I’m mostly away from newspapers, mostly away from the internet and I mostly have my mind on sun and water and good food and sleep… but some things you cannot vacation from. Esmin Green is still on my mind. She will not leave me. This post is subject to much editing once I return – I’m sure there are links I should make and more context and history that I should research. But maybe this will be okay for right now, just to get it down. If I meander, get off track… forgive me.
My first awareness of this story (and oh, how I hate that I must refer to it that way – that this one woman’s life is reduced to her as a “story” – this woman who lived and breathed and walked the planet with me) was that it is one that you don’t want to believe but know down in your heart… of course this could happen. Of course this could happen in one of the wealthiest countries in the nation… of course this could happen in an era with the most advance health care in the world… of course this could happen in the week right before said wealthy, advanced nation celebrated its freedom and independence. Of course this could happen. And of course it does… it just doesn’t always get caught on tape.
And so it gets caught on tape – not by some bystander who immediately senses a news story and posts it to YouTube… but by the security camera of the hospital itself. The system set in place to make you feel secure and safe … that assures you someone is watching … that setup does what it is supposed to do and watches, and records for all the world to see the last agonizing moments of life for this woman whose name many of us know now but we do not know her life, we do not know her real story. But it did not, could not keep her safe.
I know her name. I know next to nothing about her but I know her name…. and I watched her die.
When I first became aware of this I was struck dumb. I could not write about it. Thankfully Renee at Womanist Musings hit it right on the head with her post… others weighed in and I’m sure more others as well by now. But even so… don’t you hear the deafening silence? Imagine, just for a moment… just for one small tiny moment that this woman who died on the floor of a hospital in the United States of America was a young, beautiful blond woman – you know… the all American girl next door? What would have happened then?
I started this blog because I wanted to have a place to do the kind of writing I don’t usually get to do. I also wanted to join in on the wonderful and difficult conversations that happen out here. I wasn’t even sure what the focus of this thing was going to be – although I knew that race and gender would find their way on the pages because that’s what I think about and talk about a lot in my real life. I’m still finding my way. Mostly, I think I want to develop the habit of writing through what I’m thinking about, inviting others to think along with me, and be involved in an important medium of education, community and activism. There are so many of you all that I admire and learn from daily.
You don’t have to hang out here long to realize that I am interested in (among other things, like music and flowers and vegetables) I am interested in black women and our bodies – how they are viewed, how they are marketed, who controls the images and what that imaging means… how meaning is made regarding these images that are shaped around the fact of our bodies. What people think. How people react. How people treat them. What they mean. These bodies.
Near the end of Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved, Baby Suggs preaches to the people and warns them that ‘yonder, they do not love your flesh… they despise it. So you need to love it… love it hard.’
In the silence that followed, Baby Suggs, holy, offered up to them her great big heart… She did not tell them to clean up their lives or to go and sin no more. She did not tell them they were the blessed of the earth, its inheriting meek or its glory-bound pure…She told them that the only grace they could have was the grace they could imagine. That if they could not see it, they would not have it…’Here,’ she said, ‘in this here place, we flesh; flesh that weeps, laughs; flesh that dances on bare feet in grass. Love it. Love it hard. Yonder they do not love your flesh. They despise it. They don’t love your eyes; they’d just as soon pick ’em out. No more do they love the skin on your back. Yonder they flay it. And O my people they do not love your hands. Those they only use, tie, bind, chop off and leave empty. Love your hands! Raise them up and kiss them. Touch others with them, pat them together, stroke them on your face ’cause they don’t love that either. You got to love it, you! And, no, they ain’t in love with your mouth. Yonder, out there, they will see it broken and break it again. What you say out of it they will not heed. What you scream from it they do not hear. What you put into it to nourish your body they will snatch away and give you leavins instead. No, they don’t love your mouth. You got to love it. This is flesh I’m talking about here. Flesh that needs to be loved. Feet that need to rest and to dance; backs that need support; shoulders that need arms, strong arms I’m telling you. And O my people, out yonder, hear me, they do not love your neck unnoosed and straight. So love your neck; put a hand on it, grace it, stroke it and hold it up. And all your inside parts that they’d just as soon slop for hogs, you got to love them. The dark, dark liver – love it, love it, and the beat and beating heart, love that too. More than the eyes or feet. More than your life-holding womb and your life-giving private parts, hear me now, love your heart. For this is the prize.’
(Morrison, Toni. Beloved, pgs 88-89)
Recently I was talking to a friend about what it feels like to be me, to inhabit this black female body, in the place I live now. It is a small Midwestern city (population 50,000 or so). The main industries in this region are farming and small manufacturing. Up until the 19th century, of course, the area was populated by Native American peoples, including the Ottawa and Chippewa tribes. Now Native folks are less than half a percent of the population. In recent memory it has been mostly a white place, some parts of it (including the adjacent small town where I teach) Sundown towns. On the surface is looks like a mixed community, but it is not a well integrated community. Blacks started coming to this area later, and like in many parts of the country, recent immigration is primarily (but not solely – and this is important) people from Spanish speaking countries in the Americas.
Living here, I feel like a ‘minority’ (a term I rarely use) in a way I have not often experienced before. It is not so much that I am met with hostility and anger when I am out and about… it is that I am suddenly, remarkably, quite invisible. People (white people) push their carts into me at the grocery store. On the sidewalk, when faced with others walking in the opposite direction, it is clear that I am the one that is expected to move over. At first I didn’t realize what was happening, then I chalked it up to people being distracted, or at worst rude. Then I began to notice my own reaction. My way of carrying myself in the world started to change. I apologized for taking up space, for being in the way (I realize that part of this is a also gendered response). As for the hostility and anger… while I don’t often perceive it as being directed towards me, it is worth noting that within the last year, there has been a cross burning in my neighborhood and racist graffiti written on the sides of buildings.
It is not only these personal encounters with people I didn’t know, out it public. It is also the casual observation of how business and media operate in a place like this. People of color are simply generally not visible, unless they have perpetrated a crime. I am avoiding using the words always and never, but you get the picture. It is also embedded into the context of the small liberal arts college where I teach. It is not unusual at all for me to be the first teacher of color for many of my students, who come from this region or others similar to it.
It is jarring for me to recognize that despite the reality of the what 21st century North America is… the changing demographics, what the census tells us, what smart educators and marketing departments know about this diverse nation (and diverse from the beginning – this is not new) – the mentality is that this is a white country.
Yonder they do not love your flesh.
They do not love your neck, unnoosed and straight.
Some days I don’t move. Some days I push people’s carts out of the way. Many days I am the one sitting around the conference room table saying the things people don’t understand, that didn’t occur to them, or that they think simply doesn’t matter because it directly concerns or impacts the ones who look like me. I try to keep my neck straight, un-noosed. But it is a grinding task. The overwhelming everydayness of it makes one weary. And one can begin to wonder – is it me? Is it us? Are we just that wrong, that bad? Of course my head knows this is not true… but the messages come from everywhere. You don’t have the right shape, the right color, the right accent, the right language, the right way of being in the world. You don’t matter. You don’t deserve to walk down the street unhindered. You don’t deserve this place in line. You don’t deserve a kind hand, a warm smile.
We begin to believe this, on some level. We believe it about ourselves, and we believe it about the people that look like us.
I imagine this has happened on other forums, but I’ll just refer to the one I know about. When I originally posted about Esmin Green, I put a link to the Chicago Tribune article that reported the story; the article had a comment thread. Early on, people flagged the racism/sexism angle to the story… that this was not simply people’s inhumanity to people, but something specific was going on here, something that was connected to the larger context of U.S. history and what it means to be a black, poor, mentally ill woman in this society. And very soon after that, other people began to vehemently refute that notion, because after all, it was other black people that ignored Esmin Green on that hospital waiting room floor. Stop bringing race into everything!
Yeah, I get told that a lot: “everything is not about race.” But when you are “raced,” everything is kinda about race, whether we want it to be or not. Because it affects where we can and can’t go, how we think, how we move through the world. Where we can work and live. Where our children will be treated like children, and not like baby criminals. Calculating each and every moment – is this a safe place? Is this safe space? Can I be who I am, really? And all the while, absorbing those messages from the mainstream about who you and the people who look like you are. And so it does not surprise me…. in the least… that those who shared a skin tone with Esmin Green ignored her too. It does not surprise me in the least that those folks lost their jobs, as well perhaps they should. But they alone are not complicit. It will not surprise me in the least that people will assume that now the problem has now been solved.
This is flesh I’m talking about here. Flesh that needs to be loved.
O my people.
Out yonder. Hear me.
Hear me now. Love your heart.
For this is the prize.