Archive | August, 2010

Life is Not a Fairytale: Black Women and Depression

30 Aug

I have a confession to make. Despite my outward appearance and demeanor, some days it is a physical struggle to get out of bed in the morning.  At least once a month I cry myself to sleep, to the point of waking up with puffy red eyes and hiccups.  Dating back as far as I can remember (early childhood) my mood has always been generally melancholy, an oceanic blue.  I experience bouts of depression that range from simple sadness to life re-considerations as predictably as season changes.  It has become more manageable the older I get.

This feels like a confession because while I am only admitting to having moments of humanity and vulnerability, I am a black woman, and for me these realities are oftentimes seen as weaknesses.  We (black women) are supposed to be strong.  We (black women) are not supposed to break down.

Fantasia Barrino’s recent confession of her suicide attempt sparked a realization that black women are as susceptible to depression as anyone else.  When asked (see attached video) about her recent suicide attempt, she explains “I was overloaded with carrying six years of so much…dealing with my family, dealing with my father, dealing with men and their bullshit…”  I think we can all relate in one way or another.  While her “so much” and (y)our “so much” may not be identical, people feel overwhelmingly inclined to pass their issues off to black women—assuming we can handle it stoicly—because we have been doing it for generations.  Or have we?

I have followed Fantasia’s career from her early aspirations to be an American Idol to the more recent scandals that have surrounded her life and career (not the least of which was an M.C. Hammer-like dissolution of funds for trying to “look out” for more people than who could “look out” for her, a foreclosure on her home, and her most recent love relationship, which ironically is the only mention of a romantic relationship, outside of references of her baby’s father, I remember over the years—but I could be wrong, I have not followed her career or celebrity gossip, that closely).

In 2004 I tuned in to American Idol because somebody said that a black girl from High Point, North Carolina (I am from North Carolina) was competing.  And while I never participated in the voting process, I did watch this rural black girl from North Carolina, who not unlike me, had already experienced her fair share of heartache.  At the time she was a 19-year-old rape and domestic violence survivor, and a single mother.  She was not unlike many girls I knew.  I was happy for her, but like many people, after she seemingly “got over” all of the struggles she had endured, by beating the odds and winning the prize, I stopped paying attention.  I bought her first album, watched her Lifetime movie (a poorly acted mini-drama based on her autobiography of the same name), and even tolerated two or three episodes of her reality series, Fantasia For Real, on Vh1.  However, I never paid attention to what must have been happening behind the scenes.  I never considered what the impact of going from little known high school drop out to rags to riches heroine must have been.  I never thought about how vulnerable she was to being taken advantage of being so young, so naïve, so ignorant, so vulnerable… she was just supposed to be “so strong.”

A few weeks ago when I heard about Fantasia’s suicide attempt I wasn’t particularly surprised.  Once again we seemed to share many things in common.  In her interview on Good Morning America she stated, “everybody feels like I’m so strong…and it just became heavy for me…to the point that I just wanted to be away from the noise.”  It would take both hands for me to count the amount of times, in my life, I have pondered the same dilemma, come to a similar conclusion.  I did not, however, immediately admit that I could relate to Fantasia’s hopelessness because there are precious few women friends who won’t judge or chastise you (a black woman) for not being strong. Or, who won’t attempt to encourage you (a black woman) by reminding you that as a black woman, YOU ARE STRONG.  And while I have my moments of fortitude, there are far more moments of pain.

There is a problem when we (little black girls) are taught to be strong from an early age and we have that expectation reinforced by everyone in our lives from other black women, to churchfolk, to white folks, to the (wo)men we love or want (to love).  It is further complicated when our (supposed innate) strength is celebrated and memorialized in ways that make us territorial of it.  We are encouraged to embrace it.  Black women’s strength is the single stereotype that is disguised as a compliment, and we oftentimes don’t want to relinquish it.   But what does it mean to be strong?  What happens when we don’t feel it, when we are tired of it, when sadness, hopelessness and strength trade places?

Interestingly Fantasia, while trying to give up the superwoman façade that plagues black women, has in many ways reinforced it.  Without giving herself more than a week to recover from wanting to die, she re-emerged to face her demons, her critics, her family and her fans head on.  In what can only be interpreted as her demonstrating and proving her strength, her private and public drama was put on the back burner so that she could move forward.  Within two weeks of her suicide attempt, she was already “back to herself” (the name of her new album is “back to me”).  The Behind the Music special premiered almost two weeks to the day of her suicide attempt.  I guess as a black woman with so many people to take care of (herself notwithstanding) she didn’t have time to be depressed or to recover from her emotional breakdown.

Depression has always been problematic for me because it was something the women in my family and household could not relate to or readily admit. Depression was white women’s shit and my uncontrollable tears and obsession with death was met with confusion and shaken heads. We (black women) didn’t have time to cry over spilled milk or break down from a broken heart.  There will bills to pay, mouths to feed, ways to make (out of no way). And over the years of watching and witnessing women hurt (from unsuccessful relationships, struggling with finances, dealing with discrimination, and simply waiting for something better for themselves or their children), I saw them struggle, but I never saw them “feel.”  So my feelings, of unspeakable, unexplainable sadness, didn’t make sense.  And while the women I knew never demonstrated the reality of depression in their lives, the reality of my experience tells me that there had to have been tears in the dark, moments of surrender in prayer rooms, wishes of ending lives over seemingly mundane struggles. I have surely wished my life away for less.  Living is hard. Living with oppression is harder.   I think we all sometimes or at some point, like Fantasia, just want the noise to stop.

Superwoman syndrome has the capacity to take us out in myriad ways.  Fantasia’s story, while tragic, is not all that unique.  And while not all of us will attempt to “silence the noise” by un-accidentally swallowing a bottle of pills, there are those of us who isolate ourselves, overwork or overcompensate, overeat or don’t eat, trade sleep for worry, say yes when we need to say no.  Self-care is not a selfish negotiation.  I strongly believe that black women deserve a story that shows us how to negotiate multiple possibilities for how to be strong, even when the strongest thing to do is nothing!  We need narratives, beyond our own, to show us that we are not alone in these emotional quagmires.

There is a danger in being strong… because ultimately we are all human, and black women do not have superpowers of physical, emotional, or mental strength.  We have to let ourselves off the hook so that we don’t feel like we are failing (others or ourselves) when we simply get tired.  While black women have the benefit of our experiences, the training to cope in particular ways (with racism and sexism), and the wherewithal to expand our capacity to deal with bullshit (racism, sexism, classism, etc.) we are not unbreakable.

I list here a few things I have relied on over the years to help me cope with the un-fairytale storyline/s of my life.

  • Sisterfriends. We need to have outlets, support systems, and a space to not be strong.  We also need people in our life who we don’t expect us to be their savior or our own.  I tend to avoid people who try to talk me out of how I am feeling.
  • Narratives. Finding other black women’s stories about what they have been through and how they got over is important. Meri Nana-Ama Danquah’s book Willow Weep For Me: A Black Woman’s Journey Through Depression was a powerful testimony for me.
  • A professional listener. We are oftentimes the person people come to with their problems, but we don’t always have someone we can go to with ours.  I think we could all benefit from talking to a counselor who will offer an empathic ear and allow us to hear what we think/feel/need out loud and in our own words.  Our friends are wonderful allies, but having a professional counselor who will simply listen has tremendous benefits.
  • Crying. I read somewhere some time ago that crying is a kind of soul cleanse.  As a black woman I was conditioned to never cry unless something hurt (something I could substantiate or prove) so many times my unprovoked tears did not make sense.  However, reframing crying as a way to cleanse my soul has been helpful.  I now see the function of tears as an opportunity for me to rinse away the residue and hurt from the inside out.

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More Musings on Melanin (or lack there of)

26 Aug

Artistic rendering of three black women's faces light and dark

“Depending on the context, an individual may be an oppressor, a member of an oppressed group, or simultaneously oppressor and oppressed.” -Patricia Hill Collins

“The true focus of revolutionary change is never merely the oppressive situations which we seek to escape, but that piece of the oppressor which is planted deep within each of us.” -Audre Lorde

*Mic check*  Is this thing on?  *Dodges balled up brown paper bags*

Hello, all.  First, we’re really grateful for the lively discussion our little polemic has engendered.  We’ve been monitoring the discussion both in the comments section and in Twittropolis, but wanted to let things marinate before we posted again.  (Besides, Moya B. felt ill and Summer had a not so awesome Monday, so we’re just now getting our act together.  Dissertations, after all, cannot write themselves.)  Now that a good few days or so have passed, we’d like to take some time to address some of the more salient points we’ve noticed in the comments section, and also perhaps clarify some things we said in the original post.  We hope this conversation is understood to be just that: a conversation. We are not shutting down light skinned folks for speaking on or about race as it relates to their color; we are asking, however, that these discussions become more nuanced, which, in our estimation, includes pot calling kettle a lighter shade of black.

1.  @Carolyn asked: Light Skin Privilege Checklist? Are you serious?  Yep.  We’re serious.  Admitting privilege is hard but it’s absolutely necessary for liberation. Part of what constitutes race is skin color and phenotype; racism cannot function if you cannot recognize this difference, and subjugate accordingly.  It’s what racial hierarchy is based on.  So, let’s be honest about the color spectrum that exists in between the stark polarities of black and white: one’s proximity to one or the other can play an incredible role in how hard knock one’s life is.  As many have noted in the comments section, we didn’t invent colorism three days ago, and dark skinned black folks are not the only ones who acknowledge this reality.  To argue that light skinned privilege does not exist, that all black people are treated similarly regardless of hue, vehemently denies the validity (and the existence) of all that inspires this age-old skin tone conversation.  Denouncing the existence of light skinned privilege requires one to believe that skin color does not affect how one interprets the racialized world and vice versa.  And that’s just not true.  It’s not.  If you don’t believe us, google it.  Or pay attention to Soledad O’Brien’s entire career.

Plenty of (black) people don’t want to acknowledge the ways that we are privileged above others, and we understand that.  Part of the difficulty of living in a society that constantly espouses punditry that articulates clearly demarcated dichotomous stances is that it leaves no room for gray area, and to occupy such a space is dangerous.  In such circumstances, admitting that one has a certain set of privileges causes others to question whether or not one is at all oppressed.  Admitting that one has privilege, then, often results in having to constantly prove that one is oppressed in other ways.

Furthermore, one of the most humbling experiences is learning to accept the piece of the oppressor within ourselves.  For instance, by virtue of having a non-disabled body in an ableist world, intentionally or not, we are granted certain privileges in our movement through it. We may not have actively done anything to to be granted that privilege, but it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist–or that we don’t benefit from it through no real “merit” of our own.  Yet acknowledging and understanding our privilege is only part of the work.  Are we willing to leverage our privilege for the sake of each other? Huey answered yes.  So did Angela…and Audre. Will you?

2. In her initial comment to our post, wheelchairdancer wrote that her blog was an “attempt to speak to the whiteness of the disability rights world while maintaining [her] ground as a mixed race woman.” Word. The non-disabled black woman feeling like she could step to wheelchairdancer and that she owed her an answer to  a question is a clear example of ableism at work. But part of what wheelchairdancer seems to be claiming is that disability whitens all the time which, if we may go down the troubled road of personal experience to prove this point, is not always true. Moya’s great-grandmother was a chair user, but her disability did not whiten her because she was dark skinned.  In other words, the fact that wheelchairdancer’s racial identity was questioned seems to have less to do with the wheel chair and more to do with her skin tone.  Disability can only “whiten” if one’s skin allows one to be interpreted as such.  It should be noted, that in her comment, wheelchairdancer identifies as mixed-race.  This identity marker alone requires the benefit of light skin.  Mixed-race folks who don’t look mixed-race don’t necessarily benefit by calling themselves that.  What allows one to identify–or even be mistaken–as mixed-race (and therefore not black) is light skin tone.

3. Thanks to both excerpted authors for trying to engage a dialog rather than shut it down, but a brief word on context and why we chose these blogs.  Our quick and dirty understanding of taking something out of context is when the reader, in this case, infers something from the text that was not intended.  So, in a sense, we did take both redclayscholar’s and wheelchairdancer’s words out of context.  All sarcasm aside, neither one of us thought that either one of these personal ruminations on what it means to be light skinned was attempting to forward deliberately a kind of “Woe is light skinned me,” rhetoric.  But that was never our real point.  Our purpose in deconstructing what was conveyed in these narratives was not to hate on a kind of light skinned melancholia.  Rather, we were interested in the kind of blowback, the implications of constructing these narratives in such a way that privilege is obscured.  What does it mean and what are the stakes of telling a story about the trouble one receives from blacks about being light skinned, without disclaimers or acknowledgment that in general being light skinned is a privilege?

As we said in the original piece, we don’t deny the realities of oppression light skinned black people are experiencing. In other words, light skinned black people are oppressed.  But, as the two epigraphs suggest, oppression does not forgo privilege.  Axises of privilege are not independent of each other; they inflect each other–and, if we are all being honest, we know this. This is why we talk about race, class, and gender.  If class didn’t affect blackness, for example, James Evans would have been the 70s version of Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable.  We are asking that we examine race more deeply to see the ways that white supremacy works through each other, intraracially. We must be willing to articulate those differences, that privilege.  If we, as black people, are unwilling to talk about and own the little bit of privilege some of us have amongst each other, how do we expect white heterosexual men to do it?

Besides, light skinned black people aren’t the only black people who are tested about their allegiance to blackness.   Queer people, quirky black girls, black people who play rock music even though we invented it, etc. are perpetually having their blackness questioned.  Our work, if we are committed to blackness, is to proclaim that we, too, are black.  But we need not do that by being appalled by another black person with the audacity to question us.  We also needn’t minimize the aforementioned inflections of blackness–class, gender, sexuality, skin tone–to stake our claims in the muck of monolithic blackness.  We should do the opposite; we should talk about those inflections and nuances of blackness not only as privileges, but rather as that which comprises a richer notion of blackness that has always existed.

4. Yolo made some really fantastic points in his comment, and no one responded to him.  Y’all should read it–again.  (Shout out to Effie and Tasha Fierce for hearing us and to Jah and Crunktastic for holdin’ it down while we got ourselves together)

5.  As many others have said here and in the world (but it feels so good when you rinse and repeat), privilege and oppression are not mutually exclusive. Black people’s reconstructionist visions of 40 acres and a mule silenced the rights of indigenous peoples in their land, just as the Cherokee refusal to recognize their slave descendants silenced another sector of the black community.  If we accept that white supremacy works differently among different racial ethnic groups of color, why do we then imagine that it does not work intraracially? To repeat, part of the way “race” plays out in our community is based on skin color.  SB1070 is about targeting people who look like illegal immigrants, usually of Latino (we know, totally an American construction) origins. As The Daily Show points out, no one is getting riled up about Canadian anchor babies. Irish, Italian and Jewish people have had access to whiteness in large part because of skin tone. Similarly, the hierarchies within other people of color communities speak to these realities as well. As black people who are in relationship with other people of color, we have witnessed the ways in which light is right operates in racial groups other than our own.  It is imperative that we examine this reality amongst ourselves.

6.  Finally, although we’ve spent all of our time here discussing the role oppression has in the construction of black identity, to be clear, we are not arguing that black subjectivity is solely comprised of being denied certain privileges.  That would be a really foolish thing to do, and they would kick us out of grad school if we believed such hogwash about Negroes.

*Drops the mic*

Two jigaboos (tryna find something to do)

P.S. We didn’t invent the privilege checklist. Check out the OG White Privilege Checklist and another one that has engendered a similar amount of venom as folks dispute the co-constitutive nature of privilege and oppression, the Black Male Privilege Checklist. We’d also like to remind everyone that pretty privilege is a long documented phenomenon. For more on it and more great TV time enjoy The Bubble episode of 30 Rock (h/t to @superfree)

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Nicki’s World

26 Aug

As BET gets set to air its documentary about women and hip hop Monday, I am finding my 30-plus, old school feminist-self working hard to gear up to get down with the over-the-top, lyrically layered, brand savvy rapper that is Nicki Minaj.

The self-described Barbie is inescapable. She works every rap and R&B hook, and changes her looks to fashion what could be categorized as camp, cultural appropriation or classic sexual objectification.  Until Minaj, I’ve managed to safely maneuver around mainstream new millennium starlets because they offered no more than a cookie-cutter replica of the unique hip hop dynamism I remembered.  (See the links to artists below.) Likened to Lady Gaga for her eye-catching performances, this former theater student is adept at staging media spectacles, such as autographing breasts, adopting different voices, and orchestrating a coming-out tweet to squash rumors about her bisexuality for those who might have misread the Remy Ma viral video confession from her masculine persona, Roman, as Nicki Minaj. You can call the latter a cop-out or a capitulation to a commercial model that demands that all women perform hyperfemininity period. As I enter Nicki’s world (slowly and with caution), I am not only considering the ways she uses her body, but I am thinking of three ways her performances of race, gender and sexuality instigate a feminist engagement with the popular.

1.  Beauty and Postfeminism

Postfeminism advertises the sexy, smart, economically successful self-absorbed it-girl from a post-patriarchal world where politics are defined by “style wars” rather than issues of gender inequity. Here, beauty and postfeminism seem to be disconnected from critiques of consumerism, gendered labor, or political citizenship.  On the one hand, the look-good-feel-fine empowerment that Minaj offers feels as lifeless as the dolls she suggests every girl wants to be—you know, the nonspeaking, decorative, plastic bodies to be handled and watched. Then again, I can imagine her Barbie thang as her way of injecting a sense of beauty and wonderment for homegirls, like herself, who’ve had to create other worlds to escape the ugly one they lived every day. In either case, Minaj has managed to capture the attention of young women—hook, line and stiletto.

2. The Lady and The Freak

In what could be described as a post-Tip Drill moment where folks are “manning” the line to distinguish the ladies from the freaks, Nicki Minaj is not the only one who is creating personas to perform otherness. As Roman Zolanski she can express desire for another woman, and as Harajuku Barbie she can perform a sexualized Asian girlhood without damaging the central “brand” or image. Beyoncé is another celebrity with a freak persona. In big hair and tall heels, Sasha Fierce does Beyoncé’s “dirty work.” Both entertainers talk about a sense of freedom—which is almost always connected to sexual freedom.  Celebrity aside, ordinary young women on and off screen are crafting “real” and alternate/virtual identities as a response to the increased policing of their bodies through this hip hop binary. Rather than marking public/private bodies, young women like Minaj are now describing their “real” good bodies and their fake freakish ones. In our sincere efforts to “free the girls,” it is possible we might have caged our “real” sexual selves.

3. Camp, Celebration or Cultural Appropriation

From her Anime-inspired Vibe magazine cover, her Harajuku Barbie persona, to her recent music video, Your Love, where she plays a geisha girl (among others), Minaj reprises dated stereotypes about Asian women that suggest desirability comes in part from submissiveness or obedience.  Costuming conceals and reveals her body, and both frame her as the exotic; the hand gestures she does in separate scenes either to seduce her lover or to fight her foe are grafted from other forms of popular culture depicting Asianness. I can remember the debut of the Harajuku Girls shadowing Gwen Stefani at a music awards show. Then, folks flipped about a white woman co-opting Asian culture and parading other women (as objects of her imagination).  Yet, as Minaj mines the visual landscape to reinvent herself, her Afroasian encounters – whether camp, celebration, or cultural appropriation – remain unchallenged.

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Huey Newton Complexes

23 Aug

A Different World character Freddie Brooks sits in the Lap of her boyfriend Shazza Zulu in Afrocentric attire. They are both biracial and light skinned.

Whatever does one mean by the phrase, “Huey Newton Complex(es)”?  So glad you asked.  A Huey Newton Complex is a rather snarky, yet awesomely witty way of describing a light skinned person crunk about (their) blackness in ways that, perhaps, obscure other realities that may indeed inflect (their) blackness–like gender identification, sexuality, economic class, or skin color. The one drop rule notwithstanding, Huey Newton Complexes goad light skinned Negroes into stringently proving and deploying their blackness just in case one raises an eyebrow around the melanin content of their skin; hence, The Black Panther Party and Shazza Zulu (aka Freddie Brooks’ boyfriend), for example. Just in case you haven’t perused the colored section of the blogosphere lately, know Huey lives–and not just through a cartoon character: light skinned girls are not having the best week ever. Apparently their blackness is perpetually being questioned, and they’re fed up.  A few blog entries posted last week by light skinned black women struck us as particularly emblematic of light skinned women being “sick and tired of being sick and tired.”

It has always been fun for me to experience the myriad ways disability “whitens” me as I go about life in the mainstream (i.e., white, non-disabled) world. Essentially, the way this works is that the cultural perception that disabled peeps are childlike, always in need of charity and/or help usually overcomes the threat posed by my race. I’ve always thought of it as a kind of “fuck you — your racism deserves to be subverted by my disability.” I’ve never had the experience where disability whitens me in/before an African-American eye.

I emerged from the whatever it is in Philadelphia — metro? subway? SEPTA? — and pushed past the bus stop. An older African-American woman reached out to me: “You white?” I was so shocked that I stopped and told her how rude that was. In so doing, I was, of course, rude myself. She got irate, because she thought she was giving me a compliment. [breathes.] This pissed me off. So, I stopped to tell her what I thought of that perspective. Bad idea, yes.

And another:

I tried my damndest not to join Alpha Kappa Alpha because of the stigmas attached to it. But, you can’t run from who you are. I feel like a neo defending my honor when I say this but I joined because of the women who lifted me up – and they were light and dark complected…and about their business.

For one of our townhall meeting conversations, I helped organize a panel to talk about the role of intra-racial relations and identity. We opened with the notorious “paper bag test.”  I took it.  I failed. And the room was wide-eyed with amazement.   Even some of my chapter sorors gasped.  I don’t know why. I got some melanin. Chuch.

As brown skinned ladies invested in our blackness, we’re happy that our lighter sistren are not only identifying as black, but finding blackness in themselves and loving it fiercely. Light skinned black women are saying it loud and proud, “I’m Black damn it!” Still, there’s something especially perturbing about the way in which these versions of a commitment to blackness are delineated.  In other words, what we’ve tracked in these posts and other sources is a kind of “Woe is (light skinned) me,” rhetoric that implicitly negates the privilege embedded in commencing and participating in such discourse.  Such personal narratives, though valuable, seem unwilling to divulge fully the way that being light skinned traditionally works both intra- and interracially.

Being black, or simply being non-white in a world built on white supremacy, is rough. But when we ignore the ways that difference inflects our own relationship to marginal status, we miss nuances that are important in shaping our individual realities. It’s a similar rhetorical move we implicitly employ when we use the term “people of color” without acknowledging the realities of involuntary immigration, language, model minority status, alienation from land and traditional practices, ability, sexuality, class, and yes of course, skin color. The vagueness of a term such as “people of color,” although ostensibly an effort to semantically unite those who must endure white supremacy in various forms, simultaneously jettisons the inherent differences upon which white supremacy is based, namely racial/ethnic/skin hierarchies, under the guise of “unity.”  The term “people of color,” then, is covertly dishonest, and inevitably forecloses the space wherein we might discuss the hierarchy within the hierarchy.  Woe is hypodescent!

To be sure, amplifying the differences in discussions of the ways that folks are oppressed does not play into the master’s hands, but rather compels us to be diligent and rigorous in our critique of (intra)racial strata and how they affect our lives.  Similarly, light skinned black women discussing their very real experiences of oppression without examining the way that (skin) privilege informs the type of marginal status they endure within and beyond the black community prevents a power analysis that is necessary for liberation. Furthermore, attempting to silence that privilege by not footnoting it at the very least is a rather indirect refusal of the agency one is granted by embodying the fact of light skinned blackness.  What further exacerbates this narrative decision is the anger projected upon the dark(er) skinned interlocutors in each of the aforementioned blog posts; the response by the storytellers suggests that questioning a light skinned person’s connection (to blackness) is somehow irrational, thereby treating the most blatant aspect of the colorism/interracial narrative–intraracial division predicated on skin tone–as a kind of imagined source of division, to say the least.

In order to further facilitate a nuanced discussion of blackness, namely as it pertains to skin privilege, we’ve started a light skin privilege list that we invite light skinned sisters to make on their own.  We all know that the real number one is admitting you have a problem–or are one. Word to DuBois, O.G. light skinned cat.

Light Skin Privilege Checklist

  1. In most situations where I am with other people of color, white people will try to communicate with me first.
  2. I am more likely to appear in the media, especially if my skin affords me the designation “omniracial.”  (Hello, Beyonce.)
  3. People will think I am pretty. full stop.
  4. I am more likely to get a promotion than my darker skinned counter parts.
  5. I can write blog pieces about my skin color and not reflect on the privileges that are associated with it.  (Wallace Thurman notwithstanding, literature, films, blogs are littered with primary and secondary textual analysis of the meanings of light skinnededness.)

… And the list goes on.

We invite all readers of (all shades) color to check out Moya and Lex’s effort last year to get skin privilege/POC diversity conversation started at the Love Harder Blog.

*”We” are Moya B. and Summer M.

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In which I don’t review “Eat Pray Love”

22 Aug

This post was supposed to be a movie review. But, dear crunk feminists, after repeated attempts to convince myself to bite the bullet and watch the film, (I have a long-standing and abiding love for Julia Roberts and a newer, but equally abiding, love for Javier Bardem) I cannot do it. I have two central reasons why:

  1. My most fundamental objection is not to the glorified cultural appropriation (I do object to it, see number 2), but rather, to the glamorization of a breakdown. The glamorization of what it feels like to see your own life fall apart before your own eyes just isn’t beautiful. In those moments, there aren’t fully-funded jaunty trips around the world, there’s just you (and for most folks, depression, fear and financial instability). If you’re as lucky as I am, your friends are there. Having been though a rather difficult year (don’t even get me started on Saturn’s Return, y’all) I understand what it feels like to flounder and to try desperately to try and regain footing when it feels like the ground is shifting under your feet. In fact, a friend gave me a copy of Eat, Pray, Love at just such a moment in my life. The book was helpful, in some important ways. Elizabeth Gilbert’s voice is sincere, her writing is good, and though I had some real difficulty relating to some parts of her journey, others certainly mirrored my own. Here’s the real crux: this movie is a Julia Roberts showcase in which Julia and her smile, eat (without getting fat), pray (and wind up actually finding God) and love (Javier Bardem!), all through a soft focus lens. My own journey is filled with breakthroughs, yes, but also with searing struggles and failures. I can’t watch a movie that makes me feel like my own breakdown(s) are not glamorous enough. I eat: I gain weight. I pray: I sometimes feel like there’s nothing out there. I love: with varying degrees of success. Just like everyone else I know, my process is not beautiful all the time and it’s definitely not linear. And lord knows, it’s not in soft focus. (P.S. Could we get Mira Nair to direct a similar story? Perhaps the story of a charming, desi-born, American activist? Just saying…) To watch a movie that would make me feel like I could and should have beautiful experience of love and loss, won’t help me. It’ll just make me feel worse and inadequate. Not a ‘feel-good’ movie if you leave feeling defeated. Too much of a risk for me, to be honest.
  2. The un-interrogated cultural appropriation. Many others have written about this very well. I’ll just add my personal rationale: I don’t see the world and it’s people and quaint, third-world polytheisms and charming brown folk as singular beacons for MY OWN life. I just don’t look at the world that way, it’s a complicated place. As someone born in the “third-world”/global-south, it’s impossible for me to ignore those nuances.  Italy, India and Bali are complicated places, and to close your eyes (quite literally, in some instances) to those complexities for the sake of your own needs, smacks of just the kind of privilege and unexamined appropriation that I find disgusting. There’s no excuse for it. I refuse to make any. If you can use Google to locate an ashram in a charming Indian village, then you can log on to the BBC News homepage or Times of India and learn some real facts about the people and places that you’re using to make up “your experience.”

[As an aside, I will say that I absolutely love this talk that Elizabeth Gilbert gave at TED, on the myth of “artistic genius.” I have shared it with many artist-writer-creative friends of mine. Watch it, it’s wonderful.]

So there it is, friends. I hope you can forgive me for not reviewing the film. I did indeed read the book, and found some gems in it. But given that is has been a long and hard summer, I just couldn’t do it. If you have seen it, please leave your thoughts in the comments. If you have not, please say why. Otherwise, we’ll wait till it’s on Netflix and see if we’re feeling braver, right?

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Antoine Dodson’s Sister: On Invisibility as Violence

20 Aug

(Click here for original news story)

We are in the midst of Antoine Dodson Mania! For those that don’t know him, he’s the now famous man who fought off the intruder that climbed into his sister’s second story window in the middle of the night and tried to attack her with her daughter present. Remember his reaction? Hilarious right? I mean pissed off that his sister was attacked! LMFAO! So hilarious that now there is this song that has remixed the news clip and turned it into the new summertime hit.  It has even made the iTunes Top 20 and we can purchase sexual assualt for $1.99 and jam all day!  And the star of all this is of course was Antoine Dodson for his “comedic” reaction to violence and the Gregory Brothers for their creative innovation of putting it to song. Sarcasm aside, I must admit that to remix a news story like that is pretty amazing.  But what does it mean to remix violence against black women when our stories are already left behind?

See usually when a black woman is attacked we find some way of making it her fault. We ask questions like what was she wearing? What does she do for a living? How many sexual partners has she had in the past? You know, the typical stuff that removes accountability from her attacker.  But in this case, where a black woman minding her damn business awoke to an attacker in her second story apartment, normal victim-blaming would not work. So now what do we do, because we obviously can’t take a black woman’s story of violence seriously? Well, that’s simple.  We marginalize the attack and focus the story on her brother, whose anger we can exploit because it fits into stereotypes of queer masculinity that provide comic relief. The producers used the footage to lock Antoine in a frame, to capture him in place, in order to tell a story that fits their truths—black women’s confrontations with sexual violence are either not real or unimportant.  Framed under the guise of “news” this masquerades as a story about a woman awaking to an intruder in her bed but is really a story about a funny black man, hilarious in his anger. It was never about her.

I think we have to talk about the power of invisibility. As a child, I participated in the normal debates about what superpowers were the most desirable. For me, invisibility won hands down!  To be able to be invisible was the most super of all the powers.  See, I was nosey so being invisible would allow me to know exactly what my mother and her sisters talked about when I was shooed out of the room.  It would allow me to see what the forbidden boy’s bathroom looked like.  And those moments of being in a new place wouldn’t have felt nearly as terrifying if I could turn on the power of invisibility. Invisibility also afforded protection. Remember Violet from The Incredibles? Invisibility not only protects her from being noticed by the young man she has a crush on, it keeps her safe as she travels though the evil lab in search of her father.  Or Harry Potter and that banging invisibility cloak. It not only allowed him to freely explore the campus, but also often saved his life.

But as invisibility oscillates between power and protection, the ways in which it can be used as a tool of oppression become, well invisible.  For women of color, invisibility is often forced and along with hypervisibility, it is used to as means to discredit and oppress. This is indeed the case with Kelly Dodson, made invisible through the hypervisibility of her brother.  Her invisibility is highlighted by the numerous Antoine Dodson for President T-shirts and paraphernalia that exists in the same space that doesn’t even remember Kelly’s name. (In fact, I had to go back and watch the video to even remember her name; a video I found by merely typing in “Antoine Dodson”).

Kelly Dodson’s experience of violence gets reduced to a fragment of the news segment and even further condensed to one line in the song: “I was attacked by some idiot in the projects.” And while Antoine is central, that too is nothing to be celebrated. He is hypervisible as a caricature for public amusement. We all know Antoine’s name thanks to but the “Bed Intruder Song” the Gregory Brothers have taken his voice chopped it up, synthesized it, and put it to a beat so that they are no longer recognizable as his own.  He wasn’t looking for fame.  He was angry that he had to save his sister from being attacked! Antoine has been hypervisiblized in order to invisibilize Kelly. This is not the invisibility of Harry Potter, free to put it on and take it off, this is an act of erasure.

There is a difference between choosing invisibility and being made invisible.  See the choice of being invisible also comes with the recognition that you’re missing.  When Harry and the crew would return from their invisible outings people often asked where they were.  When you are made invisible through processes of erasure, people don’t even acknowledge that you’re gone.  It’s like you never existed.  So in a story that begins with the headline “a woman awakes” we don’t even acknowledge that the entire segment focused on a man—her brother.  We don’t even acknowledge that the moment she is the most upset and telling us that her young daughter was in the bed with her, the news reporter is talking over her, so this reality exists as background fodder.

As women of color, we have long yearned for black women’s experiences with oppression to be paid attention to.  Our stories of sexual assault, inside and outside of our communities never make the evening news.  And now, when we finally are awarded a few minutes of attention, we are  simultaneously erased.  We are further erased through the music that has increasingly been used to enslave rather than liberate us.  It is the music that has put us in a trance and even we are singing along to a black woman being attacked.  Singing along until we agree with her erasure.  Until her erasure becomes more of a reality than the attack.  Every note we sing erases Kelly Dodson.

I demand a remix to this remix!  One who’s beat doesn’t influence your body to sway and your lips to smile as you sing the words.  One that instead causes your body to curl over in pain and your eyes to water.  One that makes you feel sad, or better yet angry that this happened! Can we remix this remix into a story that centers the black woman who was attacked?

So here is my letter to Kelly Dodson.

Dear Kelly,

We know that in these conversations about this internet sensation, YOU are missing.  We know that when they’re jamming to the music they aren’t thinking about YOU.  We know that you were never central, not in the original news story, not in the song, and not now.  All of this has been about its about trivializing your brother’s anger (characterizing as “emotions running high” instead of emotions running normal for someone whose family member was attacked), the creativity of these white boys (a group who has always profited off the abuse of black women), and the power and creative force of technology.  Well the Crunk Feminist Collective says it’s all about you!  We are sorry that this happened to you.  We are sorry that when you should be at peace in your home you were attacked.  We are sorry and angry that your little girl had to be present for that. We are sorry that you no longer feel safe in your own home.  We are grateful that you had someone home to help you and we are sorry that this is happening to your story.  We want to center you. We want this moment to be used to talk about the realities of our communities as spaces of vulnerability and danger for women of color.  We want to remember you as we work to build the communities we want to see, because lets be real, we have learned to make due but for us are neighborhoods are often scary as shit. We live in a state of violence that is so common that people can sing along to it.

We understand that you live in a community like many of us, one that is so far lacking in social safety nets that that you’re brother had to envision mechanism of accountability that would hold up regardless of a response from a police state that more often than not disregards violence done on the bodies of black women.  We completely understand the realities that would make your brother tell your attacker “you don’t have to confess we’re looking for you we’re gonna find you” and when he does that he’s “gonna beat his ass and then call the police while I beat his ass because I want you to feel what you made my sister feel.” And we don’t think his or your anger is comedic and we keep his statements in mind as we attempt to build an anti-violence movement that doesn’t combat violence with violence while recognizing the difficulty of doing so.

From this point on when we hear the “Bed Intruder Song” we will force ourselves to center you, and we will think about where we stand in our anti-violence movement.  We will dedicate a moment of silence to making a safe world for women and girls like you and your daughter.  We want to let you know that this is not okay and we are fed the fuck up!  Now Run Tell Dat Homeboy!

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How do you solve a problem like Montana?

17 Aug

Montana Fishburne in 2006

Since Montana Fishburne’s ignoble entry into public consciousness, many have publically chastised Laurence Fishburne’s teenage daughter for lack of sense, sanity and unblemished behind. I am less interested in casting stones and more interested in the trauma behind the tragedy and without a doubt her porn debut is tragic. Remember her in the video footage as she sat silent, smirking next to the swollen and cubic zirconia laden physique of porn performer Brian Pumper. After he concluded his shifty eyed spiel on his newest “girl”, she chimed in with a nervous response to a vague and rambling question by an interviewer from the web site. Makeup free, her curly hair haphazardly pulled back, the eighteen year old looked like a college student catching a harried breakfast in the school cafeteria before a morning class. Casual attire notwithstanding, she sounded desperate to impress, “I have a lot of at home experience,” she said of her porn debut. She was going for old hand. I understand the impulse, not wanting to feel like a novice. She was declaring her graduation from the kid’s table all miniature proportions and juvenile conversation. ” Her hands flush against her décolletage, eyebrows raised, smizing (© Tyra), she boasted, “I mean, I know what I do and I do it well.” Ok, Montana. “Was this a goal for you?” The interviewer then asked. She replied, “I mean it wasn’t a goal but it’s a step—in a direction.” A direction she had clearly yet to charter. And when the interviewer’s “That’s what up” comment, a seal of approval, elicited a bright, beaming smile from her, I knew she was walking the wrong way.

Bewilderment is what Montana broadcasts underneath the posturing and vacillation. With reports that she was arrested for prostitution, with allegations her high school “boyfriend” Jerome “J-Pipes” Greene is a pimp and news of charges brought against her for assaulting the “ex-girlfriend” of her pimp, I wonder why so many in the blogosphere and twitverse, spend inordinate amounts of time speculating the source of her butt blemishes (cigarette burns, herpes scars). I am not at all interested in the “black girl lost” meme favored by so many concept poor rappers and lazy commentators. They are but invidious indictments to distract from any thoughtful internal reflection by Black men and defenders of their privilege. I am invested in Black women’s health and safety both of which are clearly in peril in the case of Montana Fishburne. I like to laugh but her misadventures do not tickle my funny bone, they curdle my stomach.

Montana summarized a conversation with her mother after news of her porn debut broke for TMZ with two short and telling sentences. “She loves me and is concerned and worried about me. She wants me to be ok and wants whatever is best for me.” Concerned and worried are the operative words and the appropriate responses. Although Montana has tried to spin her porn entrance with sex positive rhetoric about exploring her sexuality, the space that the manipulative tandem of Pumper and Pipes have allowed for that is governed by exploitation. No way is this healthy sexual expression and no way is this Black Hollywood scion well. Worse still, as many observers have noted, is that there is no coming back from these types of sexual indiscretions for Black girls and women. White AND Black America have no sympathy or patience for those who they portray as jezebels. None.

Montana told TMZ that her famous father Laurence Fishburne told her, “I’m not going to speak with you ’till you turn your life around” and “You used your last name. No one uses their real name in porn.” The full extent of their conversation and the background are beyond my scope of knowledge but I would hope that we as kin and concerned folk of young Black girls in need would offer more to them than shame blame and admonitions to get right. Indeed this sister may not want to be well but the love of community, the warm words are family are what encourages, heals, changes. Without them Montana will remain under the spell of the slick talk of plastic pimp porn stars cum rappers like Brian Pumper and scrawny scumbags like Jerome “J Pipes” Greene.

Extinction Level Event

12 Aug

Image of a modern city in ruins as the sun rises

*The following is a polemic rant. You’ve been warned*

So I am totally blown by the amount of ridiculousness in the world right now. I’m so overwhelmed by it all that I’m seriously on my Octavia game, pondering the necessity or need for humanity at all. A close friend said it’s gonna take an extinction level event for people to care and I agree, although I wonder why the threat doesn’t feel imminent to people right now.

BP Oil Spill cleanup won’t be done til 2014 and that’s a conservative estimate.

Wyclef has the nerve to run for president of Haiti (haven’t the Haitian People suffered enough?! Yo, even Jeff Spicoli is saying fall back!). Seriously?!

Landslides and fires are wiping places off the map!

Google, whose public mantra was “Don’t be evil” has recently reincarnated into the Devil himself and is teaming up with Verison to make the internet even more inaccessible and costly for folks.

I don’t really even f*ck with the Obamas like that but Michelle’s trip to Spain being touted as really insensitive makes no sense as people tune in to television that stays supporting extravagant lifestyles. I want to compare prices between her trip to Spain and the cast of Real Housewives of New Jersey’s trip to Italy.

And speaking of Bravo TV, Top Chef killed Kenny! (You Bastards!!!) I don’t want to go into all the ways that this was racist and I’m sure there will be those who want me to prove it but I have to say I’m done with that. I’m done with proving and explaining why racism is ever present despite a Black man in the oval office (post racial world my ass!).

Shirley Sherrod, Antoine D, The Tea Party, bigoted churches, are all evidence in a case we are continually trying to prove, though the judge, jury, and prosecutor are all one in the same.

I’m done. I am moving away from the (in)justice system and embracing my new love, Nihilism. At least she makes sense to me and I don’t have to finish my dissertation…

Who You Callin A Bitch?: Reviewing Helena Andrews’ Bitch is the New Black

2 Aug

I don’t believe bitch is the new Black, anymore than I believe that 30 is the new 20. As our most recent racial shenanigans have reminded us, Black is still its same ol’ Black self. And anybody who engages in the same shamtastic behaviors at 30 as she did at 20 is just plain trifling. That said, I think y’all should check out Helena Andrews recently published memoir Bitch is the New Black.

We know good and well that it ain’t easy out here on single Black women.  And the Tyler Perryization of Black women’s lives has made it possible for the likes of Steve Harvey and every other jackleg Black relationship expert to capitalize on our story but us.  Since Black women are always represented as loud, sassy, and inappropriate, our silence has been deafening. It’s high time that we get bell hooks with it, and start talking back. Helena Andrews has done that masterfully.

Hers is a delicious Black girl story, one that hits so many familiar notes, that you are transported episodically to different moments of your own life to recall how you handled a similar situation—family conflicts between your mom, your grandmother and your aunties; your first cheating lover; a pregnancy scare; a ridiculously stressful and uninteresting first job; your first encounter with the domestic abuse of a loved one; your love affair with the Cosby Show.  And yet, Helena Andrew’s story is also all her own, unique, self-contained, filled with the kinds of idiosyncrasies, that remind us that we are not the same, no matter how many two-dimensional portraits of ourselves we encounter daily. So here we learn what is like to be a Black girl reared by a lesbian mother, in a family that associates same-sex love with pedophilia. We encounter a bohemian Black girlhood, one associated with movement, not because of poverty, or military life, but because of her mother’s need for new surroundings.   For the adult Helena, this translates to a life of literally walking the walk. She doesn’t drive and has no interest in learning, even after two muggings.  And when she isn’t walking it out, homegirl Helena is talking it out, in classic Black woman fashion, with an endless string of refreshingly familiar girlfriends and colorful female characters.

The text is, of course, not without its hiccups. But then, neither is the path of a professional Black woman approaching 30. There are moments when the transition from e-chat speak to text are choppy and disorienting. That’s a technical issue. There is, however, also the sense that while Andrews grew up with a lesbian mother, she wants us to be very clear that she’s as straight as they come, whatever that means. There are thus endless recourses to referring to the most mundane of things as being “so gay,” or as in a chapter called Trannygate, referring to a transchick as “the she-man…name unnecessary.” Uh, not cool. Andrews certainly didn’t need to get didactic with it, but her own childhood put her in a unique position to represent queer folk humanely and heterosexual dating in ways that might have avoided such strident heterosexism.  That said, I know now in a very real way how much courage it takes to let others into your life, particularly among sisters who can sometimes be the worst critics among us, and so I refuse to be overly critical of this book. I don’t promise that you’ll like everything in it. You might even dislike the author, given her self-professed bitch tendencies. But what she has proved is that our stories matter; and if you don’t like hers, write your own.

This is a book for every Black woman who’s ever needed to read, hear, feel, breathe another sista’s story… a book for every girl who’s ever dealt with inappropriate sexual conversations from a mother who’s trying to be hip, an ex-dude with stalker tendencies, or a dead-end relationship that kept you pinned down because the sex made your toes curl. And while, Andrews has her admittedly bitch moments in this book, she does not shy away from admitting the vulnerability that informs those moments, or from brutal, gut-wrenching honesty in general, even when it means discussing the suicide of a close Black girlfriend, in a culture where strongblackwomen just don’t do that.

When I heard about this book, last Fall, and its title, I approached it with the same skepticism with which I approach Tyler Perry movies. I didn’t need to have anyone else calling me a bitch just because I’m educated, especially not a sista. Unlike TP, however, this text does not disappoint. When you read this, you will know that there’s another Black chick out there, who’s slogging through it, who’s working it out, perhaps very differently from you, but who ultimately gets it.

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