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These are my thoughts, yo.

Searching for Legitimacy

jasmine banks

Things get too intricate. There is the mess of yarn and flotsam in my mind and the cat, my anxiety, bats it around and tears at it often. Black girls are told to follow their dreams like all kinds of other girls, but no one ever reads the fine print to them. That fine print that outlines the conditions of how we can access our dreams. That we will have to fight 90% of the time to simply be able to have 1% of our ideas on the table. Even then they will be contorted and bleached. Bleached white, repackaged, with our names erased. 

On my path of personal development I came to this uncomfortable intersection where I had to acknowledge my participation in internalized anti-Blackness. When I achieved something I desired, that I'd worked for, focused on, or been given by way of everything I deserved I wouldn't fully embrace it. I upheld anti-Blackness by seeking to highlight my pain and suffering more than acknowledge that Black people, me as a Black person, deserved all the goodness. Part of the myth anti-Blackness teaches us about Black existence is that we must harm ourselves toward legitimacy. We must be flayed open, either self-imposed or at the hands of whiteness, and exposed to provide proof of legitimacy. We must prove that we are deserving. We must suffer always. When the joy comes, if it comes, we cannot fully embrace it. We must posture. We must remain humble because, of course, the good thing was never something we deserved anyhow. 

I won't be broken open any longer in search of legitimacy. My Blackness is all the legitimacy I need, and I don't own it anyone. 

I Learned Not to Play in School

jasmine banks

Since we’ve been taught that our contribution to society is what can be extracted from us, the act of resistance becomes what can be poured into us that remains linked to our ancestors and liberation in order to fortify the things that Whiteness cannot claim.

Imperialist White Hetero-patriarchy power can steal and control the educational system but it cannot claim wonder, curiosity, and learning for its own. So then it becomes a radical act to teach Black young people to be curious, to marvel, to wonder, and to discover. I did not understand why I was unable to marvel. I thought it was trauma and depression. I’ve always been told that I had a problem with play.  

Dr. Wong sat across from me. Her pale skin was off-set with these orange brown freckles. Her glasses perched on her nose, slipping down, despite her efforts to push them up with her index finger over and over. She was way too zen for me. I really liked her and yet I hated her attempts to resolve the issues I’d arrived in her care for. She just kept telling me to play. “What do you on a regular basis that allows you to get lost in joy. What do you do that allows you lose track of time.” These questions seemed useless, as I was at her office for psychiatric care. I equated this to medication. I wondered aloud if depressed people enjoy such things. Maybe rich white depressed people did but not me, and certainly not the Black folks who raised me. She said continued to explain that Dr. so-and-so, her mentor, had a personality measurement of something or other that showed that those of us who are too pragmatic and practical needed more play and flow to create a balanced life and to find relief from our anxiety and depression. She wrote the prescription for Gabapentin and Strattera and on the back of her business card she scribbled her other prescription: discover something to get lost in and start a meditation practice. My worn green wallet was full of these cards. I would read every book assigned and take every pill prescribed but I didn’t know how to do the thing that Dr. Wong continued to extol as the answer for why my Post Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms would not abate. 

I was taught not to play in school. This isn’t to say I was a child who played too much in school.  Truth be told, I was never much of child who played to begin with. The educational system was my first lesson in how to survive this world as a Black girl. The lessons were always nuanced. Not a single white teacher said to me aloud that free thinking was dangerous. Not a single white teacher told me that free thinking Black children were dangerous. They simply taught me these things by assigning me as the child who was disruptive, pot-stirring, and authority challenging. I was the kid with her hand in the air always. I was the kid who had follow up question after follow up question. I wanted to know but who said that is the way things are or should be? And if they said so who put them in charge and how and why.  I’d ask those questions they teach you that you should ask when you seek a degree in philosophy. If/then questioning is a necessary condition for discovery and learning.  Degrees in philosophy, however, are not meant for 5th grade children. When you are white they call you curious. When you are a poor Black girl being raised by a single parent they call you disruptive. The anxiety I experienced at an early age was the result of two competing needs. I needed to be curious and learn and I needed to feel accepted and safe. My world at home and at school was full of racialized trauma and abuse and so I chose safety and acceptance instead of curiosity and learning.  I attended school and did what they calling learning but truly what I was doing was accepting programing. I was being programmed to respond to and affirm the needs of an Imperialist White Hetero Patriarchy.  It became increasingly clear that curiosity and play (two true necessary conditions for learning) were not afforded to Black children without an immense amount of pain and vulnerability to attack in a system meant to program not to facilitate learning. The lessons were always taught by nice white women who loved my hair good hair, exotic complexion, and willingness to do extra credit.

The program was clear: accept proximity to whiteness, affirm whiteness, and be grateful for the reduction of violence in proximity. The inverse was to try to be a free Black girl inside a system that would demonize me, criminalize me, and keep me from succeeding in life. My family and friends who refused to bend to the will of that system ended up in a detention center or some other derivation of where those kids with too much of everything the world don’t want go. They were the bad kids, the hopeless ones, the ones who didn’t know how to sit still and channel their energy to affirm the system of white supremacy. They wouldn’t allow their power to be extracted that easily- and so they were removed and entered another system of programing.  

I made excellent grades, learned how to follow the rules well, and developed pride in discovering survival in the recapitulation of what the nice white women taught me. It was there that I learned that being the best student meant hating myself and my people, and so I did. Each question that bubbled up. Each moment that the feeling of there I something not right about what she taught me would bubble up, I’d suppress it. I’d shove it down and down and down until I could politely smile and ask the teacher if I could help file papers. The layers of all the things I could not say and the cognitive dissonance that resulted were just one layer in the anxiety cake that I gorged on. I learned to say no to drugs, just like Nancy wanted me to. I always read the extra assigned reading, and I wanted to be on the Principal’s honor roll. The ways of Whiteness taught to me in school was another brand of that addictive hetero-patriarchal capitalism. The habit of Whiteness that I was hooked on was a lethal as the crack that Nancy’s husband sold my people.

So, when Dr. Wong told me to play she had no idea she was asking met to both detox from the Whiteness I was addicted to while also releasing the safety I thought it provided me. I tried color in this coloring book. I didn’t like it. I felt stupid. What was the point? Were we going to sell the colored pages, Dr. Wong? I tried art journaling. I got distracted researching about the components of art journaling and the impact on the brain instead. At some point, there were bubbles and hula hoops, but that felt too Burning Man and though I was weaning myself off of Whiteness I wasn’t that addicted. If I went for a run or played volleyball or roller derby, all things I found pleasure in, I never felt the release of “play” because they had the specific assignment of helping me “be fit and control my weight”. The culture of White Supremacy is everywhere, y’all.

It wasn’t until I discovered play as a form of resistance in the service of Black Liberation that I was able to really feel what play was. Play and the components of play (wonder, curiosity, and creativity) became the vehicle for discovering the inherent power and joy in my Blackness. Stokely Carmichael taught us: “The society we seek to build among black people is not a capitalistic one. It is a society in which the spirit of community and of humanistic love prevail.”

A Letter to My Mother's Inner Child

jasmine banks

Hi Susan,

I want you to know that you are beautiful and powerful beyond measure. I want you to know that it is time to heal and thrive. Before you can heal, though, you need to hear some things. 

I'm so sorry that your family didn't believe you when you were brave enough to tell them what happened to you. I am sorry they didn't give you what you need to feel safe. Nothing that he did to you was your fault. You deserved to be believed, to be supported, and to be protected; it was wrong how much your family failed you. I'm sorry for the lies they taught you about yourself. You are not the troublemaker, the outcast, or the dramatic one. No. You were the family barometer. You know how butterflies and bees are the first to feel the impact of toxic environments? That is you, Susan. You are that powerful tender creature that alerted everyone that there was an overload of toxicity. Those folks thrived in the toxic environment, though, so they tried to crush your wings. 

But you survived.

I'm sorry you didn't have what you needed. I am sorry that you felt the constant anxiety and pain of not having enough to eat, the clothes you needed, and the warmth of routine and structure. You deserved safety and good love.  I'm sorry that you didn't feel like you had the option to follow your creative dreams. I want you to know that no matter how old you grow you always have permission to embrace your creativity. You are an artist. It makes sense that you abandoned art and creativity-- your fear and pain wouldn't let you imagine new worlds, so you abandoned it. You'll need to give yourself space to image again.

One day you'll marry a man and have two children. You'll use your resiliency and power to teach your two children how to navigate this world. You'll raise them to honor their Blackness. You'll teach them to fight injustice. You'll show your daughter, in particular, what it means to be a fierce woman and mother. Mother's aren't perfect, though and you'll hurt her. A lot. You won't believe her when she tells you about her sexual assault. Hurt people, after all, hurt people and you'll be confused about how to advocate for her-- you weren't given an example of that. She'll spend her teen years and twenties trying to reconcile her deep love for you with the deep wounds you've created. By her thirties she will understand you. She will understand why you made the choices you made. She will understand how your family and the world conditioned you and other sexual assault and incest survivors to self-blame and dismiss; to sweep the unsightly parts of abuse and violence under the rug. She will forgive you and move into an unshakeable respect and grace for you. You'll need to forgive yourself, though. That will be your most difficult task. You'll need to believe that she forgives you. She does. You'll need to tell yourself that you deserve grace, despite how heavy the weight of your regret is. You'll need to release the wonder and gnawing question of "what if I had believed her, what if I had acted differently?" The constant "what if" you put yourself through is further victim-blaming. You didn't know what you didn't know. You'll need to know that she advocated for daughter and protected her daughter like you never did for her. Like your mother never did for you. How astounding that you raised the daughter who would correct the family course and bring healing to all the women in your family who were never believed, protected, or fought for.

You did that, Susan. YOU birthed and raised and nurtured that warrior.

She was born from that pain, and now has a daughter who can thrive because of her actions. While she is healing, and her daughter is healing, it is time for you to heal too. Heal Susan. Release your regret. Let it float away and in its place let glorious hope, love, and grace fill in the cracks from the absent pain. May you be held together by the promise of what her daughter and her daughter and her daughter will do to transform the history of your suffering into deep and unmovable redemption.

Love Jasmine