Being in class (2)

We discuss Janet Mock’s memoir, Redefining Realness. Only two people had the book, did the reading, so we read together a passage about Mock seeing her dad as her dad, then her discovery that people on the block see him as “that crackhead.”1 Two women talk about themselves as a “crackhead” or “dope fiend.” I’m not this anymore, says one, and, People have all these different sides of themselves: although I’m wearing blue now, this isn’t who I am. And another, slowly enunciating:

I need to acknowledge this as a reality I’ve lived in order to challenge and change it. I’m wearing blue and this is who I am, at least for now, and knowing that is an important part of my being able to “redefine [my] realness.” I am not a mom right now because I’m here, not with my children. And my oldest, my daughter won’t talk to me, she hasn’t forgiven me for those years when I cared more about getting high than about being a mom.

You stop listening; think of your oldest, your daughter. You are moms here together, sitting in this bare box with college students who might be but are not our birth children. Jane Maher writes about using autobiographical essays to teach writing to women in prison: “Try pointing out a run-on sentence or ask for clarifying details in an essay that described a scene in the prison visiting room during which an 11-year-old daughter asked her mother, who has a life sentence, what would become of her body when she died in prison.”2 You lean forward to insist (but is this intrusive/too certain/wrong?), You are a mom. Your daughter wouldn’t be not talking to you if she didn’t know you are her mom. She shifts in her seat, mm.

At the conference on higher ed in prison, a CO sitting on a panel with her deputy commissioner in the room: Corrections is like another planet. Here a spoon is a spoon is a spoon. There, a spoon is a weapon. You need to think about things you would have no reason to think about anywhere else.

You struggle to acknowledge these intersections: the yearning mom, the spoon. Look to the words of the colleague who brought you into this work:

Restorative justice principles suggest that crime…breaks relationships ….restorative values include respect, care, self-determination, participation, interconnectedness, and humility….responding to crime requires responding to the unjust social context in which it occurs….Restorative Justice Pedagogy aims to use restorative justice knowledge as a way to empower people to build relationships, communities, and leaders and to prevent future harm…..The RJP experience speaks to the importance of creating community in the classroom to facilitate the openness and sharing necessary for personal transformation.3

What earlier mother-daughter relationship might be “restored” here? In your own parenting, there is much that you suspect neither you nor your daughter would want to return to. And too the difficult question of who will rebuild this relationship, “prevent future harm.” “Transformation” makes you uneasy, with its resonances of conversion, of change on some cellular level, suggesting a mythical skid-free future, “a hall pass through history.”4

Lesson Plan for Fri., 3/20/15:

I. Two weeks ago we asked for some writing:
Pick one scene from your life, and tell that story.
Then comment on the ways in which you have
made it real (or decided not to….)
We were asking about representation…
anyone want to read these….?

You play “2 truths and a lie” in small groups. All the lies have a ring of truth: plausibility lies with the listener.

This week many have read the book, so you plunge in via the title: Redefining Realness is about the question of what is “real” for Janet Mock, a trans woman of color who grew up working class and poor in Hawaii and Los Angeles; who is she “really”? What is the truth here? You probe: What makes someone really a woman? How much does this have to do with genetics, how much with choices, with presenting yourself, with products of presentation; is that hyper-feminine woman in the peach gown on the book’s cover really her? Clearly, she’s female! But: she has to go further in showing she’s a woman, because she isn’t really a woman. Janet Mock isn’t and never will be truly female, because of her “equipment.” Though she had “the surgery.” But: what part of all this does genitalia play in “realness”?

II. Two main ideas to work with: passing/not being read:
Dorian Corey…describes “realness” for trans women (known in ball culture as femme queens) as being “undetectable” to the “untrained” or “trained.” Simply, “realness” is the ability to be seen as heteronormative, to assimilate, to not be read as other or deviate from the norm. “Realness” means you are extraordinary in your embodiment of what society deems normative.5

These thoughts surrounding identity, gender, bodies, and how we view, judge, and objectify all women brings me to the subject of ‘passing,’ a term based on an assumption that trans people are passing as something that we are not….This pervasive thinking frames trans people as illegitimate and unnatural. If a trans woman who knows herself and operates in the world as woman is seen perceived, treated, and viewed as a woman, isn’t she just being herself? She isn’t passing; she is merely being.6

On co-constructing ourselves, in relationship with others:
When I think of this time with Wendi, I’m reminded of a line from Toni Morrison’s Sula: “Nobody was minding us, so we minded ourselves.” I was her sister, and she didn’t want to leave me behind. We needed each other to create who we were supposed to be.7

You talk about “heteronormativity”–-parse for meaning at the college, the prison, get into a spirited discussion of the heavy presence of masculine clothing and body products in the women’s jail. Why is this, and what does it mean? They don’t want us to look and feel attractive, female. Don’t want us to be attractive or attracted to each other. Even the deodorant is male, everything. Easier and cheaper to buy massive quantities of what the men use. Still: I know I’m attractive. And it’s not really about my equipment.

This is a space where women sit with each other, think and laugh and listen, shoot out sharp words…push and cajole and appreciate each other, and sometimes there is touch. This is a space where women sit with each other, think and laugh and listen, shoot out sharp words(and once, waiting for the first class of the semester, someone punches someone in the nose), push and cajole and appreciate each other, and sometimes there is touch. Touch is forbidden: sitting by so the thighs touch, maybe tops of arms, holding hands, any kind of little stroking of skin, of course hugs. This desire for touch, for skin to skin somehow so dangerous that the late-shift CO–-usually so calm and clear–-goes off on the cuddling, threatens that if she sees this again someone won’t be allowed back to class. Love, lust, contact, caring, connection; desire desire desire. Even the flat blue, squared out clothes elastic wasteband no hugging of the body can’t diminish all that flesh of many shades and textures. In closing circle she says that she’s never been like that but now there’s this woman here, describes her strong body and her attitude. Connection and power lurk here, the power to touch, to prohibit touch, to desire.

V. Write a story about when you were a different version of yourself.
Go ’round and share something of what you wrote.

In the end, you don’t (re)define “realness.”

“The purpose of art,” James Baldwin wrote, “is to lay bare the questions hidden by the answers.” He might have been channeling Dostoyevsky’s statement that “we have all the answers, it’s the questions we do not know.”8

The discussion of what’s “real” seems to you like this: Circling answers together (biological “equipment,” clothing and other accouterments, how you see yourself, how others see you) takes you all behind the curtain, to a place of questions, impolitic questions about commerce, desire, power.

You visit with your mom and her friend–88 and 93 respectively–at her friend’s “home,” a cell-like room in the basement of a facility where the upper floors are swanky, the lower floors not. Your mom’s friend, now in a wheelchair, has a worn hardback copy of Finnegan’s Wake lying open on her bed. Her ankle is bruised and swollen from yet another fall, still she is elegant. She is the mom of an eminent queer theorist, was also your high school English teacher, and when she asks questions about your class at the prison, you don’t evade these as you so often find yourself doing; instead you describe our discussions of Redefining Realness. Later, you go buy her a copy, knowing that she will read you reading.

  1. Janet Mock, Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More (New York: Atria Books, 2014), 56.
  2. Jane Maher, “Teaching Academic Writing in a Maximum Security Women’s Prison,” New Directions for Community Colleges 170 (Summer 2015): 82-83, accessed May 20, 2016, doi: 10.1002/cc.20146.
  3. Barb Toews, “Toward a Restorative Justice Pedagogy: Reflections on Teaching Restorative Justice in Correctional Facilities,Contemporary Justice Review: Issues in Criminal, Social, and Restorative Justice 16, 2 (2013): 2-3, accessed May 20, 2016, doi: 10.1080/10282580.2013.769308
  4. Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015), 33.
  5. Mock,Redefining Realness, 116.
  6. Mock, Redefining Realness, 155.
  7. Mock, Redefining Realness, 135.
  8. Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Graywolf Press, 2014), 115.