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Red Pencils & Gravy

Updated: Apr 2, 2022

When I was seven, I didn't understand a lot of things my parents said and did. Their faces were surfaces, like countertops. I tried to figure out mom's and dad's intentions but they never responded like people who wanted to understand me. "Red Pencils & Gravy" was the phrase I began to repeat when my parents asked me a question or yelled at me for ______. In my mind, "Red Pencils & Gravy" was a perfectly clear and genuine statement, not "smartassery," as my mom called it. I don't have a language-first brain. In my mind, numbers and shapes, swirling colors and millions of scattered flakes that resemble crayon shavings are the data I process. My memories, for example, are embedded in these three-dimensional objects. Accessing the stores and matching words with the shapes is akin to kneeling on the floor with presbyopic eyes and trying to pick glitter out of the carpet.


I was coloring at the kitchen table one day while mom set dinner out. I had a red pencil in my hand, scratching red inside a black-lined fish shape in a coloring book because the word fish is red. My mom set down a bowl of gravy near me. She snatched my coloring book up and yelled, "I told you to stop and go wash your hands." I was frustrated, I had to finish coloring in the fish shape because you can't leave things unfinished. So I yelled back, "Red Pencils & Gravy!" (I don't understand you!). But clarity requires patience and listening, something my parents, especially my mom, refused to practice. "Red Pencils & Gravy" was met with punishment instead of curiosity: a face slap; my body picked up and thrown across the living room; a mouthful of liquid detergent; a kick in the head with dad's steel-toed work boot. "I don't understand you!" I know many of you have had similar experiences. But, we're here!!


Red Pencils & Gravy is my gallery's name because I am taking back my phraseology, like folx took back Queer and MAD, and imbuing it with pride. If I want a bit of pepper during a meal, for example, I've learned to say, "Would you please pass the pepper?" My natural inclination, though, is to request the "Twisty wood tower," and then double knock on the table for "please." The act of speaking is exhausting. Still, I want to be heard. I want, even more, to listen and understand.

-- Harmon dot aut




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