Last week, as I read about the courage of Jemele Hill in addressing the disturbing messages coming from the White House, my own racial cowardice was thrown into relief.
Those people who know me would be shocked by my calling myself a coward. After all, I was a red, black, and green diaper baby, a child of Black Nationalists.
Matter of fact, I was just talking to a beloved friend and asked them, “Where did that scrappy girl go? I used to be so strong.”
I used to be fierce and courageous, and my nickname was “Big Country.”To paraphrase my beloved Lucille Clifton, that girl is still inside me.
No, I don’t like to cuss folks out anymore. Number one, I’m trying to meet Jesus one day and after I die, I don’t want Him telling me at the pearly gates, “I already done heard about you, girl.” Then, he’ll turn to St. Peter and say, “Bruh Pete-Pete, go ‘head and wrap a plate for Honorée, ’cause she ain’t staying.”
Number two, I’m too scared of germs and too old to get arrested and spend the night in jail.
Number three, I always wanted to be one of those chill, serene people. You know the ones who speak in whispers and always make folks feel good about themselves? That’s who I’ve always wanted to be, I was tired of people I knew–other black folks–calling me “crazy.”
And I was tired of white folks calling me “angry” and “frightening.” They didn’t have to add a “black woman” to that. It’s just assumed. Any time you’re darker than a brown paper bag and somebody calls you angry, you know they mean “angry black woman.”
I’ve tried so hard to seem non-threatening that even now, when just reading about the rise in white supremacy can give me mild panic attacks, I’m trying to make other white folks feel better about their stances on race relations. I want to be that serene black woman, not the angry one.
In the past ten months, since the presidential election, there are white folks who never spoke to me –who would give me what I called the “eye-slide”–who now go out of their way to talk about the “state of the country.”
Y’all know what “state of the country” means. It means, right about now in America, the racists are unabashed.
It means that Bull Connor (of Birmingham, Alabama fame, for all you young’uns) has risen from his grave like a character on The Walking Dead and the Ku Kluxers are feeding him brains.
Recently, I ran into somebody who wasn’t “studin” about me in the past for ten years. Never wanted to talk, but now, they flagged me down to talk about “where the country was going.”
And you know what?
The Girl Formerly Known As Big Country would have asked that white lady “What do you want from me?”
And in addition, T.G.F.K.A.B.C. would have told that white lady, “Oh, now you can speak to black people?”
T.G.F.K.A.B.C. would have told that white lady, “Don’t be trying to be nice because you feel guilty, now that the Nazis and the Ku Kluxers and all them is back riding and you all horrified and what not, after you was ‘Feeling the ‘Bern’ and sat out the election. You should have voted for Hilary and I’m fresh out of chocolate breast milk. I can’t do a thing for you now.”
Instead, I smiled and said, “Yes, things sure are horrible.” And I kept smiling as she kept talking and made my nerves bad.
But then, even though I’ve lost 38 pounds and I work out and try not to go shazam! when I eat anymore, I came home and scarfed down a bunch of homemade roasted chicken wings. I was so upset at my cowardice, I took it out on myself. And I did that because I had people-pleased. And not even regular people-pleased.
I had soothed somebody’s white guilt: I had white-people-pleased.
Even though those homemade, mostly-healthy wings were off the chain–or whatever the kids are saying these days–I was still mad at myself. Because why am I trying to be nice when I’m the one who’s scared to leave my house in this Red State?
When I’m the one who always makes sure I have both my driver’s license and my faculty I.D when I go walking–always in broad daylight–in case I get stopped by the campus police and my word that I’m a tenured, full professor will not be enough?
And when I’m the one who’s terrified to talk about race in my classroom because if a black woman talks in a reasonable, calm voice about the actual history of this country–a country where at least three generations of my family were held as slaves– she might be seen as “frightening” or “aggressive”–and then, she might lose her job?
I can understand feeling scared about what could happen to my body. I can understand about being afraid to lose my job.
But when did I become such a coward that in my own free damned time–when I’m off the clock and should be drinking a green smoothie– I still feel the need to soothe the racial guilt of somebody who hasn’t spoken to me in ten years, and somehow, I’m the one who ends up with garlic chicken-breath?
There is a girl inside me, but she’s hiding. She’s a girl wearing red, black, and green and she is unafraid.
She is tall and big and sweet, even though she talks loudly because that’s the volume of most southern black folks, and there have been people who loved her–and who still do. They don’t care that folks called her crazy. They liked her the way she was. They liked the woman she became.
Can’t I be both that girl and this woman? Can’t I be calm and courageous, too?
Can’t I be serene and turn my back to previously rude white folks who need to feel better now–because I’m the one who’s truly at risk as a result of last year’s election?
I’m determined to find that lost girl, because I miss you so much, Big Country. Come on out, baby. Say “hey” to me.