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19 April 2008

Poets remind us of how it was - and how, in fact, it still is

Redefine_normal One day our descendants will think it incredible that we paid so much attention to things like the amount of melanin in our skin or the shape of our eyes or our gender instead of the unique identities of each of us as complex human beings. – Franklin Thomas

The Weakness       

That time my grandmother dragged me
through the perfume aisles at Saks, she held me up
by my arm, hissing, "Stand up,"
through clenched teeth, her eyes
bright as a dog's
cornered in the light.
She said it over and over,
as if she were Jesus,
and I were dead. She had been
solid as a tree,
a fur around her neck, a
light-skinned matron whose car was parked, who walked
  on swirling
marble and passed through
brass openings--in 1945.
There was not even a black
elevator operator at Saks.
The saleswoman had brought velvet
leggings to lace me in, and cooed,
as if in service of all grandmothers.
My grandmother had smiled, but not
hungrily, not like my mother
who hated them, but wanted to please,
and they had smiled back, as if
they were wearing wooden collars.
When my legs gave out, my grandmother
dragged me up and held me like God
holds saints by the
roots of the hair. I begged her
to believe I couldn't help it. Stumbling,
her face white
with sweat, she pushed me through the crowd, rushing
away from those eyes
that saw through
her clothes, under
her skin, all the way down
to the transparent
genes confessing.

-Toi Derricotte

Poet Toi Derricotte has written, "My skin causes certain problems continuously, problems that open the issue of racism over and over like a wound." She wants her “work to be a wedge into the world, as what is real and not what people want to hear.” A self-dubbed "white-appearing Black person," she writes about passing and about forgetting.

Derricotte tells of her experiences as a light-skinned African American woman able to "pass" as white throughout her life. When she asked a graduate school professor why they weren't reading any African American authors, "he said, 'We don't go down that low.' Because I don't look black, he didn't know he was saying this to a black person."

What we do in service to skin color. What we do in service to skin color, gender, sexual orientation, physical ability, any kind of difference, really. What we do and must do are two different things. Us and them must become we. Really.

This poem especially moved me because the standard is so high for this black grandmother in a white store, as if her every move--and that of her granddaughter--is cause for judgment in a group of white seeking a confirmation that they were superior. Every African American person I've met, when asked about the messages they heard growing up, has said that they were urged to be better than, ever alert, always doing more, always striving toward over achievement to prove they could, not only for themselves, but for their entire race. It's a hard burden we place on young girls whose legs are tired in a store, their transparent genes confessing.

We ask people to pass in so many, many ways.

We ask ourselves to pass, to cover, perpetuating the cycle.

[Redefine Normal bracelet available here]

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as a woman in film (and not a blonde or "anglo" but instead, of questionable ethnicity)
I did what I am worst at, as the opportunity was available, and was told I was great at it,
(thinking all the while, wait till the opportunity to do what I am best at, then you'll see greatness)
in addition to my office duties (women are allowed to work in the office, of course) I took stills with the producer's camera, a Nikkon (i'm a Canon girl but can adapt)
the images of women in dept.s not traditionally held by women
depicted them working twice as hard with their male dept. counterparts at ease in the background...
this is how it always is when I photograph on set.
I have evidence of women busting their asses - working twice as hard for half the rate

http://www.flickr.com/photos/thomai/149969851/in/set-1786877/
(from another set- years ago, matches the ones I'll post from the recent set)

to prove
we are human
to prove
we are capable
to prove
we are worthy
to prove what really can be a given


the women I photograph are of various "races", in film, the last great export this county has to offer,
sexism
outdoes itself
racism joins it's forces-
in it's monstrosity.

and when it comes to what we must do

some of us just live
our "mixed" families sometimes scrutinized
our identity questioned daily

we just keep on living and loving ourselves and our family members who are
every color a human can be

the only must for us is to re-mind
that race is a cultural construct
because, to look at me and my sister
you might categorize us as different races
but, we are sisters
aren't we?
so, don't we share the same race?
yes, the human race
there is
just one.

The irony, here, is that this huge gulf is, in reality, so narrow, so thin and tenuous, so reliant on the preconceived notion.

Once one makes contact with another, none of that silly stuff about color or gender or physical deformity matters one bit. Gone!

Yet, in the hands of the prejudging, the gulf might as well stretch across the continent...I know, as I was embarrassed to learn when I wanted to go with my grandmother to the pool when she was taking care of me and my siblings while visiting us from her home in Charlotte. As soon as she saw that it was not a segregated pool, she turned our little train around and refused to discuss the problem...or to go to the pool at any point during her visit.

It made it easier to understand my dad's issues, but not easier to forgive the sins of the father and his predecessors.

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