Did They Know? (Part I)

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Cousins Assata, Natalia, and Sanaa are having an intergenerational conversation with their Grandma Angela-Yvonne and Auntie Bell about the psychic toll of witnessing black bodies lynched across the nation and how deep anti-black girlhood/womanhood runs. They are sitting around the kitchen table when Natalia begins to think about whether black people of various ages knew their sheer presence was deemed threatening by the decided majority before they were murdered.

  • Assata          20-year old young black woman attending college
  • Natalia         16-year old black girl about to graduate early
  • Sanaa           6-year old black girl being homeschooled
  • Grandma     Angela-Yvonne, 68 years old, retired school teacher
  • Auntie         Bell, 44 years old, writer

(Natalia)  Do you think they knew?

(Grandma)  I don’t know if they all knew how deep it runs. But I think on some level, we all know. It’s almost impossible not to.

(Assata)  Well we’ve been sold a list of instances that marked the beginning of our ever-growing ascension and supposedly ushered us into an era of color blindness. I mean one of my professor even said it.

(Auntie)  Oh please. We’ve never bought into that.

(Assata)  You sure about that? I think quite a few of us have.

(Auntie) Well, if they have they were simply masking or too detached from the masses to acknowledge the facts.

(Sanaa)  Auntie, what you mean by masking and detaching?

(Grandma)  (stuttering) You, you know how we talk about our ancestors, those people who lived before us and still live in our hearts? Well, that there is an ancestral trait we had to cultivate to survive and we still learning how to remove it and use other tools in our toolkit.

(Sanaa)  Well, I wanna survive but sometimes I’m not sure why. I mean it seems like we’re hated by the bad cop guys and the black boys, too.

(Grandma)  Oooh my sweet, sweet baby. What on earth could you possibly mean?

(Sanaa)  Well, Lela told me that black people are dying everywhere and that bad cop guys  are killing ‘em and some were shot when they were asking for help and others when they were selling things like CDs, or even when they were sitting in their own car listening to music, or when they were outside playing with toys, and somebody else got shot just a few years younger than TT by a different kinda cop after he bought a pack of skittles.

(Sanaa)  Sometimes I ask for help, auntie. And I like CDs, music, toys, and candy, too. I don’t wanna be next.

(Sanaa)  And as far as the boys go… when I told Taplin I liked him more than friends, he said I was too dark skinned and that his dad said black girls like me are crazy.

(Sanaa)  And then Kayla whispered in my ear and said she bet he would like her because her mom always says that she has the right complexion and perfect hair.

(Assata)  Do you see what we have to go through? She’s only six years old and she’s already being taught that she is despised by just about everyone. And they only seem to like our blackness when the evidence of intermingling is conspicuous.

(Natalia)  And it’s plastered all over TV auntie. On nearly every channel, they say the exact same thing.  And Mr. George-Bush-doesn’t-care-about-black-people is out here announcing that his manufactured wife is the finest person alive while we out here dying and he’s lying publicly about the cessation of racism while he begs for their money. And didn’t he just make another public announcement that he would have voted for a vocal bigot at a time when we got people being tear-gassed, shot in the back, shot while reading, shot while thinking, shooting each other because resources are depleted. I mean what would he have to do for us to refuse to support his modern-day minstrelsy?

(Sanaa)  And I used to love him too auntie because he said (rapping) “they made us hate ourselves and love they wealth.” And I don’t really know what that means but it sounded po-wer-ful. You think the boogeyman finally got to him, too?

(Natalia)  The boogeyman got to him alright and it’s gotten to several others, too. Black men and women outside the spotlight despise black women just as much. Did you see  what they did in Philly…to Joyce? How they stripped her naked, tied her up, and beat her to death?

(Assata)  (heavy sigh) I did. I even ended up writing about it. I was examining the larger societal messages we consume that contribute to the development of someone that could humiliate and berate someone, tie them up, beat them, beat them long enough to stop breathing, beat them while their children watched, and beat them in an attempt to get them to submit to their demands. I mean doesn’t this sound familiar? It sounds a lot like the governing principles of chattel slavery practiced on this very soil not too long ago. In the essay, I also explored the particular nuances of misogyny we experience within and outside the Black community and among other Black women. And we get these messages everywhere. I mean we are conditioned to believe in and normalize the philosophy of violence and submission every Sunday through our assigned religion.

(Sanaa)  And didn’t you say he said something ‘bout submission. And don’t the bible say something about us submittin’ too? Why our religion talking about submittin’? I got my own mind, too.

(Sanaa)  Who dat writer y’all always talking bout? Bald-men or somethin’? Didn’t he say if god has any use it would make us freer and more loving? And if he can’t then we need to get rid of him? Well, I think I like Bald-men instead of submittin’ so good riddance.

(Grandma)  Mmm oooh all this hurt and fear makes my spirit so weak. My sweet, sweet baby, now you listen up real good you hear? You come from a long line of Negro fighters, builders, healers, thinkers, and writers that survived and thrived. Now, you probably gon hear a lot of nonsense in ya day, and for that I am deeply pained. But I want you to remember this…and remember this always: The inner limitations of someone else’s imagination will never reflect the reality of the brilliance that is you, your voice, and your mind. Now your little friend Taplin may believe these delusions, these fictional tales of black girl inadequacy right now and he may very well hold on to it until his dying day, but I want you to practice radical compassion anyhow because they conditioning him that way. They teaching him to hate his reflection and compete for their acceptance. So when he sees you, he sees a part of himself he’s been taught to reject. But he can always unlearn, sweetie, and all black boys and all black girls and all black, what they say now, gender-benders will not mistreat you. Some will remind you of the best parts of yourself on the days you’ve developed amnesia. And some will feel like home immediately the very first time you meet them. And that Bald-men you speak of is James Bald-win. And yes, he was definitely on to something. But you gon have to find peace somewhere. And if it ain’t in organized religion, you write it out. And if you can’t find peace in the pen, then you paint it out. And if you can’t find peace in the paintbrush, then you dance it out. And if you can’t find peace in dancing then you march it out. But you must find it inside yourself some way somehow so you don’t go mad in this upside down world.

(Assata)  Granny, I was with you up until all that peace talk. I think I’m past peaceful reckonings. I’m tapping into my black rage and doing everything I can to fight back. And no one calls people gender-benders grandma. They identify as gender-nonconforming or genderqueer.

(Grandma)  (laughing) I knew it was something like that. Well sugar I’d definitely never tell you to stop fighting. We certainly need more people in the fight. But even freedom fighters have to protect their minds from the madness.

(Natalia)  Grandma how she s’posed to understand all that? And even if she could, you think she’s going to retain (exaggerating) all that?

(Grandma)  Oh she might not know all the words right now, but she’ll retain it (pauses), she’ll remember. We just have to keep telling her.

(Natalia)  But what happens when words aren’t enough—then what?

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