Race Talks with White People

A close up of eight various flesh toned crayons that say "flesh" on them

One of the first poems I ever composed
was deeply racist.
It in, I insisted that my whiteness
lacked culture and vibrancy,
portraying black and brown folk
swaying and clapping and moving
in a way my people weren’t used to.
I lamented my lack of rhythm
and a connection to my history
but what I didn’t see was how my self-pity
and exotification of other races
further exacerbated racism.

I was in middle school
in a nearly all-white community
and it never occurred to me
that I had a unique culture.
So, like a vulture, I picked apart pieces
of other people’s traditions
in what I thought was admiration and awe
but was really stinking of raw bigotry.

I grew up thinking
that my pale skin was the default,
like the salt without the food
I viewed whiteness as the absence of race,
lacking taste,
so immersed in the drippings of privilege
I lived in a bubble that I found boring
but what I saw as boring
was actually the luxury that comes
from being in the dominant category,
race becomes something “out there”
and, once aware of it,
I pretended like I didn’t see it.

“I’m color blind, I don’t see race!”
It’s something some white people
are so fond of saying
but the reality of that statement
is that it reeks of igorance
because to say you don’t see color
means you don’t suffer
from oppression based on your skin
and to not see color
means you don’t see that other
people are suffering based on their skin
and to not see color
means you see whiteness as something other than
and to not see color
means you see us all as a dull gray,
and you white wash and wash away
the pain, the history, the beauty,
the vibrancy, the richness
of color.

And then comes the white guilt,
the shame of knowing the gains
your race has given you, the pains
your race has driven others to
but let me tell you what to do with that:
don’t take it to black and brown people
they already know the evils
that whiteness has created,
the atrocities whiteness has enabled.
Instead, take it to the table with other white people.

And don’t say, “How can we talk about race,
when there are only white people in this space?”
That is the perfect place to talk about race
because until you can face
the fact that you don’t need black people
to have this conversation,
until you can move from the station
of shame and guilt and apology
into vulnerability and solidarity
then this is right where you need to be.
Until you can grasp
that the task of dismantling racism
starts with you asking and tackling
the hard questions yourself
instead of putting them on someone else,
then this is right where you need to be.

And it’s hard work,
and you may never recover.
In fact, we’ll always be racists in recovery,
which means we’ll slip up sometimes
and find ourselves making mistakes
but we’ll walk in grace and humility
not worrying about saving face,
we’ll put defensiveness in its place,
and open space for other white people
to do the same.
Because once we can name
and root out racism from within,
begin to see whiteness
as part of the color wheel,
feel appreciation for other cultures
without exotification or appropriation,
have admiration for our own traditions
and realize the ways we’ve been conditioned
to think and believe and feel,
then we can finally begin
to heal.

I Am From

As I transition from my old blog, SeekThePeace, to this one, I will be posting some of my old poetry on Mondays. This is actually the first spoken word piece I wrote and it explores my view of change using the “I am from” format. I’ve included an audio file because I feel that poetry is more powerful when it’s read aloud. Please feel free to listen while you read. I also encourage you to try your hand at using this format too and share what you come up with.
Much love,
The Vocal Poetess

* * *

“I Am From”

I am from Pennsylvania farm land,
and the smell of fresh spread manure
sure to burn nostrils
on the school playground
where uniforms marked gender, age, space, time
stood still, moved slowly,
too fast and not fast enough.

I am from mountains
valleys, hills, meadows
toes digging deep into grass and dirt
earth and green spaces that called
to my heart, spirit, lungs, legs
begged me to be free
green spaces that call to me still.

I am from East Baltimore Street
the white house with the pines
behind whose blinds love resided
confided in the strong arms of family
that pulled me in
held me close
hold me still.

I am from playing in the trees, bruised knees
“It’s getting dark come inside please”
Mom says.
her voice made everything all right
despite when it could not
give an answer for why cancer
tried to rob her of her light.

I am from questions
of an eight year old’s fears
tears betraying my façade of strength
as I tried to emulate hers
“Will you die?” “Will you lose your hair?”
I could not bear
the thought of it.

I am from family
and love above all else
from grandmas’ kisses and pappys’ laughter
after family dinners around the table
unable even now to admit
that death comes too quickly
to those we love most.

I am from Mennonite land
of peace and nonresistance
insistence on four-part harmony singing
bringing casseroles and baked goods
and, my goodness, how can a denomination
with foundations of peace
leave my childhood church in shambles.

I am from community
bonded by common threads
of reds and blues and yellow hues
all the bright and dark colors
of seeking, searching, longing
finally belonging
here.

I am from the city
the rumblings of subways and trolleys
all these familiar sounds and sight
seeing people in all their vibrancy
curiosity, diversity, rawness
all this
is life.

I am from women
whose bodies were commodities
kept hidden forbidden sin ridden
until that holiest day of days
when she trades in her purity prize
and the guise
is lifted.

I am from contradictions
convictions
women who refused to be victims
even when our sacred souls, bleeding
were greedily ripped out,
screaming
from between our very legs.

I am from dark places
hollow spaces
shoe laces dangling
over a subway platform, canyon,
bridge over a stream
dreaming of jumping
but still afraid to fall.

I am from desperation
from a handful of pills
hospital bills
cold floors, metal doors
and therapists’ offices where
questions like “Now what do you want me to do for you?”
rang hollow in my ears.

I am from acceptance
of myself
esteemed in my eyes
sure of my worth
while being grounded
astounded, unbounded
by loving me
he’s free to love me too.

I am from liminal space
somewhere between wounded and whole
wholly succumbing or coming alive
between inward loathing and outward exploding
between knowing and not
between wanderlust
and lusting for home.

I am from love
and all its questions, suggestions, reflections
of what was, what is, and what could be
and that is home
home is love
and there is no other place
I’d rather be from.

Birthdays/Put All the Candles on Your Cake

Lit candles with ribbons on a birthday cake

I don’t know who
invented the unwritten rule
that women aren’t supposed to like birthdays
or share their age,
“I’m 29 again!” we’re supposed to say,
shaving off years,
staving off fears of someone realizing
the truth.
As if our age is a secret we get to keep,
as if people can’t see,
as if paying no heed to the obvious
makes it less so.

But I’ve never been into that
and perhaps it’s because I’m still young.
“Just you wait,” someone once told me,
“You’ll hate birthdays too.”
But I refuse to think that’s something
I’m destined to do.
Instead of singing those old birthday blues
I’m humming a different tune,
one of gratitude,
an attitude of joy and hope,
dipping my toes into the pool of possibility,
unabashedly celebrating me.

Maybe it’s because I’ve battled suicide and won
maybe it’s because my mom
and dad always had cake and flowers
and showered me with love and gifts.
Maybe it’s because I’m uplifted
by simple affirmations and well wishes.
Maybe it’s because I love any excuse
or season to treat myself.
Whatever the reason,
I love birthdays and I hope that never fades.

With age comes wisdom and stories
and, similarly,
our bodies tell their own narratives
of the lives we have lived
each wrinkle and laugh line
as sublime as vast landscapes
shaped by the winds of time,
as telling as tree rings
singing of growth and swelling with memory,
and the oath we take on our birthday
is to say,
“I’m in awe of this sacred body
that holds me
and the journey we are on
which dawned on this day
of my birth is worth
the celebration, the graduation
from one chapter to the next.”

I still mourn change
and the growing pains that come with age.
Life’s pages turn too fast
as present quickly becomes past
but the last thing I want on my birthday
is for society to dictate
what and how I celebrate.
And I hope you can also shake
the weight of that burden.

So on your next trip around the sun,
you run the show,
show yourself a good time,
never mind what others say,
put all the candles on your cake,
take lots of pictures,
picture yourself living the life you love
and above all else,
put those voices on the shelf
that tell you what you’re supposed to do
and simply celebrate you.

Save the Apology

It’s Monday which means I’m sharing some of my older poetry with you! Content Warning: this one is about the sexual assault I experienced in college and I wrote it in response to finding out a powerful person at that college was sexually abusing young women. You can read the fully story of my assault on Our Stories Untold (OSU), as well as watch a video of me performing this poem in April 2016 OSU (now merged with IntoAccount) is a wonderful, supportive space where survivors and allies can share stories, cry together, love together, advocate for one another, and hold institutions and individuals accountable. Love, light, strength, and courage to all you survivors and supporters of survivors. You are not alone.
–The Vocal Poetess

* * *

“We’ll do better next time.”
“We’re so sorry.”
It’s the same apology after every
heavy indiscretion, forced confession,
by one of their own comes into the light.
After nights of lurking beneath the surface
the lip service they now pay
is a way to diffuse the “issue,”
“Here honey, have a tissue.
But please don’t ask us for empathy
or accountability, assistance,
in this instance our hands are tied
we had no idea the monster he was inside.”

Nobody wants to admit fault
when it comes to sexual assault
and the ways in which its downplayed,
displayed, smoothed over, pushed under
the rug, “Oh she was on drugs,
wore something too short, too tight
she’d been drinking that night.”
And so what if she was,
so what if she did?
Let’s stop the shaming
that is victim blaming by naming it
for what it really is:
your own fear that you may have just fucked up
or been found out
so you raise doubts
about her character and actions
in hopes that the factions
it creates will shift the focus on her
and not your bogus excuses for the abuses
she suffered at your hands.

You bet on your friends and institutions
to come up with solutions for your absolution
and you counted on her silence
to somehow equal compliance
with what you did.
But you didn’t count on this.
You didn’t count on the power of her voice
to rock the earth to its core
to toss waves onto the shore
her emotions calling up a tide
as deep and wide as any ocean.
You didn’t count on generations
of her people to create a nation
from every corner of creation
to undergird her, surround her,
ground her in her truth and boldness,
they hold this
with her when she can
and for her when she can’t.

You may not ever admit or even say
that what you did was rape
but that does not make
my truth any less sacred or true.
I told you “no” and you chose
to silence me with your vocal blows
and the power of your body over mine.
And when I confronted you that time
to find out why you did it
your response was,
“How could I have raped you if I didn’t even finish?”
The fact that you raped me
is not dependent on you cumming
or not
on whether you enjoyed it
or not
on whether you thought
I enjoyed it.
It’s about what I consented to
and you knew
that you didn’t get my yes
which is why you choose to profess
and protest the rape you committed
in such rage and lividness.

And I hate to admit to me
that I have to see your humanity
is somehow connected to my own
but, my God, my being groans
at the thought of it.
I’m enraged and I want you to know it
and I show it because I’ve held it in for far too long
it doesn’t belong inside me
where it festers and burns
turns me into someone I don’t recognize.
Your lies will not bring my demise,
oh I’ve thought of suicide
on the worst days
and been dazed and depressed on the best
but you won’t get the rest
of me
I’m setting you free.
Be gone.

And for those who hid your actions
and caused distractions
from the truth,
I have words for you too:
I’m calling bullshit
on your counterfeit lines.
Don’t do better next time.
Do better now
so next time
won’t be allowed
to happen.

We can do better

You Come for My People, You Come for Me

It’s Thursday which means new poetry! Two of my good friends faced difficult, unexpected hurdles this past week. This poem is for them, my people. — The Vocal Poetess

* * *

You come for my people,
you come for me.

Conservative media sites
from those with far right, alt-right,
“White is might” views
to the likes of Fox News
(is there even a difference between the two?),
attempt to discredit
(though they haven’t even read it)
the well-researched works
of black and brown writers,
by lighting fires
with pull quotes and quotation marks,
in hopes the sparks they create
will leap into flames of hate,
that will “make America great” again.
But when they sharpen their knives
and dive head first
with bloodthirst in their eyes
into deeper and dirtier lies
need I remind them:
You come for my people,
you come for me.

Liberal institutions and bodies
whose new policies
leave deep craters
when key co-creators and educators,
dedicators of years
of their blood, sweat, and tears,
are no longer revered
but left jobless
with less notice or words
than what they truly deserve
for all the time they have served.
When those who claim to be socially just
break trust for financial gain
and the changes that ensue
seem to undermine what they value,
need I remind them:
You come for my people,
you come for me.

You see,
you don’t have to share my family tree
or genetic ancestry to be
my people.
Our shared identity,
our solidarity,
in the fight for what’s right
and just
is more than enough.
While it may be tough to keep going
knowing what is against
or behind you
when you find you’ve been
knocked off your feet,
defeat closing in,
the wins overwhelmed by the losses,
and the causes is
attacked from all sides,
when the tides keep turning
and you’re yearning
for the storm to cease,
for the warmth of peace,
believe in me,
believe in we.
For when life tries to bind you,
I’m here to remind you:
They come for my people,
they come for me.

Spring Time Blues

It’s Monday which means I’m sharing some of my older poetry! This is another one in my series about sexual harassment.

* * *

It’s that time of the year once again
when the leaves are sprouting from the trees
bees buzzing on the budding blossoms
and the weather has me feeling awesome
until you come along.

Sometimes you’re with a group of friends
in the park or the end of my sidewalk
gawking at me as I cross.
Other times you’re coming out of a store
or lurking on the corner alone
it really doesn’t matter though
because your tone
is always the same:

“Hey baby, looking good.
I wish you would
sit on my face,
give me a taste.”
Or you make some perverted sound
with your mouth
some grotesque gesture or movement
with the intent to get my attention.

Or you yell from across the way,
“Hey beautiful, wanna make my day?”
and you expect my dutiful
reaction to be, “Awww thank you.”
And maybe I’ll throw in
a few giggles or a grin
just to prove the state you put me in.

But if I choose to ignore you
or worse yet, reject your advances
your stance is no longer sugary sweet,
it changed to anger and hate in a heartbeat.
“Bitch. You’re ugly anyway.
There’s no way I’d fuck you.”
Aww well now I’m really upset
because the whole reason I got dressed
was so I could walk down my street
and hear you say shit to me.

You think you’re a man because you stand
in the street yelling obscenities
to any piece of meat or ass
that happens to pass by
all just to prove to your friends
that you really can
get the attention of a woman.
Or may it’s to compensate for–
wait, let me not stoop to emasculate you
you’re doing that own your own, boo.
Or maybe your intention is just to work
so you have something to jerk off to
at the end of the day.

But it’s all a just a power play
and, anyway, we see right through you.
You really think your catcalls
make me want to do you?
Honestly, when you ask me
to sit on your face
you really expect me to say,
“Sure, name the time and place?!”

No, all you want to show me
is that you own me
and that I owe you gratitude
for your attitude of “sweetness.”
But get this,
I owe you nothing.
You don’t own me
any more than you own this street
or this air or this sidewalk or these stairs.

Grow up, have some respect
women aren’t objects.
You should have learned that by now
and, anyhow, what would your grandma
or mom or sister say
to hear you speak to women this way?

So next time you see me coming
and you really want to something,
swallow your words,
savor their bitter flavor
do us all a favor,
and don’t.

DSC_0547_905
An image from Tatyana Fazlalizadeh’s art series Stop Telling Women to Smile.
DSC_1273_905
An image from Tatyana Fazlalizadeh’s art series Stop Telling Women to Smile.
9
An image from Tatyana Fazlalizadeh’s art series Stop Telling Women to Smile.
pat
An image from Tatyana Fazlalizadeh’s art series Stop Telling Women to Smile.

“Not All Men”

Ok, so I said I’d post new poetry every Thursday but I’ve been processing a situation where I was sexually harassed at work and this poem just can’t wait a week. Listen along here.
— The Vocal Poetess

* * *
It started relatively small,
relatively benign
as often times these things do.
You
would bump into me where I was standing
and your hand would graze my backside
and I’d let it go,
forgoing the warning signs in my mind:
Maybe it really was an accident,
he probably meant nothing by it.

But then you’d try it again.
And then you’d become more bold
and hold your hands on my hips
as you dipped behind me,
seizing an opportunity
to use a crowded space as a place
to slide your dick across my ass
in the pretense of just “passing by.”
“Coming through,” you’d say
as you’d have your way with me,
freely rubbing your disgusting manhood
(should I even call it that?!)
across the back of me.

And what did I do?
Nothing.
Not a damn thing.
And I am stinging with rage
and mountains of shame
and blame for myself
because of your selfish ways.
All day I chided myself,
beating myself up
for not speaking up,
for not uttering any words,
but would you have heard
them anyway?

The truth is you didn’t need me to say,
“Stop!” or “Get off!”
for you to know it was wrong.
And all along,
I’ve been putting that on me,
Oh he couldn’t see
how bad his behavior was
because I never told him.
Yet again another victim
blaming herself for the sins
of the harasser
and after all was said and done
you thought you’d won.

And I resent that
and you
and the slew of men
who continue to do nothing,
choosing cowardice,
acting as if they don’t notice.
Well I’m sick of this bullshit.
I’m done with pretending,
I’m ending that foolishness
and I insist you do the same.
When you see harassment
call it out by name,
it has no place here
or anywhere.
Stop letting fear dictate–
I’m not here to placate you.
Do better.
Men, I’m talking to you.
Do
better.

And you’d better not contend by saying,
“Not all men!”
Because if I said it once ,
I’ll say it again:
Stop passing the buck
or shucking your responsibility.
I see way too many men
content to sit back in silence
while violence happens all around them
and then they have the gall,
the wherewithal,
to say they are
“one of the good ones.”
Since when do you get a gold star
for something you haven’t done?
Sorry to spoil your fun
but no one gets off that easy.
Oh, so you’re not sleazy?
Well, good for you!
What address should I send
this gratitude check to?

Look, I don’t want you
to assume I’m not glad or relieved
that you aren’t avidly
“grabbing women by the pussy”
(which is more than I can say
for our commander in chief)
but that’s not enough for me.
Until you can be
part of the solution
you’re part of the problem.
And until then
miss me with
“Not all men.”

Take a Seat

Welcome! As I get this blog off the ground, I intend to post new poetry every Thursday and share some of my old poetry every Monday. This poem is part of my series on sexual harassment.

* * *

I hear men complaining these days, saying
“I can’t be paying women compliments
without them claiming sexual harassment.
My intent is flattery and it bothers me
that women can’t see that.
As a matter of fact,
I’m afraid that a compliment paid
will be made into a lawsuit.
What can I say or do
without it being misconstrued
or used against me?”

You want to know what you can do?
You,
really want to know what you can do?
For starters, you
can stop making this about you.
Boohooing about women misconstruing
your compliments and doings.
You’re pursuing sympathy
but you’re barking up the wrong tree.
You see, all we hear is whimpers
and nothing flares my temper
like men who act like dogs.

You’re afraid of what you can say?
Try being afraid to wake up every day
and take the subway
because a stray hand may
land on your ass or thigh.

Try being afraid to be anywhere alone,
be it at work or home,
without assessing the space
for routes of escape, just in case.

Try being afraid of someone stalking you
when you’re out walking
in your neighborhood or the woods or at night,
prepared to fight with pepper spray.

Try being afraid to report anything
because it could bring
retaliation, condemnation, termination,
or an even worse situation.

Try being afraid of your boss,
manager, or employer,
who might exploit your vulnerability,
your need for a salary.

Try being afraid to walk down the block
and hear a group of men talk
about your body in crude ways
and expect you to say, “Thank you.”

Try being afraid to speak up and out
because some men will pout
and get defensive,
which gives way to more extensive harassment.

Try being afraid to stand up for yourself
in a world that continually minimizes your wealth,
that commits violence against you,
then seeks to silence you
and make its lies the truth.

So excuse me
if I don’t feel sympathy
or shed any tears
over your infantile fears.
Stop talking and hear us,
muster the grit to sit
with discomfort of it.
For it’s a small price to pay
compared to what we face each day.

Besides, if what you were going to say
or do could be misconstrued
as poor behavior
then save your comments.
The intent
was not to compliment us
but to flatter yourself.
So put your ego on the shelf,
let your words melt
behind your teeth,
and then,
take
a
seat.

Voice

Someone once told me
that my voice was jarring,
that it could use more subtlety,
shutting me down entirely.
Her words were small and few
but it was all I could do
to not dwell on them for days,
replaying them on my memory’s waves,
savoring their salty taste.

Jarring? More subtlety?
My voice is not just a part of me,
it is the start of me
and the end,
the bends and inflections
bringing life to my thoughts and intentions.
It’s as unique as my facial features,
each piece of flesh and bone
stretched and honed to shape this bodily home.
And my voice is the crowning jewel,
as connected to me as my joints and sinew.
I knew I could not change it
and I didn’t want to.

I later asked her what she meant
and she told me her comment’s intent
was not to condemn or ridicule
but to help me see my voice as a tool,
one to be used to soothe or cool,
to speak words as sweet as fruit
or be the taproot of hard truths,
to be rhythm and blues,
to be used with great care and caution,
not too often yet often enough,
to be tough and bold when necessary,
or to carry what’s soft, a luminary.

We may not have a choice
in how our voice sounds
but we can choose what words abound,
and in what volume they resound,
how and when we speak, and why,
and in that lies
an immense amount of power.
For words can devour, build towers,
or tear down walls,
it’s not all in what is said,
it’s in what is heard when the words leave your head.