For Ava

Last night, my mom invited me and my younger brother out to a work event that involved drinking. My mom is a very serious engineer manager for an Oil and Gas company. We agreed nonetheless, because we have learned over time that sometimes her work colleagues are really fun once they start drinking and also because: free beer. And we were having fun. It took us almost an hour to find the table where her coworkers were hanging out.

When we did, it wasn’t long before the coworker across the table started staring at me, as if he couldn’t look away. Finally, he tells us his “youngest adopted daughter” is “biracial” and looks just like me. Of course she does. Unable to stand it, he comes around to the other side of the table and sits what I feel is a little too close to where my body is housed on the bench seats.

“So, everything is the same with Ava except her hair. We just don’t know what to do with it. And it’s just like yours-I mean you look just like her!” I smile. Politely I tell him it’s different talking care of my hair than my mother’s.

“You wash your hair every day?” I ask my mom.

“Every other day.” She responds.

“I wash my hair like once a month, ” I tell him, “otherwise it gets dry.”

“Malika knows a lot about this. She does a lot of research online.” This is true. I am the black daughter of a white woman, so I’ve done a lot of research into many things to do with being black.

Months ago, my good friend Courtney and I went to out to eat and catch up at the only Ethiopian restaurant in Oklahoma and were overwhelmed by a table filled with white adults and noticeably Ethiopian children. As we ate, we broached the topic of white people with babies from other countries. As I began to explain my belief that it was a current manifestation of the white man’s burden, a young girl came over to our table. She was about 4 or 5 by looking at her and she was touching Courtney’s hand as if she couldn’t believe that it existed. The same color as hers! Here were the people that had been hidden from her world, right before her eyes.

Her parents came over and apologized, explaining she was awestruck by Courtney ‘s natural hair, because she had never seen hair like ours.

Here’s the problem I keep facing as punishment for wearing my hair natural, for being black born of a white mother: I am the easy way out.

Yet, I give away my hard earned secrets. As if the knowledge is owed to them. I am now a black hair expert in the flesh, available for all the white folks adopting little black girls who look just like me because America has run out of white babies no one wants. I am the neighborhood know it all.

I want to stop playing nice with white couples who believe that raising black children is the same as raising white children, except of course, their hair texture. The very idea is offensive to people who have spent their lives being black, and know intimately that our hair texture is the least of it. I want to tell them that google is available on all electronic devices that can connect to the internet.  I want to yell at them that if they can’t start looking for answers like it’s important to them now, then their little Avas’ will notice some day.

But I worry. If I don’t tell the white people the way to keep their daughter’s hair styled, combed and moisturized, or convince them of its importance, how will the young girls fare? I always get frustrated thinking of the little girls who play in their mothers’ hair and cannot feel themselves in it. I worry about the hearts and self esteem of little girls who look up to women who look absolutely nothing like they do or will.

White people, this is your sin. Always swooping in and saving us with black skin. the best meaning intentions. Yet you deny us access to the things our hearts need in “our best interests.” You are always the hero teacher who saves us from the ghetto just in time to get into your colleges. You are constantly casting yourselves as the savior and us the tragic victims.

I want the little girls to learn how to take care of their hair as they grow. I want the people who raise them to understand that this matters. If they grow up learning only to lament the color of their skin, and the texture of their hair, it will be such a long journey to healthy self esteem. And that will not make you saviors at all.

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Tired

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One of my easiest to recall moments in my life was when we first moved to Tulsa. Then, Tulsa was just one single block, 3rd street from Kenosha to Hartford Street. That’s where Daddy lived and we did too. This memory takes place at night. My dad was going to take our chocolate lab, appropriately named Chocolate, out for a walk. I was determined to go with them, and when he agreed I could come, my little brother decided he had to go as well.

 

We only made it about two blocks out of our Tulsa when a police car hopped a curb in front of us, lights and siren blaring in our faces.

 

“What are you doing down here?” A face hidden behind a flashlight glare directed at my father’s face, then my brother’s, then mine demanded to know.

 

“Walking my dog.”

 

“What are you doing here?” It asked again. What else could we be doing, chocolate lab in tow?

 

“I live here, and I’m walking my dog. Is that a crime now?”

 

“Nobody lives over here.” The voice answered. Which was kind of true, except that we did, just on the other border of our Tulsa.

 

“I just told you that I do. How you gonna tell me where I live?”

 

“Sir, I need to see your id.” My dad begin to walk away.

 

“Sir, you need to give me your id.” the voice was louder.

 

My dad stopped and turned, “why?”

 

“Because I asked for it.”

 

“I’m not giving you anything.”

 

“Do you want to be arrested?” The voice asked.

 

“Just tell him your name, Daddy.” I pleaded, “I’ll just tell him.”

 

“Don’t tell him anything. He doesn’t have a right to it.”

 

“Sir, you match the description of a man who hopped a train in Edmond, so you need to identify yourself.”

 

“I haven’t been in Edmond. I live here, and I’m with my kids walking their dog.”

 

This was enough of an exchange for the voice to call back up. So another car rolled up behind us, lights flashing. We were surrounded. This one got out, and came over, flashlight in hand.

 

From then on, it was threat after threat from the two.

 

“You will spend the night in jail. And your kids will be alone, ” and “What kind of example are you showing to your kids?” My father did not waver.  

 

Finally, they decided they were done threatening him, and told him outright he was under arrest. He handed me Chocolate’s leash.

 

“Go home and tell your grandma I’m being arrested.” He told me. My brother was holding my hand.

 

“Can I come Daddy? ” My little brother pleaded, “I wanna turn the lights on.”

 

“No, just go get your grandma.” My dad said. So me, 5 and my brother, 3, headed back to our Tulsa to tell our visiting Grandma James that our dad was being arrested. As we left, an officer told my father how horrible he was, sending his two kids off by themselves at night.

 

“We live right there, “he told them again, “You think they don’t know how to get home? Why wouldn’t they say so if they didn’t?” Words that fell on deaf ears, since nobody lived downtown. Except us.

 

My grandma was visiting to from St. Croix and she scared me sometimes, so I was scared to tell her, but I did. She got her shoes on with authority, ready to go to the courthouse and kick up a fuss.

 

But as she began to head outside, a police car pulled in front of the building we lived in and they slowly let my father out. There were no apologies, despite that there was a reason they never took him to be processed. They had no right to ask for his id in the first place, let alone lock him up for refusing to show it.

 

 

 

In first grade, I transferred to a new elementary school in the neighborhood of our new house and left behind my old friends. My teacher was an older woman with a short haircut and those old woman curls that they all seem to like. Probably their hair doesn’t even grow anymore when they get that old and close to death.

 

That year, my father launched a campaign for her dismissal.

 

“That teacher has to go!” he would yell in the principal’s office every day, whether she was there to listen or not.

 

Meanwhile, I didn’t understand why I didn’t like school anymore. I didn’t know why I would suddenly start crying in class and have to be sent to the counselor almost every day. I definitely wasn’t aware of why I spent all of recess hiding in plain sight, crying, waiting for someone to ask me why.

 

At my old kindergarten, 2/3 of the class didn’t speak English as their first language, and a couple not at all. Still, we understood each other. Our teachers were calm and never spoke to me in that condescending tone. My best friend Marilyn had the same birthday as me and we spent recess running around wildly, daring the wind to outrun us.

 

This new class was all about reading. One by one we sat in a circle and read sentences in sequence. When my turn came, I would start to read the words, letters I had made my friends over a year before then, and I would start to feel it. Dread.

 

My father had come to the school and watched her teach my class. He had sat in the back and wordlessly observed until he felt he might lose it. Then the three of us sat down to speak. She felt sure she had won this battle, you could see in her eyes.

 

“So how would you say my daughter is doing in your class?” My dad asked.

 

“She’s doing good, ” my teacher answered, “still working on reading.”

 

“You mean in class?”

 

“Yes, we’re working in class to get her reading.”

 

“No, ma’am. My daughter can read.”

 

“No she can’t. We’re working on it, but she can’t.”

 

“My daughter can read.” I could see my father starting to get angry.

 

“Sometimes, kids memorize stories at home and parents think they’re reading when really they aren’t.”

 

“Put any book in my daughter’s hand.”

 

So she went searching, worried now that she might have missed this minor detail. She set the teacher’s guide in my hands. Confused, I looked at my Dad and my teacher alternately.

 

“Just read it, Malika.” My dad urged, his temper having faded. So I did, carefully at first, waiting for my teacher to stop me and read the sentence instead of me. But she didn’t, with my dad there she could not take my sentences from me and I read and read, smiling until my dad said I could stop. I didn’t stumble over a single word.

 

 

I was still in elementary school when I first encountered Black History Month. They told us about peanuts and nonviolent protest and Crispus Attucks the first black man to die for America’s independence. But nobody mentioned Malcolm X and Nat Turner when we talked about black history.

 

The first time a teacher mentioned Nat Turner to me, I was in 6th grade. He was a leader of a failed rebellion against slavery. He murdered every white person he came across, even babies, and he even had the nerve to say that God sent him on that mission. A Christian God!

 

Malcolm X? The black supremacist? The man who wanted revenge instead of peace? Who told black men and women to arm themselves?

 

“Malika, write your paper on George Washington Carver.” I was told over and over for Black History Month by teachers who were not black.

 

I wanted to write about my heroes. I wanted to write about what I loved.

 

My father tells me stories of where he’s from. St Croix, a place so different from Oklahoma. He told me about the Three Queens. The women who ended slavery in St. Croix by setting the cane fields on fire. He told me how the masters ran scared, as quick as could be to their ships. That was our revolution, that’s how we became free.

 

 

When I was 15, I learned that there was something poetic about being one of 3 black people on a Civil Rights Journey, even one put on by the Unitarians. So, there I was, sandwiched between two black girls both of whom were 18 and 3 white girls only a year younger than me, 14. But outside of us, everyone was old and white and female.

 

We watched a movie series about the Civil Rights Era which followed the antics of the nonviolent movement. Somehow this has become the norm, the sweeping away of the reality to make room for the chosen heroes and erase the perspectives we now find disagreeable. Finally, one video speaks briefly about Malcolm X and I am enthralled until the big eyed curly haired white girl sitting next to me volunteers that she thinks, “Malcolm X was just as bad as the white people.” It is thirty minutes into arguing with her that I realize she is now the person I hate most in this world. Then I am silent. Years later, she will annoyingly ask me why I don’t talk to her anymore and I will roll my eyes.

 

We watched video of Bull Connor setting fire hoses on the people marching in Birmingham, and the group who held onto each other and sang before stepping out into the square that memorialized that day. People screamed for their lives in that space.

 

“You guys here to check out the memorial?” A clearly drunk and homeless man asked the group. We told him we were.

 

“I was there,” he told us, “when they turned on the hoses.” Then he proceeded to guide us through the park, well manicured lawns between statues of dogs biting men screaming. He told us what it had been like, and he cried. He stood before a statue and he bawled like a child. I fought tears myself.

 

The older white women hung behind, unwilling to stand too close to this man whom their fathers had made. But when we started to go our separate ways, they tried to give him money for the tour. Wiping away his tears, he refused it. He sat down at a bench and picked up his bottle and drank.

 

 

I didn’t have my first drink until I went away to college. My first drink landed me in the bed of the man who would be my first love. The second drink landed me passed out near my own vomit in the street on campus. Campus police arrived and sat around with me waiting until an ambulance, I didn’t need, came to retrieve me. The next day, my white floormate would tell me I threw donuts at the policewoman who came and called her a bitch.

 

“I don’t like cops,” I told her laughing.

 

“She was a black cop though.” the roomate had reminded me.

 

I told my dad that story and even though he is still mad about the bill that night incurred ($2500) he thought it was exactly like his daughter to call a policewoman a bitch.

 

When I was still little, I watched my city acknowledge that it had birthed the deadliest race riot our country had ever seen. It had happened in 1921, and it had seen the burning down of the rich black neighborhood of Greenwood, also known as Black Wall Street. I lived only a short walk from where it had begun and where it had ended. My parents took me along as they recorded survivor testimony of the riot.

 

I remember that they had all been very old but they told me they had been my age when it happened. The most jarring story I remember was of a baby. There was a baby in a shoebox and the teller of this story had never been sure if the baby was alive or not but it hadn’t mattered because firebombs fell from the sky and they never saw that baby or that shoe box again.

 

There was a building right near the prosperous Greenwood area affectionately referred to as the “Be No” building, as in “Be no Jew, Be no Nigger..” and so on. It was owned by the Klan. And despite the efforts of the family of Tate Brady to claim he was unaffiliated with the Klan, his wife and he owned the land that building was built on.

 

Just this evening, our city council decided that Brady Street, a street that runs through an area that used to be part of Greenwood and is named for Tate Brady, former city councilman and verified destroyer of Greenwood, would stay “Brady Street.” Their vote was to change who the street was named for. Now we are to pretend that Brady Street, Brady District and Brady Heights are all named after Matthew Brady, a civil war photographer who had nothing to do with our city.

 

 

Trayvon Martin died and I have never found words to write about it. So I listened to everyone else’ s words. To the people who could think about his death without turning him into someone else. Trayvon has never been Emmitt Till. I was invited to help plan a vigil after the verdict in the case, and I attended. The vigil’s entire goal was promoting racial healing, and people of different races showed up and were present.

 

Thursday, there was a march on city council, a march to call for action to protect black children from laws like Stand Your Ground. My mother texted me asking if I wanted to go with her.

 

“I’m too tired.” I told her.

Reactions to the Pitt Bomb Threats

There’s a pretty girl, prettier than me, who has the same birthday as me. Sometimes I find that threatening, and other times comforting. I follow her on twitter, and on the 11th I saw her tweet that her 22nd birthday was the 22nd of this month. I thought, oh yeah, mine too. Somehow, I had forgotten, or at least completely de-prioritized my birthday, a birthday that I have been looking forward to since I turned 16 and realized it was the same as 15 except with a driver’s license. Eleven days until I am finally 22, which is like 21, only better because it’s an even number.  I don’t have any plans, and it doesn’t seem to bother me at all, which bothers me.

I expect my birthday to be ruined, like it always really is, (other than my 21st in LA, which couldn’t possibly have gone wrong, since it was in LA) but this year, not because of rain, like my birthdays all the way up through high school. The Pitt Bomber will ruin my birthday. He or she hates me. I know because the only classes I end up missing due to evacuations are the ones I really like. Worst of all, police escorted me out of my morning class in Frick, and nothing makes my skin crawl more than following the orders of or being touched by a police officer. I got both of those tragedies in by 10 am that day. The Pitt Bomber hates me, me specifically.

Every year that I have attended this university, I have said out loud, before witnesses that I would burn the Cathedral to the ground, which written on paper loses its’ hilarity, especially in the wake of the bomb threats. So, should anything happen to the Cathedral, considering the large reward Pitt is offering, I expect some previous witness to turn my name in. The paranoid three fourths of me suspects that situation to become a bag over the head, V for Vendetta style kidnapping and torture session in which my inability to respect the uniform forces me to remain in the University’s version of Guantanamo Bay for years at least, while my respective debts pile up in the outside world. When I am released, I will owe Pitt 4 times the amount I do now, and they will come to collect immediately. Or the third party, who I actually owe, will. Either way, I will wind up back behind bars, or bankrupt, and shit out of luck for a joke that really was funny every time I said it.

At first I suspected everyone. The skinny little things who never worked a day in their lives, prancing about in short-shorts and ripped tights and fake beat up, imitation army boots as if the bomb threats had given them freedom were number one on my list. People who don’t pay for school, who have trust funds, who leave their atm receipts featuring balances in the tens of thousands hanging from the machines in towers as if to remind me that even my parents don’t have that much money in their savings, have to be responsible. They don’t value their education, because the first thing they do is get drunk out of their minds and join some greek organization where they can meet others like them and talk about the extravagant amounts they spend on various meaningless accessories, tickets to Girl Talk and cologne that smells like the inside of stores where jeans cost more than my paychecks, and they don’t go to class and they claim that it’s all part of finding themselves and learning who they want to be. Those people, that group of students was always my enemy number one, since I tried to fight the entire Pitt baseball team at once when one of them called me “black bitch” like it was a joke and nothing but funny.

So I was biased, but feeling like a personal victim, I figured the enemy must be mine, and there was no other enemy of mine among the university crowd. Twitter was set ablaze one night when a post on reddit came to light, complaining of the unjust policies of the University. Everyone retweeted it (like copy and paste then re-sending under their name) as if this was the answer, as if one dissatisfied person on the internet explained everything. But I, as a student of the internet, was not convinced. The internet is nothing but a huge forum of anonymous hatred and dissatisfaction with any and everything, although I’ve found more racism and sexism and outright hatred of women than anything else. It wasn’t even as if the anonymous redditer was completely wrong about the issues they discussed either.

Time has been passing; I don’t know what I will do when it is august. In August, I have to move out of my apartment and to somewhere else, and even though I know where I’d like to be, in LA, it has suddenly hit me that perhaps the path I am now on, I could have found without coming all the way to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and without taking out loans to get a degree that only really gets me a job offer after at least 4 more years of school, providing I am dedicated and well-published in that time. Perhaps I could have just stayed in Oklahoma, realized I just wanted to write everything, and maybe direct films and maybe act if it was fun and worth the trouble of endless rejection, and moved to LA without debt and responsibility and 4 years younger than I will be on the 22nd, with less desperation and fear and heartbreak.

Graduation matters so much. It is the final push to go out in the world and develop myself as a person separate from other names and obligations. It’s a freedom and a celebration of something I finished, even though I rarely finish things, especially things I write and edit and delete and never let anyone see unless it’s being picked up for a grade, (and then I tell myself it isn’t my best work anyways just in case they hate it, even though no one has ever said they hated anything I wrote) and I finished something here. I breezed through undergrad as if bitter that it wasn’t, for the most part, any more difficult than high school and blaming my boredom for my refusal to try hard. But I finished, and when I went to pick up my cap and gown last Tuesday and I realized I got to wear an honor cord, that I was graduating with honor, somehow I wanted to cry a little, because people never seem to believe I actually care, and it means so much to me to be recognized for so little.

I called my mother the last time the big five were evacuated. I was kicked out of Frick, again, and alarms from Posvar, the Cathedral, David Lawrence and Towers were ringing out like echoes in Schenley Plaza. I was mad, and scared. I didn’t think anyone would bomb these buildings, because that wouldn’t be cruel enough, not yet at least. This person, the Pitt Bomber, wants to hurt me, I thought, or us, or all of us students who are just trying to survive so we can pay off the debts we already have and don’t understand the weight of yet, the weight that bears on me more the closer we get to graduation. My mother reminds me of my birthday and I realize I have forgotten it again. I almost cry, shaking with anger at the realization that this person is going to ruin my graduation.

When I was too young to go to school, my dad, a full time musician and stay at home father, let me be his shadow, and he was impressed by my apparent need to learn. I wanted to know everything. Then I wanted to tell everyone else what I had learned. He called me “Miss Information” and “Professor” even when I was just learning to read from him in our kitchen and I tried to pass words on to my little brother even though he was mostly more into chasing our chocolate lab around our one bedroom apartment. It didn’t feel small then, and my parents gave me big dreams. When I entered kindergarten I had already laid out a plan to attend Harvard, and play soccer professionally while I put myself through law school until I eventually rose to be a Supreme Court Justice. I could see myself holding my diploma, smiling with my long blonde-tipped dreadlocks and my family all around me, and nothing was more important to 6 year old me than graduation. That was where I would meet the President so that he could appoint me to the lifelong position on the bench. That was where I would meet my NBA star husband, who would help me give birth to smart athletic children who would change the way our country worked and we would make everything better in America all at once.

I am graduating regardless, I understand this logically. I will receive my diploma in the mail sometime in this coming summer and I will be able to tell anyone who asks that I have a college degree after finals week ends. I will still have a cap and gown and an honors cord, and papers that remind me of my stint on the Dean’s List, and all the memories from being here and doing it, and finishing it even when I have gotten the feeling lately that it may have all been a long expensive mistake after all. I will still get what I paid for. But not what I want. The Pitt Bomber is watching and waiting to snatch away the little piece of my 6 year old fantasy that I still can capture, that I still want to capture. Maybe the President would have attended for some odd reason had it not turned into a security nightmare. Maybe the man of my dreams would have shown up too if his sister, my classmate, hadn’t decided to go home instead of living under this stress.

I don’t know for sure that the Bomber won’t be captured before the 29th, or even better before the 22nd, and I don’t know for sure that they hold a personal grudge against me. I certainly have no control in the situation and sometimes I sit in silence and accomplish that Buddhist meditation I learned from yoga where I just empty out, but when it ends I realize I am in bed and sweating and really I have just finished a dream and I don’t know what it was but I am still tired and my phone has been vibrating beside my head all night reminding me that there is no peace here. I am constantly tired, I feel like I am standing on the edge of something, and I want to jump but I have to wait and I have no idea when I will be allowed to jump, or to run away or move and I am not sure that I want either but my body is sore and my mind is blank.

I go to campus and I look around. I don’t know even 1/10th of the people in my own graduating class. I probably know the names of even less of them. I hardly look anyone in the eyes anymore, unless I mean to challenge them like a wolf does when it’s alpha dog and is checking everyone around for their respect. I was curious, even desperate to know, previously who was responsible, and why they hated me so much, why they wanted to take so much from me. Now I am solemn. I have run out of words to say, threats to make out loud in hopes that the person responsible will fear me, the alpha dog, and just stop, roll over and show their belly and look off into the distance. I am too empty, too tired. Nothing feels important. I remember my birthday again and wonder if anyone is even going to care, even my friends, even the people who have long since graduated and adore me. I realize it is me who does not care. I don’t care about the only birthday I have looked forward to since 16, and I hate that. I hate this person, this nameless force who steals my control and pushes me around like a lab rat in a maze, sniffing out cheese and running from zaps on the floor when I turn to rush back into Art of China to retrieve my umbrella that I will never see again.