In her poem “For Saundra,” Nikki Giovanni confronts a contentious suggestion from a neighbor. This neighbor, who Giovanni says, “thinks she hates,” asks her why she doesn’t write about trees. I think about this poem often when I’m faced with those who ask whether I ever smile or take it upon themselves to suggest avenues to escape the mental and physical exhaustion that anti-blackness engenders. The comments are patronizing, to say the least, and come from those who, like Saundra, seek to mollify the discomfort experienced by those who remove the mask from the Klansman and reveal that he (or she) isn’t a faceless figure of supremacy but the grocer that smiles, the neighbor who waves, or the professor who cannot stop professing their love for black people and rap music.
I just spend a week in an anti-black climate littered with carnivore establishments, passive-aggressive salutations, and stares. You know, the kind of place where black people speak out of relief of seeing another black face amidst the icy reality that isn’t snow on the ground but America’s Americans. From staying in a subpar hotel room plagued with the scent of my oppressors on a germanely white pillow to the expectation that the stench on the hotel floor was an inconvenience my color enables me to overstand. The experience, though only four days, epitomizes what it means to exist as an African in America—painted a royal brown yet subjected to the peasantry that is white supremacy. Though I wouldn’t have it any other way, and by this I mean I would not have the world paint me a different color, or assign me to a different mother or father who maybe would give me lighter skin, pastel eyes, thinner thighs, loser curls with less body— a look that would afford me favor in an anti-black world at the expense of ebony excellence. A look that would call what the world nicknamed “resting b*tch face” a model stare. It’s not “rbf” on black girls by the way. A smile-less face constitutes blackness that is at rest. One is not a b*tch because she does not walk around with a smile; it is only a white nationalist space that demands this showcase to join their ancestors in seeking satisfaction in what was once called the “happy slave” or the mistreated black person’s happiness despite the detriment of their existence. Wearing a smile to face the white world does not correspond to the inner happiness I feel toward blackness, and the upset engendered by an anti-black space, so I smile with my pride, not with my teeth.
As a young college instructor, a middle-aged white supervisor who arrived late for our meeting but rushed me out of her office, saw fit to share her conceptualization of me, a then-twenty something-year-old graduate student. An indignant student wrote that I was “good teacher” but they wished I wasn’t so “stuck up and boring.” To this the supervisor aligned with my “serious” nature. Though she said “serious” it was clear that she meant unapproachable, a word I’ve heard before. As a black woman, I am not to don an untouchable persona indifferent to the interpretations or interests of others. I am to be an accessible pallet, a sexual fantasy ( and option) for some, and a punching bag for others. I am to be everything but myself, I am to take everything, but I am not to take myself seriously. I am to smile and wear the post mortem expression of a hung body before rigor mortis sets in. I am to smile as a means to welcome the hate cast my way and bear a normalized cowardice that accepts the anti-blackness as fate, not a circumstance. I am to smile to say, with my teeth, that I am content with things in their anti-black way.
My “way” is not an external smile not prompted by African encounters, a facial expression contrived to appease the conjecture of those who hate me and my people, a countenance smeared with an acquiesces to the same supremacy that gloats in a mistruth that we, the Abducted Africans, are better “off” in the displacement assembled in our disruption.
I wouldn’t ask my ancestors, those underfed and overworked, America’s free labor, whether they smiled. Though I am sure they smiled at their children before they were sold, their spouses before they become their master’s concubines or corpses buried in the field, the question illuminates a detachment from reality, and an escapist’s desire to make nice where there is only the nasty and unnatural. Similarly, amongst the bullets ejaculated for our collective annihilation, a virus that kills us with overwhelming vengeance amidst the daily toll of being black in this anti-black space, to ask if I smile is like asking if I breathe. The answer is yes, but despite, not for the war waged against us.
Nikki Giovanni ends the poem “For Saundra” with the poignant line:
perhaps these are not poetic
I can’t help but think the same thing about smiling in the country’s present landscape.
Just as it appears more appropriate for Saundra to write a poem about grass than to ask a black woman in America to prioritize greenery over blackness, it seems far more appropriate for the speakers in this instance to smile themselves than to ask a black woman in America if she smiles. Yet, to encounter these dialogues in from this perspective betrays that the query was never about smiling at all…