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