I am writing to you from my Harlem apartment, asking you to join me in my living room. Lean into me so that I may feel your presence. I come to you in a familiar form, as a tired Black woman. I need to write my thoughts down and out.
My Black is aching.
My Black is numb.
My Black is overburdened and bone.
I first experienced racism in elementary school, when my white best friend decided she wanted nothing more to do with me. I stood on the playground crying that day, asking her in front of all the sweaty kids on the monkey bars and swings why she wouldn’t talk to me anymore. I first experienced racism when she walked away without a word, opting to hang out with the other white girls instead, in search of popularity, beauty, and self-worth. She learned that racism from her mother. The same mother who held me culpable for her daughter’s poor behavior and who spoke to me with condescension; a white mother who had a certain way of looking at my Black mother over dinner. I know that in the summers prior to the end of our relationship, my friend and I wrote each other letters incessantly. I know that she sprayed perfume on her words so that I could smell her world. I know that I mailed her back the scents of my world in return. I know that I loved her from the moment she timidly walked into the classroom on the first day of third grade. But that day on the playground, I vowed never to be so foolish with my love again.
Recently a dear Black friend of mine expressed that he considers me to be very loyal. So loyal in fact that if he called me in the middle of the night asking me to help him “take care of business,” he knows I would ask no questions and be there for him in whatever way necessary, no matter how unlawful the solicited help might be. We both let out a big laugh, a Black laugh that is full of heightened joy, because we know all too well the pains of this world. We know the two of us could never pull off such imaginary criminal acts without suffering undue consequences. We both understood that the loyalty he was speaking of was a Black loyalty, a loyalty that runs deep like a gash, a loyalty that will stand firm through life and death, a loyalty that still cannot protect us from murder. I chuckled, “I got your back.” I can’t help but place this Black loyalty next to a white one that feels superficial at best. A white loyalty that is no loyalty at all.
I am writing to you on Juneteenth, the significance of which I have only recently learned. Forgive me, my Black Ancestors. I am tired of all the things my Ivy League schooling never taught me and how I must supplement my own patchy, expensive education by teaching myself about myself. I am tired of all the learning I still have left; of all the Black deaths I have not yet brought myself to read about in full. I am tired of proving Frederick Douglass correct when he stated: “By far the larger part of the slaves know as little of their ages as horses know of theirs, and it is the wish of most masters within my knowledge to keep their slaves thus ignorant.” Though Douglass is speaking to slaves not knowing their own age, I don’t feel it would be a stretch to suggest that masters keeping these slaves ignorant is a perfect stand-in for the overarching desire of America to try to control all historical narratives and ensure that we Black people never know our own history in full or in truth. The traces of mental slavery remain in the fact that I am kept illiterate about myself. The modern master is the flimsy, fraudulent, and failing construction of American society, identity, media, education, law, etc. The list is exhausting.
Again, I fall into the phrase, I have to teach myself about myself. My Black Ancestors, I must apologize for all the aspects of our past that I do not yet know. I am sorry that I work so hard, I’ve never had the chance to look up. I am sorry that it is now, as the rampant annihilation of our people continues, that I have chosen to look up, to come to you so damn tired. I am tired and still I have so much to teach myself about myself. I am tired of being like the horse.
I do know, however, about my white friend—yes, the same one as before—throwing up in my family car because she was so nervous and uncomfortable around my Black mother. I know the putrid smell of her fear lingered in the car for months afterward. I know all about my white science teacher in seventh grade who claimed I had an anger problem after I merely whispered a statement that made my friends laugh. I know that I then got kicked out of class. I know she had a conversation with me the following day telling me to count to ten before I spoke again when something “enraged” me. I know my white math teacher throughout middle school hated that I was naturally gifted with numbers. I know when I asked her for help on a test, she gave me intentionally flawed advice, causing me to erase my correct answer in favor of the wrong one. I know what it’s like for white adults to trick me, even as a child. I know my white history teacher gave me a failing grade on an essay because he believed “there was no way someone like you could have produced a paper of such fine quality.” I know he quizzed me on the definitions of several “advanced” words that I employed throughout my essay. And I know that I had to provide him with definitions he couldn’t verify with his limited knowledge. I know all too well about that time my best friend in high school was said to closely resemble Emmett Till and the silence that echoed throughout the day after that statement.
I know my mother taught me about working five times harder than my white counterparts growing up. I know she taught me manners and a strength that is nothing short of cosmic in its capacity. My Ancestors, I know you all know worse, that you know the worst. And I know this knowledge was written along the callouses of your brick-laying hands, it was thick in the air when those white men walked onto your property and stole all your plums, muscadines, and cantaloupes in broad daylight, until one of you came out with your shotgun, saying nothing. And I know this knowledge rests mutilated and swollen in the Tallahatchie River, like the bodies of so many brothers lost. You know brutal beyond the point of talking. And again comes the necessary silence.
I know mental strength. I know my mother taught me to ask all the questions so that I have all the answers, so that I do not get stuck in the quicksand of racist deceit and misinformation. I know physical strength. I know judo training in college when I partnered with the only other Black woman in class so I could have a proper opponent, someone with whom I could really exercise my technique and strength. I know all the other women barely touched one another. I know they kept fixing their ponytails. I know neither my partner nor I ever won a fight against each other, because we were too perfectly matched. I know my sensei would demonstrate new holds on me constantly. I know he would lay his heavy bones on me until I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I know my face changed colors, while all my classmates leaned in, studying how well sensei locked my head between his arms and legs. I know I never tapped out. I know I am strong enough to take a good beating. And I know my mind, body, and spirit have become a weapon so that I can survive the perpetual hunt.
Yet another breath.
O, my Beloved Black Ancestors, I come to you hurting and exceptionally functional; functional enough to work, to write, to breathe. I come to you wringing out the last bits of my hard-earned intellectualism to consider my pain out loud, for the first time, because every day we experience something that cuts away at us as though we are the hardest bits of sugar cane that need to be chopped and crushed for our eventual sweetness.
I am still breathing.
O, my Beloved Black Ancestors, I write to you with love for my Black community, for my own Blackness, for my Black mother, for my Black power that comes from your Black power. I am writing to you in love, from love, surrounded by love. I know love in the form of the many Black men in my life, for my best friends are Black men. Black men who I asked to attend my first acting audition, when I felt that staring into a theater of unknown white faces wouldn’t give me what I needed to succeed. Black men who have come to all of my dance performances and sat in the front row, leaning forward in their chairs so as to perfectly note each movement, each droplet of sweat. Black men who treat me to dinner. Black men who stir up such excitement that our voices rise in our conversations with each other because Black love is just that grand.
I am speaking to a Black love that overwhelms me with its pure joy. A Black love that is so natural and safe and capacious, it leaves me feeling free. A Black love that is the reason Auntie Sherwin cooks large dinners every time I visit my family in South Carolina. A Black love that waits for me to tell her the mac ’n’ cheese is good before she can relax back in her recliner. This love is the reason my five-year-old cousin takes my face into his small and sturdy palms and presses his forehead and nose into mine for whole minutes on end. When I ask him why he likes our faces so close to each other like that, he simply shrugs his shoulders. This love is so deeply rooted within him, he doesn’t have the words for it, for there is no language for something this pure. So, when my cousin blinks back at me, as our faces rest into each other, I know our Black love is so mammoth and precious that it causes him to want an impossible closeness with me. Black love inspired my mother to wake me up every morning for kindergarten by imitating Sammy Davis Jr. or Shakespeare, to get me motivated for the day ahead. I am speaking of a love that is never tired, even when I am.
O, my Beloved Ancestors, I need some of your understanding here. I need your spiritual wisdom, for I am still wondering how I can actively love those who I know despise us, who want to erase our very existence. How can I love a people who want to destroy me? How can I protect myself in that love? Is it real love, when you must always have your own back? What is a love that is one-sided? What is a love where one side always proposes violence? What is love when one side has forgotten their humanity? Ancestors, there may very well be no answers to these questions, but still I am compelled to ask.
I have seen your stern faces in photos. I’ve seen your wide-legged stances that root firmly in the soil. I’ve imagined your Black love in private, your smiles to one another at night when the fire, candles, and lights have gone out, a few seconds before you give way to sleep. I know your voice for when my mother sings any good song, she carries your choir in her throat. There is a way her voice crackles in the air. A way it digs down low before soaring all the way up. How it has a depth that breaks in between notes. How any note, if held long enough, seems to release a collective, ancestral breath. I still do not know, did you have time to cry? Did you have time to rest? And how did you rest, outside of the grave? I need to know.
To all my Beloved Black Ancestors, I pray that in airing my exhaustion, I may give it a final resting place, that you all will cradle it in your skilled hands before burying it deep under, as you bring me back to life. I need a moment of respite. An elegant repose. A moment of silence. A breath. Beloved Black Ancestors, won’t you lie down with me for a moment? Can we just rest, for the first time, together?
In Eternal Black Love,
India Gonzalez is the Diana & Simon Raab Editorial Fellow at Poets & Writers Magazine. In addition to her passion for writing, she is also a professionally trained dancer, choreographer, and actor.(Photo: Justin Aversano)