So I am going to roll up my sleeves and write some real shit here this morning.
Please try to bear with me.
Feel free to unfollow me if you can’t.
When I was a teenager, I was heavy into grunge.
I listened to hip hop because of course I did. I am black, born in 1976. Hip hop was born in NYC in 1972. I grew up on it. It was the soundtrack of my childhood and adolescence.
But MTV was also a fixture in my life, and through MTV I discovered Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Alice In Chains, and my personal favorite Hole.
I totally felt the anger, confusion, frustration, disillusion, and dissatisfaction in that music, which were the same emotional currents running through rap.
Both genres really resonated for me because I was a very bookish, sensitive, artsy kid in an all black enclave where aesthetics and athleticism were valued over everything else. And I didn’t have either.
I was bullied regularly, and when I wasn’t being bullied, I was ostracized or just plain ignored because I didn’t fit the prevailing idea in that community of what a black girl should be.
I had maybe three or four good friends, and the rest of the emotional comfort I received during that time came from the fam and my music.
That is how my love of music grew to its current quasi-religious intensity and why I listen so frequently to old shit. Because for me it’s like hanging out with my old high school clique.
Anyhow, back in 1991-1992, right before Kurt Cobain committed suicide, Lolapalooza – the music festival – was originated, and just about all my favorite grunge acts were placed on the bill.
The tour was coming through Cleveland, and I desperately wanted to go. I was 16-17, obsessed with Chris Cornell and Eddie Vedder, and wanted nothing more than to see them in person – to experience all that disaffected, fierce-ass vibe in the flesh.
And my mother – black, Cleveland born, project bred, Civil Rights child that she was, bootstrap middle class and bound and determined that I would make it to college in one piece and my right mind was like “Hell naw.”
She was resolute: There was no way she was sending her black teenage daughter unchaperoned to party at an all day concert with a crowd of intoxicated white boys. Lord only knew what they would do to me. (And she wasn’t going to chaperone, so my ass was what she called SOL – shit out of luck.)
For the life of me, I could not understand my mother’s fear. My internalized white supremacy – that reflex in so many of us Black people to believe the lies that white people tell about the impeccable and superior virtue – kicked in high gear, and I just thought she was crazy. Worrying about me getting raped? By a bunch of white boys? White boys don’t even see Black girls, I told myself. They don’t even like Black girls like that.
I was being young. Naive. Forgetful. Because I knew better. My high school teacher, Mr. Johnson, had taught us American history from an Afrocentric perspective, and spent months detailing the politics and experiential horrors of slavery.
I knew that slave masters used sexual violence against enslaved women to breed more slaves, to terrorize the slave communities, to disrupt slave families, to psychically impress upon them and their male counterparts that they were property and devoid of agency. So – as a means of psychological warfare – as a weapon to destroy girls that looked just like me.
What I didn’t know was that even after Reconstruction, the sexual terrorization of Black women in America by white men did not stop. I didn’t know that gang rape is proven through research to serve as a binding activity by men, according to Peggy Reeves Sanday. I didn’t know that living in my segregated suburb had given me a very “black and white” view of how gender, race, and sex intersected. I didn’t know that just because I considered the US of the 1990s to be far more progressive and safe than the US of the 1890s, I was wrong.
I didn’t know about Recy Taylor, who was kidnapped and raped by six white men at gunpoint in 1944 in Alabama.
I didn’t know about Betty Jean Owens, another black woman that was raped by four white men that made a pact to “go out and get a nigger girl” in Tallahassee, Florida in 1959.
I swept aside the allegations of Tawana Brawley, the black girl in New York that in November of 1987 accused four white men of raping her after she was found in a trash bag with racial slurs written on her body, covered in feces (a grand jury concluded in October 1988 that she had not been the victim of forcible sexual assault).
All I could think about was getting to see my favorite music groups live and maybe scoring a fucking tee shirt.
“I’ll be fine,” I told my mother. I begged the universe.
“I know,” my mother told me, “because your black ass won’t be down there.”
See, to her, individual white men were all right enough, depending on their character, but white men in a mob were likely to let the energy of that mob blot out their personality and humanity. They were more likely to get swept up into doing something wrong.
I am sure she had all kinds of phobic concepts and imagery playing in her head; it is inevitable when you grow up Black in America. There is a literal video library at this point of the genocidal violence to which we are subjected, at least going back to the 1950s, and she was born in 1954.
Even though she had white friends and co-workers, and we even had a few white members of our extended family, she was still prepared – always – to err on the side of caution and make rules that protected me from being racially victimized, inasmuch as she could.
She didn’t have a rose-tinted view of race, and she didn’t allow me to have one either.
She explained this to me after I begged her the umpteenth time about Lolapalooza.
It would be wonderful if nothing happened to me, she said, but if something did, she would never be able to forgive herself, and she just didn’t trust the situation.
“There will be liquor. There will be drugs. People will be feeding off of each other. There will be a lot of them, and there will be one of you. So no.”
I didn’t go to Lolapalooza that year. Or any year after.
I did, however, develop this “thing” about groups of white boys. I still have it. When I see a bunch of young white boys bro-ing out – all sports sandals, basketball shorts, beer cans, and rap music blaring – I get really nervous. I do think of Recy Taylor. I do think of Betty Jean Owens. I do remember Tawana Brawley.
When I go to westside (of Cleveland) clubs where my husband does gigs with his rap group, I deliberately keep my distance from white men socializing in clusters, especially if they seem visibly intoxicated and are being rambunctious and really physical with each other or the other patrons around them.
Now, mind you this is on top of keeping a general eye on every male in every space – something all women tend to do because one in every three American women is sexually assaulted in her lifetime, and we all know that we are keenly susceptible to sexual violence of all sorts, and that means at any time, in any place, and in any form.
Yet – and this is my bottom line –
Even at times when I have felt truly scared or deeply vulnerable –
Walking down the street on Coventry from the Grog Shop to Guys Pizza by myself because I am the only person in my group of folks that wants food –
One o’clock in the morning – tipsy –
Purse with wallet on my shoulder. Body with vagina inside my clothes –
And I rounded the corner –
And there were three white guys walking up –
And they were elbowing each other and passing a joint back and forth –
And one of them stopped and said, “Hey. I like your hair” (true story) –
I HAVE NOT CALLED THE POLICE JUST BECAUSE I WAS SCARED.
I have done a quick cognitive check of the situation and recognized that my fear is not based in the reality of what is happening, and I have gone on about my scary ass business.
I have refused to visit my own inner “stuff” on strangers that have not done anything to me and do not deserve to be persecuted by me just because they “fit a description.”
I have fucking grappled – like a decent, grown person that gives a damn about the damage they do in the world – with my prejudice.
And I desperately wish that more white people out here in this mess we call America would take a moment, take a breath (you still have them), and do that same (decent, grown up) Goddamn thing.
Making frivolous calls to the police about white boys that I imagine to be menacing probably wouldn’t kill them, but these nosy-ass, racist-ass Karen and Gary phone calls reporting Black people that you imagine to be menacing CAN kill them. THESE CALLS HAVE KILLED PEOPLE. So stop making them. Stop justifying them.
Stop being culpable and complicit in the racist policing system.
Check your fear.
It’s what we ALL have to do.
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