Pencil Or Marker: Who Gets To Tell The Story of You….And Why…?

I have so much to say to the people that read this blog that it gets hard to know where to start. If I told you that I had been writing to you, the person reading my words right now, since the time I began to write, would you believe me? That may sound absurd to some because maybe you think that there needs to be some type of importance to a person before they would, or should think their lives important enough to exist outside of them. Would you think a simple person, sitting somewhere, at some point in time would think to record their thoughts in the hopes that others would read them?

Maybe it makes more sense to say that the words were recorded in order to be captured… and not necessarily to be read, or published or circulated for the consumption of others. Maybe the person wanted to see their words written. Can you recall the very first time you recognized your name written on paper? How did that make you feel? Do you remember that point in time that you understood that you are a part of something else going on, the point when you became aware. 

Self-awareness is the capacity for introspection and the ability to recognize oneself as an individual separate from the environment and other individuals.

Consumption, is a funny word when it comes to information as it relates to a person. The reader is internalizing what they are reading, and certain readers can go even further within the mere words on the page. They feel the emotions splayed within written words.

This emotional response creates a relationship, between the reader and the subject, attributes become recognizable in real life.

The reader now knows that something besides their version of life is possible. They take on the experiences conveyed by the ‘voice’, that nameless subliminal person that reads the words along in your head as you move your eyes along the page. So you read, and so you know, or think you know, of a person’s experience, at least as far as it is revealed in written text.

Once I began to read as a child, we moved on from the repetitive simple words of the newspaper and my Grandma began to feed me books. As a former English school teacher in pre-Civil Rights Alabama, she made sure my reading included plenty of historical books, but not like the ones that I would study later in life as part of my formal education. These books contained people in them like the ones she had been telling me about.

The Red People.

The White People.

And The Black People…..the people that others called slaves.

The words that are recorded and regarded as slave narratives aren’t really narratives if you think about it. Many of these stories are ‘as told to’ accounts of a former slave person’s life codified by some educated, and probably not black person for reasons that varied according to the intent of the money spent to accomplish such goals. Who can ever know if the stories used to convincing society that Blacks were happy in slavery were authentic but they were well received and often used to defend slavery.

Some text displayed the misery of the slaves and made the call for whites to consider the human plight of the animal which they favored as the go-to beast of burden of the day. Blacks never had the opportunity to learn to read and write as comprehensively as Whites, and the ability to do so is a privilege even to this day. Considering the rate of illiteracy that still plague people of AA decent in this country it seems that not much has changed.

But I could read, and I did read as often as I could and as much as possible, and I realized that if I focused hard enough I could hear the slaves speaking to me. Engulfed in their stories while sitting in my Dad’s easychair, I would spend hours upon hours living in the world of the past. I understood these people, and felt for them, and at some points I felt like I knew them.

 To the friends of progress and elevation I propose to write a narrative of real life as a slave and as a citizen. Believing that every person, who regards those that are striving to educate themselves, will give this little book some encouragement when its author presents it to them, and believing that every gentleman and lady will do so, I feel satisfied to submit the following facts of my life when in slavery and now as a freeman. Many persons may think that a man who would publish his life should do it intelligently, and do I. If you cannot write it intelligently do the best you can, and next time endeavor to do better. There is not much expected of a man at his first attempt who has spent his early days in slavery, and has had no opportunity to learn to read or write, but believing that this little book will help me to do better in the future I feel encouraged to persevere, as I have always done, to the best of my knowledge. (Source John Quincy Adams-1872)

And I read more: Black Like Me and The Souls of Black Folks but it wasn’t until Incidences in the Life of a Slave Girl that I heard the first independent accounting of black life as told through a female ‘voice’ whose internal thought and emotional wasn’t that different from my own world. The fancy footwork that goes into being black, female and under the rule of a male dominated society is a jig, indeed, and I think many of us would agree that we all know some of the steps to this dance though the music has changed over the years.

I read accounts of different women and their lives, like The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pitmann, though a fictional accounting it was a focal point of many conversations with my Grandma. Grandma Hill used the past behavior of Whites and their specific intention to deny Blacks the chance to read and write as evidence to me that I should value my ability to read, and that I should use the opportunities that literacy afford me and mine. As a teenager roaming the streets, I would sometimes come across older Black men that would present me with letters, or documents and ask me if I could ‘read good’, I take pride in my affirmative response, as I reach for whatever it is and read it as many times as needed until they understand.

I answer as many questions as I can with information I believe to be accurate. “Each one, teach one” or “I am my brother’s keeper”, or maybe I am the one slave capable of reading charged with providing valuable and trustworthy information to those less fortunate than I; the motivation is unimportant. Yet here I am.

Big Jessie was illiterate, as the oldest male, he was responsible for helping to provide for his siblings and extended family when his mother died and his father needed more income to support his children. And because Black men were/are valued for their strong backs and not their strong minds, school was/is both a luxury, an inconvenience and a low priority when it comes to obtaining substantial, quick and much needed income with brown hands.

My father would join in often as I talked about slavery and history with Grandma, since his ‘people’ were direct descendants of plantation slaves from North Carolina, he could recount stories told to him by his ancestors or overheard as a child to the validity of the despair and disregard that was reality for Blacks not that long ago. His grandparents were emancipated slaves and his parents were born free.

To hear my father stand in front of me, the biggest, most powerful being in my world, my protection, my security and my provider. My father in every sense of the word and realize the abuse suffered through fictional characters  in books that could be closed, forgotten and ignored, was something close enough to touch him and the people that contributed to his existence made an impact on me that never left, and I hope it never will.

I read through all of the Black literature books in the local library, in the school’s small library and soon I discovered the mecca of all things beautiful and magnificent. Old enough to wander now, and spend time exploring using my own devices without adult supervision, I found my way into my very first book store. Books, like a library, sectioned off by topics. No one lifted their head when I walked in wearing my telltale brown plaid uniform and patched cardigan sweater.

I moved through each aisle until I came across the African American literature section. Now able to skip over most of the books that Freshman college students have on their reading list, I wanted something different. I began supplementing my reading  years earlier and knew enough about spaceships (Star Trek books), pirates, and damsels in distress. I needed a new world, and that world jumped out at me. Bold, in plain sight, and often overlooked, if only to be acknowledged as a warning against a certain that life hovered directly beneath civilization.

Dopefiend.

Whoreson.

Swamp Man (still a favorite) Donald Goines was a Black Latino from a middle class family working family in Detroit. Attractive, charismatic, intelligent, adventurous and ahead of his short time on Earth there was no real reason for him to be involved in the life he chose to live. He was a career criminal before turning 18. A forged document and acceptance into the Navy didn’t become the solution he had hoped for, instead it opened up a word of drug addiction and further exposure to the underbelly of society.

Donald Goines wrote for only 5 years, many of his better novels were penned while in prison at the encouragement of other prisoners. Goines was talented and he told the story of the street people from the point of view of the street person. He showed me that brilliance does not come with a pedigree and title bestowed on an author by an authority of some sorts. A criminal, a pimp and a drug addict’s story spoken while experiencing clarity, the volume of which is evident when comparing his prison work versus his work while out in society, created relevance as it described the people that working class people ignored, yet were part of. I understood his conflict, and his disgust. I understood his decisions and carelessness in playing a game that he felt there were no winners.

For each and every whore, pimp, gangster or wailing victim in his novels there is a piece of the author within the character. The boogeyman gained humanity and I began to look deeper at my own low class urban environment because of his words.

Pimp. Whore. Criminal. Drug Addict. Son. Child. Person. Coping. Pain. Survival. Destruction. Elitist. Denial. Ostracization. Economic Disenfranchisement. Opportunity.

He was working on a new set of material, and had not yet beat his drug addiction, when someone entered his home and shot to death he and his common law wife. His murder is still unsolved because drug addicted Black men die every day in Detroit, then and now. From him I learned that a golden path doesn’t always lead to the happy ever after and even when you find your way back to that path, the cloud may follow you. Then what?

Criminals are to be feared, but there used to be a code, and a reason and a season to the madness. Good people go crazy over money.

I learned from reading and observation that most people are honest, and morality is directly tied to your pockets. But that’s a story for another time, kids. Meanwhile, all this talk of pimpin and whores led me to want to know more about the women that sold their bodies for these certain special men. I sought the ying for the yang. Remind me to tell you about Pimps Up, Hoes Down, some other time.

I learned of the good girls who were used before they got a chance to give themselves anything, including a chance to be ‘good girl’ normal. I learned that normal people’s actions are what directly contribute to a lot of what turns the ‘immoral’ and undesirable people into the animals behind the cage. I learned that ‘normal’ people are the ones that abuse, exploit and turn a blind eye hoping that its not them.

I learned that women who sold pussy do so to feed their drug addiction, to buy back their self worth from having their pussy taken from them much earlier on and for nothing in return but further shame, and to do strange things such as feed their kids and keep the lights on once paychecks cease. I learned that men with money can purchase pussy, or take pussy and if he has enough resources he can protect (or take) the pussy that’s important to him, like his wife and daughter’s without interference from other men who should make him stop, but don’t or won’t. I learned that a woman’s ‘virtue’ is directly tied to the penis.

Either she’s spawned from it, or on the receiving end of it, and male protection is only another vehicle for patriarchal oppression. I didn’t have the benefit of knowing the words for the system but that shit was as clear as the endless rhythm of the green binary code in the Matrix. By age 13 I became aware of the existence of the ‘sex trade’ and not of ‘loose’ women who were simply whores and hated by God to damnation, as was my previous understanding before reading this genre.

Manchild in the Promise Land helped me to become aware of the emptiness felt by some Black men and their confusion about how doing all the right things still lead them to the wrong place. Poverty. Underclass people chase themselves in circles often, all in search of the way out, and the preferred and easily attainable Exit is usually contained in drugs, and violence among and against the other people that just don’t matter.

The coping mechanism hasn’t changed, regardless of the decade from which the literature is written, the only expression of frustration available to the underclass is sex, drugs and rock and roll, or the blues, or hip hop, or old Negro spirituals. I did learn to be wary of men offering me drugs, as I watched female friend, after female friend develop addictions while dating a casual drug user. I observed Black man after Black man take up alcohol, hard drugs or both as medicine against the pain of being a soldier aware that he has been sent to war to die. White picket fences are not freely given and when they are captured, they can easily be taken away.

The Women of Brewster Place, and my first look at the inner turmoil of various female characters. A lesbian couple, the ‘whore’ who needs the assistance of the mostly married men in order to keep her title current around town, the ‘do-good’ neighborhood Mammie Mule who will hold the entire village together with the sheer willpower of her belief in God, sweet potato pie and a her huge salvation seeking bosom.

Homosexuality, and black femininity exist in the same place? Those neighborhood men who were kind, clean, polite and charming but unmarried and childless are quietly closeted gays?  Is that what my mother meant when she whispered ‘faggot’ as they departed from a lengthy conversation with her? I began to see hypocrisy in the everyday dealings of society, things turned gray, and beyond the understanding of my White peers.

Native Son is related to the Trick Baby.

My Grandma and I would hang out, though it had been while since she has recently moved back from living in Alabama for two years. We saw The Color Purple together, and we purchased the book for my mother to read, as a gift. It was one of the last times I would spend with my Grandmother. I wanted to tell her that the book wasn’t like the movie, and to ask questions about the relationship between Celie and Shug. My mother would have had a fit had she known there was any reference to sex, let alone between two women, I didn’t know such a thing existed until I read the Women of Brewster Place, and here it was again.

Homosexuality between women confused me, as I had discovered the phenomenon explained through books. But it wasn’t that I didn’t understand the romantic interactions between women. Instead, my conflict was having realized that Black people’s reaction to female loving female relationships is either hostility, disgust, violence or condemnation. I thought if anyone, that she would have the answer to explain my misunderstanding of the implications of the words, surely this wasn’t an accurate description of women’s lives. I misunderstood.

My Grandma was my secret keeper and non judgemental safe place. There was nothing I could tell her that would make her not love me anymore. I remember being very bothered by what I had learned, that Black women would be hated for doing what I thought was natural to women. I am very bothered that this has not yet changed.

The ‘voice’ of J California Cooper’s work was a great discovery and how they spoke in the dialect of my Southern Dad, and his friends. She tells the most amazing stories and I still feel guilty for not returning her book to the library.

A Piece of Cake. Because a crack head can become an aware winning author, attorney and inspiration. Broken pieces of people are made stronger by calluses, duct tape and faith.

Push. Because fighting for your life is what it takes to survive.

Their Eyes Were Watching God.

You do not exist unless you choose to do so.

You can quietly live your life in the comfort of the illusion of ‘normalcy’ which is where the actual crazy people live or you can tell the story of you in as honest of an accounting as possible’ through your words, actions and deeds. No need for bullhorns, or shouting from the rooftop, no need to etch your words into strips of muslin to be tucked into your casket at death to leave witness to your existence.

When considering my work as a writer and the impact my stories may have on private citizens I sought the advice of a dear mentor and great friend Arielle Loren.

As she was about to embark on a trip that would catapult her around the world, I told her of my fear of judgement from others once they read what I had to say. The impact of my words will be great, she told me that ‘people write their own lines in the story of our lives’, meaning that my only job is to tell the story as I see it.

Who did what to whom was never in my control. The only thing that I can do is tell you about my life, my story, my observation, my point of view. And if or when you feel like my version of me, is also a version of you, then all the better for us.

If you feel like me, is not you, then by all means, you are free to tell the story of you, Black woman, because if you don’t, then who will….and why?

Namaste…….

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