Author Archives: ashafrench

An Introduction to my Internalized Haters Essay 4/52

So in the 52 Essays in 2017 challenge, I’m behind. Way behind. Behind like I was in rent when I got my first eviction notice. Behind like my period when my daughter became more than a daydream. Behind like I am in my dissertation. And usually, when I’m behind I give up on shit. I guess I chose those three similes on purpose. Because it’s time for some new strategies. And the reason I can’t give up on the latter simile is because the middle simile and I lived through the first simile and I am only now recovering the bit of sanity I’d held onto through these past few difficult years. And you should know that I have been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder Inattentive Type. And you should know that this diagnosis is one reason I get so behind on shit. Like most people have these executive assistants in their brains who type their memos and keep them on task and shit and well, I fired all mine. I don’t know when they got fired. There are all kinds of theories. Childhood trauma, biological determinism, trauma or drug exposure in utero, learned behaviors… the list goes on and it’s not helpful. Because the bottom line is they’re fired. Every one of those nice executive assistants who was supposed to keep me functioning has sought new employment in someone else’s brain. Which means my brain is often an anarchist’s riot. Which means it’s fun. Which means it’s scary. Which means I start more shit than I finish.

But I’m about to teach my community (of remaining brain inhabitants) to finish some shit.

I think the first thing a community must do to heal itself is expose those members who are being harmful and bolster those members who are valuable contributers, yet insecure because of their subjection to the mistreatment of the harmful community members.

In an effort to accomplish the latter task, I introduce you to some members of the former group: my internalized hatin ass hoes (IHAH). IHAH go by different names. Rick Carson calls them gremlins. Some people just call the phenomena of their destruction doubt, as if IHAH aren’t some entity unto themselves. As if IHAH aren’t intentional saboteurs of success. IHAH think alliteration is for losers. IHAH don’t respect the Baptist preachers I got much of my writing style from.

So in an effort to rescue this challenge (and hopefully my dissertation and future earnings), I want to briefly introduce you to a few of the essays IHAH have killed in the past few weeks when I wasn’t strong enough to stop them.

This is my big brother’s third week in the hospital. He has heart failure (diagnosed in 2005) and he suffered a brain bleed  that is related to heart failure in ways I don’t understand. The trauma has knocked something loose inside me that was once steady and together; IHAH think this is enough of a reason to quit the 52 essays project altogether.

Oh, let me introduce you quickly (I told you I had ADD) to another member of my community. She is a shapeshifter. She presents as a gentle, quiet muse. Her ears are open to ancestors in a way that my own can’t be, what with the anarchy in my head. She hears them in her dreams. She is sensitive and thoughtful. She turns a thought over and over and over, connecting it to other thoughts like a million-piece puzzle. She is patient. That’s one side of her. She is also capable of shapeshifting into a sword-wielding warrior. Nzinga of Ndongo and Matamba. She’ll cut you with her memories and slice your head off with her words. She goes for jugulars with action verbs. She is a force to be reckoned with. She will erase the hell out of that cliche and give you a fresh image that will never let you forget just what she is capable of. You don’t want to fuck with her. Her only weakness is IHAH. She wants to be loved by them. Why? Because they’re familiar and conveniently near. Besides, IHAH have her believing that nobody will affirm her but them. Nobody will read what she has to say when she does take a chance and say it. Nobody gives a fuck, IHAH say. But I introduce you to her because I want you to know that she has been so busy these past few weeks that I haven’t kept up with the challenge. Everything she builds, IHAH tear down.

So here are just a few of the remnants of her stomped-on castles:

“Games to play in the hospital room while waiting for your brother to live.” This is a form essay shaped like a “how to” or Wiki article. It suggests counting games of observation. For example, count all of the white people. Count all of the vocal Trump supporters. Count all instances of flatulence. Count the tiles, the lights, the code blues over the intercom. Just don’t count how many brothers you have, as this is an unstable integer. IHAH told her she was being dramatic. This integer isn’t unstable; he’s just on a gotdamn ventilator for god’s sake and you’re acting like he’s death rattling. Get over yourself and get happy for your sister-in-law. IHAH said don’t be a pussy. IHAH don’t know that pussies are strong, that they give the best hugs, that they stretch to meet the challenges presented. That some challenges they labor through while others they enjoy. And when pussies cry because they are too full to keep doing what they’re doing, theirs is a beautiful and necessary release. IHAH don’t think describing squirting this way is appropriate for a lady.

“When Natasha Scott Met Basquiat in a Parking Lot” One of the things I did to avoid the waiting room was watch documentaries. I saw the Basquiat documentary filmed by his friend who’d told him she wasn’t going to publish the footage. She was a white woman. Everybody in the film was white except for Fab Five Freddy and the specter of Basquiat’s insane mother. And my muse wanted to know what drove her to madness. And she wanted to know if he’d ever asked her. And she wanted to know what elixher there may have been in that answer. And I wanted to save his life in the last fifteen minutes of the film when I knew the rest of the story. I wanted to save him by opening my heart and legs since the latter is often the prerequisite for the former. And my muse wanted to problematize this, to wonder with me why this narrative haunts me. Why I keep thinking I can save folks that way. Why I keep wanting to fuck broken people like they are the only ones who have decent stroke and stamina. She wanted to ask me gentle questions, like didn’t I know broken people had no staying power? And shouldn’t I be fucking myself if fucking can actually heal a person? And shouldn’t I think about my own ideas about black women as I project them onto an artist I couldn’t have known because he wouldn’t have seen me? She wanted to take care of me. To help me stop obsessing over my exes and their white partners. She wanted to ask the questions I needed to answer to work this obsession out of my system once and for all. Then IHAH came along. They suggested going to Lipstick Alley, where someone had posed a question similar to the one that shaped my musings: did Basquiat ever date any black women? And then the questioner got dragged for asking. And then the dragger got dragged for dragging, And my muse thought we could use even that– even that sisterly impulse to drag the dragger of the vulnerable girl who asks painful questions in public. But IHAH said that was bullshit. Nobody was going to read another girl’s whining over a phenomena that was statistically irrelevant. Most black folks date black folks. The number of those who don’t is dismissable as a racist fluke, according to IHAH. It wasn’t worth investigating.

“Some Thoughts on Howling” My brother is a Que. If you are an outsider, he would tell you he was an Omega Man. But as the little sister of a man who takes his fraternity very, very seriously, I have been exposed to the insider personas of men who call themselves dogs. And I have interpreted this in ways that it was meant to be interpreted by some women. I gave little attention to the pack mentality that also shapes this metaphor. That is, until all the Ques came to the hospital. My muse noticed the way that grown men left my brother’s hospital room and headed straight for the bathroom. They came out with red, watery eyes. She noticed the way they got themselves together before approaching my sister-in-law, offering her whatever she needed. She noticed what they needed– their friend to be alive and well. I began to interview the Ques on camcorder because my brother is under heavy sedation and I wanted to give him the gift of recovering what his memory might not let him retain when he finally gets out of here. I asked the Ques, when did you know you loved my brother? And nobody bristled at the question. And everybody had an answer. And their parting words, when asked if I’d left anything out, were variations of “I love you, man.” My muse wanted to take these four words and lay them out flat, compare them to other moments when Ques were being Ques. Crying men, purple thongs, an ex of mine cheating on me with his now-wife during a road trip too many years ago to still care. She also wanted to interrogate my own disregard for men in this organization. How “hypermasculine” is a curse word on my tongue. How all of this is being destabilized by stuff I’m reading about black men’s vulnerability, by revisiting some of the early black women’s liberation writings, and by watching these men leave my brother’s room crying. IHAH think this is too simple a setup. They make fun of my would-be premise: boo hoo, a butt biter sheds a few tears and now there is no such thing as the black patriarch. Which is not what I was thinking at all. But that was enough to shut her down.

IHAH say this shit is too long. They say don’t hit “publish.”  They say the problem with my writing is that I have too many words. Don’t nobody want to read all that shit. IHAH speak in the voice of my little brother. Sometimes IHAH speak in the voices of my white professors. This isn’t academic enough. I expected more from you. You are approaching history with an ahistorical lense. How dare you compare Emerson’s nationalism to Baraka’s? You’ll never finish. You’ll never finish. You’ll never finish.

Well, I’ve finished this introduction to IHAH, and that’s one step toward my goal.

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.

Lonely Girls Double Take (After Mitch)

Facebook is a persona builder. It’s personality minecraft for adults. It’s the place where I sometimes go to flex new confidence or flirt or build joy by liking baby pictures. It’s also where I process a lot of parenting fears, usually through humor. What follows is a Facebook post followed by its “double take,” a poetry form created by Mitchell Douglas in Cooling Board, a book  of poetry about Donny Hathaway. To double take is to hit the same blues from a different angle. Here’s mine.

When I’m minding my own business and feeling proud of myself for raising a brilliant, creative, resourceful child who is inventing her own fun in the other room while I mind my own damn business and then I hear the room go quiet and then there are little feet in the hall and then someone is at my door interrupting my business affecting a sad voice and saying there is no one to play with even though I JUST heard her having a ball by herself…I think I know how God felt when Adam was all whiny after he’d given him the world.

I bet he was thinking, “Boy, if you don’t go somewhere and play with all those animals you begged me for and I let you name! I’m sitting here minding my business being a BOSS all by myself and you’re talkin bout being lonely. Alone ain’t lonely! I’ve been alone for infinity. Why can’t you be more like me? Now watch; when I eff around and give you somebody you got to share everything with and look out for you’re going to come to me complaining talkin bout everything was better when it was just me.”
This also must be how the universe handles “send me a partner” requests.

 

Double Take:

When I’m minding my own business and feeling proud of myself for raising a brilliant, creative, resourceful child who is inventing her own fun in the other room while I mind my own damn business and then I hear the room go quiet and then there are little feet in the hall and then someone is at my door interrupting my business affecting a sad voice and saying there is no one to play with even though I JUST heard her having a ball by herself..  I think about the woman I loved such a short time ago and the little brother we’d imagined for you– the one who would be two now and playing uncle to your dolls the way my little brother played uncle to my dolls and the way he is uncle to you and I wanted that for you, an uncle who looked at your children the way my brothers look at you and laugh when something about you reminds them of the girl they once knew.

So I loved that this woman had already imagined your children’s uncle and I loved that she let me adopt him in my imagination and make room for him in my heart and push away my anxiety over facing again the surgery you’d just faced months before I met her, your little broken heart cut open and sewn shut while there were two hours of my life in which I wondered if we’d even get to this day. We’re here, love. You made it and we made it, and since I was single when I begged every deity I’d ever heard of for more time with you, I guess our small family is exactly the image I projected onto an uncertain future. I’m grateful. Truly.

But one day you may learn the way new love pushes you past gratitude and into desire that builds until you and your loved one are projecting your separate futures onto the same screen where they touch lovely then melt into each other, tangling limbs such that you don’t know where one future ends and the other begins.

Loving that girl shocked me into reckless imagining, and our futures did some serious coupling on that screen until they made a respectable family: a two-parent home, a daughter who is more than statistic, a baby boy on the way. She let you borrow his tennis shoes once. She loved us, she said. She loved us, she did. But love isn’t enough to hold together futures destined to be apart.

But what of your imaginary little brother? I ache for him on days like this when you show up in my doorway and I remember that he is supposed to be knocking down the castle you just built and you are supposed to be banging on our locked door while your imaginary other mother and I untangle our limbs and giggle and say “What now?” through a cracked door with blushing faces.

And that’s exactly what I asked your imaginary other mother, that day when, months after we’d broken up, my father died and I called her and cried and said, “What now? What about our son?” And she said, “I was going to have my baby with or without you.”

And I realized then what I think I always suspected—your imaginary other mother hadn’t loved me as much as she had loved the idea of her son having another mother and a big sister because she’d been a big sister and it was fun. Or maybe because she’d been the oldest child and it wasn’t fun. So maybe she imagined onto you the salvation I imagined onto her. A tall tree. And in hindsight, it’s probably not cool to be more in love with a tree than with the woman presently standing in front of you who will not touch you even when you beg. Perhaps I imagined a tree-hugging future to avoid the rip and tear of disentanglement.

It’s anxiety more than anything. I know you understand. It’s the way you clinch all of your muscles and squeeze your eyes tight right before the nurse sticks the needle in your arm. And long after she has beamed at you that it’s all over and covered your boo boo in colorful distraction, you’re still crying. Still screaming at the shock of it all. Still tense. You don’t know enough about the past or the future to be relieved that you’re better off now than you were before the shot. Protected from becoming a casualty to fear of strong medicine.

Maybe what I’m saying is that sometimes aloneness is strong medicine. And I guess that makes it silly to mourn my rights to an imaginary baby and imaginary other mother but I will tell you the truth: it feels so much better than mourning a real father so I go with it.

Kinda like I went with it when I imagined you into my life. Daddy had just gotten a blood transfusion when the second pink line came in faint and his disease was progressing and grief was stalking me and the timing was off so I could have, would have taken the strong medicine to regain my aloneness (you were but a daydream, after all) but the only sure thing was that my Daddy was dying. And since I didn’t know when that would be I projected myself into this moment, lying in bed daydreaming about Daddy long gone while the grandchild he loved reminds me to get up and go play.

So I guess what I’m really saying is that when I’m minding my own business and you come barreling into my room talking about you don’t have anybody to play with I am so grateful that I get to save you by saying what I once predicted you would save me by saying: what about me?

 

Superhero Earrings: Retirement and Call for Collaboration

Making earrings for money is not my calling. At all. So the following is my story, my project, and a request for participation.

The Beginning

In the beginning, there was Charisma Eclectic. She is a fantastic jewelry maker from Louisville who transferred images onto wood discs to make earrings (her website is down but I will tag it when it goes back up). I bought a pair of Foxxy Brown earrings from her and felt like a boss when I rocked them.

A picture of me pointing to earrings that are Foxxy Brown on a wood disc.

Earrings made by Charisma Eclectic in 2011.

I was living in Atlanta then and the boss of the local feminist bookstore asked me if I could make those earrings to consign at the store. I told her that I hadn’t made my own but that I knew I could. My superpower is an ability to learn all things crafty on YouTube. I can do anything with my hands and with practice, I can do anything well. That sounded seedier than I meant it to but I am talking about crafts.

I learned to make the earrings but never sold them to the bookstore.

I began to make gifts for my loved ones. Specifically, I used the medium to write love letters to SOLHOT, a group of Black Girls from Champaign, IL that changed my life in one performance and sent ripples through my life that show up in my writing, my art, my research, and my mothering. One of my first pair of earrings was for Sakia Gunn, a 15 year old lesbian murdered in New Jersey in 2003. I was too shy to take pictures of my own work then, but I laid her image over the words “know and remember,” which is one mantra of SOLHOT. I made and continue to make earrings with the ethos of SOLHOT.

Enter Money

This is what I’m supposed to think about money: Money loves me. Money wants to fuck me. Money wants to marry me. I attract money. I am moneysexual. Money gravitates toward me. There is enough money in the world for everyone to have some.

But the last line is the only thing I know for true, I’m woke to the people who are trying to make it untrue, and the rest of the money-attraction script reminds me of the Dave Chapelle joke about The Secret :

My truth is that I don’t like money. I don’t know enough about it and my relationship to it is one of need. I need money. I am not financially stable. I don’t have a place to live. My car needs work. Asali’s shoes hurt. I could continue, but I really want to believe in “The Secret” so I’m afraid that truth-telling is the same thing as cementing my reality as the only possibility.

But this background and my partial list is the reason that I CAN’T DO THIS ANYMORE. Excuse me… I’m not yelling at you. I’m yelling at the universe.

On Selling While Struggling

“Everybody out this way is struggling,” my little brother said on the phone to his friend last night. It was the first time that a description of my current situation didn’t feel like an indictment. Or a curse. In his mouth, the struggle was just an observation. And while it is sad that the struggle precluded us (in another post, I will tell you how good it feels to be included in “everybody out this way” unless my brother reads this and tells me in his own unique and hilarious way that I actually wasn’t) from participating in whatever offer was made, we were still okay. Having fun, even. Yesterday was a fun and brotherful day.

The day before was hell. I practically begged my daughter’s father for $10 for her food, I found out there’d been no movement on an expected contract, I got insufficient fund notices from my bank and, oh yeah, I posted pictures of a batch of earrings I’d made.

The night before hell day, my daughter had cried herself to sleep while I was unaware. To be fair, she’d had a pretty long day. But she was also afraid of the drill I use to convert the discs to earrings. I taught that day so I had to make the earrings at night when I was with her. By the time I finished the earrings, I found her huddled in a ball on the downstairs couch, dried tear tracks on her sleeping face. I held and rocked her feeling like Isaiah Washington’s mama in the made-for-tv story. This will all be worth it tomorrow, I told myself as if I’d just worked a 12 hour shift instead of making some earrings. Still, the stress of feeding a kid by yourself because someone else trusts you not to let her starve to death imbues even the most joyous money-making task with a level of fatigue and resentment.

The next day I posted the earrings and crickets. This is the part where selling earrings becomes fucked up for relationships and friendships. I radiate stress. I don’t want to look at any ancestor whose face I put on a pair of earrings and think about $15 or where it’s coming from and how soon.

Prince did not ask to participate in my narrative of scarcity.

Prince did not ask to participate in my narrative of scarcity.

Resolve

A good friend asked me to decide if my earrings were an art project or entrepreneurship. If I were financially stable, I would say the former without question. I would continue to make gifts on my own time and send them out to friends and loved ones whenever they crossed my mind. My earrings would be what they once were– a prayer for well-being, a dirge for those we lost too soon, a gift to the ancestors whose words still ring in my ears… I would only do custom projects for my friends and family who are honoring their own kin or inspiration with earrings. So that’s what I’m going to do. I’m shutting down the factory because there’s no real way to pay myself more than $6 per hour (I’ve done the math every way I know how) to create these earrings unless I exploit child labor (Asali really did have fun cutting circles in my lap, but she did four circles then ran off to play) or rush through production in ways that make it less than art. Which is not to say that my art is perfect– it’s not. But I’m explaining process.

Sidenote: I will never ever ever ever ever ever ever get my Black or Africentric jewelry or clothing from the hair store again. Now that I know exactly what it takes and the ways ppl are making fashion statements for folks like me who can afford to make fashion decisions by working for less than half of minimum wage. They can miss me with that. Which is another pair of dream earrings on the horizon.

Project (More Info Coming Soon)

I have been playing with a letter project for 2 years now and I’d really appreciate your help. I still want to make your earrings. I just want to find a way for us to gift each other in the process.  This project has gone through so many iterations but here is the latest:

This is a freedom project. How are you getting free? Who taught you your method? Please tell me the story of that by way of a letter to your freedom star. Here is an example:

Audre Lorde earrings. Paper on wood.

Audre Lorde earrings. Paper on wood.

Dearest Audre,

Look at you looking cute in your Kente stole. Hand extended, jaws taut, you teach me that generosity need not be sweet. You teach me that teaching may be uncomfortable. You teach me to choose my arena, sit with my rage, then find and create spaces to recharge with my own people.

Black feminist, lesbian, poet, mother, warrior, I am everything you are. You taught me to name the things I am and the things I want to be. You taught me how to fight. You taught me how not to implode. You taught me the real cause of cancer and you are teaching me that death as rest is a cure. 

I wish you could have rested more while you were here on this side. I wish there was not so much work to do. I wish you well and 82. I wish I was making your favorite drink and sitting at your feet. I wish I could twist your hair and pretend to be a fly on the wall listening to you kee kee with your girlfriends. 

One more thing– Remember the day you heard the story about the cop killing the boy on your radio and you had to pull over to the side of the road to write the notes that made “Power”? Because of the internet, this happens to me almost every day now. It’s no longer just the babies in my city I rage for (blessings to Mike Newby and Gynnya McMillen), but state-murdered babies around the country reach me in a newsfeed generated by my friends. How long would you have lived if you had Facebook?

In “Power,” you wrote:

“The difference between poetry and rhetoric

is being ready to kill

yourself 

instead of your children…”

Sister Outsider, I’ve become a poet and I have you to thank and my country’s government to blame. With the gifts you’ve left behind, you are teaching me to use the anger, do the work, and make the art. I wish you so much rest.

In love and honor,

Asha

What I Need

  1. Letters to Earring Subjects: Will you please participate in my freedom letter anthology  in exchange for earrings of your choice? The subject of your earrings can be artists, musicians, activists, and especially the local and personal relatives and friends that have authored your liberation. You send me the letter and the photo and I will send you the earrings.
  2.  Patience- I am hopefully starting a full-time job soon so the turnaround won’t be swift. The letter project will keep us accountable to each other.
  3. Money for startup- The way my checking and savings is set up… I don’t have the money to order the supplies I need for this project. If I can get ten participants to buy in at $10 each, I can start the project sooner than later. I’d like to have at least 30 letters/ sets of earrings, but to make the project cost-effective, I’ll need to raise the funds before I start the art portion. If anyone with more Internet savvy than me wants to help me add a Paypal link to this post, that would be awesome. For now, the email address associated with my PayPal account is ashafrench@yahoo.com
  4. Well Wishes and Love and Light- These earrings have always meant something to me. My brief experiment with mass production has taught me that I don’t have the constitution to do things without love. Any love you can send to this project, even if you can’t participate, would help to move this project forward and add a little more light.

 

Thank you for reading this far!!!

It Was All a Dream

I have lived this day before. In a dream. Shortly after my father was diagnosed with a terminal illness, I began to pre-grieve. If you  know me, then you know I have type-A characteristics and it should make sense that I would immediately try to perfect grief. But months after his diagnosis, a dream slowed this impulse down for me: I dreamed that I was in my family’s bathroom and crouching to clean out the cabinet. I came upon my father’s toothbrushes– the no-frill ones that had his family dentistry business information stamped on them. These were the toothbrushes I used most frequently growing up, and the meaning of the dream was immediate: Soon, these toothbrushes will be what you have left of your father. For now, you have the real thing just feet away in his room. Get up and live.
I woke up and immediately Picture of my father with me as a baby. We are laying on the bed and I am laughing. We both look into the camera. 10277548_10104047529300699_5061307054517493345_napplied the dream to my life. I became present more with my father, willed myself to push the end of his life to a corner as I enjoyed his company. I didn’t always succeed but he lived for 8 years after cancer and I laughed with him more than I cried for him during those years.
I believe time is cyclical and the dream was a premonition. Today I cleaned out the cabinet in my family’s bathroom and found the last two remaining toothbrushes from my father’s business. I wept like I did in the dream but this time there was no waking up to a reality where he was actually there. I can’t feel his stubble anymore when I kiss his cheek and he is not here to tell me my head is too big to lay on his shoulders. Maybe the dream was this moment’s version of myself communicating with the girl I was in that eight year span that was neither BC (Before Cancer) or AD (After Daddy). I needed to be present in those limbo years and I’m glad I found a way to give myself that heads up. But what of today? How to be present with grief?
I am a big, grown Daddy’s girl and today I had to go looking for him in the wind. What I did to find my Daddy today:
1) Cry in public.
This morning, I posted a long, emo post about the struggle of being in the red again when my daughter asks for toys. I felt like my father. He frequently cried in public and only jokingly called it allergies. The difference is that he was very private about financial matters. Although he struggled under the weight of Reaganomics while raising 4 kids, I doubt he told anyone but his closest friends. Hell, I didn’t even know how much he struggled until the limbo years. I wonder now if it killed him. Slowly. The worry over the collapsing American dream (the one Trump’s wife plagiarized)  building like cancer in the blood. There are so many other things worth dying for. I will not die in service to the American dream. My first name is not Horatio. My last name is not Alger. I have no investment in this fiction. So I cry about it in public unashamed.
2) Hold a baby.
When my father was first diagnosed with cancer, the meds made his hands shake and he couldn’t work for a while. Dentistry was integral to his identity not because he loved it (he didn’t) but because it was his livelihood. He struggled in those days to feel a sense of worth as he wasn’t contributing as much financially and this society paints financial contribution as the only way to participate in full humanity. I call bullshit and so did he… by holding my godsister everyday. He shared his diagnosis with the family in December and she was born in May. During the first months of her life, he visited her ever day. He held her to stare at her and sometimes he cried.  I know that holding her and holding others is what kept him alive longer than his diagnosis. He was given 1 – 5 years and he lived for 8. Today I held my godsister’s baby sister who is a month and a half old. I held her and wondered if my father also meditated on the fragility of human life– on the fact that we were all once this dependent on others to live. On the irony that a few tiny cells gone haywire could render us this helpless again.  Back then, he told my godsister’s mother that when the baby smiled in her sleep, she was talking to kinfolks on the other side. He wondered out loud who she could be talking to. Today, when I held the sleeping baby in my arms and she broke into huge grins, I didn’t wonder. I knew.
3) Let people feed me. 
Daddy was as much his Momma’s boy as I am Daddy’s girl. During the limbo years, he took long lunch breaks at his mother’s house and she fed him and let him sleep. Daddy was good at being company. He wasn’t funny about other people’s food and he was everybody’s welcome guest. One of his favorite stories is about the only sentence he knows how to speak in Spanish, “La comida es muy buena.” He learned it in dental school when he went home once a week with a colleague whose mother cooked for them. He told me that he said it every week and she always laughed. Today I was my Daddy’s daughter and people fed me and my daughter all day. It was humbling and new and joyous and my new shit. My Daddy was a magnet for “Come on over” friends but I am just growing into this comfort with interdependence… I’m no island. Peninsula maybe (shoutout to Andre)… Being fed by people teaches me to feed folks. I have new dreams for my future kitchen, my future space. I imagine making big pot dinners like the ones my father used to make. I imagine stretching meals like he used to so I can accommodate people who drop in. I imagine people dropping in. Letting loved ones feed me today has helped me imagine my own home. My own couch. My own table.  Since I first moved back into my mother’s house, the dream of my own space has grown more vague with every failed attempt to “get on my feet.” Today I know that there is joy to be had even before you are able to walk. And I know that when I am able to afford my own space, it won’t just be my own space.
4) Write a messy blog as if with horse hooves.
Daddy was a musician. He played the piano, organ, and the bass guitar. He read music and played by ear. He listened to songs over and over and picked out their tunes until he learned them. He had a piano and a Rhodes, the first in the living room and the other in the den. What I am trying to day is that my father didn’t have a “piano room.” A place to practice and fumble in private. He worked out his songs in company. Once when he was preparing for a church concert and wearing out a chord that he was trying to get right, I joked that he sounded like he was playing with hooves. He laughed and kept hoofing. By the time he got to the concert, he’d grown enough to play the song he heard in his head. Today I have decided to write like my Daddy played the piano. While it is true that music is both his talent and passion, it is also true that he wasn’t immediately great at every song he tried. He gave himself permission and humor in flubbing and he found joy in practicing– even before a critical audience. This blog post in particular feels like Daddy fumbling through that song. The right way to say this or that hovers just above my head, which is cloudy with grief and exhaustion. This blog post is not the way I like to write. There is little poetry and craft is all over the place. I am trying to get at something and I’m not sure what it is. I am writing to learn, much like my father played that jumbled chord over and over until he learned to control his fingers, perfect his timing, and match his imagined sound to his real one. I am tired of the writer’s room, the lonely coffee shop and the journal corner. I am the daughter of a Baptist pianist. I play to bring on the shout, release the tears, and punctuate the part of the sermon that promises to set you free. But this is living room practice, so I appreciate your hanging around as I fumble through it.
Picture of back of Black girl's hair, styled in ponytails with ball ball elastics and barrettes on the ends.

Who I Be When You Look At Me: SOLHOT Part 3

“At that moment I just wanted to be there with the girls, as this is the primary investment of SOLHOT- to remind Black girls that we are right here with you.”
Ruth Nicole Brown

“…Dang!

                                                                                                             I said I’m almost ready I just

Got to

         Gotta

                                                                                                         Got to do

       Do

My

hair.

And if you don’t know this, then you don’t know nothin’.”
Ruth Nicole Brown

SOLHOT be
Braids, beads, barrettes,
ball-balls and Blue Magic
Bergamot between some
Big or Lil mama’s knees.

Mama/ Daughter Daydream 1
Girl: Mama, why do hair gotta tangle? Dang!
Mama: Daughter, it goes something like this. Your scalp be acting out the story of America. The Z pattern of West Africa resists the colonizing straight line of Europe and the way it gets along with the straight line of the indigenous strands depends on how those strands got there. Were your people the ones who met the indigenous and learned to live under the radar of white power in Maroon societies or were your people the ones who were bought and sold by people, Cherokee for example, who said, “Fuck it. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em”? Sometimes, there is no way of knowing. My job, baby, is just to try to persuade all the people on your head to commune in some beautiful way. We can make something beautiful. I wish I could promise it would never hurt, but I can promise to be mindful of my own heavy hand and I can promise to be right here with you.”

Those who denigrate ball-balls, barrettes, and beads know nothing about protection or community or the protection of community. They pretend to learn everything they know about “protective styles” from internet blogs on “natural” hair. Our Mamas know there is nothing natural about the art on our head. They know it is jazz and they be makers of music.

They told mama
straight hair hurts less.
The lye burned bright.

I got my first perm when I was two years old. If you think this is an assimilation story, you know nothing about my Mama. You know nothing about tangles and tears, about dreaming of a daughter who does not have to cry as you cried, then finding her hollering between your knees, even your mechanisms of care perceived as weapons.

SOLHOT be
Ball-balls, beads, and braids.
Be navigators of necessary
pain. Be “ouch!” and “sorry!”
Be “that better?”
Be beaming “There.”

SOLHOT be
placing me back
between my mama’s knees,
be showin’ me how
to love this picture.

Mama/ Daughter Daydream 2
Girl: But mama, is our hair the only kind that tangles?
Mama: Hell no. These ain’t even tangles, more like cliques. I’m not detangling as much as I am reorganizing. Kinks and curls have the good sense to cluster for their own health and, with adequate moisture, are actually less likely to tangle than straight hair. Individual strands of straight hair meet at angles that make them more susceptible to knots. What any hair needs to avoid knotting are mechanisms to make contact less abrasive.

SOLHOT asks what conditioner is necessary for detangling (organizing)? Do it gotta be straight (middle class subjectivity)? No. Do it gotta hurt (petty-gogy of the oppressed)? Sometimes AND not always. Can it be fun? Yes. Show me how. Dance. Do yo thang, do yo thang, do yo thang for me!

The lie of all lye:
Apply it once and you’ll be straight.

It is not that the parents who place their children in the advanced program want them to be white. They trust white supremacy’s devotion to meritocracy. They hope that our approved (by whom?) applications will protect us from the disdain of teachers who see us as problems to fix.They do not want us to cry as they cried.

They could not have anticipated the lessons articulated by numbers alone. My school was in a predominantly Black neighborhood where most of the white kids were bused in for the advanced program. Hence, my only contact with white kids were with those who, like me, had tested in. Without this context, I let the numbers tell me this lie: if there are only three Black students in an “advanced” class of 24, and 17 Black students in the “regular” class, then it must be that most Black kids are “regular” and most white kids are “special.” I must be here by accident and someone is going to find me out. I begin to have panic attacks over new math.

Meanwhile, the “regular” students develop theories of power that rightfully implicate us in this lie. Outwardly, I begin to wear “special” as a defensive stance (a la Grant Hill) against the kids who accused me of thinking I’m all that because I walked to the white class. It was the classist tracking system that turned us against each other; it made the “special” kids year-long targets in the hallways, which made the “regular” kids lifelong targets of our bourgie theorizing based on a politics of advancement.

Our parents could not have anticipated our addiction to advancement, the way we strove to “touch up” our achievements like perms on new growth lest we be found out. They couldn’t have anticipated the way that some of us would be undone by our strivings, the ways we would be scarred by lye. I develop a fear of hallways and classrooms– a fear of violent contact with those who have not advanced, a fear of violent contact with those who doubt that I deserve my advancement. 

SOLHOT wrecks this. I am not a basket case tonight. I am a tender-headed girl who spent a lifetime in fear of snags, who began to think of my hair in terms of false attributes rather than analyzing its condition. “Dry” rather than “in need of moisture.” “Tangled” instead of “in need of reorganization.” A girl who learned to lean into the lye and let it burn like some holy ghost come to save me from my own flesh.

Still, the beauty of SOLHOT’s Black girlhood is neither inherent nor natural. In Hear Our Truths, Dr. Brown writes, “When identity is premised on sameness and Black girlhood premised on shared oppression, organizing Black girls’ spaces may surely replicate the same kind of disciplinary measures of control and surveillance strategies that Black girls have long since manipulated and outsmarted, foreclosing the kind of solidarity SOLHOT depends on.” Even in my SOLHOT-as-hairstyling metaphor, I am clear that homegirls are not about taming, controlling, or manipulating Black girls. Dr. Brown reminds us that black girls have already outsmarted these unnecessary patterns of control. Rather, the SOLHOT homegirl/ girl “we” is about stylin. Black girls choose the style because they have already figured it out: they gon’ think what they gon’ think. Which is the beginning of freedom. Because if they can think what they think, can blindly adhere to false evidence like measured (by whom?) skulls and standardized (by whom?) tests, then we can/ must do the same. We get to name what we see and decide to celebrate it. As a construction of freedom, Black girlhood is not essential to Blackness, but it is essential for surviving Blackness as somebody else’s construction. It is the promise, no the dream, that we can do more than survive our reflection in a broken mirror. SOLHOT carries their own mirrors.

In the middle of the performance, Dr. Brown and her ride-or-die homegirl, the one who said, “You mean Dr…” bring me a purple hand-mirror. In sharpie, someone has written “You are SOLHOT. We see you!” alongside hearts and names and encouragements that all drown in tears. I am baptising myself and it will take years to come up out of the water. When I do, I will be holding the hands of girls and homegirls.

SOLHOT be
mirrors
handheld
passed ‘round
talking back  
talking Black
singing a Black girl’s song:
SOLHOT, SOLHOT what do you see?
I see a Black Girl looking at me.
Black Girl, Black Girl, what do you see?
I see freedom looking at me.

Chart of uses of verb to be.

Who I Be When You Look At Me: SOLHOT Part 2

 

In the colonizer’s English, “be” is an intransitive verb, meaning it does not describe an action, but a fixed equivalency. Note the passive “fixed” and ask yourself fixed by whom? And if you ask yourself “fixed by whom,” then you join the daughters of Bambara, Jordan, Malcolm, and now Dr. Ruth Nicole Brown in critically thinking about how you came to be who you it is you think you are. Perhaps you will get to a point where you begin to wonder about who you are being and if you still all wrapped up in the colonizer’s game of fixed subjectivity- being one stable thing at any one stable time- then the shit might make you loopy. Which is to say the kind of woman who would walk around town in a dress so ill-fitting that it won’t zip up in the back. And then people might start wondering out loud about your dress and, if you don’t have a sense of humor because you have to breathe to laugh and you can’t hardly breathe in your too-little dress, well then you might just get defensive. Saying stuff like this is the proper dress and this is the right thing to wear and it wasn’t designed for just one kind of somebody and this is what everyone is wearing and if you (who look at me) can’t see that, then you must be the fools and I worked hard to get into this dress and I’ll be damned if I let one of you (spit that word with mad disdain) make me feel bad about it. Well, then you will be thoroughly Americanized.

Which isn’t to say that “be” in AAVE is inherently freeing. It’s used to describe habitual actions. Things that you do again and again. As in, we be compulsorily educated and still don’t know what we about. The habitual “be” can become an identity marker only inasmuch as it helps with familiarity– root word family. As in, She’s the one (of us) who be singing. Or she’s the one (of us) who be joking all the time. She’s the one who be snapping pictures. She’s the one who be hiding over there in the corner. She’s the one who be dancing. Stability isn’t a necessity. Especially when your folks have many talents and they don’t always be doing the same thing. Like, the one who be snapping pictures also be dancing.

Habitual “be” is freeing only when you embrace instability. As in, the one who be crying on all the skits might one day be the one who be laughing and dancing with us.

Tonight, I am the one who be crying on all the skits because SOLHOT is showing me who/ how/ what it is possible to be when they look at me.

  • It is possible to be poet and scholar. I make the mistake of calling Dr. Brown “Ruth Nicole” to one of the other homegirls because a mutual friend told me to tell Ruth Nicole she said hello. The homegirl snapped, “You mean Dr. Brown ?” and I corrected myself and mentally used the colonizer “be” to permanently fuse this person, my homegirl’s homegirl, with this title that frightens the shit out of me because I am being shown by my professors on a weekly basis that it’s a title I must cut my limbs off (and grow somebody else’s in their place) to fit (as in, “we expect more rigorous work in a graduate-level course). But here Dr. Brown is on stage doing spoken word about the “dirty work” of making a safe space for Black girlhood to be (as in exist) and I know that this is rigor. This can unapologetically (and without permission) be my work. 
  • It is possible to be a thick dancer. And I’m not thick. But I am other things that do not fit the images of dancing bodies that I have been consistently fed. Fed– another passive verb begging me to ask “by whom?” Which is to say that you can and should bite the hand that feeds you– often– to see if it is real. Because when possibilities are being fed to you, you can confuse “should” for “can only.” As in, “Hip hop video dancers should have small waists, big titties and huge butts” can transform (if you are not careful and if you stop keeping company with girls who be dancing) into “dancers (this loss of specificity is an end goal of product merchandizing) can only have small waists, big titties, and huge butts.” And when some yoke as heavy as this gets broken in a routine involving teenage girls and adults (I should also say this showed me that it is possible to be an adult dancer), well all you can do (all I can do) is cry.
  • It is possible to hold tension between theory and praxis. Chamara, Chamara, Chamara. That girl is something else and I trust that you know what I mean. Chamara is unpacking nonviolence as theory and praxis and, in doing so, breaking all the rules somebody else made up about being with Black girls: Be a mentor, as in be more knowledgeable than they are about everything. Show them “the way” to where you find yourself, especially if you have multiple degrees. Teach them not to cuss, not to roll their eyes, not to talk back, not to fight, not to do any of the things they need to do to handle their problems with the tools they already have. Gift them with the tools of middle class “civility.” Tonight, Chamara wrecks all of this with love. When you love the person who is making herself vulnerable to you (as in, If I don’t fuck this girl up, then she’s going to keep bothering me), you don’t judge the choices she thinks she needs to make. Part of loving Black girls (as intentional practice) is letting them be. 
  • It is possibly to be many things or anything. It may or may not be true that every time the song bird returned to the stage, I cried. I was overwhelmed by her freedom to do it all. To sing, dance, and act. To poet. To open herself up to the scrutiny of strangers. I began to ask myself the questions that have shaped the last few years of my life. What are the conditions necessary for this kind of freedom? What are the conditions necessary for this kind of confidence? What are the conditions necessary for this kind of joy?

To Be Continued…

Singer whitney Houston circa eighties holding microphone to her mouth mid-song.

Who I Be When You Look At Me: SOLHOT Part 1

March 2012

My daughter is one and a half and she is just fine after having had heart surgery five months ago. Six months ago, my father narrowly escaped death and we do not know that he has just one year to live. I have been in my graduate program for four years and I am just beginning to conceptualize my dissertation topic. I am dating a man who is stirring up my latent queerness with his incredibly long hair, his repetition of “no homo,” and his refusal to connect on an emotional level. My relationship with a family member I’ve depended on is on the precipice of disaster. I don’t intellectually perceive any of these things, but I must know them somewhere deep, some unknown and liquid place that erupts in a moment that is supposed to be celebratory.

I’m sitting in a performance with near strangers at a conference on Black girlhood. This is my first conference as an invited speaker and I’d bombed the night before. I wasn’t myself because I was still trying to figure out who I was as an artist turned academic. There were things I knew that I wasn’t prepared to defend– namely, that Black girls were okay, that Black girlhood could be a space of freedom, that dancing freely (even sexually) is spirit work.

Tonight is the main event of the conference, the performance of a movement from Champaign, Illinois called Saving Our Lives, Hearing Our Truths (SOLHOT). Dr. Ruth Nicole Brown built the movement on this vision: Black girls are free and Black girlhood is freedom. Tonight, I will begin to learn the things I need to know to live free in this world. And as I reach for language to describe who I am in this moment, I realize that we don’t have language for emotional vulnerability that isn’t tied up in the concept of the enlightened and completely rational Western subject.

My impulse is to call myself a basket case, a term with ableist origin that was first used around World War I to describe quadruple amputees who may have been transported in baskets. I want to dwell for a moment on the impulse to create a derisive slur to describe interdependence– especially interdependence that is reparative for some trauma. The disdain we harbor for interdependence has to be a projection of guilt for the way that we have, as a nation, behaved toward other human beings. Hence, independence becomes the  defensive stance of the abuser who knows he deserves neither a shoulder nor a hand from most of the people around him.

What kinds of people turn mechanisms of interdependence into insults? Welfare, Affirmative Action, literal or figurative baskets, or hands, hands, for goodness sake!!! According to the logic of extreme independence, a scholar who needs hand holding isn’t a scholar at all. What kinds of people denigrate holding? Denigrate babies? Do we not see how fucking happy babies are when they are being held? Do we not see that they are showing us how to live?

I am in need of holding tonight. I sense that I can’t hold myself, my world, my relationships, my family, together by myself and I haven’t grown comfortable in that truth yet. That’s why I am bawling on the shoulder of a stranger who lives out her name, Angel.

Angel and I begin to cry when the first teenage girl sings Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You.” Whitney had just died a month before. So much of her story was wrapped up in my lived girlhood and my notions of girlhood as a site of repression. I’d grown up hearing that Whitney’s addiction was a result of her choice in lovers. “Don’t date the wrong kind of man or he will fuck your whole shit up” was the lesson. Many years later, I learned that she didn’t have a real choice, that the real love of her life had been disallowed. American darlings can’t be queer. The yoke of that disallowance was broken in death, so maybe freedom brings the water to the surface. Freedom for Whitney, freedom for the brown girl singing her song like she knows what it feels to love a person you can’t hold forever. I keep learning how it feels.

I can’t stop crying. I try.

To be continued…