The Upside Down Reading Room is a space I’ve created to allow myself and others to be where they are and is grounded in the love and necessity of books. We don’t have to look anywhere else for belonging, direction, or affirmation other than right where we are. Be curious about the world and people but realize wherever we are there is beauty, truth, dignity, and the right way of being. This is a sermon I preach to myself early and often. I tend to forget it, but I’m intentional about remembering the me that’s always been here.
There are many layers of meaning in my own life that reading has allowed me to explore, discover, and accept. One of the most important people in my life, my Grandma, could not read. The relationship I had with her and the tone of the emotional environment she provided allowed me the space and safety to be curious and not be punished for it. That being said, I must also mention my Grandma was not to be played with. That energy wasn’t directed toward me but it allowed me to feel safe in a way that was in stark contrast against what was going on in the world around me.
As I ventured into the world beyond my relationship with my Grandmother I began to believe I wasn’t enough. I needed to be more. I needed to do more. My skin was a cloak of shame that I needed to engage in a never-ending battle with for respectability. If I wanted to have a life of dignity I needed to denounce poverty and the poor. Be louder and stronger. Your rhythm is off when you roll your hips. You’re teeth are crooked, why are you smiling? Your skin is dark, don’t wear red lipstick. You want to write as a career, but how will you make money? Why are you not shouting and falling down in the floor for the Lord? So began the project of self. I began striving, hardening for protection, polishing tone and syntax, in a desperate attempt to lift generations before. Racing to put distance between myself and the debt peonage of my grandmother and grandfather. Later in life I realize it had been they who lifted me by the extraordinary feat of their survival.
How do I do that? I read. Read the world. Read what happiness is. Suspend reality and transport yourself into spaces where the people don’t look like you or talk like you or know the things you know. Imagine the places where the grandma’s don’t mix gin and raisins as a remedy for colds. Envision the houses that have bathrooms and not wood burning stoves. Yards where there aren’t piles of tree stumps that serve as firewood and mansions for your make-believe.
You want to fly? You got to give up the shit that weighs you down.
The world told me that the shit weighing me down was my blackness, poverty, my deviation from the standards of thought. My weirdness. The books I had access to early on confirmed this. So I packed those messages up in a bag and placed on my back. To carry. To add to it when another message came my way.
Bag Lady, you gone hurt your back dragging all them bags like that. I guess nobody ever told you all you must hold on to is you… is you… is you.
Curiosity saved me from the sunken place. Why would black people call me too black? Why didn’t my Grandmother learn how to read? Why was she picking cotton as a child in the 1930’s? Why did my Grandpa tell stories of people escaping “the quarters” in the 1940’s? Something is rotten in the state of Alabama. Why is the Klu Klux Klan holding rallies in my city? Trying to move into the mainstream seemed to require ignoring the elephant in the room and I’m not talking about Big Al. So I began to read. Paul Laurence Dunbar’s We Wear the Mask spoke to me as a high school student.
We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.
-Paul Laurence Dunbar
The human experience is layered and textured. Not only from our generation, but from those that came before. Their triumphs and traumas are written into our DNA. Sometimes we get to choose what to do with it. Endless questions allow me endless possibilities. Books were my windows into the world. I’ve travelled through their portals into many different worlds. But they’ve also guided me back home to myself. If Elizabeth is the grandmother of my blood and body, Toni Morrison is the grandmother of my mind. The Bluest Eye was a mind shift. You mean to tell me someone understands what it means to be black and feel despised by your own community? So much that you wish to be something other than yourself. Pecola Breedlove had a lot more trauma to navigate, but our skin and the psychological impact of othering because of it was our common ground.
Far from high school in my adult life Toni Morrison had been a beacon guiding me home to myself. Not just her books, but the way she chose to be in this world. I’ve worked out to her interviews. Her words pushed me harder than any beat. Her talks about her work supplemented my therapy sessions. Her unapologetic grounding in blackness urged me to show up as I am.
So here is where we land. Welcome to The Upside Down Reading Room.