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Close Kin & Distant Relatives: Some Thoughts on Family

3 Oct

Folks who know me know that I have family on the brain.  I am writing a book on family as theme in contemporary black women’s literature. Right now I’m also teaching a survey course on African American literature, with family as the guiding theme and this is not the first time I have done so.  Studying how folks write about family has been a major interest of mine since I was in college.

I’ll let you in on a little secret. I am one of those people for whom their life’s work is, in some ways, a reflection of the anxieties at the center of their private lives. In other words, writing and teaching about family is like cheap therapy for me. It’s not so much that I talk about my own experiences in the classroom or in publications, but rather that some of the things I’ve experienced directly informs my intellectual work.

My family of origin has a lot going on. I have a brilliant, delightful, kooky mother who is a trip, and who I love fiercely. I have two older sisters that I am not particularly close to, a circumstance that I’ve struggled to accept.  I haven’t seen my father since I was five and am not sure if he’s dead or alive. I have scores of cousins scattered across the globe, most of whom I never see. Growing up as a latchkey kid with much older siblings, I often felt like an only child, for better or for worse.

I know that a lot of my thinking about transgressive iterations of family come from my own struggles with wanting a “normal” family as a kid.  Early on, I had to reject the notion that “blood is thicker than water.” By and large, that has not been true for me. Instead, I have had multiple caring, sustaining, and loving relationships with folks I met in school, at work, and just around the way and have come to recognize that these folks are my family.

Now while I would have appreciated having a responsible father or being closer to my biological sisters, I don’t have a narrative of lack in my life.  I am grateful for my mother, the first crunk feminist I’ve known. I’ve been blessed with brothers and sisters who have become the closet of kin to me, even if we aren’t technically related. These folk make me laugh, give me the space to cry, challenge my thinking, and call me on my shit. I just hope I am doing the same for them.

Sometimes we need a paradigm shift to really figure what’s best for us. For me, rethinking what it means to be in close kinship with folk who are not biologically related to me has been freeing, gratifying, and necessary. I literally do not know what I would do without my them.

I probably don’t say it enough, but I want to thank them, you, for being in my life and for loving me fiercely.

I love you, unapologetically.

We are, indeed, family.

The Choices We Make

26 Sep

Story #1- Last Monday I picked my son up from his afterschool program and was met with a full on tantrum.  He was upset that I would not allow him to eat the gummy Starbursts given to him by his chess coach and informed me that he had already had some at “snack” time.

Story #2-On Saturday my mother asked me to pick up some food for my stepfather who is diabetic and paralyzed from the waist down.  My stomach cringed because I knew he was going to ask me to pick up something from a fast food restaurant.

Story #3-Last night I was reviewing literature for America Recycles Day in preparation for my son’s school event which is scheduled for November 15th.

Yes, I’m one of those mothers who don’t want to go along and get along. I regulate my son’s high fructose corn syrup (chemically processed corn) intake, I do not want to purchase fast food for an advanced stage diabetic, and social marketing campaigns always get the side eye (to borrow from my sisters).  Each of these stories raise concerns for me because it is damn difficult to function in this ridiculous culture of consumer capitalism because at every turn you have to suspend common sense to make decisions like purchasing school pictures and selecting the pose before your child actually takes the picture.

Here are the primary issues with each story, I had to have a 45 minute conversation with my son’s coach about the inappropriateness of giving children 25g of sugar (HFC) for an afterschool “snack.”  Food prices are increasing significantly, yet my stepdad’s double burger and fries costs $2.36.  I can barely get a cup of tea or a half-gallon of milk for $2.36, so how can I pursue a discussion about changing food habits with a family member on a fixed income.  $2.36 is not affordable food, that’s damn near free in comparison with the costs of slow food.

Finally, I want to be an active parent so I joined the Green and Healthy committee at my son’s school.  So why is America Recycles Day sponsored by Pepsico, Disney, Nestle Waters, Johnson and Johnson, LG (appliances and electronics), and Glad (plastics)?  Their investment in global supply chains that destroy natural resources and people’s lives globally is precisely the problem.

When I was young a school fundraiser was a bake sale of homemade goods or chocolates that had actual sugar not HFC.  Now a school fundraiser means talking with parents that work for Coca-Cola Inc. and online jewelry and magazine sales.  Having a 45 minute conversation every time these situations present themselves would not only usurp all of my time but it would also make me a pariah in my son’s school, afterschool, and in my family.  So I get screamed at by my son for taking away the 25g of HFC sugar, quietly hand over the bagged $2.36 meal, and hold my nose while planning an America Recycles (for a) Day activity with leading corporate plastic, aluminum cans, and energy polluters.  You may think these are minor but this is one week and simply the stories I choose to share.  I know I have “choices” and that I need to “choose my battles” but really it’s the same limited choice day in and day out—engage or resist, and I’m getting a bit worn out.

Rituals , Spells, and Intuition

5 Sep

I come from a world where you don’t mess with your ancestors, dreams have meaning, seashells give advice, upside down coffee cups tell stories, and practicing black magic has severe consequences. As a child, I would sit between my mother and aunties’ legs witnessing women tipping stained coffee cups to the side, preaching of ills and/or prosperity yet to come. I would listen intently to them speak of cleansing rituals and baths that needed to be performed to keep evil spirits and negativity at bay. They would mesmerize me recounting dreams where lottery numbers, impending pregnancies, and cheating husbands were part of encrypted messages. They’d talk about so-and-so’s future, what she needed to do to whip it in the right direction, and sometimes who the no-good person was to blame for “puttin’ somethin’ on her.”

My childhood memories are full of elders’ stories recounting all types of experiences with spirits and countless inexplicable events. Though, at the time, my young/Americanized self often questioned the logic of it all, I knew two things: some things you just don’t mess with; and our ancestors were more powerful than we could ever imagine. I learned that you could talk to the spirits that always protected you and rebuke the ones that were up to no good. It was clear that just because you didn’t see it, it didn’t mean it didn’t exist, and that some things you just couldn’t explain.

Is this too cryptic? Okay, I will give you a personal account. In college I was fortunate enough to study folkloric dance in Cuba for a month, with two of my closest friends. While there, we happened to meet a guy who told us that his uncle practiced Santería. We all came from similar backgrounds (i.e. we believed) and decided to visit the Santero. While in the waiting room, a woman (related to the Santero and a practitioner) looked at me and said “your ovaries are sick.” I looked at her in disbelief. She looked me in the eyes and repeated in a stern voice, “your ovaries are sick.” Later on during my actual session, I was told that my mate was cheating on me. I went back to the states, scheduled an appointment with my gynecologist, and found out that I had a medical condition. My ovaries were indeed sick.  My mate also proved to be a  hot – trifling – mess. Needless to say: I believe.

Years later I read The Secret and came to the conclusion that the quantum physics theory had nothing on the stories I would hear as a child and my first hand experiences as an adult. Yes, you do have the power to control your surroundings with positive thought. However, the reality is that if you aren’t on top of your shit (that includes living a positive life & listening to your intuition), other people’s ill intent will inevitably effect you. Sometimes people just put stuff on you. For those of you that still don’t understand that last statement, I will be clear: sometimes people put spells on you, or like my people like to say, practice the brujería.

So, what is a feminista to do? I really don’t know. What I can tell you is what I do. I try to live a positive life. I love. I pray. I made a vision board that inspires me daily. I also have a shrine to Yemaya (because the Santero told me she was always with me). I honestly just try to be the best person/daughter/sister/friend/girlfriend/earthling that I can be.

So, for those that continue to hate on me (and I am thinking of a few individuals in particular…probably reading this right now) you should know that I pray for you every night. I pray for your health, your emotional well-being, your success and your happiness. I know (because my intuition tells me) that you are up to no good.

You should stop.

Seriously.

Stop.

Bathing in Florida water, honey and rose petals right now,

Crunkista

“wife” is code for “The Help”

16 Aug

So all the women in my life are going to or have already seen the new movie The Help, but I cannot possibly bring myself to go because 1) I really don’t feel that I need another “black women as domestic servants to white women” or “black women as nanny/mammy to white children” story in my life and 2) because I feel like I am “The Help” in my own life so this movie would not be an escape.

Of all the hetero girlfriends that I have who are married or have been married none of them seems to feel the “bliss” that is supposed to come along with their marriage.  In fact, even with more education and higher paying jobs than our grandmothers, the second shift is in full swing.  I was talking with a single and actively dating girlfriend recently about the way in which our mother’s generation suggests that if he does not beat or cheat, you got a “good man.”  Now I will give some credit to our generation that we don’t necessarily agree with this standard, but on the other hand when it comes to flat out common sense in non-beating/cheating relationships I think we have regressed.

For instance, one side of my grandparents was a mess and I am convinced that what they were doing was fighting.  Why you might ask?  Because my grandmother did not play, she was fierce about her rights as a human being and she would defend them.  That meant “we have four kids, bring your paycheck at the end of the week and put it on the table–or else.”  And he did.  Me, well I make about a third of what my husband makes, but somehow I paid more towards our bills over the past four months.  To be clear I think safety/security in your relationship ranks #1, but that is not a high standard of living.  In fact, the true standards of partnership get murky because of that low f*ck#ng standard.  We seem to think there is no reason to speak up; act out; fight back when they for instance…

  1. Wait til the last minute to commit to EVERYTHING so that you are always scrambling and late.
  2. Treat you like the nanny, such that you are default “childcare.” You, however, must inform them of your plans weeks in advance with reminders. (And they will still either insist that you find childcare so they too can have the night off or try to squeeze in an outing right before you leave so you are scrambling and late.
  3. Organize “family day,” which apparently means take their wife and kid(s) to their in-laws house and basically bounce until it is time to go home.
  4. Offer to take care of something, but call you every fifteen minutes for two hours about what they are “taking care of” and then complain that your work is taking too long, “ohh and I may not be able to do the child pick-up that I committed to because I am running behind schedule” (See #1).
  5. And my favorite is that they prioritize EVERYTHING over you.  No thank you for being the primary caretaker even though you have full responsibilities as well.  You get conflated with children therefore their time spent at home counts for quality time with “the wife” even if she spent the day cleaning the bathroom, doing the laundry, changing sheets in each bedroom, the dining room, and in the interim doing homework and playing with the kid(s) so they are not watching television the entire day.

Where is this “bliss” that you speak of and furthermore, by the time you go over in your head how pissed you are that what used to be your VOICE is now your voice and when you do finally use it you sound like you are underwater.  You must be because no one, especially him, can f*ck#ng hear or understand you (at least that’s what it feels like).

Here are my two favorite argument complaints.

Him: Why are you stringing so many events together?  Why are you bringing up the past? Can we focus on one thing at a time?

Me:  NO. It is called establishing a f*ck#ng PATTERN OF BEHAVIOR.

Him: Get out of your head.

Me:  Well you were not here for the initial argument so now this is just a report on the outcome.

So I guess what I am saying is…if your husband can basically come and go as he pleases because he refuses to commit and therefore be accountable or fully responsible for his actions, but does it in a nice way that leaves you responsible for everything all the time; if he identifies what he does do as “helping you out” versus just being a responsible adult and parent; if he manages to arrange outings regularly with everyone but you, then you are essentially “The Help.”

In 1995 my girls and I were on to something (this is pre-marriage and during full-scale feminist life planning)—we need a damn wife too.

Musings on (the day after) Mother’s Day

9 May

Black baby nurse Gina, holds baby Bryn as Mother Bethenny strokes Bryn's hair.

Happy Mother’s Day to CF’s Asha, Sheri, Rachel, Whitney & Chanel! Happy Mother’s Day to all Mamas!

As a graduate student, with a penchant for procrastination, I watch a lot of reality TV.  In particular, I watch a lot of shows on Bravo that point out the hardships of being rich, white, and woman in a world made for their husbands rich white men. Some of these women are mothers and in light of yesterday’s really awesome holiday turned commercialized grossness, I thought I’d muse on motherhood as represented in these shows.

I’m particularly fond of Bethenny Getting Married now Bethenny Ever After, a show featuring Bethenny Hoppy, a new mother of one.  In one episode she and her recently wed husband discussed childrearing over dinner and her eight month pregnant stomach. They admitted that neither of them had baby sat before nor ever really been around an infant for any length of time. They laughed it off and continued to enjoy their Honeymoon in St. Bart’s.

Fast forward to the baby’s impending arrival; they have a friend introduce them to a baby nurse, a black woman from a different island frequented by American tourists. Gina (who doesn’t even have a cast bio on the show’s website btw) teaches them everything, from how to put in a car seat to changing dirty diapers.  And even with all the help Gina provides, she’s portrayed as trying to get over on them by slacking on the job. Yes, their live-in black nanny who taught them to parent, isn’t a morning person and likes to sleep in. In Bethany’s tongue and cheek words, “[they] work for her.”  A similar joke appeared on NBC’s 30 Rock in which character Jack Donaghy felt he had been out negotiated by his nanny (also a black Caribbean woman)and duped into allowing her to keep her salary. I watch way too much TV.

On the new Bravo show Pregnant in Heels, rich, pregnant, mostly white women consult with self proclaimed baby expert Rosie Pope about all their pregnancy and post partum questions. Many of the women have little to no parenting experience. One mother with a baby due in weeks had never held an infant. Without hired help (and something tells me Rosie is pulling in more than immigrant women of color nannies), these mothers would be unable to complete basic parenting tasks. Yet there’s no stigma attached to their lack of knowledge. The Department of Family and Child Services is not knocking on their doors demanding their children be removed from the home. Young, poor, women of color get their children taking away and are demonized for parenting which is negotiated with far fewer resources. These shows expose the reality of parenting with privilege.

There’s an irony here that has afflicted black and brown women since this country’s illegal founding. Black and brown women are continually disparaged for not being good mothers yet are constantly roped in to taking care of white women’s children, often as a means to try and financially support their own families. Even as they are paid chump change in relation to their employer’s incomes, they are still regarded as con artists scamming altruistic white folks.

These shows illustrate the need for support networks beyond a nuclear family. Even in two parent households, the amount of labor childrearing requires often exceeds what  a mom and dad can hold. That support should be standard and not only accessible to those with financial means and traditional family structures. Take note #NWNWWouldn’t it make sense to have more people trained and prepared to take on these care taking tasks before there’s an actual pregnancy? Wouldn’t it be awesome if we actually supported parents in child rearing as opposed to expecting them to do it all themselves? With news of the amazing sociological project by high school student Gaby Rodriguez and the lovely video circulating giving love to young mamas, the conventional script of women of color mothering is being interrupted but we still have so far to go.

“We Created A Circle”: Reflections on the CFC Retreat

28 Feb

photo of eight CFC members

We began making plans for our first Crunk Feminist retreat months in advance.  The first attempt, in May, failed because of an unexpected death in Brittney’s family.  We initially planned a workshop-like gathering in Atlanta on Emory’s campus but the postponement, coupled with hectic schedules and life’s work, lasted one year.

Our second attempt, scheduled for February 2011, nearly a year from when we started, would be a weekend getaway in the mountains of north Georgia.  Eight of us confirmed our plans to attend.  Aisha Durham, Moya Bailey, Asha French (and baby Asali), Susana Morris, Brittney Cooper, Sheri Davis-Faulkner, Whitney Peoples, and me (Robin Boylorn).

In preparation for the trip we collaborated plans over email, including the selection of a logo designed by Aisha and the design of t-shirts, care of Brittney and Sheri.

On the Friday of our journey we met at Sheri’s house in Atlanta.

The agenda said that we should be there by 1:30 EST.  But then there was the getting there part.  Susana and Brittney had to “make groceries”.  Asha had to get the baby together.  We relied on our own time and took advantage of the delay to bond together.  We had traveled a long way to get t/here.

We came from all over.  Aisha the farthest—from College Station, Texas.  Robin and Brittney from Tuscaloosa, Alabama.  Susana from Auburn, Alabama.  The other CFs were already local.  We were traveling to Mountain Top Cabin Rentals in Blue Ridge, Georgia for a reprieve, a retreat.  We packed up a rented car with groceries and toiletries for the weekend and congregated in the driveway, dancing, talking shit, bonding over the bliss of finally, finally all being in the same place at the same time.  An hour behind schedule we got on the road.  Sheri and Moya driving.  Whitney and Brittney riding shotgun.

Separate conversations in the car quickly melded into one as we discussed teaching, research, sex, and music.  We stopped at Longhorn ½ the way there and spent time checking in with each other, vocalizing our goals for the weekend, and sharing how we were doing.  Only a few of us were meeting for the first time.  Collectively, we all felt that the weekend was timely, something we needed for reassurance and renewal.  We got back on the road with a little over an hour between us and our retreat.  An hour later we were picking up keys from the office, which was closed.  It was already dark.  Our anxious anticipation quickly turned to silent frustration as we searched for a road with no name and a cabin with no number.  The twists and turns up the mountain were calamitous, steep, long.  It would have been scary had it not been for all of us having all of us.  After passing the road and turning around, stopping at two cabins (one occupied, one unoccupied), and nearly giving up and going back, we finally found our place, “A Beary Good Life.”

Everyone praised Jesus, “grown man Jesus” as Susana said, either in their minds or out loud, when we finally made it to our cabin in the pitch black dark and in one piece.  And the stars were beautiful.

A group of women can unpack a trunk full of groceries quickly and meticulously.  After a quick tour of the premises we selected sleeping arrangements and congregated downstairs for an impromptu meeting.

In the meeting Brittney distributed agendas and we discussed our goals for the weekend and what we hope to accomplish before Sunday.  We also prophesied about Susana’s feminist bakery “Real Women Have Rolls & Buns,” and all of the various feminist-inspired eateries… I suggested Audre Lorde Have Mercy Cake, which would have some kind of chocolate in it and Brittney explained how by the time the bakery was fully functioning we all would be known by name, calling forth Moya Bailey Irish Cream.  There was also talk of selling self decadence (oils, tea baths, etc) in the Ida B Wellness Center.  Etc. etc.  We talked about plans for moving forward with the blog and sponsoring a crunk feminist dance at the NWSA.  These plans put a smile on everyone’s face.  And we dismissed ourselves to get comfortable and prepared for our night’s rest.

After eating Rotel (cheese dip with tomatoes) we congregated in separate spaces.  Asha and the baby retired to bed.  Moya and Whitney listened to music and read, respectively, in the living space, while  Aisha, Susana, Brittney and myself sat around the kitchen table.  Susana wrote a blog, I recorded the events of the day, and Sheri twisted Brittney’s hair.  We transformed the cabin into a black feminist space through transformative conversation(s), hearty laughs, and memory-making.  

***

On Saturday we took turns taking baths and gathered together for a hearty breakfast prepared by three of us and passing around our collective baby.  The day’s events both meshed together and easily transitioned from breakfast talk and reflections to vision board making and identifying problematic ads in the process.  We talked about our life’s work as ongoing, sustaining, important.  Several CFs pulled the ads and articles in order to share them in classes and use them in dissertations.  We cut out words and images of our visions and dreams, both for ourselves and each other.  We shared our vision boards over sandwiches outside with a backdrop of mountains and a soundtrack of drums (c/o Sheri).

Afternoon naps offered necessary sustenance and rejuvenation and led to our final meetings, discussions of opportunities for the CFC, and future visions.  We discussed how to sustain ourselves, each other, and our collective missions.  While homemade pizzas were being made, conversations took place about everything from academic jobs, to life maneuvering, to womanism.  We mulled over these serious topics with brief interludes of unrelated conversations about moments inspired by songs from our decade of “growing up” and being grown.  Pandora radio played songs that reminded us of particular moments in our life or childhood.  Music brings back memories.  Some good, some bad, some haunting.  We took turns taking care of each other and offering words of help from our own experience(s). 

That night we ate—pizza, salad, popcorn, strawberry cake (not in that order) and jointly made feminist anointing oil.  We also made bath teas, across the table, and talked—and laughed—and understood each other, trading kitchen table wisdom and personal struggles.  We committed to be more intentional about being there for one another. Respecting each other’s boundaries. Taking care of each other.  Taking care of ourselves.  The night ended with me holding crocheted yarn in my lap after listening to the bellyache laugher of my friends, doing dance steps, watching interesting videos on youtube, and relishing in not having to be serious.  Subconsciously aware that our time together was almost over, we avoided sleep until after two o’clock in the morning.

***

On Sunday we took the task of memorializing ourselves in a group photo (other pictures, too, captured through Moya’s vision/s throughout the weekend).  A brief meeting around the table reminded us of the short and long term goals we had made and strategies to not allow our dreams or visions, to fall by the wayside.  Then, in an eloquent and remarkable moment, we created a circle of strength and wisdom and love, reading excerpts of Octavia Butler’s words about the inevitability of change (in Parable of the Sower) and making promises to our baby, a representation of all of us.  The circle culminated in love and a reminder of what we realized in our final meeting, that the Crunk Feminist Collective is “a conduit for care.”

I realized, as we closed the baby blessing, that the weight of our emotions and cares fell on the last woman in the circle (each time we gathered accordingly), who bravely and brilliantly articulated together, the culmination of who we are (as women of color feminists), what we have been through (as black girls turned grown ass women), what we envision for ourselves, and what we want for our future and for the future.  Strong for each other, our circle complete, we extended support through open arms and woman strength.  The retreat is over.  Now it is time for change.

The day’s spent.

The time together.

The memories made.

The setting.

All beautiful.

Circle un/broken.

We gathered to leave the space (of healing & peace) and to take it with us.  All in a feminist day’s work.

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