Courtney Wheeler


My mom makes the same joke every holiday.

“When you were born, your father prayed that you would end up a smart and independent woman who didn’t need a man to take care of you...but then you learned how to talk…”

It’s basically my mother’s polite way of saying, “No one likes a smart ass Courtney.” Which at an early age, I realized I was.

I was the child who asked the unanswerable questions at Bible Study, the kid who didn’t understand why was it such a big deal that George Washington chopped down a cherry tree, the teenager who questioned what or whom should or shouldn’t be cool. The college kid who chuckled at the hyper masculine jerks at the punk show. I found all those things either questionable or funny. Most importantly I just wanted a straight answer. But the responses were always the same:

“Be quiet.”

“Mind your business.”

“Don’t be a smart ass.”

For years I scaled back my personality, biting my tongue when friends or boyfriends ever said anything I didn’t agree with. My response was always a joke. I was the master of avoiding my feelings. At times I forgot I had them. I was dying inside. Pissed off at others, but mainly myself.

In my mid 20’s, I got sketch and improv lessons for my birthday. I spent half the class either being pigeonholed into sassy black characters or pretending that I actually enjoyed other people’s comedy. Then something hit me. “This is your moment, why are you holding back? Deep down inside you are witty, smart, and unapologetic. Give yourself a chance.”

After improv class, I went back home and stared at my computer for about an hour and a half. I took a deep breath and began to write. I wrote a skit about a woman forced to join an anger management group because of a fender bender she had the previous weekend. The group leader implied that she was the angriest one in the group even though she was quite polite and super even-keeled compared to the others. The group leader slowly began to lose his cool because she wasn’t “embracing the program.”

She wanted to make sure that he would sign her release form for proof of attendance. At the end of the skit, the group leader completely lost his temper with her. While he cried in the middle of the group circle, she embraced him and started to recite his own mantras to him. I wasn’t aware of it, but I had a lot in common with that girl in my scene. I read the skit over to myself and out of nowhere I began to cry.

I have to admit, saying how you feel is scary. There is that side of me that will always be reserved and/or polite. But I won’t stifle my creativity, the side of me that wants to question things I don’t understand. I will make my awkward jokes in a crowded room. I’ll never stop being me.

I am a “smart ass.”

About the photo:

After going over some ideas with Tracey, I told her a story about how one time I was at a coffee shop waiting for a friend and reading the book “How to Be Black.” The man next to me couldn’t stop staring. He finally tapped me on my shoulder and asked me, “So what have you learned so far?” I realized he was referring to my book. My response was, “That you probably couldn’t be as funny or black as me.” We felt if we could recreate the scenario it would go along perfectly with my testimonial.