Three years ago, I noticed that I rarely needed to check somebody white for getting out of line with me. It seemed that I was having the opposite experience from my Black students, my Black friends, and my family. They had story after story of white folks saying all kinds of reckless things to them. They also had stories about how they fired back at those same white folks. I was proud. But I felt guilty. Why didn't I have those stories? It didn't seem right that my people were dealing with reckless white folks and I wasn't. I wanted the heat, the kind of heat where you check somebody white because they think they can use their privilege to be condescending and disrespectful towards you.
I was thirsty for the pride and freedom my husband felt when a white female curator asked him how he felt about a show he was in. He pointed out to her that they had placed his piece behind a bathroom door. He told her he wanted to smash all the work off the walls. She was speechless. But I also felt foolish for desiring potential harm from white folks. Surely, my people were exhausted from dealing with white folks who think they can say and do anything and get away with it. And still, I dared a white person to say something crazy to me. I wanted revenge on behalf of all of us.
It's three years since I had those foolish thoughts and now, I'm in the middle of the ultimate "need-to-check-a-white-person" moment with a white male reporter who works for a major media company here in Cleveland. I'm going to get back to this story in a minute, but…what was I thinking three years ago! First off, I was born and raised in one of the most racist cities in the country, so I've been dealing with what Kiese Laymon calls, the worst of white folks, which means I've been checking white folks my whole life! Last year, my city declared racism as a public health crisis and it was ranked as the worst metropolitan area to live in for Black women. All of Cleveland's systems—economic, health and education—are broken, causing me to square up with white harm every day.
Second, don't I remember? Growing up, I attended predominately white schools and I was the girl who challenged every suspect and reckless thing my white high school history teacher said. He had one response for me. Like a five-year-old, he mocked my maiden name and started calling me "McClain complain." I guess he was hoping he could brainwash me into believing my Black voice was problematic. So yes, in 2019, I was foolishly desiring the need to check somebody white. Did I really think that I was escaping the endless torrent of everyday modes of oppression?
I should be somewhere writing an essay about the joys of publishing my first book of poetry, If It Heals At All, and discussing how honored I am that a media company approached me to promote my work and discuss my practice as a writer. Instead, I'm here. Here, writing about how incapable Cleveland's white reporters are of representing Black artists. Back in February, a reporter wanted to produce an "in-depth" story on me. He said the story would appear online and there would also be a short segment on me on-air to help draw audiences to the online story. Of course he never told me upfront that this story would be a part of a series on "equity in art." If I had known this, I would've asked a slew of questions, starting with—How do you define equity and why has it taken your institution so long to be interested in equity in this way?
The reporter and I had two audio-recorded phone interviews to capture my story as a writer. Instead of using my words to produce my story, the reporter twisted nearly everything I told him. For example, I go by Ali, short for my given name, Allison. I love my name because I was named after my late grandmother Alice. I told him this, but that's not what he wrote in the online story he produced, nor did he say this in the interview he had with his colleague on-air. He said I changed my name from Allison to Ali because my Black friends teased me about having a white girl's name.
He painted me and my world to be oh-so pained and traumatized. In 2015, I was driving home from work and rode past a crime scene on Kinsman Road. This is how my poem "Kinsman," about a five-month-old baby who was killed in a shooting, originated. I told the reporter this, but he said I "had to ride a bus every day past that scene" and that's how "Kinsman" came to be. These kinds of inaccuracies—painting me as ashamed and struggling—feel like an attempt to sensationalize and exaggerate my story, skewing public perception. It perpetuates racial stereotypes, fulfilling white audiences' perceptions of Black women.
I was set-up, disrespected, and depicted as if I have no merit as a Black female artist or teacher. Instead of relishing, I am here—still cringing as I think about the other reporter, a Black man, who, on live radio—said I fancy myself as a teacher. I guess he thinks my work with "at-risk" (his words) youth does not qualify me as a teacher. I am here, recalling all the emails from my white allies who called or emailed the media to complain about how they found the on-air segment on me to be egregious. Here, thinking about how the reporter's coverage on me was highly offensive, disturbing, and inaccurate. I could check this white man for days to come and it will never erase the harm that was done.
Mainly though, I'm trying to write myself away from writing about how my city continues to fail me and how I got played online and on-air from an organization that was trying to do a so-called series on equity. Oh, the irony of it all. I am writing to forgive myself for the emotional harm I put on myself for not following my instincts when I saw the red flags early on. I was never told the media was going to use a snippet of my audio recorded interview for their annual fund drive. This is how Black artists get exploited by predominately white media companies here in Cleveland. These companies are simply trying to check inclusivity off their list. They are not trying to do the real work.
I want more. I want a landscape that is designed in a way where I can personally call up some of my most admired Black literary contemporaries and ask them to share their strategies on how they continue to resist against this burning American fire. I want a major shift to happen in Cleveland because this racist city is destructive and it tries so hard to damage the Black artists who speak up against its faulty and crooked systems. It truly fears those of us who are brave and brilliant, but who doesn't? I want Black artists in Cleveland to have a space where we can be represented accurately with respect and splendor, where the representation comes from a place of love and a mindset that says, you deserve this because your work is brilliant and beautiful and beyond worthy of recognizing and celebrating.