I’ve been trying to write to you for some time now. I’ve got at least 10 versions of this letter in various states of un-doness in my draft folder. When I couldn’t finish the latest draft, I decided that maybe I should just let it alone – enough people have already awoken this particular proverbial dog in slumber.
But this week marked the 13th anniversary of my own graduation from the Naval Academy and I thought of the wide chasm between current me and the 23-year-old-version. I thought of all the things that I didn’t know when I joined the “real” Navy as an Ensign –things that I wish someone had told me.
Which made me think of you — you all — again. And that picture.
I have one of my own actually. There were only 12 of us who graduated USNA with the class of 2003 –by “us”, I mean black women. We could never get our act together to have all of us in one picture though. I think this is the closest that we ever got:
We still reflect on this picture. We pull it out every now and again and figure out everyone’s whereabouts and the four people who are always missing. Its most recent resurgence was when most of us made it part of our FB profiles to show solidarity with all of you.
I imagine that you’ve thought way more about your group photo in the last week than we probably have in the last 13 years. I hope that you’re still proud of it. Though I suspect, given the amount of attention you’ve received, that most likely you regret it.
Here’s the thing, now that you all are second lieutenants and in the Army proper, there are going to be many times ahead of you where you will wonder if what is happening to you is because of that picture. There will be times when you will say to yourself: If only I hadn’t taken that picture, this wouldn’t be happening.
I imagine you will think this quite frequently. You’ll think it when people disrespect you. You’ll think it when everyone assumes that you are enlisted. You’ll think it the first and 50th time you get push back for giving a basic order and you’ll definitely think it when your “tone” becomes the reason that people can’t work for you or do their jobs.You’ll think it when you’re doing twice as much work as your mostly male counterparts, but it’s still not good enough.
When you’re told that you have an “attitude” or that you’re “sassy,” you’ll think of that picture. When phrases like “unapproachable”, or “intimidating,” or “doesn’t fit into the culture” are thrown out– maybe even end up on your Fitness Report, that picture is the first thing that will come to mind.
When you are in the Wardroom (or whatever the Army equivalent is for the place where only Officers hang out) and one of your brothers-in-arms makes that joke that makes your heart skip a beat, that causes the wrinkles in your forehead to form. You’ll look down at your plate and fiddle with your perfectly formed bun. Your mind will turn to that picture as you bite your lip, then your tongue -your own sweet blood becoming a barrier to speech; that costly silence separating you from the defiant and protesting girl in that picture. Swallowing words becomes the first event in the I’m-not-really-like-that-picture-Olympics. Blending In and Not Going Against The Status Quo become others.
And you medal. Every. Single. Time
In fact, your life becomes one superhuman effort in ensuring that no one mistakes your existence, your mere personhood, for disobedience or defiance, or far worse, a political act, ever again.
I know that experience. I’ve lived it —still live it. And it isn’t due to a picture (my fist isn’t raised in our group photo). It is part and parcel of the terms and conditions that apply to those living in black female bodies.
People will uses all kinds of ways to convince you otherwise: America is a meritocracy; as long as you’re in uniform; I don’t care about your skin color, ALL lives mater, race doesn’t matter. Except you’ve already seen that race most definitely matters. Because the only way that you can look at that picture and tie it to Black Lives Matter or political activity is if you take into consideration the race of the individuals involved and then make an (erroneous) assumption about the beliefs and motivations of all individuals of said race.
I can only imagine what you’ve been told over the last few weeks- the number of people who’ve taken you aside and whispered criticism disguised as advice: told you to “keep your head down” and “play the game;” told you to “not stand out” and “smile more,” or suggested that you be less in some way: less abrasive, less intimidating, less arrogant. I’m certain that some well-meaning person — maybe even someone you love –has already told you of the need to “overcome” the shadow cast by that picture. That you will need to work twice as hard and hit the ground running so that people will take you seriously, or rather, forgive you the sin of being both black and proud.
These lessons come to us all at one time or another. Time and again, you learn how your black and female body is little more than a green screen on which people will project their stereotypes, biased assumptions, and fears. You learn the ins and outs of an unwinnable game where you are demonized and criticized for traits -for perceptions- that exist solely in the minds of others. It is a frustrating experience to exist in a world where you are noticed, but unseen, where as Hugh Glass says in The Revenant, “they don’t hear your voice; they just see the color of your face.”
I wish that the community I am welcoming you into were different – better — in some way, but it can be no more than a reflection of the world-at-large. I welcome you anyway.
I welcome you to a struggle that you had no part in creating, but that is yours all the same. To the struggle of defining yourself –both your blackness and your womanhood — on your own terms despite all of the voices screaming contrariwise. To the struggle of recognizing your own humanity and dignity in a wicked system that counted blacknesss as a mere fraction of a whole. To the ongoing struggle that Dubois captured succinctly as the question: how does it feel to be a problem?
There is such unimaginable –unexpected even– beauty in the midst of this struggle though. Without it, the world would be bereft of jazz riffs and the laments of gospel and rhythm and blues. There would be a gaping void where the works of Zora Neale Hurston, Audre Lorde, and Toni Morrison (among many others) should be. I could distill this beauty down into individual accomplishments, provide you with an inexhaustible list of contributions from artists and activists and everyday people alike, but there is neither sufficient time nor space. Without the struggle, the America that we know, would not exist.This beauty too is your heritage.
I have no way of knowing or predicting what the exact shade and shape of your 17 distinct experiences will be. But, take heart. You don’t struggle alone. Ours is a collective struggle. You are a part of us, a long line — a sisterhood — of women who have journeyed –and are journeying– before you.
Welcome to the struggle.
I’ll leave you with this brief prayer:
I wish you voices, whether quavering or steadfast, that ring with the truth of who you are.
I wish you uncompromising self-acceptance of your various identities and the courage to be fully who you are.
I wish you strength, steadfastness, and a community of sisters to see you through the struggle.
And finally, when that picture comes to mind, I wish you zero regrets.
In closing, keep the faith. Continue to believe in a better world and then make it so.