Black and Wired, Here and Across the Water

A few days ago, I was talking to my mother about the internet. My mama is one of those older folks who haven’t really caught on to email, let alone looking online to research for information, or connecting with friends from high school, etc. Frankly, I think it’s because she is wary of strangers and despises undue familiarity from folks who haven’t earned the right to really know her.

And also, folks who come from the country don’t need the internet. They just have that one nosy person who gets in everybody’s business—that person you might call a “microcosm” of an online informational system. Usually, that person will start a conversation with the following phrase, “You know I don’t like to gossip, but…”

Anyway, I have to admit that sometimes I am a bit put off by the sense of instant intimacy that some folks try to claim with me online, but I’ve learned how to fend it off and still maintain my basic sense of friendliness.  I’ve only had to “bless out” (the ladylike version of “cuss out”) maybe five people since I started my blog—a personal best record for me. And I kept it classy.

But what Mama does admit is a good thing is that the internet has allowed me to connect with people that I never would be able to meet simply because of the distances between us: people from across the North American continent and Western and Eastern Europe.  But what we in the United States take for granted as a “global network” is not truly that for many of the people living in Africa.

In 1999, writer Anthony Walton wrote a piece for the Atlantic called, “Technology vs. African Americans.” (Click here to read the piece; it’s fascinating and Walton keeps it real and smart, as he always does.) Walton talks about the fact that he was concerned that Black folks might get left behind technologically. Well, some of us got that hint—I know I did—and now, Black folks have caught on to the “internet revolution.”

African Americans love us Twitter, we’re all on Facebook, we have started our own blogs, some of us have started our own magazines and literary journals online. And we can even shut folks down when we band together collectively, as when Black folks got Satoshi Nanazawa fired from Psychology Today for publishing a “scientific” piece on PT’s website that asserted that Black women were less attractive than women of other races. He even had his “empirical proof” together. Oh, you know the Sisters were mad, and rightly so. (The link to this article was taken down because of all that outrage.)

But there are other even bigger, ways to come together on the web and effect change.

Some of you might not know, but I’m planning a research trip to Senegal for a book of poetry I’m writing that imagines the life and times of the Eighteenth Century African American poet, Phillis Wheatley. And for me, the notion of “transatlantic” has become really important over the past three years that I’ve been working on this book. It’s opened my eyes to the connections that remain over her and over there. And it’s got me thinking about other kinds of connections.

For months now, I’ve been reading about an organization that seeks to connect folks living throughout the “Third World” with a creative and original use of the World Wide Web. The organization is called Envaya. Co-Founded by Americans Joshua Stern and Jesse Young, and African sister Radhina Kipozi, who is the Tanzania Program Manager, Envaya is unique because it focuses on real needs that the internet can help Africans meet.

Surely, social contacts are important. I can’t tell you how lonely I would be out here on the prairie if I didn’t have friends that I could talk to, many of whom live out of state. But Envaya is leveraging the internet for even bigger game: because many of Tanzania’s citizens live in what we Americans would call “the country,” they are cut off from urban areas (truthfully, the urban areas also suffer form problematic information technology resources) and when they have a basic problem like, for example, getting a water well dug in a certain type of terrain, it can be a problem of a magnitude we can’t imagine over here just to get information or even be aware that others are out there trying to solve those problems, and may, in fact, have solutions.

Envaya has established a software platform, so that local groups in rural and urban areas all over Tanzania can set up websites. The websites and the software designed to work with them, also provided by Envaya, provide a means of communication with each other and the wider world, Then, they can talk to each other about how to raise money to get things done in their small towns/villages or they can collaborate with information on solving larger issues—without being face to face.

For example, they can find resources about educating special needs children. Or they can get the information about how to fight deforestation—a real issue in the Third World—or how to provide clean water for everyone, which is something we Americans of all races take for granted over here. They can organize conferences with the country to meet and get to know others with the same concerns and interests, and, as is already happening, they can connect with supporters and people of similar beliefs who are already on the web for information exchange and monetary support.

Stern calls what they are doing “grassroots to grassroots,” and it is one of the brightest hopes of the organization. Click here to read a Forbes magazine feature on Joshua Stern’s global venture with Envaya.

Envaya is doing really good work, y’all, but they are a non-profit organization and they need donations, because Envaya provides this service and technology for free to Africans. And it’s open source, which means any engineer can use the code, for free, and can add to it and help build the system.

Another part of the plan is to train and mentor African programmers so that they can contribute directly to the Envaya platform. Already, Tanzanian programmers and web designers are working with the code, and the big dream is for African computer engineers to create civil society tools directly based on their own interpretations of what their local needs are without any need for intervention from others and to add them to the platform.

Now that the pilot program has proven wildly successful in Tanzania, they are expanding this month to Rwanda in a partnership with the Canadian Digital Opportunity Trust, and have plans over the rest of the year to roll out to Uganda, Malawi, Kenya, Egypt, and perhaps Southern Sudan. This network is attempting to help Black folks across the water do something fantastic: help themselves. They are empowering Africans to find local solutions instead of depending upon outsiders to do the work for them.

Ultimately, the dream is to provide the concept and the technology to “civil society” groups throughout the underdeveloped world, allowing them to begin to participate in the benefits that the internet can provide, and to work on and share “bottom up” solutions rather than being dictated to by the powers that be. Recent events in Tunisia and Egypt provide a small hint of what could be possible as people gain the tools to communicate and organize themselves.

Isn’t this a great idea to bring the world-wide web to, like, the actual wide world?

Click here to donate to Envaya, y’all, and do our African Brethren and Sistren a solid. You know you want to, and every little bit helps. But if you don’t have any money, they are also looking for help, from volunteers of all kinds: software, engineers, folks interested in the nonprofit sector in general, people interested in international development, and partners who might help Envaya deploy in new regions and countries. You can go to their website and find out how to help at Envaya.org

Are You Too Fly To Be Fit?

Originally uploaded at www.swaymag.ca

Some of you who’ve been reading this blog for a while (or who are friends with me on Facebook) might know that I’ve been working on my health on a continual basis for the past year.

Since November 2009, I have had (much-needed) uterine fibroid surgery; I gave up sugar (and I thought I would stab myself through the eye, I was so miserable, but now I’m completely okay); and I gave up eating meat and fish, though I don’t call myself a vegetarian because I must admit that in the past year, I’ve cheated four times.

Sidebar: I know cheating with the meat or fish makes me a very bad person, but I don’t feel bad about being a very bad person. I eat far fewer dead things than the average American, I recycle, and I drive a really small car that doesn’t use much gas, so maybe God will forgive my occasional carnivorous lapses. And if I ever get solar panels on my house, I’m hoping to get my express ticket into Them Pearly Gates.

Other than changing my diet, the biggest hurdle for me was exercise, which I began in real earnest this May. I went public on Facebook with my thirty-day exercise commitment, which meant I would work out for at least thirty minutes each day for a month. I kept that commitment and after the month was over, I kept going, though I now rest one or two days a week.  It was plenty hard at first, but now, it’s part of my daily schedule, even when I don’t want to be bothered. And sometimes, no, I don’t want to be bothered. But I do it anyway.

But since I’ve started on this journey, I’ve encountered many Sisters who won’t begin this same healthy journey, and not because they don’t have time or they have too many responsibilities. No, they won’t start because they insist on being cute twenty-four, seven.

The estimates are that 67 percent of Americans are overweight and obese. That’s really bad. But according to the website GirlTrek: A Challenge to Black Women and Girls, 80 percent of Black women are overweight.

So what’s up with that?

Well, some of it is about how we eat, sure enough. Byron Hurt’s film-in-progress SoulFood Junkies touches on some of these issues. (You can see a teaser for the film by clicking this link.)

Our steady diets of beloved traditional African American cuisine don’t help us any. For example, out here on the prairie where I live, when I go to a “Grown and Sexy Set” at a club (i.e. a gathering of adults who are over-35), there is liable to be a vendor selling some form of grilled pig meat at that club.  Hot links, ribs, etc. The “healthy” alternative is fish fried in (probably) some form of trans-fat.  And then, folks be drinking brown liquor to wash all that mess down. I mean, dang.

Sidebar: I can’t tell you the number of Black folks out here who have looked at me with disbelief when I say I don’t eat meat on a regular basis. The shock I receive after I mention my dietary changes is about the same as if I said I receive nightly visitations from Martians and we do the Dougie together all night long.

Some Sisters noticed that I had dropped a few pounds—and added much needed (and let’s face it, cuter) muscle tone—and asked me how I did it. And I was shocked to discover that many of them refused to exercise because of their hair. I’m not talking one or two Black women, either. I’m talking a lot. (That doesn’t even include the fly-but-obese Sister who said she couldn’t do push-ups because she was afraid she would break her nails.)

So then, I started talking to my other Black women friends who don’t live where I live, and they told me their anecdotes about Black women who won’t work out because of their hair.  And I gotta tell y’all, I don’t think this is just a phenomenon of only a few Sisters.  I think this is rampant.

When I googled, “Black women, hair and exercise,” all sorts of links popped up, including an article about a study done on the subject. (Click here to read the article.) And a “viral” Facebook note, “Black women, hair, and exercise: Let’s get moving!”

Despite having what some (ignorant) people might call “good hair,” I do have my own hair issues when it comes to working out. Years ago when I was in graduate school, my mama used to press and curl my hair; I would drive an hour and a half every two weeks to go see her. In between, I had one of those old-fashioned rain bonnets I had purchased at the drugstore—I don’t even know if you can find those things anymore—and any time the sky became cloudy, I would whip that thing out hysterically and wrap it over my head.

And anytime I sweat, my hair would go back. And then, that would require an elaborate ordeal of combing my hair out, oiling it profusely—you could fry a chicken in all that grease I put in my head—and rolling it back up to restore it to a semblance of the Hair Beauty that my mother bestowed on me. So finally, I just gave up working out altogether.  And got even fatter and unhealthier than what I already was.

And I know other Black women with so-called “good hair” who still maneuver their workouts around their blow-dry and flat-ironing schedule. So what’s underneath this “fly before fit” issue, and why are so few people are talking about it?

I haven’t found an article stating why we are obsessed with our hair to the point where we will let our health suffer. Surely, we still have issues with White beauty standards in our community. The discussion of that is nothing new.

But I believe that “fly before fit” also stems from the fact that Black women’s self-esteem is constantly assailed.

For example, just in the past year, there have been an ABC Special explaining why we can’t find husbands in our community(ies)—with no mention at all of the epidemic incarceration of Black men, by the way—and an article yanked off the Psychology Today website that talked in “scientific” terms on why Black women are not as attractive officially as other women, especially White women.

The Psychology Today article was particularly hurtful because it didn’t take into account any cultural issues. It stated that we Black women weren’t attractive and that there was empirical proof for that; after an overwhelming public outcry, the article was taken down. (And do you really want to read about what some racist [insert expletive maternal noun] has to say about Sisters? No, you don’t.)

Besides the overt media beat-down, what Sister hasn’t encountered the good old-fashioned “talking to” at the hairdresser’s, the family reunion, or even at the bus stop about what is wrong with Black women, and in particular, her?

She’s “too loud, too sassy, too bossy, too unfeminine, too-messed-up-in-some-kinda-way”, and that’s why Black women are alone and lonely. It ain’t nobody’s fault but her’s. We are deserving of the abuse that gets heaped on us. But if Black women could just be more like White women—that’s the implication, sometimes real or spoken out loud—we could be happy.

We’ve been getting that message for three and a half centuries now. Yay, slavery and colonialism.

So, we Sisters can’t control much in the world or how it looks at us. But we can be pretty. We can spend money on our clothes, our nails, and our hair to provide armor against what other people–sometimes other Black folks–say about us. And when we are hurting, we can turn to the food that is killing us to provide that temporary chemical rush of pleasure and then, sit in front of the TV and watch images that never reflect us. And put on more weight.

I know. I’ve been there. I am not going to lie to y’all. I have battled serious food issues (and the resulting self-hatred) for years and that battle has been slow-going and sometimes humiliating and also, frightening. So I know what I’m talking about.

Y’all, I am one of those 80 percent of overweight Black women, which is one of the reasons I had to make some hardcore health changes.  I am overweight tending to obese—despite other people calling me a “big, fine woman” or saying I have “big bones.”

But another reason I have made the change and stuck to that change is that I keep running into other Black women with preventable health issues and it scares me.

They are taking blood pressure medicine. They have high cholesterol (but still eat lots of meat). And an alarming number of them have diabetes.  And then there are the issues that might be helped by a better, healthier diet and exercise—like migraines, very heavy periods, or fibromyalgia. Yet even those women who already have health issues will put up barriers to lifestyle change. But their hair looks really, really good.

I know that it’s a lot easier to say to someone, “I can’t work out because I don’t want my perm to look like a hot buttered mess with nacho cheese on it,” instead of, “If my hair goes back, then I won’t look conventionally pretty, and then what do I have? What can I lean on besides looking fabulous, in this world that tells me I’m literally nothing?”

In past blog post, I talked about how I ignored the pain I was in from uterine fibroids while I spent hundreds of dollars on clothes to feel good. And now, I can’t believe I ever did that.

It’s the same with my hair. I wear my hair natural all the time these days, and so, I look back on my rain-bonnet era and laugh at myself. Now, when I work out, I sweat like one of my Uncle Alvester’s prize pigs. So, I just put my hair in a ponytail. I do grease it daily with coconut oil to keep it from becoming dry, because I wash it more often now.

And no, my hair’s not adorable on a regular basis, and sometimes, that really upsets me.  But I have more than my hair. I have me. I have my health. I have the love of a good God who has kept me through all those trials I went through to get to this better—but still not perfect—place. And I have self-love, finally, so I know it’s possible to capture.

And further, to be completely shallow here, I can still wear a fabulous outfit and foundation and lipstick and gold earrings. My hair might be in a ponytail, but I can still look very fine and sassy. And so can you, my Sister.

Just think about it. That’s all I ask.

I’m Back and I Hoped You Missed Me

Dear Y’all:

First, my apologies for being gone so long. You know I have a good excuse; at least, I think it is.

This is the second summer in a row that I’ve taught summer school; that was for the entire month of June.  I teach summer school because I am not independently wealthy. (Sometimes I get really mad at my parents about that.) And  this year, teaching summer school was a vacation in Hades, let me tell you.

Don’t get me wrong; the students were fine.

The Hades part was the heat. Y’all it was horrible.  It was the worst heat ever in my life.  I thought I was literally going to die. Out here on the prairie, we had over-100 constant degree weather for over three weeks—that means for over 21 days straight.  And Monday through Friday, at 1:00pm, I had to leave my house and enter that heat to go teach summer school.

So forgive me, but at 3:10pm (when my class was over), I just collapsed. And then on the weekends, I napped to recover. I had heat exhaustion one week, it was so bad. My throat was sore and I had muscles aches. Not fun.

But summer school is over now! So throw some confetti for me! And the heat has broken, sort of. We are enjoying a 96-degree afternoon right now.

I am now in my favorite part of the year, the Writer’s Retreat. This year, I decided not to put my little ten-year-old hoopty on the road and travel someplace; instead, I embarked on an Official Stay-Cation Writer’s Retreat, right in my little house.

I get up each morning, go to my home office, write on whatever project I’ve dreamed about the night before—yes, I know; I am weird like that—and then, I eat my oatmeal. And then, I take a long nap because writing really tires me out. And then, after my nap, I get up, eat lunch, and write on something else.  And after that, I lie down and read, because I can’t justify napping twice in one day, but I can pretend that I am Reclining In Black Southern Belle Languor.  In the evenings, I exercise to counteract all that lying down. And then, I have dinner.

Hopefully, I’ll get lots of work done for the next five weeks. In any case, I feel good about myself, which is half the battle for a writer, I think.

But here I am, back to blogging! And I hope you missed me.  Because I missed y’all, sincerely.

Love,

Honorée