letter to my own

Dear Black and Latinx family,

I write this for you because I rarely do. This reality sunk in a few months ago during lunch with a former supervisor. We were discussing Tal Nehisi-Coates’ Between the World and Me, pointing out how striking and vital it was that he so unapolegetically directs his thoughts to black people. In contrast, I realized that much of what I write has another audience waiting beyond the curtain. My subconscious has been molded by expectation and pressure to write for this audience, to teach and challenge, to elucidate and defend, to appease. Yes, appease because I fear being barred from the parties of discourse where I am viewed as exceptional–not one of “Those People.” The unfettered desire races around the mind room where I hide it: I want to belong there–fully.

In the white-hot, hard-knuckled moments, I intentionally write for this audience. In the chilled and tremoring, anxious moments, I unintentionally write for them. Only later does it hit me that I can hardly comprehend doing otherwise.

I have been taught and encouraged to write for White People. The sources are many, the voices subtle, but there it is. The responsibility of educating them into race, crossing color borders and building equitable communities burdens me, some of it helpful and good, much of it unbalanced and overwhelming. So much thought is consumed in anticipating their reactions and screening any idea that resembles a spark. Calm, measured, all the while I grit my teeth and worry. What if I burn bridges? What if I become one? The self-consciousness is deafening. In the ether, I sense only the strains of righteous rage and fathomless grief entombed in my stomach, the words I catch through a net of teeth before they can be uttered.

When the reality of all of this manifests itself in vivid high definition, I breathe out, wet, ragged, and I know then I am compensating for years of unacknowledged constraint. The knowing of it hurts, knowing that the message you have internalized from the world around you is that you must monitor your speech and behavior in ways that your white friends don’t have to. Whether it’s logical or not, right or not, I feel like I have to be careful about how often and how candidly I talk about race with white people because I don’t want to hurt their feelings. When I say “race,” I imagine thought bubbles blooming above their heads with “i’m not racist” or then “how do I prove i’m not racist,” and the pangs of sympathy prevent my progress into further conversation–even when it’s needed. My words are filtered to accommodate to their comfort.

It’s not only in talking about race where I run into walls. I’m conscious of my Otherness in too many spaces that I enter, fixated on how my opinions and ideas will be absorbed, how many people I see in the virtual and real-world landscape who look like me, how people talk about the communities I identify with. I think about whether I should step in to defend them from hasty or ignorant remarks; the words burn but don’t leave my lips.

I wrestle most with the questions of boundaries. What is the difference between honesty and antagonism, especially when it comes to sharing struggles as someone with marginalized identities? What is the difference between grace and accommodation when you are usually the person doing the accommodating? When am I allowed the privilege of vulnerability so I can simply tell you that I am wrapped up in this anxiety of what White People think of me, and I fear their rejection. When am I allowed to say that, for once, I want to wade in my penned pool of raw emotions and unlock the gates? Then I can be allowed to cry out that it’s hard being a Christian and a woman of color when too many books and conferences and sermons prescribe the gentling and swaddling of my anger when racism is bloody and wretched and real, and I want its strongholds wrecked apart wherever I see them, even if others can’t.

I am wearied by the knowledge that I am freed by Christ yet still restrained from fully participating in and inhabiting the world He redeems daily. The gaps present feel like canyons, yet I hesitate in asking for more, for something else that can belong to me.

There are few things created for us. Movies and television are branded for us when we become a desirable target audience–grouped as Black (just like we’re grouped as “the Black vote” and “the Latino vote.”). When Brown floods a screen, complaints about political correctness draw it back. We are always political, even by just loosening breath to say we matter.

There are few things allocated for us. Classes on race in universities are oriented to help white people understand it. Students of color endure the reiteration of what our world has denied them with little effort to support their presence in the room. Even conferences on racial division all too often contain a token minority speaker (2 if it’s especially progressive) directing their challenges to white people. The way we experience racial division and the efforts to address it are different, but where are the resources to guide us if we want to be part of the reconciling embrace? Where is our toolbox when the nails holding us together run out?

There are few things given to us. We are expected to work hard like other Americans, though no number is given to how many generations we must toil before we too have the accumulated wealth to make such demands. We must create our own Barbies with curly hair, our own movies to achieve complexity in our stories, our own TV channels because we don’t belong to the mainstream (the hyphen is too wide a divide), our own award ceremonies and scholarships because who else is willing to sacrifice more to dignify us?

I grew up with this scarcity I did not fully understand. I didn’t understand why I reveled in seeing Susie Carmichael and Lando Calrissian or the Jamaican sprinters each Summer Olympics. I read Kindred and poetry by Maya Angelou and Tia Lola Comes to Stay, and through that my peoples had stories that filled in the lines and extended beyond. At one point in elementary school, I could count my friends of color with one hand, but Sister, Sister offered another reality I could settle into, one where Black was normal and beautiful and fun.

Coates’ work, Julia Alvarez’ work, Lemonade even, reminded me of the necessity of art, work, ideas, and space crafted for Black and Latinx communities. They should not stand as the only opportunities for people of color (especially black and brown women) to recieve encouragement and comfort through vessels constructed for their use. We need more.

I write many blog posts, poems, essays for White People, and I’m making peace with those works and their purpose. They have a place in the movement towards mutual understanding and reconciliation, especially within the Church. But that cannot be the axis of my artistic livelihood, nor the threshold I reach for.

I want to write for YOU, to lift you up and remind you of how precious you are. I don’t have the same struggles as all of you, but I respect your shouting and shade. I honor your tears when no one will. I give space on the shelf of my consciousness for your beauty and resilience and vulnerability.

Forgive me for relegating you to the leftovers of my thought and action. I get tired and stretched, and when I see more racism and estrangement, all I want to do is end it, and writing to White People sometimes feels like the only way. But there you are, hurting, fighting, learning, loving, and pushing for the miraculous. You are marvelous in that way. Thank you for your fortitude. Thank you for welcoming me when I feel like I don’t belong.Thank you for your bravery in writing the books and making the movies and composing the music that have re-conditioned me to love the differences the world has designated “minority.”

This is for you, with much more to come.

Love,

Joanna

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