Editors' Pick

Excerpt from “Letters to Sister Audre”

Dear Sister Audre,

I was in Mrs. Parker’s fourth grade class the first time someone told me I was too sensitive. The New England Patriots had won the SuperBowl two months prior, but the boys in my class still never missed a chance to whisper about Janet Jackson’s exposed breast. It was a Friday, and anticipation settled in my chest before spreading steadily in all directions as the day wore on. On “Fun Fridays” I was allowed to bring my hot pink boombox to the after-school program where we all fought over which volume of “Now That’s What I Call Music” we would listen to first. Sometimes we’d choreograph dances to different Usher and Ciara songs. “Yeah!,” “Burn,” and “Goodies” were our top three.

Mrs. Parker was an aged, olive-brown watchtower. She was the only Black teacher in a public school in Williamsburg, Virginia. The school was white as the Elmer’s glue we poured on the open-front maple desks. Once it dried, we would peel it off—a satisfying alternative to paying attention. Most of us Black kids who occupied about 3-4 desks out of the 15-20 in each class, lived in Rolling Meadows—a neighborhood the white kids referred to as “Rolling Ghettos” under their breaths while squirming on the small blue stools attached to filthy cafeteria tables. Some of them had parents who picked them up from school in full colonial garb—a common occurrence in Williamsburg. Fathers in breeches and tricorne hats with gold lace trimming entered the expansive cafeteria where we convened for the after-school program. They held the same conviction I imagined an authentic colonial soldier would as he slung a musket over his shoulder. My family’s neighborhood, The Pointe at Jamestown, was situated directly across from the Jamestown Settlement. A frequent spot for school field-trips where teachers and tour guides stuffed our small heads to capacity with white-washed education. We learned about the first “successful” English settlement, saw the replicas of the settlers’ ships, and heard not a word about the genocide that made the settlement possible. There were days when I would nod off in class after Mrs. Parker turned the lights off. She showed us white folks favorite Martin Luther King Jr. quotes on the bulky projector.

When students in other fourth grade classes walked by Mrs. Parker’s room, they merely glimpsed the woman with whom I spent most of my days—a thin woman who wore perfectly pressed ruby or dijon yellow dresses with collars that hung feebly off her frail frame. She had veiny arms and a subtle chest that drooped beneath a protruding collarbone. Her hair—a collection of sleek, coal-colored ringlets clung to her head in the shape of a pixie cut. Quickly, students shifted their gaze when she abruptly gave a heavy stare above her wide glasses with the transparent frames. She often followed that look with yelling or scolding us for being loud and lazy. Although she was objectively small, she seemed to tower over me, frowning at me over large glasses that slowly fell down her nose as if trying to escape her face. Her body carried itself stiffly, her feet fell deliberately when she walked.

Once when my class was lined up, coming in from recess, I spotted a monarch caterpillar inching its way towards a grassy patch near the entrance of the school. I had an affinity for caterpillars. The way in which their natural, compulsory progression is to isolate and turn so tightly inward that it produces something so different it’s identified by a new name. It gives me hope; the concept of relying on yourself to morph into something new and beautiful while still being what you were the whole time.

I kneeled down hoping it would crawl onto my finger. Before I could get close enough, a boy named Daniel stomped down on the caterpillar with his foot. The caterpillar’s blood and guts spilled onto the cement—deep crimson and yellow with a snotty consistency shooting out violently from the end of its body. Daniel with his dirty blonde bowl-cut and consistently scratched up kneecaps. Daniel who always refused to play soccer with the girls at recess. Daniel who stole my journal with the Harry Potter themed cover and read it aloud with the boy I had a crush on at the time. I felt the sensation of an alarm ringing in my ears, sifting all the way to my weak knees. I feared for what secrets might spill from his lips. At the sight of the caterpillar’s squashed remains, tears began to spill over the edges of my bottom eyelids. The immediacy of their presence confused me at first. My shoulders and chest trembled vigorously in rhythm with an incensed heartbeat.

Daniel thought it was funny. Mrs. Parker made her way towards me at the front of the line. I knew I did something wrong before she said anything. She looked down at me, her face a combination of confusion and incredulity. As if the audacity of my softness had stood up and slapped her in the face. Her eyes were ample and wild. Her jaw readjusted into a prominent, harsh position before she snapped, “Stop being so sensitive! It’s ridiculous, one little thing happens and you start crying. You just want attention.”

The weight of her words— unfortunately not heavy enough to shove me down into the cracks in the sidewalk. My peers watched as Mrs. Parker paved the way with words I would hear as I got older from my mother and grandmother. I looked down while tears rolled off my tiny nose, round at the base like my mother’s and my stomach filled up with turbulent butterflies, their wings felt like lead as they beat against my insides. The thick metal edges could have ripped my stomach open.

Sister, where does shame live in your body? How does it manifest physically for you? With the exception of my eyes, I always feel shame from the neck down.

Mrs. Parker’s voice slowly started to sound like it was reaching my ears from the other side of a tunnel. I think my reaction to her words today wouldn’t be any different than it was then.Nine-year-old Marlee’s cheeks flushed. She looked down or closed her eyes, hoping that if she couldn’t see anybody, nobody would see her. I still try to disappear.

When I think of Mrs. Parker, I think of you, Sister. I think about when you reflected on your experience losing your class election to Ann Archdeacon at St. Catherine’s School, despite being the smartest girl in your class and despite your effort to convince your classmates to vote for you with your father’s stolen dollar bills. I picture Ann and her curly hair, the color of the fire engulfing the cruel words she spat in your direction. When you describe the shit-eating grin that spread across her face after she won and said “Too bad you lost,” I see Daniel’s smile. I wonder if Ann’s light eyes danced in the delight of your grief the way Daniel’s did my own.

The way you described coming home and crying knowing you were alone felt so familiar, Sister. I see your wild, kinky hair, like mine, flattened in different sections from rolling around and wailing on the bed, soaking yourself in your own tears. I feel close to you, knowing that we cry the same way when nobody’s watching. And I feel close to you knowing how your mother reacted when she came home and found you, your face buried in the couch cushions.

“Sure enough, didn’t I tell you not to come in here bringing down tears over some worthless fool election?” Smack! “Don’t run yourself behind other people’s business, you’ll do better. Dry up, now, dry up!” Smack!1

Sister, I imagine your young self with puffy red eyes like mine, looking up at your mother’s face as it stiffened with rage. When your mother denied you the comfort you were seeking as you approached her, I see my younger self so clearly—grasping in the dark, blindly, reaching for consolation, hoping to see my mother’s face. Even when you felt her anger leave her fingers as she smoothed straggles of your hair back from your face and her eyes transitioned from sharp and furious to tired and sad, your pain was still considered foolish. Sister, do you ever remember seeing your mother cry? Up until I was five, I thought it a fact that mommys didn’t.

Your mother’s anger mirrors Ms. Parker’s accusations. You said in the moments when your mother scolded you for wanting, that you “did not see her helplessness nor her pain.”2 Was there something I missed all those times I looked up at Mrs. Parker? Her own helplessness? An echo of buried pain? When she accused me of wanting attention, why did I want to be as small as possible? Was the visibility and spectacle of my vulnerability taking up too much space?

I think about what taking up space would look like for me. The times I feel most brave and bold are when I’m alone. I feel most confident when fantasizing or singing or crying or all of the above in the shower. I feel this way when I play dress up in my room and sing along with Eartha Kitt while imagining myself strutting around wearing pearls and breaking the hearts of every gorgeous woman I see. I watch the video and sing along to “I Want to be Evil” and I see myself as wild and open and admired. My zodiac sign is ruled by Venus. My alter-ego embodies a smooth seductress with a refined touch and cocktail laugh. If I had the audacity I desire, I’d be this performance —the kind no one would talk over. The kind the critics give five stars. The video makes me think about my relationship to balance.  I sometimes equate being bold and self-assured with being unsympathetic. Perhaps because being a soft doormat gets so maddening that I long for the liberation of not caring.

I know there’s a way to audaciously live out your truth. To be sexy and charming and overwhelmingly charismatic, or the loudest voice in the room, while also being selfless and kind. I’ve seen Black queer women do it. I’ve seen you do it—“Beware feeling you’re not good enough to deserve it”2 you encouraged your dear friend Pat Parker.  Sometimes when I watch Black queer women like you, as appreciative and inspired as I am, I can’t help but feel I’m watching on the outskirts of some well-kept, ancient secret.

I’ve always associated expressing pain with taking up too much space. And I’ve always wondered why everyone else gets to decide the right amount of sensitive to be. It hurts my heart to know that your response to the racism you experienced as a young girl was to immediately shrink yourself to the size of how you were made to feel. It hurts to know that this is the automatic response of most Black girls. When I read about your experiences in the classroom, I feel a pressing need to take young Audre in my arms and console her. When you were five and your teacher reprimanded you for writing your full name down instead of the letter A like she instructed, I see how your eagerness to fully claim your identity and to show your brilliance was crushed. I wish I could tell the young versions of ourselves we are worthy of praise.

Young Black children are asking themselves “What’s wrong with me? Why am I too sensitive? Why do I want to win a class election?” And here I am thinking that the invalidation of our emotions begins at adolescence only to be amplified in adulthood. I guess the difference is that children lack the vocabulary associated with the type of pain they’re experiencing. But as you expressed, children know when they’re feeling it. The lack of vocabulary, I think, is one of the things that provokes questions such as, “Did bad mean Black?”3 Children begin to build their own self-hatred dictionary.

When Mrs. Parker silenced and shamed my hurt, it caused me to associate an expression of pain with attention-seeking behavior. Is the intent behind seeking attention an example of taking up too much space? I did not know then how to express why my initial reaction was to cry. Any chance I had at articulating why was now stifled by the addition of “attention-seeking” to my self-hatred dictionary. I know now that the caterpillar was small, defenseless, and unsuspecting of such cruelty. I know that I was shaken by the abruptness and ease at which Daniel was able to stomp it dead without a second thought. I know that I didn’t understand his reaction or the motivation behind doing something so unnecessarily brutal. Maybe it was my first time witnessing white supremacy, how quickly an innocent life can be snatched by the hand of power. Something else I know, is that Daniel is in the military now.

“To admit I had been hurt would somehow put me in the wrong for feeling pain”4

Sister, you said the reason for your tears was the loss of the election was so unfair. You were right. Perhaps the tears I shed for the loss of the caterpillar, were prompted by the unfairness of it all too. But isn’t it normal for loss to feel unfair sometimes? Maybe the older Black women in our lives envy our ability to weep for what’s unfair. Older Black women have this dam that Black children haven’t built yet. A dam that’s blocking tears poised and ready to shed for a lifetime of unfairs.  In my memories of my mother and my mother’s mother dismissing my anguish, I see dismissal being mistook for resilience. Perhaps Sister, our mothers hoped that by modeling indifference, they would instill an apathy that could ultimately save us.

To this day I think about the potential source for Mrs. Parker’s reaction. Just like you Sister, I asked myself “why had she been so angry?”5 I wonder now how many times Mrs. Parker was told to hold it in, explicitly or not, by our culture, society, or even other Black women who have ancient suppressed pains living inside them

I think about how common it is that Black parents feel the need to be tougher on their children than white parents do. Black women are expected to be sturdy and strong, unwavering in our hard exteriors because if we lose our footing, white folks will be “the machine that tries to grind us into dust.”6 Maybe Mrs. Parker’s motivation was to protect me in the only way she knew how. Maybe she didn’t want me crying in front of a little white boy. Maybe in her mind, my tears meant Daniel knew how to hurt me now. Or maybe it’s ingrained in her not to take up too much space, and she wanted to teach me a lesson.

Our experiences have caused me to feel an immense amount of gratitude for the intergenerational tears shed by Black women. I once heard Nikki Giovanni say, “I’m always crying, because everything touches me,” and I felt a swell of pride—like a member of some elite club of Black women who weep often, but embrace and celebrate their radical vulnerability and mushy hearts. Maybe I’m not as left out of the hidden secrets as I thought.

I owe my fresh perspective on the power my sensitivity holds to you and other sisters like Nikki, who once cried when she saw a garter snake shed its skin. She said she often saw the young snake in her garden, and when she bore witness to signs that it was getting older, it deeply moved her. This validates the profound tenderness I felt for this caterpillar. I’m starting to realize how essential it is for Black children to see people who look like them, people they admire and respect, cry and act from a place of radical softness.

Sister, I wish you were here. Your words have had such a profound influence on my life. Thank you for the empowerment you offer me and other queer, Black women artists and activists who struggle with mental illness. We so desperately need it. Thank you for being here, sharing your voice, and lifting up the voices of others who must be heard. I don’t know where I would be without your insight. I have so much inside me to share because you’ve given me the words to use, the permission to feel. Your words are a map that navigates where I should delve inward and expand outward. A guide on this trek towards trust-falling into my own arms as I nourish the beautiful parts of myself. The words of my chosen and blood ancestors are the blessing for me to follow the migration of a Monarch. I’ll morph into my truth and let it cascade from my lips—even if they quiver like decadent wings. I’ll still be who I was all along. The only difference is, you can call me by the same name. I’ll need to write to you again soon.

 

Love and light,

Marlee

Endnotes

  1. Zami: A New Spelling of my Name (pg 65)
  2. I Call Your Name Whenever I Can: The Letters of Pat Parker and Audre Lorde
  3. Sister Outsider; Eye to Eye: Black Women, Hatred, and Anger (pg 149)
  4. Zami: A New Spelling of my Name (pg 65)
  5. Zami: A New Spelling of my Name (pg 64)
  6. Reference to the quote, “Because the machine will try to grind you into dust anyway, whether or not we speak. ”Sister Outsider; The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action (pg 42)

 

 

Comments
  1. Allan Goldhammer on

    Tears point towards truth, in one of the most direct and powerful ways.

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