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.