Living My Own Narratives

What does it mean for something to be mine and not yours? what “right” do I have to a space, a land, a boundary? Maybe I’m the “good” immigrant to them. The Ivy degree, no criminal record, “good addition” to this country checkboxes. I think about the first time someone told me that I should distinguish myself from American-born blacks. “You’re not like them,” they said. They were attempting to sell me what they thought of as a dream –no, a nightmare. An acceptance based on placing my foot on the throats of another; an unholy union with whiteness.

But I look into the mirror, and I see brown skin and eyes that are haunted by ancestors crying from unmarked graves and the bottoms of the oceans both east and west.

Is it love if they only love you if you present in particular ways? If your story is one they can exploit to vilify another? We cross oceans in search of a different story, and find ourselves forced into another we did not author. I became an “immigrant story” –which gets your family featured in the local paper under the title “The American Dream.” Sometimes though you dream of things and wake to find that they are empty of any promises that keep you whole. That’s when you realize the sacrifices it takes to pen your own story. To be you, not a trope, not a one size fits all existence.

Not the “good immigrant.”

But a person. A person who crossed an ocean in search of the room to build a different story.

When Standing on a Precipice, There are Unknown Arms Around You

(A creative conversation piece written with my dear friend and college roommate, Alexandra Wilcox)

 

My mother weaves a beautiful bedtime story

For her daughters as the lights dim at night

Brave, bold, and beautiful

Our voices rising strong above the waves

 

I waited on the sidewalk until she ascended the steps

Children happily pounded on the window, waiting for my wave

When the door was closed, I turned to go

And realized I’d been holding my breath.

 

She had been more comfort to me than I to her.

 

Her life says: Take my daughters, America

And let the talent from their souls

Not wash into the abyss of lives that could have been.

Let them live.

Let them be clothed in the pursuit of happiness

And fed by the scales of equality and justice

And let them be remembered

 

She had been shamed yet remained standing tall

With a grace I could never equal

Two days before, I stood in her living room

Balancing a child on my hip

“I’ll support you—no matter what you decide”

She looked at me with clear eyes—

“I can’t afford to do this. I can’t do this to my kids.”

 

Her life for my life.

A long-standing payment to history.

But in America, “Nobody says you have

to take the circumstances that someone else gives you.”

This is why in this day and age

When a woman cannot earn the same amount as a man

For the same job and has her rights tossed around

By men in suits in big chairs on big hills,

I do not take those circumstances lightly.

 

She was open about the failings—

Some were her own; many were not

But no matter past or present, she remained a fierce woman with fierce love.

I aspired to model her resilience—to be able to rise up

After being struck down

To survive again and again and again

 

In a paper always nestled in the back

Of my arms-length memory,

I had imagined a different life for myself.

I had created a world in which

I conversed with the greatest scholars.

As I took my seat at the table,

I whispered in the ear of Adrienne Rich

That her dreams were being born in the lives

Of the women of my generation…

Now only to wake to nightmares

That when I open my mouth to speak,

There are no words, no sound, no voice

 

It was the season of primary debates and

The phrase “sanctity of life” was center stage.

Succumbing to exhaustion on the subway after that long day

I wondered—

Why don’t we see any sanctity in hers?

 

If I am in search of my mother’s garden

I am afraid my search is confused

I thought she had planted it right here in her daughter

But so many have tried to cut down the roots

 

When we de-legitimize rape, when we silence victims of violence

When we remove choice, when we steal away opportunity

When we shame

The consequences do not only linger around those we’ve oppressed.

They filter into every corner of every home.

They lay with us in bed at night;

They commute with us to work the next morning.

They hang in the air between those who have and those who have not,

Between those who are and those who are “less.”

 

I fancy myself a recoverer of history

A hand that stretches back to pull out lost remains

It is a role I have crafted for myself over the years

Since I was first allowed to truly explore the complexities

Of what it means to be black, and especially a black woman

A role often owned by others throughout time

But the hand that rocks the cradle and molds the nation

Is the one that can survive.

 

We refuse to claw at the institutionalized oppression.

We instead claw at each other, convinced that to succeed another must fall.

Convinced that if we have made it, it is safest to pull up the ladder

before those next in line reach the bottom rung.

 

What shall freedom look like? Who will bring us back together?

It is she, the one whose beauty shines like the velvety night

With eyes that sparkle with hope from the stars

With hope that even though the role of the mule

Asks of her to bend over year after year

With the burden of the babies, the men, the creating,

That the harvest will not be in vain

 

And then, how do we survive? How can we possibly survive so divided?

The consequences will carve a chasm that is wide,

Too wide for any bridge to overcome

United we stand, divided we fall.

We will fail without one another.

We will fail if we don’t see the sanctity in each other.

 

This is my story. It is woven with thread so thin, yet so strong

So intricate and yet so simple

I wear its tattooed symbol on my face, my arms

My legs, the hollows of my body.

It is a familiar marking that I have found in other women in life.

Lives that have been lived, are living, and will be lived–

Different faces yet the same molds on the canvas.

 

Before she ascended the steps to her home,

She and I faced one another

I fumbled with words of comfort

But prayed she knew that I meant it

She nodded and thanked me,

That it would have been hard alone.

But she had been alone—when no one stopped the fist or ended the rape,

When no one else held her newborn, when her dreams were deferred

Her daughters, my daughters would be even more alone

If the rhetoric that had been passing through our ears

Became law

 

“And so our mothers and grandmothers have,

more often than not anonymously,

handed on the creative spark, the seed of the flower

they themselves never hoped to see: or like a sealed letter

they could not plainly read.”

 

No longer am I anonymous. WE no longer are anonymous.

No one can take my body and make it their own,

on ballot nor in the streets at night as I walk.

I carry the spark and only I can out it.

This garden is a place of sanctity.

 

Yet, despite having no reason to trust me

And every reason to believe that I would fail her,

She allowed me to stand beside her.

She let me be on her side and reached for my hand

To tell me that she was on mine

The side of our mothers, the side of our daughters

 

I am never alone in the telling of this story.

I am not the first, but when will there be a last?

We who usher the future into the world

Through the life-bearing passages of our very souls

Must not be silenced.

We who have but one life, must not be forced only to give.

 

Because at the end of the day, we are inextricably linked

Because at the end of the day, our fight is the same

 

The responsibilities we have to ourselves.

The responsibilities we have to each other.

So when I say I’m writing this for me,

I’m really writing it for you.

 

“The truth of our [women’s] bodies and our minds

Has been mystified to us.

We therefore have a primary obligation to each other:

Not to undermine each other.”