It was February 2016, and I was excited to attend a poetry workshop. The two facilitators were well-known women authors, and I knew their feedback on my submissions would be invaluable. Also, because I knew the class would be full of writers, I wanted to use this opportunity to network. Getting back to writing poetry was my main goal for the year, and this was a great first step.
Now, going into this, I hoped I was not going to be “the only one.” But, of course, I was the only Black person. It’s Louisville, Kentucky. That still happens in various settings all the time.
After introductions, each person was asked to read their poem aloud twice, and most readings went fine. There were poems of bravery and hope, of love and despair. One that stood out to us all, however, was one of anger. The reader’s loud, booming voice made some attendees jump as he spoke of the greatest generation, working fingers to white bone and coming out on top. No handouts. No whining about not being represented. As he finished the second reading, one facilitator noted that he didn’t say the poem’s title. When asked, he refused for several moments until finally, he mumbled, “You don’t matter to me,” with eyes cast downward. The facilitators and other participants were even more baffled than before.
As they started to push him for more explanation, I looked directly at him and said, “Oh, I get it! It’s written to Black Lives Matter, the group that protests when Black people are killed by the police. Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland…yes, I get it now.”
The facilitators’ tongues stumbled over suggestions to improve form and word choice before they quickly moved on. Soon after, we finished the workshop and everyone scurried away. I thanked the facilitators and left the building. I wasn’t expecting an apology or any further discussion. It was still widely known that there was no appetite to address these types of situations. There were no apologies on social media or transparent discussions.
And it’s not like I had never experienced something like this before. This man who was attending a poetry workshop probably wanted feedback, as I did. He didn’t expect to have to face a Black person in that space. And while he may have been embarrassed at the time, I’m sure he was able to forget the experience soon after it happened. However, I was left to deal with yet another reminder that racism is everywhere. No matter how subtle, it is still there—and this man had joined the threads that weave these painful memories.
He was the white police officer who told me he didn’t think I belonged on my college campus as I waited for food. He had to see my ID, and even after that, he still questioned me for some time.
He was the white man I worked with who didn’t understand how I got a new job assignment so quickly. The same white man who made sure to voice his disbelief to the break room and our senior manager.
He was the white man who asked if my mother sat at the park and ate buckets of chicken all day now that she had retired.
He was even the white woman who told me to straighten my hair so I would make a good impression in my upcoming meeting.
And they all started off as those little white kids that called me a nigger at five years old. All with the same message: You don’t matter to me.
My Black skin is beautiful, but it is also heavy from all of these words. A poem, a question, a remark, a mentoring moment, a getting-to-know-you discussion, playground banter—these words rolled off tongues like water down glass. My skin has so many stories embedded in its cracks. Some have washed away; others have settled into my bones. They all are a part of me.
Over the years, I’ve gathered them all together and turned them into something that solidifies who I am as a Black woman. I stand strong and tall and move forward. Because I deserve to occupy space, to have opportunities, to hone a craft, to just be.
And I matter!
To my Black mother who fought the same damn fight we’re all still fighting now. To my colleagues who are fighting to change their organizations. And to the little Black girls who are understanding what it means to be Black. I need to teach them to stand strong and navigate this world. I want to see strong allies let these little Black girls stand on their shoulders so they can be seen and be given the respect and love they deserve. And, above all, I need these little Black girls, these grown Black women, the little Black girl inside of me, to know that they all matter to me.