28 – “Annotation and Redaction,” Part 1

“Shards of glass can cut and wound or magnify a vision. Mosaic celebrates brokenness and the beauty of being brought together”
― Terry Tempest WilliamsFinding Beauty in a Broken World

At the beginning of this year in January, I thought that my cosmetics and skincare products were turning against me. And I was panicked and confused by the red scaly patches of skin that would form where once there was smooth and glowing skin. It was strange and otherly – this feeling that your body that you feel you intimately know can suddenly become a stranger. This life that you purposefully piece together, could betray you. I refused to believe it, so I kept layering the old products on. That’s how I ignore pain. I layer on pieces of what I know so that everything on the surface looks right. But that, of course, did not work, and eventually, after rounds of doctor visits and consultation, I found out that I have a contact allergen to beeswax, an ingredient found in the vast majority of my beauty and skincare products. It was time to realize that sometimes the norm just hides things we don’t want to see, despite the labor involved in changing things.

But who gets to tell these stories of our lives? My life? For black people, even on the personal level, our lives are often imaged for us and beyond us. In her groundbreaking (and life-changing for me) book In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, Christina Sharpe describes the type of “woke work” black people must engage with as we live in the wake of slavery – a past that is not yet past. In the book, she refers to one type of this wake work as the process of Black annotation and Black redaction. Because the images that exist of black people serve to confirm already held views of the black body and even repetition of these images (even when people claim to do so that others can see the violence enacted) does not bring an end to violence. The work then is to edit out the appropriation of black suffering and transform the narratives with messages of our own making. Sharpe describes it as the work of trying to really see ourselves, each other.

This past year then has been one of doing that work in my own life, where I fully embodied the words of my favorite poem by nayirrah waheed:

You do not have to be a fire for                                                                                                                                   every mountain blocking you.

you could be a water

and soft river your way to freedom

too.

–options

So I danced. I picked up my feet and I lifted my arms. I re-developed an intimate relationship with my body through the motions. It didn’t matter if I was good, only that I took up space in ways that I only later realized I desperately needed to take. I took deep breaths, and I asked for help.

Redacting. Annotating.

In her speech at the Glamour Women of the Year awards Solange–who has so often sung the words I have felt in my soul–said:

…Someone said to me you’ve got to shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land amongst the stars. Well, I wasn’t interested in either. I was interested in the journey there. How does one shoot for the moon? Do they just levitate as a celestial being or do they get there by mothership? Did these stars find each other before they became constellations or did they slowly evolve into the divine beings that they are by just existing? And were they afraid? As I’ve journeyed into my own evolution I’m grateful that I’ve never felt the answers, and grateful that I probably never will. I simply stopped needing to know. And I think we as women, we are told from the second that we come into our own that we not only need to be shooting for the moon, but we must hold the moon in the palms of our hands, turn it until the sun comes to morning, nurture all of the rings around our orbits and look and feel like a goddess with crowning glory while doing so. And that has not been my journey. My journey has been a rise and fall. It’s been ugly. It’s been loud, it’s been disruptive, it’s been long. It’s often been painful, but it has been free. It’s been beautiful. And it’s been mine.

Hers are the words I turn over and over again as 28 comes to an end. It is okay to be in crescent phase. And maybe crescent isn’t full, but it still shines. It still makes its way out each night despite the darkness.

It wasn’t until I came to this confrontation of self, where I was forced to see the shards and wounds, that I finally began to see past those pieces to the vision. I am the mosaic, and God is the artist. And does not the artist know their material?

The hardest part is not knowing what lies on the other side, but I will embrace the rough strokes that are found in the middle, as one who does not need to know the answers right away. And while I am waiting I will do so with a prayer, a song, and the confidence that I am approaching a vision. Twenty-eight has taught me that I have nothing to fear when being made anew. I just have to embrace it, and in the words of Solange, say to that fear, “You have met your goddamn match.”

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The Trust We Owe Ourselves

For far too long we have been seduced into walking a path that did not lead us to ourselves. For far too long we have said yes when we wanted to say no. And for far too long we have said no when we desperately wanted to say yes. . . .

When we don’t listen to our intuition, we abandon our souls. And we abandon our souls because we are afraid if we don’t, others will abandon us.”
― Terry Tempest Williams, When Women Were Birds: Fifty-four Variations on Voice

Last Sunday Casey Affleck won a coveted prize of Hollywood – the Best Actor Oscar. It was another sharp reminder that men’s lives don’t end when they violate women’s bodies. They get rewarded –President to Academy Awards and everything in between. Society has given men, especially white men, great trust. Men have futures, while women have pasts that need to be upended and examined for any signs of evidence we can use against her.

The erasure of our belief in ourselves starts young. When we tell our parents or teachers or friends that something happened, and the questions pour in: Well maybe he did not mean that. Maybe you misheard him. Maybe you did something. Our lives are lived in the vast, harsh circle of “maybe you.” And we begin to think, “Maybe you didn’t. Maybe he didn’t.” And worst of all, the maybe you did, that leads you to think that somehow, you are at the center of any and every problem.

We begin to suggest, never tell. We suggest in our papers a lens through which to read the author’s intent, while our male classmate makes a bold claim and unwaveringly sticks to it. Even in the face of being wrong, the world has taught them that they are right. Thinking back on the Oscars one more, I am reminded of the one La La Land producer who gave an acceptance speech despite having the knowledge that they had lost. He acted as though it was his right to still take up space despite it not being his time, while the La La Land director and producers were forced to breeze through their moment, the words they longed to say still stuck on their lips.

It becomes hard to unlearn the sound of your own silence. To learn to step outside the path laid out for us into unknown territories where we can boldly declare the lives we long to live. Because it always feels like a betrayal to others to live that life. Yet, as one of my favorite authors stated, we have but one life to live, some must be lived for ourselves. The most important relationship to fix then becomes the breakup experienced long before in a life of what we want and what we do because we’re scared of the silent parts of ourselves. Who is the woman of ‘yeses’? Who is she? I can say with confidence that she has learned that our experiences are all we have, even when people try to tell us otherwise. Those who love us will not abandon us because we trust that what we feel forms the basis of what we know. This is why I trust women when they speak the secrets that have burdened their hearts. Because so often women feel as though no one is listening and hearing the sound of our own voice, clear with the conviction of self-knowledge, is the only way we are ever free.

 

A Deliberate Life of Healing

While reading Terry Tempest Williams I came across this line: “Women piece together their lives from the scraps left over for them.” Young girls are too often socialized to think of their highest calling in life is to give freely of themselves to others. While there is nothing inherently wrong with living a life of service, there is something unhealthy when that life of service is socialized as living your one life for everyone else but yourself. Last fall I read the book Too Heavy a Yoke: Black Women and the Burden of Strength. It was one of those experiences where you feel as though a book has read you instead of you reading the book. The book focused on the burden of living the life of the trope of the StrongBlackWoman. Again, strength itself is not unhealthy, but when it is a hegemonic image of black women that leaves us without room to ask for help and to rest, it becomes the type of negativity that kills both spirit and body. And our education, our continued socialization does not teach us how to not be complicit in our own oppression. It is passed on from generation to generation – grandmother to mother to self. We learn to walk on broken legs without ever recognizing that pain is not a natural state of being.

We convince ourselves that we would rather be the StrongBlackWoman than the other identities – the Jezebel, the Sapphire, the Mammy, etc. But we have to begin the process of unlearning those monolithic identities. We belong deeply to ourselves, and have been deliberately created by God, and therefore, must deliberately walk through life on paths that we have crafted. We know because have lived, and most listen to the deep, low whispers of intuition in our bones. The intuition that tells us how to discover our true identities – far from the chains of this world.

Audre Lorde said, in a passage quoted in Too Heavy a Yoke:

“We have to consciously study how to be tender with each other until it becomes a habit because what was native has been stolen from us, the love of Black women for each other. But we can practice being gentle with ourselves by being gentle with each other. We can practice being gentle with each other by being gentle with that piece of ourselves that is hardest to hold, by giving more to the brave bruised girlchild within each of us, by expecting a little less from her gargantuan efforts to excel. We can love her in the light as well as in the darkness, quiet her frenzy toward perfection and encourage her attentions toward fulfillment.”

Therein lies our servant heart – that to love those who have lived similar experiences to us, to learn how to be gentle with that spirit, is to learn how to love our own. It is an overwhelming task to live with the expectations and oppressions of the world as a black woman. It becomes effortless, however, to love both failures and triumphs when we practice the deliberate act of making space for the full magnitude of being.

I am deliberately finding those spaces and being someone who creates them herself. Last summer I got my first waist beads in a ceremony with other women of color who I had just come to know in my first few months in the Bay. It was a powerful moment of sisterhood and quieting the frenzy of life. In that moment, we were suspended in time as we focused on that love for ourselves and love for one another. Ayodele, the woman who led the ceremony, talked about caring for ourselves as women, and how if we took the top layer of whatever we made, we would sustain ourselves and have plenty left to support others. She reminded us about the precious nature of womanhood, and the life or death of the earth that we bear inside our bodies. The beads connect us to our past and help us deliberately plan for the future we want. They tell the story of that journey in the intimate spaces of our bodies where the scars of life are written. During the frantic paces of life, I often find myself reaching to feel my beads through my clothing to find tranquility in knowing that they are there, and that I have deliberately committed their meaning to my life. New life creations come one day at a time.