Strength Without Power

Silence
Deep breaths.
Focus on the food.
Eat away the stress.
Deep breaths.
Center yourself.
Control your anxiety.
Keep it contained in your chest.
Hold it there until it feels like your heart will explode.
Then focus on the pain.
Focus.
Control.
Strength.
Story of my life.

The meeting begins a few minutes late. I was too busy eating to actively notice. My friend is sitting next to me, and even though I’m too anxious to interact with her I’m comforted by her presence. I ignore the pain in my kidneys, I try not to imagine them shutting down. I try not to think of Buddy Boy and if this is how his kidneys felt before he died. I try not to think about if he forgave me before he died. I tried not to think about if my constant remembrances of my uncle means that he visiting me from heaven or that I still haven’t come to terms with his death. I try not think about the pain in my kidneys.

Deep breaths.
Focus on the meeting.
Think away the stress.
Deep breaths.
Center yourself.
Follow the logic.
Control your anxiety.
Keep it contained in your chest.
Hold it there until it feels like your heart will explode.
Then focus on the pain.
Focus.
Control.
Strength.
Story of my life.

At a meeting this evening an older Black man is talking. I don’t know him well and often disagree with him but I respect him. He is smart and real and wise and Black. Authentically Black. Black because he had no other option. Black like Buddy Boy was Black. Quiet but present. I like him but more importantly, I respect him, so I listen as he talks.

He is rambling on the way my people do. It’s comfortable. Familiar. In white spaces this is called a tangent, in Black spaces it’s called talking. Part of me wants to police him, to remind him subtly, under the radar- in the way that Black people do in these situations- that this is a white space. But I don’t, because I can see where his story is going and I want him to talk me there. The facilitator cuts him off gently and tries to redirect the conversation. I’m upset because he got me out my body and into his story, but I understand that it’s a white space. The facilitator though Black, and cool, and smart and authentic is wearing a facilitators hat. Which is a white hat. And We started late. There’s an agenda.

But the older Black man won’t be redirected, he knows it’s a white space but also that it doesn’t need to be. That’s not why he’s here. He talks about walking next to the highways in south of his youth. The scary, southern gothic south. Swamps and strange fruit and crosses burning. The south of my parents.

He talks about instinctively ducking down into the tall grass whenever a car went by. You had to hide he said, or else white people might get out to mess with you. He remarks that this is something the youth don’t see. It’s not our reality, though it’s very much his. For the first time that night, he’s wrong.

In that moment I remember walking down highway 24,the long stretch of road reaching off into the eastern expanses of my youth. A highway that feels old and probably smells like yesterday’s America. It’s the middle of nowhere Colorado in the early 2000’s not the South Side Chicago of my grandfather’s childhood or my father’s Alabama or the older man’s Carolinas. Fly over, sleep through and die-in middle of nowhere Colorado.

I must have been 11 or 12, the age at which these sorts of things make a disproportionate impact. I knew I was not supposed to walk home down this road even though I lived less than a mile away. My mother said I could get hit by a car but I wonder now, with all that I know of the world, if that was just the only danger my mother could bring herself to voice.

A car- in my head it’s a pick-up but I can’t see it clearly- drives by and shout’s nigger and throws a glass bottle in my direction. I freeze, terrified, traumatized, confused and the memory ends.

Nigger. Nigger. Nigger. Nigger. Aaron.

Deep breaths.
Focus on the meeting.
Breath away the stress.
That pick-up truck is years away now.
Deep breaths.
Center yourself.
Don’t follow the highway.
Control your anxiety.
Keep it contained in your chest.
Hold it there until it burns.
Then focus on the pain.
Focus.
Control.
Strength.
Story of my life.

I sit in the meeting, relieving this moment, over and over again. I see the menacing headlights grow over large as I replay them on a sadistic automatic loop in my mind’s eye. I start to rub my adolescent fingers together methodically, meditatively in a trauma induced trance as all the blood rushes to my chest and legs. My body is screaming for me to run. But I sit in the meeting, remain silent. I put on the mask.

Slick, composed and coolly dispossessed of emotion. Faux confidence that becomes real as I harden. The old callouses begin to reform as the meeting continues. I begin to push the memory away, make it less real. Then I remember that I refused to let this world make be hard. I remember what I once wrote to my friend, a facebook post that lingers in my mind:

“Tragic. But I think, and I might be wrong on this, that we have to force ourselves to process the pain in order to be able continue to see the humanity of the victims. By turning aside we are not just avoiding bad news, we are telling ourselves that its not happening. Then, when it inevitability happens to us [albeit on smaller scale] we are shocked, in disbelief and doubt our feelings because we’ve spent so long telling our selves that this is not the way the world works. By getting in the habit of processing the pain we can get stronger without having to get harder. We can deal with the terrible things in the world without closing ourselves off from the joy and the warmth. IDK. Just my thoughts…”

I remember that this is just the way the world works. Highway 24 is still there. I force myself to feel it, to process it to make the memory useful somehow. But I can’t bring myself be vulnerable in this space. I soften; I raise my hand non-threateningly and tell my story, quickly. I’m triggered I say, this story reminds of my childhood I remember walking down highways and men throwing bottle. I stop.

In my head I continue:

I remember the disdain of white children. I remember the pity and contempt for the children of Cain. I remember being told I was going to hell. I remember being called gorilla. I remember their fear and how it always seemed to lead to violence. I remember the inhumanity of being feared by children whose words ripped you apart.

Silence. Next topic. We have agenda. This is a white space.

I note the little response, much less than the woman who earlier started crying. The kind, caring and hard working woman whose audible tears stopped the meeting, if only for a second. I’m not angry at first. She should cry, she had a shitty day, why should she hold it in? Who am I to police her pain?

It is not her fault she passes for white sometimes. It is not everyone’s fault that they feel compelled to respond to white tears with empathy. It’s not their fault that they have never learned to empathize with my pain verbalized.

I want to cry in that moment, more as means of communication than as an emotional release. I want them to understand how much it hurts to realize at 11 or 12 years old that the whole world hated me and would continue to hate me for something I couldn’t control. I relive that moment, over and over again until highway 24 stretches from the year 2000 till the present moment and beyond.

I walk down that road until that highway stretches from my grandparents chained to slave ships and on and on and on until my grandsons sit in jail cells. I relieve the trauma of being Black in America, silent, alone in a room full of friends I can’t trust to vulnerable with.

I want my friend to hug me but she can’t read my silence.

Deep breaths.
Focus on the meeting.
Think away the stress.
Deep breaths.
Center yourself.
Follow the logic.
Control your anxiety.
Keep it contained in your chest.
Hold it there until it burns.
Then focus on the pain.
Focus.
Control.
Strength.
Story of my life.

So I remain in control. Refuse to put the mask back on and instead sulk in petulant silence as some sort of half-assed compromise between Robinson’s mask and being vulnerable. I revel in that control briefly. I revel in the ability to remain calm until I remember that white people don’t have to. I revel in my self-control until I realize that it’s not self-control… its self-policing. I see myself forcing my emotions to be respectable, presentable, professional, non-threatening, to keep from rocking the boat.

I begin to realize this control was merely a prison with walls built from the tears I hold inside. I begin to resent this emotional panopticon of my own creation. It’s this moment that makes me begin to resent having so much strength with no power. I begin to resent having a heightened ability to police myself without being able to stop society from policing me. I begin to resent every minute spent in white spaces.
Deep breaths.
Focus on the meeting.
Think away the stress.
Deep breaths.
Center yourself.
Follow the logic.
Control your anxiety.
Keep it contained in your chest.
Hold it there until it feels like your heart will explode.
Then focus on the pain.
Focus.
Control.
Strength.
Story of my life.

My heart is pumping so much blood into my legs that I can see my thighs twitching. I want to run. I need to leave. But leaving would be admitting defeat. It would be letting them win…it would be letting my friends win a game they are not playing. Leaving would mean losing a game I didn’t create and hate playing. But I play it because I’m good at it. I’m so fucking good. I’m strong. I can keep my cool. I can put on this mask and shuck and jive silently, in place. I am in control. I am so strong!

Even if I have no power…

Deep breaths.
They gunned down Africa on skidrow.
Focus on the meeting.
This pain is eating away my abdomen.
Think away the stress.
Deep breaths.
Center yourself.
Follow the logic.
These moments are too large to be micro aggressions.
Deep breaths.
I realize that Whiteness is a parasitic virus not a people,
A single celled ameba that consumes my culture while enfeebling its host
Turning white ethnics into fragile powerhouses
Glass steam engines that turn the word counter clockwise but can’t stand criticism.
Control your anxiety.
Keep it contained in your chest.
Hold it there until it feels like your heart will explode.
Feel everything burn.
Then focus on the pain.
Let it fuel you.
Focus.
Control.
The only thing worse than being a push over is being a monster.
Strength.
Respect and Fear are not compatible.
I am so strong!
Story of my life.

The meetings ends. I write this. I share it, maybe it will make the catharsis real. Maybe sharing it will keep me from breaking things. I can’t get arrested. I have more meetings tomorrow.

Strip

This latest poem is less a poem and more a audio art experience? The Poem is called strip or remover of difficulties or the things they ask you to strip away. It’s new, its different, it complex. Listen to it twice and let me know what you think!

Strip away the paint and the decorations and a house is a just a shelter.
A physical space for us to be protected from the elements.
Pieces of wood and steel and brick that allow us to live our lives.
That is the purpose it serves and it can only be judged by how well it serves that purpose.
You remember the first time they asked you to strip. They didn’t know what they were asking but your mother had taught you when to know. Your slave like hands slowly began to undo the braids on your head. You undid your history with each row you took out; rows of fertile hair where your identity grew unraveled. You reached your ash black hands towards your mouth and stripped away the taste of mother’s cooking. You used your degree to strip the pigment from your skin and hoped that it bruised white. The act of bleaching stung at first but you would get used to the feeling, you would tell your son that it’s what it feels like to successful. You knew what purpose you needed to serve and you had learned to serve it well.

Strip away the paint and ornaments and a car is just a vehicle.
An instrument to carry us from one place to another.
Pieces of steel and leather and rubber that allow us to live our lives.
That is the purpose it serves and it can only be judged by how well it serves that purpose.

You remember the first time you asked her to strip for you. Neither of you knew what you were asking but she did it anyway. She stripped herself of her ideas first, letting them fall seductively to the floor. She removed her desires slowly, concealing enough of her wants to be mysterious. Her delicate and child-like fingers unlaced the rope that held her self-esteem together just like her mother taught her. Her movements were easy and provocative but unnatural. She stood in front of you, naked, left with only her tentative will to clothe her, ready to shrug it off if you asked. You wouldn’t learn to ask until college though. On the surface it felt right and you repressed the part of you that knew it was wrong. The act of repression stung at first like shaving the skin off your soul so that it could harden when it heals. Soon you would get used to that feeling; you would tell your son that it’s what it feels like to be a man. Her eyes ask you if she served her purpose well and you are unsure how to answer.

Strip away the flavor and the spices and food is just energy.
An organic fuel to give us sustenance.
Pieces of the vegetables and animals and minerals that allow us to live our lives.
That is the purpose it serves and it can only be judged by how well it serves that purpose.

You remember the first time she asked you to strip for her. She didn’t know how much it would hurt. You pulled back the emotional curtain as she sat across from you. She watched in silence as you used the knife to strip off the mask, the temporary fix that, over the years, had been permanent. You ignored the bleeding and locked eyes with her, studying her reaction. She didn’t realize it hurt until you started crying. She rushed over to tell you that you could stop but you kept carving. Once the mask was off and the tears had washed away the blood she said you were beautiful. The act of accepting her love stung at first like your pulling off the scrabs of your scarred soul. Soon you would get used to feeling, you would tell your son that this is what is should feel like to be a man. You ask her if you served your purpose well and she answers:

Strip away the clothes and the history and a person is not just an animal.
We are more than the gold and cotton and paint that covers our flesh.
Pieces of the earth we use to enhance our beauty.
Our purpose is not to serve and so we cannot be judged by how well we do.