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Warning: This Might Be Uncomfortable

What it’s Like to Be a Black Girl (for Those of You Who Aren’t)
By Patricia Smith

First of all, it’s being 9 years old and
feeling like you’re not finished, like your
edges are wild, like there’s something,
everything, wrong. it’s dropping food
in your eyes to make them blue and suffering
their burn in silence. it’s popping a bleached
white mophead over the kinks of your hair and
primping in front of the mirrors that deny your
reflection. it’s finding a space between your
legs, a disturbance at your chest, and not knowing
what to do with the whistles. it’s jumping
double dutch until your legs pop, it’s sweat
and vaseline and bullets, it’s growing tall and
wearing a lot of white, it’s smelling blood in
your breakfast, it’s learning to say fuck with
grace but learning to fuck without it, it’s
flame and fists and life according to motown,
it’s finally having a man reach out for you
then caving in
around his fingers.

I recently saw a clip of Sarah Silverman (on Rachel Maddow) criticizing the Republican Party for how quickly they swept under the rug all the tension surrounding the name of Rick Perry’s hunting camp. I know Silverman acts like a lunatic, but I love when she’s serious and drives a valid point home. She referred to racism as a gas in the air that is often not concrete enough to point at. Her argument was that the few times it is visible, like this issue about Perry’s hunting camp name that contains a racial slur, we need to tackle it head on, as a nation. Maddow and Silverman talked about how we avoid such topics because they are uncomfortable for all of us, regardless of our race. No one likes to admit racial tension is as damaging as it really is. This got me reflecting on a recent talk/book signing I attended by the rapper, Common.

I’ve been listening to Common since I was too young to even understand the depth of what he was rapping about. When he signed my book, I made sure to tell him this. He seemed surprised, but smiled and said, “for real?”

I understand I’m not the stereotypical hip-hop fan. I’m just a nerdy white girl who loves language and people who share a passion for it. I’ve also been concerned about social justice issues before I even knew what “social justice” meant. Someone like Common who plays with words and rhythms while talking about important issues facing society speaks to my soul. I feel it’s important to let people know if they’ve influenced me (yes, I am the dork that writes fan letters and goes out of my way to shake hands with influential speakers). I figure it never hurts to put genuine positive thoughts out into the universe, especially when we all face such negativity on a daily basis.

I complained to my friend, Laura, at the Common speech, that it’s frustrating how race has to be such an issue. I understand that I can only imagine what it is like to be Black, and I have no idea what it’s like to grow up on the South side of Chicago or what it feels like to be discriminated against because of the color of my skin. I don’t ever want to seem like I’m belittling others’ struggles by connecting with music that targets a group I’m not included in. Just hear me out, though: I gave the scenario of me approaching a country musician. I like country music, and I can connect with the basic human emotions they sing about like happiness, sadness, heartbreak, and anger –Plus, I love beer:) — That being said: I never grew up in the South. I’m not Christian, and I don’t connect deeply to a majority of the country singers. Yet, if I went up to a country singer and said, “Hey, I really feel your music. You speak to my soul,” no one would think anything weird about it because of the color of my skin. When I go up to a hip-hop artist like Common, and I mention that I’ve been moved by his music, I get odd glances. Isn’t art supposed to celebrate our differences while still connecting us as humans? If someone speaks raw and difficult truths, it doesn’t matter how he or she says it, I’m going to express my gratitude.

The poem I posted above is written by Patricia Smith, a woman I’ve had the pleasure of meeting a few times and have a deep respect for. She rocks both academic and Def Jam poetry, which is no easy task. I was assigned to read this particular poem in one of my first literature classes in college. We spent the entire hour and fifteen minutes deconstructing it. It blew my mind that there could be so much depth in so few words.

My professor was a British white man, so I found it interesting that he wanted us to read this, even though it was a poem about as far removed from his identity as one could get. Before this poem, I’d only had poetry by a bunch of old dead white guys shoved at me with an occasional Sylvia Plath poem thrown in. The teachers never emphasized these writers as people. They didn’t mention their addictions, mental health issues, and family struggles. I only saw their old-school language that I couldn’t understand and heard about their prestigious awards, which made them people I couldn’t connect with. Everyone in the textbook seemed dead—in more than just the literal sense. I’d never felt the poems come alive like they’re supposed to. I expected to experience the same sort of frustration when we went over Smith’s poem.

I got this feeling in my stomach when I heard it out loud (it was especially interesting to hear it read in my professor’s charming British accent). For the first time I knew that this poem was saying something deeper than just the words spelled out (Which I now know is the entire concept of poetry—trying to articulate the unspeakable). I couldn’t figure out why the poem moved me so much, but I knew for the first time that this poem was alive and meant to stir up my stomach and mind.

After years of struggling with explaining my passion for this poem, I think I understand why it got me. First of all, I was a freshman and it had the F Word in it—twice. I didn’t know poetry in a textbook could be so real and raw. Second of all, despite not being able to relate to trying to grow into a Black woman, I related to the struggle of just trying to grow into a confident woman in a society where women are seen as second-class citizens. And I knew if I was honest with myself, I hadn’t successfully transitioned into a strong woman. Instead, I’d learned how to act happy and pleasant at all times. So that line about feeling “like there’s something,/everything wrong” articulated something I’d been afraid to admit to myself.

Also, I was fortunate enough to have a diverse group of close-knit friends in high school. We didn’t talk much about race until we all moved away to different colleges and realized what a factor it is in our everyday lives. I’m thankful that we were all articulate and close enough to express these racial tensions in an honest non-hurtful way. My friends flat out told me they felt angry toward all white people because they believed them to have a sense of entitlement and ignorance about the struggles that come along with being a minority. They admitted that they had to remind themselves that no one chooses their race, and they had white friends they both loved and respected. I confessed to having trouble meeting diverse friends because of the way my stereotypical middle-class university seemed so segregated, and that I was afraid to step outside of my comfort zone. It calls attention to yourself if there’s a table of people who are the same race as you and another table with people from another race, and you choose to sit down with those different than you. I think it’s great if people can do that, but it messes with everyone’s ideas of social norms, so people stare and might not be welcoming.

Reading Smith’s poem, I felt sad and anger for my friends of color who have to deal with different issues than me just because of the color of their skin. Plus, regardless of race, I felt discouraged for all of the women I know, including myself, when I read the part about learning to swear with grace and have sex without it. What woman can’t relate, either personally or second hand, to learning to put up a strong front (saying fuck with grace) while still giving ourselves away (whether that be sexually or in other ways—just spreading ourselves thin) to feel some sense of worth and then needing to pretend we’re too numb/tough to care about the implications?

I had the honor of meeting Patricia Smith at a writing conference a few years ago in Chicago. Unfortunately, it was two weeks before my 21st birthday, and I was with a group of friends who were all over 21. I admit to taking full advantage of the unlimited free beer at this conference meant for all of the classy professors and writers, not undergraduates like me. Needless to say, I wasn’t my sharpest when I met her. I was too afraid to go up to her, but my friend, who’d also had too many beers, insisted I introduce myself because he knew how I adored her. “She’s been drinking too. She’ll love knowing you’re a fan,” he said while pushing me toward her.

“Excuse me, are you Patricia Smith?” I asked. She nodded, wondering what on earth I might have to say to her. I tried to tell her how “What it’s like to be a black girl” was the first poem that really awakened me to poetry. She laughed, asking what did I know about being a Black girl? I tried to justify that it was about more than racial issues and that I had friends of color who were really open about their struggles and feelings, so I thought of them when I read the poem. Instead it came out more like, “I have black friends,” and before I could explain that my friends and I talk about racial tension, she teased me, “Oh so you know what it’s like to be black because you have black friends?” I blushed, saying, “No, no, no, we just talk about race, but your poem’s not just about race. You know–just being a woman is tough, and” her friends interrupted her, telling her they needed to get back to their hotel room.

“I’m sorry, honey, but I gotta go. Are you coming to my reading tomorrow? I’ll tell you what. I’ll read that poem just for you, even though it’s an old one.”

I was on a high. I’d never met anyone out of one of my textbooks, but I felt humiliated about my inability to articulate why her poem moved me. I get so nervous meeting people I admire—add alcohol to the mix, and I’m just flat out terrible at it.

Luckily, I met her at the same conference the following year in Denver. I reintroduced myself, apologized for our first interaction and still tried to articulate why I loved that particular poem in addition to the poems in the latest book of hers I’d bought. She was so kind and, by chance, I just kept bumping into her at the conference. She even gave me a hug before I left.

You’d think all of this talk about racial tension would be the point of this entry, but it’s not. I felt this served as the best avenue for me to explain my recent epiphany, which hearing Common speak helped me better understand. I’ve been reading a lot of spiritual books lately. They’re all packed with wisdom that just blows my mind, but they all say sort of the same thing just in different ways. I had a moment of hopelessness, thinking, “Why should I try to write a book about spirituality and mental health? It’s all been said. The information’s out there if people seek it.”

Then, I started thinking about some of my favorite writers: Anne Lamott, Natalie Goldberg, and Marya Hornbacher. They’re all from middle class backgrounds dabbled in all sorts of mental health issues/addictions/or spiritual afflictions. It’s because of those people speaking deeply to me as a teenager that I’ve been able to branch out to read some of the people they were inspired by—people I can’t connect with as much, but are still full of wisdom. I realized we need everyone from all different backgrounds spreading the idea that we need to believe in ourselves and do our part to make positive change in the lives of those around us. No, we can’t change the whole world, but we can change our world and help influence others to change theirs.

We’re surrounded by so much hate and despair, we need people like Common, Talib Kweli, Mos Def, and even Eminem (if people really listen to him as a whole) appealing to crowds that might not listen to some one like me trying to tell them they can change their life for the better. We all need people we connect with, telling us, “Hey, I’ve been to hell and back. I know life is hard, but let me just be there for you. Let me help you help others. Let’s work together.” Maybe some people will connect with my story more than some of the people who have influenced me. That’s really what it’s about. We all have our own story to tell. So what if our hopes and dreams aren’t unique? Let’s surround ourselves with positive people and feed off of each other’s energy to make positive changes. We’ll recruit more people who agree that life is hard enough without us making it harder on each other. Sure, this is idealistic, but it takes idealism to make change. Half-assing things doesn’t create radical changes. Be willing to put yourself out on the line to help others. We don’t have to pretend to be perfect. Sometimes all people need is someone to listen. Any of us are capable of that. Just do something. Anything. Make art. Talk to an elderly person on a park bench. Just do whatever you can to spread peace, respect, and love even if it’s just one person at a time.