I have so many writing projects going at once that at times it is difficult to feel productive. Since this is a summer that I am devoting to writing, and not just writing but finishing projects, I decided to publish some essays in journals and publish my creative writing in other places. These are things that I think that I need to release into the universe in order to feel like I can work on a book of essays entitled What I Learned From White Girls that I got a grant for nearly 4 years ago to complete. (Hello, can you say that I am not good at deadlines?) The following is an excerpt of a novella entitled Work that I plan to publish as an ebook on iTunes and Amazon by the end of the year.
Work is about the modern black woman’s dilemma of how to be yourself and still exist in the white corporate world. More than that, it is about the broken promise that the North offered many blacks coming out of the rural South at the turn of the Century. It sounds heavy, but I hope it is funny. Here is piece from the first chapter:
Brooklyn, The Planet Earth, The Year of Our Lord, 2006
I was fired. Me. Fired. I don’t know how it happened. Well that is not really true. I knew how it happened, but I didn’t really see it coming. I hated my job, but I loved the life that it afforded me. I loved living in Brooklyn. I loved that so many of the friends that I had met in college seemed to have gravitated to the Big Apple and reconstituted themselves into an exclusive clique of black urban professionals. I loved shopping in Manhattan. I lived for the parties and relished the feeling of having “made it” that New York gives you.
It seems that my life was determined by the objects and fringe benefits that I was able to acquire because of my job—the expense account, the book parties, the fashion shows—but not by the job itself. The activity that consumed most of my waking hours was purely incidental. The exhilaration I felt every morning after the train ride into the city and first tasting my daily café mocha faded as soon as I stepped into the lobby of Laura Rubenstein Advertising and Public Relations. As soon as I hit the revolving glass door and spied the elevator that would whisk me up to the 15th floor (I used to pray for an elevator malfunction, anything to avoid work) and my cramped and disorganized desk, I felt a cloud of despair descend all around me.
I looked good. This again is one of the nice things about living in New York, access to some of the world’s best spas and ample opportunity to indulge my addiction to French cosmetics and skin care products. Usually I couldn’t be happy about how good I looked in whatever black ensemble that I happened to have on, because I knew that no one who really mattered would see me. Unless I was meeting one of my girlfriends for lunch—then I would take special care with my appearance—the way I looked was only for my benefit. What made my days bearable was the fact that I often arranged to lunch with my friends. Everyday, if duties didn’t demand otherwise. I was the only black woman, black person that is, at my firm. I needed to see my girlfriends during the day to keep me grounded, to keep me sane. Being the only is enough to drive you crazy. I don’t know how Jackie Robinson did it. Maybe he met his homeboys after his baseball games and chuckled with them about “the ways of white folk.”
A more accurate description of my work is that I am a “clockwatcher.” I am the bane of the corporate world. I am the subject of all the reports that executives produce trying to account for lack of productivity and declining profits.
“You see, Bob,” a man in suit would say, using a pointer to draw the board room’s attention to a graph placed on an easel. “It seems that our 8 million dollar loss in revenue can all be attributed to this one woman at Laura Rubenstein Public Relations and her lazy, don’t-want-to-do-no-work black ass. I think that we can trace the beginnings of the problem to 1865. After Lincoln freed the slaves, it was all down hill from there.”
I had a job, but did not work. My day usually consisted of enjoying the wonders of telecommunications. I called my mother everyday. She was a retired school teacher and had a lot of time to talk. I would call two old high school friends, one who’s a stay-at-home mother and the other who is a college professor. I envied my college professor friend Joy. She was living the life. She only taught class two days a week and always seemed to be home when I called. If it wasn’t going to take me so long to get my Ph.D. I might consider going back to school myself and teaching at anyone’s college that would hire me. High school would be too hard—five days a week and I would have to be at work at 7:30 a.m. The vacations would be nice, but the stress of dealing with today’s youth would mean that I would need all of that vacation time to recover. In the end, if I couldn’t teach college and be all eccentric and cancel class at a moments notice, I wasn’t interested.
The second thing that I would do is e-mail all my hard-working friends, the wage-slaves like me. A few were in New York, one was in L.A., another in D.C, and the last in Detroit. Well all knew each other from college—all except Hannah, a doctor in New York who was the sister of one of the original group. We kept an online group and blog called The Daily Grind and it had been running for about two years at the time of my wrongful (?) termination. We would post e-mails (under aliases that only we recognized) everyday to the group and bitch and complain about our working lives. Sometimes we offered advice, sometimes we sent out congratulations when one of us got promoted, at other times we exclaimed: “Oh, no he didn’t! That bitch is crazy!” or “Girl, these white folks are a trip,” as the occasion required.
We also discussed babies and men. We sung the blues about our mothers and why they were still trying to control us. We passed recipes, offered beauty tips, and reviewed books, movies, and CDs. This kind of support network, sister circle, band of cackling hens—whatever you want to call it, saved my life. It was the sole reason why I was able to get up and go to work each day. I thought that whoever invented the whole e-mail/ internet system must have done so just for me.
But the gig was up. After 5 years the powers that be figured out that I really didn’t do a damn thing at work other than show up and be black. I was good at it. Of course, I would write the odd press release when required. I would meet clients, the ones that the Rubenstein Agency took on because they were trying to tap into the black community and all that money coming out of the ghetto. These clients were invariably not interested in the black middle class. They would come to meetings and tell me that what the “hommies” wanted were products that reinforced the gritty reality of their lives in the streets. Sometimes, I wanted to ask them, “Oh, what reality is that?” These people didn’t have a clue what they were talking about. For these clients I usually would come up with some promotional scheme or another and mention Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, and the phrases “urban” and “keepin’ it real” a lot—they usually agreed with whatever I said.
I was also sent to all the dinners for the Urban League and the NAACP, benefits for Sickle Cell Anemia and the United Negro College Fund, and any type of public event where it was important to have minority representation. In a word, I was a token. Useful to the Rubenstein agency only because I proved how progressive and diverse our clients were. I smiled and shook hands. As I have said my primary job was showing up and being black, although I might better describe it as Uncle Toming or cooning. I mean, Butterfly McQueen didn’t have nothing on me.
So after years of being “a good negress,” I was a little surprised that I was being axed. I knew that I didn’t work, but I didn’t think that my actual work was what was important to the higher-ups. I mean, sure, I called in frequently on the days that I felt that I needed to take a personal day with lame excuses to miss work: “I couldn’t find my keys;” “I stubbed my toe;” “my plant died and I am devastated;” “I got a bad perm;” “I had to bail my brother out of jail;” or, my most creative, “It’s Johnnie Cochran’s birthday!” I can’t believe that they actually thought that this was a national holiday for black people!
I was also never on time. Never.
“How can you never be on time?” My mother once asked me. “We live in a random universe, it seems like you might have slipped up and been on time just once by accident.”
“Nope. I was even late to the interview,” I said.
“Do you know how many young black women would kill to have your job? Do you know how many sit-ins and demonstrations I had to participate in to make sure that you would have access to opportunities like this? Do you think that Martin Luther King died so that . . .”
I drowned her out. I had heard this black people and their “dreams deferred” speech one time too many. Somehow my mother would find a way to blame me for the four girls getting blown up in a Birmingham church and freed slaves not getting their forty acres and a mule. Apparently, since I didn’t go to work everyday with a smile and do everything to make sure that I was neat, punctual, and efficient, I was spitting on Harriet Tubman’s grave.
My mother continued, “. . . what do you think the great migration of blacks to the north was about? They were looking for better opportunities and trying to escape Jim Crow and lynching.”
It was painful having a retired history teacher for a mother. I wanted to tell her that everything that she was saying was true, but it was also true that when a lot of blacks came north between years that spanned the two World Wars, they didn’t find that the streets were paved with gold like they thought that they were going to. These great opportunities turned out to be disappointments. In fact, despite my own ability to build a supportive network of friends, the northern workplace was still a hostile environment.
“Martin Luther King said, ‘That if you do not have anything for which you are willing to die, then you are not fit to live.’”
“Are you trying to tell me that I need to be willing to die for my job?!” I screamed. Clearly this woman had lost her mind.
“Well, no. I am just trying to inspire you.” My mother thought that she was Martin Luther King. She could deliver a sermon with the best of them. The problem was that she got too caught up in her own performance.
“I need to run, Mom. I have to tell my boss that I am going to the Million Woman March tomorrow and that I’ll need two days off from work.” I hung up with the sound of my mother sputtering in the phone. It was so easy to work her nerves.
My mother would have a fit about me losing my job. She will probably point out that Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were never fired from a job, and blame me for setting the Civil Rights Movement back 40 years. It would be hard to tell her, and harder still to tell her that losing this job actually made me relieved.
It was interesting to see Daniel Cohen, the director of public relations, come in on a Monday at 9:30 a.m. to tell me that I would soon be joining the ranks of the unemployed. I was glad that I managed to stroll into work before my usual 10 o’clock arrival time. Technically, I was supposed to be at work at 9.
“Fannie,” Daniel said, as he poked his head into my office. “May I have a word with you.” I know, I have a country-ass backward name. That’s why I haven’t mentioned it until now. I am named after Fannie Lou Hamer, the southern agitator and voting rights activist. I told you that it’s hell having a history teacher for a mother.
“Sure, Daniel,” I say calmly, although I am alarmed. Daniel Cohen has never been to my office in the five years that I have worked here. I knew that something was up.
“Well, Fannie,” Cohen said, looking serious and all boss-like. “You know that we have appreciated all the work that you have done for the agency. I think that you have been the key to our entry into the ethnic markets. Unfortunately the big companies aren’t as interested in diversity marketing as they used to be. In fact, two of our biggest clients have decided to slash their ad budgets in half.”
Here he pauses for dramatic effect. I think I know what is coming, but I am holding my breath nevertheless.
“The part of the budget that Jack’s Hamburgers and New York Cola have decided to cut is the one devoted to ethnic marketing. Apparently there have been some marketing studies that have shown that Blacks and Hispanics will buy these products whether or not there is anything done to promote them.”
I am waiting for the other shoe to drop.
“I am sorry, but this loss of business has rendered your position here unnecessary.”
And there it is.
“But surely Daniel, there must be other work for me to do. If my performance here has been so great, surely you can just assign me to other accounts. I can work on any account, not just the minority ones,” I say, hoping against hope that I am not about to begin crying. Why I would cry, I don’t know. I hate my job. I should be kissing his feet. However, no one wants to be dissed.
“These are tough economic times. There aren’t any more accounts to give you, unless I take some away from someone else. You will get two months severance pay, and, of course, I will be pleased to provide you with glowing recommendations. I am afraid that your termination is effective immediately.” He looked like he was enjoying this. I caught a gleam in his eye.
“I will give you time to clean out your desk, but security will be up to escort you out of the building by noon.” And with that he left. He didn’t even give me time to ask him questions. He didn’t give me time to tell him that he could keep his stinking job.
I sat there stunned. So many emotions were rushing through my head. My first thought was: Yeah! I am going to get out of work early!!! My second thought was that my mother was right, I should have saved more money, any money really. For many years my outflow had greatly exceeded my monthly income.
Then I got mad. I should have cussed him out. My recurring fantasy for 5 years had been to tell Daniel that he could kiss my black ass two times because I was tired of working for The Man! I imagined myself jumping up on his desk, with the rapper DMX’s music blaring in the background, and shouting “Mau Mau,” “liberation,” and “down with oppression” to all the white people in my office who erroneously thought that I was an assimilationist role model. I would kick papers off desks, turn over plants, and then moonwalk out of the office.
I didn’t need this job. I am just sorry that I didn’t have the opportunity to quit before he fired me. I knew what I needed to do next. I needed to e-mail the girls at the Daily Grind and let them know that this fool had the audacity to fire me. My Spelman educated, master degree-having, wonderful self. My girls would have my back.
I would worry about packing up my stuff later. There is not much I wanted to take from this place. The most important thing to me was to save all my files from the Daily Grind.
I looked around. I guess that one of the benefits of not really doing any work is that I hadn’t accumulated a lot of paper. I had a few pictures that I wanted to save. My original oil painting by the black artist Jonathan Green would have to come. My portfolio, awards (believe it or not), and personal items could fit into one file box. This is the sum total of five years of my life, of all my hard labor. Okay, so maybe I was being a trifle dramatic.
I cut on my office computer. I was glad that a Macbook Pro had been one of my recent impulse purchases. I bought the computer simply because it would allow me to keep up with all my e-mail and blogging at home and because it was cute. It was nice to have a desktop at work, but the only thing that I really did there was to e-mail my friends and work on The Daily Grind. Basically, getting fired would probably not change my day-to-day life very much.
I was the first one of the group to get fired. A lot of the girls would not know how to respond to this new development. I paused for a couple of minutes to think about how to best compose my e-mail. Tone would be everything. I didn’t want sympathy. I wanted congratulations.
Girls, you will not believe what happened today. You are talking to someone who has been recently been given her freedom papers. That’s right, Master Charlie has given me a pass to get off the plantation. I know, it is unusual, a black woman without a job (To everyone except you Natalie, who is the only black stay-at-home mother that we all know. I know, I know. Before you even say it, I know that staying home with the kids is work—especially with your bad ass kids). However, I feel somewhat like the white rhino, a species going quickly extinct.
I am a little upset, because I wish that I could have done my planned “I quit” ritual, but now that I am thinking about my new joblessness I am actually glad. What do you suggest that I do with my new freedom? Should I change my name, run north, try to pass for white, write a narrative about my life as a slave, or do what many black people have done historically when faced with a crisis and throw a cookout?
I actually think that it is time to consider a career change. Maybe I can own a Smoothie King franchise, or become a buyer for Barney’s (of course y’all would get the hook up!). I could dance for the LA Lakers, become an interior designer, or maybe go back to school. The possibilities are endless. In writing to you I am amazed that I did not try to get myself fired earlier. Well this is a new dilemma for the women at the Grind. I await your wisdom.
A new woman of leisure, Fannie
I ended the e-mail, but left the computer on. I knew that I would get some responses from some of the girls right away. A few of us really worked—Lauren, Gail, and Kiesha—but the rest of us used corporate America to kill time until we could get back to our demanding social lives. The ones who liked their jobs, were also the ones who were married. I didn’t think that this was a coincidence. Part of what was so horrible about working was the feeling that you had to do it, that there was a direct correlation between your ability to drag your behind out of the bed and having food.
I cannot imagine what it would be like to have work be a choice, to sit down with your husband and say, “Honey, I think that I want to quit my job so that I can devote myself to the study of Buddhism.” And the husband, who would be so supportive and understanding would say, “Of course, baby, if that is what you want to do, then go right ahead. We will be all right. I will try to get more clients and, of course, there is the money that my mother left me. I am sure that she would want you to use her money to pursue your dreams.”
Well that is the dream. It is more likely to go something like this if you are black: “Baby, I was thinking about quitting my job to go back to school.” And the husband with disbelief and shock would look around the cramped apartment and say “Are you crazy, woman?! Why can’t you work, go to school, take care of the kids, and have a hot dinner cooked every day by the time I get home? That’s what my mamma did!”
“I’m not your mamma,” you would respond. The fight to end all fights would then ensue and, before you know it, you’d be divorced. You would eventually end up working more than you ever did because this man, who you thought you loved, refuses to pay alimony and child support.
Or, I could be just a bit pessimistic.
Damn black men’s mammas! They make it so hard for the rest of us. Who said that just because they were able to work as hard as men, to just drop babies in the field and keep on picking cotton that that is the way that it’s supposed to be done? I know that if older women had had time to think about it more they would have done something to dispel this whole black woman as superwoman ideal. A girl has got to have fun.
But somehow we have messed up and work has become the defining element of our lives. The writer Zora Neale Hurston certainly knew what she was talking about when she said that black women are “the mules of the world.” How many single women do we see around here that are just tired, beyond tired, sick and tired? I remember reading in a magazine article that it is estimated that almost 30% of all black women are severely clinically depressed. Maybe if we showed up at shopping centers with guns and bombs and started taking people out, somebody would give us a little sympathy. I mean if people can excuse rich white boys who turn to cannibalism by saying that they had a hard childhood, then we definitely can excuse the craziness of black women who have had a hard childhood, and hard adolescence, and an excruciating adulthood. But will anyone ever truly understand our pain? I wouldn’t be surprised if when I got to Heaven, God pulled me aside and said “Honey, do I have a job for you!”
We think that black women are just prone to meanness, when the reality is that they are overwhelmed. How many women would stop beating their kids’ behinds with extension cords and cussing everybody out if they just had a little help?
Well, this mule is unhitching the wagon. I will not even think about getting another job. I will not work. It will be my own form of protest. I realize, however, that part of my campaign against work is based simply on the fact that I am truly lazy. I have to be honest here. I am probably the laziest person you’ve ever met. I will acknowledge that my aim here is not completely altruistic. I mean, I actually like sleep more than sex, because sex involves too much moving (if the guy is lucky) and sweating. But I also recognize that all women can benefit from my protest. It is time that we stop letting the system beat us into the ground! Let’s take our lives back! Now. Today. Who knows, my firing may very well be the start of a revolution.