Archive | November, 2010

Really Regis?!

30 Nov

Dear Regis Philbin,

Please watch this video of YOU, Regis Philbin, co-host of Regis and Kelly, SMACKING NICKI MINAJ’S ASS! I’ll wait…

No I won’t, min 3:40

Other Crunk women of color have waxed poetic about this so I won’t belabour the point.

It doesn’t matter that her last name is Minaj or that she’s black and a “she” so you thought it would be ok, that her ass is awesome, rumored to be fake, that she talks about sex explicity in her music. That’s not an invitation to sexual harassment on national television.

You don’t get a pass because you’re an elder and white and like Lil Wayne.

You don’t put your hands on people!!!

And Kelly, I see you with your not at all innocuous “How BIG is your…waist?”

My friend Cee-Lo Green has some choice words for both of you.

Sincerely,

MB

A Return to Myself: A Delayed Response to For Colored Girls

29 Nov

I finally saw For Colored Girls yesterday with ambivalence.  I had promised myself that I would not go, that I would not give Tyler Perry another 8 of my dollars, that I would not subject myself to false images of myself, and that I would hold on to the For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf that I knew and fell in love with by myself– I knew I could not resist forever.  A colleague has asked me to offer input on a piece he is writing about the film.  I will be teaching the text again in the spring and I need to know what distortions of the story my students (may) have been subjected to.  Further, a need to be a part of the conversation seduced me to the theatres.  I arrived early and sat in my seat defensive, arms closed, head tilted, mouth smirked. 

I have been protective of black women’s stories for years, and particularly For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf, the choreopoem that my white professor introduced me to in a performance class when I was 23 years old.  I could not believe the words we were reading and the words that performed themselves when I spoke them out loud, sounding just like myself.  I did a performance of “no assistance” and fell in love instantly, wondering why in the world I had never heard of Ntozake Shange before—and committing myself to learning to pronounce her name correctly.  Ntozake (n-toe-zah-kay), formerly Pauline.  Shange (shaun-gay), formerly Williams.  Her new name, the name she chose, was Zulu and meant “she who comes with her own things” and “she who walks like a lion.”  I was immediately impressed.  I was instantly moved.

 Two colleagues met me at the theatre and we watched together, one colored girl, and two white women, all marginalized.  I wondered, at times, if they could sense me suffocating in the dark.  There were at least three times.  The first time was when I found some characters unrecognizable.  The poems, which I have read one hundred times, felt familiar but missing.  Their lives were blurred.  Their voices were too blended.  Who were they?  Where were they? 

The “colored girls” lives were so combined it was hard to recognize ourselves, my self.   And I wondered how that was any different from any other black woman representation–different versions of various stereotypes.  This was not what shange had told me (in the original version).  I was not a stereotype in the text, I simply was… finally and on paper.  My broken-hearted self.  My tough and sassy self.  My little girl and grown up self.  My elegant and fearless self.  My “behind my waist is aching to be held” self.  My “usedta live in the world” self.  My “cravin’ vulnerability & close talk” self.  My “tryin not to be that” self, leavin “bitterness in somebody else’s cup.”  My “lost touch with reality” self.  My “hot iron scar, leg wit the flea bite, calloused feet and quik language in my mouth” self.  My “reglar colored girl” self.  All of these selves at the same time.  But not a damn stereotype.  

We (women of color) are always fighting to be heterogeneous because people can’t tell us apart, our lives, too broken, too (un)familiar, too pathological.  The delicious difference(s) between us is often lost in translation.  But it was not lost in the text.

 Lady in Red (from the poem One)’s vulnerability was taken away—disguised beneath profanity and a tough exterior that was not my interpretation of  Lady in Red at all.  Her need to be held, no different from my own.  Her love of sex hidden behind a lack of self esteem.  But a black woman’s sexual agency is not always about sexual abuse (though I believed she had been hurt/left/not loved back so much that sex and sexuality became her way of being desired and wanted in decadent moments of discovery, rather than left, sleeping, and hopeful for connection).  She was empowered by her sexuality, if only in moments that were momentary. “& she had been so divine/devastatingly bizarre the way/her mouth fit round.”  The crying herself to sleep part was left out.  We never saw her by herself.

Crystal’s strength and pushback was silenced.  Black Mother Women, as Audre Lorde says, are both beautiful and strong.  Crystal fought for her children but her words were lost in the parade of black women’s bodies in ten shades.  She defended her children, if not herself.  She threatened to kill Beau Willie Brown.  She took out papers.  She consciously refused to be his wife because of physical abuse and infidelity (saying “o no i wdnt marry yr pitiful black ass for nothin”).  We never heard her talk back, or take up for herself.

My need for imagination was lost in the movie and so was my identity.  The beauty of the text, the complication of the meaning(s), over-simplified.  Another moment of held breath. (“there waz no air”).

Though my day was filled with other interactions and responsibilities I kept thinking about the inconsistencies of the movie and wondered where my emotion went.  I had heard of people seeing the movie and crying, feeling moved.  I was not moved. I was offended (at times), I was pissed off (at times), angry (at times), confused (at times). 

I cried when I first read the words, not fully understanding them yet, but recognizing myself in them.  I cried watching the broadway version, which left the nuances of life in the room for individual interpretation.  I cried when I taught it for the first time, knowing without the class, the requirement, the reason, so many women would have gone their whole lives not knowing the text existed.  I cried when they cried, portions of themselves scattered on the pages. 

A black girl’s song. 

A black woman’s story. 

Taking “our stuff” back and owning ourselves.

Moving to self-actualization.

In an interview in the early 80s with Claudia Tate, Ntozake Shange said that the audience she writes for are little girls who are coming of age.  She says, “I wanted them to have information that I did not have.  I wanted them to know what it was truthfully like to be a grown woman.  I didn’t know.  All I had was a whole bunch of mythology—tales and outright lies.  I want a twelve-year-old girl to reach out for and get some information that isn’t just contraceptive information but emotional information.”

I appreciate that.  Because “colored girls” don’t have the luxury of fairy tale fantasies.  That is not what our lives are like–and sometimes to be saved, we have to save ourselves.

And while disappointed I was not utterly disgusted by the movie.  For the first time in a while I did not walk out wanting my money back.  But I did want my words back.  And the connections I made on the page that I didn’t make in the theatre.  So I came home, sat on the floor of my office, and read the choreopoem out loud until I was finished.  I remembered myself while remembering them, recognizing some of the words that were spoken in the movie, but finally, recognizing myself, returning to my self.

 In 1976, shange closes a preface to the text saying:

“i am on the other side of the rainbow/ picking up the pieces of days spent waitin for the poem to be heard/ while you listen/ I have other work to do/”

And all this time after

now that the poems have been/are being heard

there is still (other) work to do.

Tyler Perry almost walked off wid alla my stuff

22 Nov

An open letter to my students, my close friend, and my mother:

When I left the movie theater after watching Tyler Perry Presents For Colored Girls I felt like Tyler Perry took something from me.  I went to see the film with a close friend and I was ready to feel some of the complexity of black womanhood that I had experienced as a child seeing the play with my mother, then taking my siblings to see it, then seeing it on my own last year, and having read the book.  I recognize that oftentimes details get lost in translation from play to movie (not film), but I don’t understand how Perry took a play that is all about black women’s agency and turned just about every female character into a helpless victim in the movie.

What’s worse is that Ntozake Shange’s play found a way to bring all Black women into the fold, but Perry’s film feels like an invasion in all of my intimate relationships with my students, my sister friends, and my mother (and her friends).  He took women who were so familiar to me and made them unrecognizable and now those of us who disagree with his representations are either arguing with women we care about or choosing to be silent, in pain.   Why, if he loves us so much and can greenlight films, wouldn’t he create the space for one of many talented black women filmmakers, like Gina Prince Bythewood or Julie Dash, to tell this important story with the delicate tenderness that it deserved?

Where was the joy?  What about finding my first blk man, Toussaint L’Ouverture, in the library and bringing him home to be my secret lover at the age of 8.  Why was this beautiful story wrapped in the sound of domestic violence and frightened children?  Why did it have to be told as a distraction, rather than as the powerful black girl story that it is?

Tyler Perry almost walked off wid alla my stuff

What about the complexity of a black woman who is dealing with the challenges of being lonely and alone, being exceptional and ordinary/reglar, being a desired object and a sexual subject in her own life.  The lady in red is hyperfeminine, but she is nobody’s fool in the play.  She made sense to me, she had a system; dare I say, a routine.  She knew what she wanted, she got it, and she was aware of the consequences.  But this Thandie Newton woman was unrecognizable because she was reckless and an empty version of a rude floozy.  I never read the lady in red as reckless, rude, or a slut because my For Colored Girls is not about external flat readings of black women.  My For Colored Girls is a myriad of inner voices whispering, singing, screaming to make us make sense to one another and ourselves.

This is mine/this ain’t yr stuff/

now why don’t you put me back & let me hang out in my own self

Who are these people?  This is the first film for and about Black women where I think Black men have every right to be angry about their representations. Who was the date/stranger rapist who begins undressing himself like he came through the window when he was invited in through the front door?  And what recently raped woman tells her story partially clothed to a male cop in a hospital room after completing a rape kit.  And where were the white people?  Yes, white people who symbolically represent the ways that white supremacy gets all up in our relationships and constricts our lives such that our reactions seem pathological.  Without some utterance of the ways that white supremacy is at the root of many of these stories just about every person in the film seems crazy and irresponsible for making “bad choices” even though we know their options are clearly limited.  Without them, let Tyler Perry tell it, Black men and women are the only ones directly oppressing Black women, and Black women are to blame for their circumstances.

Stealin my shit from me/don’t make it yrs/makes it stolen

Tyler Perry almost walked off wid alla my stuff

…it waznt a spirit took my stuff/ waz a man…trying to sell/tell our stories because he can only see us as a loyal and lucrative market segment.  In his warped profit-driven configurations Black women and White people were most likely to see the film, and since Black men were not his target audience he could comfortably blame the lion’s share of our oppression on them—and us.  This strategic move cleared the way for White people to absolve themselves of any institutional or cultural responsibility and for them to feel comfortable recommending the film to their friend$$$$.

But luckily I know Black women; I see them and feel them in all their complexity.  I have loved them for a lifetime and they have loved me back.  Shange’s For Colored Girls is about the LOVE that keeps us alive.  A sometimes painful love, an oftentimes delicious love, but mostly it is a deep love that we share with each other when it seems nobody understands or supports us.

I am looking past the stormy Perry cloud for my Shange rainbows and with time I will find a way to point out the rainbows to my students, my close friends, and my mother because I am keenly aware that it is the sharing of our voices and stories that keeps many of us from committing suicide and moving collectively to the ends of our own rainbows.

 


Crunk Feminist Roundtable — NWSA 2010

19 Nov

Below are links to our most recent CFC Roundtable at NWSA 2010. Enjoy and tell us what you think.

 

Part I

Part II

The R-Word: Why “Rigorous” is the New Black

17 Nov

National Women’s Studies Association Conference (NWSA) 2010: Final Thoughts

Since last year, the NWSA has been a magically inclusive space for the CFC. It has been like an oasis, a thirst quenching dose of amazing women of color from every possible place you could imagine. This intentionality around inclusivity is undoubtedly attributable in no small part to the work of pioneering Black feminist scholar Beverly Guy-Sheftall. The many CFs who are students of hers are proud of her and we want to say a personal crunk thank you for the transformative work she and her colleagues have done for NWSA. This year, was somewhat less magical, but perhaps because diversity was no longer a novelty, but rather an expectation. We think that’s absolutely a move in the right direction. We were reminded over and over again this weekend that even five years ago NWSA was not the kind of space that it is today.

The achievement of a diverse and inclusive community has not come without struggle. And it will not be maintained without struggle. In fact, we fully anticipate the sadly inevitable forthcoming snarky comments from our colleagues who no longer attend or enjoy NWSA , because it’s not as “um, rigorous” as it used to be.   In the last few years, I’ve heard or heard of white feminist scholars declaring a “lack of rigor” in the work of everyone from Chandra Mohanty to Patricia Hill Collins. While no one’s work is above critique, to summarily dismiss the work of these groundbreaking feminists of color often bespeaks something much more insidious. So rather than defending the folks who are the intellectual anchors of our work, we instead to choose to call out the folks who find such specious assertions reasonable.

Rigorous or Rigor Mortis:

Ideally, a call for rigor is a call to maintain the high academic standards that govern our professional interactions and intellectual production. This is legitimate. What is illegitimate is the notion that focusing on the concerns of women-of-color in some way threatens the production of quality intellectual work. Such thinking is racist at its core, however benevolent and well-meaning it may sound on the surface to those invested in a post-race framework.

When our (white) colleagues call for work that is “rigorous,” often what they really mean is that feminism, particularly the kind of feminism that focuses explicitly on calling out white supremacy in all its guises, is in state of rigor mortis. In other words, if feminism is gonna do all that, it’s better off dead. In fact, given the way that some folks lament the past, you would think that something precious had died.

Certainly, the premature death of so many of our feminist foremothers— Gloria Anzaldúa, Barbara Christian, Audre Lorde, Nellie McKay, and too many others—is a cautionary tale about how deadly this work can be.

This is why we give the side eye to all the mumbling and grumbling about the so-called lack of rigor going on at the NWSA conference and in other spaces where women of color come together unapologetically. We know what those folks really mean. It means they’re tired of talking about us and want to return to talking about themselves. It means they want us to be silent, to be invisible, to, in fact, disappear. Well, we’ve got news for them: we’re here to stay.

This is also why the move among some of our colleagues to subordinate the body (politics) to the mind (theory) is especially troubling. Such thinking is a product both of historical amnesia and willful ignorance. Surely our feminist foremothers exposed the fallacy of those kinds of practices forty years ago. And yet, there were calls at one plenary to move “beyond the body.”  So when did feminism climb back into bed with Descartes?

Interestingly, those of us whose feminism foregrounds people of color and queer folk find ourselves always enmeshed in a larger debate in which the move from politics to theory demands an abstract move away from the body. So queer theory can be used to read anything that is merely “indeterminate.” Or intersectional theory can be used to read anything, as long as multiple identities are apart of the equation. Queer theory without queer bodies ain’t queer. Intersectionality without women of color is a train wreck.  Call us parochial if you want to, but we should remember that in the case of both these theories, they grew out of the lived political realities of marginalized people. If the material conditions of the people haven’t been transformed, then the theory can only go so far.  Theoretical movement is not synonymous with social or political movement, and while the two are linked, academics often arrogantly assume that a will necessarily lead to b, when the history of theory suggests, more often than not, the converse.  We are cautioned here by Catherine MacKinnon:  “Under current historical conditions, appropriating the approach while abstracting away the content is one of power’s adaptations to challenge by transformative theory.”

Unfortunately, marginalized folks still find themselves always having to fight the power by proving that their concepts are not merely political, but that they also have broad theoretical use, and, hence, should be granted academic legitimacy. To the extent that queer theory is connected to queer bodies it remains political, and therefore subordinate. If it can become a form of reading, then it becomes theoretically legitimate. To the extent that intersectionality talks about poor women of color, it remains merely political. To the extent that it becomes a larger analytical tool, then it, too, becomes theoretically legitimate. Yes, queer theory and intersectionality are useful theoretical and analytical tools. But if they become only this or primarily this, then they run the risk of relegating their communities of origin back to the margins.  And any person who demands such a move has suspect feminist politics. Real talk.

If feminism has taught us nothing else, it has taught us to reject false binaries.

It’s not: rigor or us.

Rigor is us.

Crunktastic & Susiemaye

In Praise of non-Famous Black Women

15 Nov

As I ran on the treadmill this morning at Duke University, realizing that I am presently a doctoral student in the English program, preparing for my preliminary exams (some call them “comprehensive”) and teaching a course to a group of first years, I realized that I was literally not supposed to be there…on the treadmill…running…at Duke.  You see, while studying during my undergraduate days, I was horribly unprepared for the rigors of the institution, the culture shock that forced me to reconsider class – I thought I was “middle class” until I realized that my parents were much closer to less-than middle class; that money did not flow freely; that keeping up with the Joneses was simply silly for me.  I did not know how to survive, how to be happy.  I was a black, gay Pentecostal boy, founder of the New Spirit of Penn Gospel Choir who couldn’t seem to get my life together.  Academically, I was flailing.  There was that one semester when my GPA reached the depths of a 1.3 for the semester.

But anyway.  I thought again today how my survival at the various universities I have attended – University of Pennsylvania, Emory University, and now Duke University – would not have been possible if it were not for the love, support and guidance of those whom are generally overlooked, whom the university thinks expendable and easily replaceable.  As  my Facebook status attested this morning: had it not been for the administrative staff – black women – at these universities (secretaries, housekeepers, front-desk staff, card-swipers at cafeterias, etc), I would not have been able to graduate.  I think the people who have helped me survive need to be praised, need to be cherished for their ongoing and unseen (and unwarranted) contributions to the universities.

This is not sophisticated prose.  This is me trying to say thank you.

There is one such Ms. NameRemoved at Penn who made sure I ate even when I had no meal plan because I could not afford one.  She would take my school ID, slide it in the machine upside down to give the appearance that it was a legit validation and entry into the cafeteria.  She had knowledge of the inner workings of the institution that she was able to flout and a love of others that she wanted to sustain.  I appreciate her and what I would think of under the rubric of “ministry” (for when I was hungry, she fed me…seriously).

There is one such Ms. Cora Ingrum, an unsung hero at Penn both in the Engineering School and in the larger university system.  The head of the office of minority programming, Ms. Ingrum spoke to my parents roughly once a week during my first year because they were concerned for my well-being.  She never worried me by telling me my parents were worried then.  She waited.  She encouraged me…daily.  She hugged me a lot.  She was so much more than an advisor and counselor.  She embodied (and still embodies) the type of love ethic that I long to display to my students today.  I left engineering as a discipline a very long time ago but I still am connected with Ms. Ingrum because she showed me how to move through university systems caring for others and self.

There is one such Ms. Donna Hampton.  Words, literally, could not describe who she was and is to me.  I’m pretty sure she’s the first person I ever shared my fictional writing with, the first person who allowed me to be gay and black and Christian and contradictory all at the same time, all while loving me and listening to me and making me think I had a voice that should be heard.  I would walk into the office at Penn, see her sitting and would talk to her for hours.  She was a therapist before I knew that therapy was a good thing and a friend that I never knew I needed.

There is one such Jennifer Stiles.  I would walk into Du Bois College House and talk to her for hours at night.  And I mean hours.  From 4 until midnight.  She taught me so much more about being human, about recognizing the connections we make with others, about being truthful and honest with self and others.  She made me laugh a lot, made me angry a lot and made me think all of the time.  That front desk at Du Bois recounts too many memories.

There is one such Jamila Garret-Bell.  The first club I ever went to in Atlanta was with Jamila and she still tells me how I exclaimed (I was drunk) “this McDonald’s is the FRESHEST McDonald’s I’ve ever had in my life!”  That to say that I felt really comfortable around Jamila.  I’m a talker and I would sit in the chair next to her desk at Candler and talk about everything and nothing.  She was one of the first people at the seminary to know that I liked dudes and she never judged me for it, which was something I expected around every corner because “jesus school” was so problematic to me.  She showed me how to be graceful and gracious, how to have poise and tact.  She showed me how to smile in the face of hardship and how to move forward.

There is one such Ayanna Abi Kyles.  What could I say?  She did (and does) mean the world to me and I am forever grateful for encountering her, her love, her ministry.  I truly do believe Ayanna is the embodiment of self-love and exudes this with her dealings with other people.  If I’d sit and talk to Jamila for an hour, I’d leave her chair to go talk to Ayanna for hours more.  Ayanna saw in me worth and value that I could not see in myself.  Ayanna saw in me the desire to love others when I could not recognize myself in the mirror.  She would listen to me recount heartbreak after heartbreak, would allow me to be despondent, would let me be sad.  Ayanna would press against me when I was wrong (and I was wrong much of the time; most of the time?) but would never leave me thinking I was irredeemable.  She always let me know that she had my back, that she loved me and was there for me.  And when I was set to graduate from seminary, she told me that she wanted to be the one to present me with the stole during the “Sacred Worth” commencement ceremony because she wanted to honor and acknowledge the erotic life-world in which I exist and to give me strength for the world to come.

These stories, of course, are the tip of the iceberg.  I could say too much more about each of these women.  I post here because they enact for me what it means to be feminist, what it means to be womanist.  They are love, joy, peace, long-suffering in the flesh and they dwell among us.  They are the social world of the university that, many could attest, all others to survive.

Someone should write this book.  The book about auxiliary staff at colleges and universities whose kind smiles, warm hellos, and “meet me at this time in my office to discuss your financial aid” with a wink and nod allowed us to persist.

So this is an invitation.  Tell your story.  Pay homage.

I am interested in a project, quite literally, that lets us tell our story and lets us share our stories with those who have so effected us.  I am interested in having them tell their stories to us.  I am interested in critical dialogue because there is knowledge that they have that we need; they shared it with us implicitly and it’d be great to be explicit.

Some ideas:

  • contacting the university alumni/ae publication and request space to share these types of stories; maybe a special edition
  • an edited volume of sorts; collecting and sharing
  • something like the New Orleans Neighborhood Story Sharing Project (http://www.neighborhoodstoryproject.org/) – localized, small, intimate but does the same work of collecting story and sharing with others
  • something else?

What are your thoughts?

More Dispatches from NWSA

13 Nov

Sheri on the Classroom:

a theater,

dance studio,

a closed door private space,

a garden,

an offering and opportunity,

a place for tensions,

burning,

eruptions,

cooling,

change.

Speaking of the classroom we have been going to school in various pedagogical sessions and in the hallways.  SolHot rocked some embodied scholarship when Chamaura and Dominique danced their scholarship to Erykah Badu’s Window Seat and discussed the moves they loved, why they loved them, and how collective dance choreography is incorporated into the work they do with young black girls in Urbana-Champaign, IL.

CF Chanel did an amazing popular education workshop not only discussing anti-racist pedagogy, but also facilitating an interactive case study model for sharing best practices and suggestions for the Inside/Out course she is currently teaching.  She simultaneously taught us how to facilitate a discussion with purpose and reflect on how we create/work in/use classroom space.

Girl Studies is on the rise.  Get ready ya’ll cause some powerful work is happening in girl studies through art n activism, body acceptance work, and health/healing.  Tamara Michelle Beauboeuf gave a phenomenal presentation on how  the daughters of Black Women see the contradictions in what we say and how we live.  They see that we are doing the most, as CF Whitney says, when what we say we need is a nap.  She brought the voices of black girls to the fore because she says they offer guidance for their mothers, and in their own words they said we see the real you and this mask is not what we want for ourselves.  It was PoWerFULL.  I’m coming home rejuvenated and retooled and I have already started thinking about the role we will be playing in NWSA 2011.

Peace Always,

Sheri

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