I am really good at worrying about things that never come to pass. It is one of my more impressive skills, one I hope to one day monetize. I primarily dedicate my worrying to my lovers and my writing. I worry about the regular, degular, schmegular shit that every writer does: am I good enough? Will my story be published? Who even cares about what I have to say? Is the juice worth the squeeze? Mainly, I worry about language, that fickle, layered beast that often says more than it says. Like every writer, I hope to achieve the right level of sass & complex metaphorical rendering of a simple, relatable subject. But my natural tongue wasn’t intended for the written word.
I was born and raised in Kingston, Jamaica, where the Queen’s English was, quite literally, forced down our throats in schools. In my own home, my mother told us that we weren’t allowed to speak Patois, the “broken” English born from a mash-up of English and different African languages until we mastered English. Patois was the language of the “lesser,” heard but never seen. It lived in songs, on sidewalks, circled the spaces only ears could fit. English, on the other hand, was seen: postured in books, stylized in newspapers—the walking stick of stories.
Like any good British colonial subject, I internalized this hierarchy: English meant educated. Patois meant poor. And like any good British colonial subject, it did not strike me as odd that our literature was set everywhere but Jamaica. Or that all the stories were in English. Or that my reaction to Patois in books is a cringe, despite the fact that’s how I best express myself.
Enter Marlon James, whose Brief History of Seven Killings won the Man Booker Prize in 2015. Brief History was a masterful work of fiction surrounding the attempted murder of Bob Marley, known throughout the narrative as “The Singer.” A friend sent it to me when I was going through a rough time and attached a note that said, “Never forget where you come from and you can never get lost.” The levels of that note are still unraveling onion-like, but it that book definitely “showed me where I came from.” Brief History was a Jamaican chorus—different voices, each telling their own story, coming together to weave a single narrative about Jamaica and Jamaicans.
So many of the characters spoke exclusively in Patois. Raw-chaw Patois. Patois I’m surprised non-Jamaicans understood. All I could think was, “You can do that?”
Most of the books I’d read up to that point, even if they were set in Jamaica or elsewhere in the Caribbean, give or take a few lines of dialogue, were written in standard English, that foreign tongue we use to supplicate a colorless god. So in my own writing, I would imitate the styles I’d been shown. The stark but floral musings of Keats, Byron, Shelley. Fiction in which snow smeared the December grounds and buildings were tall enough to nuzzle the sky’s chin. Despite how stiff, how foreign it felt, I never even considered writing any other way: not of mountains curving mustache-like on Kingston’s every horizon, or the vulgar sounds of sales in Half-Way-Tree. No. These images, painted clearest in Patois, were not the stuff books were made of. To me, books only happen in one type of English.
Since reading Brief History, I’ve sought out the rest of James’s works. Turns out his previous book, Book of Night Women, was rendered almost entirely in Patois. Reading him lead me to other Caribbean authors like Makeda Silvera, Kei Miller, Shani Mootoo, all of whom employ their other Englishes in service of the story. Their stories are distinctly Caribbean. Their voice is the August hurricane, power outages, the echoing smell of a kerosene lamp. The taximan’s One and ready! proclamation during rush hour. Reading their stories puts me in a different, but a welcome place of seeing, in addition to hearing, Patois. Two worlds I didn’t know could come together did just that.
I’ve since started to use Patois more in my writing, but as I said before, I am a professional worrier. Even though it is how I best express myself, I worry whether people will understand me. Will they make the same effort to read the “difficult language” of a writer without Marlon James’ clout? As a young writer, I can’t help but think about the audience. If I write in patois, will they understand me? If they can’t, will they keep reading? Will I get my message all the way across if I speak in a language that they aren’t comfortable hearing, much less seeing? Every rejection letter makes me wonder if they’re rejecting it because my writing isn’t accessible enough.
These Caribbean writers give me hope: write anyway, and the intended recipients will show up. When a thing comes out better in Patois, or whatever other English one speaks, follow that instinct. It is difficult to feel comfortable writing in my natural tongue, a unique type of English, for the American publishing industrial complex. These stories are my favorite to read because they affirm my language and my experiences in general. I want to give that to other people too, so the juice is worth the squeeze.
You can contact Gizelle and find more of her reviews and essays by clicking here.
‘member that time Solange punched the hell outta Jay-Z’s balls with her big toe?
What a blow (to his ego and otherwise). I am happy to report that Jay-Z’s healed nicely and released the most tea-spillinist album of all the occupants of that elevator. I’m also happy to report that I WAS RIGHT in my essay-ish piece in 2014 about the reason behind Solange’s direct heel-to-crotch approach; it was in defense of her best friend and sister, Beyoncé.
My plan is to buy hard copies of all three of these albums and call my set “Elevate yourself” or “Lift me up” or “Pulley me to consciousness”. Haven’t decided.
From May, 2014:
Solange ain’t playin’ in these streets. She proved that when she drop kicked Jay-Z’s nuts in a couture dress and a short wig, and that Freddy Kruger way she foot-stretched across the elevator while the behemoth Julius was restraining her. I didn’t even realize she was that tall. She probably isn’t. Black girl anger sometimes comes with supa powers and she was Black girl PISSED.
Beyonce, by the way, remained zen and unaffected as Solange smacked up her husband’s face. The quality of the elevator video was grainy and we couldn’t see Bey’s face but I’m sure she employed a series of averted eyes until the situation was contained. Pictures taken immediately after that fateful elevator ride show Solange looking pissed, Jay-Z looking bewildered and disheveled, and Beyonce looking totally composed and half-smiling. Man. If she had pulled that kind of acting out during Obsessed I might have been able to get through it.
I’m a little bit surprised at this news actually. Not because I don’t think that the Knowles camp isn’t humanly effed up but because the Beyonce PR team (to be referred to henceforth as the “Beygency”) normally does an excellent job at keeping her brand pristine. I’m surprised that the hotel involved in the video leak hasn’t come out and denied that Bey n’ company entered the elevator at all, and that those must be look-alike unspecial guests brawling in the video that we’ve all been replaying all day. But then again, the week is still young and the incident fresh and so maybe I should be on the lookout for any impromptu hotel press conferences for the next few days. Ya’ll know I can’t mind my own business.
The ever quick and overprotective Beyhive have made themselves a lot more useful than the Beygency, protecting Bey’s brand with tired epithets as “haters” and “broke haters” at anyone poking fun at this scandal. 13 million members strong and not a new insult in sight. Tsk tsk.
The Bey “haters” are a totally different story. My face has been stuck to my phone all day due to the creative and hilarious tweets composed by my twitter followers. Some of my favorites include:
“Solange Knowles has proven that evidently you CAN knock the hustle.” – @NotBillWalton
“Shout out to Solange’s wig for being steadfast and unmovable during the whole ordeal.” -@MelechT
What induced this savage outburst? The Internet, per usual, is full of conjecture. There are tweets that Jay-Z was too flirty with Rihanna, that he’d hit Beyonce a few days before, that he had been cheating on his wife, or perhaps there has been tension between him and Solange for a while now and things finally came to a head. Screenshots from Solange’s twitter even suggest that she had slapped him before and was all too eager to go again. But personal inspection of Solange’s twitter turned up no tweets of the sort and so it’s impossible to verify whether they were ever really tweeted (except for the screenshots I’m much too lazy to verify. Leme alone). Regardless. This whole incident is still pretty entertaining.
The only think I am assured of (which is actually just speculation (2017 Update: I WAS RIIIIIGHT BISH)) is that Solange was probably punching Jay in the face in the name of protection. Not physical protection, obviously, the only time Jay raised his hands was to protect his hip hop nads, but protection of family, probably Bey. A good once over of Solange’s twitter timeline will reveal an impassioned, brazen girl who isn’t afraid to get her hands (or long ass feet) dirty if it means protecting her family. I wouldn’t necessary employ this method, I don’t have the muscle strength or the leg length, but I would also ride or die for my sister, even though I’d probably have choice words for her afterwards if she tried to camouflage into the damn wall like Bey did.
Bey probably had her reasons. Her dress looked delicate. Certainly not like it could have handled an extra long foot kick.
Unrelated; anyone know where Solange got her wi….nevermind.
It just helps if you are born light-skinned. Not too light-skinned, obviously, because then people will think that you are white and tease you for it. You should be a nice honey or peanut butter color. It will also help if you have light-colored eyes. Green and blue are the best. Hazel is ok if your skin is darker. But they need to match your skin tone, or at least, other people need to think so.
If you do end up being born darker skinned, you might still be ok. You will have to do a little extra work but it’s not impossible. You will probably have to make up for it by being born with softer hair and looser curls. In some rare cases even kinky hair is allowed, but only if you have a lot of it and your mom has the time and the skill to style it. Depending on your age, this is unlikely. Before a few years ago kinky hair care wisdom had to be passed down through the generations. I suppose no one cared enough about it to write it down, but it’s most likely more complicated than that. If your Mom does know how to braid or can send you to a braiding shop you could be ok, even though if she does this too much your edges won’t be. If your edges are gone then you won’t be worth anything, no matter the hue of your skin.
If you are born with darker skin and kinkier hair and aren’t lucky enough to have someone comb it for you in it’s natural state, you might have to get a relaxer. It will be fine. A relaxer is a strong chemical that smells bad and burns your skin off if you aren’t careful (and sometimes even if you are). If you hair is both thick and kinky then your relaxer will be “extra strength”. If you weren’t born with a high pain tolerance, I’d hope that you soon develop one.
Life should go better for you if you were born to parents with money. It will go even better if they have the foresight use that money to enrich your free time with skills that you will use later in life, like dancing or art or cooking. I hope that they know that it’s too early for you to start playing sports, though. If you start too early then you might become too talented and beat the boys and then hurt their self- esteem, and then who will want to marry you? Marrying a good man is central to your purpose, as you will soon internalize. “Good” men don’t like women who challenge them too much. You wanna grow up a “good woman”. Not an “extra” one.
Now, if you are indeed one of the lucky ones, all of the hair styling and parental attention and enrichment may have you feeling pretty good about yourself. I am so happy for you. That’s adorable before you start school. If you are very lucky, no one has taken advantage of your trust for their own selfish reasons yet. If you are very, very lucky, you have family members that tell you how amazing you are and how you can be anything that you want to be. The TV shows you watch will tell you that too, probably, if you have someone making sure you are watching the right things. Mostly you’ll hear that encouraging stuff on TV, but they won’t be talking to people that look like you, even if you are peanut butter colored with green eyes and curly hair.
You’ve made it to Kindergarten. Now the real work begins. You will probably start getting more familiar with the concept of “boyfriends” even before you are familiar with sexuality at all. You might start watching fairy tales and whatever the popular TV shows are along with your elementary school peers. You’re definitely going to see fewer representations of people like you being “anything they want to be” and more of them being who other people want them to be. As you get older, you’ll notice that lots of people don’t expect you to be much of anything. You’ll probably internalize that long before you are even aware that you are observing it.
You will definitely start to notice that unless you are extremely talented at something i.e. the dancing/singing/art that your parents hopefully enriched your free time with; most of your power will lie in your looks. This is where being lighter skinned, lighter eyed, and softer haired will come in handy. It will behoove you to have lost any adorable baby fat by now.
If you are going to a Black school and you fit the aforementioned beauty standards, you will probably be one of the more powerful girls in school. Not more powerful than the boys though. Power for you means that the powerful boys are attracted to you first. If you are astute you will learn that you have to wield your power through them.
If you don’t go to a Black school then even if you are the right color and hair texture, you have less power than nearly every other non-Black girl in your age group. The amount of money your parents have, weight, ability, likability, style, and even talent can help you move up in status. Hopefully you have all of that in spades. Even if you do, prepare to be scolded by teachers and your friends’ parents more than other non-Black people in your class, just because. You should probably start learning to smile a lot and apologize for just existing now.
Hopefully you’ve been watching the popular culture for your age group and have the money and the attention span to start dressing like the celebrities your generation and culture idolizes. You are going to have to find and become very familiar with the right kind of music too, and the right TV shows, and will have to cultivate the right interests. To make things easier, here is a list of what is acceptable to like at your age and gender presentation:
Dancing. But not too sexually. If you don’t know what dancing too sexually is, start dancing the way you like and wait to be yelled about it.
Popular hip hop. Not too much rap. That’s for boys and if you like it you’ll be a poser because girls can’t like rap (if you listen hard enough you’ll notice that a lot of rap doesn’t like you, either).
Pop music is allowed if you aren’t at a Black school. This is forbidden if you are.
Celebrity teenage boys, but only with your girlfriends. You’ll hear boys talking about celebrity girls they find attractive too, all the time, to and at you, but it’s not ok for you. Their egos are being delicately constructed to be fragile, so don’t threaten them with talk of who you find attractive. Remember also that you aren’t allowed to be attracted to the celebrity girls or any girls, even if you are attracted to them. If you insist on being attracted though, despite my instructions, push those feelings far, far, far down and away with all that crap about self-esteem and ambition you were fed before Kindergarten.
Makeup. But only natural makeup. Makeup so barely there that it ruins the fun of putting on makeup at all. Makeup can’t be about you or your creativity. It’s about what the boys like. You’ll find that it’s always expected to be.
Hair. But only the right kind and texture. Don’t get to creative and have fun with it. Once again, your hair isn’t about you.
Cartoons. But the princess ones. Not the superhero or anime ones. Again, quit being a poser. Also, don’t like the princess cartoons too much.
Jesus. Depending on your environment it’s either really good to be religious or really bad. You should really figure this out before say anything about it. As a matter of fact, start learning to figure out how people are going to feel about what you have to say before you say anything EVER. Make sure you say whatever you say with a smile and an apology. You are a Black girl so everything you say will be taken as mean otherwise. Can’t be helped.
You’ve gotta wear what everyone else likes. Now, you will get some hints if you have the right parents and they have money and you are watching the right shows and shopping at the right stores and live in the right city, but you’ve gotta have the right body type too. How do you know if you have the right body type to wear what everyone else wants you to wear? Well, by now all those shows and books telling you to be confident and free will be replaced by magazines and TV telling you what the current trendy body type is, and how to fake it if you don’t have it naturally. Also, the boys and sometimes even the grown men around you will oblige you with their constant opinion. You should probably walk around with a notebook to keep track of it all.
If you are lucky and hit puberty not too early and not too late, you don’t have to worry about this until about middle school. When you hit puberty in hopefully late middle school or early high school (because otherwise you are a fast, mannish hoe) you should grow a curvy body. You should have curvy hips, a round butt, a small waist, flat stomach, and decently sized breasts. Again, if you are extremely talented, likable, rich, stylish, or were smart enough to have cultivated a posse that has been with you since elementary school, you might have worth and power even if you don’t have the right body. Despite this, you should always be prepared to have someone point out your obvious shortcoming.
You can’t have acne, or any pimples, really. No hyper pigmentation is allowed. You may be required to wear makeup if you don’t have perfect skin, but only enough to cover said imperfect skin. You’d better not be having fun with colors and whatnot. Better not. Also, if your complexion falls below that honey-colored one we discussed earlier, good luck finding foundation or concealer that you can actually afford with your allowance. You should probably prepare to pay $15-20 for foundation, probably what your lighter-complected peers pay for all of their makeup combined at this age. If you have very deep skin, just get a part time job. Your foundation is like $40 a pop. Hope you weren’t saving for college or anything. No matter what you look like but especially if you are deeper-complected, expect boys to announce their preference of or not of you. Expect this opinion to be unsolicited. It will probably be followed by a “no offense”, so you aren’t allowed to let it hurt your feelings.
There is a silver lining though! It’s now okay for you to start being athletic. Congratulations. You still aren’t allowed to get as sweaty or as stinky as the boys, or as hairy. I hope that you have somehow learned how to shave because otherwise you can forget all the social power you’ve amassed up until now. Also, congrats, you get to vie for the attention of a boy! Remember that fragile ego society has been building up for him? It’s your responsibility now. Yay you! Also, you still aren’t allowed to like anyone other than boys, even if you do. I repeat, yay you.
Your hair should be regularly straightened. If your hair curl is looser then it’s ok to wear it straight most of the time, and curly some of the time. If your hair is kinky, get it permanently straightened and don’t look back. Get rid of all the pictures of you with your natural texture after the age of…. let’s say four. Just to be safe. Also if your hair is unfortunately kinky, refer to your cooler ex-kinky haired peers for references on what hairstyles are pretty. Do not lean on your own understanding. Your texture isn’t allowed to experiment too much without ridicule.
Don’t expect to see a single positive representation in media of what kinky hair acts like when it’s permanently straightened, like, at all. The famous people that have your hair texture are rich enough and smart enough get extensions (which, by the way, you aren’t allowed to get until you are in college because otherwise you won’t be naturally pretty enough to compete for the boyfriend you need. This does depend heavily on your school culture, though) and now their hair looks absolutely nothing like yours. If you are at a Black school, you might fair ok. If you aren’t a Black school, good luck.
Now, maybe your parents were smart enough to permanently straighten your hair earlier in life but didn’t have the exuberant funds to keep it professionally maintained, so you are probably dealing with a lot of breakage. Hopefully you can afford to hire braider who doesn’t kill your edges (because remember, it’s all over if that happens) or are super talented at something cool or curvy or light skinned or have light colored eyes. Because otherwise I can’t help you.
If you’ve done everything right, high school will probably maybe be ok for you, maybe. It is possible that you’ve done everything too right and now you’re too confident and therefore a hoe. Calm down, but not too much. Be the right amount of confident, an allowance that will change constantly depending on who you are around. Even though you may notice that all girls are subjected to this, you may also notice this; the farther from the beauty standard you are, the less confident you are allowed to be. If you are of a bigger size and have deep-colored skin, and your hair is kinky and you aren’t extremely talented at something or even if you are, people will get really mad if you love yourself too much. You’d better calm down.
Please note that the beauty standard changes all the time depending on trends in pop culture and where you live. So yeah. I’d hope that you aren’t in any demanding AP classes or really invested in any hobbies or anything. You’ve got more important stuff to keep up with, like what it’s ok to look like from day to day.
You have to get the right boyfriend and he has to be nice to you, but if he isn’t, it’s your fault. You should hope that no one spreads nasty rumors about you, especially ones about you owning your sexuality, because that would also be your fault. Also hope that you don’t hurt a guy’s ego enough for him to attack you or anything, even a grown guy, because again, that would be your fault. Maybe just get a tattoo reminding yourself that any way a man acts towards you is your fault. The way everybody acts is completely under your control. Forget his home training or your shared culture or his socialization or his mental illness or his friends’ influence or anything else. It’s up to you to control his carnal nature. And while we are on the subject, don’t come off too smart or bossy, even under the huge responsibility of his and every other man’s actions. I mean, you are already bossy and rude because you were born that way because you are Black. You can’t have a leadership personality on top of that. What are you, mad?
Oh and never get mad at anyone. You are already scary enough.
If you are at a non-Black school and get into a fight with a white girl, you started it.
If you are getting bullied at a non-Black school and fight back at all, you are the bully.
If you stand up for yourself at all, you are yelling.
If you are at a non-Black school, observant enough, and are at a high school where the idea feminism is floating around, that isn’t for you. You’re too..something…for feminism fight for you. Be less…that thing, and we can talk.
If you are at a Black high school ya’ll aren’t allowed to be feminists. Moving on.
Depending on your high school environment you may be allowed to explore your sexual preferences now. Your school culture will determine how unapologetic you can be about those preferences. For example, maybe you can be a lesbian now, but quietly. And maybe you can date boys that fall outside of the narrow masculinity trope, but not too proudly. Be prepared to defend his masculinity constantly otherwise you aren’t loyal. If you are dating a girl you should probably be prepared to defend your girlfriend’s masculinity too. That’s the only way your relationship will be valid-ish.
Don’t have sex but also do have sex but not with the wrong person, who might only be revealed as the wrong person after you’ve already had sex with them. If you are at the right school, no one is going to talk to you about birth control or safe sex or anything, but you had better already know enough about it to not get pregnant. If you do, you should marry the father, except if he doesn’t want to marry you. Then you should just disappear into cloud of smoke. Use all that knowledge about wielding your sexuality (wait, did you miss that class?) and find a mediocre man that will provide for you both. Don’t expect him to help you outside of money and strained companionship. Praise him when he is a decent human being. If you want to go back to school or have fun or even sleep, you will need a baby-sitter. If your parents have enough money to have free time and haven’t disowned you, which they could, and if they are able bodied, and you trust them around your baby, maybe they can babysit occasionally. Not too much thought. That would make you are a bad mother and a hoe. The amount of baby-sitting that is too much, by the way, can be determined by anyone who feels the need to pass judgment.
Another note: never ask the father of your baby for child support. The baby is half his but everything is your responsibility so don’t expect a check. Do expect to have to answer to all his demands about whom you see and what you do, though.
If you don’t get pregnant and make it out of high school, yay for you! You can go to college, even out of state if your parents don’t mind. You don’t want to be too uppity though. Don’t come back from school with any new knowledge or anything. Like, who do you think you are?
You can however become a feminist, date who you want, and actually be who you want to be!
So long as:
1) You don’t threaten masculinity by being too smart or funny (ha, you actually aren’t allowed to be funny unless you’re like, super funny) or opinionated.
2) You aren’t concerned with having equal rights of the well-being of other Black women. I mean sure, you turned out ok, but most Black women are ugly and fat and bossy and mean and ghetto and probably deserve whatever current abuse they are enduring.
3) You look good. Thankfully now, the definition of beauty has broadened depending on where you are. You are even allowed to be fat, but only the right kind of fat. You can also be more confident than you were in high school, but you’d better watch it.
4) You respect respectability politics. Sexuality is now more of a minefield than it was in high school because there is no more supervision. Now you’d better be having sex you stuck up prude, but the sex can’t be too freaky or too much or with the wrong people. Again, there is a chance you might only figure out the wrong person is the wrong person until after the sex. Don’t worry. If you took my advice and already accepted that everything is your fault, to just add this to the list.
If you in a place where you are around people from lots of different backgrounds, you will be allowed to be more true to yourself, if you’ve even had the time to figure that out this whole time. You probably should though, because you don’t want to be accused to being fake while you are exploring your identity.
Don’t celebrate yourself too much, like ever. Your man can celebrate you, if his friends let him. But you can’t throw yourself a party or make an extravagant entrance or invite any fanfare yourself, like ever. Not unless, your peers give you permission.
You should quietly do excellent in school. You should be gracious and smiling all time. You should work out but not too much, lift but only just enough, and lay off too much protein because like we talked about before you started Kindergarten, you can’t be intimidating to men at all, and that includes being stronger than them. You are already big and too manly because you are Black. You are allowed to work out just enough to be sexy. That’s your cap. You can also wear weaves now and be more creative with your makeup, but again, only within parameters that will change constantly. Also, if you get married, you should probably only be as decorated as your partner is comfortable with. After all, you do this for them. You really should marry within your race, especially you, and especially if you are defiant and decide to speak up for any rights that could result in your self-preservation.
Facing all of this might understandably develop fairly deep insecurities in you, and probably other Black women you know. That’s good news! Now, if you date the right man, you can get paid to have those socialized insecurities exploited on TV for the entertainment of anyone with access to the internet. You will definitely be judged on the power of the man you are attached to and how well he treats you. In fact, the man you are romantically attached to will be so central to your public identity that the word “wives” may even be in the show responsible for your rise to fame, whether the two of you were ever married or not. Again, unless you are super talented or have a great, expensive, supportive team behind you, good luck escaping image that if you ever decide to pursue any ventures outside of your relationship, even if it is over.
Let’s see, anything else? Only gently lend your opinion, even if you are more qualified to handle the problem at hand. If you stand up for other Black women then you are probably bitter and will be labeled as such (stand up for Black men though, even against Black women, and you are a temporary heroine. That is, unless a man’s achievements erase your contributions and in that case, oh well). If you excel in sports and you’re probably too manly. If you are too ambitious you are just trying to distract yourself until the right man comes along. If you stay where you are then you are too ghetto. Don’t ask your baby’s father to support his child, and don’t ever use government assistance if he doesn’t. Talk sweetly to non-black girls, no matter how wronged you were or passionately you feel. Otherwise they will say that what you said doesn’t have value. Work on being classy but just enough so that no one is threatened by you. Learn how to cook from scratch and do it all the time, and also keep that kitchen spotless. Allow men to dictate your stance should be on issues that affect only Black women, and not them (hint: no matter what the issue is or your experience with it, you are always overreacting). Allow men to tell you where to go, what to wear, what to look like, and what opinions to have.
If you are a Black woman lesbian, stay out of the way.
If you are a Black bisexual woman, either be open to several threesomes whether you like that stuff or not, or just be straight already.
If you are a Black transgender woman, cease to exist.
If you are a Black transgender man, cease to exist.
If you are a Black gender non-conforming person, quit trying so hard to just be yourself and stuff yourself into a socially acceptable category already.
By the way, being super talented and famous from this stage on doesn’t save you from sexist scrutiny. In fact, you are gonna be subjected to much more of it. Expect whatever success you have to be easily overshadowed by your romantic relationship status, and then your childbearing status. Hopefully you will have learned by this point that everyone expects you to be here for them, and not for yourself.
If you are still confused, you could just not care. You could join the numerous Black women that boldly defying the guidelines and breaking all the rules. The ones that refuse to remove their weaves or stop wearing makeup or straighten their hair to do things that they don’t want to do. Insufferable women who won’t stop having sex or who won’t cover up their bodies, or who refused to feel ashamed despite all the people trying to shame them. The ones who realize that they will be judged no matter how they live, and so they decide to live however they want to. Those selfish woman are working to change the conversation around the things they are passionate about, and around black women themselves.
You could be one of them. You could.
But who wants to go through all that just to be happy?
I think I realized that I didn’t have much power when I started school. I skipped kindergarten (much to my dismay) and went straight into 1st grade at a small town, mostly white, Christian, tight knit school where everyone’s parents knew each other and everyone had just finished graduating together three months before. They knew each other from being in the same neighborhoods, going to the same churches, attending the same fundraisers. Their older siblings were friends. They would carpool. They hung out together on the weekends and went to each other’s houses and had birthday parties I never heard about. I don’t think I made a single friend all year, except a little boy named Michael who I followed around because every once in a while he would turn around and say hi.
The girl with the most power (read: prettiest) in my class was a very pale girl named Mindy, with ice blue eyes and light blonde, curly hair. She wore a lot of pink and glitter.
The boy with the most power (read: the most athletic) was an olive-skinned boy named Jordan with green eyes and a buzz cut. He was the fastest boy in class, even though I beat him once or twice.
Once I got so sick of the isolation that I tried to curl my unstraightened hair with my mom’s curling iron. It didn’t look anything like Mindy’s. I didn’t understand. I thought I was pretty. I thought that I was nice. Why didn’t anyone like me?
We moved to Milwaukee for second grade and things completely changed. The school was still small and tight knit but it was completely Black and this time, I was in; I went to the same church, lived in the same areas, and began to grow up with my classmates. I went to the birthday parties, had people over at my house, and developed close friendships. People thought I was nice! But I noticed,
The most powerful (read: prettiest) girl in my class had relaxed hair, an upturned nose, and pretty pink and purple school supplies.
The most powerful (read: most athletic) boy in my class was fast, great at sports, and taught himself how to backflip (I can’t outrun him to this day).
I was good at sports too, and fairly athletic, but because sports were a “boy thing” I was almost never invited to play. In fact, I would find myself laughed out of the gym when I would yell “CHECK ME” while the other boys in my class played basketball. Also because I ran so hard at recess I was admittedly not neat and pretty like my female classmates, so no power there, either. Once again, I clung to one person (my sister, who is basically biologically required to be my best friend, HA) and wondered what was wrong with me. I begged my mom to relax my hair. She finally obliged.
In middle school I excelled in my academics, especially reading, much to the delight of my teachers who would literally announce my state test scores to the entire school like they were trying to get me killed. I was still athletic, still creative, and still much nicer than I am today.
Again, the power players in my school were as follows;
The most powerful (read: prettiest) girl had beautiful dark, basically poreless skin and long, soft hair (“It NEVER gets nappy” a male classmate once exclaimed to me in awe).
The most powerful (read: most athletic) boy was fast, hilarious, and now, experienced; he had dated four girls, two at the same time, by the time we graduated the eighth grade.
Me? I had acne, dressed in big clothes to hide my developing body, and sported weird mushroom hairstyles complete with ribbons (WHY MOM) to hide my breaking hair and bald edges. The word on the street was that I was ugly. Not athletic or funny or nice. I was thought of as smart, thanks to my teachers’ constant announcements, but my lack of cuteness prevailed over all. I remember overhearing more than one conversation about not just myself,
“(Insert girl’s name here) is so smart/talented/nice.”
“But she ugly tho!” *cackle cackle cackle*
Never one to accept a situation as what it is, I began to study my peers; what they dressed like, what they did with their hair, what they listened to, how they danced, even what they ate. Pretty was not what it used to be; in 1st grade having nice hair, bright colored clothes, and a cute smile (basically looking like you were ready to be cast in a Nickelodeon TV movie) were enough. But now that puberty hit,
I needed to be thin, but not too thin.
I had to have the right shape AND
My body had to deposit fat in the right places
My hair had to be long and flowing
My skin had to be clear
My current eyebrows were unacceptable
I had to wear makeup but be skilled enough with it that no one could tell
I had to wear the right styles, colors, trends, and brands.
I started my freshman year with a flat wrap (If you aren’t familiar, click on the word and refer the woman on the left of the picture that pops up), tweezed eyebrows, and fresh sneakers. I came to school the first day, wearing our school uniform. I came to a couple school events out of uniform with my new threads. People reacted coolly to me, instead of put off. Suddenly, I had the power to have a few people be nice to me, or at least indifferent, ensuring a little peace for once.
It was only a little bit of power.
BUT IT TASTED GOOOOOD.
I started shopping for Tommy Hilfiger clothes and K-Swiss. I graduated to a cell phone and hair appointments. I got more into makeup to cover my acne scars and accentuate my already very round lips. And kids started liking me even more.
SWEET, SWEET POWER.
Wore my jeans tighter.
Wore my braids down my back.
OMG DELICIOUS POWER.
Got a boyfriend.
HOLY FATHER THIS POWER TASTES SO GOOD THAT IT HAS TO BE FATTENING OH GAAAAAAWD.
I stopped serving things that didn’t give me power. Stopped reading as much. Stopped being athletic outside of PE class. Stopped being creative with how I dressed and did my hair (I had JUST gotten this power, I wasn’t going to mess it up with something like imagination. C’mon). I was afraid to experiment with crazy makeup outside of my dresser mirror, no matter how much I wanted to. Because while those things made me feel good, not being treated like less than by my peers made me feel better. Being invited to stuff and feeling included felt more important. Not sticking out was all I wanted to do. And I had subconsciously learned through my peers, my favorite books, my TV shows, music videos of my favorite music artists, ads, and even my parents than a woman’s main source of power is in the way she looks. Everything else was background.
The prettier the better, and it had to look effortless but also perfect.
Even and especially when you just wake up. All the sitcom brothers who made jokes about their pretty sisters made that clear.
Pretty also meant fit, but not too fit, and not too sweaty, because then you would be a manly slob and they had almost no power.
And nice clothes that showed off your figure, but not too much, because then you’d be a hoochie, who have some power but don’t get respect.
And you should hang out with a couple guy friends so that you seem chill, but not too many because then you are a hoe and they have power over some guys but “not the ones with sense”.
You should be smart, but not too opinionated.
Also domestic, but be experienced at life.
Flirty but not sexy, otherwise you are a hoe.
Go to parties but only certain ones and you should know the difference or you’re a hoe.
Love yourself but don’t show anyone that you love yourself because then you are a conceited hoe.
You have to talk a certain way and in the right spaces, otherwise you are either a ghetto hoe or a bougie hoe (I learned to code switch young as a result of this).
Also these rules seemed to change depending on your popularity status, race, age, who you were dating, who liked you, who your girlfriends were…a myriad of other things…
And while I was getting more practiced with keeping up with the rules (ya’ll, I looked at my sophomore year high school diary and I literately kept a list. WTF) I felt more confused and less powerful every day. This persisted at various levels for the next decade or so. “Looking pretty” evolved into “acting pretty” , which apparently included being quieter, having a sweet, high voice, being delightfully insecure, and delicate. Literally all of these are the antithesis of who I am. I was starting to lose the battle.
Starting to lose my power.
NOT MY HONEY SWEET ALL-CONSUMING HARD EARNED POWER.
In the interest of transparency I will admit that I went a little batshit. See last week’s post.
This only stopped when I stopped dating for a nice, long while. I moved away from my environment and was the most alone that I have ever been. I “unplugged” so to speak, spent a lot of time by myself, and realized that yeah.
Basically, this was all complete bullshit.
When I stopped subscribing to all of that I felt more powerful than ever.
Except that I still find myself analyzing my broad shoulders (from doing aerial silks) pinching my tummy (my buddy since birth) and pulling on my hair to make it stretch longer. As much as I kinda hate it, I still feel less powerful when I don’t feel attractive. For a long time, I chastised myself about that.
“I should love myself outside of my looks!”
“I shouldn’t care about my size!”
“I should be more positive about my body!”
“I…I…I!”… had to realize that I was living in an environment that put total emphasis on my looks and then shamed me for focusing on them at all. An environment that placed my access to power on something mostly in the control of genetics then shamed me for attempting to tip the playing field in my favor after I found that I was losing terribly.
An environment that told me that now that I was good at looking good, after years of study and practice, that my confidence was insufficient.
An environment that told me that I should be more secure with my natural self while indoctrinating me my whole life to be the opposite.
An environment that ignores that everyone strives to be more powerful, in one way or another, and that everyone has things their confidence hinges on.
Some people access power with looks.
Others with intelligence.
Some with connections.
Some with savvy.
Some with athleticism, some with association with an organization they respect, some with their art.
Some with talents
Some with noise, some with peace
Some with marriage, some with being detached
Some with their family name
Some with education, some with parlayed life experience
Some with assimilation, some with standing out.
Some, with ways that clash with their current environment or culture.
Some feel forced to abandon their uniqueness in order to avoid being powerless.
It’s all over the place.
And it’s all lost on the little kid watching their favorite show, wondering why the little girls never sweat and the little boys never preen.
The little kid that internalizes that this is “normal”, and should be the ultimate goal, and that uniqueness should be abandoned.
The little kid unconsciously deciding to give up the power they were born with, the very power that they will spend the rest of their lives trying to recover.
I tell myself the little boy’s story so that he seems more human to me.
He is the child of divorce and now only comes in with one parent at a time. It is obvious they overindulge him over the guilt of it. He rules the two of them, against each other too, it seems, or if nothing else he is totally capable of it.
His mother is soft spoken and easily controlled, a lesson he learned from his father, the epitome of entitlement and privilege (there are few combinations more pervasive or frustrating). He does, however, have a soft spot for his son. So when they move through the world together he sees everyone bow to his father, who bows to him, which makes him king.
Because of this imaginary position he places himself above the other kids at school, too, cutting them off when they speak in class and taking their toys, calling them dumb, and belittling them constantly; he is generally hated. He seems not to mind but he has to, because he can’t be over the age of 10 and kids that age need friends. Instead, he has parents, or subjects rather, that he commands around when he is unhappy, which is often.
This is why he doesn’t answer me when I greet him cheerfully, and ignores my attempts to engage with him and per my job description, which seems less and less possible with each minute I spend with him.
I still don’t like him.
But now I blame his parents.
My guy friend talks like he knows the story of the girl walking in front of us, evident by the finality and judgment in his tone, “I really hate when big girls wear shit that doesn’t fit. I don’t wanna look at that.”
Partially because I know him, and partially because I used to be him I know the story he is telling me.
She’s a lazy and greedy girl, jeopardizing her own health in lieu of taste because she is carnal and myopic. She doesn’t care what she looks like, what she comes off as, or where her life is going because her upbringing was as careless as her fashion. Her mother is living her inevitable future; bitterly working a dead end job she doesn’t have the ambition to leave, complaining about everything and contributing nothing (because let’s be honest, my friend does not consider whatever job she is working to be a worthy contribution). Because she is so negative she did not mind her hapless daughter.
And so her daughter, swaying in front of us, is loud and rude like other classless women, and they are the ones with the least worth. She dates men that are dirty and sleazy, the kind that also don’t care that she is not dressing “for her size”, or might even encourage it. They smoke and don’t shower. They are poor and stupid. They can do better but they refuse to, because on top of being poor and exposed, these people are often thought of as intentional too. So she meant to walk to close to us when we got off of the crowded train, meant to bump into the overloaded bag lady who passed very close, meant to offend us with the baring of her skin. She should put some more clothes on, except that she doesn’t have the decency to be embarrassed.
And since we feel like we know this woman we have never talked to, we scowl as she exists in front of us.
I find that the closer I am to someone, the more their story changes for me. My college roommate, the hilarious and smart pharmaceutical student that has a perfect life and nothing but opportunities has actually struggled with low self-esteem ever since she was molested as a kid. That bitch from 6th grade, the one who just seemed to get off on gossiping about me? Deep in the closet and being tortured for it by his father, while fielding threats of being outed by his cousins who went to the same school.
The pretty light-skinned girl with a complex about it, who wishes she were darker so that she could feel more connected.
The guy with the great body and an eating disorder.
The kid who dresses like the ultimate hipster because they has finally found style that fits them, but is ridiculed for being trendy.
An old boss who had the perfect family, who was enduring verbal abuse from them nearly daily.
The girl who looks sloppy and unkempt who is a budding and talented artist.
The big girl who is more body positive and confident then most other people I’ve had contact with.
And me. My story changes on the daily.
Today I am a brilliant writer with and even brighter future.
And sometimes I’m a powerful female warrior who owns the gotdamn sidewalk.
Sometimes I’m too muscular and plain.
Sometimes I’m the sexiest woman I know.
Sometimes I have an amazing support system, sometimes I’m all alone, sometimes I like it that way, and sometimes I want nothing more than for everything to change.
Sometimes I’m extremely brave, and other times, too impulsive.
There have been times when I can feel my story being told, and there is nothing I can do about it. Like my coworker who blames my tardiness on laziness and bad time management, ignorant to the fact that I have to take 3 buses to get to a job she is a 15 drive away from.
Or the friend of a friend who thinks I’m ghetto and slutty because he met me at a dance party where I danced my butt off, my only escape sometimes.
The old classmate who thinks I’m so brave and smart, even though I am wholly insecure about my life decisions from time to time, with hardly enough space in between.
A hundred stories that are only part of me, or none of me.
There are times when the story is completely true. Sometimes it’s only half true. Sometimes it’s a complete lie.
Always, the closer you get, the more it splits, shifts, changes and twists. There is never just one. They only follow the law of continuation.
There are always thousands of stories, a single person is a whole library that would make you laugh and cry and wince and sigh in one sitting, if you have the luxury.
I suppose you could call 12-year-old me a few cards short of a full deck.
Not the sharpest knife in the drawer.
Completely oblivious, like sitting-in -class –glassy- eyes oblivious, what the hell could a 12-year-old be thinking that hard about.
Something like that.
Before I was cool enough to be socially shamed I lived almost exclusively in my head. I had an imaginary friend until I was 14, secretly wrote stories about things that I can’t remember anymore, wrote daily in my Hello Kitty diary (I still have it. Riveting stuff) and was frequently caught talking to myself.
I actually don’t know which came first, the “weirdness” or the unpopularity, though the two generously lent to each other. What middle-schooler wants to hang out with the kid who pulls on her edges and only looks up when spoken to?
Not one that I knew.
Because I was so socially inept I didn’t learn the subtle nuances that have divulged into what we call “petty” today. I didn’t know about reading tones, or inclusionary remarks, or noticing little eyerolls (though to be fair, we did NOT skimp on the eye rolls in my middle school. You were getting at least 2.5 seconds of eye white AND a lip smack, partna). I pretty much expected that everyone hated me, thought that I couldn’t trust anyone but family, that my real life was hot garbage juice and that my imagination was a better place to be anyway. Also, I was super focused on my schooling and grades. No time to fuss about the girl next to me wearing the same hair clips as I was.
But then high school happened.
Gotdamn high school.
There were more kids, different styles, new boys (heeey) and AWL THE PUBERTY. Suddenly, there were kids around me that thought I was kinda cool. I wasn’t super weird. I had boobs. My allowance got raised to $10 a week. I was a less-weird, boobed, baller shot caller now, and I had to learn the ropes fast. I already had girlfriends. Now I needed a boyfriend, a car, a cell phone, stuff from Claire’s, and apparently lots and lots of lip gloss. While before I had been totally satisfied sequestered into my head, now my imagination and ignorance to social rules was unacceptable. I needed to get to work. Like yesterday.
I became obsessed with tight shirts, lace up jeans, and shellacking my lips. I watched makeover movies and read LOTS of Sweet Valley High books (yes I was that kid, hush up). I subscribed to Seventeen magazine and got way into makeup. I hung out at the mall, went to teen clubs, and wore high heels to run errands.
It was at the height of this confusion and insecurity that I was awakened to the “petty” (though back then we called it bogus, shady, or shiesty) of friendhood. I learned when to “oooo” and “whaaat” and “oh uh uh” at certain phrases, pretending that my slick-lipped ass knew what anyone was talking about. I didn’t. It was obvious, especially since I didn’t have much drama of my own to report. I had a boyfriend but we were pretty much drama free, no matter how much I tried to play up disagreements we’d had to my poor, bored friends.
I had to do better.
In college, arguably the most insecure time of my life, I really got the hang of it. I was so close to what I considered “normal” that I could taste it. There were beautiful girls on my campus that I could model myself after. I got a conventionally cute boyfriend. I did my hair the right way. I dressed the right way. I was so obsessed with being my version of normal that I stopped creating anything else altogether. I stopped reading, stopped writing, stopped thinking about things too deeply. I got a little job and a little apartment and a little group of friends. I was normal. And unhappy as fuck.
Enter full-fleged, authentic, bonafide, Real Housewives of (pick any damn city at this point) petty. Ohhhh boy.
Anyone I dated got it. My friends got it (although they didn’t know, if I found myself overanalyzing a friend’s actions I would avoid them completely). Coworkers, teachers, student workers, people who knew people that I knew, yall, ANYONE could get it. My sister both heard about and received the brunt of it. LAWD. Everyone close to me had to act and speak and believe the right way, or we’d have a passive aggressive problem.
More passive than aggressive, though.
It was EXHAUSTING. I’m not sure I have every felt lower than when I felt the need to command everyone around me.
There was a point, right before I upped and moved to Chicago, and I just kinda let go. It’s like my hand slipped off an already slippery railing and I was finally falling into the unknown that had been pulling at me for decades.
Back into the unknown, I should say, because years of living on my own in a city and time when weird is in has brought me right back to talking to myself, odd fashion, creating furiously, and utter obliviousness. I carried some things from my normal days with me, an obsession with makeup and bright colors, tight clothes, and a little touch of edge, namely. I’m like…formed or something.
It’s weird. And it’s bliss mostly.
Thankfully I have friends who I don’t have to decode and who are delightfully weird themselves so, it works. My life works. My petty-sense doesn’t tingle anymore, and my focus is on my contribution, not the subtleties of the people communicating around me. I’ve grown past it, yay look at me in well-adjusted adulthood.
That is, of course, until a bout of insecurity or instability hits me, when I feel like the big stuff is too much to handle, and so I focus on the little stuff again.
Like what was that look she gave me before she said that thing.
And why did he look like that when I said hi to him he didn’t look like that yesterday.
Why hasn’t he texted me all day.
Did that email have a “tone”.
Do they talk about me when I’m not around.
Why does this person never like my stuff on social media.
Little things that could very well mean things but that do me no good to over analyze.
I have to realign myself when I get like that. Thankfully I can recognize it now. I talk to my close friend/neighbor/supervisor and tell her “I’m being silly” and she says “But you have the right to be upset about stuff”, which makes me feel less petty. Then I talk to my sister who says “this is unlike you” and we talk about what’s actually going on, that I’m stressed about my future and my legacy. And when I’ve figured that out, when I’m finally focused on what I want for my life, then I don’t care who cuts their eyes at me when I walk past anymore.
I’m still petty, I think. It’s addictive; it makes me feel like I am in control. It makes me feel powerful and observant, and it is a great distraction. It’s even fun, putting pieces together, figuring out what little innuendo might mean, treating someone differently based on what you’ve put together and then watching them react.
It can be delicious.
But ultimately it makes me more nervous and anxious than the thing I’m running from, and I fold back into my mind palace, and forget that anyone else exists.
There is a video. There is a hashtag. There are several shares and comments.
Don’t click the video. DO NOT watch the video.
Tap on the clip. Watch it. Watch it again. Shove your dog away from your face as she tries to lick your tears and WATCH IT AGAIN.
Feel tingling in your arms.
Feel yourself sinking.
Do your legs feel like lead?
Make them move. You have to go.
Don’t click on the comments.
Justification after justification.
Grief and anger and maddening privileged arrogance.
Your heart is beating fast and it’s hard to concentrate.
What will we do?
Doesn’t matter anyway.
I hear that’s learned helplessness.
This is going to end the same way it did when you were a kid, and the same way that it has for the past year.
Toss the phone aside.
Not so hard that it almost breaks.
Summon the energy to eat, even though your food tastes like dust and sits like stones in your stomach.
Turn a cartoon on while you get ready.
You never know.
Your optimism is back. Good.
Walk to the train station while listening to Kendrick Lamar.
That feels better.
Go back to social media. The news is everywhere and nowhere.
Notice who isn’t talking about it.
Try not to notice who isn’t talking about it.
Start comparing your community to others.
Is their humanity more deserving?
Start wondering why those who aren’t talking about this are talking about that.
Rethink your relationship with every person active on social media who is silent about this.
Commanding your thoughts is harder than you think.
Think about growing up. Think about your friends who are still back home and the pervasiveness of the oppression that raised you.
Think about your friends. Think about your brother and your cousins.
Get out of your head. Things have gotten too intense.
Remove your earbuds. Notice happy privilege getting on and off the train. Listen to their conversation.
Think about the worst.
Feel angry that they don’t have to think about this.
They don’t care. They don’t even have to care.
Get to work. Smile.
Lightly grimace at micro aggressions like you always do. Ignore the fact that they feel like stabs to the chest each time.
Your bias contributes to the overarching stereotype that Black people are more intentional, rude, and dangerous by default. Your indifference allows this to continue. YOU ARE CONNECTED TO THIS YOU IGNORANT FUCK.
DON’T SAY THAT OUT LOUD.
Calm down. Look down or away every time you hear the word “black” or “police” or “gun” or “political”.
They might not be talking about you.
Everyone is talking about me and yet it feels like no one cares.
Fight it. Don’t cry. How would even explain why you are crying.
Are you ok, your coworker asks?
Yes. Because you don’t have the strength to say no.
Yeah, just dealing with some stuff.
Talk about things that don’t matter.
Hope that no one brings up the hashtag or the name or the video because then you will scream and after that who knows what.
Hope that everyone brings up the hashtag because maybe then you would actually feel a sense of support and community.
Pick at your fingernails.
Forget. You might not have the chance to later.
I feel a little better now.
Starting thinking about the attack on your community because how could you not?
OMG. Hide your face.
Dab the tears away carefully so that black trails down your face don’t tell on you.
Get a donut or a cookie on the way home. It might help.
I don’t want this.
Throw it away.
Go home. Call your family.
Is everyone ok?
Of course not. They are as fucked up about this as you are.
Argue and connect and say tsk tsk tsk, and mmmhmmm when Mom says the world is ending anyway ish mwe, pray for God to return, blah blah blah.
Hang up now.
I feel worse than before.
Are you empty yet?
Scroll throw social media like a zombie.
Try to comment. Try to formulate a single coherent thought.
Try to articulate your feelings to anyone.
I….I just…I don’t know…
Are you empty yet?
Turn on some cartoons.
Brush your teeth.
Remove your makeup.
Walk the dog a last time.
Get in bed.
Turn off the lamp and set the alarm.
Repeat until the world forgets and your humanity has returned.
Her hair is blonde and long, and curls into soft waves.
It’s wispy along her forehead, which is so light and translucent that I can see her cheeks flush.
She has a little round heart mouth that is closed tight, and pale blue eyes that follow my hands as they bring my fork to my mouth.
She doesn’t look away even though I’m now looking back.
She looks familiar, like an angel I saw in a Bible storybook with lots of pictures. It had little wings and was being told the story of Jesus’ birth.
She looks also like all the pretty dolls at the toy store, the ones from the commercials, the doll that maybe comes in other colors that you won’t see unless you stop by.
She looks like a girl from a movie I watched once. She looks like a girl from a bunch of movies I’ve watched.
in the movie
she is an orphan, sometimes a dancer, sometimes a kid secret agent, sometimes a rich princess, sometimes a misunderstood daughter and sometimes the girl who summons wind machines every time she walks into a room. Sometimes she grows up to be a star, or a business woman, or a black widow, or a top scientist or a superhero with a mask.
Or maybe I’m thinking about Cupid, wow she looks JUST like Cupid, adorable and round with healthy, rosy cheeks and a bow mouth that purses above a button chin.
And then I realize
that I don’t want to imagine from where she might recognize