April 19, 2018

Now You See Me, Now You Don't

Let's just stop at that market on the way home. I'm starving.

The gray day was spitting down in fits and starts, undecided whether to drench the whole day or drape the day over with a long, playful tease. My husband was hungry, and frankly I didn't feel up to post-church Sunday lunch duty.

"that market" we'd pass on the way home was the kind where samples lured in shoppers down each aisle -- from the produce section, to the deli's gourmet sausages and cheeses to the snack section, replete with gluten-free tortilla chips and freshly made salsa.

Sure. Let's do it. I said, knowing samples would be enough to stave off my husband's Hangries while I could shop for something more substantial for a proper lunch.

We pulled into the lot as spitting rain continued. I'll drop you guys off and meet you inside, so you don't get wet. What a gentleman. We tumbled out and landed in the produce section. Fresh cantaloupe and papaya were the bait, and we were hooked, gladly ambling up the aisle.

May I help you? a clerk offered just as I was about to down a cantaloupe chunk. Not right now, but thanks. I popped the rest in my mouth and grabbed a hunk of papaya for my daughter.

Can I help you find anything? No...we're okay right now.

Four steps toward the pineapple and fruit dip in the same aisle, when again: Are you finding everything okay?

Yes. I am. Thank you.

Before I knew it, my mind reflexively said Geez...Can he [my husband] just get in here already so they know I belong here?

Holycrap. I was actually hoping that my white-guy husband would come in to be my equivalent of "papers" that many black folks had to show to justify their very presence -- their right to just be in the space they were in. Where did that even come from?

In certain white spaces, brown skin is just too darned visible and takes that person with brown skin to some dark, reflexive, historical places within themselves.

* * * * * * * * * *

Okay, let's get this going before there's a long line: you want the shredded pork sandwich, you want the pork loin sandwich and I'm getting pork on a stick. 

Okay, so we like pork. Especially at State Fair. It'd be sacrilege not start out the day there at The Pork Schoppe. (Yes, that's a thing.)

It's a Thing
Gimme the money and I'll order. You go by the sauces, and you get napkins. Okay, everybody...now BREAK!

I got in line, while my husband and daughter scampered to their assigned duties. Five people were ahead of me, and I felt good about that. After all that line can get to at least ten people deep.

The workers moved like a well-oiled machine and the line was moving at a good clip. As I imagined the joy of tearing into that pork on stick, people began to swarm, moving interchangeably toward the big menu board, sometimes ahead of me and then back to take their place in line or move on to another food stand.

However, when She moved ahead to see the menu, She stayed there. Right in front of me.

She was wearing jorts, and her freshly dyed burgundy hair was all business in front and all party in the back. Her skin was blessed by too many years of smoking and tanning beds along with too many of the sun's overzealous kisses.

But wait: She was still in front of me. Like, not moving: She. Skipped me. Maybe She didn't know.

Excuse me.

She turned and looked me in the eye as she puffed on a newly lit cigarette.

Excuse me, I'm in line.

She immediately stepped behind me while indignantly shooting back: "Snobby-ass-bitch."

Ok, so evidently, I'm a Snobby-ass-bitch because I called her out for skipping me in line as she deprived my family and me of all the deliciousness that is The Pork Schoppe.

How dare I.

At any rate, our manic rush to order and the sauce and the napkins slowed down considerably; and we laughed about the absurdity of me, of all people -- a snobby-ass-bitch -- as we took our time to sauce our precious pork, gather enough napkins and walk verrry slowly away to savor our pork as she ordered hers.

In other spaces, brown skin is invisible. People won't offer courtesy when they choose not to see you. Sometimes, you have to take it.

* * * * * * * * * *

Anyone who is "other" is constantly navigating and policing themselves. Is it weird they keep badgering me when I clearly said I don't need help? Where is my husband with my papers?! Does he/she even see me standing here? I don't even have energy to make this right, but now I HAVE TO.

Too visible in certain spaces earns a person being followed in a retail establishment or unwanted attention that borders on harassment. See Starbucks.

That same brown skin in certain spaces renders "the other" invisible. See State Fair Smoker Lady who had to wait a tad longer for her pork sandwich than she would have had she not tried to skip ahead of me in line.

It's frustrating and draining when you live it; and, my hope was that my daughter wouldn't have to carry this around to the extent I have and continue to do. But even at her age, she's already experienced comments about her hair, remarks about "ghetto black girls," or peers who want to imitate a "a black guy's voice"...and tell her as much to her face.

We talk about it all, and she's navigating it very well. I'm proud of her.

But darned if I didn't want it to be something she'd have to learn.

March 18, 2018

Listening: Hard, Brave and Necessary

Hearing is one thing. Listening is quite another.

Hearing is noticing the neighbor's dog barking and brushing it off as a nuisance. Listening is noticing the dog barking, and wondering if the dog is barking in alarm at a potential threat to myself or my family.

We hear a lot of facts lately that leave room for us to fine-tune them to a palatable truth. The un-palatable truth is, if I'm being honest, I've heard a lot of facts, but I don't know whether I've done the work of listening to facts.

Listening is work.

It'd be me listening to you and the words you reflexively choose; noticing whether your arms are held close to your person, or whether you lean in toward me as you speak; whether you feel comfort enough to look me in the eye or if you're nervously looking off in the distance. And if I'm really listening, I just might be able to hear what you don't say.

Then ultimately, I'll understand your facts, your truth.

But gray areas cloud facts. Gray areas like my neighborhood, my upbringing, my unique experience walking on this planet might be different from yours, and here's where it gets sticky: you might believe you have facts, and I might believe you have gray areas, and vice-versa.

That's when we stop listening and end up jockeying for a win or a loss.

It's exactly what happened in this country during August of 2014 when the fact was that an 18-year-old Michael Brown died after being shot by a police officer.

I wrote a gray area piece about it because I was really struggling. A few terse reactionary comments on social media in response to sharing the piece let me know that other folks had their own gray areas.

I was deep enough in my grieving that I really don't know if I was even listening back then. And I don't know that the folks with terse comments were listening either. We were hearing, but we weren't doing the hard work of listening.

Until The Flood, a Milwaukee Repertory Theater production gave me the opportunity to experience -- to listen -- to facts including 911 calls, viewpoints from interviewed Missouri residents no matter how plain or disturbingly raw.

It's been almost a week since I've seen Until The Flood, and even knowing the facts and hearing the gray areas of opinion, the only answer I walked away with was that I need to hear less and listen more.

Listening isn't just hard, it's brave...and it really can move us toward peace and understanding.

*Until the Flood is playing now and runs through April 22nd
Some shows begin with a moderated QandA and post-show audience talk-back/discussions*

Sgt. Delmar Williams is a Sergeant in the Milwaukee Police Department. He shared a 5 minute response to Dael Orlandersmith’s Until the Flood. This response is just one of many that are sharing their thoughts on the subject. To hear all of the responses, go to www.MilwaukeeRep.com.

February 3, 2018

Everybody's Got an Old Faithful

Well, I'm a new kid, I'm just comin' up. A lot a rappers think that I can't tear it up, but I'mma show 'em, and ignore 'em...

I was lost in the middle of throwback bliss perhaps induced by a menthol bubble bath when my daughter, who was in the basement doing her workout during this too-brief minute of sillyness and relaxation, came upstairs and threw a wrench in it all: MOM, THE BASEMENT TOILET IS OVERFLOWING!!!

My head and body's towel-wrap along with my rapping was interrupted. I sprang out of my makeshift sauna down the stairs to find that, sure enough, our basement toilet was springing like Old Faithful.

Then a funny thing happened.

The rapping in my head stopped, and the water seemed to gurgle in slow-motion. The water was going to keep on doing what it was going to do and there was nothing I could do to stop it.

I was helpless, and it felt okay.

You know what? Get all the towels out of the linen cabinet and we're just gonna soak it up.

My daughter looked puzzled. Like...even the good towels?

Even the good towels. We'll just throw 'em in the washing machine right away. The most we can do is the most we can do. Know what I mean?

She nodded, disappeared and came back with every towel in the linen cabinet that we bought and or inherited. By that time, Old Faithful reneged on its faithfulness and stopped its gurgling. All we had to do was sop up its water.

Later, my husband returned from his Boy's Night Out to find...well, what happened. He called a plumber thereafter and explained Old Faithful's faithfulness had something to do with a an external drain that had, like many post-WWII homes in our neighborhood, too much stuff to keep in any longer.

That's when my mother's voice rang back to a mysterious angst-ridden teenaged me who wouldn't talk about angst-inducing stuff:

I don't know what's going on honey, but I do know there's more room out than there is in.

Simply put, a body can't have too much stuff stuffed inside. There's just too little room inside a body for all that stuff. Overstuffing inside is the cause of a lot of Old Faithfuls in national parks on the outside and a lot of personal geysers on the inside.

The thought of me rapping Rob Base and DeeJay EZ Rock with my head and body wrapped in a towel, throwing towels -- good ones or otherwise -- every which way, is funny. It really was and still is.

The part that isn't funny is the haunting of stuff we keep in: resentment, anger, unforgiveness, insecurity, bias, regret, grief and a whole host of wouldas shouldas couldas.

Okay, maybe it's not everyone -- maybe it's just me and the stuff I keep in.

On second thought, maybe it really is we. A quick look at the headlines and polls will leave any sane person thinking that everyone in the U.S. is haunted by ghosts of our collective or individual pasts...or avoiding them.

Either way, everything eventually finds its way out. There is, after all, more room out than there is in.

January 15, 2018

This Too, is MLK

Years ago, I was watching the scene in the movie X when Malcolm's mentor greets him by saying Assalamu alaikum, and in my head, I responded Alaikum assalaam.

WHERE DID THAT COME FROM? I asked myself. (FYI, the phrases are Arabic greetings often used by Muslims, meaning Peace be upon you and Unto you peace.)

I certainly wasn't a closeted Muslim, in fact I grew up a card-carrying-dual-faith Protestant of Baptist and Lutheran traditions. On rides to church, my family listened to WNOV -- a black-owned radio station whose regular Sunday rotation included Gospel music and sermon excerpts.

Usually in the time it took for us to get from home to church, the gospel music and sermons wound down, and gave way to programming from the Nation of Islam which always began with Assalamuu alakum and Alakum assalaam. That's all we heard. But it stuck with me.

Looking back, I'm realizing how forward-thinking it was of this radio station to make space that represented black people in all their layers and all their faiths whether Baptist, C.O.G.I.C., A.M.E. and yes, even Muslim.

Today is Martin Luther King , Jr. Day, and like every year on MLK day, I'm wincing at all the hypotheticals being thrown around "If Dr. King was here today, he'd agree with a law and order criminal justice response" or "If Dr. King was here today, he'd support stopping chain immigration" or "If Dr. King was here today, he'd respect the flag, our troops and our country" and on it goes.

Haven't heard the MLK of 2018 perverted and twisted yet? Give it a minute. I guarantee you will.

Then again maybe you won't. For sure, you'll see much of the hope that Dr. King espoused. Beautiful quotes from his I Have A Dream speech will flow freely today. In fact, our current president has already videotaped a hollow commemorative message referring to it.

Instead, I want to hear the multi-layered, human MLK today, I want to hear his commanding oration, the congregation's response when he talked about his daughter's wish to go to an amusement park and his heartbreaking, but hopeful explanation to her of why she couldn't.

Thanks to WNOV, I'd heard that sermon countless times on our way to church. I always liked it, but at the time didn't know it originated from one of his most prolific writings Letters From A Birmingham Jail.

The whole of the Letter's text parallels an MLK that probably won't be celebrated or quoted today. He speaks with spirit, love, but also exhaustion, exasperation and judgement at the country's inability to understand reasons for black people's unrest, as well as the complicity of white Americans who knew things were wrong but chose to keep silent.

This parallel MLK is the one I need to hear from and celebrate today. Like him, I'm exhausted and exasperated...but still hopeful.

So I guess the only wish, the only greeting I can give on this day is Alaikum assalaam...anyway.