Last week I handed in this piece about “privilege” for my Cuban Literature class. I’ve already talked about how rewarding but also exhausting and isolating it can be to exist in this strange environment called the MFA here, and this never really goes away especially when you have to confront this at poetry readings and parties and in texts which are pretty much empty of black women’s presence unless they are nursing someone else’s child or rubbing their downy afro against some white man’s cheek…or something. I basically spend all my time trying to write our selves out of oblivion only to to be put back there by people who believe their “down-ness” allows them to chip off part of your cultural experience (and other experiences you may have only lived through books and music videos) and bounce them back against your forehead, and others who make it their business to approve or deny your blackness only to expect solidarity exclusively from your end, and those who believe this is self-inflicted and will all be solved if you just “return to where you belong.”
Incidentally, I just listened to this podcast with two awesome women from Georgetown talking about what it’s like to be hyper-visible and invisible at the same time. I snapped and clapped throughout the whole thing. It was Lauryn Hill “Killing me Softly” level prophesy, to be honest. It’s very affirming to know that you’re not alone but also somewhat depressing that we all share some of these experiences.
I’ve also started a Twitter account, and I still don’t know how I feel about it. Apart from the fact that I’m years late to the party, I feel as though this blog is a better platform for me to spew random thoughts, put them in some sort of order and claim they’re so deep you may not be able to understand. Still, follow me @HerWildness. I’m making no promises whatsoever.
[Edited to add] It’s also incredibly important for me to note that the title of this piece was inspired by the hashtag #BlackGirlsAreMagic, created by CaShawn Thompson in 2013. You can buy her merchandise here. I have one of her hoodies and it’s one of my favorite pieces of clothing. I especially enjoy the side eyes from salty people on the train…
Magical Black Girl Takes on Privilege
In other words, the mechanism of control against the subaltern makes demands, makes the group tense and finally filters it so that only the disproportionate and exceptional stand out; in this way, not belonging to the hegemonic group is equivalent to losing the right to normalcy…
-From ‘Black Problem’ to White Privilege in Nicolás Guillén’s Thought, Victor Fowler Calzada
This thing called privilege sits with me everyday. It is not the kind of constant companion that perches on your shoulder swinging its legs, carefree, nor is it a pleasant cloud that hovers somewhere above your ear, whispering in the air around your head every so often. This thing called privilege is more like a wooden plank that is suspended right above my head, so that every morning when I wake and sit up right, it smashes into my forehead to remind me of its presence. Mostly, I am only able to understand it in terms of all the things I lack. I rub the wounded spot, surprised that this daily wake up call hasn’t left a permanent mark. Then I remember that it is my magic which takes that spot right in the center of my face and turns it smooth again. I will go through my morning routine chanting spells that sound like do-no-get-mad-today-let-your-rage-stay-hidden-behind-the-flat-bridge-of-your-nose.
My magic isn’t enough to remove the anxiety I face, standing naked in front of a mirror streaked with tears I will pretend are toothpaste stains. Too tight. Too sexy for class. Too baggy. Too frumpy. Eyes will slide past you on the street. Eyes will slide and then linger over the spot where your waist dips in before your hips circle outwards and left and right and back and forth. I can’t wish away the string of arguments and rebuttals that are circling and tightening around my throat. After all, ALL WOMEN experience these same fears. ALL WOMEN face street harassment. This is about ALL WOMEN. I can only speak for myself, the magical black girl who has mastered the craft of striding through grey streets as if I have more talent clinging to the fingernail clippings I tossed in the trash this morning than can be found in an entire classroom, as if I have the power to take ideology and theory and bend it into sensual lines of poetry that will lead you over the edge of my bed and into a never-ending free fall.
It is almost impossible to explain how my existence is subversive and ornamental all at once. How can I articulate the heady feeling of standing on a marble platform– no, granite– no, whatever unbreakable stone looks the most like the skin in which I am encased, how do I show you what it feels like to be idealized and erased in one go? Men who could be my uncles will bow down as I walk by, thanking whichever god they worship for a womb that supposedly bore the fruit of those who built the pyramids or some other absurd accolade which I earn only by virtue of a skin tone a few latitudes away from the Equator. Men who look like the ones who are sitting on top of my future are too scared of blackgirlmagic to actually step close enough to the furnace to feel my warmth. Instead they are content to gawk at my figure on magazine covers, pitting me against those particularly lacking in melanin and magic, shifting from one foot to another, made uncomfortable by their desire, and deciding instead to hide pieces of me in the obscurity of private rendez-vous and between the lines of dubious poetry where they will carefully chronicle what droplets of water and light look like dangling on the ends of my coily hair, what my backside looks like stretching the seams of an old pair of jeans. Women who are the negative of me look straight through me on the train. Women who could be myself expect me to hold the mask tight against my brokenness. You can’t let them see you looking crazy. Them? Who are they? ALL WOMEN.
The ability to move about uninhibited by these clashing thoughts is the thing called privilege. No potion brewed at the bottom of a mug of English Breakfast tea can grant me access to it. That I can only explain this thing in terms of what it isn’t shows how much I have swallowed this system of binaries, haves and have-nots, them and us, the fullness of darkness and the harsh glare of whiteness. That every piece of writing, much like this one, is an attempt to rupture the strained veins on the side of my neck and empty out centuries’ worth of resentment for people who will never be able to understand because they can only see me if I am amazingly successful or amazingly deviant. You cannot look into my face and recognize the same collection of features and future plans that you are carrying with you, so how can I show you what privilege, and its lack thereof, looks like?
This thing means that you can stare directly into my rage, spit-flying, curse-flinging anger and ask naïve questions that sound like I-don’t-get-it-I-think-you-may-be-exaggerating-I-don’t-see-color. You can never truly see me even when I am marching across your TV screen, fro fluffed and oiled, fist up and defiant, legs strutting and unashamed, body bleeding and shivering and left for hours before an ambulance is available. You can’t and don’t comprehend why staring at my arrogance makes you uneasy, that I dare to be human and flawed and flawless and regular with two kids and a dog and abnormal with two stints in rehab and a child I haven’t seen in years. This thing called privilege has wedged itself between my brain and the words I write so that I’m still not satisfied with my description of it. This privilege means that you can step in and out of oppression as you so wish, yes ALL WOMEN and ALL LIVES, that you can claim all the cool without all the unwanted attention, that you can state the color of a wall and call it art, that your mediocrity will earn you a page in literary history even as my bold experimentation is written off as unintelligible whining. I continue to sit here trying to make magic out of the grains of smiles I have ground and smashed together and rage that was stamped onto the last page of my passport and handed to me over a metal counter. This thing called privilege will not let me rest.
(Image: This is me on my 6th birthday. I’d also like to point out that this would have made a perfect “Bow Down” meme if only I had found this picture in time for the trend…)