Claudia Rankine’s gripping, compelling prose poetry on the subject of what it means to be a black citizen of the United States, conveys the stark, soul-injuring, relationship-injuring, experience of life-long microaggressions, from classmates, coworkers, neighbors, teachers, friends, and strangers. Addressing racism beyond the microaggression, into its most aggressive form–murder–Citizen also includes images of artworks and photographs that speak to poems. Rankine’s writing is as beautiful and intimate, as her subject is devastating and far-reaching. This is a vitally important work in the cultural conversation around racism, a must read.
This spring, in an interesting confluence of time-honored traditions, my child Asa will become a man. To explain the transformation, I need to start by backing up about 13 years, to when I was pregnant. I always wanted a girl child, and when I was pregnant with Asa I wanted a girl so much I thought for sure it would be my karma to have a boy. I made lists of all the boys and men that I really liked, and thought a lot about them, attempting to break down my biases. I wanted a girl because in general I liked females better than males. Aside from my partner Chris, my close relationships were all with women. I didn’t understand sports or the appeal of sports, and even though I’ve never been particularly girly myself, I thought it would be fun to have a child whose hair I could braid and put barrettes in. This last one wasn’t the main thing, of course, what I really wanted was a child I would have a close relationship with, and in my mind that was female. Asa has since told me that these were sexist notions, and that is true.
So, I was pretty thrilled when I got the ultrasound a few days before Asa was born, and the technician told me the baby was a girl. I was so sure I would be having a boy I doubted her words. “Are you sure?” I asked. “Yep,” she said, “those are labia.” Asa is actually a boy’s name, but it was the one we chose, partly because it means healer, and Asa was born very medically complicated.
As I said, I have never been particularly girly, and in the early years neither Chris nor I were interested in dressing Asa in clothes all tricked out with pink and glitter and demeaning slogans like “Born to shop,” as is all the rage in capitalism these days. Also, Asa was mostly bald until the age of three, so many people–out at the parks, library, etc.–assumed Asa was a boy. We assumed Asa was a girl, given the anatomy, but, as it turned out, we were also wrong.
Asa enjoyed a variety of clothing as a kid, but by grade three was exclusively wearing “boys clothes.” I didn’t think much of it, that’s what I preferred at that age too, but then in grade four, in a classroom discussion, Asa heard the term “gender-neutral” for the first time, and a light bulb went off. Asa did not feel like a boy or a girl, and this was a term that fit. These days, three and a half years later, Asa prefers the term “non-binary.” Asa is not a girl, but luckily for me I did get my wish, in that I have a child with whom I have a close relationship, which is what I actually wanted, the anatomy is so beside the point. And luckily for all of us, we live in a time and place where there is a tremendous amount of support and acceptance for gender diversity, so Asa can be who they are without it being a problem.
We also are lucky to have an accepting extended family, and, at least on my side, one in which queerness is a family affair. My mom came out as a lesbian when I was eight years old. She told me, a little nervously, one day after school when we were walking up the driveway. I didn’t care either way, it was all the same to me, though I already felt more comfortable with women than men, so if she had girlfriends that would be easier on me. When my mom told her mother she was in a relationship with a woman, my grandma was unfazed. “Is she Jewish?” she wanted to know. She was Jewish (the first one, anyway)–hurrah!–and she was exceedingly nice to me. And my grandma told my mom that if she’d had the option, back in her day, she might have gone that way too.
As I grew up I identified as a “tomboy,” and I also liked boys, but, having a queer mom, it stuck in my psychology that heterosexuality was something a woman should grow out of, like a developmental stage. In high school when my friends’ moms were married to men or had boyfriends, I somehow thought, “How immature, aren’t they over that yet?” Even so, I myself remained straight, though a small dose of bi came in for a few years, and I eventually married a man. A man who likes sports! But also a man who was a women-studies major in university, who is a dancer, was into theater as a young person, and who, when speaking to a crowd—as his work often requires—can be mistaken for gay.
Asa is also very into theater. Asa is not just non-binary, Asa is an actor. Asa has been in a number of plays, including the ones we stage in the summer in our front yard, and always prefers male roles. About a year ago we watched the movie Fiddler on the Roof and Asa fell in love with it. I had seen it many times before, and I always cry the entire way through. Then we found out that this year’s spring musical at Asa’s middle school was going to be Fiddler, and we pretty much died and went to Heaven.
Asa loves musical theater, I’m not particularly a fan, but I do love Fiddler, because it’s really good, and it’s really Jewish. It’s the musical of our tribe. Asa prepared long and hard for the auditions, so much so that we had to put limits on how many times in a day Asa could sing the songs. Any song, no matter how gay or Jewish, with enough repetitions, will drive you insane. Asa auditioned for four parts: Tevye, the lead, and three smaller male roles, suitors of Tevye’s daughters. Marriage and tradition are central themes in Fiddler. The musical opens with a big number, a song called “Tradition,” which lays out the roles of each person in the family, according to gender, the roles that constitute the backbone of the society, in their village of Anatevka. Then the rest of the musical is devoted to the challenges to tradition, the breakdown of tradition, the changing of the times around tradition and its adaptations, and the adherence to tradition as a saving grace, and the tensions between these various dynamics.
As the drama, in our house, of the months of preparations, and the two weeks of auditions unfolded, I kept in close conversation with my cousin Leora. Leora is her own kind of queer and gender-diverse, feeling very strongly, spiritually, that she is a gay man. She lives as a woman and has not chosen to make any external transitions, but that doesn’t make her any less queer or trans. What matters, at least in the book of our family, is how you feel and identify. It’s the same for me, the queer community is also my community, even though I’m straight. Queerness is something I personally have in common with queer people, even though it actually isn’t.
Leora was very excited for Asa, and even invoked something metaphysical from her own past to bolster Asa, The Spirit of Queer Tevye’s, because when she was a teenager, and very into theater, she had a role in her high school’s production of Fiddler, and her gay friend landed the lead. She sent us a picture of the two of them in costume, with a few others of the cast. In Asa’s gender journey, Leora has been a terrific ally.
At last the auditions were over, and two days ago the decisions for the casting came down, and… drum roll please… Asa got Tevye! Not too shabby, especially for a grade seven kid, who had competition from grade eights, who were taller and possessed deeper voices. Yes, yes, not too shabby at all. The whole mishboucha is pretty excited.
Coincidentally, there is another queer and Jewish family event happening this spring, in that we will be celebrating Asa’s “barat” mitzvah, our non-binary take on the traditional Jewish rite of passage, the bar mitzvah (bat mitvah for girl), wherein the child, upon their thirteenth (or twelfth, depending) birthday, becomes an adult in the eyes of the community. Asa has been long preparing for this too, studying Hebrew with my dad over Skype each week, and beginning to write their speech on the portion of the Torah they will be chanting. Like many things with us, this will be a DIY affair, at our house with a small number of friends and relatives, a papier mache Torah, and a rainbow tallis (the traditional prayer shawl) sent by cousin Leora. There will be music, there will be food, and there will be a rendering of tradition adapted for the times. In this way, this spring, Asa will be a man on stage, a ritual adult at home, and as always, the child of my dreams.
Jenny Jaeckel is the author of forthcoming book House of Rougeaux. This historical family saga will be available everywhere books are sold in April, 2108. See description here.