Start at the Beginning
The first thing you’re supposed to do is introduce yourself. If people don’t know who they’re encountering, they won’t know how to perform the encounter. At which tenor, in what pitch, with how much respect.
People are always saying “start at the beginning,” which must be some sort of sick joke. We love linear narratives, the smooth waters of sequential order. But it’s too clean.
I was early by weeks. The story goes that when she went into labor, my mom thought the waterbed broke. This was 1987. The story goes that my dad, still drunk on Tanqueray from Mom’s office Christmas party, drove her to the hospital two towns over, where I proceeded to change my mind about this whole enterprise, and kept my mother in labor for double-digit hours, as my dad experienced what I can only imagine was the worst and weirdest hangover of his life. They cut me out, let me incubate for a few weeks, and when it was determined that I was fully formed, I got started. I was early and then late, hesitating at the door.
Ten days after my birth, Prozac made its first appearance in the United States of America. Just after my twelfth birthday, all the clocks would set back to zero. We were living in the “End Times,” my teachers said. Everything was a sign: Y2K, Britney Spears, homosexuals, Marilyn Manson. Clearly the Earth was falling apart, and if the Rapture was nigh one thousand years ago, any day could be my last to prove myself worthy. On my eighth-grade picture day, a plane would crash into a building I’d never heard of in New York City, and we’d get the day off to pray. I’m pretty sure the United States has been at war for my entire life.
I belong to a particular subcategory of millennials who searched library card drawers to research a paper to write by hand in cursive, and who only got a Nokia phone in middle school for emergencies or rides home after play practice. For us, first there was slime and Spice Girls and Pogs (anecdotally, now flagged for spell check), and patriotism was Michael Jordan and Kerri Strug, and our president played the saxophone. There were devil worshippers in suburban parks at night and El Niño winds in the morning and razors in Halloween candy. There was so much money, frivolous money—speedboats and liposuction and shoes that lit up. Then, it was the end of the calendar as we knew it and maybe the end of the world. Then, it was the end of democracy, because of the Arabs, all of whom were terrorists, maybe; and patriotism was obligatory, and our president’s abhorrent grammar mistakes filled daily quote calendars. There were celebrity sex tapes and school shootings and machine gun videogames. You could be famous for no reason, and everyone had computer rooms, and we replaced our after-school phone calls with Instant Messenger. Then there was no money, and people lost their houses, and we were still at war. The banks owned us, it turned out, and the whole thing had been about oil. A lot of people started doing oxy.
There was sin and there was terror, and in their negative space I sculpted a self.
The first autobiography in my personal archives dates back to roughly 2001, which may be due to puberty’s corresponding to one’s social sense of self; but it could also be said that my autobiography—preserving myself—became necessary in the face of terror, that my narrative began under the moon of terror. Within its cultural context. Also, it was written by a seventh grader.
“In so many words I will try to describe—or, better yet, explain—myself. This is something I have not yet tried and feel is a necessary challenge. I simply cannot be labeled—not as a girl, nor as a student, nor a writer. But I guess that is how I should begin.”
People are always telling you where to start, which is, in actuality, just another way of telling you where you can go.
“Being a girl also ensures many stereotypes—at which I am glad to clear up I do not like hot pink. Another stereotype is that girls are ditzy and stupid. I am not a ditz. In fact, I am undoubtedly intelligent. I hate to sound proud, but this is an inescapable action in order to better explain myself to others. Though there are many other stereotypes, I feel that my point has been given and taken respectively.”
Start at the beginning. You have to laugh.
The developmental stages of the Negro child will vary depending upon several extenuating factors, the most significant of which is environment. Outside the family unit, environment will include public or private education, economic and geographical demographics, and access to a mirror. Negro children are born again as Negro children in a white world and achieve differing levels of awareness thereof, at varying rates and to varying degrees: a mirror stage in which the mirror reflects both yourself and somebody else’s vision of you.
For several reasons, including the prevalence of the Bible and white girls, even as a child I understood that there was always a me I desperately needed to keep secret, dark patches to tuck away under my public self; a performance that sometimes required rising to the occasion of myself, and with each occasion the dark parts dug deeper into a sinking feeling. The protective measure of hiding the whole truth of myself and my mind: sharpening, sharpening.
Becoming aware of one’s identity, not to mention making sense of it, is not an uncomplicated or straightforward process—not when there are so many layers of a self to understand, so many lenses to see through, so much written on your body that only others can read. With double consciousness—seeing oneself with two sets of eyes and their accompanying assumptions—comes a double vision, doubled self-awareness.
For Zora Neale Hurston it happened on a boat, in transit, at sea. “I remember the very day that I became colored,” she recalled in 1928. She’d been living in her exclusively Black Florida town for all of her thirteen years when she set off for school in Jacksonville. “When I disembarked from the riverboat . . . it seemed that I had suffered a sea change.” She became colored in the world, “in my heart as well as in the mirror.”
And maybe the slave ship is the threshold of that disembarkment—where the doubled, hyphenated selves got born.
This is what I am trying to say. I am writing to make evidence of my self. I am doing that because, after three decades or so, I have come to realize that the self I thought I had was given to me by somebody else, set upon me a destiny with bad intentions. Becoming a person, forming an identity, had been a sham assignment from the start—for an African American person, there is a multistep process of backtracking and reinterpreting hundreds of years of American history, peeling apart film from adhesive to hold under the light and make out a cloudy reflection.
It’s disorienting to be defined by strangers. Before you can actually “become” a psychologically whole human being, before you can “find yourself,” you have to first find the fake self and question how it got put there. Then you can burn that f***er up and get on with self-actualizing.
My Christian education was purposefully unbalanced, traditionally incomplete, and uniquely whitewashed. When I first learned about myself, the “African American,” I was made to believe that the origin of my species began here on American soil, tilled by my enslaved ancestors, blah blah blah. I was invented here on this land, already owned, already designated a specific function, assigned a contained and delineated place. I was a fairly recent phenomenon, an advancement of science and global commerce. There were Africans, there were Americans (“Caucasians”?), and then there was me. Hanging on the arm of a mystifying subgroup. “African American.”
Not only did my personal family tree—an elementary school take-home assignment—halt abruptly and unceremoniously, before we had a chance to trace back to queens or warriors, even free Africans or Great Migrationists, but its end, my beginning, was also shrouded and defined by this terrible thing or that: slavery, civil rights—all laced with proper white Christian pity and Clinton-nineties placation. My color was the part of myself even I was implored to ignore and discount. Blackness was taboo: a closed door at the end of a long dark hallway of slaves and black-and-white photos of poodle-skirted protestors. A hall of pain and prejudice, emanating heat. That was then. “I don’t see you like that.”
Or was it: I don’t see you. Or will not? Cannot unless?
My skin followed me everywhere; their chanting of “I don’t see color” merely a reminder of how I can’t escape it. Were it not for my color, I’d be someone who could be seen. But alas. I would have to make do with what I am. Which meant endeavoring to understand every bit of what and who I am, not only as I see it, but as you see it, too; how the television sees it, how your grandpa might see it, how a doctor might see it, other people’s mothers, and in the eyes of the law.
Not make do. Be spotless.
Not alas. Amen.
Copyright © 2024 by Morgan Parker. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.