On Privilege, Appropriation, Responsibility, & Birds LLC’s New Chapbook

Let’s hope that we can now talk, too, about the white women who have appropriated black male musicians for the sake of their own poems.



When I got an email earlier this week that my friends at Birds LLC have a new chapbook out called Diana Ross and the Supremes (the book has since been removed from the Birds website after several poets posted objections to the book’s cover on Facebook) featuring a photograph of a young, skinny white woman on the cover, I was pretty put off, but I tried to hope for the best. Birds LLC has published many awesomefeministwriterswhoseworkI adore, and is run by a bunch of individual poets who I respect and admire and consider my friends. I don’t mean to disparage their work as a press in writing this, but to call attention to a glaring blind spot regarding race that’s all-too-common in the poetry world. This blind spot is of course not limited to this one press, as it is, you know, endemic…

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How it Feels to Not Be Free

There is something happening, post-release of the assault on Sandra Bland, something profound and disturbing and a great reminder that as much as we chanted “I am Sean Bell” or “I am Trayvon Martin” or “I am Eric Garner”, what we needed to say was “I could be John Crawford III” or “I could be Michael Brown” or “I could be Victor White III”.

What is happening across social media is the reality that many of us have been Sandra Bland.

This morning I decided to exercise outside. I hadn’t exercised outside in weeks in this town. The last time I did so, two young men tried to compliment me by shouting “Work it OUT!”. It hit my body like street harassment. The time before that, a male stranger walked with me for two miles chatting. It seemed pleasant enough until we arrived at what I thought was the end of our road & he stopped me and asked: “Where do you live?” After a long back and forth, us now standing on the sidewalk in an incredibly hot South, with me trying to figure out the best way to get home without being obvious about going that-a-way, he finally sighed and rolled his eyes and said: “I’m here every Saturday at this time and sometimes on Monday and Wednesday.” I stopped exercising outside altogether in this town.

But this morning, I walked the trash to the curb and breathed a good, solid breeze and decided to forgo the gym and take my chances exercising outside here. So what, I thought, as I set out on my path, I might run into another young man who tells me he’s homeless because he’s traveled all the way here from Seattle for a girl who turned out to be married and he’d spent all of his money and we was now broke and homeless and couldn’t I spare him some money for bus far and when I said sorry sorry and kept walking he let me get a little ahead of him before trying to silently follow me on the gravel pathway and I knew an opening was coming up to leave the pathway to get onto the main road and cross the street and head back home which is what I did but not before looking over my shoulder and seeing the guy had left his bag behind. He smiled at me and that ended my exercising in the evening in this town. So what, I thought to myself, if you’ve run out of fingers to count the number of times you’ve been harassed for exercising, so what, be outside, release some toxins, breathe in some freshness. How silly of me to think that I could walk around, a woman, in this world, and not become the object of some man’s harassment/”affection”?

When I made it home, I sat on the stairs to take a breather and logged into my Facebook account. There it was, the dash cam video of the final hours of Sandra Bland’s life.

What I saw was this:

a woman irritated by an officer who himself was becoming increasingly irate and belligerent and filled to the brim with his own sense of power and authority. The more Bland said that did not sound like “Yes, sir; Yes, officer” the more unhinged he became. “I’m gonna yank you out of here” “I’ll light you up”.

What this video made me think about:

a few years ago, my mother told me she’d been signaled by a man driving in a truck to pull over. She drove to a bank and pulled in. He pulled up beside her and threatened her, said he was an officer and he’d given her an order to pull over. While she was driving to the bank, she called my father, told him what was happening, where she was headed, asked him to meet her there. The man was wearing gym shorts and a gym shirt. When my mother asked for his badge, he went to his truck and showed it to her. Weeks later she was in a courtroom; the man was not there. He was, in fact, an officer. He had been off-duty. He was angry with my mother because she didn’t let him cut in front of her.

Her story reminded me of the time in Houston, when I was driving along a road that was quite well known by the townies for its incredibly odd left-lane merging into a right-lane. I knew the point of merge on this road and always got into the right-lane long before the merge happened, otherwise I’d end up in a left-turning lane. On this day, I was in the right lane. An officer was in the left lane. He was just behind me and right before the merge happened, he sped up and tried to cut me off. I continued to drive at the speed I was going. He ended up behind me. His lights came on soon after. I continued to drive, made a right-turn, parked across the street from my home. The neighbors knew me; they knew my car. They were mostly elderly and home in the afternoons. I figured I was as safe I was gonna be.

I won’t go into the details. It was a long long long exchange. Half an hour or so. First one officer at my driver door, a white guy. Twenty minutes later, I guess his patrol partner got tired of waiting, and he tapped on my passenger door, a black guy. For twenty minutes, the white officer leaned into my car, one arm on the window, the other pulled long on the roof. First he said I’d broken the law by not letting him over. I asked him what law. Then he said I was breaking the law by driving on Michigan tags. I informed him that I was a student and Texas law allowed students to keep their previous state’s tags and driver’s license for a year. He called me a liar. A liar. About Texas law. I told him to look it up. Back and forth we went. Eventually he began to insert threats: I can find out where you live; I’m an officer, I can look up your tags; I will find out where you live; You’ll never be safe in this city. . . and on and on. When the black officer showed up, I said something like “Oh come on now, seriously, what are you gonna do, play good cop bad cop?” The black cop said, “I’m the bad cop”. Ten more minutes of that before they were exhausted and I felt victorious. Victorious. I waited for them to leave before I drove around the block, parked in the garage, went in the house & called to tell my parents about my victory. They called me stupid, said I could’ve been harmed. “Oh, please,” I said, “what could they have done to me?”

The idiot that I was, I recounted my other Houston victory. Another white cop who pulled me over while I was cutting through the Fifth Ward to get to school. I was driving 32 in a 25. He told me I had a busted taillight. He tried to arrest me for driving on Michigan tags. I told him I didn’t have time for his bullshit; I was late for class. I recited the Texas law to him. He said he didn’t about that. I told him to look it up, give me my busted taillight ticket and keep it moving. He said he’d escort me to campus. He didn’t believe I was a student. I showed him my student parking tag. He said I could have stolen it. He escorted me to campus, parked when I parked, got out of his car when I got out of mine, walked behind me across the street and left me when I entered the door to my building.

After I hung up with my parents, I called the police station and reported the two officers. The person on the line asked: “what do you want us to do about this?” I said: “Whatever you do to officers who harass citizens without cause.” “Okay,” the person said before hanging up. That night, I looked out of my window to see what car was parked in the alley with their lights on, why they were just sitting there. It was the cops. They came there every night for two weeks. Every night for two weeks I called their precinct and reported them. I finally let my neighbor know about it & she called. That ended their visits.

I thought that ended my long history of giving attitude to officers. But I can’t stomach the idea that an officer deserves respect and that I don’t.

In Louisiana, I was pulled over on my way home from the airport. It was after midnight and I was exhausted and speeding to get to Baton Rouge and in my bed. The cop flashed his lights at me & yelled into a megaphone for me to pull over. The highway was under repair and the heated bright lamps were on full blast; coupled with the cop’s high beams coming from his SUV patrol car, I felt like I’d been thrown into Times Square, minus the people. I pulled over and turned my engine off, rolled my window down. The officer used his megaphone to tell me to stick my hands out of the window. I stuck my hands out of the window. He told me to open my door. I put my hands back in the window to open the door & he yelled at me: “Did I tell you to put your hands in that vehicle?” I thought he must be on drugs or this must be a game show. I sat in the car. He continued to yell at me to exit the vehicle. I continued to sit there. Eventually he walked up to the car, yelling: “When I tell you to get out of the vehicle get out of the vehicle!” I explained to him that it was impossible to get out of the vehicle without the use of my hands, which were apparently supposed to be sticking out of the window. “Of course,” I said, “I could use my feet, but quite frankly, I’m not that limber.” “Don’t be a fucking smart ass! I told you to get the fuck out of that vehicle so why are you still inside of that vehicle?” What can be said to an unreasonable officer? I said nothing. He screamed “Now, I’m walking back to my vehicle and when I tell you to exit your vehicle you exit your vehicle.” He walked back to his car, put his megaphone to his mouth and screamed “Now, open your door.” I opened the door. “Put your left foot on the ground.” I put my left foot on the ground. “Lean your head out of the car.” I leaned my head out of the car. Eventually, my whole body was out of the car, arms raised. I felt like I was in a strange S&M porn flick. “Walk towards me.” I walked. “Stop!” I stopped. “Walk SLOWLY towards me.” I walked slowly, haltingly, the lights were blinding me. “Why are you stumbling? Did I TELL you to stumble?” I’d had enough. “Listen you fucking sick fucking asshole, these fucking lights are blinding me! I don’t know where you are! I don’t know where your car is! I have no fucking idea what I’m walking towards you! And why in the hell do I need to walk to you? What do you want?” “You do as you’re told!” he screamed. I dug my heels in and stood there. He came towards me and told me to go stand beside my car. He began some long-winded explanation, that he had to protect himself, make sure I wasn’t carrying a weapon. He made no sense. He asked for my license and registration, said I’d been speeding. I told him my license and registration where in the car in the glove compartment and since he was in such fear of his life he should go and retrieve them himself. I thought he was going to slap me. He didn’t. He raised his hand and quickly put it back down. “Go the fucking passenger side and get your got damn registration and license.” I was exhausted. Before I was finally given permission to get in my car and leave, he leaned in and gave me a fatherly smile. He was much younger than me, but decided to impart some fatherly wisdom: “Look, you’re a young woman driving out here at this time of the night, speeding like that, you need to be careful. You could end up having an accident and killing somebody, worse, killing yourself. Okay? I just want to make sure you’re safe.” I wanted to rip his tongue out.

When I lived in Brooklyn, I often joked that I really wasn’t a citizen of Brooklyn, since I had yet to be pulled over by the cops. I won’t tell that story here. It’s in this poem. But when I look back at all of my traffic encounters with police–in Tennessee, in Michigan, in New York, in Louisiana–I now realize I’m lucky to be alive. Back then, I thought I was just lucky to not be in prison.

It’s strange to think of being alive as luck. As if the person who is not alive had bad luck. The reality is that Sandra Bland, Kindra Darnell Chapman, Kimberlee Randall King were not  unlucky. They were women, Black women, trying to have a life in the U.S. and were (likely) murdered by police. I’ve been thinking, what if these women committed suicide? What if, in a moment of complete knowing, they understood that they wouldn’t come out of these situations alive, and if that were so, they would not die at the hands of cops. Even as I think these things, I understand I’m trying to not think about how I, in fact, have been Sandra Bland, how my mother has been, how many of my Black women friends who are writing about their harassments by officers during routine traffic stops have been Sandra Bland.

I hate sharing these videos, these recordings of violences and murders, but I share this one here, because he we are, Black women in this country who have been violated, whose bodies are treated as disposable objects. I share, too, this video of Marlene Pinnock being beaten by an officer on the side of the road. Despite the video, the ocular evidence, even still, the beating is “alleged”. If a video showing a Black woman being beaten by an officer is not “factual” v “alleged,” how are we to think of how this country views us, as Black women?

How we Lie When We Say We Love Women

Like many of you, I’ve been watching, again, these posts about Bill Cosby. Last year the claim was that we were getting distracted from Michael Brown; this year, we’re distracted from the Charleston massacres. Was there a social media when R. Kelly was peeing on girls under the age of 18? Was there a social media when Woody Allen was courting his stepdaughter & raping his adopted daughter? I wonder what the so-called distractions would have been then.

We have a hard time talking about assaults against women; after all, the “only position for women. . . is prone” or women should be kept “barefoot and in the kitchen” or a woman is to walk five paces behind her husband or a woman is to be submissive to men. How can we talk about assault against women when so much of what we’ve been taught–in schools, in homes, in churches–confirms that women are on this earth to be assaulted.

About a decade ago I was at a conference on Caribbean women writers & several panelists compared women’s bodies to the earth. I was shocked. I thought this metaphor had been put to bed and I could feel others in the audience shifting and whispering. It’s all too easy to compare the earth to women, after all, we think of the earth as that object that gave birth to us and we think of women as receptacles for life. I’m guilty, too, of the easy comparison, and I still think Assia Dejbar’s Fantasia, a complex novel about the Algerian Resistance, which opens with a comparison of the landscape as veiled and the veiled women of Algeria, is one of the more brilliant examples of this by-now tired metaphor.

But somehow, comparing women’s bodies to the earth lets us off easy. The land is pillaged; the woman is raped. The land is drilled into; the woman is raped. The land is land and what is it there for, if not to be attacked by man? The woman is woman and what is she there for, if not to be dominated by man?

A few days ago I went to a Home Depot to get a power drill and I ran into a man who worked there and asked for his help. He took me to the drills and pointed to the smallest one and said, “Well, this would suit you, I mean it’s lightweight and easy to handle. . . That’s sexist, isn’t it, but well, my wife would be able to handle it.” I was quite taken aback that he (1) recognized his sexism, (2) acknowledged it, (3) quickly defended it.

I have a friend who, when he gets angry at women, calls them cunt, bitch, pendeja, twat. He says he loves women. I once asked him if he called his male friends cunt & he said he doesn’t call women cunt. I was astonished by the lie and then it occurred to me that maybe his brain was like Snapchat. He does something unthinkable, says something damaging, then quickly erases it from his memory. The classic Etch-A-Sketch brain. He’s not unusual. Men are quick to call women out-of-their-name. Even the call of “Queen” is a violence; it places women on a pedestal, erases their humanity, holds them to a standard, a male standard.

Last year, in the car with two of my sisters and my niece, on our way back from Atlanta, we talked about Bill Cosby. I was uncomfortable having the conversation with my niece in the car. I was even more uncomfortable with one of my sisters walking through the women Cosby had raped and assaulted, putting them on trial, saying they were unreliable and years of problems, that they were just trying to be popular. I couldn’t believe we were having this conversation in front of my niece, that my niece, 12 years old at the time, had to listen to a woman she loved cast aspersions on women who had been raped.

No one wants to talk about rape. Try bringing it up in a conversation. Watch the heads turn away. Watch the town clown quickly make a joke about something totally unrelated. Watch the tense shoulders ease. Watch how quickly the conversation follows the joke.

To talk about rape is to admit that we have a problem with women. We say we love them, but we quickly call them cunts when we’re angry with them. We say we love them, but we blame them for everything that goes wrong in the world. A man shoots up a school and then shoots his mother and everyone jumps to blame the mother for buying him guns, for not seeing that her child was sociopathic. A child is gunned down on the way to school, we want to know where the child’s mother was, why didn’t she walk her kid to school. We want to know where the gunman’s mother is; she must be a single mother, we say.

We love to say, don’t we, the person must have problems at home. What we really mean is: the mother is the problem.

We hate mothers and it makes it that much easier to hate women.

If rape is a distraction, so is white supremacy, so is homophobia, so is war, so is water shortage, fracking, the thievery of sacred lands, child abuse.

To talk about rape, as a man, I imagine, is to admit that you yourself have committed rape, have been close to it, could be close to it, could do it. That your father or brother or son or uncle or grandfather could have committed rape, been close to it, could be close to it, could do it. To talk about rape, as a man, I imagine, is to be ready to forgo power, to challenge masculinity, to dismantle patriarchy.

In the days of social media, this is how men talk about assaults against women: {insert hashtag} NotAllMen.

Yes, all men. All men. Unless you’re fighting, daily, patriarchy and masculinity, all men.

We have to do better. Each of us, no matter the emotional, psychological, intellectual, physical costs.

The Confederate flag in Columbus, SC was removed today. There was a ceremony. There will not be a national day of mourning for the 9 humans murdered. We will spend the entire day talking about the removal of this flag. We will not talk about the cultures of violence against women. We simply won’t.

Read/ing the Comments

I am at my girlfriend’s father’s house waiting on her newly 90 year old grandmother to show up. Her family are nervous for me to meet the woman. I can’t tell if it’s because I’m her granddaughter’s girlfriend or because I’m black. They keep huddling together and whispering. I eye my girlfriend’s twin who has married a Korean man to anger the family. The son has married a Swedish woman to anger the family. I once asked the twin if she loved her husband and she shrugged and said she initially went out with him to upset her racist parents. Apparently they weren’t only racists; they were also xenophobes & homophobes. My girlfriend assured me that in the eyes of her parents, being a lesbian was as bad as dating a black person. I thought of my own family, how my mother responded when I told her I was seeing someone, that I was happy & that my girlfriend called me everyday to tell me I was beautiful. She looked at me, dressed as I always was back then, in a peasant skirt & a peasant blouse, each wrinkled. “Does she see you when you’re dressed like that?” she asked. I nodded. “She must be white,” she said. I looked at her and nodded, expecting a lecture on racism. “Black women don’t know how to love each other like that,” she said. We were in the doctor’s office. I wanted to ask her so much, but she stopped me and said, “We’re too busy picking on each other, trying to make each other perfect, trying to make each other look respectable and decent for white people for us to say some wrinkled black woman is beautiful.”

By the time I was in junior high school, my white NPR voice perfected, the white kids were hanging out with each other only. It was as if some switch had been turned on, as if my once white friends had suddenly seen me for who I was: a black girl with the voice of a radio announcer. Junior high school sucks for everyone; there are thousands of recorded stories of feeling different, strange; stories of isolation. I didn’t sound like a typical black girl, so, for the most part, the black girls avoided me. I had two friends, which was enough. We were wild but good girls; we pretended to be lesbians but only when the teachers were looking. We wanted to upset things. My closest friend was a gay white guy; he was often being harassed, people pushed him and laughed in his face, spat at him. He said he and I were the same, two people in the wrong bodies at the wrong school. He wore young women’s clothes. I loved him because he was fashionable in junior high school. Because despite the bullying, he came to school every day, fiercely dressed. I cursed people out, twisted my face at them. He never said anything to them, wanting to hold himself above them. I could never bring myself to always be that person, the silent and strong one.

At my girlfriend’s father’s house, the grandmother showed up. She touched me on the shoulder & I turned around and melted as I always do when I’m around elderly people. I smiled and said hello. “Now, who are you?” she asks. I tell her my name; my girlfriend quickly appears beside me, puts her arm around my waist, “This is my girlfriend,” she says, “I told you about her.” The grandmother beams and then says, “Well, you are the prettiest nigger I’ve ever seen.” I’m amused. Her son rushes over. “Mom! We can’t say that anymore! It’s not PC.” It’s the beginning days of the PC crisis. It is the summer of 1997 and I’m standing in an historical district in my hometown. MLK, Jr Boulevard is three blocks away. I’m on the block of wealthy white families. Three blocks over, poor black families. There is nothing PC about this neighborhood.

The grandmother is flustered. “What am I supposed to call her?” She’s visibly upset and I can’t tell if it’s because she has to learn something new or because she’s being corrected by her son, in front of me and the family’s black maid to boot. “African American,” he says, then looks at me, “right?” I shrug and say whatever. I touch the grandmother on her arm, tell her happy birthday and say thank you for saying I’m pretty. I laugh and ask her if she watches much television, if she’s seen all the gorgeous black women out there. She shakes her head and forces a grin. She’s still upset about her son. It makes no difference to me what they call me. All I hear is “not PC” and know they aren’t interested in change; they’re interested in presenting themselves as change.

When then Senator Obama was running for Presidential office, blowing up the word “Change” in ostentatious red white & blue, I knew the GOP weren’t angry because they hadn’t capitalized on the word first. They were pissed about the possibility of performing change for the next four years.

Change is the equivalent of a lobotomy, it seems, where race and gender and sexuality and religion are concerned. All these man-made constructions of power. Yet another white guy has said that my posts are not about race, that they’re really about bad choices in friendship. A black guy said my mama needs to come pick me up, that I’m making bad choices about where to live, who to talk to. Mansplaining, I reckon & worse, whitemansplaining. But truly it’s just change. They can’t stand to think that a woman, a black woman, has the right to chose her life, to chose her friends, to experience their racisms, to learn from their racisms, to expect to be anywhere in the world, to live anywhere in the world, without apology, without fear, without dread of going to dinner with the wrong white person.

The other night, I shared a bottle of wine and a couple of tapas with a new friend. I can’t recall the number of times we’ve sat next to each other or across from each other, talking about growing up, about mothers and mothering, how often we’ve caught our tears just before they tumbled out of our tear ducts. She tells me that I always find a way to talk about race; I scrunch up my face, tilt my head, and she says, “You do You do”. I say, “Yes, I guess I do,” but I’m trying to battle my own memories of our conversations. “When my husband asks me what we talked about, I tell him we talked about race & he says, “Again? Can’t you two talk about anything else?””. I scrunch up my face some more, trying to see clearly, her face, wrestling against its own memories, my hand just shy of touching her hand, the memories of her childhood rushing at her from all sides. I want to pull my face off, throw it on the ground, watch it shatter. It’s not an accusation she’s levied against me; she’s clearly braced herself for our outing. But who wants to braced against while sharing a bottle of wine?

She tells me that white people have a hard time talking about race. I ask her if white people have a hard time talking about race or about racial relationships. We ponder this for awhile. I silently ask myself why I’ve asked one white person to speak for all white people. She tells me there is fear, discomfort, that she herself is afraid of putting her foot in her mouth, of saying something wrong and not knowing it’s wrong. We have a great conversation, as we always do. She says white people never talk about race amongst themselves. I tell her that’s impossible. “Maybe you don’t use the word “white” or “race” but how can you be a human being born and raised in the U.S. and not have completely absorbed race?” I’m thinking discourse and ideology; I’m thinking behaviors and attitudes. I tell her about one of the ladies at the community potluck, how she said she likes her food to be pure, how she kept emphasizing pure. I tell my friend, “That was about race; that was about cooking as a white person, without seasoning, spices.” I tell her about the time I rented an apartment in Indiana, that when I arrived the landlord had the lease ready for me to sign, that he pointed out important bits on the lease, the one about no candles, the one about no incense, the one about no spicy food cooking. I tell her about our argument, how he said the neighbors complained about the spicy food coming from the apartment I was currently standing in. How they complained about the smell of incense. “They were Indian,” he says by way of explanation. I lose my mind. I scream at him, tell him he better find me another apartment, one that wasn’t owned by a racist. He stumbles, said it wasn’t about race, repeats that the people who lived there were Indian. I want to strangle him. He stumbles through “curry” and “those Indian spices you know how they are with their spices but you won’t be cooking with all of that, you’re not Indian” I want to open a box of spices and throw them in his eyes. I yell at him about the foul odor of baked ham, of boiling potatoes, of boiling beans. I ask him if those foods are banned, he says “Of course not, now. . .” I cut him off. I look at my lover and tell her we need to leave. I tell him again that he needs to find me an apartment. I stomp out. His son, the sheriff, has pulled up outside. I tell him he and his father need to find me an apartment or at the least give me some newspapers so I can find an apartment. I tell him I rented without full knowledge that his father was a racist. He looks alarmed. My new friend is laughing and I’m enjoying telling her this story, enjoying outing another racist, although I don’t tell her his name.

Earlier in the conversation, she tells me that it’s a burden that black people have to carry, explaining race and racism to white people. I nod. I am in agony. I tell her that it shouldn’t be our burden. “I agree,” she says, “I totally agree, but it is.” I tell her it’s not, that so many activists of color are taking stands to not educate white people about race. I can see that we have our tongues tied, that we’re tripping over the right words to say. What she means is that when a white person does something racist and they’re not aware, that it’s a black person’s burden to call them out. What I mean to say is that white people need to do some serious unpacking of everything. Everything.

A few days ago I wanted to share a post, a poem by a friend of color. When I went to the website that had published her poem, I decided to look through their archives. I counted 25 names before I found a name belonging to a person of color. Twenty five individual posts before the editor posted a poem by a person of color. The next one, 8 posts later, then another one 14 posts later, another one two posts later & I think “okay, they caught on!”. The next one, 58 posts later.

I get obsessive about these things. When I worked for the Boy’s Club in my hometown, I drove through all of the housing projects looking for sightings of white people. The only time I saw a white person who lived in a housing project was when they had a biracial child with them. Even then it was rare. I asked someone in housing where the poor white people went, she said in houses in poor neighborhoods. I asked her why they didn’t go into housing projects and she rolled her eyes at me: “They keep the housing projects for the black people; they think we’ll tear up their houses.”

Sometimes I think about the various white professors I’ve had, the ones who have either said I was “too smart for my own good” or too theoretical or the one in Houston who made me go to her office after the submission of every essay so she could quiz me on my own ideas. “I just don’t believe you’re the kind of person who can produce such sophisticated, ideas” she said. My paper three I asked her what she could possibly have against Black people; she was from Spain. Like my friend in Poland, she’d seen Black people on television, in films.

A Facebook friend loves to tell me that she’s not racist, that she doesn’t know any racists, despite the fact that she was born and raised in the U.S., that she now lives in the South, that she reads books from publishing houses with a dismal rate of publishing people of color, if any at all, that she watches television and views films that cast people of color in negative lights, if any lights at all. When I tell my friends that there are restaurants on the busiest street in this city I live in where waitresses will look right at me and move past me, as if I’m not there, they don’t believe me. This is 2015, they want to say. Or worse, That’s the South for you, they want to say.

Two years ago I was at the Millay Colony in upstate New York. I often went to a coffeehouse in the closest, largest town. The woman behind the counter there also wouldn’t wait on me, even when customers would come in and say, “She was ahead of me,” she’d look just beyond me and ask the blank spot behind me what I wanted to have. A simple person would have left that place alone, but life is complicated. I’ve been that simple person, I’ve refused to give money to racist establishments; I’ve contacted managers and had people fired. In the end, those people are still racists, just as the county clerks in Tennessee are still homophobic, despite now also being jobless.

Living ain’t easy, no matter the weather.

One person wants to know why I chose to live in an all-white community. I wonder if this person also wants to know why we’re still celebrating “the first Black” this or “the first Mexican” that. I wonder if this person also wants to know why a Black person in New York City would even bother leaving the house at all, considering the rates of police profiling and harassment. I wonder if this person also wants to know why a woman who has been raped by a man would still go out with men. He’s likely the kind of guy who thinks a transgender person is bringing the random verbal abuse on themselves; the kind of guy who supported the move by Brooklyn police to tell women to not wear shorts or short skirts in the evening because there was a groper on the streets.

No matter the weather, living ain’t easy.

Back in 2007, when I lived in Indiana, the chair of the English Department told me I should go into the class and apologize for being different, for being Black. “Just say “I’m sorry”,” he said. We often got into heated debates about his attempts to whiten me for the classroom. The mentor he assigned to me, a man from the History Department, said, “I don’t have the problems you have in the classroom. But, of course, I’m much taller than you, and height intimidates people.” I looked over his shoulder and he quickly added: “And I’m a man, that makes a difference.” A long sigh from me finally elicited: “Well, I mean, I’m white, so I mean, I can say, well, I mean, I can be well direct with them about certain well I mean okay, well, I heard some students complaining about Professor X and when I heard what they said, I thought about it, then I said to them, “hey, those all sound like good ideas Professor X has, I might implement those,” well, yeah, it did occur to me that they didn’t like Professor X because he’s a Black man who happens to be very rigorous.” He promised that he’d show me some techniques, some things I could do to make the students forget I was Black, so we could just get to the business of education.

If I had a pot of gold for every job I left because I understood the racial atmosphere wouldn’t change. . .

But here I am in my office at work, this historically white college in this historically white town. I have one colleague here who often says, “All the stuff you say, I can say that to them, because I’m white, they don’t feel threatened by me,” and I often reply, “Well, it’s also that they can feel guilty with you; they can feel shame with you.” My new friend says it’s fear, discomfort. It’s that, too, I reckon. And the unease of recognition, of acknowledgement. I once had a student who was so distraught during our Caribbean lit class, that she came to my office and said she was basically going radical. I asked her what she was willing to give up. She said everything. I told her to give me her writing utensils, her clothes, her car, her imported fruits. She wasn’t willing to give up everything, none of us are.

Contemplating difference, lazily, leads us to thinking we have to give up everything. At AWP in 2001, I sat in a room and listened to a white professor from Vanderbilt angrily say that if we make room for Phillipino literature, we’ll have to make room for everyone else. I’d been in another panel about the lyric and another one about writing cover letters that will get you into literary journals. The white aggression was everywhere and overwhelming. In the lyric panel, the panelists talked about what constituted good writing. From what I could gather, it was any musical form that had no jagged edges, no frayed corners, no thick tongues, no foreign tongues. The only examples they offered were white poets whose lines all sounded so much alike I thought they were reading from one poet writing under various names. In the panel on cover letters, one editor said he wanted professional letters, nothing personal. I left feeling dampened. Even in creative writing, the suit jackets were tightly buttoned, the collars were pressed and neatly folded. We were all to live behind a white mask, difference was not to be tolerated.

It is not our differences that will kill is. It is our belief that the thing that makes us most different, our skin color, that has been the end of us and will continue to be the end of us. There is power in difference, Audre Lorde often noted. Difference is dynamic and chaotic, the force of change.

I am weak but I am brave. I am a Woman. I am brave. I am Queer. I am brave. I am Black. I am infinitely brave.

Every March, for years, I’d enter a void, each void presenting itself in a different shape. One year, the year I’m going to talk about now, I felt as if I were suspended in a dream. The world in this dream was one of fog and mist. I thought I had cured myself of my March madness, after all, I had discovered the source of these horrible disruptions. When I was 20 I was pregnant. Sometime around my birthday or my boyfriend’s birthday, sometime in May, I’d gotten pregnant. In October, I was being wheeled into an operating room, where a doctor was waiting to suck and scrape the fetus from my womb. Days before, the fetus had begun its own transition from solid form to clumps of mass. “Spontaneous abortion” the doctor called it. I was due in March. I wasn’t looking forward to this child and yet, I was completely looking forward to the child. My little pisces. When I woke from the surgery, the doctor, who had stopped smacking my face, said, “Either you had twins in there or you lied about your conception date.” I was devastated. And I did what I do, turned completely inward, away from the world. It took me almost two decades to realize that I was terribly grieving the loss of this child or these children. It was grief I was experiencing, not madness.

I’d successfully had two Marches with no void, and my closest friend was relieved. The two Marches she’d had with me seemed to torment her as much as it tormented me. The last one, she finally said, “I can’t do this; I can’t watch you tumble. You’re on the ledge, everyday, all day, you’re on the ledge, and I’m so afraid that you’re going to be tempted to jump in. I can’t watch you jump in.” I thought of her sitting in her grandmother’s old chair, her knees pulled to her chest, her wavy chestnut-colored hair brushing her shins, her deep set eyes blinking rapidly. “I’m trying,” was all I could manage. That was the last year of the March grief.

Until it came back. But it wasn’t the same. I wasn’t grieving the child or children. I was being thrown into another race war. I am superstitious. I believe in serendipity. I believe coincidences are guides. I watch crows and listen to their death songs.

“We need to talk,” the email began, “you’re not doing a good job as program director and we need to talk so I can help you do a better job.” Mark* had been my colleague until a few months previously, when I was promoted to Interim Program Director. We’d been colleagues & friends, and then I was promoted and he positioned himself as my enemy. The previous PD who had been promoted to the position of Dean of the college, said, when I went to her for advice, in the beginning, when Mark was behaving belligerently, “Mark has an issue with women. He often told me I did a horrible job at being Program Director.” I opened my mouth to ask her why he was still employed there, but then I remembered Gavin, who had been accused of sexual harassment by a student, but was still working there. Instead, I said, “It’s sad how this college protects its white men.” She lowered her head and nodded.

When I became PD I contacted all of my now previous colleagues and had a meeting with them. All but one of us had come in together, in the previous year. The other colleague had been there from the beginning. None of them applied to the position, but Mark acted as if he had been passed over. He was contentious; the once affable Mark, the guy who needed everyone to love him, had suddenly turned capricious. When we arrived at the residency he became an odd sort of one man totalitarian, suddenly the rules that he insisted that we all upheld did not apply to him. He was out of control. In the evenings, when the faculty gathered in the hang-out dorm and drank, he told me I shouldn’t be there, that I was no longer one of them. I didn’t return for a couple of nights, but then I was invited back by another faculty member. We were all drinking and eventually, as it happens there, everyone moseyed off to their own dorm or their rooms in that dorm. I sat there with the other two black women faculty and Mark. We were talking about the workshops that everyone would present and one woman was asking for advice. Suddenly Mark, who had been relaxed and spread wide on the couch, jerked up and began dictating to her how her workshop should go. The three of us sat there stunned. He said something about her blackness, about her womanness, something offensive, and I began to quickly delete his words. This wasn’t Mark I was looking at. Something had overtaken him. She snapped at him, as did the other woman, I sat there with my mouth open. They looked at me and I said something like “I can’t believe you’re saying this” over and over. He screamed at us. Something about our blackness, something about our womanness, something about this being indicative of why we never get ahead. He was standing over us and he turned and stomped out of the room, opened the door to his room and then slammed it shut. I wanted to cry. This place had been a kind of safe haven for me. I felt protected, like I was in a bubble, despite the place being in the whitest state in the U.S., in a tremendously tiny town, I felt safe. Until now.

This was the beginning of the end. Mark began to tell me I was ineffective, that he wanted to call for a vote of no confidence. He said everyone else was saying the same thing. We were a small faculty: 2 men and 3 women. No one had ever said anything of the kind to me, no one except Mark. I began to dread his emails. The residency was over and I was back to the busyness of Brooklyn. I had a reading slated, my first ever in NYC and I was excited. “The Double As called me,” I told my lover, “I can’t wait!”. Although I hate reading in public, Amy & Ana had invited me to read in Bushwick. I think I said yes before I got to the end of the email. It was March. Mark emailed me and said “We need to talk” and “you’re ineffective” and “I can help you”. I contacted the Dean. She told me to record the conversation, to take copious notes, to type up the notes and send to Mark for his approval. I didn’t want to talk to Mark at all. I’d had enough of pompous white men telling me they could help me improve. I called Mark. He began with the accusations. With the lazy, “I’m not the only one who thinks this” and “Everyone is saying this”. I kept telling him that there are no everyone else’s, just him and me on the phone and he needed to tell me the issues he was having. He had them at the ready. I wrote them down. I wrote everything down. I talked to him in a measured voice. He called me a “bully”. I asked him for examples. He said I was ineffective. I asked him for examples. He said I was a push-over, I asked him how could a person be both a bully and a push-over, then I asked him for examples. He said I was making unilateral decisions. I asked him for examples. When he had run through his list, I summed it up: “You say I’m a bully because you wanted to cherry pick your students & when I reminded you that that’s not how we do things, you decided my behavior was bullying.” “You also say I’ve made a unilateral decision by asking Beth to do this side work & you think Beth bullied me into giving her this work and so now I’m a push-over.” “In addition, because I insisted that the male faculty also have to take notes in the meetings and not just the women, you think I’m both a bully and someone who makes unilateral decisions.”  Out of nowhere he began to seethe & then his seething turned to a raging fire. He yelled, “I have had stronger foes than you, Metta, don’t test me, I will destroy you.” Eventually he repeated this last bit over and over “I will destroy you” his voice getting quieter and quieter. I wasn’t sure if he was still talking to me or recalling some other people he thought had “bullied him”. I was shaking. The repetition of this one sentence, the lowering voice, I imagined the next residency, only a few weeks away, me walking in the dark, Mark rushing towards me with a knife in his hand.

When we hung up the phone, I contacted Amy & Ana and explained what happened, that I was feeling shaky, that I couldn’t do the reading. I then contacted the Dean and relayed the conversation. She said, “Wait, you didn’t tell him you were recording the conversation?” “No,” I said, “I did not tell him that.” “Well,” she reasoned, “it’s likely that when you began to reiterate everything he said, he realized that you were documenting it and he got upset.” “I don’t feel safe,” I said. “Oh, he’s all bark, no bite.” “I don’t feel safe,” I said. “I’ll talk to him. Email me the notes.” “I did tell him I was taking notes,” I said, “but either way, I don’t feel safe. He threatened me.” “You just need to calm down,” she said, “he’s all bark.”

I remembered the black male faculty at the college who told me this Dean, back when she was the PD, had told him that he couldn’t have overnight guests in his room. I was confused. One of the other faculty members brought her lover there; he stayed with us a couple of nights. The next year, my lover came to visit and stayed a couple of nights. The Dean, who was, by then, the Dean, asked me to bring my lover by, so she & her lover could meet her. “It’s a black male thing,” he said, “she’s afraid of black male sexuality.” Sitting there, shaking, telling her that I didn’t feel safe, and her telling me this threatening white man was “all bark,” I thought to myself, “black male sexuality is not the only kind of blackness she fears”. I remembered the rumors, that it was her who got the African male VP fired, that it was her who had the police show up and escort him out of the office. It was her who was trying to get the students to turn on a black female faculty, who was trying to get this woman fired. It was her who said to me once, “Your job as Program Director is to support my ideas; I don’t care if you agree with me or not; you support and uphold my ideas, or you find yourself another job.”

On my way to the residency, I was deep in the March grief. It’s cosmic, I thought, I’m being punished, somehow. By now it was early April. The interior fog & mist were reflected in the exterior world. Six hours of fog and mist. Several crows swooping close to my car. I understood, the deaths waiting for me, this white man, his crowd of white student followers.

When I arrived the faculty were tense. Students who had not worked with Mark randomly stopped me and hugged me. I was in charge of the open session with BFA students that residency. I talked with the faculty about my plan: “I want us to talk about the Tony Hoagland and Claudia Rankine debacle,” I said, “It’s incredibly relevant and important.” The faculty balked. “No,” they said. Mark flat out said, “I’m not going to participate in that.” I asked them to explain their reluctance. They said something about the opening session being about creative writing, not about race. I said something about the race war happening between writers because of a poem that was being read as racist. One faculty member asked me what my intentions were. I was shocked. We’d never had a discussion about what anyone was planning on doing for opening session, let alone what their intentions were. I finally told them that they were required to be at opening session and they could participate or not. I left the room disheartened and angry. It was a death.

At opening session, I explained to the students what we were going to do. Half of them were outwardly hostile. They were Mark’s followers. I ignored them and handed out Tony’s poem. We read it, talked through it. I handed them Claudia’s letter to Tony. Talked through it. I asked them if they saw the poem as racist. I asked them what Tony’s responsibilities were, as a writer, his social and ethical responsibilities. We talked. One of the tenets of our program is that students demonstrate a social and ethical responsibility. The faculty chilled out. I left the room feeling victorious and defeated, as if my once colleagues, my once friends, were now my enemies as far as race was concerned. As long as we stuck to so-called non-race based topics, we were cool, it seemed. I felt the morse code of the crow’s beak tapping the back of my head: “told you so.”

Later the faculty, during a meeting, expressed their dismay, that I was walking around as if all was okay. I asked them what was going on. They said, “the letter”. I had no idea what they were talking about. Someone realized this and said, “Mark wrote an open letter” someone else said, “Three, he wrote three: One to the student body, one to the faculty, one to the administration, all essentially saying the same thing: Fire Metta; until you do, I’m boycotting”.

Here’s the short version: Mark had his student followers follow me on Twitter under assumed identities & the students who were already my Facebook friends were to watch my posts. These students were recruited to stalk me, to screen shot my posts and send them to Mark. Mark would compile them and send the ones he deemed inappropriate to the administration, demanding my firing. In his letters, he said my posts were racists (he meant one in which I said that a student (at Hunter College, where I was teaching) wrote a paper that read like a Nazi manual) and overtly sexual (lines like “your mouth will mirror my body’s loose gyrations”). He said that I was the face of the BFA program and I was spreading smut and racism across the internet. I was gobsmacked. Students actually did this man’s bidding? The administration hadn’t fired him for sending this open letter to students? Now I understood the student who said something about boycotts during graduation; suddenly I understood Mark’s favorite student openly bawling, one of the college counselors talking him down. That evening, one of the faculty members came to my room and said that she had a student who was terrified of me, that he thought I wanted to harm him, based on the tweets. She asked me if I would talk with him. I agreed to talk with him. It was a bizarre. A white male student terrified of a black person, a black woman, in this white state, in this white town, at this white institution. We met in evening, around 8. We talked until 1 AM. He told me about his life, growing up in Michigan. How he grew up with racists, how he was racist until he wasn’t. I was confused. How was he terrified of me? He finally said that my tweets, well, the one tweet about the student writing the paper that read like a Nazi manual, made him feel silenced. That he’d been writing poems exposing himself as a racist and he felt silenced, afraid that if he read them at open mic, I’d stop him mid-line and put him out. I was outraged. Here, at this college, where white students often read racially offensive work, where two students, during cabaret, performed such a racist “drama”, pretending to be Japanese samurai on television, one even doing the weird voice over mouthing thing, the overt racist act so alarming the singular Japanese student leapt out of her seat, crying, and ran out of the auditorium; here, where sudents said she was being too sensitive. White students. Was this the same college I was at, sitting in my office, at midnight, with this self-professed racist from the backwoods of Michigan, telling me he was afraid I would silence him?

We worked it out. I’m good at working these things out. I said all of the right things, in a very soothing voice. I said all of the painful things, in a very soothing voice. I told him everything he didn’t want to hear, everything he needed to hear, in a very soothing voice. When he left the office I was ready to quit. In my mind, I could see the crows circling, cawing, swooping down so low to my windshield, I could see their eyes. The warning bells in the heavy fog. And I continued to drive to this place.

& where was Mark? At home, in Maine**, supposedly nursing his wife to health. That’s the lie he told the administration, despite his letter that clearly said he was boycotting until they fired me.

Since it was April, I was writing every day & a man I loved called me just about every night to read the poem he’d written. His voice, so filled with care, kept me above ground. Knowing that my lover was at home, enjoying the empty house, yet eagerly waiting for me to return, kept me above ground. When I left that place I reflected on how white the days had been, how white the stars in the night. I used to take solace in those white days, those white sparks of light at night. Now this place was contaminated. The white students. The white faculty. The white administration.

When I returned home, I drove my lover to the airport. She was heading to a conference and I’d be alone for a few days. In those days, I wrote until I couldn’t write anymore, until I couldn’t move anymore. One evening I was so overcome with grief and pain, so certain that I was going to kill myself, that I stumbled into some gym clothes and drove, erratically, to the gym. It was near closing time and I stepped onto my favorite elliptical, the one right in front of the window that looked into the homes of the wealthy Park Slopers, their seemingly calm and easy lives. I moved my legs furiously, the tears furiously moving down my face. I sobbed, loudly, not caring that people were there. Once home, I laid on the couch and looked at the cat, wondering how she’d get fed once I ended my life. My lover called and I watched the phone ring. My closest friend, who was in town for a few days, called, and I watched the phone ring. I looked at the cat, her white fur and furious blue eyes demanding attention, commanding me to get up. I closed my eyes and willed my life away, willed the crows to come and release me from this life, this wretched wretched life where white people seemed to be waiting in the wings to harm me.

Years ago, my best friend and I went to a showing of Rocky Horror up in the mountains. During intermission, we met a man who read auras and previous lives. He strolled over to me and said, “I have to read you, do you mind?” I’d had this before. Strangers “having to read” me. I said yes, as I always did. He told me my auras were red and gold, that there was fury and finances in my past. He leaned in and whispered, “I think you once had slaves; in Louisiana; you were very very profitable, but you were too good to your slaves. The slave owners came after you.” He had an accent. I asked him where he was from. “Berlin,” he said, “and I’m very familiar with your auras, the way they come in and go, the hints of green and white. Your auras are very strong.”

I often think about my previous lives. What I’m here on this earth at this time to do. How often I’ve thought of ending my life. How often I’ve not. I think of that closest friend, the one who once told me she couldn’t do March with me anymore, the same one who was furious that I didn’t answer the phone when she called. How she said that our friendship must be over, if I was suffering, and I didn’t call her. I kept telling her that I couldn’t speak, that every time I opened my mouth I sobbed. I sent her the writing I’d done, the writing that eventually ended up in a book, to prove to her that I was in deep deep despair. She didn’t talk to me for a few months. In the end, she made me promise I would never do that again, that I would never keep her locked out. I thought, “how very white of you,” but I loved her, so I said, “I can’t promise you that. I wasn’t locking you out. I wasn’t able to speak. It wasn’t about you.”

Somehow, though, it was, even though it wasn’t. Somehow, everything had to be about her. Just as everything had to be about Mark. Perhaps I was white in another life. Perhaps I will be in the next life. To do white in another way. In this life, I am a Black woman, and I want more than anything, for the space to love and honor myself as a Black woman.

*Mark, Gavin & Beth are not the actual names of the individuals. Amy & Ana are, in fact, Amy and Ana.

**Location is not actual location of Mark’s home.

Rage, Rage Against: For the guy who said it wasn’t about race but about bad choices in friends

“It’s a secondhand world we’re born into. . . It is both terribly beautiful and terribly sad, but it is, finally, the fault in the universe that gives birth to us all.” — Isa, in Katherine Min’s Secondhand World

At yesterday’s community potluck I was relieved that no one said Happy 4th or Happy Independence Day although almost everyone wore some combination of red white and blue. Before the plastic was removed from the dishes, two people led us in the Moravian prayer. I stayed silent, not knowing the prayer, and one of my neighbors tilted her head to look at me with curiosity and amusement. The woman I chatted with the longest runs the community book club. At some point, we began to talk about what it meant to be a Southerner and what it meant for me to return to the South. “Well,” she asked, “how is it? Being back?” I wanted to turn her questions into a sentence, “How it is: Being black.” I am the only person of color in my community, the original town where workers dress in period costumes and give tours and sell goods. This community has a conflicting story regarding race relations. One story is that the Moravians had enslaved people but treated them as equals. That story goes like this: the enslaved Africans were originally allowed to attend church services & were buried in the same lots as the whites. Eventually, the enslaved Africans asked for their own church so they could worship loudly. Another story goes like this: the Moravians didn’t believe in slavery but had settled in a slave state, so they had slaves who sat with them at dinner, after preparing the meals and after dinner they’d clean up. They were buried in the same plot as the whites, but eventually new leadership said it wasn’t right for blacks and whites to be buried together so the blacks were given a tiny plot of land to be buried in. Southerners are well-regarded for burying the ugly. “Truth is Ugly, Ugly Truth” could easily be the mantra of the South.

In 2006 I was invited to return to my undergraduate institution to give a workshop and reading. At the reading, I read a poem that mentioned a bridge in my town that had been transformed to the longest walking bridge in the South. In the late 1800s and early 1900s that was a lynching bridge. After the reading a white man came up to me and demanded to know how I knew that story. He seemed quite miffed that I knew that history. “No one knows about that!” he said, “How do you know about that?” “I found mention of it in a book on supreme court cases,” I said. He began to run his hand back and forth in his hair. “Well, I’ll be damned,” he eventually said, “I’ll be damned.”

“No one considers Tennessee the South,” I said to the neighbor, “although just about every Southern state borders Tennessee, either to the North, the West, the South or the East.” I began to point to an invisible map: “Kentucky, Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas. . .” I trailed off before changing direction. “Being here is not being back. I’ve never lived in North Carolina and it’s nothing like Tennessee just as Tennessee is nothing like any other Southern state, each is different, and yet. . .” I trailed off again, this time looking into the distance. I often found myself defending Tennessee’s right to be a Southern state, yet I always recoiled at being called a Southerner. She leaned closer to me. “Are you from the South?” I asked her. “Well,” she said, looking over my head before quickly looking at me and then down at her hands, “my mother is from West Virginia,” she paused and gave me a searching look. “My father is from Pennsylvania and well,” she raised her hands and spread them out. “My parents they have these framed posters well they had them they removed them recently because well those images are just not PC anymore.” She described these images, one of a Union soldier, one of a Confederate solider. One said “Let go” and the other said “Let go Hell”. Her smile was wistful and agonized. Part of me wanted to take her face in my hands and give her a smile that said “It’s okay”. Another part of me thought about being the only person of color in most of my writing classes as an undergrad and grad student; the times a white student or a white professor would say something racist that no one would apprehend as racist; the times I had no eye to catch, no one to look to to say without saying, “here we go again.”

Later she tells me she watches a lot of Korean drama on television so she can understand Korean culture: “It’s the only way I can understand Korean culture, you know, these shows help.” I look into the distance and think about all of the television and films out there about Black Americans, how limited and skewed the narratives, how in 2010 my new friend in Warsaw said that the only thing Polish people knew about Black Americans was what they saw on television. I looked around at the neighbors, they were so easy with each other, laughing or talking earnestly or completing each other’s sentences. I had no one’s eyes to look into, no one who I could silently say “Here we go again” with. I swallowed several times thinking of what she must think of me, of Black Americans, based on the shows she’d seen. & then I realized, she’s likely never seen anyone like me on a television show or a film that had a Black woman character. After all, I had a PhD. Just in case I forgot, she found ways to remind me all evening & it was the second thing by way of implication she said to everyone she introduced me to: “This is Metta; she teaches creative writing at the College”.

1997: I’ve changed my major to English and have an enormous amount of classes to take in order to only add one more year to my already extended graduation date. I’m in the second semester of American Literature with the same professor I took the first semester of American Lit with. The previous semester, I’d raised my hand and asked him why we didn’t have women or non-white people on the reading list. The following semester he was ready for me. He looked at me on the first day of class and said, “We’re going to read Maxine Hong Kingston; kill two birds with one stone: a woman a non-white person.”

When I entered that college there was a race war going on; white kids were raising hell about having to pay tuition. They blamed black kids for their parents’ debts. It reminded me of the race war in my junior high school, the white kids coming all the way from a school another town away to fight the black kids in my school, all because our sports teams routinely beat theirs. They accused black kids of being naturally muscular or naturally adept at shooting hoops or naturally adept at contorting bodies into odd shapes for wrestling. Although I only had two black friends back then and thought I understood white people more than I understood black people, I couldn’t figure out why kids would travel all that way to fight people every day over a sports loss.

A half a decade later, I was on a prestigious fellowship in the Midwest & the white faculty generously offered to read my cover letters for jobs. One of them said I needed to add the phrase “As a Black woman” and the other one said to add the phrase “As a queer Black woman”. When I asked them where to add the phrase, they each said it didn’t matter. I just needed to alert the committee that I was Black; they said it would give me an edge. I thought it was odd, since when has being Black ever given anyone an edge. While I lived in this Midwestern town, I went to Ann Arbor a couple of times to work with some activist who were fighting to keep affirmative action at University of Michigan. It was 2002, only 38 years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 & white students believed blacks had an edge over them.

I used to be on their side. My second year of my second undergraduate college, I was invited to be on a panel about affirmative action. I was in the middle position: the person who saw both sides. I made an argument for affirmative action for anyone who had been historically denied access and resources to higher education. My closest friend was a white woman who grew up poor, whose parents grew up poor and in the mountains whose grandparents grew up poor and in the hollers whose great grandparents grew up poor in the hollers. I had her in mind when I said “affirmative action should be based on socio-economic status”. I didn’t have my sisters or brothers or cousins or uncles or aunts or parents or grandparents or great grandparents or great great grandparents in my head. I’d spent years perfecting my non-Black voice my non-Black style my non-Black perspective.

Or, to be honest, my anti-Black perspective. My anti-Black style. My anti-Black voice.

2006: The faculty in my PhD program finally agreed to offer job preparation workshops. The chair of the department decided to teach us how to read job postings. She chose a posting for an African American Literature teaching position. “It’s coded,” she said, “see, here, when they say “Preference given to candidates with an advanced degree in African American Literature of the equivalent”? They’re saying they will only hire a Black person.” I asked her how she deciphered that & she said “equivalent” was code for “Black”. I asked her how she deciphered that & she said it was academic speak and I should just trust her.

It was at this institution that I met my first vocal young racists, those students in writing workshop who said, out loud, or worse, who wrote poems that said: “Here’s how to get complimented for your poems: have a tragic story about race”.

I once took a silly online quiz about my past life. One of the questions asked what I remember the most & I selected “Hardships,” which isn’t true, but it’s what I recall the most. It’s what I’m thinking of now. Now I’m thinking of what white person will read this post, what white person who was always good to me, who will say, “what about me?” or worse, those white people who will say, “Not all white people are bad,” or worse, “You’ve just had bad luck with white people” or worse “there are good white people, Metta, you’re just being provocative”.

I left my PhD program in 2002 because I’d received a prestigious fellowship. I applied for that fellowship because the atmosphere in my PhD program was oppressive, filled to the brim with bad people, bad white people, the white students who preferred melancholia over any other state of being, the white melancholic students who only knew how to be competitive, intimidating and threatening instead of supportive. Right after I applied to the fellowship, one of my white professors called me to his office. He was already beyond the top of his game; he was a famous poet. During our conference he asked me if I would let him tame me. “Will you let me tame you? You need to be tamed, civilized,  your poems are raw and I can help you make them truly soar, but first you must let me tame you.”

Today I listened to a 2010 Democracy Now! interview about a young black woman in the military was likely murdered. Her father recounts meeting another soldier who said to him (and I paraphrase): If your superior tells you to show up to their office with no clothes on, what would you do?

Thankfully, I got a fellowship and got out of Dodge, but not before permanently damaging my relationship with that very famous poet, my professor, who I screamed at: “I’m not a fucking feral cat.”

Before I got out of Dodge, I had a friend in the program who asked me if it was okay for him to use the word “nigger” in a poem. He wanted to relay an experience he’d had with his black boyfriend. Someone called my friend a “niggerlover” and  he wanted to know if it was okay for him to write this word in poem. I didn’t know what to say to him. He’d been present in classes in which I’d been racially attacked by one professor or other and he’d said nothing, ever. I wasn’t sure who I was talking with, who this person was who wanted to fight racism through poetry but not in lived experiences.

A woman I barely know often asks “What should we do?” or she says “You’re not being fair to us”. I don’t know what to say to people like her. Maybe, “race is the construction of your ancestors; white supremacy is the ideology of your ancestors; racism is the logical end to race, which is the construction of your ancestors; why would I know how to fix the problems of your ancestors?” What I really want to say, though, is much harsher: “Race is the manifestation of the limited imagination of your ancestors; the failure to know how to act is the manifestation of your limited imagination.”

A few years ago I wrote a poem and in my head and then out loud, as if to really turn thought into action, I said “this is the last poem I write about race”. The last two motions of this poem even says so: Motion 1: To offer peace to every racist of the past; Motion 2: To offer forgiveness for acts of brutality. The next day, I wrote a poem about Ed Johnson who’d been lynched on that painted over bridge in my hometown. There are too many violences left forgotten to make such a silly declaration.

I’m listening to Marc Anthony, my 2015 muse, sing about freedom: I wanna be free, he croons. Me, too, Marc.

I Cried For Years: Making Friends with White U.S. Americans

I hand my neighbor a snack bag of baked okra, seasoned with curry, cumin & salt. “It’s got a bit too much salt,” I say, “I usually don’t cook with salt. . .” I trail off and look away. This is the first time I’ve fed my neighbor. He bites into the okra & says it’s the best okra he’s had. It’s not much by way of compliment. He hates okra. He told me so only an hour ago, which is what reminded me I had okra in the fridge and that I was planning on baking it. I told him I was going to go & bake some and bring him a bit. He invites me in but I tell him I have the writing bug, that I have to go to the office and write. He doesn’t ask me what I’m going to write about, and I’m grateful.

This morning he comes walking up the sidewalk with a box in his hands. I enjoy watching him walk across the street, a bakery box in his hands, dirt permanently stained in the lines cornered in his eyes, the lines boasting a life of laughing at the edges of his mouth, the dirt permanent in his fingernail bed. He’s wearing his daily uniform: a navy blue shirt and navy blue khakis, his uniform for his city job working on large trucks. Yesterday, wearing the same uniform, he sat in a coffeehouse with a newspaper spread on the table in front of him, his right hand pressing a phone into his ear. He was reading someone the weather report. I sat outside & he came to join me for a minute. He told me about the cake he’d ordered for the neighborhood July 4th gathering, a cake decorated with the flag. “It’s not a Confederate flag, Metta.” He laughed. I laughed. I was aware of the white man with all of the tats sitting across from him at the open picnic table, the black man sitting behind me at a table for two. “Well, that’s too bad,” I said, after I’d recovered myself from laughing. “I’d love to cut into a red velvet cake hiding beneath the Confederate flag. Imagine the gore.” “You know,” he said, a wicked gleam in his teeth, “I should get a Confederate cake & you should get a U.S. flag cake and we take those to the party!” He jaunted off and I continued laughing as he mounted his bike.

I returned to the book I was reading by Katherine Min, to a passage about the narrator, a young Korean girl who is dating a young albino guy, who is questioning what it means to be American, what this couple looks like to the “typical American”. The narrator, Isa, is suddenly aware of how she is viewed by people outside of her small community, of how her boyfriend, Herold, is viewed outside of their small community, how she doesn’t “fit”. They’re on a bus with their white friend who is absented from the scene, because the white man on the bus who harasses Isa & Hero don’t see her. She’s one of them.

My neighbor brings his bakery box onto my porch, opens the box and presents the heart-shaped U.S. flag decorated cake. “They did a good job,” he says. “Yeah, it’s beautiful,” I agree. He sits down and we chat. I ask him if he’s seen the news today, about the young man who brought an assault rife to the mall. He hadn’t heard about it, so I tell him the sheriff is quite insistent that the young man posed no threat. He wants to talk about guns and gun laws and I want to talk about race, so we blend the two. I agree with him, if we have tougher gun laws, it won’t matter much to people who really want to get them. We don’t agree about the question of race. I tell him that it’s strange for a sheriff to insist that a person carrying an assault rifle in public is posing no threat, that he seemed to defend the young man’s actions by saying the rounds he was carrying were in his backpack. We talk about open carry laws and I mention Ohio. All the time I’m avoiding saying “race” overtly. So, I mention Tamir Rice and John Crawford III and the folks in Ohio who open carry without being killed by police. I finally ask him why these black people are being killed by police for carrying BB guns and toy guns in an open carry state but white people are not being killed. “I don’t think that’s the case, Metta,” he says.

For days now I’ve thought about writing this post & here’s where it was going to begin:

For decades I had, primarily, white friends. Our family integrated a neighborhood. At some point, an Indian family moved down the street; the horrible old man who often called us “nigger” moved & my best friend and her family moved in. We were suddenly two black families on the street. The white girls me and my sister played with until her father caught us and then moved the family out were replaced by a multigenerational black family; a couple of doors down a black nuclear family moved in with two Dobermans and two doors down from them, a single black mother and her two sons. The rest of the residents on that long street were white, some fine with having black neighbors, some not. Thirteen years, when I was in my final year of high school, my ex-English teacher confided to me that she was going to retire from teaching once we graduated. Things were changing, she said, and pointed at Anthony, a new student to the high school who had gone to elementary and junior high with us for a year; Anthony, the bad kid, who had been shipped off to one of the black schools. He was back and still the same Anthony. It’s getting dangerous, she said, still looking at Anthony and clutching her neck. Word was Anthony had threatened her but the truth was that Anthony asked her how she got that long scar on her neck and laughed as he walked down the hall. Anthony wasn’t a fan of that teacher and she clearly wasn’t a fan of his. As bad as Anthony was, he wasn’t worse than the white kids who robbed cemeteries, tipped cows, egged cars, mouthed off to the teachers, skipped classes and smoked in the courtyard. Anthony was restless in class and got into fights with students. He often ended up in detention and was often skipped a grade. Sometimes the bad white kids got detention but they rarely got held back a grade & they rarely got suspended. I told the teacher it was a good thing for her to retire, if she thought the school was going to be dangerous just because a few black kids were being shipped to the school. She looked at me as if I were a traitor. I rolled my eyes and almost told her to grow up. I wasn’t a fan of that teacher. I left AP English because of her, although I knew that doing so would have a horribly adverse affect on the black student population. I was one of two black students in AP English, but I didn’t care. I was tired of her telling me that my analysis was unsound, asking the students to vote on my comments. The other black student in the class was all about upholding the status quo. We were friends but she got on my nerves. She had opinions but she refused to voice them in class. “I want to get into a good college,” she’d say to me in response to me asking her why she didn’t speak up in class, why she kept her ideas to herself.

Here’s how this post was going to begin:

Every white friend I’ve ever called friend has betrayed our friendship. My parents warned me, said this would happen, and I told them to keep their Civil Rights Jim Crow histories to themselves.

2001: I’m a few months from graduating. My so-called best friend, who has moved to the town I live in & go to graduate school in, has moved out of our shared apartment while I’m at a conference. When I return, the friend who watched my cats for me said I needed to watch my back. That same day, the landlord came upstairs to tell me that he let my so-called best friend out of the lease, that I now owed him the whole rent. We got into a big argument, he kept saying “Considering what you did, you should feel lucky that I haven’t called the police.” When I returned to campus, I went to my so-called best friend’s job to ask her what was up & to give her the utility bills so she could pay her half. She began screaming “Leave me alone”. My mentor, who I had begged to hire her, came out of her office and told me to leave, that I had caused enough trouble. In class, she asked me to back out of the class trip so my so-called best friend could attend. I was completely confused. What have I done, I wanted to know. A peer called me up and told me I should be ashamed of myself. My other professors gave me the side-eye accompanied by the wary eye. My friends were being weird. It finally came down the pike that my so-called best friend had staged the most astonishing lie about me: she said I’d held her captive in our apartment, that I raped her every night and locked her in her room, that I let her out to go to class, to go to work. “And the gym,” I retorted, “and on dates?” My friends said she was believable, that she’d said she had a restraining order. I told them to accompany me to the police station, that no restraining order had been issued. Before the lie, my so-called best friend’s mother had come to town to help her through a surgery. Her mother wouldn’t leave her room except to bathe and eat. I kept asking her why she was holing herself up in there. Now I knew, she’d been told the same thing. All of these friends, professors, mentors, the landlord, all of these people who had known me for years, who had known her for months, who believed this astonishing lie told to them by a white person against me, a black person. They were all white.

2001: I’m a few months into the start of a new academic year in a new town in a new program. 9-11 has happened. I’m emailing with a white friend and her ex-boyfriend, her best friend, her brother and her father about nothing. Eventually we talk about something explosive, maybe 9-11, maybe I said something about how people were being wholly irrational and finding excuses to fear Muslims. Whatever it was, my friend’s father exploded and cursed me out, threatened my life, asked me if I’d heard about some young black thugs who were shot outside a gas station in our town. He said he’d shot them. That he’d shoot me down like he shot them. I responded, fearlessly; his daughter, my friend, jumped in to defend her father. I reminded her that he threatened to shoot me. She said he’d worked in the pentagon, that he was traumatized. Her brother came in to curse me out. I was shocked. I shouldn’t have been. She’d been my friend for a few years, but she was a white person. Her father was a white person threatening me, a black person. She refused to see any side other than his.

2001: I’m a few months into the start of this new academic year at this new program. I’m in a writing workshop with 6 white male students, a white male professor and a Japanese female student. The professor calls images in the woman’s poems “Oriental”. The male students jump to her defense. They complain to the director of the program, who removes the student from the class. The professor tells me he can’t understand my poems because they don’t sound black. The male students agree, saying my poems were incomprehensible because they weren’t black enough. I was left alone in that class with seven white men.

2001: I’m a few hours into the start of this new academic year. My temporary advisor asks me what I enjoy, besides writing. I tell him I enjoy the natural world. He asks me if I write black nature poems. I see a forest at night, I see a forest burned, I see black spots on mushrooms. I tell him I’d never heard of black nature poems. He said, “Well, you’re black and you write poems about nature. . .” He was white. I should have understood immediately.

2001: I’m a few weeks into the start of a new academic year in a new town. My peers ask me to teach them the new slang and the new black dances. This is the third writing program I’ve been in — BA, MFA, now PhD– this is the third time I’ve been the only black person in the program, the third time I’ve been the only or one of two or three people of color in the program. No one sees the problem with asking me to teach them the new black dances and slang. They are all white. Of course they see nothing wrong with this.

2002: I’ve got a semester behind me. I’m in a class on Emily Dickinson. The teacher tells us she’s going to make us black cake. She suddenly bursts into laughter, catches her breath and looks at me and says, “No no, Jade*, not like gangs, the color of the cake is black!” Later in the semester, I say something about images merging, a student says “You mean fusion” and I say, “No, I mean ‘merge”.” He retorts, “Well, I think you mean fuse,” and reiterates my point, using the word fuse. I say, “I said merge and I meant merge. You’re talking fusion which makes no sense.” He gets angered and snaps, “You don’t know what you’re talking about.” “Yes, I do,” I say, “it seems that you’re having a difficult time hearing what I’ve said, though.” He says something in return and when I open my mouth to reply, the teacher screams, “Stop it! This is not a corner street, Jade, and we’re not having a gang war in here!” I look around at all of the white students looking at me or looking away. No one says anything. I’m the only black person in the room. No one says anything. At the end of the semester, she hasn’t made the black cake. She says that she knows I was looking forward to having another black in the class, and she’s so sorry. She’s invited a librettist to play music, accompanied by a suite of Dickinson poems. She has picked out 20 poems. There are 20 students. She assigns each student a Dickinson poem. She skips me and says, “Well, I guess someone will have to read two poems or I can read the last one.” The librettist says, “What about her; she didn’t get a poem,” points at me. The professor says, “Oh no, we can’t have her read these poems. This is Dickinson.”

1994: I’ve declared my majors as French and political science. I’m in the first semester of Conversational French. The professor is dismayed by my presence. “French is not made for black tongues,” she says. She shows us a film set in Senegal. The characters are speaking French and Wolof. “See,” she says, “I mean, do you understand anything they’ve said?” Several of the students in the class ask me to tutor them, ask me to be in their study groups. One student has spent a semester in France and has the worst enunciation and the worst memory in the class. “A waste,” the professor says, and patiently enunciates what she wants the student to repeat. At the end of the semester she gives us a surprise final exam: a conversation in French. I go to her office, nervous about my black tongue. She speaks. I respond. She shakes her head. When I get up to leave she says, “It’s just not meant for you black people. Your tongues are too thick.” A year later, I change my major, but not before complaining to the chair of the department. He shakes his head and says, “Well, that’s just sad just sad.” “What’s sad?” I ask. “You are. You let her intimidate you and that’s sad.” He was white. Why did I expect him to understand?

2000: I’m in my Modern Poetry class. We’ve gotten to Langston Hughes. There is a student who is set to present on Hughes. He tells us that he’s found some great audio of Hughes reading his work. The professor tells him that she’s decided that I should read Hughes’ work. That I’m black and I can understand the vernacular in his work and I can read it properly. When I was five I began imitating the sounds coming from the throats of NPR personalities. By the time I was fifteen, everyone thought I was from England or Boston. Everyone thought I should go into radio. “I can’t read vernacular properly,” I say. “Nonsense,” she says, “You’ll read for us at the next class. Go home and practice.” I looked around at all of the white faces looking away. Such a familiar scene. I skipped the next class.

2002: In no certain order: 1 white male student passes around a rumor about my father molesting me; the same student tells people that I shoved our professor’s head in my breast at a coffeehouse. Another white male student goes on to be the editor of a national literary magazine. I send them poems. He rejects them. The other editor is friends with a friend. He begs her to tell me that he wanted to publish them, but that his co-editor hates me, that he’s blacklisted me. My friend wants to know what happened. I recall that this same friend believed the so-called best friend who said I’d raped her. I tell her the truth, that I critiqued his work in class and that no one had ever critiqued his work. That he was angry. She gives me a skeptical sound over the phone and says, “Well, he’s blacklisted you!” She takes certain glee in these dramas.

2004: This same friend tells me that her sister didn’t get a coveted scholarship for college; in fact, she got no scholarships for college. Before I can sympathize, she says, “It’s not fair! I mean, she wasn’t even eligible to apply for the big scholarship in town, because she’s not black!” She throws black out of her mouth as if it’s a snake. We get into an argument. I think, well, another one bites the dust. We don’t talk for a few years. Eventually, I forgive her. I always forgive them, eventually.

My mother once said to me: “When the apocalypse comes, you think your white friends are going to save you? They’re going to save each other and forget all about you. You’ll see, when the time comes to choose between you and a white stranger, they’ll choose the white stranger.”

Years later, I look at the number of white friends who have blacklisted me, who have called me an instigator, who have condemned me for my use of the term ‘whitefolks’, who have said I don’t give them enough credit, who call me harsh, trouble maker, insensitive, uncaring. The white friends who want to be congratulated for every little step they make to atone for not being aware of race and racism. The white friends who tell me I need to find a more generous graceful tone when I talk about race.

Every word I utter about race Every word I write about race, there looms the threat of the white person who is itching to ruin me. So I write words about race. I utter phrases about race. I talk more race than I ever thought I’d talk.

My neighbor always turns his head away when I mention that I’m the only person of color in our entire community. The next door neighbor stopped me, last week, to tell me he’s just returned from vacation in Charleston. He has an agenda. I can see it in his shoulders, in his hands that he tries to keep on his lap. I try to keep walking, but he keeps me there, his voice getting louder. I give up and stand in the alleyway, looking up at him on his porch. He tells me that the people of Charleston are “generous” and “graceful”, that they found an “elegant way” to deal with the problems mounting, that there were some “outside agitators” who came in “but the people of Charleston told them to go home, to get lost, this is their community”. He keeps repeating the word “community”. He tells me it’s all about “community”: “If you have a strong community you can weather any storm,” he says. I want to walk up his stairs and smack him. I smile and look at his friend who has arrived from nowhere. I am grateful. I think my next door neighbor will stop talking. He doesn’t. He has momentum. He’s on and on about community, about how the people of Charleston didn’t riot, how rioting is about a divided community or no community at all. His friend is shifting from one foot to the other. He finally winds down and I smile and say, “Well, good.” I walk away. There is a law office across the street from his office. All white lawyers. A Chinese woman cleans the offices when they’re gone. Next door, a design firm. All white employees but one. A Mexican woman cleans the offices when they’re gone. Every day I sit on my porch and look black and look back at the white people staring at me as they drive or walk by.

My neighbor stretches and says, “Well, Metta. . .” When he says “Well, Metta” and trails off, I know we’ve come to the end of the conversation, that moment that he says, “Let’s agree to disagree.” I stare at him and smirk. He says, “Well, Metta. . .” again. I look away and pick up my mug of coffee. He stands up. “Okay, I’m going to go and get the wild ones. They’ll want to see you.” He returns with the two dogs I’ve donned “The Wild Ones”, he hands me the leash of one of them and we walk to the back yard, let the dogs loose and talk about the state of the garden. Some other day we’ll talk about racial problems again. He’ll say something about progress and a few bad seeds. I’ll decide how much is okay to broach that day; how much should be left for another day. For now, I’m okay with squatting, shielding my eyes from the glare of the sun trying to burst through the fog, and saying “Well, where do you think we should put our bird bath?”

*I used to go by the name ‘Jade’.