“You can’t process these things overnight.” —Alexander Landau
I just heard a Storycorp piece on the radio, about two people who connected over different (but also similar) trauma experiences which happened in Denver, years apart: Police beat and broke the bones of both Alexander Landau and Nina Askew. Both of these citizens endured and survived the violence enacted on their bodies and spirits.
I’m So Fine: A List Of Famous Men and What I Wore by Khadijah Queen
This book is hypnotic and gorgeous and it is so good to be alive right now and be living at a time when this book exists. My friend Melissa loaned it to me, and I am ordering a copy for my shelf, because, well, if you’ve read it, you know why, and if you are yet to read it, you will soon discover why.
Queen builds a rock-solid feminist narrative—a memoir formed by tight, crystalline, lyrical fragments, whose accumulation seems as effortless as how iridescent shells appear and gather on the beach, carried by waves of awareness and poetry, to shine in the sun…
Here are some of my favorite fragments.
On page 27:
“I never met Bill Cosby but I met Beverly Johnson at Magic Mountain with my dad & my sister one summer in the mid-1980s & she had on an oversized cardigan & jeans casual but lovely my dad chatted her up while we rode the Colossus with her daughter he said he asked for her number & she politely declined I remember her grace & regality & lace-up boots she sat on the beat bench with her feet crossed at the ankle so when she went public about Cosby drugging & trying to assault her I immediately believed her & not him I have seen enough of powerful men by now to know she had nothing to gain by going public & the truth of beauty means both spotlights & shadows find you & it takes more than instinct to know where to stand on the stage & I don’t mean looks all the time I mean all women are all beautiful and I wish we knew it in ways that make us realize the relative insignificance of the arrangement of external features so we might as well not get so caught up & my dad had a lot of nerve right I mean some men have a lot of fucking nerve in general & I think my sister & I had on matching Hawaiian shirts that day & wore them tucked in I didn’t wear that shirt again & not long after that I fell in love with fashion & asked my dad to start buying me issues of Vogue”
On p. 53
“At the end of summer I met a guy who looked like a six-foot-two Lenny Kravitz but he turned out to be another narcissistic sociopath & where is the law against men that fine & that messy but at least I could tell within the first 30 minutes of conversation which included tales of his multiple cars & failed pro football career & travels to China where he had adventures with sex traffickers & drug dealers & later (because I had to finish my raspberry cheesecake & glass of rose) the break up with his Chinese baby’s mother who he called his former weed bitch & his switch from Christianity to Judaism because he said he wanted to be rich & what in the world happened to this man to make him think it’s okay to reveal all of that to a stranger what kind of man does that I thought but it’s the kind who makes sure you arrive at the restaurant in time to see him speed into the parking lot in a black on black Porsche & the kind that wears not one but three diamond rings not one but three gold chains & after he hugs you hello reaches back into the car to grab his Louis Vuitton man purse & the zing of attraction crackles to ash because when I met him at the bookstore he claimed to be a small-time restaurateur he had on jeans & Frye boots & a worn Jimi Hendrix T-shirt no gold no chains just a leather cuff & a zillion tattoos & his arms were CUT so when he asked to buy me a drink later I gave him my number I had on zero makeup my 20 post-surgical pounds & an orange & white maxi tank & raffia wedges & I should have known better because he was 10 years younger & chose one of those self-published looking wealth management books & wandered to the money-oriented magazine aisle but his attention made me feel lovely at a time when I needed to feel lovely but I’ll be damned if I get dumb so I blocked him & changed his name to Red Flags & avoid making eye contact with men at the Barnes & Noble”
On p. 68:
“When I saw John Singleton buying a bean pie at Simply Wholesome I knew I had done the right thing cutting off all lover & ex-lovers all man candy & even decent prospects & coming to L.A. for my 40th birthday to hang out with my best friends & also who doesn’t love bean pie if they’ve had some bean pie & my son came with me his face all smiles because spicy Jamaican patty & cream soda heaven & even the live music at Simply is perfect & even though I’d had two surgeries & my newly cut up gut prone to protest I was alive in my hometown & seeing celebs just like old times & when I was young I could in equal measure celebrate & take everything about living for granted but 40 is so cool 40 is seeing & knowing not seeing & wanting 40 holds beauty as the accumulation of bliss & survival 40 widens its arms 40 seeks all the June sun instead of shade & flies with more than usual mechanical luster & says yes to all the right things because 40 knows what it wants & mostly gets its every fineness”
When They Call You A Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter memoir
by Patrisse Khan-Cullors & Asha Bandele
If you want to better understand how systemic racism affects humanity, please read this book.
Here are some specific passages that resonate, for me, and help me see more fully.
On p. 93: Discussing the pitfalls of over/sole focus on personal responsibility as the solution for addiction, within the overarching structure of systemic racism:
“It was easy to understand that when race was a blatant factor, a friend says to me in a political discussion on afternoon. Jim Crow left no questions or confusion. But now that race isn’t written into the law, she says, look for the codes. Look for the coded language everywhere, she says. They rewrote the laws, but they didn’t rewrite white supremacy. They kept that shit intact, she says.
I don’t know if I ever convince my father of this line of thinking. A decade of 12-stepping has ensured that he only really knows how to hold himself accountable. Even with all my speeches and his engagement with me at the Strategy Center, I sense when we talk that everyone and everything else kind of gets a pass.”
p. 98: On the flagrant injustice that is knit into the “justice” system:
“I have never seen him high before but I refuse to turn away. If he matters to me at all then he has to matter to me at every moment. He has to matter to me at this moment. Seeing him like this feels like my soul is being pulled over shards of glass but I do not turn away. His life is not expendable. Our love is not disposable. I will not be to him what the world has been to him. I will not throw him away. I will not say he has nothing to offer.
I tell him that relapse is part of recovery.
I ask, What if we wrote off every person who fell off a diet? We laugh at that, but just briefly.
My father’s addiction and the stigma that attaches to it have made him so deeply lonely, forced him into a world that cannot ever be fully shared by anyone who loves him. I love him. I tell him I want to share his whole life with him. He sighs and expels air. He deflates. I move closer to him. He lets me. I tell him I won’t leave him and I don’t. We talk or we don’t talk, for the rest of the night. We hold each other on and off. We cry.
Two months later my father is sentenced to three years in prison. He is able to avoid the seven-year bid because he volunteers to go to the prison camp fire, a program where convicts are made to serve as front-line first responders when the California wildfires break out. They are the ones who go in before the trained firefighters do.
My father risks death for a faster shot at freedom.”
And p. 143:
“There is rarely discussion about the trauma that often drives chaotic drug use and addiction. And there is no discussion about the fact that fully 75 percent of the people who use drugs never develop addiction. (For some drugs, like marijuana, fully 90 percent of those who use never become addicted.) They wake up, go to work or school, pay their taxes, raise their kids, make love with their partners. They live. They live regular old boring lives. But for my father, my brother, others I know, chaos was a factor before drugs were a part of their lives. Why does no one ever address that?”
Heavy by Kiese Laymon is hypnotic. So much richness in the truth Laymon offers, so much vulnerability, so much powerful toppling of shame. Among other gifts, Laymon’s memoir deepened my understanding of the insidious and varied damage that systems of white supremacy cause on Black bodies and psyches. Of the pressure Black people are under, 24 hours a day, every day. Of what—to me (as a white-bodied person)—may be invisible in the classroom (and world). I’m grateful to Laymon for helping me open my eyes and see.
Please read and re-read this book. And meanwhile, behold some illuminating passages. (“You” in these passages refers to the narrator’s mother.):
P. 123: “In class, I only spoke when I could be an articulate defender of Black people. I didn’t use the classroom to ask questions. I didn’t use the classroom to make ungrounded claims. There was too much at stake to ask questions, to be dumb, to be a curious student, in front of a room of white folk who assumed all Black folk were intellectually less than. For the first time in my life, the classroom scared me. And when I was scared, I ran to cakes, because cakes felt safe, private, and celebratory. Cakes never fought back.”
P. 140-141: “I now knew what ‘patriarchy’ was. I could define ‘compulsory heterosexuality.’ I could explain ‘intersectionality’ to Ray Gunn. I understood gender was a construction and there were folk on Earth who were transgender and gender-fluid. I went to abortion-clinic defenses. I marched in safer-sex rallies. I made photocopies of my bell hooks essays and gave them to my friends. I had new lenses and frames to see the world. I called to those new lenses and frames ‘Black feminism,’ but I didn’t really have the will to publicly or privately reckon with what living my life as a Black feminist meant.”
P. 180: “‘The world was out to smother me and my kids,’ you told me a week after I arrived at Vassar. ‘ My job as a teacher was to help them breathe with excellence and discipline in the classroom. The ones that love you, they become what you model. Don’t forget that. Help them breathe by modeling responsible love in the classroom every single day. The most important thing a teacher can do is give their students permission to be loving and excellent.’”
P. 180: “My first week of class, I understood that none of my students, especially the black and brown ones who gravitated to me, wanted to be treated as noble exceptions to their communities. They wanted to be loved, inspired, protected, and heard. They didn’t want to be punished or unfairly disciplined for navigating the craziness that came with leaving home to sleep, eat, and drink with people they didn’t know while learning in haunted classrooms and dorms. Like nearly every black professor I knew from the Deep South, I expected to protect my students from security, police, and malicious administrations. I expected to pick them up from the police stations, train stations, and emergency rooms. I didn’t expect to fail them as much as I did. I mis-gendered my students when they asked if I could help push the college to cover the cost of transitioning because they’ve been disowned by their parents for being transgender. I made my students engage with art that attacked them for being queer, femme, black, and poor. I came into my James Baldwin lecture after the Virginia Tech shooting and told the one Asian American boy in the class, who happened to be Vietnamese, I was free if he ever wanted to talk about violence. I asked one of my Chicana students who told me her family had been deported if she knew when they’d be back, and if she wanted to publish an essay about it.
I found more ways to fail and harm my kids than I ever imagined. Every time I failed them, I knew I thought I was doing something you would never have done.”
P. 228: “‘We all broken,’ I said. ‘Some broken folk do whatever they can not to break other folk. If we’re gone be broken, I wonder if we can be those kind of broken folk from now on. I think it’s possible to be broken and ask for help without breaking other people.’”
This book is great! I got it for my teen to read, and she loved it, and then I read it, and I also loved it. Very accessible but not at all dumbed-down, it’s a really helpful guide for young (and older) people to help frame the importance of moving toward justice. With writing/reflecting exercises with depth and power. I recommend it highly!
Brown Girl Dreaming is a beautiful and generous glimpse into a young writer’s emergence, where family and sense of place both act as characters in the story. I hope you will read it. Two poems that really stood out to me:
On p. 80:
miss bell and the marchers
They look like regular people visiting our neighbor Miss Bell, foil-covered dishes held out in front of them as they arrive some in pairs, some alone, some just little kids holding their mothers’ hands.
If you didn’t know, you’d think it was just an evening gathering. Maybe church people heading into Miss Bell’s house to talk about God. But when Miss Bell pulls her blinds closed, the people fill their dinner places with food, their glasses with sweet tea and gather to talk about marching.
And even though Miss Bell works for a white lady who said I will fire you in a minute if I ever see you on that line! Miss Bell knows that marching isn’t the only thing she can do, knows that people fighting need full bellies to think and safe places to gather. She knows the white lady isn’t the only one who’s watching, listening, waiting, to end this fight. So she keeps the marchers’ glasses filled, adds more corn bread and potato salad to their places, stands in the kitchen ready to slice lemon pound cake into generous pieces.
And in the morning, just before she pulls her uniform from the closet, she prays, God, please give me and those people marching another day.
And this beautifully embodied gift on p. 217:
It’s easier to make up stories than it is to write them down. When I speak, the words come pouring out of me. The story wakes up and walks all over the room. Sits in a chair, crosses one leg over the other, says, Let me introduce myself. Then just starts going on and on. But as I bend over my composition notebook, only my name comes quickly. Each letter, neatly printed between the pale blue lines. Then white space and air and me wondering, How do I spell introduce? Trying again and again until there is nothing but pink bits of eraser and a hole now where a story should be.
I am writing in support of declaring racism a public health crisis. It is a health crisis everywhere. Naming is important.
YS is a white-heavy town. We like to think of ourselves as part of the solution. But are we really part of the solution, yet? Even (maybe especially) in “progressive” places like this, (we) white people need to do real work–toil–not just giving lip service–to dismantle racism and white supremacy. Kindness is not enough. I know we humans are all at different stages in the process (internally and externally) of the walk toward true equality, and I think that calling racism a health crisis is a reasonable early step.
And: it’s just a start.
We have years of work to do, in our bodies and in our communities. Listen well. Listen well. White people need to listen before talking, and do what we can. Every day we can do more. Do what we can, inside and outside ourselves.
I hope this will be the real start of real change. I am committed to doing what I can. I hope the YS leadership will, too.
I encourage you to read this important book: My Grandmother’s Hands by Resmaa Menakem (read more and order it here: https://www.resmaa.com/books/). Resmaa Menakem writes about the trauma that racism inflicts upon bodies, specifically Black, white, and police bodies. We Americans (yes, even in YS) all carry racial trauma in our bodies, and until we work through and resolve that terrible condition, we won’t have real, lasting change, in YS or anywhere.
What a beautiful opportunity we have right now.
It’s going to be the most worthwhile work we can do in our lifetimes.
I’ve long been meaning to post about the award-winning and beautiful lyric, Citizen, by Claudia Rankine.
I read it several years ago, and listened to the audiobook again a couple months ago as I drove back and forth to Dayton where I’m teaching. The living inside these pages (or on the discs, if you are old school like me, and listen to the CD) makes me know I have only just started to understand what it is to be living, in this country, at this time, as a person of color. And despite what I would like to believe about myself, I have only begun to understand. There are many ways of beginning to understand. This book is one of them. I recommend you read or listen, no matter what color your skin.
Something that resonates for me is a passage from “Some years there exists a wanting to escape…” on page 143. (Here’s a part, stripped of context, because the nature of this book is that it’s a lyric & a whole cloth, but this is haunting me today, for which I’m grateful, and I wanted to share it. You can read more of this passage at the Poetry Foundation.)
(And please read the book, too.)
How to care for the injured body,
the kind of body that can’t hold
the content it is living?
And where is the safest place when that place
must be someplace other than in the body?