Category Archives: On Writing

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.

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.

On Dancing Naked While Bumping “Cell Therapy” w/ the Drapes Open

Two black girls, maybe teenagers, dancing together.

Camille Brown’s “Black Girl: A Linguistic Play”

 

It seems apropos that as I face this page, I am anxious about where to enter the metaphor of personal writing as nakedness. Black girl nakedness makes everybody anxious for exactly that reason. Who will enter and how and who will be blamed when the entering changes the girl into something she hadn’t planned to be?

I’ll back up. This writing started as a daydreamed response to an article I read the other day about the cheapness of the personal essay. Apparently, writers are being exploited for clickbate and paid less than those who are “true” journalists in that they interrogate others instead of themselves. It’s curious (but not surprising in a capitalist society) that access is confused for cheapness (see, for example, the way that the essay is denigrated to “think piece” just as folks have more access to publishing on their own terms). It’s curious (but not surprising in a sexist society) that everybody wants to tell women what to do with their terrible stories, especially if it involves suppressing the very narratives that might set them free. It’s curious (but not surprising in a racist society) that the life writing of Black women is dismissed as a too-heavy reliance on identity politics that isn’t rigorous enough to be respected as a way of knowing. And so, the article says, take your time and write a real essay. Take your time and do real research. As if writing the self is not useful research. As if writing the self (especially when that self is dismissed and denied access) is something cheap. A woman scribbles in a journal in one room while Montaigne essays on sheets of fine rice paper in another. Fuck outta here.

To write the personal is to get naked and to get naked is power when folks be talking under your clothes no matter what you wear. When I write my life, I am beating to the punch the people who might write about my broke black single mama life and its influence on my more “serious” work as a scholar, poet, or novelist (enter “Nikki Rosa”.) There are too many untrue stories about my type for me not to write naked. Which is not to say I write in defense of myself, perched on the veneer of respectability and issuing demands to be treated as royalty. I am writing to remind myself that my truth doesn’t fit dominant frames, that the abuse I receive is because of the way this threatens folks. I am writing the story that will save my own life.

But I don’t do this without fear. I am afraid of what will happen if the wrong people see me naked, if they think my nakedness is an invitation to the very discourse that erases me. The other trying to fit my body (of work) into a framework that she understands well. I thought the answer to this was to always be writing inside a frame.

Enter Goodie Mob’s “Cell Therapy.” A chorus I’ll never forget. “Who’s that peeping in my window? Pow! Nobody now.” I am 13 years old in 1995 when I hear Cee-lo’s alto reminding me of a deacon’s prayers. It’s been three years since I saw Spike Lee’s Malcolm X in the theater with my father and my best friend. We were a militant pair in fifth grade, refusing to stand for the pledge, admonishing our peers to stop playing cowboys and Indians, wondering aloud why we had to wish for white Christmases. For that reason, for the magic of us, two Black girls figuring out the world together, for the memory of my father standing up in the theater and dancing to “Revolution” as the credits rolled because he understood what I am only learning– that sometimes you have to snatch some joy from the ether when there is nothing but sadness all around–, I merge “Cell Therapy” and the classic image of Malcolm X with a gun in his window in my mind. Who’s that peeping in my window? POW. Nobody now.

In this merger, the interior is that which should be defended against brutalizing others who are literally trying to blow your shit up. The (window) frame is the incessant naming of the systems that oppress you. But what does the marriage of this image and this song mean in the age of the internet? When trolls have so much access, when they are the ones who linger and say “Nigger, I dare you to show your face,” every time you part your drapes? What happens to the work when you write as if there is a gun in your hand, when you lean so much on the frame that you forget to enjoy the interior? Who’s that peeping in my window? If I care too much about the answer, I couldn’t write soul-open the way that I want/ need to write.

My muses don’t hang around when I decide to claim my right to be naked and get all jittery about who w ill be watching at the same damn time.Ms. Lucille is one such muse and today she showed up to save my life with this poem:

 

if i stand in my window

naked in my own house

and press my breasts

against my windowpane

like black birds pushing against glass

because i am somebody

in a New Thing

 

and if the man come to stop me

in my own house

naked in my own window

saying I have offended him

I have offended his

 

Gods

 

let him watch my black body

push against my own glass

let him discover self

let him run naked through the streets

crying

praying in tongues

 

(from Good Times, 1969)

 

Come through, Ms. Lucille! And thank you for the last stanza, for the way that you elucidate the real fear of coming upon a black woman naked in her own home: what truth will her nakedness speak about you? In what ways have you put on the wrong clothes in your quest for civilization? In what ways do the ideals of Western enlightenment actually make you less human? Less connected to the earth, to each other, to the ever-elusive self?

An aside: Mab Segrest, in Born to Belonging, is also helping me figure this out. The introduction (or 1st chapter?) to this book is an amazing history of the enlightened self that betrays the sadness of the Western subject—the way these lonely men got it dead wrong.

Which is to say that I’m doing something different than getting naked to press my breasts against the glass. I’m winding. To wind is to exercise muscles you didn’t know you had until you started to move. It is to get progressively better without instruction in the top-down way that we think of education. This is black girl cipher-speak. An invitation to show up and watch me show out. An invitation to do your own dance for me, to show me that things I had never imagined are possible. It is to learn and teach in chorus. Yelling, “Yes!” and “Get it!” and “Okay!” and “I see you!” and “Do it!” and “Werk!” It is the glory of being seen by folks who find joy in the seeing. By folks whose desire is not dangerous. This is clearing work. Dancing as if there are no cracks in the trees.

And what if one decides to step outside of the clearing? For money, no less. Does it negate the protection of the clearing? Can I still hope for relative clearing safety when I am stepping outside? It is true that I have chosen to dutty wine in crowds that weren’t created for me. To do that is to take on the danger of being misunderstood, or worse, fixed by people who are afraid of what this naked dance stirs inside themselves.

But dancing outside of the clearing is also to imbue the hips with hope. That there will be enough clearing members in the crowds to save you should shit go terrible. That the people standing round won’t all be terrible. That the commonality of your humanity will move someone. Maybe.

If not, I hope my girls will still come through, form a hedge around me, and dance with me wherever I am. Won’t you come?