#31DaysofBlackMinimalism: Week 1

or, you're hiding all kinds of shit in there, Jess.


I open my closet and there, among the heeled boots and the bridesmaids dresses and the holey jeans and the yards and yards and yards of scarves, waits my mother. She is suspended about a foot off the floor, hanging against the shoe rack I have on the back of the closet door. Her brown eyes are bright and mirthful. “Shelly,” she says, “you can’t get rid of your heels, girl! What will you wear to dress up?” I sigh and turn my back to her. 

She’s shoved in between my wedding gown and a stack of maxi dresses, one hand gripping the white wire rack where my clothes are hanging. She holds up an emerald green satin gown. “Listen, I know you haven’t worn this gown since Julie’s wedding, but it’s beautiful! Look at the bias cut, and the back line is so sexy. You might wear this again!” 

“Mother, leave me alone,” I say and yank boxes of sweaters off a shelf.  

“Jessica, you can’t get rid of sweaters, you live in Chicago.”  Her voice is muffled: I pull two three four sweaters out of the box, and her head and shoulders are at the bottom of the box. She wants to reach an arm out to me but the box is too small, and she is wiggling. "Now, you know how cold it gets here, it's irresponsible of you to get rid of so many clothes! What are you thinking? What about folks who don't have sweaters? How is this going to help them, huh?"

I dump the sweaters back on top of her face and shove the box back on the shelf. 


At the end of Week One of documenting what feels like a slow build toward a change in lifestyle, I realize that I've never thought of cultivating the space around me in terms of what I value, what I want, how do I want to feel in that space. Historically, I've kept and selected things based on what looks good, what will make my home look the way I want it to look, what would be wise to keep, and I haven't thought at all about whether or not an aesthetic, an object, a practice (of space, of living in space) reflects my values. It feels kinda... revolutionary.

Going through every object I own, I'm learning that not only am I reevaluating the things that I own, but the way I own them, the way I buy things, and the way I was taught to buy, to live. The idea of my home space and ownership of objects, as not just a metaphor but an example of how my values, my ideals, and my desires are realized: it's revealing a lot and it's changing a lot.

Anybody who has survived his childhood had enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.
— Flannery O'Connor

There is a lot of anger in the reflections of my childhood. My mother's anger, a robust, embodied rage that came out of all sides of her, at anyone near enough to really know her--generally just my father and me--white hot, sharp as a katana sword, that would fillet you fast and leave you breathless; my father's anger, seldom displayed, heavy, a kind of threat on the wind used to strike fear into my heart, hard and solid like a mace, not as deft as my mother's anger (due to my father's complex emotional landscape, still a mystery to me), but still damaging nonetheless; and my own anger: blunt, unskilled, leaking out of me at odd, askance angles due to the nature of being a child at battle with two adults, and therefore never really allowed to say the things or strike the blows that equate with an adequate defense.

There was a log of anger, and a lot of fear. I was raised in a family of privilege: I am from an affluent, educated, solidly middle-class (or at least, it seemed so to me, which I recognize is a privilege in an of itself), Midwestern black American family. There was no Jack & Jill membership, no cleaning lady or accountant or gardener, no no cotillion or coming-out ball, but "ain't" and “fitten’ to” and “nigga” we’re as banished in the house I was raised in as cut-off shorts. 

Like so many middle class black American families, my family had indicators to prove we were well-off. A house, unattached to others around it, with a garage attached, not in the back or in some alley; a lush green yard that needed raking or cutting in order to stay presentable; a living room and a family room each with its own set of furniture, for company and for casual relaxation respectively; not one, but two sets of encyclopedia (that were almost never used, by design); an upright piano, used painted pea-soup green with cracked keys, but in-tune enough for lessons that ended when I started high school; even a separate freezer for storing half-gallons of vanilla ice cream or orange sherbet, or plastic containers full of greens and hamhocks, or chitlins, made by my grandmother and brought home every Christmas.

The fear you couldn't see. Fear of being recognized, found out, discovered for what my parents really were: the son and daughter of poor black people who had fled the South, in one case, only one generation before. Being poor and black cast in America casts a long shadow. To my mom and dad the poverty clung like a film that could never quite be washed off, like a sour smell the source of which they could never quite find and destroy: but if they were neat and clean and presentable, perhaps it would go unnoticed, perhaps they could pass as decent, hardworking, respectable people, and this perception would perhaps free them from the terrifying, sometimes joyous, always harder-than-it-should-be struggle of trying to stay black and alive and provide for their kid.

Their anger and their fear had consequence, to be certain. I am still discovering, and still healing. And if you read this, and think that I am ashamed of them, or that I seek to shame them, then you aren't paying attention.


My parents dealt with this fear of this specter of black poverty a number of different ways. They educated themselves, and they worked. My mother is ambitious--another reality I acknowledge without shame, is the beauty and power of ambitious women--and so she got as many degrees and took as many jobs as her energy and health would allow her.  My father is diligent, and so he bent his knees, dropped his shoulder, and went to work. So far as I know he's worked for the same company for almost my entire life.

A dogged, tireless, bitterly cheerful work ethic is something they have in common. Where they differ is in the handling of the dough.

My father saves. He sees clouds gathering on the horizon, sometimes real, sometimes imaginary, and he saves. He hoards. He stockpiles, and wears things until they are threadbare and holey, and he never needs new things, by which I mean he often needs new things, but considers that even though his clothes don't fit or are showing wear, they are "perfectly good." When we would shop together and I would proffer an object--toy, book, article of clothing--I wanted to buy, he would ask, "do you need it?" which I took to communicate, Jessica, will this item help to feed/clothe/educate/shelter you in a way that has been heretofore absent? The answer was always no, even when sometimes the answer was yes, and I would put it back, my chest thick with longing.

Not so with my mother. My mother does not save, she spends. A bad day for either of us would find us at the Dairy Queen or McDonald's or later, at the mall. I loved buying clothes with her because the decision to purchase wasn't based on whether or not I needed something, but on whether or not it was cute, or how it made me feel, or how good I looked in it. Choosing things that were pretty pretty, that meant pretty, that "made me/us feel pretty" was a space of bonding. Each of us felt vulnerable int he context of adorning our bodies for different reasons, my own considerably less enigmatic and unique than I thought. Shopping took that vulnerability and transformed it, empowered us both with beauty that lasted just long enough for the tags to come off and the return window to close.


I don't know if other people feel the values and ideals of their parents and upbringing as strongly embedded in their bodies and surroundings as I do. I often feel I am alone in this feeling: everyone else has already exorcised the clinging possessive succubi of their upbringing, the rest of us are entirely conscious of our wounds and how they reenact in our present lives, and I'm the only one with work to do. But this need to reevaluate, which leads to shedding obsolete behaviors and ideas, happens over and over and over again. First is was in my religious beliefs and practices, then in my job and career path, then in my choice of partner and nature of relationship, and now, far from my parents but still hearing them closely in their sown seeds, I find myself choosing differently how to build a home, how to spend and save money, how to keep and release objects. It's both exhilarating and exhausting. I feel as though the excavation of my self will never end, and indeed, it won't. I'll just keep uncovering samskara after samskara, reflecting on pattern after pattern, and asking over and over, why are you doing this, how is it serving you?

I'm buckled in. I'm ready. I can breathe deeply enough to tolerate anything.