#metoo

I cheered when Diana Prince climbed the trench ladder and walked onto the battlefield. Incoming bullets smashed her steel wrist-plates and flew apart as her arms raised to meet them, and in that moment I think a lot of women felt a jolt of validation as we watched her charge forth across No Man’s Land.

Only a week later, I was walking along a sidewalk in West Harlem to pick up dinner, glancing at my phone here and there to check if I was going the right way (my friends know my sense of direction is…severely limited), and then my eyes flicked back up, catching something before my mind could compute it. Then it registered that my path forward had just narrowed. My eyes traced the lines of men framing both sides of the walkway, lounging, chatting, eating, and already I felt my heartbeat accelerate.

The space in the middle seemed to constrict, forming a tighter and tighter V, and I had seconds to make a choice. I could weave around to cross the street and keep going from there. I’d done that in the past where I just didn’t feel like dealing with it. This time I steeled myself, trapped in my stuttered breath and tried to keep my pace even–and I walked forward.

My gaze fixed on the corner bodega on the other side, and I tried to focus on anything, anything but the weight of eyes sliding over my body and the words already forming in the mouths of those who would judge it.

Hey sweetie. Lookin’ good. Sexy. Hey honey. Nice ass. Nice. Nice. 

Worse were the appraising nods I could sense but not see, but the corner was approaching and I was almost there, almost there–THERE! It was over. I made it. I let myself exhale but stayed vigilant, my eyes already on another group of men two blocks ahead.

I wonder now if No Man’s Land only exists in wars and myths because from what I could see as I navigated the sidewalks in NYC, everywhere is All Man’s Land.

What I don’t think a lot of men realize is that their bodies take up space in this land differently than my woman’s body does. Anyone can be a victim of crime on the street, anyone can be harassed, but when my body, presented as woman, walks through New York City, the space then made available to me targets its vulnerability–my vulnerability. That vulnerability is intensified by my identity as a woman of color because now I have this idea of the “exotic” attached to my body as well, a label that gives others license to define my sexuality and take advantage of it. This reminds me that more times than not, I will need to be hyper-conscious of the way I move through spaces dominated by men and prepare myself for all the ways it can go wrong.

I learned as a brown girl in a predominately white middle school that even in spaces where the gender demographics seem pretty equal, things can go wrong. I learned this when a white boy reached out his hand to grab my butt, smacked it, laughed, and then sauntered off through the hallway because he had nothing to be ashamed of. I stood still, mind blank, not sure of what to think or feel, not even later when I told the vice principal and she fluttered about me in distress, trying to get to the bottom of it. They never found him.

They never find a lot of them–the men who hurt my sisters, the ones who harass them, assault them, linger in the memories they try to forget, the ones who expose the grim reality that the space we take up is often less valued because the anxiety and pain that comes with it goes unacknowledged and unaddressed. I can only speak for myself and what I’ve seen and experienced, but I know of the stories of deep pain that were not trusted to be legitimate. I know of stories where my sisters did not know comfort, did not know justice. We all do. They may take up the space of a news byline for a day, but that is not enough. It never is.

I believe we have been created in God’s image and cherished as such, and I am disturbed when the dignity of that is threatened. We should not be in a land where I am used to having my body inspected and commented on by men, where I am expected to respond to their “praise” with smiles because I’ll be seen as ungrateful or rude if I don’t. We should not be in a land where the weight of this expectation compresses our space, inhibits us from moving fully within the freedom God intended us for.

And this space isn’t always physical. You only need to look at the way we talk about women in the media because apparently if we talk frankly about these things we’re framed as crazy, emotional, bossy, demanding liars in the workplace and in the home who want too much and hate men. I’m not even going to dignify the latter with more words than it deserves.

To present as woman involves this unspoken demand by society to tuck yourself in and resign yourself to the space allotted to you. I am to accept the space between the walls of catcalled words and reaching hands and should not expect or ask for more. I should not expect to take up more space in a conversation with a group of men without being interrupted or questioned. I should not expect to challenge attitudes that feed into rape culture and win.

I am expected to fear nights (and days) walking alone and carrying pepper spray and my mother’s stories.

But the God I serve did not design me to settle for fists clenched in fear, eyes averted, and a mouth clamped closed. I was born into a minefield with a desperate need for #metoo, but I’ve been liberated by Christ to be a conqueror, wondrous and woman all at once.

Charge into this truth together. There is much to conquer, and we need each other.

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.