every black drop

There’s about half an hour left of Black History Month as I type this, and I am determined to cling to each minute left, use it. I feel like I’ve been slightly MIA this month–a respite from writing, a sabbatical from marching, moments in shadowed corners away from the fray, where I hear my breath and hear my thoughts.

February has been such a pendulum month with peaked highs and such deep lows that I don’t know how to summarize it, so I won’t try to. I can’t fully articulate the soul-ache extended to my limbs, the way you wake up tired after a full night of slumber. Neither can I fully capture the heady joy that awakens, vibrates into being unexpectedly, and thrums new life into my fingers as they flex and I face a new day. It’s both of these coexisting realities I have known this month as I unravel my country to examine its threads and allow God to unravel me so I can be known.

But in these remaining minutes, I want to remember, that is, I want to pay homage to the blackness that birthed me and has also been part of the dual realities–the weariness and the vitality. I want to remember the black women who have seen me through seasons and those seasoned with years beyond my own.

I want to remember my Abuela whose stories pulled me to an island I had never seen and whose own story dared me to be a warrior like her, serenity and fortitude in the cocoa-brown of her eyes.

I want to remember my Grandmother Joan, whose patient brown hands could stir pitchers of brown-sugared lemonade, wave into the air with her bright, high laugh, or clasp my shoulder as she reminded me again that I belong to her, belong to family.

I want to remember my aunts, black, bold, laughing, loving, drawing us all in and together, Caribbean beats and earrings with afro-womened silhouettes.

I want to remember my mom, who gave me histories to interpret my existence, took me to Civil Rights museums and MLK’s fatal hotel, but also the grassy knoll in Downtown Nyack where she hosted picnics with me and my sister where we feasted on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches; she gifted us innocence. 

I want to remember the black girls of my childhood on my screen, the Tia and Tamera Mowrys and Kesha from The Magic School Bus and even Francine from Arthur (coded black) that showed me that I belong in so many spaces, even if then the screen didn’t show us in all of them.

I want to remember the women from graves long grassed over: Sojourner Truth with her blunt, fierce gaze, Harriet Tubman, Marian Anderson–whom I did my first biography book report about.

I want to remember the black women in my childhood church who mentored me, sang with me, and taught me to pray to a God that created all our colors and cherished us.

I want to remember the black sisters in my church now that give me the freedom to break apart but keep me from being forever strewn in pieces–who also let me be full and loud and unapologetic.

I want to remember my black friends in college who rinsed the product from my hair, invited me to discover my own blackness, and taught me how to be angry.

I want to remember the black women on YouTube who helped me love my curls.

I want to remember Maya Angelou, whose words taught my own to push past the wired walls of fear and self-consciousness that caged them and find the music freed beyond them.

I want to remember the singers of the blues, of the oldies, of Motown, that my 24-year-old soul still finds resonance with years later when I hear them sing of new love, endured struggles, and the sparkled, boogied happiness to be found in-between beats of a longer song.

I want to remember the black women I see protesting on the news, lecturing in white academic halls, preaching poetry in protest on a vacant stage–the ones who refuse to be made invisible and give me the courage to be seen.

I want to remember the black women whom I am friends with still, whom I weep on the phone with and rant on sidewalks with and dance to Beyonce and the Wobble and samba with (shout-out to all the Afro-Latinas out there!). 

I want to remember the black women I have never known, but whose lives I feel the weight of with each step I take.

You will never be forgotten. With 2 minutes to spare, I’ve done my very small part in making sure of it.

the flesh to my bones

I’m tired of seeing the suffering black body.

The TV screen blinks off, taking with it the image of yet another poor African child staring at me with wide, hollowed eyes. The melancholic instrumental in the background fades, and I am left counting how many infomercials, news stories, and movie trailers I’d seen that week featuring black people in pain. I lose count and give up.

Growing up, I perked up whenever I saw a black or brown person on my screen. With hungry eyes, I tracked their presence, noting their gestures and shifts in expression like a good budding media critic (I used to read movie reviews for fun). I internally harvested each word from their lips and reaped a satisfied feeling of affirmation with each full line. My carefully maintained stores held the Lando Calrissians, the Storms, the Ravens and Tia and Tamera Mowrys on Disney Channel, the Keesha Franklins and Susie Carmichaels on Saturday morning cartoons, and every Will Smith character of the late 90s and early 2000s.

From a young age, I taught myself to find those who looked like me because, for some reason I didn’t understand, we were missing. I saw my Caribbean family, and the black and brown people at my church, and the residents of my abuela’s South Bronx neighborhood….and I saw that all these people were missing from my screen. The movies reigning at the box office and the TV shows garnering acclaim felt empty of their particular wit and wisdom. Later I would question why each major comedy or drama seemed to adhere to an invisible quota of one person of color per ensemble (two if they were especially progressive). When I was eight, I just saw the empty spaces and wondered.

The years have brought change, no doubt about that. When we have shows like black-ish and Empire and How to Get Away With Murder that have become must-see TV and rising stars like the remarkable Lupita Nyong’o and John Boyega and Michael B. Jordan, it’s easy to believe the leaps in representation and celebrate that. Independent producers such as Netflix and Hulu now produce their own content with increasingly diverse casts, extricated from the expectations of cable networks, and there is a new generation of social media-savvy youth keeping media producers accountable by pointing out problematic racial tropes and portrayals. The soil for equity is richer for these changes.

Outwardly, the conventional skin of our screens has darkened. However, beneath it perpetuate other disturbing trends and deeper gaps lying unacknowledged. While there have been increases in the number of characters of color in media, according to a 2015 UCLA diversity report:

73.1% of the actors in the 100 top-grossing films of 2014 were white

Film studio heads were 94% white and 100% male in 2013

Television studio heads were 86% white and 55% male in 2013

Minority film writers were underrepresented by 3 to 1 in 2013

More than half (51%) of moviegoers were minorities in 2013

2016 has seen only incremental changes. With the #OscarsSoWhite controversy that brewed this year, highlighting the industry-wide racial disparities in media, and more articles pointing out the high volume of minority ticket-buyers as well as the predominantly white nature of film and TV agencies, “diversity” in media is once more a hot topic. When minorities comprise roughly 40% of the U.S. population, with numbers steadily increasingly, these statistics point to a stagnation at odds with the demographic trends of the country. Where you are seeing minorities, particularly black peoples: “ethnic-targeted” films produced by directors of color, independent films, and sitcoms. Where you see black people recognized in mainstream spaces: when they are suffering.

Out of the 88 years of its existence, the Academy Awards has awarded 14 black men and women for their film roles. That number rises to 32 when you include awards for producing, best picture, writing, music, and sound mixing (the latter two of which actually represent 37% of the awards). 95% of nominations up to this point have gone to white actors and actresses. Black individuals were nominated for roles spanning from historical figures such as Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela, musicians (Dreamgirls and Ray), soldiers (Glory), and slaves or servants (Gone With the Wind, The Help, 12 Years a Slave). More disheartening was the overwhelming number of nominations given for roles that fit into what has become an all-too-familiar narrative of black people fighting against adversity or mired in destitute and violent situations (Hotel Rwanda, Monster’s Ball, Precious, The Color Purple, Captain Philips, Blood Diamond).

These performances deserve praise. The men and women populating them are exceptional. What bothers me is that stories with black people in them receive praise often within the particular bounds of a narrative of suffering. Our streets are presented as crumbling, our children as sullen and silent, our women as beleaguered and broken. We are framed amidst a context of waning, either necessitating a coded white savior or some other inspirational means of fighting the Villainous Ensemble of Slavery, Racism, Poverty, and Prejudice, often represented by white characters meant to be the blatantly immoral antagonists (only mean people are racist after all). We are the ones positioned as lower from the outset, requiring deliverance and the audience’s tears.

In many ways, this reflects a reality where black Americans are still underrepresented among professionals and over-represented among the incarcerated. Racism and the pervasive impact of past imperialism and current corporate exploitation continue to foment poverty and division on a global scale. We are still positioned as lower, and the media we watch reminds us of that everyday.

I hesitantly scroll past the slavery documentaries on Netflix and leave a powerful performance of the play Eclipsed with a heart anchored in grief and guilt. I know these stories matter, that people are suffering, and I must wake up daily to that reality…but I am also in a thwarted position as a black American. My American privilege may protect me from the unrestricted rape and grisly warfare of other places, but my black marginalization carves paths that signify fewer opportunities for me-despite my status as a college-educated woman-and it reminds me that I am susceptible to racial violence and discrimination. My body in the the land of the free awakens in confinement. 

I am weary of these realities being outlined as the crux of my story and the stories of black people. I read about them and write about them and learn more about them because there are lives at stake besides my own, but that is a hovering cognizance that will not leave me. I don’t need Academy Awards to remind me that racism is evil, and my veins contain more than just the assurance of marginalization. I thrift shop at Goodwill, spin poetry while bouncing to Motown tunes in Central Park, screw up a final paper in procrastinated glory, sway to bachata on crowded streets, binge on Netflix, memorize Star Wars facts and elven genealogies, rant for hours with friends about singleness, pinch my extending curves with sighs, practice curly hair conditioning after consulting YouTube, blubber when I watch The Sound of Music.

The vibrancy of these details, these nuances, collected in a life not solely defined by a trampled experience needs to be inhaled to refresh our visions of black people of all socioeconomic classes and countries and colors. These details transform a stereotype into a breathing person with a distinct story. They offer the complexity of being thoroughly seen rather than pitied. They give flesh to the bones of our tropesWhy doesn’t mainstream media allow black people to be organic beings rather than skeletal frames. Our scripts run with suffering or slapstick, sorrow or sass. 

As British blogger Nikesh Shukla puts it: “I realized that white people think that people of color only have ethnic experiences and not universal experiences.” His declaration suggests that people of color are asked to resonate with white superhero gangs like the Avengers, with freedom-fighter Katniss, with the countless interchangeable leads in Nicholas Sparks love stories, but when stories of people of color emerge, they are relegated to the niche market. Our superheroes and freedom-fighters and romantics are apparently not relatable. Our stories are drenched in our otherness and therefore reserved only for people who inhabit our skins.

While there should always be a space for media oriented towards people of color, that is not mutually exclusive from white people taking the time to seek out, watch, and affirm black people in media. Just because it’s a story I can relate to better as a black woman doesn’t excuse a white media consumer to avoid films that feature predominantly black casts, dismissing them as “black films” and thus unnecessary to include in their personal canon. Though our specific experiences of race and color inevitably shape us, we are not built of archetypes like LEGO blocks. We are human and resonant yet unique and diverse in our laughter and weeping–and we should all be seen. I’m thankful for the good black films nourished in the niche market, for the black writers and producers fighting to bring our stories to the screen. But we shouldn’t settle for nesting in the niche; we should take wing to the heights.

The state of blackness in media represents a stringent tension because I need to know of black suffering, especially the types I have never experienced. I need media like Eclipsed to remind me of what goes on outside of my neighborhood, and my heart needs to be broken over what God already grieves for. I may be tired of the suffering black body, but I can never afford to avoid suffering black people, not because “they’re my age” or any resonating feature that brings them close to my experience, but simply because they are human beings that demand my acknowledgment and merit dignity in accordance to the ways their Creator formed them.

At the same time, we can acknowledge black suffering without romanticizing it or conferring it as the only definition of black life. Black stories transcend the impetus to white guilt and the assumption of progessivism. We can put my father on the screen. My friends. My church members. My co-workers. Not to be mocked, not to be side-kicks or servants, but to display the complicated, detailed brilliance of themselves. To afford the privilege of being realized as dimensional beings with mistakes, wounds, quirks, and little triumphs rather than quotas to fill or tokens to appease audiences of color.

I need to see what wanes, but when I wax like the moon and cradle shadows in my craters, I want you to see all of it.

 

 

location

where do i find veins like rivers 

to carry me to the ocean 

where i am indigenous 

for i belong in no one place 

what do I call my own?

I finally took the time to watch Beyonce’s “Lemonade” this morning. I was afraid to at first because I’d heard so much praise from other black women, a sense of deep validation ringing their words, and I feared I would emerge from the experience feeling stranded. My relationship to my own blackness has undergone so many phases in past years, and when I hear of a media piece oriented towards black women, I tiptoe closer with the engraved expectation that it will not speak to me–that it can’t.

Black womanhood has been introduced to me in an array of forms: the strong, crinkled hands of my grandmother; my aunt’s afro-earrings and paintings of dancing dark women; the fawn-skinned, gleaming arms of models in Seventeen magazine; the razor-edged sass of countless black best friends and co-workers on television; the smoldering and unapologetic sexuality of the Rihannas and Beyonces; the deep-throated crooning and soaring vocals of Motown singers; the proud trading of natural hair tips among my friends on Facebook; the dignified swell of sorrow and triumph in the poetry of Maya Angelou.

These bits and pieces composed my mosaic of black womanhood– but not where I found myself. As a young girl growing up with mostly white friends in a New York suburb, access to blackness came primarily through my family. I strung together a narrative of my aunt’s Afro-centric street fairs and black female empowerment treatises, my mother’s Motown and drive to visit historic sites like the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, my paternal grandmother’s stewpot stories of Jamaica. I craved these experiences, thirsted for more that could help me define what black could mean to me.

The TV shows I watched, the music blaring from the school bus radio, the images sprawled on commercials taunted me with a kind of black womanhood I couldn’t relate to as a teenager from a predominantly white suburb. They showed me black women who were either tough, brassy, carnal, and angry or submissive, needy, abused, and broken. You could be the token flipping your weave as the encore to your sassy quip or the damaged one needing a man, Jesus, a white savior, or all of the above. There were positive images that deviated from the norm, and I found them and clung to them, the Tia and Tamera Mowrys and others for my generation. Yet there were never enough.

For so long the media images overpowered the truth of my family connections, and like a parched sponge I imbibed the racism teeming in them. I wanted to claim that kind of blackness because I did not feel that my story as a Hisblasian mutt counted as a legitimate experience of blackness. I did not see my story anywhere; how many depictions of Afro-Latinos, blacks with Asian heritage even existed? Few to none.

Everyone told me matter-of-factly: “You’re black. That’s it. Claim it.” I wanted to, wished it was that easy, but I still grasped at the images of black womanhood elevated as the standard. Marshaling my thoughts, I tried to locate myself in my faith, in my identity as a Christian. Your identity is in Christ, I murmured as my mantra. It wasn’t as if it was untrue; there was a time in college where I had made my cultural background my idol as a defense mechanism to feel somehow superior despite my status as a minority student. I didn’t want to revert to that attitude, that kind of self-absorption in racial and ethnic markers.

Your identity is in Christ. God also designed me as what is labeled and understood by my society as a “black woman.” I walk through predominantly white spaces with a heightened awareness of my physical stamp of difference. Even in my current neighborhood of the South Bronx, I cannot walk unskinned because I am constantly cognizant of the skin that pales in winter and the curls that coil rather than kink. My story of middle-class privilege binds my skin in place, and I stand in a crowd, alienated from the people I am told I belong to.

So when I sat in front of my computer to watch “Lemonade,” I waited for the ache of self-consciousness to begin again. I had to ask myself, is it really that important that I can claim this–claim blackness? I didn’t answer the question; I planted myself into the chair and pressed play.

A poetry of sounds and images enclosed me…and liberated something. A knotted tension balled up in my chest for the first half hour-and it felt long-then somewhere around loss it loosened. I let the music and sights sweep over me. I watched black sisters of all shades staring into my eyes, caught the allusions to plantations and police brutality and infidelity and “good hair.” I held my breath, absorbing lyrics of ragged rage and unfiltered vulnerability. My defenses down, I allowed myself to be part of their story because there was finally nothing else restraining me in that moment from recognizing it as OUR story–the story of black women.

I usually resist meta-narratives, for there is no ONE black story of womanhood. My experiences will never represent all those known by other black women–and neither are they meant to. Yet there remains a thread connecting the stories of all black women, a thread of histories and oppression and blood and love and body and family. I locate myself in that thread even as I continue to take ownership and work out of the unique story God has gifted me.

“Lemonade” reminded me of that kinship, and for once I felt relief rather than frustration. Without living all her experiences, I could resonate with Beyonce’s journey and with the women she presented beside her. Despite the racist history underpinning the social label “black,” I could value the vibrant, diverse, resilient peoples who have arisen out of it.

Wandering between different narratives of black womanhood, I will still struggle to locate myself and from where I speak. The pangs of diaspora are fathomless. They represent a division of peoples, a forced distance where there may have once been oneness, a place to belong to. I have felt isolated and unable to fully embrace my own blackness; that has been denied me by a world that cramps my story into its singular categories. It tells me that this is the way to be black–that having lighter-skin and mixed features only maps me as ambiguous. No security awaits those like me, no community for chameleons.

But us black women are used to making lemonade out of paltry fruit. Rooted in relationship with Christ, who tells me I am an heir of God’s abundance and freedom and promise, I claim what I have already been given and allow it to shape my path. I claim my darker-skinned sisters and celebrate them without denigrating my own face. I claim my African-American and African sisters without diminishing my Caribbean and Chinese beginnings. I claim dominicana, Jamaican, Afro-Latina, American, black without de-partitioning my body. I claim the anger of dispossessed peoples and enslaved ancestors and racially discriminated matriarchs without denying the miraculous work of forgiveness and grace and redemption.

This voice matters in the church, in this country, in this world. We must give such voices space to inhabit and affirm them in our midst, for there are lessons learned through the eyes and cries of black women. 

I am realizing that I no longer need one place or community to define the silhouette of my womanhood. Our journeys in the world cascade in fluid rhythms, and we find new words and experiences around each bend to realize who we are, from where and whom we come, and where we’re going. We are able to finally see the past refracted in beauty and the present tragedies and fears and victories as part of something ongoing and larger, extending beyond us. I am proud to be a black woman and take up space in that way, and I aspire to speak alongside-not for-my sisters of all stories. Instead of grasping to possess a narrow expression of black womanhood, I learn to examine and steward what I have and join the conversations that others like Beyonce are sustaining.

I thank God now for the moments in the morning when I claim my curls and call them black–and everything else mixed in. I call them mine.