Lighter days

Oh, readers. The summer has been long and hot. I spent most of my time looking for a job. Whatever time was left over, I spent fighting with people on Facebook. In retrospect, I now believe the “anger” part of grief is real. It’s a thing. Though I didn’t realize it at the time, my intense anger about the things happening in the world were a more palatable way of processing how pissed I am at the world, the universe and everything in it.

Then, I got a job and things started looking less dark. I bought some new clothes, went to Chicago. Today, I found out that Barnes & Noble in Memphis will be carrying Wailing Wall when it comes out on November 10. I’ve gotten a couple of invitations to guest blog. I’ve started to talk about what the book launch parties will look like and it’s definitely lightening my emotional load. I knew that writing the book was the only way I would survive losing Josh. Now, the book is supporting me in ways I hadn’t even imagined.

And? I’m working on another one. Sort of. It’s still all in my head, but I know the theme and structure and there are even some words written. As much fun as it is to invent characters and make stuff up, non-fiction is just plain easier for me to write than fiction. Once I’m able to sit down and start pounding out words, I believe I can still publish this one in 2016. Working title: Having Loved Many Men. I’ll let you ponder what it’s about.

Autumn is coming and I can break out my favorite sweater. Soon the leaves will change and I’ll sink in to myself for the winter. Like the old gospel song says, “All is well with my soul.”


About rage

Let’s be honest – I am angry. In general. My default mood could be defined as an aggressive simmer and all it takes is one comment on Facebook, one well-placed meme to turn up the heat. I can work myself in to heart palpitations lying in my bed in the middle of the night just thinking about some of the things I read.

I’ve worked to keep a wide range of people from all aspects of my life on Facebook, including ones who hold political and social views that are different from mine. I thought it would help me understand them better, provide a point for human connection for us both. But all it has really done is reminded me every day that I share a planet with people who will “Like” the pictures of my children, but wouldn’t stop to help them if they were in a car wreck or give them the benefit of the doubt if they were lying dead and uncovered in the street for four hours. Then, I think of that little brown boy seven hundred miles away who started first grade in his white Polo and navy blue shorts. And it becomes personal. There are people in the world who will wish malice upon him because of his skin as soon as he hits puberty. And I can’t save him.

Neither could I save Joshua.

And, that pisses me off.  They’re not just stealing the life of my grandson. They’re disparaging the life of my dead son. And, I believe that rage is an appropriate response to that. And, that’s something that I’m not sure my friends who aren’t terrified for the lives of their children understand.  I get that I am not processing all that well these days. I’m not being productive. That I’m losing myself. I do. But I’ve got years of righteous anger bottled up – years of being the voice of reason and taking the high road and it it has only brought more and more opportunities to see people I love ground in to the pavement on the city streets of injustice.  And now, I’ve got grief behind it. Maybe I’m not being productive, but maybe I am. Maybe coming to terms with the fact that when my grandmother asked me thirty-odd years ago, “Why would you want to do that to a child?” she might have realized something I didn’t – the world is a despicable place to raise children of color.

And, I can’t save them.

~ D

Have it your way, but don’t get crazy

An old friend, Patti Durr (may she rest in peace) nicknamed her Deedee. My alter ego, my inner child, the person who fought for her life for so long that she doesn’t know any other way to be in the world. I tell people that I come from an inner-city background. Don’t let the middle-class soccer mom look fool you. Deedee is alive and well and living just below the surface.  She’s a lot like Bonquiqui from this Mad TV sketch.  Most of the time, I just hear her mumbling under her breath and we laugh together as I walk through the world. But when things start to feel too dangerous, Deedee takes the lead.

And she

It would be disingenuous to apologize for her. When she comes out I know  something is threatening my sense of self.  It feels like a life or death situation. There is danger about and the best defense is a good offense. She’s saved me many times and I love her.

In some discussions around social justice issues, Deedee takes charge. Particularly if I’ve been arguing all day for someone to consider a point of view different from their own. Especially when the conversation has devolved to personal insults.  Especially when I feel like someone I love is in danger because of this person’s position.  She’s more brave than I am, you see. Her need to be loved and accepted is subordinate to survival. Whereas I can spend a lot of time with my brow furrowed, nodding and trying to understand why you believe that some people are inherently criminal, or that you know what is best for a population you do not belong to, Deedee will let you know.

I am unapologetic. Well behaved women rarely make history, right? Love me, love Deedee.


America’s Perfect Storm

One day, I ran into a woman I knew in Target. I wouldn’t call her a friend – more of a friend of a friend. We’d been in the same social situations many times and were cordial, but neither of us ever went beyond that in developing a relationship. Still, I figured I knew her well enough that I should say “hi” when I saw her in the shoe section.

In typical polite Southern style, I said, “Your hair looks great! When did you get it cut?”

“Nigger day,” she answered.

“Huh?” Or maybe I said “What?” or “Excuse me?”

“Martin Luther King day. I was off work anyway so I treated myself to a hair cut and a pedicure.”

Did this woman know my children were people of color? Yes, I’m sure she did. She’d been in the same room with them.  So, did it still not occur to her that what she said might be offensive? Or did she not care?  I tucked it away – I had all the information about this woman I needed.

Fast forward several years and her child has returned from Afghanistan and is looking for a job. They apply to the local Police Department and I’m asked to be a reference. I’d seen this person really struggle since returning from deployment. Explosive anger. Excessive drinking.  When the PD called for a reference check, I told them there was no way I would put a gun in this person’s hand*.

I’ve been thinking about what I would have done if the person had not exhibited symptoms of PTSD – would I have given a glowing recommendation? This person had always been respectful and kind to me. Would knowing that they came from a family that referred to Martin Luther King Day as “Nigger Day” have sent off similar red flags for me?

As I watch the number of police shootings of unarmed black people scroll before me on social media, I wonder what the difference is between those officers who proudly and ethically serve their communities for 20-30-40 years without shooting an unarmed person and those that don’t.  Since research has shown that white people are more likely to perceive a black person as dangerous than another white person, that may be part of the puzzle.  (You can take a version of that study here.) When you add on a family history where racism is not only the norm but proudly flaunted and military training to dehumanize people seen as the enemy, does that create perfect storm for shooting first and asking questions later?

Add this story to the storm: In Baltimore, where Lt. Brian Rice has been charged with manslaughter, second-degree assault and misconduct in office due to the death of Freddie Gray, allegations have been made that Psychology Consultants Associates (PCA), the firm that is the sole provider of pre-employment psychological screenings and “fitness for duty” evaluations for officers seeking to return to active duty after an incident, may not have been doing the job they were contracted to do.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been accused of being anti-police. Someone said that people who encourage hatred of police by posting the shootings of unarmed people were responsible for the death of a Memphis Police Officer (Sean Bolton). I believe that in America, there is a perfect storm brewing and we are all contributing to it. White people who can’t even consider that they may harbor implicit bias that makes them more likely to perceive a threat from a black person, much less take any action to fix it. The “unfinished business of slavery” that looms over us and limits the rights of people of color by gerrymandering voting districts and passing voting laws that – intentionally or not – keep poor people and people of color from exercising their voting rights. Unethical organizations (like PCA mentioned above) after the dolla-dolla-bill instead of performing the work they were hired to do. Officers who see other officers exhibiting behaviors that are questionable without reporting them (and worse, corroborating false stories after a tragedy happens).  Draining money out of inner cities so that children grow less and less educated and more and more poor (and thus, more likely to commit crime).

Let me be clear that if I’m angry at police, I’m equally angry at myself. I’m angry at my fellow white American who isn’t outraged that my grandson could be sitting in a playground with a pellet gun, be perceived as a threat and shot to death.  I’m angry at politicians who worry more about two women marrying than about the safety and liberty of our citizenry.

I’m angry.

And I’m tired.


*I’m happy to say that the person is doing much better now – at least from where I stand in their life.

She keeps me warm

There is no way to write this post without sounding like a whiny brat. And I sorta feel whiny. I don’t want to, but there you go…

I’ve never felt so lost, so misunderstood, so much of an outcast as I do moving in, around and through social justice circles.  I don’t belong with People of Color. Though there are so many aspects of the community I resonate with and understand, I don’t share the Black experience. I’m not likely to be killed in a traffic stop. Hell, I’ve been driving around since April with expired tags and haven’t even been pulled over! I am caucasian and I have a middle class income and advanced degree, but I don’t belong with the White Middle Class.  In fact, I feel out of place there. Like I’m faking it – or expected to if I want to “fit in.” Even though I grew up with a single mother on welfare, I don’t really belong in the White Working Class anymore, either.

I have no tribe.

Did I chose to be a white civil rights activist? I grew up with all the White Southern racism you would imagine and somehow recognized it for what it was. Maybe I chose it when I chose to have children who are people of color. Maybe it chose me. All I know is, all roads lead to race for me.

I can’t change. Even if I wanted to. Even if I tried.

Black people ask if I’m expecting some kind of prize for fighting for their justice. White people call me a nigger lover. If I talk about my own experience in raising people of color, I’m speaking for a community to which I do not belong. If I look for support from my friends of color, I’m asking the oppressed to educate me on their oppression.

Like people of color, I am constantly aware of racial dynamics. On television, ordering in a diner, pronouncing the name of someone I’m talking to on the phone. And it’s exhausting and frustrating and overwhelming.  Still, I can hide in a hole and not think about it for a minute which is something people of color cannot do. I recognize my privilege.

It has to be worth it, right? To continue the conversations, even if (when) I offend people I love? Even when people call me names?  Who am I kidding. It’s who I am. Even if I had a choice, I would chose justice.

She keeps me warm.


Go Set a Watchman – My Review

Oh, the sensitivities that emerged this week when Go Set a Watchman was released! My social network feeds were clogged with declarations of betrayal by Harper Lee, refusals to read the book and assurances that Lee was taken advantage of in her old age: No wonder this was never published before. Harper Lee never would have destroyed our hero and icon Atticus Finch and all he has come to mean to us!

But if Mockingbird was a racial treatise in 1960 when it was published, Watchman is no less relevant in 2015. Rather than a pat on the back for how far us White Southerners have come, Watchman reminds us that our history with racism is complicated and the tendrils run deep. The racial attitude of Atticus Finch (and Jean Louise, if we are honest) are believable depictions of this world of 1950’s Maycomb, Alabama that Lee has so eloquently built. And the book provides the influences around it: junk science about the inferior intellect of African Americans, fear of sharing resources with them and anger at the Yankees for imposing their way of life on Southern America. If Mockingbird gave us a White Southern Racial hero, Watchman makes him more human.

Generations of Dirt

When you live on a farm, there is always dirt in your house. I don’t mean your house is always messy. I mean that physical dirt is almost always a part of the decor. After you’ve been working in the field, no matter how careful you are to shake off, it rides in on your clothes and hands. When you’re preparing food that was pulled out of the ground, it falls out of your harvest basket and onto your floors and counters. And if you have a dog? Well, farm dogs are a special kind of excited to roll in the rotten-smelling mud that still stands from too much spring rain. It’s a pain in the ass, for sure. I imagine in the days of old, women spent a good part of their day removing it from their homes. Dirt. Soil. Earth.

When I put up food (a Southern term for storing food we will eat later) I pretend I’m in the kitchen with the women who went before me – not hard to do in a house with no air conditioning and calfs ungratefully being weaned outside my window. My grandfather’s bow hangs just across from the picture of my great-great grandmother.  Except for the radio and wine, there’s only a  hint of my being a person who could bop down to Kroger to buy food, so I imagine that what I’m putting up is all we will have for winter. Most of what I put up is  ‘farmer food’ – produce that doesn’t look good enough to sell but is perfectly edible. I peel as closely as I can, cut out dark spots and do my best to make the most of what I have.

The winter could be long.

Putting myself in other people’s shoes helps me stay grounded. Reminds me that I am more than the person of privilege typing this blog post. I am generations of women who figured out how to feed their families on precious little and made medicine from the herbs that grew in the forrest.  Women who hunted for meat and strapped babies to their backs while they foraged for mushrooms. I am women who watched the people they loved die from disease. And I am the warrior who defended my village against those who would take what was not theirs.

God damn I’m fierce.


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On betrayal, identity and deserving more

There’s  a film on Netflix called Little White Lie about a woman who grew up believing she was white when in fact, her father was black. Her white mother, unbeknownst to anyone, had an affair with a black man and got pregnant. As a child,  Lacey Schwartz, spent her life looking and feeling different from everyone around her – a fact that was brushed off by her mother and father.  As an adult, she bravely made a documentary about finding herself and her identity. She now identifies as a black woman.

Near the end of the film, Lacey’s father refers to his wife having  a child that wasn’t his as ‘the ultimate betrayal’ and I said out loud, “No. Betrayal of your child is the ultimate betrayal.”  I know. I betrayed my daughter in much the same way. The story isn’t one I’m proud of.

Please note: This is the truth as I experienced it.  Others may remember it differently.  Be kind to my memories, please.

Kingsbury Elementary, Jr. High and High School plus a small Baptist private school were on the same campus.  To boot, kids from other high schools were bussed in to go to the Kingsbury Vo-Tech Training Center.  If there’s a way for a child predator to get closer to his prey than living a half-mile away from that campus, I don’t know what it is.  Eddie was his name – his real name.  I’m not changing it to protect him because he doesn’t deserve protection.  If there’s a person in this world living or dead that I can say I hate it would be him, may he burn in hell.

We all called him Queer Eddie, which in retrospect isn’t a fair shake.  It should have been Molester Eddie. Pedophile Eddie.  Worthless-piece-of-shit-waste-of-oxygen Eddie.  But it was the 80’s and we were teenagers, so the most we had the maturity to process was that he was male and he had sex with males, so that made him queer.  Never mind that the males he had sex with were ten, twelve, fourteen years old.

Eddie owned a plumbing company – or at least he owned a van with the name of a plumbing company painted on the side.  He trolled our blue-collar neighborhood in it, looking for young men who were willing to be “plumber’s helpers” for a few bucks or a nickel bag of weed.  On Friday nights, they’d go in groups to the Mid-South Coliseum to watch the wrestling matches.  For the boys who stuck around, the rewards got larger.  Bicycles. Concert tickets. One boy’s first car – a Cutlass Supreme – was a gift for his 16th birthday.  Everyone knew who worked with Queer Eddie, and I guess we all knew about the sex part.  The destructiveness of it all was lost on us, though. Even the ones who were involved.  Even after Eddie was arrested and charged with Child Endangerment and four of the boys were called to the police station for questioning about their relationship, nothing much changed.

I met Jeffrey at a gang bang when I was 15.  For real.  I was all fucked up about sex from the years when I was traded to the dope man for a Dilaudid.  Jeffrey was all fucked up about sex from working with Eddie since he was 12.  My mother was a junkie and his father was an alcoholic.  My mother’s abuse manifested as her complete denial that I was a human being rather than a game piece that she could use to get her own needs met.  His father’s abuse came by way of violent outbursts at the dinner table about Jeffrey “spreading his ass cheeks for some faggot to fuck him in the ass.”  We each thought the other had it worse.

So, Jeffrey and I ended up stoned and naked in the same place and it was the beginning of my first love affair.   We understood each other, didn’t judge one another.  We both had sex with other people because we had to…every fiber of our being pushed us to.  David worked with Eddie every couple of weeks.  We were perfect for each other in our brokenness.

Almost two years later, I got pregnant.  Jeffrey asked if it was his and I said, “I don’t know.”  By now, I was 16 and he was 18 and we pushed forward.  He was by my side when my daughter was born.  I don’t think either one of us cared whether the biological process that created the baby included his DNA or not. We needed each other too much to consider any alternatives other than staying together.  But his family cared and society cared and time spent together became harder and harder.  He moved in with Queer Eddie. I moved on to another broken relationship.

By a year old, it was obvious that my daughter was black. My white family, like Lacey’s family, found it easier to overlook the fact but there was no denying it. Soon thereafter, a man came to me and asked if she was his. The father I was hoping for had moved on. This man was black and we had sex. I told him yes without thinking much about it.

His family loved and accepted our daughter immediately – taking her on vacations, buying her Easter dress and doing her hair when she visited every other weekend (thank the gods). They supported me emotionally as well as I made my way through figuring life out and often took my side over his when things got sideways between us. My daughter even lived with the man she knew as her father when I was struggling emotionally and financially to get myself together.  All during this time, I knew the truth – I was not sure that the people she knew and loved as her family shared blood with her. There were a few other people in my life who knew this, including my mother and my relationship with her was rough. I lived in fear that she would one day reveal my secret and so, when my daughter was sixteen, I took her to lunch and told her the truth. This led to a conversation with her father, which led to a DNA test which led to a 99.8% chance that he was not, in fact, related to my daughter.

The pain that I caused to people I care about is sometimes unbearable. Though they have maintained their relationship, I know my daughter wants to know who she is. And rightfully so. I hurt people – I hurt my own child – when I lied that day about her paternity.  But I’ll tell you a secret – my daughter had a better life than she would have if I had told the truth.  That lie gave her a Daddy. A family. An identity that she would not have otherwise had. Because of that lie, my grandson has a Grandaddy and a role model and another person on his side in the world. When I look back, it’s hard to say that I regret it.

What about Jeffrey, you ask?

Some time during the 90’s – by then I was married and had my son,, Joshua –Jeffrey stopped by my mother’s house to report that he’d had twins of his own.  In my early 30’s,  I heard that Jeffrey was HIV positive. Just a few years ago, I got word that he had overdosed.

I’ve never stop thinking about this man and how much more he deserved than what he got.  How much he had to teach the world about love and forgiveness.  Sure, we were kids but we we both lived in a very grown-up world long before we should have. His willingness to be vulnerable and broken down made me a better person. His wisdom and his heart changed me. And he deserved more than what he got.

So did my daughter.

We all did, I guess.


Who’s bad?

I should acknowledge up front that Joshua’s birthday is next week. Like the week leading up to the first anniversary of his death, I’ve got a bad case of “the feels,” to use my teenager’s term. To be honest, I’ve had the feels since Joshua died. Losing a child has destroyed one of the layers that kept me cozy from the cold, cruel world. Life is more intense for me now – perhaps because I’ve been reminded of how preciously short it is. The first year after his death, I poured my feels into writing Wailing Wall. Now that it’s done and sent off to the publisher, I’m figuring out what to do with the emotion that has been dialed up.

I don’t mean to imply that the emotion is only there because I happen to be a grieving mother, because it doesn’t feel that way. It feels more like I’m in touch with emotion that I’ve closed myself off from for years, decades. Emotions that I thought made me weak, were too scary to process or that seemed bigger and badder than the capacity I had to process them. Now, they’re front and center. Slapping their chests and challenging me to step up like Michael Jackson. “Your butt is mine…”

My sister, Jessica, four years younger than I am, was a scrawny little thing. We fought. A lot. And she figured out early that she needed an equalizer: she’d sharpen her nails to a point or pick up a Whiffle Ball bat. Once, she stabbed me with a pair of scissors from her cardboard pencil box (fortunately, they were round-tipped). During all this, I just laughed at her. No matter how much it hurt, or how mad I was, I laughed*.

When men touched me in ways that made me uncomfortable, I zoned out and went to a place that was safe. Years later, when I was in an abusive relationship, I just stared at him while he hit me. Hard. Hard enough to bust my eardrum and give me a concussion. But I just looked at him, refusing to cry.

In many ways, my technique worked: none of the assholes stole my soul. I was a pretty smart kid to figure out how to save the best part of me in the face of danger (who’s bad?). What it left behind, though, was sadness. Sadness that I’ve cried out bit by bit every day since my son died. Now, we’re hitting the anger. Sometimes, even rage.

Here’s what I’m learning: My anger not is not frivolous. My rage is not unjustified or extreme. Some things deserve my rage.

And, though I don’t have much experience with it, rage can fuel passion and be used in a way that is productive and honorable and makes the world a better place.

How to do that is the next lesson.


* In no way am I comparing being hit by a four year old to the other atrocities I mention. I only use it as an example of how I developed this coping mechanism early in life.


What’s in a name?

A couple of months ago, I started writing a story with flashbacks to the Jim Crow South. The flashback scenes were of two children of sharecroppers – one white and one black – and a relationship between them that they re-access later in their lives. When it was pointed out that I had oversimplified the relationship between the children, I paused. I’ve been steeped in race as a white woman raising bi-racial children in the South, had I ever really researched it like I would any other subject I wanted to write about? I put the writing on hold and put a call out to my network: What should I read to understand this era?

The first recommendation I got was the Library of Congress American Folklife Center collection of the voices of slavery.  As an admitted information junkie, I spent a couple of days lost in it! Many of the recordings were hard to understand but there were transcripts! It was amazing and informative.

As I ranted about the glory of my newfound archives on Facebook, a friend reached out. “You have to remember that these were white people sitting in black people’s homes asking them questions about slavery. The people answering those questions knew that over-stepping their bounds could cost them their life. There are things unsaid in those interviews.”

History is written by the winner, right?

So back to my network: Who really gets race right in their writing? That’s how I came to have the stack of books beside me right now: Growing Up Jim Crow by Jennifer Ritterhouse; The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson; Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine by Bebe Moore Campbell; Blues Done Signed My Name by Timothy B. Tyson and on and on.

I started with Growing Up Jim Crow since it’s focused on the era and about children during the era. I find myself reading sections, then re-reading them after they’ve had a chance to sink in. Today, I hit on a couple of things that I want to share (with all two of you who read) that connect to real-life for me.

As is my way, I will start with a story: Twice in my professional life, I’ve been involved in interactions between a white woman and a black woman in the workplace that felt icky. I wasn’t able to unpack them at the time, but I felt like there was something racial going on and that we should take the time to understand it as such. The first situation was when a white woman at a high level in the organization repeatedly shortened the name of the black woman who didn’t work under her but was at a lower level in the professional hierarchy. I noticed that the black woman didn’t introduce herself as such and asked whether she preferred the shortened name and she said, “No. That person is the only person who calls me that.” The next time I heard the white woman use it, I said, “You know, she doesn’t refer to herself that way. You should call her by her full name.” And that was the end of it. My intuition told me there was something powerful behind it that I didn’t understand, and I didn’t explore it further but I wish I had.

Fast-forward a couple of years and a black woman in my department (the only person of color in the department at that time) asks to be referred to as, “Ms. Smith” (not her real name). She introduces herself as such, refers to herself as such on her voicemail, etc. The big boss gets wind of it and tells her to stop, stating that the organizational culture is informal and asking to be referred to with a title puts a wedge between her and her customers. This time, I did say to the boss, “You know, there’s a lot of power behind titles and names in the African-American community. There may be more to this than meets the eye.”

Today, I was reading Growing Up Jim Crow and came across this: about post-emancipation:

“In our part of the State…the death of slavery is recognized, and made a basis of action for everybody,” he (South Carolina slave owner) informed northern journalist Whitelaw Reid. “But we don’t believe that because the nigger is free he ought to be saucy.”  (p. 28)

Rittenhouse goes on to say that one of the most contentious changes after emancipation was that freedmen and freedwomen were demanding to be referred to as Mister and Missus. In some cases, to escape the names they were called during slavery, they took on new names altogether. But if they became “saucy” by becoming angry or daring to not answer when called by their slave name, they risked the violent wrath of white people who may have been following the law of the land, but made it clear that their former slaves were inferior and not worthy of respect.

“It is hard to have layed our loved ones in the grave, to have them fall by the thousands on the battle field, to be stripped of everything. But the hardest of all is nigger equality and I won’t submit to it.” – Savannah white woman, 1865 (p. 28)

The first thing that occurred to me is how “ethnic-sounding names” are often publicly ridiculed by white people. How if you have a name that sounds black, your resumé somehow goes to the bottom of the pile.

Isn’t this a modern-day way of keeping black folks from getting saucy?

This is the level at which we white folk need to check ourselves in the continuing fight for civil rights, I think. Things that seem so small, something as insignificant as calling a person by their preferred name is a small step toward returning power to the people we disempower with our jokes, our misunderstanding and our refusal to take the time to understand a reality outside our own.

~ D


On Race & Writing