Monday, July 16, 2007

He Called Me Scary Smart

A Meditation by Makani Themba-Nixon

She is scary smart. He looked the other man in the eye as he said it. Half warning, half challenge. There was an awkward silence as the two searched each other for signs. Can you handle it? His eyes smiled, lip curled up like what you know about that? The other man answered with only a subtle, noncommittal head check while his eyes searched for a way out.

Scary smart. As often as I've heard it used to describe me, I've only just come to realize what it means: there are those who are discomforted by other people's gifts. Of course, there are the privileged few that generations of privilege and breeding have surrounded them with nothing but the gifted. They take them for granted and all mediocrity is hidden from view or renegotiated to a better zip code. As in my nephew is an idiot but might you find a VP slot where he wouldn't do much damage?

To be scary smart – a term mostly used for women – is to be a freak. To be a Black woman and scary smart is to be an orphan. There are plenty of places where folk will feed you but not many that feel like home.

You try to cover it up and wait for the signal that it is OK to shine. A little conversation, lightweight debate, you are up to your ankles. You watch their body language and the shifts in discussion as they hope to angle the conversation away from your strength. It takes three tugs before you notice and then you both politely excuse yourselves to safe harbor.

Being scary smart means that your intellectual imperfections are not readily available for public consumption. And we find comfort in imperfection we can see. We demand imperfection in exchange for our intimacy. It provides the nooks and crannies where we can cuddle up to others and assure ourselves. We call it being human. As if the essence of who we are is our imperfection – not when we are smart and good and beautiful. Our gifts are often the very things that separate us from humanity, so much so that many of us gauge our success by how isolated we feel.

In many Islamic provinces, weavers make a slight disruption in the pattern of every rug to affirm that none is perfect but Allah. So sure are they of their fingers, the loom, the yarn that they choose to make a "mistake" in order to keep a humble distance from the One. Perhaps this avid fear and distrust of those who do things well is our way of affirming our humility in the face of the Divine. We look for the imperfection that confirms their residency in our comfort zone: far from God and near to us.

Yet, I still imagine a world where no one is scary smart or scary beautiful or scary anything great. We walk together secure enough to know that we do not have to find the "mistake" or disrupt our own pattern in order to feel humility or intimacy. Each of us will be like flowers to one another. Someone useful, someone beautiful. Someone worth celebrating just as we are.

Among many other things, Makani Themba-Nixon is executive director of the Praxis Project, a nonprofit organization helping communities use media and policy advocacy to advance health equity and justice and a kick-ass sister that I am proud to call my friend.

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