Archive | May, 2012

The Evolution of a Down Ass Chick

31 May

Down Ass Chick:  a woman who is a lady but she can hang with thugs. She will lie for you but still love you. She will die for you but cry for you. Most importantly she will kill for you like she’ll comfort you. She is a ride or die bitch who will do whatever it takes to be by your side. She’ll be your Bonnie if you are her Clyde. Thugs love these bitches and they show this by showering them with stacks of cash, flashy jewels and rides. (Urban Dictionary)

I taught a class on black masculinity during the pre-summer session and the course covered everything from black man stereotypes, and the patriarchal requirements of black masculinity to big black penis myths, homophobia, and hip hop.  One of our most recent classes on romantic relationships between heterosexual black men and women inspired an interesting conversation that stayed for days. Forgive me for a quick (perhaps academic) summary.

Several black women scholars, including Patricia Hill Collins and bell hooks, tell us that black love is an act of rebellion.  In a culture that claims black women are unlovable and undesirable, and black men are violent and irredeemable, it is considered “rebellious” when black men and women love each other.  In an article called “Can a Thug (get some) Love? Sex, Romance, and the Definition of a Hip Hop ‘Thug'” Michael Jeffries discusses the ways in which a thug (or hip hop) masculinity makes room for romantic love.  Further compelling (per Michael Eric Dyson) is the fact that patriarchy (and hip hop) forwards a binary way of seeing women as either good or bad; a virgin or a whore; a “good sister” or a “ho,”; a down-ass bitch/chick or, yep, you guessed it…a ho. :/  Black women are situated as either a ride or die chick and wifey (but not a wife) or a disposable chick used for sex and good times.  I wasn’t feeling those options.

As a self-proclaimed “good girl” I find it problematic that “good girls” are punished for being good.  While we may be the ones men claim to “want” (in the long run, when they are finally ready to settle down and do right) most of the good sisters I know are situationally single.  The good girl is put in the pocket while the other woman gets the attention, affection, love, sex, children, etc.  What is wrong with that picture?  And the catch is, if good girls grow tired of waiting and become ambivalent about this wait-and-see kind of love, and if they transform themselves to the version of themselves that men will pay attention to, they will no longer be “good” and therefore no longer be desired (in the long run).  Ain’t that some ish?  Patriarchy at its finest…

When I was 17 years old, I aspired to be a down ass chick. I was into pseudo-thugs and pretty boys, or any combination of the two, and (would have) gladly compromised my goals to be “down.”  Here is what a down-ass chick was:  loyal, sexual, willing to lie, die, kill (read: fight), or steal for her ni**a.  She kept her mouth shut and legs slightly open, but only for her dude.  She was supportive and submissive, and essentially self-sacrificing.  She was glamorized in the music and films of the late 90s, early 2000s (and even currently) and she always got the dude—whether he was worthy of being had or not (keep in mind that having the dude included being his “main girl” if he had other girls, or being his faithful chick on the streets if he was locked up).

The promises of the down-ass chick were intoxicating, seemingly liberating, but what did I know?…I couldn’t even vote yet!  It is only now that I can carefully critique a love scenario that makes it nearly impossible for a black woman to measure up.  For example, while hip hop thug masculinity acknowledges that “thugs need love too”—it is a particular kind of love that cannot be accomplished by one woman.  Women have to be conflicted and oxymoronic to be “enuf.”  For example, you need to be good, but willing to participate in criminal activity; you need to have your own, but let him take care of you; you need to be virginal but sexually talented enough to keep him satisfied; you need to be faithful to him, but willing to tolerate his infidelity; you need to be masculine enough to kick it with the fellas, but feminine enough to be sexually desirable; you need to be quick witted, but not more so than him, etc. etc. etc…

When we went around the classroom, quizzing each other on our “downasschickness” (or desire to have a DAC) I willfully and happily opted out.  “Hell nah,” was my reply when it was my turn.  My interpretation of a down ass chick (the ride or die chick who is willing to sacrifice herself, lie to the feds, take a case for a dude, sit idly by why being disrespected and dismissed, tolerant of emotional and physical abuse and infidelity, etc.) is not desirable to my grown woman sensibilities.  The 17 year old in me was saying yes, but the grown-ass, 30+ feminist woman with things to lose said “hell nah.”  When I said I was NOT a down ass chick the black men in the room were visibly disappointed. I don’t think they saw down-ass-chickness as something linked to maturity, education, or knowing better therefore doing different.  For them, the fact that I was cool and cute, and had been unapologietically vocal about my love and advocacy for black men, should have made me automatically down for being down (DAC).  And then I wondered why something I had once embraced was suddenly something I felt I had outgrown.

When I discussed this conversation with a beautiful man friend in NYC, he explained that what a down ass chick is for a 20 year old black man and a 30+ year old black man are utterly different. At <25, (given the limited prospects and opportunities black men have to prove their manhood outside of macho norms, and the misogynistic and womanizing expectations of his peers and culture about owning his masculinity) it makes sense that a dude may be looking for a woman who is all about him, who will meet him at the precinct and courtroom to plead his case, and be willing to wait on him if he is ever incarcerated…but for a 30+ year old man, who has his ish together, a down ass chick is someone who is down for you in other ways, who is not a liability, who brings something (other than just herself) to the table, and can help you build.  Both versions are loyal and have your back, but when you are older you shouldn’t need your girl to lie to the feds or bail you out of jail or take you back when you cheat.  Further, the 30+ DAC is not willing (nor required) to sacrifice herself or her goals for her man.  They are building together!

After that conversation I realized that maybe I am a down-ass chick after all.  I mean, I’m with the grown ass woman version of a down ass chick.  I am down to be a lover, a partner, a friend/homegirl.  I am down to be a woman who calls out all of your beauty but also calls you out on your shit.  A woman who loves, supports, defends, holds, co-creates and motivates.  Yeah, I can be that chick.  I am that chick.  But she is somehow missing from the (mainstream) music… (or is she some desirous version of the independent woman that, though perpetually single, was heralded and serenated through song five years ago?).

What do you think?  Is there an evolution to the down-ass-chick?

Agents of Violence: What the violations against sex workers in Latin America reveal about U.S. presence in the region

28 May

Guest post by Ashwini Hardikar
Original posted on her personal blog

Women Marching in Solidarity

In much of Latin America, collective memory of terror is often tied up with U.S. presence and intervention. For over a century, the U.S. government and military has occupied nations,trained soldiers on how to be better murderers and torturers, and helped to squash democratic popular movements in favor of genocidal fascist dictators in Latin America and the Caribbean. This may sound hyperbolic, but the facts show that if anything, the previous sentence is understated. So it’s with good reason that the presence of agents of the United States can signify at best deception, at worst widespread violence. The latest examples of these signifiers, involving United States armed forces and executive security detail, reveal a complex history that continues to impact the lives of ordinary Latin Americans, and should prompt all of those living in the United States to ask the question, “Why are we there?”

Over the past month, a “scandal” has erupted over the exposure of Secret Service agents who have used the services of sex workers. It is important to remember that scandals are created from popular imagination. So why has this news in particular captured people’s imagination? The story is often referred to as an “embarrassment” and a “public relations” problem for the Obama administration. Missing from these descriptions are the voices of the women who were victimized by agents of the United States. Let’s be very clear: sex work iswork. And refusing to pay a sex worker for his/her services is a form of violence and slavery, in the same way that refusing to pay any worker for his/her labor is violence and slavery. An even more appalling incident in Brazil came to light recently, where three U.S. Marines ran over a female sex worker with a car after she tried to open the car door to demand payment for her work. Although the Brazilian police wanted to press charges, the Marines were immediately deported (or smuggled out, let’s be real) back to the United States where they were supposedly “punished,” far out of the reach of the Brazilian justice system to which they should have been held accountable.

So where does this leave the women who were victimized by these agents of the United States? Calling these acts of violence, deception and manipulation a “sex scandal” diminishes the horrific nature of these acts, perpetrated by those who have immense power over the vulnerable woman-bodied people who survived these interactions. Similarly, as the media loves to use the phrase “sex scandal” for instances of rape and other types of sexual violence, the portrayals have again devolved into exotifying brown-skinned women, particularly sex workers, as simultaneously sexually deviant and unrapeable.

Sex workers face instances of violence at astonishing rates, largely because of the stigmatized nature of their work as well as misguided efforts to “rescue” sex workers which actually both drive trafficked individuals further underground and place sex workers in increasingly dangerous situations. For the women whose services were used by these American men in particular, the imbalance of power seems almost unimaginable. Clearly, the men who caused the harm to these women in Colombia and Brazil did so precisely because they knew they could, because brown-skinned women not of the so-called “First World” have always been assumed to be invisible, and because the gender-based violence that accompanied every U.S. war game in Latin America and the Caribbean has been buried, dismissed or even condoned. One should not assume that this history is not recent enough for average folks in Latin America to have collective memory of the role U.S. state agents played in these tactics that sought to crack down on dissent, self-determination and empowerment through terrorism.

The Obama administration has been criticized from the outset for its willing participation in maintaining and expanding military campaigns around the world, campaigns which go hand in hand with neoliberal economic policies that would never survive without the framework of violence at all levels of their implementation. Women throughout the world have rightfully decried the gender violence that inevitably follows occupation and militarism, no matter who is fighting whom. As Yifat Susskind, Executive Director of women’s human rights organization MADRE International states when describing gender violence during the Guatemala wars, “Through the years of the conflict, tens of thousands of Guatemalan women and girls were raped, tortured and murdered. These were not attacks carried out randomly; violence against women was deliberately calculated by U.S.-backed fighters to traumatize families and destroy the capacity of communities to resist and organize.” Women of color globally have also been at the forefront of elucidating the intertwined nature of U.S. political and economic interests, and how tools of neoliberalism actually make women more susceptible to violence at a community and structural level.

These latest incidents are a continuation of the legacy that U.S. presence in Latin America has established, a legacy that was articulated through U.S.-backed coups in Guatemala and Chile, the occupations of Grenada and Haiti, and the devastating impacts of NAFTA and CAFTA (as well as countless other exploits that are too numerous to name). The violence committed against these Latin American sex workers should not provoke embarrassment, it should provoke outrage. As long as the Global South is seen as a playground for the U.S. to extract what it wants and ensure that its corporate interests are protected, such incidents will continue. When it comes to U.S. intervention in Latin America, brown-skinned women’s bodies are always collateral damage.

The Wait of the Nation

24 May

So everyone has been talking about the childhood obesity epidemic, particularly since the four part HBO documentary series The Weight of the Nation aired.  Having recently completed my dissertation on the framing of the childhood obesity epidemic on television, I wanted to take a break but after watching Part Three, “Children in Crisis,” I feel the need to respond.  In many ways the one-hour program provide precisely the type of argument and evidence lacking in typical mainstream narratives.  Focusing attention on the difficulties parents have to contend with such as the barrage of food marketing on multiple media platforms and availability of a variety of food products developed specifically for youth consumers is good.  However, in each family segment there was an “obesity clinic” at the center of the solution narrative. 

I am not arguing that families may not need particular support regarding health and nutrition choices in their homes, but I do question the motives of the healthcare industry, the second largest industry in the nation, conflating weight/size with health consistently.  Can we have a much needed discussion about diabetes without making obesity the umbrella crisis?  Can we recognize that the BMI categories are flawed knowing they are consistently used out of the context of family medical and personal medical histories?  Can we also acknowledge that a diversity of body sizes and shapes is biologically normal and that there are significant numbers of healthy “obese” and “overweight” people as well as unhealthy “normal weight” people?  Can we address fatphobia, discrimination, and bullying as  contributors to poor emotional health?

I am “waiting” for the nation to have a frank discussion about food production, labor, leisure, and human rights, but somehow the narrative is fixated on shaming parents into taking their children to the doctor and/or weight-loss programs to “fix” their bodies.  I was waiting for at least one explanation for why Tea, the eight-year old black girl, was bigger than her classmates and seemed to be developing early.  I was waiting for a discussion about hormones in milk, eggs, and meat.  I was waiting for some acknowledgement of genetically modified foods (food science).  But no, the solutions were framed narrowly within single-issue policy-making for stronger regulations on marketing or food or for fitness programs.  In the meantime, the solution is to visit obesity clinics and research centers, and don’t forget your health insurance card or your credit card because unless you have cold hard cash these “card” industries stand to gain a lot in this weight crisis. 

Nevermind the fact that many youth regardless of their size are eating similar diets of high fructose corn syrup, yellow lake 5 or 6, red lake 40, and salt.  I for one am tired of doing workshops with kids where they cannot identify common fruits and vegetables, the components of a basic meal, or read the ingredients in the foods and beverages they eat daily.  But I am clear that this level of illiteracy does not happen on a national level by mistake.  The under-education and underdevelopment of this nation has been strategically deployed through marketing which functions as our primary public pedagogy.  We used to have cooks in school kitchens, now we have underpaid servers/contingent labor forces, typically women.  We had cooking classes in school and now we have extremely well paid advertising executives and recent college grad interns using all their creativity to market crap to my kid to pay their student loan debts. 

If I am going to be called to fight this battle, I want to be clear that I am fighting to win peace for the nation.   Peace means parenting that is not in competition with multinational unaccountable unregulated industries.  It means addressing widespread food and environmental illiteracy for people “at every size and every weight,” we have had enough food product (brand) literacy to last a millennium. 

Peace means affordable afterschool programming so that youth can be actively engaged in their communities with adult supervision at currently underutilized parks and recreation facilities.  Peace means job security for mothers (of color)/parents broadly and explicit recognition that leisure time (evenings, weekends, vacations) is a human right.  I’m still waiting for my nation to roll out the peace and corporate accountability strategy for improving my community’s health.  For me this is the “wait” this nation can no longer afford.

Skinny, Ashy Ankles: The New Black Woman Pathology

22 May Ashy Ankles

Ashy Ankles

This just in: black women have skinny, ashy ankles. Black women have skinny, ashy ankles and the world needs to know. They are disproportionately represented in sales for Nivea, the thick cream marketed purposely toward black women’s bodies. They supply the band-aid brand with most of its sales, as they are the frequent victims of blisters. And they are dying. Read it: DYING from skinny, ashy ankles.


GIFSoup

This is why it is a national crisis. Black women with skinny, ashy ankles are frequently the victims of career-ending injuries. Since black women are fat, their skinny ankles don’t hold all of the extra weight and they tend to topple over, especially the majority of black women who live in urban areas with unpaved sidewalks.

Skinny, ashy ankles are a class issue. Have you ever tried to use dollar store lotion? It doesn’t even have a scent and it has the consistency of a vinegar douche.

Dollar Store Lotion

Do you think most black women can afford Lubriderm? This is the alternative.

Skinny, ashy ankles are also a black family issue. Since black women are one hundred times less likely to be married than every other raced, gendered body in the world (and probably the universe if we would just admit that what we are really interested in is the study of alien bodies and extend our studies to the populations on Mars), they typically trip in places with no burly men to help break their falls. This is an epidemic that hurts the black family, as young boys have to watch their skinny, ashy ankle mothers fall without the support of men. These boys develop a sense of nihilism and think to themselves, “fuck it, I’m going to fall too. Falling is in my bloodline.” Then these African American sons of skinny, ashy ankle black women decide to sag their pants to make their falls more likely. Hence, because of skinny, ashy ankle women, falls and sagging pants are now integrated into black culture as if this pathology should be glorified.

Man with sagging pants.

Black women are responsible for this.

And you know what? Black women want to have skinny ankles. It’s because of slavery. This is the part of the essay where I apply my argument to the controlling tropes of black womanhood, as if black womanhood has not become a signifier in itself, a trope without tracks:

Mammy: Mammy’s ankles were ashy because she used all her lard in her cooking and therefore it contributed to her overwhelming obesity, which was passed down to the current generation of obese black women with skinny, ashy ankles.

Jezebel: Jezebel was led into sexual sin and exploitation by way of her seducer’s attention to her ankles. Her skinny ankles only fed her insecurities, which were exploited by male suitors. You will notice that the modern video vixen, aka Jezebel, has skinny ankles.

The Tragic Mulatta: It is well known that female products of miscegenation often had one full ankle (their European heritage) and one skinny, ashy ankle (the African heritage . They spent their whole lives trying to hide the black side. This way of walking, this peculiar fascination with positioning the white ankle toward passerby, was called “passing” by the journalists of the day and the term has continued to explain the mulatta experience in America.

Caricature of black woman beating a boy.

Look at the skinny ankles on this Sapphire.

Sapphire/ Matriarch: Like our ancestor Sojourner Truth, black women have never had men to help us over puddles—huge puddles that splashed mud on our already ashy ankles and made us lose our balance and titter over. All that falling makes a woman bitter, especially since we have learned to balance the world on our skinny, ashy ankles. No wonder we can’t keep the few good men who actually would like to help us. No wonder we run them off and raise their offspring by ourselves.

This is the part of the essay where I return to the present and talk about the joys and perils of skinny ankles. I am married. Read it: MARRIED. To a man. Who is straight. Who finds me desirable. Who makes me not a statistic and therefore the perfect person to write about black women’s pathology. And we have legitimate children who have skinny but well-oiled ankles. He loves my skinny, ashy ankles and he thinks the ashier the better. In fact, he loves when my ankles are so ashy that they get cut on the back of my pumps and I have to wear band-aids to cover the blisters. Those are the nights that he gingerly takes off my abusive shoes and wears them as earrings as we make passionate, heterosexual love, my blistered ankles in the air.

Black couple, post-coitus

Woman: Thank you, baby, for making heterosexual love to me despite my pathological ankles.
Man: Baby, it wasn’t no big deal. I love them ankles, girl. I’m a black man and my eyes are designed to find beauty in that which is deemed despicable by the rest of the world. Now get up on them ankles and make me some waffles.
Woman: Anything to keep you, boo. If you leave me, I’ll be a statistic.

Still, I don’t want my daughter to suffer my fate as a skinny-ashy ankled woman. I tell her to get her stuff together and oil those ankles. I apply butter directly to her ankles in hopes that the lipids will soak into her skin and give it a plumpness that is finally, finally non-pathological. I want the best for my children. I don’t want them to be like me—a web of problems, a “fix me” sign, a pathology, a wanderer in a desert, looking for the lake called hope…

Taking It All Off: Black Women, Nudity, and the Politics of Touch

21 May

Everyone who knows me even remotely well knows I don’t do hugs. Get too close physically and I am quick to let you know that you’re invading my personal space!

So of course, hilarity regularly ensues since it seems I’ve managed to attract a significant number of friends whose primary love language is physical touch. And frankly, sometimes I think these friends just like to lay hands on me for the hell of it.

You can imagine, then, my skepticism when my crew of sista prof friends planned a spa day at one of those places that boasts not only unlimited use of saunas, swimming pools and a range of pay-as-you-go spa services, but also, to my chagrin, openly nude bathing pools. I had heard of such places and vowed never to go to one. Anyway, I decided to be brave, because spa days are high on my list of self-care strategies. But I swore to my friends that anything I’d be doing there must involve clothing—or it wouldn’t involve me.

And the goddesses laughed. Hysterically.

When we arrived, after a good amount of deliberation, several of us decided to get the daily special—a body scrub and massage. The catch was that these body scrubs, which require you to be completely naked, happened in an open room with at least three other naked women, being scrubbed by middle-aged Asian ladies in bras and panties.

So 2 hours later, there I was following my equally naked homies into the collective showers, and then into the warm bathing pools to wash off, in preparation for our body scrubs.

My body scrub was in a word: delectable. I was almost an instant convert.

And afterwards, when me and my compadres climbed back into the warm bathing pools to relax, we had not only shed our dead skin cells but a good degree of our self-consciousness with each other.

We began to talk about Black women and the politics of touch, wondering if our mamas, each from very different generations would ever even consider coming to a place like this. All of us concluded that, “No. They wouldn’t.”

We claim in Black women’s communities to believe in the power of touch—to believe in the “laying on of hands” a la Ntozake Shange. In many evangelical charismatic churches, there is still foot washing, laying on of hands, and anointing with oil. And a significant segment of Black women attend these churches. But I’m not so sure how effective these moments of touch are given the kinds of conservative theology that otherwise tell us to be at war with our flesh and its desires.

Our cultural investments in touch have largely become another casualty of late capitalism/neo-liberalism. We routinely economically outsource something so basic as touch, and we ask (usually non-Black) people of color to do labor that we have become uninterested in doing for ourselves. We buy beauty products and pay for manicures, pedicures, and massages, to the tune of multi-billions of dollars every year. And while there is an economic rationale for having some one else get your feet together, I think our reasons are deeper.

As I lay on the table, each time my masseuse ran the exfoliating gloves over the palms of my hands, I had an intimate memory of a lover who intertwined his fingers with mine, our hands palm to palm, as we coupled. And I longed for that touch and the intimacy that came with it again. But what does it mean that I have relegated touch in my own life to the act of sex?

That is why touch is so scary. It forces you to be fully present in your own body, to come face to face with its longings and its deprivations, to confront bodily memories that an otherwise hyper-intellectual life can allow you to avoid on most days.

In a word, touch makes us vulnerable.

And that is why it was particularly egregious, when at the end of my scrub, as I prepared to climb off the table, my masseuse ended our very light conversation about my life—Married? No. Children? No. Boyfriend? No. – with a bit of what she presumed to be much needed advice: “You should try to lose some weight.” Come again? (I asked both internally and aloud.) She repeated, a little less sure this time, but still definitively: “You should try to lose some weight. Diet foods might help with that.”

Injury. That is really the only word for it. Even though I wrote recently about the same thing here, saying it to myself and having someone else say it to me are two different things. And let me also acknowledge that when we ask other women of color to do these spa services, we are often asking them to do exploitative kinds of emotional labor. I try to be mindful of that. I take responsibility for my own emotions and acknowledge my privilege as a middle-class Black woman who can afford to pay some one to wash my body. So while I don’t expect  these women to offer me emotional care, I do expect them not to do emotional injury. 

Part of the reason, I had come to the spa was to engage in a bit of mind-body healing after a fairly serious recent health ordeal, an ordeal that healed my illness and relieved me of my gallbladder, but left me far from well. During my hospital stay, I experienced the kind of fat discrimination that I wouldn’t have believed until I saw other bloggers writing about it. This  poignant and powerful piece from Akiba Solomon and legendary Hip Hop DJ Kuttin Kandi, appeared during the 2nd day of my hospital stay.

To my doctors, I was an overweight, dark-skinned woman, worthy of all the fat-hating, misogynoir they could spew.  There were the doctors who insisted that I must be pregnant, one demanding that I take two pregnancy tests in under 24 hours.There were the medical residents who spoke to me with belligerence and impatience, no doubt because they assumed that I must be a welfare case (and they assumed that folks on welfare can/should be treated disrespectfully). And there was the continued shock and awe at my lack of medical history, because overweight people must, must be unhealthy.

Then there was the somewhat humiliating conversation I had to have in order to make arrangements for my care: “Dr., I need you to nail down a date for the surgery. I am single and childless. There is no one to take care of me at my house. A family member will need to come, and my closest lives thousands of miles away.” I must have had this conversation at least five times, during my first 3 day hospital stay. It seemed unfathomable to these folks that there was no one to take care of me, I mean with the 15 babies that I must be mothering. <side eye>

When I made it to that spa, three weeks later, I was definitely in need of a healing. I had come to escape the shit in my life that I can’t control. The very singleness that my masseuse chose to highlight is a singleness of which I’m intimately aware, because on the daily it means that when I want to be touched and to be held, I can’t just snap my fingers and make it happen. Like I said to my mother, after she got on an emergency flight to come take care of me, I wish I were having all the sex these doctors think I’m having, given their insistence on my being pregnant.  I’m pretty sure Mommy didn’t wanna know all that, but #blameitontheanesthesia.

I lay on that table, submitting to a needed body service, in part to undo the spiritual injuries that I experienced from all the folks who had to touch my body in order to make it well again.

I went to the spa, to treat myself, to be in community. And I agreed to that body scrub because I needed to reaffirm that whatever my weight struggles may be, my body is worthy of loving care and attention. And I learned while there, that even if I never pay for the service again, if I ever want a body scrub like that, I cannot do it by myself. It is physically impossible. We (whoever your we is) need each other.

It was therefore pretty difficult to discover that the psychic price of letting someone access my body – and I’m speaking both of the masseuse and the medical professionals—is that their assessments of me would center on my lack of romantic relationship and my overweight body.

What I owe to myself is the reminder that I am much, much more than what I am not.

So in that immediate moment, what I had (and have) was a community of fierce sister scholar homegirls that I could spend a day at the spa with, friends who took care of me while I was sick and were still taking care of me on our spa day as I was still recovering, and friends who I could literally and figuratively shed it all with.

What I long for, for myself, and for all who need it is touch that is not facilitated by capitalism. Touch that, in its demand for our vulnerability, our giving of our whole selves, does not exact from us psychic violence. Touch that is healing, and intimate, and loving, without the necessity of being sexual. And yet, access to safe, healthy sexual touch, when we want it. 

However uncomfortable a truth it may be, getting naked (with your friends or your sex partners) is very often a precursor to being well.

Healing for Black women, and women of color, who are continually subjected to injury, physical, emotional, psychic, is not an event, nor even merely a process. It is a lifestyle — a total and active commitment to being well. And regular touch must be a part of it.

Even so,  I’m still not a hugger. And I still require folks to ask permission before they proceed into my personal space. But lasting the whole day at the naked spa has got to count for something.

Image from Essence.com

Interrupted Attachments: On Rights, Equality and Blackness

17 May

Remaining attached to certain ideals even when – and sometimes, most especially after – privileges that accrue to such concepts have been pointed out and problematized, should force us to ask some serious questions about the relation of citizenship and subjectivity, the relation of citizenship as subjectivity, to ongoing processes of exclusion and violence. The questions would be something like: Who am I? Who do I want to be? Attachments to certain concepts rehearse, reiterate and revise – through an uninterrogated longing and desire to be an individual, a self-determined thing that seeks the power of the state for validation – the virulence of state power, its capacity to make of us all docile creatures waiting for an affirmation of what we already have, what we already do in perpetuity, as if we have nothing and do nothing without such recognition. And thus, we celebrated the announcement from the head of the United States – an historic, enduringly imperialist project of the uninterruption of violence, incorporating difference insofar as it consolidates the furtherance of capitalist inequity – while readily dismissing and setting at remove for a later date, a non-utopic future always approaching but never here. This is not about the possibilities of horizon, a queer manifestation of the liberational force of broken frame.

Attachments are deferral without demand, abeyance without appeal.

Attachments are the “wait until we have this,” which is never too far from hearts, minds and lips of uninterrupted celebratory posture, wherein what is continually inaugurated is an abstraction – in the name of a “we,” but in the service of nothing other than desired coherence, stability, stasis.

What is given here is an incrementalist approach towards citizenship rather than a radical commitment towards justice. We see trees but certainly, no forest. Incrementalist approaches are necessarily a solicitude of citizenship, and embedded within this approach is the implication that in just a few “short” years, we will all look back at the folly of what is now our present moment with derision, but also with self-satisfied joy. We need only wait. But the “we” who is called upon to wait is always a peripherality to, and obstruction of, thought.

This pic/meme of the opposition to interracial marriage and now gay marriage should be noted.

Noted not because of the framing similarities between the juridical discourse and public debate about gay marriage with interracial marriage; it should be noted because we have not yet dealt with – nor does it seem urgent for enough folks to do – the root causes of such inequitable distributions of rights in the first place. So in fifty years we will say how “backward” our now present moment was with regard to “gay marriage” but because we refuse to deal with the root – an imperialist political economy that necessitates inequities of all sorts – we’ll likely both be having this same conversation with a newly marginalized group while AT THE SAME TIME folks will still be discriminated against based on race, gender, sexuality and class. Because, you know, racism, sexism and classism aren’t really dead yet and aren’t promising to go anywhere soon. [This notion of the “backwards” has been stated about North Carolina and the overwhelming vote for Amendment One, lampooning the state as full of “rednecks,” “hicks” and conservative black Christians; this displacement does not even think about the exploitive political economy of the US, let alone NC – something like 2% above the national unemployment rate, for example. The self-satisfaction of those making the claim about NC, for example, while refusing to interrogate the political economy that creates the conditions of inequity is not a little bit intriguing.]

Anyway.

The normativity of monogamy married [pun? intended.] to the ability to receive financial aid and benefit and tax breaks, as well as the literal violence of the rhetorics of “same gender” / “same sex” to folks who are intersex, genderqueer and transgender compel the inquiry: who is this “we” and what is the “this” that is seemingly being attained? Of course, one could claim that a general public would need be educated about such queer variances and that what is most pertinent in our now moment is the celebration of the now moment, a prepositional displacement banishing the concerns of others for the now moment. But then the most we do is submit to – even if we’d rather critique – the power of the state, reinforcing its capacity to extend by excluding. It seems that everywhere, folks have aspirational attachments and none of us occupies a position where this could never be possible, though historical marginalization tends to be thought as shoring up against such aspiration. Thus, the case of the following curious picture should be noted.

I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that the first dude is white and the second anti-gay marriage dude is black. I think it’s the tight curly fro or something. [Even if he’s not, stay with me]. What this picture rehearses, beneath its very thin veneer is not simply the idea that black people in the US are more homophobic than others, nor simply the idea that blacks cannot see the connection between interracial marriage and gay marriage as both are concerns about civil rights. What is beneath the surface is an implicit, but more foundational, claim about the coherence of marginalized groups, about how historically marginalized peoples gain subjectivity: by the assemblage of fucked up things that have happened to them. The second panel of the image implies: “hey, black man! some bad things happened to you in the past and that bad stuff is the sum total of what, and – most importantly – who, you are!” The vivifying force of the image is the idea that that which marginalizes is that which makes or forms “subjectivity” [and I think subjectivity is a bad thing; more on that soon]. The implication in the image is that marginalized groups own that which marginalizes. When this attachment is operative, “community” [which some say is fiction, though I’ve not been convinced; I’m an agnostic who goes to church for a reason] is grounded in that which is offensive, that which wounds.

But blackness is not reducible to “bad shit”; black community did not subsist and thrive in the face of the violence of slavery and Jim Crow by gathering around and deciding to be more fucked up and by believing that those things that others pathologized in us were bad. Black community was and is an incarnation of blackness, characterized by the joy of living in the face of institutions and systems that seek to diminish the very possibility for joy, for life, for love. The image rehearses the iterability of the narrative that reduces blackness to discriminatory things done to black people, that regulates blackness to bad shit, as a particular kind of historicizing purity, a coherence at the heart of our definable moments [e.g., the violence of Middle Passage rather than mati, affectional bonds created during Middle Passage that exceeded the horror, exceeded the violence, and allowed thriving life]. And, thus, the critique of black folks by Robin Roberts in her interview with Barack Obama wherein she bespoke the “especiability” of black homophobia such that Obama’s change would be grave “…especially in the black community”; thus the critique of Barak Obama by black clergy like Jamal Harrison Bryant and by religious groups such as the Church of God in Christ (COGIC). The above image, thus, is the presentiment of the various critiques from multiple directions – both for and against “gay marriage” – as they each assume blackness is reducible to historic marginalization, and that those historic conditions are the grounds for a coherent, stable identity that can be easily and readily identifiable. In this formulation, blacks would have to be “more homophobic” just to identify the antithetical position of necessarily nationalist, patriotic sentiment, or as Hortense Spillers argued otherwise, this black homophobia would have to be invented [and in some ways, it seems to have been]. This is a problem of, fundamentally, attachments.

What is most vulgar about uninterrogated attachments is that it causes us to contend with institutions like COGIC and its restatement of their opposition against gay marriage, requires us to respond to Jamal Harrison Bryant’s statements about gay people, while leaving intact and uninterrupted the violence required for citizenship under these American skies. Roberts’s statement of black homophobic “especiability,” COGIC’s oppositional restatement, and Bryant’s resistance to gay folks all articulate, at bottom, a concern about what it means to have personhood in the face of uncertainty, incoherence and instability. However, the problem emerges from, and is an attachment to, the fact that subjectivity is created by a violent move out from the incoherent, it is an aspiration toward stability and certainty. In that way, Roberts, COGIC and Bryant simply participate in the ever-expansive goal for subjectivity. But as the very idea of subjectivity is sustained by the logics of self-determination, I fail to find the utility; these are western philosophical concepts, placing “European man” as theological-philosophical-spatial center, and the “others of Europe” (as Denise Ferreira Da Silva calls it) can only journey toward a determined “self’ … subjectivity is defined by the ability to be fully possessed of oneself, to be closed, stable, anti-social, to be wholly determined; it emerges through violence and violation, thus i’m not persuaded that it is a worthy pursuit. The attachment is to a particular mode of violation against the social, a violation that yields the articulability of the individual. We might say that “gay marriage” is articulable in our present moment as a desire for citizenship that necessarily moves out violently from the incoherence and instability of queerness, sets those who cannot easily be – or those who do not want to –  “same gender” or “same sex” in the zone of deferral and abeyance. No demands, nor appeals here.

Maybe detachment is what we need. But how can we get there? Is an anti-political politics possible that thinks the world differently? One possible reply, which here may show up as a peculiar conceit, is to ask – and daily inquire intentionally and diligently – who do we want to be? Certainly not a novel question though it is ever-pertinent. Do we want to perpetually reinstantiate the conditions of inequity, only ever-so-slightly increasing who gets to count as normal, enlivening and refreshing the violence of the state, allowing such violence and violation to go uninterrupted in some otherwise location [e.g., the Prison Industrial Complex; Palestine; Wall Street]? Or do we want to radically transform our world by asking tough questions about our own, personal, private propensities for comfort over and against the safety of others? What world have we been given and what world do we desire to make? Southerners on New Ground does this work: to make bonds that do not diminish difference but builds coalitions based on collective struggle for a world full of radical, affirming love. SpiritHouse, Inc in North Carolina does this work: to lament the loss of black life but, as importantly, to affirm the life still here: to care for this life through joy, song, prayer, dance. This affirmation, this coalition creation, comes about through asking: what do we want to be, today, everyday? This affirmation, this coalition creation, comes about by relinquishing attachments to ideas, philosophies and theologies that we – even if they would have us – should interrogate because they would not, nor could not, have us fully whole, fully human, fully alive without relegation or repression. And maybe detachment from certain violent and violative concepts would allow us to fully attach, both to our deepest and most foundational humanness, and thus, to the world in which we abide, with others, in joy, in love.

On the Queerness of Self Love

14 May
Tattoo on inside of someone's fingers that says "self love"

Self Love by Artnoose

While conducting a seminar with college students about self-esteem, Yolo Akili heard a young person say something that remains an important touchstone for those of us trying to do liberatory work in our communities. When talking about loving oneself, a Black woman said, “Self love? That shit’s gay!”

I’ve turned this statement over in my head a million times as it so accurately and unintentionally reveals so much about the constructions of sexuality in our culture. “Gay” has become an all purpose insult that means something is not cool, wack, aberrant, and not worth your time. How deep is it that loving yourself is a weird and unworthy pursuit? If self love is gay, what is straight? Is straightness self hatred?

I want to be clear that I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with being a cis gender man or woman engaged in loving consensual relationships with cis gender women or men. Like with race in our country, the problem isn’t necessarily white people, but how whiteness as a problematic social construct impacts everyone. Similarly, I would argue that straight people aren’t the issue but the way straightness and heteronormativity operate in our culture are serious impediments to self love and self actualization.

I choose to be queer. My choosing queerness has a lot to do with the scripts that exist for straight men and women’s relationships. Take the recent box office smash, Think Like a Man. So much of what is prescribed for straight couples is for women to change themselves into what they imagine men want from them.  You can see it if you want to but it’s essentially a feature film length infomercial for Steve Harvey’s similarly titled book. It had the requisite gay jokes (for both men and women) and many a strong black woman cut back down to size. By thinking like a man, you ensure that he gets what he wants, sex, and women get what they want, a man. This reductive view on what motivates straight relationships depends on strict gender roles.

Straightness/heteronormativity sets up roles for men and women that serve a capitalistic agenda more than the building of loving relationships. The script is simple; find a member of the “opposite sex”, date, get married, buy a house, have kids and do all of this as an individual family unit. Our culture will sell you the tools to properly achieve these ends, to properly conform to gender norms that will hopefully help you attract someone to walk down the aisle with you. Buy this men’s loofa and women will be all over you, buy this lady razor and your man will love to get close to you. Selling people the idea that they are somehow insufficiently performing their  gender, and therefore not attractive, reinforces a sense of self doubt and looking externally for validation, which is great for capitalism. You have to do something or buy something to be worthy of relationship. What a queer thing to say that my relationship with myself is important and I should invest in it over and above my ability to pull a partner.

And this is why I and other queer folks are giving Obama’s announcement regarding gay marriage the side eye. Leveraging privilege for certain types of households does nothing to address systemic inequality or combat discrimination that queer folks face. Why do romantic ties afford rights and access that would otherwise be denied? And I use the word “afford” deliberately because so much of what is obscured about marriage are its roots and continued relevance as a financial institution. Love takes a backseat to the structural realities of couple privilege in our culture. Society continues to give us messages that marriage is valuable, perhaps even at the expense of our own personal safety and freedom.

Self love is awesome. It should be celebrated and encouraged, not derided because it hinders an economy that’s dependent on folks feeling insecure. If loving yourself is gay, I don’t want to be straight.

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