Valentine's Series: Tongue-Tied (Untitled) by Sarah Thomas

In honor of Valentine’s Day, all this week on our blog we’ll be posting pieces from our January 31st reading on intercultural dating and relationships. Our first piece, Tongue-Tied (Untitled) by Sarah Thomas, was originally published in Issue 2. 


I come to you as a scab picker.

I was known for sitting alone after a grade school scuffle or a tumble off the jungle gym and picking off my scabs to watch the blood run. I was never sure if I did that to prove something to myself or just to make others watch me bleed.

Whenever I have bounced ideas for essays off my boyfriend, he has often advised: Whatever you do, don’t talk about your preference for black men. You’ll make a lot of enemies.

I hope he was underestimating all of us.

This is what I’m scared to talk about.

This is what I’ve spent near 30 years figuring out how to talk about.

What I’m trying to say is, as a white woman from the South, throughout the years I was supposed to say:

“Black” instead of “colored,” because “colored” reflects our history of ignorance.

And then “African American,” instead of “black,” because “black” reflects our cultural myopia.

And then “people of color” instead of “African American,” because “African American” reflects our oversimplification.

I haven’t found the right language to have a dialogue about what I’m trying to say about what I don’t know how to say.

Let’s say:

I’ve studied the repercussions of the Diaspora and the plantation structure of the Antebellum South to understand how the institutionalized rape of black women, the fear-based virility myth of black men, and the racial gradation resulting from what we used to call miscegenation has paralyzed and tongue-tied this country and strained the socio-sexual relations among its inhabitants.

What I mean to say is:

I like black guys, and I don’t know how to talk about it.

The thing is, what I hate about my folks is what I fear about myself. Wait, what I fear about my folks is what I hate to think about myself.

The thing is, the thing is, the thing inside them may just be an antiquated version of the thing inside me.

Okay. Let’s look at it.

The geographic reel of my ex-boyfriends is a veritable brochure of vacation destinations for wealthy white people:

Brazil, Jamaica, Nigeria, Namibia, Jamaica (again), Guyana, South Africa, The Bronx (forgive me), Trinidad.

Am I vacationing via human beings instead of all inclusive resorts?

Am I vacating myself?

What I want to say is, what I’m trying to say is:

Does the bigotry that lives in my family, in my history, just manifest itself in me differently?

My family’s objectification becomes my fetishization…

Their quest for superiority becomes my quest for minority…

Their homogenization becomes my exotification…

What I am trying to say is, when I fuck a black man, am I trying to fuck him or my own history?

What I’m trying to say is, I have forever felt foreign in my own state, in my own town, in my own home, in my own skin. My outside never seemed to match my inside. And having felt alienated by my own history, by my own body, is it any wonder I fled to the arms of a person who is the personification of alienation in the place where I’m from?

When one Christmas after a few bourbons, my sister declared, “Sarah has jungle fever,” I was relieved. Because at least it had been verbalized, at least now there was proof of why I bucked against my own family, here was something concrete that I could hate, here was some piece of ignorance sitting out on the carpet, next to brightly wrapped presents in front of the Christmas tree.

Sometimes I am jealous of the men I am with because at least they have some physical manifestation of being Other. At least you can see this difference, this pigmentation, this thing that says, here is why scars are laced across his psyche, here is why he should be angry at our country, our history, my family, here he is, here is why, right here before your eyes! I blend right in. I disappear.

What I’m trying to say is that I feel like a Dr. Seuss Sneetch without a star belly.

I realize it is both ignorant and insane to posit that I wish I were the object of bigotry. Maybe I should be grateful, or at least at peace, with the status my Tennessee landlady once lauded as: Free, white, and young. But I’m sure my strange breed of body-mind dysmorphia isn’t strange at all.

Haven’t we all looked in the mirror and thought: God fucked up?

Haven’t we all looked at our partners and thought: God fucked up?

My therapist says I intellectualize that which is inherently sexual.

What I’m trying to say is that of course it’s about each man, each individual. Of course the synapses in my brain trigger my endorphins, saying to me: He is hot, right? He is smart or kind or well-versed in Kafka and George Carlin; he is a human that is touching my arm, before he is black or brown.

Of course it is about him.

About each psychologist and bartender and firefighter and teacher and costume designer and landlord and father and criminal and architect.

It’s about each knuckle in my mouth, each carefully folded goodbye note, each little unremarkable tragedy, this child he couldn’t get into the right private school, this bedside when he was on dialysis, this last ride thigh to thigh on the L train, that story he told me about his father leaving, that story he told me about his father leaving, that story he told me about his father leaving, that story I told him about leaving my father.

The pair of jeans I’m wearing that are his.

The number in my phone I can no longer call.

What I’m trying to say is, I know those are the things that matter.

But why, when I look back, is it the constant contrast of brown skin against pale skin that takes precedence in my mind? Why is it that division refuses to relent?

Why is it after all this, he he he he can look at me with wet eyes and say, “You could never understand?” I want to scream at him, but of course I know he is right.

What I’m trying to say is, it is because I am a scab picker.

I am standing before you, picking at my scabs, to see if you will watch me bleed. To see if you’ll bleed a little too. Then at least I can know our insides are made of the same stuff.


Sarah Thomas is an MFA student in Fiction at Columbia University and teaches Undergraduate Writing. She has contributed to xoJane and blogs for The Huffington Post.  She writes on race, sexuality, and the politics of inequality. Sarah lives in Harlem, where she is working on her debut novel.

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