shame, safety and silence: the lessons i refuse to learn

9 days in the life of a children's book author/artist/activist

i have been making children’s books since 1995, but i have to admit, this was a helluva 9 days.

to start off, i wrote about jacqueline woodson winning the national book award!!! and the series of racist jokes by snicket/handler at the ceremony. just a few days later i wrote about darren wilson not being indicted on the same day my latest book, CALL ME TREE was placed on kirkus reviews’ best picture books of 2014 that celebrate diversity.

what i didn’t write about is how these events affected me as a children’s book author/artist/activist on a deep, personal level. i want to write about this aspect because i remember 1995 and how shocked and amazed i was that someone like me got to have a voice in the world. i want to use that voice to sing OUT LOUD about what i’ve learned and contribute to the long song about how we as queers, as women and people of color have voice and belong. all of us. all the time. everywhere. including in children’s books.

i decided to write and be specific about it after a moment of crystallized perception.  thursday (“thankgiving”) i was contacted for the second time by someone who doesn’t know me. i was amazed.

this experience seemed to drive home what was happening for me. and if this was happening for me it may be happening to others.

the day i wrote about jacqueline woodson i felt angry. i could see the function of ‘public shaming’ and call it out in my small way. but that did not prevent what happened for the rest of the evening. it snuck up on me. little thoughts, background feelings, small at first, but accumulating. by the time evening settled in i was having full blown thoughts in the front of my mind.

i don’t know if i want to pursue children’s books and teaching anymore. i don’t have anything to say that’s not already being said. my voice is pale and insignificant. i just want to paint and go underground again. i want to just be an artist again making private interviews, shielded, semi-reclusive.

at first i thought these were valid thoughts. i considered them seriously. then it dawned on me. these are the exact opposite of all the thoughts i was having prior to witnessing daniel handler’s racist comments. when i realized this i could feel my heart and how heavy it was.  it worked! it worked on me!!! the function of public shaming, that i knew full well, had worked on me. ok then.

once i realized it, my strength slowly came back. but it shook me to witness myself change thinking, so easily and so deeply.

a few days later, i got up early and shared that CALL ME TREE was listed on kirkus. i am an enormous supporter of inclusive and gender free books for small children and this was a great opportunity to talk about it. but that same day the darren wilson decision was coming down. it was a terrible day. my heart racing for hours and hours. with all the lying and manipulation already going on, i knew he was not going to be indicted.

i kept being haunted by an experience i had when i was young in eugene, oregon. i was up veryveryearly to work at a small local organic vegetable distributor. there were 3 of us in the car, all lesbians. we got pulled over by the police because the driver had done some small thing outside of the law. when the officer came over, she looked in the car and singled me out. in eugene, oregon being chicana and a freeek really stood out. before i knew it she pulled me out and had me spread eagle on the back of the car on a busy over pass and was patting me down and asking accusatory questions. apparently there was a chicana wanted for prostitution. she even had my same name.

i recently learned that inside the car, the driver, a very religious lesbian, kept asking my partner what i had done wrong. and my partner kept saying, she hasn’t done anything wrong. you did something wrong which is why we got pulled over. maya hasn’t done anything.

after it was verified that darren wilson would not be indicted for killing michael brown, i started having an old feeling of not being safe in the world, even though i live between the castro and the mission (historically queer and latino neighborhoods respectively). this too snuck up on me. it took me a moment to realize why i kept having this memory and that a feeling of unsafeness was sneaking in. the kind of unsafeness that is connected to police and largelarge systems seemingly impossible to call out. when i realized what was going on AGAIN i laughed sadly to myself. i am safe. i said to myself. i am safe, but not everyone is.

i went back and walked through my single, annoying incident in which i was physically safe but profiled and treated aggressively by a female police officer. so faint, not even close to what african american males deal with all the time. in fact, the only thing that stood out as vaguely similar was that the driver kept asking what i had done wrong because i was so obviously the one who could have done something wrong in that car as the chicana.

i was impressed with my multiple responses to these very public experiences. then it hit closer to home. someone i know through facebook, but who i do not know personally messaged me privately:

I see your points about the Ferguson disaster but what is the point in burning down the city you live in? Can you give a logical answer to that question?

 a LOGICAL answer

i gave a short, respectful response and kept my feelings to myself. then on thursday, a day matthew and i were actually taking off from work and visiting chosen family out of town i got this:

maya, I have my beloved son as a deputy sheriff, and my son-in[law as a deputy sheriff. I am telling you they do the best that they can. Please don’t make their lives more vulnerable and in danger by this. Most police officers are people.

I really am hurt by what you are saying.

I can’t wait till they can retire, but if good people aren’t in law enforcement, the military will be.

at first i was the model of chill. i kept doing what i was doing. i was not on facebook. matthew had told me when it came through. i said i would handle it politely and be educational later and put it out of my mind. i thought maybe this person had taken a class with me or we had done a session together and she felt safe enough to vent like this on me.  then a few hours later my heart started racing. it raced for hours. i felt enormously sad and as if i do not belong in this world even though i was surrounded by deardear family and beautiful trees. then it hit me AGAIN. now people are actually stepping forward in my own life wanting me to prove my perspective by their standards and/or BE SILENT.

then i went back and checked who this person was and realized that they didn’t know me at all and i had no connection with them whatsoever. they had seemingly friended me solely because i’m a children’s book author/artist and they were networking.

i changed my mind about how to respond and wrote this:

i really can’t believe you wrote something like this to me on thanksgiving day. you don’t even know me.

i’ve never written one thing disrespectful of police officers. and in fact hold a prayerful, inclusive place even as i call attention to the historical, sociopolitical power structures within our society that currently affect all disenfranchised people, including the numerous families that have lost their unarmed sons forever.

you didn’t ask questions. you were not looking for dialog. for all intents and purposes you blamed me for your hurt feelings and some idea that I AM putting men in your family in danger and making them more vulnerable. if you think that my posts are endangering your men, i encourage you to read the posts that i post all the way through. don’t read headlines and interpret. they are all thoughtful and insightful and each and every one is intended that we as a people wake up and understand the reality of what’s going on in order to create equality and respect between all people in our country.

sadly your thoughtlessness in this message ruined my day, broke my heart at what people think is ok to act out on complete strangers and firmed my commitment to supporting people waking up to the reality of our current circumstance.

good luck XX. unfortunately because of your style of engagement i have no desire for further contact. i encourage you to educate yourself about the real history of the usa, specifically regarding african americans and attend to your personal feelings of fear. maya

she then tried to engage me by saying:

Some pf my best friends are africa.n americans. Ihabe blood relatives who are too and native americans .some of my best amd dearest friends are hispanic and asian. We are multicultural. I also love my so who is in harms way every day I

i did not respond.

i continue to feel stronger and stronger in my voice as i watch my heart grow through these experiences. whether public or private, they have a very real impact on our hearts and our voices. it is important to see through what’s going on. it is important to keep funding our strength of self, who we are at core and continue to stand strong with the communities that are taking the brunt of oppression right now.

as queer, as woman, as chicana, as artist, as human i support the african american community. as a whole people, we must deal with the power structures of our society that value some and sacrifice others.

shame, safety and silence: the lessons i refuse to learn.

the revolution is always now. xomaya


  1. you reminded me to come back and read this myself.
    the dance can feel so long.
    let us chachacha this revolution into our bones until we are sky until we are blue until we are so powerful there is no such thing as other! and we can all rest down.
    thank you tanita.

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