“We conquer by continuing.” – George Matheson
What I Found Admirable
With thoughts of Dr. Maya Angelou’s poem popping into my mind as I began corralling my thoughts into what I hope has become a coherent blog, I recalled things I found admirable about my sister. As with many of our native Bullock County, AL neighbors, classmates, and relatives; she too fled the social and economic deprivation of southeast Alabama. After graduating high school, she relocating to Atlanta in the mid-1990s; a move which did not stick initially. After returning to our hometown, she eventually made her way to Huntsville to attend Alabama Agricultural & Mechanical University (AAMU).
Once in North Alabama, she landed in the home of our maternal uncle, his wife, and their two children. AAMU’s campus reminded me of Hillman College – a fictitious historically black college featured in the sitcom (1987 – 1993) A Different World. I first visited the historically black university with a maternal first cousin, who eventually attended and graduated from AAMU. Said cousin went on to earn a PhD and now serves on the board of AAMU. My first cousin also took me on college tours and nourished my interests in higher education as well as showed up for me in other areas of my life.
My sister attended AAMU for two years before withdrawing to give birth to my nephew. I do remember our parents making it clear she could return to college; they would support her single motherhood – yet she never did. After giving birth, my sister and her baby’s father lived together for a while in Huntsville. They never seemed happy in my opinion. A few years after they split, she moved to Atlanta with my nephew. I really admired how she worked hard to provide for herself and her son. She always presented herself to the world as a well-put together African American woman, busting stereotypes plaguing women of color. I know, it is not about my feeling proud of her acting a certain way. From my vintage point, she seemed focused on achieving her goals and sure of herself. That is my point.
Transition from Admirable to Avoidance
I could not imagine the plight of being a single parent, regardless of race and gender. I constantly found my younger self exhausted from leading my own life, let alone being responsible for someone else’s. It is this fact at which I marveled my sister’s steadfastness – getting things done despite financial hardships and catering to the needs of a growing adolescent boy in an American megalopolis – Atlanta. Yet, while all of this is praiseworthy, I also began noticing a shift in her attitude and how she treated me, my nephew, our parents and others who were squarely in her corner every step of the way. As her treatment of us worsened, every relative in her orbit enabled her less than ideal behavior – until we did not, which resulted in complete avoidance and severed lines of communication. Maybe she had a devastating experience unbeknownst to us that changed her outlook on life? I have no clue.
Avoidance Instead of Straightforwardness
In all my blogging and tweeting about Telling It Like It Is, I did not practice what I preached with my sister. Prior to our relationship’s complete breakdown, I continued to really care about how she viewed me. I wanted her to like me, be proud of me. I was also at that point in my life I was still trying to be everything for everybody. In sharing this, I am neither seeking pity nor in any way trying to minimize my role in the deterioration of my relationship with my sister. My deciding not to tell it like it is was the case for many reasons throughout the years – none of which are meant to exonerate neither me nor her.
- I can deliver my feelings and thoughts in a straightforward and piercing manner. To this day, I remain uninterested in using pretty language or otherwise hemming and hawing about the unnecessarily disrespectful ways in which my sister has treated me and close relatives we share. My stance on this issue is grounded in three decades of relatives refusing to hold familial bad actors to account for anything – regardless of the flagrance.
- My sister has perfected bomb-throwing yet cannot handle the heat once turned back on her. She steers hard conversations toward unrelated topics – partly to intentionally descend into shouting mayhem, another part to air additional grievances. These shenanigans would have led to my further digging my heels into #1.
- I lacked the language and patience at the time to discuss hard topics in a way that allows for understanding and accepting hurtful and unproductive behavior as a cry for help. To this day, I continue to have low tolerance for such behavior even though my ability to process and describe tough situations has vastly improved.
- Staking the accountability must prevail at all costs flag in the ground with no wiggle room for anything outside of that had become my sole way of navigating the world. My new found hate for my father (until recently), his seemingly inconsequential abuse of my mother and me, and his incessant support for the Golden Child was at an all time high. No amount of contextualizing thoughts, feelings, and behaviors would have forced me off the path to accountability.
Increasingly my sister lashed out. A pattern emerged; those on the receiving end of her wrath were relatives she knew would take it. We would not hold her accountable – which was a mistake we repeated for at least a decade. This form of loving family no matter what evolved into her blatantly and unapologetic disrespecting every relative who tried to help her.
After my sister moved to Atlanta in 2004, I followed suit in 2005. After completing my undergraduate studies in 2008, I left Atlanta for a three-year stay in Birmingham to attend the University of Alabama at Birmingham. I saw fleeing to north central Alabama to earn my first master’s degree as a convenient way to further limited my interactions with my sister. Quintessential passive aggressive behavior, I must admit.
School has me slammed. Starbucks hours are crazy. My study group and I can only meet on nights and weekends. I must catch up on sleep. While these reasons to avoid calling or even texting my sister as well as trying to placate what had become her full-blown rageful way of moving through the world were true; they were not fully contextualized to her. I should have also said to her in as many ways as respectfully possible:
- I find the way to speak to me and other relatives unacceptable. Do you think this is okay?
- Is there something happening to you or have happened that makes you feel that treating us this way is appropriate? We can talk if you would like. Yet, if your behavior does not change, I am going to minimize my interaction with you.
- I know hurt people hurt people. This does not an excuse make. Would you like to share with me what’s going on – maybe I can help.
If respect did not resonate, I could have resorted to: Who the fuck do you think you are? You cannot treat me, our mom, your nephew, insert recipient of wrath this way. You are going through hard times? You are not alone in facing hardships. Other people experiencing hard times do not treat people the way you do.
My Experiences Were Not Her Experiences
I eventually said these things – in anger and contempt – which was still an inappropriate way to engage my sister. Yet, I am a person with feelings who felt mistreated for reasons I found unfair. Admittedly, the way I navigated the world could have been offensive to my sister. I could have been inadvertently invalidating her. My overt and intentional changes in the way I spoke, dressed, and expressed my ideas among other things could have been off-putting for reasons she did not understand.
At that time, I had had experiences she had not – there should have been no expectation for her to see things the way that I had begun seeing them. While this may be true, it does not make it okay for her to be disrespectful and mean-spirited. Not understanding something does not mean it should be hated or met with scorn.
What had become clear avoidance of her could have been misconstrued as my forgetting my roots instead of fleeing a source of incessant anxiety-producing treatment from her. The true fallacy in all of this is choosing not to clearly communicate our feelings about how the world made us feel as well as how and why we treated each other the ways we did. As I continue to blog about my relationship with my sister, it will become clearer how much communication played a role in the decay of our cordiality toward one another.