“One day, you’re gonna have children that treat you the way you’ve treated me, and you’re gonna be sorry.”
I don’t know if this quote was taken directly out of the black parenting handbook, but I heard it quite regularly growing up, and many of my friends did, too. It was like Miss Celie’s curse when she put up her two fingers – til you do right by me! – it made me shut up and act right (at least for that moment).
I had a good heart, but I was wild for a while. Almost nothing could get through to me. Like a lot of young people, I felt starved for affection and was being bullied at school, so I knew that getting attention - even though poor behavior - was a guarantee. Screaming my head off, throwing tantrums, refusing to go to school, sneaking out of the house, racking up truancy notices.
I was protesting. It’s pretty normal for a teenager to disagree with and even despise their own parents for a while.
And while I credited certain gifts I was given by my parents – like writing from my mother and music from the both of them – I hated other qualities of theirs and vowed to never be anything like them. When I was bold enough to respond to my mama’s Celie curse, it’d be something along the lines of, “well I’ll be a better parent than you.”
But I don’t know. Sometimes the new parts of myself that I don’t recognize are from my parents. I will find myself cursing and descending into rage at incompetent drivers on the road (mom). Or standing at the back of a room because crowds make me uncomfortable and I need my space (dad). Or rearranging the cash in my wallet so that it’s all facing the same direction, larger bills outside (mom). Or neglecting my own needs to do anything and everything to make my loved ones happy (both). While I have my own traits and habits as an individual, it’s still all their fault that I am the way I am.
It’s their fault that I am a thoughtful, sensitive, and deeply caring individual. That I am both fragile and resilient. That I have a deep sense of connection to my roots and a love for storytelling. That I recognize the value of solitude and self-reflection. That I am creative and expressive and intelligent and analytical.
That I will be a better parent than either of them were, because they taught me to always struggle for those you love.
And I do hope that my children are like me. Because I am like my parents.
It’s Sunday morning, and I’m laying in my partner’s bed doing nothing of consequence - listening to very old songs from my childhood and unearthing the memories attached to each of them.
The “Heartbeat Reggae Now” album, which is way more politically radical than I could understand as a child, comes with hot, sticky, sweet associations of riding around Philly in the back of papa’s truck. Hot because we’d always visit there in the middle of a blazing summer. Sticky and sweet because we’d pick up Rita’s at every opportunity. That’s what the Bay Area doesn’t have: good water ice. Not that snow cone shit, but the kind made from fruit juice and frozen bits of lemon and cherry.
Those were the only two flavors I’d get - the cherry staining my whole mouth and my white K-Swiss sneakers red, or the acidic lemon leaving my tongue tingling. The one time I encountered water ice in Mosswood Park during the Pan-African Festival 15 years later, you woulda thought I’d found the path toward world peace. Elation and the unearthing of sweet memories. Sadly, the company that sold it was in town only for the festival. Devastating.
I’ve been digging more lately. Digging in the crates for old music my dad used to play, digging through old stories I used to write (I finished a novel at 14 - it’s actually pretty legit), digging and digging. Singing my mother’s songs to my older brother when he gets sick. Reliving something, I’m not sure what.
It’s not exactly to escape the fact that I somehow am now an adult with adult responsibilities, because adulthood has its own sweetness and adventure. I guess it’s to honor where I come from, to hold sweet onto the memories that are my foundation. To exhume them and place them next to the new, fresh ones that I create each day. To continue the tradition of storytelling so important to my family history. Digging for memories like the greedy dig for precious stones.
Memory seems to transcend all sense of time and space. I can see the scenes of my life like photographs when I smell oil from a mosquito lamp, or feel the hot humid air, or hear a high trumpet not from a 60-year old Miles Davis album on Sunday morning. And it doesn’t matter that I live over 1,500 miles away from each of my parents - when I put on Fela or sing my mother’s songs, they are in the room with me. Weekends are especially poignant and sacred time for unearthing, for quiet reflection. For the comfort that memory brings. Something that I used to run from, I move towards my history with open arms and open heart.
But I’m still in search of good water ice.
Two or three weeks ago, I took my older brother to see Tower of Power at Yoshi’s, a famous jazz club in Oakland. I had been a year previously, but the powerful horns and irresistible soul are worth experiencing each time. As we filed into the cramped space, an older gentleman at our table remarked, “you guys are a little young to be here,” with a small smile. “We were raised on the right music,” I responded with a raised eyebrow that ended the conversation. And we were.
Flash forward to now. I am at Xan’s house, listening to Blitz the Ambassador, who reminds me of my father, who I miss in the 2,000 miles that separate us, but who I feel connected to through music. (I think it’s supposed to be “whom” I miss, but fuck it).
I don’t need to miss his presence because he has always lived in the stereos to me. After my parents divorced and he left when I was 7, I would listen to this Eric Clapton cassette tape he gave me – “Pilgrim” was the album – and “drown in a river of tears,” as the song goes with its soothingly sad blues hook. “My Father’s Eyes” was another tear-jerker for my young little self. Music was (and is) the gift that my father gave me to keep connected to me in the space between Michigan and Illinois. (Even now, I can’t listen to those two tracks without the water rising).
Never one for many words, my pops gave both me and my brother the gift of music. We used it to fill the long road trips between our home and his - a grand total of over ten hours driving time for him. Electrifying jazz would rattle the truck windows as we sped down the highway. When we’d inevitable hit traffic in Gary, IN, he’d break out the blues and a cigar. And today, he shows up through my stereo now in Miles Davis and Jill Scott and Wynton Marsalis and Fela Kuti and in Eric Clapton records I can’t listen to without dissolving into saltwater.
Though I always considered myself closer to my mother in bond and time spent together, I know that my father taught me the things that he could not put into words at the time. And so now, I text him telling him to check out Blitz the Ambassador. When I visit him in the summer and winter, we sit and listen to the blues while peeling the greens. I listen to the stories of our people. And when I am alone in my house and Fela’s beats come over the stereo, so does the smell of charcoal and ribs and barbecue sauce. My father’s eyes.
1. “Don’t Talk To Strangers” - Chaka Khan
2. “My Father’s Eyes” - Eric Clapton
3. “River of Tears” - Eric Clapton
4. “You Gotta Be” - Des’ree
5. “Ain’t Nuthin But A She Thang” - Salt N Pepa
6. “All Blues” - Miles Davis
7. “Flip Fantasia” - US3
8. “Squib Cakes” - Tower of Power
9. “Water No Get No Enemy” - Fela Kuti
10. “Fight the Power” - Public Enemy
11. “Big Poppa” - Notorious B.I.G
12. “Reasons” - Earth, Wind & Fire
13. “Why Do Fools Fall In Love” - Frankie Lymon
14. “Heat Wave” - Martha & The Vandellas
15. “Papa Don’t Take No Mess” - James Brown
16. “Miss Maybelle” - R.L. Burnside
17. “Hard Chargin” - Buckwheat Zydeco
18. “Wombo Lombo” - Angelique Kidjo
19. “I Stand Strong” - Winston Rodney
20. “No Educated Woman” - Guitar Shorty
21. “Great Big Love” - Bruce Cockburn
22. “Daughter” - Pearl Jam
It is wild how early gender socialization starts.
I am here at Blue Door Cafe in Berkeley, an enjoyable spot to write and get some work done, and there are two single-stall bathrooms, one clearly marked “men” and the other “women.” I tend to use whichever is unlocked at the time, since they’re both literally identical. Since I just have to pee regardless of the sign. Since they could very easily change the sign to be an all-inclusive family restroom for less than $20. I’ve considered asking the staff why they haven’t yet - I’m not sure what stops me.
I remember not too long ago on a hike through Muir Woods, there were gender-inclusive restrooms with people of all genders coming out of either door. A little boy who was in line with his father ran away from the doors, confused about where to go, his nervousness not assuaged by his father’s explanation that “boys and girls” could use the bathroom. The boy finally and reluctantly followed his patient father into the restroom, still in shock that “anyone” could use it.
Public restrooms (and, well, anything public) have been a symbol of shame and repression for many groups of people. In seeing Hidden Figures this weekend, I was reminded of the struggles of segregation and racial oppression. In several scenes throughout the film, Katherine is seen sprinting nearly six blocks just to relieve herself - there were no bathrooms “for her” in any of the nearby buildings. The separate restrooms not only reinforced white superiority – they spell out in no uncertain terms the disgust white folks felt (and feel) towards Black bodies – that we are dirty, unclean, unsafe to share facilities with.
The need to relieve oneself is one that almost all humans share, unless you’re a superhero. But it’s a painful experience for many - for Katherine who had to run half a mile and back, and also for people who are transgender or don’t fit neatly into the gender binary. I have personally lost count of the amount of times I have been given looks, or been told I am in the “wrong” bathroom, but it’s enough that I’ll often just wait until I get home. A 2015 study found that 6 of 10 trans people have “held it” in public spaces, and that 8% of those have developed UTIs or other bladder conditions from long term effects. Harsh legislation in states like North Carolina have forced transgender people to use bathrooms that match their birth-assigned sex, rather than their gender.
While I don’t think the comparison between segregation and trans people being kept out of bathrooms is the same - there are similarities. Black people, and Black men in particular, have been seen as predators of white women - this fear led to accusations of rape and subsequent lynchings, and the fear of Black people plays into the segregated facilities - again, that we are unclean and unsafe.
The majority of rhetoric concerning the issue of trans people using the restroom has painted the community as predators: “men in dresses” will go into bathrooms to prey on innocent girls and women. And worse - with fatal consequences - that trans women “trick” cisgender men. Despite the fact that there have been little to no recorded instances of trans people preying on people in restrooms, and the fact that they are much more likely to be targets of violence rather than perpetrators - lawmakers and citizens alike have perpetuated the idea that trans people (and especially trans women of color) are preying, malicious, and evil - thereby justifying their murders and exclusion. Fear and oppression go hand-in-hand.
Fear strips our ability to grant human dignity. Even something as universal as needing to relieve oneself can result in ridicule, harassment, and even fatal violence. It seems to me that the very least we could do is change the signs on single-stall restrooms so that people can use it without the threat of harassment of violence. And examine where our fear comes from.
lim-i-nal; adjective, technical:
1. relating to a transitional or initial stage of a process.
2. occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold.
The Bay Area is full of bridges, all of which I’ve been apprehensive about crossing at some point in my life. Growing up in Michigan until I was 13, I didn’t see or cross bridges until we moved here, and I didn’t like them very much. I’m not fan of heights, especially man-made heights, especially suspended over water, especially in an area where there are earthquakes, especially when there is traffic.
It’s not surprising, then, that I started to have nightmares about bridges at least once a year. I would get them every once and a while, calm myself down, and say a prayer every time I had to cross the Richmond-San Rafael to get back up to school. Back then, the dreams would come every once and a while. Now they come every couple months.
The dreams have always varied slightly, but they always end up the same way: with me in the water or narrowly escaping a fall. I never get to the other side.
Last night, I had a long conversation with a friend about the one year anniversary of the Bay Bridge shut down, held on Martin Luther King day. As we reflected on our own activism and lessons learned, the image of the bridge was imprinted in my mind. And in the early hours of this morning, the bridge dream (nightmare) came: I was driving (maybe racing) along, eager to get off the bridge, when another car read-ended me and purposefully pushed my car over the guard rail. I climbed out of the car just in time to jump and reach the bars, pull myself up, and watch my red jeep plummet and submerge into the bay. I tried to walk my way across, but the bridge started to collapse.
I never got to the other side.
And there have been dozens of these narrow escape dreams over the past year, increasing in frequency. There was another where I was driving along, police officers on either side of my car, and I was forced to drive off of a gap in the middle of the bridge. In another, I was cruising and was warned that the bridge would collapse. I had to climb down to the bottom, where whales were waiting to carry me to safety (yes, really - it’s a dream!) In each and every dream, there’s some diversion or catastrophic event that keeps me from completing my journey or reaching the end destination.
I never get to the other side.
I think these dreams are about many things to me and I learn something new from them each time. Sometimes, I view the dreams as signals to stay on my path (or to get clear about what my final destination is), but after this morning, I think more about my gender journey and how I have always felt between two places that society has defined. The start of the bridge is from birth - a “beautiful baby girl,” and the other side would represent a full transition of body and mind, or becoming male. (I never get to the other side).
In the dreams, beside the initial panic of narrowly escaping death, I am never upset that I didn’t get to where I’d been headed. I’m just happy to be alive. Maybe the dream is about accepting this stage of liminality where I reside, and re-defining the process and “end goal” for myself. It is about being able to distinguish external pressures that want to box me in or push me along, versus my own inner voice. And it is about survival under forces that never wanted me alive to begin with. It is about breathing into the threshold and fully living, not just focusing on the destination.
I never get to the “other side” because the “other side” has always been decided for me.
But I get to decide.
musings of a Black, queer and genderqueer activist, educator, musician.