There is power in looking… --bell hooks
I don’t want to be an outside eye looking in. -- Alanis Obomsawin
My family kept me inside all the time as a child. When other kids we're walking to the candy store, I ate snacks in front of the tv. When other kids went to parties, I was in my bed reading. Even Halloween was off-limits: I would dress up and trick-or-treat through the Harlem brownstone where I grew up, knocking on the doors of my great-grandparents' room, my grandmother's room, my parents' room. I came home everyday directly after school to a never empty house. I held my mother’s hand in the street until I was 12.
Stifling? Absolutely. Lonely? Yes, more than most of the time. Punishment? It certainly felt that way. But I couldn’t figure out what I’d done wrong: I was always polite, always got good grades, always had big dreams, never acted out, why can’t I get just a little bit of outside? It’s not you, they’d tell me. It’s everyone else, the people “out there.”
I was loved, almost desperately so. But it wasn’t just the fear of a little black girl being snatched up, being abused or worse. I was kept inside precisely because it was clear to the adults in my life that I was destined for good things, maybe even great. As long as I didn’t get broken somehow. Inside I was the center of my world of brown adults who'd grown up in cruel outsides—the Jim Crow south, impoverished rural New York State, Harlem projects, West Indian immigrant enclaves in Brooklyn—whose own childhoods had been rescued (sometimes only barely) by the carving out of a safe space. Freedom from the penetrating, patronizing, debilitating eyes of an all-consuming white gaze. In the world, these adults of mine each learned in painful ways how not to be outsiders. They’d trained themselves to be “quick to smile quick to laugh” lest anyone think them angry and therefore dangerous. They’d become skilled at appearing “happy and carefree” to quiet the fear of others who held considerable power over them. It is a sad thing to know you have to work twice as hard as white folks just to get anywhere. But it is an ugly thing to still have to temper your intelligence so as not to become isolated. And it’s an even uglier thing to begin to doubt your own considerable talent because those outside voices have found their way inside your head.
Inside I never had to be the periphery--the ignored, the derided, the dismissed, the spectacularized, someone else’s colonial fantasy, the narrative device of some other protagonist's arc. On the inside, I would only ever be my own “exquisite subject.” Growing up, my family kept me inside so I would never want to live outside my own body.
This story is not about a tragic childhood. It is not about mean adults or about how difficult it was growing up in the Harlem of the 1980s. This story is a response to a number of recent stories here on cowbird that go slumming through other people’s misery, a response to privileged authors who want to imagine themselves as saviors of the less fortunate, to those who don’t recognize their own power when they write about racial “others.” The adults in my life knew this othering game all too well and they did everything they could to protect me from it. This is a story about being inside of outside. Cowbirders, when the look at “outsiders” only reaffirms your own inside status, it's time to rethink what you mean by "outside."