Perfecting My Jenifer Lewis Face To Fight White Supremacy » VSB

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Perfecting My Jenifer Lewis Face To Fight White Supremacy

Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images

 

My sophomore year in college, I found a surprisingly spacious studio for a reasonable price and made the move from my mama’s basement to a just-off-campus apartment. I had only been in it a week when I realized the house across from me was a frat house, a White one. I don’t recall the name of the fraternity, but I do remember the tipped over car on the lawn after one particularly loud, all-night kegger. I remember the crushed plastic cups always strewn across the steps, the sidewalk, and the street. I remember the bonfire, and by bonfire I mean pile of 24-pack beer boxes, wooden chairs, and clothes the frat boys sometimes lit up in a trash can to the left of their porch. Most of all, I recall a game they played, who knows the name, that involved filling balloons with a water and something-like-pasta sauce mixture then throwing them at each other while they dodged between people’s cars, mine included, on the crowded one-way street where we lived. Sure, people complained. Even I called the police once, which is notable because I had never called the police before, for anything. Nothing happened. Campus security, and even the real police would roll through, but the frat house behavior went unchecked. As irritating as this was, there mere existence isn’t what brought on my Jenifer Lewis face.

I discovered my Jenifer Lewis face when, at the start of the fall semester, campus security and Milwaukee County Police joined forces to shut down a back to school party just blocks from my apartment. The party, which I happily attended, was packed with Black bodies dancing and hugging and laughing in all the ways we needed to face another semester at a PWI; we raised our hands and voices to Nas’s “If I Ruled the World,” all the while knowing the White boys around the corner actually do. The party eventually spilled out from my friend’s small, first floor apartment and onto the front lawn. Some of us were taking a moment to catch our breath in the crisp, cool breeze rustling through the golden and fire red trees of autumn in Milwaukee. Some of us were just shooting the shit, talking about midterms or who was getting down with who once the last jam played. Were we loud? Probably. Were we standing around laughing, slapping fives, and dranking? Of course. Were we burning shit, turning over cars, throwing homemade pasta-sauce-grenades at each other and fucking up people’s cars? Absolutely not. 

When the campus and city police showed up, flashing lights and shining ultra-bright beams across the lawn and into our faces, they ordered us, via bullhorn, to either go inside or go home. Shit was a scene from “Higher Learning.” When too few of us responded, the police whooped their siren and repeated their order: Go inside or go home. The campus security made their way out of their cars, holding flashlights and already calling for college IDs. The city police opened their doors in support of the move, ready to jump out and accost anyone who moved too slowly. The security checked for identification and made moves to shut down the party. I knew the look I had on my face, but more importantly, I knew the way I felt, that acrid and heavy feeling in the pit of my stomach, was telling me something I needed to remember. The world works one way for them and another way for us. And this is America. lewis

This was never more clear than when I moved to Florida shortly after graduating from Marquette. I took an IT consulting position that relocated me to sunny St. Petersburg, Florida. I worked with a diverse set of people, both nationally and internationally, but the folks at the very top never looked like me. In fact, they looked like mostly sober, clean-shaven versions of the frat boys who lived across the street from me in the not-so-distant past. New to area, I hadn’t spent a lot of time in the south. All I knew were beaches and beach trolleys, sun hats and sunsets. I was quickly introduced to a lot of things—some good (Cuban bread, mango and avocado trees growing in back yards), others troubling (Confederate flags on pick-up trucks everywhere, all the time), and still another a great but confusing marvel of contemporary shopping that, at the time, I had no frame of reference for… my first Walmart.

I had stepped into the superstore on the Northside of St. Petersburg (a city historically segregated by north and south by Central Avenue, North for Whites and South for Black people. The lines are blurring now though. See also: Gentrification. See Also: Urban Colonialism) because it was open late, and them long days as a consultant many times stretched past normal store hours. The looks started the moment I stepped out of my car and followed me all the way in to the bright overhead lights. Still in my smart, I’m-coming-for-a-management-position-suit and pinstriped shirt, I walked up and down the aisles, marveling at how tires, socks, DVD players, rifles, bikes, and Juicy Juice could share the same space. And without a membership? Walmart was off the chain. More remarkable than the stock in the place was me taking stock of the place. Other than two others, who were both workers, I seemed to be the only person of color in the entire store. And these White people, trying to enjoy their late-night shopping experience, were mad at me. They were mad I was in their store, on their side of town, and they were mad that I had on a suit, mad that I apparently had a job. The hate palpable, their mouths tight frowns and their eyes slits of accusation. I called my sister while I stood in line the shit was so ridiculous. I remember saying, Jenifer Lewis face intact, voice not even a little hushed, “You should see how these White people staring at me in this Walmart though. Like they ain’t never seen no Black woman with a job before.”

jlewis

The looks continued, regardless of how I was dressed, and we know what those looks are like when we enter spaces where we aren’t really welcome: which as a Black person can be anywhere from a local bar to shopping mall, Wall Street to Silicon Valley. White folk are not only confused by the presence of Black people sharing space with them, but seem offended by it at times, angered by it even. Their faces, Strom Thurmond and Ann Coulter faces, frowning and pinched, tells me what I already knew, what we already know: a lot of White people hate seeing anybody but them doing anything pleasurable, earning any type of success, moving through the world like we free. They faces stay on some “Who let you do that? Who let you have that? Who let you in here?”

So, I’m a college professor now and shit remains the same. When I first started teaching, I got challenged by students fairly regularly, and most often by White students, White women in particular—that 54% that were pro-cheeto and anti-pantsuit didn’t really surprise mewho wanted to question my credentials and ability, who wanted to know how old I was and where I grew up. Basically, they wanted to know who “let” me teach a college class. You know what face I had on when they called themselves questioning me. Anyway, about four years ago, I worked on the grade grievance committee and the overwhelming majority of cases we reviewed as a committee were White students who, even as their mediocre work was passed around the table, stood firm in their insistence that their failing grade was undeserved, unearned. To file a grievance, the student had to prove that his or her grade was given capriciously. The burden of proof lies on the student; more often than not the student had no evidence—only anger and bitterness, as detailed in their rambling, poorly written grievance statements. These students, multiple absences, missing assignments, and low exam scores be damned, did not understand how they could have failed. The answer was clear as day to me and the other professors, students, and administrators on the committee: the student performed poorly but felt entitled to grades he or she didn’t earn. They wanted the passing grade because, and this is actually from one of the cases, “I just feel like I should have passed.”

This one student, in my mind he is wearing a red “Make America Great Again” hat but this was like four years ago so that wasn’t really a thing then, came wearing a camo button-up shirt with cut-off sleeves, jeans, and flip-flops, took one look at the committee (a diverse mix of individuals—various cultural backgrounds and more women than men), and rolled his eyes so hard I thought he’d pass out. He sat down hard, leaned back and manspreaded himself in his chair. He pushed his cap—it was for some bait company or fishing cove or something really—back on his forehead and crossed his arms. A colleague of mine read his grievance aloud, something about his professor hating him because he was outspoken in class, refusing to take his make-up work, and grading too hard on material that “wasn’t even talked about really.” Riddled with misspellings and grammatical errors, it was clear that this mediocre student “worked” to quite possibly the best of his aggressively mediocre ability, but felt that he deserved something he didn’t really earn. He sat there, waiting to be awarded something because he wanted it, no other reason, but that he wanted it. His professor didn’t attend, but she sent a packet of the work the student had turned in (including notes about online assignments that had been plagiarized) as well as copies of the attendance. When pressed about his wack ass work and poor attendance, his answer sent chills through my spine: “Look,” he said, leaning on the table then shrugging, “I took this class twice already. I have to pass it this time so I can apply for the Police Academy.”

True. Story.

I didn’t know what to say, but I know what my face said. 

The student reminded me of those frat boys who lived across the street. His attitude made me think about how mad a lot of White folk are about the progress and success of the very people they’ve fought so hard to oppress, and it renewed in me the understanding that White supremacy is built upon a plagiarism of “we built it” and a hijacking of creativity, that it operates on the assumption that White is better, smarter, and deserves success even in its proud and aggressive mediocrity. And this, is America.

My Jenifer Lewis face has been a go-to over the years, and 2016, particularly the election, has placed in me a particular challenge. I don’t want to minimize the damage the incoming administration has the potential to cause—as a Black lesbian woman, I’m hella worried. Hell, as a human, I’m hella worried—nukes and climate-change-deniers will destroy every inch of this place including your passport. Yet, being who I am, and knowing what I know about White supremacy and the realities of racism, I cannot afford to enter 2017 in fear. None of us can. We have to keep doing what we’ve been doing since the beginning of time: We must continue to figure out their systems—some of us working within them to interrupt that shit, others of us creating new systems, new approaches, new realities—and, we must continue to find our own way to success and pleasure. We got to hold on to what we know about America, what we know about ourselves, and Jenifer Lewis face anything and anyone who mistakenly thinks they about to stop our shine.

Sheree Greer

Sheree L. Greer is the author of two novels, Let the Lover be and A Return to Arms, and recently published a writing guide for student writers called Stop Writing Wack Essays. Sheree founded Kitchen Table Literary Arts Center to showcase and support women writers of color. She eats hella tacos, plays her music too loud, and believes hot sauce is the true nectar of the gods.

  • camille1128

    I was born and raised in St. Pete, south of Central. I’ve seen those flags, and I bet I know that Wal-Mart. I was gonna ask what year, but it doesn’t matter.

    • Kat

      And you know this..it could have been yesterday or 8000 yesterdays.

    • I bet you know, too. For awhile, it was the only one in the city.

  • Junegirl627

    I’m too old for stupid WY people. I think that Jennifer Lewis’ face is formed through the trial and tribulations of dealing with wytes so my face is ready but my spirit is prepared for a stint in lockup

  • MysteryMeat

    Sounds like Ohio State in the late 90’s early 2000’s. They would tear up the place when we loss to Michigan and there would be narry a cop but when May rolled around and African American Heritage Festival or “Block Party” popped off, COPS, TANKS, DOGS, TRACTERS, PADDYWAGONS, HELICOPTERS GALORE! I remember about 30,000 people collectively having the Jennifer Lewis face in unison. I mean, the literally showed up because there was an influx of black folks on High St (a main drag in the city) and nothing would be going on.

    • AProst

      As a longtime resident of Columbus, can confirm this is true.

    • The worse example I saw of that was when for a Rutgersfest, they had the ska band Less Than Jake open for Method Man and Redman. (Yes, I went to school the same time as you. How did you guess? ;-) ) Those White boys were being STUPID aggressive, and I had to throw some ‘bows to protect some of my friends from the moshing. It ended up with one of my girl’s having to get medical assistance, but they did jack ish to them dudes.

      • Cheech

        Shoot, this just happened to me a month ago at an English Beat show. Had to box out around my small friend against some drunk fool 48 year old. He felt the need for attitude, and I thought, seriously? We’re all married with babysitters at home and we’re gonna square off now?

        What was more annoying was the sloppy drunk bro bonding after I pointed out that we were all there for a good time and he settled down. Frat bros (even old ones im finance) turn into big slobbery labradors that want to throw their paws up on your shoulders. Squaring off would have been less annoying.

        • Lea Thrace

          Trying to picture Cheech squaring off: DOES NOT COMPUTE.

          You broke my brain.

          Also, Check your msgs. I sent you something that was clearly made for you!

          • Cheech

            Hehe. Since this was about my 4,352nd show in life, I was able to handle myself. One thing about both PWI’s and the music business — you learn how to handle drunks.

            Also, that was clearly NOT made for me. Close, yet very very different.

            • Lea Thrace

              HAHAHA. I tried Cheechers. I tried!

        • esa

          aww you brought back memories ~*~ my girl from London got waaasted at the last show Dee Dee Ramone did, started acting crazy, security had to carry her out. my other girl was like WTF. and i was like, old punks die hard.

          • Cheech

            After one Ramones show at the Masquerade, I came home at 2 am soaking wet and bleeding. Had a great time. We had a new roommate who was a devout churchgoing type from rural Georgia, had just moved to Atlanta. He took one look at me coming in the door, his eyes went wide, and he asked, “Do you want me to call the police?”

        • Kas loves Jamaican Breakfast

          That is hilarious.

      • MysteryMeat

        I can see that scene so clearly in my head lol

    • “Narry a cop!!!!” You already know.

  • Skegeeaces

    Seems to me like the young man in the hat should have been applying to work at Wal-mart.

    • Sigma_Since 93

      Why does he sound like a character in Squidbillies

      • Cheech

        Why, though I’ve never heard of Squidbillies in my life, does this sound perfect?

        • Kas loves Jamaican Breakfast

          How have you never heard of squidbillies?

        • NonyaB?

          Me neither but it sounds so right! I looked it up and their wiki page took me out:
          https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Squidbillies

        • Sigma_Since 93

          Head to Adult Swim and indulge yourself for 15 min

      • Lea Thrace

        accurate AF

      • Yahmo Bethere

        Isn’t the MAGA hat just Early’s hat though?

      • Skegeeaces

        I’m crine! lol

  • BatmansExWife

    Yea, that sounds like St. Pete alright. Love the area

    And being that I live in Florida, and I work in education, I just feel this post on all levels.

  • miss t-lee

    The face stays ready. Even more so as of late.

  • Mona

    Badassed-ly written.

  • Lots of different thoughts:

    * One, I’m glad I have a line of work that’s devoid of frat type White boys. Now, I’m not saying STEM is some Valhalla of racial tolerance. It’s not, and far from it. Still, at least those frat boys stay the F away from that field, and the native born White boys who do stick around tend to have done something of note with their lives. That said, once you have something to show them fools, you can shut them the entire F up, and get their White counterparts to cape for you.

    * That first Walmart visit is real. The first one came to Valley Stream (which, for those who know Queens, is like an expansion neighborhood thereof, while technically outside of city limits) in 2004. The place is an utter midf*ck if you aren’t used to it.

    * Being that I edited a college newspaper, and did plenty of writing, I’ve seen my share of crappy writing. The difference is that the students of color are generally amenable to help, and the ones that aren’t generally don’t make it past a semester. The White dudes tend to be way more aggressive with their mediocrity, and the more they like frats, the more aggressive they are. (The nerds were more likely to be surprised I’d seen a woman in her drawers before than anything else.)

    * I have one more story about my extra-cirriculars that dovetails nicely with the reaction those White people gave you in that Walmart, but I’ll keep that in a separate comment.

    Welcome my Sapphic Sister!

  • PinkRose

    Great article!!

    As an occasional adjunct chem prof, I could tell you some stories. But you haven’t experienced true bull$hit in teaching until the daughter/son of Uncle Tom decides to roll you over to the white folks because you wouldn’t give them a grade they didn’t earn.

    Times have certainly changed since I first taught in the 90s.

  • PinkRose

    I throughly get this post. But imma’ advise y’all to chill on the Jennifer Lewis face for a couple reasons. 1) your black WILL crack after years/decades of frowning. 2) cortisol is a bee-otch, save fight or flight for when you REALLY need to get your a$$ moving. 3) related to #2, shorter life spans. 4) Botox to get rid of frown lines is expensive from what I hear.

    • kingpinenut

      Stop sniffing my cookies -Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers: The Acclaimed Guide to Stress, Stress-Related Diseases, and Coping – Now Revised and Updated

      https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0037NX018/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1

      • Cheech

        1. Ok, I don’t wanna know.
        2. You and this one touch amazon app are no good for my impulse control and frugality in early 2017.
        3. But in this case the info is more valuable. Cortisol has been my life fuel.

        • kingpinenut

          *belly laugh*

          If you want to see a *great* movie ( recommended by a college roommate that broke up with a non-blood-related female to date a blood-related female ) check out Meet the Feebles.

          #WalrusStayBustingCookies

          I’ve got this book open on my kindle cloud reader right now ( browser cookies )

          I wish I had known the information in this book 20+ years ago, life would have been very different.

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