First of all, if you haven’t seen Jordan Peele’s directorial debut “Get Out”, what on earth are you waiting for? It’s horror, it’s comedy, it’s social commentary, and it’s just really good. Any piece of work that spawns as many think pieces as it already has is either really bad or amazing. Fortunately, it’s the latter. For all of you stragglers, beware! There are some mild spoilers ahead.
I want to talk a little bit about the character Georgina. From the moment she arrived on the screen there was something deeply off-putting about her, but at the same time she felt intimately familiar. For the bulk of the film, she is the only black woman we see, and is the only black woman who works for the Armitages. She moves quietly through the background, pouring drinks and cleaning up. Inoffensive and unobtrusive, there is something unnerving about her edgeless personality. Her speech is crisp, as if she is making sure to pronounce each word just so, but it’s with a soft and lilting cadence. She gives the air of a woman who has been sanded down and polished to fit into the role she plays in the lives of the Armitage family.
There’s a scene where Georgina enters the room and Chris confronts her about unplugging his phone from the charger. She denies intentionally messing with his belongings chalking it up to a cleaning mishap. The two then slip into an uneasy conversation about the Armitages and their perceived strangeness. Chris tries to rely on their shared racial experience to get her to admit that something is definitely not right about these people. But poor (later we find out, mind controlled) Georgina cannot bring herself to speak about it. A flurry of “no’s” leave her mouth as she begins to shed wide-eyed tears. Her nose begins to bleed. The smile never leaves her face.
The brilliance of this movie, at least for me, lies in the balance it walks between being absurdly terrifying and heartbreakingly realistic. Betty Gabriel acts this scene to pieces and while I was creeped out of my skin, I found myself wanting take her hand and walk her to another room. I wanted to cradle her head while she dropped the smile and just cried. And broke things, because you know deep down, Georgina needed to smash every room in that house. Georgina really pulled at my heart strings. I think it’s because I know Georgina. I’ve been Georgina.
To understand what I mean by that, you’ll need a little bit of background on me. I am a daughter of the intersections of the diaspora. My father is an immigrant from Nigeria; and my mother a New Yorker whose mother came here from Barbados. I, too, was born and raised in the boroughs of NYC. Born in Brooklyn, I moved to Staten Island when I was 6, and grew up there, even while attending high school in Manhattan. I was raised to be quite American. But the thing about having black parents that aren’t Standard American Black, is that the push towards “Americanness” is never a push towards Black “Americanness”. It’s an assimilatory push, that demands you speak and present yourself a certain way, so as to be acceptable to whiteness and the gaze of white people at large. That acceptance is what grants you access to the upward mobility you are expected to achieve as the result of the sacrifices of the generations before you. I learned the value of using hard work to get ahead, and we never really talked about racism. Why would we? We had the house in the NYC suburbs, the two parent, two car, two kids family model. There were vacations and people who spoke about the children’s bright futures. The American Dream. And then Barack Obama became president! What more could you ask? We had done it.
I cannot remember when I really started to feel my race. There are specific instances I recall as a child that are more apparent in my memories of the largely segregated junior high school I attended, where I was one of just a handful of black people in the few honors classes. Things became more apparent as I attended a PWI for undergrad, but even then I lacked the vocabulary for the things I experienced. The revulsion and confusion I felt at the onslaught of micro aggressions came from a place of not understanding that there was no “leveling up” out of this body, and peoples reactions toward it. And so while I became damn near expert at moving through predominantly white spaces, there was something bitter about it that continuously scratched at my psyche. It’s only recently that I’ve been able to name what that thing is: performance.
It was the continuous performance of my personhood that was wearing on my nerves. It was presenting a well polished, edgeless version of myself so that I would be deemed worthy of the attention, praise, and good will of the people around me. One of my favorite anecdotes about this type of performance is about bamboo earrings. When I was maybe a freshman or sophomore in high school, I had bought one of those $5 pair of gold bamboo earrings. I loved them and thought I looked so fly in them (because I did). For some reason, my mother hated them though. I was careful to only put them on when I left the house, and never wore them around her. One day she found them and hid them from me. I was so upset and her reasoning only further pissed me off. “I don’t want you looking like one of those girls down on Utica Ave”. I eventually purchased another pair and she finally gave up.
That story may seem innocuous, a minor dispute about personal aesthetics between a mother and her teenage daughter. But at the core of it there is something much more insidious, the unspoken parental desire for their daughters budding black womanhood to be presented in a very specific way. I now understand my mother’s misguided attempt at protection. It was her trying to protect me from being labeled “ghetto”, “hood”, or “trashy”. I resisted this particular attempt, but this performance eventually took on a life of it’s own through my own machinations. It was the non stop effort to appear non-threatening, because for some reason people were always intimidated by me before they knew me, even though I weighed 110 pounds soaking wet. It was important not to be too offended by people sticking their hands in my hair, or saying things like “you’re not like one of those black people,” because then you’d be exiled from the inner circle, and the circle was where the resources lay.
And so you bury what you know to be true. That something is deeply wrong in each scenario, but you are surrounded by all of these well meaning white people, liberal ones even, who treat you like family. No, no, nononono, you repeat to yourself. It can’t be that. You have no vocabulary for your reality, and since you cannot speak it, it is you who must be insane. The tears come in quieter moments, but you can’t seem to forget to smile for the audience. That sort of posturing is emotionally exhausting. It drains your spirit. So my personal efforts to catch myself and stop it when it’s happening have been some of the most fulfilling work I’ve done on myself thus far. I work hard at killing Georgina everyday. She deserves some rest. And so do I.