November 03, 2017
When I was sixteen, I saw an alien. True story. My mama and I were watching television in our narrow low-rent Baltimore rowhouse when we heard our dog, barking with a particular urgency. Mama asks me to go investigate. I walk to the back, flip the floodlight switch and open the door. And there, at the end of our narrow concrete sliver of a yard, is Eggroll, looking up at a chest-high figure with an oblong luminescent face and large black eyes, staring directly at my smaller-than-average, teenage, presently and keenly vulnerable self. And immediately, without even a flash of hesitation, I shit my pants: a small, yet substantial, perfectly compacted brown nugget bullets from my butt-cheeks like a backfired slingshot. I could feel the velocity of that single turd shoot against the lining of my poly-cotton Voltron pajama bottoms, the betrayal of years of self-control, the pastel illustrations of Once Upon a Potty flashing into my mind’s eye, as I waddled back to my mother with a face whiter than Ann Coulter. Ann Coulter. Wearing an eggshell bikini. On a foggy day. In a salt mine.
Vision is a tricky enterprise. All we truly perceive are configurations of shadows and light. True story. 127 million photoreceptors detect light stimulus, becoming electrical impulse along the optic nerve to the brain, and then a chemical, the mind, an open file without a name. And from this, we begin to make sense of our world.
My niece at nine months, beginning to crawl. One day I watched her amble directly into a piece of furniture, head-first. She thrusted with determined hands and knees, without hesitation, right into my sister’s backless Wayfair barstool. Did little Mackenzie not see the metal legs? Why did she careen right into that pain, the boo-boo on her forehead? It appeared as if she hadn’t seen the stool at all. Shadows and light, electrical impulse, chemical, an open file. And then, my sister, mommy to the rescue: She said, “Chair”. Baby stare. “Chair”. Baby stare. “Chair”. Baby stare. Now, the open file has a name: language, a label, the sign.
Neurolinguist Richard Gregory argues that seeing is entirely hypothesis, reliant on experience and memory. We encounter a particular configuration of shadows and light, and that configuration is then matched to the closest file we have in our database. Your brain is a file clerk, searching for the match. Whatever matches closest is then pulled up and projected onto our mind’s silver-screen. And that is what we see—not what we perceive, but what we see. Everyone knows a filing system is unsuccessful without explicit labeling. Labels are language. In essence, language becomes more our eyes, than our eyes.
Do you know the story of the Aztec genocide? The great, advanced civilization that initially and fatally opened its arms to Cortes’ swords? They had a myth: The god of rebirth, Quetzalcoatl, promised to return one day from the East on a bed of clouds, to bestow upon the Aztecs the fortunes, the white hot heart, of the morning star. And then one day, in the dead middle of a millennium, upon the horizon, fishermen saw what they believed to be, approaching from the East, in billowing white, the promises of that morning star. See, the Aztecs were not sea-farers. And the billowing sails of Cortes’ ships, well, the Aztecs didn’t have a file for that, and those sails wound up becoming a different kind of promise.
And this is how you perceived me: a promise, a myth. I wonder what the story was that begat your creation of me. But I was not seen, that is certain; you were searching for a match. The language of the story you knew before you never knew me projected onto your mind’s silver screen, before I even approached. And the Hollywood dream you thought you saw was all light and shadow, along the walls of a cave. And so you opened your heart, as if you hadn’t even seen that I was only strong enough to conquer—not love—and you careened right into that pain. I am sorry for that.
If you haven’t figured it out yet, I didn’t really see an alien. I saw a possum on our back fence. The floodlight wasn’t strong enough to pick up the chain-link at all, but it could reflect the rodent’s iridescent fur on the top of its head, pointed down to keep a watchful eye on the threatening stance of my vicious Shih Tzu mix. The pose in illumination suggested the shape of that most common of mediated aliens—the bulbous head and sunken long face. My hypothesis was dead wrong. I didn’t have a file in my database for something as odd as a possum on a fence in an inner-city Baltimore neighborhood. And, of course, what were my mama and I watching in the living room before the encounter? Mulder and Scully, forever engrossed in their sexually frustrated tete-a-tetes between science and magic. But in my mind’s eye, in my memory, I still see that four-foot alien staring directly into my being as clear now as it was then, crystal enough to make me drop a stink pickle in my drawers.
When you don’t collect much data, you don’t have much in your database.
Recently, after watching a performance on YouTube, Ann Coulter called out Beyoncé for her salacious, female-demeaning lyrics, as an ironic parallel to the accusations of Trump’s equally recent gender blitz. Ann tweets: Beyoncé, cited by Michelle Obama as role model for her daughters, sings about “pussy curvalicious, served delicious.” Oh my. I just fainted”. End tweet. Ann was probably promenading victorious at this burn, this apparent demonstrated hypocrisy of the smug liberal elite. However, what Ann didn’t realize during that cock-sure strut in her proverbial pencil skirt, was that the woman she perceived mouthing those lyrics was not Beyoncé at all, but Nikki Minaj. Ann defended her mistake by saying, “they look so much alike.”
Black woman. Beyoncé. Black woman. Beyoncé. Black woman…
When you don’t collect much data, you don’t have much in your database.
This tells me how we perceive one another: educated guesses, inaccurate file names, projected images, subservient to language. This tells me that if you were to see me clearly, you would have had to learn my language. Or, to learn a language beyond your own. Beyond the language of myth, and even beyond the language of billowing sails. This tells me that we all need to learn as much language as we can, to quit running into things that are there that we can’t see. This tells me that if we commit to this—you and I, all of us—maybe then we will finally escape the shadows of the cave.
MIAH JEFFRA is from Baltimore. They have been awarded the New Millennium Fiction Prize, The Sidney Lanier Prize for Fiction and the Clark-Gross Novel Award; a finalist for the Arcadia Prize in nonfiction and New Letters Fiction Prize; a Lambda Literary Fellowship in nonfiction; a Ragdale Fellowship; and residencies from Arteles, Red Gate, Ragdale and The Hub City Writers Project. Jeffra serves as editor of Foglifter Press, and teaches writing, rhetoric and cultural studies at Santa Clara University and San Francisco Art Institute. He lives in San Francisco with his husband and roommates, both human and canine.
“A Natural History of the Senses” is reprinted by permission from The First Church of What’s Happening (Nomadic Press 2017). Copyright © 2017 by Miah Jeffra.