I should be working on this commissioned essay on the fragility of motherhood, but instead, I’m here on my deck, trying to gouge out this tightness in my chest. Claw it out. These words are my attempt.
My daughter and I went out this morning to run errands and walk the dog. We went to the bank, to Starbucks to get my coffee then to the market to get a few things. She waited outside with the dog when we made our first two stops, but wanted to go into the market with me, that way she could remind me to get granola and cheese, and “please, can we get some more strawberries and yogurt so I can make a smoothie?” “Can we get bananas?” “Can we get ice cream?” We tied the dog in the shade. We were only supposed to be a few minutes, but it’s Sunday and there were lines and it took us longer than expected.
Baby girl went out ahead of me. “I’m gonna go get Napoleon.” She loves her dog, this tiny mutt who is fearless and protective and has helped us work through our grief over the past four years since losing my brother. I remember Napoleon sitting close to me, watching, as I cried myself to sleep some nights when I was in that deep well of grief. I remember how quickly he learned my whistle when I brought him with me to hike the woods. How joyful he gets when he’s allowed to run off his leash. How stiff he gets when he sees a stranger approach. He stands in front of me, ears perked, a quiet growl, mouth snarled, his canines shining. He is lying on my lap as I type this.
I came out to see a woman yelling at my daughter. I saw red, but tried to stay calm. My daughter is 12. I have to set an example.
A man approaches me. He has a badge hanging around a string on his neck. He says, “Is this your dog?” “Yes,” I say, but I am staring at that woman and my daughter still has her back to me. “What’s going on? Why are you yelling at my daughter?” My daughter turns. Her eyes are wide. The woman walks towards me. “Is this your dog? He’s been out here for 45 minutes…” I put up my hand. “How about you lower your voice? That’s not the way you talk to people.”
The man asks for the dog’s tags. Says I can’t leave my dog out here like that. I show him my bags. Tell him about the lines. The woman is yelling. I glare at her. “You need to stop yelling at me and you also need to not yell at my kid.” “I didn’t know she was your daughter,” she yells. Her face is red. She is sweating. There is a cool breeze. Her sweat is rage.
“The point is that she’s someone’s daughter and you don’t yell at someone else’s kid.” She continues to yell. The man tucks the badge back into his shirt.
“It’s inappropriate for you to approach an adult like this.” I am still trying to stay calm but my hands are fists. White-knuckled. “You can talk to me without yelling or being hostile.” He nods. I pull my daughter towards me.
The woman has walked away. She is still yelling. “Get the fuck out of my face.”
“No one is in your face. I walked out here to you yelling at my kid, then you yelled at me. You’re a savage.”
She turns and walks towards me. I pull my daughter behind me. Through gritted teeth, I say, “You don’t wanna do that.” She stops in her tracks. Tells me, “Fuck you… You people…”
The man stands in front of her. She makes to move around him. She’s emboldened by him trying to stop her.
I laugh. “You’re a barbarian.”
“Barbaric is you leaving this dog out here. Poor dog.”
Before you defend her or think maybe she was right, remember that my dog was in the shade. It is not a burning hot day. There is a breeze in the air. Contrary to what she insisted, we were not in the market for 45 minutes. And we don’t usually leave him out like that. We went into the market for a few things that turned into a small compra, as happens with a 12 year old who wants you to buy this and that.
Regardless, there is a way to speak to people that doesn’t require yelling or being hostile and aggressive.
Regardless, that is not the way to get people to hear you.
Regardless, I am one of the “you people” she referred to. That’s all she said, “you people…” She didn’t have to finish. I saw it in the curl of her lip when I walked out and saw her yelling my kid. I saw it when she sneered fuck you.
I moved to this neighborhood in the Bronx that is notorious for its racism. I moved here because I heard it’s gotten more diverse, and I liked the small town feel of the neighborhood. I love our apartment. I love that I have a writing room and a deck. I love that we’re on a quiet road, across the street from a park. I love that I am woken by the chirping of the birds outside my window, blue jays and sparrows and red cardinals and tufted titmouses. A hawk likes to perch itself in a dead tree behind the house. I have heard her screech through the canopy. There are hiking trails a few blocks away. I’ve made this place home.
I moved here in the winter so I was “protected” for a while. Then the weather warmed and people started showing their asses.
The first time happened in the early spring, when there was still a chill in the air. I was wearing a sweatshirt. I looked like a teenager. I am 41. I was walking the dog past three older white folks by a stretch littered with mounds of dog poop. Napoleon stopped to pee. One of the woman sneered at me as they passed. Though I was perplexed, I ignored her. I was feeling damn good. I was planning a day of writing and hiking the trails I’d found the week before. It was spring, my favorite season, when the earth comes back to life.
“These people are disgusting. They need to clean up after their dogs.” She was referring to the mounds of dog shit she’d just walked past. Mounds the size of my dog’s head. None of them were his.
That’s when I realized she was talking about me.
“You’re right,” I said. “They do need to clean up after their dogs, but none of that was my dog.”
“So where is your bag?” she yelled. “You’re disgusting.”
“No, you’re disgusting for making assumptions about someone you don’t know. Did you see my dog shit there?”
She got into the car quickly and slammed the door. That’s when the man she was with said something. I don’t remember what but I know it was along the same lines as her diatribe: “you people…”
I lost it at that point. “Shut the fuck up,” I yelled and kept walking.
But it sat in my belly. The “you people…” The knowing that this was just the beginning.
There have been more incidents. A teenage girl who insisted that I walk around her. A white man in the supermarket. The owner of the house telling us “this isn’t Washington Heights” one night when she complained that our music was too loud.
I had to read Claudia Rankine’s “Citizen” slowly. It was so hard to see that reflection. I remembered so many moments: in boarding school, a lit cigarette thrown at my thirteen year old body; in college, being repeatedly mistaken for a member of the custodial staff, not a student, never a student; being told that I owe my elite education to affirmative action, not something I worked my ass off to get. These instances, too many to list and count, stack up and weigh on you. They are granite in your throat, a boulder on your chest, cement in your shoes. My daughter is learning this, and it is devastating to not be able to protect her from it.
Racial microaggressions are brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of color. Perpetrators of microaggressions are often unaware that they engage in such communications when they interact with racial/ethnic minorities. World-Trust.org
My daughter and I got into a conversation on our way back home about what happened. She said, “That lady wouldn’t have yelled at us like that if we were white…” It is one of the saddest things my daughter has ever said to me. Why? Because she is 12 and already knows what racism and prejudice looks like.
She also knows that her mama got her back, always.
How to care for the injured body,
the kind of body that can’t hold
the content it is living?
― Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric
It was in Ankara that I first felt shame for being who I was and coming from where I was from. I was in Turkey for the NATO Children of the World Festival. A group of black and brown kids from NYC was assembled to participate. We practiced for weeks before the auditions, then practiced for months before we headed to Turkey in the spring of 1989. I was 13, in 8th grade, and going through the boarding school admission process. This was the first time I was away from home by myself.
My host sister’s name was Asli. She was my age, blond and blue-eyed, and lived with her mother in a high rise condominium that overlooked the city. One day I walked into the bathroom to shower and saw Asli’s period soaked panties in the tub. I asked her to move them so I could shower. “That’s the maid’s job,” she said, with disgust.
That was the first and last time I saw the maid, who looked so much like me and my people. She hung her head as she entered the bathroom and shut the door behind her. When she resurfaced, the panties were gone and the bathroom sparkled. She stared at the floor as she walked past.
“What’s her name?” I asked Asli.
“What do you want to know that for?”
I went and took a shower as I’d planned.
The day before I left, Asli took me to the markets to go shopping for souvenirs. I cringed when I saw her push past an old woman who was begging for money. The old woman didn’t say anything. She just held out her hands, cupped in front of her, her fingers curled in awkwardly, head down, pleading. She reminded me of my great grandmother Tinita with her deep wrinkles and skin brown like the frijoles she shelled in the patio every morning. I gave the old woman all the change I had in my pocket. The woman turned her eyes up to look at who had given her enough change to fill her hands. Asli pulled me away before I could meet those eyes.
I came back to New York knowing that I had to leave Brooklyn. I had to prove that I was better than that. Than them. My people. I don’t say this with any sort of pride. I was a little girl who for the first time learned in Turkey, with Asli, that there was shame in being brown and being poor. I wanted nothing to do with that shame. I internalized that shit. I believed I was less than. It took me a long time to unlearn that shit. It was hard to when in boarding school and college and corporate America, I was reminded constantly that I was inferior because I was brown.
I shrunk myself for a long time. I tried to shrink the Latina brown girl in me. I tried to talk the way they wanted me to and act the way they wanted me to. I wanted so desperately to fit in…
When you arrive in your driveway and turn off the car, you remain behind the wheel another ten minutes. You fear the night is being locked in and coded on a cellular level and want time to function as a power wash. Sitting there staring at the closed garage door you are reminded that a friend once told you there exists the medical term—John Henryism—for people exposed to stresses stemming from racism. They achieve themselves to death trying to dodge the buildup of erasure. Sherman James, the researcher who came up with the term, claimed the physiological costs were high. You hope by sitting in silence you are bucking the trend. ― Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric
A memory came flying in last weekend. I was camping in the woods of Northern Michigan with a group of women. A sister, E. Nina Jay, showed me her book (which I later purchased) and I spent some time reading her poems aloud. Beautiful, devastating poems about love and heartbreak and blackness. She complimented me on my speaking voice. The next day, at the Variety Show, I read one of Nina’s poems and a poem I wrote hours before. People complimented me on both my writing and my voice. “You read so well,” they said. I flashed to boarding school. 1989.
We were walking across one of the bridges that connected the lunch room and mezzanine to the main school building. This specific bridge had large windows that looked out onto the shop on one side (where mostly boys learned about cars) and onto the playground of the child learning center on the other side.
I was a new arrival, the only 9th grader in the scholarship program. He, a young black man, a senior who was a starter on the football team, bused in from Boston (Roxbury? Dorchester?), passed me the letter as I was walking with two girls in the same scholarship program, a senior and a sophomore, also from NY.
It was one of those “I like you, do you like me?” kind of love letters. Nothing profound. Cute in that young love way. But that’s not the point of this story. The point is that after I read the letter, they scrambled to read it too. I passed it to the senior, a Boricua from the Bronx. “You can read it firster than her.” They fell over laughing. Belly clutching laughing. At me. But it took me a minute to realize that. “Firster?” the black Dominican sophomore from Brooklyn said, laughing in my face now. “Who says firster? That’s not even a word.”
That wasn’t the first time I was made fun of for the way I spoke. And it wasn’t the last. The teachers corrected me. “It’s want to, Vanessa. Not wanna.” They told me I shouldn’t speak Spanish outside of Spanish class and, no, Spanglish wasn’t acceptable either.
I remember walking down the hallway, hearing, “Tawk, Rosie, tawk. We wanna hear you tawk.” They were referring to me as Rosie Perez (Tina) in the movie Do the Right Thing, the only context they had of a Latina in that era.
The kids would snicker when I was called on to read aloud in class. I knew how to read but I was always nervous so I messed up words. I stuttered. I stumbled. And they’d laugh.
I hated it. I hated that I didn’t fit in. I hated being mocked and made fun of. I hated feeling so small and less than. I promised myself that I’d left that shit in NYC. That wasn’t going to happen to me here. Here I was starting anew. Here I was going to belong.
It started one day while I was sitting in the basement study of the house on Norfolk Terrace which served as our dorm. Our desks faced the wall. There was a window above mine that led to the driveway and the big oak tree I stared at at night from my bed.
I looked at the book shelf a few feet away to my left and scanned the shelves. I stopped at the Encyclopedias. I picked one up, opened it and started reading out loud. I enunciated the words. Want to. Going to. The not da.
I practiced every day, alone in that basement. I practiced in my head on my long walks to school. But why not Pero why.
I started to volunteer to read aloud. The students stopped laughing. They watched me with raised eyebrows. They asked, “Hey, how’d you do that?” “Do what?” I asked, feigning confusion.
I learned to to read and speak the way they wanted me to. I didn’t use Spanish or slang.
I learned how to read aloud confidently. I learned to project my voice. I learned the power of captivating a room.
I’d soon realize that I wouldn’t fit in no matter what I did, but by then it didn’t matter. They knew I was smart. They knew I was determined. They knew I could assimilate. That’s what mattered. My brain could be respected if I wasn’t. That’s what mattered.
Nobody notices, only you’ve known,
you’re not sick, not crazy,
not angry, not sad–
It’s just this, you’re injured.
― Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric
On our way up to Michigan, we stopped at a huge shopping store to get some final items for camping. We hear: “Oh shit” and turn around. We see a black man staring at us open mouthed. His eyes are so wide. My partner Katia laughs and says, “People of color, right?” He says: “Yes.” His name is Ovanté. He hugs us. Says: “Thank you for existing. Thank you for being alive here in Northern Michigan.” This is evidence of the importance of representation and seeing ourselves in the world we live in.
I remember the isolation of boarding school. It was there that I learned solitude. This is why…
It’s taken me a long time to undo what the world did to the girl and young woman I was. I had to teach myself that I was worthy and my stories were important and needed to be written. I had to read writers of color and protest for Ethnic Studies at Columbia University. I had to attend writing programs and workshops like VONA/Voices and Cave Canem. I had to be among communities of writers and artists of color. I had to make my way in this world that still assaults us every day, outside supermarkets, in neighborhoods that are becoming increasingly diversified while the white folks remind us that we do not belong. You people…
I am no longer the girl that wants or needs their acceptance. I am no longer trying to be anyone but who I am—Afro-Indígena, fierce and loving and protective and loud and in your face. I will not be silenced. Ever. You should know that before you come for me. You will learn.