In addition to this being a year of no for me, it’s also a year for examining my proximity to whiteness from family and personal relationships, to where and how I’m using my professional skills. And more importantly, the areas where I need to cut ties or remove the looking glass and where I’m willing to dig in and fight back to create the world I know we can have. In order to figure that out I have to start from the beginning.
I grew up confused.
My father was born in the early 60s, before Malcolm X and Dr. King took their last breaths, in the front seat of a car to a white woman named Karen and a Black man named Sam. In a time before Loving v Virginia, my father was five before his father’s name graced his birth certificate. They eventually married and divorced before I set foot on the scene. I don’t know much about my grandfather, he was born in the 20s and I’ve been told he was mean but when I look back with informed eyes on the dozen or so times we were around him before they lowered his coffin into an unmarked grave, I’ve realized his malice was the symptom to a larger condition. He was traumatized. And he inflicted that trauma on everyone around him. It doesn’t excuse his behavior, because he caused real harm to his children, but it does help me understand my own rage better.
We spent summers with my grandmother and extended family. I don’t remember when it started, but when I think back on my childhood summers they center around a small house built in the 40s that invokes more fear inside my mind than my grandfather ever has. It’s where I built the tunnels for how deep my rage would go as I learned all the ways I wasn’t right. How the way I moved through the world wasn’t Black enough while I simultaneously received praise for performing the white way, straightening that hair, losing that weight, clutching my bible, and cranking up the country music while carving myself into tiny pieces. Taking every comment on the ways my skin, my feelings, and my mere existence wasn’t right and filling in the gaps left behind with quiet rage that lead to a labyrinth of trauma.
Part of healing means acknowledging that people are operating from the various traumas they’ve tended into sparkling personalities and growing from those places is often harder than maintaining the illusions they’ve created for themselves, so they tend to keep with the status quo. You’ll never get closure from them because in their minds they’ve done nothing wrong, so you have to find closure in your own way. Half of me began when two people, operating from trauma, fetishization, and rebellion brought forth life. In their minds, I imagine, as so many do now, they believed they didn’t need to do more. That simply creating that life was enough, they could be colorblind and everything would sort itself out. That’s not how it works, though, we can’t fuck our way out of generations of oppression. That must be a deliberate act and it requires a lot of painful work.
When we play racial politics in the bedroom and then aren’t intentional with how we raise the outcome we create confusion and pain that ripples through the bloodline. We can’t learn to love ourselves wholly as we are when the kitchen table we’re feeding from was built by white supremacy and the meal we’re being served is poisoned by those who claim to love us.
On my maternal side, I come from a long line of Black women whose skin was kissed by the sun and whose trauma is nestled deep inside my veins. I’ve given up asking myself how different my personality would be if I had been raised knowing that being Black simply meant being myself. I’ll never be the sugar and spice, light-skin-compliant Barbie with an alphabet of letters after her name that everyone wanted. I’m an unhinged ray of fucking sunshine that’s sick of being told by whiteness how she feels and who she is allowed to be. There is no going back now, there’s only forward out of the confusion.
Forward means embracing the rage. Yes, I’m angry. I’m tired of keeping a constant log of names while agents of whiteness flail about acting confused about the current state of things when they’ve cosigned this hate with their silence after every dinner, meeting, and opportunity life has thrown at them to course-correct themselves and their fellow white brethren. I’ve had a front-row seat to the creation of Black bodies from a “well-meaning” white woman who skipped her happy ass down to the voting booth in 2016 and 2020 to cast her vote for Donald J. Trump and had only the vilest things to say about President Obama. Completely indifferent to the fact that her son looked like the man she called an un-American agent of terror. I grew up hearing she didn’t know any better. She’s from a different time. I grew up hearing my own father spout the same anti-Black tropes while picking Black women to warm his bed. He patted me on my head and told me, like all Black women, I would only be good for one thing.
He was my father, but he sounded like my grandmother. I was told that my skin color ensured that I had no real worth. I told myself, before I understood the weight of my choices, that I would prove everyone wrong. I would get approval from those who sat atop the privileged mountain. I dug my nails in. I kept cutting myself into pieces. Smaller… and smaller… swallowing each piece with a dose of rage. I birthed babies of varying shades and tucked away every comment the outside world threw our way that screamed we weren’t enough as we were.
I tried to keep my trauma from pouring over my babies because someone had to get this right, but trauma is like grains of sand. It gets in so easily. When you think you’ve got it pegged whiteness rears its ugly head and reminds you that nowhere is safe, that your guard must always be up, and once the sand is in it takes diligence to remove it.
I went into my 30s bucking everything I had been taught. I went natural. I expanded what I read and where I received information. I pushed back against the notion that my worth was to be dedicated by those who burn in the sun, trying my best to remember that I was the sunshine. And yet, the sand still got in because for all my internal growth, externally the circles were still the same. The same pale faces that smiled when I was sprinkling magic into their lives, but would morph into serpents the moment I asserted my worth and boundaries. It was the same shit again, I was a kid crying for help while everyone asked why I was whining.
I’m tired of crying.
I’ve watched white folks who claim to want change attempt to be relevant and hip when in reality you’re making a mockery of Blackness for approval and giggles while patting your chosen Blacks on the head for knowing their place and letting you behave in such a manner. I’ve watched the way you cut us the minute we don’t want to play your game. It doesn’t matter if we’re kin or acquaintances, when dealing with whiteness if you’re Black you’re disposable. Everyone knows this and does their best to ignore it, but true trust and growth can’t exist as long as you always expect us to be compliant supporting cast members in your life stories. This means you must be uncomfortable at all times if you really want Blackness to thrive. If you’re comfortable, we’re suffering. Either make the changes or admit you like it that way and stop pretending otherwise. You can’t have it both ways.
I grew up knowing that whiteness will always seek out those in the Black delegation who are broken and willing to sit their humanity on a shelf and be paraded around as a “good one” for the twisted acceptance that whiteness will never really provide. I’ve spent years learning how to sharpen my tongue while keeping it sheathed so I don’t upset whiteness. My father’s voice is always so clear in those memories… “There’s mixed company here, watch what you say.”... “You know the white people in your life can see this Rayven! What are they going to say?”
Fuck. What. You. Have. To. Say.
My anger is real. It’s valid. The hit dogs will always holler the loudest and I owe no one an apology for speaking my truth. I’ve spent nearly 40 years spinning gold from my pain and I won’t dull my shine any longer for any of you.
“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”
― Anne Lamott
Rayven Holmes (c)2023
It all started with a halfhearted promise. “I’ll make things better,” he said while kneeling in the muddy field. He loved me I told myself. He got a ring, he promised things would be better once we were married, so surely he loved me. Over the next eight months I inquired about wedding details, “I don’t care about that stuff” he would mumble before rushing off the phone. On my 18th birthday, I moved in with him. This was the beginning of the rest of my life I told myself. A life full of fantastic adventures with my best friend, or so I believed.
Our first attempt to get married a few days later was deterred by the incorrect birth certificate on my part, because there is a big difference in a certificate of live birth and a birth certificate, apparently. I slunk home depressed in my pretty floral spring dress. He looked relieved and eager to get out of the khakis I had requested he wear because “It’s our wedding day we should look nice”. “It's a waste of time”, the words lingered in the knots of my hair I had spent an hour fighting with. He thought it looked a mess. But, I knew he loved me, so I simply needed to try harder next time.
When the proper certificate arrived in the mail a couple of weeks later I was thrilled, he was annoyed. “When do you want to go get married”, the words danced from my heart and oozed through my lips. “I don’t know”, he replied. I shook off his indifference. Another couple of weeks passed before we had a discussion about expectations. I had no desire to shack up for an undisclosed period of time and needed to know if he really wanted the same thing I did. Blame my Catholic conservative Christian upbringing. Blame personal standards. But after a month, you’re either buying the cow or getting your milk elsewhere because I refuse to play house. After some grumbling, he lamented that he did want to get married and we agreed on a Friday afternoon. He didn’t want to wear anything nice or take pictures. I granted his wish with the hope that we’d have a nice wedding one day. I spent that Friday on edge. My heart and stomach jumped, jived, and wailed with each tick of the clock. I had to remind myself to breath as the hours turned into minutes and those minutes into the moments that would define the rest of my life.
The judge who married us was buried in a sea of child support filings and petty crimes when we walked in. The defeat of his day shone on his face as I slid the marriage certificate onto his desk. Immediately, he became animated and leaped from his seat with the joy that only the creation of marriage and new life can illicit in humanity. He retrieved his crisp black robes from the nearby closet and announced our impending nuptials to the collection of depressed bodies that were waiting their turn to plead their various cases. Then the judge reached for his phone and attempted to contact a buddy of his who worked at the local paper. He had no luck. My groom squirmed in his seat at the thought of having someone from the newspaper present at our nuptials. Even a small wedding announcement had been out of the question. After hanging up the phone the judge asked if he could read a bible passage during our ceremony. Still being some version of Christian I had no problem with this but, I turned to my groom to ensure it was ok. He nodded in that dismissive way only someone who is indifferent can and the judge smiled as he opened his bible. Clearing his throat he asked us to rise, I jumped from my seat attempting to catch my heart as it leaped with excitement and turned to my groom. He was still seated.
My mind always slows this moment down. I’m sure it was less than a minute, but in my mind, it becomes an eternity. An eternity of chances to run. An eternity to dance through the reel of what actually became a 12-year marriage plagued with abuse, infidelity, and loneliness. An eternity to live again.
An eternity to see every player clearly. The judge with his confused and apprehensive glare. The groom’s parents exchange of knowing looks for they kept his secrets better than he did. The groom’s disdain as he willed himself from the seat and my wide-eyed naiveté. As the reel plays in my mind, I always freeze this moment and stare at the child giving away her youth to someone who didn’t want to stand next to her. I look through the eyes of a woman at the life of a girl who simply wanted to know she was loved, and I know she never was. The woman knows that which the girl can not. She knows of the lonely nights ahead of the girl, whose tears will stain every pillow she would ever own. She knows the pain of her husband’s hands pressing against her pregnant belly. She knows the way his words will hang heavy in her heart for a lifetime. She knows the way laughter sounds when she’s in pain. The woman can never save the girl.
No matter how many times I play this reel over in my mind, no matter how many times I reach for that young girl, no matter how many empty bottles I attempt to watch it through; I can never save the girl. She always stands there eagerly awaiting her groom. She always takes his hand. She always says her vows with sincerity and passion as her brown eyes bore into his hollow blue eyes seeking confirmation that his heart beats as fiercely for her and her’s does for him. She always signs her name. She always stays after he pushes in her stomach and gleefully declares that hopefully he killed their unborn child. She always runs interference and handles everything as to not upset him. She always fixes the holes and stops asking about the stories that don’t mesh up. She always makes sure the children believe they're loved by their father. She always makes excuses for his noninvolvement, for her tears, for the sadness that hides behind her brown eyes. She always stays. Until she becomes the woman who doesn’t. The woman with the movie reel in her mind and scars upon her heart.
Divorce is easy. You pay someone to file paperwork and fight with your spouse’s paid henchman/woman on your behalf. You sign some papers. Then a judge, worn and weary from a life dedicated to law, declares you free from the shackles wrapped tightly around your left finger.
Healing. Now, that’s the hard part. Accepting your part in the chapter that was your marriage is hard. Acknowledging your ex-partner for who they were and always will be is hard. Stitching the holes in your heart with the rusty needle you find in the pile of your belongings is hard. Getting up each day and putting one foot in front of the other is hard. Smiling when you want to cry is hard. Living in spite of the pain is hard. Fighting your demons by yourself and realizing there are far worse things than being alone is excruciatingly fucking painful. The healing is hard and the tunnel to the light is long. But, there is beauty in the struggle. Even if we can’t always see it right away.
Cognitive Dissonance: the state of having inconsistent thoughts, beliefs, or attitudes, especially as relating to behavioral decisions and attitude change.
“We have a term for that, it’s called cognitive dissonance”, the words excitedly leaped from my therapist's mouth. Some days, I believe people who work in mental health get more joy from being able to label a behavior, than those of us they are labeling get from finally having a term for our mental state. I sat there, digging my nails into the delicate Styrofoam cup rim, leaving evenly spaced indentations of anxiety behind. Cognitive dissonance. The words swirled in my mind as she went on. I’m familiar with the term, I’ve used it to explain unyielding and illogical religious beliefs. Surely, I'm immune from such a label, I thought. But I’m not. In at least one way, or another, we all fall victim to cognitive dissonance. For me, it’s been my marriage and the repeated belief that if I waited long enough, and loved hard enough, the man I married could and would change the hurtful behaviors he exhibited. In the process, I ignored my own harmful mental gymnastics.
When it came to religion, I could easily examine the inconsistencies and toss the breaks in logic into the wastebasket where they belonged. Eventually, leaving nothing but godlessness and unabashed skepticism. With love, oh love, it hasn’t been that easy. If there was a disconnect between words and actions, then I clearly wasn’t seeing it correctly. A belief supported by my spouse. I simply needed to look at everything differently. To be patient. To hold on. Give him time and trust. Always more time and trust. I could do this. To give superficial change, that quickly faded, more weight than years of peer-reviewed data. Maya Angelou said, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them; the first time.” We rarely do, though. Why do we do this? Why do we allow our hearts to cloud our logic? How can we observe years of behavior, and at the mere notion of change, throw all our chips in and declare this time around it will be better?
This isn’t a post with answers. Because, frankly, I don't have any damn answers. So, if you’re waiting for that you’re going to be shit out of luck. I’m still tracing the rim of a Styrofoam cup attempting to make sense of this one life we’re given and fighting with the cognitive dissonance emotional attachments create.
I’ve spent months dissecting why I allow myself to distort things until they are easy to swallow. Instead of, accepting them for what they are and cutting the cord.
He says he’s never hit me. So, despite everything else, I should be happy. True, he’s never hit me. But, when did that become an acceptable bar to reach instead of an universally unacceptable behavior? And why is physical abuse the only recognized form of domestic violence? Do the words and actions that don’t leave physical scars not count? And if they don’t count, why do I have to do mental gymnastics to reason them away? If this is a person I can feel safe with and trust, why does simply typing this fill me with soul-crushing fear? I’m doing wrong by sharing the truth. Is love when the truth is an act of rebellion?
The emotional part of my mind says yes. It also wants to say people change. It wants to believe the fantasy.
You’re not seeing it clearly, Rayven. His words. Or are they mine? It’s hard to determine whose words they are. I can only determine that they suffocate me. They whisper in my mind, “you’re not perfect, how can you expect so much”, “calm down, you don’t see things how they really are”, “no, you’re just crazy”, “it’s not control, it’s concern”, “I love you”, “so much of this is your fault”, “you’ve brought this on yourself”, “just fix you, try more, bend more, give more, you don't do enough" "learn to take a joke", "I'm only kidding", "stop complaining this is the best you'll ever get”, "no one would want you anyways", "it's not settling, it's being smart", "don't be selfish", “don’t you see how it’s all your fault”. The words work to choke out the discrepancies. The discrepancies exist because of me, I deduce. This notion makes my mind an Olympic performer in mental gymnastics. Always in search of a reason for the unreasonable.
Therapy works to give the discrepancies the oxygen they need to breathe, so I can acknowledge them and move forward. But still, I sit rubbing the anxiety indentations in my cup, waiting for the oxygen to reach my lungs so I can finally breathe, too.
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