I am a high priestess of Blackness. This isn’t readily apparent when you look at me. I don’t wear ceremonial garb or an elaborate gold headpiece to indicate my status, but keep me in your periphery. Watch me askance as strangers sidle up to me, lowering their heads and voices to seek my counsel.
The opening salvo is seemingly benign compared to what follows. It starts with a normal exchange of pleasantries or, sometimes, a compliment:
Are you from around here? Have you lived here long? Your hair is so cool! I could never get mine like that.
And then the voices lower and my personal space is invaded and transformed into a confessional.
Hear the confessions one by one:
You know, my grandma is really racist, she whispers. You should hear the things she says at Thanksgiving dinner.
You know my son is dating a black girl and she is just the nicest little thing! We really like her a lot and we don’t have any problems with it at all.
You know when I was in college, I was very much into Booker T. Washington and I actually taught other people about him.
Hear their curiosity and questions and (my favorite) advice about racism:
You know, I think that racism is just so silly. Why can’t people just learn to get along with each other? I was taught that color doesn’t matter.
Why do black people have hair like that?
Why do black people want to separate themselves by calling themselves African American. Why can’t they just be American like everyone else.
I have this black friend who grew up in the ghetto, but he’s done really well for himself and if he could do it, then surely other people can to.
Following these declarations, wide sea-colored eyes stare back at me in expectation. Of what exactly, I am never certain. Because I wear no vestments, no incense wafts from my invisible thurible and I have never been a postulant. Yet I am often accosted — arrested–by these uninvited confessions–these micro interrogations. I am simply wrapped in black skin while attending a party, or a wedding, or a work function, or walking about enjoying the beauty of my life when this racial baggage is left at my feet much like the dead bird that your dog brings to your backdoor on Saturday mornings.
Last Saturday at the laundromat, a woman talked to me for quite some time about her life. (This is completely normal and expected as I inherited the exact opposite of Resting Bitch Face (RBF) from my very agreeable mother and strangers often approach me). She was living out of her car while embroiled in a civil war with her sister about her deceased parents’ estate. She was an odd person but not mentally unbalanced. This woman was lucid and sane, carrying on a rational, though one-sided, conversation with me for or at least 20 minutes before entering the confessional.
The tells are always the same: she lowered her voice and slid her elbow closer to mine as I folded my laundry. Forgive me Father for I have sinned.
“So what’s it like being black around here?” She asked. “I told my black friend, Tony, that there’s only like three of you in the entire city.”
I adopted my go-to High Priestess face, eyebrows slightly elevated , wide eyes, and a relatively neutral expression (one that doesn’t scream: why-are-you-telling me/talking to me about this) Shrugging my shoulders, I replied:
It’s like being black anywhere else I guess.
“Really?” It’s been years since (I talked to Tony) my last confession. She launched int her own thoughts on being black in California before telling me about her black grandson.
He only met his father when he was ten though, but he’s in High School now and he goes over there all the time. His aunts are black. You know what they say to each other on FB?
I don’t know what they say to each other, but it doesn’t matter because she’s hell-bent on telling me anyway:
They call each other niggers. Like niggers, niggers. Can you believe it? And it’s not nig-gah the way you guys say it. You know, nig-gah, like my nig-gah. Like on the radio niggahs. It’s nig-ger —ger. like nigger. They’re calling each other nig-gers. NIGGERS! This is his aunt. I mean is that ok? Is that a thing that you guys are doing now? niggers. Can you believe it? Like niggers over FB.. Like niggers…..
This woman said “nigger” anywhere from 20-30 times in the course of 2 minutes. It was like she had been repressed from saying it for so long, that once the dam broke, she couldn’t stop saying. It was like a Quentin Tarantino movie where the violence is so grotesque and over the top that the audience laughs instead of being horrified. My high priestess masked cracked about a minute and a half into this conversation and I snorted out loud at the absurdity of it all before recovering my impassivity. I had finished my laundry so when she took a breath (in preparation of unleashing more craziness I assume), I said “Well… good luck to you” and exited stage left.
I often wonder about these conversations that people initiate with me (this particular story being the most extreme and most recent), a woman who is a complete stranger to them. What are you seeking with your confession exactly, I want to ask. Is it absolution or justification or closure? What is your purpose for laying this burden at my feet? Does it ease yours? Did this woman feel unburdened of the racism that pervades our country like a dense, never-lifting fog, once she had so carelessly thrown it in my direction?
Our country is marred and scarred by racism. The unhealed wounds bleed and gape pus into the very cracks of our lives. We have a collective inheritance of family trees dripping with blood and guilt lies in the lineage. Guilt and injustice lie at the very foundation of the country that holds these truths self-evident:
that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.
And you feel it (the guilt, the injustice, the pain) individually. It weighs on your heart and on your mind — it burdens your very soul — and so you approach me, high priestess of Blackness for resolution, for vindication, for individual reconciliation.
But I wield no powers of absolution. I have no special incantation or penance to offer you to ease the weight of racism. Six Hail Marys and unlimited Our Fathers will not rid you of this weight. There is no succor in this black skin or salve for your wounds to be found here. I can not grant the forgiveness and washing of hands that you seek.I do not posses the strength to bear your racial burdens. I am no God.