Right words, right time

I had a most interesting experience this evening, and felt compelled to commit it to writing. My community of faith, the local UU Fellowship, such as it is…sometimes not entirely in fellowship, sometimes a bunch of individuals and not quite a community…has embarked on this journey to infiltrate their dominant culture, explore their privilege, expand their horizons beyond the predominant upper-middle class academic environs. So, we are engaging in some intentional conversation with a local predominantly Black and Protestant community of faith.

I must admit I’ve been a little leery of this exploration. It sounded a little too ecumenical, a lot too paternalistic. My preference would have been to engage in a work project first, give people stage business and in the process get to know each other while engaged in common endeavor. But, the kinder and gentler amongst us pressed forward with this, so…here it is. Tonight was our second conversation together, and we split into two groups of six each. Lovely.

I was in a strange mood to begin with, mainly because of the Derek Chauvin trial coverage. At the onset of our small group meeting, I shared that I was at once enraged, dismayed, heart broken, and confused by what I was seeing in the trial proceedings. Feeling that George Floyd is himself on trial, that he is being tried for his own murder. Feeling there’s every chance that Derek Chauvin will have no consequences for his actions. Fearing the aftermath of the verdict, whichever way it is rendered – if the jury convicts this former police officer of murder, the MAGA crowd will not be happy, and I worry about their pushback. If the jury fails to convict Chauvin of anything, or of some token offense, I cringe at possible violence and outpouring of rage and frustration from the BIPOC and BIPOC ally community. Worst case, it’s a lose-lose scenario.

So, I shared all that. I felt somehow a little exposed, perhaps because I had verbalized my feelings rather than some linear analysis, some regurgitation of facts. There were nods all around; I was still feeling a trifle unsettled. The discussion progressed, and one of us discussed his awareness that, as a Black man, he doesn’t always feel that he can express his feelings, his emotional response, in public. He is a big guy, and said that he’s experienced people in mixed-race setting feeling somewhat threatened by his emotional response. He spoke about something I’m familiar with, the feeling that you need to keep your deepest feelings to yourself lest they be misunderstood and misinterpreted by dominant culture, seen as threatening. Specifically as a large Black man, he described seeing the seemingly fearful reactions of white women in his presence when he becomes angry or frustrated about some circumstance, even when that is the appropriate response. I got that immediately, and there were more nods all around.

Then, it went downhill, at least for me. The same gentleman posed a question of his own, about whether other members of the group had experienced similar reactions to their emotionalism. He directed the question specifically to the other two Black women in the group, but did not call my name. It was quite apparent that he did not include me in the group of Black women.

As the other women began to speak, I had an incredible rush of emotion – anger, rage, grief, disappointment, despair. All in a split second, no – not even a second – a fraction of a second, not spanning even the duration of the blink of an eye. All without any visible indication of what was going on inside me. Time seemed to nearly stop while the conversation was proceeding, and no one noticed that I had been summarily erased from it. That I was evaporating into the negative void of non-existence, as though I not only did not exist, but never had. I was evaporating like the proverbial “sands through the hour glass of time”…never to be seen or heard from again, but even worse, leaving no trace. Not once, or ever. Torrents of energy were swirling around like a tornado, and I seemed to be the only one who noticed.

When the women had concluded their remarks, I somehow heard myself saying words…telling the man who had introduced that phase of the discussion that he had called certain women by name to comment on having emotions while Black. I heard myself saying “I am also a member of that group, and just needed to say that.” I wanted to cry. I didn’t understand why, either. Fortunately, I did not (well, I did just a little bit but not so as anyone would notice on Zoom).

This is not the first time I’ve had the experience of being excluded from membership in groups of Black folks. This is not the first time I’ve been excluded from something I felt that I had a right to. I believe the women got it immediately; Mr. Man took a minute but he bellied up to the bar and acknowledged what had happened. He eventually apologized. One of the Black women put her coins on the rail, and said that with my skin color, it was not hard to imagine how that exclusion happens for me. I said it has gone on my whole life. I believe they understood, or at least understood the impact. The non-Black members just listened, and let us work that out.

It was a very special moment, and not one as trite as an after-school special or a “very special episode” of a sit-com. It was monumental for me. I am not sure I have ever been able to speak those words, no matter how awkwardly they came out, that said “you have excluded me, you have hurt me, and that is NOT OK. ” Dude apologized, and one of the Black women asked if that was helpful. I said…”that means EVERYTHING”. And I meant that. I meant it deep, deep down.

As I am reflecting more on this, there are other layers of meaning for me. Before we all signed off for the evening, I told the group that sometimes you don’t even know you are in need of healing, but it comes uninvited and from the least likely of sources. I had no idea that was going to come up last night, I had no idea we’d all be able to work through a gargantuan elephant in the middle of the room called internalized racism. There was something larger than us at work, and it did its job well. Something unnamed moved last night, and the road is clear for us to proceed.

Something else moved for me, and it’s just coming to light this morning. I think what that was has to do with my father. The man involved in our moment of clarity last night looks nothing like my father, but he’s a Black man, moving in world that does not always value him. Fighting for his life in a world that demands he be someone other than who he is so that others are more comfortable. I had more tears this morning, and even now, thinking of how many times I have wanted to hear my own father look me in the eye and say, “I’m sorry.” I’m sorry I erased you, I’m sorry I neglected to consider you, I’m sorry I did not see you, I’m sorry I ignored you. I’m sorry I did not respect you. I’m. Sorry. I guess I have waited a long time to hear that, and I finally did. And it hurts so, so much because I have to get past the wishing that it had come so much sooner. I have to get past the child-like wishing to just curl up in a tightly coiled fetal position like the little girl I used to be, hoping for someone – my daddy, or my mommy – to come and engulf me in a protective fortress that assured me nothing would ever hurt me, they would protect me. I don’t remember ever getting that. I can’t say my mother never held me, but it wasn’t so much a protective thing as it was a comfort when I cried or something, an immediate response to a specific stimulus. I don’t remember my father ever doing that. He didn’t have it to give, I don’t think. Regardless, I have never had that experience of a man looking at me and saying, “I’m sorry.” I did you wrong, and I’m sorry. That. Is. EVERYTHING.

I am still feeling very soft and squishy about it all, like it was a big deal. A big deal for me to call it out, and a big deal for us all to work through it together. I did feel a bit authentic, and that I’d been intentionally vulnerable…and nobody died. I have shed quite a few tears, and I’m not sure what that’s about. Maybe relief. I have always been more afraid of expressing THOSE feelings than just about anything else.

When the one woman said that she could see that I could be excluded by other Blacks because of my skin color, I responded “Well, what the hell can I do about THAT?”. Of course, there’s nothing I can do about that, nor do I want to. This is who I am, warts and everything. I do have a wart, too…but I digress. The fact of the matter is, though, I have gone through this my whole life, not feeling like I belong anywhere racially. I have reconciled that, I suppose, by identifying more multi-culturally. But, I was raised in the Black community. I identify as Black. My birth certificate says Black or Negro (can’t remember which right now). This is who I am, dammit.

Skin color is a curse, or at least what humans have done with it is a curse. Some microscopic bits of melanin fuck up societies all over the planet, because some of us think the less of it we have the better humans we are. White is the absence of color. Black is the gathering of all the colors of the spectrum, the queen of colors as I’ve seen it described. The Divine must be banging its head on the wall, wondering where in the world this crap got off track, and maybe it’s time to reconsider that free will thing.

Anyway, between communing with missionaries and engaging in unexpected healing with the kindness of strangers, yesterday was a most unusual day (with some aftershocks this morning). I did very little de-cluttering in my apartment, but I suppose there has been a lot of spiritual de-cluttering.

For some bizarre reason, I watched a documentary on the octupus last night, after that group call. The octopus is quite fascinating – soft and squishy, with its only truly rigid part being its beak. Because it’s not rigid (it apparently had a shell millions of years ago, but it lost was lost in evolutionary maneuvers), it has several compensations that allow it to survive rather hardily. First, it’s very intelligent. Second, it can fit into small spaces that seem impossible for a creature its size, because it’s not rigid. Third, it’s ability to camouflage itself is unparalleled anywhere else in nature. It doesn’t just change color, it changes color nearly instantaneously – even chameleons take a split second because they see the color they want to mimic and then respond bodliy. The octopus is mostly color blind, so they “feel” what they want to mimic with their arms and skin and their whole bodies, and like Silly Putty, *poof* they change. Even more interestingly, they also mimic the texture of surfaces with their skin. Incredible creatures, and there are a plethora of diverse forms of this cephalopod.

So, I bring up the octopus mostly because it fascinated me to learn about it in such detail, but also because I see a reframing of what I have been coming to realize about my life. I see things differently. I don’t see things that are very apparent with the rods and cones of my optical apparatus, but I feel them in my body and in other parts of my sensory array. I have the capability of being that human Silly Putty, where I can mimic and adapt to my surroundings. That’s been a survival mechanism, one that allows me to blend in and not become an easy mean for the wandering predator. Sometimes, though, I show myself just long enough to become a target, and then I have to swim for my life. That doesn’t mean I’m stupid, it just means some predators are really good at what they do, and sometimes they have advanced skills to bait a potential meal. Anemones are usually very pretty, but only clown fish manage to escape their deadly embrace. Hmm…I suppose I should be more like the clown fish? Or at least the clown? OK, I digress…again.

Anyway, today I am going to clean up some small part of something, and see if I can take the dog out for a slightly long walk. The weather is not making me entirely happy, because we have gone from winter to summer with only a 5-minute spring, so it’s 80 degrees and sunny outside. I am virtually useless when temperatures go above 75 degrees, so I will need to be strategic if I’m going to be outside walking. I need to do something, though, because my collar bone has disappeared again and my knees are threatening to separate themselves from my tibia and find other gainful employment.

I wonder if the octopus is prone to ADD.

Published by annzimmerman

I am Louisiana born and bred, now living in Winston Salem, North Carolina. Fortunately for me, I was already living in NC before Hurricane Katrina decimated my beloved New Orleans. An only child, I now feel that I have no personal history since the hurricane destroyed the relics and artifacts of my childhood. As I have always heard, c'est la vie. My Louisiana roots show in my love of good coffee, good food, and good music. My soggy native soil has also shown me that resilience is hard-wired in my consciousness; when the chips are down (or drowned)...bring it on.

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