Try a Little Tenderness

I knew there would be a time where I would write down my thoughts and feelings about the last 7 months of 2020. It’s been rough. I’m going to be honest, this is another post about race. And I’m not here to convince you to read it. Instead, I want to share the status of my heart the past few months in hopes that you who choose of your own will to read, who may be struggling to “get it,” may hear it through the voice of someone you know. But more importantly, I share this because I’ve decided to try a little tenderness.

I think my parents were always scared of my tenderness. I remember how I told my parents the day my basketball coach passed away. I loved Coach Wright. Since the day we met we shared a special bond. At the start of the season, during one of our end of conditioning huddles, my freshman year, he turned to me with what I thought was a brow furrowed in anger. With his deep gruff voice he leaned in and asked, “Did you sign your permission slip?” I could only look at him wide eyed. I blinked a few times then slowly shook my head no, back and forth, bracing for his look of disappointment. Instead he chuckled, which made me laugh too, winked at me with his one good eye and nudged me with his elbow. I knew it then and he knew it too; we were kindred spirits. Even for the next few years as I played basketball for him, I knew I was his secret favorite. He was like a second dad, who looked out for me on and off the court. We clicked because to him, I was still just a kid and I needed that. Even at 14, I was accustomed to compliments about my “old soul” or how I was so mature for my age. And although that was partly true, I also was very much a child. I don’t think people believed that both persons could exist in the same form.

I learned of Coach Wright’s passing over the phone from my former teammate. I was a senior in high school and had traded basketball for marching band. As soon as I flipped down my cell phone at the end of the call, I ran downstairs, unable to really process any emotion. It just felt like something big had happened. I didn’t feel sad yet, it was just a jolt of energy, heightened cortisol pulsing through my veins. “Coach Wright died!” I exclaimed. I was never one to be subtle in sudden situations. I stood at the kitchen archway, looking from parent to parent, subconsciously scanning their faces to read their emotions. They froze. I waited. And waited. I mean this had to be 5 full seconds of silence. And it dawned on me. As their eyes darted back and forth and their expressions grew cautious, I realized they were trying to gauge my emotions to see if I was heartbroken. “Oh…well I just thought I would tell you,” I said annoyed.

“Are you ok?” my mom asked.

“Yeah, I’m fine.” I said in a “well-duh-what-did-you-think-I’d-be-a-hot-mess” tone. But internally I realized, my parents were equipped for my strength but were lost when it came to my frailty. This aversion to tenderness, or rather, aversion to showing tenderness became my norm. This wasn’t the genesis of this internal movement but it did solidify the uneven foundation ready poured into the mold.

And so when Ahmaud Arbery was murdered on what should have been a routine run, when Breonna Taylor was killed in her sleep by a bullet she couldn’t see coming, when George Floyd was strangled in broad daylight in a busy street, I could not uphold the strong tower image I had created around racism and its effect on me and my family. So I didn’t. I cried. I got angry. I mourned. I felt all the feelings, especially ones like anger and sorrow that I had been bullying myself not to feel in an attempt to preserve what little hope I could muster for the past few of years. I let go of my hope. I released my anger against the church who I’d felt used me for my representation but discarded my voice. I let myself uncontrollably sobb in the shower, only stopping to catch my breath. I mourned the fact that I had always been over sexualized and/or made to be stronger than I was because of my skin tone, even by those that followed Christ. I created a protective circle of only a few friends who I could go to. I rejected the urge to run to my bible to help “explain” all that I had seen away. I realized I had never felt protected in church and that sent me into a whole other spiral of realizing that some people always trusted and always felt protected in those walls. (I had no idea what I was feeling this whole time was not normal!) I went numb. I herded the black students in my DM’s, as if we were all stuck in a violent earthquake and if we could just stick together, we could make it out alive. I painted to distract myself. I wrote in gloom. I grew short tempered and bitter. I laughed and spewed sarcasm whenever I could. All the callouses I deliberately grooved over my soul were torn and I was raw. I was as sensitive and as tender as I have ever been. To be honest, I didn’t like it. I didn’t like it, but I wanted it.

I yearned for the space to be tender. I longed for a space where my feelings and sensitivities weren’t scary or out of place. I never found a safe place to be all those things in a long time. To be mature but a child. To be angry and hopeful. To be stricken with sorrow but laugh at stupid things. To be protected and cared for and not expected to lift myself up again, not because I couldn’t, but just because I needed the rest. I didn’t explain it too early. I didn’t rush to my journal or turn on my laptop to write essays of my tenderness. I just was. I didn’t answer every call. I didn’t communicate an inauthentic joy. Even now there are things I choose not to share.

In that dark night, I will say, I found protection among my friends. They way they listened, cared for me, cried with me, checked in on me was like cold bandages applied to a stinging heart. I found it in cousins & my siblings, especially my sister. We vented, exchanged stories, shook our head back and forth more than a hundred times. And now, after going through all that and still working through the depths of my feelings, I always want the word tender to be associated with who I am. It means I’m human. It means I hurt. It means I heal. It means I’m not serious all the time and if you decide to fall on the floor laughing I’ll be right there with you. I am not the stereotypical one sided, strong black woman. I am strong AND I am tender. I can care for AND be cared for. I am mature and yes, even today, I am still like a child. I am both, and. And I will no longer accept a narrative that will paint me than anything other than that fact.

And if you don’t know, now you know.

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