Beetle Does “Crazy”
BY BEETLE BAILEY
There is no monolith of Blackness.
Being Black is not all Black things to all Black people. A large part of it, sometimes, is simply being not-white. I’m not white. But my not-whiteness is more than just a sometimes-unfortunate skin condition. The not-whiteness is soul-deep—a mentality.
Whenever I apply for something online or over the phone, I'm not white, like a job or a school. The first thing I wonder when the communication ends well is: “Oh, dear. Do they know I’m Black?”
I mean, did I type or speak too code-switched? Maybe it’s just me, but even though I’m not white . . . I don’t wake up Black. I don’t yawn and roll out of my bed a fully-actualized, weight-of-history-and-slavery-and-disenfranchisement-and-oppression-and-racism’s-continuing-drain-on-American-society, Black African-American.
(That shit doesn’t happen till at least after I’ve brushed my teeth. And usually, not till I step out my front door.)
So, will I go for the official interview and be greeted with wide, perplexed blue eyes because I’m just so darned — as my mother’s generation puts it — tall?
Because it’s pretty much like I said: I’m not Black sitting at home in bed. When I step out the door is a different story. One that starts and ends with my skin, as far as the world-at-large is concerned.
Unsurprisingly, I prefer phone interviews to in-person ones, even if I have to ask myself that question.
Do they know I’m Black?
And I always ask it. And a lot of times, on the heels of it: Do I?
I must. Because being Black is like being crazy, right? Once others start to notice that you are, life can become tougher to being unbearable, in some ways. And though you may not be as crazy or as Black as they expect you to be, even one drop of either is more than enough to damn you.
My earliest memory of being crazy is when I’m about four years old. I spend an entire afternoon lying on my mother’s bed, staring up at the ceiling, and grinning. I’m wallowing in a bliss deeper than anyone has ever known. At the ripe, old age of not-five, I’ve learned to make my own fun. But this . . . is more than having fun. I’m dazed with euphoria — high on my own feelings. And it’s fantastic. Joyous. Perfect.
And then . . . it ends.
Suddenly, surprisingly, sadly, it stops. I’m left beached and stranded on the shores of my Self, mourning a joy so transcendent, even an iota less feels like the very bowels of Hell itself.
I go from breathless ecstasy to sobbing with despair, curled into a ball, my eyes squeezed shut.
This is a working definition of crazy, though I don’t know it at the time. Because growing up, I’m taught, through example, that Black people don’t “do” crazy if nothing else. And I’m taught that by Black people. That counseling and shrinks are for rich, self-indulgent white people. But Black folks are made of sterner stuff. We’ve evolved and adapted to have a bootstrap-mentality. We don’t get help for our problems from outsiders, no matter how well-meaning. We pull ourselves up by ourselves. Mind over matter. Racial dignity, above all.
And there I stand, for most of my life, in the shadow of the imposing, imaginary Monolith of my own race . . . the great, lasting shadow of them—those people. But never do I feel like part of that monolith until just before applying to college.
I’m eighteen, and the woman on the phone seems surprised that I have college on my mind and in my sights.
She proceeds to ask me what I’m interested in studying.
“Fine Art,” I say, my mind flying 3,000 miles west, as it so often does, to the Academy of Art in San Francisco. The place I’d already sent away for and received a brochure and course catalog from. “I want to be an artist!”
Of course, I do. Everyone that has known Rachel Elaine Bailey for even a little while knows that she’s nothing if not an artist. Including the woman on the phone, who’s known me since I was six. She knows.
Or so I think until her next words:
“Oh, really? You want to be an artist?
“Yes! Art is my favorite thing ever! I love it so much!”
“Hmm. What do you love about it?” The woman on the phone is still amused, but now there’s disdain and dismissal in her tone, too. Naked boredom with whatever she assumes I’ll say and unhidden incredulity at what I’ve said so far. “Who’s your favorite artist? What’s your favorite kind of art?”
I blink at the kitchen with unseeing eyes, obscurely hurt and incredulous, myself. Because she knows me. The woman on the phone knows me.
“Vincent van Gogh is my favorite artist. Though Degas is a close second. Followed by Toulouse-Lautrec, Manet and Monet, and Dali. Mt favorite movements are Impressionism, followed by post-Impressionism . . . mostly for their uses of color and perspective, which is the same reason why I don’t particularly like Cubism. Obviously.”
A long beat. Then: “Obviously,”
Suddenly, I’m angry for the reason that is both familiar and baffling. Familiar because I’m used to people assuming that I’m a quart low in the brains department. Baffling because I’ve never experienced that feeling with the woman on the phone.
The woman on the phone isn’t just people; she’s my uncle’s wife.
She’s my aunt.
“I’m really impressed by pointillism and post-Impressionism is, in my opinion, such a pure mode of expression. Even more so than Expressionism.”
“That, it is.” My aunt is a district court judge, educated and intelligent, and a woman I’ve admired for most of my life. She’s well-rounded. So, surely, she knows what I’m talking about, right?
Surely, she knows what she’s talking about?
And she knows that I know what I’m talking about, too, right? Does she know me? That I, too, am educated (self) and intelligent, too, right? Well-rounded?
She knows all of this, right? After all this time and proof?
Of course, here, at least, is one of the few people I don’t have to prove myself to constantly?
No, I realize suddenly, as she completely changes the subject to other things. But my gob-smacked, circling mind and aching, stuttering heart revolve around one chain of thought:
Even in her eyes, the eyes of an aunt whom I love, I’m one of “those people.” One of “them.” And no matter how smart I am, or how cultured I make myself . . . no matter how well-behaved I am, no matter how good I talk — how well I speak — I’ll always be “one of them . . . one of those people” to her. And if to her, then surely to the rest of the world. For all my trying, all my fighting against the tide, I am these people. The river I can no longer fight against has taken me out to a sea where all the fish are different versions of me.
I am one of them. One of us.
And I tell myself to accept that. That I will accept it, even if it takes me the rest of my life.
Eighteen years later, I’m . . . working on it. Still.
But it’ll happen.
Right! With a little bearing-up-under and bootstrap-mentality!
And it works for a good while. But by the time I’m thirty-four, bootstrap-mentality has failed me finally and catastrophically. A nervous-breakdown lands me in Benedictine’s psych ward.
Clearly, I’m horrible at being Black. It’s like I didn’t even read the owner’s manual that came with my skin!
During my eight-day stay at Bennie’s, I make friends — whose names I’m changing to protect the guilty-by-association — who become my boon companions on a Dante-Esque journey that’s equal parts Purgatorio and Inferno.
There’s Helen, who’s gentle, sweet, and loves only two things more than her two children: Jesus and Neil Young.
There’s Shawna, a mother as well, young, motivated to get well, and afflicted with a lasting and deep mania.
Melanie — tall, blonde, and silent — is my roommate. And she likes peeing and pooping with the door to our shared bathroom open. Once, she wakes me up, screaming at the top of her lungs and running up and down the ward's hall. She’s fun.
And last but not least, is Daren: a young, self-described Ryan Gosling-lookalike. He hears voices and tends to anthropomorphize inanimate objects, such as throw pillows. He also harkens back to the days of Tzar Nicholas and King Leopold II of Belgium.
In a place where the wheels frequently squeak — and scream, weep, scratch, and even bite — we do not squeak. Of the five of us, I’m the sanest-presenting — a sad commentary on all our respective states. But I’m obscurely proud of the fact that I voluntarily checked into the straight-jacket hotel and didn’t scream once during my stay.
Of the many faces and names I collect in that week, I remain closest with Darren, who gives the strong impression that I am the first Black friend he’s ever made, let alone the first coco-loco one. I think our shared mental illness, which includes psychotic symptoms, is a source of endless surprise for him, as well as the fact that I can and do stand toe-to-toe with him on matters of history, literature, and philosophy. I intrigue him, like a dog that’s suddenly stood on its hind legs and begun to recite passages from Anna Karenina, in the original Russian.
I come to wonder if the medical staff finds me as baffling a patient as Daren does a friend.
I’m likely an anomaly to them for not embodying that wonderful, old stereotype of the Strong Black Woman (TM), never realizing that of those three things, I’m only one of them.
My bootstrap-mentality is small, trembling, and malformed. Practically nonexistent. Because Black people who are good at being Black don’t do crazy, craziness implies facets of personality and character that we, the Black monolith, are rarely allowed. But then, sometimes, I have something even better than personality or “character.”
See, whenever I apply for something online or over the phone, like a job or a school, the third thing I wonder when the communication ends well is: “Heeeeeeey . . . do they know I’m Black?”
Because there’re quotas and shit, last I heard. Affirmative Action and all that jazz. I want to get down on that as soon as humanly possible, to avoid the other hordes of minorities going out for this job, this school, or even this credit card!
I mean, let’s be honest here: I’m a good writer. Maybe even a little better than that. But it never hurts to have a little extra leverage when trying to get into an exclusive MFA creative writing program—a little extra oomph or pizzazz. I’ve got that. I have a card up my sleeve — a race-card — and it’s the ace of motherfucking spades! It says that whatever I want, whenever I want it, all I have to do is flash that card or even just let someone know I’m holding it, and I get whatever it is I’m after.
So . . . that job? MINES!
That college with the full-ride for exceptional students? MINES!
That credit card with the low introductory APR and the sky-high limit? MI —
Okay, maybe not that, ’cause my credit’s so bad, right now, that even the ace-of-motherfucking-spades race-card can’t excuse it.
So, look out, phone jockeys everywhere. This Black person is comin’ at ya with her big, wrinkly brain and bright, shiny race-card, and she’s gonna be all up in ya jobs, all up in ya colleges, but probably not all up in ya credit cards. At least not for a few more years.
And maybe, once I have my nice, cushy job thanks to my nice, cushy full-ride to an MFA — the one that’s guaranteed by my race-card — I’ll be all up in ya neighborhoods and penthouses, too. Thanks to my race-card. The one I will never — can never — leave home without.
It’s pretty much like I said: I may not be Black sitting at home in bed. But as far as the world-at-large is concerned, once I roll up out that front door, I’m the weight of history and the sum of my experiences.
And those experiences can be taken to the professional bank if one can play ’em right.
So, it’s not surprising that every once in a while, I prefer in-person interviews and nosy applications’ race-boxes I can tick or fill in, to the anonymity and color-blindness of a phone, online, or non-quota-focused application. Even if I have to ask myself that question:
Do they know I’m Black?
And I do ask it. And on the heels of it, I think: Maybe not . . . but they gon’ find out.
Beetle’s story was originally written and performed as part of TMI Project’s Black Stories Matter program and was recently released as an episode of The TMI Project Podcast. Season 2: Black Stories Matter launched on October 28th, 2020, and new episodes air every Wednesday.
Black Stories Matter provides Black-led true storytelling workshops where Black folks can write about, share, and reflect upon their experiences without having to justify, explain, or defend the truth of their lived experiences. The culminating content — written stories, live storytelling performances, videos, and podcasts — is accessible to an all-inclusive audience.