Archive by Author

Learning Community with Black Girls

17 Oct

Wish to Live and Hip Hop's Lil Sistas SpeakIn a two-part series called Meet the Authors, the CFC talks to Drs. Ruth Nicole BrownChamara Jewel Kwakye, and Bettina Love about their recently released books, Wish to Live: The Hip-Hop Feminist Pedagogy Reader and Hip hop’s Li’l Sistas Speak: Negotiating Identities and Politics in the New South. Both books describe Black girlhoodand hip hop feminist teaching in the university and community classroom.  Ruth Nicole and Chamara coordinate SOLHOT (Saving Our Lives Hear Our Truths), which is a multi-sited, community-based space developed to celebrate and affirm Black girl genius using art.  Bettina organizes, Real Talk: Hip Hop Education for Social Justice, an after-school program for elementary school-aged students aimed at promoting issues of social justice through hip hop education. Part I covers hip hop feminism as pedagogy or the art of teaching. Part II will explore the body and hip hop feminism as Black feminist thought.

Crunklife: How do you marry hip hop feminism with pedagogy in your new books?

Bettina Love

Bettina L. Love is an assistant professor in the Department of Elementary and Social Studies at the University of Georgia. Her work has appeared in numerous books and journals, including Gender Forum, Educational Studies, and Race, Gender and Class.

Bettina: Hip hop feminism is a way of life, the way I see the world. I’m an educator. Before I was ever a researcher, a scholar, a writer, I was an elementary school teacher, so hip hop feminism and pedagogy just works for me in the classroom. I also think working with young girls to create a space for them that they don’t get in schools.  I think young girls, especially young Black girls, feel so disconnected from school. Their culture isn’t there. Their stories aren’t there. Who they are is not there in formal education. To merge those worlds for me as an educator and as a hip hop feminist just feels so natural and so right because I know the potential of these girls. If we can work in spaces where there is shared knowledge and produce this shared knowledge, it’s just powerful.

Chamara: I think it is definitely a way of life and how we see the world. It is marrying the things that we see in our daily lives as Black women and bringing those elements into the classroom in different ways and shapes and forms. The classroom, not just being in these formal spaces but being in informal spaces in the community, is where we get together and talk about the ways in which our world is being shaped by—not just the music, but—the kind of things that are going on around (us) and in the everyday-ness in our lives. The book was taking the things that we had done in the community in Champaign-Urbana (IL) and then asking other people who had been a part of that or who had been a part of the Hip Hop Feminism class (at the University of Illinois) to share the things that they’re doing and the way that they brought hip hop into these spaces.

Crunklife: You talk about working inside and outside of the classroom. You all work with girls. Could you talk about that? What do the girls teach us as homegirls? What do they teach us about ourselves?

Bettina:  I have a chapter in my book that talks about starting my research with my limitations. I walked into this research project thinking that I knew everything about Atlanta and I knew everything about hip hop. I looked like these girls. I never thought that I had to address all of my messiness that I had in my life. These girls brought it out of me.

My queerness was on display for them. During the first interaction I had with these girls, they walked up to me and said, “You gay?” Being quick-witted and not wanting to put my guard down, I said, “You in my business.”

I could not research them, get to know them, understand them, and tell their stories until they put me on blast. They did something that was very interesting. They started talking about lesbians in their school an earshot away from me. I truly believe that they did this to let me know: Let your guard down. We’re cool. Talk to us. I couldn’t tell their stories until they put me on blast. It was an awesome, awesome experience because they wanted to tell their stories.

They are just so smart and they’re ready to critique, and they’re ready to be heard. I was there wanting to do that but I didn’t know how to do that. It helps as a researcher or someone doing this work in the community to address your stuff, your messiness when you walk into these spaces with these girls. I’ve had to address my notions of southern-ness. I’m from New York. I had to understand what my mother said about country folk, stereotypes, and all this internalized homophobia that I walked into this space with, the girls helped me to confront.

Ruth Nicole Brown

Ruth Nicole Brown (Ph.D. in political science, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor) is an artist-scholar and an assistant professor in the Departments of Gender and Women’s Studies and Education Policy, Organization and Leadership at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She is the author of Black Girlhood Celebration: Toward a Hip-Hop Feminist Pedagogy (Peter Lang, 2009).

Ruth Nicole: I definitely echo the messiness. We see the same exact thing in SOLHOT where they call you out whatever it is when you least likely want to talk about it. They put it out there. In SOLHOT, we’ve had homegirls that have really stepped up and embraced it, and we’ve had others that once they got called out, they cried and left, you know. She said this about me. Or, this is too much. I got to go. Maybe some people are just not ready to deal with it.

Those who stay, there’s a lot to be said about the power and the presence of a woman who can address her complexities and articulate them and share them. I think that the formal classroom, the university classroom, is so into consumer education. I’m big on that lately because it’s like the students really don’t want to know what I know or what we can learn from each other. It’s, “Can I get your signature so I can leave?”

This is why outside of the university classroom is where education and learning happens in a very sincere way. We approach each other as people first without having to fight all of the isolation and the complicity that the university sets up. We can just really ask each other questions and have a real learning experience. The girls in SOLHOT drop knowledge all the time. We are there to learn from them. Like we always say [in SOLHOT], “what the work is.” We don’t presume to know what the work is before we get together with whatever group that is SOLHOT.  The girls taught me how to fix a CD when it’s scratched by dropping it in a toilet. We thought we knew what we were doing, but they taught us that. The girls constantly teach me that when one of them gets suspended, the question is not, “What did she do or what happened?” But we ask what happened to her because it’s always the person that responds that gets caught. So, we connect to her first. She reacted and subsequently got in trouble. So those are just a few that I’ve learned.

Bettina: I also think as Black feminists, it calls us to get outside of the ivory tower. It really does. To do this work and to live this work, you will not be able to do this work with integrity if you only stay in higher ed.

Crunklife: But do we want to make those divisions? What if there are first generation people like me who are now taking classes in school and see it as being part of their Black feminist construction as well?

Bettina: I think you’re right. I think we have to be in both, but we have to make sure this work hits the community.

Chamara Jewel Kwakye

Chamara Jewel Kwakye (Ph.D. in educational policy studies, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) is a scholar, storyteller, and performer. She is currently a Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Research Fellow in the Department of African American Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Dr. Kwakye is currently writing a book that documents the life histories of Black women in the Academy.

Chamara: I agree with most of the things that have been said. There’s no way that you can talk about somebody else’s life without being called out about the stuff in your life. There’s just no way that you can do that with any real connection to that person or with any integrity.

You’re trying to write about somebody else’s life and interrogate their life and you haven’t really looked at your own life. I don’t know anybody who’s done that successfully and it reads well. It will read like you’re five feet away as opposed to actually being in the moment and connecting with that person. So with the girls, really again, echoing what Bettina has said and what Ruth Nicole has said, there’s no way that you’re not going to get called out. And so, going into that space, you really have to be okay with being called out or really learn quickly on your feet because this is what’s going to happen. In order to do this work well and not be overwhelmed by it, you’re going to have to start interrogating your own self.

The girls are constantly, in SOLHOT, calling you out. For me, last year, it was my break-up. I may have said one thing about it, and they were like, “Did you bust the windows out his car?” They were going to call me out, but it was also taking care of me too in a way. By that time, I had spent a considerable amount of time with them and they were really checking in to make sure I was okay. If I had gone in there with my guard up, I would have never gotten to that space of care where they actually showed me that they wanted to make sure I’m okay. How are you surviving this moment? That’s what I learned from them. If you allow people to call you out on your stuff, they will also be there to take care of you too. It’s not just a one-way relationship where I am checking in on them. They want to know what’s going on outside of the spaces that we’re in. It becomes a reciprocal relationship where we’re checking in on them and they are checking in on us.

For more information about books, please visit Amazon.com:

Wish to Live Book CoverWish To Live: The Hip-hop Feminism Pedagogy Reader moves beyond the traditional understanding of the four elements of hip-hop culture—rapping, breakdancing, graffiti art, and deejaying—to articulate how hip-hop feminist scholarship can inform educational practices and spark, transform, encourage, and sustain local and global youth community activism efforts. This multi-genre and interdisciplinary reader engages performance, poetry, document analysis, playwriting, polemics, cultural critique, and autobiography to radically reimagine the political utility of hip-hop-informed social justice efforts that insist on an accountable analysis of identity and culture. Featuring scholarship from professors and graduate and undergraduate students actively involved in the work they profess, this book’s commitment to making the practice of hip-hop feminist activism practical in our everyday lives is both compelling and unapologetic. (Source: Amazon.com)

Hip Hop's Lil Sistas SpeakThrough ethnographically informed interviews and observations conducted with six Black middle and high school girls, Hip Hop’s Li’l Sistas Speak, explores how young women navigate the space of Hip Hop music and culture to form ideas concerning race, body, class, inequality, and privilege. The thriving atmosphere of Atlanta, Georgia serves as the background against which these youth consume Hip Hop, and the book examines how the city’s socially conservative politics, urban gentrification, race relations, Southern-flavored Hip Hop music and culture, and booming adult entertainment industry rest in their periphery. Intertwined within the girls’ exploration of Hip Hop and coming of age in Atlanta, the author shares her love for the culture, struggles of being a queer educator and a Black lesbian living and researching in the South, and reimagining Hip Hop pedagogy for urban learners. (Source: Amazon.com)

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Cake! Cake! Cake! Cake!: Let’s Take 2Chainz to School

13 Sep

At the Crunk Feminist Collective, there are educators among us who teach in unsafe classrooms, around uncomfortable kitchen tables, in crumbling youth centers, and between warring crowds on police-barricaded streets. We teach because we believe that offering a lens and the language to critically engage the world are fundamental to changing the world.  It seems to be a lofty charge, but we are anchored by it especially when we spend thankless, countless hours preparing the “perfect” lesson plan and notes to incite and inspire young folks.

Today, I am bringing the classroom to the blog. From a horsefly’s golden bum named Beyoncé to poisonous Tupperware-like butt pumping parties, the CFC has covered how the booty continues to frame desirability and identity. We have described how the commodified, sexual display of Black buttocks dates back to the iconic backside of South African Sarah Baartman, dubiously dubbed the Hottentot Venus.

Let’s talk about eating the Other as theorized by bell hooks. Here are two recent objects/images of dismembered Black female bodies molded as cakes and offered up for public consumption.

The first object/image circulated this Spring when the Swedish Minister of Culture kicked off World Art Day with a ceremonial cut to the genitals of the black-coated, blood-colored cake. The blackface performance artist screamed amid gawking onlookers who laughed, snapped photos, and later gobbled the cake, bottom upward. The viral video sparked outrage across the globe.  In a refined statement the Black male artist, Makode Linde, said his intention was to make viewers uncomfortable and to call attention to “genital mutilation” or more specifically clitoridectomy (i.e., the removal of the clitoris).  The second object/image is also of a cake—a cake in the shape of a thong-wearing booty that is presented to the Black male artist 2Chainz in a music video. In the chart topping record, “Birthday Song,” the rapper repeats: “All I want for my birthday is a big booty hoe.”Cake from "Birthday Song" by 2Chainz

If you can stomach watching both of the videos, tell us:  Is there any difference between the two cakes?

(Warning: Videos links contain explicit material.)

Swedish cake art termed racist Cake art stirs heated debate over racism in Sweden. CNN’s Nima Elbagir reports

Birthday Song by 2Chainz featuring Kanye West

Further Reading:  Willis, D. (2010). Black Venus, 2010: They called her “Hottentot”. Philadelphia, Pa.: Temple University Press.

Next Class:

The Crunk Feminist Collective will talk to three authors about hip hop feminism featured in their new books, Wish to Live: The Hip-Hop Feminist Pedagogy Reader edited by Ruth Nicole Brown and Chamara Jewel Kwakye, and Hip Hop’s Li’l Sistas Speak: Negotiating Identities and Politics in the New South by Bettina Love.

Tu(r)ning to Black Love

20 Feb

Whitney Houston with her mother Cissy

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

Where is the love?

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

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

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

Melissa Harris-Perry and Sister Citizen book cover

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

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

Culo, Coffee and Crime: More on Disrespectability Politics

23 Jan Popular representations of Black and Latina women
Popular representations of Black and Latina women

From left to right: Jennifer Lopez (Lucywho.com), Nicki Minaj (King), Duchess (NY Daily News), Beyonce (Lucywho.com), and Saartjie Baartman (Wikipedia)

From an Australian researcher claiming Beyoncé’s name and her celebrity bum with a horse fly, a pissed Wisconsin congressman attacking the national obesity campaign by deriding the First Lady’s derriere, to Diddy riding on somebody else’s butt for more fame in his new book called Culo, across the academic, political, and the popular, our booty remains integral in what CF crunktastic has deemed disrespectability politics.

I came across Culo as a recommended Christmas stocking stuffer from Amazon. The accompanying website bends over backward to market the “coffee table” book as high art by telling the would-be buyer that “culo” is an Italian word rather than the familiar Spanish slang tossed about in rap and reggaeton songs by Pitbull, who pairs with Timberland to provide the soundtrack to the book’s R-rated promotional (music) video. The site also hypes famed fashion photographer Raphael Mazzucco, who has made a career of capturing near-naked women for Victoria Secret and Sports Illustrated.  Diddy’s collaborator, Jimmy Iovine, suggests the book is a part of Interscope’s diversification—expanding from music to book publishing [and I would add, expanding the Black American hip hop aesthetic to include diverse women (read: non-Black)] as part of Interscope’s global booty. (Interscope is a part of the largest multinational music group in the world.)

Book cover for Culo

Book cover for Culo

The art claim is supposed to give Culo international cachet and curtail local cries of racism and sexism. The claim is also deployed to distinguish itself aesthetically from similar visual representations, such as those seen in Waka Flocka’s “No Hands.” It is supposed to celebrate a so-called new era in which “the world is no longer flat.” It ain’t so flattering for African-descended women who carry the cultural baggage of the fuckable, unrapeable, insatiable, and hyperfertile jezebel because of a muscle. Along with my frustration with the postrace rhetoric is the postfeminist one that wants us to believe that Culo is a celebration of women’s power and beauty (by reducing us to a body part).  I mean, actor Al Jolson celebrated his mammy in blackface, but most black folks ain’t remixing that cinematic minstrelsy. [Insert your Tyler Perry comments here.] My 15-year-old Sir Mix-a-Lot big butt loving self might have bought some of P. Diddy’s pro-woman posturing. But, the glossy-printed, 240-plus page fake feminist fantasy could not be sold to me today. I am a grown ass woman.

Poster from facebook page dedicated to Claudia Aderotimi

I am a grown woman who grew up in a southern inner-city believing that outer beauty—the booty specifically—could trump intelligence and was the biggest asset for a dark skin Black girl, so when I heard about young Black and Latina women participating in p(l)umping parties where they inject one another with illegal infertility hormones, industrial-grade silicone, cement, or superglue, I became deeply disturbed that the thang that has narrowly defined our desirability is also taking our lives. Such is the case for the Nigerian-born Londoner, Claudia Aderotimi (aka Claudiyah “Carmella” James), who came to a Philly hotel for the injection and died 12 hours later when a poisonous concoction entered her bloodstream. Aderotimi, named an African princess by 50 Cent, was convinced her hip hop stardom would be deflated after folks figured out her booty was padded.

The sensational news coverage about botched butt injections is as much about the illegal (and deadly) act as it is about criminalizing particular Black bodies. (BBD said you can’t trust a woman with a big butt and a smile in the 1990 hit “Poision.”) Duchess, a transgender woman who has been charged with the near-death of a Florida woman seeking an injection, has had her mug shot along with a full body photograph released to the press. The side view harkens to pictures of Saartjie Baartman, a South African woman dubbed the Hottentot Venus in 19th Century European freak shows. Fast forward two hundred years and African-descended women are still at center stage, fulfilling the twin feelings of lust and disgust regarding Black women.  There was no retraction when the Miami Herald news reported Duchess as having a backside the size of a “truck tire.” And, two women providing a PSA about pumping parties (which turned into an attack on race and gender conformity) saw nothing wrong with describing the supposed ugliness of (transgender) women whose full lips looked like “inner tubes” and whose booties were just too big for their bodies. There was a reason why Baartman was pejoratively called a Hottentot Venus: It could recall erotic beauty defined by the Roman goddess while reminding folks that our so-called less-than-human bodies could be exploited for commercial profit under white patriarchy. In the “new era” of booty worship, we might want to remember that one.

Make Me Over: The dangers of ‘Pumping Parties’

Somewhere Between Black Power and White Rage

25 Oct

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

The Black Power Mixtape, 1967-1975

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

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

1963 Birmingham Klan bombing that killed four Black girls

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

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

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

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

 

Occupy Wall Street

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

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

Irene, Erykah and the Stuff after Storms

2 Sep

When Irene whistled, I listened to Erykah. Curled on a daybed in the dark, I rummaged for ways to salvage stuff in the midst of a hurricane when Badu pleaded to the self-proclaimed bag lady on a drained battery to let it go.

This summer, I returned to my Virginia hometown to weather a different kind of storm. Separated from my partner and seeking a homeplace to complete research for my “tenure” book, I found myself searching in a cardboard box—a time capsule, which housed old academic awards, articles, and origami-folded, water-stained yes-no-will-you-go-with-me love letters that date back to the 6th grade. I sifted through old things to seek some form of validation or affirmation after being told by faculty unfamiliar with women of color knowledge production that my work was too little, and being told by my partner familiar with yes-man women that our relationship was too much. Retreating home to recover and write felt right until I had no electricity and I began bumping into that box and all of the baggage that I brought back with me.

And then, the hurricane came. The hurricane came when I realized the amount the stuff I carried. There was the physical stuff dispersed in offices, storage facilities, my car, my “hobo” purse, and other folks’ houses; the virtual stuff that needed constant attention lest I risked losing data or (meaningful) connections; and, the psychic stuff of growing up poor, black and female and feeling the pressure to do more and be more so that others would see me as equal.  The weight of stuff seemed to be all-consuming.

Our stuff is a product of living in a consumer capitalist culture, which encourages us to accumulate things to feed the economy, and to feed our feelings of alienation and dissatisfaction. Shows, such as Hoarders, Storage Wars and Pawn Stars represent a new genre of reality television that captures how we deal with it in our lives. After experiencing one day without electricity, my father fueled a generator for a few hours to power deep freezers, a George Foreman grill, and a portable television because we didn’t want to lose the already thawed food or the chatter that cut the silence when we ate dinner. We sat together, yet we experienced emptiness.  It was as if the room had to be filled with something other than ourselves.

Before Irene, it would have been difficult for me to imagine voluntarily moving to a new space with a single suitcase. Today, I am abandoning the bag lady for the kinda (self) love that Badu, Bambara and Crunkadelic said would make life better. It might not be the easiest thing to do, but shedding some of the stuff that I have held onto for years might make handling life’s unexpected disasters lighter.

Power restored.

Inconceivable: Black Infertility

27 Mar

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

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

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

Yearbook Photograph of Halloween Costume Contest

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

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

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

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

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

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

The American Fertility Association

The National Survey for Family Growth

Resolve: The National Infertility Association

The Broken Brown Egg Inc.

Black Women’s Health

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

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