A few weeks ago, I had the great honor of having a poem published on poets.org. This is a pretty big deal for poets, since the Academy of American Poets has an email list in the millions. One of these millions of people sent me a rather nasty note about the poem, and I shared this nasty note with Facebook. Why? Because the attack seemed to be an attack against poetry, and more directly, an attack against poets and poetry that addressed race. Why would a stranger attack a stranger via email, I thought? Clearly, the person isn’t attacking me, personally. Everyone thought I was in need of sympathy, and I kept saying, “I’m not taking it personally,” and I meant it. But that’s a hard pill for some to swallow. After all, the email was sent to me, personally. But I rarely take anything personally. My friends often think I’m Buddhist, since I have a natural proclivity for setting the ego aside.
Of course, I’m not immune to attacks, which is why I’ve decided that Marc Anthony is my 2015 Muse. Or rather, his song “Vivir Mi Vida” is my 2015 Muse.
Y para que llorar, pa’ qué
si duele una pena, se olvida
y para qué sufrir, pa’ qué
si así es la vida, hay que vivir la la la le
I’m listening to it now & every time someone attacks me for expressing my realities, I hear it. Just the other night, when I was trying to push some attack or other out of my brain, there was Marc, in my head: “Mi gente!/ Voy a reír, voy a bailar/vivir mi vida la la la la”.
I’ve always lived a strange life. From the time I was five years old, I understood that our family was different, at least from the neighbors, who were all White, and most of them were elderly, or at least they looked elderly to a five-year old. The next door neighbor-to-the-left was definitely wrinkled and stooped, but had tremendous energy when he yelled “niggers!” at us. The one young White couple who lived across the street had two young girls who would play with us while their father was at work. One day he came home and we were still playing and he yelled at them to get home right away! They were not allowed to play with those niggers, no siree!
So, I did what any smart five-year old would do: I stopped sounding like a nigger. My mother had gotten into the habit of turning on classical music, to help lull me into sleep. When I woke, there would be some NPR announcer, with their polished radio voices, and unconsciously and consciously, I began to imitate their voices. By the time I was eight, not only was I convinced that I had been kidnapped and replaced with a Better Me, a Whiter Me, my parents were convinced, as well. My mother began telling me stories of me being placed at their doorstep, left in a basket. I don’t blame her. Who was I? This child who had absorbed a thing called “what a nigger sounds like” in her head and worked, nightly, to scrub that sound away.
To be fair, she did the same to my sister, but the girl really didn’t look like any of us!
Here’s the thing, I’m affecting a humorous tone, because I’m writing in prose, and I have the ability to be funny in prose, but I’m not a funny person and quite frankly, I don’t find any of this stuff funny. However, to make these realities palatable, I have to make them funny. White readers often need the humor so they don’t feel attacked. White Guilt Is Real. White Shame Is Realer. Black readers often need to not be reminded of the Past. They want to Move On. To The Future And Beyond.
I want to deal with the Present. And that often means directly addressing the Past. And by address, I mean call-out. I call-out. No holds barred.
I’ve begun to think that the only way to talk about race, as a person of color, is to be apologetic and deferential. Remember that scene in Django Unchained with the shuffling Sam Jackson-character? Yeah, that character. That character has permission to talk about race and racism. The rest of us, those who don’t speak softly or apologetically, do not have permission to talk about race and are often attacked for speaking up.
I imagine each of these blog posts will, at some point, mention some interaction on Facebook, and maybe someone will say “Well, why do you keep having these intense conversations on Facebook?” & I’ll say, “Because I choose to,” and someone will say, “Social Media is not the place to have these conversations” and a few months ago, I would have agreed, but I actually wonder, “Why not? Why do conversations need specific containers? What conversation is okay for social media? What conversations need a phone call? A face-to-face interaction? Why can’t people chat in social media about tough subjects?”
So, I was on Facebook & someone posted this article about reading only writing by persons of color and/or queer and/or women and/or writers for a year. The poster wanted to know if anyone had done this. I chimed in that I had done this with writers of color but not with male writers (in other words, I had spent a year reading only writers of color with no concessions to gender and sexuality). I also mentioned that I had also made a decision once to only purchase books by presses whose catalog had at least 50% writers of color. A gentleman took this last bit to heart. He began asking questions, but mostly making statements. In the beginning, I replied to him with: “We all make our own choices,” and this just prompted him to make more statements, such as, “I don’t see how that helps anything.” Even if I hadn’t seen his image, I would have known that he was a White person. My own personal choice hit him as an attack, so he launched an anti-attack. A White woman eventually entered the conversation and said that the conversation was starting to take a turn towards “forced affirmative action.” What a silly thing to say! A person is talking about her own personal choices, and a listener thinks she’s being pulled by the collar to the nearest Black-owned bookstore.
A few weeks into a parenting class, one of the teachers handed us each a Q-Tip. We were puzzled. What did Q-Tips have to do with parenting children in foster care? I thought perhaps some of the more chatty folks in the class were getting on her nerves and she brought Q-Tips to remind us that active listening is just as important as active talking.
She began to tell a story and throughout the story said things like “took it personally” and “it’s not personal”. Finally, one of the students shouted “oh! QTIP! Quit Taking It Personally! Oh I get it! Ok Ok”.
This is hard, I keep hearing. & I believe it. A few years ago, I began using the term “Whitefolks” to distinguish between White people and White-people-who-promote-White-Supremacy (wittingly or not). I began playing this game on Facebook, a game I totally stole from that Bacon game (replace one word in a book title with the word Bacon! My game was this: replace one word from a film or tv series with the word Whitefolks!). Most of the people who chimed in to play the game were White friends and a year or so after the game was last played, a White friend left a note on my wall. Something like, “I was watching the Oscars & I suddenly thought, I’m watching the Whitefolks”. Months later, when I made note about Whitefolks using my Facebook inbox as a battlefield, a place to attack me, privately, this same friend said, “Oh, I hope I haven’t done that!” I was stunned. Why would this friend think I’d call her Whitefolks? She wasn’t the only one. Every time I made a non-funny post about Whitefolks, at least one White friend would say something odd, like “I don’t appreciate you using this term and I don’t even know what it means!” How can you not appreciate something you don’t understand? Baffling.
I was going to leave a Facebook post up today that said “Well, today is the last day of Black History Month 2015. I guess you won’t be hearing me talk about race anymore this year. SIKE!” But instead, I left a lasting note:
Mi gente! Vivir la vida