A lot more personal than I usually get…
Teri Joseph, Nicole Ari Parker’s character on the TV series “Soul Food,” was one of my first introductions to the idea that being a successful black woman involved suits with over the top shoulder pads, a brisk purposeful walk, and waking nightmares lived in secret; shortness of breath and blinding panic quickly stowed away before anyone could come to discover what was wrong. The other woman who taught me that lesson was my mother. She always said that the worse she felt, the better she made herself look. Shoulder pads slightly more understated than Teri’s, dark brown lipstick to match an immaculate manicure, cheekbones accentuated with face powder for that “try me” effect.
Years after my 8-year-old self watched these women display in public like they were untouchable, like everything they did was effortless, I adopted that costume as well, and the words came so naturally to me that I forgot that they weren’t originally mine. I’m trying not to look how I feel. The worse I felt, the better I looked; not severe lack of sleep, not a messy breakup, not homesickness would make it beyond the walls of my room, not even beyond the boundaries of my own body. It became a self-fulfilling prophecy. No one around me was explicitly asking for me to perform flawlessness, but put on a show, I did (and still do.) Minimal makeup, but enough to trick the inexperienced eye into thinking that my skin is naturally glowing and free of blemish. Dramatic eyeliner becomes the sharpest weapon in my arsenal of self-preservation and self-destruction. Form-fitting and low cut, bright and quirky, all outfit choices carefully selected the night before for precise execution the next morning. Every compliment is validation, and added pressure to never let the mask slip. I would make people feel uncomfortable otherwise, and I can’t have that.
Beyond aesthetics, the performance includes frequent and thorough conversations about other people’s problems to which I didn’t always have the answer, but always tried to channel all the calm I can conjure to make sure I say something comforting, helpful, or at least something that makes them laugh. I’m never too busy, tired or uninterested to talk through family conflicts or school stress, anxiety about debt, or a hostile work environment. There were also my own studies, jobs and several extra-curricular activities, all to be done with supposed ease. In the process, I’ve learned to fasten my facade a little more tightly, with obstacles like metal gates topped with broken glass and barbed wire between myself and anyone who suspects that all is not as OK with me as I insist.
Yeah I’m free what’s up?
Of course I can talk!
Nothing ooh, just tired.
I feel guilty for resenting the constant act I feel I have to put on and for resenting the people who have assigned me this role. Stop being a martyr. This is what friends are for, to be there for each other whenever necessary. In the past, I attempted to unload on the one person who I believed should and would be there for me no matter what, not realizing at the time that there were things about myself I didn’t yet know and understand, and that I was basically using that person in the same way I was being used. I’m sorry. I’m not apologizing for existing as the person I am, which I often felt compelled to do when that person was in my life. I couldn’t have “worked on myself” in the ways that I said I would, because I’m not broken and in need of “fixing.” As regretful as I feel sometimes for relying too heavily on that person, I’m also glad that their confusion and frustration with my chaos was drowning out my attempts to understand myself.
Now I’m getting ready for a long day of work, meetings, a four-hour class, and hopefully a chance to hear Angela Davis speak at my school. Minus shoulder pads, but still bearing the anxiety of over-extending myself, of having agreed to undertake projects of which I actually don’t want to be a part, of having too many tasks between me and the weekend, and not enough hours to complete them while feeding myself anything other than coffee to keep going. So, I try my best to look radiant. Here’s the latest perfectly drawn eyeliner wing, the left side always comes out better. Here’s the latest collection of rings I’ve stacked on every finger, again another aesthetic borrowed from my mother. Here are the picturesque Somerville houses in neat rows with statues of the Virgin Mary praying from every other front yard, the first thing I see before my commute downtown. What you won’t see is the pacing around the bedroom, the shortness of breath, the tightening in my chest, the pajama shirt to muffle myself, the tears streaking the concealer I just put on, the frantic phone call to my mother while I try to collect myself before I miss the bus and complicate my day even further.
Even this blog is part of the performance. How much of it is fiction summoned from an overactive imagination with only so many outlets to release itself? How much of it is lifted directly off the pages of my journal? Maybe today I won’t try to hide faint cries for help behind self-deprecating jokes. On multiple occasions, I’ve spent hours talking with professors and other people who I know really mean, “How are you?” when they ask, but every time I feel close to actually expressing parts of this, I stop myself. I’m being self-indulgent and inappropriate, and it really shouldn’t be anyone else’s job to deal with my confusion, aside from a person who is paid specifically for this purpose. The relentless highlight reel showing murders of black people by the police in the US, along with people being killed in protests against the government in the DRC, and the awareness of the backs I have stood on in order to be alive and well right now, all work together with many other factors to aggravate the low feeling I’m carrying around. Writing is the only thing that allows me to unburden myself of some of these feelings, but the crowding of too many other commitments means that I write less, which only deepens my anxiety.
I’m frightening myself, mainly because it’s slowly becoming more difficult and less appealing to put on my stage persona before going out in public. There are also a few other things at play that I don’t quite understand and am not ready to share. What I can say is that I want to be loved in the way that I try to love people, completely, in all ways, on panicky 4am phone calls, in ‘I’ve missed you” conversations turning into “Actually, I need your help…” in impromptu trips to the city if it’s affordable, just to be there in person with whoever.
It feels very isolating to consider the possibility that there are so few people in my life who can love me the way I love them, to the extent that I’m about to make an appointment to speak with someone professionally trained to help me to do this “work” on myself. People are either too practical, too busy, too engrossed in what I think are far more critical situations, or awkwardly silent. Sometimes they aren’t able to see far enough backstage to realize that I’m not ready for the conversation to move on to lighter topics, that I just want to be seen, even if for just a moment.
Maybe it’s my fault for not knowing exactly what kind of response or support I’m looking for. Maybe I’m too self-centered and over-estimating the role I play in the lives of the people closest to me. The one thing I’m sure of is that I have to want to thrive for myself, to just be, rather than to do so because I can’t answer the question, “What would so-and-so do without me?”
Actually, no. Everything isn’t fine. Can you please talk to me?
(Image: My mum looking absolutely gorgeous on our way to one of the many weddings we used to attend. I had on a a dress with drawings of fruit all over it.)