“This is a bad idea,” I say. “There are at least half a million better ways to spend a Saturday night.” A set of eyes thrown at my husband, inviting him to Netflix and Chill, goes unnoticed as he stands in my reflection. His perfection on full display, the long, lean muscles of his dark, ebony arms and legs meeting at the intersection where the white T-shirt and boxers cover his body. He tucks his T-shirt into his boxers which makes me smile, makes me want to wrap my arms around the elastic waistband and feel the tautness of his stomach against my face. And not let go. The millions of moments of our lives culminating in these seconds where he stands behind me in the mirror as I put the finishing touches on my makeup. Winged eyeliner, extra coat of mascara, and pillowy crimson lips that no one from work deserves to see.
He stands vacillating between two dark gray suits of the same cut and by the same designer, holding them up in the background for me to choose. I point to one that looks exactly like the other. My winged eyes roll and my red pout turns up at the corners as he chooses the other, hanging my choice back in the closet. After repeating the same exercise with his shoes and tie, I pluck the black dress I chose from the closet and smooth it over my body. A dress worn to the office a million times under a blazer, it hugs my curves just so and my husband admires me as he works his shirt buttons. Maybe because he likes what I have underneath, too. With my hair up and some dangly earrings, it’s doubtful anyone will know this is a work dress. It comes with the territory of being both invisible and too visible.
We settle into the seats of our plug-in hybrid and drive from our little house in our little neighborhood in Washington, D.C., towards downtown, to a reception hosted by the king of all kings in my work world, the Secretary of Housing, Health, Labor, Education, and General Human Services, or HHLEGH. This newest crop of political appointees has actually taken to pronouncing the acronym, judging with smug satisfaction your furrowed brow as the sound of spit gathers deep in their throats. After many hard-fought years and over a million taxpayer dollars spent, the Agency won the right to deny millions of black and brown people access to a variety of social programs and those designed to provide access to a sliver of the American dream. This money, we decided, should be redistributed as payouts to those who support the Administration. Big businesses, mostly, but also fervent supporters who vote for the very priorities that require them to need these programs in the first place. “It’s not too late to turn back,” I say as the valet jogs in our direction. “I’m telling you, this is not how you want to spend a Saturday night.”
“It’s one night, Maddie.” The softness of his Ghanaian-accented English travels into me, reminds me of the warm Atlantic waves near his childhood home. “We’ll be fine.”
This project has many faces, talking points developed to suit every audience given in the Secretary’s suite. Corporate bigwigs and the lobbyists who love them needed no convincing. Indeed, sometimes, strange language floated into the work, its origins undetermined, as critical to the effort and untouchable by any red pen or track changes. The bleeding hearts, as our leadership refers openly to public interest organizations and anyone resistant to the effort, decried the project as a death knell for public schools, community health organizations, and other do-gooders with protest signs. They sent Freedom of Information Act requests about whether the Agency had conducted environmental studies on the water tables where lead would pool and poison communities of color. The map inserted by the banks with the red lines somehow made it into the response, bringing the housing people out to boycott. But our political appointees packaged it all up in a way barely concealing these intended consequences, redlined every brief submitted to the court, and dispatched our lawyers to contort themselves in front of a firing squad from the bench.
“We need not determine the rightness of the effort,” the judges wrote. “Only whether the Secretary has the discretion to do it.” And with those words, the party began.
The valet slows his jog as he reaches the front of the car, peering through narrowed eyes at it before even catching a glimpse of the occupants. Alex huffs and we share a glance as the man opens his door and slowly extends him a ticket.
“Don’t see many of these around here,” he says, barely breathless from his jog up the street. I wonder if he’s referring to the hybrid electric car or the black people inside. Or both. He extends his palm and welcomes us down a red carpet with gold ropes draped alongside, leading to a giant glass door trimmed with gold, through a lobby trimmed with plush red, brocaded carpet, gold trim on the walls, and sparkling crystal light fixtures dangling from the ceilings. My arm slides into the crook of Alex’s as the front desk clerk’s eyes follow us following the gold-trimmed signs pointing towards the reception. She seems to exhale when we reach the name-tag table and affix two squares to our clothes before a man with an earpiece pulls open the gold-gilded door and ushers us into the grand ballroom.
The corporate victors greet us by the names attached to our clothes—eyes narrowing and tongues poking through the corner of their mouths in concentration when they reach “Boateng”—champagne glasses in hand because their version of the truth won. Some, former colleagues of the Secretary himself, raising a glass to justice. Companies cannot be expected to pay eight-figure bonuses and provide promised free wi-fi access to cities. The government teat belongs to the grocery chains who promised to build new stores in food deserts, but only if the money remained after completing construction in the wealthy areas. Construction crews had already demolished what remained of crumbling schools, so of course, we would pay them for their effort. But the contracts negotiated to rebuild those schools would need renegotiating because builders are people too and must eat. Our project dismantled all those agreements as another form of welfare. “Make them pay,” had been our rallying cry. Otherwise, let students and their parents take a can of paint and set some mousetraps in the schools. Let women close their legs instead of seeking community health services that offer breast screenings and other services that offend sensibilities. Let black people pay plumbers to get the lead out of their own pipes.
My eyes scan the room for anyone even sharing my cinnamon complexion, knowing Alex and his smooth, inky skin stand alone. There is a small, latte-complexioned woman of undeterminable ethnicity hanging on the arm of some titan of industry, a man deep in the throes of a belly laugh. The Secretary smirks, finding his way to lock arms between the man and his date as the photographer snaps a picture of their mirthful faces. Photo finished, he turns his head in my direction and I turn away, towards the ladies at a long table with our seating assignments. My interactions with the Secretary during this project are best described as insignificant, the black face too passionate for some, too meek for others, for recognition.
The card places Alex and me with many others from the small office where I work. The head of my division—a slim woman with stringy, strawberry blonde hair who, even when smiling, looks both devious and uncertain—sits with her husband among other colleagues and spouses at a large, round table.
“We almost didn’t come into the city,” she says between nibbles of white wine, “with all of the thugs looting and rioting outside. It’s not safe.” A round of agreement circles the table as Alex and I munch our salads, refusing to nod our heads and mouths too full to voice assent. This is what I was telling you about, my glance says to him. Be cool, his says back to me. “I mean, Rome is burning” drips from her mouth. “And for what?”
The “what” occurred the day the city announced no charges against a security guard who shot a twelve-year-old African American boy in the back at a local store. For allegedly shoplifting. The boy’s mother—a longtime federal employee—lost her only son, a beautiful black boy who loved to draw and had just adopted a dog from the local animal shelter named Prism. He had simply asked to go to the store with his friends to buy something for the end-of-year school dance. A small pin or something for the girl he liked, she opined as she chuckled softly through choked tears on television. But he’d been so secretive about it she could only guess. Like every other twelve-year-old boy going to his first dance. The security tape revealed his cherub-looking friends shoving and horsing around, but the security guard stalking the black boy like a poacher through a savannah of worthless trinkets. It ended with a flash, the boy face down on the floor and bleeding from his back, the man standing over him with a revolver in his hand, staring at the boy dying like he was angry about the stain growing on the carpet. Or about the boy, no longer growing, on the carpet.
“He asked for his mother,” one of his friends says into the television camera, red-faced and learning the devastation of racism only days, it seems, after losing his last baby teeth. “And he asked me to take care of her and Prism.” It took nearly three months to release that video, and less than twenty-four hours after it began circulating, the city attorney ruled it a justifiable shooting because the man’s latest explanation was that he’d feared for his life.
The salads disappear too quickly, no matter how slowly we chew, leaving wine and bread to stuff into our faces as my coworkers continue their discussion of the brutality visited upon the city. Hopes and prayers abound for favorite restaurants and hair salons surviving assault by looters thirsty for destruction.
“There are better ways to protest,” one protests.
“I heard his pockets were full of merchandise,” another says.
“I would be afraid if I were the security guard, too,” chimes another, causing my foot to start twitching against a table leg, recreating the Great Quake of 2011 on top. Someone says “All Lives Matter” as my fork falls to the floor, water and wine rippling in the stemware shifting across the tablecloth. Alex teases me about this nervous tic often, although I never notice it happening. He touches his knuckle to my leg underneath the table, out of view, and the quake stops as our waiter brings me a new fork.
Sips of wine help me swallow my pride as Alex breaks apart a small cornbread roll to assist his own endeavor. Everyone finally stops talking once the steaks and fish arrive, diving into their plates and refreshed wine glasses. A meat and fish conglomerate happily provides this portion of our meal. A small man with a pointy nose, black pupils, and a bushy, gray mustache that matches the remaining hair on his head, brags that he personally ordered the local facility to rush production of the food being served tonight. With the area schools closing, production is up since kids now come to work alongside their parents. And it will continue to thrive, the CEO promises as he pounds his hand on the table, as long as the bailout money keeps flowing and our project continues to steer people to their factories. Another man challenges the notion that these new, young additions to the workforce will all go to the meatpacking plants. What about textiles? He questions. Or tech? The meat CEO laughs.
“You know these people will always have more kids,” he sneers. “What else are they going to do with them?”
I wonder if tiny hands sewed our cloth napkins toiling over a sweatshop sewing machine instead of a desk at school, or if anyone lost a limb cutting that thick ribeye from the carcass. Not strangers to finer things, Alex and I learned much from our desire to collect antiques instead of shopping at giant chains that exploit workers and their local economies. Yes, we had once driven five hundred miles for a dining room table, so beloved by the family’s youngest son that he wailed from the moment we arrived, through our inspection of the piece, until the time we stuffed the last leg into our rented SUV and drove away. At nearly a hundred years old and being sacrificed to make way for sleek and modern in the boy’s own home, my soul rested easy after that acquisition. But after listening to the CEOs joust over the availability of child labor, and the notion that black and brown bodies exist to feed more black and brown bodies to their factories, I push my plate away.
With dinner concluded and wine glasses refilled, the Secretary finally rises to thank everyone for their tireless work on this ongoing project. This is standard fare, the naming ceremony, where he raises his glass and thanks his accomplices for doing his bidding. As it begins and applause rings throughout the ballroom, our appointee leans in to address the table.
“When he calls my name, everyone stand. I couldn’t have done this without you.” The words ooze from her mouth with glee as her hands clap towards our fearless leader. Underneath every millimeter of my skin, an undercurrent of shame surges for my part in this effort, as if I swallowed the raging Potomac River in its entirety. The Great Quake starts rattling the table again, drawing her eye. Our time finally comes, the Secretary turning his face and uttering her name in our direction, catching my glance for a brief second. Hands to heart, she rises from her seat and exhales an Oscar-worthy thank you as he raises his glass to her.
“Come, stand up,” she insists with big arm motions causing my colleagues to levitate. I have to get out of this, I think as my breath gets short. I can’t stomach being publicly acknowledged as the black face on this thing. Dropping my napkin won’t give me enough time, and it’s too late to escape to the restroom. But I can fake sneeze with the best of them. So as my colleagues stand for their accolades, I draw my napkin to my nose, start hitching, and expel a sharp and silent blast of air, all while still seated. The applause continues, so I start hitching again, suddenly too afflicted by sneezing to take part. But the clapping continues through my next effort.
“Looks like someone’s allergic to praise,” rings the Secretary’s voice through the microphone as the entire room erupts in laughter, everyone still clapping for our table.
“Let’s give Margie a round of applause,” he says. Alex leans in, his wide smile beaming in my ear as the loving spouse.
“Get your ass up, Maddie,” he whispers with a chuckle. “I know what you’re doing.” After a loud, metallic scrape of my chair, I stand, surveying the room of smiling faces as I hold my elbow by my side, my fingers peeking up slowly like the buds breaking through the soil where my grandparents sharecropped. My appointee sighs relief as I rise to my feet. I hitch again and sneeze once more, just as the Secretary moves on to the next table, before leaning over to thank my spouse for his words of encouragement.
“You know that lacy purple and black thing I’m wearing, the one that barely covers my aforementioned ass?” He nods as he claps, his eyes opening wide. “You can forget getting any glimpse of it tonight.”
The Secretary finishes his roll call and invites everyone to the dance floor before dessert. Corporate bigwigs and the lobbyists who love them boogie down with federal employees as the DJ spins everything from doo-wop to hip-hop. Alex and I mingle with other people from my office between twisting and shouting and settling into a generic two-step while others shimmy, and even crip walk, around the floor. During a break, as we stand in a gaggle at the edge of the dancing, drinking wine and feigning praise, the Secretary himself joins our group with the photographer in tow. From behind Alex and me, he locks himself between us, taking both of our arms in his.
“Say cheese,” he commands as a guerrilla flash pops, leaving nothing in my field of vision but black spots as I blink my eyes wide trying to regain my eyesight. The photographer lowers the camera, looks at the screen, shakes his head and screws his face as a mid-nineties hip-hop classic starts playing over the speakers.
“Let’s try this again, shall we?” says the Secretary with an authoritative nod of his head. “Say ‘twerk,’” he commands, twisting his fingers together in some sort of origami gang sign, causing the entire gaggle to explode with laughter as he cheeses for the camera. The Potomac again rages in my body as feelings of self-worth, self-respect, and furor swirl together like the raging rapids just south of the city. My neck swivels and my eye catches the side of the Secretary’s straight-from-central-casting jawline bulging in a smile for the camera. Ringing in my ears nearly deafens me. Red tinges everything in my sightline. My hands gain the strength to snap an oak tree in half. And my tongue is poised to utter words that draw blood. The scent, sight, and idea of this man causes my stomach to threaten expulsion of my expensive dinner. But I relax my face, looking at the king of all kings with questioning eyes as the photographer lowers his lens and shakes his head again.
“Go on and take the picture, Norris,” instructs the Secretary calmly through pearly whites as the laughter continues around me. “We don’t have all night.”
“I don’t get it,” I say to the jaw. The pearly whites shine down at me, accompanied by narrow eyes. “I don’t get the joke.” Alex’s eyes light up, making me think he might get a gander at the purple and black thing after all.
“Well, twerking,” says the Secretary, scooping the air with his palm upturned as if jogging a memory that I should have. Only he and I run in different circles. On different planets, in different universes. He’s never caught me out twerking, and my eyes have never witnessed him doing it. That’s not to say I don’t know how to do the dance. Of course I do. But that’s not for him. The joke about the dance is the tip of the iceberg of issues. Others including his assumption that his joke endears him to the only African American couple in the room. Or, maybe my assumption of attempted endearment is wrong. Maybe, as so many other experiences in this job, in this project, and now, in this celebration, maybe—like the Confederate monument heroes that he favors—it’s merely an attempt to silence. To warn. To quash dissent. The maybes running rampant through my mind as he turns down his smile just a bit and nods towards the cameraman. My life a vertigo of such maybes.
“I-I,” I fake stutter like a deer in headlights. “I’m afraid I still don’t get it. What is this ‘twerking?’ Is that what you called it?” My colleagues stop laughing one by one, jaws turning slack as so many eyebrows knit together that I expect a scarf. “Why is it funny? What’s the joke?” Some shift from side to side, others trade glances, a couple of people bow their heads as the smile starts to melt from the Secretary’s face. The photographer snaps a few candids of the wreckage that almost make the night worth the price of admission, should I ever get my hands on those pictures. Some men and women on the dance floor move in the throes of the dance—hands on knees, one leg in the air, and everything—giving the entire gaggle an opportunity to point and say, “Look! What they’re doing!” But, in the inimitable words of the hip-hop artist coming through the speakers, it’s all eyes on me.
“Twerking,” my appointee whispers as she smiles nervously at the Secretary. “You know, like this.” She sort of wiggles her hips forwards and backwards, and I shake my head and shrug with my eyes wide. Hers is not a master class.
“It’s some sort of dance?” The pressure relieves in a collective whoosh as they all nod enthusiastically, looking at each other wide-eyed as if questioning my blackness. “Like that?” I ask, pointing to an excellent example of it on the dance floor, and the group finally relaxes.
“Yes,” everyone breathes. Some chuckle or take a sip of wine to ease any remaining tension. Shoulders release all around as the Secretary leans his face between Alex and me again and clasps our arms tight, pulling my husband and me against opposite sides of his barrel chest.
“That’s not twerking,” I insist as I wriggle free of his grasp on my body. “That’s called the Mapouka dance, from the Ivory Coast. It’s thousands of years old.” Blank stares again greet me from all around as I admire the woman’s technique. Upon closer inspection, I believe she and I took the same class. And watching her on the floor, I admit that she aced it.
“Côte D’Ivoire,” Alex offers in his sexy, flat-sounding French lilt, to the group. “In West Africa.” Its place of origin slowly registers across the faces of about fifty percent of our audience after that, although the immigration hardliners among us look ready to spring on my husband for his papers.
“Just another thing stolen from Africa, I suppose,” I say, things like health insurance and a paycheck no longer enough to block my words.
“What did you say?” The Secretary gasps coolly, rearing his head back and locking his eyes on mine. Red-faced and glaring at me, he stands central-casting angry, looking more like those Confederate monuments than ever. Square-jawed with a mop of thick, collar-length silver hair, my greatest wish upon his arrival at the Agency was for him to be a figurehead. But this man had vision and ambition, resulting in this night where the Agency gathers to celebrate the victorious jamming of his finger in a crack of the dam of oppression. There is a crack, though. And knowing that my job is lost to me, I walk right through it.
“The Mapouka dance, taken, renamed, and whitewashed, is just another thing stolen from Africa,” I repeat, drawing out every syllable. “It never ceases to amaze me how people can simultaneously deny the value of black people while stealing and exploiting black culture. Benefit from our inventions and scientific discoveries, love our music,” I indicate towards the speakers, “coopt and rename our dances, and cheer our athletes, but find the sight of us, the idea of us, so unbearable that society allows a middle-aged security guard to murder a little boy.” My ears continue ringing as the music plays and the dancing goes on nearby. The Secretary steps back and waves his palms in the air, a smug frown across his face.
“America is no longer like that,” he protests in a voice a few octaves deeper than usual. “I think I speak for all of us here when I say that we don’t even see color.” The clock ticks to zero on the bomb inside of me when he says those words.
“This project we’re celebrating disproportionately harms people of the color you don’t see. We don’t see them.” I pause just briefly, to close the distance on my own racial dysmorphia. We. Them. “You don’t see us. But you attack us on every front,” I say as the Secretary’s face transforms into the color of my new azaleas. He turns on his heel and walks away.
“African Americans persevere, despite the theft of our ancestors from their homeland, the oppression of our ancestors under slavery, despite the badges of that institution on the lives we live every day. Despite the ongoing theft of our ideas and our bodies. We send our children to the store with their friends, and with one shot, we’re reminded of how invisible we are destined to be. That,” I say, looking at my counterparts from my table, “is what people are protesting. We are human beings, full-blooded American citizens with equal right to exist in this country.” So many people peel off as I talk that it leaves only me, Alex, and two friends of mine who seem sincerely ready to engage. But my heart feels heavier from the effort than when I began. Because I am both too visible—too angry, loud, opinionated—and invisible—because the people who make the decisions choose not to see me or hear my words. But this heavy, beating heart thumping in my chest and coursing hot blood through my veins reminds me of life as I stand there watching these people celebrate my oppression. I wonder whether me or my people will ever live life as more than three-fifths of a human being.
From my right, the Secretary points me out from behind two Secret Service agents. Typical, I think, my heart sinking not for being newly unemployed, but because my voice—no matter how educated or sound, or even right—doesn’t matter. Stay cool nonetheless, the hair on my arms and the sweat on my brow reminds me. Because the utterance of my opinion, or the facts that inform it, are now a reason to call harm on me and my husband. The men advance towards Alex and me as the waitstaff starts laying out individual strawberry shortcakes at each place setting. My husband takes my hand, our lifetime of togetherness that I fear is coming too quickly to an end coursing between us. The feeling of his palm squeezing mine reminds me that I am not alone, while also reminding me that he is about to have an encounter with law enforcement. That our black bodies are about to encounter them together. I swallow hard and fight to steady my breathing.
“Sir, ma’am, the Secretary has asked for you to leave,” the bigger one says. “Right now.” I smile. I want to scream, to tell him we’re not staying for dessert anyway, or to say nothing while my eyes remain defiant. Instead, the word my mother taught me before teaching me anything about boys or long division or riding a bike flashes neon bright in my mind: Comply.
“That’s fine,” I say, nodding my head, making sure to keep our arms by our sides and our hands visible. “We were just leaving.” Alex and I gather our things, climb back into our plug-in hybrid, and navigate towards the protests at the White House.
“Well,” he says, our ability to breathe returning as we wind through the streets. “That was exciting. I guess we’d better come up with a Plan B. We still have a mortgage and student loans.” My head nods slowly, and I smile at the sight of my love, alive another night in my eyes.
“Yup,” I say as we pass under a streetlight, chants of the protest ringing through the dark. “’Say twerk,’ indeed,” I snap, stress relieving itself tear by tear running in rivers down my cheeks. “We’re living the American dream.”