Dear White Unintending Liberal,
I don’t want to talk about him. By him I mean that monstrosity you call a tangerine-tinted buffoon. As for me you won’t hear me calling him a tangerine or any of its derivatives. Because if you imply his skin is the color of creamsicles I used to dream I might get to fill my mongrel mouth with, like all those boys and girls who lived my American fantasy, or the sherbet Flintstones pops I pushed up like I imagined I’d do with a bra someday in the cafeteria, staining the corner of my mouth like the Doritos I snuck into my plate lunches, stretching the allowance my father gave me to save, save, save, or the shade of lipstick I smeared on my pale lips even when the queen who managed my favorite cafe admonished me, insisting it clashed with my lemon meringue skin, or the tiny triangles of sweet potato my father slipped into the rice cooker, the bits of carrot tinged with oxtail in my favorite of his stews. You will not see me stain a shade so of the earth, so artificially and wondrously American, with that who detonated the landmines of colorism hid in the homes and hearts of the promised land, of the immigrants’ quote unquote sanctuary. What would you say if that other man who I wish I could erase, that who birthed my body and ushered it into the world with an abuse not unlike your villain you identify with the brilliance of a sun rising even as the earth struggles to inhale without a net, what would you say if I marked his large and small cruelties as the yellow-headed monster? Let’s tell it true. Orange and yellow come from the ground, the machine, the orb that reminds you you can rise, too. What matters isn’t skin, but what pulses, nevertheless, beneath it.
 Bridget Jones’ Diary.
Neither Subject Nor Object
I’m drawn to the blood
the flight of a one-wing dove
how did this happen
how did this happen
the strength of his arm
my lover caught me off guard
head of a rabbit
head of a rabbit
for my prayer has always been love
what did I do to deserve this
with blood on my sleeve
Delilah avenge my grief
God of Elijah
God of Elijah
as fire to the sun
tell me what I have done
heart of a dragon
heart of a dragon
for my prayer has always been love
what did I do to deserve this
how did this happen (Sufjan Stevens)
The portrait-photograph is a closed field of forces. Four image-repertoires intersect here, oppose and distort each other. In front of the lens, I am at the same time: the one I think I am, the one I want others to think I am, the one the photographer thinks I am, and the one he makes use of to exhibit his art. In other words, a strange action: I do not stop imitating myself, and because of this, each time I am (or let myself be) photographed, I invariably suffer from a sensation of inauthenticity, sometimes of imposture (comparable to certain nightmares). In terms of image-repertoire, the Photograph (the one I intend) represents that very subtle moment when, to tell the truth, I am neither subject nor object but a subject who feels he is becoming an object: I then experience a micro-version of death (of parenthesis): I am truly becoming a specter. (Roland Barthes)
I cannot confess to a time in which I have not been conscious of the lens. Even when no such lens existed in the air before me, I remember making myself (and pleading with my twin-in-crime) into a set of image that, hopefully, my mother would come upon in the bewitching hour after she’d had her fill of dancing and drinking, and look upon us with longing, guilt for having left us, and that gushy fantasy of maternal love I’d seen in the commercials I’d watch to while away the time, or reflected through the windows of my friend’s houses as we drove away from them, securely in my mother (most likely father)’s ornery car, my friend safe to be held by her mother without ridicule or embarrassment.
The point of this is to say that there has always been a lens that I have made myself for, and unlike most of the literature on this, it was not always for a man that I made myself. I made myself for men and for women, older and younger, maternal and rapturous. For my prayer has always been love. Regardless of the source of the lens, camera or human eye, I have never not known myself as neither subject nor object, but as some no-man’s-land in between. For the most part, when I took the time to ruminate on the reasons, I imagined it was because it was too easy, too tempting, to object twins into lifelessness, into commodity, into dolls that could be the precious realness of girls, girls that could be the hauntingly perfect imitation of real dolls. Were we the Pinocchios of the stage, exaggerating the breaks in our limbs as made of wood, or were we the animated puppet of his life with Geppetto, our father ever too willing to be the master of our never-broken-always-breaking body parts?
But the real point of this is to say that sometime in late 2011, I took a trip to New York City with someone who is no longer relevant except for the fingertip that she placed on the trigger of this particular machine that shot the object that was a version of me in the round lens. It is somewhere hiding in the computer files that I cannot manage to discard, but I can also not bear to uncover. It is a fossil that bears the regretful form I once was.
I took a trip to New York City in the middle of a semester, at a time when I would claim I had political motives, and in some sense I did in that I attempted to impress upon my community college students the importance of art for the human condition, and the need for real discussions about the different selves bodies can have. But, I was not political in the true sense of the word. I did not go to protests, I did not vote outside of the presidential election, I knew nothing of what was happening in terms of the local government actions of my hometown where I still live, I got briefly angry and incensed at things I found unjust. And then did nothing.
On the first or second day of my trip to New York City, I decided in my amateur and voyeuristic photographic journey that I wanted to visit Wall Street. I have never felt any strong desire to visit Wall Street before this, and I haven’t thought of Wall Street while in New York City since. This moment is sandwiched in between the most cursory mentions of films that depict the men who conquer Wall Street.
I would like to say that there was an altogether different reason for why I made a decision to hit up Wall Street that day, something more conceptual, or postmodern, or that there was even a rationalization I had concocted in my overly educated brain. But. I wanted to cruise down Wall Street, to quote myself in a fit of regret and embarrassment, to take photos of the sharp-dressed businessmen. I wanted to make object the men who were responsible, in part, for the many ways I and so many others suffered. This was not because I was making some political act in performance. It was evidence of a sartorial fetish, a desire to consume the beautiful patterns their entitled bodies could claim without consequence for the corruption that truly lined their pinstriped tailoring. Like snapshots at a parade, I wanted to consume an entire army of patterns made from fabrics that were hemmed by bodies that most often didn’t see the light of day that could so easily refract in the lens I freed from its cover, a lens focusing on an image that their suffering made possible. None of these things occurred to me then, and I can tell you I wasn’t young enough that this oversight should be so easily swept aside like the bodies in the sweatshops that plummet to their death from their uninhabitable conditions, bent over the drapery that would soon land on the bodies I was so eager to consume just for the fun of it.
As I walked onto the platform, nothing could have prepared me for the ambush that cloaked me. I never did see those businessmen in their flashy immoral grids. What I saw instead, what I would uncover later, was one of the earliest protests of Occupy Wall Street. What I would ingest, aside from the general feeling of the fear of being stampeded, the guilt of being on the receiving line of the shouts being pummeled at me and everyone else that came off the platform and on to the street, was a different kind of lens, a different kind of gaze, a different kind of eye boring its way into my dull, disoriented pupils as they burned from the sense of being overwhelmed. He couldn’t have been more than 22. He had dirty but not filthy shoulder length brown hair and he wore loosely fit bohemian clothes, ragged jeans that were worn at the cuffs. I think he wore sandals. He had piercing blue eyes that seared.
As I stepped off the platform and into a protest, I knew better than to meet the gaze of protesters, although I hadn’t been off the subway long enough to be prepared to be on my guard. I lost the person who accompanied me in the crowd, I felt afraid for what these protesters might do with me. The other people who were also the victims of this protest paid it no mind and went about their business, shuffling out of the protest and out of sight. But he, I remember. I remember the fierce anger and activist spirit, I remember the burrs he threw at me about our wretched, capitalist society. I couldn’t imagine I would ever be like him.
In that one moment, there were two lenses that made of me an object. His eye made of me one, one of complacency and willful ignorance in my desire to be among the money that had damaged so many lives. The other belonged to the camera of the person who had accompanied me. At some point, I broke away from the intensity of this young man’s mission and found myself back in the daylight of the city. I found the person I had lost among the mania of the action on the other side of an intersection. Confused and afraid, wrecked with a guilt I couldn’t disperse from my body or my eyes that now burned with witness, I crossed the street to rejoin the person who I had convinced to come to Wall Street. Click. The moment snapped into place, but for the first time that I can remember, I had not actively made myself into the kind of object I wanted to see on the other side. I haven’t looked at that photo in forever, but it is imprinted in my mind, merged with the pinpricks of blue that young man used to demand me to embark on a new, conscious life. I am wearing a thin, blue v-neck shirt and blue jeans rolled up to the knee with dress sneakers, a film camera dangling from my shoulder. My expression is covered in an invisible film, my eyes worn, burdened with some other truth.
Every day that I travel to my creative writing class, the one which requires me to mount a freeway, I play the same album in my car, Sufjan Steven’s Carrie & Lowell. It is an album I’ve written about before, months before, in the ending of a memoir about my love for Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and the connections I find her story (both the one she composed and the story of her life as it intersects with that composition) has with my own story. I write about this album because it has a similar connection to my life, an 11-track confessional largely about his mother’s abandonment. The acoustic guitar he picks gently fills me with calm, and the understated lines about loss make me feel less alone. Every time I listen to the lyrics, another part of the story—that of my own mother’s abandonment mostly, but on occasion, other plaguing questions about life—opens up for me like the most complex of symphonies. Once the tears of revelation dry, your brain can hear what it’s meant to be taught.
I often misread and reread the fourth song in the album, Drawn to the Blood. There are times I hear the three lines that always render me silent, thoughtful, puzzling, no matter how many times I’ve heard the song—and by this time, it’s easily in the hundreds—how did this happen / what did I do to deserve this / for my prayer has always been love—as redemptive and remade, a man who’s lost his mother to drugs, mental illness, and cancer, and has made peace and harmony out of what’s left. There I times I hear those lines and I think of my own life, one marred by my father’s physical abuse and my mother’s neglect and absence, and I, too, question, how did this happen what did I do to deserve this for my prayer has always been love. It is only now, after a quick search online, that I find Sufjan has answered that in this song he was indeed speaking to his own abusive relationship.
Hours after a bleary night in which I, breathless and panicked, press the button on my phone to waken the screen, and learn that Trump has been named President-Elect of the United States, I get in my car to drive to class. I manage a private social media group with the students of this class to share with them articles and writing that help us understand what it means to be a writer in 2016, and on that group I write to them that I’d really like them to attend class so that we can, as a class, try to make sense of what has just happened, what might happen, and most importantly, what they feel. Our course as a whole has been constructed around The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind, a collection of writing edited by Claudia Rankine that attempts to make sense of how one writes about race, from as many different perspectives as one can imagine. In such a construction, we’ve attempted to break down that how one constructs race in creative writing can have a true role in contemporary American society, and that this world, navigated as it is by social media, could really, truly hear the voices of my students some day. That it is their voices that will lead the way. This is, of course, before it is even plausible that Trump could win the election. Having made it into the campaign at all is painful enough for my students.
Before I leave for class, I weep. I weep for myself, a biracial genderqueer writer who no longer feels that her country wants her around. I weep for my father, an immigrant who happened to have the kind of financial security to gain citizenship years and years ago. But I do not feel content that his citizenship will guarantee him immunity, and so I weep for that lack of security I now feel in his Americanness. I weep for my mother, who no longer lives in the United States, but who comes from rural Tennessee, and whose female relatives all voted for Trump because they believed him when he spouted that Hillary wanted to rip their imaginary 9-month fetuses from their fragile wombs. I weep for the students of mine whose parents are undocumented immigrants from Mexico, and are afraid that they will lose their parents, their homes, and a sense of a normal, well-rounded life. I weep for the students who live in fear that a white cop, not understanding them, will shoot them on the street or in their car. I weep for the students who are afraid that they will be the victims of the next hate crime announced in the latest string of hate crimes committed, declaratively, in Trump’s name. But, mostly, I weep because millions of people voted for someone who doesn’t want me and everyone I love. And I weep for the fear of the unknown. And, as a woman whose life was marred by the repeated atrocities of pathological narcissists, I weep because it is unbearable to be faced with yet another pathological narcissist who faces absolutely no consequences for what his hands and his words do. When my life was marred by those repeated atrocities, I healed myself enough to create boundaries around myself and them, and slowly, but surely, I was able to free myself of their presence and their abuses. What will I do now that he could possibly lead the lives of myself and everyone I hold dear and those from whom I need protection? What possible boundary can be carved up now that he is a fixture on all our living room television sets, the documents that mandate what our lives will be, the face that will lead us into war or from it?
On the way to class, I turn on Sufjan. I am not yet imbued with rage or action. Not yet. That comes later. I am struck with inconceivable grief, grief I can’t imagine will ever cast me aside. How do I make sense of this gaping sense of unwelcome I feel? How do I protect or console my students from a reality that cannot be sugar-coated or made sense of? What will strangers do with my half-caste face? The world, my object, has now been changed in my eyes. As I imagine the various words of awkward wisdom I can possibly offer to my students, Sufjan’s words manage to penetrate the deep sadness I feel. They pull me out of the well, drop me gently on the grass. I project a different attitude on my favorite lines – how did this happen / what did I do to deserve this / my prayer has always been love. Why is this happening? How could this have happened? What did I do to deserve this? I weep for the fantasy lost. I understand now that it has always been a fantasy, and that in shrouding myself in the blankets of those I knew would protect me, I had also blinded myself from the many who would easily banish me if they could. It is a hard weeping, but a necessary one.
I don’t say much in the classroom. That room, on this day, isn’t for me. It’s for them. And their anger fuels me to change my sadness into something that I can use. When I listen to Sufjan’s words on the way home, I am suddenly reminded of that boy on Wall Street for the first time since. I couldn’t imagine being so enraged. But, now I understand. I couldn’t listen then. Is there some place between subject and object, an agencied body ready to dig in the dirt and push against those who would have you bury yourself in the mud?
Why does tragedy exist?
Because you are full of rage.
Why are you full of rage?
Because you are full of grief. (Anne Carson)