How to hold grief in a black body when that very black body is often what causes you grief (A VERY LONG ESSAY. I WROTE TODAY ABOUT LIVING IN A NEW AREA SORRY IN ADVANCE HAHA)
feel free to read or scroll on by- just wanted to put my thoughts into the world.
I moved into a new apartment community to start my 3rd year of dental school. It is pretty nice and stretches my budget thin. I am renting this nice studio under the Thomas M. Haverford mantra of “treat yourself” but I panic a bit, thinking about trying to make rent on the 2nd of each month.
The leasing office posters shout “Spacious pool, open from 8 AM to 10 PM!!!” and “Free Starbucks coffee from Signature Coffee Roaster in 2nd-Floor Resident Lounge every morning!!” and of course, “ALL TRESPASSERS PROHIBITED”.
I try to take advantage of the former while trying to ignore the latter. Sure, that means trying to get free coffee and adding 7 free sugars and 6 free milks before I head to school. That also means trying to operate the yuppie asf roasting machine in the lounge as a few white residents work quietly. I’ve done this song-and-dance twice now, and the coffee is not that great. Even though the steps are familiar (add 7 sugars, look around to make sure nobody is watching, and add an 8th), it still send shivers down my spine to operate the large machine clumsily and be a black body, loudly.
Nobody looks at me as the machine laboriously grinds the beans, but I feel it in my body. Chet and Hank are likely too engrossed in their own work to care about the new resident who is the visual opposite of them grabbing a grande cup, but my amygdala feels like it’s on fire. I am nervous that my hair looks a little too unruly today. That the machine that makes my coffee is too noisy and calls attention to me in a very quiet space.
I stir my cup. I don’t feel like I belong here, even though I’ve paid my rent for the rest of June. Even hough I pay the community amenities fee, and I dutifully drink the shitty coffee they bragged about on the 2nd floor. I smile when the nice, white twenty-something woman later holds the elevator door for me. But ALL TRESPASSERS PROHIBITED, and they must be talking about me.
I often wonder if the people around me think about race as patently and as constantly as I do. The main street I drive from my school to my apartment is called Jefferson. Jefferson street is kinda worn down and sports uneven and rickety roads. When I see people walking up, down, and across Jefferson street, they sort of look like their bones are in disrepair. They look hot and uncomfortable, and I get the sense that many walk this street out of necessity, not out of leisure. Some people hang out in the bus stations, or sit down on the curb until whatever next happens. I see what seems to be a black mom with young kids selling sugary drinks to passing by cars. It is not a well-run operation, and I’m somewhat worried that the kids might get hit in the street.
I try not to stare. I mostly want to defend Jefferson from any outside or judgmental eyes, and struggle with the judgmental eyes that are on my own body. I know I don’t want to live on Jefferson street, and I know why I don’t want to live on Jefferson street, but I hate that my “why” feels so bad. We talk all the time about white guilt being useless, but my black guilt in my black body is useless x 10. Every time I drive down Jefferson, I promise myself that I’ll work through this tension later.
It’s just a 5 minute commute between my campus lab and my new place. The very last minute on Jefferson before getting home, I turn onto Madison. Madison street has white moms sitting down over plates of farro and kale and white guys who run with Hydroflasks. The white people stroll Madison street, and it feels like leisure to me. Their bones don’t look as creaky to me, but I haven’t seen their x-rays.
(There is also an incredibly curated farmer’s market on Madison street too, with $9 juice bars, $15 chicken breasts, and $12 oat milk. I groan at this market, in recognition of capitalism and the bourgeois and bourgeois tastes and the hobby that people make out of being “farmy” and “rustic”, knowing that the street before my apartment is an effective food desert and that $15 meat/lb cannot be a thing for so many people.
And though I do the performative groan, I am secretly pleased that I can finally try Camembert cheese, though, because the Farmer’s market is a 5 minute walk and I can grab some when I have the time on the weekends. I guess that that’s leisure, and it sort of leaves a bad taste in my mouth; that my first instinct was to feel excited to go for a summer walk and try a fancy type of cheese when many people just want transportation and food to eat and free time. And I guess that makes my stomach hurt a little, and not just because I’m insanely lactose intolerant.
— I still have a black body, you know.)
And I know that can’t pin the weight of the bourgeois class onto singular individuals named Lindsay or Travis, just because they like farmer’s markets and strolling for fun. It is not fair to pin whole systems onto individuals. I cannot put the burdens of class warfare upon singular basic bitches who just really like acai bowls. I know that L and T are not just the white hobbies that they do and despite their balayage highlight endeavors, they are real, whole people too.
I try to remind myself that it’s not fair, either, to paint moralizing, bildungsroman narratives onto the people who walk Jefferson street.
(I’m truthfully bit disappointed that it’s easier for me to come up with white people hobbies than it is to know black people in their fullness.
My best friend from church grew up with me in very similar circumstances. Being black in a very white environment, being African in a very homogenous, “America first!!” town, being part of a weird religion that squandered experience or exploration, wondering if there’d ever be a day where we could be considered attractive or valuable or more than an outsider in the town in which we lived. Because social assimilation was the path of least resistance, as we couldn’t change our physical, dissimilar attributes, sometimes we joke that we grew up white. I think it’s a joke, at least, but this is why I know white hobbies and Katy Perry lyrics like the back of my hand.)
Though I grew up white in a very black body, I’m now realizing that it’s not super fair to paint broad assumptions about either group. For a long time, whiteness, for me, was shorthand for a life of comfort and ease. My partner is white and I know from their experiences that a life of ease and comfort is not true for all white people in all white circumstances. And even if you are so white that you search out the perfect summer squash for your Alison Roman-devised “Slaw with Feta and Toasted Buckwheat” recipe or pay hundreds of dollars to do goat yoga alongside your spiritual advisors, I know that your life is not without pain. You cannot flatten a life because that life does not face a particular system of racial oppression.
And even if you’re in a bad way, and you have to walk down Jefferson street in the heat, and the schools in the area are not the greatest, and the farmer’s market is not immediately accessible, and your home is being gentrified as I type, as I type on my Macbook in my air-conditioned Madison street apartment, 5 minutes away from your wandering, I know that your life is not all pain. You cannot flatten a life because that life faces a large and very visible system of racial and economic oppression.
But if you allow these theoretical considerations for this essay, it’s hard for me to not see the systems first before I see the individual. ‘Cause a system is large and interesting and fascinating and troublesome and individuals don’t always live up to these terms. When a weird thing happens between a black person and a white person, or a woman and a man, or a straight person and a queer person, or an older person and a young whippersnapper, I think systems, systems, systems.
It makes sense that I like doing systems analyses of localized social interactions; close readings were my favorite part of my study in college, and wrestling with a tension, a circumstance, or a conversation between two unlike actors existing in the systems that surround us makes my brain feel useful. It makes me feel smart, and maybe a little unrelatable to people who don’t see the world as a series of interlocking problems, and I kind of revel in it.
I sometimes feel myself writing for a very specific academic audience, who might find me smart and my grappling with these contentions admirable (or perhaps a little nauseating, depending on the person). It is mostly in service of my ego — my overarching life goals are to look hot and be interesting, of course — but I sometimes wish I found enjoyment in more substantive things.
I mean, though I see such textbook problems with the Jefferson and Madison St. divide, and the same between Big Bend and Delmar, I am not actively stopping the gentrification as we speak. I am not becoming a lawmaker and making things better for the people of Jefferson. I am not having productive conversations and challenging the people of Madison on their entitlement to Nashville even though they are likely transplants like me, sucking up the air, and making trends out of the hot chicken that would have been considered ghetto just 15 years ago. I am not always finding ways to make things safer and healthier and more full of life for all people, on all streets.
I’m mostly just thinking about these tensions, and getting mad at my brain for devoting so much of my time and energy to fruitless mindspirals about race and class and social oughts and unspoken communications about what happens in a moment when a nice, white twenty-something woman holds the elevator door for me, after she gets out of the pool full of very white friends in an “up-and-coming!” community on an incredibly curated street. She asks if I’m new here and tells me “Welcome to Germantown!”, and I am the only black resident she’s likely seen because I haven’t seen anybody else here who looks like me and I don’t know if she’s feeling any of the artifice that I do. I mean, both nothing at all and something interesting happens in that moment, you know what I mean? She said “Welcome!” and I’m sitting here trying to map out a critical theory of race from that one interaction.
It’s ouroboros, and it feels like both a systems thing and a localized thing, depending on the view. I don’t know that it’s totally self-defeating to take a system’s panorama — there’s a lot of definable tensions that could have been happening in just that one interaction above — , but I recognize that it’s not very material. You can’t pay a bill with understanding how systems interact in this world. (If you could, I wouldn’t be so nervous about doing “treat yourself” rent calculations for July.)
Is my hobby simply problematizing the world? Is it okay to write a long diatribe about the things I’ve noticed in the three days of living on this intersection of streets named after, uh, dead presidents who owned slaves? Knowing that Jefferson was the first street, the only street there, until Madison happened and displaced a whole lot of people and whole lot of culture? Is it cowardly to find pure interest in thinking about the problems of the world, without doing diddly squat about these problems, actively living in the place I’m criticizing for gentrification while still not really wanting to consider living on Jefferson?
I guess you can call me a coward, but don’t make me feel bad about it. I do enough of that on my own.
I guess that people are people, and systems are systems and people have to live in and interact with systems all the time.
I live in a nice apartment on Madison street and my amygdala will likely remind me of that for the next two years. I don’t live on Jefferson street, and my conscience might haunt me the same. Home doesn’t really feel like either of the two, Madison or Jefferson, and I both resent and cherish the fact that I have to keep straddling this physical/emotional intersection. Thinking about this quandary makes me feel useful, but it also makes me feel mad. How fruitless these thoughts are, that cannot solve the world or make the world less painful. How angry it makes me that people do not have access to good food but then 5 minutes later they have access if they’re willing to play the part, change their name to Connor, pay 3x as much for produce that won’t stretch as far, and stroll instead of wander.
I have a black body, I am a black body- I don’t know which of the two comes first. I feel grief often, knowing that my brain wouldn’t feel so tired and exhausted if I didn’t so often plan out conversations or see the world in systems or analyze interactions at the shitty Starbucks signature coffee roaster like it’s a close reading for a senior-year sociology thesis.
I started this essay as a lament of what it feels like to feel so abnormal when you’re trying to get coffee from a loud machine and you seem to be interrupting white men’s workspace productivity. I’m not sure if what I’ve written has helped me to feel better or feel worse. I am 1000% sure Hank and Liam, or whatever I named them, are going about their days and are not using their brain energy to see the world in a series of problems, and I certainly don’t blame them. I don’t think they hold the blame for this grief that I feel; the systems do. H and L likely don’t get off like I do, thinking about the visible and invisible, physical and nonphysical tensions of race, class, poverty, and comfort. (And if they did, ew lmao.)
I wrote a tiny bit of this today to remind you all that I am smart, and I am hot, and I work hard to achieve these things and be seated in your mind as these things, thank you very much! ✨
I wrote most of this today to relieve some of the pressure on my amygdala and to recollect myself, and remind myself that people are people and systems are systems and even when they interact in very strange ways, people and systems cannot always be solved. Some of this is an elephantine weight on my brain, but I’m learning to sit with it. I’m learning to bear witness to people’s experiences, in their suffering and in their joy, and am learning that sometimes, acknowledging the existence of suffering is all you can do to keep your consciousness afloat.
I guess I like to problematize the world, because the world has not always been kind or fair to me (and to be fair — most of us). So I want to make problems out of all of the unkind and unfair things about the world, obsess about the details, be stressed out about the optics about living here when the only other black people I’ve seen here are service workers, light my amygdala on fire, think about writing a book one day, groan at my hubris and think instead about posting this on Facebook and instagram instead, wonder if I can ever settle the tensions in my head about where I live and where I pass by to get to where I live, wonder about how I often wander, and how often I tell myself that I’m strolling. I suppose that the problems of this world cannot always be solved and I find that interesting.
Call me a coward, but don’t tell me that I’m not interesting.