Sister, Love Thyself

RosaParksIt’s the Rosa Parks syndrome. We black women are taught to be martyrs, to lay our bodies on the altar of our community, in the well-worn tradition of our mothers, and their mothers, and so on and so on and so forth, so that our children—preferably, our male children—can go forth.

Before Mother Parks sat down that day on the bus, she had done all sorts of work for the community as a civil rights worker, but she wasn’t given time to speak at the historic March on Washington. Neither were other black women.

But I can bet you all that fried chicken the male speakers invariably ate—after the March—was cooked by black women.

Every woman of every complexion is taught–outright or by observation–to ignore her own needs for the good of others; I think that’s a universal woman thing. But I don’t know any white women who are taught that, white guys just have the right to listen to songs calling them “bitches and hoes” because it’s part of white male rage, the need to for them to blow off historical steam. Unless it’s Rush Limbaugh, nobody tells white women that white guys have had it so hard in this country, so let them play their mean-spirited, woman-hating music.

And though a lot of white people, men and women, don’t believe a white woman’s testimony when she accuses a white man of rape, a white woman doesn’t have the entire white community on her back, telling her to recant.

Even black women’s magazines differ from “mainstream” (i.e. white) women’s magazines. You never get articles in mainstream magazines advising white women to marry men who have less education than they do and/or who make less money than they do or even, to marry men who have been to prison. You don’t have articles chiding white women for being uppity, reminding them that they can’t really be too choosy about their romantic partners.

Tangent: I’ll never forget years ago, in the aftermath of that “other” march—the Million Man March—Essence magazine had this whole spread on the March. But black women weren’t even invited by Minister Louis Farrakhan to attend the March, which was billed as a “Day of Atonement.” I kept asking myself, if this is a March for men, why is it in a women’s magazine? And then there were my other questions: if a brother wanted to “atone” for what he had done to his wife and/or the mother of his kids, how come he spent hundreds dollars to travel hundreds of miles away from her to say so? I mean, he couldn’t get a babysitter and take a sister out to the Red Lobster within a twenty-mile radius or something?

The notion that black women should never occupy an uppity space means that she must feel responsible for saving the community in which she was raised; she must never get above that community, even if she hurts herself in the process. I’m all for doing the essential work to help black folks, but it’s time for us to find a way to keep this community going without destroying black women in the process, and one of the ways I’ve decided is just to tell other sisters, “You matter, to me and to yourself.”

In my own life, I try to give my sister-friends affirmation, what I call the “woo-woo,” a term I stole from Sinclair on “Living Single.” Remember that show? It was the  precursor to “Sex in the City,” only instead of living in Manhattan, those four black women lived in Brooklyn before it was all edgy-like.

Sinclair was my favorite character, a quirky, strange-dresser woman who looked at the world the way she saw it: through nice, sweet, loving eyes. She was the quintessential, idealized black woman, only without the crack-addict relatives sleeping on her couch always asking her, “Can I hold five dollars?” And whenever one of her friends was feeling down, she would pat her and say, “Woo-woo. Woo-woo.”

Whenever one of my close friends has been depressed, he or she will call me. Most have to call instead of visit, because all but two live in other states, far away. On the phone, if I hear sadness, I will ask, “Do you need the woo-woo?” And then I’ll begin my litany: “You’re fabulous. You’re so cute. The world doesn’t know your power. You are touched by the hand of God.”

Or if I’m depressed, I’ll call up one of them and say, “I need the woo-woo bad.” In this way, I can cut through the preamble, and get right to what I need, which is reassurance that I am loved and accepted, just as I am. Sort of like an emotional quickie, without the need for condoms and such.

There’s one friend I have, Kim, who doesn’t even wait for me to tell her I need woo-woo. She just knows. Kimberly is the can’t-live-without sister I’ve been friends with for thirty years. She’s the one I’ve shared every cycle of my life with. And I do mean every, if you get my drift.

Kim was the one who insisted that I start this blog. Really, she pushed me to start it because she knows that I needed to say certain things out loud, in public, even if it makes other people uncomfortable to hear them.

She’s not in this crazy, writing world of mine, where the publication of a poem in a journal that only a thousand people read—out of the three hundred million people in the country—can define a person’s self-worth, and can determine whether your peers will speak to you at the annual Associated Writing Programs conference.

And because Kim and I go back so far, have grown up together, we know that when you’re a young girl, you say you are never going to ignore yourself for others; you promise yourself you’ll never be your mother. Kim and I talked about that–laughed about it– just a couple of weeks ago. It has been on my mind ever since.

If you’re a black woman, in your secret heart, you insist you’ll never sing your black mother’s blues song–but then suddenly, you are your mother, for better and worse.  Sure, you’ve inherited the good things, like her great skin, her cute and (mostly) firm breasts, her love of God and her recipes for cream biscuits and peach cobbler. But you’re carrying her emotional loads, too.

You’re taking care of others who can’t or won’t take care of themselves. You’re waiting in vain for somebody to say “I appreciate you” for the work you do at home or the office. You have an inability to stand up for yourself because “ladies” just learn to suffer with grace. You’re depending on God to change the hearts of others because Jesus can work miracles on even the worst person. (We ask a lot of Jesus in this community, don’t we?)

Everyday, you’re driving yourself crazy while repeating that same “keeping it together” mantra as your mother did– and you’ve probably also inherited at least one of her health problems, too. The same extra thirty pounds.  Her grapefruit-size uterine fibroids. Her high blood pressure. Or her diabetes.

Usually, I blog about something that strikes me that I’ve read about in the news, but this issue with black women and self-love is something I don’t need to read about, because it’s going on with me every day—in my body, in my life, in my family, or on my job. It’s also going on with all my black female friends, whether they are married or single, child-free or mothers, and I see it with sisters I meet when I travel or who email me because they read a poem I wrote somewhere.

As a black woman, I have to give the woo-woo to myself, if I want to do more than just survive–if I want to thrive.  And I am determined to do that. No disrespect to the mothers of our past, because they’ve given us some real gifts. But I decided this year that the Black Woman Martyr Look ain’t cute for me. I want my reward now, not in heaven, and I don’t care who thinks I’m selfish or unloving or  “un-Christian” or too loud or too pushy.

When I say “reward,” I’m not talking about money. I’m talking about peace of mind. I’m talking about health of spirit and body. I’m talking about self-love.

I understand now that sometimes, you have to fight for self-love. It just doesn’t get handed to you–not when you’re a black woman. I strongly suspect it doesn’t get handed to anybody.  And people can stand in the way of your self-love. If you can’t be ladylike and just calmly walk around them, then sometimes, you got to learn judo in order to kick people’s you-know-whats. Then you carefully roll them to the side of the road, so you can walk peacefully on your way.

The lesson about claiming self-love and leaving some people or causes to the side is a difficult one, because we sisters want to help and maintain our community and also, honor our mothers who kept this whole thing going for so long. And also, let’s face it: co-dependence has been going on a long time in the black community under the guise of “No brother or sister left behind.”

The girl-children–even the grandchildren– of those black women from Mother Parks’s self-sacrificing generation are grown now, and some of us are even mothers. For those of us who still need to learn self-love–and that’s a whole bunch of us–we can’t say that we’ll start valuing ourselves only once we’re fully valued by others, love ourselves only when we’re fully loved by others, because that time may never come.

We can’t wait for God to give us our reward in heaven or for someone nice to hand us glory now. Remember what even the most self-sacrificing of black grandmothers used to tell us, back in the day?

“God helps those who help themselves.”

I’m Traveling, Baby—Go ‘Head, Baby—So Click on This

118477Hey y’all, here I am, finally. Try to stay strong with your favorite black, country professor/poet/fiction writer/sister/troublemaker/blogger. Alright, I know there’s only one of me, but I would be your favorite if there were more than one, right?

I’m still traveling, and I’m in somebody else’s house and trying not to Bogart the one internet connection—they got a tween and a teen, y’all, and Facebook is like crack for kids. So I thought I’d give you some yummy links to tide you over.

First, the buzz in the writing world.

I read about this on Tayari Jones’s blog: Victoria Chang has a problem with the racial/gender spread of who wins the Whiting Awards. I must say I’m surprised at just how deep Chang goes on this thing. That’s not a criticism; I just mean, we colored folks in the writing world know that you take your career in your hands daring to criticize the White Folks’ Creative Writing Powers That Be in this business, particularly if you’re a poet.

I’m not saying the “minority” poets who win the Whiting don’t deserve to win, because they do—and you know I try to keep it real and honest so I’m being real and honest when I say they deserve to win—but as for the rest of us coloreds, well, we’ve just been crossing our fingers and toes, saying some prayers to God and Oshun and Shange and all the rest, sprinkling some juju dust around the hotel at the AWP conference, and when all else fails, kissing some serious booty at the writers’ cocktail parties. (Wait, I think that was me—before I rediscovered my artistic integrity, that is.)

But of course, I’ve never won the Whiting because they only ever give it to a black female poet every thirteen years or so. No, I’m not kidding. At least the Whiting’s not as bad for the sister poets as the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry: Gwendolyn Brooks won in 1950, Rita Dove won thirty-seven years later in 1987, and Natasha Trethewey won twenty years after that, in 2007. Lord have mercy.

You know what gets on my nerves? When some of my white poet friends say, “Oh Honorée, don’t be so negative. Things are getting better.” And to them I say, “Better as opposed to what?”

And some of my black poet friends get on my nerves when they say, “You got your nerve, Honorée, complaining when you’ve won a bunch of other awards.” And to them I say, “Can’t a sister pay her bills on time (mostly), and still want to talk about how things still ain’t right?”

Anyway, the reason I’m re-blogging about the Victoria Chang piece—I guess you’d call it re-blogging—is that I tried to go on Chang’s website and write a comment, and my internet credit kept getting denied.

Now on to the news in the real world, as opposed to the writers’ fun house I call home. Let’s begin with the less serious.

This has to be the result of the “Obama Effect”: Last night, Darius Rucker (the cutie above) shocked those folks at the all-white Country Music Awards to become the first African American to win Best New Artist. Can you believe this?! Remember when he was Hootie and Them? Now he’s Charlie Pride with a Baldie. Go ‘head with your bad self, Bruh Darius.

Why do I always have to ask the question, “Have these people lost their [insert expletive adjective] minds?” Some little kids were visiting a former slave plantation, and one of the men working there made the black kids take on the role of slaves, to “teach them about history.” No, that employee was not a white man. He was a Negro. And once again, I’m just gone let that marinate with y’all. (Big sigh.)

Rihanna does young black women proud. I must admit I was scared for this little sister when I heard about Chris Brown’s abusing her, but now that she’s finally spoken out, I think she might be all right. And she proves that sisters know how to survive and look fabulous at the same time. I’m just so happy she’s moving on with her life in a good frame of mind.

And finally, I don’t know what I think about Precious, the new movie based on Sapphire’s novel, Push. I haven’t seen the film yet, though I read the book over ten years ago and absolutely loved it. I do know I’m not crazy when I say the producer/director of Precious, Lee Daniels, is colorstruck as you-know-what because he admitted it a couple of weeks back in The New York Times Magazine. And as far as I could tell from seeing the trailer to the movie, watching interviews with the cast, and looking up all the people in that cast, all the problematic black folks in the movie are dark-skinned and all the wonderful black folks are light-skinned.

Lee Daniels, it’s called therapy: invest in it—before you make your next movie. Please, baby, I’m begging you.

That said, the just-released soundtrack to the movie is just lovely. And speaking of survivors, Mary J. Blige (or just “Mary” for us devoted fans) has a song on the soundtrack. You gotta hear it, so hit the button below.

My Post-Race Memo

public_enemyWhen I was back in college, I knew this brother who loved to smoke weed and get drunk, all the time. I mean, this brother stayed high, and of course, he chased girls, too.

Years later, I bumped into him in the grocery store. We started exchanging stories about our lives and he told me he had received the “call to the ministry.” And he was now enrolled in a doctoral program in divinity school. I guess he saw the look on my face, because he gave me one of those kind, preacher smiles.

“I don’t care how much you love Jesus,” I said. “You know you still gone smoke you some weed!” He took it pretty well, I must say. He just laughed with me and then, he picked up his bag of groceries and went on.

There are things in all of our pasts that we wish we could erase, whether it’s all the reefer we smoked, or in the case of many Americans of European (white) descent, that they live in a country that was founded on pushing colored people around. But we do live in that country, and it most certainly is not post-racial. And I just don’t understand why we have to keep having this conversation.

I’m not trying to beat up on white folks who don’t want to read their classic slave narratives, or do the research to find out that many of our modern institutions that still exist were literally built upon slavery (like the shipping and insurance industries) or built by slaves (like the White House). And that’s just with African Americans. You don’t even want me to get started on the Native Americans. It’s a scandal.

To mix my metaphors, you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him use his library card. But even if somebody doesn’t like to read, there’s such a thing as keeping it real with yourself. And some things should be obvious.

I’m not saying that white folks who voted for Obama didn’t act in a profound way to move this country forward. But that does not erase white privilege, and white privilege is one of the main things keeping this country from being post-racial.

So let’s talk about what that privilege means. Part of white privilege involves white folks asking black folks to translate what it means to be black in this country, in the name of racial dialogue.

For me, this problem has been going on a long time, ever since I entered my first majority white space, St. Thomas More Catholic School in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. I was the only black person in the sixth grade class, but not the only “minority.” There was a Chinese brother, Charlie Wong, and then there was Edgar Fineberg, who was Jewish. The two of them were my road dogs. I still remember when we got tore-up on Mogen David at the Passover celebration. Did you know Mad Dog tastes just like grape Koolaid?

I remember one day being tormented by a group of white kids on the playground at that same school. They crowded around me, refusing to let me pass, and then this one little redheaded [insert expletive noun] asked me, “How do you even comb those naps?”

Remember my post on black hair, when I told you my hair was “good”? Well, good hair is in the eye of the beholder.

Anyway, the issue wasn’t that redheaded boy’s racism; I don’t know if he was racist or not. He might have just been an equal-opportunity bully. But he did have white privilege: I was the only black girl in sixth grade, and all those kids were white. They figured they could terrorize me and get away with it, and they did. Not one of them was reprimanded, let alone suspended for that incident, not even the redheaded boy.

Edgar Fineberg and his mother sat with me in class after that incident. Mrs. Fineberg stroked the hair on the back of my neck as I cried so hard I thought I was going to throw up, and while my teacher Sister Grace explained to two Jews and one African American why our earthly suffering was nothing compared to what Jesus went through up on The Cross.

Since that time, what I’ve experienced in all-white environments is typical, especially—I suppose—for a middle-class black person.

You may be the object of white praise: “You’re nothing like the rest of them.”

You may be the object of white confusion, if you don’t say being black is horrible and you’ve always secretly wanted to change your color.

You may be the object of white scorn and told that you are exaggerating your black pain if you talk about how hard it is, mentally, to live in a “mainstream” environment.

Or you may be the object of white pity, if you talk about your pain. This is really a variation of ridicule, because who wants somebody—even somebody nice—feeling sorry for you all the time? Especially if all you wanted to do is to complain for five minutes.

Most importantly, regardless of which of the above scenarios occurs, you will always be the black informant, the cultural snitch who explains the curious ways of black folks.

This occurs every time some black person is asked to sit on some panel on “race” at a professional conference that’s broadcasted on C-Span. Or they are asked to write an Op-Ed piece for a national newspaper or magazine, like yesterday when Orlando Patterson and Colson Whitehead commented on Obama and race in America for The New York Times.

These two pieces were examples of what happens when white folks need somebody colored to tell them what’s going on with the color line in America. Now, Orlando Patterson is a brilliant man, but he teaches at Harvard University. Colson Whitehead is a stunningly talented novelist, but most of his books aren’t read in black households, and by the way, he went to school at Harvard, too. These ain’t brothers hanging on the corner, taking the daily pulse of the community.

If the folk at the New York Times had really wanted to know about Obama and this so-called post-race society we’re supposedly living in, they would have sent a black reporter into a barbershop or a beauty shop and asked some regular black folks. It would have been a keeping-it-real party up in there. But I suspect that the folks at the New York Times, as well meaning as they are, really don’t want to know what regular black folks are really thinking about race, unless it’s flattering or uncritical of actual white folks.

Whatever editor approached Orlando Patterson knew he was going to give the highly intellectual, history-based explanation for what is going on with race in this country. Professor Paterson is honest and extremely human, but if you haven’t gone to the library and done your research, you might be able to understand most of what he’s saying, but you won’t know the history behind it.

Colson Whitehead is going to do what he always does when talking about race, too—which is to make fun of it, and imply that black folks with some real sense understand that race relations aren’t as bad as all that. Wink-wink. Nod-nod. I admire Colson Whitehead, too, but if he’s so tired of being the special Harvard-educated Negro who’s asked to explain the less-special Negroes to white folks, I wish he would just not say anything. I’m really kind of over the cute, tongue-in-cheek thing he likes to do, I guess because he’s talking about people who look like me when he does it.

But who am I kidding? I’m not about to get up in any white folks’ face either, and tell them exactly what I think.

For example, I’m not going to tell my white friends that I’m tired of being the only sister at their dinners, cocktail parties, or sundry fill-in-the blank after-five entertainment. Can’t they like, rent, one or two more black friends?

I’m not going to tell my white colleagues in my English department that if I’ve read five hundred years of white British and American literature starting with Shakespeare, a couple of my colleagues could pick up the one book of poetry Phillis Wheatley published.

I’m not even going to tell a random white guy that if I won’t date a black crack addict named Pookie, I damned sure wouldn’t cross the racial line to date a white one named Skeeter or Bubba.

I certainly won’t say to the strange white ladies in my integrated hair salon, “Hell no, and have you lost your [insert expletive adjective] mind,” when they ask, “Ooh, can I touch your hair?”

Some of my politeness as a middle-class black person—and let’s face it, sometimes my fear—is a response to white privilege. I’ve got to be careful all of the time, and constantly aware of who’s in charge. Dubois talked about this, a long time ago. I have to be aware of my blackness all the time, but white folks don’t have to be aware of being white, ever. That’s the privilege part.

I’m not saying that black folks don’t have problems in the black community, problems that we need to take full responsibility for. We black people need to stop going all the way back to Kunta Kinte and them to talk about every single issue in our community. Slavery is over, Kunta is dead, and even if he were alive, he would not make you sell crack to Pookie—or even to Skeeter or Bubba.

But those problems don’t keep white privilege going. If white people really want to make this a post-race society, they need to stop dumping the race problem in black folks’ laps. And they need to stop thinking that simply being nice white people is going to fix notions about race that run deeper than anyone knows, especially if that anyone hasn’t used his or her library card to read about race, instead of asking a black friend.

White people need to stop asking black folks and other racial minorities questions about what it means to be black and “other,” and instead, start asking themselves questions about what it means to be white in this country. Once white folks can talk about the benefits whiteness still gives, and talk about those benefits without getting angry, guilty, or developing a sudden case of historical amnesia, then we can finally get this post-race thing going.