It’s a Saturday night, and I’m in the first floor bathroom of the Brooklyn Museum, waiting on a friend. The whole museum is packed with people for First Saturday, and the bathroom is no exception. I look at the reflections of black women fixing their hair, touching up their makeup, smiling at each other. Strangers compliment each other’s style. It feels nice in here. My friend comes out, and we exit into a wave of black bodies, with occasional allies.
I did not expect to be here, or in a situation like this, for a long time. Two weeks ago, I stayed home during the Women’s March. Crowds make me nervous. Marches give me flashbacks to marching around campus with The Former Editor of the Ankh, and the aftermath that came from sharing the post I’d written about him, mainly from the people who had organized and marched with us.
I feel like self care at this moment in history is a luxury. Every moment that I take to recharge or focus on my mental state is a moment I am not organizing or protesting or calling my five representatives, something the newly woke people on my Facebook timeline constantly point out to me. And yet, it is so hard for me to get my body out of my house on the weekend. It is so hard to leave my bed, or turn on the phone when I’m not at work. I’m afraid that if I try to push myself in my Off time, I’ll have nothing left for when I need to be On.
* * * * *
At the end of chess club, two students are late being picked up. They hang out as I organize my classroom.
“Why was Martin Luther King Jr. shot?” they ask.
“Do you really want to know?” I ask them. The two black five-year-olds nod, and move to lie down on my carpet, heads propped up in their hands as they listen to me explain capitalism, slavery, Jim Crow and Civil Rights in as simple a way as possible. Their parents come in midway through, standing silently in the back of the classroom and listening as I speak.
“As long as black people believe themselves to be strong, and powerful, and worthy of good things and good treatment,” I start to wrap up, “And as long as they continue to fight for everything they deserve, they will be a threat to wealthy white people. People care about money more than anything else. So they need to take away our leaders so that we become unorganized, and they need to do it in a way that scares us so badly that we stop resisting. That’s why they shot him. But it hasn’t worked yet. The struggle continues, and we keep resisting, because we have to. You have to, too.” I’m not even sure I’m saying the correct things, but no one says otherwise.
When everyone is gone from chess club, another teacher finds me on the floor behind a table.
“I’m just exhausted,” I tell her.
“I know how you feel,” she says. “Sometimes while I’m talking to them, I just get so scared. When we talked about Civil Rights and what’s happening today, they were like, ‘Wait, this isn’t over yet?’ and then I think, ‘Maybe you don’t actually have a future!’”
The next day, after Guided Reading, I tell the kids about Huey P Newton and Shaka Zulu.
“Teaching IS activism!” a former professor writes to me in an email.
* * * * *
This time last week, I was sobbing on the balcony inside Turtle Bay, because the bouncer had insisted I give up my mace, and my friend had wanted to go inside anyway.
“It’s not safe here, though,” I’d said. “I’m not safe. I can’t defend myself. They aren’t even checking any guy’s pockets! How can a place put out a dress code that makes it nearly impossible for women to have pockets, that makes it so women need to carry purses, and then only check purses and not check into men’s pockets?”
The bouncer was inside now. I walked up to him.
“So you just that guy in here with his knife?” I asked. There was no knife, but he had no way of knowing that. “You didn’t check him! You haven’t checked any men! How do you know he doesn’t have roofies?”
“Listen, ma’am,” he told me. “Usually, we do. We’re usually supposed to check men, too.”
“That’s not helpful,” I told him, “Because you’re being negligent right now. You’re only going into purses here, not pockets. So when I walk home tonight, I’ll be defenseless. And if anyone can’t walk home tonight, if anyone gets date-raped in here because you allowed someone in here with drugs in their pocket, that’ll be on you.”
“Whoa, whoa,” he held up his hands. “That’s not my call!”
“It’s completely your call whether you check or not!” I yelled, before walking away.
Triggers, man. They really sneak up on you out of nowhere. I hadn’t realized how much my peace of mind hinged upon my ability to fight off attackers. I hadn’t realized the extent to which I’ve internalized that I cannot control what other people will do to my body. That at this point, leaving my house makes me feel like I’m Asking For It. When people had started to write off the Women’s March as a white feminist movement that prioritized pink pussies grabbing back over all else, I’d felt validated for not going. Now, I feel Sojourner Truth by my shoulders, sadly whispering in my ear that I’m a woman too, and those issues actually still do severely affect me. You can’t protest if you’re afraid of going outside.
Everything is political. I lean into nihilism. I tell my students about Angela Davis, Harriet Tubman, Charles G. Woodson and Madame C. J. Walker. I read about Josephine Baker, already planning a school wide celebration for May 20.
* * * * *
Tonight, Saturday night, I’m wearing jeans, a bodysuit, and an oversized cardigan. I have pockets, and new mace in my boot. As my friend and I walk out of the bathroom, our outfits blend into the crowd. Everyone falls uniquely into the same categories, either casually chic with splashes of ankara, or dressed fully to impress. Men are in dashikis. The DJ plays “Wobble” and everyone in the museum begins to fall into step. A little later, I walk past OSHUN, ever-sporting tribal marks, as they pose for pictures.
“This is a lot,” my friend says, and I agree with her. But in this case, “a lot” doesn’t mean “too much”, so we stay. We stay, and sit, and talk, and people watch. We catch the end of a performance.
“I was feeling so guilty about coming out tonight,” I say, “When I haven’t been going to any protests or being especially active. But this is sort of what we’re protesting for, isn’t it? These people all look like they’re enjoying themselves. They look happy. We need spaces like this to be human, to feel free. To just Be. And events like this are important to come to, because their popularity will increase their frequency, and because I love the way everyone looks. Afropunk used to be the only place black people could congregate en masse dressed like this. It’s like non-political existence is the greatest resistance. You don’t see this all the time, especially now, but it feels so normal and that’s beautiful.” Maybe we could make the world like the Brooklyn Museum, I think. Is that what Love Trumps Hate is all about?
When we leave to walk outside, I check to make sure my mace is still easily accessible. My friend asks me if I think I’ll pass my fears and anxieties onto my children. I think about the babies I saw at the museum tonight, the toddlers with their mothers and the happy families.
“No,” I decide. “They’ll know the world they live in, but all of my fears would be irrational to anyone to hasn’t had my experiences. I wouldn’t want to pollute their mental states. I’d shield them.”
“But you’d want to protect them,” she presses. “You’d say, ‘Here, take this pepper spray just in case,’ and then put it into your daughter’s head.”
“No, no, no, I wouldn’t.”
“Yes, yes, yes, you would! Because you’d be too afraid, otherwise, for her safety.”
And that’s when I remember: “You’re right! I would be too afraid, but that’s why I’m not having children anyway. I don’t want to pass anything on, and I don’t want to worry about anyone being raped or murdered. So this conversation is irrelevant!” I feel triumphant, but she’s laughing.
“You forgot that for a moment though, didn’t you?” she says. “You forgot that you decided that. The museum made you forget tonight.”
She’s right. For three hours, surrounded by generations of existing black people; smiling, confident women; and happy children, I forgot my learned fears. The fear came back when we left the museum, but differently. This time, it was accompanied by a tiny bit of hope. It was dulled enough to allow an asterisk next to my No Children decision.