My wish for Women’s History Month (and my birthday) this year was to be what many folks call “unbothered.” I discovered that I needed to think carefully about what exactly that means to me.
I thought of that scene in “Sorry to Bother You” when Danny Glover’s character is explaining how to capture the ‘white voice’ that brings in the sales for telemarketers. “Got your bills paid. You’re happy about your future. You about ready to jump in your Ferrari out there … Breezy like you don’t really need this money.” But as Glover’s character put it: “It’s not really a white voice. It’s … what they think they’re supposed to sound like.”
I had many potential ways to build a definition for myself. From this financially carefree white masculinity version to others floating on the ends of hashtags and pop songs, unbothered seemed to appear everywhere and nowhere at once. I had the sense that, as a soon-to-be-47-year-old Black woman, I was as bell hooks described, “at odds with everything around me.”
For me, a major part of that sense of being at odds has been a buildup of microaggressions, negative experiences and degrading interactions that happen to Black women daily for no reason other than the fact that we dare to exist. When we start adding sexuality, faith, limitations like poverty and disability along with hosts of other social and wellness issues, the ability to find that unbothered voice becomes an extraordinary and unique power. It is a power I have witnessed so many Black women exercise. As I look to enjoy a new chapter of life, I know that not only do I wish for this power of unbothered voice, but also my future birthdays may depend on it.
Before I graduated from high school in 1993, some principal or administrator or teacher or all of the above decided to offer students an opportunity to take an African American studies class (Props to the trailblazing educators, right?!). It’s difficult to remember details of a time so long ago but as we approach the 30-year reunion, many of my classmates will begin sharing and things will come back to me, I’m sure. There are some things I don’t need help remembering.
Like the time we watched “Black Orpheus” and my classmate LaTesha said how pretty Marpessa Dawn’s hair was. Our teacher smirked, slid his hands into his pockets and started what I’m sure he thought was about to be a deep conversation about hair and Black women. The next thing I can attempt a fair memory quote at is LaTesha’s swift and adept, “Mr. A, I didn’t say her hair was good. I said it was pretty.” This is burned in my brain as one of those times where something happened that rang a special bell just for Black women as discussions about hair and the rest of our bodies so often become sites of antagonism. And so often over the course of my life I have wished I had the swift, adept, unbothered voice-handling LaTesha did that day for all the future microaggressions to come.
I thought that mounting botheration that seemed to have the ability to pop up out of nowhere, attacking anywhere from head to toe, was something I would just get used to experiencing. My body slowly but surely began to show me that was not true.
Years of research on stress and health outcomes for Black women done by and for Black women proved otherwise. When I read Isabel Wilkerson’s monumental work “Caste,” the words in her chapter on cortisol, telomeres and the lethality of caste seemed to stare back at me like a reflection.
I immediately began thinking of incidents in my own life that seemed to have shortened my telomeres right on the spot. Jzwoot. I made an onomatopoeic noise each time I recalled one. Like the time when a scholar I looked up to agreed to be on a panel I had organized and said, “Black women have aggressed me. Maybe they feel like I stole one of their men.” Jzwoot. Or when a headhunter I haven’t seen in years emailed me, “Are you going to apply for that DEI job (at such and such random college with .08% Black folks on staff)? Because you’re such a badass…” Jzwoot. I’m sure I have said a few jzwooting things myself.
I could fill every minute of this next trip around the sun with memories of these and much worse experiences and interactions. I could try to think of comebacks that would have worked well for each situation or fixes to make my words land better. I could go on and on. But that’s just it. Perhaps being unbothered means no longer being exhausted by a day-to-day microaggressions processing loop and no longer lifting the weight of macroaggressions over and over so well that the quality people know you for is resilience. Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate resilience but I’d rather not spend more decades with it as the spotlight of my life. I want to fill that space with memories of the times when my life in the intersection has lifted me up and I have had joy, freedom and love that could only have been made because I am a Black woman.
Like the time when that same high school class got to go to the Victoria V Theater in Harlem to see Spike Lee’s “Malcolm X.” A prominent journalist interviewed us afterward to hear our thoughts on the film. That was a time when Mr. A just listened and, as a young, Black woman, I felt heard.
Like the many times when other scholars I look up to saw or heard a hurtful thing happen and came forward with every bell hooks, Toni Morrison, Audre Lorde free and unbothered voice they could to say that I, that we, would be OK.
Or like the time this past summer when I attended my first writers’ festival and got to write, dance and laugh with a group of brilliant people who taught me so much about valuing this voice I’m looking to unbother.
I don’t see “Sorry to Bother You” as depicting my unbothered voice. Mine isn’t the wishful breezy of Ferraris out front. Maybe bills paid, sun-drenched vacations, glowing skin and lots of excellent tasty food would work. Maybe as I learn more about myself as well as more of the rich, diverse history of Black womanhood, I will teach myself to be unbothered by digging deeper into bell hooks’ theory on queerness and Black womanhood as being at odds with everything around you. She didn’t write those words to create a constant sense of dread and fighting. They were a liberation statement — one she finished with an uplifting reminder that we use this unique position to invent, create and craft a voice in which we thrive. I think her words are the answer to my wish for an unbothered voice.
I hope that I am swift and adept at using the unbothered voice I craft. Breezy like LaTesha, both classmate and teacher.
Tahirah J. Walker is a writer and teacher living in the Pittsburgh area. If you want to reach Tahirah, email email@example.com.
Illustrations by Andrea Shockling for PublicSource.
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Through Dec. 31, the Wyncote Foundation, Loud Hound Foundation and our generous local match pool supporters will match your new monthly donation 12 times or double your one-time gift, all up to $1,000. Now that's good news!
Readers tell us they can't find the information they get from our reporting anywhere else, and we're proud to provide this important service for our community. We work hard to produce accurate, timely, impactful journalism without paywalls that keeps our region informed and moving forward.
However, only about .1% of the people who read our stories contribute to our work financially. Our newsroom depends on the generosity of readers like yourself to make our high-quality local journalism possible, and the costs of the resources it takes to produce it have been rising, so each member means a lot to us.
Your MATCHED donation to our nonprofit newsroom helps ensure everyone in Allegheny County can stay up-to-date about decisions and events that affect them. Please make your gift of support now.