Portrait of Erased Faces

Portrait of Erased Faces

Angela Davis Johnson


Poverty demands that you swallow your face to save your body.

It is a grotesque yet common request in this strange land where I live. Poverty does not discriminate. It will require this cannibalism from the young, the old, the fierce, and the weak. If you are black, a woman, and a single mother it will call often and greedily.

Recently I was in traffic court. The majority of the plaintiffs were working class brown and black folks. Some were out of work, some were homeless, and a few were students. Their cases were minor uncomplicated offenses and for the most part the judge was brusque yet lenient. I began to feel hopeful that my case would be easily settled.

That is until a woman (I will call her Sister) stood in between the judge, a steel grey-haired white woman and the court solicitor, a rigid straight shoulder black man.

Sister’s case mirrored my own: driving without insurance, suspended tag, and a failure to appear. In the months since her ticket was issued she was able to gather enough money to pay for insurance and renew her tags. She was unable to cover the cost of the additional $300 ticket in pretrial court. Missing that payment she was charged with a failure to appear. Sister explained her financial circumstances in a direct tone that belied fear. There was a sharp pride in the way she spoke. Too much pride for the solicitor, I suppose. It became his power to make an example out her. He told the judge that the court will not be lenient in the matter of Sister’s case. The judge ordered that she pay a $500 fine and spend two nights in the county jail.

Sister’s back immediately stiffened with the verdict. So did mine.

Sister expressed that she had two children at home. So did I.

The judge briefly glanced at the court solicitor. She seemed slightly taken aback by his harsh judgement.

Thoughts of solidarity and women’s marches that had been taking place in the past week. For a moment, I thought as a woman she would show mercy to a mother’s plight.

But just as poverty has its demands so does privilege.

Privilege commands that you sever your humanity from your soul to justify injustice.

The judge straightened her back adjusting herself higher on her bench. She then agreed with the court solicitor’s hard stance and in a sing song voice she chastised, “This is a serious crime and it can not be taken lightly.”

Sister quickly twisted her body to face the solicitor. Her faded headscarf, oversized black shirt, and grey leggings gave the impression that she was familiar with poverty’s call. By the look of her face, I could tell she despised its sound. Yet, I imagined she calculated the full loss of being out of work for two days and her obligations to her children. In a courtroom filled with people, I watched Sister swallow her face, first her angry eyes, then her flared nose and lastly chew up the pride in her lips. All that was left was a naked plea. “Sir, please. I have two children.”

The court solicitor, who wore a suit the color of cut stone, seem to broaden as he declared firmly that the court stands behind its decision.

A cold, quiet fear snaked throughout the courtroom as Sister was led by the bailiff to the holding area. The uncomfortable silence deepened as she began to sob softly into her tight fist.

In that moment, Sister and I had merged into the same person, only she was cast in the harsh future and I still hung in the precarious present.

I half stood up to leave though I knew fleeing wouldn’t solve the problem. I sat back down feeling the weight of that twisted reality. It was difficult to imagine being gone from my children for two days and nights without explanation. How would I explain to my little ones that I had been in jail because I couldn’t pay for a traffic ticket. How would I explain what jail is. Or what the cost of not having money meant. I could feel my face going numb with the loss of words.

A voice that sounded like my own reminded me to breathe. Breathe. As life blew through my body I began to center myself. I could feel prayer rising in me like soft water pressing the fear out of me. I asked courage to sweeten my soul like honey. I asked for Sister too. I prayed that healing and strength would cover her feet and rise to soothe her swallowed face as it did mine. I prayed for her children. My prayers redoubled when a transgender person was given two days in county jail because they did not have $400 to pay for their ticket.

Case after case people began to file out of the courtroom. I was the last person on the docket. I asked the bailiff if would I be seen before lunch. He spoke with the court solicitor, who then motioned me to come near. I stood him before anchored in prayer. After he studied my case, he looked at me with eyes that were not unkind, he told me if I were to go before the judge I would be sentenced to jail time. To my amazement he then ushered me to go down stairs and pay the failure to appear court fee. When I returned to the courtroom he deferred my case to a later date. I was able to go home to my children relatively free but conflicted with feelings of angst, gratitude, repulsion, and relief.

I later saw Sister in the hallway walking alone with disgust and slumped shoulders. I want to believe (though I do not know) that the court solicitor relinquished his hard will and let her go home to her children. If he did, he waited until the courtroom was cleared before doing so. It is sickening to think that a person would humiliate another simply because he could.

Hard questions lay in the memory of that courtroom. As I observed patriarchy reign in a white woman and white supremacy in a black man, I wondered in what ways have I been contorted in this strange land too. Before going into court, I was aware of how ugly the melody of colorism and classism could play in my favor. I knew my light skin, round face, button up shirt, neat skirt, with hair pulled back would increase my chances of being seen as a human being. In the belly of the beast-like land, what is the place of self preservation versus sacrifice?  What does resistance look like when you are guilty of breaking the law and victimized by it too? Audre Lorde taught me that the difference between poetry/ and rhetoric/ is being/ ready to kill yourself/ instead of your children. I am left wondering what is the self death of the poverty eaten?




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