Archive | July, 2012

Coming Out Stories: On Frank Ocean

10 Jul

By Summer McDonald

Original Published at The Black Youth Project

I’ve spent the last week treading in the liquid of a queer-flavored ambivalence, trying to determine why the Anderson Cooper and Frank Ocean coming out announcements mean less to me than other people. I have seen enough episodes of Coming Out Stories and foolishly subjected myself and my partner to the awkward anti-climax of telling my father about my sexuality to know that helping folks who somehow don’t know how to use context clues with declarations of same-gender-lovingness is supposed to make one feel liberated, free, authentic. I know that my role is to stuff this blog entry full of words, symbolic pats on the back of Anderson, of Frank. Each paragraph should serve as a swell of applause for their bravery, I suppose. But there are enough of those posts already. And I try not to be disingenuous. So, I have spent the last week avoiding being pummeled by all of the congratulatory remarks for several reasons: 1. I needed to put words to my own feelings of ambivalence with as little outside influence as possible, 2. I read two responses to Frank Ocean’s apparent coming out and knew that something was terribly awry, and 3. Although I had treated both “announcements” similarly–that is, I made snarky remarks via Twitter and Facebook–I was also told that Frank Ocean’s coming out was more important than Anderson Cooper’s.

Pause.

Now, shrugging off Anderson Cooper’s “The fact is, I’m gay,” remark seems perfectly understandable. After all, I haven’t checked for Anderson Cooper since his coverage of black suffering helped catapult him into media superstardom. Not that he’s the first, but still… He doesn’t need nor does he seek my words of support. Besides, as the phenomenal Phaedra Parks might say, “Everybody [already] knows Anderson Cooper is gay.” Moreover, I find no reason to believe that Cooper’s confirmation does much for social justice. I’ve spoken ad nauseam about privilege: white privilege, male privilege, class privilege. All of which Cooper has. A fact that, in my opinion, undermines most of the significance of one line in an email. Perhaps my imagination is too limited, but I cannot envision the most vulnerable of us choosing to stop being locked away in the proverbial closet because Anderson Cooper just spilled his tea. That said, good job, good effort, Anderson.

My dismissal of Cooper on the technicality of privilege, I imagine, might lead one to think that I find more significance in Frank Ocean’s Tumblr post wherein he discloses that his first love was a man. After all, Ocean is young, black, not BFFs with Kathy Griffin, entrenched in hip-hop, and might have been interviewed by Cooper back in 2005 had he not left his native New Orleans due to Hurricane Katrina. Still, I didn’t flinch. I almost treated Ocean’s “announcement” in the same way I reacted to Cooper’s. But since I kept getting hit with waves of reasons why my equation should read: Frank Ocean coming out > Anderson Cooper coming out, I realized that perhaps it might be more beneficial to explain why I cannot properly compute that mathematical sentence.

First, I’m no theorist, but coming out, at least the way it is currently constructed, seems to go beyond articulating a desire to be accepted by others. It’s not simply about wanting an unmediated and honest connection with people (we care about). I say this understanding coming out as a kind of rites of passage, as a story we’re all supposed to tell. “So, when’d you come out?” is such a common refrain among those of us who were allegedly in the closet; it’s seemingly inherent to a gay/queer identity. We discover that we are queer, we tell people or keep the secret, we live on–or not. I know this is an important act for folks. It was important to me, too. However, coming out also seems to work as a plea for the continued recognition of one’s humanity. The reaction to these public, quasi-confessions reveals to me that coming out  seems less about the person revealing the “secret” and more about the response from the people witnessing the emergence from the closet. Coming out seems to be a really dramatic way of humanizing a concept and asking, “Will you still love me…?” Which is to say that it is a tool that tests presumably straight people. By coming out the way that I did, I was essentially testing my father’s capacity to still see me as a human being worthy of love, as I was doing something I thought he didn’t necessarily think any human would naturally do.  And although he is my father, a man whose approval I still thirst for, I now understand my act as one that (temporarily) gave up my own authority to understand myself as a human being with no need for such reassurance. And that’s understandable, but it’s issue-laced. Love is a fundamental right of living beings, no matter their “behavior.” And those of us who operate in a capacity that does not seem normal should not serve as a testing and/or educating ground for those who do. In yet another problematic piece for Time.com, Toure put it this way:

Studies show that people are more likely to be at peace with homosexuality even if they only know homosexuals through parasocial relationships — the sort of one-sided relationships we have with celebrities. It becomes harder to hate gay people when you find them in your living room all the time via Modern Family or Will & Grace. So coming out remains important because the visibility and normality of prominent gay Americans makes life easier for less famous gay Americans, some of whom commit suicide because they fear the life ahead of them.

In other words, coming out is important because it helps straight people stop being judgmental bigots.

Perhaps I am in the minority in this, but this line of thinking is not at all okay. None of my identity serves to make people comfortable nor do I exist to make them better at being people. It’s just not my job. (It’s Google’s.) If coming out is important because of its utility to straight people, then I’d rather not come out. Such an act, in its current manifestation, does nothing to destabilize heterosexuality as a default category that everything else must orient itself around. Furthermore, it becomes the way others test themselves. Which is why, I suppose, I find so little space between those who took up keyboards to douse Frank Ocean with a deluge of words about his bravery and those who took the opportunity to vehemently bash him. Both sides are responding to the same stimulus. But we can only be awakened by such news if we continue to regard heterosexuality as the state of inertia. So when we applaud or express our disapproval in the way that we have, we reify straightness as normal. Social justice, then, should not necessarily lionize coming out, but mitigate the act by articulating an understanding that sexuality is fluid–not something that fetishizes otherness to the extent that it is championed.

Perhaps dream hampton’s letter to Frank Ocean (accompanied by a picture of hampton and Jay-Z, mind you**) best exemplifies my trouble with coming out as we know it:

It’s true, we are a lot alike… “spinning on blackness. All wanting to be seen, touched, heard, paid attention to.” In your opening few lines, you simultaneously established your humanity, a burden far too often asked of same sex lovers, and acknowledged that in this age of hyper self- awareness, amplified in no small part by the social media medium in which you made your announcement, we are desperate to share. You shared one of the most intimate things that ever happened to you – falling in love with someone who wasn’t brave enough to love you back. Your relieving yourself of your “secret” is as much about wanting to honestly connect as it is about exhibition. We are all made better by your decision to share publicly.

The first and last lines of this opening paragraph particularly strike me. hampton immediately arrests Ocean’s letter in a kind of self-congratulatory gesture: the quickness with which she takes on Ocean’s language and inserts herself in his story prevents his letter from breathing on its own before she interrupts. Ocean’s declaration gets suffocated by the need to announce that “we” are and/or have been made better people by what Ocean has said. Yet the rest of hampton’s letter, like so many articles and blog posts that have come after it, drown the narrative to which they are responding. In fact, hampton rather presumptuously regards the “he” pronoun in the letter as moot, thoroughly and severely undermining Ocean’s point in a manner that attempts to create a palatable universality–we’ve all been in love–that consequently removes the weight we are to glean from the “confession.” This move not only silences Ocean, but wrests away his authority over his own story to the extent that hampton can now occupy that jurisdiction and thus make a claim about what is important and what is merely “incidental.” Yes, hampton is proud of Ocean for his bravery, but she seems even prouder of those, like herself, who either showed their support for Ocean instantaneously or have taken this as an opportunity to become better people by expanding the limits of their tolerance and/or love. To add, the post ends with an N.B., informing the reader that Jay-Z posted hampton’s letter to his site without hesitation. All of which compels me to ask: Who are we reallyapplauding here? To whom is the coming out act so crucial? And why are we lauding Ocean so?

It’s rather evident that the answer to the last question lies in hip-hop. We’re supposed to care more about Frank Ocean because he’s a young black man on the brink of superstardom who happens to be entrenched within a genre that is regarded as notoriously homophobic. Indeed, hip-hop is homophobic; I don’t argue against that. When an institution is composed of young black men whose sexuality and agency is already compromised, homophobia seems inevitable. I imagine similar kinds of poorly conceived articulations of reactionary masculinity are elicited in other homosocial spaces such as locker rooms and frat houses. What we are left with, then, is blackness. Which leads, yet again, to the idea that black people are somehow more homophobic than others. And I resist that argument. I will not valorize Frank Ocean because I believe that his counterparts are more homophobic than men of the same age with less melanin. And I think this impulse to add grandiosity to this alleged coming out moment is predicated on that opinion. So much so that we’ve assigned sexuality onto Frank Ocean when he didn’t even really come out. He told us that his first love was a man, and even that was more than likely a response to some lyrics which left many wondering. Yet we are so busy searching for a “just how homophobic is hip-hop?” test case and so consumed with fixing an identity marker on something that is so unstable and fluid that we forget that small point. Ocean’s post could have less eloquently been written as, “The fact is, I fell in love with a dude once.” Nonetheless we, those of us who do not identify as heterosexual especially, are so thirsty for these moments in which we can prove our humanity to the world; we are so distracted by congratulating Jay-Z, et. al. for such public open-mindedness that we’ve forgotten who we’re talking about in the first place.

And so, my decision to shrug can be whittled down to my choice not to congratulate the masses for their apparent liberalness through their decision to still listen to Frank Ocean, nor scapegoat hip-hop as peculiarly homophobic. Those arguments are not enough for me to add value to Ocean’s letter. What I can say, however, is that if we are to regard Ocean’s Tumblr post as a significant moment, it isn’t because of his sexuality. It’s not because we’ve found a new mascot. It’s because a young, black man, presumably raised upon a diet that included Biggie, ‘Pac, and yes, Jay-Z, publicly and eloquently emoted about his love for another. In a milieu where “we don’t love these hoes” is a thoroughly banal assertion, where black men must comport themselves as emotionless and hypermasculine as product of racism and a method of survival, Ocean’s bravest admission was that he was vulnerable, that he loved someone. When the mantra of your adolescence is big pimpin’, fuckin’ bitches and getting money, the most revolutionary thing you can do is love another and say so. Frank Ocean loved. And he told us. That is what we should we applaud. That is where we should find value. For that is the true revelation.

**dream hampton’s original post, which originally appeared on Jay-Z’ site, features a picture of Frank Ocean. However, sites, like GlobalGrind, that chose to re-post the letter exchanged that picture for one of hampton and Jay-Z. GlobalGrind was where I read the letter, so I chose to cite it in my piece.

The Joys of Stillness

9 Jul

Recently, Tim Kreider published a piece in the New York Times called “The ‘Busy’ Trap,” where he extolled the virtues of being both lazy and ambitious. Krieder is not really talking about genuine busyness brought on by meaningful obligations, but all the small stuff that can take up a lot of room in our lives. In fact, Kreider insists “Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.”

Whoa.

But when you think about it, constantly checking Facebook, or tweeting, or answering email, or staying late at work to complete a list of inane tasks that you can do tomorrow can really be desperate cry for validation—even if everyone else is doing it.

When I read Kreider’s piece, I thought of all the academics and activists I know. Folks who are, indeed, engaged in a whole range of cool projects and important things, but who were often crushed under the burdens of too many obligations, too many meetings, and just plain old too much stuff to do. Like Kreider, I believe there is virtue (and sometimes even productivity) in stillness. I know getting quiet and listening to what my spirit needs has helped me tremendously, both personally and professionally.

But what I want to call out today is the commiseration around busyness, as if that mess was cute. It goes a little something like this:

“Oh my God. I really want to do (xyz reasonable, soul-sustaining activity), but I’m super busy!”

“Oh my goodness. Me too! I have this, that, and the other self-imposed, toxic activity on my plate. Oh well. I’m super busy!”

And on, and on. Folks complain but it’s a badge of honor. What I’ve also noticed more and more frequently is the guilt-tripping that some “super busy” folk try to lay on those around them. Yes, the busyness police. Let me assure you that I will rebuke anyone trying to haze me with their to-do list. When I see those folks coming I try to ground and shield myself from the foolishness.

Lately, I’ve gotten back to reading for pleasure as one of the many ways I reject the narrative of busyness. (I know, an English prof who doesn’t have time to do the very thing she loved so much that she decided to do it for a living! It boggles the mind). My friend and colleague, Chantel, a talented novelist in her own right, has recommended and passed along several books that I’ve been holding hostage for months.  I’m reading those bad boys—without the nagging notion that I should be doing something “more important.” Come to think of it, I can’t think of anything more important than feeding my soul. Can you?

So, family, what are some of your methods for avoiding the busy trap and/or its guilt-seeking minions?

Asking for Sex: What Do You Do When the Guy Says No?

2 Jul

Frequently, I tell my friends that my life is a bad romantic comedy. There’s plenty of comedy, little romance, and never a happy ending.

This has become all the more apparent as I have attempted to make sex a regular rather than sporadic occurrence in my post-30 life.

I swear that I have managed to meet the only 200 men on the planet who actually say “No” when you ask for sex. (Of course I’m exaggerating. I don’t think I personally know 200 men that I find sexually attractive.)

Feminism and becoming a grown-ass woman with a strong-ass 30+ year old monster libido has made me decidedly  less embarrassed about asking for what I want, particularly as it relates to my intimate life.

In fact, asking for what I want and need has become my mantra for 2012. One of my good friends gave me exactly this advice on January 1st of this year. And recently, I heard Joan Morgan, my feminist big sister shero say exactly this same thing at a series of wonderful discussions on Emotional Justice that I’ve been attending. “Ask for what you need,” she implored the audience, because  to paraphrase the ending, “you just might get it.”

And getting it—good and on the regular—is what I’m interested in.

But my asking hasn’t helped.

#TrueStory: chalk it up to #VenusRetrograde but last month saw exes coming out the woodworks. I had a chance to have dinner and clear the air with one that I really liked.  After a lovely dinner and good conversation (not to mention an extended drought), I asked if he’d like to accompany me back to my room.

Surprise of surprises: he declined. Exasperated (and horny) I asked “Why?” Lo and behold, he flipped the gender script and told me some version of: “I’m happy to have you back in my life. I don’t want to move too prematurely because we are rebuilding our relationship.” Riiiiight. What I wanted to know is what our “relationship” had to do with the sex that I needed to have right then and there.

For that there were no answers.

Perhaps it’s the sexual frustration talking but I have been especially annoyed by all this pop culture talk of celibacy brought on by Megan Good’s choice to abstain until her recent marriage to Devon Franklin, a Hollywood exec and devout Christian.

During last night’s BET Awards, she stayed on message, happily celebrating the fact that now that she’s married she can have all the sweaty, R&B induced sex she’d like.

Her public abstinence campaign led to several conversations about what role sex should play in relationships.

Now one could argue that men being more thoughtful about sex, rather than being the selfish entitled asses that they have traditionally been is a feather in feminism’s cap.

And I know lots of Christian sisters take Meagan Good’s story as evidence that there are good brothers who will wait.

Three things though:

A.)  We aren’t all Meagan Good.

B.)  For this one brother she found that was willing to do the quote-unquote right thing, there are 50 that won’t. I’ma PK (preacher’s kid). Trust me.

Maybe I’m just being cynical.  But there is also this.

C.)  Every woman isn’t trying to get married.

For the perpetually single sister, whether by choice or circumstance, Christianity’s general view of sexuality leaves little to hope for.

Even so, if all this celibacy talk didn’t smack of “user-friendly patriarchy” (shout out to Diva Feminist), I might be convinced.

But what I can tell you is this: Getting my courage up to ask a partner that I trust for the sex that I wanted only to be turned down left me feeling hella disempowered.

As feminists one of the major tenets of hetero-sex positivity discourse is making women feel empowered to ask for what we want, to know that our needs and desires matter. Back in the day, some of the original pro-sex Hip Hop Feminists, TLC said, “yo, if I need it in the morning or the middle of the night, I ain’t too proud to beg”

#realtalk: I’m a little too proud to beg. But not to ask. 

What should we do when men flip the script and tell us no? 

For instance in this recent piece at Essence.com, the male author had the nerve to be “concerned” that a woman might reject the possibility of a relationship with an otherwise compatible mate if his sex game was found lacking.

Now that women are prioritizing sexual pleasure, men are changing the rules. They are recognizing that sexual performance can decline with age just like beauty.

But frankly, strictly speaking from my own experience, I think that men say no as a way to regain power.

 I have a strong personality, I’m outspoken, and smart. Whatever the fuck Steve Harvey says, I know some brothers have found it intimidating. Denying sex becomes an easy way for men to let you know who’s boss.

Of late, I’ve had more than a few homegirls tell me about the negative reactions that they have gotten from men they were casually involved with, when they tried to prioritize sex in the interaction. Apparently, even when these brothers weren’t all that interested in a relationship, they took it as a serious blow to the ego, to find out that sisters just wanted to engage them for their bodies and sexual talents.

And in the classic fashion of those with privilege, they played the victim, changed the rules, and refused to give the thing they had the power to give. In this case, sex.

I wish I had some pithy insights about how to negotiate this madness. For instance, I know these kinds of stories make pro-sex feminists (of which I am one, very uncomfortable).  In a system that highly constrains choice, agency is a precious commodity, and no one likes to feel like they have no agency. And that is how this shit feels on many days.

I’ll say this one thing: I’m not indiscriminate in my sexual choices. Given the AIDS crisis among Black women, and the high rates of HPV, an STI which condoms do not offer 100% protection from and which disproportionately leads to the cervical cancer deaths of Black women at a rate 200% of that of our white counterparts, I cannot afford to be indiscriminate.

Moreover, I refuse to apologize for having standards, even for my sex life.

Truth be told, it sucks to feel like on the one hand, good long-term relationships are hard to come by (and 70% of Black women with advanced degrees are single, mind you) and on the other hand, your sexual empowerment strategy is literally a life and death situation, every single time.

This is the kind of ish that professional women of color confront on our journey to trying to find the balance, the all, that highly educated professional white women rarely have to think twice about. {Good reply here though.} I mean, fuck ALL. Can I just get some?!

But I know my desires are healthy. Human. Holy, even. I also know that #AClosedMouthDon’tGetFed. So I have no choice but to keep asking, hoping that in “asking, it shall be given, that in seeking I will find.”  And along the way, I will remember Joan’s most important words from Emotional Justice:  “I try to be as fearless as possible in my love practice.” Word. May courage be my angel.

Blue-Eyed Jazz & Love: 3 Blackgirl Lessons I Learned From Toni Morrison

2 Jul

As a writer when I feel the pull of creativity it is as seductive as the lure of a would-be lover, arms outstretched with whispers in my ear as sweet as honey mixed with molasses.  It is enough to keep you up all night and daydreaming throughout the day imagining the next thing to say that will capture the feeling, moment and emotion simplistically.  It’s beautiful.  Soul-stirring.  Inspirational.  Like sex that is so good it makes you wanna  cook good eggs or make good coffee.  But then there are the times, most times, when the words don’t come and their absence lingers like the smell of a former lover, arms long gone, and words long silent.  Emptiness where hope was.

Sometimes the words are there but I don’t feel like sitting with them or jotting them down or typing them on a keyboard so I distract myself with mindless television, meticulous housecleaning, or unnecessary errands.  Sometimes I read.

Lazy days and late nights in June, hard earned from busy days and long nights for several months straight, led me to a renewed love affair with Toni Morrison.  I first read Toni Morrison as a pre-teen.  A friend of my mother’s loaned me The Bluest Eye and Beloved and I marveled at the fancy script on the covers but was soon disinterested because I didn’t understand what I was reading.  I was too little, at the time, to make sense of the grown up tensions of incest and infanticide.

It took me years to pick The Bluest Eye back up, as much for the image of the blackgirl on the front as anything else.  And when I got past the first difficult pages (difficult, I believe, for any teenager to fully comprehend) I read words that made me make sense.  The Bluest Eye didn’t cure my depression but it made me feel less strange for my own misguided misperceptions of why I was so unhappy, as if light skin, long hair, and blue eyes would be the end-all-to-be-all of my problems.  The book pushed me to see my black as beautiful, to see all black as beautiful.

When I read Sula I was nearly grown and appreciated Sula’s fearlessness, even though I didn’t understand her grown-woman choices.  It wasn’t until I was fully grown that I could understand her better, though never fully, and appreciate her, even admire her.  When she declares her independence to her grandmother, rejecting traditional expectations of women to marry and make babies, saying “I don’t want to make somebody else, I want to make myself,”  everything in me leaped.  Those words were powerful.

Jazz is a good read, but it is complicated and jagged, melodic but intentionally scattered like the music, which kept me from getting all the way through it the first or second time.  Third time’s a charm and I read through it in one night.  Identifying with Dorcas, a motherless daughter seduced by a grown married man or seducing a grown married man (depending on perspective), got caught up trying to feel wanted and important.  Her memory haunted his wife’s house like a ghost because the wife could not be young and beautiful again.

My re-acquaintance with these stories and others (Love is on my nightstand) reminded me of how and why Morrison’s brilliant prose has always served as a writing siren and a blackgirl call for me.  The characters are black and female, bossy and complicated and real.  They laugh, they cry, they lose their minds and put them back together, they fall in love, they resist love, they want to be seen, heard, loved, made love to.  They are mothers, other-mothers, wannabe mothers, bad mothers, good mothers, best friends,  sister-friends, girl children, married, single, left alone, wanting to be left alone,  young, old, promiscuous, chaste, saintly, judgmental, loud, quiet, masculine, feminine, sad, abused, raped, murdered, resurrected, talked about,  beautiful and ugly.  They love each other fiercely and men conditionally.  They dance, philosophize, and complain.  They are real—everything at once and nothing in particular.  They put me in the mind of so many women I have known and loved and myself.

These characters are enough in their own right… fighting against films that often depict blackness and femaleness as  one-dimensional or broken, and spoken out loud words that sometimes forget that there are wonderful stories written down.  When black women write blackgirl stories… they are filled with all of the possibilities and dreams and hopes in the world. They also tell the truth and give us a place to see what we look like on paper.

Looking back at the books and their lessons I have compiled a few things I (have) learned from reading Toni Morrison this summer. (NOTE:  This is NOT an exhaustive list)…

SULA

1.  Ain’t nothin’ wrong with resisting conventional labels and expectations.   Sula was a revolutionary, a rebel, a pariah. She didn’t give a damn what anybody thought about her.  She lived life on her own terms and resisted conformity.  She did what she wanted to do and what made her feel good unapologetically.  Though she had a problematic view of love and relationships, brought on by how she witnessed it in her family, she was faithful and loyal in her own right.  And that was  more than enough.

JAZZ

2. Love that is desperate (even when deliberate) is dangerous.  Dorcas died in Jazz because of the lust-inspired love of a man who could have been her father (and the disdain of her new, younger lover who was more concerned with the blood stains on his shirt than her bleeding and dying body).  This love and need to be loved is sometimes too much.  Manic love can never be sustained.

THE BLUEST EYE

3. Internalized self-hatred distorts our views of beauty.  Pecola Breedlove saw herself as others did and took on all of the bullshit of the world and put it on herself.  I don’t think it was Pecola that was ugly, but rather what she witnessed, experienced, and endured.  Society has done such a number on little blackgirls that it feels like all we need to be happy and acceptable is to be entirely different.  Not black, not a girl, not poor, not vulnerable.  Pecola’s peers knew the truth—that blue eyes and black skin would not make her beautiful, but rather odd.  Strange.  Pitiful.  And pitiful as she was, her fragility and naivete, her young body made mature too soon by a figure that should have protected it, led to a mental breakdown and deep emotional blues.  Blackgirls are not unbreakable (or unbeautiful).

These stories offer commentaries about love, friendship, black culture, black girlhood and everyday experiences often hidden behind closed lips and closed doors.  Morrison is brave enough to tell unspoken truths and to teach her readers remarkable lessons about living and loving.  I cherish the stories she tells and will be re-reading Love this week, and ordering her new book Home when I am finished.

What is on your summer reading list?  What is your favorite blackgirl story?

Please share your own thoughts, insights, and lessons from black or browngirl stories in the comments.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 167 other followers

%d bloggers like this: