a status report on my piece from earlier this year: “To Being Unreasonable in 2015”
LESSON #1: Embrace your hostility. Be angry. Be a stain. Be what others call a “negative” person. Create a “zone of hostility so large it creates a forcefield of care for yourself and your kin.”* Pick every last fight. Learn the words “go fuck yourself.” Wake up each morning and say: “Our mothers didn’t bring us here to shut up.” Those who do not want to hear your anger do not want to hear you at all. Those who wonder why you are so negative all the time don’t realize how vocalizing this anger publicly and loudly might, in fact, be part of your survival.
LESSON #2: As a result of lesson 1, your inbox will become an unsafe space; don’t check it in public or late at night or too early in the morning. Or at the bar. Or on the train. Or before work. Take special care with emails from well-meaning white friends who have been confused by you: Are you referring to me in that tweet from 2 weeks ago??? 2PM is the best time to check e-mail—far enough into the day that you can still make it through.
LESSON #3: Learn that your first English words, at the age of four, were HI! & PLEASE! & THANK YOU!—and that you were taught these words before you really knew what they meant. Learn that you performed them like a parrot to try to pass as American at an airport in Texas. Learn that from the moment you’ve entered this country, you’ve been excelling at passing, so this heartbreak you are feeling now, this unlearning that feels like death, this feeling that you’ve been a phony your whole life, is actually somewhat real, because, who are you? who have you been?
LESSON #4: You are a mestizx, yes. There are things that were taken from you that you are going to have to forcefully take back.
LESSON #5: For a moment, leave a room (…a press, a magazine, a reading event) that is mostly white—even if you have friends there. Leave the room. Has it changed without your brown body? Is it all white now? Notice how your body feels when it is away—and who it meets on the other side. Notice if you are simply replaced with another brown body. Notice how you change. Notice how the room looks different to you. Notice how you look different to you.
LESSON #6: Ask. For. Money. If a white colleague asks you to edit their magazine or submit an essay or run a contest, ask for money. Ask for money. Ask for money. Ask for money. NO MORE FREE LABOR towards a literary community that often replicates the free and cheap labor systems that made and sustain this country.
LESSON #7: You may feel like a failure when you read for a mostly white room. Notice when you cry and when you emote. Notice the work your body is doing to feel heard. Feel resentful. Feel complicity. Notice you’ll go home with these poems, these experiences in your body. Worry that your white, straight peers will just go home feeling satisfied for feeling, even if for a moment, with you. Worry that they will take their own pain, their own suffering and use it to erase yours. Worry that, on the path to empathy, they will forget you, remembering that one time they were really, really hurt.
LESSON #8: Worry endlessly about being a token. Stay up at night counting how many of your recent achievements in poetry-land are because you are a token. An “anchor token”—the special STAR TOKEN. THE KWEEN OF THE BROWNS who keeps other black and brown poets from divesting from certain spaces.
LESSON #9: & worry endlessly about how you yourself may have supported systems for tokenism. Because of the limits of “diversity,” see the same 6 poets of color (yourself included) get invited to read over and over and over again. You can name them and so can everyone else. This wasn’t, of course, what you intended but it’s what happened anyway. This was a misstep.
LESSON #10: & worry endlessly about how maybe it’s also been your perspective that is a problem—your whitewashed gringpo eyes. It is not simply that the poetry community is mostly white; it is that your poetry community has been mostly white. Maybe for sensible reasons your poetry life has been wedded to whiteness, maybe it’s time for separation. Maybe it’s time to bite the hand that has fed you but refuses to protect you.
LESSON #11: If you have a white partner, get into fights on a weekly basis. Feel like your lover will never understand you—like no matter what. Ever. Fight about every thing. Fight about the podcast they show you featuring a Cambridge professor on the benefits of offensiveness; feel annoyed about the book they are reading on white supremacy; get into a yelling match about how, “yes—they enact their cis-het privilege all the fucking time.” Go to bed saying, “I want to love you forever,” but deep inside feel like this part of yourself will drive you apart anyway because no amount of research or reading on their part will ever equate to the lives you and your ancestors have led. Realize this part of yourself can’t be fully known by them. & worry they won’t be able to catch up. This is unfair, but feel it anyway.
LESSON #12: Reminisce on all your white lovers and make a list of the moments they failed to love you right. How one lover took you to Indiana where you counted only one not-white person in their whole hometown—and how they only laughed when a family friend asked if you had “been out in the sun for too long.” How another lover told you that “growing up white and poor is probably just as bad as growing up being brown.”
LESSON #13: When you find yourself (subtly?) defending a white friend’s questionable actions to your colleagues of color—someone you may love despite real disagreement—interrogate that defense. You’ll say things like, But that’s not what they meant, or Well, that’s not as bad as what so-and-so did, and I really care about them so this is hard for me. Interrogate how your defens(iveness) makes your poc colleague feel in that moment. What is this erasure of suffering you are replicating?
LESSON #14: Have at least three friends who are attorneys. Inevitably, your big brown boca will get you in trouble. Your mother will text you saying, “Jenny, are you sure what you are doing is safe? I want no harm to come to you.” You, of course, say yes—but you are not sure if you are being safe. You don’t care if you are being safe.
LESSON #15: Realize, finally, that there are no safe spaces. Not with friends, or families, not your inbox or your journal. Re-read diary passages you wrote as a younger person and feel sickened with yourself. Read a passage in your graduate school notebook where you say, “I don’t like Anzaldúa— she is stuck in the past.” Realize you are not a safe person. You were raised in America, and this makes you unsafe to yourself and others.
LESSON #16: Try your hardest to not fight publicly with poets of color—not because you don’t disagree but because you refuse to compound your exhaustions. Your survivals will look different. Repeat: our survivals will look different.
LESSON #17: Fight publicly with anyone you want. Be contradictory. Don’t cohere.
LESSON #19: Give yourself a quota of white-minded poetry friends with whom you are willing to invest emotional labor. A good number is 3. These are friends with whom you are willing to talk and argue and love and forgive through hardships. Give yourself a quota because you don’t have all fucking day.
LESSON #20: You work at a non-profit. Spend most workdays worrying about what you are participating in. Serve on the “Diversity Committee” and spend most of these meetings worried (even more) about what you are participating in, what white fantasy you are contributing to here.
LESSON #21: Realize you have enough energies to do it all. You have enough energy to hate the world and write your love poems. You have enough energy to sit in bed eating Pop-Tarts and watching Netflix. You have enough energy to edit this post for weeks. You have enough energy to go to the protest. You have enough energy to cry. To send a friend a sweet text message. To start a difficult conversation with a peer. You have the energy. You don’t know how, but it’s there.
LESSON #22: Feel pain and overcompensate your browness because as Baraka writes, you are “deeply mortified,”** by how long you have colluded with your oppressors.
LESSON #23: Build your legacy and build institutions. This is important because as Baraka writes, you need to build institutions that won’t erase or co-opt your efforts. Seek out presses with black and brown editors. Bring qtpoc voices to the front. Don’t look back.
LESSON #24: You mix up your friend’s preferred gender pronoun during a reading. Remind yourself, every day, you have so much self-work to do. Remind yourself to apologize for your mistakes—and to move on swiftly lest you get caught up in your own fragility.
LESSON #25: You want nothing more to do with a poetics of abjection.
JENNIFER BARRRRFFFFF TAMAYO is over. You don’t need or want any more mirrors; you don’t need to be made “uncomfortable” by a poetry replicating others’ suffering; you need a road map. A trajectory towards becoming the person who was taken from you. Write poems about all the things you want and desire and love. Write about hope. Write about pleasure. Write sci-fi short stories about ANDR0ID JENNIFER TAMAY00-0 swimming Lake Guatavita to meet Panchamama.
LESSON #26: Feel moderately resentful toward older generations of poets of color who tell you, sometimes lovingly and sometimes not, to not fight so much. To just ignore the KGs or VPs of the world—to do your own thing, to stop giving them so much attention. To harden up a little bit—this is how it works. Look the other way. Your own work will speak for itself, they say. In some ways, not all the ways, these mentors have failed you and your peers of color; what did they leave you with. What unjust systems are they letting stand with their silence, their gaze turned upward.
LESSON #27: Your most important work is at home with (chosen) family and friends. You can post on Facebook and you can attend the protest rally and you can sign the petition but the “uncomfortable conversations” you have with those you love are the ones with the most potential. Wonder how things would change if after the protest rally white activists went home to have “difficult conversations” with their parents about anti-blackness. Wonder how your own family of latinos has so much to learn about solidarity. How you do this without pain or confusion or discomfort or loss, you don’t know.
LESSON #28: BE HOPEFUL. BE SO FUCKING HOPEFUL because every week or so—despite all the reasons you have to stop publishing altogether—you hear a friend or colleague of color talk about their survival and their brilliance. You see poets of color betray whiteness and the “model minorities” who continue to preach ambivalence and nuance. No to your nuance in the face of black and brown pain! Let yourself consider a radical-non-positive non-rah-rah-hope—a hope so un-real it lives under your eyeballs. Consider it like a serious, worthy thing. a real possibility. Realize you can’t say the word hope as it relates to the changes you are going through without feeling endlessly lame for still giving a fuck.
Hope is not cool, you might think to yourself
Hope is not for poetry
Feel it anyway
* Lucas de Lima
**from Amiri Baraka “The Black Arts Movement” The Baraka Reader (1991)