Gatekeepers

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There have been a series of armed robberies in my district and in the city overall. In one effort to address the problem, our mayor, city council member, a BART representative and a police officer recently collaborated with residents and local business owners to hold a town hall meeting. Three of them are men of color and one is a woman of color, which is a first for the 23 plus years during which I’ve lived here.

 

Although I thought the effort was a good thing, I hesitated to attend due to the gate-keeping and profiling that are often expressed at neighborhood meetings. I just didn’t want to have to deal with that behavior on a sunny Saturday afternoon. I did not want to have to work that hard.

 

Despite the fact that I have lived in my current neighborhood for over 23 years, I encounter what I call gate-keeping and profiling far too often by some of my neighbors who think they are being vigilant, I guess, or something like that. The truth is, I don’t know what they think they are doing when they do or say these things that, to me, are ludicrous. I’ve come to the conclusion that they do not think at all. And after my most recent experience with the phenomena, I believe that the behavior is so ingrained in some psyches that it has become a knee jerk reaction.

 

If I hid out in my home and just drove to and from work, I wouldn’t be visible in the neighborhood streets and I might not think that this gate-keeping was strange. I would just consider it more of the same unpleasantness that I have encountered as a black person living in America. However, I do a lot of walking through my neighborhood on a regular basis and have been doing this for years. One would think that this would make me quite visible. A tall black woman with what is now a salt and pepper Afro, long legs and an energetic stride is someone to notice. I’m energetic and I move pretty fast. As the following lines from my poem How it Happens state,

 

What do they see when they look at me?

A dark, amorphous predator?

My pocketed hand grasping a gun?

 

My breasts want to walk

from block to block,

Iris to Eucalyptus,

welcome to rest my thoughts,

in a garden, on a corner.

 

At the end of the neighborhood town hall meeting I met a neighbor I’ll call “Sharon” (not her real name). As I was signing the sign in sheet that was being passed around, I sat down in an empty seat at a table. Sharon happened to be sitting at that table. She asked me whether I lived in the neighborhood. This is a good example of basic gatekeeper behavior. Ask a question of a perfect stranger that focuses on the concept of belonging. Sharon evidently felt that it was her job to question me because I might have wandered into a 2-hour neighborhood meeting on a sunny Saturday afternoon and boldly sat down at a table and written my contact information on a sign-in sheet when I wasn’t supposed to be there. Ask, even if that was what the city council person and mayor had announced and encouraged attendees to do if they wanted to be placed on a mailing list in order to receive information in the future. After all, I probably hadn’t heard them say those things, so she felt she needed to pull my sleeve and set me on the right path. That’s what gatekeepers do, make sure everyone, especially people of color, are on the right path.

 

I turned the interaction around quickly. I answered Sharon in the affirmative, made sure to mention and emphasize the longevity of my tenure in the neighborhood, and I then introduced myself by first name, and asked for her name. Next, I handed the “Do you live in the neighborhood?” question back to Sharon and stepped into the role of gatekeeper. Change in power differential through a double ward off to Sharon, whose excuse, once she awakened somewhat from her trance of privilege and entitlement, was that some of the people at the meeting were business owners and not residents. I didn’t quite get the significance of that distinction, as I guessed that business owners probably were as interested in not becoming victims of armed robberies to the same degree that residents were not interested in becoming victims.

 

I later realized the Sharon was making excuses as she became aware of how her question might have made her sound and/or look. That was interesting to me. Once I had led Sharon to conversational, neighborly civility by modeling it, she remembered that she knew how to appropriately address a stranger at a neighborhood town hall meeting. After all, until our conversation, I was a stranger who was signing a sign in sheet because she was concerned about the neighborhood she lived in and wanted to receive more information. Sharon then began to chat about her dog that she walked in the neighborhood quite often. She described her dog and called her a diva. I laughed and said that I would easily notice a little white dog that acted like a diva. The conversation had become civil because I had worked to ward off the bad mojo encoded in Sharon’s gate keeping.

 

I also had to redirect another attendee whose privilege and entitlement led him to stand next to me, and in a normal voice tone, despite glances from several other attendees, declare that the martial arts demonstration was “bullshit.” And I finally had to tell the martial arts critic that I could not hear, because he decided to start a conversation with another man and ignore our glances and some glares. Once I spoke up he apologized and eventually moved away to another spot in the room.

 

Despite these interactions with the privileged and entitled, the meeting ended up being not as bad as I’d expected it would be. At the end of the meeting, after my conversation with Sharon, I ran into a couple from my yoga class, and had a few minutes to chat with another neighbor who is one of the kindest people I know. What was hopeful about the meeting to me is that our mayor, who is Latinx was there, our city council member had organized the town hall and he is a man of African descent, the martial arts group was moderated by a male martial artist who was multilingual, one of the martial artists who demonstrated safety tactics was a woman, and the police representative was a man of African descent. So, despite Sharon’s gate keeping and the critic’s bad behavior, there were people at the meeting who looked like me and several of them were in leadership roles.

 

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Stepping Out

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“Well, perhaps you need to step out there and make a fool of yourself.” Not the type of advice I would have expected from a mentor. Yet, that is what one of my mentors told me. I had enrolled in a certificate program at a nearby college after earning my master’s degree. I had begun to write poetry, yet had placed most of it in a desk drawer. I still wrote in notebooks, though, something I had been doing since childhood. But I didn’t see the writing as being central to my life. I knew I needed a steady job, one that paid a consistent wage.

 

I had grown up working class and Black in Brooklyn, New York, in the 50’s and 60’s. My father, trained as a carpenter, worked full time at a lumber exchange terminal in Greenpoint during the week and built bookshelves, cabinets, cabinets and various wood structures for relatives, neighbors, friends, friends of friends, and friends of relatives, friends of neighbors, etc. evenings after dinner and on weekends. My mother worked in the public high schools with students and their families to help prepare and support them in reaching the goal of college admission. With these role models and those of my friends’ parents, I couldn’t help but gravitate toward, and worry about finding a full time job post graduation.

 

I’d held two or more part time jobs as I worked my way through graduate school, and knew it was time to find more sustaining and sustainable work. The dean of my college was surprised when we first met. “You have two part time jobs? Most people struggle with just one job!” Well, most people were not African American New Yorkers raised by two southerners who had grown up poor during the Great Depression. I was not most people. I am still not most people. I’ve learned to face this about myself.

 

I’ve never quite fit in with the demographic that I supposedly belong to, which is more accurately, the one that I am often placed in by others. This demographic placement is, of course, based on my appearance. Growing up within my nuclear family this meant I needed to suppress some of my ideas, my true feelings and my opinions. In other words, if I wanted to respond honestly to some things, I had to hide those responses. No freedom there. That was what I learned to do to survive.

 

So, I grew into an angry young woman. Except that I didn’t know I was angry because I wasn’t allowed to express anger. So, I turned the anger in on myself and it stayed buried beneath the surface during my teens and most of my 20’s. An angry teen isn’t an unusual occurrence. A teen with buried anger probably isn’t unusual either. Around my parents and the other adults in my life, my anger was hidden so well, that it was also hidden from me. Perhaps it wasn’t only my independence that drew me to hang out with boys who became my closest friends in high school. They were comfortable with anger.

 

I had plenty of help with suppressing my anger from the patriarchal behavior that my family and community operated with. The anger was buried pretty deeply and I didn’t discover it until I participated in a workshop, which used strategies and exercises from acting to support people in recovering their self-esteem. I thought that I would never survive the time that I felt ready to explore anger. I don’t now remember the details of the strategy that I was taught and which I used for this exploration. What I do remember is how much lighter I felt once I had come out the other side of the tunnel. Let’s call it the anger tunnel, since that’s what it felt like. Somehow, I emerged from the other side a lot lighter and able to laugh. My fear of expressing the forbidden emotion had encouraged me to dance around the anger until I could no longer stand it. There was nothing left to do but dive into the anger tunnel. Looking back on this now, I see just how brave I was to walk away from the socialization I had experienced and recover more of myself.

 

I discovered that I was angry with myself for holding back, despite the fact that I had done so in order to survive. It has taken me years to appreciate my strong survival instincts, which I believe are due to the excellent genes I’ve inherited. My parents, grandparents and all of my greats could not afford to express their anger outwardly as their lives could have been snuffed out as a result of doing so. The social systems of Jim Crow and slavery guaranteed this fact.

 

So, this no longer angry young woman decided to leave a private sector job and return to school for an interdisciplinary degree that merged religion, psychology and philosophy. She did this in her late 20’s and she was happy reading, writing papers, reflecting on what I was reading and what I experienced and doing research. And in the mix of all of her scholarship, she began to write in verse. This was a complete surprise and a thoroughly new experience. But when I finished my program and I graduated, I stuffed the verse into a desk drawer. I didn’t take it seriously and I decided to return to school again. But this return turned out to be not a good fit. This led to the conversation with my mentor that began this essay. The conversation during which he said to me: “Well, perhaps you need to step out there and make a fool of yourself.”

 

Poetry allows me to do just that. I step out there and make a fool of myself. I have no idea where I will end up as I begin to write. I just follow the stream or words and return to it later to pull out the words, themes and sounds that ring for me, the ones that I am intrigued by or drawn to. There is a lot of revision and wondering about what I intend to say, where I am going with a line or a stanza. The sense of wonder is one that I revisit over and over again.

 

To be honest, writing prose also allows me to “step out there and make a fool of [myself],” too. It brings me back to the writing I once did as a book and film critic, curriculum developer and education research writer. Writing prose allows me to stretch out in a different way as a writer. It reminds me that I have some flexibility and range as a writer. And that is like taking a good yoga class or having a fun session at the gym.

 

Yes, I really do find going to the gym fun (but still need to do it more often). And most of all, I am buoyed, nurtured and fed by the practice of writing. I am going to reconsider and more accurately call this work that takes care of me, in ways that nothing else ever has, the discipline of writing. Writing requires discipline and it is a discipline. And I am grateful for it.