A black girl’s first act of sorcery is to make herself disappear. I understood this when my father asked me to sit on his lap.
He was in a wonderful mood that night. His baritone, a whiskey warmed song ripe with invitation.
I remember wrapping my arms around myself, hands trying to gather in my hips, shoulders cocked too tight, like shotguns aimed at the ground.
At the dawn of a rite of passage, there’s so much tightness.
Since I was a little girl, my grandmother had warned me that someone would try to pry me open.
She made me promise that no matter who it was, I’d tell her, even if I had to pin a note to her pillow.
She knew, at eleven, I was already a dangerous blend of my parents.
My father was the most powerful person I knew—brilliant, he graduated high school when he was sixteen. He became a lawyer by the time he was twenty-three. He was the visionary of our family, the hope. In a world that relegated our blackness with unworthiness, he was proof that we—because of our proximity to him—are remarkable.
But my father also molested me.
My mother is from the Philippines. Because my grandfather was the governor of her island, my mom grew up understanding the sacrifices necessary for a political family. She learned how to slice and rearrange the pieces of a life until they look beautiful.
But my mother didn’t protect me.
I am my parents’ intersection. Mom’s hair hanging like ropes down my back, Papa’s mouth bowed into constant questions marks, her almond eyes and my grandmother’s hips that, even at 11, curved into bass-clefs singing trouble.
My grandmother knew this combination would be my undoing—that men would try to undo me.
No one seemed surprised that the first was my father.
They are not victims. They are survivors, but not just any survivors, superhero survivors. – M. Evelina Galang.
We are a warrior clan. My family trained me to walk samurai-style.
My parents enrolled me in a private school. In my class, there was only one other black girl. And I was the only Filipina girl. Of course, I was the shortest.
I was always outnumbered.
My mission: to infiltrate, absorb a first-class education and come out with the kind of code-switching mind that innately understands the intersection between oppressor and oppressed—to use this knowledge to unwind chains, to read stars, to become a new Harriet figuring out what’s higher than North.
In kindergarten, I’d already learned that the fiercest warriors are quiet. The grittiest cowboys don’t say shit. They chew tobacco gathering their tightness. Don’t need to flex. We fire without warning.
And I liked to imagine myself a hybrid, half cowboy, half velvety ninja; so quiet that when David Ramsey called me a “black bitch” (when I didn’t want to play house with him), I had to tell my teacher to call his parents, and mine.
She wouldn’t believe that such a sweet girl would let her hand pop tight across a boy’s face until he crumbled into the nap mats.
When our parents rushed into the classroom, David was pale, highlighting the palm print that still bloomed scarlet.
Oh, young David wasn’t planning on telling anyone that the tiniest girl in the class had KNOCKED. THE. FOOL. MESS. OUT. OF. HIM.
His parents stammered excuses. They blinked, “black bitch…” They had no idea where he would have picked up that sort of language.
My mother was trying to hold back her laugh. She already knew my work.
But my father was in lawyer mode: there’s no way someone as sweet and small as me could have done such damage.
I was all too happy to interrupt my father.
Common sense: flay the bully publicly, as a message to the others.
So, I samurai-walked over and put my hand to his cheek.
It matched perfectly.
I smiled and counted coup.
…But, He’s Your Father. You Have to Respect Him. – My Grandmother
What kind of warrior swallows the word “no” as she lets her father guide her onto his lap?
This is my deepest shame.
I’ve been taught to line my muscles with lead, to think decisively in battle. I’ve been taught that my steel-forged tongue should always be combat ready.
But, instead of saying “no” I took up my perch on his lap and called for my mom.
She was a few feet away, snoring.
Her eyes were closed too tight.
A Filipina girl’s tongue is magic. Teaching herself to melt it, and swallow is her first act of voodoo.
And I did something I’d never done before. I waited for something outside of myself to save me.
My father hushed me as he fumbled with my clothes. I was still wearing my leotard from ballet class. He tired when his whiskeyed fingers could not figure how to navigate a tangle of inter-connected lycra.
Even now, as an adult, lycra makes me feel safe. I love lingerie, layers of boned leather armor and wisps of lace, a twisting puzzle that only I can unlock.
I find that I can trace the exact moment when I learned to make myself small.
I’ve festered in this betrayal. I’d always been taught to look into the face of that which is bigger than me and laugh as I disassemble it.
But, how do you disassemble your father?
On his lap, I wanted to be light, to hover above him—the way ninjas never really touch anything until they are ready to destroy it.
The way he said my nickname, Manang Ging, I knew that he needed me.
Wasn’t I taught to understand the pain of gathering too much tightness in a world where you are always outgunned?
He was reaching for something outside of himself.
Warriors don’t cry.
My tears would hurt him more. And there’s a tradition in my family: the women protect the men, even when these men have hurt us. Our role as caretakers supersedes our need for safety.
I waited, hoping he would remember that father means protector.
The fiercest warriors are quiet.
The most ferocious conjurers are wonder workers whispering the mission until it is a prayer that we mouth in our dreams.
This is how you stay ready.
You Wanna Fly, Give Up the Shit that Weighs You Down – Toni Morrison
When I got the call that I’d received the Kresge Fellowship, the news was a secret. The only folks I was allowed to tell: my family.
We are good at secrets.
I drove to my father’s house. He was excited to see me. I warned him that this would be a hard conversation.
“I won the Kresge,” I said, matter of factly.
He smiled his slow wide grin. “Beautiful! What’s hard about that?”
“I won for theater. I wrote a one woman show about surviving you.”
He didn’t flinch. “OK.”
“The show will be produced. People will see it.”
“OK.” He said, with a scared smile.
“I’ve been writing in your voice, trying to understand what you were thinking, feeling. In the process, I got back the part of myself that was scared that I’m like you.”
“OK.” He blinked, carefully.
“For a long time, I’ve hidden this work away. I didn’t want to embarrass our family. So, I’m here to give you a heads up, because, I love you, and because you know all of these people.”
“OK.” His eyes so much like mine, waited for me, the way I’d waited for his apology.
“The mission is to heal, become whole, encourage others to see that there is a ridiculous amount of beauty in walking through this. The mission is to discover what’s higher than North.”
He blinked. Like a warrior, he carefully chose his words.
“Manang Ging, Maya Angelou was silent for years. But she became a force reshaping your generation—mine too. You will do that too. And if anyone deserves to be free, it is you. I’ve never been more proud of you.”
The difference between poetry and rhetoric / is being ready to kill / yourself / instead of your children. – Audre Lorde
Black Magic, Filipina Magic lies in restoring that which was disappeared.
We conjurers unwind spells. We incant the new order. There’s a long line of warriors who’ve woven words that have beckoned me North: Maya Angelou, Toi Derricotte, Ai, M. Evelina Galang, Maxine Hong Kingston, Audre Lorde, Nikki Patin and Lisa Factora Borchers.
Their verses and chapters are maps guiding me to build a safe space within myself so I can embark on dangerous work.
Through them I’ve learned that I am not just a weapon. I am my own salvation.
My father never asked why this truth needed to be public.
He simply said, “My dear, you are a warrior. Everyone talks about Hannibal, with his elephants and Shaka Zulu. But you are Cleopatra, regal and immeasurably brilliant. Your beauty is merely one of your weapons. It is an advantage for people to forget how strong you are. Take pleasure in reminding them.”
My father knows that my journey inspires anyone who needs to survive.
And aren’t we all surviving something?
The depth of compassion and love required for me to become whole inspires my father to now evolve and survive me.
Our unfolding becomes stars that further illuminate the path.
To be unfukwitable: to vibrate at the frequency of evolution, to be free, so far North, that you are able to restore your wholeness, to feel safe within yourself; to move calmly at the center of hurricanes.
Ironically, we only become whole by taking the opposite action of what we did to survive. I was sitting on my father’s lap, so now it is time to stand.
I told my family and teachers, but I didn’t howl with the fullness of my ache. I thought my rage would unravel my family. So, for years I have hidden away my words to protect the people who, in that moment, could not protect me.
My words give my family the opportunity to rise and to heal.
Yes. This is a mutiny. The ship’s off course.
These patterns must be unravelled.
Common sense: heal publicly as a message to the others.
Each day, they watch me wrap words around the shame, until it dissolves. I’ve learned to revel in the body that I’ve always yearned to escape.
The Obsidian Blues young writers that I mentor whisper the word “freedom” as if wholeness or feeling safe is a myth for us because we are some blend of Black /Asian /women / men /Muslim/ Atheist/Christian/ straight/bi.
So, this process is a testimony to them: we walk through swamps, through fire. We define who we are for ourselves. If you want to be free, you have to steal ALL OF YOURSELF back.
Embrace every shadow. Absorb enough trill to meet fear with authenticity.
My father has gifted me everything I need to survive him. He and my mother know, better than anyone, that survival is an art.
As he told me how proud he was, we were both able to evolve. He pushed past his fear to remember that it is he that is supposed to protect me.
We took that moment to survey one another, in silent preparation for the storm brewing ahead.