Metta Sáma on Activism, Writing, Teaching, and Blogging

“We, as POC, spend so much time worrying about grace and mercy, that we convince ourselves that the racisms enacted upon us aren’t as bad as we thought they were. Why spend that time trying to be gracious and merciful to your attackers? Come at them hard, come at them fiercely, come at them with all of your power. That, too, is love. Love for the self. Love for the community. Love for the generations to come after you.”

A Year After Ferguson

It’s been a year since the protests began in Ferguson, MO, citizens protesting the murder of the unarmed teenager, Michael Brown, Jr. The protests quickly caught fire across the U.S., indeed, across the globe, as citizens waved signs shouting the names of unarmed citizens murdered by police forces and militias. Now, activists have returned to Ferguson and the city is once again under police lock-down, with witnesses reporting the shootings of at least two citizens. The armed white group, Oath Keepers, are allowed to troll the streets of Ferguson with assault rifles and yet nearly 100 unarmed protesters, including the poet Marvin K. White, have been arrested.

Literary Hub invited some Black writers to reflect on police brutality. Here are our thoughts.

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.

WEIRD SISTER

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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.