Tuesday, September 16, 2014

It’s the little things. True violence against People of Color in America

After the murder of Michael Brown and the macing of an innocent black man in Westlake Center I found myself in a panel of brown people, talking to an auditorium of white people, about violence against black Americans. We talked about the acts themselves – their brutality. We watched video of a man being maced for simply being black in public. We saw his cries for water to help his burning eyes.

But what I saw, and what the other panel members saw, was the look of recognition in his eyes. The resignation and sadness for what was going to happen to him. And when I looked at the eyes of my fellow panel members – they had the same look.

Then I noticed the gasps and cries of the white audience matched the gasps and cries of the white people at Westlake Center. Their shock. Their horror. This was too far. This was too much.

“How could this happen?”

“We’re here to stop the violence.”

When one panelist tried to talk about systemic abuse and racism he was interrupted by a white audience member who said that this wasn’t what she came to hear. She came to find out what she could do to stop racists from attacking black people.

And as much as I’d like to be hopeful, the reaction of the audience cemented to me that we weren’t doing anything that evening to prevent the deaths of black men and women.

They shouldn’t have been shocked. This isn’t even the real violence. This isn’t what kills you.
If all we had to worry about was a cop with a gun or a can of mace, we wouldn’t need marches. We wouldn’t need to watch videos and shake our heads in sadness at these racists that make things hard for everyone.

So here’s what’s killing me. What’s killing us.

With both of my pregnancies, my white friends would joke “what are you going to name your child? Some weird black name like ‘D’jayson’ or something?” variations of this joke abounded. But when having a “black” sounding name means you are 50% less likely to be called in for a job interview, those jokes are violent. There are no allies rallying against that.

When school funding is based on property taxes it means that children of poor families (and therefore more likely children of color) receive a substandard of education while children of rich families receive a superior education. It locks children into a cycle of poverty. This is violent. There are no allies rallying against that.

When it is suggested that I straighten my hair for job interviews, I am being told that my nature is not approved. I can only move forward in the business world and provide a better life for my children if I deny who I am and take on a whiter persona. This is violent. There are no allies rallying against that.

When white feminists decry the misogyny in rap lyrics and ignore its mimicry of white patriarchy, its history based in slavery and the purposeful destruction of the African American family and the commodification of black women – that is violent. There are no allies rallying against that.

When a show like Game of Thrones can imagine entire worlds with monsters and magical beings, and yet can’t imagine black people who aren’t slaves, that is violent. It is a reminder that even in worlds with no limits, there is no place for us that we aren’t less than. There are no allies rallying against that.

When a person of color speaks up against racism and is told that “it’s not that bad” or “it’s not real racism” that is a denial of our experience as humans. It is a silencing of our voice. It is a reassurance that the issue will never be addressed. It is violent. There are no allies rallying against that.

When we are told we have to “be nicer” when discussing race and privilege we are being told that our basic rights and humanity come with preconditions. We have to earn it. That is violence. There are no allies rallying against that.

When people make fun of AAVE and laugh at words like “axe” used for “ask” they are reiterating that our dialect is inferior to theirs. The language they modified to suit their needs is superior to the language we modified to suit ours. We are viewed as stupid, uneducated, “classless” because of this. It affects our job prospects, our quality of education, our quality of medical care. It is violent. There are no allies rallying against that.

When people blame inner-city violence on single mothers they are denying the effects of the systemic ghettoization of black people, high unemployment, substandard schools, and the prison industrial complex. This ensures that none of these things change and that women of color do not receive true help for their families. This is violence. There are no allies rallying against that.

This is what’s killing us. This and so much more like it. We aren’t being picked off one by one at random police stops. We are being suffocated by these small, silent attacks. This society – the “good” people are the ones hurting us. And stopping this, addressing this, is much harder than sitting in a room and saying “look at the bad racist” it means looking into yourself and accepting that you have hurt us. And that you will have to change your everyday actions in order to stop.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Funeral That Wasn’t

My grandfather – GrandBob – was the best grandfather any girl could have asked for. He was a cranky crotchety old guy who just happened to think that his granddaughter could run the world. He was a feminist – unconcerned with my looks or “girlishness” and only concerned with my brain and my heart. He was my only father figure. He was an unfailing rock of support. His love was home.
I loved him more than I can put to words. And when he died this last winter, I did not collapse into tears, because his Alzheimer’s had already been slowly taken him from me for years. There was no goodbye.

“It’s good he didn't suffer.” My brother and I said to each other.

“This was a good death.”

Instead, I sat in a mild depression that I wasn't fully aware of. Just a cloud of what I had lost following me around. My light had dimmed. I didn't know how to process it.

GrandBob’s funeral wasn't until this summer, in July. He had been cremated, so it was postponed until the family could all make it to Kansas where he had moved with his wife and son for the last years of his life.

This was going to be goodbye.

We arrived at my great-grandmother’s house the night before. Still looking very much the same as when I was last there, 8 years ago. We don’t visit often. We aren't close to this part of the family. We are the black ones. We are the ones who had babies too young. We are the drug addicts and poor ones and fat ones. They love us. They are more than kind. We don’t fit in. There are no pictures of us on the walls.

“I have nothing in common with them,” my brother worried as I gave him some Xanax for the trip, “What are we going to talk about?”

We say our pleasantries. We hug. I talk about the house I just bought. My cousin bought a house too. We share real estate stories. My brother wrestles with the kids on the floor. We eat a boring Kansas meal and go to bed.

The next day is all nerves. It’s funeral day. My mom doesn't know what to do. She doesn't know how to feel, I can see that in her. She wasn't close to her dad. He wasn't the same man when he raised her that he was when he helped raise us. He didn't know how to show love for her. He didn't know how to be a rock for her. So my mom is pacing. She’s worrying. She’s helping the kids get dressed and reminding everyone about the timeline. Her voice is too loud.

“Where are the ashes?! Do we have the ashes?” She asks the crowd worriedly. Someone hands them to her. They are in a large plastic bag. She looks up at me with giant, almost scared eyes.

“This is him.” She says, lifting the bag up to me. “Feel it, this is all there is.”

I shake my head and walk away. She approaches my brother and he does the same. None of us know what to do.

We are all ready to go, but we can’t leave. My uncle hasn't arrived yet. My grandma went to pick him up and she’s not here yet. We aren't surprised that he is making us late. We are all nervous waiting on him. My niece sweetly straightens up the back of her dad’s coat while he nervously prepares to play trumpet at the ceremony. I yell at the other kids to stop running around.

Finally my uncle arrives. He exits my grandma’s van and it’s like a punch in the stomach. I wasn’t prepared for this – I don’t know why. I thought I’d been used to seeing the man who molested me as a child, who punched my mother at my birthday party, who violently raped two women. I’ve seen him plenty of times. For a while he was living in my basement. But these years away while he’s been in Kansas have destroyed my defenses. My ears start ringing.

“You won’t believe what happened you guys” he starts to say, too fast. He’s high as fuck. He looks like utter shit.

My mom cuts him off, “I don’t want to hear it. We have to go.”

He tries again and my mom cuts him off again.

“Fucking cunt bitch.” He says as he throws a sprite can into my great grandmother’s lovingly manicured yard.

The sound in my ears is deafening as I rush to him. “NO” I say. I don’t even know what I’m saying. I just know that right now he can’t do this.

He puts his hand up in my face, “Stay away from me bitch. I don’t like you. You aren't a good person. Stay away.”

My 12 year old niece is at my side, shaking with anger, “What did he just say? I've never seen anything so disrespectful.” She looks like she’s about to hit him. My grandma pulls my uncle into the car.

I get in my car with my kids and my brother. I’m driving and I’m not hearing anything. I’m just driving. I’m worried about running out of gas.

My brother is fuming. “I will fucking end him. If he tries any of this shit at the funeral I will call the fucking cops.”

And then he puts his hand on my arm. “I've got your back” he says.

That’s when I realize I've been crying. And I look at his hand on my arm and I can barely drive I’m crying so hard.

“I've got your back.”

All these years, everybody knew about the abuse. We don’t talk about it. Nobody had said that to me before. Nobody has had my back.

So now I’m in the car, and I’m driving to my grandfather’s funeral, and I’m crying over the actions of a crackhead child molester. I almost start to hyperventilate I’m trying so hard to stop crying.

“But Ijeoma, I have a serious question to ask you,” my brother says solemnly, “Does it bother you that Bill thinks you’re a bad person?”

I start laughing hysterically.

“I bet he was a good person when he was a baby though” my six year old son adds. And I can breathe again.

By the time we reach the funeral my Xanax has kicked in. I’m numb. My brother makes a beeline for my uncle.

“Hey, I’m sorry I went off on your mother and sister like that, but you have to admit they were being a couple of bitches.”

And my brother completely loses it. They are shouting at each other. My brother is threatening to call the cops. My uncle is threatening to call them back. But my brother didn't hit him, that’s not who he is.

But his rage and frustration at our uncle collides with the sudden realization that we are here to bury a man that he loved just as much as I did. He collapses on the ground in tears. His daughter rush over, worried, and he clings to them like they will save his life.

I’m not feeling anything. My sons are crying now, I’m consoling them. I’m hugging my mom. I’m passing out water and making sure the kids stay put.

I don’t remember much of the ceremony. It was brief. I sprinkled some of his ashes. The kids sat down and read a book while the grownups figured out the logistics for the remembrance dinner at a nearby country club.

We got to the dinner and realized that there was no alcohol. “Can you ask a manager?” I say to the waitress as my brother looks on in similar panic. He sends an urgent text to a cousin who hasn't arrived. She shows up and sneaks us a flask. We run outside.

It’s just the two of us, my brother and I. Like it has always been. We avoid eye contact and eagerly wave over a member of the country club staff who is having a smoke break. He’s an older black man. He says we’re the first black people he’s seen at the club all week. We share a cigarette and stories. I want to hug him for giving us this break. He says he hates Kansas. Seattle sounds better. If he ever comes to Seattle he’ll look us up.

It’s time to go back inside for speeches. My brother has his written down. It’s beautiful. My mom’s is weird and honest and lovely. My uncle’s is all about how he met his girlfriend because she was wandering around his yard the morning after GrandBob passed. “I know my dad sent her” he says. Nobody is looking at him.

I can’t remember most of my speech, but I do okay. I am good at speaking on the fly. My uncle hands me a tissue as I leave the podium and I absentmindedly take it and set it on the table. I have no tears. He stole them all.

I don’t believe in God. I don’t believe my GrandBob was looking down on this, and I’m glad for that. But it should have been better. Nobody should have been high. Nobody should have been yelling. I should have cried. He deserved so much better.

And when I look in my heart for the things I should have said on that podium, the things I should have been able to feel – the words are few.

I am the luckiest girl in the world to have been loved by you. You were my safe place, you were my biggest cheerleader. You were the only one who knew me and loved me for exactly who I was. You were so PROUD of me and I felt that every single day. And goddamn I miss you so much. And I didn't know when your mind began to slip that we would never have a conversation about politics again. I didn't know that my kids wouldn't get to see how funny you are. I didn't know that I’d never get to say goodbye. And I’m so sorry I didn't get to say it. And I’m so sorry that I didn't ask for one more story or call one more time. But I will tell my kids every story and I will share every picture. And I will cheer them like you cheered me and I will make sure they know that it is because of you that I can. I love you. I love you. I love you.

Monday, August 4, 2014

You're Lucky If They Act Out

note: This piece was written with the permission of my son.

This last May I found myself somewhere I thought I'd never be: in the Psychiatric ward of a hospital with my 12 year old son.

It had seemed like an ordinary weekend. I had gotten back from a week of work travel (I was usually gone 3-4 days out of every week for the last year) and had picked my son up from his dad's. He was grounded because of a poor report card but we still managed to have a nice weekend. We joked around, played games. He spent a lot of time with his little brother. I was transitioning to a new job the next week, one that didn't require travel, but we kept the same schedule we had adopted most of the year - weekdays with dad, rest of the days with me. He went to his dad's Monday.

On Wednesday afternoon I got a call from his school. They had found his backpack in the middle of the street. The Assistant Principle wanted me to know in case Malcolm was looking for it. All my alarm bells went off. "Well let me make sure he's where he's supposed to be" I said and hung up.

I called his dad, "Is Malcolm home?"
"Where is he?"
"Little asshole probably ran away or something. He's trying to get back at me."

And from there on out that day turned into the most terrifying and world-changing of my life. We finally found Malcolm around 8pm. When the pills he had taken didn't do the job, he got scared of starving to death and made a call. We had an ambulance pick him up. We stayed at the hospital all night running tests and waiting for a social worker to say that my home was a safe environment to take him to.

I would have never, ever, in a million years have imagined that my sweet, goofy, bowling-crazy son would try to end his life. Everything I thought I knew was turned upside down. The emergency therapist said I needed to ask him every day if he was thinking of killing himself, because "obviously he's not reaching out to you proactively." I walked around the house for days crying constantly trying to figure out what had happened to my family, how I could have been so wrong, how I couldn't have seen this coming.

Because I should have seen it coming.

My son had tried to say that he was losing hope. He explained his grades by saying, "the world's an awful place. I don't see the point in working hard in school when I'm just going to be an unhappy adult." I laughed it off as teenage bullshit.

He made a plan to run away when I was out of town. A friend of his became concerned and told a teacher. I talked to him from hours away. "Why were you going to run away?" I asked. "Because I feel like everyone would be better without me." he said. My friends reassured me that runaway plans were normal at this age. I came home and everything seemed normal. We didn't talk about it further.

My son had tried to explain to me how hard things were with his dad. That he was unhappy, that he was volatile, that he felt like he couldn't do anything to make his dad happy. But it usually only came up when we were arguing about  something. I thought he was trying to deflect. I thought he was trying to pit us against each other. I thought it was classic divorced-child maneuvering. He eventually stopped talking to me about it. So when his dad sat him down the night before the suicide attempt and told him that he was making him miserable, and that if our son didn't get it together then one day he'd just pack up his truck and disappear, I'm not surprised he didn't call me.

I'm not writing this to air out my guilt to all of you, although my regret is deep and true. I'm writing this because even as I was crying next to his hospital bed, people were telling me, "He didn't mean it. He's just acting out. He's just trying to get your attention. This is what teenagers do."

But here's the thing: he didn't know what pills he was taking. He took the largest prescription bottle his dad had from the medicine cabinet, walked around with it all day at school, and then wandered off by himself to swallow the entire thing. He didn't tell anyone. He didn't leave a note. If it had been any of the other prescriptions in that cabinet, his "cry for help" would have left him dead. I would have lost the little boy that has been my heart and soul since I was 19 years old. Marcus would have lost the kindest big brother I've ever seen. The world would have lost a funny, quirky, sensitive, kind young man.

Three months later we are rebuilding with this new, clearer reality. We're all in therapy: Me, Malcolm, his dad. We've changed up our living arrangements back to the days before I was travelling so often. I think my son is happier now. I've made peace with the fact that he may well be more susceptible to depression than many other kids. I'm trying to understand that I might not be able to fix that. I check with his therapist often. I'm trying not to hover so much. I've started letting him be by himself for an hour or so. I'm still so scared.

But I'm lucky, because we get a chance to try to make this right.

Parents: if your kids are acting out, pay attention. Whatever they are going through, even if you think it will pass, it's real to them right now. Listen to your kids, respect their feelings even if they don't make sense to you. Puberty, social pressures, academic pressures - these stressors can lead kids to act impulsively and destructively, with sometimes tragic consequences. We can't protect our kids from every danger, and we can't guarantee that our best efforts will always bring the best results. But cries for help are a blessing, they are your kid's way of reaching out when they need your help.

You're lucky if they act out.