My human shell is small and of a woman of color. My melanin has much baggage with it but one of the most painful pieces of baggage that I have been given is one of “the angry black woman”. The Angry Black Woman is a trope nearly as old as time. We’ve all encountered her. She’s usually large, has short hair and can hit you with a pot of grits from one hundred paces. For examples, see literally most Tyler Perry movies or many 90s sitcoms written by men (black men are not immune to this trope, in fact, they may be the worst perpetrators of this as the “crazy black girl” is a real form of sexism in the African-American community). The Angry Black Woman could be its own blog post but because of that trope, because of that stereotype I am very aware of tone and am very aware of my tone.
Which brings us to today’s topic. Tone policing, speech and and how one can properly express indignation.
It was actually Amber that got me thinking about tone. She is a proud member of a local African-American community group and her discussions about our shared history, our legacy of mistreatment and our slow but steady rise to semi-equality are insightful and brilliant. Remember a few years ago when I mentioned that now, just now, I became a somewhat angry black person over the history of mistreatment and the cruel legacy of racism and slavery. But my anger is tempered mostly. Because I am at the stage with casual racism, casual misogyny, casual transphobia and casual homophobia and just the regular versions of all of those things that my response to such is just a deep and beleaguered sigh.
I am tired. I am so tired of this. I have endured such things now for nearly 30 years. And I am tired. I am tired of being explained my history by mostly white people who are wrong. I’m tired of people saying they are an ally but and I am tired so so tired of people talking over me or talking for me.
But I am a well-trained Southern prince. I am not to speak out of turn. I am not to raise my voice and I am not to be too firm on anything. It’s unbecoming. It’s unladylike. I’ll never get married if I keep saying such hot button things like “Women are people.”
The training is hard to rewrite and thus, my tone is mixed between shrieking harpy and somewhat passive-aggressive pageant contestant. I was trained to avoid religion, politics and the Great Pumpkin in public speech. And whenever I have been more openly political and aggressive with expressing my own views (if you’ve ever seen one of my panel videos, you know what I mean) I find that my tone is oftentimes sharp, pointed and somewhat irked that I even have to “defend” statements that to me and those I surround myself with willingly are not controversial, brave or a surprise. And that’s difficult to manage as a panelist, podcaster, and person. I have to be able to explain why my family’s history only goes back so far. I have to be able to explain why my hair is relaxed or why my human name is so white sounding. I have to be able to explain those things because explaining them helps people understand the complicated legacy of slavery, racism and white hegemony that rests on mine and the shoulders over every person of color in this nation, nay, the world.
I am a communicator by trade be it both in my professional life and my panelist life and that means I am aware of how people listen. And I can promise you this: no one responds well to a shrieking harpy. It shuts people down. And while my indignation is valid, yelling, being pointed or being terse is no way to further a narrative.
But here is where Amber steps in. She seems no need to police tone. When she is terse or irked, she expresses so. And she passionately defends others who can be terse or aggressive with their tones. A showing of a local black-centric documentary brought up this conversation. I was hung up on a use of a word and Amber finally pressed me on why that bothered me. I said because it has the potential to make things sounds more intense than they were and Amber in the way only really she can said: “So?”
I didn’t know how to respond to that. Because I was taught to be measured, I expected this film to be measured and when it wasn’t, it angered me. Why couldn’t they just sit quietly and let civil rights infractions happen? Why didn’t they have my training? Why didn’t they have to deal with what I do?
And here is where I’ll pause to say there’s a fair amount of misogyny in that answer. My human shell is female and thus me being opinionated, blunt, educated and vocal is oftentimes framed entirely differently than if it were a man in my shoes. A man who confidently speaks over women, interrupts them, confidently spews the wrong thing is a smart, brave and driven man. A woman who does even one or more of these things is a shrill harpy and she’ll die alone because no man wants a woman with opinions, merely a set of ovaries and some bangs.
The reasons behind this are rooted in the patriarchal nature of Western culture and that’s a battle I cannot fight on my own.
So because of that double standard, I am hyper-aware of my tone while simultaneously being my most tired of having to police my tone. If someone is wrong, you should be able to say so respectfully. But challenging the status quo is how change happens. We would never have achieved freedom, emancipation, suffrage or the close grasp at equality we have now if people did not challenge the narrative. And sometimes that means not being nice. Pageant answers can only get you so far. Sometimes to really be an agent of change: one has to throw tone out the window.
I never thought my Mother was pretty when I was growing up. She was a big woman who needed oxygen to survive and I was resentful of her weight, her mostly sour attitude as she battled the demons of mental illness and of her oxygen tanks that brought her all the unnecessary attention that later drove her to agoraphobia.
I never thought my Mother was attractive and I spent most of my childhood wanting nothing more than to distance myself from her. I relished in being compared to my Father while shuddered at being compared to her. My earliest memories of her were comparing her to Ursula from The Little Mermaid as the two in my mind had a similar haircut, built and attitude.
But my Father was not the only one who took a lot of photographs. By nature of who my Mother was, she was photographed. And it took nearly a decade of her being committed to her eternal rest for me to realize something: my Mother was beautiful, but that doesn’t mean she was perfect.
Mother was, from what my family has told me, always someone who cared deeply about her appearance. She was the first of five children and being the oldest had its perks and responsibilities. I never got to hear many stories of the woman she was before she married my Father but from what I knew, she wanted not for men or for male attention. Most of the photos I have of my Mother from the time that existed before my Father and well before I was even a concept were her with one of the many male callers that dotted her life experience.
I never understood what my Father saw in my Mother in all those strange Electra complex ways a young girl does when she thinks about her parents.
My Mother wore a ton of makeup. Personally, as a child, I resented such a thing. She was always so heavily painted that it angered me. It was like mask she wore to hide something, she was invincible because of eyeshadow or she was omnipotent because of blush. I always wondered what she was hiding or why she felt the need to wear so much makeup. The photos I have of her only seem to remind me that she had always been that way.
When I was in middle school and was getting ready for Halloween that year dressed as Maid Marion she gave me such aggressive blue eyeshadow that went from the bottom of my small lash line to the top of my eyebrow and that couldn’t have been appropriate for a ten year old. And it wasn’t I remember being scolded some at the school function I was attending for such heavy makeup on a child.
But almost all of my Mother’s photos had such heavy eyeshadow. And it was either an electric blue color or it was done to echo whatever color she was wearing. I used to think such a display was garish. Why call so much attention to yourself? Men should want to give you attention without makeup. It didn’t enhance the woman; it was a mask, a sham, a lie, a deceit.
I seldom wore makeup when I was younger. I carried much of that resentment through my life. My Mother was no saint, especially after my Father died and the way she fell reliant to male attention after her husband’s death made me resent my own femininity. She spent so much time on her hair and makeup while she dated men to fill the void that her husband’s sudden death left behind. I didn’t recognize that I carried that much hatred for makeup that was mostly rooted in a projection of angst over my Mother’s shallowness.
My Mother was dedicated to making sure she always left the house looking her best. Even when she didn’t feel good, she still did her best to look good. When planning for her funeral, my aunts and I made sure to bury her in a dress that she would feel proud of being seen in. My Mother was vain in all the ways most Southern women were. Her vanity oftentimes meant we were late for church or for appointments and I’ve always been a stickler for punctuality. It was irksome to have to wait for her to look just right when I never saw her as looking better for doing so.
But that dedication to her looks was none of my business. It was no one’s business but my Mother’s. Her doing so didn’t hurt anyone and honestly, doing so her made happy.
It took me many years to be mature enough to say that.
I started wearing makeup a few years ago and more importantly, I started wearing eye makeup last year. And recently, I’ve been going quite heavy on the eye makeup. Beauty trends tend to go in a cycle and heavier eye makeup is back in style just like the casual racism of the 1950s is still en vogue. And each time I find myself placing not one but at times two or three colors of eyeshadow onto my eyes or the delight I get now by collecting pallets of eyeshadow like a painter hoards paint; I’m reminded of the complicated woman whose strewn makeup cluttered many a childhood homes’ bathroom. I’m reminded of the woman who so dedicated to her personal level of beauty that she was willing to run late for work lest she be seen without blush. I am reminded of my Mother every time I open up a palette of eyeshadow and am delighted about what I can do with all the colors.
My Mother was not perfect. Our relationship was not perfect. My Mother was a complicated woman to love and to be accepted by. But there’s a reason that we managed to get closer after I had finished high school and was mature enough to realize that holding a grudge wouldn’t solve any issues. Time does not heal all wounds but it certainly does increase one’s propensity to simply not waste new tears on old griefs.
And when I finish doing my makeup now for a convention, a costume, a date, a special occasion or even just because I feel like doing so, I find myself wondering if my Mother would think I was doing a good job. I find myself wondering if my Mother would think I was beautiful. I find myself wondering if my Mother would still be so committed to her personal style if she was still here.
My Mother was no saint. But seeing her through the eyes of her sisters, cousins and friends who describe her so vividly, lovingly and with such a genuine heartfelt grief that she is no longer here with us helped me finally realize that she was in her own complicated way beautiful.
I’m finally glad to have my Mother’s old photographs.
If you catch me on a day when I am blessed enough to have pockets on my pants (damn you, patriarchy, for refusing me the dignity of pockets) you may see a silver chain that hangs from my belt loop to my pocket. It’s a watch. A pocket watch. And while I would love to tell you it’s a family heirloom, it simply is not. It’s from a television show and longtime readers may know exactly what I mean. Let me tell you all a little story. Pull up a chair. Sit down. Let me tell you about the time I became a State Alchemist.
When I was in high school, I started an anime club. I argued for the club for days and finally when we were approved, I became my alma mater’s nerd prince. I had many nicknames then, mostly characters that I particularly related to. Kakashi-sensei was a common one because I was often caught walking through the halls reading light novels. Yuki-san was another because of my love of a certain blonde Cool Beauty and the one that really stuck was Colonel Roy Mustang.
I took over my college anime club in a glorious coup d’etat. The club began years before I started school by two of my senpais and fell into the hands of a girl that I did not like and who pointedly did not like me. When I started college, I wanted to have scholarly discussions about anime: it was what I was passionate about. There’s two camps when it comes to what an anime club does. Many see it as merely a social club: sit around, talk smack, watch cartoons. Others tend to treat it more like a culture club: talk about Japanese culture, discuss themes and do actual things with actual people. I was an English major then and made some of the best friends I could possibly have by having loud and vocal serious talks about anime. So it didn’t sit well with me that the club my senpais founded were now doing nothing but sitting around and watching cartoons. I spoke with the club’s advisor and he agreed: the club should not be just a bunch of young adults watching cartoons. By my side I had my at the time best friend, Travis. Travis was a giant of a man. We were quite the pair. I was small and somewhat commanding and beside me was my most loyal enforcer. He was with me during every step of the way. From taking over the club by filing a complaint with the Student Union, to re-writing the club’s constitution, we even changed the club’s name. We worked hard to make the club we wanted to be part of. And it took time, effort, money and many late nights. Travis was my rock during that time and thus, I earned a nickname that had seemed to reemerge from my earlier days in costume.
You all have heard me gush about Fullmetal Alchemist. You all have heard me talk about how important the series was to me formatively as a fan and as a person. But while you’ve heard me gush about the main protagonist, Edward Elric, there’s one character who has always echoed as a close second to favorite for the entire series: Colonel Roy Mustang. Mustang is a complicated man. He comes off as a typical narcissistic military man with a flare for the dramatic, a cool temper despite being the Flame Alchemist and a penchant for miniskirts, stealing Jean Havoc’s girlfriends and seeming to be an omnipresent nearly antagonistic force in Edward’s life. But Mustang’s goal was simple: he wanted to take over the entire State Military. He wanted to be Furher. And yes, problematic term but the series is set in No-Germany-Germany. And his ambition was well-known, during his famous Mini Skirt Declaration he so proudly and openly said he’d run the whole damn place. But Mustang was not alone in his ambition. He was surrounded by people who helped him support his dream. He had Havoc and Hawkeye and Hughes (ah, alliteration) and so many other subordinates that I don’t have time or patience to list. They all supported his dream and they all wanted to support him as he rose to the top. I always related so powerfully to Mustang’s charisma and ability to lead. I always wanted to be like Roy and seeing him grapple with the horrors of PTSD and likely some untreated mental illness (feel free to press me on my Roy Mustang has bipolar theory), he was supported by his friends. I remember spending most of high school answering so readily to “Colonel Mustang” and doing so with a smile and a salute as my anime clubbers greeted me.
There’s a funny thing in FMA. A pocket watch. One is given to each issued State Alchemist. Each one is unique, special and important: they’re expensive and amplify the alchemical abilities of those who have the distinct honor and privilege of wearing one. Which is why for Christmas after Travis and I founded our club, the gift he gave me made me smile and merely say “Thank you, Hughes.”
Maes Hughes is a character in FMA that if you are familiar with the series, you are likely already crying. He’s easily one of Mustang’s closest friends and one of his most loyal subordinates and one of the most fervent supporter of Mustang’s insane dream.
For years, Travis had been my Hughes. I stood there in meetings, filed paperwork, argued cases and fought for the club I wanted but I never did so alone. And thus Travis was rewarded. When we overtook the club, I was Madame President and he was my Vice President. Roy Mustang had finally reached his goal. He was king and his right hand was by his side.
In that box that Travis gave me was a pocket watch, was the pocket watch. It was Edward’s pocket watch because that was the only sort commercially available. Inside was the famous engraving Edward did on the night he burned down his family home with his little brother after committing the ultimate taboo and even though the watch was not Roy’s, it was the watch of a State Alchemist. It was a gift from a dedicated Hughes to his dedicated Mustang. And I wore that watch with pride.
What is even more powerful is that in this act, it’s much more meaningful than in the show’s canon. In the series, the watch is given by the State. This watch, this honor, this trust was given to me by my friend, my Hughes, my right hand.
Travis and I fell out around the second year of running the club and honestly, when I think about it: the role may have gone to different people but that role is always filled. There has always been someone beside me willing to support my wild dreams. Whether it’s taking the risk of paneling at larger and larger conventions, taking on more and more ambitious costumes or even the radical dreams of moving, changing jobs and doing more; striving for me. There has always been someone there helping me work towards me goal.
I am a proud State Alchemist and would not be so if I did not have the ability to do so.
And that’s why I am so damn proud of my watch. It’s a constant reminder that no matter what, there’s someone who believes in me, believes in my radical dreams and that I will always have their support, their strength, their power to bolster my own.
I am Proudly Colonel Roy Mustang and one day I will be King.
I have the fury, the ambition, the drive and the fire to be more.