When I was a little girl, I looked up to my dad the way most little girls look up to their fathers. I liked watching the way he’d cross his legs while he smoked his pipe in contemplation. I liked lifting my dumbbell while he lifted his barbell. I liked telling people that my ex-prison father could beat them up at a moment’s notice.
My parents split up when I was three, but I still saw my dad fairly regularly—until he moved three hours away when I was seven. It was when my dad moved back to our area at the start of middle school that he started to fall from his pedestal.
Last Friday I did a reading for Camp Real Pants at Astroetic Studios in Downtown L.A. The event was an offshoot of the AWP (Association for Writers & Writing Programs), and as I could afford to attend the conference itself, it was nice to be somewhat near the action, and right in the thick of a related event.
In honor of the reading, my friend Mike put together lovely chapbooks, which are currently for sale. “(not) Mixed (up) Messages: On Dads, Death and Mixed Race Daughterhood” is a combination of excerpts from my memoir and a couple of my published articles. All blend together to poignantly wrestle with the three Ds mentioned above. I’m still at work on the memoir but am excited to share some of the finished pages with anyone who’s been following my journey, and with those who haven’t!
“Shannon is a fearlessly vulnerable, beautiful, and brave voice. Her stories and experiences inspire me to accept myself for who I am—to be myself and not who others tell me to be.”
In two days, I board a plane to visit my 86-year-old grandma in Washington State. She’ll be 87 two days after I land. My grandma is slowly succumbing to dementia, which, thanks to the fate of her older sisters, she knew would be her fate as well. Everyone lives long in my family, at least on that side, but they begin to lose their ability to reason, remember and be fully present in the world long before they take their last breaths.
While much of me is excited to visit my grandma, I’m also scared. I’m visiting her in part because she’s slowly drifting away from us. She’s as healthy as a lion, but her mind is becoming frail.
My grandma was my mother for much of my life. Her home was my home for more years than it wasn’t. I watched her run a business, chat up strangers with ease, and manage a household all by herself. She taught me how to parallel park, how to downshift and upshift on windy roads, and how to value my writing just as she valued hers.
In my late teens and early 20s, I devoured her bookshelves of hard cover classics, many of which I’ve since inherited. It was she who taught me the beauty of the written word, and she who made discussing dictionary definitions part of a frequent ritual at the dinner table. Not as a way to flaunt our knowledge, but as a way to continually revel in the beauty of the English language.
My grandma always wanted to write her life story. I remember her writing group gathering around the dining room table and sharing pages from their latest works. The women around the table took their writing seriously, and I knew it was my destiny to follow suit. My grandma, through her own lived reality, presented me with a reality I could visualize. I grew up, became the head of my (single person) household, and use words to convey my deepest thoughts and emotions, and even to pay my bills.
My grandma will never get to write her life story. Her mind is too far gone now to string together memories of a long gone past. While I mourn for her inability to realize her dream, the mourning adds momentum to my own literary projects. My grandma sacrificed a lot to care for those she loved. She raised a handful of children–some her own and some who needed a structured place to stay. By the time she was through raising others, she was too far separated from her own past to put it to paper.
A year ago my grandma and I shared a hotel room at my cousin’s wedding, and we giggled like little girls as we talked into the night. That memory is so sweet that I don’t want to lose it — I don’t want it to be replaced by something more complicated and upsetting. I watched my father slowly lose control over his faculties, and I don’t want to watch my grandma lose control of hers. True, my dad was much farther gone by the time I saw him, and he only had about two weeks left, while my grandma might still have many years. But the grandma I know, the one who raised me, is hidden behind a wall of confusion and anxiety. Grandma can’t read anymore, partly due to the dementia and partly due to her macular degeneration. She needs 24-hour care and often can’t plan five minutes into the future or remember 5 hours into the past.
About ten years ago when I was living in Washington myself, my aunt called to let me know my grandma’s heart had suddenly began fluttering out of control. I sped to her retirement home and arrived as paramedics circled her bed. One gave her a shot of something to restore her heart back to a normal rhythm. As the medicine coursed its way through her, she let out what can only be described as a flutter of sensation–a verbal “whooo” at the strange feeling that had overcome her. I hardly ever cry when things happen, but instead usually remain stoic until I can process it at a later time. However, in that moment, tears suddenly welled in my eyes as my rock appeared helpless and vulnerable. It was a moment I don’t care to relive, but I know such moments are inevitable with the continued passing of time.
My aunt finds little scraps of paper with scribbles of my grandma’s thoughts about the past. All tangible evidences of her still strong desire to get her life down before it’s too late. This is all she has left of her dream… Solitary snippets that will probably never be read by anyone.
I’ll continue to pour my heart out onto the page, and to live the life my grandma created for me through her never ending passion for truth in storytelling. And on Monday I’ll give my rock a gigantic hug and revel in her presence for a full seven days. I’ll do my best to capture those moments and hold onto them for the rest of my life.
I just tried out Medium.com for the first time. Here’s the beginning of my essay with a link to the rest below:
Like most of Black America, I watched Beyonce’s “Formation” video yesterday in wonder. And like most of America (not just Black America) I’ve had dozens of opinions flash across my newsfeed. As a fellow “yellow bone,” I’d like to weigh in and suggest that Beyoncé’s lyrics are revolutionary not because they express a unique viewpoint, but because this viewpoint was expressed by one of the most salient Black women in America. I also argue that Beyoncé uses the sometimes “-shallow” lyricism of traditional Pop and R&B songs to dismantle, or at least disrupt, the very genre itself…
Yesterday I watched the most recent episode of The Bachelor on Hulu, and I’m sorry if this is going to ruin the anticipation for anyone, but Jubilee got sent home in the middle of the cocktail party.
I’ve watched The Bachelor and The Bachelorette franchise off and on for years. When I start a season, I always continue until the end, but I’m not drawn to it every season. This season, however, will be the first one that I end abruptly, and I’m not sure if I ever want to watch the show again.
The Bachelor and Bachelorette had always been a fun diversion — a way to witness interactions between people, root for favorite contestants, and wince at relationships between houseguests or between men and women that go extremely sour.
This season was different though, because of Jubilee (which I wrote about here). I’ve always felt a bit removed from the show. I’ve always been intimately aware that my life differs greatly from any of the girls who vie for the guy’s hearts (and I’m usually not much into the guy’s heart anyway). But with Jubilee’s date with Ben, I finally saw myself in a contestant. Not just because she was Black, but because she was Black with very similar struggles as my own.
I kind of knew when Ben put Jubilee on a pedestal that she would inevitably come crashing down. Not because she’d do anything wrong, but because pedestals are very lonely and unsteady places to be. Jubilee was for Ben what many Black women are to men — and sadly not just to White men like Ben.
After Ben said goodbye to Jubilee, with the same expression and many of the same words that I’ve heard during my own breakups, I said goodbye to The Bachelor. I just couldn’t do it anymore. I also remembered something I’d written when I was about 21, and I dug it up to share with my readers.
This essay is a very hard one to share, because it touches on things that are very personal, and I wrote it completely stream of consciousness at the height of emotion. Though it’s a bit exposing, I think it’s important to share with my readers because I’m guessing at least one of you feels now the way I did then. The family relationships I’ve mentioned in the essay have now been strengthened, I now know certain struggles aren’t so black and white, and those romantic relationships are a thing of the past. That last line of the essay? It’s where I am now.
Anyway, without further ado, here’s what I wrote back in 1998.
Back Seat Girl
It happened to me again today. Sarah* was with me, getting milk. Chad* and Adam* were in the electronics department. I have learned to like Sarah, to become her friend. But then, as she tells me she won’t be home when her parents call, she says, “Oh, they’ll understand, because they know about Chad.” I respond, “Oh, are you guys dating or something?” (I say this quite calmly, but in my mind I am screaming, because I am once again on the outside of the circle.)
“Well, I don’t know,” she replies. “I don’t really know what’s going on.” She also says this calmly, and adds emphasis by shrugging her shoulders as if tossing the idea out of her uninterested mind. But I know inside, she is bursting to know if they will in fact have a romance. I drop the subject. I realize that I am always in the back, while she is always in the front. Does she get the front seat because her father is a missionary? Because she is a prize? I see them talk. I see him express concern to her about missing her parents’ call because of the outing I have requested.
I am taken back to Southern California, to the long freeway drive to Disneyland, to David* and Patricia* in the front seat, to me, in the back of the van (the extra, invisible guest). I am taken back to observing them from my place in the back, to watching them flirt, to seeing her get out of her seat and kneel in the middle so that he could put his arm around her. I remember the tears. I remember the desperation I felt. I remember the pain, and the pain returns, and it runs down my cheeks in a salty stream. The pain is a little girl, watching her mommy flirt with a man who would rule her life, a man who would separate her from her mother’s protective love, a man who would place this little girl on the outside of the circle.
I remember driving Daniel* and Kim* around. I remember how when I moved away, Daniel got a truck and Kim was the one to be the front seat girl. I remember the agony I felt as she told me about their minute-long kiss in this front seat. My boyfriend and my best friend. “You thought you were so special,” a voice inside me said. “But remember your place.”
I remember the community group of my church. I remember sitting in that wealthy house, I remember sitting in that circle, sharing about our lives. I remember the man I thought attractive. The man who pursued another girl after the meeting. A girl who had spoken of her father, who was known in the Christian circle. “So that man is really your father?” the young man asks. “Yes,” she replies, with pride. The man thinks her a prize. The man asks her if she needs a ride home. “No,” she replies. (She has a father, remember? A father who provides for her needs.) To him, I am invisible. The man does not ask me to be a front seat girl. My father was a prisoner. Does that make him lacking in love for his daughter? Does that make me any less of a prize? Does that mean I am destined to be a backseat girl?
I remember home. I remember the house in Santa Cruz that I called home. I remember the house that I called home, but wasn’t. I remember the loving arms that held me for a moment, only to let me go. Those arms in which I was not allowed to get comfortable. Those arms of my grandmother who said, “You are special, but you do not belong here.”
I remember the holidays. I remember all the families coming together to form a whole. All of those immediate families that I was not a part of. I remember all of the families grouping together, in order to introduce us to a new relative. But where do I go? Where is my “mother,” my “father,” my “sister,” my “brother”? I see the new man’s eyes scan his relations. I see his eyes come to me. They are puzzled, perplexed, these eyes of his. As if he is seeing a rose among poppies. “She is not in the circle,” his eyes say. I smile, pretending that I do not know my difference. Pretending that I am indeed a poppy among poppies.
I feel like a girl in a candy store. I feel like a black girl in a candy store. I feel like a black girl in a candy store in the segregated South. I stand there, my mouth watering as I look at the delicious candy. I see the girls line up, one after the other, buying their chocolate. I approach the man behind the counter. No, his face tells me in a cold stare. This is not your place. This is not for you. I watch, my heart growing hard.
The man takes me into the back and whispers in my ear, “You can have the chocolate if you work for it.” I reluctantly agree. I feel cheated that I have to work for my chocolate, and the other girls merely pay with the coins given them by their fathers.
I pick up a broom, and I sweep. I pick up a mop, and I scrub. I am proud of my good deeds. I approach the man behind the counter, but he is not satisfied, so I give some more of my hard labor. “It will pay off,” I say to myself. “Soon I will have the best chocolate in the world. It will turn around and I will be the girl buying chocolate at the counter.”
Hours turn into days. My circle of friends disappear. They are upset that I spend all of my time working at the store. But they don’t understand—Just a couple more chores and it will all turn around. Just a couple more hours and I will be the girl buying chocolate at the counter.
Each day I work, I watch the white girls go up to the counter. I see them buy their chocolate. I become dismayed. I feel angry. I feel cheated. I feel second-class. I long for the man behind the counter to give me my candy, but he never does.
When my dad died, it didn’t feel like he went to heaven or hell, or to any other afterlife that man could imagine. Instead, it just felt like he ceased to exist. That in his last breaths, he just vanished. A man who once was and would never be again.
In the years since he’s been gone, though, I’ve felt him closer to me, even closer than he was in life. I don’t expect anyone to really understand what I mean, unless they too have lost a parent. Sure, we say things like, “He knows,” when someone wishes her father had been alive to watch her graduate from college. We say, “He’s still with you.” “He’s watching over you.” But I never could have understood the depth and truthfulness of these statements until I was the one who was experiencing them.
Things hit me now in a way they never would have previously. At the end of Flight, I broke down in tears in the middle of the movie theater. At the end of Interstellar just now, I did the same thing. I won’t give away either of the endings, for those who haven’t yet seen these amazing movies, but let’s just say that they touched a chord in ways they never would have had my father not been dead, even though I’ve been extremely sentimental my whole life.
When my dad died, I felt nothing, even though I felt like I should. I was too close to our disconnect to really appreciate and understand the man that he was. I was 24 at his funeral, which I organized and put on myself. I hardly knew the man I was saying goodbye to. Over the next 15 years, I slowly began to uncover who my dad was, largely through my mom’s memories of his memories, even though they hadn’t been together since I was three. I’ve also uncovered the man he was through his various paperwork throughout life that I’d tucked away after his death and then forgotten, probably in a way to protect myself from grief. Newspaper clippings, essays, letters to me… All artifacts that describe a life forgotten, or a life never fully known.
As each year passes, I become even more obsessed with connecting with my father, and with each passing year he feels closer to me than he did the year before. It’s almost as if I could reach out and touch him, or as if even that would be too limiting, because his presence is more palpable than anything related to skin or bone.
When I was about 11, my dad almost died of stomach cancer. After his recovery, he recounted an out-of-body experience on the operating table. He remembers the pads shocking him back to life, and he remembers watching himself from a corner of the room and wondering whether to return. My dad returned because he felt like his life was destined to be great.
My dad died on Section 8 housing and he hadn’t paid rent in about three months. His death would be swift but painful… There were only three weeks between his lung cancer diagnosis and his last breath. He died in a nursing home after reaching for his urinal which was placed a little too far away. My dad, the fighter, died after falling out of bed, just because he needed to pee.
My dad never reached the greatness that he felt he was destined for. But, maybe, I was his greatness. Maybe my half-brother Robert, and my half-brother Marc, are his greatness. Maybe his greatness is in the siblings we’ll never know and the ones we don’t even know we have.
Sometimes I feel like I don’t really exist. It seems impossible somehow to really be somewhere when my dad has passed on. How can I have arms and legs and words and breath if my dad has none? How can I wake up every morning if he never can? It’s not that I think I can’t live without him. Rather, it’s that it just doesn’t make sense. If he’s not really here, how can I still be?
My dad gives me little clues that he’s still around. I won’t even mention them here, because a blog post can’t do them justice. Let’s just say he’s still looking down, not from heaven, but from love, and it’s a love that transcends words and time, and instead exists in a higher dimension.
I’ve been thinking a lot about color / race privilege and why it’s such a hot button issue for the biracial community. In a Facebook group that I moderate, for mixed race women of African-American or African descent, members have been arguing about issues related to color privilege and mulitiracial privilege: a) whether these are separate privileges, b) whether monoracial people also have privilege, c) whether the biracial / mixed race community should shoulder privileges even though we didn’t ask for them, d) whether the black community uses color privilege and multiracial privilege as a way to silence multiracial voices.
For anyone not familiar with the recent discussion around privileges, most noticeably white privilege, this vlog is an excellent place to start.
To sum up the vlog, everyone has privileges that they didn’t ask for but that are undeniably real. For instance, white people are more likely to peruse items in a store without being watched. They’re more likely to see themselves represented in the media and to not have their race be at the forefront of their identity. For example, a white person is more likely to be “Roger,” instead of “my white friend Roger.”
In my opinion, both color privilege and multiracial privilege are very real. With color privilege (also referred to as light-skinned privilege), the lighter one’s skin is, the more access he or she has to both safety and representation. What separates color privilege from multicultural privilege is that the former refers to melanin, and the latter refers to racial claims to identity. In the multiracial community, skin tones vary widely, and for this reason one multiracial person may not have as much access to spaces as another. The difference between color privilege and multiracial privilege isn’t something I came to on my own, but the person in my group who brought it into the discussion was, in my mind, completely on point.
So why is it so hard for us in the multiracial community, and those with light-skinned privilege, to accept these realities without feeling defensive? Are we just reacting the same way some people do when confronted with white privilege, or does it go deeper?
I came to the realization that the struggle we have as multiracial / light-skinned individuals is that, unlike the white community, we are being judged and labeled by someone who shares part of our ethnicity. While their labeling is completely accurate, the way that it often takes place, and the rhetoric that often surrounds it, is that biracial / multiracial / light skinned people do not have claims to black experiences. This rhetoric on the one hand asserts realities about racial politics, but it also feels like rejection from our own kind.
Many women in my Facebook group feel more rejected from the black community than they do from the white one. Some seek out connections to this community while others don’t, but in general we all want to feel that we’re connected to that part of our ethnicity. However, our reality is often that we aren’t able to enter black spaces, because the black community sees us as privileged individuals. Therefore, our rejection and lack of connection tends to come more from the black community itself.
There’s no easy answer to this conundrum, and certainly not all in the black community reject multiracial / light-skinned peers. I have a handful of black friends who accept me just the way I am don’t seek to invalidate my experiences. They also know that I understand their struggles, and that I understand their struggles are often much more difficult than mine.
In my experience, when biracial / mixed race / light-skinned people declare and embrace their blackness, they’re not doing so to deny the discrimination of those who are more black / darker than they are. Rather, they are seeking an allegiance with a racial group while also understanding that their membership is different.
I believe it’s vitally important for black and multiracial people, and dark-skinned and lighter-skinned people, to both accept the reality of color privilege and multicultural privilege and know that we are all in this fight together. When we lower our defenses, our ears open to realities that go beyond our own.