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
let him watch my black body
push against my own glass
let him discover self
let him run naked through the streets
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?