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You Get What You Pay For

Essays

Author Morgan Parker On Tour
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The award-winning author of Magical Negro traces the difficulty and beauty of existing as a Black woman through American history, from the foundational trauma of the slave trade all the way up to Serena Williams and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina

“An engrossing journey through Parker’s expansive and gifted mind.”—Clint Smith, author of How the Word Is Passed

Dubbed a voice of her generation, poet and writer Morgan Parker has spent much of her adulthood in therapy, trying to square the resonance of her writing with the alienation she feels in nearly every aspect of life, from her lifelong singleness to a battle with depression. She traces this loneliness to an inability to feel truly safe with others and a historic hyperawareness stemming from the effects of slavery.

In a collection of essays as intimate as being in the room with Parker and her therapist, Parker examines America’s cultural history and relationship to Black Americans through the ages. She touches on such topics as the ubiquity of beauty standards that exclude Black women, the implications of Bill Cosby’s fall from grace in a culture predicated on acceptance through respectability, and the pitfalls of visibility as seen through the mischaracterizations of Serena Williams as alternately iconic and too ambitious.

With piercing wit and incisive observations, You Get What You Pay For is ultimately a portal into a deeper examination of racial consciousness and its effects on mental well-being in America today. Weaving unflinching criticism with intimate anecdotes, this devastating memoir-in-essays paints a portrait of one Black woman’s psyche—and of the writer’s search to both tell the truth and deconstruct it.
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.
“Morgan Parker’s You Get What You Pay For tracks a Black woman’s interiority with trenchant insight and puckish humor. Parker explores the epigenetic effects of structural anti-Blackness through her powerful meditations on loneliness and depression. She carves out her vulnerability with a poet’s scalpel.”—Cathy Park Hong, author of Minor Feelings

“In a series of moving personal vignettes, astute political observations, and piercing social commentary, Morgan Parker’s vibrant collection of essays deftly examines the shifting contours of race, romance, memory, and mental health. At once cogent and humorous, You Get What You Pay For is an engrossing journey through Parker’s expansive and gifted mind.”—Clint Smith, author of How the Word Is Passed

“In You Get What You Pay For, Morgan Parker interrogates the project of self-making while illuminating all the forces at work trying to warp reality and mangle the self. This is the kind of book that saves lives.”—Saeed Jones, author of How We Fight for Our Lives and Alive at the End of the World

“An acclaimed Black poet examines the state of her soul through the lens of race. . . . [Morgan Parker] is good at snappy titles, clever formulations, and bitter humor, all of which are on display in these provocative and personal reflections, structured as a kind of symphony of themes and metaphors. . . . As Parker writes, ‘Words are ductile, delicate, and loaded like that.’ Never more so than in her capable hands.”Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
© James Michael Juarez
Morgan Parker's debut book of essays, You Get What You Pay For, will be released March 12, 2024. She also is the author of young adult novel Who Put This Song On?; and the poetry collections Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up At Night, There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé, and Magical Negro, which won the 2019 National Book Critics Circle Award. Parker is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship, winner of a Pushcart Prize, and a Cave Canem graduate fellow. She lives in Los Angeles with her dog, Shirley. View titles by Morgan Parker

About

The award-winning author of Magical Negro traces the difficulty and beauty of existing as a Black woman through American history, from the foundational trauma of the slave trade all the way up to Serena Williams and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina

“An engrossing journey through Parker’s expansive and gifted mind.”—Clint Smith, author of How the Word Is Passed

Dubbed a voice of her generation, poet and writer Morgan Parker has spent much of her adulthood in therapy, trying to square the resonance of her writing with the alienation she feels in nearly every aspect of life, from her lifelong singleness to a battle with depression. She traces this loneliness to an inability to feel truly safe with others and a historic hyperawareness stemming from the effects of slavery.

In a collection of essays as intimate as being in the room with Parker and her therapist, Parker examines America’s cultural history and relationship to Black Americans through the ages. She touches on such topics as the ubiquity of beauty standards that exclude Black women, the implications of Bill Cosby’s fall from grace in a culture predicated on acceptance through respectability, and the pitfalls of visibility as seen through the mischaracterizations of Serena Williams as alternately iconic and too ambitious.

With piercing wit and incisive observations, You Get What You Pay For is ultimately a portal into a deeper examination of racial consciousness and its effects on mental well-being in America today. Weaving unflinching criticism with intimate anecdotes, this devastating memoir-in-essays paints a portrait of one Black woman’s psyche—and of the writer’s search to both tell the truth and deconstruct it.

Excerpt

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.

Reviews

“Morgan Parker’s You Get What You Pay For tracks a Black woman’s interiority with trenchant insight and puckish humor. Parker explores the epigenetic effects of structural anti-Blackness through her powerful meditations on loneliness and depression. She carves out her vulnerability with a poet’s scalpel.”—Cathy Park Hong, author of Minor Feelings

“In a series of moving personal vignettes, astute political observations, and piercing social commentary, Morgan Parker’s vibrant collection of essays deftly examines the shifting contours of race, romance, memory, and mental health. At once cogent and humorous, You Get What You Pay For is an engrossing journey through Parker’s expansive and gifted mind.”—Clint Smith, author of How the Word Is Passed

“In You Get What You Pay For, Morgan Parker interrogates the project of self-making while illuminating all the forces at work trying to warp reality and mangle the self. This is the kind of book that saves lives.”—Saeed Jones, author of How We Fight for Our Lives and Alive at the End of the World

“An acclaimed Black poet examines the state of her soul through the lens of race. . . . [Morgan Parker] is good at snappy titles, clever formulations, and bitter humor, all of which are on display in these provocative and personal reflections, structured as a kind of symphony of themes and metaphors. . . . As Parker writes, ‘Words are ductile, delicate, and loaded like that.’ Never more so than in her capable hands.”Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

Author

© James Michael Juarez
Morgan Parker's debut book of essays, You Get What You Pay For, will be released March 12, 2024. She also is the author of young adult novel Who Put This Song On?; and the poetry collections Other People’s Comfort Keeps Me Up At Night, There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé, and Magical Negro, which won the 2019 National Book Critics Circle Award. Parker is the recipient of a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship, winner of a Pushcart Prize, and a Cave Canem graduate fellow. She lives in Los Angeles with her dog, Shirley. View titles by Morgan Parker