I started collecting them like Legos. I traced the sharp edges and pressed the tiny connector circles into the meat of my thumb until they made red impressions. My first words were “I want juice.” I stared at a cup of quickly warming milk, stacked the green block on top of the blue block on top of the yellow one, and the cup disappeared and returned filled with apple juice instead. I was four years old, and it was magic. Words were magic.
In the first grade, my grandmother told me that my white friends would never think I was as good as they were. I rolled the words over once or twice, shook them like dice, and put them in my pocket. A week later, I told Emily Schectman that her parents were going to lose their jobs and that she’d be homeless. I said she’d have to live in a car out in front of school so that she wouldn’t be late every day. I wanted to see what would happen, what white skin and dirty blonde ringlets would do with the primary colors and hard lines. I wondered if her pastel, bubble-wrapped mind was as resilient as her curls.
She sobbed uncontrollably for over an hour, until her mother arrived with more protective packaging and took her home. Instead of calling me what I was—a black child growing up in America—my teachers deemed me “mature,” said I had a “sophisticated” form of teasing. I was not teasing; Emily was my friend. I put my hands in my pockets and watched, confused, as her mother carried her away.
Sophisticated. I was immediately intrigued by what my white teachers could do with words, and how my stinging observations about the world around me could be easily recast as precocious or assertive insights. I was beaten weekly at home for sharing the same hard-bitten thoughts and feelings that were encouraged and applauded at school. I remarked to my teacher that her breath smelled like coffee and cigarettes. “It’s horrible—can you please get out of my face?” Stunned, she paused before thanking me for my honesty and pulling her head back away from me. Such a request put forth to my own mother, using whatever words, could easily have left me unable to sit down for two days. What kind of new magic was this? And how could I train in these arts?
I became a ravenous reader overnight. Words on pages built like blocks on the backs of my retinas and formed the most intricate mosaics of life. As I worked my way through each book, I’d read the best parts aloud, toying playfully with the patterns of speech, taking apart the lines and using my tongue to reassemble them with new punctuation, giving them new doors and windows, opposite meanings.
I loved reading aloud in Sunday School. The New International Bible verses presented a worthy challenge to my eight-year-old mind, and my grandmother praised me at Sunday dinner for my holy recitations. This was a welcome change from the scolding I received after the drunk Jesus debacle. I had asked my fellow future disciples how they knew Jesus wasn’t just something a drunk man thought up on a sunny day. “Jasmin said Jesus is a drunk man!” was the interpretation that telephoned its way back to the Sunday School teacher, and though my grandmother didn’t spank me, she did refuse me money for candy the next two Sundays.
“Ms. Lewis said you did so good, you read so good,” Grandma gushed. I corrected, “Well; so well, Grandma.” Earnestine never minded my revisions of her speech. “You right,” she’d say, “Grandma said it wrong. You smart, and Grandma is so proud of you.” She seemed to be the only one. My mother glared at me with clenched teeth, saving up her rage at my know-it-all-ness for my next inevitable misstep.
In the sixth grade, I read The Color Purple, and made up my mind to try out my own “hell, no!” on my English teacher, Mr. Cargile, when he insisted that a group of girls in my class stop “gossiping and cackling like a pack of hens.” He dragged me to the office and called my mother on the spot. As the tears preemptively welled in my eyes, readying for the lashing I’d receive when I got home, I began to understand that there were more rules to the art of language than I first thought. My mother was concerningly calm in her sternness, which only signalled that an even more brutal beating awaited me. Mr. Cargile walked me silently back to class, his tight dreadlocks swinging smugly, his wide nose spread farther across his face in thinly veiled delight at his triumph. I filed the encounter under “unknown” and waited for the shape of the thing to show itself.
I don’t know when they began betraying me—the words. There was no bloody accidental footfall onto a gleaming white one-by-one block or even a two-by-four skid across hardwood floors. It was probably an unremarkable string of pinches: The kind that happens when you go to connect two Legos that don’t seem to want to fit together, even though they are the same dimensions. And you press on the top and bottom with one set of fingers, and the sides with the other set, and the pressure is uneven between the two hands, and you lose a little skin as they finally snap together.
Maybe it was the summer before college, when the silver-haired man on the train swallowed and lifted one eyebrow in shock when I told him that I was only heading to Connecticut to nanny for the summer, that in the fall I’d be attending Oberlin. “Well done” were the two words he mustered out of the stupor I only gleaned in retrospect. The sounds were deflated, counterfeit, like when you run out of Legos that are the same height, so you begrudgingly join two flatter Legos, angry because you know that it may be nearly impossible to ever tear them apart again.
Maybe it was the first time I was pulled over after Michael Brown was murdered. Maybe it was all the words that didn’t come out of their mouths, or even enter their brains, all the questions they did not ask that helped me understand that the words change based on the mouth that speaks them, and the absence does too.
In the moment, I just sat there, rolling around Grandma’s words from the first grade, unsure of why they were in my hands, unsure of how the pieces fit together. A second car pulled up—lights, no sirens—and two more police officers traced the contours of my car with flashlights. The first two stood back from my closed driver’s side window, hands on holsters, lights trained on me, as I rolled the dice and scrolled my iTunes for the song I would play when whatever misunderstanding this was cleared itself up.
I’m a talker—I have always been a talker. The thing about silent, white men with guns is that their stillness takes something away from you. I shook the pieces and then clenched them in my palm. Sandra Bland hadn’t been murdered yet—the noiselessness of a talkative black woman dying had not yet been played for me. I know four synonyms for silence offhand, but none of them capture the drowning weight of sitting quietly, searching for the soundtrack of your unnecessary death.
I used to tell the whole story, explain the “misunderstanding,” the reason they all flinched when I reached, the question they finally asked that almost killed me, that would have saved us all if they had only asked it at the beginning of the traffic stop, and not after calling for backup for a 125-lb black woman with a clean driving record, who was returning from having tea with a friend, and “appeared to be swerving a little” (but was really just dancing along to the music). I used to lay all the pieces out on a tray with Lego set instructions for well-meaning white people so that they’d know exactly how to build their way to outrage and compassion for me.
I try very hard not to do free labor anymore. I hold Earnestine’s pieces, still too tightly, dried blood lodged in the crevices, and I put them together and take them apart, and put them together and take them apart, and put them together and take them apart, waiting for them to turn into something I recognize.
I cannot tell her that we do not have a better life. But she knows. She worries that they will murder me for being so alive, and sasses me fully when I forget to return her phone calls. When I was a child, Earnestine would tell me how proud of me she was, and I’d wonder what good I had done to be so praised. I never shut up; I asked too many questions, and for that, she nourished me weekly. Now, all of my mother’s backhands to the mouth feel like training days.
My grandmother was twenty years old when Martin Luther King Jr. marched from Selma to Montgomery. She knew exactly what the world was, and didn’t feel the need to confirm this further with media coverage. She had moved from Whitakers, North Carolina to New York City and worked assembling Caucasian dolls in a factory. My mother, her eldest daughter, was two, and had been left behind down south, in the care of Grandma’s sisters. “Only difference between now and then, north and south, is the racism is covered up now, and it was just out for everybody to see then. People, they pretend now, but I know. I been knowin’; down south, we know.”
On her seventieth birthday, my sister, Monae, and I took Grandma to see the motion picture based on the march, and as we sat in the theater, Earnestine was silent. More than wanting to see Selma, I wanted to watch Grandma watching Selma. I don’t know why I expected tears of joy, or relief, or pride at seeing a black film with a black cast about black history in a room full of black AND white people. It was January 2015. Eric Garner had been strangled; Michael Brown attacked and shot in the back. My then police officer girlfriend and I were talking about moving in together just so that she could quit her job and pursue, well . . . anything else. I had been pulled over eight times in the past six months, and on two of those occasions, she had to save me from my blackness. I don’t know what I expected to see on Grandma’s face. I hadn’t yet been able to put the pieces together; I hadn’t given up the lie.
In the third scene of the movie, not four minutes in, five little brown girls walk gracefully down the stairs in their vibrant Sunday best and are blown to pieces by a bomb planted in their church. As I flinched back away from the brightness and booming of the explosion, I looked over at Grandma, and she was perfectly stoic. I had forgotten how it all began, what I’d been taught in school about the catalysts that set the march in motion. Earnestine had not.
After, as we sat in a soul food restaurant, I looked around at the mostly brown patrons before asking Grandma what it was like to watch a movie about a life she had lived. She paused, picking a long while at an animal bone in her collard greens before giving a disjointed and short response. I don’t remember precisely what she said, but I remember feeling like it amounted to nothing.
My grandmother had never been afraid to speak her mind in whatever words her colored-only academic education and supplemented Danielle Steele pocket guide would afford her. Many a heated discussion about a sinning church friend or an argument I was having with my father was punctuated with “you know I don’t know all the words . . . and I don’t understand some things, but . . .” but her words always managed to find their formation, and the false starts and brief silences only served as lubrication for her coarse and unapologetic opinions. This was not that. This was silence born of the kind of pain that conjures foul breath and lives in the dark unvisited corners of the universe, spilled blood inherited and burning through new veins like the unexplained aches in young bones that are held there knowing that they do not belong. She could not tell me what it was like to be in the after because she was still living this same life. We are all living the same life again.
Monae winced briefly at a fleeting side stitch, and changed the subject. We passed some time critiquing the food before the conversation turned toward Monae’s coursework in African American Studies. “It’s all the same messed up system, and we keep perpetuating it!” she groaned exhaustedly. “We use the same pieces to try to build ourselves up, and we wonder why we’re not getting anywhere?! And I know this won’t change everything overnight, but we gotta start somewhere.”
Before I had full context for the preface she was providing, Monae was apologizing to me for a myriad of the childhood wounds that she once took pleasure in salting. The Oreo cookie and whitegirl cracks preceded the bloodiest of offenses. She recounted one of the numerous arguments she and I had when nigga became a popular term among black youth, and how I clenched as if in physical pain every time she and my brother tossed it from their mouths like a blown bubblegum bubble, laughing at the “pop” sound it made. She admitted to being embarrassed now at her actions then, and I sat speechless at the eloquent template she laid out for all of white society, a little sad at the complexions of the fellow diners and the wasted opportunity for useful eavesdropping.
As her sibling, I internalized and accepted her apology. As her slave-descended kin, I knew it wasn’t hers to give. She could not take credit for the steadfast fear that all iterations of the word evoked within me, for the unexplained creak in my hips as I shifted away from the hard Gs. Grandma added an afterword to our heavy conversation by saying only “I know the young kids use it don’t know what it mean; they don’t know what it mean.” The waiter approached the table, asked if we would like dessert, and in unison, we replied that we were full.
I may never be called a popular or kind writer, and I don’t believe I was born or well bred to seek the eye or approval of others. Most of my heroes are unsung until they are dead, or prone to upsetting people, or inciting them to scream or cry or be violent.
The people who do love me, save Earnestine, seem to do so in spite of my undying commitment to abrasive and plain truth, and an allergy to many aspects of American social etiquette. So during my tenure as editor of this blog, I can promise little more than much the same. I seek truths that are bold and indelicate, unbeautiful and grotesque, and the only thing I ask of potential submissions is that they be brave, in whatever way your knowledge of words and the world allows. If my grandmother is ever to feel the sunlight on her face, if I am to someday soak up the warmth of freedom, a great number of people are going to have to be upset.
I look forward to reading your submissions.