This essay was published in the catalog for Organize Your Own (Soberscove, 2016) and was commissioned by Mariam Williams in order to reflect on one of the projects developed for Organize Your Own by Rosten Woo in the larger context of the exhibition.
Categorical Meditations by Mariam Williams
Division. We learn it formally by third grade. The process has its own vocabulary—
2 goes into 24 how many times?
5 and 2 are prime factors of 10
100 divided by 20 is 5
100 divided by 20 equals 5
Interchangeable words and phrases create a language for separation—its being, its contributors, its equality.
What is the mathematical equivalent of unity?
January 2016. I’m standing in front of a large white board, maybe 60 x 40”, with about thirty red, blue, and green rectangles printed on it, featuring questions from the American Fact-Finder Survey, the National Health Interview Survey, and the Survey of the American Consumer. Instructions at the top of the board ask viewers to insert small, yellow-tipped mapping pegs to respond to each question, then insert small, black-tipped pegs to represent the three categories they most identify with. Finally, viewers who stick it out through the whole exercise will insert light, blue-tipped pegs into the three categories in which they feel they are most likely to organize.
The work is vast and yet filled with minutiae.
How did you get to work today?
I took the bus/subway/elevated train. I rode my bicycle. I walked. I drove.
Pets deserve to be pampered.
How long have you lived in your current residence?
It’s a halting experience to see hundreds of survey questions blown up to a grand scale. If I were to stand the board horizontally on the floor next to me, it would ascend to more than half my height. The quotidian nature of categorization, whatever intangible quality, which has made it ingrained, has, for a moment, surrendered its power. I must think.
How many boxes can I put myself in? Who is asking this? Why do they need to know? What use are the details of my life to them?
I volunteer, my hand guiding yellow-tipped pegs.
Straight, that is, not gay
Number of children under the age of 18 in household: 0
I self-identify, but the categories’ significance is prescribed. Someone else has deemed it important to know that I am a graduate student over the age of 34 who sees a primary care physician for her immediate medical needs, is in charge of the grocery decisions in her household, and doesn’t attend religious services regularly. Someone needs to know the man next to me is white, gay, works in technology primarily for the salary, and often plans ahead. According to the surveys, there is no crossover in our lives, no place where we meet. Yet these details of our lives, these categories, are equally important to someone. They want to know so that they can sell me things that will make my life better. No one has asked me:
Do you believe Black people will ever be embraced by the country they built?
Does that question make you wonder why you still want children?
Has anyone asked him:
Do you understand the fears of the woman next to you? Have you ever thought about them? Why or why not?
What use to me are the details they want to know?
When I hear the phrase, “organize your own,” I think of SNCC in 1966. I think of people in 2016, people who likely live, worship, and socialize in places with people of the same race or nationality, talking to each other about racism in the U.S. and either how they experience it or what they can do about it. I picture people going home for Thanksgiving and reaching the point when they can no longer tolerate their drunk uncle using racial slurs to refer to Chinese people.
These are the factors for speaking: enough commonality but enough difference and no more tolerance. Same blood, same root. Different regions, generations, and incomes. Aunt Cora, PhD; Uncle James, factory line. When will you settle down and have some kids? When will your sister stop having all those kids? She’s turning into a welfare queen.
What goes into organizing your own family? Please (don’t) excuse my dear Aunt Sally (anymore).
I take public transit to work and school. The other commuters and I fall into a box, together. Yet some of our differences we can sense. Briefcases vs. backpacks. Shined wingtips vs. Timberlands. Local’s accent vs. tourist’s. Stench of street sleep vs. bed rest on laundered sheets.
What is required for any of us to take that impossible action, to “reach across the aisle?” These are my own, but to commute together, every day, same route, same time, is not enough to talk about race. I look at them and wonder,
Do these people feel lonely?
Have they reached their goals?
Does life at their age look like what they thought it would and what they think it should?
Do they procrastinate?
What was their day like today?
When was the last time they did something for the first time?
I don’t want to know their:
I want to know, “Can you speak the language of unity?,” even as I wonder, “How is that different from the language of erasure?” A thousand categories divide each human from the next, but a thousand categories—socially constructed, chromosomal, genetic, divinely imparted, chosen—make us who we are. A thousand, black-tipped pegs mapping out each opportunity to ask, “If 100 divided by 20 equals 5, do not all twenty parts have the same value?”
Mariam Williams is a Kentucky-based writer now living in Philadelphia. She was loving her job in social justice research and was in the midst of pursuing a master’s degree in Pan-African studies from the University of Louisville when she decided it was time to pursue creative writing instead. Williams is a 2015–16 Trustees Fellow in the Creative Writing MFA Program at Rutgers University-Camden. She is interested in the intersections of identity, history, and the arts and wants to put her tangential background to use to help women and girls discover the power and importance of their own voices.