• JoAnn Michel

Same Sermon, Different Choir

While this is a standalone essay, it is also a response to Preaching to the Choir



This is a story about labor.




It is about the work that I do, the work that I should do, and the work that I do not want to do.


This is a story about work that starts at birth and will never end.


I write, yes.


I want to write for myself again.


I should finally be resting after a hard first year of grad school. I should be lesson-planning for this summer semester French course. I should be reading for a very, very important exam.


I am tired.


I am here.



This is a story about anonymity.




Anonymity is a privilege that I like to think I have. I play with it, and it plays right back. This whole blog is technically, intentionally “anonymous.” Even so, you know exactly who I am. If you did some digging after happening across the link to “Preaching to the Choir” that was recently posted to various Facebook groups, you’ve probably found me. If you look at the rosters of every single course I’ve taken in the past six years, you will find me very easily.  The W&L class photo for my year makes it absurdly easy. Of course, I don’t always want to be singled out. I don’t always want to be called on to answer difficult, probing questions that have everything and nothing to do with me. I don’t know what it is like, to go unnoticed. I like to try on anonymity like it is an expensive accessory—but then I must carefully place it back on the shelf before I leave the store with my hands up and purposely empty and out where everyone can see them. I can’t afford anonymity, not now. Not in this field. Not in this line of work.



This is a story about fear.



It snakes its way through almost every paragraph, but it is not the main character. My fear has made me shout until my voice was raw. It has made me very, very quiet. It has muted and buried this story for years. It is also looking over my shoulder, breathing down my neck, igniting cold sweats, waiting for the worst. It is trying to convince me to leave this part out, to not include that telling detail, to sugarcoat these memories for you. It is begging me to delete this. Fear might paint me as Angry Black Woman, but I am slowly learning and relearning that my fear is not the one holding the brush. Mine may be flawed and twisted, but it has grown and is outgrowing. I desperately do not want to be afraid of Angry Black Woman anymore. I do not believe in stereotypes.



I don’t believe in stereotypes.


I don’t?


I don’t…



This story is the crossroads of three timelines, three “incidents.” They began mostly independent of one another, loosely threaded by the same semester at Washington and Lee. They later came to a terrible, impossible knot. Each left a different wound. I am still nursing one, still wondering if it might heal. Each was a difficult lesson in allyship and accountability. Each one was pivotal, valuable in a way that makes me constantly wonder who I would have become without them.


Until recently, I have not let myself think about That Day. Because of the many recent testimonies that current and former PWI students have been sharing details of days like it to social media, I have been replaying it, reliving it for weeks. That day was a beginning, but also a bitter end; the climactic breaking point, but also just a blip in a long, hard fight. After much time and more healing, I am nearly whole. Graduating, and discovering that the world is much bigger and can be much more welcoming than Washington and Lee, has greatly helped that process. To say that I’ve fully healed feels a bit too bold, especially now. But there have been small victories.



This story isn’t just about choir.



Yes, the journey to the choir concert that featured the spirituals is one of the timelines—a crucial one. But just as there was back then, there is SO much more at play. This story is just a snapshot of just a few of the things I went through at Washington and Lee. Some discussions, classes, whole semesters were so racially charged and personally exhausting that I would daydream of transferring schools. Various physical and virtual social settings, parties, group chats were so racially ignorant, so decidedly “colorblind,” that I could completely remove myself or mute the chat for weeks and no one seemed to care. Even now, when everyone is so publicly proclaiming that Black Lives Matter, no one notices.


To be Black at Washington and Lee is to swim against a relentless current of discomfort, painfully visible invisibility, self-doubt, microaggression, and more—both in the classroom and beyond. And you had better do it well! If you can’t swim, you won’t graduate.


Current and former students at Washington and Lee will be able to relate to That Day—maybe even rival it with a worse one. Black PWI students around the country might simply chalk it up to “Tuesday.” There are also current and former Washington and Lee students, both white and even POC, who will be truly shocked by these incidents. Because they fondly hold dear the normal, positive or even “wonderful” experiences at W&L—or because things turned out well in their favor when they were faced with the potential for outcomes like these—they might not be able to grasp the scope of these deeply rooted issues, and the conditions that keep them alive, just yet. These are the people with whom I’m most afraid to share this story. These are also the people to whom I’m writing, directly. 



This is a deeply personal story. I have to tell it. I do not want to.


The purpose of this piece is neither to attack anyone nor to reopen their old wounds. I am already giving too much energy to the complete strangers who will make either or both of those things their takeaway.


I am not telling this story to comfort them.


I am not telling it in exchange for apologies or even validation, but in exchange for action.


I am telling this story because it needs to be told, and there is power in telling it.


Get uncomfortable.


This is not a feel-good story.




THAT DAY


The humble beginnings of “Preaching to the Choir” lay attached to an email somewhere, deep in cyberspace. I deleted most of that conversation at the end of that school year. I couldn’t look at it anymore. I can’t speak for the people who received it. They may remember it. They might not want to. They may never know that when I finally sent it, I sobbed. I felt far too many things that day, each emotion a hairline crack. By that night, I had shattered.


The queasiness, terror, and confusion were the results of an email exchange I’d had that morning with an infamous white professor of English. After a sleepless and panicked night, I finally worked up the courage to notify him that I would not be able to attend his 9 am Southern American Literature class, on account of a “mental health crisis.” He answered too quickly. He was fleetingly sorry I was unwell as he strongly suggested that I attend class, because “we were reading Faulkner.” I read that email so many times. My heart, which had been going too fast all night, raced still as I put on my jeans. I clearly had not done the reading—whatever the hell it was. I still don’t care for anything by William Faulkner.


The mental health crisis in question was the potent cocktail of dread and anxiety that had been simmering for weeks. That day, it boiled over, threatening to pull me under. A result of a texting conversation with a white, male former classmate, I cannot believe that I put myself through that for so long. Thrillingly, there had been flirting. No one had ever flirted with me before. Nauseatingly, there had been fake “deep” conversation about the very real issue of whitewashing in Hollywood films, something about which he, a film student, considered himself an expert. And I believed him. Retrospectively, there were candy-coated racial slurs and blatant fetishization of dark-skinned Black women like me. It was a “preference” that he still proclaims and defends with his whole chest. I got the worst, most twisted feeling in my gut whenever it came up. It was destroying me, because I didn’t know how to call him out diplomatically. I didn’t want to risk saying anything that might turn him away, afraid I would never again be on the receiving end of such “romantic” “attention.” (To the Black woman who is reading this and may be going through something similar, PLEASE hear me: that ain’t romantic. It’s not even real attention. Listen to your gut, sis. HE just reposted a meme that says “Darkskin girls are f**king beautiful.” There are many, many things wrong with that. You have the receipts. You are NOT overreacting. Just block him and move on.)


That day was a stream of too many hours that had no end. Hours marked by icky text messages and no sleep, trying hard to un-believe the “Oreo” stereotype that had found me yet again when I thought I’d unlearned it and zero appetite and suddenly being in class, drinking coffee that tasted exactly how I felt and wondering how a grown man still had teeth in his head when he drank Dr. Pepper for breakfast every damn day and seething when he barely registered my presence and still making sure to say something about Faulkner for the participation points and stumbling through a very white French class and then fake-smiling through a very white Creative Writing seminar and all the while trying not to feel so alone in every single classroom I had to enter. Every classroom except for choir that afternoon, because there were three of us. 


I tried to leave my baggage at the door that afternoon. God knows I had plenty to carry. I made pre-rehearsal small-talk. I avoided eye contact with the head conductor as the student conductor took his place. I pulled water over parched lips, into a drier mouth. I steeled my insides as I warmed my vocals. I collected the breath that would launch me into the Alto I part of Follow the Drinking Gourd and…


I faltered, shot a glance toward where I heard drums and…no.


Those weren’t…


Were they? Was this in the music?


I should have known about this.


Should I not have been warned? Had I been?


I considered reaching for my folder, but we were supposed to be off-book. I tried not to look too conspicuous when I could finally grab for it, flip through it.


There it was.


Heavy chains.


The head conductor had mentioned that we would soon start singing with the percussion, but that was a few rehearsals ago. And of course, OF COURSE, this was that day.


Here is where I want to claim the strength that many well-meaning people admire and continue to attribute to Black women. Truth be told, I am also amazed that I didn’t visibly react, stop singing, or run offstage. Here is where I also shut down the aggravating white praise that is often tossed at Black people and other POC who face such daily barrages of microaggression. Here is where I insist that I did not “handle it well” or “with grace” or “stand my ground” or whatever the hell because I should not have to do any of those things for this experience to matter. Here is where I tell you that your shock and the fact that you “don’t know how I did it!” is because you don’t have to know. Before you suggest that “isolated” incidents such as these are a “small price to pay” for admission to such an elite institution, I challenge you to forget where I was for just a moment.


Forget the choir.


Forget the Southern American Literature classroom.


Forget the redbrick backdrop of Washington and Lee.


White people don’t have to worry about any of the things I was going through before I entered the auditorium that day. They will never have to entertain the doubts I have had since then. Days like that day are ones that BIPOC face in SO many spaces—academic and otherwise. Spaces that white people consider “safe” and unassuming. Spaces like offices and department stores but also themed Greek parties and dining halls. Spaces like parking lots and doctors’ offices, but also conference panels and university health and counseling services. Spaces like alumni happy hours and seemingly friendly group chats but also university dorm rooms, classrooms, and boardrooms.

White                                         spaces.

Here is where I respond to the many people who have expressed awe at the courage that I wrote into the first choir piece. I’ll reveal exactly how I didn’t fly off the handle when I heard the chains. The awfulness of that day is not the only reason why I had nearly no words when the time came to call out the conductors. There is a secret to how I survived that day. It is how I had been surviving until that point at Washington and Lee, and how I survived every day after that. One singular emotion that saw me through every one of those incidents, and countless more.


It was not tenacity.


It was not grit.


It wasn’t even “Black Exceptionalism””—that mythical idea concocted and perpetuated by white supremacist society because it is too difficult for it to admit that we can be “Black” and also surpass their standards of “exceptional” without a miracle.


It was fear pure fear.


The same fear that kept me awake all night, whispering in my ear that I was nothing more than a stereotype, had also convinced me to sacrifice my well-being for a class that would never value it. That fear was still so strong, so absolute in the moment the chains first resounded against the polished wood floor, that everything in me went limp. It left no room for me to do anything but shut up and sing.


Had I been in that class all by myself that day, this story would not exist. I would not have spoken, would not have written, would not have sung a word about this after that semester.  I would have quit choir. My daydreams of transferring would have only become more frequent; I could never afford to do it. But there were three of us. I am selfishly glad that the other two Black women were there, glad that we can claim each other as witnesses.  I wonder what kind of day they were having.


By the end of that rehearsal, the glances I shared with one of those beautiful Black women had only intensified. She found me as we were shelving folders and heading for the door, as I was trying to get out. Here is where she had made up her mind to say something and asked for backup. Here is also the part where I really, really wanted to run. I said yes.


I don’t remember many of the words that passed between the two of us and the two conductors. I can’t decide if it I should call it a conversation or a confrontation. All I know for sure is that I was too scared to be angry yet. I know that I stood next to my fearless Black friend as she expressed feelings that I had not yet given myself permission to feel. All I could do was bob my head around and perhaps throw in a word, or two. The day had already taken too much. When the conductor brought up something along the lines of having expected us to come forward, sirens went off. When he added that he wondered if he should have approached us first, I shut down.


I blinked and I was home.  I don’t know if I ate anything. I may have done homework? I pulled out this very laptop and drafted an email. When it grew too long, I moved it to a Word document. I wrote my fear, some of it anyway. I wrote doubt and confusion. I infused dread and worry. I reluctantly added a teensy drop of rage. That night, I learned that this is how I process days like that one. I did not send the email yet.




TODAY


This story is about more than just my labor.



I wrote the final online version of “Preaching to the Choir” almost 3 years ago, to the day. The tangle of thoughts and feelings from that first email attachment was the blueprint for the testimony that I shared during the choir-wide discussion. It was honed and welded into something heavier, sharper; a product of the creative writing seminar that I was taking at the time.


I have to thank the wonderful professor who patiently guided me through that seminar. If Advanced Creative Writing: Memoir seminar had been with anyone else in the fall of 2016, I don’t know if I would write at all.


To that angel of an English professor:


Thank you for being enraged as you read the very shaky first draft of “Preaching to the Choir” that landed on your desk during office hours. I needed to see that rage was productive and not always destructive.

Thank you for not letting me talk myself out of my own pain as I shared details of That Day.


Thank you for constantly reteaching me that I DID deserve to take up space at W&L.


Thank you for teaching me that I should never, ever sacrifice the sacred space where my peace and well-being should reside, for spaces like that.


Thank you for validating and affirming me as you listened to details of the many other incidents that happened with your English colleague. Thank you endlessly for helping me handle them in a more official capacity—even though institutional complacency was quick to block our way.


Thank you for the warmth and kindness that you gave to me on days that probably took everything from you.   


Thank you for choosing, every day, to stay at Washington and Lee. Thank you for the work that you go out of your way to do, for students like me. That school does not deserve you.


***


Long after That Day, a few weeks after the concert, the student conductor reached out to the two of us who’d spoken out. She asked for “permission to talk about our thoughts and feelings surrounding the music we performed.”  She promised she wouldn’t use names, just testimonies and concert recordings. Apparently, there was a whole Social Anthropology class that semester that focused on race and ethnic relations, and her paper was about spirituals and race relations across history. I wonder if there were any people of color in that class. Those brief descriptions alone would have been enough to steer me far, far away from it.


By then, I was eager to share my nearly-complete draft and had been sending excerpts of it to friends and mentors for feedback. Years later, I now look at her request through the same malaise and suspicion that I felt when I was invited to speak at the choir discussion.


I had bared my soul to a roomful of white people during that discussion. I had sung my soul dry at the concert. By sharing this memoir piece with her, I was sending my Black voice to yet another classroom that might only have listened to it because it could articulate race-related thoughts and feelings from personal experience. If the classes I’d taken by then were any indication, I might not have been listened to at all.


Today, I wonder if the work that I was so eager to share was not wasted on that classroom.



This story is about more than my own anonymity.