myself like Ms. Cole did on the days she wore her black leather pants and red lipstick. I wish you could have seen my version of Dr. Carr’s southern preacher teacher style. I wish you could have seen me borrow Dr. Boykin’s calm genius or Dr. Jackson’s wry humor. Ooh, I wish you could have heard me talk as pretty as Dr. Hampton—the way I mix home language and jargon in ways that let you know you don’t have to drop one to pick up the other. I wish you could have seen me be a reflection of all the gifts freely given to me by those I would never call the worst. I wish you could have seen me shine. Not to one-up you but to reflect that which is already in you, that which brought you to this place despite the trials you faced and gave you the courage to demand more when someone was giving you less than her best.

Now, I could tell you that there are better ways to get what you want than the route you took but then again we are all using the tools we have to get the results we think we need. You have pushed me toward my toolkit with your hatin’ ass ways and at the end of the day, I’m more grateful than annoyed.

But Girl. I still don’t know what you gon’ do now that you have turned the worst professor into the baddest[17].

Good luck with that,

Ms. French


[1] So girl, I wanted so badly to tell you about Sula, by Toni Morrison. About the way those words were uttered in lament and nostalgia for girlhood, that magical place where we learn to reach toward our own reflection in the eyes of an/ other. Which means I also have to teach you about Kevin Quashie and his theory of girlfriend subjectivity. But since I’m the “worst professor [you] ever had in your life,” I’m sure you wouldn’t be interested in learning anything I have to teach.

[2] Girl. Sug is short for Sugar, which is a way to call you sweet, which is a bit of Black Southern irony given that you are so damn hateful but which is also hopeful given that I write in the tradition of Alice Walker, whose character named Sug Avery started out treating the main character Celie really spitefully and hatefully but then ended up being the catalyst for her change and a great love. And while I hold no hope that you will be a great love, I do realize (because of Walker) that you are a valuable catalyst who can’t be reduced to the insults you hurled. And I wish you would have hung in there long enough to hear this too, but then the worst professor ever probably couldn’t have shared this information either.

[3] Girl, I sure hope you aren’t offended by my use of the B word, especially when it’s self-referential. I’m sure this is a surprise to you because you’ve probably never thought of me as a bitch. Probably never muttered it under your breath or told your friends I was one or anything. Probably never wanted to type it in your course evaluation before you opted for “worst professor ever.”

[4] Honey, I sure wish that I could have mentioned Sethe in passing during a lecture one day so that you would understand the weight of these words. Beloved was such a powerful novel and I wanted to get into it in class so that by the time Paul D got to telling Sethe that she was her own best thing, you, too, would have felt the weight lift from your shoulders as you realized that all ghosts ain’t yours to carry and that you owe it to yourself to live rather than nurse those who couldn’t make this journey with you. But I digress.

[5] Girl, and you from Louisville! I can’t believe somebody from home would be such a hater when they know full well that I make the daily drive from the city of their mother’s cooking to the city of cafeteria food. Girl, I could have, would have, been your delivery service. Would have brought your mama’s cornbread to your dorm room, wrapped in wax paper and still warm from the oven. Could have been a laundry delivery service too because I know how hard it is to find quarters on campus and every place in Louisville is just 15 minutes away. You have no idea how I bend for those I love because we didn’t have the opportunity to love each other—busy as I was being the worst teacher and busy as you were organizing Team Hate.

[6] Sweetie, that’s alliteration which I’m sure you remember was covered in the poetry chapter. I understand why that chapter was boring to read. All jokes aside, you have nudged me toward understanding what students really want, and how their desires are both black and beautiful. I mean we are a people who prefer tongue over text. We were raised on stories told out loud, and, in the wake of your evaluation, I have come to realize the ways I cheated you of that birthright—that which I received both at home and at Howard. I’m really sorry for that. I’m sorry I expected the chapters to pull so much weight instead of diving into the deep of the story and making class a place that felt more like church. I can do better, just not in overtly hostile conditions.

[7] What I’m saying is my Daddy died and I lost my edge for a little while. I don’t say this for you to feel sorry for me, but by way of explanation for a semester that wasn’t my best.

[8] Girl, don’t let your so-much-better-than-me professors make you afraid to use “they” instead of he or she. A better professor would be right about pronoun and antecedent agreement, but they’d be missing the point that the way we have constructed gender as a binary is violent and exclusive to lots of people who find themselves on middle places on the gender spectrum. I just want you to take that with you because I know you’ll have a lot of contact with professors who are better than me and, from what I can tell so far, few will feel the way I feel about grammar as a tool of colonization. So I just wanted to drop this note to encourage you to use the language you want to use no matter how many red marks you get. The grammar rules that matter are ones you can pick up easily by reading, not by editing a piece to death for mechanics rather than concept. I was trying to get to this lesson when I was busy being the worst professor ever, but I just spent so much time asking people to look up from their cell phones that it must have slipped my mind.

[9] Honey, I was going through it last semester and fucked around and lost my ass. Which is something my other class caught onto though they were too kind to identify the signs. Students just started checking on me more frequently because we’d built the kind of relationship I couldn’t figure out how to build with your class, what with the side comments and rolled eyes and all. I’ll be honest. Rolled eyes just shut me the hell down and take me to middle school all over again. I don’t know if I will ever outgrow that girl with braces and an asymmetrical haircut who just couldn’t figure out how to be liked. But what you have taught me is that I can’t let her make my decisions anymore. You know what I mean? I have to let her know that I’ve got us now, that I’m creating the type of life for us that won’t be destabilized by cliques’ feelings about me. You have pushed me to do the work to secure my life beyond the reach of triggers and learned behavior. My gratitude should not be confused with shade. I mean this from the bottom of a healing heart.

[10] You’ll just have to take that up with my mother, who passed her anti-aging enzymes down to me through an umbilical cord that was cut a full ten years before you guessed.

[11] That means please tell me.

[12] Girl, them skirts was made in China. I found that out during the first half of the semester and I really wish we could have had that conversation about the Dutch, colonization, cultural appropriation, and the tense relationship between 1st generation African Americans and the progeny of those who survived and are still surviving Maafa. But alas, I was just the living worst.

[13] That’s a play on words. Girl, I wish I had the confidence last semester to point to the way Toni Cade Bambara similarly plays with language in the stories I assigned but when I even offered an alternative reading to your interpretation of “The Lesson,” you were so damn resistant to anything other than the surface that I said, ‘Fuck it’ and just nodded and let you have your way. I know better now, thanks to you. That’s a real thanks. No fake. No phony.

[14] We could have had so much fun talking about the Stagolee tales, Blues women, and Moms Mabley so you’d understand the line I’m intentionally standing in when I tell these tall tales.

[15] Girl, it’s the kind of face you don’t take pictures of. Meanwhile, I’ve never seen him look happier so her looks don’t make me feel better at all. I mean, whether she looked like Beyoncé or the singer Lorde, she would still look like not me and I would still be writing a fiction about their happy life the way I am writing a fiction about the world in which you’d be open to anything I am telling you in this letter.

[16] In more than one way. I mean, you dragged the hell out of me in those comments and you’ve also inspired me to don professional drag, which has had a surprising effect on my confidence. There is something about “faking it” that teaches you the fragile nature of confidence, the way it is always “put on” and sometimes falls off—the way it is all a cycle that you have more control of than you think. Gain confidence, lose confidence, then make a shift to gain it again. This is life, girl. You’ve helped me know that.

[17] And girl, you thought I was 8 instead of 18 when Trina’s cd came out! Now that’s the one gift from your evaluation that just keeps on giving. Thank you.



Mama in a Blue Dress (Essay 2/ 52 in 2017)

If Mama was moving, she was making something. She was making my brothers and me behave. She was making the house a little neater. She was making one of us a better writer, red pen in hand, laboring over a written-in-the-last-minute-but-due-in-the-morning essay well after bedtime. But on the night Martin Lawrence came to Louisville in the early nineties, I watched my Mama make herself and there are no words for what she made.

Do you remember the moment you saw your mother as separate from yourself? As someone who both was and wasn’t you? And the part that wasn’t you was the part that seemed ancient, as it began well before you were born and would keep evolving well after you move out from under her roof? The moment you see her as separate from her belt, her dishes, her clothes-folding, her sweeping, her homework editing, her scolding, her cajoling, her reading of bedtime stories or admonitions to hush all that noise cuz she can hear you laughing when you should be sleep? And you wondered where this woman came from and where she hides while you are tap dancing on her last nerve?

Let me tell you about my Mama’s blue dress. It was raw silk and the most saturated blue I’d ever seen. It was the color blue that ought to make a peacock shamed of hisself. That’s how blue it was. This blue was not in the 24 pack of Crayolas and it was more beautiful than the basic blue of primary paints. It was a color the goddesses designed when they were tired of looking down at our simple sky, our lackluster oceans. It was the color they must have created when they started competing with each other to make a better blue, some color without a name, a blue that looked like a full ass band, saxophonist, drummer and all. That’s the color blue it was. Some people call it royal because they idolize monarchies, have never seen a working woman turn herself into a queen but then they never met my Mama and neither had I until the night Martin Lawrence came to town.

To appreciate this blue against my mother’s skin, you might also have to know what color my mother is and this is where things get tricky because there are no words for her color brown that do not reduce her to some sweetness that just wasn’t her style. It’s not that she was coffee-bitter either, but I don’t drink the stuff and wouldn’t know how much milk to tell you to stir in to get the color of my mother’s skin. Maybe her skin is what happens when hickory and cinnamon fall in love and don’t realize that antibiotics throw off birth control and now they have this new mouth to feed but look at her, isn’t she beautiful? Wasn’t it worth it? That’s the color brown my mother is. Clear skin dotted with raised moles that look like dark freckles– beauty marks begging you to notice how high her cheekbones reach when she makes her mouth an “O” and sweeps red blush along them. Which is what she was doing the night Martin Lawrence came to Louisville.

I’ve never seen my mother smile in the mirror. Not even that night when the mirror didn’t give a shit about the fairest one of all was because the most beautiful brown girl was standing right there in front of it. When Mama put on makeup, she acted like she was doing something perfunctory rather than magical. Like the mascara that made her eyes pop was just a pre-made bow pressed onto a gift for someone she ain’t like that much anyway. Like the red lipstick she spread across her bottom lip was the color of some ordinary bird you could see walking down any street rather than the rare cardinal you had to sit real still to spot. Pressing her lips together to get the color even, she stared into the mirror like the goddess was handing out perfect cupid’s bows to just anybody– like there weren’t women in other mirrors drawing on their top lips, trying to create the “v” that she had naturally. It might be a crime to go through life without seeing your own dimples in the mirror, especially if you looked the way my mother looked the night Martin Lawrence came to town.

This might get weird, but I have to tell you about my mother’s breasts in the blue dress. I have to tell you that I didn’t know what a square neckline could do until that night, flat chested as I was and would remain until the first months of my pregnancy when I stuffed myself into a too-small dress and thought of Mama getting ready for Martin. It’s not that her dress was too small; it’s that it wasn’t the kind of dress you were supposed to breathe in. This wasn’t a Dress Barn frock with fluid lines and minimal darts. This was a dress with boning, a dress that had one shape on the hanger and another stretched tight across hips. This was a dress your body blessed and not the other way around– a dress you needed “foundations” for, which is what they were called at Bacons on Dixie Highway. And though we’d shopped the foundations section just a few days before, Mama looked at the mirror with a worried face before going through the kitchen drawers in search of duct tape. The rips and tears I heard that night from my bedroom down the hall from my parents’ were like a blueprint for an improvised life. The lengths you must sometimes go to hold yourself together were measured in strips of tape and Babaaay when I tell you they worked, well you’ll just have to imagine the deep square cutout of this too-blue-to-name dress filled to brimming with cinnamohickory skin that jiggled with every step my mother took in the silver pumps that matched the clutch she carried the night Martin Lawrence came to Louisville.

There are no words for what Mama made in the mirror the night Martin came to town. I am of the tribe that wrestles with language to travel in time, to distill the real to what a page can hold. And the page cannot hold my mother. She is what the women mean when they say, “That girl is just too much” while smiling at the inventiveness of their kin.

I think of Mama on Martin night because it is the eve of my first day back in the classroom and the professor who I invented last semester was not enough. That girl was a nervous wreck and had the nerve to let imposter syndrome come in and obscure her own light. In the beginning of the semester, she wore African print skirts every day, hiding in the metaphor of motherland to avoid her own face in the mirror. When the weather changed, that girl made a uniform of jeans and sweaters, hoping that relatability would make up for all she was holding back. Her evaluations said she was “too close to our age to be a professor” and “the worst professor I ever had.” And here’s the thing: I know that misogynoir colors my evaluations. Teaching at an HBCU does not limit the reach of the internalized hatred of the black mother within ourselves. Some of the evaluations were so obviously projections of this hated girl that I wanted to ask the anonymous reviewer, “Have you even met me?”

I posed the question to myself and realized that they hadn’t. I’d spent so much time “flipping the classroom” that I forgot my birthrights. The sermon is my birthright. I get it from my grandfather. The way a soloist can make a crowd hush and shout is my birthright. I get it from my Mama. Call and response is mine. I get it from my father, a pianist who could navigate the somber notes of an intro while anticipating the joy of the bridge. In my own HBCU experience, the lecture was so much like church that it felt like home– only the good news was the glory of myself, the lies my former teachers taught me corrected and deflected. I owe it to these students to walk fully into my birthright, all the lessons I learned at home and Howard.

My mentor said as much when she gently nudged me toward my mother’s mirror. “At least for the first few weeks, you’ve got to be suited. You have to show these students that you are not them. You went to an HBCU. You know how we do.” I sat across from her wearing a bell hooks tee-shirt, ripped jeans, and Coach sneakers. After taking a style quiz online, I’d discovered that I was a flamboyant gamine and I was wearing the suggested uniform– graphic tees, skinny leg pants, sporty jackets and sneakers with a feminine edge.  I felt like I’d finally found a home in fashion– that land where my mother lives comfortably. That place I am afraid to visit. The rules are not transparent enough. The choices are too many. The stakes seem too high. And now I was being asked to move again. What if the person I create in the magic mirror is also not the person they want? What if an imposter in a suit is just an imposter in a suit?

I stayed up late the night that Martin came to Louisville. I wanted to know if the crowd parted like the red sea when my parents walked into the building. I imagined my mother in the front row, holding my father’s hand and laughing until her dimples pierced her face. I imagined Martin calling her “Baby,” looking at her like Gina but toning it down for my father. I asked her what happened. My mother said Martin was too crass. He’d made some “Women be shoppin!” non-segue to Afrocentrism, asking the audience if they believed that they were all from Africa. When the audience cheered, he’d said, “Then women, pull out ya titties!” My mother frowned when she told the story and I thought of all the trouble she’d gone through to arrange her breasts just so. All the dazzle she’d applied in the time she spent making herself over, daring to be both beautiful and bold. All that work overlooked in this backward-ass joke. Even her best not enough in a nation in which everybody wants the tit– wants to be nurtured by the metaphor without breaks, the black woman caregiver who loves on everyone but herself, who works without thanks, who makes herself available to whatever need presents itself, who pulls out titties or money or perfect syllabi or fitted suits or informative lectures and then some asshole asks for more. Demands more. Laughs at his own demands. Chides those who he made uncomfortable.

Maybe Mama wasn’t bothered. Though we are both from the tribe of word-wrestlers who hold onto slights in an effort to trim their impact to what a page can hold, her hands were already full the night Martin Lawrence came to Louisville and acted a fool. In the telling, he was just a fly she swatted away with a rolled eye, stepping out of her silver pumps and still smiling at her child-free night. Maybe what I need from this memory is the time she spent with herself, those moments in which she perfected a stepping-out mask, became both the not-Mama-tonight and the pre-Mama in one body. Met the ancient in herself and loved her fiercely. Maybe I blinked when she smiled and I missed the thing that dazzles when the seer is the self.

Reading Kim Burrell– 1/52(+++) 2017 Essays

I’m a writer. Writers write. Writers fill white pages with words and sometimes when writers are afraid of the page, they write in their heads and let internalized gremlins erase those words and convince them that no one would have wanted to read them anyway. So in an effort to destabilize those gremlins, I have accepted the 52 Essays in 2017 challenge from Vanessa Martir, a dope ass writer who relentlessly blessed us with her talent in 2016 by writing an essay a week.

So the following is my first of 52.

  1. When I read what Kim Burrell said about my death in 2017, my impulse was to read her. I’m passive aggressive, so I never would have addressed her directly. I probably would have just wished things for her out loud. I wanted to wish her deliverance from the heterosexual preoccupations I know all too well– the disbelief that someone could actually enjoy the sex acts that fundamentalist Christian women are obsessed with because we are dating men who think we are dirty and we are afraid that doing dirty things to them will make us less marriable and therefore we place taboos on putting dicks in our mouths and develop a God-ordained gag reflex that we hope makes us look holy and then we become so obsessed with dicks in mouths that we begin to resent those who suck dick better than us– namely hoes and men– and so we build whole ass ministries around saving both their souls though they really need to be saved from little more than our preoccupation with their dicksucking ways. Meanwhile, we are married to or trying to marry men who only take “you got to lick it before you stick it” halfway seriously and therefore give us meager moments of clumsy tongue poking before trying to enter us like knife against sandpaper and we call this holy. The God-ordained nakedness of two people who desire heaven more than each other and do not realize they could make heaven right here in these hard, wet moments if they weren’t so preoccupied with hell. Was that a read?

2. I learned to read when I was in Kindergarten. The word “orange” was my nemesis. I felt dumb when I saw this word, the same organization of signs, and failed to recognize it. What is wrong with my brain and why does it fail to see what others so easily see?

3. My friend Silas said he could see I was gay from a mile away. I still don’t know what he saw.

4. My queerness is orange to me. In the beginning, my relief at learning the sign for myself was overshadowed by that internalized asshole who always accompanies every new knowledge with accusations of slowness and dim wit. Together we have constructed a list of signs I wouldn’t have missed if I had been smarter.

5. That time a man asked me to spend the night and I showed up in Garfield pajamas believing he was inviting me to a slumber party then asked him to sleep on the floor after the movie is on the list.

6. I’ve been read by a gay man twice. Both times, I asked for it. Not in the Kim Burrell, reading-is-such-sweet-karma kind of way, but like I literally asked. The first time, I walked into a rehearsal for a show my friends were putting on and the room was buzzing with murmurs about the read I’d just missed. I was a senior in college. I’d never seen Paris is Burning. I thought my friends were talking about a psychic reading so I asked the librarian to read me. “Do me!” I practically begged because the rest of my life was just around the corner and I had no idea who I was becoming. I wanted to be told so that I could go back to reading my novels and living in my daydreams, secure in his predictions about life after graduation. “Are you sure you want this?” he asked, like the prophets in my youth choir back home. I nodded, prepared for the gravity of a word from God.

My brain is too kind to store every line of that read, but I remember that each sentence was knife entering flesh or magician’s hand warping my inner mirror. The one line I halfway remember: “Ain’t had dick since God knows when and wouldn’t even know where to find it.” I thought he was the cruelest psychic I’d ever met.

7. Here’s a chicken and egg conundrum that I might research one day: What construction came first? The read or the nondenominational, “word of faith” sermon? In nondenominational churches, speakers are not beholden to the types of exegesis I learned as a Baptist-raised, churchgoing girl. The word these ministers share has been hand-delivered by Gawd himself and ministers could give a fuck about the Hebrew or Greek meaning of the English words they leap from. They could give less than two fucks about consistency or explanation or studying the text against other interpretations. Their sermons are of the collective spirit, which means they are more shaped by call and response than literary analysis. Kim was reading reactions as she was speaking, anticipating the thing that would make the Amen’s crescendo. In much the same way, librarians go all the way in when they sense some sign of reaction from the target. A slight furrow of the brow. A bitten bottom lip. An eye rolled too long. It seems that the preacher and the librarian are two sides of the same coin. I’ve spent a whole day watching Kim Burrell reads on YouTube and the similarities between her sermon and the responding reads are fascinating. I wonder if T.D. Jakes, Juanita Bynum, and the other word of faith ministers know they are “queening out” on the devil and his demons, reading them for filth in a relentless assault of stream-of-consciousness insults. The line between “You can’t take my joy devil” and “Bitch, you got me fucked up” is so thin that the two speakers seem like one and the same. Only the lexicon is different.

8. “Mr. ‘I am Delivurt’ filled with all these different spirits got all the way to Jimmy Kimmel. You see what the enemy is looking for?” Thus sayeth Kim Burrell.

9. “I know bitches’ Grannies who go to the motherfuckin church just to motherfuckin stunt on they Star Wars 2.0 muthafuckin hats so that Girdy can be Ooh’in and Aah’in and giving her motherfuckin side eye.” Thus sayeth  Malibu Dollface.

10. What hurt most about my first read was that I had no idea how to get dick and I was embarrassed by it. When I heard rumors about my friends casually fucking each other, my main question was “how?” How did they move from conversation to nakedness? What were the steps and how had I missed all of them in those high school years when my friends were fucking and I was holding on to my virginity like that girl on Titanic who just let Leonardo DiCaprio die like she couldn’t scoot just a little to the left? I was a senior in college and the bit of dick I’d had I hadn’t really wanted. He’d pretended that blue balls were life threatening and he didn’t love me enough to die gracefully like Leonardo. He took my log without asking me and I drowned and drown again every time I am triggered, every time someone pretends my “no” is just another obstacle to overcome.

11. The second time I was read by a gay man was a gift. It was the first time I’d laughed in the few days since the girl I’d read as safe had said, “You know you want this…” and set me back fourteen years to that night during my freshman year in a dorm room far away from home. But I wasn’t a freshman anymore and I was stronger and I wanted to believe I could make this the last time anybody had me fucked up if I made a few changes to the way I dressed. Studs, I reasoned wrongly, didn’t get raped. I went to the Gap outlet and shopped in the boring colors of the men’s section. I wanted to look like my ex girlfriend, beautiful but un-fuck-wit-able with super swag and fitted clothes. I didn’t get any of those things right. I sent a picture of myself leaning against the wall in stud fashion from the dressing room to my best friend and he texted back, “Call me immediately so I can read you.” I called. The few lines I remember: “Are you in Gap or Goodwill?” and “Don’t you ever let a bitch make your pretty ass dress like that again! You hear me? If you buy those ill-fitting, busted-ass jeans today that bitch has won. You have been through too much to let her win today.”

12. I put the jeans back.

13. I actually bought the jeans, but she still didn’t win because I only wore them once and felt like I was in bad drag so I dropped them off at Goodwill and the irony wasn’t lost on me.

14. Kim Burrell got dragged on the internets and I couldn’t enjoy it because I have taught myself not to indulge in fat-shaming even when “fat” is the nearest weapon, the extension cord that is closer than the belt.

15. Most of the queens who read Kim agree that she’s the kind of woman who can’t get dick, who wouldn’t know where to find it. This read makes me feel a strange empathy for the woman whose beliefs and mean spirit I find disgusting and infuriating. I wonder if all reads are perverted kernels of empathy– felt, held at a distance, then turned into stones.

16. One thing that big women and gay men may have in common is fatigue over statements of the obvious shaped into insults. Many of the gay men who read Kim and called her all manner of Michelin Men, manatees, and hog maw enthusiasts also said they were tired of people calling them out for things they couldn’t control. I could sip tea right here, but I won’t because I’m not white and therefore, I am allergic to arguments about reverse bigotry of any sort. It’s not fair to hold the oppressed accountable for low blows to the oppressor when they have to defend themselves daily from insult, physical harm, and the prayers of the so-called righteous. Maybe they know that being “wide-backed” and “ill-built like a muthafucka” are not innately terrible. Maybe they have gotten into the habit of hoarding observations for those just-in-case moments when a loved one spews some hateful shit and they have to let a bitch know that she has the wrong one.

17. One day, I will research the reads of Eddie Long and Donnie McClurkin to see if they are equally vicious. I want to know if some of the vitriol aimed at Kim specifically and black heterosexual women generally is a continuation of this intracommunal animosity between black men and women that both terrifies and fascinates me. You know how  if you bite your tongue hard enough to draw blood, you will inevitably bite it again before the day is over? It is because a swollen tongue disrupts your body’s memorized agenda. You forget to take care until you bite it again, re-traumatizing tender flesh and starting the cycle of forgetting and triggering that is the routine of the traumatized.

18. “You got people walking the earth that’s filled with God’s holiness, that’s wearing white, and … they don’t want nothing. They just want to please God.They’ll never get the fame. They’ll never get the light.” Thus sayeth Kim Burrell.

19. It may be too much to ask Kim Burrell to forget her swollen tongue. To forget that mainstream fame and “the light” were withheld from her because her body was not the same as her dear friend Whitney’s. Beyonce’s respect may be more irritant than compliment. To have an undeniable gift and judge Sunday’s Best while Jennifer Lopez judges American Idol might irritate the person who has centered “the enemy” in her self-appraisal and called it anything other than white supremacy. The gatekeeping she is projecting is not her creation. It is her noose, the thing that will not let her breathe. I wish she’d make the rope her enemy rather than reveling in her ability to name others too perverted to receive the light.

20. I wonder if Kim, like me, will one day realize that the very thing she can’t seem to get is the thing she doesn’t really desire. I wonder if warmth and worth will then flood her body like sunlight. Like orange.