I remember sitting across from my mother after a hard day of riding my red bike down a forbidden hill in my Midwest neighborhood—I was a truth-teller and my sentence to my mother (whom I deemed god) began with a slight pause and 9-year old twisted lips, “I know you told me not to do it because it’s dangerous, but I rode my bike down the big hill but there were no cars coming at the bottom.” My mother, a phlebotomist and librarian at the time said to me, “One day you will learn when to take risks and when not to. When to put into practice what you’ve learned and when to poke holes in it.”
In high school I tried my best to remember the information she imparted to me—in fact, it was the question I always asked myself when dealing with my white teachers. I attended one of the first College Preparatory Academies in the Midwest. There were strict rules about the g.p.a. Students had to consistently keep and rigorous academics, as well as advanced extracurricular activities outside of the typical sports and cheerleading. I felt honored that I was chosen as part of the “gifted and talented” program to attend this high school though I often wondered why there weren’t many teachers of color. I found myself speaking three languages all day (one language to my teachers, one language to my friends of color and one language to white peers and friends) and constantly life-splaining to white teachers while respectfully listening to my white teachers take my information and: a. throw it back at me in ways which felt disrespectful and lowered my self-esteem b. quickly dismiss it (always followed by a, “Well run along to class now.” c. talk negatively and patronizingly about all us “low income latch key kids” in the teachers lounge.
The Science Teacher Tells The Girls, “You know, your parents really should pack you healthier lunches & I know this is a common thing where you live but it’s just another thing that slowly kills your people. Have you ever heard of yogurt or veggie sticks?”
the twin black girls
all braids & puffs
eat hot cheetos
like mannalike desire
& one black queen
says she only likes
her cheetos hot
is a thing
she can feel
kind of stigma
she can see like evidence of a crime
like a promiseof a begged thing
& the words
her lips like waterfalllike holy
nobody will ever ask me how high i can jump she says
do you want me to ask you high you can jump i say
to see a black girl
to see a black girl
fall to the ground
on her facelike evidence of a crime
like a promiseof a begged thing
When I sit with a group of MFA students of color, their brains wreaking of academic brake dust and their hearts mangled with the necessity to future plan the reality of numerous deaths and endings and questioning how they will move in the world—inevitably the conversation moves in this direction:
MFA Student #1— Yes, and I read my work and my professor said something like, “I don’t think this is relevant.” Is he saying I am not relevant? Am I relevant? Do you think he would say that to ?
MFA Student #2— Yes and my professor said, “Do you really think the audience is concerned with the cultural history of your character?”
MFA Student #3— Wow! Last week during a workshop my professor said, “ It seems as though you are slightly obsessed with discussing your…roots, if you want the audience to connect with your writing voice, you might want to try a more racially neutral approach. Maybe, let the readers give the character a race, kind of like being gender neutral. Perhaps if you give the main character some racial and cultural ambiguity readers will connect more. And by the way, does this Yemoya character actually live IN the ocean?”
Master Tales (2015)
we hid out accents (act/sense) daily never wanting our masters to know (no) who we really were. we dressed (the part) & made/maid our hair as perfect, as perfect could be. when it was time to separate us, first by color, then by body type, then by color we tried very hard to appear stone faced and complacent always texting each other & emailing our disapproval in code. i guess, i should feel lucky—my master plans on giving me a 401 k and time off after i have my child. he laughed and said, can’t wait to have that one on board with the company too!
in the field we always have to watch our bent backs to make sure no one is going to undo all that we’ve done (no unkempt braids/we want to lock). we always have to hold each other up without anyone knowing we might topple over we might get fatigued
(camouflage) we might for(get) to make sure the cotton is picked just right & when we go on our smoke breaks/brakes & shuffle to starbucks we always make sure we get back/black before our white colleagues we always make sure we are early to work & pay extra for parking because of it we always make sure we don’t eat chicken
at lunch time so as not to come back with greasy lips or slippery hands because no one wants the master to say had chicken for lunch eh?
& we try our best to hold each other up we try our best to cover for each other when one of us is down down down way deep in the fields when one of us
has lost all shuck & jive & accidentally returns from lunch late with a feather or two & a bit of blood soaked through our cotton shirts.
Open Letter to An MFA Professor
It’s not all your fault. Your people have been systemically in power since before you were born. You’ve had no reason (really) to research the history/herstory of others, no reason to sensor yourself of truly understand the qualities of empathy, respect, human values or just plain old home-training. It’s not all your fault. In fact, you only recently learned what might not be politically correct and just last summer you took a 3-day crash course in diversity. You even memorized the definition of: social justice, inclusivity and internalized oppression. For that reason, you’ve been tossing these words around in your classrooms as if you are an expert and you’ve even begun to blame racism on those that have been oppressed/suppressed and you have suggested that people of color are the most damaging to each other. That you are actually a white savior, that urging students of color to edit out race, culture or historical happenings is making them better writers. After all, most of the best and well established writers are white males. And I know you want me to thank you for gentrifying my minds block of literature but the alphabet genocide you are causing is enough to leave me speechless.
After thinking about my life as a young student and listening to numerous MFA students of color retreat to the safety of writers of color—or in spaces they feel comfortable expressing their struggles, I have come up with a list for any White MFA professor. Though this is not an extensive list and probably won’t ever be taken as the gospel of MFA-Professor-Tude, I write it with an earnest heart.