The Kiese Laymon Book Club: Part Four
because of Marquez
I did not understand what Ms. Jackson was saying. I won the contest. I actually won the contest. I wrote the best essay. All of the seventh-grade teachers voted and agreed that I had won. But they also voted and agreed that I should not win. Why was this happening? Even though I won the contest, I could not be the winner and read my essay at seventh grade graduation. But I wrote the winning essay and whoever wrote the winning essay got to read their essay for seventh grade graduation. I won. I wrote the best essay. But Ms. Jackson stood there and told me I could not be the winner because Marquez needed to win. I was a Black girl, but Marquez was a Black boy. Marquez was not that bright. Marquez did not wear the nicest tennis shoes. Marquez got picked on for not being bright and for not having the nicest tennis shoes. Ms. Johnson did not say these things to me. She instead told me that Marquez needed to win because I had won too many things at Fernbank Elementary School of liberal, white, progressive Atlanta, Georgia. She told me that sometimes, other people needed a chance to win. Yes, I got to be Aunt Polly in the seventh-grade play, and yes, I won best actress. Yes, my poems won contests and got published in the school newspaper and got hung in the hallways for the corporate sponsors to see on site visits. Yes, our teams won the quiz bowls and the black history bowls, and yes, I always knew the winning answers. Yes, I was dark and weird and a nerd, and I never got valentines from any of the boys in class that I liked. Yes, the light-skinned girls with not frizzy hair always got valentines from the boys I liked. Yes, I made the boys laugh, but I never got a valentine. Yes, I spent two weeks planning my outfit for the seventh-grade dance and the entire day rolling my hair so that it would not get frizzy. Yes, none of the boys asked me to dance. Yes, the kids made fun of me for not having anybody to dance with. Yes, it hurt.
But for the reasons that I could not comprehend, Marquez needed to win more than I did. Marquez winning just made more sense, and my confusion and hurt made me ungrateful and conceited. I did not understand why they sent the only woman that was the only Black seventh grade teacher to tell me that I had won too much, and that Marquez needed to win. I did not understand why she told me that they were going to let me write and recite a poem instead. I did not understand why Ms. Jackson spent the next 15 minutes correcting my pronunciation of “poem;” I was saying PO-me when I should have been saying po-UHM. I did not understand why my parents also agreed that I had won too much and that the teachers were right to let Marquez win. If Jesus was pleased with my work, nothing else mattered. It was selfish and un-Christlike to want too much. When we are highly blessed, it is important to let other people win. But none of the boys wanted to dance with me at the seventh-grade dance. No one saw how much I wanted my hair to stay straight so that one day, I could get a valentine from a boy I liked.
Ms. Jackson edited my poem and took out what she thought were the angry parts. Even though Marquez stumbled over his essay, it made the good white people in the room feel good. It made the good Black people in the room feel good. My teachers smiled brightly at Marquez. He won. And then I understood what I was supposed to be doing. Seeing a Black girl win too much disturbed the peace. My job was to defer to Black boys and Black men because seeing Black boys and Black men win would right the ills of the world. Seeing Marquez stumble over his speech made folks feel a way that my wins would never make folks feel. My wins made folks uncomfortable. Marquez’s wins make folks feel good. And I was thirteen. But I was already tired. I began to learn that it was easier, simpler, and quicker to just defer. So two years later when my boyfriend told me that if I didn’t have sex with him, he would cheat on me with someone who would, I let him take me to the muddy train tracks behind school and that is how I lost my virginity. There were no satin sheets and candles and proclamations of love that thirteen-year-old Berlisha imagined, just mud and blood. A few months later when my classmate and her friends confronted me in the gym and told me that my boyfriend got sexually aggressive and violent with her when they were dancing together at a party that my mama would not let me go to, I deferred to him. Telling her about that one time he succeeded in forcing himself inside of me and how much it hurt would mean that he would lose, and Black boys must always win. Plus, she did not understand. No one wanted to hear Black girls’ stories which means that no one cared about the truth. So, I let her believe that it was her fault for dancing with my boyfriend at the party I wanted to be at, but could not go to because good Black girls did not go to parties, anyway. That story was easier to live with than the truth.
Over the years, I became better at deferring. I deferred to narratives that my ex-husband was a good man for no other reason than that he was tall and light-skinned with curly hair and a job. I deferred to the narratives that I deserved his bizarre abusive behavior because my mouth was too smart, I was too mouthy, I was too fat, and I was too ambitious. I deferred to the men and women at Southern University of Baton Rouge, Louisiana that told me that feminism was a trick of the white man to pit Black men against Black women. Black men and Black women always worked together. So when the white man on my dissertation committee threw my dissertation at me at in a dark office in a dark corner of a corridor that was like a haunted maze, I deferred to the Black man that happened to be my dissertation advisor when he told me that academia is about politics and that reporting that white man would disturb the peace. So, I had to delay my dissertation defense because I did not turn in my best work. I let people believe that story because that story was easier to live with than the truth. I deferred to the story and not the truth, and one day, I gave a Black man a D that did not deserve a D.
The story of Jason's D began 24 years prior when a 13 year old Black girl in the city that was storied as the capital of the New South, Atlanta of Georgia, was taught how to shrink herself in order to perform white liberal fantasies of Black progress. Instead of teaching Black children how to love our Black girl joy and our Black boy joy, and then, how to love one another other, they taught me how not to love myself and essentially, how not to love Black boys and Black men. Deferral is not love. Deferral is not joy. Deferral is not peace.
Ms. Jackson and her white colleagues felt like they were doing the right thing by making me defer to Marquez. Instead, they manifested conflict where none should have existed. What if they would have taught us to love our Black Joy? What if they would have taught us that Black Boy Joy and Black Girl Joy can co-exist and does co-exist in the cosmos? What if they would have had us work together to make something new? My 13-year-old self had dreams beyond being a caricature in America’s twisted morality play that pitted Black boyhood against Black girlhood. My revisit with these stories is a part of my healing process. I am a Black woman that was once a Black girl. When I was a Black girl, I was taught to dream big dreams as long as they did not disturb the peace of Black boys and Black men because that is what good Black women did. I eventually grew into a Black woman that tried to be a good Black woman by judging myself and others for disturbing the peace of good Black men.
Class, today I write to you as a Black woman that had to re-learn how to just be. I am now somewhere in between being and becoming the writer my 13-year-old self wanted to just be. To do that, I am learning to write the truth and not stories. I am learning how not to defer. I am learning that presenting myself as whole to young Black and Brown women is not the work. I am learning to love myself better so that I can love Black boys and Black men better. I am learning how to not be a character in America’s deranged morality play that pits Black womanhood against Black manhood. I am learning to see myself so that I can see Black boys and Black men. I am hoping that we are all gifted with the grace to embrace vulnerability so that we can strive for a more just world rooted in fairness and kindness. I am hoping we see one another, just because.
The essential BECAUSE
I made it right. I set up a meeting with Jason in the private room adjunct professors at Bunker Hill Community College used for student meetings. I re-downloaded a copy of his paper. Yes, it was the quality of a smart student athlete at a large state institution with access to a writing center. I handed him the paper with the proper grade of A. He told me that he worked hard on the paper because he wanted it to be nice for me. I told him that sometimes professors make mistakes, but also because he did not speak or participate in class, I did not have any idea that he was such a talented student. I told him I am not magic; I can only see what you show me. I apologized for not seeing what he tried to show me. But I told him that students from four-year institutions that enroll at Bunker Hill usually make it clear that they are only there for that class; they are not of Bunker Hill. I hoped he understood that I was not mean, angry, or bitter, but at that point in my life, I had been tired for twenty-four years. We had a good conversation. I told him to speak up more in class. He told me that he was shy. I told him that I was tired. We both wanted to be seen, but there was a world between us that did not have enough for the both of us.
In a world where there is enough for both of us, there is a Kiese Laymon Book Club. At the Kiese Laymon Book Club, Black men who are cis, trans, gay, straight, bi, scared, alone, tired, hungry, thirsty, shy, loud, abused, abusive, frustrated, lonely, questioning, faithful, and faithless can come together and talk about being touched, not wanting to be touched, wanting to be touched, needing to be touched, touching too much, touching too hard, being seen, not being seen, teachers that can’t see, teachers that won’t see, teachers that see too much, stale donuts, mama’s voice, mama’s bruises, mama’s boyfriends, mama’s boyfriend’s hands, grandma’s hands, that teacher’s hands, that coach’s hands, dark corners, dark nights, dark nights of the soul, smoking, getting smoked, fucking, getting fucked, moving, moving too much, running, standing still, father’s that gave more than enough, father’s that did not have enough, being thrown in the deep end, swimming, drowning, winning, not winning, feeling, being, becoming, love, loving, being loved by cause, for the reason that
Black Men Matter BECAUSE Black Women Matter
The Writer Behind the Writing
Dr. Berlisha R. Morton
Berlisha R. Morton is an intellectual activist, performance artist and afrofuturista who studies and performs Blackness. She received her doctorate from Louisiana State University and her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Southern University and A&M College, an Historically Black College and University (HBCU) in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Her scholarship has appeared in the Encyclopedia of African American Education, The Western Journal of Black Studies, the Journal of Curriculum Theorizing, the Gender and Education journal and in edited volumes on African American students’ college readiness and Black women’s educational philosophy. She wrote and produced a one act play, Utterances: An Afrofuturistic Ghost Story. Her scholarship and art are driven by a desire to acknowledge the intellectual and spiritual contributions of women like her grandmother and great-aunt – lifelong domestic workers who had little formal education— to literary and educational canons.
Victim Support (UK)
Safe Horizon (US)
Sistah Space (UK)