I Feel Bad About Black People’s Necks

A plea to Nora Ephron

Dear Nora,

So far, 2020 is more harrowing than The Handmaid’s Tale, which became all the rage as a web TV series for reasons that will become clear. I limit my news intake and when I don’t, I take to an unmade bed, pull the comforter up to my chin.

Books help block out my worries. So do movies, but lately I’ve been binging on The Great British Baking Show. It’s comfort food I can’t make for myself.

Way before you made Julie and Julia, I knew you loved good food, Nora. Each GBBS episode serves up a delectable 48-minute, bite-sized, no-commercial distraction. As amateur bakers transform organic matter into something delicious through whipping, beating, and heat, I’m at peace.

It’s my ritualistic escape from ruminating about necks.

That’s right, necks. You and I didn’t know one another when you were alive so allow me to explain. I’m a woman of a certain age who, like you, doesn’t throw in the tea towel or give up without a fight. I don’t think I’m dying, Nora, but my hope for America is.

The fight is not about my neck. It’s about preserving other necks, namely Black ones. It’s about seeing them crushed in cultural juxtaposition with your 2006 book cover—you pulling a black turtleneck up toward your nose, your delicate hands semi-fist-like.

This image keeps rising in my brain like a yeast starter.

I’m writing you not because you wrote anything that resonated with people of color, but because you got powerful people to do what you wanted. You refused to conform. You shunned life’s predictable roles like pitiful pregnant wife of an adulterer. Your friends never knew you had cancer because victimhood wasn’t an option.

In Everything is Copy, a documentary of your life, some of the most famous people on earth describe you as dangerous, controlling, and someone who had no trouble going after people. But it’s your son Jacob’s account of you as a formidable shape-shifter that motivated me to write.

You, the privileged and powerful pain-in-the-neck, are exactly what America needs right now. So I’m going to crack on as you would, Nora, and trust that you will keep reading.

Photo by Wallace Chuck from Pexels

Images. Your entire body of work attests to their power.

Shortly before you died, Pinterest, Instagram (and The GBBS) had just taken off. Today, images rule; videos are ubiquitous.

What many of us didn’t expect to see were so many public lynchings by those sworn to protect and serve.

Since Treyvon Martin’s murder the year you died, police and “concerned citizens” have continued to lethally demonstrate to America (and the world) what a Black life is worth. In late May, we saw yet another Black man, George Floyd, with an officer’s knee to his neck, Mr. Floyd crying out for air. No mercy. He was murdered in eight minutes for an alleged counterfeit $20 bill.

His life wasn’t worth 20 fucking dollars, Nora.

To witness a neck, that vital pipeline joining body and brain, the very  passageway of breath, obliterated by the lethal insistence of a cop’s knee on a lovely spring day… I’m telling you, Nora, it’s not the movies.

Reality is horrifying. 

Less horrifying but altogether alarming, America watched a doctor named Birx deliver daily updates from the White House. You could say Dr. Birx was there to report on necks under a less discriminating, more inclusive, kind of attack.

Forgive me, Nora. I forgot to mention that, simultaneously, we have a pandemic virus that has wiped out close to a million people, a quarter of them here in the U.S. It’s kind of like SARS but much worse. This spring, Dr. Birx appeared like a character from Handmaid’s Tale, sitting prim and proper, her certain-aged neck encased in chic fabric, listening to the President with confused and terrified expressions.

White House Press Briefing
Official White House Photo by Andrea Hanks

Oh, Nora, this guy. I can’t go into detail or I’ll never finish this letter. He makes Reagan look like a scholar and GW a Nobel Peace Prize winner. Speaking of Reagan, this one isn’t a movie star, just a reality TV self-proclaimed playboy. An orange-stained narcissist.

You actually pegged him 31 years ago in Esquire:

“I tip my hat to Donald Trump, because except for the occasional churlish moment he seems to be genuinely enjoying the experience of fame in a way that no one in his right mind ever does, and the fact that he therefore seems not to have any sense or intelligence or taste whatsoever is beside the point. The man has adapted.”[i]

Like a virus, Nora. His hubris so frightening that we find a little comedic relief when he hands us the joke. For instance, he suggested Dr. Birx look into promising therapies like injecting human lungs with disinfectant.

Clorox and Lysol memes are still making the social media rounds.

Between Congress’s circus acts and the President dispensing dumbassery over science, we’re fed clips of Nancy Pelosi (she’s again Speaker of the House) railing against the orange one. She often sports a scarf. My question, Nora, is why?

Why do we white women care so much about our goddamned necks?

As you pointed out in your book, “our faces are lies and our necks are the truth.”  Necks are the first body part to droop, the first to remind us how long we’ve been alive.

What’s wrong with claiming seniority, Nora? Why can’t we be exactly who we are the second half of our lives? It’s like we are shielding the world from a terrible secret: Women age. Just like men.

Wait, let me back up. I slipped into white woman reality. The truth is that this is not Black reality. Millions of citizens can’t count on living long enough to see a wrinkled, flabby neck. Let alone give two rats’ asses about how old their neck looks or have money to “fix” it.

Here’s another horror, Nora. The 17-year-old who videoed George Floyd’s murder is traumatized—beyond the trauma of being Black. She is one of 40 million people who can’t count on an aging neck. She’s also been bullied because she didn’t throw herself onto Mr. Floyd or tackle the four policemen at the scene. She didn’t risk taking a round of ammo or a knee to the neck for Mr. Floyd.

So here is a perfectly traumatized 17-year-old with a perfect neck, Nora. I feel bad, but right under the shame, I’m angry as hell.

Why are we white women always protecting ourselves and not others?

How did we get to the place where white women—even in your beloved New York City—threaten Black people for being Black? The ones who insist that Black neighbors are arrested for laughing too loudly or for asking them (gasp!) to obey an ordinance? The ones responsible for sicking the police (who deploy pepper spray) on kids who took a shortcut through their manicured lawns?

And why, Nora, didn’t one of those three other cops stick his neck out even a little? To tell the murderous asshole with his knee on Mr. Floyd’s trachea to GET OFF HIS NECK?!

The answer is the same reason a white father and son gunned down a Black jogger at the end of February (but weren’t arrested for over two months). And why another Black woman was slaughtered in her own apartment by police. And why a Black man was murdered for passing out in a Wendy’s parking lot. (I’m selecting from a very long list.)

Photo by Masha Raymers from Pexels

I thought that 2020 would be the year of seeing clearly, Nora. Now I know it’s true, but we’re seeing things we never wanted to see. We’re seeing that it must be the year of the neck, a thing each of us has but has no ability to see without a mirror.

Smart phones are now our mirrors. As we bear witness, they remember details, enable us to share widely. Without them, we’d choose not to see, to assume no responsibility, no accountability. There would be no justice.

You confessed that you avoided mirrors; that if you passed one, you averted your eyes. This is the perfect metaphor for millions of us who work hard to avoid seeing racism, and when faced with it, choose not to look.

With deep respect, Nora, I Feel Bad About My Neck now strikes me as an example of some of the finest writing about white privilege I ever read. Leaving this kind of legacy was probably not your intent, but you never struck me as too fragile to hear an opinion. You had a lot of them. Like in your commencement speech at Wellesley:

“American society has a remarkable ability to resist change, or to take whatever change has taken place and make it go away.”[ii] 

I Feel Bad About My Neck came out the same year as Obama’s The Audacity of Hope. You were around for six more years—the year we re-elected him—when Black people were then, still, dying of asphyxiation by choking, hanging, dragging, or bullets.

I wish you hadn’t died, Nora. You might have ventured back into social substance, given us another book or movie like Silkwood. But what action comes of musing? America has no time to go theorize, to wonder what if.

The struggle for Black Lives (to) Matter is not a trend. It will not, it cannot, go away. Its 400-year-old roots need acknowledged, tended to, repaired, and restored immediately.

For my part, I can’t let white people—dead or alive—sit idly or pretend it’s not that bad or actively support white supremacy. At this point, the first two responses are as unconscionable as the third.

If you’re in, Nora, I’ll give you a kind of showstopper challenge, à la The GBBS:  Possess those you knew, the ones with power and platform. Haunt them, harass and rally them to protect Black necks by sticking theirs out—out farther than they ever felt comfortable—through their art, philanthropy, activism, businesses, and all manner of alliances to create seismic change. Change that protects the lives, health, and economic well being of Black Americans.

Boss us like you never bossed before to stop the murders and marginalization of Black people, to ruin the rise of white supremacy, and to make America as close to good—maybe for the first time—as it can be for everyone. 

Turn up the heat as only you can do, Nora. Beat into us a hunger to sacrifice something more important than our image. Which is, for most of us white folks, woefully underbaked, style over substance.

Yours in nonconformity,

Sleepless, soul-sick, but still stirring

[i] Nora Ephron, “Famous First Words”, Esquire, June 1, 1989.

[ii] Nora Ephron, Wellesley 1996 Commencement Speech.

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