New Black Poetry: Makalani Bandele

If you remember, last month I introduced a new feature for this blog, New Black Poetry. One reason is, 1) I’m a poet, 2) I just love poetry, and 3) I love Black folks, and so I thought to myself, “Self, just come up with an excuse to present new poems!.” So, I did.

But I have also gotten a bit of positive feedback about the feature, mostly through email. I think some of y’all are shy about leaving comments. But thank goodness, some of y’all aren’t.

Last month, I started this feature with my own poetry. But who wants to read her own work all the time? Well, some poets do, to be honest. My ego isn’t quite that big, though. And plus, there are some completely sassy emerging African American poets out there and I know y’all will love their work.

This month, my first “not-me” poet is Makalani Bandele,  a Louisville, Kentucky native who has recently returned to the city and writing poetry.  He is an ordained Baptist minister and has pastored churches in New Bern and Fayetteville, North Carolina.  He earned his B.A. from the Program of Liberal Studies at University of Notre Dame and his M. Div from Shaw University Divinity School. A member of the Affrilachian Poets Collective since 2008 and a Cave Canem fellow, his poetry has been featured in several anthologies and is forthcoming in African-American Review and Mythium Literary Magazine.  Makalani is a former winner of the Ernest Sandeen Prize for Poetry.  He has self-published a chapbook called The Cadence of Echoes, a forthcoming book with Willow Books will be out the Fall 2011, tentatively entitled Third Institution, and he is working presently on a volume of poetry influenced by the recordings and travels of Alan Lomax, the American folklorist and musicologist who conducted research in the Deep South.  (To read more about Lomax, click here.)

Makalani was kind enough to give me a brand new, unpublished poem for this feature. Of course, I think it is completely fabulous, but read for yourself below. And if you like it, don’t be writing me all in secret on the email or Facebook—gather your courage and leave some comments below!


Let Me Ride (in Short Meter)

by Makalani Bandele


tired bones moan, hoe in hand, let me ride,
just a-moaning, so old devil can’t understand, let me ride.

rider on a dappled steed
moves with the wind’s hymn
toward the new light’s
last stand, let me ride.

oh freedom,
freedom is a fire
chariot song swinging
down at blood’s command, let me ride.

said  freedom
is a terraplane anthem tearing
up dusty-throated hollers bound
for tableland, let me ride.

the righteous ride the rails of this glory
bound special with a wail
of worn out knees and humble,
folded hands that demand let me ride.

make it blue for mak, bend, then shave
the interval down till its cleaner
than the sleekest stretch black limo,
and let me ride.


The Truth About Women’s Equality Day

I was reminded this morning that today is Women’s Equality Day. On August 26, 1920 American women were granted the right to vote, and the Nineteenth Amendment to the US Constitution was ratified. And indeed, this is a great day in history.

However, for Black women in this country, it’s not really a day that we can celebrate as a definitive moment. Because actually, to put it bluntly, this day is White Women’s Equality Day, the day they were given the right to vote.  But technically, Black women didn’t become “equal” until the Voting Rights Act was signed by President Lyndon Johnson on August 6, 1965.

Why? Because Black women were specifically excluded from the U.S. Women’s suffrage movement in the nineteenth century. The early leaders of the movement, including Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, felt that the inclusion of Black women in their movement would hinder it.

In particular, Stanton was against paralleling voting rights for Black men, the Irish, Germans, and Chinese people with the White women’s struggle. She wrote in The Revolution, a publication in the nineteenth century, “Think of Patrick and Sambo and Hans and Yung Tung who do not know the difference between a Monarchy and a Republic, who never read the Declaration of Independence . . . making laws for Lydia Maria Child, Lucretia Mott, or Fanny Kemble.”

I hope you know who Sambo is, y’all.

This racism in the movement angered Sojourner Truth, a tireless warrior for racial and gender justice in America; Sister Truth had been working with Anthony and Stanton, but then got ghost when she realized they wanted her to do the work but not reap the profits.

Later, in the early twentieth century, anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett decided to start her own African American Suffragist organization in Chicago called the Alpha Suffrage Club, but at the major Suffragist march on March 3, 1913, the White organizers tried to convince Ida B. Wells-Barnett to march at the back of the procession.

Sister Wells-Barnett replied, “”I shall not march at all unless I can march under the Illinois banner.”  Nobody saw her at the march, so they thought she had gone home, but when her delegation started down Pennsylvania avenue, she rolled right in there and marched with the other—White—suffragists from Illinois.

Most of you–of all complexions– reading this already know this history. But for Black women, this history is personal. It’s the major reason that it’s so hard for us to embrace feminism, and to embrace issues identified as feminist. It’s why it’s so hard for us to trust women outside of our community, and sometimes, even within, in the name of “female solidarity.” It’s easier for us to focus on the fight against racism because that’s been a consistent  struggle within our fences.

Surely, in the Black community, we Sister have been told to put our own desires and needs—and yes, survival—to the side—because we have to consider Brothers first. But that’s only part of the issue.

The other issue is, nobody in the feminist movement is sincerely looking out for Women of Color, either. There’s been a good game talked, but when the stakes are high and Black women look behind them to see which White feminists have their back, all we hear is the wind. And in that wind, we hear the empty refrain, “Women, women, women.” But, we don’t hear anything acknowledging our specific identity as African American. Let’s not even talk about how the other groups of Women of Color are treated.

For example, recently, during the presidential campaign, we saw Gloria Steinem and Geraldine Ferraro take off after Barack Obama in The New York Times and make the campaign a “Black man vs. White Woman” issue; neither woman took the time to consider how hurtful this public discussion would be for us Black women, who had never had a chance to see even one person who looked like us in The White House, let alone two.

By the way, Gloria Steinem is the GODMOTHER of the only child of Alice Walker (the African American author of the The Color Purple).

At one dinner before a poetry reading, I was accosted by two young White female graduate students (who I had been having a great time talking to, by the way). They demanded to know who I was supporting for the presidential election. When I replied, “Barack Obama,” they smirked at each other and said to me, they thought so. It was clear that Black women always chose race over gender, they said.

I told them, “First, considering Hilary Clinton’s ‘Hardworking, White Americans’ statement it’s clear she’s choosing race over gender.”

“And second,” I said, “I have breasts and a vagina, but mine are brown, so you know, I can’t choose between race and gender.” (Yes, I actually said that.)

At another reading dinner, an elderly White woman angrily told me what Gloria Steinem and Geraldine Ferraro had already argued in The New York Times, that Barack Obama would never have been president if he had been a Black woman. She went on and on, to the point where I thought I would burst into tears. And I wondered, did she even see me? Did she understand just who she was talking to?

Then, I sucked it up, because if I was that angry, I wonder how upset Ida B. Wells-Barnett was, when they tried to make her march at the back of the procession.

In the aftermath of these reopened wounds, there need to be an acknowledgement of racism in the American feminist movement and a concerted effort made by White feminists to self-police. And there needs to be a real gesture toward healing. Notice that Hillary Clinton hasn’t once made an overture toward Black women to try to resolve her hurtful actions. Visiting Black churches and clapping off beat do not constitute healing. And let’s not even start talking about Gloria Steinem and Geraldine Ferraro and what they need to do. Where do I begin?.

So, I don’t celebrate Women’s Equality Day today, because contrary to popular mainstream American opinion, Women includes all American women, not just White ladies.

But I do celebrate those women who made this day possible for me, a Black woman.  I give the credit to my Sister-ancestors on this day, like Sister Truth and Sister Wells-Barnett—not a day of equality, but a day where I at least have the right to talk about how it’s not equal. And I think that’s a good compromise, considering.

Africa, My Motherland (Not)

When I was growing up, my father referred to himself as African, before that became standard. This was a little strange to me, because my father was really light-skinned and sometimes, my dad would be mistaken for something other than a Black man. A Jewish guy with an Afro. An Italian guy. And once, when my father was in this store going off on the establishment for some real or imagined slight, the guy said to Daddy, “Y’all Greeks all always coming up in here starting trouble!”

I don’t know what hurt my father’s feelings more, that someone had insulted him in the store, or that they didn’t know he was of African descent. Bless his heart. My sisters and I laughed behind our father’s back, because he wanted to be African so bad and he didn’t even know how to be Black American in the first place. We, on the other hand, knew very well how to be really, really Black, because our mother came from sharecropper stock in Georgia and we had watched her and figured it out.

But Daddy? He came from those high-class, siddity light-skinned Negroes who had tried to lighten up the next generation by marrying other high-class, siddity Negroes. He talked proper, didn’t know how to dance—he couldn’t even clap on beat—and he never got the Black Joke. In his defense, he did play a mean blues and jazz piano.

The open secret in his family was that my grandmother had married a dark-skinned man, Henry Nelson. He was my father’s father. Daddy’s parents only stayed married a hot minute, then divorced, and my father’s maternal grandfather demanded that my father be sent to him. Henry never even knew what happened; both he and my grandmother told the same story, so we assumed it was true.

My father always talked about Henry, his lovely dark skin, how good-looking he was. And it became clear to me, even as a child, that my father searched for what he thought was “real” Blackness because he was searching for the love of his childhood; whenever he talked about “real” Blackness, he always ended up talking about Africa. My father never traveled to Africa, but you could never guess that by his poems. He pined for Africa. He ached for it.

I’m different from my father in a lot of ways, most noticeably in my feeling about the African continent. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t hate Africa. But I don’t love Africa, either. I just think, it’s a big piece of land over across the water. There are good people there. There are bad people there, but that’s not my home. And I don’t understand why I have to constantly defend myself for holding that point of view.

One of my oldest friends in the world doesn’t exactly make me defend my position; she just thinks I will change my mind. She keeps saying that once I “cross that sea” I’ll feel differently. And just yesterday, I had a huge blowout with a male friend because I was trying to explain that I just don’t consider myself an African, but rather, someone of African descent who was now an American, and he told me my absence of love was “unjustified.” That I should love it.

I guess you can figure out how that went over.

I know I’m sensitive; this has been going on for a while. Sometimes, I have even been criticized because of the way I looked, that I’m lighter than some folks and have curly hair. And if I were darker and my hair was kinky instead of curly, they said, I would feel closer to Africa, the way I’m supposed to, if I was really Black.

The joke to me, of course, is that my sisters and I—even my so-called “light-skinned” sister—were plenty dark enough for my father’s mother and stepfather. Too dark, in fact, for them to even try to keep a relationship going with their only grandchildren from their only son. Let’s not talk about where all their money went when they died.

Sidebar: You know, somehow my curly hair and in-between skin color never gets me from being followed by the security guards at the mall. Go figure. But maybe I should turn around at that security guard breathing his Philly cheese steak he had for lunch on me and say, “You know, you can trust me more than other Black folks. Don’t you see my naturally curly hair? Now back away.”

I do embrace my African heritage. It’s just, I identify with the Africans who were sold, not the Africans who did the selling.  And so, my heart follows those sold Africans where they went—and here is where they ended up and made a home.

I realized last night, arguing with my friend, that it’s hard for me to explain that my entire life’s work so far—my life-long artistic project—is to record the folkways, mores, speech, and lives of those descendants of African slaves in Eatonton, Georgia.  That’s my motherland.

And I admit it: my other reason for not loving Africa is that my mother’s people carried slavery stories with them. My mother’s Great-Great Grandmother Mandy Napier was six years old when Emancipation came. And her first memory was of her father being sold Down South to Mississippi. She never saw him again. Whenever my mother tells that story, and she tells it more and more often, it’s as if she is channeling Mandy’s pain, and carrying it inside her.

Some Black folks want to totally blame Europeans for why we got here, across the water, and scattered and abused. And surely, Europeans were extremely lowdown with the slavery machine. You have only to read Marcus Rediker’s The Slave Ship: A Human History (click here to read about it) to know the cruel torture young African men, women, teenagers and children suffered at the hands of European slave traders. But they had plenty help from Africans. Can we be real about that?

And yes, surely those Africans may not have known that they were dooming their fellow citizens to a nightmarish journey over the Middle Passage. At first.

And yes, African domestic slavery was different from slavery in the Americas, a milder form. But the international slave trade went on for over four hundred years, so you know, those Africans setting fire to villages and bashing in the brains of babies and elderly people, those uncles who sold their sisters’ children into slavery to resolve bad debts—they had to know that Kunta Kinte and them weren’t ever coming back. They had to figure that out. They had to.

This sort of refusal to talk about Black or African culpability reminds me of the problems that go on in the Black community, and no matter what we are talking about—rape of Black women and children, domestic violence, Black males killing other Black males, the drug trade in our community, misogyny in rap music—somehow, we always end up blaming the White man for it. And the few voices of dissent, the ones who say, “Hey, you know, we can’t blame the White man for everything,” those dissenters get called “sell-out Uncle Toms.”

Sidebar: I guess because I’m a girl, I would get called a sell-out Aunt Thomasina.

My mother’s people, and my father’s, too (no matter how light-skinned and siddity they were) were the descendants of those young kidnapped Africans who were sent into the hateful and painful unknown.

Those kids cobbled together a life. They survived. And they made it possible for me to be here, as a teacher,  a poet and a writer, and as a human being who is trying to make my little corner of the world better. And while I harbor no hatred for Africa, I don’t think I should punished because I have no love either. I’m just doing the best I can over here, where somebody brought me.

Good Sister Watch: jdgreen


Hey y’all, I just discovered a sassy new independent/alternative singer quite by accident: on Twitter.

Sometimes, Twitter can get on my nerves, I must be honest. Because I just don’t want to talk about what I’m doing—what I just cooked, who I just met, or what-all’s on TV (’cause I don’t really watch TV)—every five minutes.

I must admit, I DO like reading about people talking about everything they’re doing every five minutes. Unless it’s nasty. I do not want to read people’s profanity-laden, nasty musings. Just so you know, this is an FYI moment.

But this was a nice surprise, discovering jdgreen on Twitter, and listened to her music, and I thought, hey, let me share it. If you like what you hear, you can download jdgreen’s Diurnal: Movements on ITunes, or you can go to her website to order.

Click here for jdgreen’s website.

Below is a little sample from the album– my favorite “Funky Soul (Interlude).”  Enjoy—and happy weekend, y’all!

06 Funky Soul (Interlude)

Throwback Jam: Black Social Commentary

Oliver W. "Ollie" Harrington

Y’all know I like to drop a little sassy science every now and then. So when I found out that Aaron McGruder, the creator of the popular cartoon, “The Boondocks,” is not the first African American cartoonist to make social commentary and also make a living from it–something hard to do with Black art– I had to share.

Recently,  Mark Anthony Neal published an essay on Oliver W. “Ollie” Harrington on, Before ‘The Boondocks,’ there was Ollie Harrington.” Here’s an excerpt from the essay:

The Cartoon Network recently broadcast the finale of the third and purportedly last season of Aaron McGruder’s The Boondocks.  With the series and the now-defunct comic strip, McGruder offered a contrarian view of Blackness through the lens of 1960s-style cultural nationalism, ghettocentric (faux) realism, and just old-school common sense. At it’s best the show never lost sight of the complexity of Black identity, taking equal opportunity shots at both the Pookies and Baracks of the world.

But well before McGruder elevated The Boondocks to the level of social criticism in the tradition of Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury and Berke Breathed’s Bloom County (albeit with a hip-hop edge), cartoonist and essayist Oliver W. Harrington set a standard for Black readers throughout the 20th century, combining his signature wit with incisive critiques and observations about Black life in America.

You can read the rest of Neal’s essay on by clicking this link.

Enjoy y’all! You know Brother Neal always has something good to say!

If You’re a Soul Sister, Click on This

Desiree Rogers

Hey y’all, I’m headed out from Vermont on Friday, driving. Four days; yes, it’s a trial being a Colored Female Road Warrior, but hey, somebody’s got to do it, right? Sigh.

It’s been a fabulous time up here, kicking with the righteous mountain folks. Let me tell you, these Vermonters do not play when it comes to the recycling. Every little scrap of paper and plastic gets recycled. We could learn a lot from the Vermonters about how to treat the planet. No wonder it’s so pretty up here—the whole state looks like a bed and breakfast.

While I am on my road trip, here’re a few Black Woman links to keep you “sassified,” as the old folks used to say. (Ahem: “Sassified” would be the Black vernacular version of “satisfied.” Y’all know I have to keep you in touch with your folkloric origins!)

Speaking of folklore, Zora Neale Hurston, the author of my favorite book in the world, documented Black life in the south in the 1920s. Here is some of that rare footage.

Check the little cutie breaking into a fabulous James Brown-esque split around minute four. (Get it, Boo!) Ok, and now that I have mentioned Zora Neale Hurston—any excuse, ok?—I gotta tell you that I have also been trying to find a DVD and/or VHS recording (I have a machine that plays both) of Booker T. Mattison’s short film adaptation of Hurston’s short story, “The Gilded Six Bits,” starring Chad Coleman (of “The Wire” fame) and T’Keyah Crystal Keymah (of “In Living Color” fame).

If anyone knows where I can buy and/or order the film of “The Gilded Six Bits”, PLEASE let me know! I will be so happy and will praise your name—in print. (If you give me permission.)

This is an important issue: the adoption of children in Haiti.

Though this story about Haiti is not technically about Black women, it is about Black children, and we Sisters—even the child-free ones like me—take child welfare very, very seriously. I’m not saying other women don’t. But I am saying, something hurts to see Black children displaced from a Black community, even by well-intentioned people.

Here is a great article about Black women in Hollywood, and why it’s so hard for a Sister to make it behind the camera.

You need to read this article by Felicia Pride, because she breaks it down, y’all. And she also tells us how we Black women can help the situation of Sisters trying to make movies in Hollywood.

The South Africa Branch of L’Oreal Cosmetics is having diversity problems.

Ok, I gotta admit, I didn’t even know there WAS a branch of L’Oreal on the whole African continent, because L’Oreal certainly don’t seem to like brown-skinned sisters in the least. And we know that Africa has an abundance of fine, chocolate Sisters. It’s an interesting story, though.

Black girls are starting puberty earlier.

My grandmother Florence started puberty at sixteen. She was born in 1909, and that was around the average then. People also tended to marry early then, too, and suddenly it occurred to me that it was probably a lot easier for people not to have sex before marriage when they entered puberty at sixteen and married at eighteen. Grandma Florence married at twenty-five, though, which was really, really old back then. I guess it’s Grandma’s fault I’m a Sexy Spinster, and not mine. (That last comment is directed toward my Aunt Edna.)

Did you know that black women are more likely to be killed by their domestic abusers ?

As a former battered women’s counselor, I get really upset and annoyed at how this issue is handled in our Black community, so I will have to gather myself and say something about this later.

Why is Maureen Dowd always hating on Michelle Obama?

Ok, I’m sorry, but I have to digress from the Link List and rant for a moment.

Maureen Dowd has called the first lady “emasculating” and now, she wants to tell Michelle what is and what is not an appropriate vacation destination for Michelle and her offspring, and when is an appropriate time to take said vacation!

You know, I hate to go here, but having had recent–and ongoing experience–with Non-Black women trying to tell me how to act, I simply have to say, Look, who died and made White ladies the sole arbiters of acceptable and appropriate female behavior? Can’t a Sister live, for goodness sake?

But what’s the REAL issue here? I hate to say it, but since there’s really nothing wrong with Michelle’s behavior–like, ever; I can’t say the same for Barack, though–it’s clear that Maureen is just picking on Michelle. And why would that be? Y’all know the answer to that.

So here’s a quick letter to Maureen Dowd.

“Dear Maureen:

Sugar, I am so sorry you were not born a sassy, tall, brilliant, fine, chocolate-brown-skinned woman with great biceps—clearly, Michelle’s parents drained that good gene pool to get her so fabulous and they were thinking good thoughts when they made her, too—but you know, Maureen, you should not hate on Michelle for being cute and fabulous, because this is not Michelle’s fault. It is the fault of her cute and fabulous parents, because none of us make ourselves. So, instead of picking on Michelle, I suggest that you take up the issue of your own lack of sassiness with your parents.

With deep love and respect,


Another White House link: Desiree Rogers is contrite about her time in the White House.

I’m not sure I understand why she should be contrite. I didn’t really think she did that much wrong, except be a Certified Dime Piece and take a little attention away from the Obamas. But look, those fine Sisters attract a lot of attention. All y’all Dime Pieces out there know what I’m talking about. Maybe she’s just contrite because she found out that Michelle was supposed to be the head Dime Piece, Valerie Jarrett was supposed to be DP Number Two, and Desiree was supposed to be DP Number Three.

Desiree didn’t read this White House memo: “Re: Concerning Competing Dime Pieces Staying in Their Individual Lanes.”

It’s not Desiree’s fault. That sister is so beautiful, you gotta wonder if she went down to the crossroads and sold her soul to the Devil for eternal youth. She just turned FIFTY-ONE YEARS OLD on June 16, y’all. But she looks twenty-nine! And from what I heard, she has not had nary bit of plastic surgery. Dang, already.

And finally, below is a little music from back in the day to get y’all feeling ready for the weekend. I am headed back on the road, and I have to play great music to keep me going. This is a favorite. Y’all grown folks KNOW you love this jam!

If She Hollers, Call Her A Reverse-Racist

Esther Armah

The past couple of weeks Black women have been the subject of discussion, not just in the blogosphere, but also on the news. If you’re a Sister, you’ve either been ignoring the news or not turning on your computer if you haven’t heard about the latest brouhaha—or, as some would call it, a hot buttered mess—involving Essence magazine’s hiring White fashion director Ellianna Placas.

If you haven’t heard about the Essence controversy, click here to read the original story in Clutch Magazine.

And click here to read my take on the Essence controversy.

Michaela angela Davis

Tomorrow, Sunday, August 8, Esther Armah is on BBC  and Michaela angela Davis, will be on CBC Canada on Monday, August 9–both Sisters have been vocal about the Essence hire. (I will try to find a link to both shows and post in a few days!) Davis is a former editor at Essence, and Armah hosts an award-winning radio show, “Off the page”.  Both are Sisters who have spoken on subjects affecting Black women and the Black community.

Sidebar: I hate to sound shallow here, but Davis and Armah also have looked fabulous and fierce while voicing their opinions. I take the chance of sounding anti-feminist because sometimes people think that if a Sister voices an intelligent feminist/Womanist opinion, suddenly she stops being cute. And quiet as it’s kept, smart, vocal, opinionated women—of all complexions—are the Certified Dime Pieces on this planet. Recognize.

When I blogged about Essence magazine, I argued that Essence hasn’t served Black women for a long time anyway, so we should just let the magazine go. And cultural critic Mark Anthony Neal wrote that on his blog as well as gave that opinion on NPR’s Talk of the Nation. Davis and Armah have taken a more complex view, however. Davis has argued that we (Black female magazine readers) shouldn’t abandon Essence but rather, hold them more accountable. Armah has talked about the ways that Black people have not been able to control their images in mainstream America. And both Sisters have used the Essence issue to (continue to) talk about the limited perspective given Black women in media, and how Black women are nearly invisible to the rest of America.

But what has been tripping me out—I can only say it that way—is how the valid statements of Davis and Armah and others concerning the forced invisibility of Black women in the fashion industry—which mirrors the forced invisibility of Black women in the society—have been twisted and thrown back in their faces as “reverse racism.”

Here is version number one of the “reverse racism” accusations: Black women are starting a race riot by wanting a Black magazine to have an editorial board that reflects the demographic that the magazine serves—that would be BLACK WOMEN. And why are we starting a riot? Because supposedly, we Sisters hate White people, and especially White women, so we just want to grind that White-hatred ax.

Or “reverse racism” accusation version number two—the well-mannered, calm version: “Yes, we hear you Sisters about the fashion industry. We sincerely hear you, but if you want to teach us White folks a lesson about racial tolerance, this lesson begins at home. So lead by example and hire a bunch of White folks at your TWO magazines, and then, in a few years, we will hire a couple of Black folks at the DOZENS of mainstream magazines we run because you have shown us your moral superiority. This is what Martin Luther King, Jr. would want you to do, after all. And don’t you remember that whole ‘I have a dream’ speech? Because I can recite it verbatim.”

What’s up with people getting attacked and then, when those people turn around and defend themselves—even in a classy, ladylike manner like Davis and Armah—suddenly, the attacked are accused of starting the fight?  This classic bait and switch is happening with this Essence controversy. And further, not only are certain White folks going on the offensive in order to confuse the original issue about Black women in the fashion industry, they are using other Black folks to do it.

We have seen this bait and switch against Black women take place quite recently when well-known media outlets like Oprah, and ABC News Nightline wanted to find an  “expert” to talk about marriage in the Black community, and specifically, why Black women are having “such a hard time” finding mates. When really, what these outlets wanted to do was go on the attack against Black women.

Though I have my suspicions, I have no proof that these media attacks were fueled by the sustained media appearances of Michelle Obama, a tall, good-looking, physically fit, Harvard-educated, dark-brown-skinned woman in The White House, a woman who does not conform in looks or actions to the images of Black women that America previously has seen.

So first, think about how conservative White people are used to thinking about Black women. And now, think about upset Michelle Obama has made conservative White America. But also, maybe–just maybe– consider that she’s made a few liberal White folks uncomfortable, too. Because it’s one thing to talk about it, but it’s another to be about it.

Did either Oprah or ABC Nightline consult Black female experts on the issue of Black females and dating? No. Did either of these shows consult a Black female without credentials, but who would know better than anyone about the experience of Black women and dating? No. Did either of these shows even consult a Brother with credentials in marriage and couples’ counseling? No. Instead, they asked Steve Harvey, a Black man who has been divorced twice and married three times.

Click here to see ABC Nightline “Face-off: Why Can’t a Successful Black Woman Find a Man?”

I’ve talked about Steve and this Nightline Special before, because it’s been very disturbing to me that, whenever Black women want to air our grievances, we are framed as pathetic or whiny at best, or neck-rolling, finger-pointing crazy women at worst. Thus, when Brother Steve was used as the “host” on Oprah and Nightline and started pushing his tired, male-chauvenist agenda that Black women need to get line with “how men really are,” he spoke in quiet, well-modulated tones.

On Nightline, he used the “palm-down” gesture, while passive-aggressively riling up the two Black women on the panel. The two Sisters got crankier and crankier and “proved” Steve’s point: that a Sister can’t get no man ’cause she can’t stop talking loud to a Brother.

Sidebar: and who wouldn’t talk loud when you are told that some guy’s shadiness is really your fault because you don’t understand his pain as a Black man in this society while certain other women–whose race shall remain nameless–do understand his pain and further, know how to keep their mouths shut, and if you acted like certain other women you might be able to get you a man?

I wonder how long it took for Steve’s second wife—and now ex-wife—to start having fantasies about throwing hot grits on him in his sleep after a few sessions of “I’m a calm Black man and you’re a not-calm Black woman who doesn’t understand my wants and needs,” accompanied by his signature palm-down gesture.

A few days ago, when Michaela angela Davis appeared on CNN’s Anderson 360 to give her opinion about the Essence controversy, Anderson Cooper chose CNN Correspondent Roland S. Martin as the opposing side of the debate. Again, not another Black woman, but a Black man. A Black man who proceeded to smugly lecture Davis about “racial fairness” in hiring practices, when Martin had just made the serious mistake of joining Benjamin Jealous, Black man and head of the NAACP, in attacking a Black woman, Shirley S. Sherrod, and accusing her of racism before the facts were all in.

Now, I have been willing to cut Brother Martin some slack in jumping to speak about the Sherrod issue, as wrong as he was, and as hurtful as his support of the Sherrod attack was to me as a Black woman.  Because it’s a twenty-four news cycle, and who among us hasn’t jumped the gun in forming an opinion on something we read online?

But Martin’s definitely standing on some earthquake-shaky ground trying to “read” a sister like Michaela angela Davis who has a twenty-year career in beauty and fashion journalism about hiring practices in fashion magazines. And in addition, it was very disturbing how Martin was cosigning Anderson Cooper’s White male condescension during that segment—Cooper’s “there is no racism towards Black women in this society and it’s all in your mind” remarks. I thought Martin was going to get whiplash, he was nodding so vigorously in agreement with Cooper. I know that Brother has to keep his job, but, dang already.

This issue of who speaks for Black women is not one that just popped up. Back during slavery times, Black people were not allowed to give testimony against Whites, either, only other Blacks, and this prohibition extended to Black women.

Further, the rape of a Black unfree woman was not treated as a crime against her body, but as a crime against a White man’s property, even those few times she was allowed to testify against her attacker. Thus, this sort of dismissal of a Black woman’s testimony, before or after she speaks– forcing her to check with others before she can truly know how she feels– has a tradition in our country with the law, with the media, and unfortunately, sometimes with our own Black community.

So I am watching this Essence conversation very carefully, because this is not just a moment in fashion, it is moment in history.

My James Baldwin

1954 Class Picture of the MacDowell Colony Fellows. James Baldwin is on the top row, second from the left.

I knew I was forgetting something this morning, y’all, and then I remembered: today is the birthday of the prolific and profound author, and just all around good human being James Baldwin! He was born August 2, 1924. He would have been eighty-six years old today.

In case you haven’t heard of James Baldwin, click here for a biography of him. He was not only a writer, but a Civil Rights activist. When I say, this community would not have made the strides it has without the work of James Baldwin, I am not playing with you.

If you read my blog post on Essence Magazine, the title was a  riff off of a James Baldwin classic, Tell Me How Long the Train’s Been GoneClick here for the original review from The New York Times of that book, written by the author of The Godfather, Mario Puzo.

Can it get any stranger, yet more fabulous, than a descendant of southern Italians who pens novels about the Mafia writing a review about the descendant of southern African Americans who pens novels about Black revolution?

I met James Baldwin once. I was fourteen and my mother and I went to see him give a talk at Emory University in Atlanta, where we were living at the time. On the way there, my mother casually mentioned that my father was friends with James Baldwin. I was like, Dang. Nobody tells me anything.

Sidebar: After my father died, I found out that he had lived in Greenwich Village while attending Columbia University on the GI Bill. And he was also friends with the writer Grace Paley–who also knew James Baldwin. In grad school Miss Grace became an unofficial mentor of mine, which I needed so badly. Miss Grace was one of the good eggs in this world, and she didn’t mind fighting for what was right.

She also mentioned when we met that she knew my father’s second wife. I thought she was making a mistake–after all, my father had only told us about two wives. So I called up my mama that night and I found out—at the age of twenty-seven—that my daddy had actually been married three times. I was like, Dang. Nobody tells me anything.

Anyway, at the Emory talk, Mr. Baldwin was on fire. Even though I didn’t have a real point of reference for what he was saying about race and politics, I felt a gut-deep reaction to his words. Afterward, we went up to talk to him, and he asked about my father. “And how is Lance?” My mother said, “He’s doing really well.” She did not mention that daddy was in North Carolina and that we had left him, so I took my cues from her.

And then it happened.

A young man came up behind Mr. Baldwin and draped a fur-collared camel coat around him. It was both dramatic—I mean, fur, okay?—and ordinary—because Mr. Baldwin just kept talking like nothing had happened. Here was a man who was clearly a brilliant intellectual, and a passionate revolutionary—though I didn’t really find that out until I started reading his work after he had died—and on top of all that, he was super-fly and fabulous as all get out.

Right then, I thought, That’s going to be me. I’m going to be a writer when I grow up.

So fast forward, eighteen years, to Winter 1999. I was taking a break from working that year, in order to finish my first book of poetry, which eventually became The Gospel of Barbecue, and I living in my mother’s back bedroom, which didn’t bother her in the least, but Aunt Edna (my mother’s sister) was talking smack like nobody’s business and the whole family was giving me the side-eye, like, “When you gone get a job?” So I was hustling, y’all, trying to figure things out.

I won a fellowship to the MacDowell Colony in New Hampshire to finish the book, which was a big deal, though I didn’t know it at the time. The car that I was driving could barely make it to the grocery store and back without running hot, so I decided to take the bus up to New Hampshire from Alabama.

Let me just say, I will never do something that foolish again. When I think of the press of humanity getting off and on that bus over a two and a half day period, and how I held my pee-pee for hours and hours and hours, because I just didn’t even want to think about trying to go in that nasty toilet in the back of the bus—oh, Lord have mercy.

But I met some really great people. One was a brother who had just gotten out of prison after a fifteen-year bid. He carried his belongings in a black garbage bag and I never asked him what he had been in prison for, because I didn’t want to know. I knew if he said he had done something bad, I was going to judge him.So I didn’t ask, and in Charlotte, North Carolina when I saw that brother and his mama embrace and cry and keep holding onto to each other, it was a moment I will never forget. It remains one of the most beautiful scenes I have ever witnessed.

Another lady that I met on the bus—she must have been in her fifties–informed me right away, “I’m from Detroit and they call me ‘Fast Black. That’s what they call me.’” I said, “Well, alright then. Yes, ma’am.” Ms. Black proceeded to tell me how good she was at gambling—all kinds. Cards, slots, dice. And that she carried a knife, just in case somebody messed with her. She was a bad Sister—in the best sense.

I took a couple of books to read with me on that long bus journey, in between talking to folks, and one of them was The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin. I read it over and over while I napped and talked and listened. By that time, I dearly regretted telling my mother back in 1981 that I did not want him to autograph a book for me, because that was tacky.

When I arrived in New Hampshire at the MacDowell Colony, they took me to my writing studio, which was really a cabin in the middle of the woods. It was called the Baetz Studio. I had a fireplace and a cute little bathroom and a desk and a single bed. I took a lot of naps in that bed after writing. I would write for a few hours and then nap from exhaustion.

Hanging on the wall, there was a “tombstone” of soft wood and a pen that we were encouraged to use, to write our names in the tablet to show that we had been there. So, I took the pen to write my name and that’s when I saw James Baldwin’s signature on the tombstone.

James Baldwin had been in that cabin. He had sat in that chair. He might have even slept in that bed—cause that bed was old as molasses, y’all. I am not playing with you. There’s the MacDowell group picture from 1954 up top. And click here to see Tayari Jone’s photo of the tombstone with James Baldwin’s name.

And click here to see Tayari Jone’s photo from Baetz Studio with MY name on it.

Now, for some folks, they will say, “What’s the big deal? It’s not like y’all kicked it.” But you know, we kinda did, in a strange way. This was at the beginning of my residency at MacDowell, and by the time I left the Baetz Studio, I had written fourteen poems–including the one about the brother just leaving jail and one about Ms. Black.  I hadn’t even planned on working on a new book, but I wrote a third of that book up there in New Hampshire.

I thought I was there to finish the first one, but after a few days, I realized the first book was finished and so I started on the second on, which became Outlandish Blues. And I talked to Mr. Baldwin a lot—yes, I admit it; I am weird. I talk to spirits from time to time.

And I wore overalls every single day. I had seven pairs of overalls and I washed them on Saturday and then, I wore them all over again.  My mother hated those overalls, and when I came back home to Alabama, she offered to do my laundry for me, and then behind my back, she threw out all my overalls. And then she gave me money to buy new clothes, on the condition that I could not buy new overalls. Mama said, “You are way too cute a girl to be dressing like a sharecropper. And besides, you are going to be somebody one day, so start preparing yourself.”

A few months later, Lucille Clifton chose The Gospel of Barbecue as the winner of the 1999 Wick Poetry Prize, and it was published that next year. In a way, I always think Mr. Baldwin had something to do with that. Or maybe not, but I still talk to spirits, just in case.