Innocence for some

The op-ed “Let Black Kids Just be Kids” appearing in today’s New York Times addresses the racialized notions of innocence and corruption and children that have dominated American culture since the mid-19th century:

According to the author, White children have been associated with purity and innocence whereas Black children are portrayed as more sexualized, violent, and adult-like. One result, according to Robin Bernstein, is that the appearance and behaviors of Black children are judged through a harsher lens in our society. That’s one of the reasons why a Black child wearing a hoodie is perceived as dangerous, while a White child in the same attire might not attract much attention at all.

Bernstein’s essay is solid and provides ample historical context to prove her point. I also think that (too) many African American children, like the little girls who regularly congregate in Edwina’s apartment, have a look of weariness and distrust in their eyes. They have felt racism, both direct and indirect, in their short life. Survivorship in such a setting requires donning an extra layer of guardedness.



Good news

After a two-day delay, Edwina underwent surgery on Thursday. When we headed back to pre-op, the doctor who would perform the surgery gave us good news: The biopsy he’d sent off the week before had come back negative. No cancer! The worry in Edwina’s eyes immediately started to fade.

I called Edwina yesterday, as she was preparing to go home. While she was thrilled to be getting out of the hospital and to settle back into a familiar, far cozier environment, she knew she’d have some challenges when she got there.

Tyrone’s son would still be hanging out.

Her son, Steve, and his girlfriend would be running in and out.

Joe-Joe, Edwina’s brother, would be crashing on the couch some nights.

She’d still have a big bill to pay before she could get her car back in working order.

Edwina wasn’t sure how much food would be left in her refrigerator by the time she walked in the door of her apartment, or what kind of mess she’d find.

While it beats sleeping in a hospital, home isn’t always a worry-free zone.


An unfortunate delay

Early yesterday morning, I headed to Princeton Hospital to meet Edwina, who was scheduled to have surgery to remove the uterine fibroids that have been causing her great pain for more than a year. I’d been sitting alone in the waiting room for 20 minutes or so when Edwina and Tyrone wandered in, and we began the process of waiting for Edwina to be checked in and led back to the pre-op area.

I could tell as soon as Edwina sat down that she was anxious about having surgery. She hadn’t heard the results of a biopsy the doctor had done the week before, and she feared that the surgery would reveal that she is suffering from something more serious than benign tumors.

“What if I got cancer again, Miss Rayan?”

“Then we’d face it just like you did last time around,” I replied.

Edwina reminded me that she’s been dealing with a lot of pain “down there” for much too long, and she just wanted to “get it done” and not have to hurt all the time.

As we talked and caught up on family and recent challenges–for Edwina, a car in the shop and too many people wanting to crash on her couch–Tyrone stood up to head down to the lobby for a smoke. As he got ready to leave, he handed a Styrofoam cup filled with the coffee he’d just discovered in the corner of the waiting room to Edwina to hold.

Without skipping a beat, Edwina lifted the cup to her lips and took two quick sips.

“You can’t have anything to drink before surgery,” I quickly reminded her.

My comment came too late. The woman who had registered Edwina was standing next to her, in need of further information, and saw her drink from the cup. Within minutes, the message had been communicated to a nurse who marched out to the waiting room to tell Edwina that she wouldn’t be having surgery until Thursday since she’d sipped coffee with cream and sugar.

Edwina began to argue, loudly. She was angry “that woman [had] told on [her]” and insisted that she wouldn’t be coming back on Thursday. I knew that she’d be back; she just couldn’t process the idea of not getting through the procedure after dragging herself–body and soul–all the way to Princeton.

As Tyrone and Edwina’s sister, Clara, went in search of the car to take Edwina back home for the day, Edwina and I took the elevator down one floor and walked slowly towards the hospital entrance to wait.

“I’m just so tired,” she told me. “Them doctors just keep me waiting, this all’s been goin’ on for too long.”

“I know, and I know that you’re hurting,” I told Edwina, rubbing her back and drawing her close. “But you’re gonna get through this, I promise, and I’ll be right here beside you.”

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen Edwina so emotional, so vulnerable to circumstances over which she has no control. We shared a long hug, and I walked towards the parking garage as Edwina climbed into her sister’s car.

I called Edwina earlier this evening. Her surgery has been rescheduled for 10 a.m. tomorrow morning. I told her that I’d meet her in the waiting room at 8.

“Ok,” she replied, her voice shaken by the unexpected delay and knowing that tomorrow she’ll have to make her way back to Princeton, back to the worry and waiting for an answer to her pain.





“Am I gonna believe all them bad things?”

Last night, I re-watched The Help, one of my favorite movies about the treatment of Black maids in Jackson, Mississippi during the early 1960s–and the fiery truth-telling words some of those maids with the help of a brave journalist hurled back into the white community.

My movie selection was the right one for the moment. Call it Kairos. For two reasons.

First, I’m at a point in Unlikely Sisters, my memoir about my friendship with fellow breast cancer survivor Edwina Sanders, where I’m trying–somewhat artificially–to capture the baggage of growing up African American in Birmingham, Alabama. Edwina has a talent for describing her life in vivid language, but the fact is that I’m an educated white girl with little firsthand experience with prejudice–at least, of the racial kind. While Edwina’s life was just beginning in the early 60s, the same time period reflected in The Help, her momma and daddy (and their mommas and daddies) endured the kind of ridicule and humiliation that the characters in the film brought to life. And in 2016, I see the remnants of that history, when Edwina accompanies me to a place that caters to a middle class, predominantly white clientele. Edwina told me once that a store I’d taken her into would normally stop her at the door to check her bags or keep a watchful eye on her as she walked around inside.

But the scene from the film that really captivated me was an exchange between the main character, Skeeter, a white woman who ultimately captures the stories of the help in writing, and the maid who raised her, Constantine. We see Skeeter as a teenager sitting outside of her house crying, telling Constantine that she hadn’t been invited to the high school dance, that the boys in her school think she’s ugly. It’s an insult that stings given Skeeter’s mom’s legacy as a beauty queen and all-around popular girl in her hometown.

Listening intently, Constantine reminds Skeeter to ask a key question Constantine has taught her to rely on when hurtful words are sent her way: “Am I gonna believe all them bad things them fools say about me today?” The answer, of course, is no.

Lately, I’ve needed a bit of Constantine’s wisdom. I’m one of five rhetoric scholars in a department of literature folks and I’m frequently reminded of the need to justify the work that I do. I’m all about doing the rhetorical footwork to find an audience for my words and to craft those words (and occasionally, images) in a way that resonates with my readers.

Sometimes, though, I’m confronted by those who don’t understand the power of effectively placed public prose, or the painstaking research that goes into such pieces. Too often, I think, many of my colleagues look at my journalistic work and see fluff–not the hours of interviews; reading of scientific research reports, health data and policy statements; stacks of correspondence with key sources; and most importantly, the continuous refining of language (i.e., multiple drafts) to present my work in the most digestible and credible way.

So, am I gonna believe all them bad (assumptions) them fools throw my way?

I think not.

Back at the Coop with Edwina

On Thursday, I met Edwina for her doctor’s appointment at Cooper Green, this time with her primary care physician Dr. Hamby. While Edwina hasn’t been feeling well in recent months–during which she’s taken several trips to the emergency room, some in ambulances–she looked happy and healthy.

Edwina, smiling in pink

Edwina, smiling in pink at the Coop.

Edwina was in a great mood, despite her aches and pains.

She asked me to help her send a form to somebody who “was gonna help get [her] some glasses like the ones you wear, Miss Rayan,” so I took a picture of the form and sent it on its way.

We talked about her son, Steve, who seems to be staying out of trouble, and her husband, Tyrone, who can’t say the same.

I filled Edwina in on the trials I’ve been experiencing with my family and with work. She listened intently, nodded her head up and down in agreement that times had indeed been tough, and lifted me up when she said that “God be lookin’ over all y’all, Miss Rayan–your momma and your daddy and even your brother.”

We’re heading back to the Coop again the week after Thanksgiving to see Edwina’s pain doctor. In the meantime, Edwina wants to see Madea’s Halloween. If it’s anything like the Christmas movie featuring Madea, it’s sure to be a rocking night out for the two of us.

“God got you.”

October is the cruelest month, at least for a long-time breast cancer survivor like me who’s sick to death of all the pink and story after story of survival attributed to a can-do attitude. Enough.

A couple of days ago, I was simmering over a segment on the Today show in which Hoda Kotb, a breast cancer survivor, surprised five women who are experiencing the disease with a spa weekend in NYC. While the sentiment was kind enough, two things about the story nagged at me: 1) all of the survivors were middle class white women, reinforcing the narrative from the past 50+ years that breast cancer is a disease of privileged women (despite mounds of research revealing the extreme disparities in diagnosis, treatment, and survival rates depending on the socioeconomic and racial identity of women), and 2) all that pink–the women were picked up in a pink limo, wrapped in pink boas, and whisked away to a makeshift rooftop spa adorned with pink candles, pink flowers, blah, blah, blah.

But when I picked up Helena from softball practice later that afternoon, she showed me a message that she’d sent out to her virtual prayer group (I’m sure the specific technology/social medium has a name, but I have no idea what that would be!). As she read her post aloud, all of my cynicism about breast cancer awareness month faded away:

“So most of y’all know that it is breast cancer awareness month. So I just ask for all of us to be praying throughout this month for people who have and have had breast cancer. This is very personal to me because my mom has had breast cancer twice and has fought it both times. I know that she is a miracle and God helped her survive. I am so blessed that she is in my life and I thank God every single day!”

Sometimes, I forget that those around me, especially my family, are experiencing my struggles with breast cancer right alongside me.

Edwina also made me think twice about my perspective on this month and our journeys through breast cancer. She texted me to ask how I’ve been. We don’t see each other as much as we once did, because Edwina’s new apartment is in a neighborhood that I don’t feel too comfortable wandering into.

We were updating each other on our lives, and I admitted to Edwina that I’ve been feeling run down and haven’t been taking care of myself the way I know I should. That gets me down, and the result is that I get further entrenched in a rut–not eating the right foods, drinking one too many glasses of wine, and favoring television and the couch over the trail near my house.

Edwina responded with three words: “God got you.”

She’s right. I may hate the pink, and the way in which a disease that has affected so many lives has been turned into a fluffy, happy, commercialized onslaught.

But God does have me, my family, Edwina, and the rest of us who struggle with disease, fears, depression, whatever it might be in his sight.



















Edwina and Wanda Fay

Edwina (right) with her older sister, Wanda Fay, at our outing for Edwina’s birthday.


Today, after a long hiatus, Edwina and I agreed to meet up at the Burger King located across the street from Cooper Green Hospital in honor of her upcoming birthday on Wednesday. Many times, Edwina and I have headed to the same BK after a doctor’s appointment. She loves their famous Whoppers.

Edwina walked in with her sister Wanda Fay, who I’ve heard a lot about but never met personally. The two of them had me laughing for more than an hour, talking (mostly simultaneously) about their other sisters–the crazy ones!–the men in their lives, children, plans for the summer. As always, when I see Edwina, I remember how much I miss her. She’s funny and warm and doesn’t get overly concerned about the things she can’t control: her car that’s in the shop again, her husband Tyrone (who Edwina says is “gettin’ back into trouble, doin’ them drugs”), her son Steve who’s staying with a buddy out of town and living in a truck.

My friend had some good news to share as well. She has a new puppy named China. Her landlord dropped her rent by a few dollars recently. And her doctor thinks she might be able to take away some of Edwina’s pain with surgery in the next month or so.

Edwina promised to keep me in the loop. She’ll text or call until we can see each other again.