the GENDER issue / NONFICTION
Photo: Courtesy of Brittney Michelle Edmonds
by Brittney Michelle Edmonds
My most cherished childhood memory gelled when I was still small enough to dangle and swing my feet from my favorite seat in the southeast Atlanta church my family called its spiritual home. Every Sunday we gathered onto the same pew, front row of the balcony, where I first learned blasphemy in the thrill of omniscience, front row of the balcony where my view allowed me to keep nearly all of the church’s parishioners in my sights. Maybe I was sacrilegious from the start, my interest more in the people who gathered for Him than in Him or any other god. But to me our church was a second home. Gilded in green and white, it had gleamed from the pages of the local weekly more times than I could count, and as I grew older, I would associate its size and magnetism with the city’s own hypnotic promise of salvation and human arrival for the many generations of black people who crowded onto its pews. On this particular Sunday, we were dressed well, my family, and we were on our feet, singing and dancing and smiling—my favorite part of service. After all, I knew that soon after I would endure the too-long sermon, the nap stolen at awkward angle against my mother’s side, the unfortunate and inevitable wrinkling of my good clothes, and the occasional slight pop from my mother, hers a tactile reprimand to listen more closely to the measured power of the week’s Word.
Before the late-service Baptist sermon, before the collection plates and church announcements, before the planting of seeds for the sick or those otherwise in need of collective prayer, there was the swaying and swinging and clapping and freedom of praise. And I still think of it now, as an adult, how my mother dressed in her Sunday best, face beautiful and shining, turned to me and smiled. Later, in the car on our way to IHOP, she would casually say that my father and my brother, they were water, but me, I was something special, something different. “You,” she would say angling her body from the front seat to flash me yet another subversive smile, “you are wine.”
It’s certainly true in more than one sense. But what could my mother know of my difference’s cost, of how she would come to fear me and my difference, how others’ fear would corroborate and intensify her own, how later as I grew older me and my difference would register not as divinity—we are all God’s children—but as provocation of damnation in this world and the next, as reason for me and my difference to be cast off and cast out?
It was well remarked even at an early age. If I was called a “funny” child by my family, friends, and foes alike, there are too many reasons, too many eccentricities, too much audacity and pride packed into the body I carried—black, masculine, girl. My peers sensed the dangers in my difference early. Still, I was a source of fascination before I was one of terror, but eventually the lessons came, hardening during adolescence and gaining the rigidity of decree as my body grew older and needed to be disciplined into the ways of right folks—straight folks—those who smear queers or worse, tolerate them.
As a very young child, my mother has told me that I had so little to say, was so unwilling to talk or interact with other children, that she feared that I would never be properly or successfully social. Unwittingly, she enrolled me in team sports—soccer, basketball, swimming—that graced my nascent leanings with both posture and alibi. I was abnormally bookish, yes, but what I enjoyed most was an intense physicality not often celebrated in young female children. My predilection for basketball shorts and expensive sneakers and rough play was offset only by the curious affection I inspired in my white male classmates. My parents still recount how Josh and Joey were always at my side—how Josh, on learning that I could not make his eighth birthday party decided to move the date just to accommodate me. Maybe what my parents were celebrating was the fantasy realized, the American Dream blackened and all our own, their daughter invited to birthday parties and coveted, even across the colorline. Theirs was a dream that sought achievement and decorum as bulwark against the nation’s great long shame. That elementary school esteem, though, would eventually give way.
A sneaking awareness of the danger of my difference arrived, it seemed, overnight. Like newly visible shocks of hair or the nuisance acne that dotted across my brow and cheeks or the conspicuously clasped hands of couples in our now middle school hallways, small slights settled into my life and marked a new horizon. There was no final Duboisian scene of rejection; instead, my hitherto unmarked inclusion was reversed by quiet cruelty. A young white boy named Dustin who often came to school dirty and smelling announced proudly to us all as we labored on a group project that he and his father would be going to Niggerville that weekend. I looked around. Breath and gravity fell out of my stomach. The energy of the group shifted. Everybody stopped working, stopped speaking. Their eyes flicked back and forth between me and Dustin, spotlighting what I would come to know well, that to highlight those who did not belong, those who categorically could not belong, was the surest way to secure one’s own inclusion, one’s own freedom from slight, of knowledge of oneself as the lowliest member. I asked Dustin where Niggerville was, what he and his father were to do there. I do not remember Dustin’s responses. I do not remember if any of my other fairer classmates spoke up. But I do remember their smirking indifference, the way they all, collectively, registered my confusion and isolation as triumph. When I went home and told my parents, the ritual humiliation was compounded. They laughed at first, then eventually exchanged looks with each other. Eventually they contacted my teacher. The scene and the shame at its retelling—the looks from my peers and my parents both suggesting that I should have somehow known better, that my violation was due to my own naïve trust, that my own bold desire to simply be meant in part that I deserved what I got—would recur again and again in my life. Which is to say that my least favorite childhood memories are many, innumerable even.
I began to wear in my body the understanding that what in my early youth could be explained away as eccentricity or exuberance was now in adolescence a harbinger for waywardness. My difference splintered me worldly and divine. Wine a key manifestation of divine miracle. Wine an augury of transformation for who and what it touches. Wine staining. Wine inebriating. Wine disrupting any notion of the existing way of things. Wine blurring the names of purity and order. My mother smiled at me differently. She asked, “What happened? You used to be so happy.”
For all the eccentricity I courted, I strove to emulate my parents. My parents, who always registered to me like people out of a movie: an attractive couple, two first-generation college students who fell in love, found success, produced children with alliterative names, and, by all accounts, won the good life. Decorum and achievement were the only possibilities available to those children of the blackened American Dream. The broader story here is about what that does or does not secure, about who gets left by the wayside in the fantasies of progress, about who must be cast out and cast off in the names of decorum, achievement. The broader story is about what it means to bear and wear the faces of others. Maybe, I thought naively, my fight would not be so different than theirs. Maybe, I could achieve and wield my achievement like shield and emblem, use it to beat back my difference, to transform it from the terror it now represented to my peers and my parents back into the wine that once dazzled my mother, made her smile as if she were looking into the face of a god.
I was determined to follow in the steps of those who had already beaten the odds. I wanted to be like my mother who was kind and smart and perceptive. I wanted to be like my father who was stern and dignified and always sharply dressed. Both ideals existing in one body, both ideals carried like a burden. I made a plan. I routinized my life, made timetables for when and how I would study, and as I grew older, I continued to take church and my moral life seriously. But as I set my course, I would soon sense that my difference interrupted my parents’ understanding of their own, shattering their vision of the American Dream blackened and reproduced into eternity.
My least favorite childhood memory occurs after its technical end, when as a teenager I am seated across the table from my father—still stern, still dignified, still well-dressed, but also, increasingly, angry, controlling and mercurial—in a cheap diner. He asks, “Are there any boys you’re interested in?” He asks, “You do like boys, don’t you?” We both sit in silence. We both understand that his question is not a question but a directive. You do like boys, don’t you? I say yes.
I think often of this moment, how my father’s own fear warped his vision, how he could recognize me and yet be unable to bear seeing me.
A similar incident would happen a few years later, this time with my mother. Cuddled up on her bed, we watched Monster together. I was well into high school by then. My mother watched attentively. My mother did not comment on Charlize Theron’s heralded transformation. She did not comment on the sex work or the interminable depiction of vicious rape, but when Aileen Wuornos finally, mid-movie, embraced her desire for Selby Wall in a seedy hotel room, my mother could no longer hold her tongue. “She definitely deserved an Oscar for all that,” my mother said, letting me know at once that what I thought had been our clandestine bonding, a window into a confidant, a recognition of difference alongside humanity, was in fact another lesson. Aileen Wuornos was monstrous not because she was a murderer, or at least not primarily so, but because she desired another woman. To desire women was monstrous, disgusting, degrading—and the performance of that behavior was worthy of Hollywood’s highest accolades.
This narrative is familiar enough: how the parents do or do not accept the child, how that mixture of love and rejection confuses and thwarts the child’s ability to love themself and others, how silence becomes a necessary weapon against both parental denial and personal shame and the child’s own becoming, how silence creates and extends an undefined bridge that leaves both parties still connected but at a distance. It’s an understatement to say that I became cynical, distant. At sixteen, I decided that I was on my own. At sixteen, I decided that I would work only to escape, work only to find a place where I could be, a place where shame was not my first or last name, a place where I would not be cast off and cast out so that others could belong. My achievement and my decorum could not silence nor make my eccentricity invisible, but they could be my ticket out.
Around the same time, during high school, I went to the movies with my brother on a Friday night. We ran into some friends, and my brother witnessed subtle status games that found me on the losing end. He said, “Don’t ever let anyone treat you that way.” That remark completed my hardening. I didn’t watch the movie—and now I forget what it was. But I remember vowing to say no to any request for a year, to not be cowed by anyone into anything. I continued to excel in school. I worked on the newspaper and the yearbook. I was elected Debate Team co-captain and president of the school’s honor society. Whatever contempt students had for my difference shrank before their esteem for my know-how. This was another lesson, something I carried with me as weapon and shield when I matriculated to a college, far from my home and my parents, in upstate New York.
What to make of this asymmetry of calls and responses, of learning not to answer when called out of one’s name? This is no simple litany. This is not about the actions of others, nor my own defenses and sometimes retreating withdrawals, but about the confusion that dwells in ambivalence’s wake, about the marks that difference births and bleeds. Being told that you are wrong and thus fair game, that people can poke and prod you and peremptorily reject you and become defensive in your very presence, is violence. Worse, like all violence, it’s nearly impossible to anticipate. Over the years, I have learned to respond to these scenes in ways that occasion me less pain, less anger. But still, like Zora Neale Hurston, I cannot help but be astonished by those who would deny themselves the possibility, even, of the pleasure of my company.
I turn to these memories frequently. They are a part of my ongoing experiences and I still learn from them. To live in and out of time, to reject the vision of the present as a steady march away from the past is to assent to the fluidity of a life never exhausted of possibility. There’s no vignette that could capture the shame that for so long saturated my life, the shame that had to be unlearned in fits and starts. There are no words for the ways in which my always being on the outside gifted me with compassion and a compulsive need to return to these memories and to love myself through even the most difficult of them. Loving me, daring to love myself through the contempt of others and sometimes even my own, has given me the conviction that no human being is unworthy of dignity, that punishment and shame will not get us to a better, more loving world.
Even though I left the South as quickly as I could, some thirteen years ago, I still adamantly identify as a Southerner. In part, this is about laying claim to hard-won knowledge. To claim my Southern provenance is to recognize and name myself as the product of a very specific set of social mores and experiences. Yes, in the South I learned that difference could be liability, but I also learned to revel in the absolute miracle of my being, learned to risk knowing and loving imperfect people, learned to practice the courage to remember that I could change whatever and whoever dared come into contact with me. My mother’s smile has never been brighter.
Brittney Michelle Edmonds is a scholar of twentieth and twenty-first century African American literature and culture. Her work has been published in MELUS, South: A Scholarly Journal, The Journal of Feminist Scholarship, and elsewhere. She teaches at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.