Archive | January, 2011

The Revolution Televised: A Brief Primer on Egypt

31 Jan

Cai Yang/Xinhua/

Egypt has been all over the news lately, as Egyptians have lifted their voices in condemnation of despotic president, Hosni Mubarak. There are some key things to keep in mind as the events unfold:

1.     Don’t get it twisted:  this is a revolution.

It has been called chaos, upheaval, civil unrest, an uprising, a challenge, a twitter revolution, a youth movement, and class warfare. Each category reduces the power of the people to come together to build a popular revolution, which requires coalition building to fight for connected interests and a common goal. Call it what it is: a revolution.

2.      Women are a part of the revolution.  Women are on the front lines protesting, organizing, and agitating for justice. This is a feminist issue.

AP Photo/Khalil Hamra

As 8-year-old crunk-feminist-in-training Juju contends:

3.      The USA has historically supported oppressive political regimes if they serve American military and economic interests. (See Haiti and the Dominican Republic for some examples close to home. See also Iraq and Afghanistan).

On their website, the U.S. Dept of State’s entry on Egypt states: “The United States and Egypt enjoy a strong and friendly relationship based on shared mutual interest in Middle East peace and stability, revitalizing the Egyptian economy and strengthening trade relations, and promoting regional security…U.S. military cooperation has helped Egypt modernize its armed forces and strengthen regional security and stability.”

While the article makes passing mention of the “significant restrictions on the political process and freedom of expression for non-governmental organizations,” it largely praises the infamously rigged 2005 election, stating: “Progress was seen in the September 2005 presidential elections when parties were allowed to field candidates against President Mubarak and his National Democratic Party. In early 2005, President Mubarak proposed amending the constitution to allow, for the first time in Egypt’s history, competitive, multi-candidate elections. An amendment was drafted by parliament and approved by public referendum in late May 2005. In September 2005, President Mubarak was reelected, according to official results, with 88% of the vote. His two principal challengers, Ayman Nour and No’man Gom’a, took 7% and 3% of the vote respectively.”

To make a long story short, it has been a vested interest for the U.S. government to look the other way while Mubarak and his cronies ran an oppressive regime.

This vested interest continues as Egyptians far and wide are standing up in revolt. A recent article from the BBC News notes:

The United States is trying to steer Egypt away from revolution towards evolution. It is seeking a middle, managed course towards change. It does not want simply to dump an ally of 30 years, one who has stood by the treaty with Israel which is of great importance to US Middle East policy. But it is now signalling that President Hosni Mubarak’s departure – if not now, then later – has to be part of that change.

You can see this in a shift of American language.

Last week, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the Egyptian government was ‘stable and looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interests of the Egyptian people.’

But by Sunday, she was calling for ‘an orderly transition to a democratic government.'”

Side eye.

4.      Despite popular belief, Egypt and Tunisia are real places in northern Africa.

In his speech January 28, President Obama talked about freedom movements in Asia, Europe, the United States – yes only the United States constitutes the Americas–Africa and the Arab world. Terms such as “the Arab World,” ” the Islamic states,” and “the Middle East” work to oversimplify complex societies with diverse cultures and distinct histories, and these terms work to collapse countries into a totalizing US-versus-them binary that is unproductive for thinking about people’s movements taking place across northern Africa. For example, there are elections taking place in Sudan and protests taking place in Algeria right now and knowing this can help us to contextualize, understand, and support the liberation movements happening in the region.

5.      References to the Muslim Brotherhood, looters and thugs, and anarchy by Western news media reproduce orientalism and racism and discredit the revolution as a political movement. Paying attention to diction and rhetoric is not about splitting hairs or being “politically correct,” lest we forget the “refugees” of Hurricane Katrina.

For more on Egypt, check out these resources:

Huffington Post:…

Al Jazeera:…

Democracy Now!:…

Shout out to CF Aisha for compiling the data for this post!

RE: Kanye West is Not a Feminist, but…

31 Jan

Crunktastic’s article is crossposted from our friends over at The Feminist Wire.

A Response to Ron Neal’s Essay, “Kanye West Is Not a Feminist But…”

I find myself both intrigued and troubled by Ron Neal’s recent TFW post, “Kanye West Is Not a Feminist, But…” Neal is absolutely spot on that Kanye displays a level of emotional vulnerability and complexity that is rare for Black male hip hop artists. But I would argue that this level of Black male vulnerability, while rare in Hip Hop, is actually a hallmark of serious Black male artists. And I do consider Kanye a serious artist, although I think this gives him a pass sometime to do ridiculous b.s. in the name of being a tortured soul.

I am reminded that as the range of Black creative traditions go, beautifully complex renderings of Black male subjectivity are a hallmark. In this regard, the literary triumvirate of James Baldwin, Ralph Ellison and Richard Wright immediately come to mind. Thinking of them, I am also reminded of the infamous interview between James Baldwin and Audre Lorde in the 1984 issue of Essence magazine – yes, I said Essence—in which Lorde holds his feet to the fire for his own complicity in centering and elevating Black men’s experiences above those of Black women. The thing is, though, that Neal’s argument would have been perfectly compelling if he had simply focused upon the power of Kanye’s art in providing much needed representations of Black male complexity and humanity, without attempting to assess the degree of Kanye’s feminism.

And it is Neal’s near total misreading of feminism that significantly diminishes the power of his reading.  As I understand it, the argument is that because Kanye is not a downright misogynist, he isn’t particularly sexist. That’s like saying that the only racists, and the only ones we should worry about, are those who are card carrying members of the KKK. Moreover, Neal’s assertion that  “it would be unfair to say that he is anti-women or that women are treated like indentured servants or worse, three fifths of a person, when they appear in his lyrics and videos” is extremely problematic, as it traffics in the age old notion that racism is worse qualitatively than sexism, that the only mode of oppression is declaring someone 3/5 a person or treating them as an indentured servant. The analogy subtly fails to recognize that all these things were done to women as well. Furthermore, if one objectifies women in one’s work, then one has not treated them like a person. So while Kanye cannot be accused of asserting that women are not human beings as the 3/5 compromise did for blacks, both male and female, he arguably could be accused of something worse, namely that given the legacies of blacks and slavery, his rhetoric undermines the hard-fought struggle of Black women to be viewed in their full human complexity, while demanding that we see him in his. In many ways, Neal’s argument abides by the same logic. He recognizes that sexism is wrong, but finds it a legitimate to celebrate Kanye’s artistic rendering of Black masculine emotional complexity, even if diminishing Black women’s struggle against sexism is a prerequisite for doing so. The effect is that Neal reinscribes the very same patriarchal politics that one assumes he’d be against. He asks us as Black women in particular, to lay aside Kanye’s maltreatment of us in his work, on the grounds that a.) he isn’t as bad as the worst of them and b.) at least we get to see Black men be human. Is this not asking us to subordinate our struggle to the Black male quest for the fullest expression of their personhood?

Finally, I find the reading of Joan Morgan’s work largely to be a misreading. While I agree with Neal that Morgan “espoused a very complicated and less than perfect practice of gender progressivism,” unlike Kanye,  whom the author points out has not “paid homage to any movement among women, black, white, etc,” Morgan’s text does all that even as she attempts to find a generationally relevant iteration of feminism. Moreover, Morgan does not spend her time in the text going after out right misogynists, though she does call them out. She is absolutely interested in more subtle forms of it, as it plays out in relationships platonic, romantic, and artistic. Neal seems to suggest that what we should conclude from Morgan’s book is that “simplistic binaries such as ‘man against woman’ and ‘woman against man’ only lead to separatism and loneliness.” It sounds as though Neal is suggesting that calling Kanye sexist for videos like the recent and troubling “Monster,” is just another instance of Black women frustrating racial progress and fomenting needless insurrection. Moreover, his argument seems to suggest that such outcries against sexism are not only misguided, but the cause of “separatism and loneliness.” Based on this logic, when it comes to gender rifts in Black communities, feminism is to blame, rather than sexism.

One of the legacies in Black feminism that I am most proud of is the groundbreaking work on Black masculinity that Black feminism’s gender critiques have made room for. This work has given Neal and others the tools and vocabulary to understand and appreciate the kind of masculine performance that West brings to the table. Even so, any proposition which asks Black women to affirm and center Black male complexity while denying  and marginalizing our own is everything but feminist.

Don’t Push Me Cuz I’m Close to the Edge: For Kelly Williams-Bolar

28 Jan

Kelly Williams-Bolar, a single mother of two daughters, ages 16 and 12, is serving day 9 of a 10-day suspended sentence in an Akron, OH jail for –wait for it – “records falsification” after modifying documents so that her  daughters could attend school in a better school district than the ones near the subsidized housing where they currently live. To add insult to great, great injury, Ms. Williams-Bolar has been denied, by virtue of her felony conviction, the right to complete her teaching degree in special education that she is merely a few credits shy of reaching as a college senior at a local university. Are you enraged yet?

We have an effed up funding structure in this country in which public schools are largely funded through property taxes. This is one of those structural policies that is based solidly on our hierarchical race and class structure, while giving the appearance of being totally race-neutral. Yet again, a fundamental right in our country has been tied to property rights in such a way that poor Black and Brown folks have highly restricted access, because of both our historical and current relationship to property. And it is not merely about class. Let us not forget the decades and decades of housing discrimination, which forced Black people to live in segregated neighborhoods, with lower property values, or the fact that it is still the case, that large numbers of Blacks in previously white neighborhoods are perceived to be a drag on property values. Finally, histories of white flight and gentrification led to stellar schools in the suburbs, while gutting the economic base of urban communities.

We are living in a moment with a resurgence of the most rhetorically and physically violent kinds of right-wing politics that we’ve seen since the Reagan-era. Right wing extremists, Tea Partyers included, are self-soothing themselves like the immature human beings they are with fairytale narratives of personal responsibility.  And the Reagan-era and its creation of the infamous “welfare queen” stereotype [yes the term didn’t even exist before the 1970s, and it referred to one Black woman in Chicago who had defrauded the system to the tune of $150,000–in other words an extreme and rare case] is a cautionary tale about how poor Black women become particularly severe casualties of these kinds of conservative temper tantrums.

For Kelly Williams-Bolar is the model of personal responsibility. She made the negotiation that many folks –including rich white parents—make all the time. She desired what was best for her children. And therein lies the first fallacy – as a welfare queen, which she must obviously be as a single mother living in the government sponsored housing, clearly she couldn’t care about her children. Second, Williams-Bolar was actively positioning herself for a career that would allow her to make a better life for her children by obtaining a college degree, teaching special needs children—the other throwaways of our effed up system, no less. If she hadn’t been locked up, she might have been just the type of person that President Obama invited to attend the SOTU earlier this week, as a model of the American dream-in-progress.

Instead, she is being punished by a system designed for her to fail. Conservative irrational guardians of the legal system and its supposed sanctity have actually told themselves that the letter of the law outweighs the quality of the three human lives at stake in its enforcement. But when you don’t see Black people, and specifically Black women as human, and in fact, when you are only capable of seeing them as criminals who drain the system, then you will feel justified in doing anything to lock them in the coffins you have built for them, even if it means you have to bury them alive in the process.

The school system hired a private investigator to spy on Ms. Williams-Bolar and her two children as she walked them to the bus stop a few blocks from her home each morning; the act of surveillance itself suggests that Black parenting is criminal.  Yet, what kind of neighborhood must they have lived in if this mom had to accompany her two teen/tweenaged daughters to the bus stop each day?  Rather than spying on them, perhaps we could have a conversation about their obvious lack of safety.   And I wonder how much this little “spy service” cost taxpayers.  Moreover, it reminds me of Patricia Hill Collins work on the politics of surveillance and containment. Black women are always being watched in the spaces that we live and work, making us and our practices highly visible, while our conditions and motivations, remain largely invisible.  Any attempts for us to buck limiting trends or ideologies, are swiftly contained with the kind of political fervor, that lets you know just how radically insurgent and threatening the act of a Black mother caring for and educating her children actually is.

It is no small irony that the address Williams-Bolar used is her father’s. The children’s grandfather pays taxes though he has no school aged children. Why can his grandchildren not benefit from his tax dollars? Because when you really think about it, the children at the better schools are primarily beneficiaries of decades and decades of unearned privileges, racial and economic, passed down to them by their grandparents. So in a new-school remix of the grandfather clause, the system denies the Black grandfather the right to bequeath a generational legacy of access to economic and educational opportunity.  He, too, was prosecuted.

The prosecutors are also considering additional charges in order to receive restitution for the approximate $30,500 in tuition costs that the girls benefited from in their time at the “illegal” school.” I wonder how much “tuition” costs at the school in Williams-Bolar’s neighborhood.

Times like this I feel like the end is near. My sentiments about this moment  are best summed up in the chilling Reagan-era words from Melle Mel’s 1982 classic, The Message.

“Don’t push me, Cuz I’m close to the edge.

I’m trying not to lose my head

Uh huh huh huh huh

It’s like a jungle sometimes

It makes me wonder

How I keep from going under…”

You can support Kelley Williams-Bolar by sending funds of support to National Action Network Akron Chapter, c/o Kelley Williams-Bolar, P.O. Box 4152, Akron, Ohio, 44321.

The Zen of Young Money: Being Present to the Genius of Black Youth

24 Jan

Guest post by Dr. Alexis Pauline Gumbs, friend of CFC, Wonder Twin of me 🙂

I fly with the stars in the skies,
I am no longer trying to survive,
I believe that life is a prize,
But to live doesn’t mean you’re alive.

Being Black: Zen and the Art of Living with Fearlessness and Grace, Angel Kyodo Williams
“Over” Drake
“Moment for Life” Nicki Minaj

what am I doing? what am I doing?
oh yeah, that’s right, I’m doing me, I’m doing me
I’m living life right now
and this what I’m a do til its over
til it’s over, but it’s far from over


I am a member of a criminalized generation of black geniuses.

My twenty-something age-mates and the teenagers behind us are often dismissed as materialistic, crass, empty-headed, impulse addicts. Elders mourn our distance from the forms of social movement participation they would have imagined and mass media relates to us as a market to be bought, exploited and sold back to ourselves, ever cheaper.

As a particularly nerdy member of the so-called thoughtless generation, I resent the implication. And I wonder sometimes what it will take to make the forms of social interaction and critique that young black people are engaged in every moment of our high-tech or low-tech days legible to the baby boomers (since we all know that legibility to baby boomers is what makes something real in the United States).

So this rare piece (on my part) of contemporary hip hop commentary is an attempt to provide a specific example for an undercredited belief that is at the basis of my queer intergenerational feminist politic of black love:

As young black people we are experts of our own experiences, we think about the meanings of our lives, the limits of our options and more often than not we choose not to conform, not to consent to an upright and respectable meaning of life. Even in our most nihilistic moments we are tortured artists and mad scientists, living a critique of a dominant society that cannot contain us and does not deserve us. This doesn’t mean that we are always doing the right thing (Spike Lee), but it does mean that any effective transformative politic that is accountable to us, young black people with a variety of intellectual and cultural attractions and modes, will respect us as genius participants in a culture in transition (singularity) instead of incorrectly assuming that we are mindless consumers.


I take, the example of two songs by two of the most visible young black artists around, members of a hip hop crew/entertainment company that has capitalized on glamourizing a sexualized, hyper-capitalist version of youth energy, chosen family, excess and fun: Nicki Minaj and Drake from the Lil Wayne fronted Young Money Crew.

I happen to have been listening to mainstream radio one day in the car during the week that I was reading Angel Kyodo Williams book Being Black, on the value of Zen principles for black people in the United States, and inexplicably free of the usual defenses and judgments I hold against the most highly marketed versions of hip-pop (no typo) and the self-protection against misogyny and hyper-exploitation that generally causes me to hold back my listening, I actually paid attention to the lyrics.

Of course it was incredibly likely that I would hear songs by Nicki Minaj and Drake since they are routinely rotated. It seems like 2 out of 2 songs that are currently played on the radio star or feature one of these artists. But this time, opened up by Williams’ insights about the value of releasing judgment, I began to wonder whether beyond payola and the corporatization and uniformity of radio the mass appeal of these two artists might actually not only be the attraction of black youth, and young people in general to…(young) money and the alcohol baptized sexually olympic lifestyle advertised to come with young people’s access to money, but also a very different basic need in the lives of young black people, and a central need in my life: accessible technologies for being present to our own lives.

The year after I was born (1983) Lillie Allen created a workshop in Atlanta (as part of a vibrant and inspiring black feminist health movement and environment created by the National Black Women’s Health Project) called Black and Female: What is the Reality? which evolved into a curriculum for self and community empowerment calledBe Present. Could it be that the contemporary moment in hip-pop is keeping the attention of so many young people…including me, not for the predictably offered reasons, but rather as evidence of a deeply held desire to be present to our own lives in a culture too obsessed with progress to allow reflection or stillness?

Because really…what is compelling about the monotone of Drake’s voice in his clearly un-melodic non-chorus on “Over”? Is it only the saturation of media with images of his arrogant attempt to bring light-skinned tall brothers back into style with each other and the rest of the world? Or is it also the thin line between Drake’s monotone and a buddhist chant?

Because if, as Buddha writes in the Ghitassara Sutta, the lack of melody of the chant is designed to train us to release our attachment to sound so that we do not lose the moment behind it, Drake seems to also be accountable to something besides melody. What is it that Drake’s tonelessness offers that compels my generation to listen to it over and over again? Maybe it is the value of the moment behind the sound wanting to be revealed. The reminder to self, a struggle most evident in Drake’s questions and answers to himself:

what am I doing? what am I doing?
oh yeah, that’s right, I’m doing me, I’m doing me
I’m living life right now
and this what I’m a do til its over
til it’s over, but it’s far from over

This chorus seems to me to describe and enact exactly the struggle of my own stillness, my own attempts at meditation and mindful living in the world, the difficulty of escaping evaluation of my own life (especially its productivity), of placing myself on a limited timeline, of not “living life right now.” I wonder if other people, especially other young black people, who may not have recently read the writings of a brilliant black woman on the value of Zen awareness, are attracted to this same process, reflected in Drake’s existential moment, depicted in the music video as sitting on a hotel bed talking to himself charged out of nonchalance into liveliness as soon as he jumps (still seated) and says “oh yeah, that’s right, i’m doing me.” A contextually distant echo of Audre Lorde’s “I am who I am, doing what I came to do,” but an echo nonetheless, with the potential to do what Drake says he is capable of, making the “biggest skeptic a believer.” Could it be that my fellow black young adults and teenagers resonate with this non-song because it is an invitation to let go of some of the skepticism we bring to the value of our lives in their mundane and moving moments and to be present?

The other function of this piece is that while I have peripherally overhead every black feminist who engages with popular culture asked about what Mark Anthony Neal calls “the meaning of Nicki Minaj” in the midst of some kind of valuing or comparison with Lil Kim and the Barbie brand, I have to admit that I had not developed an idea of Nicki Minaj’s meaning or even an attunement to the sound of her voice until I was at Drag Bingo and a very fierce drag queen in a bobbed and banged blond wig did an impressive and well mouthed medley of Nicki Minaj songs and I found the metaphors hilarious (akin to what the smart-assed kid and poet in me is drawn to in the mid-career work of Eminem.) So I started listening to the words when I heard her baby-monster-robot voice on the radio. And when I heard:

In this very moment I’m king,
In this very moment I slay, Goliath with a sling,
This very moment I bring
Put it on everything, that I will retire with the ring,
And I will retire with the crown, Yes!
No I’m not lucky I’m blessed, Yes!
Clap for the heavyweight champ, Me!
But I couldn’t do it all alone, We!

I thought, this is drag performance all over again. A young black woman channeling the energy and poetry of a young Muhammed Ali as seamlessly as Janelle Monae channels the dance possession of James Brown. I listened to “Moment for Life” on youtube several times reflecting on what made the sequence above so affirming, and settled beyond my thrill at a young black woman that other young black women listen to embracing her masculinity and being proud of being a “heavyweight” it was the energetic repetition of “this very moment.” The powerful presence of the sequence places infinite value on the present moment. “This very moment I bring,” rumbles without knowing its embodiment of the energy and clarity of the Combahee River Collective’s “black women are inherently valuable.” What would it mean to affirm that what we bring is the moment, again and again, and that is enough. Period. Minaj literally uses affirmation as a practice in the piece (the repetition of “Yes!”) and the closing trinity of the passage above, divine context (no i’m not lucky i’m blessed. yes!) self-affirmation (clap for the heavyweight champ. me!) and interdependence with community (but I couldn’t do it all alone. we!) is exactly the mix that I use to keep myself centered. Who would have thought?

For a million reasons, most of them related to capitalism, racism and patriarchy it is extremely difficult for us, young black women, to be present to the miracle of our every breath. Usually we are waiting to exhale while the entire society collaborates to devalue and demean our living, our physicality, our impact. What are the possibilities of the resonance of an affirmation that moves beyond gender, that reaches to champion elders, that invokes a divine context and a need for community for all of us?

And more than that, what is the potential of my people, young black folks if we can be present to the value of our existence, and if everyone else can be buddhist about us, let judgment fall away and acknowledge the contribution we are to the universe just by existing as ourselves?

(We won’t be cocky, we’ll be vindicated.)

Dr. Alexis Pauline Gumbs is freeblack and 28.

Does this make me look Latina?

20 Jan

I was recently asked to give a presentation about women in the workforce to a group of Latina undergraduate students. After the panic about speaking in public wore off, I started asking myself, what could I possibly teach them?

I started thinking about my experiences (as a student and professional) and how they have been shaped by the cultural imaginary of Latinos in this country. Too many stereotypes persist and continue to negatively affect Latinos. You know them. I will not waste my time listing them here. I will, however, say that after going through the long list of stereotypes that have kept and continue to keep my people oppressed, the next things that came to mind was the Latin Explosion of the late 90’s. This explosion introduced Jennifer Lopez, Marc Anthony, Ricky Martin, and Shakira to the American mainstream. One of the most frustrating realities of this so-called “explosion” is the idea that these people became famous overnight. Just in case you did not know this, Marc Anthony, Ricky Martin, Shakira and the newly popular Sofia Vergara were HUGE in Latin America and filthy rich before their “cross-over” to the American mainstream. We had already loved and obsessed over them for years. History lesson: there are 32 Spanish-speaking countries around the world. Of these 32 Spanish is the official language of Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Panama, Colombia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Paraguay, Chile, Argentina, Uruguay, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Spain, Equatorial Guinea and Puerto Rico. Each of these countries has a rich complex history, their own entertainment industries and again…lots of famous people. Anytime I hear an ignorant American-made statement about Latinos in this country, I remember Susiemaye’s mama and her words of wisdom, “We were kings and queens when they were still running around in caves.” But, I digress. Lets get back to my dilemma. What can I possibly tell these young women about being professional Latinas in the workforce? How can I equip them for the challenges they will surely encounter?

In my research I came across an article in the most recent issue of Latina magazine: “Latinas at the office: do we need to tone down our sex appeal?” The article focused on different Latinas who have been negatively affected by their imagined sex appeal. One of these women, Debrahlee Lorenzana, is currently in a lawsuit with Citigroup. Her allegations: she was fired because her male colleagues and supervisors believed she was too distracting at the office. After seeing images of her in her business attire I couldn’t help but marvel at her beauty (she is indeed breathtaking) and wanting to be her (if only I could rock stilettos like that).

While reading about this case, I started thinking about the current cultural imagery of Latinas. The so-called “Latin Explosion,” did in fact open many doors and in many ways solidified that we actually existed. We knew we existed but apparently white people didn’t. It isn’t a coincidence that after Jennifer Lopez’s rise to fame, several people (black and white) told me that I looked like/reminded them of Jennifer Lopez. Side note, I don’t look like Jennifer Lopez.

So, who are today’s mainstream Latinas and what can we say about their representation in the media? On basic television: Sara Ramirez (Grey’s Anatomy’s resident hot, lesbian Latina doctor), Eva Longoria (Desperate ‘hot Latina’ Housewife), Sofia Vergara  (Modern Family’s hot, young Latina wife), Rosalyn Sánchez (Without A Trace’s hot special agent) and Salma Hayek (most recently Alec Baldwin’s hot Latina girlfriend). In movies: Jennifer Lopez, Eva Mendez, Zoe Saldana, Rosario Dawson, Jessica Alba, America Ferrera, Penelope Cruz, Paz Vega, Michele Rodriguez, Rosie Perez and Christina Milan; all of them often cast as the hot Latina light-skinned girlfriends of white men (but that’s another post). What do all of these women have in common? You guessed it: they are all HOT Latinas.

So what are these young women about to encounter after graduation? As women and as women of color, the obvious: sexism, racism, and working harder than everyone else because they have to prove they are (one) qualified and (two) deserve to be there.  As Latinas: working with people of other backgrounds who very likely have only been exposed to one-dimensional representations of Latina women – hot, sexy, curvaceous, (and my favorite) spicy. They might be even hotter if they have accents or not quite Latina enough if they either lack the accent (because maybe their people have been here for over 300 years) or if, heaven forbid, lack the curves.

My presentation will of course include a modified version of this tangent and the following list of advice. As my online community of feminists, activists, scholars, sisters, friends, professionals and colleagues, I invite you read along and add to the list whatever advice has proven to be beneficial for you.

  1. Dress for the job you want, not the job you have.
    1. First impressions can make or break your career, which means you must dress for success.
    2. Invest in a quality/appropriate wardrobe. If you are on a tight budget: frequent department stores such as TJ Maxx, and Marshalls. Also, don’t sleep on Goodwill or the Salvation Army: I have found many of my favorite pieces in second hand stores.
  2. Respect and acknowledge every individual’s contribution to your company/institution. Everyone from the cleaning personnel to the administrative assistants, to the company CEO makes significant contributions to your organization.
    1. I have had just about every possible job you can imagine. I have learned to make friends with everyone especially those that didn’t have the access to the resources/paycheck that I had. How did this help me? For starters, when I was a waitress – I was having lobster dinners (because I loved the cooks and they loved me). While I was a graduate student, I never paid for the many lattes and brownies that got me through it. They say it’s important to have friends in high places but experience has taught me that it’s more important to have friends in all places, especially when they are people of color.
  3. Know the ins and outs of your field.
    1. Stay informed. Read newsletters, journals, magazines, blogs etc. that incorporate current events/updates/important discoveries in your field.
  4. Define clear goals for yourself.
    1. What do you want from this career? How will you get there?
  5. Find a mentor.
    1. This was great advice I received from a fellow Latina. The mentor doesn’t have to be a woman or even of the same race. Find a person in the position you want, forge a professional relationship with them, find out what they did to get where they are, and start making moves to get there.
  6. Mentor other young women.
    1. The reality is that there aren’t enough women of color in positions of power. It is important to role model professional success for young girls who are constantly bombarded with negative messages of what it means to be women of color.
  7. Read. Read. Read.
    1. Read books that focus on leadership and managing people. Some of my favorites include: How to Win Friends and Influence People, See Jane Lead, and Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office.
    2. If you can’t afford to buy these books, head to your neighborhood library or spend lots of time at your favorite bookstore.
  8. Attend seminars geared toward cultivating your leadership qualities.
    1. There are plenty of organizations out there. Do your research. Sign up for a workshop that will help you advance your career.
  9. Find support groups for women/women of color in your field.
    1. If there aren’t any, start one.
  10. Work should NEVER be your life. Make your physical, emotional and mental health a priority. No one is will do this for you.
    1. Incorporate a balanced diet and exercise program to your lifestyle.
    2. Make sure you get enough sleep.
    3. Make the time to do something you love and spend time with the people you love.
  11. Stay connected to your college/university alum network.
    1. Often times, alums are the best way to secure internships or even get your foot into the door.
  12. After you graduate make sure you give back to your college/university.
    1. I know that the thought of giving money to your already rich institution (while still paying student loans) might make you scream. However, making donations (however small) to specific scholarships for minority students or cultural groups on campus makes your alma mater know that you mean business and want to make sure they continue investing in their students of color.

Why I Am Watching “The Game”

17 Jan

“It’s so crazy how these fans are so embedded and … attached to these story lines,” Tia Mowry said. “They actually think Melanie and Derwin are real.”

I was one of the 7.7 million viewers who tuned in to watch The Game’s resurrection on BET last Tuesday.  And I will also be in the number, along with most of Black America, who tunes in tomorrow to see what happens (Will Melanie tell Derwin that DJ is his child? Will Kelly and Jason have make up sex already and get back together? Will Titi blow up Malik’s spot and tell the boss he is freaking his wife?  Will Malik apologize for turning out Titi’s girlfriend? Will Tasha keep up the friends with bennies relationship and risk her heart for good sex?). 

I must admit that part of the appeal of The Game in the past was the relatability of the characters.  I believed (in) them.  I could see part of me or someone I knew in them.  They made sense.  I laughed with them, cried with them, felt for them.  As a spin-off of Girlfriends, I felt like I already knew them.  But the return of the show and the return of the characters left me feeling somewhat ambivalent and confused.  I don’t know who changed more in the two years since the show was cancelled on the CW, me or them?

The characters have become so exaggerated and embellished that they are hardly likeable anymore.  Somehow the ambitious, independent, supportive women have been morphed into golddiggers, (potentially) trifling baby mamas, insecure damsels, and vengeful enemies.

Looking back, the original characterizations were woman-friendly.

Melanie was the privileged young woman who much to her parents chagrin fell in love with a college football star and later followed him to California to begin his career.  She was determined, however, not to lose her identity in his and prioritized her own dreams of becoming a doctor, enrolling in medical school and postponing marriage until she achieved her goals.

Tasha Mack was the epitome of strongblackwoman.  She too held on to her identity with tightly grasped fists, embracing both her pre-millionaire teen-mother-of-a-football-phenom-son- self with the go-getter-sports-agent-entrepreneur self.  She pursued her own business in a male-dominated field and rarely held her tongue.  She was proud of who she was and where she came from and negotiated womanly needs with her financial aspirations.  Sometimes too Sapphire-like for long-term relationships, she was unapologetic for her sass and entered relationships heart first (head last).

Kelly was the quintessential white Barbie-doll trophy wife who rose from humble beginnings to marrying the black football player. She struggled with her identity as a woman, wife, and mother independent of her husband but played the supporting role of yes-woman.  Towards the end of the last season she began to finally find and embrace an identity of her own, outside of her marriage.

The women were decidedly different but their friendship made sense.  They made sense.  They were all so very human—and their issues, tangible.  But two years later, they are hardly recognizable.

I had high hopes for the season premiere.  And clearly I was not alone.  There were countdowns, watch parties, facebook conversations and Tivo recorders set in eager anticipation of catching up with the characters we had come so close to knowing, the characters that Tia Mowry says we find so “real.”

I was, however, somewhat disappointed.  I am not overly concerned with the storyline of the show (though that could clearly be talked about) because I realize that after a two year hiatus they had to do something to fill in the space and bridge what has been going on between then and now (though, admittedly, I wish the show would have picked up exactly where it left off, with Melanie and Derwin’s makeshift wedding in the hospital chapel, welcoming his new namesake to their family, John Legend’s soft, melodic voice whispering “this time I want it all” in the background…but I digress).

I feel like the characters became caricatures, empty shells of their former selves.

Perhaps the writers are taking their cues from reality shows about athletes and their girlfriends and wives (a la Real Housewives, Basketball Wives, Football Wives, etc.) where the more over-the-top the better, the more flamboyant, loud, and stereotypical the higher the ratings—but I am hopeful that things can/will turn around.  These characters are redeemable.

Since when does Melanie decide that staying at home and posing for magazine covers will fulfill the drive and ambition that led to three years of medical training?  Since when does Tasha Mack seek self-definition through a man?  Since when does Kelly become so self-absorbed, money-obsessed and vengeful that I can hardly stand her? Since when do all of the women become defined by their relationships (or lack thereof) to men, without even the comfort of each other (friendship)?  (At least in previous seasons they could rely on their sister-friends to help them through the breakups, disillusionment, identity crises, etc.)

Admittedly part of the appeal of The Game is what keeps me tuning in to reality television shows.  I get invested in the characters and I care about what happens to them. 

I am equally critical and curious. 

As a feminist, I will keep watching The Game because I want to see if they will redeem the characters.  As a consumer, I will keep watching The Game to see if Melanie keeps her dirty little secret.  Either way, I have the DVR set and ready for tomorrow’s episode.

Meeting My Sister

14 Jan

Yesterday, I met my sister on Facebook.

My mother’s only child, I have always wanted an older sister, someone wiser and cooler who could hip me to the ways of the world.

I had replied to a cousin’s status update,  an action that has become as commonplace as eating my morning bowl of cereal.

When I perused the other status replies a few moments later, there was a name that I immediately recognized, but never expected to see. Clearly this was no ordinary morning.

Just a few weeks ago, I searched for her on Facebook with the little bit of information I have.  But to no avail.

Her reply was an immediate acknowledgement; she greeted me, calling me by name, as though we were old friends, who had run upon each other unexpectedly.

Perhaps, I have longed for her because I have known, since my daddy proudly announced her presence to me at age 4 that she exists.

Even though yesterday was the first time that I put a face with a name, it is not the first picture I’ve ever seen, or the first encounter I’ve ever had.

The first time I saw my sister’s picture, I was four. My daddy gave it to me.

I remember all the gifts my daddy ever gave to me: two fancy yellow bows with ribbons for my hair, a green purse for my fourth birthday, two half-dollar coins that I still have. And a picture of my sister.

It must have been a school picture. I remember skin a little bit lighter than mine and a huge smile, perhaps a blue shirt, maybe an afro or some other kind of hair that seemed really big. Daddy said with pride, “this is your sister, Niki.” Then he stuck her picture in the corner of another family photo that sat on our bookshelf.

That picture has been long lost, but it’s presence, the only tangible connection between me, her and our dad has remained with me.

In fact, it is one of the very few positive memories that I have of him, buttressed on all sides, by alcohol induced fits of rage. His pride, his smile—my smile, on that day, is a memory that has remained neatly tucked away, resisting any urge I might have to read the man who brought so much turmoil so early, as anything other than human.

I was seven or eight the first time I saw her. As I had done on many other Saturday mornings, I accompanied my mom to the local corner store. In line in front of us was a short, curvy teenage girl. I think she was wearing a skirt, that she had a short hair cut. She made her purchases and departed. When we came to the counter, the store clerk, my mother’s friend, leaned in conspiratorially, whispering in the kind of way that always peaks the interest of only children used primarily to adult conversations.  “That was Niki.”

My mother turned to look; so did I. My precocious, nosey, walking-encyclopedia self, quickly filing away what few details I could remember. But there was only the memory of the back of her. My sister once again slipping just beyond my grasp.

At age nine, our father passed away; my sister did not come to the funeral.

At every family event that I have attended over the years, sparse though they have been, one of my father’s sisters has given me some tidbit about her. “She has a cute little girl.” “Did you know Niki got married?” “She does hair.”

I held onto all these tidbits, filing them away as mosaic pieces in a story of my other family.

The pieces I do have – my father’s face, skin tone, and smile, and according to my mother, the peaceful (if crunk) temperament of his sober self, his family’s stories; an old photo album; and now my sister, her life, her children, our family resemblance and whatever memories she is willing to share—are forming a complicated chiaroscuro, a life of bright and dark contrasts that give each other fullness, meaning, texture and flare, dramatizing the contrasts of loss and rupture; reunion and reconnection.

The whole thing may never come into view, as brilliantly as my sister’s smiling face did yesterday, the photo album that is facebook, bringing into fine focus, a friendly visage that has eluded me for so long.

The pieces I do have, I will cherish, as I cherish the long lost photo.

As my big sister said yesterday, “ I don’t believe so much in making up for lost time; we can’t get it back. I do believe we can make better for the time we have left.”

Wiser words were never spoken.


Feeling Good Means Healing Good

13 Jan

So it’s January and the weight loss advertisements are literally flooding in.  Like two days into the new year Bobby Flay was in a warm up suit talking healthy eating when October-December he and all his foodie buddies on the Food Network and the new Cooking channel were all about indulgence. But the ad that really caught my eye was the Jennifer Hudson Weight Watchers ad.

As usual I was behind the times because I TiVoed Black Girls Rock, which was taped in October and aired in November, but I did not watch it until December.  So I literally watched her amazing performance with Ledisi, Jill Scott, and Marcia singing Nina Simone’s “Four Women” thinking wow she has gained a lot of weight since I saw her last. Then a few weeks later saw the WW ad. (Correction: I was alerted to the fact that the fourth singer at Black Girls Rock was Kelly Price not Jennifer Hudson)

I must admit I don’t keep up with the latest as much as I should, but I figured I was not seeing her much because she was focused on trying to recover/heal after the tragic loss of her mother, brother, and nephew. What concerns me most is that the new ad manages to do a lot of work while still tricking the public into thinking that weight loss will solve all your problems.  So first off the use of the song “Feeling Good” is amazing because Jennifer Hudson is being read through many lenses.  She is an American Idol runner-up turned super famous celebrity and a black woman who has had to overcome extreme adversity.

But here are a few behind the scenes details to know.  First, CDC statistics indicate that nearly 1 in 4 Black women are “overweight” so we are being actively targeted as a major consumer market by Weight Watchers.  Second, Jennifer Hudson would have been considered overweight in October 2010, but has loss considerable weight in time for a January 2011 ad campaign–that’s fast.  (Correction:  See above).  Third, there is no clear indication in the commercial of how much weight she lost or how she lost it, just images of her body in a skin tight white dress and a powerful song.

I don’t buy into the Body Mass Index formulas because they were not meant to be used outside of the context of your family medical history and your personal medical history.  I believe, like Surgeon General Dr. Regina M. Benjamin, that we should be talking about being healthy at any size or weight. In October 2009 the Federal Trade Commission published guides for celebrity endorsements making it difficult for weight loss advertisements to include all kinds of statements while putting in small light font on a light background “results not typical.”  What Weight Watchers has done is effectively maneuver around these restrictions by using images alone.

Rewatch the commercial and you will see that it is just an encoded music video for Weight Watchers.  What we see is a smaller Jennifer Hudson singing “I’m Feeling Good” and Weight Watchers Points Plus.  What we don’t see is her personal trainer, nutritionist, psychiatrist/psychologist/therapist, potentially a cosmetic surgeon, or her hair stylist.  Furthermore every time she sings this song, Weight Watchers gets to tag along.

If Jennifer Hudson is feeling good I am happy about that, more power to her.  But the way she is using her body or the way her body is being used to promote weight loss-for-all can be devastating for women broadly, and Black women in particular. So here is my “talk back.”
#1 Being thin or losing weight does not equal “feeling good.”  I know because when I am most stressed, confused, upset, what have you my tendency is to not eat as much as I should, lose weight, and get compliments for it.  That is ridiculous!
#2 Talk to me about Jennifer’s support group, her girls who helped her through it all, her supportive partner, therapist, dance teacher, minister, or whoever has helped her to recover.  Weight loss=feeling good–really? What about recovering from the unbelievable loss of her immediate family?
#3 The true winner is Weight Watchers because they managed to get around FTC rules and while they may be “inspiring” people individually, when you think about the shear number of weight loss ads on television in the last two weeks alone it’s more like collectively “shaming” people into saying “if J Hudson can do it after what she has been through then what is my excuse?”

When I say feeling good means healing good, I mean let’s feel good because we are taking care of ourselves inside and out “at every size and every weight”, loving ourselves “at every size and every weight,”  NOT because we are Watching our Weight (ourselves) through someone else’s eyes trying to look like Jennifer Hudson in December 2010.  Let us “feel good” responsibly. I officially name and claim January-March as “Love Ya Body Quarter” starting NOW!

Again I apologize for the Jennifer Hudson/Kelly Price error, but I believe the larger points still hold.

Watch What You Say: On The Accountability of Words

10 Jan

In a communication course last year my students and I reached an impasse when they insisted that words have no power.  When I challenged their overuse of popular, yet problematic, slang that is potentially offensive and harmful (i.e., saying something is “gay” or “retarded”) they claimed that words don’t mean anything, they are “just words.”  As a communication scholar and professor I offered theoretical and practical evidence to dismantle their argument but I felt I could better show them than tell them.  I continually challenged their thinking and came to our next class meeting with a list of offensive terms that I went on to read and call out to them.  My performance was not as effective as I would have liked but I did succeed in forcing them to think about the emotional impact of language and how we are all complicit in the rhetoric we use.  Words are not innocent, regardless of intent. 

I was devastated on Saturday when I learned about the shooting in Arizona.  I have been preparing a syllabus for my Communication & Diversity class and the incident reminded me why our communication practices have to be ethical.  Sheriff Clarence Dupnik was not off base when he insinuated that hateful vitriolic political rhetoric is not blameless in this despicable event.  While I set out to teach my students to respect and appreciate difference, I am fully aware that we live in a society that seeks to punish people who don’t look/think/act/talk/believe/worship/live like the majority.  I struggle to establish a space for reconciliation, particularly when the loudest voices are generally the ones of dissent and disrespect, echoing from the far right and the far left.

My life and work has always challenged canonical narratives of what is right, normal and moral—but as a black woman no one ever uses my existence or positionality as a standard by which to compare other lives.  The words and act of naming, or lack thereof, of experience is paramount.  And it is relevant to note that the stories and realities of people who are “different” are oftentimes dismissed.  Our stories, and lives, are made to seem insignificant, like we don’t count.  Initially, media reports of the victims from the Arizona shooting elaborated on the Congresswoman, federal judge, and nine year old girl but the other victims, particularly the ones who died and were over the age of 70, were grouped together as “and others.” (How many news stories have focused on them?)  I realize that focusing on the ‘big names’  is a strategic tactic of the news media, but it deserves critique.  Were the only lives worth talking about those of the elite, the young, the rich?  All of their lives, all of our lives, count regardless of age, ability, political affiliation, religion, education, skin color, sexual orientation, etc.  We all matter!  As a feminist I am invested in human rights, respect, and equality.  And I constantly check myself because I know that for every representation/experience I highlight, another voice/story is being ignored.

Having recently read my mentor, H.L. Goodall’s book Counter-Narrative: How Progressive Academics Can Challenge Extremists and Promote Social Justice, I am invested in a narrative of hope, not fear.  Goodall challenges progressive professors to “teach propaganda theory and critical approaches to combating it in our classes.”   He urges his readers to be informed rather than utterly dismissive of extremist narratives so that we know how to dismantle them.  In many ways his book predicts the dangers of radical, extremist ideologies and introduces the reader to some of the extremist thinking that has framed a space for literal violence.  He offers strategies for a counter-narrative to hate and a move towards social justice.

I want to think that I live in a world where anything is possible—and that there is far more good than evil, far more love than hate.  I have to be hopeful because that is the narrative I want to live out, the future I would want my children to inherit. I am hopeful but I am also wide awake and with my eyes fully open I recognize that we have a long way to go.  But I refuse to be silenced by fear or held hostage by ignorance.

My students’ assumption was misguided.  Words are not “just words,” they are seeds.  We need to be deliberate about how and where we plant them.

Does This Make Me Look Fat?

6 Jan

I own the movie Phat Girlz and I’m not ashamed.

Starring a pre-Oscar Mo’Nique, Phat Girlz is part Cinderella-story, part conventional rom-com about a big girl searching for some love. It’s not remarkable in terms of budget, plot, or acting. In fact, a fair bit of it is cringe-worthy. (What immediately springs to mind is the fetishization of Nigerian men. Good Lord).

Still, despite its shortcomings, the  film works for me for some fundamental reasons.  I appreciate the fact the big girls are not sassy sidekicks, but they are stars of the show. And while it was billed as a romance, the theme of self-love was perhaps just as important as the romantic plot line. And positive portrayals of a thick sister having sex?! Yes, please!

But perhaps one of my favorite moments in the movie happens in the beginning. Heroine Jazmine Biltmore (played by Mo’Nique) is working in a department store when a customer asks her if the outfit she has just tried on “makes her look fat.” Peep the scene in the trailer.

The film makes this into a funny moment, but oftentimes this type of interaction is no chucklefest. If I had a dollar for all the similarly inappropriate and downright hurtful invocations of the word “fat,” I’d be a wealthy woman.  If I had a dollar for all the times thin folks with complexes (bred by the impossible social standards of the mythical norm, I know), wanted me to soothe their fears by letting them project their disdain for fatness onto my larger body…you get the picture.

A lot of this behavior is born out of self-loathing and the public shaming that comes along with being even remotely associated with being overweight.  I understand. I get it. At the same time, being large, fluffy, plus-sized, Rubenesque or whatever does not make one equipped to be the counselor for a family member, friend, coworker, or random stranger’s fat-bashing.

It’s Resolution season. Celebrities are endorsing weight loss products (have you seen Jennifer Hudson lately?), gyms are offering discounts, and “getting healthy” is a on a lot of people’s minds. Another season of the weight loss-makeover-cry-fest reality show, The Biggest Loser, began this week.  I remember the first time I heard of the show. I couldn’t believe my ears. “The Biggest Loser?!” I thought. Great. I teach English. I get the play on words. But a loser is a loser. Can’t nobody tell me that the title is simply about losing weight. <Side eye.>

More and more folks are becoming obese, especially poor folks of color who don’t have access to reasonably-priced fresh food. This is not a trivial matter. I think living a healthy life is an admirable goal. Losing weight might be an admirable goal for some folks too. Putting folks down or assuming the right to police another person’s health (e.g., through fat-shaming) should not be a part of this.

So, in light of all this, I’d like to make a crunk public service announcement:

Fat does not equal ugly.

Fat does not equal weak.

Being thin does not make one morally superior to those who are not.

Leave your judgment at the door.

Feel free to bring your love right on in.

%d bloggers like this: