Childhood, Greetings From The Edge

In 4th Grade The Universe Spoke To Me Through A Valentine

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I can remember a few things about fourth grade.

1. I stopped liking math.

2. My teacher was called Ms. Wiggins and she wore wigs four out of five days.

3. There was only one person in my class I did not like: Tara. Under my breath I referred to her as “Terror.”

In grade school my grandfather always bought me a box of Valentines from the supermarket to give to my entire class. The night before the holiday I sat on the couch, addressed each card, put a rubber band around the envelopes and slipped them in my backpack.

I struggled with whether I should write a card to “Terror.” But for me it wasn’t about whether or not I liked her; everyone knew I hated her and she hated me. By not giving her a card I would have been leaving someone out and even if I didn’t like the person I didn’t want to do that.

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After I had written the cards, I continued to hang out on the couch where I read the culture section of the newspaper because that’s where the comics, puzzles and horoscopes were. When I got up to get ready for bed I noticed something between the couch cushions: one of the cards I had written. And it was the one addressed to Tara. I knew in my heart the universe was trying to tell me something. Only I couldn’t discern what. Should I choose to give “Terror” a card twice? Or was this a clear sign that I shouldn’t give her a card at all? Yes, the Valentine had slipped through the cracks. But I had also fished it out. I put it in my backpack with the rest of the cards.

The next day at school Tara had a Valentine for everyone except for me.

Twenty-six years later I don’t know how I would remember this, or if I would remember this at all if I had withheld the card. As a fourth grader, I felt stupid for having given Tara a Valentine, and for the next twenty years or so my takeaway was that the universe had tried to lose the card to spare me the anger I felt at myself. Now, a little bit more mature, I understand that I had my own code, which I struggled with, but maintained. The lesson I see here now is that we all struggle with our values and often, even when we have the right ones, they are not reciprocated and we’re not rewarded for them.

After fourth grade I never gave out Valentines to my class again.

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Happy Valentine’s Day.

Body Image, Motherhood

Mother’s Milk

Being a new breastfeeding mom, it’s no surprise that I have been put through my paces as of late. For example:

  • The first two weeks of breastfeeding so much skin hung off my nipples, or rather just barely held on, I nicknamed them “walkers” as in The Walking Dead.
  • Bigger breasts made me feel hot alright. Irrespective of how many layers I wore whenever I went outside cold air found my nipples and ignited a five-alarm fire on them.
  • After my baby has had a particularly intoxicating bout of nursing and his little fat body goes limp and his face slack, I have flashes of what he would look like if he were a junkie nodding on the subway or a wino sprawled out on a park bench.
  • Talk about not seeing eye to eye. For the week I spent shirtless with my nipples covered in oil, I’m pretty sure my husband forgot that I had a face.

Having always had small breasts I was happy with meant that I never spent a lot of time thinking about my breasts or anyone else’s. Except for the summer before my junior year of high school when I read Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon and John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath back-to-back. In the Morrison, the protagonist Macon “Milkman” Dead receives his nickname because he breastfeeds as a little boy. (Any Morrison reader knows that this motif gets revisited in Beloved.)

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The Grapes of Wrath famously concludes with Rose of Sharon breastfeeding an old sick man after she delivers a stillborn. I must have read the last couple paragraphs of that book six or seven times just to make sure what I thought happened happened. I also remember being desperate to talk with someone the night I finished the novel about how flummoxed and freaked out the scene left me. So much so I could put on the backburner for a moment how much I hated that damn Oakie dialect! In any case, here’s a Louie C.K. bit about breasts that beautifully finds its way to Steinbeck.

Body Image, Motherhood

Matter of Life and Death

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I know that I am not fat, but my pants told me otherwise the other night.  Before bed I pulled a stack from the closet — a couple of corduroys, one pair of jeans and some wool trousers. I couldn’t button one pair of the corduroys at all. I managed the jeans but I doubt I could walk a block without the stressed zipper bursting open. Though I fit the trousers ok I went directly from the mirror back to my closet to stare down a pile of pants I don’t dare try on because they were snug before I got pregnant. During my ritualistic December closet cleanse, I considered getting rid of the “itty-bitties” but decided on a deadline instead. If I can’t fit a pair by Memorial Day, I’ll toss them.

However, during this same closet cleanse I came across a piece of clothing I could never-ever consider parting with. Not because it constitutes a measuring tape for my waistline. Instead, the XL red plaid shirt-jacket that used to belong to my grandfather swells my heart.

The kind of working class garment that became fashionable with grunge and is so again at a moment where beards better characterize hipster masculinity than skinny pants, the collar of this flannel is threadbare though its maroon, quilted lining remains intact. On the back of the left sleeve, starting at the elbow, a trail of black X-shaped stitches act as a bandaid on a patch of the fabric that, worn away, resembles cottony insulation I am more accustomed to seeing in walls than clothes. On the back of the right sleeve, a similar badge of extensive wear exists that my grandfather looped thread around, making a tight ugly tube where I can only assume there was once a ragged, gaping hole.

Part of why this piece of clothing means so much to me is because in my most treasured photograph with my grandfather he is wearing it. Just emerging from the holiday season, which ruthlessly juxtaposes our desire for material objects with our immaterial yearnings to love and be loved, my grandfather’s shirt is a physical manifestation of childhood security. For that reason, I will never let it go.

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However, as a new mother I have already donated a set of newborn onesies to the Housing Works bin in my building. Just as the belongings of the dead are precious because they are finite, the belongings of the very young seem cheap because they are infinite. And so as my child grows more creased by the day, his body dismissing garments before they have had a chance to touch his petal soft skin I am reminded that robust, healthy bodies are beautiful gifts. I am grateful to have a body that without incident, complication or medical intervention could carry a baby, deliver a baby and now feed that baby. Yet, as I cling to a piece of clothing that belonged to a dead man at the same time I’m giving away the newborn clothes of my son, I find that for this postpartum woman clothes are literally a matter of life and death.

Brave New World, Comedy, Entertainment, Fandom, Movies

The Rise of the Black Nerd

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Last week I had a piece published on The Guardian’s opinion site about “acting white” and Justin Simien’s debut film Dear White People. In that piece, I didn’t come near to saying what I loved about the film, why I thought it was so clever and the statement the movie makes about the continued reign of black face as a source of entertainment for white folks even here and now in the 21st century. Besides the powerful comment Simien makes at the very end of his film —  almost offhandedly —  about how the corporatization of higher education cannibalizes institutional integrity — the strongest theme for me, which beautifully manifested in the movie’s point of view, posits an antidote for the stereotypes that continue to mire black identity.

The black nerd.

There are countless sites and twitter handles that contain the words “black” and “nerd” — all laying claim to some manifestation of an idiosyncratic, interest-based identity. They include: Black Nerd Power, Black Nerd Problems, Black Nerd Comedy, BlackGirlNerds and the list goes on and on. Specifically, by “interest-based identity” I mean a person’s interests defining them. On the other end of the spectrum, in the context of blackness, exists a degraded sense of a “behavior-based identity” embodied by figures ranging from the “Welfare Queen” to the “gangsta” to the “thug” to of course older stereotypes and motifs like Sambo, Mammy, Jezebel and so forth. Not that there isn’t a black nerd somewhere right now who is reading Tolkien while sipping sizzurp (that’s a Key and Peele skit waiting to happen, btw), but the “behavior-based identity” is characterized by negative things people do whereas the “interest-based identity” can be summed up broadly by a keen absorption of specific areas of the culture.

For example, my dog’s name is Nimoy, yes, after Leonard Nimoy, and I have every intention of naming my son after another beloved canonical figure, though not from the sci-fi universe, let alone a recent century. That’s all to say that this whole black nerd thing is beyond close to my heart; it’s who I am. And I have a feeling it is who the likes of Justin Simien, Shonda Rhimes and President Obama are too, among hordes of others, in our own way…

In his review of Dear White People, A.O. Scott wrote that Simien’s debut plays up the tension between how we all see ourselves — as living, breathing, individual souls and how other people see us: as a caricatures. The “caricatures” Simien employs in his college “satire about being a black face in a white place” represent aspects of the millennial African American experience: the razor-tongued, militant biracial who is torn between being an artist and being a mouthpiece; the square-jawed All-American with daddy issues; the pretty brown-skinned girl who aims to be even prettier armed with a weave and light-colored contacts; and the nerdy, cute, sexual outsider whose disenchantment takes on the shape of an unkempt afro.

Of these characters, the one that the audience most completely understands and sympathizes with is the gay nerd, writer and sci-fi buff, Lionel, played by Tyler James Williams, whose face also appears on the film’s posters and in many of the promotional photos making the rounds. In a dorm full of writers where on paper he should belong, Lionel is the punchline of one homophobic joke after another. Amongst the black kids where you’d think his afro would give him at least a day pass, he just seems awkward. Because Lionel doesn’t belong in this world and neither does the audience, even if some of us have experienced Ivy League posturing, we see how ridiculous and mean these cut-outs impersonating people that Lionel is surrounded by actually are. After all, the audience is not full of cut-outs. We’re actual people, defined by things that we love, not flat identities we give lip service to. Why? Because to be a 3D, likable person is increasingly to define yourself as some type of geek or nerd, period.

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In a recent episode of Black-ish, a sitcom about a black family residing in the largely lily white upper-middle class, the father played by Anthony Anderson is mortified to witness that his son doesn’t acknowledge other black kids, especially other black boys, with a head nod at school. At the end of the episode, however, the father realizes that his son does acknowledge “his peeps” with a gesture. Only his peeps are the other nerdy kids wearing normcore glasses and khakis and the semi-pained expression that they have somewhere else to be. Only that place is not first period class; it’s 5-15 years into the future.

I really like Black-ish and I really like Dear White People because both pieces script subjectivity as the primary way the black experience is, well, experienced. More and more, we’re seeing that experience from the nerd’s point of view. And I’m loving every minute of it because it makes the perpetual outsiders feel like insiders for once, for just being ourselves.  

Black Female Representations, Fandom, Greetings From The Edge, Motherhood, Movies, Pregnancy, Race & Pop Culture

Feeling Prissy

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The Mammy in my bedroom

The one thing I am constantly astonished by is my approaching-Oedipus-level-blindness. Case in point: at the same time I was working on an essay slated to be published next week about how what my grandmother calls “Sambo-black” collided with colorism —  of all places — on my baby shower cake, I was hanging a picture of Hattie McDaniel as Mammy from Gone With The Wind in my bedroom.

Let me explain.

With my baby due practically any week now, nesting, thankfully, has finally started to take flight in my household. Last weekend, when we managed to clear all of our belongings out of the nursery I sorted through a box from my old workspace that was a mix of art supplies and papers. That’s where I recovered the picture of Mammy and without thinking put it up in our bedroom.

For longer than I can remember I have been a Gone With The Wind fan. Though my feelings about the story have evolved considerably since I first fell under the movie’s spell watching it on TNT in all of its technicolor glory in the late 1980s, to reading the novel in 7th grade bedridden for almost two months with pneumonia, it remains one of my favorite movies and besides The Wizard of Oz (another film treasure of 1939) the most instructive narrative for storytellers I have ever encountered. Since I always understood GWTW to be about some of American history’s worst villains — Confederates — and the fact that some of the smartest people I have known who have also happened to be African American women shared in this love of GWTW with me, I have understood my attraction to the narrative and its iconography as stemming from my interest in history, race, storytelling and pop culture. Not to mention I also understand the idea of Mammy, the loving, fat, selfless caretaker of white children to be a white supremacist invention.

Still, it took me going to see the amazing Nick Cave show Made By Whites For Whites at the Jack Shainman Gallery just before it closed this weekend for me to be able to see the forest as well as the trees in my very own consciousness.

Nick Cave, The Jack Shainman Gallery
Nick Cave, The Jack Shainman Gallery

In his artist statement for the show, Cave says that when he began collecting racist memorabilia he noted that all of the objects, from jockeys to spittoons, implied “some sort of service.” Acknowledging that these objects through their mass-distribution were meant to support and naturalize black people as less than human, Cave aimed for his work “to rehabilitate the problematic, loaded object and find a place of relevance and empowerment through reuse.” Undoubtedly, his show is beautiful. And beauty can certainly be empowering. But so is the acknowledgement of a black genius wherever we find them, in whatever guise.

The reason I put a picture of Hattie McDaniel’s Mammy up in my bedroom is because in the perverse world of Confederate hardship that GWTW memorializes, Mammy speaks truth to power, telling Scarlett that she’s like a spider; she also tells Scarlett that her and Rhett are mules in horses’ harnesses. In other words, the white people are the insects, the animals, not Mammy. Of course Mammy’s foil is Butterfly McQueen’s Prissy who famously didn’t know “nothin’ ‘bout birthin no babies.” Nonetheless, Mammy is not the ideal servant. More subversively, in McDaniel’s portrayal, she is the ideal mother because her love is unconditional despite her open acknowledgment of Scarlet’s enormous faults.

Irrespective of how much I’ve read or how many classes I’ve been to or how many labor videos I’ve seen the closer my own due date comes, the more like Prissy I feel.

That’s just the truth.

Though Nick Cave and Mammy are nowhere to be found in the essay that I drafted this week, the idea that I wasn’t immediately hip to the confluence of race, images, history and mothering as floating in the ether of my home and my mind serves as another reminder that very soon the mental fog of pregnancy will be replaced with the sleep deprivation of motherhood.