What It’s Like to be a [blank]

I was at a Slam Poetry workshop the other day with Cyndey Edwards. As a prompt to get us writing poetry, she share Patricia Smith’s poem “What it’s Like to be a Black Girl (for those of you who aren’t).” Take a look at the poem below.

What it’s Like to be a Black Girl (for those of you who aren’t) by Patricia Smith

First of all, it’s being 9 years old and
feeling like you’re not finished, like your
edges are wild, like there’s something,
everything, wrong. it’s dropping food
coloring in your eyes to make them blue and suffering
their burn in silence. it’s popping a bleached
white mophead over the kinks of your hair and
priming in front of the mirrors that deny your
reflection. it’s finding a space between your
legs, a disturbance in your chest, and not knowing
what to do with the whistles. it’s jumping
double dutch until your legs pop, it’s sweat
and vaseline and bullets, it’s growing tall and
wearing a lot of white, it’s smelling blood in
your breakfast, it’s learning to say fuck with
grace but learning to fuck without it, it’s
flame and fists and life according to motown,
it’s finally have a man reach out for you
then caving in
around his fingers.

_______________________

What I enjoy the most about this poem is that it reads like a ‘how-to’ guide and is  instructional as well as personal. Here’s the prompt so you can write your own poem and share it with others!

First, we created a list of ways we identify. My list included everything from being asexual and homoromantic, to being a tea lover and a comic book reader.

From that list, we generated our own “What it’s like to be a [blank]”. The idea behind writing this poem is for us to define ourselves and claim ownership our identities and experiences.

Below is my first draft of “What It’s Like to be Asexual and Love Women.”

It’s not a Freudian lack no

Penis envy but a

Filling like the dentist’s

Hands inside your mouth the whir of

Metal drilling into bone under

Gum and enamel so your teeth grow

Strong so you grow strong.

Fixed.

Drink your tea.

Fill those silent mornings evenings wondering

How long can Single last

Before your Aunt, your Grandfather, the dentist (who

Goes to your Synagogue), the airport security agent begins

To ask

Questions about

Where your man is

(maybe) where your woman is

And why you want to shear your

Hair to your scalp and

are you gay and

“a little” does not answer

Cannot provide sustain the

Fullness that is romance

Without sex.

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MLK Day: Celebrate with Peace

The conversation around Martin Luther King Jr. tends to stop with race. The popular understanding of his contributions, cultivated in public schools, Black History Month, and text books say two things:

  1. Martin Luther King Jr. was a great and peace loving man who brought equality to Black Americans through the Civil Rights Movement
  2. His work is complete today

Pieces of the first statement is true: Martin Luther King Jr. was a great and peace loving man, but he did not bring about equality. We do not live in a post-racial world when people of color are murdered by police, murdered by white supremacists like Dylann Roof, when people of color are imprisoned and treated as criminals.

As we celebrate Martin Luther King’s legacy, we must understand three very different truths than what we are taught:

  1. We have much to do to continue Martin Luther King’s work through active nonviolent, anti-racist lives where we do not allow ourselves to be divided by color lines
  2. Martin Luther King spoke out against more than racial injustice

He fought for an end to poverty for people of all races. And he understood that race and war and poverty are intertwined. At the time of his speech: “Why I am Opposed to the War in Vietnam” (1967), the United States government spent approximately ten times more killing enemy soldiers than they did helping poor people. As he said further along in the speech:

I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor, and attack it as such.

War becomes a matter of race because:

We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in Southwest Georgia and East Harlem.

The issue is the same today. We continue to send poor people–vulnerable people of all races–to fight overseas, when they are not guaranteed basic liberties in their own neighborhoods. One of the increasing number of Americans who cannot afford a college education? Through programs like the Reserved Officer Training Corps (ROTC) the military pays for your schooling and you join the military then as an officer. Our government and our military continue to exploit poor communities by denying them the basic right to education, and then (in one of many examples) paying for said education through an easy point of recruitment. Students become fodder for the war machine and are too busy learning military training to become politically active on college campuses.

To celebrate Martin Luther King Jr.’s legacy we must stand against poverty in all its forms and against war and military recruitment. Only then can we march forward to equality.

Privilege: The World Doesn’t Owe You

I’m Jewish but I’m perceived as white. I don’t usually identify with white culture because white culture in America to me means white Christian culture (a divide exacerbated with the holiday season). Yet, I have white privilege and I’ve been reminded of it more and more in recent weeks.

I volunteer at an organization fighting poverty and I had a conversation with a black man who mentioned that I’m white. His comment struck me because that’s now I would identify myself, but it was his perception (and I’m sure many people’s perception) of who I am and where I’m from.

And I began to think that this might be a normal rock of the boat for someone with white privilege: when you’re white no one needs to mention your race because you are the norm.

I’m coming to realize that no matter how I work through my Jewish identity, I have white privilege. I have white privilege because every day I need to remind myself that the world doesn’t owe me anything for the accidental color of my skin. This is an even more difficult pill to swallow than being reminded that I appear white, because I need to police myself and my own thoughts.

The first step to eliminating white privilege and working toward an anti-racist world is seeing your own white privilege. The second step is knowing what your white privilege means.

Public Spaces as White Christian Spaces

I was at a public library this evening when two security guards walked in and disrupted the quiet to speak with a man in a corner. This man was praying and the security guards interrupted his prayer because he was in violation of library rules which say shoes must be worn at all times.

The man said there were no available study rooms where he could be by himself and therefore, not a distraction to others. The security guards, though calm in their speech, told the praying man that shoes must be worn, and that someone had issued a noise complaint against him, meaning they had to act.

This is Islamophobia.

I spoke with a head librarian with  my own complaint, asking her if their policies on shoes are so rigid that it does not account for religious observance. She assured me the library would handle the matter tomorrow and that this was a distressing situation for everyone involved. She said she mentioned to the praying man that as a public library, the establishment cannot have a bias toward one religion or another. As if allowing a man to pray would be favoring Islam. It’s a classic excuse for not being inclusive: to give even a little is to show favoritism. And that just wouldn’t be fair, now would it?

I told her the library is a Christian space because the town is predominantly Christian! You’re showing favor by not taking a stance for inclusivity  It’s the same way spaces are White Spaces unless specifically designated otherwise. The racism and exclusion that took place at this town library is a microcosm for the racism that’s happening at Mizzou, where black students are unwelcome due to verbal threats, as well as millions of verbal and non-verbal micro-aggressions each day. Unless we are purposeful in making all spaces open and inviting to people of all backgrounds, the world we walk through and inhabit will remain under the thumb of white, straight, cis male privilege. It takes effort to change ourselves into anti-racist people, why should it take any less effort to change the places we inhabit?

#Mizzou #ConcernedStudent1950

Books By Women: The New Jim Crow

For anyone interested in racial justice, this nonfiction book is a must read. Michelle Alexander writes an academic and accessible text on how the American prison system is the new form of racial segregation and control, targeting mainly black and brown men. She argues that the prison industrial complex is the new Jim Crow.

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I first read this book last December and with every page I was floored by own ignorance. Of course, I was vaguely aware of NYC’s “stop and frisk” laws and racial profiling, but from my privileged position as a white-passing young woman from suburban Connecticut, the experiences of those convicted as felons (often for petty drug crimes) was an alternate reality. The brutality of dystopian governments and police was happening in the neighborhood bordering mine, not just within the pages of fiction I read. That’s the thing about this book: it puts together the dots in a way that is instantly clear and leaves you wondering, How was I ever so blind? I know there is still so much more for to learn.

The second time I read this book, was in the past few months, reading the text with junior and seniors in high school. This is probably what makes Alexander’s text even more of a game changer in how we talk about race and racial justice: it’s accessible. She breaks down the complexities of the legal system without dumbing them down. She explains the history of SWAT teams, the War on Drugs and how police make their arrests and receive their funding. She digs into the root causes of the imprisonment of young men of color and you learn something with ever page. People who have a greater background in racial justice can still benefit from the clarity and precision of her argument.

I wish this book were written today. It would have been a very different book, or at least a book that included information on the murders of Trayvon Martin, Freddie Gray, Michael Brown and Sandra Bland to name a few. She might have included information on die-ins and Black Lives Matter. But maybe not. It may have been outside the scope of her research at the time. Hopefully in subsequent editions of the text, she will include a forward or an additional chapter.

One aspect of her work I appreciate the most is her acknowledgment of the areas she does not cover. She tells the reader right from the start that this book focuses on the incarceration of men of color, though she knows women of color are also suffering.

The book is (obviously) heavy material, but I would recommend it. It’s a necessary read for necessary conversations Americans need to start having about race, segregation and incarceration.

Keep reading. Even when it’s hard and even when you’re challenged and floored by ideas, keep reading. Next up The Terrorists of Irustan. 

It’s not Mental Illness. It’s not Gun Control. It’s White Supremacy.

A 21 year-old white man shoots up The Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, killing 9 innocent people and the country’s response falls into 3 categories.

  1. We say Dylann Roof is crazy and we need to place him and those like him in mental institutions.
  2. We argue about had better gun laws.
  3. We pick apart Roof’s background to uncover what could have ever brought this normal sweet kid to commit such an act.

Rarely do we see people attribute this domestic terrorist attack to racism. Dylann Roof is a white supremacist. He ran a website called lastrhodesian.com, a reference to the white-minority ruled African country of Rhodesia in the 1960s and 1970s (now Zimbabwe). His license plate is the Confederate flag. According to Kara Bolonik, in her article Dylann Roof Is a Racist and a Terrorist. That’s All You Need to Know About Him  for Dame Magazine, before firing his gun, Roof said:

“I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country and you have to go.”

It’s easy and ableist to say Roof is mentally ill. To do so is to say he is not like us. We would never do something like that. He is unstable, if he were neurotypical he would never have committed such an act. In one fell swoop we discount the evidence above and place Roof into a neat package that is easily digestable and separate from ourselves. By this logic, nine black people are dead because Roof is mentally ill.

No. Nine black people are dead because Roof is a white supremacist. Tell it like it is.

CNN’s coverage in the online article Shooting Suspect in Custody After Charleston Church Massacre makes references to a past arrest warrant in February and a possibility that Roof was addicted to opium or other drugs. This is another derailment tactic to keep us away from the issue at hand. Whether or not Roof was on drugs, had done drugs, or never touched drugs in his life is irrelevant. He purposefully shot 9 black people, with the express wish to cause terror.

The same CNN article diverts word space to whether Roof’s father bought him a gun for his 21st birthday, or whether Roof bought the gun himself with birthday money. Although our country needs stronger gun control laws, this is not a case about gun violence. Gun laws are not the issue.

We should be asking what culture he lives in and we contribute to where a young man can have a Confederate flag on his license plate and where the streets in his state are named after Confederate generals and where black men and women die every day at the hands of police brutality. We need to ask how we contribute to a world which supports white supremacy and masks our racism under ableism and issues of gun control.

And as we spend hours and days analyzing Roof, we cannot forget that he murdered 9 people and these people have have names and lives. Join me in mourning:

Cynthia Hurd, 54 years old
Suzy Jackson, 87 years old
Ethel Lee Lance, 70 years old
Rev. De’Payne Middleton-Doctor, 49 years old
Rev. Clementa Pinckney, 41 years old
Tywanza Sanders, 26 years old
Rev. Daniel L. Simmons, 74 years old
Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, 45 years old
Myra Thompson, 59 years old

What we can do now is mourn the dead and change our behavior to create a country that is not dominated by white supremacy.

Books By Women: The Poisonwood Bible

There was no way I was going to read The Poisonwood Bible. I wasn’t going to read it. And if I read it, I wasn’t going to enjoy it. My friend who recommended it to me, read it in high school. Why would I read this book after I graduated from college?

I knew all I needed to know about the book from the title and the premise: a white Christian family of missionaries goes to the Congo in the 1960s. It would be a book of searingly blatant themes that THE WEST SHOULDN’T INTERFERE WITH AFRICA, and CONGOLESE TRADITIONS DON’T NEED CHRISTIANITY and LOOK AT THIS SYMPATHETIC WHITE FAMILY BLUNDER IN AFRICA BUT STILL BE SYMPATHETIC.

I was mainly right. The book was blatant about its themes. Yet, I enjoyed it when I promised I wouldn’t. I finished it when I thought I would hand it back to my friend with a shake of my head.

the_poisonwood_bible_cover_by_tomwright156-d3gufxf

The novel had its strengths, far more than I wanted to give it credit for. To start, the writing was very poetic and I kept a growing list of lines and quotes in a notebook to remember how Barbara Kingsolver molded language. Her writing is emotionally gripping and her details on Congolese culture and language highlight expertise I had not been expecting when the story appeared so simple and moralistic. The historical details of Patrice Lumumba’s  assassination and the ensuing struggle for Congolese independence under the meddling fist of the United States provides great background for readers unfamiliar with modern African history. Kingsolver even appeased the history major in me by including a works cited page at the back of the book. It also helps that Kingsolver grew up in a missionary family who went to the Congo.

I cared about the characters though I promised I would just read this book to make my friend happy (she had loaned it to me for over a year before I finally picked it up). As it turns out, I am a sucker for a well characterized first person point of view. I am a special sucker for stories with multiple first person point of views (Doctrine of Labyrinths). And The Poisonwood Bible fulfills my need to read books by women, but the story is also narrated by women. Five women to be precise. Orelanna Price and her four daughters: Rachel, Leah, Adah and Ruth May. Orelanna brings her four daughters with her when she follows her Minister husband into the Congo to bring Jesus into the lives of the natives. Despite a blatant hit you over the head anti-colonial message which knows no subtlety, this is a novel which does what not many other books think to do: give voice to a whole cast of female characters. 

Thank you Barbara Kingsolver for understanding that women do not need to be likeable but they need to be real and complicated which (for the most part) Kingsolver accomplished.

If it wasn’t readily apparent, I still flip-flop on this book. The writing is strong but overbearing, especially when Kingsolver tries to use extended metaphors. I would recommend the novel to high schoolers as well as readers who have no background in colonial history or African history. It’s not something I would reread, but if nothing else, I’m glad I read it because of the sheer number and expression of plurality of female characters.

Next up: The Lady Matador’s Hotel by Cristina Garcia.

Keep reading!