Friday, May 3, 2019

Waiting to Exhale: Challenges in Forging a Black Identity by Charlotte Seay

Fireman: Ma'am, were you aware that your car was on fire?

[Bernadine nods her head while smoking a cigarette]

Fireman: Ma'am, did you start this fire?

[she puffs smoke and plainly looks at him]

Fireman: You know, it's against the law to burn anything except trash in your yard.

Bernadine Harris: [flicks off ashes from her cigarette] It is trash.

Fireman: Look, this is a nice area. Luckily, a neighbor cared enough. Listen, the next time you want to burn something...

Bernadine Harris: It won't happen again.

[she shuts the door in his face]

One can only dare to be such a badass like this character. A noble African American woman named Terry McMillian wrote a novel titled Waiting to Exhale which was adapted into a two-hour dramatic film in 1995. It is a story about four African American females struggling with romantic relationships, causing them to lose their sense of identity in the process. The scene above is about Bernadine Harris burning her soon-to-be ex-husband’s car with his clothes inside because he was leaving her for another woman. This scene displays two things: destruction and cleansing. Although one should never deface someone’s property, sometimes one must break down and dismantle themselves in order to be reborn.  In the end, one can emotionally rehabilitate oneself and begin to create a new canvas and embrace the person one is meant to be. Personally, I have not had romantic relationship problems that have hindered my growth as a person. However, just like those four women, I have allowed the people in my life to define who I am and how I behaved. Worse, in acting the way I wanted to, it always felt like an act. When I attended church, I had to be very proper and modest in my behavior and appearance, yet the next day at school, I would be cursing and wearing crop tops and a fake septum ring. My personality just did not seem to fit into any one place. I divided myself into the multiple dimensions of my life, each one requiring a different characteristic for be to embody. I have been waiting for a chance to exhale and be satisfied with the person I am.

The first time someone called me an “Oreo” was in middle school in the seventh grade. Just like the cookie, being an Oreo is when one is black on the outside but acts white or behave in ways that are not associated with the African American community member stereotype. On a good day, this need to be properly black and properly American would not affect me so much. But being told by a girl who was lighter than me that I am not black enough to be black caused me to feel rejected by a whole community. I suppose I did not act black enough to have a lot of black friends or act white enough to have any white friends. I was in sort of a limbo state. I had friends, but I never felt like I belonged anywhere which made me feel insecure in the way I spoke. Over the phone, one of my aunts---that is, someone who shared my DNA---told me I sounded like a little white girl: “so proper.” I knew she did not mean any harm, but that comment felt so ignorant. I wanted to throw those words in a car and watch the whole thing burn. Can I not be a proper black girl?

Gloria Anzalduá was ridiculed for the way she spoke while she was in the United States. When she went to attend “Pan American University, [she] and all Chicano students were required to take two speech classes. Their purpose: to get rid of [their] accents” (Anzalduá, 8). Both Anzalduá and I had people in our lives telling us who we should be and who we already are. I strongly believe that the way one speaks and writes is strongly connected to one’s identity. Consequently, I have gotten bolder over the years which has changed the way I act around people in certain situations. My boldness gradually showed in my writing, and I had to learn how to cohere my thoughts concisely. Yet something in my head told me to hold my tongue and my breath as I slowly faded into the background.

Like school, like theater: an ensemble member does not have a significant role. They are just there to fill up some of the space on stage in the background. I was an ensemble member in my own life. It is funny because that carried over to high school when I became an ensemble member in musicals and plays. I never drank, smoked, or had sex during middle school or high school. It seemed like all my friends were partying and getting boyfriends and I was just there alone. I began entertaining myself with the thought of becoming promiscuous. This idea was a mixture of many things: I wanted to experience being with a guy myself, and I wanted an escape from my “goodie-two-shoes” life. Although I never actually put any effort into being promiscuous, it always lingered in the back of my mind. I incorrectly associated promiscuity with freedom because I believe that if one can do whatever one wants with one’s body and with whomever, one is free. One is doing those physical actions on one’s own time which I had never done before. I also felt that if I became this kind of girl, I would be free mentally. I was born into the Christian faith, but I never saw Christianity fitting into my life as I got older. In the Bible it clearly states, "Nevertheless, [to avoid] fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband” (1 Corinthians, 7:2). Christianity promotes sex after marriage, not before. Just like Plato’s cave allegory, Christianity was my cave. I did not live or explore outside of that reality. My mother made me go to church every Sunday, even when I told her that I did not want to go anymore. She yelled at me and made me go. I wanted to rebel and go against my mother’s wishes.

As time went by, I stumbled across a book in high school titled Loose Girl by Kerry Cohen at a local thrift store. It is a memoir about her journey of promiscuity. At the back of the book, I read an interview with Mrs. Cohen:

Q: Why did you write this book?

A: My own saving began when I saw myself in the pages of my book, so my hope is that girls and women will find themselves in Loose Girl. 

I found many flaws in myself that Mrs. Cohen had as well at my age. I am glad she wrote her memoir because it put my thoughts and potential actions of being “loose” to rest. It made me realize that it is not necessary to be a loose girl in life. It would have not made me live any more of a great life then I already had. I understood the depths and consequences of actions that I was considering. This life lesson goes along perfectly with Walt Whitman’s long prose poem, “Song of Myself.” He wrote: “Trippers and askers surround me, / People I meet, the effect upon me of my early life... / My dinner, dress, associates, looks, compliments, dues… / These come to me days and nights and go from me again, / But they are not the Me myself.” (Section 4). Everyone plays a part in one’s development, which Whitman eloquently phrases in his work. It is the small things like the dues one must pay to form our identity. Perhaps it is the way one feels when dressed: am I being controlled or freed by clothes? What really defines one’s character? For me, it was the people in my life early on who influenced me, especially the people who I went to church with. All the compliments they gave me made feel obligated to attend service after a while because they were so kind and old. Whitman made me realize that these things that have surrounded me since the day I was born made me the person that I am today. The effects of these influences were inevitable. Identity is inevitable. However, in life we get to choose whether we want those influences to impact our identity, as Whitman noted. I knew I did not want to be the person who I was at church because I was just going through the motions and not living the way I truly believed life to be. I agree with Whitman’s ending line: “Backward I see in my own days where I sweated through fog with linguists and contenders / I have no mockings or arguments, I witness and wait” (Section 4). Now that I have grown and am away from that either/or middle school environment, I can breathe a little more. 

In high school things got better. During my senior year, I decided to take a creative writing class. My English teacher encouraged me to do so. He saw a potential voice in me. I am not going to say that I emerged as a great writer, but I became more articulate, more confident, more essential. He did not just let me sit in class and stay silent. At the end of the semester, we had to present our final project. It was an opportunity to get to know what everyone was thinking about and how they chose to express themselves. I decided to write a book of poems. Due to “senior-itis” (a wave of terrible procrastination and lack of motivation among students during their senior year of high school), a lot of my poems were weak. I did not commit on any one idea to really be as successful as I could have on this project. I did not fail, but I was not proud of what I produced. After this project, I learned something very important: I am afraid of being ordinary and it showed in all my writing. I tried to sound smarter than what my own knowledge could provide all because I had not discovered my authentic self, what Whitman calls "the Me myself." 

Subway Art by the author

One cannot teach oneself authenticity. I looked up to so many recording artists who exhibit this quality in their character. Since I did not know who I was, I naturally wanted to emulate those who I want to be. I am still guilty of still doing this today, but not as extremely as before. I am now more inspired by their courage rather in trying to be like them. I found great relief in Alan Watts’ concept on what being an individual means by calling all beings hoaxes. “The word ‘Individual’ is the Latin form of the Greek ‘atom’—that which cannot be cut or divided any further into separate parts. We cannot chop off a person's head or remove his heart without killing him. But we can kill him just as effectively by separating him from his proper environment” (Watts, 9). This notion of intrinsic wholeness goes back to my theory of one having to destroy oneself to find oneself. Many people, including me, have thought that entering into college is yet another journey of self-discovery. To become the person that I want to be, I could not stay at home.

Everyone’s life has different scenes, just like a movie. There is an opening and closing line. I have stepped up from behind the scenes and taken more control of my life. I have begun to Gestalt my life by living as a whole human being rather than choosing pieces of my life to live. An individual is one atom, one organism. I have lived a life where I thought I did not belong. In reality, “[I] have been fooled by [my] name…[believing] that having a separate name makes [me] a separate being” (Watts, 11). Instead everyone is connected. Once one realizes that one is neither more ordinary nor extraordinary than the other, one can live the way one pleases. I have begun to realize this which has allowed me to finally breath in and exhale.

Works Cited

Anzalduá, Gloria. "How to Tame a Wild Tongue." (n.d.): n. pag. Web. 01 Dec. 2016.

The Bible: King James Version. Glasgow: Collins, 2008. Print. 01 Dec. 2016.

Cohen, Kerry. Loose Girl: A Memoir of Promiscuity. New York: Hyperion, 2009. Print. 01 Dec. 2016

"Go to Bing Homepage." Plato+allegory+of+the+cave+cartoon - Bing Video. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 Dec. 2016.

Watts, Alan. The Book: On the Taboo against Knowing Who You Are (n.d.): n. pag. Web. 01 Dec. 2016

Whitman, Walt. “Song of Myself” N.p., n.d. Web. 1 Dec. 2016

Whitaker, Forest, director. Waiting to Exhale. Prod. Terry McMillan and Ronald Bass. Perf. Whitney Houston, Angela Bassett, and Loretta Devine. Twentieth Century-Fox Film Corporation, 1995.