Tag Archives: Black Women

The Summer We Got Free: A Book Talk with Mia McKenzie

20 Dec

The Summer We Got Free is Mia McKenzie‘s first novel and I was honored to be asked to write a blurb for the back. I wrote:

Mia McKenzie’s The Summer We Got Free answers Toni Cade Bambara’s question “do you want to be well?” with it’s own. Do you remember what I was like when I was? The novel won’t let you go as it surges forward with truth only fiction can tell. I was eager for answers as I followed a trail of not bread crumbs but whole pieces of toast slathered in butter that makes you moan or as I did, read passages aloud and neglect sleep for want of the next savory morsel. The Summer We Got Free is the product of a girl child grown up in the stories of June, Alice, Zora, Pearl, Gloria, and even Octavia, told in palimpsestic time where McKenzie’s own life doesn’t overlap with her characters but it doesn’t even matter. Ava is the black girl who reminds us that we are the ones we’ve been waiting for, to the delight of some and the displeasure of others. McKenzie’s masterful weaving of narrative belies an inaugural effort yet it is clearly an afrofuturistic vision of healing transformation and an affirmation that we have what we need. The text is saturated with an effortless queerity and a brush of magical realism that show what’s possible when you focus off center. I’ll be thrusting this into the hands of everyone I know as I return to it myself to remember I can get free again.

The Summer We Got Free Book Cover— Mia McKenzie

This interview with Mia McKenzie of Black Girl Dangerous is the first in a series of talks Crunk Feminists will have with people we think are creating the world we want to see. We do a lot of critique on the blog but in the new year we want to do more to highlight the folks who are doing the work of fostering activism and alternatives now! CF Crunktastic describes the project as a “Crunk Digital Salon.”

I mean salon both in the sense of the kind of intellectual gatherings that Madame CJ Walker and Georgia Douglas Johnson used to preside over in their homes during the Harlem Renaissance, but also in the sense of beauty/barber shop talk and politics, and the level of community, candor, everydayness and humor that one finds in those spaces.

CF Crunkonia characterizes it as a kitchen table.

I like the kitchen table for reasons involving my love for Paule Marshall. I also miss MHP’s old blog with the same name. And although the kitchen table may not mean to our generation what it did to Marshall’s foremothers, couldn’t we play with the whole digital age meets the kitchen thing because the kitchen table may double as an office desk for many of us? A play on women’s work?

CF Chanel reminded us that a cypher invokes our initial inspiration and connections to hip hop feminism.

I’m moved by the tumblr practice of Signal Boosting, of lifting up important messages that we want spread and that we want people to hear by reblogging them and asking others to do the same.

As we continue to work out what we call this thing, please enjoy our first offering. Get Crunk!!!

Armed and… Ambivalent?

18 Oct

Let’s begin with a confession: I was born and raised in the great state of Texas and prior to two weeks ago, I had never fired a gun.  That will certainly be surprising to some folks as Texas often invokes images of shotguns, six shooters and gun-toting cowboys.  For me, however, Texas is about home, family, the State Fair and where my own brand of quirky country makes perfect sense.  While, like the rest of the country, I grew up in a pervasive gun culture, there was not one in my immediate family.  I didn’t grow up around hunting trips, shotguns, rifles and pistols.  My experience with guns was not linked to family or individual recreation, as it is for some, but to fear, intimidation and violence.  I remember having to run, duck and hide more than my fair share because somebody at a football game or an after party decided to flex and start shooting in a crowd.  I know the sting of losing friends and classmates to shootings and self-inflicted gun shot wounds.  I remember how I felt being pushed inside a vault as three men armed with guns robbed my partner and me.  So, while I had never shot a gun before, I knew all too well its power and effects.

Imagine my surprise when I found myself at a gun range on the outskirts of Atlanta.  It was supposed to be an outing with friends (somebody found a groupon, so you know how that goes). I thought it might be a chance to address some of my fear of guns so I agreed.  Slowly but surely, everybody got a little too busy to go and I was the last woman standing.  Far be it from me to waist money or a good coupon, so I went.  I didn’t fully realize how frightened I would be until I walked in the door of the range.  For a while I was the only woman and one of two people of color in the building.  It was strange to be standing in a room full of firearms and white men in camouflage hunting caps and biker boots.  That could have been a very different scene at a different time of day, in a different location. I was fully aware that I was out of place and that being out place as a woman and as a person of color is always potentially dangerous.  I remained out of place in the range that day as I jumped every time I heard a gun fire, including my own.   I shot fifty rounds and even though it turns out that I’m pretty good shot, I never felt fully comfortable loading the bullets, holding the gun or pulling the trigger. Yet, a mix of exhilaration, pride and fear left me shaking for at least thirty minutes after I left the range.   Though I wasn’t fully sure how to process it, and I’m still not, I was sure I would be back.

And back I was, this time at an outdoor range in Texas and anything but alone as I went with my mother, her partner and a good family friend who owns the guns we used, and who happens to be white. This trip felt decidedly different from my first experience.  I am sure it was the combination of sunlight, fresh air and not being by myself.  It wasn’t lost on me, however, that though I was not alone this time I was still very much out of place. Two Black women, a Black man and a White man are still an “odd” grouping to many.  It was certainly “odd” to most of the folks at the gun range that day as we got plenty of stares and double takes, some lasting longer than others.  It wasn’t long before I noticed two white men who had taken a particular interest in us.  Staring each time I stepped up to operate the manual launcher as we shot at clay targets and loudly commenting on my shooting and on our family friend’s efforts to assist me, they made their disgust and discomfort at our presence known.  It was a stark reminder of the history/reality of guns, race and place in the South or anywhere for that matter.

For me, both of these experiences at gun ranges in two different major Southern cities brought up issues of race, place and belonging.  There was certainly something powerful in my ability to walk into these ranges, spaces dominated by white masculinity, and be defiantly “out of place.”  Yet, I also felt “out of place” in my own skin as I tried to reconcile my enjoyment of recreational shooting with my own history and politics.  How can I understand my experiences with gun violence on a number of different levels with wielding a gun in the controlled environment of a gun range?  Can I be interested in guns, even recreationally, and still be vehemently anti-violence?  Where do guns figure in my Black feminist politic?  Is there room to think about women, safety and guns in a kind of feminist politics of self-defense?  While going to the gun range was not about self-defense for me, as I write this a local news story is airing about a young Black woman who shot one of two men attempting to break into her home at 11am in broad daylight.  Her father says he is proud of her for defending herself.  He said that he taught her to use the gun for just that purpose and now he will teach her to forgive herself for doing what she had to do.  I’m relieved that she was able to defend herself but I am afraid because she will still have to wait for the final word from a grand jury to decide whether there will be charges. And Black women don’t always have an easy time making claims of self-defense especially not when guns are involved, just ask Marissa Alexander

Clearly, I’m left with more questions than answers.  On some level, I wish I could say that going to these two ranges has given me a clear position either completely for or against guns but it hasn’t.  What I am sure of is that these two experiences refuse to let me take any position for granted.  They are, however, undoubtedly forcing me to think deeply about my politics, my fears and my history in order to move more fully into an understanding that refuses neat or logical conclusion but bravely tangles with the messiness and nuance that lies at the heart of the personal and the political.

a praise song for mamas: cfc mother’s day mix

10 May
my sister, mom and me

my sister, me and mom (flanked by a passionate couple)

I am invested in sepia mamas. My mother lines my eyelids and floats my dreams. She sits on the right hand of the throne she abdicated to all I might become. “Mama gonna work it out,” Martin versioned at his best. Her frame, I shouldn’t calcify. And I’ll leave her flesh be. I know they all can’t be spirit walkers, miracle workers, love lighters but my life tells me so. And just surviving the ‘buking and scorning is worth sainthood. Much more is our mothers’ legacy though, my life, but one humble example. As these years have gone by, I have come to know the women who’ve mothered me as real people with fears and faults and that has not diminished their astounding light. My soul feels good about the ties that bind and with this mix I sound thanks.

a praise song for mamas

“Jalylah’s Theme” Hezekiah & Muhsinah
“Momma” Hodges, James & Smith
“The Sweetest Song” Stu Gardner
“Blessed” The Emotions
“Echoes Of Love” Black Magic
“Mama Used To Say” Junior
“I Wish” Stevie Wonder/ “Hamburger” Eddie Murphy
“I’ll Always Love My Mama” The Intruders
“Mama Says” Black Magic
“Mama Prayed For Me” The Williams Brothers
“Do You Know Where Your Children Are” Birthright /“Mothers and Fathers” Bill Cosby
“Don’t Cry Mommy” Phylicia Allen
“My Love Is Your Love” Whitney Houston
“All I Can Become” Emily King
“The Sweetest Song (Part II)” Stu Gardner

[STREAM/DOWNLOAD]

Tu(r)ning to Black Love

20 Feb

Whitney Houston with her mother Cissy

This past week, I found myself swept in an emotional whirlwind witnessing Whitney’s homegoing while remembering that she was not even in the ground before the Fox-affiliated shock jocks called her a babbling idiot, bag lady, and a crack ho that should have died years ago. From AM talk radio to morning cable television, a Fox News anchor “jokingly” told Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) to “step away from the crack pipe” to squash her criticism of a racist conservative right.  And right as I prepared myself for the first Valentine’s Day unhitched in years, I heard more misogynoir (i.e., hatred of Black women) news from the pimp-like-rapper Too Short who “advised” middle school boys to “turn girls out” in a video posted to the XXL hip hop website.

Where is the love?

This past week, I would have been a Black woman undone if I did not turn to other women of color to savor the soul-stirring, love-filled acts of solidarity in a month that has been so soured by hate.[1]

While folks are giving kudos to a masterful, out-of-character performance by actor Tyler “Madea” Perry, I want to remember Kim Burrell’s loving act to her sistah-friend. The Texas-born gospel singer transformed a song that could serve as the title track for the civil rights movement; she changed Cooke’s A Change is Gonna Come to one that not only spoke about Whitney as a daughter, friend, and mother, but it spoke to the lived reality of countless Blackgirls who watched her metallic casket and mourned for the Black girl we know (inside) and for the Black woman she/we dared to be. I believe Burrell’s spirit-driven interpretation will stand as a counter-narrative against the lusty, flesh-bound and career-centric monologues offered by some menfolk. (Side eye to you Clive.)  Kim Burrell might have singlehandedly replaced my Denzel dreamscape and my cinematic memory of Malcolm X’s assassination with her lifting tribute to a fallen (but not forgotten) star.

This past week ended with the debut of a self-proclaimed Black feminist in her cable show simply called, Melissa Harris-Perry.  Let’s just say if Oprah is America’s honorary mother, then Prof. Harris-Perry is slated to be our teacher because she was schooling a national audience about intersections of race and gender, and she provided a much-needed Black feminist perspective, which is often offered by Black men (if included at all). When I tuned in to her show, she warned her audience that we’d enter “nerdland” or the place where political commentary is spliced by definitions, old videos, and graphs to add context to oversimplified, hot-button topics. After an emotional whirlwind, it feels lovely to say I will be (at) home on the weekends where folks can hate (yes, I’m looking at you Cornel West), but I can turn on and turn to Black women-centered love.

Melissa Harris-Perry and Sister Citizen book cover

Melissa Harris-Perry and Sister Citizen book cover copied from blacktieandflipflops

—-

[1] This past week I was able to trade trash talk and blackgirl giggles, remember-when stories, love-strong hugs, eye-to-eye recognition, and women of color wisdom with Stephanie Troutman, Bettina Love, Elaine Richardson, Elizabeth Mendez Berry, and Joan Morgan. I am enriched by your generosity and your creative, intellectual and politically-grounded work.

Somewhere Between Black Power and White Rage

25 Oct

There have been several public “events” privileging race, gender, and class during the past weeks in New York City that featured prominent Black feminists.  After the film screening of The Black Power Mixtape 1967-1975, the conference about Anita Hill 20 Years Later: Sex, Power and Speaking the Truth, and the Occupy Wall Street  movement based in Zucotti Park/Liberty Square, I  wanted to mark how Black womanhood and Black feminist thought are positioned.

The Black Power Mixtape, 1967-1975

The Swedish film is an incredible compilation or mixtape that chronicles the US Black freedom movement by arranging interviews, speeches, and snapshots of activists and urban Black life. The most compelling moments include Black women. There is one scene, for example, when Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture) sits on an apartment floor boyishly looking up at his mother Mable.  In a “play” interview, he presses her to describe the intersections between race and class. It is a humorous, affectionate exchange that complements the defiant image of Carmichael championing Black power. Carmichael’s fiery rhetoric at the beginning is matched by Angela Davis’ cool midway through the film when she responds to a question about armed resistance. Davis recalls the 1963 Birmingham church bombings when

Picture of  four Black girls, Addie Mae Collins, Cynthia Wesley, Carole Robertson, and Denise McNair who were killed by the Klan during the 1963 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in Birmingham, Alabama

1963 Birmingham Klan bombing that killed four Black girls

neighborhood girls Addie Mae, Cynthia, Carole and Denise were brutally murdered by white supremacists.  She places her personal recollection within a context of ongoing racial terrorism experienced by African descended people. In one story Davis reveals American hypocrisy. In one story she creates an emotional bridge to connect with the film so the audience could better understand the complexities of Black America then and now.  (The CFs in the audience echoed, “that’s Black feminism for you.”)

The Davis and Carmichael interviews are followed by a third moment, which is the most unsettling part of the film because I am left hanging, wondering what to do with a local teary-eyed young Black woman who describes how she has had to wrestle with her drug addiction after a family member sexually assaults her as a child. In the midst of the Black power movement, we are invited to read her story as part of “the ghetto” and hear the PSA-like radio voice-over about premature babies from drug-addicted mothers as hers. The film explains drug abuse by Black male Vietnam veterans who return home disillusioned, homeless and unemployed, and it illustrates gender-specific forms of (sexual) violence experienced by Black men who are tortured during the Attica uprising, but there is no commentary, no gender framework to really see her or other dazed Black women shooting up in an abandoned New York apartment. In fact, if we are to gather any meaning at all from the voice-over, street footage, and her interview, we might believe that she has failed her family and by extension the Black community—ideas echoed by the news media a decade later when audiences are re-introduced to the bad Black woman as the crack-welfare-mother.  That the director-editor, Goran Hugo Olsson, opted to let saturated images of the ghetto “speak for itself” while admittedly letting go of the archived footage of the landmark 1972 Presidential Candidate, Shirley Chisolm, suggests specific discussions about gender added an unwanted complexity to the Black power he envisioned.

Anita Hill 20 Years Later: Sex, Power and Speaking the Truth

The daylong conference began with sessions about Anita Hill’s 1991 testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee during the confirmation hearings of then US Supreme Court nominee, Clarence Thomas. The Sex and Justice film excerpt and morning sessions were followed by lunch discussions about sexual harassment in the military, on the streets, and in schools, and a keynote about home with Hill herself.  Hill asked (and I paraphrase), “Is there a way to Race-ing Justice Engendering Powertalk about race that isn’t so male dominated?” Hours before Hill posed this question I asked myself, is it possible to talk about gender on a national scale that isn’t so white identified? I had come to the conference to learn more about Hill specifically and about Black feminist thought in general (as the tag was “an all day conference about race and gender identity”).  I got it even though it felt sandwiched between a kind of deracialized gender, which eclipsed the intersectionality so many women of color emphasized.  Long before Kimberlé Crenshaw reminded us about intraracial resistance to Hill and other Black women who dared to air dirty laundry, and before Melissa Harris Perry offered us her exacting critique about respectability and the reception of The Help, a New York college instructor leaned over to school the Black-girl-too-young-to-remember about the Thomas-Hill hearings. Pulling out her Black feminist good book, Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power, my informal Black feminist instructor suggested Hill had been embraced by white feminists because Thomas seemed less threatening to their social standing than the white men who systematically harassed Black women in the workplace.  From my back-seat instructor to the panelists on stage, it would appear the symbolic body of Hill was still very much in the making. At the daylong conference, Hill stood (in) as a testament to interracial feminist solidarity, “front line” Black feminist mobilization, and white feminist cooptation (for at least one sistah in the audience).

 

Occupy Wall Street

Occupy Wall Street has been characterized as white middle class rage against the capitalist machine. Prior to the Harlem march where folks from Liberty Park joined activists of color to protest the stop-and-frisk policies that disproportionately targeted Black and Latino persons, communities of color insisted the “occupiers” reconsider language (e.g., replace occupy to decolonize) and reconsider tactics, such as voluntarily camping in spaces that displaced homeless persons.   The first time I went to Liberty Park, Black folks peppered the space. We were mainly on the margins, taking up space on the steps and the stone parameters of the blue tarp makeshift community.

The physical make up of the protestors at the Park and on the street during the Manhattan marches appeared to be the same, yet the meetings and talks I attended attempted to be inclusive and intentionally anti-racist even in the absence of a lot of colored folk. (See Greg Tate’s Top 10 Reasons Why So Few Black Folks Appear Down to Occupy Wall Street.) And just like I stayed at the Hill conference, I came back to Liberty Park because I wanted to hear an amazing Black intellectual, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, explain capitalism’s connection to group exclusion, criminalization, and racialized labor. When Gilmore evoked CLR James,  she reminded me of another Trinidadian thinker, Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael), that I had seen weeks earlier in the Black Power Mixtape. Immediately after Gilmore’s talk, I walked upstairs to see a remarkable scene for which I still have no meaning.  To my left, Rev. Jesse Jackson was surrounded by a small group of men with studio cameras and a spotlight.  To my right, the actor Rev. Billy began his popular street performance as the crowd circled. Onlookers held up camera phones to record the spectacle of the Black-led choir and the Reverend, who dramatically preached about the evils of consumerism. Each had a platform at Liberty Square to talk about economic justice, however, their messages were digested and distributed differently. Jesse was on my left, Billy was on the right, and Ruth (or Ruthie if you know her) was somewhere in between…

Did you say lesbians? I love lesbians!

29 Jun me'shell2

So I’m sitting in a coffee shop talking with a brother about a trip he took to Africa to work in a village. I was a little annoyed by his comments that more black kids should be taken to Africa so they can see how good they have it in America, but I decided not to intervene on that point. (Good is a relative term and entitled US urban/suburban black youth can go to plenty urban and rural places in the US and see that they have greater access to basic needs. No global gawking is necessary).

Then he proceeds to explain that one of the participants was a lesbian and that she started to become more feminine the more she got into the gender roles established in the community that hosted them. He continued to talk about this woman reconsidering her “lesbianism” having had this experience in Africa until I explained that I did not agree with his perspectives on lesbianism as something wrong.

In hindsight I wish I had just said, “Did you say lesbians? I love lesbians. They are so awesome!” Then followed that up with my long list of why I LOVE lesbians.

Lesbians founded my alma mater—I’m pretty sure of it.

Lesbians taught me about Marx in their spare time in Ohio.

Lesbians gave me a place to stay in DC, Oakland, Southern California, Ohio etc.

Lesbians are deliberate about having a relationship with my son.

A lesbian groomed my partner for his current position and still has the shit we left behind when we moved in her basement—MB we will handle our business soon.

Lesbians taught me about heterosexual privilege, homophobia, and heterosexism in addition to racism, sexism, ageism, ableism etc.

Lesbians played guitar and sang and danced with me

Lesbians write some really good fiction

Lesbians go door knocking with me on Get Out The Vote campaigns

Lesbians go marching and rallying with me

Lesbians fight for justice everywhere

Lesbians taught me about public policy, labor rights, women’s rights activism and advocacy

Lesbians helped me paint and pack my house when we moved away

Lesbians brought me honey and took me out to dinner.

Lesbians created black women’s studies

In short lesbians have always shown me and mine lots of love.

Did you say lesbians? I LOVE LESBIANS, will be my first response next time someone wants to think that we might think alike because we are both, I dunno, black, speaking English, fancy the same coffee shop at the same time of day, whatever. Next time I will be ready with a list of ALL the fly lesbians I love: Audre Lorde, June Jordan, Sapphire, Cheryl Clark, Me’shell Ndegeocello, JenRose, MaryBeth, Laura and Katie (shout out to your new beautiful baby girl), Moya, Nancy, Monique, Bonji, Donna Troka, Sile Singleton, Taising and Jen, Carol, Smiley, just to name a few. Do you love lesbians too? Name your list of favorites and tell us why. (Please be considerate, do not out anyone!)

It Gets Wetter: A Message to Women Who Frequently Have Horrible, Rushed Sex (NSFW)

16 May Water

Here’s a bold truth: I don’t enjoy penetration of any kind unless I’m wet enough to drown a dolphin. And this truth wouldn’t be a problem if sex weren’t always about penetration. One sex therapist put it best when she said, “If most women don’t have orgasms during ‘sex,’ but do have orgasms, perhaps we need to redefine sex.” Amen and Ashé.

With a redefinition that includes pleasurable, intimate touch, kissing and best of all (for me, anyway) cunnilingus, I realize that I had some of my best sex as a teenager. He was Pentecostal and I was a Baptist youth leader. We were both convinced that sex before marriage was wrong and equally convinced that only penetration was sex.  It was a sultry, sticky summer full of questions that began with “Do you like?” Sex was a lazy journey without a clear destination.

I was soon to learn all about the danger of clarity in a patriarchal society. Since then, sex for me has been a series of negotiations. I know there will usually be a moment when a male partner is ready for penetration and often, that is before I’m ready/ comfortable/ wet / aroused enough. If sex were not a personal expression of political power, these moments would be no more than awkward. It would be like leaning in for a hug first only to find that the other person was disinterested. The problem is that men in a patriarchy are socialized to “lean in” first– always. And those who are not conscious enough to interrogate this socialization begin to believe that leaning in is their right, their privilege. So awkward moments can become coercion, assault, or rape.  Or just horrible sex. But you know that already.

What you may not know is that with time, the right partner, patience and negotiation, it gets wetter. Believe you me.

 So I’d like to start with cunnilingus because, well, I like to start with cunnilingus. It’s a beautiful thing. Direct and indirect clitoral stimulation work together to flood sheets and help you ride the waves of multiple orgasms. A recent study found that there are only 29 people in America who sleep with women but don’t perform cunnilingus and only 11 of those expect to receive fellatio or cunnilingus but think cunnilingus should be reserved for “wifey.” Unfortunately, those 11 get around quite often. My girlfriends keep running into them. I believe that we should start a website to identify these people and block them from hookup or relationship radar.

There are a lot of songs about performing cunnilingus . In fact, the subject has been exhausted with various degrees of tact. The point I’d like to make is that the word “perform” is a misnomer that puts undue pressure on a partner. Unless you are into experimental, interactive theater, performance has connotations of independent expertise. In my experience, cunnilingus is best (especially at first) with a little direction. Those who consider themselves experts can suck you silly or lick you dry if what they’re putting down doesn’t work for your particular pubis.

About that pubis: the porn industry, Zane novels and other forms of sex miseducation would have you believe that a woman can be reduced to her orifices- that these are her only sites of pleasure. My dissertation will be about how the soft skin behind the knee is ignored in popular culture. Or the lost art of booty massage. Or the treatment of the vagina as a cavernous hole that brings pleasure to men or children to the world. Most vagina diagrams show the outer vagina only, leaving the inner workings a mystery.

Outer VAgina

See that small black hole? It's so much more.

I never had a vaginal orgasm until I read this book and saw a diagram of my beautiful vagina, full of nerve endings I never knew existed.

Vagina/ inner

Check out how big your clitoris really is.

When I saw how long the clitoris actually was, I was able to imagine the spongy tissue as I engaged in solo or partnered sex acts. Visualization helped me attach sensation to specific body parts. It was a life changer and I was angry about the years I spent not knowing. Imagine if men were taught that the only way they could achieve orgasm was by massaging the very tips of their penises. You’re right. It wouldn’t happen.

I invite you to study your sexual self. She’s beautiful. Draw her. Paint her (Judy Chicago=FAIL). Write poems to her. She deserves some personalized attention in this world that is hell-bent on her exploitation and commoditization.

I write these things and run the risk of being called crass, hypersexual, or just plain strange because I love you. I want you to know that life can and will be wetter for you. I want you to name it and claim it. I want you to receive this word I have for you. With time, your eyes will roll. Your thighs will spasm uncontrollably. Your pupils will dilate. Your very core will shake like the walls of Jericho when you believe. It will get wetter.

From the other side,

Ashaf

Nene vs. Star: Black Women & The Vulnerability of Anger

9 May

The first season of The Apprentice brought with it an impressive black woman (Omarosa Manigault) who deconstructed her brilliance to pacify an audience that seeks (if not requires) black women to fit a particular prototype on television.  Omarosa embodied what Patricia Hill Collins would designate the black lady, a black woman whose intellect and success make her difficult to like and love.  I find it fascinating that no matter what a black woman does and who she is (smart, beautiful, independent, etc.) —she is ultimately made to feel undesirable and unwanted–even and sometimes especially from people (who look) like her.

I was seduced to this season of The Celebrity Apprentice (though I loathe Donald Trump for various reasons, which I will not detail here) because of my intellectual and personal interest (read curiosity) of black women’s representations on reality television.  The unprecedented inclusion of four black women on a reality television show on network television lured me in, especially because I was interested to see how they would be depicted, how they would interact (having such vastly different backgrounds and demeanors) and what roles they would play with each other.  The season started with Dionne Warwick, LaToya Jackson, Star Jones, and Nene Leakes.  As weeks went on I was repeatedly surprised that the black women were surviving because reality competition shows, like horror movies, may start with black bodies but they are generally the first to go.  Nine weeks in, three of the four black women remained in the competition.  Perhaps it was their charm or ability to play the game, or more realistically their entertainment value and lure of black audiences, but the black women held it down, on the same team (until they were ultimately separated, first LaToya who came back to work with the men’s team, and later Nene being switched with a male player following an altercation between her and Star), week after week.  The complications, however, began immediately.  These women were angry and/or vulnerable characters. 

Dionne Warwick was often portrayed as bossy and overbearing, giving out attitude but not allowing rebuttal because of her age. Star Jones, the consummate professional, masked her anger and deception behind articulate interviews and rolled eyes.  Nene Leakes…well, she is famous for being the aggressive, angry black woman on RHOA, which is undoubtedly why she was cast on the show.  Her anger, however, has seemed to be so much a part of her personality that she can turn it on and off like a faucet, cursing you out one minute and hugging you the next.  LaToya Jackson, soft-spoken but determined (having persuaded Donald Trump to re-hire her on the other team after being fired), did not represented the angry black woman but rather the victim.  She never seemed able to fully defend herself, speak (up) for herself, or take a leadership position (it was heartening when she returned this week, ever so briefly, to do just that).  LaToya’s emotions were mostly reactionary and non-threatening.  It is difficult to categorize her as “angry” in comparison to representations that are so utterly distinctive and destructive, but her representation was problematic nonetheless.

While Dionne and LaToya were both targets (Dionne because of her age, and LaToya because of her perceived lack of skill), the last several episodes focused on the animosity between Nene and Star.  Nene and Star were perhaps the most popular and controversial characters on the show given their well publicized beefs with other women, Nene on RHOA and Star from her abrupt departure from The View.

Still, interestingly, while continually battling each other verbally, the women also came to each other’s defense occasionally.  Their on-again, off-again black woman friendship reminded me of Audre Lorde’s essay Eye to Eye, which discusses the problematic relationship black women often have with each other, resenting and needing one another equally.

It is ironic that at the end of Sunday night’s episode, both Nene and Star (and LaToya) were absent.  Nene quit, a exaggerated response to hurt feelings (because Star did not want to be her friend), while LaToya and Star were both fired.  Somehow, in one felt swoop and three hour episode, all of the black women were gone!

I find it interesting that the only one of the three that left the show with dignity and integrity was LaToya.  She negotiated her way back for a chance at redemption, and while her team did not win, she did not play herself while playing the game.  With Nene and Star, however, they both fell into stereotypical scripts on their way out of the door, reinforcing, it seems, the inability for black women to “just get along.”   

I believe that Nene’s façade of being the “big bad bitch” is simply a front.  She seems to use her bullying and aggression to hide her insecurities.  Many of her rants, which were odd given her behavior, seemed to be about her desire for friendship (with Star, with Dionne, with LaToya) and forgiveness with/from black women.  Nene seemed sincerely disappointed and hurt that Star was not willing to forgive and forget the reprehensible and threatening things she had said and done to her previously.  She was also clearly emotionally distraught when Dionne Warwick confronted her and she seemed to genuinely embrace LaToya, the most impressionable of the group, luring her into a faux friendship after saying deeply hurtful things to and about her.

I believe Star’s façade of being the “professional black lady” is also a disguise.  While her credentials are impressive, she oftentimes used her intellect to manipulate others and limit their potential.  Her unwillingness to lose shaped her character as one that was vindictive, uncaring, and unemotional.  She relished, however, in the praise and accolades of other contestants.  Perhaps she has become so invested in what other people think about her, and being the most impressive black woman in the room, that she can’t help but sabotage or resent another black woman’s potential.

Nene and Star’s characters remind me of so many black girls and women I have known in my lifetime.  Those who used the angry black woman façade to keep people at arm’s length.  Those who refuse to acknowledge another black woman’s (beauty/strength/potential) worth in fear that it will outshine her own.  Women who use anger and disdain to cover their need for friendship, love, acceptance.

Nene and Star’s departure, I believe, represents a much larger issue that feels just below the surface of the episodes that have featured their dysfunctional relationship.  Their anger (and ability to anger each other) led to their downfall.  Anger, while it may feel enabling in the moment, is really disempowering.  Their anger made them vulnerable.  And perhaps the anger was never about their issues with each other, but about their issues with themselves.  Perhaps what they saw in each other reminded them of their own flaws and faults.  Perhaps Nene saw her own lost potential in Star’s success.  Perhaps Star saw the potential to be cast stereotypically in Nene’s behavior.  They were afraid of each other because of what the other represented—another black woman–or simply themselves.

I wonder how many times black women misunderstand each other.  How many times we miscommunicate or miss communication with each other.  It is impossible to be guarded and open at once, but we are essentially and undeniably sometimes vulnerable and angry at the same time.

Inconceivable: Black Infertility

27 Mar

“Fish dreams signal pregnancy in my family.  The premonition, which was mostly my grandmother’s or another maternal figure, has been consistent and accurate for as long as I can remember.  All girl children were implicated by any dream that featured fish. . .” said CF Rboylorn, Fish Dreams and Fantasies: Contemplating Motherhood.

There have been no fish dreams for me. There is a stork-less stark reality that my 2-hour treks to an expensive specialist to be jacked open, probed, and drugged, and my regimented record keeping about peek ovulation, period flow, body temperature, and patterned intercourse over the course of two years might still result in the inconceivable:  infertility.

As a child, I did not crave a Cabbage Patch to cuddle when imagining a “play play” family with girlfriends.  I used my “play play” Barbie as a mannequin to model clothes made from remnants by my mother, who purchased my miniature sewing machine from a nearby Goodwill thrift store.  I learned how to sew before I learned how to cook. My mother and my aunties indulged my creativity by asking to hear my latest poems or to see my latest designs in my so-called fashion portfolio.  Most important, these womenfolk praised my elementary adoption of the closed-leg policy.  I learned I could garner the spotlight and count on their unconditional support if I evaded the cardinal sin of black girlhood: pregnancy.

Yearbook Photograph of Halloween Costume Contest

Early pregnancy seemed to be a dream-stealer.  The praise I received was always accompanied by a cautionary tale about one Future swaddled and later abandoned because of the immediate demands of motherhood.  I became so terrified of pregnancy that I developed anxiety at the very anticipation of holding a baby. To this day, I can count on one hand the number of babies that I have held in my lifetime. A junior high school yearbook photo from Halloween illustrates how I imagined pregnancy as horrifying (and somewhat humorous). Twenty years later, I am not only confronting prevailing cultural myths about black female hyperfertility and hypersexuality, I am also coming face-to-face with my childhood fears and my grown up fantasies.

“The possibility of having a baby scares me, but the impossibility scares me more,” said CF Rboylorn.

I escaped the social stigma surrounding urban teen pregnancy only to bump up against another one regarding Black female infertility at thirty. Uterine fibroids (or noncancerous tumors), endometriosis (characterized by tissue growing outside the uterus), and untreated diseases (tragically depicted in the film For Colored Girls) are medical conditions that adversely impact our reproductive health. Black women are less likely to receive an early diagnosis of infertility or seek medical treatment because of the escalating costs and powerful cultural myths.   Much of the public visibility and value ascribed to Black women is based on our perceived role as mother. Whether the endearing mammy celebrated in early forms of popular culture or the bad black mother (e.g., teen mother, crack mother, welfare queen) demonized in news media since the 1980s, she is still a mother.  To add, our very theories of womanism and black feminist thought use (other)mothering as frameworks to describe how black women engage with the world. These frameworks do provide broader understandings of mothering as a communal act, yet with so much meaning attached to motherhood, the inability to conceive or carry a pregnancy to term can be a devastating and demoralizing experience for some Black women.

Image from The Broken Brown Egg: African American Infertility and Reproductive Health Awareness

It has been for me. I have experienced shame, anxiety, and depression. I did not seek support because I believed I could bear it, so says my inner strongblackwoman.  For a moment, I believed my infertility was spawned by my inability to perform perfect would-be motherhood—window shopping, name surfing, and publicly gooing over all-things-baby. For a moment, I convinced myself that my book—my professional baby—was undeliverable because of all of its imperfections. I convinced myself that I was unproductive. For a moment, I participated in the suffocating silence because I felt I had no permission to speak freely about my experiences—those tragic and triumphant.  I spent months alone with my bare feet cuffed inside icy metal stirrups, staring at one-too-many ultrasound monitors because I believed that time would be the time. It was only a month ago when I allowed two years of tears to wash over me during an 8-hour cry-fest with a girlfriend.  I released the pressure to conceive that was bottled inside me. It was a baptism of sorts. My sistahfriend lovingly sent me home with my grand mother, Yemaya, and these days I feel at peace on my path.  This week I will return to the cold white room with the monitor staring at me.  This time, however, I will fold into myself to imagine my own rebirth.

Infertility affects more than 7 million people.  For helpful information about infertility, reproductive health, and support networks in your community, please visit:

The American Fertility Association

The National Survey for Family Growth

Resolve: The National Infertility Association

The Broken Brown Egg Inc.

Black Women’s Health

In celebration of the CFC one-year anniversary, this post was generated as the “B” side to Fish Dreams and Fantasies: Contemplating Motherhood.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 103 other followers

%d bloggers like this: