I spent New Year’s Day re-reading A Wrinkle A Time, a book I first encountered in middle school. I have been invested in re-reading the book both because I’m eagerly anticipating Ava DuVernay’s forthcoming rendition of the movie, with a mixed Black girl as protagonist. But I also wanted to read it because I have been thinking since last year, when I gave a TED Talk on “The Racial Politics of Time,” about Black women’s relationship to time. When I gave this talk for the 2016 TEDWomen Conference, one of the things that I regretted is that I didn’t think more explicitly within the talk about how time affects Black women. My starting point is always Black women.
I’ll admit, too, that I’m not much of a Sci-Fi buff. That’s Crunkadelic’s territory. Sometimes, I’m too literal for my own good. But I remember that though I enjoyed reading the first three books in the Wrinkle series, I liked books two and three better, because as a kid, I was interested in the worlds that had made Meg Murry, as much if not more as I was interested in the girl herself. I was reading the Wrinkle books at the same time as I was reading Alex Haley’s Roots.
I’m still obsessed with genealogies to this day. I still always want to know how we got here – particularly when I’m not sure where here is. The primary method that I teach my students is the method that my intellectual mentor taught me: begin at the beginning.
At the beginning of 2017, February 6, to be exact, Erica Garner was attacked in her apartment by a former intimate partner, who barged into her home, punched her repeatedly in the stomach and poured a liquid laxative down her throat, in attempt to for her body to abort the baby she was carrying. He also poured lighter fluid on her furniture and threatened to light them on fire.
We came to know Erica Garner in the aftermath of the murder of her father by Daniel Pantaleo and other members of the NYPD in July 2014. In days before the murders of John Crawford and Mike Brown, made us cry out that “Black Lives Matter,” Eric Garner repeatedly told the police officers who harassed him for selling loose cigarettes, “I can’t breathe.” The police choked Mr. Garner to death. He was particularly vulnerable to their treatment because he also suffered from chronic asthma, high blood pressure, and heart disease. His daughter Erica became a fierce and outspoken activist on behalf of her father and all Black lives.
Erica and her baby survived the attack. Shortly after baby Eric, named for her father, was born, Erica had a heart attack. Doctors determined that she had an enlarged heart. Four months later on December 23, 2017, Erica Garner had another heart attack reportedly brought on by an asthma attack, slipped into a coma, and passed away on December 30.
The clusterfuck of injustices that stole away another member of the Garner family feel almost too overwhelming to recount. The stress of racism literally acts as a form of slow death for Black people all by itself. Add to it the grief of having the state murder your father, having to watch that shit on video, getting no justice after his death, and then having to take up the mantle of a movement because you became an unwilling sister in the sorority of the grieving. White supremacy kills. Environmental racism kills. That’s some shit we already know.
But we wouldn’t be telling the whole story here if we only told this as a story of white supremacy. What are we to make of the brutal intimate partner violence that Erica experienced? I did not have the pleasure of meeting Erica in my movement work, but if we had had the chance to build, I might have asked her one day, how she resolved fighting for Black men in these streets while dealing with the after-effects of having a Black man attack her at home.
Once every 19 hours or so a Black woman is killed by a Black man she knows, usually with a gun. Black women are victims of intimate partner violence at a higher rate than any other group of women. And about 15% of all female victims of reproductive age are pregnant or have recently given birth.
When I read about the violence Erica endured, it hit close to home.
In my new book (out Feb. 20), I talk about the violent attack my mother endured at the hands of a former lover when she was pregnant with me. I won’t give it all away here, but suffice it to say that these attacks are neither new nor uncommon. Let us not forget Joe Budden’s infamous line on the remix to Usher’s Confessions from back in the day: “when she talk about keepin it, one shot to the stomach, she leakin it.”
That kind of malignant disregard for Black women’s lives cannot be explained by simple recourse to white supremacy. Patriarchy is still the baddest bitch in the game, and she kills, too. Regularly.
On my birthday last month, my partner and I began discussing whether we will have children together. At 37, time is of the essence.
A few days after that conversation, I woke up to the harrowing and heartbreaking story of Dr. Shalon Irving, a36 year old epidemiologist at the CDC in Atlanta, who studied the long term effects of structural inequality, trauma, and violence on the body. On January 3, 2017, Dr. Irving gave birth to a healthy baby girl. Three weeks later, she collapsed from high blood pressure and died.
Dr. Irving had done everything right. She had assembled a great medical team for her postpartum care. She called doctors and secured the services of a personal nurse when she began not to feel well in the days after the birth of her daughter. A single mom, she embraced the challenge of solo parenting by assembling “her village” as she called them. That choice sounded like numerous conversations I’ve had with my crew as we imagine what the potential of solo or unconventional parenting might look like for us. She had a close relationship with her parents and with her homegirls who looked out for her and rode for her during and after her pregnancy. And to add insult to injury, she dedicated her life to doing the kinds of research that could help us to understand these problems better.
When I read the Propublica story about her journey, to getting a Ph.D., dealing with endless dating fuckery, and managing being overweight, having fibroids, and other health maladies, my heart sank deeper into my chest. I have dealt with every one of these issues. Shalon could be me or any one of my girls.
Feeling outmatched and unmoored by my biological clock + racism + patriarchy, I hit up Crunkadelic in tears.
Being an overachieving Black girl in her late 30s, who has not yet figured out the shape of her family already feels like a race against time. Giving a TED Talk about time is one thing. But being confronted with the intimate truth that time is just one more thing subject to the endless plunder of white supremacy and patriarchy nearly sent me over the edge. Like so many sisters, it has taken me all of my prime child-rearing years to find a partner that I might consider building a family with. Now, I have to face the fact that the endless stresses I endured due to violent trauma in childhood + the stress of being Black woman + the stresses induced by the very strategies I adopted to give me a different set of life options might prevent my body from making generations. What do you do with a potentially devastating truth like that?
(For all who may be wondering, I know I can freeze my eggs, that I can adopt, that there are myriad ways to mother and to parent. But the curtailing of reproductive options because of racist and sexist stress is still an injustice – a material one, a devastating one—that must be called out and confronted.)
I needed to tesser. To be able like Meg Murry, to put a wrinkle in time, to short-circuit it, to bend it and fold it and mold it into a different shape, one able to hold the weightiness of Black girls in search of possibility.
Then Tarana Burke, founder of the #MeToo Movement, dropped the ceremonial crystal ball in Times Square, officially ushering us into 2018. A decade before Alyssa Milano called on women to proclaim #MeToo in solidarity, Burke had been using these two powerful words to forge solidarities among Black women and girl survivors of sexual violence.
Tarana tessered when she dropped that ball. Folded time, bringing the work she did a decade ago into perfect sync with the work that the nation needs right now. In the valley of that fold of time are blood, tears, sacrifice. But on the other side of the fold there is a Movement.
Later in the day on January 1st, a group of powerful women in Hollywood, following on the heels of #MeToo, launched what they are calling “Time’s Up.” A leaderless movement composed of a series of working groups, these women have established a legal defense fund to aid the claims of working class women, and those who don’t have Hollywood bonafides. They are calling for gender parity at studios and talent agencies, and they are crafting legislation that will penalize corporations that tolerate environments of persistent harassment.
This, too, is a beginning. One tessered to us courtesy of Black feminists past and present – Maria, Sojourner, Rosa, Combahee, Kimberle, Anita, and the M4BL.
It feels comforting to have Black women ushering us into the future. Didn’t you know? Black girls are from the future.
Movements for racial justice are always the forerunners of movements for gender justice. The white women of Seneca Falls were abolitionists first, and the white women who are the icons (or denizens, depending on whom you ask) of the women’s movement of the 60s and 70s cut their teeth in Civil Rights organizing. In every one of these moments, Black women like Maria Stewart, Sojourner Truth, Anna Julia Cooper, and Rosa Parks have known what time it is, and have highlighted the conditions of Black women at the nexus of white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism.
In 2017, the Honorable Maxine Waters tessered when she reclaiming her time and put a wrinkle in Steve Mnuchin’s plans to act a fool. It struck an almost biblical chord with me reminding me of the verse, “redeeming the time, because the days are evil.” Perhaps we need to both reclaim our time by not wasting it on bullshit, and also redeem our time by making good out of that which seems in many ways to be working against us.
Erica Garner reminds me a little bit of Wrinkle’s protagonist Meg Murry, battling the forces of evil to save her father. Erica tessered to bring us baby Eric, who will be an enduring remind of a family legacy of fighting fiercely for justice. But in the valley of the fold, let us not forget Erica’s labor of love, her trauma, her pain, or her vision.
Shalon Irving did work on the cutting edge of racial trauma research, helping us to understand how accretions of trauma steal far too much of our time. She couldn’t save her self, but she tessered to bring us Baby Soleil, who will surely redeem her mama’s time. And I have no doubt that the future will catch up to the things Shalon had already started to know about how to save and secure Black lives.
These mothers willed these babies into a future despite the way time got away from them. It is our job to make a different future for Soleil and Eric and every other Black baby in this world. It is our job to combat white supremacy and patriarchy and capitalism, to recognize that sexual violence and reproductive injustice are stealing Black women, poor and well-off alike, from us at ages like 27 and 36. We should be outraged. Reclaiming our time is not just the stuff of fun GIFs. It is a political mandate.
It is true that there are no shortcuts to freedom, and in that sense, perhaps we cannot simply make time bend to our will. But willful, womanish, waymaking is the stuff Black girls are made of. And in the valley of the fold, there is this, too.
I told you earlier that the method to my particular madness is to begin at the beginning. Here we are again. At a beginning. And in this beginning, here is a word to sustain us: it’s our time.