The Body Is a Shield or a Sword

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Nonfiction by Laura Winther Galaviz.


The deer’s body, hit by the minivan in front of us, seems to cleave like ice. I look up in time to see something break off and glitter in the headlights, while the rest of it somersaults like a plastic reindeer loosed from a rooftop sleigh scene. I’ve seen everything play out, but I can’t make sense of it. I turn to my husband.

“What just happened?”

The minivan is in shock, too. I watch it drive on until a quarter of a mile later: the blink of the emergency lights, a slow swerve to the shoulder.

“We have to make sure they’re okay,” my husband says, and pulls over behind them. It’s dark outside, only 6 PM, but November in Michigan.

~

The first time I meet my husband’s best friend, his wife leans across the table before we’ve even ordered drinks, and asks, “So, is this your first interracial relationship?”

Later, at home, my husband shrugs it off.

“She’s just like that,” he says.

“That’s not okay!” I tell him.

“But we are in an interracial relationship,” he says.

It takes me a long time to realize what exactly is bothering me: I am not accustomed to being seen first as a body.

~

As he slips out of the driver’s side door, I yell to my husband to be careful, and I either mean of the traffic gusting by him or of everything else. He jogs to the passenger’s side window and knocks. I imagine the adrenaline running through the other driver’s body from the impact; how my husband’s knock will only intensify the fear. The perspective from where I’m sitting is identical to every police dashcam video I’ve ever seen, pulled up to reconstruct, to determine guilt or motive. Why do almost all dash cam videos that need review happen at night? Through the windshield, I watch the scene play out in silence, and I’m terrified. Who’s in that car?

In Kalamazoo, where we work, the bumper stickers are rainbow colored—a line-up of beer glasses of varying sizes and shapes proclaiming Celebrate Diversity! on the rear panel of Priuses. But in Van Buren County, where we live, we sit in drive-thrus behind trucks with emblems of handguns tucked snugly into the mitten of Michigan like a dare, then we drive the back way to work past a house that, only since the election, flies an oversized Confederate flag in the front yard.

In the suburbs of Detroit, Feel the Bern stickers are a dime a dozen, but outside Flint I stare at a bumper sticker while I wait for a red light to turn green, the faces of the 2016 presidential candidates beneath the slogan Trump That Bitch. The news says that America is divided, but it seems more like infested to me, pockets of hate hidden everywhere—it’s only a matter of turning over the wrong rock. Right now, we are nowhere, on an interstate, slipping between the cities and towns, rural to urban, the shifting views and populations, the varied experiences, all of us mixed together and waiting to collide.

~

Not until my husband did I think much about bodies. That sentence should read, Until my husband came along, I had the privilege of moving through the world in my body without thinking too much about it. The shape of it, sure. I’ve wasted half a lifetime worried about the places I curve where I wish I was straight. But only when walking alone at night have I worried about the safety of my body, the potential for its destruction. Never have I seen my body as a liability.

In our lives, our bodies—my husband’s and my own—have been used differently, and to different ends. In the summers of my childhood, my mom drove my sister, my brother, and me to a blueberry patch where we tied plastic buckets around our waists and dropped half of what we picked into the bucket, the other half into our mouths. When the sun grew too hot, we called it quits. Our blueberries were made into pies and bars, and put into bowls with milk and sprinkled with sugar.

My husband’s hands pulled similar berries from the bushes for the profit and survival of his immigrant family, getting pennies in return for pints. He picked strawberries and apples and tied grapevines in the winter. He talks most vividly about picking peaches, the fruit’s fuzz creating an insatiable itch on his arms, working its way even through long-sleeved shirts. When we met, we were separated by a steel door; his body lugged weight in a warehouse, one freezing in the winter and muggy in the summer, while mine typed away at a desk on the climate-controlled side.

Let me tell you what I understand of my husband’s body. Let me make it real for you; let me make it impossible for you to lump it in with every other brown body you see. His skin is always cool to the touch. I am always hot, and so when I lay on his chest in bed, our bodies regulate one another. In the winter his skin is a cocoa powder brown, but in the summer, when we spend days on Lake Michigan, it darkens to a mahogany. He has two different thumbs—one thin and rounded like his father’s, and the other flat and wide like his mother’s. The nail on one pointer finger is smashed, a childhood accident perpetrated by a cousin. He is bad with pain, even worse with any sort of injury that stops him from doing the physical work that makes him feel purposeful. He likes his shower a temperature I would call cool, can’t stand to be stuck under the scalding stream of mine. It’s everything a body should be—strength where there ought to be, and softness everywhere else, tokens of old injuries all over his skin.

A body is neutral, objective, a fact—no more meant to be interpreted than a rock or a car. Different bodies shouldn’t mean different things, and yet. Other people have different interpretations of my husband’s body: its intent, threat, capabilities, worth.

Walking out of a Walmart last month, his self-control kept him from turning his head while two men yelled out of the open window of a truck, demanding to see his “papers.” The papers of my born-and-raised American husband. When he tells me about it, I insist that I would’ve turned around and chewed out their ignorant asses.

“That is not a fight I’m ever going to win,” he tells me.

~

I have never been pulled over, despite my incessant speeding, but my husband’s body has been sequestered in a jail. At nineteen, his girlfriend, white and redheaded like me, was only three years younger, but two months shy of consent, and so her mother had the legal recourse to stop what she didn’t care for. Here someone will say I ought not jump to conclusions about her motives, but having grown up with so many high school couples who came together outside of the parameters of the law but slipped by unscathed, it’s hard to believe it was his age that bothered her instead of his skin, his poverty, or the foreign tongue of his family. Where I grew up, the attention of a senior was coveted, not criminal, but we were nearly all white in my school.

Perspective: My husband spent more time in a jail for a consensual relationship with a classmate than Brock Turner did for raping an unconscious woman. Perhaps my husband should have taken up swimming.

Perspective: These two things happen concurrently: An accused child predator is up for the U.S. Senate, polling well and endorsed by the president, and once a year a police officer shows up at my front door with a printout of my husband’s picture to make sure he’s living where he claims, because he’s a danger. To answer their questions, my husband tells our kids the officer is just coming by to make sure we’re all safe, and they accept it.

Perspective: I was pulled over once for a broken tail light. The officer approached my window and asked me where I was coming from. “The university,” I told him. “I teach there.” The officer handed back my license and let me go without a warning.

~

We’re on a secluded beach on the coast of Lake Michigan, waiting for the sun to set. Hardly anyone is there, just a few older people walking with dogs and a white couple smoking aggressively fragrant weed behind us. A group of boys straight out of a Hollister catalog descend onto the beach blasting music from a stereo. One of the boys heads pops up. He breaks away, walks up to my husband and says, “Hey, man, you got pot?”

My husband, who has never smoked a cigarette, tried a drug, or drank alcohol, shakes his head and smiles. “No, man,” he says, pointing over his shoulder to the couple behind us. The boy looks up and assesses the couple, then rejoins his group and continues down the beach.

My husband is more aware of these alternate views, these interpretations, than I am, a side-effect of living in his skin for so long. He anticipates them, even. When we drive through a wealthy neighborhood to get to my family Christmas party, he jokes, “Maybe you should drive. They’re going to think I kidnapped you.” It’s a joke with apprehension behind it, a joke to temper fear. For the first time, my body feels powerful, able to negate the fears associated with his body, making him innocent by association. My body can vouch for his body. It’s magical and horrific.

When people reference my husband, they use the word “nice” enthusiastically, with an edge of surprise. What a nice guy! But what would happen if he wasn’t nice? What if he was demanding and aggressive like other men around me? What if it was him who approached you on a beach, asking for pot?

His kindness is his nature, but I wonder sometimes if it’s also evolutionary, a coping mechanism he’s developed to offset the threat of his brownness. It’s not an unrecognizable strategy to me, a woman who, like all women I know, has developed ways to navigate this country’s disgust of confident women, to manage a way to not be too much.

~

All of my life I have been too much. In fifth grade, a friend’s mom discouraged her from playing with me, telling her that I had grown up too fast. What that meant, I don’t know and I do know. I was loud and curious and challenging and mouthy. I wore a metal leg brace for a hip disease, but still beat all the neighborhood boys in races to the end of the block. I had a bad haircut, Coke bottle glasses, and bad skin, and I had the audacity not to notice or be ashamed of it. I was always fascinated by older girls, by adults and the prospect of growing up. I snuck downstairs at night and watched R-rated movies on HBO while my parents were asleep; after a field trip to the middle school at the end of fifth grade, I told my friend I’d seen several girls in the bathroom smoking, a lie I made up only because I wanted it to be true, because it was true on the TV shows I’d watched about teenagers. But that’s all I did—watched, imagined.

In sixth grade, right around the time of Reviving Ophelia, other girls wanted me to be less of everything. More palatable. I acclimated, looking to them for direction and complying, and for all my college-found feminism I’ve never been able to find my way back to that once-audacious person. Still, fitting into a box is a matter of comfort for me. For my husband, it is a matter of survival.

This is how women survive—by minimizing ourselves. Yesterday at work, I subdued myself with a question mark. Replying to an email, the answer I wanted to give (and knew to be true) was, “I haven’t received this paperwork.” But the bluntness, the finality, felt uncomfortable, because that’s how we’ve been taught to feel. Not enough give turns a woman into a bitch, and so I ended up typing, “I don’t think I’ve received this paperwork?” Just enough self-doubt to provide comfort to the recipient.

Everywhere I go now, I notice bodies. How they act and react. How they compare to the bodies around them. How they give deference, or claim space. In the grocery store, I’m aware of how much space I take up, where I am in relation to others, whose path I might be blocking. If someone is looking at the same section of bread that I’m interested in, I’ll circle the aisle, giving them time.

In the party store, standing in front of the cooler to select a bottle of wine, the man beside me has no such problem. He moves so close to me that our shoulders nearly touch, and then he moves forward a bit, to get a better look, and blocks the entire door with his body. It isn’t a matter of dominance; he isn’t trying to be an asshole. He’s simply never been taught that his body is an imposition, that it isn’t entitled to the space it occupies. Rarely is there malice associated with the close proximity of white men’s bodies. The problem is real enough that, when I return to New York City, I notice the subway system has gone to the trouble of posting anti-manspreading PSAs among their ads. Which is to say that manspreading is such a problem that the City of New York took money from their budget to remind men that they’re not entitled to two seats on public transit.

~

Not at first, but after a while, once my eyes have been trained to see this way, I notice bodies at the football game of my husband’s favorite team, a well-known and expensive private college. In the fall he is alight with a passion for his team, memorizing their names and numbers, scouting the new players like he’s the coach. When opening weekend arrives, we drive the hour to get there—across campus, we are in a wash of white. But on the field, it’s Black bodies doing the work and sustaining the injuries, working for a crowd of white alumni and students among which, statistically, they are not well-represented.

The school is unclear on their diversity statistics. Their muddled answer to a simple question is that they have a student population that includes “32% U.S. students of color or International citizens”; the international citizens conceivably (and likely) including quite a few Caucasians. In a comparison of epic disproportions, the composition of the football team is overwhelmingly Black. While the school’s website offers no percentages, a quick look at the online roster or at the field itself will show that Black men are represented there in numbers that are unseen anywhere else on campus.

In the stands, it’s my husband’s brown body in sea of white, and on the field it is the opposite. Having Black bodies on the sidelines using their skill to offset the cost of college is wonderful, but where are the Black bodies in that university’s classrooms? Why haven’t they been equally diligent in recruiting these underrepresented populations?

According to a recent study, nearly ninety-nine percent of those who play some advanced level of football in their lives will walk away with brain damage, CTE. The bodies of these college athletes are often accepted for what they can do for the school; they’re battered and abused, the seeds of some slow-simmering brain damage planted. Meanwhile, the school rakes in millions of dollars to support the programs of a majority-white student population, which is to say the white students benefit directly and greatly from the work of Black bodies. Which is to say that Black bodies are used to perpetuate and increase the disparity.

I find it uncomfortable to go to games with my husband now, because at some point in time, I looked around the stadium and finally realized what it reminded me of. Ralph Ellison’s “Battle Royale,” both the opening chapter to Invisible Man and a self-contained short story of its own, details a sporting event where Black men are put into a ring and made to fight one another, all for the entertainment of white men. At the end, the winner—the titular character of The Invisible Man—is given a college scholarship. In the stands, the football fans jump to their feet when a player crosses into the end zone, but what percentage of the upper middle class white parents in that stadium would call the cops to prevent their teen daughter from dating the same Black classmates in high school?

~

No one, it seems, wants to talk about bodies. It’s considered impolite; people are tired of the conversation. Instead, we want to pretend we see all bodies equally, that they start from the same place and each decide their own fate. But when the body stops being a fact and becomes an interpretation, that can never be true.

On November 9, 2016, my social media feed was a funeral, a eulogy of posts, and I took comfort in the sameness, the shared sentiment, assured that nothing truly bad could happen when so many of us felt the same. But as time goes on and we acclimate to the current political state as the new normal, the outrage in my social media feed has dropped off into a quiet headshaking. I think twice now before I share political posts, trying to assess if there’s a healthy mix of personal and political, as if I am trying to keep an audience happy.

When I bring up these topics in class with my college freshman, I try to slide them in obliquely, use synonyms for race and racism, but soon enough the students recognize the conversation for what it is and heads roll back to stare at the ceiling. I think, sometimes, that maybe I should lay off it. And that is privilege—having the choice to stop or keep going.

Every day, I lend my husband to the world, and his body goes out into it without me. Sometimes—in moments of clarity—I am afraid. I have to trust that the people in the spaces he moves through will interpret his body as I do, that his skin and stature won’t set off a panic or preconceived notion in someone with the means to do harm. I’m even afraid of this essay—that it’s nothing but a perpetuation of what I’m arguing against—that Black and Latino and Asian and Native American parents have been saying the very same things as they send their children out into the world, but that my plea will be heard because it’s coming from a white body.

~

Loving a man of color and being a person of color are not the same thing. They never will be. It’s the difference between attending a eulogy and being eulogized; of sustaining injuries from the shrapnel instead of from the bomb. Certainly there is enough trauma to go around, but the portions are far from equal.

What is worse? To write this anyway, knowing it’s unfair, or to say nothing and watch the body count rise? My body can vouch for theirs is a disgusting sentiment. In the nonprofit sector, it’s what we call acting as a fiduciary—lending an approved status to an entity that doesn’t have one, by alliance.

Once, maybe five years ago, I stood in the basement of my public library looking over the titles of DVDs on a rolling rack. There was a young Black girl there, too. Also an older white woman. For whatever reason, the older woman was annoyed. The girl was standing in front of her. Finally, the woman said, “If you’re not looking can you move over?” She is looking, I thought, but I said nothing. I think about that interaction—that non-interaction—once a month. Sixty months of regret. Once when I was telling the story to someone, I changed the ending so that I did the right thing. I told it that way hoping it would make me feel better, that I could finally let it go, but it didn’t and I can’t. I think about what I would have said, what I should have said, but what I said was nothing. I think of all the people who did the same in my husband’s life, on matters far more grave than a rolling rack of DVDs.

We can waste all day arguing about privilege and who has worked or not worked for what, about history and poverty and education. But what it comes down to is much simpler: if your body is a shield, it is a crime not to use it. If your body is a shield and you don’t use it, your body becomes a sword—another body drafted into a quiet army with weapons pointed at people with their hands in the air, palms forward, targets on their backs.

~

Along the darkened interstate, my husband gets back into our car. Whole. It’s an old woman in the minivan whose husband or son is on their way. The police are on their way. Because it is this person in the minivan and not some other, different person, my husband gets back into our car whole. I see the extent of damage for the first time when we pull out and pass, the headlight smashed in, the airbag spread across the driver’s side window like a tattered curtain.

“She just kept saying, ‘This is my only car,” my husband tells me. We drive for a while, and he adds, “She said I must be her guardian angel.”

And there is the contradiction of the minority body, that he can be both an angel or a danger, a godsend or a threat, depending on who’s looking, on the life they’re peering through. That his own life could depend on the that lens. Shape-shifting in this way must be exhausting, like walking past a row of carnival mirrors, surprised to see how you appear in each one, different features exaggerated or minimized, none of them quite the right reflection.


Image: Da Vinci, Leonardo. Detail of “The Martyred Saint Sebastian.” Circa 1482-1485. Private collection.

Laura Winther Galaviz holds an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. You can find her work in Colorado Review, The Rumpus, Grist, Aster(ix), The Common, and elsewhere. She lives in Kalamazoo, MI.

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