Roses for the Living

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Roses for the living.

I was thinking of this saying when I first heard that Erica Garner had a heart attack and we were all hopeful for recovery. I was surrounded by my family, and my sweet nephew led us in prayer for her, and my thoughts were consumed with her and her family, what they had been through and the burden black women are asked to constantly carry.

When I was first starting my newspaper career, I wrote for a time almost exclusively about black death and black pain, whether it was killing in Oakland or incarcerated mothers with families trying to sort through how to live without their needed matriarchs. I didn’t fully appreciate then, because no one had ever told me to, the notion of taking care of myself. I did not think that I was sensitive in any particular way to the harrowing and depressing work of being a witness, of being an advocate and especially of straddling the worlds between corporate journalism, where I had to translate the working class and middle class black experience, and the worlds of black folk.

I’m sure it was someone during this time who first used this phrase, to remind me and to remind others that we should give roses and praises to the ones that we love, the ones that are doing the work, while they are still here.

I was also thinking of another ProPublica piece, this one about black-serving hospitals where black mothers have been dying because of substandard care, a reality that could easily be corrected by improving care for them and making it equal to that which white women receive.

My answer to grief and fear and rage, to emotions I can’t name and want to understand or run away from at the same time, is always the same: I pray. I meditate. I read. Then, I try to write.

I looked to Dorothy Roberts’ Killing the Black Body and The Gloria Anzaldua Reader and Evelyn C. White’s The Black Women’s Health Book and Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider and even bell hooks’ Sisters of the Yam: Black Women and Self-Recovery. I wanted to lean on the words of someone wiser than myself, someone who has lived this harrowing closeness to death and daily destruction, who understands the weariness of spirit that emerges when you just feel like you don’t know how else to ask the world to stop being willfully reckless with black women’s lives and hearts.

I found some passages that were connected. Some statistics, though we are more than numbers and metrics. Maybe I didn’t find the right words because I am supposed to write them, because they were stuck in my throat.

The only housewarming gift I gave to myself in 2017 was a Molly Crabapple print which is a painting of Audre Lorde with a quote, “Your silence will not protect you.” I put it up in a prominent place in my apartment so that I always have to consider it, so that I never forget. What I most respect and love and admire about women who step forward to fight the battles of their lives as Erica Garner did is that they understand this in a visceral, frontline way. It is not theoretical.

It is easy to feel that if we say nothing, that we are protected. That the suffering of the world, the tyrannies that obstruct justice will forget us. But reading from the full lecture that the quote is derived from, delivered a little more than exactly 40 years ago from a paper published as “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action” helped me to remember why it is important to remember to continue to resist the temptation to clam up:

I was going to die, if not sooner then later, whether or not I had ever spoken myself. My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you. But for every real word spoken, for every attempt I had ever made to speak those truths for which I am still seeking, I had made contact with other women while we examined the words to fit a world in which we all believed, bridging our differences. And it was the concern and caring of all those women which gave me strength and enabled me to scrutinize the essentials of my living.”

I had forgotten that this quote talked about how breaking silence gave Audre community, how it gives me, gives us, gave Erica, community even if community is not always enough to save us. Audre wrote this, too:

In the cause of silence, each of us draws the face of her own fear – fear of contempt, of censure, or some judgment, or recognition, of challenge, of annihilation. But most of all, I think, we fear the visibility without which we cannot truly live. Within this country where racial difference creates a constant, if unspoken, distortion of vision, Black women have on one hand always been highly visible, and so, on the other hand, have been rendered invisible through the depersonalization of racism. Even within the women’s movement, we have had to fight, and still do, for that very visibility which also renders us most vulnerable, our Blackness. For to survive in the mouth of this dragon we call America, we have had to learn this first and most vital lesson – that we were never meant to survive. Not as human beings. And neither were most of you here today, Black or not. And that visibility which makes us most vulnerable is also the source of our greatest strength. Because the machine will try to grind you to dust anyway, whether or not we speak.”

That visibility which makes us most vulnerable is also the source of our greatest strength. 

This resonates, and feels true, but also we know from the death of Kalief Browder’s mother, Venida, and now Erica, that the vulnerabilities that come with being visible while fighting the good fight often don’t make us feel strong at all. People praise us with their mouths, but outside of public view is where the real war is – with keeping a life together, with staying healthy, remembering to rest, remembering to grieve, remembering that if there are no roses given to you that you can seek your own — but that too comes at a cost.

As Erica’s mother, Esaw Snipes said, “The only thing I can say is that she was a warrior. She fought the good fight. This is just the first fight in 27 years she lost.”

I tried to not write this at all. I had some down time. I was doing other work and I made myself stop being productive to take care of myself, so that I wasn’t spending an entire day during the last hours of the longest year in modern memory thinking of how many broken hearted black women have died while a complicit nation apologized and watched and then proceeded to kill another one.

I took a friend’s beautiful book of poetry with me to the great continent of Brooklyn for a birthday party, had a couple of drinks, met some great folks, had a good meal and came home, haunted, exhausted, near tears in the wee hours of the last day of 2017. I will not be defeated, not while I’m living, not by racism, not by sexism, not by silences or complicity. Or, at least, I can say I will keep trying not to be.

I do not know how to give myself the luxury of looking away when the world is too much, though, and it is often too much. Zora said there are years that ask questions and years that answer. I hope that 2018 has answers for us.

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Who Will Help Black Women Win?

“won’t you celebrate with me

what I have shaped into

a kind of life?

I had no model

Born in Babylon

Both nonwhite and woman

What did I see to be except myself?

I made it up

Here on this bridge between starshine and clay,

My one hand holding tight

My other hand; come celebrate

With me that everyday

Something has tried to kill me

And has failed.” ~ Lucille Clifton

Being a black woman always means having to offer context for your humanity.

It has always meant this. Before Doug Jones’ win. Before this administration. Before hip hop. Before the Black Power movement, the civil rights movement, the Harlem Renaissance.

You get my point.

Being a black woman means that even though you are hypervisible, the intersection of racism and sexism renders you invisible.

As we march toward 2018, it means that unless black women continue to do the important work of contextualizing and elevating our own stories of how we survive, how we win, in the face of continued aggressions and microaggressions, no one will know anything about what we have faced from our perspective.

Earlier this year, the National Domestic Workers Alliance published the State of Black Women in America to zero fan fare at all: “Black women consistently work for a better country, but our country is not working for them,” the report says in part. It details facts that you might suspect but are still tiring to see in the aggregate:

  • More than 80 percent of black women are the primary breadwinners in their families
  • Over 60 percent of black women participate in the labor force — among the highest of any ethnic group, despite the fact that our earnings lag behind that of most everyone else, male or female
  • Nearly 17 percent of non-elderly Black women lack health insurance, though we suffer from higher maternal mortality rates and a host of other health disparities exacerbated by the stress brought on by racial discrimination. (If you missed it or want to know more about the extent to which health disparities are killing black women in particular, this piece co-published by ProPublica and NPR is important and astounding.)

I think about these statistics and many others that aren’t listed above but I just know from my lived experience and from working for much of my life and I wonder how to reconcile this with the continual dismissal of black women’s lived realities. Because even when there has been a legacy for hundreds of years of black women fighting for the survival of each other and everyone else, the work of centuries can be reduced to relevance only for a single moment, a single victory in service of a single man of any race from anywhere in the world.

And then that becomes the narrative that is the most important about what black women are, and what we are good for. That the presiding narrative of being a black woman at the end of 2017 is that we are good at being of service and helping other people win is discouraging. It also begs the question: Who will help us win?

The day that Doug Jones won over Roy Moore in Alabama was a busy one for a lot of reasons, but that’s not why I wasn’t celebrating as hard as everyone else. I was still stunned by news footage of Roy Moore on a horse at the polls, almost certain that the imagery was meant to be as racially intimidating as the underreported voter suppression, and that image stayed on my mind all day.

I turned on my television for approximately two minutes to look at the exit poll data before polls closed. Moore was ahead at that point, so I turned the television off.

Of the effusive love poured on black women in the aftermath, 98 percent of whom voted for Senator-elect Doug Jones, Marcia Chatelain sums it up best writing for Dissent Magazine:

Those who are concerned about black women’s votes may want to study the incredible history of black women’s political organizing in the South, as well as the current odds that are stacked against them across the country. The post-2016 election narrative about red and blue America fixated on the gulf between conservative and liberal whites. This narrative also mourned the loss of a robust, left-leaning white electorate that has shifted rightward because of the incompetence and indifference of the Democratic Party. This analysis, which often elides the importance of racism and xenophobia in predicting white voting patterns regionally, also ignores the complexity of black voters and their motivations. In this moment, perhaps observers should take a few moments to consider how black women in Alabama and Virginia are not that different from black women in California and New York — all are contending with the forces of racism, sexism, and class immobility. Yet local challenges and regional differences dictate both the strategies and the resources black women have to fight these forces. Therefore, appreciating, or simply noting, black women’s voting patterns cannot provide reliable information on ideological divides across region or class, nor can expressions of gratitude make up for the need to organize whites to do anti-racist work.

I want to underscore the very last point: “…Nor can expressions of gratitude make up for the need to organize whites to do anti-racist work.”

In the past year, this has been my main point to anyone who asks me anything about what it is like to be a black woman right now. I am in search of true allies. I am exhausted by the notion that I have to keep repeating that this is not the work of the marginalized to do and to continue doing. I am not sure why media narratives opt instead to focus on more trendy forgotten demographics and yet, it makes perfect sense.

Black women know the work that is ours to do, so we do it. It is now up to other people, people with privileges that we do not have, to work to divest themselves of the comforts that come with their privilege in order to experience even an iota of what it is like to be us by committing to doing the hard work of anti-racist, anti-sexist work. (My friends Courtney and John model what this looks like. Courtney just posted a great piece on organizations led by black women you should support.)

Privilege, of course, is the elephant in all of these organizing spaces that remains unchecked and unchallenged. It is the economic engine that allows for progress. But it is not without its drawbacks if privileged progressives cannot be confronted about their blindspots.

Privilege means not having to confront the uncomfortable truths that black women have to live with, have to breathe in and don’t get to exhale, every moment of every day.

Privilege means knowing that significant swaths of women across economic classes have internalized misogyny and, often, problematic, racist views that allow them to justify it but instead of interrogating them or this trend as it relates to specific candidates, looking on the bright side, and thanking black women for saving you once again.

Privilege is understanding full well that words have power and meaning; remembering that the U.S. Holocaust Museum in November 2016 reminded the world that “the Holocaust did not start with killing but with words” — and still deciding to be complicit in the use of the vague, soft language of bigotry, coddling profiles of hate-mongers and homegrown Lone Wolf terrorists of the like who murder Christian patriots in their own churches simply because they are black, by supporting institutions and people who do not call racism by its true name and are not explicit about the very real, imminent dangers of racism to our democracy.

For our part, it is clear to black women that outside of standing in (surprisingly, occasionally) as a kind of avatar for the moral conscience of state and national electorates, if only because the narrative above feels so distasteful, generally we are the only ones who come to the defense of one another. I’m thinking specifically here of Rep. Maxine Waters, April Ryan, Jemele Hill, Rep. Frederica Johnson and Myeshia Johnson but they are not the only ones, unfortunately.

In one way or another, an attempt was made to silence or bully each of these black women this year — from the President of the United States, no less, or members of his administration — simply because she was a black woman in possession of herself and her voice and for nothing more.

The first and loudest voices coming to their defense, every time, were other black women. For a culture and society so polarized, it is understandable, though it is one of the more troubling ongoing paradoxes of our democracy that we have reached a moment of reckoning against some sexual predators and institutions under the banner of a movement started by Tarana Burke, a black woman, made more visible by well-known white actresses and erasure of working class people who continue to face the fall out and repercussions of unchecked power and manipulation because they cannot afford to come forward without the protections that privilege affords.

Like icons Ida B. Wells and Mary Church Terrell, who aggressively, actively and strategically organized against antilynching laws, and the many unsung women of the civil rights movement, of feminist movements of yesteryear and present day, I vote in my best interests. I continue to organize, write, read and amplify voices that are in my best interests and therefore, in the best interests of other black women in our nation, because we are the only ones, apparently, who are invested in us winning.

There’s a lot wrong with that, but the biggest tragedy in that to me is that whatever happens to black women ultimately happens to other women. Being both black and woman, at the bottom of the skin and gender hierarchies, our trajectories are bellwethers for everyone else.

I don’t mind being part of a tribe trying save everyone else. It would be nice, though, if other folks would actively decide to take on some of the responsibility for doing some of the saving. If 2017 taught us anything, it is that there is more than enough work to go around.

Five Years Since

Dear Mom:

It has been five years since we said goodbye, that word you hate, the one that still gets stuck in my throat.

There are days when it feels like it was last week and days when it feels like a decade has gone by.

This is, usually, a season of joy and reclamation, of hibernation and reflection. I want to forget my loneliness and grief, but in some ways, trying to forget it feels like forgetting you and I can’t.

The number five makes me think of you for so many reasons.

I was five when I was leaving foster care, remember, and you tried to bring me a gift of green plastic jewelry to my pre-school in Philly but the guards took you away because you weren’t allowed to see me because you were the reason I was in foster care on account of the burning me with a straightening comb. They did leave your gift, which I wish I still had, but which time and too many moves took away from me.

When I see five dollar bills, I think of the jubilant look on your face when you would find money on the street – something that has never happened to me once in New York, not ever, not since you were alive.

And I think of the Christmas Day five years ago when I knew it would be the last time I got to hold your hand. My heart breaks for any daughter who survives her mother who has to write a sentence like that, who has to reflect on surviving the person who bore her, who taught her how to live, or who at the very least tried. The trying, itself, is not so easy.

The grief is not so much because I needed you to be my mother, although we all need one. I had given up on that part. I knew it was hard for you, harder than most. It was that I wanted our story to be so much happier. I wanted us to get to the good part together. I did not want to get to the good part alone.

You were so proud of me, of my writing. You modeled shine theory before I knew it would be a thing. You did not talk about an after you were gone and so there’s a way in which I was not ready for that emptiness. It was as if you would keep on living, cheering.

I still view my solitude as a gift. It is the way of an INFJ, an ambivert with a book addiction, enamored of the characters that wake me up and nudge me to my computer or notebook. But it has an edge to it that has lonely, Marguerite-sized craters into which my spirit falls.

Loneliness kills. There is research and data and I have read it, horrified, desperately afraid. Because I am used to having something urgent to worry about, when there is nothing — and there really aren’t that many things like this that come up anymore now that you and Dad are gone —  I worry about the lethal nature of my loneliness. My heavy heart is one that only I carry, being the only child of you and him. It is my unique burden to be missing you in this particular way, without someone to remember with me what it was like to laugh in the midst of our darkness and to cry out in the midst of our shared pain.

Even being the only keeper of our memories has not hardened me, not the way I have wished for over the years, as you can see. I have avoided writing about you now for weeks, if not months, knowing that it would feel like ripping open a wound and pouring salt water into it by the gallons. I was not wrong, but that wasn’t the full truth of the thing.

We spent so many cold winters without in New York City, in the Bronx especially, including that very first one in 1984, when we were mugged crossing a bridge from Harlem to go to the Roberto Clemente shelter. But Mommy, I have more than enough now. Enough space, enough time, enough food, enough warmth.

As alone as I feel in my grief and my missing of you sometimes, I am deeply and widely loved by people who are so gifted and dynamic and sweet. They fill in the gaps. They remind me that you would want deep belly laughs for me in this season and all the others, the laugh you gave me which is one of my most prize inheritances, the one that jolts people awake, that clings to ceilings, that rattles the nerves of those who only know the end of this story, but not the beginning, not the middle, none of the transitions.

This big complex heart of mine receives and mirrors back the joy of those who know what to do with it. I have more than enough, enough to give back, to give away, so that I don’t have to hoard. It is not enough to fill the void of a mother. It is not enough to keep me from crying over missing you. It may never be. Maybe that is the point.

But the gift of missing you is that it helps me to remember that is what the depth of love is. That when someone you cherish, who has shaped you and touched you is gone, you weep because they have had an impact. Sometimes the gift of someone’s love is in the way they reach you where no one ever has and maybe never will.

Merry Christmas. I’m going to be with our beloved family.

Yes, I will tell them you love them.

Better: I will do my best to keep showing them.

Love always,

Your baby girl.

Live On Your Own Terms: A Memoir Excerpt

Winter is one of my favorite seasons, and I really want to like Christmas, but it’s complicated by the fact that my mother died during this season five years ago. Even before she fell ill with terminal cervical cancer, the holidays have always been challenging, and I’ve never been particularly good at knowing how to genuinely celebrate while also holding the sadness that is also present other than doing what I always do — which is writing through it. Below is an excerpt from my memoir, published in 2016, The Beautiful Darkness: A Handbook for Orphans. 

2011
Marguerite loved to celebrate. You didn’t have to take the party to her: she was the party. Lights flickered in her eyes, her mouth would curl up at the sides, and she’d nod her head and shake her shoulders to music, shuffling her wide feet with socks curled over her toes leaving her heels bare, side to side, off-beat.

In the house of her best friend in Philadelphia or in one of our many apartments, she liked the music turned all the way up, and she could easily get lost, her arms lifted up, fingers snapping. She loved Christmas the most. She would wash her favorite red blouse in the sink and hang it on the shower curtain to dry a day ahead of time.

She said an extra rosary for the season, dragging in real or fake trees some years just to have the lights around her. There were rarely gifts under the tree or even blankets to catch the shedding pine needles. She would say, “You’re my gift. I’m your gift. Merry Christmas!”

We usually scrambled for food and warmth during Christmastime in New York City. The scalding radiators in our apartment were loud, rusty pieces of shit that sent steam spraying toward the ceiling in loud squeals. The refrigerator was often empty, but my junior high school principal, Brother Brian, or church volunteers usually made sure we didn’t go hungry on Christmas.

We made turkey and stuffing and plopped in front of us on a couch or plastic chairs to set in front of a TV where we watched It’s a Wonderful Life or the Charlie Brown Christmas Special or Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer.

“You kind of look like him, Shan,” Mom said.
“The reindeer?”
“Your nose gets red like that in the cold,” she said. She started to crack up, and the gap in her front teeth showed.
“No, it doesn’t,” I said, smiling shyly at her.
“It does, and you have a dimple on your forehead too.”
“You know a lot about my face!”
“When you frown I can see it. It’s cute, Shan,” she would say. “It’s where your brother kissed you before you were born and came to me from heaven.”

 

Most years, instead of decorating with lights at home, we went to see the city’s most famous tree at Rockefeller Center, a few blocks from Saint Patrick’s Cathedral. It towered over the ice skating rink below, and both Mom and I stared wide-eyed at it, year after year: the giant, multicolored bulbs, the dark space between the branches, the giant toys. It was the real-life version of what she imagined a good monument to Christmas to be, better than any replica she could try to make with her hands.

“All we’re going to do is look at it?”

She said breathlessly, nodding, “It’s beautiful.”

Our last Christmas together, I woke up in the house of a family friend in Philadelphia, getting ready for church after a house full of children had been up for hours ripping open presents and running around the house. I had been sleeping on a twin bed in Rita’s home for almost three weeks, missing my own bed back home in Austin but afraid to leave since we didn’t know how long Mom would be alive.

 

My phone broke around the same time, and my big sister Rita teased me about the way I wrestled with the broken buttons before giving up. I held onto it for a few days too long because everything in the world seemed broken. Mothers leave their children; they die before we do, yes, but Marguerite was not yet old enough to leave me. Our lives were still broken in a way I believed only she had the power to mend.

I sat next to Rita at Stronghold Baptist Church, and I wept. I could only really cry in two places by then, in the house of God and at my mother’s bedside. For all my traveling and adventures, for all my ambition and making my way in the world, I was still a frightened little kid. We were in a season of celebration, and it felt like a betrayal to smile or give gifts. It felt like a betrayal of my mother’s life to even breathe, to just keep living my life as if it had meaning without her in it.

I needed the word, the exaltation of something much bigger than me, than us. I needed the infusion of glory and spirit, some light in a season of darkness to baptize me in a hopeful future. The present was breaking my heart. Whatever was coming for Marguerite had to be better than what she was feeling now. I was sitting in the pew with my sister, but my heart and mind were with Mom in that nursing home, so I asked Rita to take me there.

I cried tears of anger, release, and surrender. What if Mom made it through, by some miracle that she had always talked about, and she took medication, and we could be, finally, like all mothers and daughters? She hadn’t guided me like mothers are supposed to, but dear God, I was here and breathing and by most accounts a good human: that was something.

Hours later, I sat at my mother’s bedside. She had shit on her wrist again, which Rita wiped off with hard tissue. Mom’s wig was in the corner of her cubby. Rita sat staring at the television while I held Mom’s hand. Her fingernails were yellow but soft now; her fingers as thin as mine.

“I’m so happy to see you,” she said. She talked again about com- ing into money, about wanting to move into her house. “Maybe not that house. Well. God will take care of us,” she said, finally. She was high on morphine, and her eyelids would drop mid-sentence, like she was about to go to sleep.

I moved my chair up, trying to get close to her face. She couldn’t understand what I was saying when I asked what happened to her scarf. She was wearing a towel over her cropped gray hair.

“So are you going back to work or what?”

“I’m going to write.” I didn’t want to waste anytime talking to her about my future, knowing that she wouldn’t be around to see it.

“That sounds nice,” she said. “When are you coming back?”

After you’re gone, I thought. The next time I’ll be here is during your funeral. My eyes welled up, and I remembered that she hated to see me cry.

“I don’t know,” I said. I realized then that I could tell her what I wanted to tell her without saying goodbye. “I’m going to miss you very much,” I said. I told her I was leaving Philadelphia in a few days. In my head and in my heart I added, Goodbye.

She touched my arm. I rubbed hers, which was too thin, and moved from the chair to sit on the side of the bed, while she mostly stared at the television. She was curious about the coffee cup I had brought in with me. She looked at it and then me, and then she smiled, and I felt like she really saw me and really understood where my heart was. I smiled back at her, the most light I could muster.

“I love you very much,” she said.

 

“I love you, too, Mom,” I answered. I closed my eyes. I thought, I forgive you. God, please don’t let her feel too much pain. I hope this is enough, this sitting with her and kissing her on the forehead and letting her kiss me on the cheek.

She started to nod off. We left the nursing home, and for the rest of the night, I was in a fog. I wanted Christmas to come and go because I knew Marguerite wouldn’t live to see another one.