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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.

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.

Interrupted Attachments: On Rights, Equality and Blackness

17 May

Remaining attached to certain ideals even when – and sometimes, most especially after – privileges that accrue to such concepts have been pointed out and problematized, should force us to ask some serious questions about the relation of citizenship and subjectivity, the relation of citizenship as subjectivity, to ongoing processes of exclusion and violence. The questions would be something like: Who am I? Who do I want to be? Attachments to certain concepts rehearse, reiterate and revise – through an uninterrogated longing and desire to be an individual, a self-determined thing that seeks the power of the state for validation – the virulence of state power, its capacity to make of us all docile creatures waiting for an affirmation of what we already have, what we already do in perpetuity, as if we have nothing and do nothing without such recognition. And thus, we celebrated the announcement from the head of the United States – an historic, enduringly imperialist project of the uninterruption of violence, incorporating difference insofar as it consolidates the furtherance of capitalist inequity – while readily dismissing and setting at remove for a later date, a non-utopic future always approaching but never here. This is not about the possibilities of horizon, a queer manifestation of the liberational force of broken frame.

Attachments are deferral without demand, abeyance without appeal.

Attachments are the “wait until we have this,” which is never too far from hearts, minds and lips of uninterrupted celebratory posture, wherein what is continually inaugurated is an abstraction – in the name of a “we,” but in the service of nothing other than desired coherence, stability, stasis.

What is given here is an incrementalist approach towards citizenship rather than a radical commitment towards justice. We see trees but certainly, no forest. Incrementalist approaches are necessarily a solicitude of citizenship, and embedded within this approach is the implication that in just a few “short” years, we will all look back at the folly of what is now our present moment with derision, but also with self-satisfied joy. We need only wait. But the “we” who is called upon to wait is always a peripherality to, and obstruction of, thought.

This pic/meme of the opposition to interracial marriage and now gay marriage should be noted.

Noted not because of the framing similarities between the juridical discourse and public debate about gay marriage with interracial marriage; it should be noted because we have not yet dealt with – nor does it seem urgent for enough folks to do – the root causes of such inequitable distributions of rights in the first place. So in fifty years we will say how “backward” our now present moment was with regard to “gay marriage” but because we refuse to deal with the root – an imperialist political economy that necessitates inequities of all sorts – we’ll likely both be having this same conversation with a newly marginalized group while AT THE SAME TIME folks will still be discriminated against based on race, gender, sexuality and class. Because, you know, racism, sexism and classism aren’t really dead yet and aren’t promising to go anywhere soon. [This notion of the “backwards” has been stated about North Carolina and the overwhelming vote for Amendment One, lampooning the state as full of “rednecks,” “hicks” and conservative black Christians; this displacement does not even think about the exploitive political economy of the US, let alone NC – something like 2% above the national unemployment rate, for example. The self-satisfaction of those making the claim about NC, for example, while refusing to interrogate the political economy that creates the conditions of inequity is not a little bit intriguing.]

Anyway.

The normativity of monogamy married [pun? intended.] to the ability to receive financial aid and benefit and tax breaks, as well as the literal violence of the rhetorics of “same gender” / “same sex” to folks who are intersex, genderqueer and transgender compel the inquiry: who is this “we” and what is the “this” that is seemingly being attained? Of course, one could claim that a general public would need be educated about such queer variances and that what is most pertinent in our now moment is the celebration of the now moment, a prepositional displacement banishing the concerns of others for the now moment. But then the most we do is submit to – even if we’d rather critique – the power of the state, reinforcing its capacity to extend by excluding. It seems that everywhere, folks have aspirational attachments and none of us occupies a position where this could never be possible, though historical marginalization tends to be thought as shoring up against such aspiration. Thus, the case of the following curious picture should be noted.

I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that the first dude is white and the second anti-gay marriage dude is black. I think it’s the tight curly fro or something. [Even if he’s not, stay with me]. What this picture rehearses, beneath its very thin veneer is not simply the idea that black people in the US are more homophobic than others, nor simply the idea that blacks cannot see the connection between interracial marriage and gay marriage as both are concerns about civil rights. What is beneath the surface is an implicit, but more foundational, claim about the coherence of marginalized groups, about how historically marginalized peoples gain subjectivity: by the assemblage of fucked up things that have happened to them. The second panel of the image implies: “hey, black man! some bad things happened to you in the past and that bad stuff is the sum total of what, and – most importantly – who, you are!” The vivifying force of the image is the idea that that which marginalizes is that which makes or forms “subjectivity” [and I think subjectivity is a bad thing; more on that soon]. The implication in the image is that marginalized groups own that which marginalizes. When this attachment is operative, “community” [which some say is fiction, though I’ve not been convinced; I’m an agnostic who goes to church for a reason] is grounded in that which is offensive, that which wounds.

But blackness is not reducible to “bad shit”; black community did not subsist and thrive in the face of the violence of slavery and Jim Crow by gathering around and deciding to be more fucked up and by believing that those things that others pathologized in us were bad. Black community was and is an incarnation of blackness, characterized by the joy of living in the face of institutions and systems that seek to diminish the very possibility for joy, for life, for love. The image rehearses the iterability of the narrative that reduces blackness to discriminatory things done to black people, that regulates blackness to bad shit, as a particular kind of historicizing purity, a coherence at the heart of our definable moments [e.g., the violence of Middle Passage rather than mati, affectional bonds created during Middle Passage that exceeded the horror, exceeded the violence, and allowed thriving life]. And, thus, the critique of black folks by Robin Roberts in her interview with Barack Obama wherein she bespoke the “especiability” of black homophobia such that Obama’s change would be grave “…especially in the black community”; thus the critique of Barak Obama by black clergy like Jamal Harrison Bryant and by religious groups such as the Church of God in Christ (COGIC). The above image, thus, is the presentiment of the various critiques from multiple directions – both for and against “gay marriage” – as they each assume blackness is reducible to historic marginalization, and that those historic conditions are the grounds for a coherent, stable identity that can be easily and readily identifiable. In this formulation, blacks would have to be “more homophobic” just to identify the antithetical position of necessarily nationalist, patriotic sentiment, or as Hortense Spillers argued otherwise, this black homophobia would have to be invented [and in some ways, it seems to have been]. This is a problem of, fundamentally, attachments.

What is most vulgar about uninterrogated attachments is that it causes us to contend with institutions like COGIC and its restatement of their opposition against gay marriage, requires us to respond to Jamal Harrison Bryant’s statements about gay people, while leaving intact and uninterrupted the violence required for citizenship under these American skies. Roberts’s statement of black homophobic “especiability,” COGIC’s oppositional restatement, and Bryant’s resistance to gay folks all articulate, at bottom, a concern about what it means to have personhood in the face of uncertainty, incoherence and instability. However, the problem emerges from, and is an attachment to, the fact that subjectivity is created by a violent move out from the incoherent, it is an aspiration toward stability and certainty. In that way, Roberts, COGIC and Bryant simply participate in the ever-expansive goal for subjectivity. But as the very idea of subjectivity is sustained by the logics of self-determination, I fail to find the utility; these are western philosophical concepts, placing “European man” as theological-philosophical-spatial center, and the “others of Europe” (as Denise Ferreira Da Silva calls it) can only journey toward a determined “self’ … subjectivity is defined by the ability to be fully possessed of oneself, to be closed, stable, anti-social, to be wholly determined; it emerges through violence and violation, thus i’m not persuaded that it is a worthy pursuit. The attachment is to a particular mode of violation against the social, a violation that yields the articulability of the individual. We might say that “gay marriage” is articulable in our present moment as a desire for citizenship that necessarily moves out violently from the incoherence and instability of queerness, sets those who cannot easily be – or those who do not want to –  “same gender” or “same sex” in the zone of deferral and abeyance. No demands, nor appeals here.

Maybe detachment is what we need. But how can we get there? Is an anti-political politics possible that thinks the world differently? One possible reply, which here may show up as a peculiar conceit, is to ask – and daily inquire intentionally and diligently – who do we want to be? Certainly not a novel question though it is ever-pertinent. Do we want to perpetually reinstantiate the conditions of inequity, only ever-so-slightly increasing who gets to count as normal, enlivening and refreshing the violence of the state, allowing such violence and violation to go uninterrupted in some otherwise location [e.g., the Prison Industrial Complex; Palestine; Wall Street]? Or do we want to radically transform our world by asking tough questions about our own, personal, private propensities for comfort over and against the safety of others? What world have we been given and what world do we desire to make? Southerners on New Ground does this work: to make bonds that do not diminish difference but builds coalitions based on collective struggle for a world full of radical, affirming love. SpiritHouse, Inc in North Carolina does this work: to lament the loss of black life but, as importantly, to affirm the life still here: to care for this life through joy, song, prayer, dance. This affirmation, this coalition creation, comes about through asking: what do we want to be, today, everyday? This affirmation, this coalition creation, comes about by relinquishing attachments to ideas, philosophies and theologies that we – even if they would have us – should interrogate because they would not, nor could not, have us fully whole, fully human, fully alive without relegation or repression. And maybe detachment from certain violent and violative concepts would allow us to fully attach, both to our deepest and most foundational humanness, and thus, to the world in which we abide, with others, in joy, in love.

Apocalypse Now: Some Thoughts on Race at the End of the World

26 Apr



Last March, Crunktastic and I were in Atlanta for the Southeastern Women’s Studies Association conference when a man approached us and handed us pamphlets that declared the end of the world was fast approaching. In fact, the pamphlet urged us to get our affairs in order so we could be ready by May 21, 2011.

 

When the date rolled around I called up my mama and when she answered the phone I let her know I was disappointed that she hadn’t got caught up in the Rapture. We had a good laugh and chatted about these pitiful somebodies who really thought the world was going to end. All jokes aside, I did feel sorry for the (admittedly silly) folks who gave up all their worldly positions, alienated friends and family, and generally acted a fool all in hopes to depart this world for what seemed to them a much better place. And, truth be told, I myself was raised to believe that the days were being shortened for the elect’s sake and that we should live like Jesus was about to beam down on a cloud and take us out of Babylon at any moment.

 

What I mean is last year’s apocalyptic fervor is far from isolated. There have been numerous claims throughout the centuries that warn about an impending doomsday and I know I’m not the only one who experienced some version of doomdayism growing up in the Black Church. Yet, despite the perpetual fixation on the end times humankind seems to have, I’m finding this particular moment of great interest. While the majority of folks may scoff at Harold Camping’s followers from last year’s fiasco, many of those same people believe that the U.S. is headed for doom, economic collapse, and general annihilation, and often resort to using thinly-veiled references to the looming specter of black and brown bodies here and abroad as evidence of the rapid decay of society–despite the fact that this “civilization” largely exists because of the unpaid and underpaid labor of black and brown folk. How, then, are we the root of the chaos?

White evangelical Christians in particular have been pretty hardcore about looking for Jesus’ return, and while most of them would perhaps agree that humans cannot predict the day or the hour, that hasn’t stopped many folk from wildly speculating about these here end times. Their mantra goes something like: The end is near! The Antichrist (President Obama) is a socialist who is trying to create a one-world government and we won’t have our freeeeedom! Also, black and brown people are super scary so we need lots of guns to protect our property from them!

 

Damn, Mike Seaver. Not you too.

Not unlike the bestselling Left Behind series, the shows Doomsday Bunkers and Doomsday Preppers also reflect a growing anxiety about modern society. While the former spends a bit more time talking about the science of how bunkers are constructed, both series are exposés about a rising subculture of folks who are “preppers.” Preppers spend thousands of dollars squirreling away food, clothing, and weapons, while also creating hideouts and bunkers for the impending apocalypse. These preppers are almost always white (so far, to my knowledge, a handful interracial families and one Latino family has been featured on the shows) and middle class. Now, some of the show’s participants fear reasonable events like nuclear war, global pandemic, peak oil, and so on. Other participants have more, shall we say, unorthodox views—preparing for the imminent eruption of super volcanoes, cataclysmic polar shifts, the devastating emergence of Planet X, or the looming end of the Mayan calendar. In any event, a theme appears in both series: week after week, these shows profile white preppers battening down the hatches and racking up stores of food and guns to protect their families from the “gangs of roving marauders” that will inevitably appear once civilization crumbles.

I swear, whenever someone utters that phase or one like it, they begin to describe riots and looting that are usually associated with people of color, like the Rodney King riots or the mayhem during Katrina. Maybe it’s just me, but when I think of gangs of roving marauders I think of folks arriving in a place unannounced and uninvited, who then strip the land of its resources, violently engage the inhabitants, and generally act as inhumanely as possible. Oh wait, maybe I’m thinking of imperialism. Never mind.

Funny how it’s not the end of the world when young black men can get gunned down in their gated community for looking suspicious, or when trans sisters are imprisoned for fighting off their attackers. There’s no national apocalyptic fervor when young brown girls are repeatedly gang raped. Yet, some folks are so scared of a moderate Negro in the White House that they are stocking up on a year’s worth of beans to stave of the apocalypse. My Lorde. Something is very wrong here. Let’s recognize this particular moment of doomdayism for what is: desperate cries from a “post-racial” nation hellbent on preserving its hegemonic power relations by any means necessary. 

Quite frankly, this is the only apocalypse I’m interested in:

The RuPocalypse!

Share your thoughts on doomsday fever in the comments.

Box Out: On Brittney Griner and Women Who Ball (Better Than You)

17 Apr

Guest Post by Summer McDonald Cross posted from Black Youth Project.


I have beef with Brittney Griner. It’s not because the Baylor University women’s basketball team she leads beat Notre Dame in the women’s NCAA Division 1 championship a couple of weeks ago, and I like an underdog–even if it is Notre Dame. It’s not because my beloved Tennessee Lady Volunteers were one of Baylor’s casualties on its road to a perfect, 40-0 season. It’s not because she’s tall. Although I would have appreciated a few more inches, I’ve never wanted to be 6’8; just a 5’10 or so shooting guard with an Olajuwon-esque baseline fadeaway.  I have beef with Brittney Griner  because she can dunk. And I’ve always wanted to dunk.

More than hitting a home run, more than throwing (or catching) a perfect spiral, dunking a basketball is, to me, the ultimate sports feat. Perhaps only rivaled by soccer’s beauty, the dunk is arguably the most spectacular play in all of sports. A select few–and even fewer women– have felt the satisfaction of catapulting themselves above the hardwood towards the rim, often contorting their bodies in the most artistic of ways before (powerfully) stuffing the basketball through the hoop. I’m sure the joy I felt after slamming one home on a 9-foot basket back when I was  a Y-ball referee would have multiplied exponentially had the rim actually been at the regulation height. Of course, I’ll never know, as my vertical has diminished in the years since I taught 6-year-olds what traveling, in the basketball sense, was. So even though her team’s victory ensured that UConn did not cut down nets (and all is right with the world) I cannot help but throw Brittney Griner a side-eye as she swings from the rim. I have dunk envy.

Griner’s slams are noticeably unlike the women who have dunked before her. Although Michelle Snow, Lisa Leslie, and Candace Parker have all done it, Griner dunks with such spectacular ease, that one almost minimizes the feats of her predecessors.  A Youtube phenom before she became the most imposing force in women’s basketball since Cheryl Miller, Griner’s dominance through all of last season was awe-inspiring. Her 7’4 wingspan helps her dominate the paint; she runs the floor effortlessly. Griner is so impressively athletic we forget she’s doing all of this–things most of us average-sized earthlings cannot–at a height (6’8) many associate with a laborious clumsiness.

Where I see Griner’s blessings, though, others have found an opportunity to question her gender. Perhaps the only thing more jaw-dropping than Griner’s game is the frequency with which Griner is called a man, told that she’s not a “real woman.” For some, Griner’s aforementioned height, size 17 sneakers, deep voice, and athletic dominance firmly plant her outside of the box inside which we check, shudder, female. Notre Dame coach, Muffet McGraw did not help matters when she said that Griner was like “a guy playing with women,” after the championship game. Although Griner took McGraw’s words as a compliment, comments like that do nothing but reiterate and further inflame the idea that Griner is too tall, too athletic, her voice too deep to be a woman. And if she is a woman, well, she must be a lesbian.

As admirable as one might find Griner’s own coach’s efforts to call out hecklers for the way that they disparage her star player, their actions seem to be mere surface level antics to a more deeply problematic and narrow notion of womanhood. Despite light skin and what many would regard as a rather feminine-looking face, Griner more than likely will not appear in ESPN: The Magazine’s famed Body Issue, that features women with physiques considered acceptably traditional and more likely to please the male gaze. A more probable option would be Griner’s opponent on championship night, Notre Dame point guard Skylar Diggins who, a foot shorter and hair straighter, turned many a head during last year’s tournament. Even Lil Wayne tweeted about Diggins; another rapper wrote an ode to her. Both juniors, Diggins and Griner will likely turn pro together. And Diggins’ seeming beauty will inevitably put Candace Parker’s baby hair to shame. Assuming she succeeds at the pro level, Diggins is a likely candidate to become a face of the WNBA; she could get the men to watch. And although Griner’s dominance in the WNBA almost seems inevitable, she may prove a much more complicated sell. She’s too tall, her voice too deep. And if heterosexual men don’t think they can beat you at a sport, they at least want to think they can sleep with you after the game.

The response to Griner highlights, yet again, a problem much older than Title IX. Which is to say that women (athletes), especially those who do not fall into traditional boxes of female beauty, have to contend with the way they make others, namely men, uncomfortable. My father refused to buy me black sneakers because he said they were for boys; though he signed me up and helped coach my AAU team, my stepdad required that I wear a skirt to school twice a week. As my aversion to stockings suggests, none of this was done for my comfort, but rather theirs. (And it didn’t quell my gay, anyway.) Just as athletics allow men to be affectionate with each other in ways they otherwise would not, women’s athletics and other, similar homosocial spaces, work differently and thus engender a pressure not to violate or offend male gazes.

At its most innocuous, this pressure results in what I call over-heteroing, wherein women who congregate in spaces where their femininity and/or sexuality may be questioned seem to overwork their appearance so that they appear to unequivocally desire the attention of men. I speculate that this is why some women play sports in makeup, or why women assistant coaches and graduate assistants occasionally look like they’re about the hit up the club after the game. At its worst, though, it goes beyond heckles and courtside stilettos. And women can’t just be like Brittney, brush their shoulders and wave to the haters. When such pressure is linked to power, what results are situations like what happened to Caster Semenya. And it goes beyond the unfortunate. Such acts are not simply disparaging, but go beyond the continued violation and marginalization of women to a level that endangers them.

And that’s how hecklers answer their own speculation about whether or not Brittney Griner is a woman. Of course she is. Otherwise, she would not have to withstand their continued verbal assaults. Word to Mike Tyson.

Summer McDonald is an explicitly queer Black Daria with better clothes.

Reconciling the Non-Profit “Post Industrial” Complex with Black Girls in Mind

5 Apr

Who is Anna Julia Cooper? Click here to learn more. Awesome FIRST wave Black Feminist.

On Monday, I went to visit the Score Small business mentoring office to learn about the benefits and limits of a 501 (c) (3) versus an LLC or a conventional corp. #planning. #wingsup.

I was REALLY surprised to learn that a 501 (c) (3) is seen as being owned by the public because of the tax exemptions that it receives.

I was really surprised to learn that there was an entire series of tax exempt classifications.

I also learned that,

To be tax-exempt under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code, an organization must be organized and operated exclusively for exempt purposes set forth in section 501(c)(3), and none of its earnings may inure to any private shareholder or individual. In addition, it may not be an action organization, i.e., it may not attempt to influence legislation as a substantial part of its activities and it may not participate in any campaign activity for or against political candidates.

This has huge implications for Black girls, in that I know that 501 (c) (3)’s are relatively recent institutional creations charity wise. This also makes me I wonder what was the unstated rational for preventing 501 (c) (3)’s from being allowed to be involved in electoral politics.

Here is the exact language,

Under the Internal Revenue Code, all section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office. Contributions to political campaign funds or public statements of position (verbal or written) made on behalf of the organization in favor of or in opposition to any candidate for public office clearly violate the prohibition against political campaign activity.

Were 501 (c) (3)’s created, in part, to absorbed the progressive energies of women while also giving them a wage?

#blackgirlpolitics.

What happens to Black girls employed in 501 (c) (3)’s when the executive directors don’t know that they are magic, and attempt to relegate their duties to to administrative realm ?

Don’t get me wrong, I have been an admin before, and I enjoyed the work, because not only was I good at it, but I was also recognized as being a extremely good at it.  I can run your office. Trust. Without an awesome admin, you don’t have an office.

However, if you are a Black woman who is a policy expert, health expert or finance expert and you have to keep struggling to not have your position turned into one that is increasingly administrative and marginalized, and less focused on your expertise, it feels both racialized and gendered. Our mothers and fathers did not sacrifice and fight tooth and nail for us to go to school, only to be treated like administrative mammies in the workplace. #DamnthatwasaTangent. #HadsomeShittoSay.

Which leads me to the question of how does this rule impact the lives of women in general, women of color in particular?

How does the creation of 527’s impact the lives of women of color?

How different would community organizing look of 501(c)(3)’s could participate in electoral politics?

Black Girl 501 (c) (3) thoughts? I wonder what Latoya thinks…

Why I Supported the Hoodie March and Not SlutWalk

2 Apr

Nearly two Wednesdays ago, after a long day in the office, I frantically drove home, donned one of three dark hoodies that I own, hopped a train to NYC from Jersey, met another Sista Prof friend and made it via taxi to Union Square just in time to participate in the first One Million Hoodies for Trayvon Martin March, which had been announced only the day before.

After hearing from Trayvon’s parents and the family’s attorney, we burst into the streets of Manhattan, speaking Trayvon’s name, almost as if the fervency of our incantations would call this boy, this young Lazarus, back to life. The energy in the air was nothing short of electric. We were not there when Trayvon begged for his life on a suburban lawn in Florida. But our collective screams on his behalf hopefully served to amplify his own screams that night.

I have been taken aback by the degree to which this case has touched the nation. With more than 2,000, 000 signatures on the Change.org petition and many public figures donning hoodies on his behalf, Trayvon’s murder has the potential to galvanize national conversations about racial profiling, the criminalization of Black male bodies, and the unequal way that arrests, conviction, and sentencing are applied to Black v. non-Black persons.

But as I sat home the next day and reflected on how simple a decision it was for me to attend the March and how glad I was that I went, I thought about my more ambivalent stance toward another movement that is also central to my political commitments.

SlutWalk.

It occurred to me that there was a central point of connection between the organizing principle of the Hoodie Marches and of SlutWalk, namely that each movement has sought to dramatize the intrinsic illogic of suggesting that one’s clothing choices invite–and more to the point– justify violent treatment. Not two days after the NYC hoodie march and one day after more than 30,000 people showed up in Sanford, Fl on Trayvon’s behalf, Geraldo Rivera said on Fox News that in fact Trayvon’s hoodie has as much to do with his murder as Zimmerman’s gun.

As if.

But then all of a sudden, dudes understood. I saw FB status after FB status saying, “a hoodie is no more to blame for Trayvon’s murder than a woman’s clothing choices are to blame for rape.” I might have cheered.

But really, what I had was a larger question. Why had I, an ardent (CRUNK) feminist refused to support SlutWalk? My primary reason as I’ve said before was about the inherent white privilege signaled by a movement that wanted to “reclaim” the word “slut.” Moreover, I felt like there was simply much more at stake to ask a woman of color to come and actively identify as a slut, than was at stake for the white women who readily jumped on the bandwagon. Also, as Trayvon’s case has demonstrated, the larger issue within SlutWalk was policing. I told organizers months ago in a dialogue in our comments section, that a critique of policing would invite all kinds of folks to come to the table. Because what has become abundantly clear is that both gender and racial ideologies are deployed to constrict the rights of women and men, Black and Brown to take up public space.  So my choice not to participate was an active assertion of the principle that I don’t want to be a part of any feminism that fails to actively critique racism.

Yet, I know that contemporary Black feminism emerged not just as a critique of white women’s racism, but also as a critique of Black men’s strident sexism.

Nothing infuriates me more than race-based organizing in which Black men take up all the space in the room. And it is precisely because of the long history of unjustified murders of Black men, that brothas feel entitled to exist at the center of the Black racial universe and feel justified in having the struggles that they face take up more than their fair share of the finite political, financial, and emotional energy and resources that we have to organize.

The result is that Black women find it incredibly difficult to make the case that the issues which affect us– alarmingly high rates of AIDS/HIV infection, disturbing statistics around Intimate Partner Violence, homicide, and rape, disproportionate rates of poverty, increasing numbers of incarceration and policing, the explosion of sex trafficking of young women, and copious amounts of street harassment—matter as much, are worth as much attention.

To put it the way some brothers have more or less put it to me: YES, sistas are being beaten, raped, and making do by themselves, but brothers are being KILLED. *Brotha drops mic. Walks away* Conversation over. (with no acknowledgement of the kind of privilege it is to both have the mic in the first place AND an audience when you do get the chance to speak.)

And now, another black boy is dead. And we are all rightfully angry.

But this position does not come without its risks.

Consider that there are no mass marches for Rekia Boyd, no massive national outcry, though her story has received more coverage in light of the Trayvon Martin situation.

In a zero-sum universe where resources are finite, and we have to pick our battles, rape/beating/harassment is (apparently) no match for state violence and murder. Within Black communities, high rates of Black male-on-Black male homicide matter more than the numbers of Black women killed at the hands of their Black male partners.

Feminist or not, it remains clear that Black women’s collective racial love affair with Black men is still going strong.

As a feminist, I personally struggle with what it means that on any given day, racism still seems to matter more to me than sexism. 

I marched for Trayvon almost without a second thought; with SlutWalk, its shortcomings were enough to keep me away.

 And while I could chalk up my choices to my experiences with violence– I have seen lots of violence in my lifetime, having lost my own father to gun violence—my choices are not quite so simple, when I acknowledge that I also have many, many women friends –and quite a few male friends, too—who are the victims of rape and sexual abuse and far too many female relatives who’ve confronted near-deadly violence at the hands of their male partners.

A couple of days after the Hoodie March, I had the pleasure of participating in a conference called Women of Power in Harlem. At the behest of the conference’s fierce Feminist Enough organizer, Shantrelle P. Lewis, we panelists rocked our hoodies at the morning sessions.

Photo by Jati Lindsay

That simple request and the seriousness with which we all took it, reminded me of just how much it continues to matter to Black women that our Black feminism not alienate us from Black men.

In fact, if I could just keep it one hundred, I think Black women care much less about whether our racial commitments or feminist expressions alienate us from white women.

Yet, the question remains

 Do Black men love us as much as we love them? Do they care enough to make sure their racial commitments and their gender politics and investments in unhealthy forms of masculinity don’t alienate us? Are they outraged about the shit we’re facing?

How do we make it so that our choice to stand up for Trayvon and acknowledge the injustices perpetrated in his name doesn’t set Black feminist organizing back three decades, by reinforcing notions about Black men being an endangered species, particularly since in this moment, it feels in some ways, like they are?

I don’t have answers, but I do invite dialogue. Feel free to share your thoughts.

On Appropriate Victims: More on Trayvon Martin and Other Names You Need to Know

26 Mar

Image of Rekia Boyd

Part of the reason folks rallied in reaction to Trayvon Martin’s murder has to do with ideas about who is an appropriate or worthy victim. He was shot by a vigilante, he wasn’t armed, he was a good student, had some class privilege, he was doing something mundane, simply returning from buying Skittles and ice tea. He was “innocent” and killed in cold blood.

We have an idea of who is deserving of support en masse and who is not. And for similar reasons we thought, with 911 tapes, eyewitness testimony, national outrage that it would result in a prosecution in the very least. If anything, the murder of Trayvon Martin shows us once again that there is no such thing as an “appropriate” Black victim.

Despite all evidence, Geraldo, Gingrich and others have found a way to make Trayvon the guilty party in his own fatal shooting. When brown and black men wear hoodies, they are asking for it. In a moment when it seems undeniable that race is a factor, people are still denying it! They even use victim blaming language.

Last week was International Anti-Street Harassment Week and I was struck with the similarities between the harassment that Black and Latino men experience by the police and the experiences of trans and cis women and gender non-conforming folks on the street. The language used by men of color to describe police harassment, is very similar to the language that those of us marginalized by our genders use to name our realities. Our clothing choices, our right to be where we are, when we want are all called into question.

Stopped, Frisked and Speaking Out from NYT The Local – Ft. Greene on Vimeo.

It seems that this time we can begin to talk across these incidents of violence and see the ways in which societal oppression is killing people. When you wear your hoodie for Trayvon, also think of:

Shaima Alawadi
Rekia Boyd
Deoni Jones
CeCe McDonald

Because these victims were women, Iraqi, trans, they didn’t pass the appropriate victim test. News media and popular opinion hasn’t prompted folks to take to the streets in the same numbers for them. But people are making the connections. We can be more coordinated with our outrage. We can demand a justice that doesn’t rely on the very system that didn’t help Trayvon in the first place (will we really be satisfied with the prosecution of Zimmerman? Can’t we ask for something else?). We can build solidarity to deal with the xenophobia, transmisogyny, and racism that target our communities in similar ways. In the wake of this tragedy we can start new collaborative initiatives that support survivors and families that are recovering after loss and move our collective response from reaction to revolution!

‘Dos and Don’ts

5 Mar

The summer of 2000 I went to my hairdresser and said, “I want you to cut all of this off,” pointing emphatically to my badly-damaged permed hair.  She asked me if I was sure and I told her I was–and off went four or five inches of angst onto her linoleum floor. What was left was less than an inch of cottony soft dark brown hair.

I was both relieved and scared. I didn’t even remember what my natural hair looked like and I’d never had my hair cut so short. That very day I went to the mall and bought a whole bunch of big hoop earrings so that I “wouldn’t look like a man or a lesbian,” as my mother suggested I would and as I secretly feared. Oh, the internalized patriarchy.

It didn’t take long, though, for me to enjoy waking up every day and looking cute, taking just a few minutes to get ready, and generally having healthy hair. The stylistic change also helped to bolster my already burgeoning crunkness around gender representation. After I got my mind (and my hair) right, I never looked back.

So, when I saw Viola Davis rocking a natural ‘do on the red carpet at the Oscars’ last week, I thought, “She looks great. And she’s working that dress out.” Now, I was still giving her the side eye about The Help and her conversation with Tavis Smiley, but I hoped the sister would get an Academy Award for her trouble.

 I was also pleasantly, but warily, surprised at the generally positive review of her ‘do in the mainstream media. Giuliana Rancic over on E! News positively gushed about Davis’ hair and I read more than a few articles praising Davis’ “bravery” for wearing her natural hair. Now, I know better than to think that the status quo regarding “good hair” had been changed overnight or anything, but I did appreciate the seemingly expanded range of what is being discussed as “beautiful.” That being said, it’s a hot mess when someone is considered brave for wearing their hair pretty much as it grows out of their head.

There’s always a hater though, isn’t there? So, after all of this gushing, television personality and self-declared wig connoisseur Wendy Williams went on record saying that Viola Davis’ look was not formal enough, in addition to some other disparaging remarks.

Really, Wendy?

Now, ain’t nobody really studying Wendy like that and I’m pretty sure Viola Davis isn’t crying into her soup about this either. However, just thinking about all the crap women of color, and black women in particular, get about our hair, Wendy gets the supreme side eye for this. The thing is, all that Wendy has said is what you hear in barber shops, beauty salons, and on the streets.  Her ill-informed opinion is, all too often, not the exception, but the rule.

When I googled "Viola Davis hair" this medley of wigged out hairstyles appeared under the label "Viola's Best Hair." I'm sort of digging numbers 2 and 9.

And before the chorus of “It’s just hair!” rings out, as Britni Danielle over at Clutch recently suggested, “For centuries, our bodies, our hair, and our being have been up for public discussion and display and we cannot deny the fact that sometimes hair is political.” Let’s not get it twisted.

Between the weather running amok, Republicans trying to get all up in folks’ vaginas, and other general shamtastery, we have big fish to fry. Still, that is not to say that the politics around hair don’t matter or can’t hurt. I know I’ve seen the pendulum swing in the other direction, with folks with naturals questioning the politics of progressive folk with straightened or chemically relaxed hair, wigs, and weaves.  Really? Does the revolution have a dress code? At the end of the day, the choices around hair and representations of feminine beauty are complicated–indeed, as complicated as the folks who rock the hairstyles. If we could remember that, along with remembering that folks just want respect, we can help shift the conversations at beauty salons, among our friends, and in our families. So, with the abundance of foolishness going on I just want to send out some love to sistas rocking wigs, weaves, blow outs, tiny afros, kinky twists, locs, baldies, and any other manifestation of crowning glory. With so much surveillance over bodies (and our minds), seemingly simple acts like confidently rocking a fro or skipping down the street in a lacefront take on all types of social significance.  I’m not suggesting that we forget that, but I am saying ‘do you, boo.


Battle of the What?: A Brief Reflection on the Battle of the Complexions Controversy

27 Feb

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I am sick and tired of the cultural story line that insists only one version (complexion) of black women can be “in style” (beautiful, popular, desirable) at any given time.  There seems to be a not-so-invisible scale that insinuates that black beauty is either light or dark, always one or the other, never both/and.  Binary thinking is always problematic and especially in this instance because these evaluations are inextricably linked to issues of self-esteem and self-worth.  In a society that has been obsessed with black women’s single/sex/personal lives, this feels like another opportunity to pinpoint the pitfalls of being a black woman and tell her why she is not wanted (could it be you are the wrong complexion too?).  Since black women are routinely subjected to desirability tests that are based on their measure of whiteness exoticism it should be no surprise that those comparison scales are becoming more intentional and literal (see below).

Being judged and rated in society is an unfortunate plight that black girls learn how to negotiate with the help, love, and reassurance from other girls and women, of various shades, throughout our lives.  These women are our red-boned mothers, our high-yellow aunties, our mahogany brown best friends and other brown blood and soul sisters whose beauty we immediately recognize.  We learn, from our relationships with these black women, that there is no such thing as one kinda (black) beauty.  We learn how to appreciate our differences and likenesses and we realize that the discriminations and prejudices that we face are similar and rooted in racism.  But then the outside (influences) makes its way on the inside (mind).

In what was claimed to be “a black history month event,” by club promoters Mack TV and Nelly Da’Celeb of St. Louis, black women were invited to participate in a contest where they would be ranked and evaluated based on their skin color.  The “Battle of the Complexions” was a “runway contest for [the] sexiest complexion.”  A facebook page for the event announced, ‘This is the most debatable topic of the year, what’s the sexiest skin complexion?? So ladies come out & lets settle this!!”

It seems that this supposedly debatable topic could be settled in a crowded night club with hundreds of horny and inebriated men and attention-needy women on stage with something to prove.  When confronted with the multiple and layered problems of their “light skinned versus caramel (brown) skinned versus dark-skinned” contest, the promoters, two black men, not unlike Too $hort a few weeks ago (check out this post,  this post , this post, and this one), apologized for offending those who were offended, but not for the misguided event itself (the event took place, as planned, on Friday night).  In a statement they said, “It’s Black History Month so we made a party theme dedicated to our African American crowd…here’s the first time ever you can come out and be proud that you are black!!  Regardless of your skin tone!!.. We could have used a better choice of words…We did not mean to offend the offended.”

Battle of the Complexions

Well…I am offended.  And despite the attempt to clean up the mess they made, it is not just a matter of semantics.  It is not only the words that are problematic but the theme itself, because evidently it does matter what skin tone you have if the purpose of the event is to choose the most sexy complexion.  The ways in which this perpetuates and promotes colorism and division makes it far more than misguided and unfortunate word choice.

I can’t help but wonder what the tone of a venue that pits black women against each other must be like?  Do they call each other names?  Do they call each other ugly?  Do they create color-coded cliques and demean the women not “qualified” to be on their team?  How do they prove their worth/beauty/desirability?  What must they sacrifice to win?  And what would it mean to win a contest that, if only for a moment, puts you at the top of the black girl hierarchy?  Is this the kind of victory you celebrate?  In these moments black girls turned women forget about the beauty and diversity of skin tones in the family, they dismiss their light or dark skinned sister or best friend, and find themselves needing to prove their worth—their beauty—on a stage where only one can win, and in fact everyone loses.   Why does one person’s beauty have to be at the expense of someone else’s?

National Pretty Brown Girl Day, which was celebrated on Saturday, is attempting to avoid what contests like the Battle perpetuates.  The need for a day to celebrate “pretty brownness” is evidence that our society doesn’t value and celebrate it on a daily basis.  We need to start challenging that–by devoting days to celebrating black beauty, in all of its many manifestations.  Perhaps by loving on each other (when no one else will bother) will help to dismantle the cultural cues that say only one version of black is beautiful.

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