Before Anything, Black
by Kait Austin
Deirdre has a nice ass if I’m being honest. If I’m being honest, I only attend the Female Allied Taskforce meetings because Deirdre has a nice ass. It isn’t just a nice ass for a white girl—it’s a nice ass.
The FAT meetings are on Thursday afternoons and always start between 15 and 20 minutes late. They position one table in front of forty chairs beneath the large oak trees that lock horns around a field on campus used for frisbee games, picnics, and naps between lectures. I assume they don’t reserve one of the 68 unoccupied classrooms because passersby can’t hear them there.
They discuss reproductive rights, sexism, and sisterhood in the center of Louisiana, but talk over one another for most of the hour. They wear blank faces, chew on their lips, and raise their hands while other people speak.
Every week I wonder why I show.
Once, a local bakery supplied uterus shaped cookies, and that was fun. But now the cookies are round, and my silent disappointment is the loudest thing about me.
Sometimes black students will pass slowly. I sense their amusement. I imagine their eyes lingering on me like I’m the Jesus guy that preaches in the Quad, thirsty for attention. My fist always bundles up and a special kind of white heat unfurls across my neck, reaching for my kitchen, which I hope is clean. At least these aren’t the Sisters of the Confederacy, I reason, fingertips smoothing the tight curls at my nape.
Every week Deirdre creates a new panel—the group of women that sits at the head table facing the audience. They all claim to have some extraordinary experience that will lend to the week’s topic. I consistently maintain my silence as I bounce between thoughts of the disappointing snack choices and ways to get Deirdre to unfurl her ambiguous sexual identity.
Deirdre and I had made great headway when we first met in our Women’s and Gender Studies class the year before. I’d been outspoken in that space, sharing thoughts on race, sexuality, and gender. As a queer black woman, I felt like an authority there.
“You really opened my eyes on the fluidity of sexuality,” she’d said once, a pen hanging on her glossy bottom lip and last night’s mascara lending to an effortlessly seductive smokey eye. And so, in the comfort of that diverse WGS class, it was easy to say yes to a position on her FAT panel.
No matter the topic of the week’s discussion, Deirdre sits at the center and places me at the far-left corner of the table, my dark skin blending with the spotty shadows of the oaks and my eyes wincing into the glare of the white crowd.
Today, the meeting starts 18 minutes late. Deirdre stands and claps her hands a few times. When I first started attending the meetings, I would try to help her quiet the crowd. Black women are more assertive, and Deirdre would like that, I thought. But somehow in the FAT environment, my voice rang hollow. So now I just sit, wait, and scroll through Twitter.
“We have a topic change today,” Deirdre says as the twenty-ish women in attendance quiet. “I know we were going to, like, expand on our talks about sexual harassment in Hollywood and the thinly-veiled epidemic it’s been since, like, the founding of the entertainment industry, but I’m sure you’ve all heard about the tragic shooting of Lily MacDonald yesterday.”
The women have visible reactions—furrowed brows, hands on hearts, pursed lips, and nods. I reach for my phone, my own brow furrowed as my heart dissolves again, familiar thoughts filling the space left behind: another shooting, more police brutality, another black body discarded, another grieving mother becoming another grieving mother. Another hashtag.
I scroll almost frantically through my social feeds, distraught and ashamed that I had missed this.
How had I missed this? Helpless rage—stronger each time—returned, and I knew that for once everyone would look to me as a voice of authority on police violence. The realization brought me to attention, my lax limbs and tired posture revived as I plucked greedily at the bounty of harsh memories I’d collected over the past 21 years. First, I could mention my cousin who was harassed by two white cops the day after Obama won the 2008 election. My sister who woke up to Swastikas on her desk at work the day after Trump stole the 2016 election. My friend’s ex-boyfriend who was pulled over by cops, thrown to the ground and handcuffed all in the space of one minute for a supposed broken tail light that wasn’t actually broken.
I feel the heat retreat momentarily from my forehead, eyes back on Deirdre. I watch her lips move. Almost magically, her venom is now universal; it isn’t milky-white and exclusive. When her fist comes down on the table, I feel the vibration against my palm, sending a shockwave of relief and arousal through my core. She has a brain. I begin to exhale.
“Lily MacDonald was a beautiful, intelligent, charitable woman from New Zealand who’d been living a simple, sweet life in Iowa with her fiancé legally for the past decade,” Deirdre fusses. Amid her first-ever diatribe against irresponsible policing, a hollow echo begins to hum in my head, the sound of groans drown any other words. The sound is weak yet bold, an enormous chorus but one familiar note that spans centuries. It bleeds through every fold of my mind, leaving no moment or memory or smile untouched. It defines, in song, the birth of a system built to use, damage, disrespect, defile, and abuse. It is immeasurably louder than Deirdre.
“Josie?” Deirdre says my name. Usually every bit of me stands to attention as I try to commit the way it sounds in her mouth to memory. I convince myself I like the nickname because it’s her creation and she’s the only one who I allow to use it.
“What?” I spit immediately, eyes pulled forcefully from the image of the pretty blonde white woman on my phone. Lily MacDonald.
Deirdre looks surprised by my severity.
“I was just asking if you might share any experiences you may have with police violence,” she says in a near hiss, a don’t embarrass me look in her eyes.
“What?” I ask again because it’s the only word in my head alongside the hollow groan, with its depressingly constant pitch and balance.
“Okay, that’s fine,” she snaps her attention back to the small crowd. Deirdre doesn’t wait for me to gather a thought, but my what evolves anyway.
What is this nonsense
What is this white nonsense
What is this White Nonsense™?
“It’s so important to look at the roots of police violence so we can, like, understand why it’s increased so much in recent months. I mean, as the girlfriend of a kind, sensitive, and peaceful black man, I live in constant fear for his life,” Deirdre says, hand on heart, unfurling a convenient black boyfriend to the FAT crowd, waving him joyfully like a cheap participation ribbon. A lazy: me too.
I consider flipping the table. I consider flipping every single chair, one by one. I consider flipping Deirdre two birds and flitting off on a cloud of every weak white slur in existence. I think maybe I can pass out, spread my black arms, and perform a trust fall. The black students who usually judge me will surely materialize, catch me in their forgiving arms, and take me home.
“No,” I bark.
“Josie?” Deirdre, for the first time, looks frightened of me. Her cheeks are a deepening shade of crimson, like the Scarlett Letter she always fucking compares everything to.
“No, Deirdre. I’ve been at these stupid fucking meetings for eleven months. I’ve sat in my quiet embarrassment, nodding occasionally along with your issues that, I like totally agree are issues, and treating them like they can hold a candle to the real-ass fear, hate, and racism that black people face every day. Eleven months, Deirdre, and you—you don’t mention police brutality until lily-white Lily MacDonald gets shot? Rest in Peace to that sweet New Zealand snow-angel who was beautiful and generous and worthy of life, but can we fucking discuss the aging black man who couldn’t afford to donate to charity, shot on the side of the road while trying to provide for his family last month? Or the 12-year-old black boy murdered by cops while playing in the park? The lack of justice delivered? The paranoia black people feel when we’re pulled over for a ‘routine’ traffic stop? Can we talk about something other than your shallow white-centric, faux-aware existence and your fake black boyfriend?”
In the moment following my release, I feel weightless. The air is less humid, and the shadows of the oaks can’t grip me where I stand—one fist tense and pressed against the table. I realize that the endless groan in my head has gone, satisfied.
“I think Josie has a very valid point, but I do see—“ Audrey, a butch lesbian who I suspect has also fallen victim to Deirdre’s nice ass and baby-pink lip gloss, mistakes my moment of silence as an invitation for discussion.
“Calvin is not fake,” Deirdre raises her voice over Audrey. The black boyfriend who could only be referenced amid a flurry of adjectives is a Calvin.
A flat line forms in between my full lips pressed tightly together. I turn my back to Deirdre and the FAT women.
As I depart their stage, I struggle to decide if my outburst—my sloppy eruption—was a good thing. I’d broken two rules that I never remembered learning.
Don’t get loud, black girl.
Don’t fall for straight girls, queer girl.
Following these rules had always shielded me from the stereotype trap, I thought. Now I wondered whom they really served.
“Josie?” Someone caught my arm, mid-escape.
“My name is Josephine,” I tell Audrey as I yank my arm back a little too hard. Her trendy canvas backpack slips from her shoulder to the crook of her elbow, rattling the multiple rainbow bracelets on her wrist, and she forces a smile, visibly uncomfortable as she readjusts the bag.
“Sorry, yeah—Josephine. That’s a really pretty name,” she says. For the first time, I see that Audrey has freckles that start at the right edge of her cheek, splay over the bridge of her nose, and then stop abruptly. Her eyes are blue, and her nervousness sincere in an appealing way.
“Look, I don’t have time to talk,” I say.
“I—I just wanted to say I totally agree with you about Deirdre’s brand of activism. It’s so out of touch,” she says and waits. I suspect she wants a pat on the head, a new friend.
“Then go tell her,” I say and turn again to leave.
“Where are you going?” Audrey calls, and by the distance of her voice, I can tell she isn’t following.
“To find my time,” I say just loud enough for her to hear the pitch and balance of my voice—the underlying ancient groan encased within, and nothing else.
Kait Austin is a Creole fiction and poetry writer, born and raised in New Orleans, Louisiana. She earned a BA in English – Creative Writing from Louisiana State University and a Certificate in Editing from The University of Washington, Seattle. Her work has been published in Crack the Spine online journal and Deep South. Kait now lives in New Orleans’ historic Algiers Point, where she spends most of her time staring lovingly at the Mississippi River. Follow her on Twitter @AustinKait.