It’s been a bad week to try out my new eyeliner.
For, nearly every single day this week, I have managed to turn my new, thin, black line — artfully smudged, of course, above my almond shaped eyes — into a spotted canvas of black splotches onto my reddened and swollen cheeks.
On Saturday, I went down to Connecticut College, my alma mater, to attend the Diversity Symposium: A Look at the Past, Present and Future of Diversity at CC. That’s when my first rock-star, sobbing, moment happened. I ran into Professor Michelle Dunlap: professor of human development, multiracial woman, aunt-in-charge woman who helped raise her young nephew, and the very first teacher of color I had ever had (outside of a foreign language teacher/professor). She was the first Black woman I had ever met who was a teacher. She was the first Black, woman, adult who I had ever looked up to. Sound absurdly impossible? Well, growing up in a predominantly Irish-Italian Catholic small town suburb does that to a gal.
See, Prof. Dunlap (who, just like Prof. Vyse, has asked me to call her by her first name, yet I find it impossible to do so), was the first woman — the first Black woman — who shook up my brain. She destroyed all the stereotypes I had of black people that were constructed for me when I was growing up. She taught me that a Black woman is a mother, aunt, academic, scholar, genius, feminist, caregiver, challenger, and teacher. I was a young Asian American girl who was sheltered in a bubble filled with television images and negative stereotypes. She taught me to explore issues of inequality, institutional injustice, constructed images, and social definitions. She taught me to be the woman of color, scholar, feminist, caregiver, teacher, critical thinker that I am today.
Whenever I see Professor Dunlap, I turn into a heap of sobbing mush. Whenever I see her, even just a picture of her, my heart fills with love and affection. It fills with gratitude and hope. And, the emptiness of ignorance, weariness, and weight are lifted from my shoulders. She makes me feel strong. She makes me feel empowered. She makes me feel thankful.
When I briefly saw Prof. Dunlap this past Saturday, though my mouth was moving, it was my soul that began speaking. I thanked her, over and over again, for changing my life. I thanked her for her loyalty to education, for her persistence in educating an ignorant and sheltered younger version of myself, for changing the entire course of my life. I wiped away tear after tear, until I was soon wiping away puddle after puddle. I was painting my face with my new eyeliner, smudged.
Over the past 14 years since I graduated from college, I have found many opportunities to thank Prof. Dunlap. Because, if she is ever having a bad day, I want her to know, somewhere deep down inside her heart, that she made a difference to me. She made a difference in my life. And, I need to know, each and every day, that she knows.
A few years ago, when I first started doing some blogging about race and diversity, an old friend from Connecticut College emailed me that I should connect with his sister. Jared Nathanson graduated from CC before I got there, yet he was friends with some undergraduates in a singing group I was in called The Williams Street Mix. He was cute — cute in the “I think you look like a serious Harley Davidson biker dude, yet you are the most soulful, gorgeous musician I have ever seen and heard” way. We only met a handful of times at Conn College, yet somehow, I have no idea how, we got connected again a decade later, via Facebook.
I began reading his sister’s feminist writings. She was brilliant. I took a chance and emailed her, letting her know that I was a friend of Jared’s and that I was really loving her insight, her passion and the way she wrote about being a feminist and womanist. We went back and forth about the best conferences for dissecting race and gender, shared a common love of complaining about the snow, and liked a lot of the same news stories. We gave quick updates about kids, getting ready for school, teaching at a college, and working progressive rights.
Soon, she began writing about her breast cancer. Again.
Jessica Nathanson and I would check in with each other every so often. We connected, naturally, on Facebook, through her brother Jared, and she followed the Marathon B4 Mastectomy journey very closely. When I was debating reconstruction, Jessica warmly chimed in that my reconstructed breasts would not define me – I defined me. My heart skipped a beat every time I saw a Facebook Notification that Jessica Nathanson had commented on my status updates. I thought of Jessica often, and I “creeped” on her Facebook just to see what she was up to, what she was writing, and what she was thinking.
I don’t remember if I ever thanked Jessica for being there for me. I never told her how much I read her blogs, how much her writings etched their way into my heart. And I never told her how much it meant to me that she even took the time to read my posts or read my status updates on Facebook. I never held her hand, beyond virtually. I never broke down into a mush of tears and thanked her for being a rock in the foundation of my mastectomy journey. I never went back into my Facebook archives to see how many times she “liked” a post or left a note.
This morning, via her brother Jared, Jessica died. She had battled a recurrence of breast cancer — a fact that I completely missed — and passed on from this world. I never got a chance to tell her how much she meant to me.
I did a quick Google search for Jessica’s name, just a few hours after Jared had announced her passing, and the search engine brought up post after post after post of Jessica’s contributions to our world. Women’s organizations, professors, bloggers — all wrote about Jessica.
Through feminist mascara and newly minted eye liner, our world is smudged. Jessica left a fingerprint — a footprint — of love, honor, and righteousness, on the reddened, swollen cheeks of us all tonight. And forever.
Thank you, Jessica, for your bravery to stand against hate; and your courage to live with love.
Peace, love and preserving a smudged world,