Don’t Let It Get You Down
on the highs and lows of unapologetic blackness
You have to meet my dad to see him. To understand him. If you’re astute, you understand all of him, in a way, just from meeting. If you’re not, you understand nothing.
He is tomato-stained fingers and the lithe, limber body of an 8 year old, walking the leafy rows of solanum lycopersicumon at the Mexican border, a little agricultural worker in small sneakers, bits of dried bean and tortilla on his cheek.
He’s solitary confinement. He’s been in a nine-by-nine foot cell with another man, a toilet of shit and piss reeks inches from his head. He irons his clothes by spreading them under his mattress at night. He makes toilet paper by ripping apart paper bags and rubbing the pieces until they become soft. He teaches me these tricks. I’m his daughter. We sit in his hulking, dented Ford truck. He lights a cigarette and I love the smell of nicotine in the air. He tells me about how to iron without an iron, and how to make toilet paper, and how he lived in a tiny room with another man, the toilet next to his pillow, and how solitary confinement was, he says, alright with him.
He’s a 300 pound body, but he’s not fat. He’s black. He is massive hands and bear-paw feet, like me. He’s prison tattoos of naked women that have blurred and become brownish over the years, almost the color of his brown skin, and a knife clipped to his belt, Panther-style. He’s 77 years old, we think. He is brown eyes that are getting gauzy in old age and a grin as jolly, wide and loud as my daughter’s, wreathed in wiry tufts of beard. When he’s happy and excited, his voice shoots high and booms. He charms truckstop waitresses and soft-handed nurses and speaks Mexican to busboys. He can only bear-hug you, with his wide shoulders and six-foot-four body.
Which of these things did my baby sense when he arrived at our door, beard straggly, sweatshirt dirty, eyes twinkling, face beaming with a grandparent’s joy, clutching his cane and crying, “Heeeey Gemma!”
She’s 9 months old. I had her on my hip. Her lower lip jutted out and she made a sound of fearful protest, digging her fingers into my skin. I bounced her and said into her ear, “It’s Grandpa! It’s Grandpa, Gemma!” She was scared.
Is it because he’s black? Looking back over my false dreams that I once knew. Wondering why my dreams never came true. It is because he’s still a stranger, only visiting now and then? Is it because his voice is loud, a strepitoso cascade of pride and excitement? What 9 month old has learned to be afraid of black men? But they learn it somewhere, sometime, don’t they.
Sitting in the living room, Gemma stared at my dad with large blue eyes. When he leaned in to tickle her curls and say, “Hiii, Gemma!” she clutched me closer. He leaned back, away from her. “Does she do this with other people?”
“Yes,” I said. “It’s just because you’re new to her still. She’s at the stranger-danger age.”
But no, she doesn’t. Tears came to my eyes but I smiled and jangled wooden keys in front of my baby. “She’ll warm up.”
She did, eventually. Crawling to his chunky Payless sneakers, tugging his sweatpants and pulling herself into a stand, her neck stretched back to look up to his face, her pudgy, pale feet like tiny poundcakes on the hardwood floor.
“Want to hold her?”
“No, no, no. That’s ok.” He looked away again, into the kitchen, were my husband was making coffee.
“Oh, come on!” I cried.
“Nah. I don’t want to.” He said it casually, like he was declining a cup of tea.
I recognized it. It’s what makes me yell, “Stop it!” when my husband puts his arms around my waist and makes like he’s going to pick me up. I’m so heavy, heavier than I look, my father’s daughter, and I’m terrified of the humiliation I’d feel if my husband tried but could not lift me. That feet-dangling freedom is for other women, isn’t it. I’ve been picked up before. But that was long ago. They were not my husband.
It was fear, fear of humiliation, agony in the presence of those who matter most, infinitely worse than the humiliation of knowing your scare the women in the elevator who you will never see again.
“Really, dad, she’s fine.” Hiding my anxiety, imagining her shrieking as her little body landed on his leg, holding back tears, I set Gemma down on my dad’s old-man thigh.
He kissed the top of her head. “Hiii, Gemma!” he said, “Hiiiiii, Gemma!” and kissed her head again.
The wet curls fell to the linoleum floor in a crescent as the crisp slipping sound of scissors circled my ears. I stared at my reflection: round face, thicker than I prefer, what my girlfriend referred to as “pregnancy cheeks” though they apparently lasted long past delivery. Green eyes, smallish but bright and clear. Skin, a color that matches foundation names like Sand and Honey. Broad freckled nose and broad shoulders. No figure is flattered by the plastic tarp they drape over you at the salon. Mine seemed especially sad — pyramid-like and fleshy. Turning my face from side to side, feeling naked as a wet cat, the sleekness of my head as Oliver trimmed my dripping hair was unusual to me. Normally, my hair is large and ebullient. It rolls, fog-like, Titian puffs and swirls alighting on the wind around my head. I never see it stripped of volume, as it is when it’s wet, for long, and I looked strange and naked to myself.
“What every happened to Teddy?” I asked to make conversation.
“Teddy, wasn’t it? Your old assistant? Long blond hair, super skinny.”
“Oh, you mean Theo. He went and got fat. He’s thicka then a Snicka now. Anyway, he’s not here anymore.”
I turned back to my phone. Oliver is slim and feline and beautiful and black, with two striking daughters and two big-boobed, white ex wives. I’m awkward around him. I’ve known him for fifteen years but he still greets me — greets everyone — with a quick nod of his pretty face as his eyes run you top-to-bottom in a queenly way.
I try again, pointing to a photograph of Lupita N’yongo’s gleaming, black visage, hawking Lancome and proudly, too. “Isn’t she gorgeous? She can pull off short hair.”
“Mmmhmmm. You would never see her in a wig or weave.”
“No. It wouldn’t look right.”
“If you put a wig on her she’s ho-hum.” And we found our stride, so I kept flipping through In Style and we talked about who looked good and who looked bad.
At the magazine’s last page, I was happy. Smiling, I set the magazine on the counter and tapped the New York Times icon on my phone. Cleveland Officer Will Not Face Charges In Tamir Rice Shooting Death. It was December 28, 2015. A few days after Christmas, where my daughter had opened her first present, sitting rockily on the floor of our cramped, expensive apartment. A few days before New Year’s, when my husband and I would be asleep early, never sipping the cold sparkling cider we had.
A year before, the boy was playing. I can see him in black, gray, and white, like a negative. Cudell Park. It’s probably fake, but you know what, he’s scaring the [expletive] out of me. A wooden gazebo, picnic tables, and snow on grass. An old-style cop car, not the ritzy Chargers they drive in Detroit, fast, slamming to a stop. The muscles in that white arm lifting the officer’s gun. Two seconds.
“What is it?” Oliver asked.
“They’re not going to prosecute.”
“What do you mean?”
“They’re not going to prosecute the officers who killed that kid. In Ohio. The one with the toy gun.” I was staring at the headline but couldn’t remember Tamir Rice’s name. “You saw the video, I’m sure. It was the one where it was two seconds?”
“Hmm,” he said. “I think I saw that.”
It’s hard to describe the particular resignation American blackness sometimes feels like. It’s a silence that swallows sound. It’s an impassive reflection in the mirror, the heart stinking of sweat, emotions dreadfully huge, so massive you must look away. They’re a dirty syringe on your doorstep — who the hell left this here? — but you’ve got to hurry and start your day, so you step on over. It feels like stopping time and disappearing, sliding through that tiny rip you used to press your eye to years ago, when you were little, but what you saw made no sense: candlelit ships bobbing on still Atlantic waters, the hedge of New World green at the horizon, the smell of sex and menstrual fluid and pus from somewhere, and is that the sound of a violin?
I couldn’t read the article. But I thought of Tamir Rice. I thought of my helplessness. I thought of fake cigarettes, and loud music, and cigarillos in a shoplifter’s hand on a hazy security camera tape, and of invisible fire climbing the walls. Like a nightmare I had, where my throat had been slit and I needed help! But my throat was slit so I could not ask for help. What is wrong with you people! Can’t you see the fire? Can’t you smell it? We are going to burn alive in here!
“Hey, now,” Oliver warned, “Don’t let it get you down.”
I didn’t answer.
“Come on, now,” he warned again. “It’s just how the world is. Don’t let it get you down.”
Something about Oliver suddenly seemed older. He’s ageless in the way of many black people. Is he 35? 50? But in that moment — when cautionary weariness met c’est la vie ennui — his years shown. I remembered him once telling me how his grandma and aunties would box his ear if he ever made the mistake of placing their handbags on the floor. I pictured the living room, an arsenic-and-old-lace Southern space, dim sunlight through the windows, pretty patterns on the fabric. He was from California, not the south, but it didn’t matter to my imagination.
And then there was the specter of Mammy. How she loomed! Squeezed into her bright blue silk dress, the fabric with no give rippling at the bust seams, her thick fingers dipping french fries slow into ketchup, staring into space, a bulwark of a woman, her very body an afront. She was the joke, the dread, the fear, alone in the diner. Did she fit into the booth? Or was that table cutting into her stomach so hard it hurt? (Poor Mammy! Even sitting peaceful and serene in her blue dress, there it was like a trickster ghost around her neck: that sassy wagging finger, that neck pumping left and right like a deranged African chicken, that angry voice, that bursting-sausage body all full of attitude and know-how and the beastly ability to bear all burdens.) She was the blond guy’s naked heels in leather loafers, those heels digging in, his friends pushing him on with their pink palms at his back, snickering their little-boy giggles as he resisted. He must have lost a bet. She’s the joke.
Or is she something else? Maybe she isn’t sitting in a diner, eating quietly. She’s in the country, chomping grass, inviting sex as cluelessly as a sheep tail-up in a field. Maybe he could imagine it, his naked feet, her body a water bed beneath him. Ugly and so very not white, but there, between her titanic thighs, there was still something worth finding, if only in the dark.
She heaved. Her breasts too huge for beauty. Her breasts more like the barrel torsos of milking cows than anything that could be cupped tenderly by lace or hands. That goddamn Mammy heaved alongside me. Up the red stairs. Up the hill. Stop breathing so hard! I’d tell her. Huffing along, as puffed up as a blimp.
And if she is real, how do I escape her? Do I smother her? Lug her dead dark girth through the dirt like cans on a dog’s tail? Into a ravine filled with ivy and moss. At the bottom, only the deer with their sweet noses and dainty legs will see her. I will say, I’m sorry Mammy, and maybe someday I’ll cry.
Or do I costume her up? Teach her how to walk: light steps, ballet flats. No high heels, never never; it’s be a pretty girl, not a giant. It’s be as-much-like-a-white-girl, not a bulldozer. Teach her to lie about shoe and bra and dress size. Teach her to smile and high five and agree. Teach her so well that she cries, in honest disbelief, “No, they’re not!” when, years later, a lifetime away, in a Brooklyn boutique with stacks of thin silk and cotton and a fig tree in the window, a saleslady offers her a different blouse to try because her shoulders are so broad. I could do that. I can do that, and with less blood on my hands. No one dies, no one kills, gets shoved into the deer’s valley; I just teach her to hold her breath. Be pretty. Be peachy manicures and diamond studs and lip gloss. It really does make a difference to suck your gut in, Mammy. Well, almost a difference. Almost pretty. There’s a limit to what costuming can do. Stop breathing so hard. But it’s better than it was before.
And if someone asks who’s that, or guesses that’s she’s in me?
Who do you mean — I don’t see anyone, I’ll say. If anyone asks then that’s what I’ll say. Me? God, no. That’s just the specter of Mammy. If they ask, that’s what I’ll say.