If we can shift the paradigm then we can change the culture and the inheritance that the coming generation gets.
There are turning points in everyone’s life, though we sometimes fail to recognize them right away. I experienced one of those moments many years ago during a springtime poetry class where students were learning to make video poems.
A young woman, whom I’ll call Gretel, wrote a poem about roller skating through a graveyard. Everyone in the class was intrigued by the idea, and there was plenty of nervous laughter as class members threw words like spooky, macabre, and eerie around the room as we discussed visual shots that might work well for Gretel’s poem. At the end of the evening, we agreed to meet that Sunday morning at the entrance of Lakewood Cemetery, where many prominent Minnesotans are buried.
From the moment the decision was made, I felt disturbed, unable to come to grips with the thought that I might be complicit in the group’s violation of the spirits of the deceased who lay peacefully in their graves. What right did we have to disturb them just because a callow young woman wanted to see herself on videotape skating through their resting place? And what about the mourners scattered throughout the cemetery? How would they feel when Gretel skated by with the rest of us walking closely behind her, gawking while they prayed for their lost loved ones or placed flowers on their graves?
THAT SUNDAY MORNING, the group followed Gretel as she skated past curved, tree-lined paths and rows of granite plaques and headstones, large statues, and imposing crypts as big as houses. Even without reading the dates, it was clear which graves had been there the longest: the older markers bore streaks of dark green, brown, or black from having been exposed to the weather for many years.
Gretel mugged for the camera, impressing us with her knowledge, naming birds that flew by and trees that were as twisted and bent as the people who lay in the graves they protected. The class members, usually quite vocal, were somber as they examined elaborate monuments and pondered the messages written on both elegant tombstones and simple markers. Susan, a tall woman with shaggy white hair and a slight limp, halted every few steps and looked around as though entranced with the scenery. I was moved when I observed Tom and Erica touch each other’s hands affectionately when they slowed down to read the names of the dead and their dates of birth and death. No doubt they were contemplating a time when death might separate them.
Soon Gretel took us down a narrow pathway, which led to a thick cluster of trees bordered with pink, purple, and white flowers. She stopped and turned to face the group, then said something was in there that was really interesting. She spun around and began skating slowly down the path, glancing back to make sure we were following.
I was the first to see the lovely, weather-beaten statue of a woman who looked like she had been carved by a sculptor in the Greco-Roman era. Her figure was draped in a gown, belted at the waist, allowing her skirt to fall gently over the pedestal on which she stood. Her right hand rested serenely over her heart, and her left arm reached out in a gesture of peace. Her chiseled face was framed by long hair pulled back in a bun, and she gazed down at me with a soft smile. Her eyes, though devoid of color, appeared kind. She looked so real that it was hard to believe she was made of stone.
The class stood in a semicircle and watched Gretel’s eyes take on a ghoulish sparkle. The instructor trained the camera on her, and an impish grin spread slowly over her face. The group stood waiting until finally a man with wavy blond hair and gold-rimmed glasses became impatient. “Well?” he asked. At that moment Gretel’s eyes grew wide. She spun around and skated up to the statue. She lifted her arm and stuck out her finger in a gesture that reminded me of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam painting from the Sistine Chapel, God’s finger almost touching the finger of man. Then as suddenly as she lifted her arm, she snatched it back and said, “It’s a statue of a Black woman. If you touch her you’ll die.” Then as though propelled by a tornadic wind, she skated away, leaving petals of laughter ringing in the air along with echoes of her words.
I was paralyzed, unable to respond. My breath halted as though a knife had been jabbed into my chest and slowly twisted into my heart.
I took another look at the woman locked in that dark body made of granite, and in my mind’s eye her shoulders began to slump from carrying the weight of all that stone: she seemed to almost crumble under the burden of overwork and underappreciation from cooking and cleaning for the families of Gretel’s ancestors while desperately trying to care for her family, the families of my ancestors. At that moment I remembered every negative image I had ever heard of Black women—oversexed, breeder, wet nurse, mammy, hostile, nappy-headed ho. Gretel’s words named something I had felt vaguely all my life but could not describe with words of my own. The cautionary warnings from our mothers and grandmothers: “You gotta work harder and be better if you want to be seen as just as good as white girls”; “You gotta go through a lot of pain to be beautiful” (translation: keep your hair straightened and your butt looking flatter); Billie Holiday’s lyrics, “Southern trees bear strange fruit . . . black bodies hanging from the poplar tree”; the blue eyes that Toni Morrison’s character Pecola prayed for, believing that they would stop the abuse she was suffering, stop her from being seen as “dirt”; the horrific story of the Hottentot Venus, the orphaned eighteenth-century South African woman whose large buttocks and extended labia caused her Dutch enslavers to turn her into a sideshow attraction; the degrading ways we Black women are depicted in movies or shaking our asses in hip-hop videos; the ways we are devalued in school and the workplace; how our men who reject us and men of other races, who look past us or leer at us with hidden lust. All of those images and more came crashing into my heart. Gretel’s words made it clear that in the eyes of the world the Black woman is poison: “If you touch her you’ll die.”
I can’t lay all of the blame on Gretel. Nor can I blame the group’s nonreaction entirely on them. No doubt, Gretel was repeating what she’d heard all of her life. No doubt, her comment was unremarkable to the others in the group for the same reason. Throughout history, the Black woman has had to struggle with the perception that her Blackness makes her as venomous as a sting from the tongue of a poisonous asp or the bite of a black widow spider. In chapter one of the biblical Song of Solomon, one of the most beautiful love poems ever written, King Solomon’s Shulamite bride has the misfortune of having to implore the daughters of Jerusalem not to look down on her. She says in defense of herself, “I am black but comely.”
Unfortunately, we are still struggling with this perception. On June 27, 2008, the Atlanta Journal–Constitution reported that Chiman Rai, a retired math professor, was sentenced to life in prison for having paid a hit man $10,000 to murder his son’s African American wife. A native of India, Rai feared that the marriage would cast a stigma on his family, explaining with no remorse that India’s rigid caste system deems Blacks the lowest caste, and Black women the absolute lowest, since women are believed to be lower than men in his culture.
I HAVE THREE BEAUTIFUL, intelligent daughters. I have had to help them maintain their self-images over and over again, even as I’ve attempted to heal my own. I also fully understand the horror of what is happening to our young men. I have a son who was incarcerated for ten years in the federal penitentiary. But there seems to be a conspiracy of silence around our girls and women. Could it be that in large part our incarceration is invisible? That we are locked up in our bodies?
Like countless Black mothers, I have worked hard to train my daughters to be proud of who they are in a world that would have them be ashamed of their darkness. For Black women, loving ourselves and passing that self-love down to our daughters and our granddaughters is a difficult task. Centuries of negation often makes us feel like we need to adopt a hard, protective shell, which is either praised as strength or dismissed as hostility. In short, we turn ourselves into stone.
I LEFT THE CEMETERY wondering what it would take to liberate us. Today, as I think about what my parents had to go through—much that I didn’t learn about until after they had passed on—and the stories my students are carrying, I worry. As I see my grandchildren move through a world where the current president has given the green light to white supremacy following President Barack Obama’s eight years of hope, where Black and Brown people are under violent attack, I have to ask: What is it that will set us free?