Featured Prose | June 23, 2020
“Treading Water” by Dionne Irving
In “Treading Water,” novelist and essayist Dionne Irving recounts her experience of racial battle fatigue in the context of her lifelong relationship with water and the fraught history of race and swimming in America. The essay first appeared in TMR 39:2.
As long as I have been able to afford it in my adult life, I have found, whenever possible, a swimming pool. I learned to swim in Canada of all places, the only little black girl in my swimming class. I had been anxious to get in the water for as long as I could remember. My only delay was the tubes I’d had put in my ears at three years old. I come from island people, and my love of water happens on the pre-reflective level, joyfully, and with abandon. The smell of sea, of salt, of chlorine, of damp, slightly moldy bathing suits—all make me happy. My people come from Hong Kong, India, Africa, Scotland, and have ended up in Jamaica, Canada, and now the United States. I am the first who will have lived most of my life here. My family history is a collection of names and a handful of dates, most lost or faded. Like the way the ocean pounds away at the shore, our history, like the white sand of the island, slips through my fingers all the time.
Both heritage and joy bring me to the water. I swim laps, sometimes in community swimming pools or at fancy gyms with heated pools and bins thick with flutter boards; I will sometimes emerge from a stroke to see an older black person staring at me, the man or woman usually in his or her sixties or seventies. They might be a part of a water aerobics class or running in a physical therapy pool.
If I catch their eye they will say “Hello” or “Good morning” or “Good evening.” Our pleasantries break them from some kind of trance. I return to my laps, turning my head usually to the right, in order to take a breath. I love feeling my lungs expand and contract as I move through the water. I am aware of them for the first time all day. I marvel at my body’s capacity to stay buoyant, to take in air, to propel me forward. There are no sounds but the thrum of my heart and the cadence of my breath. In these moments, I understand the human body as a beautiful construct. When I stop, out of breath and panting, those eyes are on me again, watching.
As a symbol, water can be heavy handed. My writing students too often use it as a metaphor. They come back to it again and again to indicate cleansing or purification.
Bad students’ poems are usually where one finds water used as a metaphor to describe rebirth or the miraculous. But I find that I come back to it as often as my students do. Water captivates me. Water is refreshing but powerful, pleasurable, and dangerous. Figuratively, literally, symbolically, it has no equal for potency. Water is both backyard Slip ’N Slide and tsunami.
When we swim, when we plunge into oceans or lakes or backyard swimming pools, we feel some mastery over water, as though it could be ours to control. In these spaces we don’t wear much clothing and are in close contact with strangers. In and around these bodies of water, we reveal our public private parts. I think about this every time I pull on a bathing suit. I look at the way each of my “flaws” becomes visible and open for judgment. As we swim together, we experience intimacy regardless of age, race, or size. Each time we enter the water in a public space, we show ourselves.
It took me a few years of living in the United States before I understood the way water is loaded for African Americans. A horrible legacy surrounds water, and the story of who has access to it is a story dominated by a violence that is intricately tied to the ongoing battle for civil rights and against racism in the United States. In a hearing regarding public swimming spaces in Baltimore in 1954, just after the decision in Brown v. Board of Education, city solicitor Edwin Harlan said, “There must be segregation in fields of intimate contact or else there may be trouble.”
Trouble. What a wonderful word. Purposefully vague, it can suggest innumerable possibilities. Perhaps it was the kind of trouble that Harlan had in mind that resulted in a married couple’s arrest. Only two hours south of Baltimore and four years later, Mildred and Richard Loving would find themselves behind bars after breaking anti-miscegenation laws. Trouble begets intimacy, and intimacy is always trouble for those who believe fundamentally that skin color implies basic biologic difference.
Intimacy has certainly brought me my fair share of trouble because I have a very white life. To steal and alter a line from the old platitude: Some of my best friends are white. My white life happened in the way one usually does: I grew up middle class, attended mostly white schools, a mostly white college, worked in mostly white offices and went to mostly white graduate programs. English departments, for all their best efforts, are still primarily white spaces. I live in the Midwest, which is largely white, and where most of my coworkers and almost all of my students are white. I have compounded this racial isolation by marrying a white man, so much of my family is also white. In my life, so filled with whiteness, I avoid talking about Ferguson, about Eric Garner, about the movie Selma. I don’t remind people how easily I could have been that fourteen-year-old, bikinied black girl in McKinney, Texas, who was recently slammed to the ground by an overzealous police officer on the lawn outside a largely white pool.
Because I am often the only person of color in the room, these topics become loaded. I risk becoming the angry black woman in the eyes of those around me. I risk sounding like I am delivering a sermon, or instruction, or chastising. The angry black woman is a powerful archetype. The finger-waving, head-snapping sister-girl is an image I have to work hard to combat. Not because it represents any part of my character, but because it is the only lens through which many white people see a black women’s anger. It’s as though any time I am angry, I am liable to “go off.” My fear of this image often silences me in meetings where I might like to speak up. It makes me hesitate in moments where my temper flares; it alters my behavior in every single facet of my life; it is one of the things that contribute to my invisibility. So I have avoided conversations that could externalize the pain I’ve felt welling up inside me over these past few months in response to the sad state of the world.
The truth is that even intimacy cannot assure that people I love won’t disappoint me. The malaise and nausea I feel when I recognize the rhetoric of racism and privilege coming out of the mouths of people whom I have confided in, brought into my life, whom I work with and respect, keeps me off the Internet and away from the papers for days; it makes me send incoming calls to voicemail. It visits me with the symptoms of a depression so deep and so all-consuming that I have, more than once, closed my office door in the middle of the day to cry. I cannot eat, cannot sleep, cannot write, and cannot think.
A friend recently sent me an article about a condition called Racial Battle Fatigue. In a study published in the Journal of Anxiety Disorders, the authors focused on generalized anxiety disorder and found that people of color in the United States suffer from the condition at alarming rates. Defined as more than six months of general, free-floating anxiety and worry, the disorder was present not only in black people but also in soldiers of all races who live in theaters of war. It is a condition of living in a constant state of anxiety when the perceived threat can come from those who you are close to. I read the piece and thought, “Aha! So it isn’t just me.”
My friends, my extended family, are good, well-meaning people. They are loving, they are accepting, they are generous, but they are people who take their privilege for granted. They don’t have to live in fear of what may happen to them or to their children at an innocent pool party.
Who has access to water and who doesn’t, who is allowed to swim and when and where and how that swimming takes place connotes a privilege. When I read about how other forms of racial discrimination began to be dismantled after World War II, I kept coming back to swimming pools as battlegrounds. In his book Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America, Jeff Wiltse explores how, as public places starting in the North became increasingly more desegregated, whites simply abandoned municipal and public swimming pools for private pools and country clubs. A 2010 study by the USA Swimming Foundation conducted by the University of Memphis found that nearly 70 percent of African American children couldn’t swim. The reasons for this statistic are varied, but the result is a greater number of drowning deaths of African American children each year. Not everyone has the privilege of recreational water, something I’ve learned a little at a time throughout my life. Only now do I consider how I, a young black woman moving confidently through the water, might have warranted a closer look.
I was a teenager when my family moved to Florida from Canada. I didn’t understand then what water meant in America, and what it continues to mean. I didn’t know the way access to water could communicate the underlying issues of race, class, and privilege in the United States. Instead, what I imagined was the beach, the ocean lapping at my toes, and the soft sand. It was a scene that conjured everything that was good about the water. What a disappointment, then, when instead of being close to the beach, we were landlocked in northern Florida, nowhere near the water.
That fall I joined my high school swim team. I was the only person of color, my face little more than a smudge in the back of the yearbook photograph. We swam at the local university early in the morning. We got to practice at 5 am,and were in the water for an hour and a half and then off to high school on the other side of town. In the semi-darkness, the air was damp with the early morning and tinged with the chlorine I loved so much. I loved making my way down the lanes as the sun came up. It was the only time of day when I felt like me, the girl I’d been in Canada, the one who wasn’t always confused and heartbroken and alone. I didn’t understand Florida, and maybe I never would.
“Perfect form,” my high school swim coach would call out at each practice. “But you’re too slow!”
These words, I suspect, were meant to push me to try harder. But I was immune to coaching. I lost every race I competed in, finishing slowly, behind almost everyone in my heat. Half the time, I forgot I was competing. I lost myself in the dreamy state of being submerged in water still warm from the sun’s rays the previous day. I thought about the life in Canada I’d left behind and tried to forget that I was in this odd place, already stiflingly hot by 7 am.
In the locker room, my teammates, all white, wanted to know what I was using to shampoo my hair. They asked if I washed it every day. They told me I “talked funny,” and they would ask me to repeat those same distinctly Canadian words to hear the ways the vowels sounded in out and about and house. My teammates sounded funny to me, too, their words like a set of jangly keys coming together rhythmically in a song I didn’t know the words to. I would mimic their accents to entertain my mother and younger sister on days when we all felt down.
In the water, my teammates cheered me on, told me I would do better next time. They didn’t seem to understand that I wasn’t discouraged by my placement in the races or by my clear lack of athleticism. I couldn’t explain to them that all I really wanted was to be in the water. I didn’t want to be coached or cheered. I just wanted the connection to breath and body and self. Just as people do now, they watched me then, too, but perhaps for different reasons, staring at me from the sidelines as I made my way up and down the lanes.
During that first year in Florida, I swam mostly at home in our family swimming pool. It seemed to me the ultimate luxury as a Canadian girl, being able to swim outdoors into September and early October even. A dream, but not an altogether pleasant one. But then again, all of America was like a dream, familiar in some ways but the rest of it so unfamiliar, so confusing.
My understanding came in the form of a searing punch that connected with my jaw after I left math class on a scorching hot October afternoon. I turned when someone called my name, but didn’t react quickly enough to see the closed fist that connected with the right side of my jaw and sent vibrations shooting up through my face. She hadn’t drawn blood, but I clutched my cheek, thick with pain. The pain floored me and made me drop to the patch of grass between two portable classrooms. I had never been hit before. The girl towered above me, her message clear: You’re either with us or against us. What I wasn’t clear on until later that day was who that “us” was.
“You speak too proper,” a girl confided in me as she helped me press paper towels soaked in cool water onto my face. “You act too white. People don’t like it when they think you think you better than them.”
Too white or too black. It hadn’t occurred to me that there was a way to “act” black or white, that one was inherently better or worse. To be “too” something implied that you needed to find a balance, or, more to the point, that your pendulum should swing toward your own race in a way that made you easy to understand for other people. That way no one would question your grooming habits or the way you spoke. At my high school it meant you signed up for girls’ basketball or track and field. It meant that if you were smart, you joined the Black Brain Bowl Team (not its white counterpart, called simply the Brain Bowl) but it certainly did not mean you joined the swim team and signed up to be on the yearbook staff.
I managed to wash the mud from my shorts that afternoon before my mother noticed. But my face—black and blue, swollen and puffy where the girl’s fist had landed—was less easy to hide, and my mother certainly noticed.
I can’t recall the details of the lie I told. Something highly improbable, I’m sure. I relied on my ability to tell a good story. Mostly, I was ashamed. Most fourteen-year-olds think they know everything, and I was no different. I wanted to think I understood the world implicitly and that it had order and sense. I didn’t want my mother to know I had seemingly miscalculated who I was and my place in this new, bizarre world. I was ashamed that although I’d always made friends quickly and easily, I was so emotionally tone deaf that I could not pick up on the rhythms, the strokes, and the breath of this new place.
I can still feel the lingering effects of that punch, all these years later, the way it indoctrinated me into the subtleties of racial life in America, the way I continually find myself being indoctrinated. I’m grateful that there are no longer any overt punches. Instead, a thousand microaggressions land, as painful and as visceral as that closed fist against my jaw. And in my white world, I see those around me taking language for granted. Language—the words we use and the words we choose—is a privilege, and taking things for granted is at the very heart of privilege.
I dragged my feet on where to go to college, and through a combination of apathy and chiding from my parents, I ended up at Big Southern University. In the summer before my sophomore year, I signed up for Multi-Ethnic American Literature. I had taken an American lit class the previous fall with the same professor, who had managed to crack open Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man for me. When the book came into focus, I felt as though something made sense, as if the book announced something I had long felt but never been able to articulate. It seemed to explore the sense memory you have in the water when you know innately when to breathe and where your body is most buoyant. I had learned when, where, and how to be invisible in America. When to talk, when to stay silent, when to make sure it felt like I wasn’t there at all. In his novel, Ellison expressed the invisibility I cultivated and made sense of it, identified a purpose. As I began to understand that desire, I wanted to unpack it, to explore it.
But at Big Southern U, who was I to unpack it with? My professor’s summer syllabus looked exciting, full of authors I hadn’t read. They are now authors so dear to me that I hardly remember who I was before I encountered them: Octavia Butler, Sherman Alexie, Gayl Jones, and many others. That syllabus became a kind of personal canon for me in those interim years when I languished in corporate America before deciding to return to graduate school.
At a college known more for football and partying than academics, that six-week session was a popular way to squeeze in (or more frequently to make up) a class and not let it ruin one’s entire summer. In six weeks, most of us would receive three credits toward our major or toward satisfying another requirement in the English Department.
The classroom was in an older building that hadn’t been outfitted with the bone-chilling industrialized indoor winter in June that is Florida’s calling card. In the stuffy classroom, my T-shirt stuck to my back and my hair clung to my head, frizzing at the scalp. I would go swimming when the class was done. I could see the pool from the window of the classroom, cool and inviting. It was the same pool of my thwarted high school swim-team days; I seemed to keep coming back to it.
As I do now in my own college classes, the professor had us each introduce ourselves and talk about why we were taking the class. But first he discussed the class and pushed us to consider our own identities, to consider the ways in which race and privilege might define how we considered the texts we were going to read.
Most of the introductions were generic and similar, announcing a desire to learn whatever the student could from the semester. Some students told stories about their own backgrounds. Many were first-generation college students or students who wanted to learn more about a cultural heritage that had been whitewashed. With my professor’s ears, I know now that these are things students say to please the teacher. But then, I didn’t pay much attention. I was terrified of speaking in public, and I waited anxiously for my turn to come, trying to figure out what I was going to say about my interest in ethnic American literature. It would destroy my invisibility if I had to explain why I needed to be invisible.
Eventually I told a story about a racial heritage spanning four continents and owing mostly to the lasting effects of colonialism, ship travel, and—of course—slavery. When I got to the end I felt relieved, ready to return to a kind of invisibility and prepared to listen to the two or three rows of students sitting behind me.
“I’m excited to take this class because it’s amazing to hear about other people’s backgrounds, because I’m just white.”
The words caught my attention immediately. I craned my neck to see who had spoken, a girl in a long, paisley-print skirt, her crop top exposing the soft expanse of belly atop the skirt’s waistband, and her curly hair frizzing away from her head. She was one of the girls I had taken to avoiding in college, those who smelled of patchouli and decorated their dorm rooms with Bob Marley posters. That kind of girl tended only to be interested in the fact that my Jamaican parents might somehow be indicative of a secret stash of pot. In my Canadian upbringing, I had never heard anyone call himself or herself “just white.” Greek, Romanian, Czechoslovakian, Irish; elementary school seemed to capture a wide swath of eastern bloc countries and colonial outliers. Lunch was so inclusive that one could trade a bologna sandwich for some curry chicken or exchange a Jamaican meat patty for a piece of baklava. What did this mean, “just white”? It implied that somehow, in this class of diverse backgrounds and narratives, whiteness was somehow not as exciting, as interesting, as exotic. It was the opposite of being “too white.” “Just” implied a kind of blandness and homogeny in an American cultural paradigm that cultivated and elevated whiteness and simultaneously normalized it to make it less interesting or important. Whiteness, I had quickly learned in my American education, was the standard for beauty, intellect, and acceptability, but no one should admit this or discuss it, particularly not a white hippie girl in a multi-ethnic lit class. Was whiteness somehow not going to be valued in this class? To say “just white” seemed like treading water, not moving toward understanding the course’s purpose and not able to look back and understand what came before this point in time. “Just” implied stasis, a lack of growth regarding ideas of whiteness or anything other than whiteness. “Just” was a lie. The professor chuckled a bit. “None of us are ‘just white,’” he said. “Whiteness is a construct and a category like any other that we will unpack this semester.”
Later that day in the water, I swam my slow freestyle up and down the middle lane. Taking my time and measuring my breath, I made sure to remember the way the girl’s skirt had dragged on the floor, the ring in her nose, and the timbre of her voice: high pitched, girlish, and loud. I gathered these details for a story as my arms glided through the water, barely making a splash on its surface, the sun hitting my goggles as I came up for air again, and again, and again.
“Just white” stuck with me for an entire year. I told the story to a group of friends in a coffee shop, to my older siblings, to my new friend Keith, who like me had parents from the Caribbean and a passion for death metal. The combined naïveté and irony of the statement was typical of so many attempts at racial parity that came out so wrong-headed at Big Southern University. There were those people who tried to convince me that they did not see race, the boy who shied away from introducing me to his parents, the classmate so stunned that I had passed college Algebra on the first try. “You must be really smart!” he marveled, while flipping through his basic math text.
It was at about that time that I met her again, this time at a meeting for the staff of the school newspaper. The girl, this time looking decidedly less like a relic of the 1960s introduced herself as “Alice.”
“Oh, I know you,” I blurted out. “You were in my ethnic American lit class last summer. You were the ‘just white girl.’”
It came out without any thought. I hadn’t realized that this anecdote might be less funny to the person who was the butt of the joke.
“What?” she said, confused.
She furrowed her brow, and I recounted the story to her about her shame at being “just white.” She looked embarrassed, and I felt bad. This person whom I had used in an anecdote for a year had no clue what her language that day had implied. And at the time I didn’t fully understand what that privilege meant. It was a funny story to me, and I didn’t see the ways in which it indicated a naïveté about the world.
“Wow,” she said. “That was dumb. I don’t even know why I said that. My family’s Italian.”
She was chastened, and in that moment of shared embarrassment, we started building a friendship. In this moment of revelation, we seemed to be able to find a kind of honesty. This ability to speak freely to each other became the cornerstone of our friendship. We had agreed to be honest with each other in a way that meant we confessed too much, but it also meant that we held onto each other’s secrets.
My husband, who studies the politics, philosophies, and theories of race, tells me that authentic intimacy might be the thing that helps people move beyond issues of racial difference. He reminds me that if we truly know a person, race recedes into the background and becomes secondary to who they are. I am not his black wife, but his wife. I want that to be true. I don’t want to be anyone’s “black” anything. I only want people to see me, not black me.
As I look through pictures online of the history of the desegregation swimming pools, I click past images of children, black and white, still standing in groups segregated by race, not touching. The white children are in the minority. In the photos each group looks at the other warily. I want to believe they got to know each other, that the intimacy of the shared swimming space meant they learned each other’s names and lives. But the other images, the ones that show a hotel manager throwing muriatic acid into a swimming pool where whites and blacks swam together to protest the segregated space, make me believe otherwise. Intimacy, even when it is only the kind that comes from standing close to one another in bathing suits, is just as frightening when it arrives in a friendship.
After Alice and I graduated from college and moved on to other cities, we visited each other periodically. We slipped back into the roles we knew so well from college: the girl who was “just white,” who said directly, bluntly what was on her mind and in her heart regardless of whom it might offend; and me, caustic and mean, the one who collected small details and used them to make jokes at others’ expense. There are other things I could say about the ways in which our friendship morphed and changed over time that might round her out, things about her wicked sense of humor, her willingness for adventure, her openness to new things. There are times we laughed so hard we cried; we shared experiences that make for excellent cocktail party stories. There are times I cried on her shoulder or she on mine. These are all measures of our friendship, a relationship defined not by our differences but one that seemed to transcend them.
Even so, invariably over the years, we would have odd or awkward moments between us when all of a sudden the girl I’d called “the just white girl” would rear her head and I wasn’t sure what to do. She introduced me to new people as her gorgeous friend, always noting my tiny waist, my ample bosom, and my skin. Only later did I understand that this seemingly flattering list was actually reducing me to my physicality, a collection of pleasing and palatable parts. Again thinking she was being complementary, she would reduce me further, nudging me toward whiteness by telling me she was blacker than I was when she ridiculed me for a succession of white boyfriends, when she told me she thought about dating a black man but never could because of how her parents might react.
We both got master’s degrees in English; she focused on literature while I pursued creative writing. We exchanged professional materials, swapped dating stories, continued to travel together and were in each other’s weddings. Over the period that encompassed my twenties, she was one of my closest friends. As we closed out that decade of our lives, we both, suddenly and rather unexpectedly, found ourselves divorced.
I was excited at what seemed to be a fresh start for us both of us as we entered into new and promising relationships. Alice and I were living closer than we had throughout most of the previous decade, only a six-hour drive apart, and it seemed the opportune moment for a visit. I had met a wonderful new man, intelligent and kind. Less than a year later, he would become my husband in a ceremony that excluded most of the people we know. In that first blush of new love, what I wanted most of all was for him to meet the people who were important to me.
On the drive from Atlanta to Chapel Hill, the sky opened up no less than half a dozen times. Fat drops and steady waves of rain made it feel as though we were crawling along the freeway.
Alice lived in a former cotton and dye mill, recently converted to lofts, on the banks of a river just outside of Chapel Hill. The water in the river churned a muddy brown from the pounding of the constant rain. We held sweaters over our heads and ran into the building as quickly as we could in the late summer rain.
The floors, original to the space, had been heavily varnished, and the contractors had left the occasional textile button or staple to offer what real estate agents and home design shows will often call “character.” On their website, the management company advertised the space as “rural renaissance done right.” The idea of a Southern “rural renaissance” only made me think of the South’s rural history, so closely linked to slavery. I could still hear the overtones of cotton culture. The idea of renaissance “done right” was a juxtaposition that embodied the contemporary South completely. It wanted to revise its past, to focus on its glories, to ignore its fundamental truth.
In the stairwell up to her loft, I kissed my boyfriend. I was excited at the fun weekend ahead, the good time we were going to have. When we arrived on the top floor and knocked on her door, she pulled it open and said, “Oh, good, you got a little fat too!”
I was taken aback by her words. She was trying to make a joke—at least, I think she was. Was it a way to dissipate some tension she felt about the visit? About herself? I wasn’t sure. We drank some wine. Then some more. And then we shared a bottle of sparkling wine when we got to restaurant.
“You look happy,” she remarked when we went to the bathroom midway through the meal.
“I am happy,” I said.
It was true. It was the first happiness I could remember, after a protracted and grueling divorce, after several years of a bad marriage and a life I felt I had settled for.
“I am too,” she said quickly as we washed our hands in the big farm-style sink. In what I thought was a celebratory gesture, she ordered more sparkling wine when we got back to the table. Instead, the mood of the evening shifted startlingly and suddenly. Alice started in with stories of our college escapades and then shifted to a series of stories that seemed intended to lay bare for this new man in my life the worst parts of me, those that would make him cringe, feel insecure, and lead to conflict.
He got quieter and quieter. By the time the evening ended, he would barely look at me. We returned to her apartment, and my boyfriend and I barely spoke. Tossing and turning on her fold-out couch, I tried to figure out where things had gone so wrong. When I finally drifted off to sleep, he got up and walked down to the river. I awoke, startled, after he had been gone a little while. The rain from the previous evening had started coming down harder and faster. The river churned dark and fast. I had no idea where he was or when he was coming back.
After several hours, he did return, cold, wet, muddy, and shivering, I was angry, relieved, and overwhelmed. I was frustrated with him, with myself, and with her. We had a frenzied exchange in the dark, whispering hoarsely, resolving nothing. Somehow I felt I had done something wrong. There was some code of whiteness I had broken, had overstepped, or had failed to see. In that moment I was the outsider. And as Alice woke up and the day began, it seemed that I was the one whom everyone was angry with.
Treading water is hard work. You appear still from the water’s surface, as though you are levitating, yet below the surface, your lower body and arms work frantically, kicking and pounding against the water’s pressure. The energy you exert just to keep your head and neck aloft will tire you out quickly enough. It is one of the best illusions in swimming: the surface doesn’t indicate what is going on below.
I tried to make everything right with them both and to keep my head above water. The day went from drizzly to a downpour, the water less like droplets and more like buckets dropped from the sky. We got soaked going to lunch, and we agreed to stay in that evening. We planned to grill on the communal patio in her converted mills, a giant concrete slab with a roof. The space was lined with an array of gas and charcoal grills, one of those contemporary spaces that invite apartment dwellers to be neighborly. It was this community that had attracted Alice after her divorce, when she felt adrift in a city to which she had relocated for her ex-husband.
Still rain-drenched and cold, I felt exhausted but nevertheless relieved that as the day neared its end I had been successful on both fronts. My friend and my boyfriend both seemed more relaxed, more at ease.
We decided on kabobs and spent the early evening cutting up vegetables and meats. As Alice chattered on about the new place she was living and her fellow tenants, the phrase “porch monkey” hissed and slid out of her mouth like a water moccasin. I was stunned to silence for a moment, and then I said, “What?”
“Oh, you know,” she said, slicing up hunks of smooth, pink, raw chicken and running them through with skewers. “I mean hippie kids who come out to the porch and eat everyone’s food without asking. Porch monkeys.”
But I didn’t know.
“Start over,” I said.
She rolled her eyes. “It isn’t racist,” she said. Alice’s tone implied that I was being overly sensitive.
I hadn’t said much of anything at all, yet something in her understood how loaded her words were. How racist the phrase was. Did she think it was okay to say it because she didn’t think I was “really” black? She knew she was wrong but didn’t want to admit it. I wanted to give her an out, so I said, with the slightest hint of a joke in my voice, “I don’t think that expression means what you think it means.”
She shrugged. “That’s what they are.”
She was done with the subject. She had moved on to considering which vegetables to grill next, and I stood there, flummoxed.
The origins of the slur porch monkey are nebulous. However, the words have been used alongside jungle bunny, yard ape, coon, nigglet and a host of other racial slurs that emphasize the animalistic when it comes to black people. The history of assigning the phenotypic characteristics of a monkey or ape to black people goes back even further. It is meant to dehumanize, to make a black person a beast, to ascribe qualities of the feral, the frightening, the untamed, the uncivil and brutish to our people.
I exchanged a glance with my boyfriend across the room. He, too, was incredulous. He was white, I thought. He got it. How could this woman, one of my closest friends for over a decade, be so obtuse? Or worse, so cruel?
Language is tenuous and ever changing. There is nothing fixed about it. All three of us were English professors, and we understood this. Language was our livelihood, and as close examiners and interpreters of that language, to assume that words are without power? It seemed naïve; it seemed callous. This “porch monkey” thing, like a weeping wound in the middle of the meal preparations, compounding everything else that had happened that weekend. While she had been intent on first trying to use my past to subjugate me, when that hadn’t worked she seemed to have gone for the last thing left, the color of my skin. But she had done it covertly, quietly, sneakily. She made my race itself the problem. And what could I do but stand there stunned? I had two options: to reopen the turmoil bubbling beneath the surface or to let it go.
In hindsight, I made the coward’s choice, the passive-aggressive choice. I stayed hurt, and I said nothing. I helped her finish making the kabobs, and we went out to the impromptu party that had assembled on the common patio. But I didn’t stay long. I felt conspicuously black in this forced community setting. And when I heard her retelling the porch-monkey joke over and over again to the delighted young urban professionals, hipsters, and trust-funded hippies who had gathered to draw community from each other, I felt the beginnings of that soul-crushing sadness with which I had become so familiar.
In the days afterward, that’s all I felt. On the way back to Atlanta, I tried to discuss it with my boyfriend, not having the language in that moment to articulate why these two words had bothered me so much. Why I couldn’t just let it go as I had a million times before with her, with other people. A few days after our return she sent me an e-mail in which she wrote the following:
We swore to be honest, so I’m going to tell you what I see. I have to say these things to you because if I didn’t, I would feel like I failed you as one of the few people in your life who can say this. I love you very much, and I want you to be happy. Here’s the real problem: your boyfriend has eliminated YOUR ability to be honest.
The words stung, because there was truth in them. I hadn’t been honest, but the person I hadn’t been honest with was her. I couldn’t tell her the way the words she used resonated in my head. That I felt like she had tried to annihilate me with that phrase, over and over. How I’d thought about it for days after, trying to figure out why she hadn’t understood. But I kept coming back to myself again and again as the person who was at fault, because I hadn’t been honest, I hadn’t been intimate. I had closed the gates to her without giving her an opportunity to defend herself. But really, how many chances do we get? I don’t have an infinite number of chances, so why must I give them?
The truth is that no matter what I accomplish, no matter what I do, no matter what I don’t do, some people in the world will always see my dark skin, not me. In their eyes, I am a rare exception. Like a tap-dancing dog, I am dazzling but not indicative of what other dogs might do.
The term “racial microaggression” has been around since the 1970s and describes the overt and covert ways in which people of color receive messages about how race defines them. It is the most powerful catalyst of Racial Battle Fatigue. It is the casual use of a phrase like porch monkey. It is the student who said I had made her “a bit less racist” because she assumed most young black women were “pregnant, on welfare and ill spoken.” It is the professor who told me that no one wants to read stories about people of color and asked if I weren’t limiting myself by writing those stories. It is the yoga instructor who told me with a pat on my upturned ass during the middle of a class, “We need to get more of your people out here doing yoga. It’s good for them!” It is the friend who fingered my hair and asked if I had a weave. Any one of these things on its own dehumanizes me; the hundreds that I keep in a file on my computer exhaust me. It is enough to make someone not want to get out of bed in the morning. It is a society that devalues your personhood, a friend who makes you an object, and a stranger who turns you into a curiosity.
Like language, a soul is very tenuous. What does it mean to have one? In what way can it be hurt? Can language injure the soul? I cannot point to an injured spot on my body to show a doctor where I have been hurt by language, but the injury manifests itself in creases in my forehead, fluctuating weight loss and gain, in the defeated look in my eyes. I register it by counting the days I fail to leave my bed and eventually in the ways in which I brutalize myself emotionally. All of this. But it’s that drizzly North Carolina afternoon I can’t forget. A small choice of language from, as Alice put it, “one of the people who were supposed to love me,” hurts me most.
The pain echoes still, because no matter how much water I treaded, no matter how much I tried to make Alice (and so many others) feel comfortable with my blackness, I never seemed to get the same in return.
Years later and back in the water, I am eight months pregnant. My pregnancy has brought me back to my body in a way I thought only swimming could. I am acutely aware of each movement, each moment, and each breath. I feel another life, just beneath the surface of my skin, doing his own laps, making his way alongside me.
Swimming relieves the aches and pains of pregnancy, the weight of my yet-to-be-born son on my back, on my belly, in my hips. In the water I feel light. I glide through, effortlessly, forgetting the twenty-five extra pounds on me, feeling like myself in the way I only can in the water. It transforms now, as it always has, the rhythmic movements, the focus on my breath, the concentration it takes so that I slice through without much of a splash.
Swimming clears my mind, offers me a kind of meditation, a meaningful connection between my body and my mind. Between my body and my baby’s. In the water I hear my heartbeat and that of my son echoing though my ears above the din of the senior water aerobics class in the next lane.
I have already found a place for him to swim. By the time he is six months, I plan on bringing him into the water. This desire lives alongside a list of things that all parents want for their children: health, good schools, a passion for reading. I feel strongly about this. I want him to love the water the way I do. I want it to be calming. I want him not to be frightened but to be soothed by it.
He will be my first blood relative who is American. Much of the legacy and the baggage of his skin will be foisted on him before he takes his first breath. But he will also have roots in Kansas, like the President. In the middle of that state, there is a small Kansas town where he will be able to see his last name etched on the side of a building and to find his great-great-grandfather’s picture on the wall of the Main Street Deli. This is one of the things my husband can offer him, that stake in American life that is inaccessible to me. All I have for him is water. Water that is murky at times, and a fluid past absent of dates, names, photographs, or specificity.
Originally from Toronto, Ontario, Dionne Irving has published work in Boulevard Magazine, LitHub, Missouri Review, Story Magazine, and New Delta Review, among others. She has a novel, Quint, forthcoming from 7.13 Books and a short story collection, Islands, forthcoming from Catapult. An associate professor at the University of West Georgia, she lives outside of Atlanta with her husband and son.
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