Let Me Get Carefree Unless It Means I Live In This Political Body And Everything Is Always On Fire Or How I Went To A Santigold Concert To Get Carefree Anyway
It’s a Sunday evening, unseasonably warm for April in Chicago, and I’m standing in line with my partner to see Santigold (read: to get my life). The tickets were $30, and before my edges were snatched by Beyonce and Rihanna, Santigold’s clap back and riot-like anthems amplified the kind of woman and artist I wanted to be. I needed to get away.
Earlier that afternoon, I’d read at a poetry reading in Evanston, IL, in celebration of a publication’s anniversary who’d picked up a poem I’d written, essentially, about having a nervous breakdown in Shondaland, amidst so much Black death. As the Uber driver turned down the block into this affluent neighborhood, he asked me to confirm if this is where I’m going. “Like I know? I have an address, and clearly this ain’t my hood.” We laugh in that easy way we know what the other means.
The reading was lovely. The hosting editor and staff were gracious and kind, and showed me and my work a lot of love. I was nervous that I’d spill red wine on the beautiful upholstery or on the host’s large coffee table art books that probably cost more than my $6 thrift store dress and $4 cardigan. “I love your dress, it’s so pretty,” says the older, short-haired woman to my left. My grandmother taught me to be gracious, so I smile and say thank you, and feel better for choosing pinot grigio, though it’s not a wine I typically dig. After I read, I immediately escape the direct eye contact of those in the audience and get a refill. My anxiety and the performance of “keep it together girl” are often inextricably linked. I want to move to the nearest corner and not engage; I end up just waiting, jaw tense and palms sweaty, for someone to say really great work. The host comes over to thank me for my work. Tells me I own the mic.
I read poems the way I speak. I have very little chill and often curse too much and make sure people know that I’m from Detroit, then dare them to turn that into a backhanded compliment. The fine line between humor and self-deprecation either shields or invites the kind of familiarity some white folks use to homegirl me while mentioning something about how impressive my diction is. My mother taught me how to code switch early. And well. I was happy that his remarks were not the case, the warmth of his smile sincere.
In between listening to the other beautiful readers, I check my phone for the time (the tickets for the show mean I need to be at the door by 6:15, and it’s going to take a half hour to get back to my neighborhood, and I will NOT be any further than my breasts pressed against the gate that separates me from Santigold. Not on this here today). A young, well-intentioned white writer laments how much he enjoyed one of my poems, that he knew that poem, but didn’t think it was in the James Franco Review. “Where did I read that?” Well, that’s where it was, unless it was reposted somewhere on social media. “James Franco! Anything to give us a little notoriety, right?” Um, ok. “What was your name again?”
I pivot to the long table of food spread before me where I placed my refilled cup of safe white wine and realize a random middle aged white woman is drinking from it instead. I start to spin a bit, thinking about the way people feel entitled to space, so oblivious that your time or your wine is not theirs; how easy it is for folks to just assume. And you know, gulp gulp gulp. Clearly, there are all kinds of literal thirst traps. My imposter syndrome kicks in, and I count the number of people of color in the room. I stop at 8 amongst the lake of smiling, kind, warm white faces, and dash out the door for a smoke. The sun and snack of cheese and crackers and fruit, my 1.5 glasses of wine make everything too bright, and I realize I left my sunglasses inside. Navigate the currents again, try to be happy for fresh water rather than salt water, take a drag or two and hope this Uber driver can find where I am.
He can’t. But when he finally does, I’m thankful that he looks like a taller Dwele, and I start to feel a bit more at ease. He asks me if I’m from here. When I tell him I’m from Detroit, Aaliyah pops up on his Spotify station, and I smile and accuse him of planning this magic, and we ride the trip together mostly silent while Sade picks up where Aaliyah’s whisper leaves off. I text my friend about some of the occurrences that transpired, including my interaction with well-intentioned young white writer. We both are too well-versed in erasure within literary spaces, and he tells me to leave and sends me a digital cackle. I tell him my plans for the rest of the evening which involve wearing pink lipstick and shaking my behind.
My partner and I only stand in line for 30 minutes before we make our way toward the front row of standing room only space before the stage. We’re gross and in love and I want a beer. The crowd slowly but surely files in, and a poet I recognize from the Chicago scene makes eye contact to say hi. I don’t really want to talk about my work or what projects I’m embarking on, but I know how lonely this landscape of closed rooms, nose pressed to the desk (usually accompanied by the vice of our choice) can be. I try to be polite for a while, then proceed to slow turn toward the stage in anticipation for the no-fucks-given joy ready to grace us.
Let me tell you: Santigold gave me everything and more. Background dancers that at one point posted up on powder blue and white inflatable chairs and ottomans, eating cheetos with the faces that are not here for your tomfoolery or your questions or your explanations to justify why they know your name, or why you’re tired of thanking people for saying your work is powerful. She sings “L.E.S. Artistes”: I can say I hope it will be worth what I give up/ If I could stand up mean for the things that I believe and the melody works through me like a slow electric hum. I throw my hands up: You don’t know me/ I am an introvert, an excavator. By the time she lands on “Can’t Get Enough Of Myself,” I’m at peak joy. For a moment, I don’t worry about saying the right thing, or being the right whoever to whomever. My feet hurt in the best ways and as I walk with my lover in search of a burger, ride this temporary high of being carefree, I finger the bills in my pocket wondering how much longer it’ll take for this po-biz grind to pay (some of) these bills. I’d just returned from a week long trip at a writer’s conference promoting my book, while simultaneously having a fight with my dad over text message why I couldn’t take the time off work to attend his mother’s funeral after explaining that I’d be traveling the week after. According to him, being a writer has made me selfish, disrespectful.
There’s a number of different ways to be the token: the token Black writer, the token good daughter, the token respectable Black woman. And to be the token “bad one.” The notion of the carefree unbothered Black woman often asks that we show up and make room for people in ways that cost us more than we have to give. And doesn’t ask if we have it to give in the first place. My day job to supplement my income consists of me serving food and drink to a spectrum of whiteness. Consists of me working around conversations about the revolutionary feminism and queer advocacy of Miley Cyrus (I can’t), and having to explain why being referred to as one’s “expert on all things Nubian” is problematic. I run through full theoretical analyses on whether I should be simply annoyed or livid with a coworker’s weekly request to smell my hair. It’s Carol’s Daughter Black Vanilla oil. Dab a little on your wrist so I can go back to worrying about my safety walking the streets, being anywhere in the world, how the sight of police while I smoke a cigarette on the way to the train station makes me pause, how a group of men on a platform talk about me objectifyingly like I’m not really there about how much they love my hair, all the things that keep my pulse in time with a herd of wild horses.
I tried that carefree shit once, the summer before I went to grad school. I’d been working part time as a server in a Cass Corridor haunt in Detroit, and had a brief affair with one of the cooks. He quit for a chef position with The Detroit Symphony Orchestra, was fired, and ruined any future opportunities with his arrogance and drunken shenanigans. But I was determined to be free, and fuck, and drink too much, and lose myself in his dry humor and the way his Marlboro laced kisses made me forget, even temporarily, about grieving. I’d ended a relationship with a live-in partner, planned a funeral for my brilliant dead friend, buried an uncle and an aunt. Then, too, I needed to run.
That night, we smoked a bowl in his parent’s basement (I know), his temporary homestead while he got back on his feet. Earlier he introduced me to his mother, tagged on the end of me being a writer that I was heading to an ivy-league university to further study writing. His eyes, wide and wet looking for her congratulations were unmet by her side-eye of me with the remark Oh…good for you. She gives me a once over, her expression somewhere between pleasant-enough-half-smile and query. I chat with her for a bit (somewhere between code switch and pleasant-enough-but-I-don’t-like-you-sizing-me-up) before excusing myself to the washroom. I could hear her words clearly as I shut the faucet off. I just don’t understand why you keep dating those zhinni girls. I’ve learned, and try to unlearn and relearn that with this Black Woman body, you don’t have to look for reasons to clap back, though often, you won’t. For fear of being mislabeled Crazy, Angry, Psycho, Ghetto, Uncouth, Savage, Disorderly, etc. ad nauseum. I put her pretty, contemporary suburban towel neatly on the rack as my grandmother taught me. Always leave a place exactly as you found it, and you’ll always be invited back. It’s why I remake hotel beds, even though the cleaning crew will undo and redo what I’ve done.
He and I discussed and listened to MF Doom and J Dilla, the Mountain Goats and The Twilight Singers (bands that would have gotten me laughed out of some of the circles I rode with in high school). We were probably both way too stoned to debate anything. But rap…don’t make it about race, it’s about the music. I was enraged and fatigued and told him he was full of shit and that I wasn’t going to debate his apathetic views, took another swig of whiskey and tried to fuck the pain away. It’s complicated. Exhausting. To meet people where they are. To run from where you want to be.
Sometimes the journey seems too long, and the clearing is more ravine than field. Growing up in and around Detroit didn’t necessarily make me feel more comfortable in majority Black rooms. My mother’s lesson in code switching hadn’t quite registered that sometimes you can actually switch it off, so the kids teased me for speaking like Hilary from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (though Karyn Parsons-Rockwell’s portrayal was pretty genius). In middle school while picking up catfish for my grandmother, I didn’t think twice of how my Black body would read in the restaurant. A man with a leather worn face and straw hat leaned against the fake wood paneled wall, his cane against his thigh; the toothpick rolling from one end of his sneer to the other, back and forth, made me think twice about my budding Woman body. In high school, bearing the opposing cheerleader’s nigger bitches as we walked through the crowd, my fists clenched and my head held high because I was taught that is what dignity looks like. That I was a cheerleader on a majority Black squad that didn’t step in the tradition of Step and its Black Diasporic roots. Folks felt some kind of way about that, too.
It all adds up, like metal deposits in soil, from construction to demolition to restoration: the body as landscape: the body read as a nation of Black people, of Woman: the body enacting as a nation, each Black and Woman story passed from sister to friend to colleague to stranger on a train car. A Black woman’s body in America is a nation inside a nation that wills to drive her mad; her Black body maddened with its exploitation and its erasure. Her Woman body maddened by its exploitation and erasure and discardment. When we willfully ignore or don’t attempt to consider the daily negotiations someone contends with by saying “you’re too intense,” or “you take everything so personally,” or “everything isn’t political,” we amplify that madness. But this body is political. The landscape which I escape from and the one I reimagine my way toward, is political. Hunger is political. As I strive to feed myself with my writing, yes, it’s the game. And the game is political.
Outside the venue, the sun slow setting, the temperature dropping just as slow, my partner and I lazily lean against the chain link fence, people-watch and throw shade without speaking. Laugh. Behind us I notice the demographic of folks standing in line. While rocking her song Creator as a ringtone years prior, a friend of mine mockingly asked what are you, a teenage girl? I flipped him off in the moment, and looking at the line stretching down the sidewalk, most of us weren’t teenage girls. Young white hipsters, queer folk, tattooed folks of all genders and races. I loop my finger through the buttonhole of my partner’s sweater. Babe, did I tell you this white woman drank my wine at the reading today? Maybe she was a bit tipsy, but it was bizarre. I’m still buzzed from the afternoon, coming down off one displacement, ready to throw myself in the cavalier bliss of another. I catch eye contact briefly with a woman, maybe 10 years older than me, standing behind us and we smile. She leans over to her friend, whispered how cute she thinks my undercut is. I smile again. The way you smile when you both know exactly what the other means.
Aricka Foreman’s poems have appeared in The Drunken Boat, Minnesota Review, RHINO, Day One, shuf Poetry, James Franco Review, thrush, Vinyl Poetry, PLUCK!, and Please Excuse This Poem: 100 New Poems for the Next Generation (Viking Penguin), among others. She is the author of Dream With A Glass Chamber (YesYes Books) and is the Art co-editor at The Offing.