I have always felt like a monster. And on this particular morning, my brain and body transform me into a creature I barely recognize.
Claws inject a longing ache deep in my ribcage, the disembodied chemicals’ lips brushing the shell of my ear whispering things no human should endure. Twins of agony perch at my hips while cousins of pain shackle themselves to my knees and shoulder.
But I’m late for work. So I swallow back the disappointment of being alive and slowly rise from the bed. The rest of my routine is executed in the same way: slowly. Every part of me is numb, yet on fire. I feel nothing and everything at once. All of it threatens to kill me, slowly, yet completely, like a laggard river of molten dread.
I overdress, layering too much for the abnormal winter day, so I’m sweating by the time I make it to the first train station of the day. People step away from me, eyeing me suspiciously as I wipe my brow with my scarf, that same wary gaze dropping to the significant bump in my midsection. Onlookers decide immediately at a glance that I am not pregnant: just fat. They’re assessing my uneven gait as deserved punishment for perceived gluttony. Or maybe they do think I’m pregnant and my penance is to stand for doing so out of wedlock or, at the very least, without the promise of marriage.
It would be easy to dismiss this as part of my rampant imagination, as a need to become the victim, a way to pull the race card. But my suspicions are confirmed when the first few tears fall as we sway awkwardly with each jolt of the train. It is evident in the widened, then averted gaze. In the way their bodies shift away from me as we are herded onto a crowded train car. In the downward cast of their eyes as I silently plead for someone to notice me. I want to scream, but if I do, the consequences would certainly outweigh the intent, considering the Black bodies strewn all over the news lately.
And it’s at that moment the thought that destroys me comes to pass: I wish I was a white woman.
This may seem like an odd thing to think during a moment like this, but it’s an ideal propagated throughout literature and media of who deserves to be seen as vulnerable and in need of comfort and help versus those who are capable to the point of being relied on consistently for help without considering the person’s own battles.
Most children’s first exposure to fantasy and science fiction is through Disney movies. Stories of spells causing years-long comas and magic changing fins to legs ushered in the idea of something beyond our immediate world, that we can create these worlds with abandon, yet even that abandon has been and continues to be limited.
I loved Disney movies. I loved being transported to dangerous worlds filled with treachery and madness softened by love and sacrifice. Yet, there was something that always irked me: I never saw a face like mine in these fantastical stories. Dragons, talking animals, and flying carpets were acceptable, but Black people in fantasy? Nah, homie.
On that day on the train, I could hear my mother’s voice: “Don’t cry. No one gives a shit about our tears.” In that moment, I know exactly what she means. When she said it, I was in kindergarten and Aurora* called me an ugly black monkey, after she fell in the sand pit and blamed me. I remember her red, bloated face. I remember not one tear falling from her eyes. And I remember her finger pointing directly at me, clear across the playground, the little Black girl who made her crush laugh one too many times. I hated getting in trouble, did my best to avoid it, but her word was taken over mine and I was sent to stand in the corner during one of my favourite Friday activities: movie time. It was some Disney production we’d more than likely seen before, with a blonde-haired, blue-eyed princess being rescued, a princess who looked more like Aurora than I ever would. My tears were real, but that hadn’t mattered. The evidence did not matter. My voice did not matter.
The nuanced hurt would visit me time and time again; when I’d cry until I passed out when my parents would drop me off with those cousins for multiple summers; when I’d carved my name into my forearm at fifteen while trying to find a vein; when I’d turn over on a friend’s couch, having nowhere else to go, ignoring the blaring television or the click of a disgusted tongue. My pain was frequently ignored or dismissed as attention-seeking and so I pretended nothing was wrong. I let the doctors tell me I just needed to lose weight, I let the social workers tell me to believe in their god, I let the vaguely insulting compliments from friends about being a strong, independent, painfully single Black woman keep me buoyant in a murky sea stinking of loneliness.
I have always felt like a monster.
From feeling so foreign to my kindergarten counterparts, I thought no else ate rice to towering over most of my classmates in sixth grade with teeth too big for my mouth, earning me the nickname Horse for my entire middle-grade career. It was in the eighth grade I found out I had scoliosis. I was set to be as tall as my brother, who stands at 6’4”, but the graceful ‘S’ of my spine stunted me from being even more outcast from my contemporaries. I thought it was a blessing.
Until the pain began.
Surgery was called for, but my parents refused. I went to chiropractors instead, ones who promised that after years of manipulative, expensive treatment, I’d be the towering presence I was meant to be. But the expenses racked up and my treatment was put on the back burner.
Over time, my left leg tucked up tight into my pelvis, my right knee taking up the pressure, while the vertebrae of my neck malformed so badly, I can hear the crunch of the posterior wingtips scrape together when I twisted my head just so. My pelvis shifted, cutting my track & field ambitions short when the pain became too much. I never told my family why I quit before I really started. I didn’t want to be any more of a burden than I was beginning to feel.
I’ve always related to the monsters in film because no one else looked like me, but I wouldn’t discover the catharsis of writing the monster until years later, after plenty of purses clutched a little closer, after multiple times being asked to give up my seat for the fairer sex, after being challenged by a drunk white kid who didn’t realize the amateur bodybuilder was with me, after being accused, followed, questioned, harassed, sat and spat on because I am so damn invisible. After, After, After.
I’d always wondered why different monsters couldn’t fall in love with one another. The invisible monsters. The ones who find each other after the world has shunned them, ignored them, or, even worse, attacked them just for being. Why didn’t those monsters rise up together and say, fuck this world, it’s time to start over?
Why continuously strive to prove humanity to those ingrained with their own vanity?
As most folks with depression will tell you, there are triggers.
As a marginalized child in love with the written word and movie magic, I’d learned to live with triggers in just about every facet of arts and culture to which I was exposed, including my first exposure to speculative fiction: Disney movies. Every story taught in school that featured a character with skin and hair like mine was a story of struggle and pain and abuse, so I donned the body of mental gymnast, ignoring and replacing descriptive words in the likes of R.L Stine, Douglass Clegg, Peter Straub, Stephen King with those that mirrored mine and me so the Black woman could be the one who makes it to the end. Or, at the very least, isn’t relied upon for sage advice or convenient magic to save the white people. I clung to Rae Dawn Chong because she was the brown face in film who went on the adventures in blockbusters, who was the object of desire in drama, who was the monster I thought I was in horror. And she was the closest to me I could see on WPIX 11 on Sunday afternoons.
As I got older, the mental work became harder, so I started writing for myself. I’d always written ridiculous fanfic based on movies like The Wraith and books like the Fear Street series, but I’d decided to venture outside of those story frames and start fresh, start on something that spoke to me as the little girl, the growing teenager, and, later on, the silent adult.
All the while, I still sought me in the written word and the movie magic.
Part of what would trigger a spiral months in the making was The Shape of Water. I went to see the film with a good friend of mine, someone with whom I am able to dissect and critique and enjoy films for what they were and for what they may have been trying to get across. I was excited for it; I’ve admired Guillermo Del Toro’s incredible imagination (and reverence of Chet Zar) and use of practical effects since Pan’s Labyrinth. I was a huge fan of Ray Harryhausen as a kid and still hold stop-motion close to my heart. Seeing glimpses of the Fishman and knowing it was a story of two outcasts falling in love, I was ready to pre-order the Blu-ray and dream of a fishman of my own. I was ready for my Amelie with a sexy creature of the sea.
And then Octavia Spencer’s character arrived on screen.
I’m a fan of Ms. Spencer, though the roles she is given always irk me. They are matronly, these characters. Benevolent beyond reason, a form of magical Mammy negress that set my teeth on edge with how saccharine sweet and gentle and all-knowing they were made to be.
They were what people expected me to be.
As a bigger Black woman, both in height and size, who does not fit the convention of female attractiveness nor femininity, I understand immediately how to present myself when walking into spaces. Size and shade must be proportionate to geniality and approachability; the darker and heavier the Black woman, the kinder and gentler they are expected to be. I know my voice and tone must be checked, otherwise I will be looked upon as angry, combative, mean. I’ve experienced the repercussions of being perceived as such. I’ve lost jobs because of such. I’ve been challenged to physical altercations by grown men because of such.
I don’t need to tell you that I had no intention of presenting myself as such.
So here, on screen, is one of my favourite actresses fulfilling the role expected of darker-skinned Black women: the protector of and literal voice for the introverted, whimsical white-presenting woman, the comedic relief, the nagging and incessantly-talking wife of the no-good, lazy shiftless Black husband, both of questionable intelligence and ambition. It’s evident Del Toro appreciates his “quiet” women, the graceful and small-but-mighty (white) women against backdrops of beautiful silence and expected patience from his audience. By having this constant chatter from the only speaking Black woman on screen, it is assumed there isn’t much to her because she is incessantly talking about all there is to her. She doesn’t shut up about anything, not even a major secret of her ward to her good-for-nothing husband. The only moment of vulnerability we see is when this woman is terrorized by a bigot in her own home. Zelda is assaulted, her personal and living space violated by his presence, his breath, his goddamn necrotic fingers which he leaves behind like this woman’s home is medical waste dump. But the film’s sympathies hardly lie with her. Her tears and shaking voice and bone-chilling fear do not matter as we’re quickly whisked away to the great showdown at the canal. Zelda arrives with a useless cavalry that, in reality, would’ve never come to her rescue, no matter that it’s on the behalf of a white-presenting Latina. With that, we are tugged back into the only story that matters. Never mind Zelda’s lack of security; she’s more than likely lost her job and her home is no longer safe, being occupied by a bigot’s ghost and a cowardly husband.
It’s all for the greater cause of this white woman’s story.
I was immediately reminded of Aurora, of her tears and how her story was more important than mine, and I couldn’t help but wonder what that film would’ve looked like with a mute Black woman as lead. How the figurative and literal silencing of the Black female body would carry through in the world of ableism, racism, and sexism from the moment she is born, her skin being her gills, if you will. What that nuanced representation would’ve done for disabled and silenced Black women who watched this. To see someone come to our defense. To have a protector who valued us, who accepted our disability and even defended it. To be desired after putting so much of ourselves into helping, nurturing, lifting someone up. To be held. Physically held and comforted.
The Shape of Water and many other triggers would trickle together with the force of a waterfall, ending with me washed up in the psych ER after disappearing for a while on the day before Valentine’s Day. It was that day I realized just how far gone I was into the invisibility of my pain, even to myself. I had convinced myself of the very things I’d balked at from the very beginning; that my pain, physical and otherwise, wasn’t real, that I could beat this pain by jogging, fasting, eating several thousand salads with air for dressing to cleanse my body of stubborn, hormone-driven fat and my mind of the daemons that wanted me dead. That I didn’t need love because I could do bad all by myself. But it was the love of friends who knew better than those daemons, who were determined to yell louder than the chemicals telling me I was born wrong that saved me. It was the love that found me, the held me from afar, that has kept me going ever since. It is still hard to trust in that love. I still expect that pale finger to be pointed at me, to turn on me and tell me not only that I don’t matter, but my pain doesn’t either, as long as I’m serving a greater good for someone else.
People remember the Malcom X quote: “The most disrespected woman in America, is the Black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the Black woman. The most neglected person in America is the Black woman.” Yet I’ve only heard a few recognize its source from Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God when Jamie Crawford’s Nanny says, “De nigger woman is de mule uh de world.” We are the constant workhorses for the fairer, for our spouses, for fashion and culture and influence, yet credit falls so short of our black and brown skin and warm bosom. No one checks for us, but us. No one sees us, but us.
Remembering this, I realize no white or non-Black male director or writer would ever be able to pull it off.
And it is now I feel the weight and importance of the work I am set to do.
I will never be the Disney princess entire kingdoms shut down to find, but I can damn sure make it my business to give Black women the happy ending we deserve. We are the forgotten monsters, the invisible help, the unheard, yet influential magic who deserve to be front and center, who deserve to be seen for all that we are: beautifully flawed and like all humans.
© 2018 by teri.zin