Yes, I Told my White 6-Year-Old All About George Floyd’s Death

A few weeks before George Floyd was murdered by Derek Chauvin, my husband and I had already started conversations with our white kids about the origins of Black Lives Matter. Our kids go to school at two very progressive schools in Brooklyn and are familiar with the phrase, and we’ve talked to them several times before about what it means, but we’d never talked to them about the events out of which the Black Lives Matter movement was born. To be real, we didn’t start these conversations proactively, but reactively; they arose out of questions my 6-year-old was asking about police, as he’s at the age when they become fascinated by power structures, and sadly in the United States, that means he’s also fascinated by guns. We don’t allow guns as toys, of course, like good progressive Brooklyn parents, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t in his consciousness; it’s extremely hard to hide their existence from a kid in the world.

Photo from Journalist’s Resource.

A question came up around the dinner table one night about police officers, and I don’t remember exactly what it was, but I was very conscious of my white kid talking about the police as heroes who are always on the side of good and wanted to resist that universal designation. I know kids this age like to put things in binaries, and good vs. bad is a big one. But the older he gets the more nuance we introduce, so we explained how police officers are people too, and people make mistakes all the time. Of course, he’s 6 years old and kids that age do not let you get away with dropping grown-up “wisdom” like that and walking away. Then came all the questions, and we just kept answering them with honesty, and we found ourselves talking about Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown.

I don’t know that we did it well. I don’t know that it’s age-appropriate. I don’t know if we are “supposed to” be telling our kindergartner about instances of violence by the police against Black bodies. I told him that they were teenagers, just big kids, and as his eyes widened I stopped myself from getting to the part about how Michael Brown’s body lay in the street for hours as the neighborhood looked on, screaming.

Because of that curiosity about power structures, my kids are also fascinated by jail, and he asked if the people who shot Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown went to jail, and we said no. And when the “why” came after that, we found ourselves explaining systemic racism and anti-Blackness in the most understandable way that we could. And every sentence of that conversation was anxiety-producing because as a parent you never know when you’re making an indelible impression on their little brains, or causing fear, or even trauma. There may be a child psychologist reading this, horrified, but they’d probably be white.

When I feel that discomfort with my own words welling up inside my white body like acid reflux, I can’t help but picture the Black mothers (and sometimes, non-Black mothers of Black children) in my life and my neighborhood and my schools who have these conversations often before 6 years old,  proactively, as a means of protection. As a survival handbook for living in this country in a Black body. Out of necessity, not curiosity. I remember that Tamir Rice was only 6 years older than my son when he was shot by police in Cleveland for playing with a pellet gun. And in those moments of pulse-racing, stumbling articulation of white supremacy, I try to remind myself that it’s necessary for my white kids too. That after this should come the clumsy conversations about whiteness and privilege and how we should use it to take apart the system out of which it emerged.

I don’t know that I believe most grown-ups are capable of unlearning white supremacy, but I put my faith in those who work at dismantling it every day, and I strive to be like them. I’ve said this before, but I can’t claim to be a warrior for racial justice; I’m watching the protests in this country swell from a quiet house owned by my family in rural Maine, where we were able to retreat to when COVID-19 started encroaching upon us in New York. I’m going to spend today doing a couple of hours of virtual anti-racism work with fellow white people, but I can’t claim to do that every day. I’m not in the thick of it, and I am very much on a learning (or un-learning) journey of my own. I’m self-conscious of these words landing like righteousness or performative “wokeness”, and that self-consciousness keeps me from saying them often enough to normalize them.

But for those of us who are white with white kids, and trying to do what is in our power, I think one of the most powerful things we can do is raise anti-racist children.

Systemic racism has been around for a lot of generations, and it will take a lot of generations to dissolve it, and it clearly won’t be in ours. It probably will not even be in theirs, but as we can trace the origins of how it came to be, like a virus, I’d like believe one day we’ll be able to trace the origins of its extinction, like a vaccine. It will happen slowly, a little more with each generation, if we all participate in actively socially distancing ourselves from it; having hard conversations with our kids like using hand sanitizer or wearing a mask. One small step in preventing it from infecting us; not foolproof, but a worthy effort, that if embraced by many, could aid in our liberation.

Which is why, the other day, when I came downstairs bedraggled, wiping my eyes, explaining to my kids that I had a work emergency and had to be upstairs for a while, and my little boy asked what the emergency was, I told him: “Well, buddy, it happened again. A white police officer killed a Black person for no reason, and a lot of people in the country are really mad about it. His name was George Floyd.”

The names of the others were on my tongue, but I stopped myself again. We will have to take this slowly. He’s still at the age where he asks a bunch of questions, then pauses. Sits with it. Then asks what’s for lunch. Too much information at one time isn’t helpful, like too much hand sanitizer stops serving its purpose and just gets messy.

He’ll ask more later, and more names will come.

***

Things You Can Do to Support the Resistance from Home

How to Support the Struggle Against Police Brutality

Resources for White Parents to Raise Anti-Racist Children

She Ran for President Because That’s What Girls Do

Hello, 2020.

I wake up this morning, after a rough, short night of sleep in my daughter’s bed, because she kicked me out of my own. I wonder when this part of parenthood will end.

Photographed by Ethan James Green, Vogue, February 2020

I make the mistake of checking social media first thing, which I sometimes do “to wake myself up” and then make the second mistake of clicking on the comments of an Elizabeth Warren Instagram post from 24 hours ago, before her campaign hit its final wall. The comments are riddled with Bernie-supporting trolls telling her to drop out and endorse him, that she’s splitting the progressive vote, that she needs to face the music (but way meaner). All after her campaign has very peacefully asked for a little space for her to think. Ponder her next steps.

F*ck off, trolls. I get angry before I even get out of bed.

I head into work, where I take part in an all-day strategic planning meeting for my organization. A really invigorating experience, yet full of weight. The weight of responsibility and the weight of the moment: with the threat of the coronavirus hanging over us, in the news, and in our communities. Distracted. Anxious. My heart was beating quite hard for much of the morning, I realize.

Breathe.

Somewhere on a break I see the news that Warren has suspended her campaign. Sh*t. Sh*t. Okay, I am not surprised, I tell myself, and I don’t let myself think about it. We turn back to the work.

Breathe.

As soon as the meeting draws to a close, I catch back up with our plans for tomorrow’s online session about the coronavirus outbreak nationwide, for our theatre field, presenting a series of speakers who will provide us with knowledge, perhaps hope, but no answers to when it will end. Nearly 500 people are attending the webinar. We’re being responsive. We’re doing our jobs. We’re moving forward, always, moving forward. Always. Moving.

I’m beginning to feel strangely outside of myself. I’m sure it’s mostly the lack of sleep.

Breathe.

I dash off to a parent-teacher conference. I am almost late. I run from the subway stop. There goes my heart again. (It doesn’t like to run.) There is hand sanitizer all over the school just as there is all over our office. The teacher is tired, too. She says, my son is reading a little above his level. His distraction is normal. (He is not distracted by the coronavirus; he doesn’t know it’s a thing. He is distracted by Legos. And lollipops.) I thank the universe this conversation didn’t hand me one more thing to worry about. I don’t know that anything else would have fit. I’m filling up.

My husband drops me at home to handle dinner and bedtime, as he drives off to a meeting. End of day hugs. Quesadillas. Banana bread. A 10-minute long negotiation to get one of them into a bath. Toenail clipping. A peaceful storytime. A mercifully quick bedtime. Lullabies. My daughter falls asleep cradling my hand like a stuffed animal. I both think it’s adorable and feel like James Franco in 127 Hours. I manage to gently retract it as she dozes.

Breathe.

My work day is over but the weight is still here. I have a fridge full of fresh vegetables for recipes I still need to make, and all I want is leftover, microwaved macaroni and cheese and a big pour of white wine. Maybe I’ll follow it up with a salad. Or some celery. (I don’t.)

I pick up my phone. I am instantly reminded of the news that I’d put aside halfway through my day. I know I’m probably making another mistake by checking Facebook, and clicking on a video of Warren (I call her “Lizzie” in my head) answering questions in front of her house.

This is when I.

Crumble.

The tears begin to fall, and sizeable fractions of the disappointment and rage I felt in early November 2016 come flooding back, compounded by the weight I’m already feeling, about.

Everything.

I think about the Vox article (written by a man) that my husband texted me this morning — after we were both stunned as to why her performance on Super Tuesday didn’t reflect the activity we saw on our feeds — and how it was both partly true and also infuriating in its convenient omission of the role of her gender.

We can’t talk about this without talking about her gender.

I watch her in that video, and I am grateful to her for being vulnerable and emotional but still steady and graceful in her retreat. I feel her feeling this. I know there are hoards of people in my own political party out there right now bidding her good riddance, and I let myself hate those people for a little bit.

I’d posted about her on social media for the first time on Monday night, before Super Tuesday, with a final plea to not discount her yet, insisting that I was not planning to vote for her because she’s a woman. This remains true. I thought she was the best candidate. I trusted her the most to lead us out of this mess. But also.

I really want to see a woman get this job in my lifetime. I want to feel the shards of the ultimate “glass ceiling” raining down on us. I want Lizzie to know that she opened the door wider and I want to watch another woman walk through it and leave it open for women like my daughter. I want women across the country to reckon with their internalized inclination to deny other women power, including my friends and family, and understand it not as a criticism but just as the quality of the air we all breathe.

Breathe.

I want more than anything the face of power in this country to change, and to keep changing. I want vindication for Lizzie, and for Hillary. I want to see a woman of color be given those same chances. I want. I want. I want.

But in moments like this I don’t see the entry point. I lose sight of where the change could happen. I think of everything that’s happened since 2016, from #MeToo to the Women’s March to Kavanaugh, and how somehow after all of that we seem to have gone backward.

Lizzie would meet little girls on the campaign trail, and give them pinkie promises and tell them “I’m running for president because that’s what girls do.” Yes, apparently what we do is run for president.

The face of power in this country is — more than ever — two white septuagenarian men fighting over who can scream louder than the other white septuagenarian man who screamed loudest four years ago and every day since. We tell ourselves that all we have to do is get the most power out of the hands of the worst of them and then we can begin to change things for the better again. But when we strip away the parties and the politics all we’re talking about is how we seem to be really afraid of powerful women holding space.

I spent my day, my week, talking about and managing risk. I spend all my days as a parent like that, really, but this week it’s been potent. Raw.

We can’t talk about this without talking about her gender. And risk. A woman managing power and perception in a race to the White House is like the political equivalent of walking a tightrope between the Twin Towers, or scaling the face of El Capitan without a rope: the ultimate risk, and a dance with death. The NY Times referred to Lizzie’s experience as her “demise.” It’s become almost hard to watch.

Photo: Danny Wilcox Frazier/VII/Redux. The Intercept.

But.

On the day it happens that the first one makes it across, or throws her leg over the top of the cliff, that will be the day when maybe it will all feel worth it. I just hope Lizzie and Hillary are still around to see it.

Until then, Lizzie. Breathe.

 

I Can Be Your Hero, Baby

My kid was tossing around his baseball in the house tonight, which he does ad nauseum these days. This time it was after dinner, when he was supposed to be putting on his PJs. I was out of steam, as I so often am after dinner, and I must have asked him 42 times to please put the ball away and get undressed. Then all of a sudden he tossed it up, missed where it landed, and completely lost it somewhere in the depths of our living room. He looked for it for about 12 seconds before declaring that he needed me to find it. I searched to no avail before letting him gently know that I didn’t think we had time to look hard before bedtime, and I’d look more before morning. Because he is truly obsessed with baseball these days, this sent him into a worried tizzy, thinking his ball was lost forever, his 5-year-old brain fully believing that our carpet had swallowed it into the black hole below our couch. Not easily bearing his distress, I fed him a popsicle and kept looking, and looking. And looking. Twenty-odd minutes later I extracted it from a hidden spot behind our couch, triumphantly. He sheepishly thanked me and hugged me several times and my Heroic Mama status was returned.

I have a lot of parenting moments that consist of me letting myself know what a bad job I’m doing. So, considering my usual M.O. of parental self-contempt (which seems to be the M.O. of so many working mamas – at least I’m in good company) the moments of patting myself on the back are substantially rarer. True, part of the reason behind that is the impossibly high bar I set for myself; the other part is the pervasive cultural narratives about all the things I’m supposed to be to them.

My son (the baseball fanatic) is just learning to read, so the whole family is even more into books these days than we usually are. I couldn’t be happier since I secretly want them to be avid book lovers, as I’ve always been. But, something’s been nagging at me as we return to classics that I still adore, and crack open new ones that we fall in love with together. There’s a stock character that seems to recur no matter how new or old the story – the Heroic Mama.

The Heroic Mama is sometimes just there as the central caregiver, to read the bedtime story, or make sure the child has a hot dinner, or a warm bath. In many books, she’s the only parental presence – any other paternal figures are apparently not significant enough to the story (or to the protagonist child) to mention. Sometimes the Heroic Mama is the Fixer, the only one who can make whatever it is better. Sometimes she’s the Sage, dispensing calm wisdom or soothing reassurance. Other times she’s the Gentle Enforcer, with a balanced and non-yelly approach to discipline, which works every time.

owlbabies

Owl Babies by Martin Waddell

When we read beautiful books like The Snowy Day or Windows, I let the absence of any other family members go unmentioned. When Blueberries for Sal or Owl Babies are the chosen stories, I put on my fun voices and brush aside the annoyance that the kids (and bear cubs and owlets) in the stories are so utterly dependent on their mamas being within sight at all times – but seriously y’all, why can’t Daddy Owl babysit while Mommy Owl is out looking for food? Even in our beloved new favorite Sometimes I’m Bombaloo, her mommy is the one helping little Katie Honors lick her wounds when she calms down after a tantrum. I’m just gonna hope that Daddy is busy doing laundry, or her other Mommy is off conducting brain surgery, and those details just didn’t make the editor’s cut.

This is what my feminist mama brain asks itself when we read: Where is everyone else in this kid’s life? Obviously, this doesn’t happen in every book, and admittedly, our home library is pretty heteronormative which is probably part of the problem. Hey, single moms by choice are also a new normal, but I have a feeling that’s generally not the default family structure in an author’s mind when omitting other parental influences. I could count on one hand the number of books in which there’s a paternal figure but no mention of a maternal one; in fact, I’m having a hard time thinking of a single story we own in which that’s the family scenario. Heroic Mama is a cultural icon, and is the bedrock upon which so many of our impossibly high standards for ourselves, and for the mothers around us, are built.

I don’t want to lose these stories from our lives, but do they have something to do with the fact that when my son hugged me for finding his ball, I hugged him back and whispered, “I always want to help you fix things that are bothering you…”?

Here’s the real sticking point, though: for a mama who otherwise is often made to feel like I’m not measuring up (which my feminist brain is also aware is not all in my head – thank you, America) the Heroic Mama tropes at least paint a picture of me that reassures them I will always be there, even when I’m not always there. While the rickety pedestal they set up is unnerving, it’s also sometimes a welcome maternal ego stroke. When, after the owl babies have been fretting the whole book about where their mother has gone, and they all close their eyes and wish together that their mother would come, she appears with the line:

“AND SHE CAME. Soft and silent, she swooped through the trees…”

…back to her kiddos – I get goosebumps every time.

She’s their superhero. She literally descends on them like Batman while they squeal with relief and delight. Every parent wants to be their kid’s hero at some point, and we certainly don’t hold this esteem in the eyes of our children forever. I remind myself constantly that this adoration is fleeting, so I should revel in it. Grab onto it and store it up for when my kids are teenagers, embarrassed to be seen with me. These seemingly anti-feminist narratives might actually be doing me a service in some ways – while unquestionably doing my husband no favors. He is the Daddy Owl that babysits when Mommy Owl goes out to dinner with her Owl college friends, and drinks a lot of red wine and overspends the “dining out” budget for the month. Maybe my problem with these depictions is not so much the pressure they put on me to be all these wonderful things, but the non-existent expectation they place on him. He is so frequently given no representation, so he needs to build his hero status from scratch.

I suppose considering the many narratives missing from the dominant stories in our culture, giving men (hetero, cis men at that) more representation is not what I’m arguing for. I don’t think I’m arguing for anything, really, because while the stories that uplift a mama’s role in her children’s lives sometimes feel like they are deceptively incomplete and wildly simplistic, they are also reminding us how important mothers are in the stories of us and our world, and no part of my feminist brain would dispute that. Do I want that to be the sum-total of what I am expected to measure up to, as a mother? Heck no. But, do I actually want to give up the possibility of my kids seeing me as a hero, a fixer, a sage, and a gentle enforcer – even for a few more years, and even if I’m not really any of those things? Selfishly, also heck no.

They’ll have plenty of time to discover how disappointingly human I am once they’re old enough to read their own books, and the ones about owls and bears begin gathering dust on our shelves.

Until then, I’ll take what I can get.

 

It’s Because of her Gender: A 2020 Plea to My Fellow Dems

I miss writing. This is maybe the longest I’ve gone between posts since starting this blog. If someone were to have visited in the last few months, they would have assumed I’d hung up my spurs. But not so. Life with two barely school-age children has indeed gotten more hectic, but as we approach another intense election season, my stress level is rising and my wheels are spinning.

I wrote my first poem the other day in probably years; it was the day of the El Paso and Dayton shootings. Nothing like mass violence, blistering rage, and fear for your children’s future to kick those creative muscles into gear. I remember when all it took was the boy I liked not noticing me in class. I miss that being all it took. I keep trying to convince myself that every generation has an apocalyptic moment, but I was literally coming of age when 9/11 happened nearly 20 years ago, so…

Maybe this is more than a moment.

Somewhere in between then and now we managed to elect Barack Obama as President, twice, but at this point all that feels like a fever dream.

 

 

 

 

*****

I watched the Democratic debates this summer. Did you? No? It’s okay: I’m the only one I know who did, except for the guys on Pod Save America.

Everyone I’ve talked to seemed to just watch the clips afterward, the ones the media decided were the most newsworthy, the best applause lines, the best zingers. Most people I know, even the very politically conscious ones, preferred reading or watching all the post-debate analysis to get a sense of who is pulling ahead, or failing to meet expectations. I think most people around me, and I count myself among these (and yes, most people I know are Democrats because I live in Brooklyn and yes, it’s the biggest bubble in the world), are impatient with the clown car theatrics and would just appreciate some of the “never-gonna-happens” getting out of the way so we could focus on the real candidates. Until then, there is undeniably a lot of nonsense on that stage.

But a lot of folks I know are not looking into the actual substance of the candidates to make their decision about who to vote for in the 2020 Democratic primary, anyway. A lot of folks, especially those in my parents’ generation (Boomers, I’m lookin’ at you!), are nearly laser-focused on electability, as though that descriptor automatically implies best person for the job. I find that terrifying, and I’ll tell you why.

Because it seems to me that for that enormous generation, many of whom identify as liberal, and for many people outside that generation, even in my own (I’m a GenXer, the Jan Brady of generations) – electability is code for Joe Biden. And Joe Biden is code for white-haired, white-toothed, white dude.

I’m terrified that 2016 has us all terrified. And not like in a motivated way.

We’ve had a collective shock that we’re barely over, the worst case scenario came to fruition, the dark underbelly of our nation made itself at home in the White House, and all because we took for granted the most qualified candidate to ever run for President who happened to be a woman. And I will admit, sheepishly, that when we were barely starting this primary season and hardly anyone had announced their candidacy but everyone was talking about who would, my first instinct was a survival instinct: I don’t care anymore about electing a woman I just want someone to get us out of this mess please just get us out of this mess whoever you are even if you’re Bernie Sanders.

I didn’t vote for Bernie. Partly because I didn’t think he was as electable as Hillary, but also because I really wanted to support our first woman candidate. Which is the first sign, to me, that I don’t know the first damn thing about electability and neither do most of us.

What we’re saying when we say we just want to nominate someone who is electable so they can beat the incumbent autocrat is that it probably won’t be a woman, because we all just proved to ourselves and each other that a woman can’t be elected. Yet. That we’re not ready for it. We certainly haven’t better prepared ourselves since then, as we…let’s see…swept aside the credible testimony of a traumatized woman and allowed a sex offender to take a Supreme Court seat…began stripping away every woman’s right to abortion in this country…oh yeah, and basically didn’t pay attention to the latest woman to let us know that our President raped her. No, our track record of supporting women as a country has not lately seen much improvement.

And what we’re saying when Joe Biden leads the polls not because of his strong messaging or his clear vision but because we all know who he is and he seems like a good guy even with that questionable voting history but those were different times and he could probably do the job and he fits the profile and Obama dug him so he’s probably the most electable – what we’re saying is that, as former Obama strategist Dan Pfeiffer said in the most recent episode of PSA,

“we’re not playing to win, we’re playing not to lose.”

The truth is that I watched the debates because I needed some way of figuring out who I cared about. Before then, I didn’t have the first clue. Mayor Pete was someone my millennial friends were talking about, and K-Gilly is from my state and I liked her well enough, and oh there’s Bernie again, and what seriously, now DiBlasio’s running?? I think most of our party may still be in that headspace.

The other truth is, friends, that Elizabeth Warren (and, in the first one, Kamala Harris) owned those debates. I’m not saying that as someone who went in supporting her, because I didn’t feel strongly one way or another, and I’m clearly not the only one who thinks so considering since then Lizzie’s eclipsed Bernie for second behind Biden. She’s done that despite the fact that so many Democrats are still scared out of their pants to vote for a woman again. Democrats who are women themselves, even. Democrats who just want to vote for whoever is going to beat Trump.

What terrifies me is that’s simply not what wins elections, especially ones riding on bringing out a lot of latent voters. Vision does. Strong messaging does. Those were things that we hate to admit Trump had when he won but he did. They were horrible visions and terrible messages, but they were there, and they were clear. They were so simplistic and feeble-minded that they were clear as day to much of America, and even convinced some people who voted for Obama. (That I still don’t understand btw, and if you are one of those people, can you message me so we can talk and I can wrap my brain around how that works?)

Warren has all the goods, people. Her vision may not be everyone’s ideal, but it’s strong, she’s crystal clear, and she’s the smartest person in most rooms. After debate #2 I did some reading and listening, and now I’m hooked. But, I worry that all those people in my party who rest their laurels on electability will overlook all of her strengths because of that residual fear. Because of our collective trauma as citizens of the country that somehow elected Donald Trump. Because we don’t have enough faith in ourselves to take a risk on another woman, even if that woman is the most dependable, inspiring candidate we have.

My Democrat, Boomer comrades: you might say she’s a risk because she’s too progressive or because of Medicare for All or because she’ll seem like an elitist law professor to middle America or because because because. She’s certainly less divisive than Hillary, and has a cleaner record. But if you call her a risk in one breath and say you’re voting for Biden or Bernie in the next, don’t tell me it’s because of her policies. Just admit it’s because of her gender.

I believe that the more honest we can be about what’s scaring us, the easier it will be to overcome; I actually wouldn’t fault anyone for admitting that they’re so petrified of another loss that they’re letting pervasive, internalized sexism guide their position. We just have to overcome that fear to win this thing. If we let our fear of losing again be the central motivating factor in the voting booth we will seal our fate. If we vote for something, or someone, and not just against the current occupant of the Oval Office, then and only then will we have a shot. This just isn’t the time to play it safe; we can’t purely strategize our way out of this shitstorm.

So, while none of this is particularly groundbreaking commentary, this is officially my (first) plea to the 33% of Democrats who currently favor Biden because you’re worried that no one else can get the job done: please vote for who you believe in. Doesn’t even matter if it’s Warren (I’m just betting that if you really pay attention, it probably will be, but maybe not). Hey, maybe DiBlasio’s speaking your language. I would certainly respect a Kamala vote, or even Buttigieg. WTH, vote for Marianne Williamson if she stole your heart. (Really? But ok.)

But please please please vote by your belief system, not by your fear.

Imagine what this country’s government would look like if everyone who could vote took their actual belief system to the polls. Maybe this makes me impossibly naive, but I kind of want to live in that country.

 

(Also, to be clear: whoever we do nominate, even if for the wrong reasons, I’ll campaign my tuchus off for them.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Disclaimer: All the opinions expressed in this post are my own and not those of my employer, TCG.

What It Sounds Like When A Woman Finds Her Voice

I have a profound memory from graduate school. I got my degree in performance from a (then) esteemed institution, and one of the most frustrating and fascinating classes I took in my two years there was Voice class.

Via Giphy

Back in undergrad, we drama majors secretly called Voice class “Breathing for Credit” because it felt like woo woo work, or the stuff of a Christopher Guest film about actors: a lot of strange facial contortions, jaw massage, and dramatically audible exhales. Once in the realm of the Masters however, Voice class took on a new level of seriousness. The phonetic alphabet is no joke, y’all. I mean, I choreographed and performed a dance solo to the iambic pentameter rhythm of my favorite Shakespearean soliloquy in my first few weeks of class. We were not dicking around.

I think it was in my second year when we did an exercise in which all the women in the class, one after the other, stood before the rest of us and…how do I say this?…found her true voice. By that I mean, our professor had to coax it out of us, slowly, one by one, coaching each of us to reach a depth none of us had consciously ever tapped into. And the profound part was that every single one of us, when we finally found it – when our true, deep voices emerged and hit a certain pitch – we each felt it in the cores of our bodies, were momentarily surprised, eyes widening, and then…cried. It was biochemical. Our eyes welled up as soon as we accessed our authentic sound. Not only that, but each one of our authentic sounds was commanding. It demanded attention; it silenced the room like a record scratch. The rest of the class couldn’t help but listen, captivated.

I have thought about this a lot since then. I watched every one of my women classmates discover a part of herself that she’d been socialized to bury deep within her own body. It was as though we’d each tapped a power that we didn’t know we had, and were at once frightened and strengthened by it. It was the rush of a superhero discovering their superpower.

It makes me think of another memory: the time, before grad school, that I was out in the city by myself much later than I should have been, and I was followed off the subway by a lecherous stranger who trailed me down a dark street. I didn’t realize the normally bustling block was so empty until I felt his hands groping at the back of me, and then my eyes quickly darted around and I realized I was alone. That’s about when the animal instinct kicked in; it was fight or flight, and flight didn’t seem possible as he began to corner me against a wall. Swatting his hands away, I said “Get the f*ck off me, ” in a voice full of panting breath. I don’t even know if he heard that one. Then something arose out of me that must have been my voice but honestly, I felt disembodied in that instant, and I repeated the command with a new kind of force. “GET THE FUCK OFF ME.” It was loud. It was deep. It was monstrous. I think my eyes were closed as I released it, because when I opened them, he was hastening away. Little blond twenty-something me unleashed a primal roar that I didn’t know was somewhere inside, and it was frightening enough to send my would-be attacker (who had towered over me) running down the street. My voice was the only thing that transformed that moment from one of violation to one of empowerment.

These memories rattle around my brain a lot, especially these days. I was recently visited by my friend Samara Bay, a dialect coach to the stars (literally), and she’d just come off a visit to her alma mater where she’d given a talk at a convening called She Roars: Celebrating Women at Princeton. The talk was called “She Roars and People Listen: Using Your Voice to Get What You Want.” They’d been expecting maybe a couple dozen people, but she had more than a couple hundred people sign up, and they had to move it from a small meeting space to one of the larger auditoriums. She packed the house, and then brought it down. Turns out this is something women are getting more curious about, and those of us with training and know-how about how to use our voices (ahem, theatre people) are a step ahead, often without knowing it.

It’s timely, considering how many women are pouring into the political arena, and how much we’ve heard the voices of some of our most prominent women leaders criticized and picked apart along with everything else about their demeanor. We’ve been over the fact that we rarely talk about the voices of men, but women are harped on in the media for their “shrillness” or their “vocal fry.” (Think about that as you check out Artist Campaign School, a jointly sponsored program training artists to run for office.) It’s yet another sad double standard, and another marker of a tipped-scale system in which women have a hard time getting it just right.

Rebecca Traister talks a lot about this in her new, engrossing book, Good and Mad: The Revolutionary Power of Women’s Anger. On the subway, I read the part when she starts to unravel how women have traditionally been made to feel that their anger is problematic or illegitimate, and my heart starts to pound like someone is about to tell me the secret of my life. She begins hinting at her eventual thesis: that not only is women’s anger a healthy thing to unleash,  but it can be the ultimate source of our power. And that makes it really, really scary to pretty much everyone, including us. We’ve been taught for so long to not be too forceful; that feeling anger behind closed doors is one thing, but showing it in public is entirely another. That we must measure ourselves, lest the smallest dose of exhibited rage label us as hysterical. My eyes fill with tears as I read this, as a woman who’s always been called “intense”, “aggressive”, or “contentious”. So, you mean my simmering fury is not a character flaw, but potentially a source of strength? That it isn’t something to be ashamed of but to embrace, and to find its way to a collective fire with other women’s voices, at which point magic things might happen?

Traister acknowledges that not all women have the privilege to experiment in simply expressing their fury when it calls to them. Black women’s anger isn’t given an inch of grace in any mainstream corner of our society; even Michelle Obama couldn’t so much as raise an eyebrow without some rag pinning her as an angry Black woman. (And if you’re skeptical, maybe Google “Serena Williams 2018 U.S. Open” as another example.) Brittney Cooper, author of Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower, said this on NPR the other day:

“Whenever someone weaponizes anger against Black women, it is designed to silence them. It is designed to discredit them and to say that they are overreacting, that they are being hypersensitive, that their reaction is outsized.”

I think about what “finding your voice” means for every kind of woman. I think about my dear friend who for a long time lived as a man, but eventually let us know that she was in fact a trans woman, and has been publicly telling the story of her journey into a new, self-actualized life. I learned from her that she would be unable to rely on hormones or any kind of pharmaceutical help to transition her voice along with the rest of her, so she has to retrain her old voice to match her new body, and her true identity. For this friend, it wasn’t a depth, but a lightness she needed to find; a lightness even that makes it hard for her to project sometimes, to make herself loud. I think about how my friend will learn to find her true voice, and eventually, express anger with a vocal quality that will probably be soft and contained, no matter how much fire is raging inside her.

Something about all these learnings and memories makes me think that when a woman finally finds her true voice – not in a metaphorical way but a literal one – she is at that moment also allowing herself to feel her true rage, and that rage is a glowing light in the center of her somewhere, not a toxic substance to rid herself of, as she would have been made to believe. When all of us in that Voice class, the moment we heard ourselves and knew that we’d just made a sound that was our full, complete, individual voice – I think we all briefly dipped into a netherworld of festering anger. And if our voices are the most powerful conduit for our anger – the vehicle by which our superpower can most potently be felt – we need to begin to let it all rise to the top together. Like superheroes learning how to control their newly discovered gifts, it will be a little messy at first. We’ll get it wrong sometimes. We’ll blow open a wall where we were just trying to burn a small hole. We’ll scare people. We’ll scare each other. We’ll cry a lot. We’ll want to put the lid back on.

But once I heard that animal sound come out of me at a threatening presence on the street, once I heard my own real sound come out in front of so many other women hearing their own real sounds, I think I knew that there would be no putting that particular genie back into the bottle. It was just a matter of better understanding it.

Mary Beard’s scholarly series of essays on Women and Power are a helpful guide to this process of understanding, tracing back the need to silence women to stifle the threat of their power by centuries, up through today, effectively drawing comparisons to the haters of ancient Greece to the trolls currently harassing Beard herself on Twitter.

I call this picture “The Day Nina Found Her Voice.”

I think about what “finding your voice” means for my daughter. My two-year-old Nina has a naturally loud voice, and has not yet been socialized out of using it at its fullest. One meaning of the name Nina is ‘mighty warrior’, and she does not like to be shushed. When she gets especially frustrated we’re trying to teach her to “use her words” rather than scream, or hit, or bite. (Oh yes, two-year-olds of all genders have no qualms about displaying their rage by clawing the face of the person who just snatched their toy… more evidence for anger being a natural state of being?) And while we’ll continue to teach her not to lash out with her body, or her teeth, writing this makes me want to allow her, and even encourage her, to rage with her voice. We were all shushed while growing up, particularly little girls with sharp tongues or lung capacity, who, as these fierce authors tease out in great detail, will only continue to be told to shut up throughout their lives in one form or another.

What would the world look like if the sound of a little girl screaming at her big brother was a positive sign of vitality, or an encouraged step toward finding the mighty warrior within her?

What would it be like if we just said, “Yes, we hear you, we love you, we know why you’re screaming, and you can scream as long as you need to. In fact, it feels good to let it out, doesn’t it?”

 

I have suckled the wolfs lip of anger and I have used it for illumination, laughter, protection, fire in places where there was no light, no food, no sisters, no quarter. We are not goddesses or matriarchs or edifices of divine forgiveness; we are not fiery fingers of judgment or instruments of flagellation; we are women always forced back upon our woman’s power…
We use whatever strengths we have fought for, including anger, to help define and fashion a world where all our sisters can grow, where our children can love, and where the power of touching and meeting another woman’s difference and wonder will eventually transcend the need for destruction.

-Audre Lorde, The Uses of Anger