Saving is a waiting game, but I can still be active in budgeting, learning and looking ahead.
“Love in action is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.” – Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov
A nice thought:
I remember watching The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring for the first time in middle school. My eyes feasted on the beauty of Peter Jackson’s computer generated Rivendell. What a dream of daydreams! Rivendell was achingly gorgeous. I say “achingly” because 1) the breathtaking landscape of “Middle Earth” was unfortunately half-a-globe away in New Zealand and 2) black elves, brown skinned elves, anything other than “fair skinned” elves—or characters—did not exist in Tolkien’s vision. So, dark skinned characters did not and could not exist in Rivendell either… ?
In the movies, “The Return of the King” to be precise, evil men who fight against the men of Gondor and Rohan and serve Lord Sauron, may not have been played by actors of color–it’s hard to really tell given the attire they are assigned: turbans, face paint–, but nevertheless they are presented as “ethnic” in ways that resemble the real-world global South. And the “ethnic” folk are on the side of evil..
Despite these observations, I wanted to imagine myself, in my brown skin, as a player in Tolkien’s epic tale, a player for love, life, honor, laughter and re-creation. I so enjoyed his storytelling on the screen and on the page; I wanted to get lost in it, go on an adventure, elegantly kick a** and ride a horse with medieval weaponry, speak a dialect of elvish, then think up a love story with Legolas Greenleaf comparable to that of Arwen Undómiel and Aragorn son of Arathorn of course ;). I did wrestle with giving myself permission to exist in my own fantastic addendum, even in my tween thoughts: Hm. There’s no place for you, I felt at one point, but also, I wouldn’t change my color. That would mean I hated my skin, and I wouldn’t trade erasure of my skin for any fantasy. How can I imagine this place and me in it?
Ultimately, I scrapped the racial limitations of Tolkien’s universe and gave myself full permission to fancy however and whomever I fancied in my own head. In doing so, I didn’t stop at creating a story line that made room for myself only, but for a whole clan of melanated elves of Middle Earth. My black character came from their community, a community that was not yet known to the “fair skinned peoples” at the time of Frodo’s journey to Mordor. I would arrive at Minas Tirith and meet Legolas there after the One Ring’s destruction and before Legolas sailed to Undying Lands. Tolkien’s intentions and the Appendix did not matter. As Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka sings in the 1971 film, “Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory”:
“There is no
Life I know
To compare with pure imagination
You’ll be free
If you truly wish to be.”
I was free in my own thoughts; I had changed an imaginary world that wasn’t initially created with me in the picture. The real world however, whose realities at one point imposed on my imagination, remained unchanged.
Dreams and Reality:
There are spaces, places, identities that others do not conceive, have not conceived, cannot conceive me inhabiting as a black female. Unlike in my dreams, I cannot will hospitality and warm welcome of my existence into another’s conception of the space they believe I ought to inhabit.
Think about a glass of water. When you are dehydrated, is thinking about water the same as locating water, filling your cup and drinking deep?
Think about how things could be or should be–how you desire they be. Is it the same as taking initiative to realize those ideas in the physical world?
It was a nice thought to escape to Middle Earth, overcome a narrative where I previously did not exist, bypass adversity, start wars, end wars, make allegiances, envision mutual curiosity, respect, honor, and peace between different peoples. It was nice to envision abiding in equal value duly recognized and honored by other communities that I engaged.
To realize the deepest desires of our dreams like we are guzzling water and quenching thirst will require making ourselves vulnerable to life in the flesh. And it doesn’t always feel nice.
“There is no safe investment. To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements; lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket – safe, dark, motionless, airless – it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation.” – C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves
In middle school, I also took interest in the idea of living in a log cabin in the woods. On our first trip to Disney World, we drove past three models clustered along the interstate. More specifically, I envisioned living in a log cabin in the woods atop a high hill or mountain where the trees would clear just enough to see the peaks of the range from a paneled, floor to ceiling living room window.
By 7th grade, my family and I had already taken several trips to Ohio, winding through the Appalachian Mountains of Pennsylvania. Thus, my exposure to the majesty of tree-covered mountain tops. I remember how adrenaline began to pump through my veins in anticipation of the road merging down to two lanes, one lane hugging the mountainside and the other hugging the drop-off. I remember wondering at the sheerness of the drop below my car window, the distance we could tumble beyond the negligible shoulder and barrier of modest height. If I caught a glimpse of the railing, would I be reassured of my safety or not?
A few hours into the drive, Utlrasheen or Liv, would have already begun to make its way down my face, “moisturizing” my forehead first and foremost. I didn’t want my face to touch the glass and cloud the view, so I’d bring my face close enough to the car window to nearly touch it, then peer down to hopelessly attempt to follow the blur of greenery zipping past my eyes, to savor the slow roll of the valley passing inch by inch across my sight, to spot the white church steeple, to spot the barrier, a barrier, any barrier, to calm my fears.
Driving through the mountains, I was both nervous and mesmerized.
So, when I saw the cabins along I-95 in North Carolina, their exterior walls varying in exposure of wood grains and bark, glorifying and explicitly reminding viewers of the natural origins from whence they’d come, I thought of how perfect they would be in the mountains. How lovely would it be for me to live in a log cabin in the mountains?
:Dreams and Reality:
As years went on, the idea of a log cabin as a real life choice might as well have taken up residence next to the black elves of Rivendell. It became more and more of whimsical thought for two main reasons:
First: It did not fit well into the program for success that mainstream middle class and popular culture prescribed. Forest-dwelling cabin life was not part of the picture of an undergraduate degree, graduate degree, well-paying/high-paying/life-defining career, home ownership, a committed romantic relationship, children, stability, security, security and… stability. It at least didn’t fit in before retirement.
Second: I do not recall a clear moment when I told myself, Black people do not move to rural areas on purpose, but at some point I internalized that belief. It didn’t end there: Given my heritage, black people should not aspire to something so low. I mean, were my parents investing in me, was I aiming to get a good education and high paying job, was my existence as high achieving student–defying society’s low expectations for my black female life–all for me to runaway from material cosmopolitans and frolic in a forest? To write it out, the question kind of feels like blasphemy. In the face of what black family before me had persevered through and endured in order to make life better for their offspring–me, to aspire to living in a rural cabin easily sounds disrepectful.
My immediate reaction to video footage of 30 something Lorraine Hansberry enjoying life in her cabin in the woods of upstate New York, exposed this: No matter which puzzle I was thinking over, I had come to believe in limitations based on the color of my skin.
What silent messages about race, place and space had I resigned to agree with over time? When did I begin to tell myself that being black, I could not or ought not exist in certain places nor do certain things?
When did I become complacent with the brokenness in this society, in this world, and accept the real life equivalent that there are no black people in Middle Earth?
In my mind, I am free to and free from. I am unexposed. Everything is figment; everything is subject to my will. There is no harm, but there is also no love. I am invulnerable. I am alone.
In the real world, I am free to but not free from. I am always navigating different levels of exposure as I relate other people. I am vulnerable–We are vulnerable, subject to a universe of Others outside of our control.
Risk of harm is unavoidable unless I lock myself away and Don’t go there. Risk of love, healing, overcoming, redemption, restorative justice however, is unattainable unless we Do go there.
If there is a singular message I would have to this next generation as they’re seizing control of this world [it’s]: Don’t succumb to lovelessness no matter how much evil you face. ‘Cause you poison yourself and you poison your own community when you succumb to lovelessness.” – Will Smith, “A Conversation on being Black in America with Angela Rye”
In my body, with my life:
The car looked and smelled like light debauchery.
Did someone have a birthday party in the front seat??
Significant evidence either of great enthusiasm or chaos lay visible on the passenger side floor. I could understand a few crumbs from eating while the vehicle was in motion, but how did they manage to lose large chunks of cake on the carpet? And how did they not clean it up? I had considered the possibility of unpleasant surprises should I reserve a $7 per hour ZipCar parked on a college campus. I thought it highly unlikely given my previous ZipCar experiences had all been very positive. This was my first repulsively filthy experience.
I hugged my backpack and purse close to my frame as I leaned inside to inspect the rest of the surfaces. Where was it safe to put down my bags? How much contact with unidentified residue would be unavoidable? [I am a recovering germophobe.] I decided it must have been a Black Forest Cake with white frosting and cherry colored filling/decoration.
There was cake in the backseat too, in streaks and smudges on the fabric as well as on the floor. There were stains unrelated to the cake as well. At least there were more in the back than in the front. The least number of stains were on the driver’s seat. I set down my bag on the passenger’s side. If a sudden stop risked it tumbling to the ground, I could catch it before it fell into the cake. My coat served as a shield to guard the rest of my clothing and from touching the seat. My hands have to touch the wheel, I told myself, I must remember not to touch my face.
The car wasn’t only an eye sore, it smelled, it smelled, it smelled. Dread weighed on my chest. It smelled like the closet at my last apartment. Or more specifically, did it smell like the blanket that I used to fill in cracks around the closet door? The blanket reduced the smell of weed that seeped into the closet from the neighbor’s bedroom below and kept the strongest wafts of cannabis from reaching my face as I lie near the floor in my platform bed. I smelled the blanket before I tossed it while packing to move. The car reminded me of the odor. Maybe I feared the possibility so greatly–the possibility of the scent being old weed, that I couldn’t consider any other explanation for the dull, sour, earthy aroma.
I needed to get on the road, and hopefully today would not be the first time that I got stopped driving-while-black in Vermont.
Reality and Dreams:
I traveled to Vermont on April 11, 2019 for an open mic poetry event celebrating black poets hosted by the Rutland Area NAACP. A black writer and poet myself, I trusted this would be the perfect opportunity to finally meet Vermonters of color and to connect with people, white or non-white, mobilized to support POCs in the predominantly white state. I especially hoped to meet their President, Tabitha Moore, with whom I had already spoken on at least two occasions prior to that Thursday afternoon. I appreciated her honest sharing about what it’s like to live in Vermont as a black woman on each call. She gave me the heads-up that I’d likely be stopped by the police at least once within my first six months of living in the state. Unfortunately, I also heard from Moore and the Vermont ACLU that there was increased suspicion of minorities trafficking drugs into Vermont during the ongoing opioid crisis. Rutland, the Amtrak station downtown to be specific, a block or two from the location of the poetry event, was believed to be a significant arrival location where black people from New York City got off the train to bring substances into the community.
To say I simply considered the warnings, is an understatement. Their warnings grew like a specter in my mind as I pulled away from the college campus in my rank, soiled rental car with Louisiana license plates, a rental car, and I, its conspicuous black female driver all the way from Boston headed to a Black poetry open mic in the second least diverse state in the nation (at the time) on a weekday.
I am not pulling your leg.
Do you think I’m pulling your leg? If a police officer stopped me, would they think I was pulling their leg? Would they ask me to get out? Would they search my car? O help me, what else could possibly be in this car?
Am I pulling my leg?
Am I dreaming?
:Reality and Dreams:
The fear continued to mount while I drove the speed limit, watching carefully for signs indicating a change, pleading silently with one truck that tailed me to be patient, to fall back, and hoping they’d find their turn soon. I knew so much more about what other black folk had experienced while living in Vermont. Did I know too much?
Anxiety settled in some more and became my official companion. I pulled into the inn where I’d be staying for the night. I was one of two cars in the parking lot at the end of the ski season. A college classmate from Iowa had informed me a week or so earlier that as an outsider in a rural town, I should be prepared to get asked a lot of questions by the locals. If I don’t answer, they may become skeptical of me. If I do answer, well, then they can make judgments about my answers!
I answered the innkeeper’s questions. I didn’t want to seem suspicious, especially given the rumors about black people in Rutland… I avoided being too specific when I could, and I wondered what she thought of my replies. In her classic, casual Vermont attire, I also wondered what she thought of the young black woman before her in a metallic sheen, forest green BCBGeneration long coat, office attire and a fresh, sophisticated Jada Pinkett Smith (as my roommate called it) hair cut, all the way from Boston for poetry in Central Vermont. Would she think I thought more of myself than I ought? There are people like that. If the questions came to it, I would avoid telling her I went to an Ivy League school for college.
“Did you take the Amtrak?” she asked, and my discomfort increased.
“No, no,” I replied, shaking my head and smiling, “I drove.” The Vermonter comes up through Central Massachusetts from New York. I was from Boston. I drove.
:Reality and Dreams
I did not encounter any other POCs on the trip. I was the only black person at the black poetry open mic event. Tabitha Moore could not make it that evening. In retrospect, maybe there were other POCs in the room who were passing? If there were, they did not make themselves known to me.
The hostess announced the guidelines for sharing. She clarified that the use of the N-word was not permitted. “If you’re black,” she continued, looking out at the group of attendees but not at me, “you may use the word.” She also asked that performers give forewarning of language that might not be suitable for children. The organizers were aware of their whiteness and took great care with their language as they referenced the Black American experience while executing their roles. I was comforted by the way they spoke about the black poets they admired, even as I felt uncomfortable being the only black person at the event. Under the tyranny of fear, my mind was becoming a livewire. I tried to focus on my breathing to calm down, to reassure myself that I was safe. I began to wonder how far the nearest minority was in town from where I was sitting.
When I got up to perform, the fear had made its way deeper into my limbs, my spine, my thighs. It was manifesting in the way I moved my body, and I tried to talk myself back down to get it under control. Stand up straight. Maybe if I assume a power stance, subtly, I’ll regain the confidence that’s clearly gotten knocked right out of me by the shock of the circumstances. I performed Brothers and Friends. By the end, I was proud of myself for getting through reading it. None of these people can relate. Was I the first black person this audience had seen all day? All week? At an open mic in Boston, I could be certain of an Amen from the audience in the form of hoots, a holler, snaps or claps in agreement with my message. None here. I looked up at times to catch someone’s eyes, perhaps they were more reserved and saying Amen to themselves. I want to remember a couple “knodding” gazes. To these attendees, was I more of a study, an education, as I stood before them?
After the event ended, a woman asked me if I had come up on the Amtrak. I had already introduced myself as coming up from Boston.
During the event, two performers shared original pieces where they rejected the “label” of white. The first shared that he was not white, but a rainbow. The second created a piece based off of the sharing of others, borrowed “I am a rainbow,” and expanded on rejecting the label of “white”. She explained that people in power “placed labels on us to divide us.”
The “not-white” white woman and I connected briefly afterwards. She invited me to agree that she and I were labeled black and white by other people who wanted to keep us apart. As an alternative to direct contradiction, with fear riddling my physical being as it yet continued to settle in that I was navigating a region where 95% of the people could not relate to the flurry of thoughts swirling through my head as a black female in this environment, I recommended she read the memoir, Black is the Body, by black Vermonter and Professor at the University of Vermont in Burlington, Emily Bernard. If she read that book, she’d get her answer from me. Hopefully she’d realize that whiteness is not something she can opt out of, and white supremacy is not something she can absolve herself of the responsibility to dismantle. Her privilege must be stewarded consciously, humbly, intentionally and justly–actively, if she desires racial reconciliation and peace.
The next morning, the cook at the inn made me scrambled eggs and cheese on an English muffin. She included a mandarin orange and one other snack that I forget; she got it all together in a Styrofoam, takeout box and wrote my first name on the lid in sharpie with a large smiley face. The innkeeper from the night before had let her know that I was leaving bright and early and couldn’t stay for a sit-down breakfast. I was surprised by her hospitality and thoughtfulness in such a personal form. The gesture cut through my fear like a warm knife on a cold slab of butter.
I carried out my bags, comforted by the smiley face on my breakfast-to-go. We said “Good-bye.” She gave me a heads up about speed traps and wished me safe travels home.
On that trip, I felt fear in my black body with a poignancy that I had never experienced prior–nor that I could have anticipated coming to know. It shook my mind, burdened my spirit, and wrung my heart like a rag. It tempted me to retire my rural dream as impossible or absurd, worse than whimsical or dare I say naive. As I related to Vermont’s 94.2% white population or anticipated relating to white Vermonters, I was afraid of harm at every level of exposure and vulnerability. I was afraid because 94% of people did not share the experiences of the 1.4% of black Vermonters who looked like me. I was hypervisible and for many white Vermonters, I am someone rarely encountered or engaged in the living, breathing, humanizing flesh. I also have heritage that in a circular way gave me evidence to justify why I should be on guard and mistrusting of people who resembled them, especially in such a densely homogeneous form.
The harms that I most feared were harms capable of robbing me of life, relationship and physical liberty. It also struck me that living out of fear and dread and suspicion robbed me of life, relationship and liberty too, though in a different way. With the latter, unlike the former, I actively participate in the robbing; I am complicit. I actively participate in telling myself where I cannot go, what I ought not do, how I ought not hope, who I ought not forgive nor trust nor love because I am black and who will look out for me?
And the world does not change.
I have a particular, peculiar and honestly nerve wracking dream, and I am quite convinced that there is no way I can do this alone.
Copyright © 2020 A.M. Wilsonne
*Vermont’s demographics have changed since my post in March 2019 (great news!). It is now the 3rd least diverse state after West Virginia (#1 in percentage of white non-Hispanic residents) and Maine. West Virginia does have a black population of 3.6% however, over twice that of Vermont’s percentage of black residents.