The Joy Givers
Throughout my life I’ve been asked the question – what are you? Or, a variation of it, like where are you from? And when my response is New York – where are you really from? Just to be an asshole, I smile and drag it out by answering Brooklyn. No, I mean, where’s your family from?
I’ve read tumblr essays breaking down just how these questions are actually a form of micro-aggressions, and I don’t totally dispute that, though it doesn’t always bother me to be asked. I myself love to ask about people’s background, hear about their families and cultures, learn what languages they speak. I’m only ever wary of answering those types of questions when it’s the first thing someone wants to know about me – what am I? It feels like what they’re really asking in that context is – how should I be treating you? What box should I put you in?
In those situations, it feels safer to remain ambiguous, until I’m confident I can read the situation. If I admit to being black, I might have to deal with being exoticized. Ohhhh, that explains your lips! If I mention my being Jewish in the wrong crowd, I might have to listen to no offense, but every single one I’ve met is really cheap.
But then, there are those situations where I don’t feel at all like there’s any sort of danger to admitting what I am, but I still hold back and play coy, like I don’t quite understand what what are you? really means. It’s not because I think it’s offensive, but that any answer I give will feel inauthentic. Yes, my mother is black, and it’s something I love about her (what a weird thing to love about somebody, but I do, I love that my mom is black) but that doesn’t mean I always feel black myself. What does it even mean to feel black? I’m uncertain enough to always always hesitate before answering What are you? with I’m black. Because I’m not wholly certain what it means when I claim that identity.
I think that’s why I’m so drawn to people who know completely who they are, and own it. People, especially women, who are in full possession of their identities.
Three incredibly self possessed women I watch for inspiration are Leah Remini, Fran Drescher, and Tiffany Haddish.
If you love Brooklyn accents, then you’ll probably love the physical manifestation of one – Leah Remini. Born to a Jewish mother and Italian father, Leah’s mom introduced her to scientology at a very young age and brought her up in the cult. Because children in scientology are viewed as simply “adults who haven’t yet achieved full growth” she was essentially left on her own with no parental supervision, yet put to work and used as free labor alongside other teenagers.
After about thirty years of devoted worship, Leah broke away from the church and currently leads a BRILLIANT docu-series on A&E entitled Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath. The show explores how members of the Church of Scientology are systematically brainwashed and abused. How families are intentionally ripped apart.
On King of Queens, Leah played opposite Kevin James as his sardonic, oftentimes physically abusive, beautiful wife, Carrie Heffernan, for nine seasons. It remains one of my favorite sitcoms, and Leah’s performance is hilarious, but the best role she ever played is herself. Now no longer brainwashed, Leah maintains a solid grip on her own mind, and an ability to empathize with all different sorts of people the church had convinced her were bad simply because they weren’t scientologists. Her journey proves that no matter how late in life, you can take hold of yourself and break free of whatever mentality has infected you. Armed with extreme amounts of attitude, Leah is devoting her life to fighting for others to break free of cult mentality.
Fran Drescher is best known for her 90s sitcom, The Nanny which I have to admit cracks me up way more than it should. It’s a ridiculous reimagining of The Sound of Music set in Manhattan, where a Jewish nanny from Queens is hired to take care of a handsome, widowed Broadway producer’s three gentile children. You can see the jokes coming from a mile away, they’re hardly sophisticated setups, and yet I laugh hard every single time.
Comedy aside, Fran has always inspired joy in me from how she’s eloquently dealt with the life she’s led. After marrying her high school sweetheart, Peter Marc Jacobsen, she moved with him to Los Angeles where they both pursued their dreams of getting into television. One night, in 1985, a man broke into their apartment, tied up Jacobsen and raped Fran. Because of the incident, the two went into therapy, where incidentally Jacobsen began to realize he was gay, though he really didn’t want to divorce his wife.
In 1993, the two of them created The Nanny which successfully ran for six seasons. During the run of the show, Fran began to feel that her husband was too controlling and asked for a divorce. Despite being gay, he really didn’t want to leave her, and was furious that she was ending their life together. They separated and didn’t talk for several years.
About a decade later, Fran discovered she had breast cancer which led to Jacobsen reaching out and reconciling with her. They remain best friends to this day. Her response to the diagnosis was to author a book entitled Cancer Shmancer which promotes taking charge of your own health and finding humor in the worst situations. That perfectly describes how Fran deals with most problems in her life, by laughing at them. She knows she is a positive person, and holds onto that no matter how many traumatic experiences she’s had to endure.
You most likely know Tiffany Haddish from Girls Trip, or even her appearance on Colbert and delivering the Groupon story on Kimmel. Just like Leah and Fran, Tiffany is simply amazing at being herself. Just like them, I get such joy out of hearing how she’s made it through an extremely traumatic life while maintaining such positivity, strength of mind and fortitude of character.
She’s had to deal with her step-father trying to kill her mom, bouncing around through foster care, being homeless, illiterate, and uses those obstacles as fuel for her comedy. The segment below is nearly an hour long, but if you ever have the time, I strongly recommend listening to a huge chunk of her life story. It’s incredibly depressing yet you’ll find yourself laughing hysterically at the delivery.
Despite what Tiffany’s been through, she chooses to maintain positivity, and knows who she is.
If asked What are you? I can only imagine that these three women would have an answer armed at the ready. They absolutely know what they are, who they are, in a way I’m still struggling to achieve.
Like a pendulum, I find my identity swinging back and forth, from one end of any spectrum to the other.
When I’m surrounded by my Jewish family (third and fourth cousins who all look alike) I feel my blackness. When I’m surrounded by my black family, there’s literally nobody in this world who is whiter. If I’m on a bad date with a woman, I start to wonder if I’m 100% straight after all. When a cute boy’s hand is on my thigh, and despite how hard I’m trying to like him I’m just not into it, I panic and wonder if I’m actually a lesbian. In the midst of writing a draft of a short story, fingers cramped from hours of typing, I imagine myself sitting on an author’s panel, fully confident in my destiny to be a famed novelist. Then someone will offer me the smallest drop of constructive criticism, and the pendulum will swing the other way.
But joy can really help steady the course. So I lean on these women, self possessed after so much struggle, and coach myself to be patient with myself. I’ll find the way forward.
Leaving you with Joy,