Chained to the White Man

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By Tiffany Williams

Fuck the white man who told me
Dyslexia was an incurable disease
That being left-handed was worse than
Being Right

Momma told me to be silent when the white man was talking
Told me to listen to the white man
Act like the white man
Dye my hair blond
Get blue contacts
Don’t tan, you’re already dark
Go to the beauty supply store
Buy European hair and forget your roots
Momma said, Don’t dream… It’s too dangerous

Too afraid of saying the wrong thing
When the wrong thing was the right thing to say

Fuck you Soddy Daisy Elementary
made me afraid to be myself at 8
Mrs. Smith, my second grade teacher
never called on me
thought I didn’t know the answer
didn’t get picked for the spelling bee
no praise for the perfect scores
no smiley face sticker, no “good job”

Fuck the white kids
called me a Nigger at recess
Ate alone at lunchtime
An apple, cold turkey and cheese sandwich, my companions
5 feet of space between me and the table full of whispers
and wide open eyes
I heard them call me monster
Said my hair looked like weeds
Nothing you kept in your yard
I hung my head low
Eyes never met my enemies
I thought we were kids
and hatred couldn’t exist

Fuck the month of February
During black history month
teacher told me, Speak
Tell the story of your people
Couldn’t they see
That I didn’t know a Damn thing?
That I was learning too?

At home momma told me
“you can’t eat, until your homework is done”
I worked for hours
Math, more Math
Math
English, More English
English
Science, more Science
Science
Gotta get ahead if you wanna survive in this world
But would I ever get ahead?
Was it even possible?

Nighttime
Heard momma yellin
Daddy cussin
Hid in my closet
Prayin
Momma bleedin on the kitchen floor.
Knew I was never gonna get married.

Momma was right
I listened to the white man
Held my tongue for the white man
Relaxed my hair for the white man
Wore baggy clothes to hide my curves
Didn’t sit outside, too afraid to get too dark
Forgot what it was like to walk proud, head held high
Wait…
I was never taught that

When Construction and Feminism Meet Somewhere In Between

Dear James,

I often think of us as quite different.

When I was losing sleep about passing high-school AP exams and getting a top score on the SAT, you were writing songs on your guitar and riding your BMX bike at the skate park. I keep a collection of books —  bell hooks, Alice Walker, Cornel West, Adrienne Rich–, while you keep a collection of vinyl –Tom Waits, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, The Velvet Underground. I drink red wine. You chew tobacco.

Your appearance is the epitome of straight masculinity–your body muscled, not because you have spent a day in the gym, but because five days a week you swing hammers, dig ditches, and set housing foundations. If I did not know you and were to pass you on the street, I would most likely create a deep chasm of separateness between us.

You don’t identify as a feminist and we don’t use the same language. You aren’t familiar with words like heteronormativity, agency, intersectionality, transnationalism. You’ve never heard of Simone de Beauvoir, Sojourner Truth, Audre Lorde, or Gloria Stienem, and you don’t own any shirts exclaiming “This is What a Feminist Looks LIke.” But for me, you don’t need any of this. I already see it– your feminism– however tacit it may be, underpinning all your ordinary and audacious acts of openness, friendship, and love.

I see it when your girlfriend, a 22 year-old nurse, calls you in tears, fearful she might not succeed in her new job. You softly remind her, “Hanna, you are OK. You are amazing. Starting something new is always challenging at first.”

I see it when you show me pictures of you with your girlfriend’s gay father and his boyfriend in the Castro at San Francisco’s Pride. This is a reminder that somehow you never inherited the subtle and not-so-subtle homophobia of the 90 percent white, ‘Good Ol’ Boys’ small town of our childhood.

I see it in your accepting smile when I tell you I’ve fallen in love with a woman when the rest of our family stares with anger, shame, and indifference.

I see it when during a cross-country drive to New York you accompany me to what is likely the only gay bar in Omaha, Nebraska. We walk into a dark, music-less room, covered with pictures of bears–something I explain to you later. It’s 9 PM on a Wednesday night and the bar has only two people– the bar tender and an older man sipping a whiskey and coke.

“I’m sorry, James. Maybe we should just leave.” You grab my hand. “Come on, we’re already here.” You sit down, order two Budweisters, and say to the 20-something serving drinks, “So this is Omaha?”

I see it when in downtown Columbus, Ohio, bustling with college students dining at hip bars and expensive restaurants, you explain your theory of ‘the scene’ to me.

“It’s about three things: popularity, education, and money. Guys like me don’t have these things.”

In my ignorance, I haven’t realized that you too are looking atthe world with a critical lens, constructing yoru own narrative. “I see it all the time, Carly. Like when you say you’re going to graduate school and people respond with an excited ‘How wonderful!’ or an encouraging ‘Good for you!’ I say I work construction and people let out a hesitant ‘Ohhhh….'”

I see it when you’re helping me lift my bookshelf that will hold the books in which you are thoroughly uninterested up three flights of stairs to my apartment.

I see it in your refusal to be different than you are when we are going into Manhattan and I try to tell you that you should wear something besides your faded Vans, ripped 501 Levis and the red shirt you found at the Salvation Army with a yellow Iguana and the words “It’s rockin’ in Cancun, Mexico.” You respond, “No, this really works for me.”

Most significantly I see your love that is rooted in feminism when I confess my fear that I might not be good enough for graduate school, that perhaps it was an accident I was accepted. You simply laugh and say, “Stop believing lies, Carly.”

You remind me that as much as I try to deconstruct and distance myself from ‘the scene’ you describe, I also contribute to and benefit from my membership within it. I know it is not your intent to challenge me, to encourage a rethinking of my politics and consciousness. Yet you’ve deepened my understanding and stretched my boundaries of what it means to be and act as a feminist.

You are a constant example that feminism is much more than books, fancy words, or credentials from academic institutions. At its core it is about love and connection.

In your love you are political–a radical, a feminist.

With gratitude,

Your sister in feminism

Finding Feminism in my Grandmother’s Georgia

Dear Grandma,

I have often wondered about the days when you were young. The days before your children. The days before you divorced your first husband. Before you fell in love with your second. The days before you sported a perfectly combed Afro. The days when you drove a tractor, plowing your grandfather’s farm. The days when you played the dozens.

When I imagine you young Grandma, I see a brown girl toting schoolbooks and dreams down a dirt road in Pinehurst, Georgia. A brown girl telling the world to make space for her brown hands and brown eyes and brown elbows and brown hips. You walk down this road with your head held high, passing corner stores and lynching trees, and stick ball games daring anyone to question your humanity, your fullness. I imagine this moment and I take comfort in knowing that you are my grandmother.

I imagine you young and I ask myself: did you know that you would one day teach me how to love my little brown girl self?  That you would be my first example of radical black feminism?

And because I know you, I know that should you read this, you will scoff at the word feminism. To you, like many black women making a way in the Jim Crow South, feminism belonged to white women. Not you. Feminism would not pay your bills, would not feed your children, and would not soothe your back pain after a long days work. There was no place for you inside a feminism defined by a society that had always deemed you inferior.

But Grandma, you are radical. You have fashioned entire worlds with your hands, creating magical spaces for my little brown girl self as we baked homemade cheesecakes and stitched quilts. You taught me how to pray to the Goddess of little brown girls, how to thank her for my own brown hands and brown eyes brown elbows and brown hips. You told me the secrets of vitamin E oil, disclosed the potency of a glass of apple cider vinegar and water, and reminded me that I should live harmoniously with the earth.

Before I fell in love with Zora’s stories or began to quote Audre’s poetry or recite Toni’s manifestos, I had you Grandma. I stand at the edge of the universe with my arms wide open because Grandma, you have taught me that a woman with her arms closed is not ready to receive her blessings. A woman with her arms closed can serve no one. And what is a life devoid of service?

As a caretaker for the elderly and sick, you are proof that healing does not come by medicine alone but through kind words and laughter and healthy doses of sweet tea- antidotes not bound by the politics of race or class or sexuality. Your arms are open to all.

Perhaps, you will choose to describe your life in another way but I imagine you young Grandma, toting schoolbooks and dreams down a dirt road in Pinehurst, Georgia, and some part of me just knows that you have always understood your power. There is nothing more radical, more feminist than this.  I will always be grateful to you for that lesson.

Love,

Jessica

To My Partner- Marching in Feminism

Dear Kamau Nkosi,

You are a silent feminist. Not a loud, verbose, self-righteous, attention-seeking, ‘all-hail-feminism’ type of feminist. You have never been the one to post soliloquies on Facebook to parade your liberalism or acceptance of gender equality. Because, for you, your actions are more important than words posted on a digital platform where sentences and ideas live only for half a second.

You are the feminist that attacks with calculated intentions.

You penetrate the thirsty minds who thought they knew about systematic enslavement, second wave feminism, the prison-industrial complex, Angela Davis, bell hooks, and Sybrina Fulton and challenge them so nonchalantly that they have to self-reflect on their own ignorance and misconceptions.

When I say you are a feminist, some people might think of it as a negative. But I ask: why can’t a man be a feminist? I don’t understand why some men are afraid to claim feminism as a philosophy that they believe. In their minds, feminism equates to radicalism or women only. In reality, feminism utilizes race, sex, gender, and class as tools of analysis to address economic reform, health care, stop and frisk laws, social issues, and politics. It’s an all-inclusive philosophy that should be integrated in the way we think about policy and reform. It should not be considered the exception or an option women seek because they hate men.

When you organize events like the Bronx Defender’s Block Party, Youth Justice Summit and your trips to City Hall to rally on behalf of Ramarley Graham, you stay awake countless nights planning, pondering, sending emails, and worrying because your passion for justice is not just a thing you do. It is who you are.

I see your love for feminism when you buy me books by bell hooks and expose me to shows like “The Wire” where the victims are chained to a socioeconomic space from which they are unable to escape.  Because black mothers couldn’t be mothers, black fathers couldn’t be fathers, and teachers can’t teach because politics and power govern policy and the police.  And in the end, jail becomes home to petty crimes and black faces that thought selling heroine would grant them self-esteem.

In reality, no else was around to teach them how to dream.You realize that the tools for self-empowerment and self-liberation are not equally distributed amongst everyone.

You understand that beauty wears many shades, comes in different heights, and in different shapes. And despite the shortness of my kinky golden curls, you have never sent me a text message that read “I think you look better with long hair, a woman should have long hair.”  Hair, for you, never determined a woman’s beauty. It was the confidence and the way she carried her crown that made her beautiful. Thank you for never placing beauty in a box.

Even though you are quiet in your actions, you are deliberate and thoughtful. You may not knock on a thousand doors to announce your presence or intentions. But when you decide to knock on one, it has a ripple effect and everyone listens…including myself.

Thank you.

Smiley

At First I Believed in Fairytales and then Came Bruce Lansky

I was a whimsical six-year-old, preferring to inhabit the elaborate realms constructed in my imagination instead of the real world. During playtime I’d become whoever I wanted to be that day. Sometimes that was fairly simple: I’d play ‘teenager,’ which solely involved pretending my chocolate milk was coffee. More often, however, I’d fashion myself into a much more elaborate character, usually inspired by a favorite story or movie. Depending on my mood, I could be Eloise ruling the Plaza Hotel, or Angelina Ballerina sashaying across a stage.

Disney films offered an especially seductive world. I relished the chance to be beautiful, to be in love, to live happily ever after, tropes that delimited female fulfillment as branded by Disney. Snow White, Ariel and their cohorts were happy and successful—and really, that’s all I wanted to be. So I’d become a princess.

When I was in first grade, my mom brought home a new book of bedtime stories, Girls to the Rescue. This collection of folk tales edited by Bruce Lansky, recounts tales of heroines succeeding without the intercession of fairy godmothers and dashing princes. Its varied protagonists rely on wit, instead of magic or beauty, to overcome obstacles.

I hated it. The stories left me unsatisfied. To me, none of the main characters got truly happy endings: they’d achieve their goals, but not the passive marital bliss I had anticipated. Because in my mind, “happily ever after” defined female success. I could not sever the girls in the stories from the established archetype I cherished. I felt sorry for the stories’ protagonists: they’d been cheated of a true happiness.

But my mom kept reading, and soon the stories started to grow on me. I became comfortable with these new female characters, and with them a novel appreciation for their tenacity. Subconsciously, my simple six-year-old mind reoriented itself towards female protagonists. Girls to the Rescue told about heroes unqualified by their femininity. These adventurers, uninhibited by proscriptions along gender lines, opened up an unprecedented, exciting window in my imagination.

Girls to the Rescue altered my perception of other girls, which catalyzed a change in my expectations for myself, of those faraway dreams I could achieve through my own action and determination. And so I thank you, Bruce Lanksy, for coaxing me into taking that first step towards empowerment. Without my realizing it at the time, Girls to the Rescue helped me develop an inchoate feminism that redefined not only my imagination but my sense of self.

Later that same year, I watched the original Star Wars trilogy for the first time. I proceeded to watch it every day for the next several years. I adored Luke Skywalker, the noble, light-saber wielding hero. I began devoting my daydreams to Jedi training and X-Wing maneuvering. I disregarded Princess Leia entirely.

Princesses were boring.

Thank you Bruce Lansky,

Nicole McCormick