Come on! Let’s Play Cards.

I’ve been thinking a lot about forgiveness lately. Not the “noun” kind of forgiveness that mostly exists in theory, but the “verb” kind. You know, the kind of forgiveness that takes a spiritual concept to the level of action that many people talk about, but rarely understand.

Like most of my life lessons, the way that I experienced forgiveness as a child should have informed the way I acted on it as an adult. This isn’t the case.

My first lessons in forgiveness came courtesy of the daily conflicts I had with my siblings.

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Me, Haisan, Cherie, and Michele. I was so innocent and happy! The middle two were plotting, I’m sure.

I grew up with two sisters and one brother. As the baby of the family,  I held no real power.  So holding a grudge was not something I was even in the position to do. By virtue of birth order alone, I was the most forgiving.  The victim of countless childhood pranks, inside jokes , secrets  that I was never let in on, and teasing that rivaled the cruelest of playground bullies, my siblings were the first people who ever did me wrong. As a result, they were the first people I ever learned to forgive.

For the most part, it was the two middle kids. My sister, Cherie, was 4 years older and my brother, Haisan, was 2 years older.  You’d think they would have had better things to do with their time, but no. They reaped havoc on my innocence as entertainment and found joy in seeing me beg to hang out with them.

Their favorite method of mocking me was to remix the words of popular songs to shame me about my personal flaws…to taunt me about preteen secrets they claimed I was “too much of a baby” to know. Seemed kind of silly at the time, but in retrospect, teasing me in song was the perfect cover! When Mama wasn’t around, they would sing the remixed songs often enough that the real words no longer existed in my head. One of their most memorable versions was the 1979 Sister Sledge hit, He’s The Greatest Dancer .  I was all of six years old when they remixed the chorus with one single line that, even 36 years later, haunts me.

The chorus, as Sister Sledge sang it, simply went:

(I wonder why) He’s the greatest dancer.

(I wonder why), That I’ve ever seen.

Their terrorizing take on it:

(I wonder why) He’s the greatest dancer.

(I wonder why) Tyra’s coo-coo stinks!

To be clear, coo-coo was the word my family used to refer to a girl’s private parts. So you can imagine my horror each time I heard them sing this chorus. Even when I heard the song on the radio, their mean words rang through my head and instantly made me cry. They would laugh—no—crack up! When Mama was around, they’d mumble the words to the song and when I would tell on them, they would claim their innocence by insisting that they were just plain singing! Even them humming the tune was enough to send me into full out crybaby mode!

“Maaaaaaaaa!!! They messin’ with me!”

More often than not, Mama would just yell back, “Y’all leave Tyra alone!”

Cherie and Haisan would laugh, then move on to other things. I would sit around feeling sorry for myself. Feeling sorry for being the baby of the family and not having anyone to help me gang up on them.

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Me in front of Olgesby Elementary School, circa 1978.

No matter how hurt I claimed to be, though, all it ever took to get back in my graces was a simple “Come on, Tyra. Let’s play cards,” or some other halfhearted statement that was more of a demand than a request.

Michele, my oldest sister, rarely participated in any of the pranks or inside jokes. The way she teased me was not exactly offensive. Her tone was always loving and full of the giggling kind of mocking that was far more endearing than it was mean.  She called me “Plas,” a nickname that made fun of the way the dried up saliva looked around my mouth when I woke up in the morning.  Sometimes, she would tickle me a little too long, turning my spells of laughter into pleas for help. On more than one occasion, she conned me into sitting on the big couch next to her, for the sole purpose of exposing  my post-bath, still filthy, fat little feet to Mama in a sneaky sort of way.  The look on my face when Mama ordered me back into the tub was enough to make Michele laugh until tears fell.  Hers and mine.

I could probably write a short book detailing all the terrible things my siblings did to me growing up. That book would be an interesting read and would serve as a cautionary tale to those who were born last in the line of their parents’ children. Some of the stories would leave readers doubled over from laughter. Others might trigger the slight sting felt by many of us when we are reminded of how cruel the rites of passage through siblinghood can be.

I could totally write this book, but I would rather write a different book instead. This book would focus on the crimes committed by my siblings, but only as a way to highlight how my relationship with my sisters and brother taught me to forgive on a daily basis. This day to day forgiveness, as a child, was almost instinctive: a survival tactic. An act of love.  Yet, as an adult, I often struggle to locate this nature inside. To move past that point of pain. To get to that moment of head- nodding agreement where the idea of accepting an invitation to “play cards” is viewed as something more than stupidity or self-betrayal.

The old adage, “You can forgive but you can never forget” has gotten me off the “forgiveness hook” more times than I can recall. With this belief, there is no need to create space in my life for those who have done me wrong. Far too often, I have said, “Well, I am not carrying a grudge, but I will never allow (insert name here) the opportunity to hurt me again.”

In so many ways, I have been justified. There have been those “seasonal” folks in my life who did not deserve the opportunity to “play cards” with me ever again. But what happens when the harm comes from a parent? A sibling? A best friend? Someone you need to love in order to forgive. Someone you need to forgive in order to love.

In keeping some people at the distance of the unforgiven, am I also preventing the opportunity for redemption: The chance for those who have done me wrong to show improve and deliver joy rather than pain?  In marking these folks as unforgivable, am I also marking myself as such?

The heart can be a tricky space of conflict. It is a space where hate, anger, and blame can exist at the same time as love, calm, and forgiveness. As humans, we tend to compartmentalize these emotions and, like a game of cards, deal them out as we deem necessary.

I’m beginning to learn that these emotions cannot exist harmoniously inside of me.  As I continue to seek and deliver joy in my life, I wonder if I will be able to practice the kind of forgiveness I had within me as a child. I have to wonder if I will ever be able to “play cards” with my mother and father. But most of all, I have to wonder: Who might be reluctant to “play cards” with me?

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To a Jamaican Steel Drummer named Toby…

I have never been skinny. Even as a child, I was always referred to as chubby, big-boned, or just plain fat. When I was growing up, no one cared about being politically correct and my self-esteem was sacrificed almost daily for a person’s dedication to filter-free honesty.

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My first baby picture in Chicago.

As a child, I never felt empowered enough to tell them that their words were cruel. I kept silent, but my tears expressed the emotions I would not dare speak.

As a teenager, I didn’t wait for other people to call me fat. I knew that I was and behaved accordingly. I ate far too much junk food and claimed to hate exercise, even though I really didn’t. I always assumed the cute boys wouldn’t notice me, let alone- like me.  I did everything in my power to be invisible. I felt voiceless and on the rare occasion when I did feel the vibrations of my own point of view, I muted myself and again, was silenced.

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That’s me in red: So uncomfortable being at the center of attention!

So this is one of those good news/bad news kinds of stories.

The good news is that as an adult, I have found my voice. I embrace who I am. I have learned to accept that while I may have plenty of room for improvement, I am worthy of love and respect from myself and others. I’m still not skinny. I’m still chubby, big-boned, or, as some people might say: just plain fat. But that’s not the bad news to me.

The bad news is that there are still some people who walk around dedicated to the filter-free honesty that, as a child, left me feeling broken.

Allow me to provide you with some background here.  Rewind. Let’s go back 48 hours before I met the Jamaican steel drummer, named Toby.

On Tuesday, I flew into Atlanta to help one of my best friends from high school move from her house outside of Atlanta, Georgia to Jacksonville, Florida. No big deal. Danielle and I have been friends since 1990 and I cannot recall how many times she has helped me move throughout our 22 year friendship.

We spent most of the day on Tuesday and Wednesday packing and cleaning her house. Early days. Late nights.  We spent a couple of hours Wednesday night making some headway toward Florida, and then stopped in Macon, Georgia for a night at the Holiday Inn Express.

By 7:30 on Thursday morning, we were on the road again and did not get settled down in Jacksonville until 1:30 that afternoon.  Danielle had to work, so she came home, cleaned herself up, and then left the house again.

By 8:00 Thursday night, we finally decided that we should have some dinner. I was almost giddy to discover that one of my favorite restaurants- with no franchises in Minnesota- was only a few miles from where she lived.  Bahama Breeze baby! I hadn’t been there in years.

The weather was perfect for patio seating and we were excited to find a seat right next to the stage. We quickly decided that the sound of the Jamaican steel drums would be the just what we needed to soothe our minds, as well as every sore muscle in our bodies!

We reminisced on old times. We brought each other up to speed on what was happening in our current lives. We laughed. We ate. We drank. We sang and danced in our seats and were close to ending a perfect first night in Florida. We had just ordered dessert when Toby, the Jamaican steel drummer, took his 2nd smoke break for the night.

As he proceeded to the stage to begin his last set, which I had secretly decided would provide theme music for our exit that night, he stopped by our table. He said a few words that only Danielle could hear at that time. He left.

Now, I’m not sure why I didn’t hear what he said. Perhaps the fans were blowing too loud. Or it could have been that I slipped off into my own world, as writers often do when we are in public places. Or maybe I was simply enjoying my warm banana bread too much to even care what this man had to say.  When I looked up, Danielle looked a bit disturbed, so it forced me to ask her what he had happened.

“He said, ‘Are you trying to gain weight or something?’”

Huh? She had to repeat herself.

“He said that?!?” I asked, as if I didn’t hear her the first two times.

I was disgusted.

The child in me swelled to the surface and I felt hurt.

Then the teenager: I sort of wanted to disappear.

Finally, the grown woman showed up, and I felt compelled to confront this Jamaican steel drummer, named Toby.

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The grown-up me: Still not perfect in mind and body, but don’t you dare try to judge me!

“I don’t appreciate what you just said to us!” I yelled from our table to the stage. He didn’t hear me, so I repeated myself, adding the question, “Why would you say something like that?”

I don’t think Toby was as stupid as he was rude. He realized that he needed to come over to us before the scene– that he had started– escalated to a full blown reality show. He left the stage and returned to the scene of his crime.

I asked him why he asked us that question.  He insisted that eating dessert would make us gain weight and was shocked that his words were taken with offense.

Now, at the risk of summarizing, let’s just say I gave him a good piece of my mind. We both did. What gave him the right to ask us that kind of question—to make that sort of presumption about who we were and the effect of our eating decisions on our overall health?

“You don’t know anything about who we are. You had no right to say what you said to us.”

Danielle reminded him of his hypocrisy. “You do know that you just finished sucking on that cancer stick, right?”

He told us that smoking was the ONLY thing he indulged in that was unhealthy. In true Bill Clinton form, he defended himself:  “I don’t even inhale when I smoke. I just puff and blow.”

The smart-ass Tyra emerged. “Well, I don’t absorb any calories when I eat. I just chew and swallow. So you can rest easy, my friend. Just like you don’t run the risk of getting cancer from smoking, I won’t gain any weight from the food and drink I indulged in tonight!”

The exchange concluded with Toby deciding that I was tough and defensive. He apologized and insisted that he meant no harm. He said his words to us were his way of connecting with us as Black people. Interesting.

His apology, regardless of how insincere, was enough to end the heated discussion for the evening. I did not give him a $5 tip, as planned, for providing our theme music upon exit.

Last night, in Jacksonville, Florida, I encountered a Jamaican steel drummer, named Toby, who subscribed to what I believe to be the most rude way of being. He felt authorized to verbalize his assumptions about who we were, based on our physical appearance. From his assessment of us as unhealthy, “fat” women, he assumed that we would either take his comments lightly or be silent about our offense to them.  He was wrong.

I am no longer that silent little girl who will allow other people to disrupt my way of being (or anyone else’s for that matter) with personal baggage camouflaged as “real talk.” Perhaps, our exchange will give him great pause before his assumptions lead him to comment on another woman’s personal eating choices.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to get to the gym…because contrary to what Jamaican steel drummers named Toby might believe, I do understand what has to happen after I indulge in great food from time to time! #Werk!

Gabby Douglas’ hair bothers me, but not for the reasons most people might think…

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Me: 9 years old, Cedar Falls, Iowa.

I was 8 when my mother moved our family from the south side of Chicago to northeast Iowa. I was 9 when I had my first memorable experience with internalized racism.  At 10, I had my first real experience with overt racism and at 10, I began to truly hate my hair.

Living in Cedar Falls, Iowa in 1982 presented a confusing mess of emotions for a poor, Black girl like me. On the one hand, I felt lucky that we were out of the slums: finally living somewhere that wasn’t roach- infested or too small for a mother and her four growing children. Green grass. Playgrounds with unbroken swings. Slides that didn’t reek of urine.  In my eyes, everything about Iowa seemed perfect.

On the other hand, there was nothing comfortable about the way me or my family moved around in this new space.I went to a school that had only one other Black student: Ty Brumm. Actually, he was biracial, but at the time, his dark skin left my 9-year- old- self with no other option except to categorize him as Black.

My crush on Ty Brumm started shortly after school began. Frankly, I don’t even think I was interested in boys at the time. Yet something about him being the only other Black person at school, (and maybe the fact that our names almost matched), left me feeling obligated to love him. He was the only other person at school who looked like me and I assumed that he would understand how it felt to be so different . I was wrong.

No sooner than I had begun to act on the awkward 4th grade crush thing, Ty Brumm made it clear: not only was he not interested in being my boyfriend, he wasn’t even interested in being friends with an “ugly, nappy-headed, black monkey” like me!  I was devastated.

In my eyes, every hateful thought that Ty Brumm  had about me could be attributed  to the fact that my hair was not straight, soft, or long. So for months after this spirit crushing experience, I begged my mother to make my sister press my hair each Sunday. By Tuesday of each week, my hair had “snapped back” into its natural state, but that didn’t make me stop wanting to get it pressed. I was on a personal mission to force Ty Brumm to realize that I was not an “ugly, nappy-headed, black monkey.”

I spent most of my fourth grade year worried about Ty Brumm and my hair. By fifth grade, I had decided to hate Ty Brumm and I let go of the need to have my hair pressed every week. Well, that’s not completely true.

See, my hair started to break off and my mother put an end to the madness of straightening my hair every week. Her solution: Jheri Curl! Looking back at that whole Jheri Curl phase…well, that’s another story altogether. The point is that the curl offered me the chance to snap-back and forth between wet-curly and dry-straight.

In 5th grade, on picture day, I wanted to wear my hair straight again. The day began on a high note. I went to school feeling so good about myself. I loved my outfit and my hair was straight and very pretty.  By the end of the day, the sweat from recess and gym had begun to have its way with my straight hair. I wanted to pull it back in a perfect ponytail like my white friends, but my hair would not cooperate. Not only was my hair too short to make a ponytail, the moisture of the sweat caused my hair to curl up tightly. Without heavy grease and a good hair brush, the idea of a ponytail was not realistic. I couldn’t wait to get home to wash my hair and begin the process of applying gallons of curl moisturizer on it to get it back to its beautiful Jheri Curl state. *Insert laughter here*

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My Jheri Curl Fro!

Before I could make it home, though, my best friend Stephanie asked me to come to her house to play. Of course, even though my hair looked a terrible mess, for a 5th grade tomboy like me, the chance to play came before any other need I had. Besides, I really liked going to Stephanie’s house because she always had the best snacks and her mother was so young and cool. I remember wishing my mother was more like her because she talked to Stephanie like she was an adult. Stephanie’s mother gave her choices about doing things that, in my house, were mandatory.  I happily accepted her invitation.

In retrospect, I realize that in agreeing to go to her house that day, I made 3 big mistakes. First, I did not call my mother to ask her whether or not it was o’kay for me to stay after with Steph. Second mistake: As you recall, it was picture day. My outfit was brand new and I didn’t bring play clothes along with me. My third mistake was the most serious of them all, although I didn’t realize it at the time.

After nearly an hour of playing outside in Stephanie’s yard, her mother called us in for a snack. By this time, her mother’s boyfriend was there. When we walked in, he started pointing at me and laughing. Instantly, I knew he was laughing at my hair. Steph’s mother joined in and so did she. I felt so ashamed. Immediately, I began explaining myself.

“When I wash it, it’ll be pretty again. I just played too hard today, that’s all!”

And then, it happened.

The boyfriend said, “That’s interesting. I didn’t think black people’s hair could get wet. I didn’t think you people ever washed your hair at all!”

More laughter.

I remember feeling my face get hot and my eyebrows frown into the middle of my forehead. Shame and anger collided.

“I wash my hair just like you do. Only not every day!”

It wasn’t enough. He still wouldn’t believe what I was saying and kept on.

“I know your hair doesn’t get wet because I’ve seen blacks in the swimming pool. You might hold your head under water, but it doesn’t get wet.”

As ridiculous as I knew these statements to be, I was 10. Everything inside of me wanted to scream and run out of the room, but I was stuck: Paralyzed by a mix of emotions that didn’t belong inside a 10 year old girl. Shame. Anger. Guilt. Rejection. So when he said the words that seemed to give me the chance to recalibrate my emotions, I was left with no other choice but to accept his challenge.

“You say your hair gets wet? Well, prove it.”

Stephanie’s mother turned on the kitchen faucet and summoned me over to the sink. The boyfriend grabbed the step stool so that my short body could actually reach. By the time I reached the sink, everything inside of me knew that something about this was wrong. But there was no turning back.

I submerged my head under the scalding hot water and suffered through the pain as I tried to prove that my hair could, in fact, absorb water.It took a few moments, but once I began to feel the water burn my scalp, I knew that I would be able to claim victory! Were these grown, White people so dumb that they really believed a Black person’s hair was waterproof? In my mind, the pain I would have to endure from this would be well worth it because I could prove that they were wrong.

As soon as I was sure that my hair was completely soaked, I pulled my head from the faucet.

Satisfied, I yelled, “See? See? It’s wet! See?”

By the time I was able to hear more than my own thoughts again, I realized that something really scary had occurred.  All three of them were laughing even harder now. No one bothered to offer me a towel, so I stood there, water dripping from head to toe.  Shame. Guilt. Rejection. Sadness.  Mistake #3 set in. No place for anger at them. It was all pointed inward. Why had I let them convince me to put my head under that faucet? Why did I let them laugh at me without telling them they were wrong? I walked home alone, water still dripping from my head and tears dripping down my face.

I got one of the worst whoopin’s of my life that day. My mother told me it was because I didn’t call to ask permission to play at Stephanie’s house. She fussed about how I knew better than to play in my new clothes, too. But the real pain from the whoopin’? The real pain? It came from knowing my mother’s anger was not about either of those mistakes.

Gabrielle Douglass’s hair bothers me, but not for the reasons that most people might think.

It isn’t because I don’t think she is as beautiful as she is skilled and talented in her sport.  It isn’t because I feel her hair takes anything away from what she is doing to make history for American women and Black women across the globe.

Gabby’s hair bothers me because it triggers the feeling of frustration so familiar to me as a black girl growing up in a small, white town. It triggers that feeling of guilt at even wanting to fit in with their standard of beauty—knowing that I was supposed to feel adequately proud with my own.

Some people say Gabrielle’s hair looked the way it did during the Olympics because it is regulation that all the girls maintain the same hairstyle–smooth ponytails pulled back clean, barrettes clamping any loose hair. Looking back at Mary Lou Retton, whose short bouncy hair became as iconic as her ability to stick a landing, this rule did not apply. Then there was Kerri Strug, whose short hair made her stand out from her teammates in 1996. I cannot agree with this line of reasoning.

It bothers me to see Gabby’s hair looking less than properly groomed because it makes me worry that, as an African American gymnast, her specific hair care needs are being disregarded. I am concerned with what I assume to be a lack of knowledge of her hair care options or needs. There were many options for Gabby in terms of how to style her naturally short hair. Close to the scalp. Natural. Fully relaxed—still close to the scalp. Texturized. Would any of these styles have made her look any less like an Olympian?

It’s not that I believe her hair is more important than her talent or skill. I do not.  I do believe that she is just as deserving as any other gymnast of a polished image that is consistent with her athleticism. What troubles me most about Gabby’s hair is what I perceive as a lack of care for the way Gabby appears on an international stage. It is representative of the lack of equity in the Olympics. The lack of equity in the world.

I won’t pretend to know anything about what Gabrielle Douglass really feels or wants (or doesn’t feel or want) regarding her hair. However, I firmly believe that she deserves to have her unique hair-care needs met. Having been that little girl who was the “raisin in a pot of grits,” I know how uncomfortable it can be to move around in a space that isn’t always conducive to your individual needs. Ultimately though, I think we should all be grateful that Gabby’s confidence has enabled her to rise above the silly insecurities she and others, me included, might have about something as trivial as hair.

Hello world!

This blog is the space where I want to honor my creative process. I constantly have thoughts and stories running through my head that, without this space, would remain trapped there. I hope that my reflective musings will inspire readers to consider their own thoughts and stories from childhood, adulthood, and everything beyond!

The title of my blog is inspired by one of my many stories. When I was a little girl, I desperately wanted a nickname. I passionately rebuked the one nickname that people tried to give me, “Ty,” for reasons shared with readers in my first blog, “Gabby Douglas’ Hair Bothers Me…” None of the other nicknames I tried to create for myself ever really caught on. So, whenever people would ask me what my nickname was, I would say, “It’s Tyra. My real name is Tyrannosaurus, but you can just call me Tyra!” And there it was.

JustCallMeTyra is a space that pays tribute to the harmony and discord between truth and fiction. It is a blog that focuses on how interesting life is when we explore this imbalance in an honest way.

I invite you into my word space with the sincere hope that you will reflect, consider, share, laugh, cry, critique, and comment in the spirit of enlightenment. Thank you for being a part of my world!

~Tyra~