This week, Rachel Jeantel is my patron saint of Black girls. Usually I give that title to Kerry Washington for her Bronx-meets-Spence-meets-Hollywood swagger. Or Lolo Jones (who stupidly and confusingly did this to Jeantel) for her athleticism, faith, and “beat the odds” story trifecta. They represent so much to me, chiefly code-switching under pressure and blatant fabulousness. But I think Jeantel has earned the title this week.
In these seven days so much has bubbled up from the swamp of America’s race relations. In one corner, the SCOTUS essentially declares racism over by striking down part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. They also handed out a Laodicean non-ruling on Affirmative Action. In the next, we have Paula Deen and her use of the N-word coupled with her alleged treating her employees like slaves while also imagining a blissful plantation wedding with Blacks serving in little white jackets—in my imagination, she’d unwittingly have recruited Nat Turner to serve the mini shrimp and grits canapés. And finally, we have the George Zimmerman trial, where Jeantel was on the witness stand.Being the witness in a high profile case never looks easy, but in this instance seeing her hits close to home because the words being used against her are the very things I fear as a fellow Black girl.
It’s not just a fear; it’s more of a paranoia that jumps out unannounced to make me hyperaware of just being me. It’s the fear being accused of being surly, ghetto, angry, or having an attitude. Those words hurt and debase our experiences. They allow us to be written off as a neck rolling, finger popping, 'round-the-way caricature right next to the welfare queens, the Uncle Toms, and the mammies.
Seeing her on the stand reminds me of all time times I had to fight my way out an assumption.
Like when I first moved to New York and left my keys in my apartment after a day of Target shopping. So, there’s me on my stoop surrounded by bags of pillows and sheets, wearing some getup from Urban and probably one of these Longchamp totes everyone carries. I’m sure I looked suspicious. And I’m being serious. I actually went out of my way not to ask people to let me in, fearing some unforeseen outcome started by a misunderstanding. I called my roomies and waited. But then I got tired and reached for the door when someone breezed through. But what happened next was not breezy.
My friendly neighbor jerked the door from my hand and asked what I was doing. I slid my shades up and cheerily introduced myself as the new neighbor from apartment 63 and I reached out my hand to shake hers, but she wouldn’t take it. Fine, I thought, maybe that was naïve of me. I then shared that I was locked out and was waiting on my roomies to come back. She snarled back that burglars plagued the building and that I don’t have to get an attitude with her. I, shocked, squeaked out that I lived there and asked how I was “giving attitude” by stating that? I don’t think she liked that because then she, even more loudly, said that I needed to stop getting an attitude and that because I was getting an attitude, she wouldn’t let me in.
So there I was, a proposed burglar with an attitude on the verge of tears. A few minutes later an actually friendly neighbor let me inside and let me put my things in his apartment while I waited. I sat outside my door confused and retracing what I did wrong, wondering if I really needed an attitude check.
A year later, I found myself at a gig where despite my cheery “good mornings” and “how are yous,” I heard rumblings of my being “the Black girl with the attitude.” I must note, I was not only the only Black girl, but also the only person of color, so I knew they were talking about me. Oddly, the folks saying this weren’t ever that nice to me, but in the moment I didn’t care about that, I cared about making them like me; I cared about not being the Black girl with the attitude. My solution was to be so nice it hurt. I sent links to one about his favorite band, I took lunch with the other and asked thoughtful questions about their stories, and through it all I never stopped smiling.
That didn’t matter though, everything I did was thought of as aggressive. Eventually they stopped gossiping about my “attitude” and said it directly to me when they were informing me of my uppityness. What did I do? I smiled and brought in candy for the candy dish, of course.
Both times, I was so neutered by the accusation of having an attitude or being Black and angry, as my human ability to emote was taken as opportunity for someone to put me in my place.
But in this moment, seeing Jeantel be herself while the Internet is filling up with articles about her skin color, size, dialect and socio-economic background and while also dealing with a defense that questions her ability to speak English is showing me someone who’s not folding. It’s showing me someone who is strong, and not in a “strong Black woman” frame, but in her ability to speak her truth from her hyper-examined perch -- and I can only imagine what it’s like there.
And for that very reason, along with her laid bangs and tri-lingual tongue, I hereby name Rachel Jeantel as my new patron saint of Black girls.