No Air

Living as a Black woman in America means rarely breathing freely.

My struggle to breathe has nothing to do with COVID-19. This lack of air is a result of a different illness, one that has lingered in the air since the beginning of America. This illness ruined families, ruined health, ruined lives. This illness has changed forms through the years, but is just as prevalent and deadly today as it it was when it started.

My breath catches when I see a police officer, even if I’m doing nothing wrong.

Air leaves my lungs in a sick rush at the sight of a confederate flag.

At each microaggression, dog whistle, and ignorant comment I heave a hefty sigh of exasperation.

Racism is a disease infecting every area of this country. Sadly, too many among us don’t recognize how sick this country is. We need to open the windows and release the stale, sour air of this country’s racist past and present if we ever want to eliminate the disease in the future.

Acknowledge the original sin of slavery and its negative impact on Black Americans, then and now.

Apologize through words and actions. Try to right the egregious wrongs. Nothing can ever truly pay what is owed to those who worked this land for nothing, those who were seen and treated as nothing.

But we can try.

As I wait to see the results of this presidential election, I hold my breath. With each passing day I pray we are closing in on the final days of this disease. I hope I live long enough to see racism draw its final breath so we can all breathe freely.

Black Parade

I’ve been trying to think of just the right words to summarize my experience at the Commitment March in Washington. D.C.

(That’s why it’s been so long since my last post.)

And I do apologize, for all my delay has been for nothing. I still haven’t found the precise wording for what I saw…what I felt.

“Inspired” is truly an understatement for the fire that was lit within me.

Waiting in line next to a white woman and her tween daughter, listening to stories from a man who marched with Dr. King the first time, I felt the spark.

“Look at this,” I thought.

“We all know this is a historic moment, when we draw the line in the sand.”

Listening to speaker after another, each from different walks of life, stoked the flame.

A young lady who survived one of the most tragic events in recent history.

An older man who reminded us that the gay rights movement began with a brick and a Black woman.

Finally, and most tragically, the family members and friends of so many of our martyrs.

Ahmaud Arbery.

Breonna Taylor.

Jacob Blake.

I was on fire. Flames roared across the crowd.

We all burned.

“Black Lives Matter!”

“Black Lives Matter!”

“Black Lives Matter!”

We marched and chanted to the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. memorial, a fireball.

I haven’t felt the same sense. I feel…alive.

Like a phoenix from the ashes, reborn.

Disappear

Yesterday, my boyfriend and I made our weekly sojourn to the grocery store. (Even Pre-COVID, we shopped weekly to save time, energy, and money.) We slowly wound our way through the store we simultaneously loved and hated—large selection and great prices, narrow aisles and never enough cashiers.

A woman’s cart stood between us and the almond milk, one of the last items on our list. Eager to get this trip over with, my boyfriend moved her cart a few inches so I could push ours past. The movement must have caught her eye, and she turned to look at me.

“You’re so beautiful!” she exclaimed.

I thanked her, secretly wondering how she could think such a thing given the cloth mask covering half my face. Without missing a beat, she continued.

“Where are you from?”

That was the first of many microaggressions to come.

I quickly replied, “Kentucky,” and pushed my cart closer to the dairy case in an effort to end the conversation. But she inched closer, maskless (!) and babbling.

“Your hair is lovely. What do you do to your hair to get it like that?”

The answer? Literally nothing. (The few sprays of water I applied before the trip didn’t count—I didn’t even put any product in it!) I shrugged and responded, “It just grows this way,” struggling mightily to keep myself from rolling my eyes. I was brought up to respect my elders, and even though the gray-haired woman in front of me was trying my patience, my mama raised me to be polite.

I tried to leave but the woman continued, following one awful comment with a string of several more.

“African women are so elegant, very regal and classy. You know, I could tell you weren’t from around here. You don’t act like the Black people in Wisconsin. I work with them and they have such an attitude. They wear their hair in the braids and it just comes out. I’m from India and I help them, boil the coconut oil and castor oil to make something to help it grow back. Your hair is beautiful and healthy, and you wear it just as it is! They should be more like you.”

Racism, wrapped in compliments. From another woman of color, at that! I wanted to disappear.

As she turned and walked away, she noticed the large ginger root in our cart.

“Healthy too! You are so good. May God bless you.”

My boyfriend, having ventured to get the almond milk himself, returned to find me standing next to our cart. Seething, I recounted the interaction. We headed toward the checkout line, watching carefully to avoid seeing her again.

Usually, I leave that grocery store anxious and frustrated because of the crowded aisles and lengthy checkout lines. Today, anxiety and frustration were replaced with anger and sadness.

You cannot uplift one Black woman and simultaneously put others down.

You cannot talk badly about Black people in Wisconsin while ignoring the fact that it is one of the worst states in America for Black people.

You cannot celebrate Black hair in its natural state while trashing the protective styles many of us (including myself) wear regularly.

You can, though, be racist and a person of color at the same damn time.

Starving

It’s been over two weeks since my last post, and hopefully this one will explain why that is.

These past few weeks have been…a lot. America is a country built on stolen land by stolen people. The racial injustices experienced by Black people since we got here were put on full display in a viral video of George Floyd being murdered by a police officer.

Now, this video was shocking to a lot of people. But Black folks have seen this show before—multiple times. This ain’t nothin’ new to us. What really surprised me, though, is how many people lack empathy for others.

Real talk, I’ve always been the “sensitive” one. An empath, I guess? My own emotions hit me hard, and I tend to feel others’ emotions strongly too. Considering others’ feelings, perspectives, and experiences is something I was taught at a very young age.

Apparently some people’s parents skipped this life lesson, because I’ve seen wayyyyyyyy too many people lacking empathy here lately!

I wish I had the privilege to be that person who gives 0 fucks. That person who says and does whatever they please, other people’s feelings be damned! I wish “If it doesn’t impact me personally I don’t care,” could be my life’s motto.

But that just seems…wrong.

It might be easier to live life that way, but that doesn’t make it right.

Throughout life, I was taught to not be selfish. “Share! Listen! Give! Always!” (I grew up as an only child, so I feel like I got this lesson more than most people.)

But there is a difference between self-advocacy and selfishness.

When is it okay to ask for something back, or keep something for yourself, or require people to treat you a certain way? When does advocating for yourself become caring ONLY about yourself? Where’s the line?

I wish I knew. I feel like that line is in a different spot for Black people than it is for anyone else. We’ve had to spend our whole lives worrying about what other people think, how they see us. Maybe that isn’t “empathy” in the traditional sense, but that heightened awareness is necessary. Honestly, our survival depends on it.

Which is better–to be full of empathy, or starved of it?

Personally, I’d rather be caring than careless. But no lie, it’s EXHAUSTING. I’m so tired, y’all. That’s why this post took so long—all my energy has gone toward surviving lately.

Y’all have no idea how much effort it takes to be professional at work when your employer is doing the bare minimum regarding diversity. It’s so hard to take care of my home when all I can think about is how I’ve only ever seen one other Black person in my neighborhood. It’s tough to be a loving partner when my partner has a lot of the privilege I lack.

But sometimes the hard thing to do is the right thing to do.

Rest In Peace to George Floyd and all my Black sisters and brothers dead at the hands of racism. We will never forget you. We will avenge you, by any means necessary. Black Lives Matter.

My Life

The first time, I was young.

I don’t remember my exact age, but I was a kid–probably around 5 or 6. I was at a friend’s house, playing with girl about the same age as me. We were acting out our favorite TV show, Saved by the Bell.

She was having a hard time choosing who to be: Kelly Kapowski (the beautiful cheerleader) or Jessie Spano (the super smart class president).

My choice was already made for me. I’d be Lisa Turtle, the rich fashionista.

Not because I was rich. Not because I enjoyed fashion.

I would be Lisa because I was Black, and Lisa was Black. Plain and simple.

Honestly, I identified more with Jessie–I loved to learn and I admired her passion for issues like saving the environment. I liked how she always said what she thought and worked hard to be the best. But I couldn’t be Jessie because we weren’t the same color.

I didn’t really think of it as racism at the time because, as a said before, I was a kid. But looking back I see how I was put in a box because of my skin color.

The second time hit a little harder.

Once again, I don’t remember my exact age. But I was still a kid. I was riding the bus to school, and an older boy kept trying to get my attention. He kept calling me a racial slur (one that I will not type here).

Yes, I told the bus driver. No, she didn’t do anything.

I got called this slur EVERY DAY until the boy got his driver’s license and stopped taking the bus.

The first day I got on the bus and he wasn’t there, I felt a trickle of relief. By the end of the week, I realized he wasn’t coming back. The trickle turned to a flood. Finally, I could ride the bus in peace and quiet.

What’s that saying? “Third time’s a charm…”

This one I remember in great detail. I was in sixth grade, in Ms. White’s classroom. It was almost time for school to be dismissed, and we had to be sitting at our desks when the bell rang before Ms. White would let us leave her classroom.

I was kneeling on the floor beside my desk, picking up all my papers and books. I wasn’t dawdling–I was putting stuff in my bag as fast as I could. But there was so much stuff.

The bell rang and I wasn’t in my seat. No one could leave until I sat down. I stood, then moved to sit down at my desk. That was when I heard it.

“Hurry up, BLACKIE!”

It came from a white boy I only knew in passing–his name was Jesse. I don’t remember ever speaking to this boy–before or after this incident–but I can see his face in my mind’s eye as clear as day.

I froze where I stood. All hopes of sitting down were gone–I couldn’t move. I just stared at him.

Ms. White made Jesse apologize to me–a quick “sorry” that was clearly more about getting to the bus line than giving an authentic apology. Ms. White released the class, and I shot out of that classroom with tears running down my face.

I was practically running to get to the bus, crying. Someone–I can’t remember who–asked what was wrong as I flew past.

“Nothing.”

I can’t even remember if I told my mom what happened.

It happened over and over again, and got more humiliating each time.

In high school, it poured rain on the day of a band competition. I was in the colorguard, wearing a hairstyle that required a lot of hold. Pump It Up spritz was the go-to product to keep my hair in place. (If you’re a Black woman reading this, you’re probably nodding in agreement right now. Pump It Up is an old school Black hair staple, right there next to Luster’s Pink Oil Lotion and my aunt’s favorite, Blue Magic scalp conditioner.)

“Ewwwwwww, what is that smell?!?

Apparently, Pump It Up + rain water = a slightly unpleasant aroma. And another guard member was LOUDLY letting everyone know about it. I just tried to stay as far away from everyone as I could. Not only was the hairstyle that took an ENTIRE DAY ruined, my day was too. I felt like such a freak, even though the white girls back then would use so much gel and hairspray they reeked of aerosol.

It presented itself so often, in so many different ways.

My worst experience with racism to date didn’t even happen in America. That’s why it’s the worst time–I didn’t see it coming.

I was in Denmark for a work trip, staying for two weeks. It was January, so the days were short and dark and cold there, but I was so excited. I’d never been to Europe before, and here I was–traveling abroad for business! I felt so fancy.

The first week passed without incident. There were a few snags with my work project, but I powered through them. Then the weekend came and everything changed.

I went out to dinner with a co-worker. We went to a fancy place and ate a meal with, like, seven different courses. We talked and laughed and enjoyed the delicious food and generally had a fantastic time. We took a car back to our hotel, and I headed to my room after a quick goodbye near the hotel lobby. Shortly after I got back to my room, I got a text from my co-worker. The man working the front desk said I couldn’t stay at the hotel.

He thought I was a prostitute.

I went back to that front desk, room key in hand. I explained that I’d been in the hotel for an entire week and hadn’t had any problems until today. I asked that man if he would have made the same assumption if I was a white lady.

He said NO. Had I been a different color, he wouldn’t have given me a second thought.

It felt like I’d been punched in the stomach.

I wish I could say those were the only times.

But there are so many moments I’ve left out.

The “You’re so pretty for a Black girl,” moments.

The time a classmate said it wasn’t fair I got a full scholarship to college because I was Black (even thought I was in honors classes and my grades were higher than hers).

The “You’re not like other those Black people–you’re one of the good ones,” moments.

The time a former coworker “complimented” me by putting both of her hands wrist deep in my fresh kinky twists–without my permission, of course.

The “I’m sorry, we don’t have makeup in your shade,” moments.

The time a boy I had a crush on in high school told me he couldn’t be racist because he’d kissed me once. (This was years after the kiss, on a Facebook post about police brutality.)

The “You’re so articulate,” moments.

The time a judge at a speech tournament wrote me a ballot explaining that I shouldn’t just do pieces on Blackness–that I was “better than that.

The “I don’t even think of you as Black,” moments.

The time I competed in a local beauty pageant and won Miss Congeniality, but I wasn’t included in the photograph that ran in the paper.

The time I drove past the fairgrounds in my hometown and saw signs stating “All Lives Matter” and “Blue Lives Matter” and learned just whose lives clearly didn’t matter.

The time I had dinner at my high school boyfriend’s house and his father refused to speak to me. Seriously–the man didn’t say a single word to me the entire time I was there. He spoke to everyone else, but not to me.

The time I got pulled over late at night in my new car. Terror isn’t the word–it was worse than that. Thank God I hadn’t been drinking, had all of my paperwork, and had the wherewithal to put on my most “articulate” voice for the officer.

Every single time I change my hair and people at work say they can’t recognize me–even if it’s just a switch from curly to straight. (And it happens EVERY SINGLE TIME.)

It’s exhausting. It’s infuriating. And, unfortunately, it’s a regular part of my life.

If you read this and realized that someone you know has said or done something like this in the past, I hope you’re horrified. If you read this and realized YOU’VE said or done something similar in the past, I hope you are filled with shame. I hope you look back over your life and recognize every single racist thing you’ve been part of. I hope you cry.

And after all that, I hope you make a promise to do better.

I hope you realize you aren’t a bad person, but that you have some learning (and maybe more importantly, un-learning) to do. I hope you read up on how America has disenfranchised Black people since we were stolen and brought here. I hope you advocate for Black people with your time, energy, money, resources, and especially YOUR VOTES.

I hope you check your racist family members and friends–don’t let those jokes or comments slide. I hope you support reparations for descendants of slavery. I hope you protest for us and with us. I hope you stop saying you’re “colorblind” and start saying “I see your color, but I don’t devalue you because of it.”

I hope you take a look at your life, now that you’ve seen some of the uglier parts of mine.

Fighter

How long do you argue with someone?

You’re right. They’re wrong. Classic scenario, right? How much time do you spend fussing with this person to prove the obvious–you’re right, and they’re wrong?

Had you asked me this question a few years ago, I would have looked you in the face and honestly replied, “As long as it takes!”

Awwwww, Baby Ashley was so…earnest.

Nowadays, I just don’t have the energy. And, to be frank, it’s just not worth my time.

2020 has shown me that life is too short to waste on things that just don’t matter. And unless you’re one of the cov-idiots who thinks this pandemic is fake, you probably realized that WE DON’T HAVE TIME FOR THE BULLSHIT.

Seriously. If it isn’t something that impacts my health, my family, my community, or my coins, I’ve decided I’m not fighting with you about it.

This is proving easier said than done.

Last week, a man went awf in my inbox. Just going on and on about why he he shouldn’t have to…he doesn’t have time…why is he required to…and so on. And I had a #ThrowbackMoment. Baby Ashley read that email and started putting together a three point presentation on why she was right and he was wrong.

But guess what Grown-Up Ashley did, y’all?!?

She sent a reply that was merely TWO SENTENCES. Those two sentences said everything that needed to be said. So I said my piece, and I went on about my day.

Say your piece, then move on. Don’t let anyone waste your time, your breath, or your life!

Try a Little…

Tenderness. Ah, Otis Redding. Still not sure exactly what a “shaggy dress” is, but the song is awesome regardless.

We could all stand to treat each other a bit more tenderly these days.

Now, more than ever, am I realizing that people are just that–people. Each person is facing their own internal battle, and plenty of us have external battles to fight too. (Hellooooo Miss Rona.)

“It’s a cruel world.” We’ve all heard that before. But does it have to be?

Not at all.

Could we all take the time to really listen to each other, be honest, and make a valiant attempt to see the world from someone else’s point of view? Could we not just talk, but actually communicate? Absolutely.

Will we do this? Fuck no.

Why? Because we don’t want to make the effort. Or, to use a phrase I’ve heard more often than I’ve ever wanted to, “That sounds like a lot of work.”

Who cares if it’s a lot of work if it’s the right thing to do?

Every damn day I bust my ass to try to do the right thing. My mother raised me to think of others, be compassionate, and do what I know is right even if the world says it’s wrong. These were lessons I learned very early in life.

Apparently not everyone got the same lesson.

But what can I do other than lead by example? I’ll try my best to be kind, and supportive, and to treat people the way I’d like to be treated.

I’ll try a little tenderness.

Will you?

Vulnerability

The world is not a safe place for vulnerable Black girls.

A few weeks ago, my therapist told me that vulnerability is something we should work on. She said I don’t trust people.

Well, duh. I know firsthand that the world is not a safe place for vulnerable Black girls.

After our session, I tried to think of when I first learned that lesson.

Was it sixth grade, when I wrote a note to my secret crush (a white boy) and he laughed while reading it aloud to the entire class?

Was it my 13th birthday, when I planned a big party, invited everyone I knew from school, and only two people showed up?   

Was it the summer after my sophomore year in college, when the man I loved dumped me but still strung me along so he could have someone to clean his apartment and cook for him?

Was it when I was publicly shamed by a dentist for crying out in pain during a root canal?

Was it the multiple instances of racism, sexism, or the brutal combination of both known as misogynoir that I’ve experienced in my life?

Most likely.

I truly wish that I could open up and be myself with everyone. But lessons learned the hard way are ones not quickly forgotten.

This world is not a safe place for vulnerable Black girls.

So Amazing

So, I just listened to the first episode of the podcast I narrated Who Killed Julie? and it was so amazing!  (And no, I’m not just saying that because I narrated it.)

This podcast is different because it’s fiction that tackles a very real subject–domestic abuse.  As a domestic abuse survivor, I know firsthand how hard it can be to recover from such a terrible experience.  The podcast creator, Paul Sating, is using this series to bring light to the issue and support survivors.  How awesome is that?!?  It’s one thing to use the topic to get listens, but to actually use this platform to help people who’ve gone through this ordeal is honorable and so needed in today’s times.

With all that’s going on in regards to women and sexual assault in America today, Who Killed Julie? is a necessary listen.  For those who ask why she didn’t fight back, why she didn’t report it back then, if she was drinking, what she was wearing, and all the other bullshit excuses for terrible behaviors on the part of men, you should listen to this.  This is a story of a woman who experienced something truly terrible–lost her life even–and the reason why will chill you to the bone.

Check out Who Killed Julie? on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify, and Stitcher!