Archive | July, 2010

Climbing PoeTree, on a Long, Summer’s Day

29 Jul

Some days are so long. Some days being an activist takes all the energy you have, and some that you don’t. Some days you get up in the morning and think about the moment, 12, 14 or 16 hours later, when you will get to be still again. But sometimes, on those long days, there’s an unexpected gift from the universe.

Yesterday was, for me, a very long day. A day full of long strategy meetings, wonky conference calls, sticky summertime heat, and subway cars with no air conditioning.

But then, many hours on, the day found its purpose. At a fund-raising event for a women’s human rights group, held in a community garden on the lower east side of Manhattan, at about 9pm I heard 3 poems from Climbing PoeTree. They made the entire day worth it.

They are Alixa and Naima, two fierce poets/activists/artists/visionaries who spent the past year touring the country with a show called “Hurricane Season: The Hidden Messages in Water.” See for yourself.

They read, among other poems, “Being Human.” You can read it below, but I urge you to listen to it in Naima’s own voice here (Just click “Listen.”)

If you’ve had a long day of your own, what you need is just this kind of visionary thinking and beautiful imagery, and unrelenting faith in the power of art that can change the world. Enjoy.


I wonder if the sun debates dawn
some mornings
not wanting to rise
out of bed
from under the down-feather horizon

If the sky grows tired
of being everywhere at once
adapting to the mood swings of the weather

If the clouds drift off
trying to hold themselves together
make deals with gravity
to loiter a little longer

I wonder if rain is scared
of falling
if it has trouble letting go

If snow flakes get sick
of being perfect all the time
each one trying to be one-of-a-kind

I wonder if stars wish
upon themselves before the die
if they need to teach their young to shine

I wonder if shadows long
to once feel the sun
if they get lost in the shuffle
not knowing where they’re from

I wonder if sunrise and sunset
respect each other
even though they’ve never met

If volcanoes get stressed
If storms have regrets
If compost believes in life after death

I wonder if breath ever thinks
about suicide
I wonder if the wind just wants to sit
still sometimes
and watch the world pass by

If smoke was born knowing how to rise
If rainbows get shy back stage
not sure if their colors match right

I wonder if lightning sets an alarm clock
to know when to crack
If rivers ever stop
and think of turning back

If streams meet the wrong sea
and their whole lives run off-track
I wonder if the snow wants to be black

If the soil thinks she’s too dark
If butterflies want to cover up their marks
If rocks are self-conscious of their weight
If mountains are insecure of their strength

I wonder if waves get discouraged
crawling up the sand
only to be pulled back again
to where they began

I wonder if land feels stepped upon
If sand feels insignificant
If trees need to question their lovers
to know where they stand

If branches waver in the crossroads
unsure of which way to grow
If the leaves understand they’re replaceable
and still dance when the wind blows

I wonder where the moon goes
when she is hiding
I want to find her there
and watch the ocean
spin from a distance
Listen to her
stir in her sleep

effort gives way to existence

A Broken hearted feminist

28 Jul

Okay, so now that I have shared with you the trials and tribulations of coming out to my mother, the difficulty of working in an often homophobic academic environment and revealed my most un-feminist moments, I feel like we’re friends now. I mean, you sure do know a lot about me. Some things you may not know about me: writing terrifies me, I’m so private that Facebook freaks me out on a daily basis, and I’m actually quite shy. But now that we are friends, and I have invited you into my life, I feel like I can share some more.

So…Crunkista has had her heart broken, torn straight out of her chest, and trampled on by many a woman. Each time it happens, I dramatically ask myself “WHY ME? WHYYYYYYYY?” Is it me? Am I asking for too much? Is compassion, loyalty, kindness, maturity, love, respect, feminist/progressive ideals, and friendship too much to expect from another person? The most important question: why do I keep dating different manifestations of the same woman?

So, as I ponder on my fate as a brokenhearted feminist, and after yet another trifling disappointment, I am forced to bring back and share with you my foolproof “How to get over my ex checklist”:

To Do List

• Cry. A lot.

• Listen to Jill Scott’s live rendition of “Love Rain.” On repeat. Why? Because, “You broke me, but I’m healing.”

• Become extra diligent at work. It keeps your mind busy and will only make your boss appreciate you more.

• Call on your girls. Like true friends they will always tell you that “she was indeed a fool, that you are pretty damn-near perfect, and that it was undoubtedly her loss.”

• Get yourself a therapist. S/he definitely won’t tell you that you are perfect and may help you sort out through a lot of issues. Objectively.

• Don’t call your mother. She will only tell you that this would have never happened, had you dated a man. Don’t call her. **Disclaimer: many mothers are feminist/supportive but when it comes to my sexuality, mine just isn’t there yet. Hopefully, one day she will be.**

• Spend ridiculous amounts of time at the gym. Endorphins are like crack. Whether you are working up a sweat or watching other people work up a sweat, it will at least get you out of the house. More importantly, moderate physical activity is good for your mind, body and spirit.

• Stop checking her Facebook page. Seriously. Stop. In fact, delete her from your Facebook friends. Delete all of her friends too. Within the very small queer community this can get complicated and sometimes may result in severe loneliness. But, trust me. Updates of pictures of your ex with a new girl (less than a week after the break up) may send you into uncontrollable fits of rage, despair, and unhealthy criminal fantasies. You do not want to be the next woman featured on Snapped.

• Watch out for the inevitable and unfortunate rebound situation. You may not be in the right emotional space to really accept another person. This is sometimes damn near impossible to do because that black hole in your heart needs some serious distraction. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.

• Reread your favorite books. Alchemist here we go again.

• Do something you have always wanted to do but for whatever reason didn’t. In my case, taking salsa classes has been my saving grace. I have a new found family of left-footed misfits who make me laugh at least twice a week.

• Cry some more. Sometimes you won’t even know why but you just have to.

Lately, and like I said after “yet another depressing disappointment,” my “fool proof” list isn’t enough and I need to do something truly feminist. I need to ask for help. I need to call on my sisters because I need some real feminist answers. So I ask you, friend, how do you mend a broken feminist heart?

Listen Harder. Look Longer.

26 Jul

“every 3 minutes a woman is beaten/every five minutes a woman is raped/every ten minutes a little girl is molested” –ntozake shange (with no immediate cause)

Ntozake shange’s poem, with no immediate cause, begins with statistics that push us into awareness about the perpetual nature of violence against women in our communities.  And while I know, from personal witnessing and experiencing (and knowing somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody who has been beaten/raped/molested) how far reaching these pathologies are, it was not until this past week that I became fully conscious and aware of the responsibility that comes with awareness.  And the power that comes with experience.

At 18 my naïveté led to particular vulnerabilities, specifically those associated with men and lies and (so called) love.  I found myself somehow infatuated with a boy who was slowly murdering my self esteem and with it my ability to walk away from him.  He played on my insecurities and isolated me from my family and friends.  He used the same sweet voice that coaxed me into infatuation to berate and threaten me.  And I held on to his anger like a secret, knowing that any confiding I did would result in me having to defend him, in order to defend myself, against everyone who didn’t understand why he did the things he did and why I stayed.

Thankfully (and undoubtedly as a result of my mama’s prayers), I grew out of wanting/needing him and escaped the situation before physical harm met the emotional damage he had already done. 

Five days ago I found myself staring into the eyes of two beautiful young women (in their early twenties) who are survivors of physically violent romantic relationships.  When I said “I didn’t know,” they looked at me in a way that made me feel out of touch.  And despite their confusion at my surprise, if not for their confessions turned testimonies, I would have never known.  And it occurred to me (as if for the first time) that women who have or are currently enduring abuse don’t always look like victims. 

They may be well dressed. Well spoken. Precocious. Charming. Elegant. Intelligent. Strongblackwomen.  Handling their business. Raising children (alone). Going to school. Taking care of themselves. Taking care of you (encouraging to others). Activists. Advocates.

I remember being all those things in the middle of my surviving…but I was not self-loving at the time.  And that, it feels, is what caused me to finally walk away from a man who tried to murder me with words. Loving myself…finally. 

When I introduce Shange’s poem (with no immediate cause) in class, it is oftentimes alongside “a nite with beau willie brown” (See for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enough) and we discuss how women are vulnerable, even in relationships, to violence. We also talk about how being aware does not have to mean being scared. Yet, as I sat at the table with the beautiful young women I was scared. For them. For myself. For the nameless faces of other women being abused (whether physically, emotionally, psychologically, etc.) in the name of love. For the sake of love. And I wished for a way to teach them what only experience and time had taught me—that the often repeated phrase is utterly true…love does NOT hurt.  And we have to learn to stop loving men more than we love ourselves.

Reflecting on shange’s poem and remembering stories and moments that perhaps could have served as signs and calls for help, I feel compelled to listen harder and look longer at the young women in my life. And if I see something (wrong)—I will say something! And if I hear something (alarming)—I will do something!  There may be something in the manner with which she speaks, something in the way that she carries herself in the world, that serves as a sign or a notice that something is wrong.  I want to be newly aware.

Pearl Cleage says that “the facts indicate that we are under siege, incredibly vulnerable, totally unprepared and too busy denying the truth to collectively figure out what to do about it.” In Mad at Miles she echoes Shange’s sentiment and offers warning signals as a way of anticipating violence in order to avoid it if at all possible.  I list here five of the “early warning signals” she shares:  

  1. shouting, hollering, excessive cursing, name calling, sarcasm;
  2. finger pointing or fist waving, especially in and around your face;
  3. arm or wrist grabbing or twisting.
  4. throwing or breaking things;
  5. threatening to do violent things to you

Awareness brings with it responsibility.  To ourselves (in our relationships) and to others (in theirs). And while these situations remain hidden beneath long sleeves and dark shades, we have to bring them to the forefront.

Shirley Sherrod’s Victory: A Teachable Moment on Talking Race

23 Jul

Family, here’s the follow-up to Wednesday’s piece Shirley Sherrod’s War.

Shirley Sherrod should retire from the USDA, get her book deal, and tell her story. I certainly would not want to work for a group of people that were so quick to hang me out to dry. But seriously, Ms. Sherrod should pick the options that are best for her, because one of the many victories in this whole sordid situation is that she is now a Black woman with options.

Since the news of Andrew Breitbart’s sloppy and opportunistic editorial hatchet job on Sherrod’s career became apparent three days ago, everyone’s been tossing around the term, “teachable moment.” I’ve heard it repeatedly throughout this ordeal: “this is a teachable moment on race, on media, on government.” While many see the “teachable moments” here as being about taking more care and time when handling sensitive information, and about the willingness of the most extreme members of the right to jettison integrity and basic truthfulness for political capital, there is something much more fundamental at stake. That is, we need to stop trying to be anti-racial and focus on being anti-racist. There is a critical difference between the two.

In Shirley Sherrod’s speech, she talked about the emergence of white supremacist ideology as a way to divide and conquer similarly positioned poor black and white indentured servants. That information speaks to a more fundamental truth, namely the ways in which the ideology of racism and white supremacy is built into the fundamental fabric of these United States. We will not get beyond “race” then until we deal with racism itself.

Folks however keep putting the cart before the horse. Dealing with racism is a much more difficult proposition than dealing with race. Confronting racism means confronting privilege. It means confronting the reality of power, and the possibility of a redistribution of resources. In a society in which white privilege grants most white folks the right to believe wholeheartedly in the myth of meritocracy, the idea that they have everything they have solely based on their own merit and hardwork, rather than having a huge help from centuries of racial privilege, dealing with racism is a veritable nightmare. So rather than do that, we keep talking about “race.”

To read the rest of this piece, please visit our good friends over at Race-Talk.

Who the hell you calling fat? … I hope it was me!

22 Jul

What y’all know ‘bout big girls in sassy outfits, swinging hips from left to right and daring anybody to say a damn thing about it? If ya don’t know and you want to, this post is for you. Let me introduce to the world of fatshionistas.

Fatshionistas are reclaiming their right to enjoy their bodies and the clothes they put on them. They make up a growing movement of women who are instituting a new conversation about fat, size, women’s bodies and fashion, all through blogging. From posts on the summer or fall line of a particular designer to posts that call out racism in the fat acceptance movement, these bloggers and their blogs enter the weight debate from a variety of places. Some are dedicated almost exclusively to fashion, or as they call it fatshion, while others are more explicitly concerned with cultural criticism and the politics of bodies, diet culture and fat hating. In the end, regardless of focus, they all push for an expansion of the boundaries around women’s bodies, beauty and fat! For me they strike a chord because, simply put, they reminded me that my body is not my enemy and, as a matter of fact, that my relationship to it can be and is fun and celebratory.

Now, as a card-carrying feminist, I know that I am supposed to already know these things. But feminism doesn’t make us immune to the bullshit it just gives us some extra resources for fighting it. As a Black woman born, raised and living in the south my round body has always been a source of compliment as much as, if not more than, it’s been a source of ridicule or shame. Lately, however the jeans have been a little more snug and the stairs have started to become my enemy so I decided it might be time to get on that dreaded weight loss band wagon once again. But with the diet culture we’re all bombarded with and the fat hating, obesity-fearing messages we get on a daily basis, I sometimes find myself walking a fine line between a little slimming down and all out body hating madness! So, I have to find ways to counteract the latter and encourage the former.

Enter the wonderful world of fatshion!

These women are fierce and absolutely revolutionary, at least in my book! Armed with laptops and digital cameras, they have parlayed flickr and WordPress into platforms for resistance and redefinition and they look damn good while doing it! Or, as one fatshionista put it, she’s “Not a photographer or style icon, but shit, she works it out.” And, work it out they do! They are complicating the relationship between feminism, fat and fashion. For some, fashion is always a part of a hierarchical and oppressive machine that dictates narrow standards of beauty. Fatshionistas are challenging that kind of hegemony by declaring their right to name their own standards. They are reclaiming language, refusing to let words like fat be used as weapons against them. They are providing new versions and new visions of what bodily acceptance and self-care can look like!  Now if that ain’t crunk, I’m not sure what is…

So if you haven’t been introduced to the fatshionista game yet, let me help you out with a mini blog roll:

Young Fat and Fabulous:

Musings of a Fatshionista:


Saks in the City:


Corazones Rojos:

Big Beauty:


Check them out, get inspired and, if you’re like me, reintroduce yourself to your body … but this time on friendly terms!

So, who’s a Fatshionista? I know I’m damn sure trying to be one!

Shirley Sherrod’s War: When Keepin It Racially Real Goes Wrong

21 Jul

It’s ironic how much time the daughters of Rosa Parks spend under the bus these days.  The administration’s willingness not to take a stand on behalf of Shirley Sherrod’s is the latest evidence that when it comes to race we are long on cowardice and short on integrity. This week, Sherrod, an employee at the U.S. Department of Agriculture was pressured to resign her post, after spliced and editd video surfaced of her giving a talk at an NAACP banquet in March. See full video here.   In that speech, she recounts an experience working with a poor white farmer and his family in 1986 who were in danger of losing everything. She discusses her perception of the farmer’s racism and condescending attitude toward her, and the fact that this caused her not to give him the “full force of what” she could do. In any case, Sherrod is single-handedly credited, by the family, no less, with saving the family farm.

Our inability to understand what exactly racism is, namely a systematically conferred power to discriminate based upon race, and racial privilege, the unmerited advantages conferred upon the racially powerful continues to obfuscate and obviate any productive conversations about race.  These circumstances are nothing new. What is more disturbing is the rush-to-judgment by  NAACP president Benjamin Jealous who lambasted Shirley Sherrod in the press, only to have to come back later and recant his statement.

But I agree with Sherrod’s assessment: she was the sacrificial lamb in the feud between the NAACP and the Tea Party. Last week, Jealous vigorously critiqued the continuing racist discourse emanating from the Tea Party’s ranks. Tea Party Express leader Mark Williams retaliated against Jealous by penning and posting an ill-conceived, ill-informed satirical letter from Jealous to President Lincoln renouncing African Americans desire for freedom and calling the organization racist.

Enter Shirley Sherrod, the featured banquet speaker at a local NAACP event in March. During her speech, she recounted her interaction with a racist, but poor farmer, who needed her help.  She was honest in admitting that his racial arrogance was off-putting, especially since she was aware of many Black farmers who could use her help. And apparently it is her mere admission of (justified) racial skepticism that constitutes racism in the minds of the American public and her boss Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack.

In the liberal grand narrative of Black racial self-sacrifice that frames the work of the NAACP, she discusses rising above his pettiness and short-sightedness to help him anyway, in part because she had the good sense to know that this was not merely about race, but also about class. She provided historical context for this argument by citing the fact that racial ideology had been used by the elite against indentured servants to undercut a burgeoning labor movement.  She concluded from this information that she should “get beyond race” and consider the effects of class, and that Black folks should begin to understand the struggle as one between the haves and have-nots.  The all-encompassing nature of racial discourse definitely tends to obscure the ways that class impedes life chances and outcomes. But what Sherrod has been reminded of is the very particular ways in which class will never trump race, of the ways in which Black women are always forced to confront the quagmire of race and class and gender, always together, never separate.

It is unfortunate that the NAACP chose to back its own play for relevance literally on the back of Black woman, but as intraracial politics go, it’s not exactly a new strategy.  Rather than using this moment of publicity as an opportunity to actively advance conversations about the connections between race, political desire, and civil discourse, Jealous took the cowardly route and jumped on the bandwagon to unfairly rob this Black woman of her career. From what I can gather, he thought like so many that his willingness to critique the allegedly racially problematic discourse of a Black person would give more integrity to his original claims.  Even though he’s apologetic, the same kinds of issues will continue to arise until we get smart in talking about race, and until we refuse to let the Right hijack the conversation with incendiary but vacuous rhetoric.  It’s time to stop falling for the racial okey doke; let’s find our ground and stand there.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t point out the problematic gender politics here. Why is it that Joe Biden can make racially problematic comments and become Vice President for the very person that the comments referred to?! Why is it that Harry Reid can use racially problematic discourse and keep his job? Surely, Sherrod’s comments were more useful for a liberal agenda of racial unity than anything Reid and Biden have done or said.

And given the rush-to-judgment of Ben Jealous and Roland Martin, Black male political discourse also does not escape the need for critique.  The less well known history of the Civil Rights movement in this country is one in which Black men choose their own fame, and supposedly the rationality and objectivity of their arguments over the bodies and lives of Black women, each and every time. Lest we forget, Black women were not allowed to speak at the March on Washington. They were told that their concerns would be represented by other organizations, and Dorothy Height was given a seat, but no voice, on the platform. Lest we forget, Stokely Carmichael’s famous declaration that the “only position for a woman in the Revolution was prone.” And perhaps we should go back even further to the founding of the NAACP, when the venerable W.E.B. DuBois himself chose to leave Ida B. Wells-Barnett’s name off the original list of the Founding Forty, so that he could include another much less prominent race man. The gender politics of Black anti-racist movements ain’t sexy at all.

Now Shirley Sherrod joins a growing list of Black women who become political casualties of war. Among them are Lani Guinier, Jocelyn Elders, Sistah Souljah,  and Desiree Rogers. Each of these Black women were social change agents. Each of them came into contact with a Presidential administration that got credit for its diversity initiatives, while quickly becoming cowardly at the first sign of difficulty. This, however, can be a defining moment for race relations, one in which we put our “full force” in service of honest, responsive, proactive racial discourse and policy, beginning with a reinstatement and apology for Ms. Sherrod.

How it feels to be…

20 Jul

Last week, I spent some time with thirty black high school students from rural Alabama as a part of a summer enrichment program. After leading a session discussing Zora Neale Hurston’s “How if Feels to be Colored Me,” I had the students break into small groups to talk about how it feels to them in 2010. I mean, Zora talked about feeling “so very colored” at times in the 1920’s, what does it feel like to be a young black person in 2010?

There were lots of interesting answers. Some of the students were excited about the Obama family being in the White House, others discussed the pressure to do well in school and prepare for college, and still more talked about violence and drugs plaguing their communities.  When I asked,  “how does it feel to be a young man or woman?” don’t you know that the floodgates opened up?! Now, generally, a teenager’s favorite subject is themselves, but the already deep conversation got even deeper. Let me share a bit of what they said.

One young woman said, “It’s really, really hard being a young black woman. We have to prove ourselves in ways that boys don’t have to.” Many of the girls heartily agreed and gave examples from personal experience. Without having read Frances Beales or Kimberle’ Crenshaw, these women were able to articulate notions of intersecting oppressions that could give some of my college students a run for their money. In another group, a student answered the question saying that as a young black man he was greatly offended by folks immediately thinking he was uninterested in school, a juvenile delinquent, or that he intended to be a “deadbeat dad.” “Those aren’t my goals,” he said. “I may be a kid, but I’m a responsible person. I don’t want to be stereotyped before someone even gets to know me.”  What could I say? I mean, that’ll preach itself.

In both cases we talked about how these inequities made them feel and discussed strategies for dealing with racism and gender discrimination. Invariably the notion of “working hard” and not letting things get to you came up. But I was also interested in how many times the students amended that advice to acknowledge that working hard was not enough, that it helped to have a supportive network of family, friends, and teachers behind you. I thought to myself, the sooner you learn this, the better!

Listening to the different narratives being shared in the various groups definitely gave me pause. I mean, on the one hand, a whole lot hasn’t changed since I was in their shoes fifteen years ago. Indeed, in some ways these kids are under pressures that I didn’t have to deal with in quite the same way.  I mean, being a kid during Reaganomics was not cute, but neither was growing up under Dubya. Add in the current state of affairs–endless wars of attrition, an economic depression…er, um recession, an effed up environment, and so on–and the future–their future–looks like a hot mess.

On the other hand, my spirits were somewhat buoyed. I felt like, damn, this next generation has a rough way to go, but there are some sharp critical thinkers in here with feminist politics, even if they may not identify them as such. That just made my heart sing as a feminist educator.  I remain committed to being an advocate for them because, like I said, working hard is not enough. I may not have any children (I know my feline furbaby doesn’t count), but I am definitely invested in helping the children in my community doing well.  And after what I’ve heard working with young people, I can’t wait to see what they come up with.

Dating While Feminist, Part II: Last Words

15 Jul

My dating experiences, which I chronicled in a prior post, have a sparked a range of conversations that for both better and worse, I did not anticipate. In light of several misreadings of my post, both in comments on the CFC blog and in this recent response by Sai Grundy, I want to make a few observations.

Feminism tells us that the personal is political. Therefore, feminism is a useful frame for helping me to make sense of the gender politics that may be at play in my dating life. When a card-carrying feminist goes on a date, it is a feminist issue, maybe a micro-level one, but a feminist issue nonetheless. In my facetious blaming of feminism, I simply meant that the confidence which it instills in women concerning their intellect and the often radical politics it causes us to espouse, can very often throw a monkey wrench in one’s dating game.

Feminism is not a zero-sum game. Who said our politics were so narrow that we can only speak about sexuality, when responding to the injustice of sexual harassment?  A discussion of my dating life in no way undercuts or delegitimizes the struggle of any sister who has ever been inappropriately approached, talked to, or touched.  Suggesting any such thing is shoddy argumentation at best and intellectually and socially irresponsible at worst.

Black feminism says that lived experience matters.  So I have a serious problem with fellow feminists who reject the validity of my experience (and that of so many others who responded), simply because it doesn’t match their own. The insidious nature of patriarchy will find a feminist soldier like Sai Grundy giving men the benefit of the doubt  and defending them no less, while rejecting a sister’s testimony of her own experience. Patriarchal hegemony at work. In fact, the statement “no man in the history of heterosexuality” has ever not bagged a woman because she is too smart is bombastic in its level of presumption.  What Sai has unwittingly done is reify the knowledge structures of patriarchy by giving validity  and universality to heterosexual male behavior, even when there’s a sista (a few of us in fact,) saying, “Sis, it just ain’t so.” But whatever. I’m not in the business of revoking feminist cards.

By way of example, here’s an almost direct (it was in February, so forgive me if it’s a little hazy) quote of apology from my last boyfriend: “I can be insecure sometime. I’m not used to dating women like you. You’re smart. You have opinions and you can back them up. I would normally be friends with a girl like you, but not date you. I’m used to being the one who’s achieved more in the relationship. But this time, I’m with a girl who’s better than me.” He had two masters degrees, was a teacher, and I was proud of and with him.  And of course there are the conversations over many years with several homeboys who would say, “I can see how you could intimidate a man. There’s nothing wrong with you. But you could definitely intimidate a brother.” And finally, there’s the quote from Mr. 5 Hour Ice-Cream himself , “I could see how a brother who had achieved a lot and then met you might not think he could pull you. I mean he worked hard and overcame a lot to get to where he is. And then he meets you, and you’ve achieved more.”

So let me be honest: My feelings are slightly hurt. Not at all the dudes who commented and didn’t get it. Not with the anti-feminist chicks who don’t get it. But with the feminist sisters who should’ve gotten it but didn’t, with these seemingly well-informed sisters who would rather conclude that I had whack game, was too arrogant, or simply wasn’t the object of dude’s attraction, than to consider that the post was representative of a dating pattern, not a singular experience.  A true feminist knows that no one person’s experience of dating is representative. Mine included.  I am truly disappointed that this post and some of  its commenters find it reasonable to prioritize and valorize their dating experiences over my own, leaving me to conclude that something must be wrong with me.  If I wanted to hear rhetoric like that I could have read some Steve Harvey and just gone to church.

Won’t You Celebrate With Me?

15 Jul

Trigger Alert: The following is a meditation on childhood abuse.

A few months ago, the family of Oscar-winning actress Mo’Nique went on Oprah to discuss an issue that has torn them apart. After years of denials, Gerald Imes, Mo’Nique’s older brother, admitted to molesting his sister for several years. Though I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised, what struck me the most about the interview was the family’s defensive posture regarding the situation. Another of Mo’Nique’s brothers was really invested in maintaining that his brother “wasn’t a monster” and that Mo’Nique seemed to have “gotten over” the abuse because she and Imes seemed to have a “great relationship” in the years after and are only recently estranged. (Side eye). Watching this episode, horrified, I meant to write a post on surviving childhood abuse that week, but I’ve just gotten up the strength to do so.

Before I speak my piece, I’d like to start off with a feminist prayer, of sorts.

won’t you celebrate with me

by LUCILLE CLIFTON (1936-2010)

won’t you celebrate with me

what i have shaped into

a kind of life? i had no model.

born in babylon

both nonwhite and woman

what did i see to be except myself?

i made it up

here on this bridge between

starshine and clay,

my one hand holding tight

my other hand; come celebrate

with me that everyday

something has tried to kill me

and has failed.

I feel blessed every time I read this poem. While I love so much of Clifton’s work, this is the one that speaks to me the most often, the one that I return to when I’m feeling low down and sorry for myself. I think, I’m here, I’m a survivor. So much bullshit, and yet, I’m still standing.

Like an unfortunately large number of people, I was abused as a child. It’s not something I talk about often or think about daily, but it’s a part of my past that exists just below the surface of my consciousness, like a throbbing vein beneath my skin. When I was a little girl and we had just moved from the islands to the mainland, my mother and I lived in the basement “apartment” of some family friends. Our place was a very small room that, in retrospect, was probably a walk-in closet. We shared a twin bed and a small side table. We didn’t have our own bathroom (we often used a chamber pot to relieve ourselves) and we alternated between freezing and boiling in the New England weather. Needless to say these were conditions my mother wanted to get us out of. So, she got herself a couple of low-paying, menial jobs and left me in the company of the aforementioned family friends during the day while she worked.

Once left in the care of these people, I became easily frightened and I cried a lot. I became intensely afraid of my mother dying and being left with these people who treated me so badly in a whole host of ways. My mother was worried, but was really focused on moving us out of there. My father was no where to be found (he’d abdicated his responsibility when my mother was pregnant with me) and the rest of my mother’s people were a thousand miles away. So I learned to get through the days as best as I could and when my mother came home and fell into the tiny bed in deep exhaustion, I didn’t say a word. This went on for two years. When I was seven, my mother lucked up and got a section 8 apartment and we left that basement hovel and never looked back. Boy, wasn’t no one as happy to see some projects as I was, I tell you what.

I was a fairly well-adjusted kid on the surface, though I suffered from nightmares and had intense crying spells. I loved to read and after a couple false starts, really began to excel in school, something my mom championed in me. She took me to the library and bought me books when she could. When I wrote up little stories and fairy tales, she told me they were great and that I would grow up to be a great writer and teacher. I really thank her for that because everywhere else I went I was getting the exact opposite treatment.  I really was working against all the stuff I went through in that basement “apartment” and I can’t tell you how many times folks—adult and children alike—told me how stupid, fat, ugly, not to mention poor, I was.

Against all odds, I’ve been to college and graduate school. I’m gainfully employed, live in my own place and drive my own car. I even have health insurance—the good kind that lets you go to the dentist and the eye doctor. I am surrounded by love from a whole host of folk who comprise a fiercely loyal chosen family. And I am very close to my mother, who is wonderful in all sorts of ways. All in all, I’ve turned out alright. Yet, mine is not a Horatio Alger story of triumph. Sure I worked hard, but I am here because I was able to tap into a feminist network of friends and create a loving family. The support I get from these folks cannot erase the past, but it can engender a healthy present and a better future for me and perhaps others with similar experiences.

I’m not telling you this for your pity. Rather, I’m speaking out because I’m in a safe space/place with feminist brothers and sisters who value my voice. There are so many who have gone through what I have experienced and more and who may have the desire to speak, but no safe space to do so. (I also recognize there are those who do not desire to speak about their abuse, and I respect that desire as well). If we call ourselves progressives, radicals, and feminists of any sort, we need to take close, hard looks at the sort of the communities we are born into and become a part of. What are we doing to make our communities a safe space for children and the survivors of abuse? What are we doing to break the patriarchal patterns of control that promote exacting violence as a rite of passage? I do not have all the answers, but I am damn sure asking some questions, and no one’s gonna shut me up for “airing dirty laundry.”

Although I don’t know all of Mo’Nique’s story, I respect her need to disconnect and disassociate from her abusers. I too have had moments where I was expected to be cordial to the very people that violated my trust. Back in the day, I would’ve smiled and held down the bile, but now I refuse and will continue to do so.

Despite the fact that abuse comprises most of my earliest memories, when I think of my past, I think of the last lines of Clifton’s poem. And I think of my mother and grandmother and all the other women in my family who, like me, are survivors of abuse. Now, let’s not get it twisted, I am not saying that abuse is a badge of honor. Far from it. What I am saying is that I went through the crucible and I’m still here. Sometimes I’m broken and bleeding, but I’m here.

Glitches: The Ballad of Ebony Brown

12 Jul

Black Thought & Questlove in Prospect Park 7.11.2010 (Photo Credit: Laylah Amatullah Barrayn)

Kool G Rap’s “Men at Work” concluded The Roots’ Sunday evening set in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park.  In the swelter, a paunchy Black Thought perspired through the rap standard while his legendary crew capered Pip-like in the background. A master of breath control, Black Thought expelled not a pant and it was an exhausting exercise. The Roots are serious showmen and I can’t say that I wasn’t entertained but going to a hip hop concert and hearing that repeated declamation “Men at Work”  prickled as a reminder that for too many “Men at Work” remains hip hop’s definition.

I still soared: rapped all the lines to “The Next Movement” and imitated Greg Nice’s spry wop atop a metal folding chair during he and Smooth B’s impromptu encore performance.  It was only when I had made my way from my old borough to my Harlem digs did my shoulder’s shrink. I cued up a DVR recording of the latest episode of the animated series “The Boondocks” titled “The Lovely Ebony Brown.” It began with the grandfather, Robert Freeman, committing Facebook hara-kiri (deactivation) because of some misadventures in dating or in his words “batshit crazy bitches.” His black male workout buds, Uncle Ruckus and Tom DuBois, took the opportunity to offer relationship council on the next morning’s jog. Uncle Ruckus, a self-hating character whose hyperbole dangerously dovetails with prevailing stereotype, unleashed a diatribe against women like me less than three minutes into the episode. Here are a few choice excerpts:

“The key to happiness is to eliminate all black women from your life.”

“Black women don’t want to be happy.”

“A black woman’s body is the temple of doom.”

“Black women don’t jog. That way they don’t sweat out all them industrial strength toxic avenger chemicals they use to straighten out their hair.”

Forgive me for not LOLing.

"The Lovely Ebony Brown"

The episode proceeds with Robert crossing paths with a young buxom black woman jogger, the episode’s namesake, in contradistinction from Ruckus’ broad indictment (although per the comment section of the Onion AV Club’s episode review, there is some debate about whether black women jog). In fact, the whole episode Ebony Brown absorbs the insults, brushes off the enmity and proves herself the exception to the cabal of angry ugly unfit broke black woman monsters roaming so much of the world’s rampant imagination. Her “perfect” physique (not too Serena Williams), complexion (not too Serena Williams), credit, childlessness, lack of a criminal record are topped by perpetual good humor in the face of all manner of foolishness and on her list of accomplishments is discovering the cure for a devastating disease. In bed with the old flabby Robert, Ebony acquiesces to his preference for lights-off lovemaking by purring “Whatever you like.” (Recall that in 1988, “Whatever you like,” was a deal breaker #akeem #zamunda)

Robert eventually bungles their relationship with his own insecurity and Ebony lets him down oh so easy after he tracks her down in Malaysia delivering aid to typhoon victims, “You look exhausted and stressed and, I don’t know, I don’t want to have this effect on you. You don’t look happy.” Robert returns to his Woodcrest home where Uncle Ruckus, converted by Ebony’s cherubic ways, seeks her out to propose. Robert reactivates his Facebook account with renewed faith in select sepia segments of the opposite sex.

This black woman character’s transformative influence on the ornery Robert and Ruckus offered little levity to my viewing experience. The episode’s whole premise landed as “how does it feel to be a problem?” And Ebony’s superhuman contours, eventually begrudgingly appreciated, reinforce the stratospheric bar that has to be met for black women to break even. It takes so much more for us to be in the black, in life and in imagination, than it does for our other sisters. But that’s not what struck a nerve, it was Ruckus’s opening sermon on our inhumanity. Even in jest, it’s tired. It’s centuries overplayed. The record has long since been worn down. I want to be able to turn on the TV and not hear so much disparagement directed exclusively at us. It’s a downer. How am I to thwart the angry black woman stereotype when television puts me in a sour mood?! (Right now NBC’s “Community” is doing it for me a long with reruns of “Seinfeld”-Kramer be damned-and “The Bernie Mac Show”).

The novelist and poet Paul Beatty once wrote, “not being ticklish, I see laughter as a learned response and not a reflexive one.” Reflecting on his own developing sense of humor, Beatty recalled being the butt of the first joke, a jibe about the darkness of his complexion, he’d ever heard.  I’m the butt of many of the jokes in the television and film I watch.  It’s difficult to laugh from that crappy station although not for “The Boondocks” miraculous Ebony Brown who giggles after being called a wildebeest by Uncle Ruckus at dinner with Robert and then picks up the check. Aaron McGruder is a sharp, if sometimey, satirist but I conserved my chuckles last night. The episode prickled as a reminder that the joke is disproportionately on black women. The skin we’re in.

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