Four years ago, while boarding a plane from Atlanta to Cleveland, I waited patiently on line, ready to get home. I was on the last leg of travel home. I was tired. As I waited on the priority line, a white male came walking across the gate house from the far side and stood in front of me.
It was not the first time and it would not be the last. It was one more occasion when I was left feeling invisible because someone else did not think I belonged. In this case, it was a white male who did not think I belonged on the first class line. A small thing one would think, BUT a reminder of the ways in which privilege makes way for microagressions.
I was angry without apology, that once again, my black woman self was judged and found lacking for the Delta Sky Priority lane, for first class, and for an “excuse me are you on the line.” However, I have learned to keep my anger in check. There are after all stereotypes of angry black women. This angry Black woman decided to see where he was seated and what his hurry was since that plane was not ready to leave for Cleveland.
I got on the plane behind him and watched as he walked through the first class cabin into the back. He was not even seated in first class. I took my pen out, found paper, and started writing — my own way of coping with the seething anger coursing through my veins. The result of that hour and a half of writing was a poem I titled UN-sanitized.
UN-sanitized was an expression of my anger. I had to put my anger somewhere because burying it inside was not an option. Railing in the airport was not an option. Confronting a white man because he stepped in front of me was not an option. I wanted to go home. Writing my pain and anger was the option to get me home safely.
That moment, almost five years ago, and the need to publicly check my anger revisits frequently. Black rage is not to be displayed publicly. Instead, we learn to smile through the pain of indifference, to smile at the pain of White fear, and to ingest the ways in which race is weaponized over and over again.
This sanitized existence is learned. It is a strategy that is taught and learned for survival. Whether on a plane or in the board room, there is no grace for hearing the un-sanitized reality of the pain and anger of racism, instead we ingest these moments of trauma with a smile to ensure that we make it home one more time.
Over the years, a sanitized version of UN-sanitized evolved as un-Sanitized. Somewhere in there was the attempt to dampen the rage that is evident with every reading. These are two different poems in the reading and have two different titles if one looks closely. The first time I decided to read the poem publicly, I tested it with a friend, who suggested “toning” down the language to make the poem “more suitable” for the audience. I agreed. It was a group of church people and teens.
In subsequent readings, the same was heard each time I tested the poem. “More suitable”. “Less aggressive.” “Better for church.” “What are people going to think?” “You are clergy.” “What are people going to think about all those cuss words?” There are few responses to the raw content, just the possible five words that trigger their discomfort.
Each statement feels like a critique of the anger of that moment. Unheard is the irony of sanitizing the moment, which is exactly the expectation of Black anger. “Keep it down.” “This is not the time or the place.” “What if someone hears you?” It seems easier for some to come at the few words on the page rather than respond to the moment of witnessing on that same page a response to the experience of many that is captured in UN-sanitized.
These days, folks are angry and it is visible. There is a rage in the streets accompanied by the fatigue of years spent crying for justice. There is anger as we watch the cell phone videos of Black and Brown bodies gunned down in the streets. There is nothing clean or sanitized about the violence directed at Black lives. Why then expect a sanitized expression of anger and pain?
UN-sanitized is the original poem. The words are raw, angry and reflect the pain of the moment. They were written from my anger with no apology and every time I read those words, I remember that my life is as beautiful as I am and that I am made in the image of the Divine. I am reminded that my voice is a gift and my ability to name the oppressions of the world is present in the DNA of the Ancestors who gave me life. The words are also reflected of the everyday expectation of Blackness in a white world: sanitized.
un-Sanitized became the sanitized, less emotional, safer version that was more palatable and polite, a conflict averse expectation for living in White America. Whenever I read it, I am reminded of the unsafe ways in which I navigate the world embodied as a woman of African descent. It is a reminder that in the midst of the need to survive truth must be told and systems challenged and held to accountability for the human rights of all. And I am reminded too, that my voice and my anger will never be checked or buried in any grave.
Out of the anger and the pain comes the passion for justice and social gain. The fight for justice will never end until we are all free, living in the fulness of our human rights with dignity and respect.
UN-sanitized is included in Drums in Our Veins KGAT’s book of poetry coming fall 2020.
Karen Georgia A. Thompson