Uncategorized

OH, AND I ALSO HAPPEN TO BE PHYSICALLY HANDICAPPED: A MOTHER’S DAY TRIBUTE

First published in Guerrilla Feminism.

Haley Arcuri is in many ways just an average 31 year old. She’s married, has held a steady job for almost five years, and she loves her family. But Haley has had to overcome obstacles throughout life that most of us will never face. Born with brittle bone disease, or osteogenesis imperfecta, Haley refers to herself as a “little person.” Brittle bone disease is often characterized by short stature, permanent deformities, weak bones and frequent fractures, and respiratory issues. About one in 20,000 people have this congenital disorder, and some die from it, but Haley’s mother Deborah wouldn’t let it stop her daughter from leading a full life.

I first met Haley in 2004 when we were both attending Southern Oregon University in Ashland, Oregon. My mom, who was born with a cleft lip and palate, always taught me not to stare at people with disabilities, and like many, I took that advice a little too far. I was so afraid of not staring that I would often go out of my way not to make any eye contact with people who were different, unless I was speaking with them directly.

Haley broke me of that habit by saying hello whenever we passed each other on campus, even though it would be a few more months before we’d officially meet. “My friendliness on campus came from my personality and maybe subconsciously a desire to break away from a stereotype about people in wheelchairs and even disabled people as a whole,” Haley says. “It also could be that I’ve only really been surrounded by people of average height and no apparent physical disability. I tend to forget a lot of times that I’m ‘different.’ This body, this life is all I know.”

Haley’s mother Deborah has been in her corner since day one. A yoga instructor who lives back in Haley’s hometown of Tahoe City, California, Deborah has been active in supporting her daughter as much as she can. “I don’t know what I would do without her,” Haley says. “It’s kind of scary to think about, because there are so many things that I rely on her for. But she also has taught me to learn how to take care of things on my own, and teaches me about asserting myself and saying my needs.”

During her senior year of college, Haley sustained fractures to both her legs and had to be intubated due to developing respiratory acidosis from medication. Despite this major health setback, Haley finished her degree on time, with a major in communications and a media studies focus. Her initial goal was to become an event planner, and she organized bringing motivational speaker Sean Stephenson, who also has brittle bone disease, to campus for a series of talks in fulfillment of her senior capstone. However, after this successful but stressful experience, she decided event planning wasn’t something she wanted to pursue as a career. After graduation she got a job as a telephone services representative, renewing memberships for nonprofits such as public TV, public radio, zoos and museums. Haley worked that position for five years, took some time off, and then was promoted to quality assurance monitor.

For Haley, going to college and working was all part of the plan. She says of her mom and dad, “They’re my backbone. Without them I wouldn’t be here and I wouldn’t maybe have the courage to try to live on my own. They really pushed that for me. When I was in high school, they kept saying, ‘You need to get ready for graduating and thinking about where you want to go after this. You don’t want to live at home with your mom and dad for the rest of your life, do you?’ And I didn’t want that, but I was afraid too, to take that step and do something I’ve never done. I’m glad that I did it, but it is challenging.”

13140602_829045301182_88095830_n

In addition to the injury she sustained her senior year, the next year Haley fell off her toilet seat while visiting her girlfriend, now wife, Angie Arcuri. After sustaining a concussion and breaking both her legs and one of her arms, Haley began to get a bit jaded about traveling. “I think it changed me a little bit. I’m more cautious now, and I don’t want to say that I’m more closed off, but it changed me, not in a good way. I’m happy to be alive and I’m happy, but I have more fear now.”

Haley hardly lets that fear stop her from pursuing her goals, however. She and Angie, who is currently a communications and film major at Southern Oregon University, plan to create a docu-series to share their lives with others. Haley, inspired by her friend Briana Rene’e on Little Women: L.A., sees a docu-series as a way to have an impact on others while still being able to honor her body. “It’s kind of like being a motivational speaker, but in a different way. Because I don’t want to travel to different places. That’s not for me. I like to travel, I do, but it’s risky for me. I’d rather just try to stay put.” Haley’s life with brittle bone disease and a 24-hour caretaker, Angie’s life with high functioning autism, and their life together as a lesbian couple are things that both would like to share with the world in order to increase understanding.

Haley knows that being in the public eye won’t be all positive. Recently, she and Angie were trolled on Facebook by a stranger, Haley thinks through her connection to Little Women: L.A.: “I know why you two are together. It’s because you couldn’t find anyone else, because of the way you both look.” Haley says indignantly about the comments, “Not only cutting me down but also my wife. My wife is a really beautiful person.”

Haley and Angie met in 2009 on Match.com. Though each was recovering from a breakup, they formed a quick bond that has remained strong. “We’ve definitely had our ups and downs, that’s for sure,” Haley says. “But mostly ups. We’re pretty tight. I’m very blessed to have her in my life.” Deborah was supportive of Haley’s relationship with Angie from the very beginning, and the couple had an intimate wedding in 2011 with friends and family in attendance.

Growing up, Deborah was proactive about supporting her daughter and helping her connect with others. She had Haley’s friends over for tea parties and home cooked meals, and frequently took them out to dinner and the movies. Deborah likes to treat Haley to facials, and most recently came to Ashland to be with Haley while Angie was in New Orleans with her family. Due to her difficulties with traveling, Haley had decided to sit that trip out, but she is able to take things as they come, largely due to her mother.

Haley recounts the frequency that her mother would have to miss out on things because of needing to take care of her growing up. “I think that’s something she had to overcome, just living in the moment. That’s why she’s taught me not to plan so much, because she’s had to learn that things change, they come up.” Haley is ever aware of the sacrifice Deborah made for her, though it’s doubtful that Deborah would have had it any other way. Both women possess a warm spirit that is infectious to those around them. Deborah and Haley have forged a life both together and apart that is built on kindness and thankfulness for each day. Haley says, “You don’t have tomorrow. You only have today.”

Uncategorized

BEYONCÉ’S LEMONADE: AN ODE TO BLACK FORMATION IN ANY SHADE

First published in Guerrilla Feminism.

When I first watched Beyoncé’s “Formation” video, I felt like I could breathe again, after the almost daily deluges of police brutality. In one fell swoop, Beyoncé had turned the narrative to a place of power, as she reminded America that a slow and steady slay leads to a voice that cannot be silenced.

My euphoria lasted only about a day.

Soon after the video went live, women began to bicker about Beyoncé’s rights to personal agency. Some argued that a light-skinned woman with a self-proclaimed admixture of “Negro and creole” couldn’t accurately speak for black women. Others felt her lyrics flaunted a mixed race identity while denigrating blackness. I expected the backlash she received from some of the white community, which largely focused on her “militant” leanings, but I didn’t expect backlash from inside our own ranks.

As I watched Beyoncé’s visual album Lemonade, which dropped just two days ago, I felt myself questioning everything. I replayed comments in my head about whether Beyoncé was trying to appropriate whiteness with her blonde extensions. I feared black viewers would see her Victorian dress as proof of the same. When I noticed her similarities to Sarah Jessica Parker à la Carrie Bradshaw, I felt ashamed by my white frame of reference. I worried her use of black men in the visual album would lead people to believe that she considered the men’s blackness to be the problem.

beyonce-lemonade-film-271

At the 42-minute mark, actress Amandla Stenberg’s face filled the screen, and my internal dialogue stopped. In 2014, I met Amandla at the Mixed Remixed Festival in Los Angeles. Born of a white father and black mother, Amandla speaks unapologetically about black issues without stifling her mixed race identity. Beyoncé chose other black women for cameo roles who have also been criticized for their identity, including America’s Next Top Model actress Winnie Harlow, who has vitiligo, and tennis pro Serena Williams whose body was considered by many as too muscular to be beautiful. Through those she chose for the cameo appearances, Beyoncé clearly doesn’t care how others think she should identify. Instead, she celebrates a connection between black women that goes beyond skin tone.

Of course, Lemonade isn’t just about race or about black girl magic. It’s also a tragic and heart wrenching love story between Beyoncé and long time husband Jay Z. Beyoncé sings of comparisons between Jay Z’s infidelity and her father’s, trying to reconcile her conflicting emotions for both male figures. That black women have experienced high rates of abuse from partners of any race is fairly common knowledge, due to the history of slavery and the beliefs about the black female body. For this reason, intertwined within Beyoncé’s love story is an ode to black women that transcends heartbreak, or perhaps is made stronger because of it.

beyonce-lemonade-film-37

During the album’s climax, appropriately named “Freedom,” Beyoncé and her cameo clan form the epitome of girl power. Beyoncé sings, “I break chains all by myself /

Won’t let my freedom rot in hell / Hey! I’ma keep running / Cause a winner don’t quit on themselves.” The climax mirrors the rising conflict at the beginning of the album, with mesmerizing stills of the young women as they inhabit what appears to be an old plantation. Back to the climax, the women again play homage to the South, this time through conversation, communion, song and dance, and a sense of resolution. It’s no coincidence that the women around the table are of varying hues. Beyoncé knows who she is, and she appears to understand the petty divisiveness that can infiltrate black power when we fail to look at the bigger picture of generational oppression.

beyonce-lemonade-film-1

Black women experience different levels of discrimination, largely based on skin color and physical features. But when we limit our discussions to how a dark-skinned or light-skinned person should identify, we’re missing the monumental connections that should bring us together, as well as failing to acknowledge the discrimination that all black women face. Beyoncé’s album is at once a lamentation and an ode to female solidarity. “Formation” is largely about solidarity against police brutality, while Lemonade as a whole explores gender conflicts and limitations unique to women, including the real women who have lost their sons at the hands of the police. In both cases, we are made strongest when we lean on one another, and Beyoncé’s hour-long visual masterpiece brings us that much closer to social and political empowerment.

Uncategorized

The Day I Became a Writer With a Capital “W.”

Even though I’ve been making steady progress with my writing for a number of years, it wasn’t until April 19th that I felt like I writer with a capital “W.” That’s the day I landed my first article on Essence.com.

Gabrielle Gorman was easy to write about… with the only difficulty being how to summarize this amazing young woman in just 300 words. Her film Dear America has won awards over the past few months, and I had the privilege of sitting down with her for an interview. What makes Gabrielle so special is her desire to be vulnerable, and to use that vulnerability to bring people together. I hope you like the article as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Feature image courtesy of Jill Valle, iamawomanwho.com.

Uncategorized

A Yellow Bone’s Analysis of Beyonce’s Formation

 

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…

Read the rest here.

Uncategorized

Back When I Was a Backseat Girl (or, Jubilee, Revisited)

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.

New Yorker picture
A picture I cut out of the New Yorker a couple years ago.

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.

A backseat girl. But that is not my destiny. 

*Names have been changed for confidentiality.

Blog, Uncategorized

Gabrielle Gorman’s “Dear America”: When You Don’t Love the Skin You’re In

On December 8th, I attended the 2015 My Hero Awards, where my dear friend Kayla Briet won the Emerging Artist Award for her work in film, music and technology.

While Kayla’s work always mesmerizes me, another award recipient named Gabrielle Gorman brought me and many others to tears with her experimental film “Dear America,” for which she won the title of 2015 Student Honoree.

I just watched the live stream of Kayla’s film screening at the National Young Arts Foundation in Miami, and Gabrielle’s film screened shortly before hers. Watching it again made me question why this film touched me so personally. After all, Gabrielle’s film is about not loving herself as a dark-skinned black youth. She candidly discusses how she wanted to bleach her skin and shrink her large lips–how she wanted plastic surgery to look more like Michael Jackson. While I’d never had such desires, her film somehow resonated with me, and I wasn’t sure why.

I got to thinking, maybe it’s my white privilege that has made me feel comfortable in my own skin. Maybe it’s the fact that I look more like Michael Jackson once he’d reached the middle of his many surgeries than when he was in the Jackson 5.

IMG_0543
In costume for Halloween, 2014

I knew, however, that I’d wrestled with loving my body. Then I remembered why.

Growing up, I lived in the liminal space between two races. I had olive skin and “mixed race hair.” Instead of inhabiting this space, I wanted to look more like others. But not white others. I wanted to look more black.

I loved my skin in the summer months, when the back of my hand got darker than my palm. I loved wearing braids my senior year of high school and thought that would make me less ambiguous. (It didn’t.) In my late 20s, when I started gaining weight, I happily watched myself get increasingly curvy. My happiness didn’t stem from a desire to look sexy. I was happy because the curves made me feel more black. Like most youth and young adults, I wanted to look like I fit in somewhere instead of feeling watched–a desire that Gabrielle discusses as well.

Braids picture
Me in 1993 after a trip to Indonesia.

Is my experience the same as Gabrielle’s? Definitely not. But Gabrielle doesn’t think this matters. Her video also features a mixed race youth who wears labels like “Oreo,” and Gabrielle says, “We can’t afford to say any longer […] ‘You have dealt with different struggles than me because you’re lighter skinned than me or because you’re darker skinned than me.'” And I think that’s why her video touches so many people. We all wrestle with self-acceptance, for varying reasons and in varying extremes. Gabrielle boldly speaks what many of us think but would not dare utter.

Gabrielle Gorman
Photo courtesy of Liz H Kelly, Goody PR

Thank you, Gabrielle, for being so brave. And so strong. And so beautiful. Thank you for now loving yourself just as you are, because you help all of us love ourselves a little better, too.