Perspectives on Race #2: Jamie, From the Midwest

We need to have a conversation about race.

How would you describe yourself?
Jamie: “
White American with strong connection to my German heritage, as many of our customs/language stem from my grandparents’ German upbringing. I’m also ‘25% Irish’ according to my dad’s family, but aside from my last name and a few small things, there’s not much impact in my life from it.

My mom brought us up in Christian churches (non-denom, Baptist, Evangelical), and while I am most familiar with it, I took a big step away from it. I’m at the ‘learning and waiting’ stage. Hometown is hard to describe, as we moved a lot and where I grew up changed a lot. Could be Milwaukee, Richfield, Menomonee Falls, Slinger.”

Name: Jamie
Race: White
Ethnicity: Midwestern German American
Hometown: Milwaukee, Wisconsin & Slinger, Wisconsin
Place of Residence: New York City, New York
Any other places you consider home: Chicago, Illinois.
“I lived there in my first 9 years out of school, on my own, making my own world. Feels much more like ‘home’ than Milwaukee or Slinger (where my parents live now and where I graduated HS).”  Continue reading “Perspectives on Race #2: Jamie, From the Midwest”

Tuck Fexas

(You Should Talk To Your Children About Race)

You should talk to your children about race.

I’m a redneck woman, I ain’t no high class broad.
I’m just a product of my raisin’, I say hey y’all and yee-haw.
And I keep my Christmas lights on on my front porch all year long, and I know all the words to every Tanya Tucker song. 

So here’s to all my sisters out there keeping it country. Let me get a big “hell yeah” from the redneck girls like me! 

Hell yeah!

In 4th grade gym class, we learned how to dosey doe and promenade to the Cotton Eye Joe.

I don’t really remember what that means, but I remember that a whole lotta people were hella excited about it, and we got to wear cowboy boots!
I owned a couple pair back in the day.

In grade school, I had some that were more traditional– a faded, rustic-looking pair that were weathered and leather and deep, struggle brown.
In high school, I went all out. I bought a knee-length, zebra print pair made of spandex and vinyl.  Continue reading “Tuck Fexas”

You Don’t Get To Decide (Black on Both Sides)

We need to have a conversation about race.

I volunteered to help out with White History Month at my church.

I sat in on some planning sessions, and I wrote a few perspective pieces (from the perspective of white men and women) for the role-play.

Only a few people knew that I’d written them, so many were surprised to learn later that the perspectives were mine. My friends boasted that I was such a talented writer for fooling everyone into believing that they were written by someone white.

I smiled graciously.

They were easy to write. Before I was black on both sides, I was white.

When I was white, it wasn’t on purpose. It wasn’t intentional. It started because I was a square peg coveting circles.

It started because I stuck out everywhere, even when I didn’t want the attention. Even when race and gender didn’t play a role, I just didn’t seem to belong anywhere.

I struggled to build connections and make real friends. I struggled to find people who cared about me and cared about the things I was interested in too.

I wanted to be a stunt doubleContinue reading “You Don’t Get To Decide (Black on Both Sides)”

Sometimes They Come Back

I was six when my grandmother passed away, so I don’t remember much about her. What I can piece together is vague and, because of its lack of specificity, unsatisfying.
I know that she had a large family and that she was one of just a few girls in a house dominated by brothers. I know that she had thick, coarse, black hair that contrasted against the lightness of her skin. I know that she had two children: my father and his sister.
I don’t remember the color of her eyes, but I can look back at old photographs. I don’t remember her height, but I imagine that she must have been shorter than my father.
When I was a baby we visited her house constantly. I don’t remember the colors or the smells, or even who might have lived there with her.
I know that she was well-loved and that her death, early on in her 50s, was unexpected; and because it was unexpected, tragic.
Out of the four, she was the only grandparent I could know. My mother’s  mother died when my mother was young, and I didn’t know my parents’ fathers.
Because I was six, I didn’t understand grief or mourning. I knew that my father—who was always a quiet man of little expression—seemed sullen and sadder than I had ever known. I knew that my sister, who was almost 9, was affected too because Grandma was her favorite.
She started asking a lot of questions about her once she was gone, but there was little space for answers in a house of mourning.
Because we were six and almost nine, my father, who married my mother as a teen, must have been in his late 20s, a year or so shy of 30.
We were ill-equipped to console him, but I carry that memory with me.

  1. The memory of abrupt and sudden loss.
  2. The memory of youth and the inconvenience of it.
  3. The memory of the ways death and dying can bring the living closer.

When I was eight, we moved to a different house in a different neighborhood. The move was insignificant and anti-climactic, but the neighbors—an elderly, affectionate couple—were eccentric and warned us about benign but consistent spirits.
Sometimes they come back.
My asthma medication made me stocky. Any time I’d catch a cold it would trigger my asthma, and I’d find myself struggling to breathe. I remember taking slow, measured steps throughout the house, counting the rhythm against the pace of my breathing.
The neighbors who could sense my struggle, urged my mother to draw a horizontal line on the wall near the doorframe right above my head– to indicate my height. When I passed the line, I would grow out of my asthma.
My mother smiled politely and laughed nervously. Although she was skeptical, as soon as they left she grabbed a Sharpie and ushered me towards the door.
The strangeness that came later was subtle.
Although I’d taken my inhaler for years (and had a larger, bulkier, light blue, breathing treatment for near misses), I started to see a big purple haze whenever I used it.
The purple haze made me feel like I was floating above everyone, and I didn’t like it. Whenever I could get away with it, I’d pretend that I couldn’t find it.
I expected the lights to flicker or the doors to slam suddenly and dramatically, but there was none of that. What happened was much simpler. What happened seemed to not really happen at all.
Sometimes my sister would pile all the clean clothes up on her bed as high as she could pile them. Then she’d squeeze in tight and drift peacefully off to sleep. The first time it happened my dad froze in the doorway. He was silent, but I could tell he was affected.
When she woke later, he asked if she’d slept that way because she missed Grandma. No one understood what he meant.
We spent most of our days as kids do—creating problems, building fake sand castles, and dreaming elaborate dreams.
My mother says that my sister is just like our father’s mother. She shares her softness and her heaviness and her subtlety. She has her mannerisms and her temperament and her punctuality.
When she passed away, we always felt that she needed more time with us and more time with my father.
In our haunted house, it seemed like she was far from gone and very, very near.
Sometimes they come back.
Sometimes they come back in order to be near us. To assuage our fears and put our hearts at ease.
Sometimes, it’s to remind us that their memory lives on and that we can never truly lose them.
Sometimes, it’s to teach us something we’ve lost, or something we’ve forgotten, or something that we’re capable of but haven’t fully actualized.
Sometimes we imagine that they’ve returned. We are young or scared or overwhelmed by grief. We make ourselves see them in friends we love or friends we loathe or lovers not yet borne.
We imagine that they are with us always, because if they are gone, we will lose ourselves completely.
I grew out of my asthma a few years after college.
In grade school, I was hospitalized frequently and consistently. Three inhalers were always available, one as back up not too far behind.
After college, the first time I got sick but didn’t need my inhaler, I called my mother excitedly from Chicago. I reminded her of the little house in that quiet neighborhood back when I was eight, “I grew past the line! I grew past the line!”
She couldn’t place the reference at first, but then light but nervous laughter, “The one that was haunted by your grandmother?”
Sometimes we don’t imagine them because we are so desperate to believe.
Sometimes, they come back.

Black On Both Sides

When I was white, it wasn’t on purpose. It wasn’t intentional. It started because I was a square peg coveting circles. It started because I stuck out everywhere, even when I didn’t want the attention. Even when race and gender didn’t play a role. I just didn’t seem to belong anywhere.
About seven years ago the Ensemble Theater introduced “The Ballad of Emmett Till” in Houston. It was a work of musical theater meant to share the story of his life. I wouldn’t have known about it, except that there is a picture of the playbill that hangs in a frame on the wall of the museum.
I started volunteering there because I wanted to learn more about art, and I wanted to meet other people. While I was sitting at the front desk today, a family came in. The parents wandered over to Faith Ringgold’s exhibition while the boy wandered over to the picture on the wall—captivated by Till’s beaming face—a young black boy, similar in age and appearance.
He was excited to see a picture of someone his age who looked so much like him, so he ran over to his father to share the news. “Look! Who is that? Is he famous? What did he do?”
I winced, but turned my head– pretending to refold shirts that sat comfortably on the shelves. But the father, unfazed and unfettered, looked him squarely in the eyes. Without malice, shame, or horror he retold the story of Emmett Till.
I winced again in secret, feeling an old, familiar, deeply rooted pain.
Why are these the stories of our children?
Why does our desire to tell the truth to our children create sadness and fear and harm?  Is it better that we keep this trauma hidden, at least to a certain age?
My lord.
When I was white, it wasn’t on purpose. It wasn’t intentional. It started because I was a square peg coveting circles. I wanted what they had.
It started because I stuck out everywhere, even when I didn’t want the attention. Even when race and gender didn’t play a role. I just didn’t seem to belong anywhere.
I struggled to find connections and make real friendships. I struggled to find people who cared about me and cared about the things I was interested in.
For the first few years, I didn’t know that I was white. I was colorblind and compassionate. If you had asked me, I would’ve said something like race doesn’t matter, or that race isn’t real.
We all struggle. We all suffer. We all set out to carve our own path.
In the last few years that I was white, I was sullen and bitter. I was angry because of the boxes I was put in. It wasn’t my fault that the things I enjoyed were already assigned to a white majority. People needed to be more open-minded and less-bigoted.
When I was white, I subscribed to a few truths I held self-evident. I believed them to be both universal and unequivocal.

  1. I believed that we all sunk or swam by our own merit. I am the captain of my ship. I am the master of my sail.
  2. I believed that we all should be held accountable for our choices.
  3. I believed that if we failed to launch—we only had ourselves to blame. Poverty came from a lack of ingenuity and a failure to make good choices.

I loved Keifer Sutherland and Robin Williams. I aspired to attend USC and to play beach volleyball professionally. I loved penny loafers and Clueless and idolized Edgar Allan Poe and Stephen King.
I preferred my hair blond and curly. I critiqued the way people mispronounced words. I mocked their intonation.
I went by Yvonne because it seemed less ethnic, less southern, and less stereotypically black than Anjeanette.
Jonathan Taylor Thomas was one of my favorites. Hanson’s Weird was on repeat. I studied Latin in high school and again in college, and I opted to attend a predominately white institution for undergrad. And again for grad school. And again for grad school. And again for grad school (the struggle).
I loved old musicals and Audrey Hepburn. I wore faux pearls and French buns.
I didn’t aspire for whiteness as a pathway to perceived security or luxury. I was just a square peg coveting circles.
I don’t mean to imply that being white is problematic. Race is a social construction, which means it was made up. I also don’t mean to imply that other cultural groups can’t enjoy and experience whatever they’d like, cultural appropriation aside (more on that later).
But it is a problem, as a by-product of our location and time, to choose whiteness and idolize it for the sake of economic gain. Worse still, just to have what we perceive would be an easier, simpler, and more comfortable life.
Becoming black again was long and arduous, but in ways I never imagined it would be, it was easier. I found her inside myself, and I loved her. I loved her fiercely.
When my niece was born so many memories came flooding back—so many decisions I made for the sake of a separate peace and a simple life.
I worried (in advance) for her livelihood. I worried (in advance) for her heart.
I didn’t want her to have the same questions I had, to have the same insecurities. I wanted her to know and believe that she was loved unequivocally: completely and without conditions. Regardless of who she might become. Regardless of what she might do or say. Regardless of what she might worship or who she might choose to love or how she might choose to express her identity.
I wanted her to feel complete and whole and powerful. Capable of anything and everything she could dream. Not bound by a need or by an expectation to look a certain way, sound a certain way, dance a certain way, cook a certain way, worship a certain way, or love a certain way.
Not bound by an expectation of how much she should weigh. Not bound by the idea that black people aren’t supposed to be smart, or that women aren’t good at Math or Science. Or that a woman’s purpose is to be a helpmate for her husband.
When I was white, it wasn’t on purpose. I was a square peg coveting circles.
Not because they were circles and I disliked being square, but because there was a noticeable difference in their lives. There was a different expectation for their families and their children. There was a different expectation for their wealth, motivation, and drive. Different expectations and belief in their capacity and willingness to be good people, upstanding citizens, voters, caretakers, stewards, and lovers. Leaders and thinkers and visionaries and romantic leads in the most popular romantic comedy.
There was a different expectation of their ability to be human.
I didn’t become white on purpose.
But becoming black on both sides again has been an awakening, a rebirth, a reconciliation. A Women of Brewster Place brick by brick by brick homecoming.
I am home.

Save Tonight.

My mother used to make our clothes when we were younger. In fifth grade my favorite was a black and green checkered pattern two-piece. The top fit like a suit jacket with box shoulders and mid-length sleeves. The bottoms were shorts that swam past my knees. Whenever I’d wear it, I’d get permission to wear my hair down (what, what?!).
I. WAS. STYLISH.
In seventh grade my favorite was a white dress littered with pastel-colored roses. It had adjustable straps that were perfect for playing volleyball during study hall last period. I was so proud that she’d made them just for me, and no one else could say they had anything like it.
Her sewing machine was sacred. Sometimes I would sneak into her closet and try to master it. I’d always stop half-way through—scared that I’d break it, or that she’d catch me and wonder why I was hiding in the closet.
She would’ve kept making them for us as long as we were grateful, but I wanted new clothes in high school, not the ones Momma made. They needed to look like the other kids’. Crisp. New. Expensive. Plaid and green checkered suit coats and shorts wouldn’t fly anymore.
If I remember correctly (because memory can be a tricky thing) she even helped design a wedding dress for a family friend. I thought her clothes were cool, but I never fully appreciated the novelty (and never fully appreciated my mother).
I never fully acknowledged her talent or skill, or that she’d made them after a long day at work. After the cooking and cleaning and storytime and bath time and tooth-brushing, she’d sat herself down at the sewing machine and just sewed for us.
I took a basic class in middle school and earned praise from the instructor, who complimented me on my “natural talent.” I smiled shyly, knowing that both nature and nurture had worked in my favor.
When Momma stopped sewing a few years later, I felt like a piece of my childhood had ended suddenly and dramatically. I wanted it back. I wanted the designer experience. I wanted the Linda B. originals. I wanted Momma’s clothes.
For more than twenty years her sewing machine sat in the closet. Unused, but still sacred. A lifetime of memories keeping it steady and fully capable of reanimation.
Save tonight.
Memory is a trickster. It’s a funny thing. The hardest lesson I ever learned, the hardest truth, was always gratefulness. Even still it’s my greatest and least endearing character flaw. Over and over and over and over and over and over again I fail to be grateful. I forget to acknowledge the significance of memories and moments and the significance of time—which is both fleeting and precious.
Save tonight.
Do what you can to show your appreciation for what you have and how you’ve acquired it. Do what you can to remember where you were ten years ago and the progress you’ve made since then. Do what you can to stay in the moment—even the hard ones. Even the ones that create anxiety or aggravate insecurity. Even the ones that challenge you to accept responsibility for mistakes you didn’t make.
Do what you can to learn when you are part of the problem and when you shouldn’t walk away. Do what you can to learn when there’s nothing left to contribute. Do what you can to decide what you can change, and to decide what matters, and to decide when you will decide to make a decision.
Use your anger in meaningful and significant ways. Don’t waste it on small battles. Don’t waste it on small victories or people who wish that you were smaller. Don’t waste it on struggles that don’t cause growth or bear fruit. Don’t waste it and bury it where it will sprout up inside of you.
Save tonight. Value it. Treasure it. Use it. Learn from it. Keep it in the place you have for keeping.
Hold on to its memory when you need it to propel you the only way ‘round, which is through.

Consequences

All magic comes with a price.

Consequences.

I wanted to be a stunt double.

Everyone I knew was so afraid of danger, but danger was everywhere. I reasoned that it didn’t make sense to be afraid. The only way ‘round was through.

At recess we’d take turns climbing the highest jungle gym, then jump off. We’d only have a few minutes before the teachers would swarm, so we’d negotiate at lunch and then execute our plan upon arrival.

It was Michael’s turn today, and we couldn’t wait!

He was a clumsy kid, but fearless.  Continue reading “Consequences”

Should You Talk To Your Children About Beyonce?

“Be careful what you set your heart upon– for it will surely be yours.” -James Baldwin 

I have an irrational hatred for Beyonce.

I was at my aunt’s 60th birthday party recently, and I happened to catch my five year-old niece singing mid-song. It didn’t completely hit me until that moment.

Part of it is because she reminds me of my sister– a much younger, over-the-top version of my sister who was always Diana Ross when I needed someone rational and diplomatic.

Part of it is because we’re from the same town and we’re the same age, which means that she shouldn’t be more successful than me.

Part of it is because I have no real talent to exploit, and I always wanted to be a dancer.

Part of it is because she was invited to sing at President Obama’s Inauguration ball, and I took that shit personally.  Continue reading “Should You Talk To Your Children About Beyonce?”

Being Human

“Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living.” -Dr. Seuss

What does it mean to be human?

The holiday season always makes me particularly nostalgic for family, a sense of community and home.

When I miss my sister, I wear more pink and polish my nails.

When I miss my father, I listen to Sam Cooke and re-watch Fringe.

Peter and Walter Bishop are two of my favorite characters.
Beyond Walter’s struggle with mental illness is the acute awareness that his son no longer loves or respects him.  Continue reading “Being Human”

Where The Wild Things Are & The Sidewalk Ends

Patty cake shouldn’t be a revolutionary act of defiance, but sometimes, under the right circumstances, it just is.

He was 6 foot 3. About 280. Seventeen.

They called him Big Black, and he didn’t seem to mind.

Most of the counseling staff were afraid of him.

He was always angry and because everyone expected him to be— violent.

Tutoring was never enjoyable.

He didn’t like help, didn’t like school, didn’t like reading, and definitely didn’t like wasting his time.

As winter approached I regretted making the trek more and more.

It was a burden.

One night he arrived late to find another youth from the Center.

As they met, we could sense the tension in the room.

Walky-talkies were instantly powered on; security was on standby.

Everyone watched in anticipation and fear.

We held our breath and waited.

Slowly but surely the boys approached each other. Fists clenched, jaws locked, a snarl at the corner of each lip.

Seconds of silence and then the unthinkable– patty cake.

They started to play PATTY CAKE.  Continue reading “Where The Wild Things Are & The Sidewalk Ends”