“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.