Racial Trauma in Brown Girl Dreaming and Between the World and Me

It started with an ass-whooping. I had the misfortune of reading Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson in my graduate English literature class this semester. In this memoir comprised of narrative verse poems, there was a poem where Woodson’s mother beat her brother for using the word “ain’t.” When I first read the poem I groaned and laughed all at the same time. I laughed because in my family we often laugh at our whoopings, or at least the irrational and unjustified ones, because the one’s where we truly deserved the discipline we always forgot about. I groaned because I already knew all the white people and racist non-black people of color were going to not understand why she would do such a thing. I was the discussion leader for this book so I decided that the topic was probably going to come up anyways, so I may as well add it to the list of questions to discuss. So I did, and it got the response from the white people that I knew it would get. It never occurs to white people that they are the reason for these whoopings.

the right way to speak

The first time my brother says ain’t my mother
pulls a branch from the willow tree growing down
the hill at the edge
of our backyard.
As she slips her closed hand over it,
removes the leaves,
my brother begins to cry
because the branch is a switch now
no longer beautifully weeping at the bottom of the hill.
It whirs as my mother whips it
through the air and down
against my brother’s legs.
You will never, my mother says,
say ain’t in this house.
You will never
say ain’t anywhere.
Each switching is a warning to us
our words are to remain
crisp and clear.
We are never to say huh?
ain’t or y’all
git or gonna.
Never ma’am—just yes, with eyes
meeting eyes enough
to show respect.
Don’t ever ma’am anyone!
The word too painful
a memory for my mother
of not-so-long-ago
southern subservient days . . .
The list of what not to say
goes on and on . . .
You are from the North, our mother says.
You know the right way to speak.
As the switch raises dark welts on my brother’s legs
Dell and I look on
afraid to open our mouths. Fearing the South
will slip out or
into them.

 

In class when I tried to explain why a black mother would beat her child, I also made a comment that the book was “toned down.” And it was, there wasn’t any anger in the book at all except for the ass whooping heard around the classroom that nobody seemed to understand or that nobody challenged the reasoning for except for me. Immediately a Mexican girl that I’d given zero thought to sitting next to me stated that I had “triggered her” and that “I needed to remember the book was written for children and that I don’t want to leave them traumatized.” It wasn’t just her words that irritated me and pissed me off, it was all of the unexpected hostility that was on her face. I’ve never been one that dealt with hostility well and so I explained that it was strange to me that the grandpa after having come home from work after dealing with white people who constantly undermined his authority would just “be cool.” Immediately a white girl who proved herself to be very racist stated that it couldn’t have “the violence I was looking for.” It was easily the most racist and traumatizing silencing tactic I’d ever faced in my life.

Today I finished reading Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. I knew it was a letter from father to son but what I didn’t expect was for him to explain so eloquently what I tried to naively explain to this diverse class. He explained the fear of black parents. Having grown up in Baltimore, he explained the constant fear of having to watch where he went and the need to constantly protect his body. He explains the fights he took part of or ran from, the beatings he got from his father, the fear when he saw another child quietly reveal his gun. He explained so eloquently the fear of having a black child in America.

In the moment that I read his eloquent explanation for these beatings, I had the same flashback, epiphany, and understanding that I had when I read Woodson’s mothers racial trauma resurface in Brown Girl Dreaming. For the first time, I confronted what it would be to be not only a black parent but a black mother in American society. I had a flashback of my mother as a child walking to and from school and being called a nigger by a white neighbor. I had a flashback of when my mother and grandmother told me with little feeling in their voices about the white neighbors that tried to kill her and her siblings with a homemade bomb when my mother was a child. I had a flashback to when my grandmother told me as we listened to George Zimmerman’s acquittal about learning about the acquittal of Emmett Till’s murderer’s while they were still living in Mississippi.
In each of the scenarios, they were the children. They didn’t yet have children of their own.

tillmom

It wasn’t until I read the poem in Brown Girl Dreaming that I didn’t identify with the child getting the whooping; I thought of the mother and for the first time I thought of my mother, my grandmother, and my great-grandmother. For the first time I thought about the pain of having to watch your child realize that they could lose their lives just because of the color of their skin and the helplessness of this knowledge. The knowledge that had the white people that tried to murder my mother succeeded, that their murderers would probably never get convicted for doing so and all of the women that birthed me would have to live with this for the rest of their days. In that whooping for the first time I came to the realization of the fear and pain I would have as a black mother should I choose to have children, who would be identifiably black.

Now at night, I held you and a great fear, wide as all our American generations, took me. Now I personally understood my father and the old mantra – “Either I can beat him or the police.” I understood it all – the cable wires, the extension cords, the ritual switch. Black people love their children with a kind of obsession. You are all we have, and you come to us endangered. I think we would like to kill you ourselves before seeing you killed by the streets that America made.

In class, I believe what truly happened was that she was “triggered” by the fact that I could laugh at something she viewed as abuse. Instead of saying as much, she decided to use racist tactics to silence me. She was “triggered” by my opinion of a book being “toned down” even though the book has been printed and bound and not a single word in the book is going to be changed. What she ended up doing was essentially proving my point. Although she was Mexican, anti-blackness runs in all communities and as such, black mothers have to be sure to protect their children constantly from those that would try to do them harm. George Zimmerman was a half-white half-Latino man, as the classmates that silenced me were white and Latina.

They were so worried about the child that it didn’t occur to any of them that they were the true danger to the child. What I found interesting about the white women who asked the question, “why didn’t she just talk to him,” or those that declaratively stated, “she could have just talked to him” is that they didn’t take the time to understand that they have the luxury of “just talking” to their children, because if their child was murdered, it more than likely wouldn’t have been solely because of the color of their skin. While their murders would still be tragic, black children could be killed not only by sick creeps, but also by those well-meaning, “I’m not racist” white people who make up a majority of the population as well. They were the danger and yet they thought the mother barbaric instead of considering the societal abuse that was explicitly stated in the book.

browngirldreaming

The expectation that this black woman should constantly be told in the Jim Crow south that she was a second class citizen, that she should sit in the back of the bus, that she should say yes ma’am and no ma’am to white people that hate her and her community, that this mother should watch her high school get burned down, that her father should constantly have to come home from work after having his authority undermined by white men, that her mother should have to work for white women that hated her…and yet the women in the class believed she could come out of this unscathed. As if somehow that constant abuse should be expected and accepted. That she should raise her children in such conditions under the daily terror of the Jim Crow south knowing what white people would and could do to her children…and yet that somehow through all of the societal abuse she should “just talk to her child.”

The idea that they knew what was better for this child than his own mother was amazing. That they thought they could compare their white motherhood to hers was amazing. That they believed they could judge how she raised her children was amazing. That they believed that they weren’t part of the group that were part of the danger or that they weren’t the actual danger was amazing. That my explanation and clear understanding as a black woman was rejected and silenced and that for the rest of the semester I was bullied by the Mexican classmate that was sitting next to me for having the audacity to speak or explain what she believed to be abuse was amazing.

The hostility that I faced in that classroom for the rest of the semester was amazing. The fact that my white professor expected me to speak up in class but failed to step in and said nothing after she saw the anger on my face and failed to advocate for me was amazing. That the classroom was silent and class was abruptly ended because my teacher freaked out was amazing. That had I been verbally abusive to the people that used blatant racism to silence me, I knew I’d be painted as the bully and angry black woman was amazing. For daring to speak with some authority of my own culture, I was silenced and nobody stepped in to protect or speak for me until I spoke up for myself via the classroom blog to state that what was said was not ok.

Had these people just talked to me they would have known that I am actually very against ass-whoopings, and yet I still love a good ass-whooping story. Both can exist at the same time. Had they just been quiet and listened they would know that acknowledging trauma is new in the black community, we often laugh at our trauma because we don’t have a choice. The things that have happened to us and still happen to us are so horrific that to survive, we have to laugh, otherwise we would never laugh. It was amazing to me that in this class that preaches multi-culturalism that when I was freely black in ways in which I would be in public with my friends or the privacy of my home that I was punished for doing so, for not behaving and conforming to the very white environment of the classroom. This class was composed of many teachers, mostly white but some other minorities as well and they all said something that made me think…oh my goodness I would never let them teach my hypothetical non-existent black child.

They were perpetuating the same cultural cluelessness, white supremacist, racist attitude in this classroom that this mother was perpetuating with her ass-whooping, the same pain that Coates father was passing to him with his ass-whoopings. Coates talks about the uselessness he found of his public school classrooms.

I sensed the schools were hiding something, drugging us with fake morality so that we would not see, so that we did not ask: Why – for us and only us — is the other side of free will and free spirits an assault upon our bodies? This is not a hyperbolic concern. When our elders presented school to us, they did not present it as a place of high learning but as a means of escape from death and penal warehousing. Fully 60 percent of all young black men who drop out of high school will go to jail. This should disgrace the country. But it does not, and while I couldn’t crunch the numbers or plumb the history back then, I sensed that the fear that marked West Baltimore could not be explained by the schools. Schools did not reveal truths, they concealed them. Perhaps they must be burned away so that the heart of this thing might be known.

These women didn’t seem to understand that they would be the ones trying to brainwash them. They’d be the ones trying to send them to jail if they didn’t fall into line with their very white cultures. Even in this class that stressed multiculturalism and that was taught by a white woman that came from a very white background (which made absolutely no sense to me), I recognized the class was a very cosmetic attempt for people from very different backgrounds to learn about different cultures, all in a very controlled setting. I was in a class where I was expected to speak but to speak in a very nice white way. The teacher thought she was being kind and some type of savior by challenging the introspective black woman to speak, not knowing that sometimes I prefer to be quiet in these situations because I don’t feel like dealing with that type of hostility that comes with speaking your truth as a black woman or as Gabrielle Union explained so eloquently in her interview with Jamie Foxx, “I don’t feel like getting death threats today so I’m just going to hold back.”

However, once I did start talking I decided that I was going to continue to challenge people, including my professor, because her silence perpetuated the racism that took place in the class that day. Thankfully, she answered each challenge appropriately and professionally although I did sense that she was getting annoyed by the challenges as the semester progressed. I wanted her to truly understand why sometimes as black women we choose to be silent about certain things, and why my forced participation was doing me more harm than good. Sometimes we don’t want to deal with the judgement and backlash that comes with being a black woman, women who are always placed at the bottom of American society and regarded by many with vitriol and disdain. My professor was also one more white woman that my hypothetical non-existent black child would have to be protected from, who would not have advocated for my child in the face of racism, and had this been the 60’s in the Jim Crow south would perhaps have been protected by the switch, by being told to just assimilate into whiteness so that they could survive.

This is generational racial trauma. This is the trauma that is passed from slavery and that many in the black community are starting to realize we must heal from today. This month marks Mental Health Awareness month. Racism can affect your mental health. The suck it up culture that we used to accept as black people still very much exists but if it doesn’t have to exist, please take advantage of it. I was so traumatized by the implications that were made in class and the silence of everyone in the classroom that I started going to BSU meetings and started seeing the black therapist on campus as soon as I could. I had to figure out how to get through the bullying that I was subjected to in the classroom while really just wanting to be quiet so that I could get an A and keep it pushing.

This bullying included being called a “bitch” in the hallway as I waited outside of my class, having my Mexican classmate that was “triggered” forcefully push the table we both sat at into my stomach twice, being iced out and ignored by half of my classmates, microaggressions, my Mexican classmate flinging books and papers at me for the rest of the semester as they made their way around the classroom, and an extremely racist white classmate whom after I addressed the microaggression with something as nice as a well thought out tumblr post still had the audacity to look at me with the fear of God in her eyes as I made my way to class the following week. It was easily the most hostile classroom I’d been a part of in my whole life, and the hostility stemmed from racism.

Understand that racism is traumatizing and if you need to see a therapist to try to heal from racial trauma (a trauma one can never truly heal from but that you could at least come to terms with in a therapy session), please do so. I believe that my generation and that before me are the first to understand that beating your child won’t save them from any white person or cop that decides they want to take their life. The fear will always be there, but no amount of ass-whoopings would have saved Trayvon, it wouldn’t have saved Jordan Davis, or Mike Brown. And yet perhaps my being able to consciously make the decision to not whoop my hypothetical non-existent black child is the product of all of the ass-whoopings that I got and that my ancestors got before me. Perhaps those ass-whoopings allowed them to see another day so that I could preach the need to heal from that racial trauma today. I can’t judge the beautiful women that I was birthed from for choosing this method as many other black mothers and fathers did to protect their children.

The book ends with Coates interviewing the mother of a friend of his that was murdered by a black police officer, Prince Jones. Through all of her grace and poise that, “the great American injury demands of you” she stated, “It’s nice to be able to talk about this.”

The racism I experienced in the classroom this semester is something that I will never forget, but at least it taught me one thing. Both of my teachers this semester challenged me and one even bullied me to speak up. I learned that it is important to always do what is best for myself, my mental health, and to advocate for the people I love the most and that will always be black people. Coates, through his work highlights our pain and trauma and although he believes that this threat against the black body will never be eradicated because the necessity to kill black bodies is deeply embedded in American DNA, it is important that we keep talking about it, if not to fight the issue, then at the very least to heal.

I think of your grandmother calling me and noting how you were growing tall and would one day try to “test me.” And I said to her that I would regard that day should it come, as the total failure of fatherhood because if all I had over you were my hands, then I really had nothing at all… you’re mother had to teach me how to love you – how to kiss you and tell you I love you every night. Even now it does not feel a wholly natural act so much as it feels like a ritual. And that is because I am wounded.