One day at a time, tryna go shine
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One day at a time, tryna go shine
Two weeks ago, as a mini-celebration of the freedom our kid being in school five days a week gives us, Will (who is technically my officemate, working six steps down the hallway from me in Noli's bedroom) and I knocked off early and went to the movies. We snuck carne asada burritos into the theater and watched a matinee of Get Out.
I won't go into too many details here, but I will say that if you haven't seen the movie yet, you should. It has all the familiar tropes of a popular horror film but is imbued, on every level, with devastatingly smart nuance about race. The movie is a fairly succinct yet comprehensive history of African Americans in the United States: The way this country, built with their stolen bodies, has bled—and continues to bleed—strength, art, culture, and beauty out of these bodies to turn someone else's profit.
Get Out is specific to the black experience, but it also captures small indignities that people of color and minorities deal with everyday. For nearly all of the white characters, the main way they try to "connect" with the protagonist, a young black man named Chris, is implicitly through race: commenting on how "cool" he is, complimenting his physical appearance, using seemingly innocuous language like "my man" and "thang." It reveals the near constant ways we isolate people based on their differences, from their perceived distance from what is "normal." Fuuuuck is it exhausting and disappointing to realize, over and over, that people's attempts to connect with you are actually attempts to prove how "down" or "woke" they are.
Last week, I went to see Jacob Lawrence's Migration at the Seattle Art Museum (hurry, it closes April 23), a series of 60 paintings chronicling, in pictures and words, the post-World War I exodus of African Americans from the rural South to the industrial North. The story told is not one that Lawrence simply imagined or knew—it's one he spent time researching thoroughly. The paintings are beautiful, quivering and quiet, and done in a fairly limited palate of tempera paints. Lawrence didn't mix any colors—he used them straight from the jars, painting all 60 pre-sketched panels with one color before moving on to the next. It gives the series a powerful consistency that presents, falsely, like modesty.
For each panel, there is a short and straightforward caption. Lawrence wrote the captions for the first exhibit in 1941, later updating them in 1993. Some changes feel small but significant. Instead of using the original term "negroes," the new captions call them "the migrants," as though the originals may have been written for a white audience, while the new ones accommodate a diversity of perspectives.
A few of the Lawrence's captions did not change:
"They were very poor."
"There were lynchings."
Both works of art left me shook. But I've also been shook for a while now.
The election changed everything. One thing I'll admit is that I have found it harder to hide—or, to put it another way, I feel more emboldened to talk about—my distrust of white women. (This review of Get Out is wonderfully validating on this front, but: spoilers!!!) It's not that I dislike all white women (literally some of my best friends, etc), but there's this: People unfailingly align themselves, consciously and subconsciously, with power. And for all women, that shit is scarce. I was recently asked by two different female editors at a publication I used to work for to contribute my expertise to several projects. The emails were written as though I was a good friend being asked for a favor; there was no mention of compensation.
Throughout my life, white women have proven pretty unwilling to share or acknowledge their power or proximity to it. The way I see this in my everyday life—specifically as a brown woman in Seattle, a mother, a writer—is that white women hold up their experiences as universal, definitive. They portray themselves as wholly relatable, flawed but virtuous. They position themselves as models of everyday exceptionalism who, in the face of life's difficulties or patriarchy, show us how to weather these storms, never acknowledging that many people have it much harder than they do. Finding people who are willing to yield or actively give space to women of color is rare.
While watching Get Out, I found myself cheering, gleefully, when I realized that I was going to get to watch all the white people die. Look, I am not proud to admit this, but it definitely happened. This is a horror film that fires on a few different levels.
I was in Portland last month, where I got to have dinner with my high school best friend, one of the few other people of color in our small, rural Pennsylvania hometown. She picked me up at my hotel right after a hair appointment, and was sporting a fresh fade with a design shaved into the right side. When I asked her about it she explained that, "This week I had three separate people tell me I look like I'm about to have a nervous breakdown. So I told my hairstylist: we need something to DISTRACT."
My first question was, of course, if she was in fact close to having a nervous breakdown. She turned to me and said, "Look Angela, I am not well. Are you?" It was a deep relief to laugh and scream "No" to someone who, born in the same year and under the same sign, has known me since I was five. Because I am definitely not okay, and honestly I do not want to be friends with anyone who, given the current state of our country, feels safe or even fine.
I went to see the Lawrence exhibit with another friend (a white woman, so there). We've known each other for a long time, but our friendship was forged into steel over the last two years, after we both gave birth, worked in side-by-side cubicles, lent our eyes to each other's writing, and occasionally pumped milk in the same room while hovering over our laptops.
Time with her was a balm.
We don't work together anymore. We've both moved onto to new things and that time, while formative, feels far away now. I am not sure either of us imagined that we would be doing what we are currently doing, but here we are. What a thrill and gift, I thought to myself on the train ride home, to get to know someone in a new way, as they become someone else, the person they've always been becoming.
Recently I realized that, at some point, I stopped doing and trying new things. Yes, because life is busy and full, but also because, well, I prefer doing things that I'm good at. Part of this is simply enjoying some of the hard-won self knowledge and skills that, after years of embarrassing and youthful fumbling, I found myself with. But some of it is just stasis.
I'm writing a book right now that, to be totally honest, I had no idea how to write when I began. Developing my research process, interview skills, and understanding of science and biology has been humbling. Writing, the familiar part, has become something weirdly new. (I wish my actual writing process, which remains slightly horrifying and elaborate in its procrastination tactics, would hurry up and transform as well.)
The ultimate balm is change.
Get Out got me thinking again about how a particular form or genre—and its inherent limits—can be an asset to a piece of work. Chris is a dark-skinned black man, but because of the horror film set-up, he is the undeniable protagonist who audience members will identify with and root for, no matter who they are. As we left the theater the other day, an older white woman who had been in the audience turned to me and Will, clearly shaken. "That was so upsetting," she blurted out. "I don't know what to do with myself right now."
Once you cross that border of understanding, there is no going back.
One of my favorite writers, Octavia Butler, said that she was drawn to the genre of science fiction because it is "wide open"—no plot element improbable enough to limit her, no part of the human (or not entirely human) condition off limits for exploration. In Butler's Parable of the Talents, Lauren Olamina, living in an America run by an oppressive authoritarian and corporate-driven regime (sound familiar?), creates her own institutions to try and get free. A core tenet of Earthseed, the religion she founds, is this:
is the one unavoidable,
ongoing reality of the universe.
that makes it the most powerful reality,
and just another word for
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