The Story I Never Tell Part 12
I am moved to defend myself against a specific criticism that has followed me my whole life. Let’s burn some fucks.
Recently I saw this video. I can’t stop watching. It’s young girls dancing flamenco and if you haven’t seen it, watch before you read this. You won’t know what I’m talking about if you haven’t seen it. Anyway, these girls are completely in their power. I realize that maybe they are not at all in their power. Their passion, magnitude, force, and gravity might be for show; dancers are actresses of movement. A prayer for these girls: please let no man watching them dancing so fully emboldened, so in possession of their bodies, so captivating with their independence, their allure emanating from so deep inside them that we can’t turn our eyes away, please let no man allow himself the malevolent folly of confusing all this power with sexual/emotional maturity. These are little girls, but men often don’t care. If you project that magnetism, you’re adult enough. Two thoughts: 1. These girls are being allowed to fully possess their power and to project themselves as they wish, and 2. These girls are in danger of exploitation. Which leads me to today’s fuck-to-be-burnt.
I was born the way I see these girls. Granted, the way I see these girls is not necessarily what these girls are. But the way they portray themselves through dance is how I saw myself. But, I was a brown girl in a completely white world with a mother who had a long, black braid and wore a sari, and a dad who was brainy and capable, and though the spirit was in me, I was afraid a lot of the time. That feeling shines in my memory, the fear that someone was going to hurt my dad especially, because he was brown and he wasn’t an American. Maybe that’s because I didn’t have any other family here and I didn’t even have any siblings yet, so I was not deep with people. I was always aware that if someone killed my daddy, then it was just me and my mom, who didn’t even have a green card yet, and then we would be alone and we would die. That’s what I thought. When I was 4, I got a teal blue bicycle and one day it got stolen. I knew who stole it. The boy was the kind that scared me the most. Even then, I knew the people who didn’t like me because I was brown. I came home and told my dad that someone stole my bicycle, and my dad, who is never scared, got up and went with me to that boy’s 1st floor apartment. He knocked on their glass door and told them very calmly that their son stole his daughter’s bike. I was terrified because that dad was wearing an undershirt without a shirt over it, he had an orange beard, and their little yard had trash in it. But they returned my bike. Just like that. He wasn’t mean to my dad or to me, and I think he even apologized for his son. My heart was beating so hard it felt like a lump of vomit in my throat.
When I was 3-years old, my mother enrolled at the University of Maryland to take a prerequisite chemistry class which she needed to apply to medical school, a lifelong dream she’d deferred because there wasn’t enough money for her to go to medical school and also for her niece to go to college. So she did a master’s degree and figured she would go to medical school one day. She enrolled me in a day care in Silver Spring run by a woman named Mrs. McCarthy. This was an abusive daycare situation. Mrs. McCarthy used to lock me and this Greek girl in the bathroom. She used to swing that Greek girl around by her long, brown pigtails, like Mrs. Trunchbull in Matilda. She would make us eat our lunch in that locked bathroom. This was, of course, because we were the brown ones. Every so many days she would pack the class into her station wagon to go pick her granddaughter up from school. One of these days this redheaded boy pushed my face with his muddy sneaker and said, “Get away from me, I don’t sit next to niggers.” And I didn’t know what that word meant, because I was 3 and because I was the child of new immigrants-this word wasn’t part of our lexicon. I told Mrs. McCarthy that this boy had stepped on my face and said he didn’t want to sit next to me because I was a nigger. She replied that I was a nigger and that he shouldn’t want to sit next to me. I was very sad because I was a nigger and so people weren’t going to want to sit near me. It was an aloneness and an apartness that I can still draw up in my memory, along with the disgusting smell of those 1970s lunch boxes, and the terrifying sound of their metal clasps, the one on the box, the one that held down the thermos, and the one that secured the lid of the thermos to the bottle. I suppose the sound of clasps isn’t actually terrifying unless it is associated with being locked in a bathroom with a crying friend to eat your lunch. I used to pick books from the long brown bookcase against the wall, and sit on the floor to read them. If Mrs. McCarthy saw me reading, she would grab the book out of my hand, tell me I didn’t know how to read, and lock me in the bathroom alone, without my Greek friend. For the record, I could read. The story I don’t remember is that I would throw up every day before my mother took me to school and that my body broke out in boils. My mother was at a loss. She took me to the doctor who asked her if anything new had changed in our lives because he could determine nothing medically wrong with me. She told him she had gone back to school and that I was in daycare. He told her to quit school. She did. I went back to normal. Apparently, it was only one semester and only 3 days a week. My mom dropped me off at 8am and picked me up by noon. I remember it as 10 hours a day, for years. My mother was born like those flamenco girls too and her flamenco boldness is legend, but I’ll save her story for another day. As it applies to this tale: perhaps the first time she had to truly shut her dragon down was in 1971, in Silver Spring, MD, when she gave up on her dream of becoming a doctor because of me. I feel guilty about that. She doesn’t understand why I would feel this way; I am her child, she says has no regrets as it relates to that. Still…
So, I was born with flamenco girl spirit into a world where I didn’t always feel safe, and I always felt foreign, and whenever I talked too loudly, or even laughed too loudly, I was told to be quiet and to stop drawing attention to myself. When you are immigrants to a new land and you are alone and you are broke, your first thought for your children is of safety, not of dream fulfillment and being true to yourself. My parents needed to protect me from malevolent folly, and other dangers that might occur if I drew too much attention to myself. And if the people who love you most are always saying you are too much, and you always feel foreign and outside of the norm, then there is no safety in being your true self. Your instincts might make a fool out of you. But, if I kept my nose to the grindstone and my head out of the clouds and if I was calm and quiet, I could have all the good things. Sadly, I was incapable of being good and I was afraid of being me, so I was just wrong and bad. I do understand it, though I’m about to light that bitch on fire.
At the moment, the fuck I want to burn down is this one: that being myself, which necessarily draws attention to myself (because it’s that sort of self), is “attention-seeking behavior.” I want to state for the record that I disagree with this characterization which has followed me around my whole life. I attract strangers of all walks of life because I am interested in humans and their stories, so random humans with stories find me. I talk to them because I like to. I dance when music comes on, even in public, because I like that, too. I sing in public sometimes, not because I’m good, but because I’m moved. No one was harmed by my mediocre voice. I wear a giant, red, woven hat when it rains, though it looks like JJ’s hat from Good Times, because it is large enough to fit all my hair and it keeps the rain off my head. And I like it. I am not seeking attention; attention finds me. I don’t need to be the center of attention; I just often am the center of attention. It is not my job to behave in a way that makes others more comfortable. I will say what I want to say, laugh as loudly as I feel like laughing and I will show all my teeth when I smile. I will write whatever I want to write. I will do whatever I want to do, and if it draws attention, so be it. Just because you think it’s inappropriate, doesn’t mean it’s inappropriate. Why should I think anyone else’s idea of propriety is so much more accurate than mine? Little Sujatha is stomping and clapping and throwing her skirt this way and that. Behind her, the singer is ululating that low, guttural howl and off in the corner of the stage, the smoke is rising off the ashen remains of this particular fuck.