The Perpetual Perception of Black

Carolyn Holbrook

We are in a time of cleansing. The earth, our bodies, and the soul of our politics have all been amplified this year. The spreading coronavirus that continues to threaten our survival has caused us to stay home for months. With less travel, greenhouse gas emissions have lessened, causing us to see clearer skies and breathe in cleaner air.

On Memorial Day, another pandemic moved front and center with the tragic death of George Floyd — the latest example of the uniquely American form of racism in which unarmed individuals with dark skin are killed by law enforcement officers with no consequence to the killers.

The murder of George Floyd woke the world up to something that we Black people have known for over 400 years: that our people are subjected to lethal force in alarming numbers.

Despite the risk of being exposed to COVID-19, people around the world are demanding the end of the decimation of Black bodies. I believe, more than any other time in history, that we have an opportunity to finally heal this problem.

Yet the murders of Black women and girls have been ignored. With three daughters and five granddaughters, one who is transgender, I worry as much about them as I worry about my two sons and three grandsons. All of their lives are in danger every day. #Sayhername puts a spotlight on the dangers Black girls and women face.

As someone who was newly of age in the 1960s, I believe our healing journey might become worse before it gets better. Like any birthing process, our nerves and our bodies will go through more turmoil before the new life is here. Like previous movements, the powers that manage the systems of oppression are resistant to change. I believe we are in the second trimester, just beginning to show the signs of what we are gestating.


Minnesota Women’s Press will host a virtual forum with Carolyn Holbrook and her granddaughter, Tess Montgomery, on August 18, hosted by First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis. Click here for details.

Holbrook’s memoir, titled “Tell Me Your Names and I Will Testify,” is available from U of M Press on July 21. She writes as someone who was once a pregnant, incarcerated teenager in the Minnesota juvenile justice system, and as a celebrated writer, arts activist, and teacher. A virtual book launch party is scheduled for August 12. See a book excerpt below.

Excerpt: “Tell Me Your Names and I Will Testify”

There are turning points in everyone’s life, though we sometimes fail to recognize them right away. I experienced one of those moments during a springtime video poetry class.

A young woman, whom I’ll call Gretel, had written a poem about roller skating through a graveyard, and everyone in the class was intrigued by the idea. We agreed to meet at the entrance of Lakewood Cemetery, where many prominent Minnesotans are buried.

On a Sunday morning, the group followed Gretel as she skated past curved, tree-lined paths and rows of plaques and headstones, large statues and crypts as big as houses. Gretel mugged for the camera as she led us down a narrow pathway with a thick cluster of trees bordered with pink, purple, and white flowers. She began skating slowly down the path, glancing back to make sure we were following.

I was the first to see the weather-beaten statue of a woman who looked like she had been carved by a sculptor in the Greco-Roman era. Her figure was draped in a gown, belted at the waist, allowing her skirt to fall gently over the pedestal on which she stood. Her right hand rested over her heart, and her left arm reached out in a gesture of peace. She gazed down at me with a soft smile and her eyes, though devoid of color, appeared kind. She looked so real that it was hard to believe she was made of stone.

The class stood in a semi-circle and watched Gretel’s eyes take on a ghoulish sparkle. The instructor trained the camera on her and an impish grin spread slowly over Gretel’s face. She spun around and skated up to the statue. She lifted her arm and stuck out her finger, then snatched it back and said: “It’s a statue of a Black woman. If you touch her you’ll die.” And then, as though propelled by a tornadic wind, she skated away, leaving petals of laughter ringing in the air.

I took another look at the woman locked in that dark body made of granite and, in my mind’s eye her shoulders began to slump from carrying the weight of all that stone: she seemed to crumble under the burden of overwork and underappreciation from cooking and cleaning for the families of Gretel’s ancestors while desperately trying to care for her family, the families of my ancestors.

At that moment, I remembered every negative image I had ever heard of Black women — oversexed, breeder, wet nurse, mammy, hostile, nappy headed ‘ho.

Gretel’s words named something I had felt vaguely all my life but could not describe with words of my own. The cautionary warnings from our mothers and grandmothers; Billie Holiday’s lyrics, “Southern trees bear strange fruit … black bodies hanging from the poplar tree;” the blue eyes that Toni Morrison’s character Pecola prayed for, believing that they would stop the abuse she was suffering, stop her from being seen as ‘dirt;’ the horrific story of the “Hottentot Venus,” the orphaned 18th century south African woman whose large buttocks and extended labia caused her Dutch enslavers to turn her into a sideshow attraction; the degrading ways we Black women are depicted in movies or shaking our asses in hip-hop videos; the ways we are devalued in school and the workplace, by our men who reject us and men of other races who look past us or leer at us with hidden lust.

All of those images and more came crashing into my heart. Gretel’s words made it clear that in the eyes of the world the Black woman is poison. “If you touch her, you’ll die.”

I can’t lay all of the blame on Gretel. Nor can I blame the group’s nonreaction entirely on them. No doubt, Gretel was repeating what she had heard all of her life. No doubt, her comment was unremarkable to the others in the group for the same reason. Throughout history, the Black woman has had to struggle with the perception that her Blackness makes her as venomous as a sting from the tongue of a poisonous asp or the bite of a black widow spider.

Unfortunately, we are still struggling with this perception.

I have three beautiful, intelligent daughters. I have had to help them maintain their self images over and over again, even as I have attempted to heal my own. I also fully understand the horror of what is happening to our young men. I have a son who was incarcerated for ten years in the federal penitentiary. But there seems to be a conspiracy of silence around our girls and women. Could it be that in a large part our incarceration is invisible? That we are locked up in our bodies?

I left the cemetery wondering what it would take to liberate us. Today, as I think about what my parents had to go through — much that I didn’t learn about until after they had passed on — and the stories my students are carrying, I worry. As I see my grandchildren move through a world where the current president has given the green light to white supremacy, following President Barack Obama’s eight years of hope, where once again Black and Brown people are under violent attack, I have to ask: What is it that will set us free?

Carolyn Holbrook (she/her) is a writer, educator, and founder of More Than a Single Story, a program of conversations with writers of color. She teaches creative writing at Hamline University and the Loft. An open-access version of her book is available digitally until August 31 as part of the U of M Press “Reading for Racial Justice” series.