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…