Important Disclaimer

Since I currently have several employers/supervisors/churches/etc., please know that none of the words on my blog represent them or their beliefs. This blog is my own creation.

It also does not represent my children's perspective, nor my mother's; they think I am funny, but misguided.
(Quick update: only my mother thinks I'm funny now.)

Friday, June 14, 2013

Elbow Room


"Ave B" by James Jowers, 1969
I am re-posting this essay for two reasons. First, it was originally a guest post for Anna Blanch (@goannatree on Twitter), but I noticed recently that her blog is no longer available. The idea of taking up space comes up again and again in my life, so I'm revisiting it.

Second, Tony Jones posted "An Invitation to Christian Feminists" on his blog last week, in response to a bit of a fuss/kerfluffle/pickle he created/landed-in on the topic of racism and misogyny. I have been pondering a response to this mess for several weeks now, but I have my own blog and prefer to post here. I have been carving out my own space--my elbow room--for a few years now on the internet.

I am weary/wary of our well-worn conversations around gender, race, and sexuality. I'll still have the conversations, but I sure wish we could find a new way through. I'm not interested in rehashing the blogposts or the twitter/blog comment discussions, but I am interested in making some space for Dr. Christena Cleveland, an academic focused on social psychology, faith, and reconciliation. Her blog was the inspiration for Dr. Jones' kerfluffle, but she has not responded to the fuss at all publicly. Dr. Cleveland is the author of Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces that Keep Us Apart. It is set for release in November, and perhaps all of us caught up in the kerfluffle might take some time to read it. You can find her on twitter at @CSCleve.

In particular, this post by Dr. Cleveland's was helpful: "Listening Well as a Person of Privilege"

I'll note also that I reached out to Dr. Jones, and he listened. I appreciated that because I didn't have nice-nice things to say.

We have a long way to go before folks are comfortable with people of color and women taking up space in this world. It's going to be uncomfortable, because after a while people get tired of asking
nicely for their space. And people are always surprised when they are asked to give up space they assumed was theirs. For those of us claiming our space, we'll need to stand firm--we will need to be resilient even as angry voices buzz around. For those of us being asked to step aside and make room, we are going to need our own resilience and the ability to make ourselves fit into smaller space.

My essay below, called "Elbow Room" was posted originally at http://goannatree.com on December 8, 2011. It was a response to a call for essays on the topic of intimate violence.

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On a recent trip I checked my seating online. Of course I was in a middle seat on a full flight, toward the back. I checked my larger bag and took a smaller carryon bag. I stuffed my pillow into the overhead compartment—no room for a nap today.

I settled into my seat, tucked elbows in off the armrests, closed my legs and crossed my ankles. I didn’t think about any of this. Until: a man sat down next to me. His carryon had to be rolled off the plane and gate checked. As he sat, his arm landed on the armrest, elbow out over my lap. His legs sprawled open, taking full advantage of the space I had preserved. He went to sleep like that.

I spent that flight reflecting on my habit of not taking up space.  No, more than a habit. I reflected on how dangerous it feels to take up space as a woman. I was careful not to let my leg touch his.

I remembered our family holiday feasts and being told to get my elbows off the table. Elbows on the table was for adults.

I remembered fighting with my cousin, my voice rising higher in pitch and volume, until my aunt came to shut it down. Quiet girls didn’t get into trouble as much as loud girls.

I remembered ballroom dance, where I was taught to follow, to sit with my legs tightly closed, to wait to be asked to dance, to sit straight.

These lessons meant survival, because the less attention I drew, the less often I was raped by an uncle. The more invisible I could make myself, the less I was trapped behind a door. The smaller my voice, the less space I took, the better.

I remembered I was trapped by a man I did not know in a place I did not know. He was drunk and sprawled all over me with sloppy kisses as if he had known me before that night. As if I had consented. I was paralyzed. Do I be small? Large? Do I be loud? Quiet?

So I hit him. I yelled. He got angry. I thought he might kill me. I yelled some more; when he came close I balled up my fists. I made myself big and I screeched. After a while he sobered up and let me go. I think I was lucky. I look back and shudder at that moment. Maybe I should have been small. I was 14 years old.

A thousand ways we are taught to be small, tight, controlled. Our bodies should be lean, not too muscular, breasts perky, vaginas tight. Control top panties, wonder bras, makeup to hide wrinkles. Lower your voice, sit up straight, close your legs, don’t take up space. A lady or a girl deserves protection and respect. A woman or a female gets what she deserves.

Except: ladies and girls, women and females, we are all subject to gender violence, sexual policing, and an expectation that our bodies are available to be used. Whether we are the town slut, or the high school ice queen, how much space we take up only determines how we are perceived, it doesn’t lessen the violence.

Why are you so loud? You take up too much space. If you hadn’t dressed like that, gone to that bar, been drinking, consented another night, cursed like a sailor, or smoked that cigar, THEN you might have been safe. Yet a small voice inside reminds me I’m not safe even when I don’t do all those things.

Over the years I have gotten louder, looser, and larger. I take up more room than I used to—a lot more room. So I was rather bemused to find myself tucked into an airplane seat, with a man sprawled over me. As the flight attendant came by, I leaned over the sleeping man, pushed his arm off the armrest, and stretched out my legs. He woke up as I handed over my empty cup and napkin. He glanced at me, startled, pulled in his legs, and rubbed his elbow.

I remembered, these words I read by L.H. Stallings, in her book Mutha’ is half a word: “[This book] is about the uncensoring of Black women who laugh out loud, curse, sit with their legs open, and selfishly act on their desires.  It is about tomboys, not-so-nice girls, and unwifeable women.” 

I hope and pray they put “Unwifeable. She sure took up a lot of space.” on my tombstone.

3 comments:

  1. Unwifeable. Awesome. Hope your tombstone comes later rather than sooner, and hope your grave is long, wide, and roomy.

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  3. That was brilliant writing, which is clearly born of experience. Good for you. I hope you continue to claim your space.

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